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Journey in Japan Part 16: Grandiose Encounters of the Third Class

I went a few days without any Internet connection so couldn’t post anything. Here are the last three days in summary:

Friday – Fukuoka

Today I met a German guy called Klaus. It is his very first day in Japan. He is here after spending a month in South Korea. He wants to stay here tomorrow night too but there are no rooms available in the hostel. I cancel my reservation for tomorrow night and he takes my room. I wanted to get a head start travelling tomorrow anyway, I have fourteen hours of train journey to endure.

Klaus and I go for a wander around Hakata Station. I show him the sights.We visit the roof terrace, then we wander through the giant indoor shopping complex looking at random gifts. I spot some excellent ideas for souvenirs. Afterwards we head for some food. Mixed vegetable and prawn tempura on rice, a classic; and a pint of Kirin Beer. Kirin is my third choice when it comes to Japanese beer, but I don’t complain.

Next, we head over to Tenjin Station because Klaus really wants to see the giant cardboard train. I don’t mind showing him around, I have nothing left to do in Fukuoka anyway. Klaus is quite funny and his English is good so I don’t have to speak slowly or anything. We head into the building that I thought the cardboard train was in but we can’t find it. I also deleted the photograph so I can’t prove to him that it was real. He begins to doubt it ever existed in the first place. I begin to doubt it myself; still a little off kilter from yesterday. We can’t ask anyone else about the train because it sounds crazy. “Excuse me miss, can you point us in the direction of the giant cardboard stream locomotive, please?”

After an hour of searching, we eventually find it in a completely different building to the one I had sworn it was in; maybe they moved it to mess with us.

Next we head to a yatai-style Izakaya by the river. This will be the first time I have actually visited an outdoor Izakaya of this style. We select the most welcoming. “Please, you are welcome,” the owner says with an honest smile. This place serves skewers of meat and noodle soup. Klaus and I do what Germans and Britons do best: drink.

We meet a couple of Japanese people. Two guys, one of which had visited Berlin last year, so him and Klaus talk. Two girls, one of which had spent six months studying English in Leeds, so her and I talk. As the night goes on, Klaus teaches me what he knows about South Korea, and I teach him what I know about Japan. We drink and joke until the night disappears.

Saturday – Okayama

I get on my third and final train for the day at Shimionoseki Station. I take the JR Sanyo Line. The train is old with uncomfortable seats; no toilet and no vending machine. I wish I had more than one bottle of water. The train announcements are exclusively in Japanese. Am I even on the right train? How would I even know.

This ‘local’ train makes an astonishing 83 stops. It takes a total of eight hours. At 9pm I finally arrive in Okayama. I decided to break up my travel to Kyoto with a nice stopover in Okayama; a nice looking business hotel. I like to stay in a hotel once a month; it makes a refreshing change from the noise of a dormitory room. Using my Seishun 18 ticket, I save myself the ¥16060 that the Bullet Train would have cost me. In exchange, I sacrifice 569 minutes of my life.

As I step off the train, the speakers are bellowing out the tune, ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’. In fact, the tune is played every time any train pulls up here. You would go insane if you were a member of the station staff. Leaving the station I realise just how exhausted I am from doing absolutely nothing but sitting on trains. It wears me out.

There is a really lovely fountain just outside the entrance. It is, I think, shaped to look like a dandelion:

One thing I notice immediately about Okayama is the maps. They are everywhere, massive, and in English. My hotel is on the same road as the station; about half way between here and Okayama Castle. I grab a much deserved can of Suntory Highball for the walk.

The main road through Okayama is wide. Trams drift through the middle of the lanes. Neatly pollarded trees lit up by lamps line the pavement on both sides. A really charming looking city. I find my hotel. It really is nice, slightly more upmarket than I am used too. The room is of an average size. A Yukata is laid out on the bed. All the usual hotel amenities are here too. My view is sadly not of the castle, but the train station. Oddly, the hotel exists in a time before the World Wide Web. It does not offer the internet.

After settling into the hotel I decide to take a walk. I head into the park, passing a group of people exercising to a stereo in the street. The park is pitch black. I can vaguely make out a lake in the middle. I see the castle in the distance, bright green light illuminates it.

Like the park, the castle exterior is pitch black. This has earnt the castle the nickname, ‘Crow Castle’. After visiting the castle, I head out of the park and into the light. I follow the neon to interlocking side streets of restaurants. People stand outside trying to usher customers into their establishments. I walk around with an empty can of Highball. A trick I discovered. Nobody wants someone with an open can of beer in their restaurant. I am almost completely ignored by the touts.

I decide to go for a curry at a small family run restaurant. Basashi (raw horse meat) curry has made it onto the menu, somehow Nattō curry has too. I order a fish curry. The owner says, “Medium heat, medium curry, okay?” I ask for it to be hot. He brings me out the all too familiar chart with the five chilies. His chart is like this:

One: For children.
Two: Mild curry.
Three: Extremely hot!
Four: Daredevil!
Five:

Five is left blank. Presumably no one orders a five. I ask for a three. “Three!!!!!” He exclaims. His response causes me to start laughing. My curry comes out, the smell is good, the heat is just right. ¥1019 with a small can of Kirin Beer. A good meal with a substandard beer.

Sunday – Kyoto

I travel for four hours on trains before arriving in Kyoto. I switch to the subway line to Kawaramachi Station; the subway train is the nicest train I have rode all week. I don’t think I will have any problems remembering my station name either. My local station in Tokyo was Tawaramachi Station. Here, a letter of difference. I leave the station and walk directly into a shopping arcade. The arcade is massive and sprawls out in every direction.

I pass a huge market where everything is produced and sourced locally. There are loads of vegan and organic restaurants here too. My kind of place. Also in the arcade there are random temples dotted about. Seishinin Temple is sandwiched between a small shop selling calligraphy on wooden blocks, and a shop selling human caricatures.

It is only 2pm and I have one hour before I can officially check-in. I find the hostel and fill out all the necessary paperwork and pay. The hostel offer to look after my bags for an hour. As I hand over my one bag, the staff member gives me a bewildered look. “That’s it?!” He asks me with surprise in his voice.
“Yep, that’s it,” I tell him.
“Not very heavy,” he says, struggling to grasp the concept of my luggage.
“I like to travel light,” I offer as an explanation. His expression remains blank.

I have one hour to kill, so decide to find some lunch. I go to a small restaurant across the road. It offers natural organic food. Like most restaurants here, it has an English menu; probably due to the sheer volume of tourists. Free wireless Internet is available. Björk is coming out of the speakers. I order a salmon, mushroom and cheese omelette over rice, served with a big salad. I also order a green tea latte. The food doesn’t look too pretty, but tastes and smells amazing. It costs ¥1944. No complaints here. Good food, good music, free internet.

Kyoto was formerly the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years, it is now just the capital of Kyoto Prefecture. It has the nickname, the ‘City of Ten Thousand Shrines’. I don’t know if it actually has ten thousand shrines, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it did; I have counted eleven already today, and they were all in the indoor shopping arcade.

I return to the hostel for my room key. The hostel is modern, it has five floors and a roof terrace. I go to check out the public area. Small wooden boxes with plants growing from them decorate the lounge. A huge glass bay window drowns the dining area in natural light. The outdoor roof terrace is in perfect order. There are beer vending machines and cup noodle vending machines. Someone in the hostel has arranged a weekly late night running group, with the emphasis on “going for a beer afterwards.” I think I am going to enjoy my one week stay here.

The hostel also has a library; and unlike Fukuoka and Beppu, it has a lift. As I write up my weekend, a Japanese guy that works here comes over and introduces himself. He seems quite a character. Turns out he is one of the barmen at the hostel bar. The bar is in the basement and is open until midnight every evening. It also offers ¥400 beer on tap. The hostel is hosting a monthly party tonight. Brilliant. Another example of fluke good timing. At the ‘party’ I discover that the other barman is my friend Shonosuke. I had no idea he was here. Brilliant!

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I explore Kyoto and visit the Imperial Palace by clicking here.

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