A couple of Shinkansen trains later, we arrived on the southern island of Kyushu, at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. It was around 9pm when we pulled in and dark outside, so we had a pleasant surprise when we stepped out of the station into the heart of a German Christmas market! There were stalls selling mulled wine, European beers, German sausages and Christmas decorations and the whole of the square outside the station was festooned with twinkling lights in frosty white, blue and green. It was nice to see European festivities so far from home, if a little unexpected. We spoke to some cheery German students in pixie hats and then walked to our hostel.
The hostel was in a tiny, narrow building, rather like three shoeboxes stacked on top of one another. The ground floor comprised of the reception and a common area/dining area. The other two floors were dormitories. Inside our dorm, six bed cubicles were arranged in a line with a narrow corridor down one side, with another layer of six cubicles on top. Each had a little curtain at the foot of the bed. It was a little like having your own tiny room. At the far end, there was a bathroom with one shower and one toilet. In short, it was a very clever use of space!
We went to a ramen bar that evening and I slurped noodles messily all over my coat. Next time I think I’ll bring a bib. The ramen bars are like fast food outlets really – the kitchen is along one wall and seats are arranged around the kitchen rather like in a bar at a pub. There are some small tables set around the rest of the room. Your food is prepared very quickly and you can slurp and wash it all down with a beer, before moving on. The men in the bar we went to were all wearing wellies, so they could just shake out the water from the noodles onto the floor and so speed everything up.
It was surprisingly warm the next day, and we were lucky enough to be able to borrow two bikes from the hostel free of charge. Not electric this time, but perfectly good! We cycled to nearby Tochoji temple to add another large Buddha to our list! This time it was the largest wooden seated Buddha in Japan. He was a very handsome Buddha and we both spent a good amount of time drawing him – we weren’t allowed to take photos. He was beautifully carved and there was a backdrop of hundreds of smaller Buddhas behind him. The nun was pleased to see our pictures (are they called nuns?) and she brought out a replica of one of the small Buddhas so we could see it close up.
We spent a short time in a pretty little garden before meeting up with a Japanese friend of Luke’s called Maduka, who he knew from life drawing classes in Oxford. She had spent twelve months in Oxford on a university foreign exchange programme a few years ago, so it was great to be able to see her. She had brought a friend along, Aya, who had also spent a year abroad – this time at the University of Tasmania – and so she spoke very good English as well. We passed a pleasant afternoon chatting about plans for the future and differences in regional accents in Japan and England amongst other things, and I even taught them a few northern phrases (e.g. ‘put wood i’th’ole’ – shut the door), which will probably never come in useful, but never mind! They took us to a tempura bar, which made a nice change from ramen for me (Luke would eat ramen for every meal if he had his way). The batter was lovely and light and crisp, but it’s pretty hard to eat a massive piece of battered chicken with chopsticks! Maduka had brought us a gift bag each filled with Japanese sweets and savoury snacks and tourist information about Kyushu. We were both very touched by this kind gesture, and the maps and brochures (and the food!) were very useful in the days to come. It was a pity, but they could only stay for a few hours before catching their train back. It was so lovely to spend time with them and definitely worth the rush down from Tokyo. We’d love to have them visit us one day in England.
That night, we sought out the renowned yatai of Fukuoka. These are street stalls, like temporary restaurants, that set up from around 6pm to midnight along the major roads in the centre. We wandered into the area, feeling a bit sceptical at first at the idea of eating in a tent alongside a main road, but soon changed our minds once we were inside. We hung around one of the yatai that looked quite busy, and two Japanese ladies that were leaving gave us the thumbs up to signal it was great food and gestured for us to sit down. We took up seats next to two young German men (unrelated to the Christmas market!), who both spoke perfect English – of course. The elder of the two also spoke very good Japanese and he helped us order our food. They were from a German and English language school in Fukuoka, and spoke very highly of the city. We had certainly found it a vibrant, friendly place, and they confirmed this to be the case. It was very cosy inside – it was basically a tent with a kitchen in the middle and a bar around the edge, so the atmosphere was intimate and encouraged conversation. The food was delicious and we had a beer as well, as it would have been rude not to. We mentioned that we wanted to do a day trip out from Fukuoka the following day, and the elder German advised us to head south to Kagoshima, as it would only take an hour and a half to get there on the Shinkansen bullet train. After they left, we were joined by a merry troupe of Fukuokans, who were really good fun (and I suspect a little drunk). We commented on how young one of them looked after he told us his age, and his friend laughed knowingly and said, ‘Japanese cream!’ – you heard it here first!