Journey in Japan Part 1: So Long, Tokyo, and Thanks for All the Fish

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It is time to move on. The anticipation of spending eight hours on two different trains is something I lack. To avoid a whole day of travel I instead book a really cheap hotel at Kokura, which is the destination of the first of two trains.

At Tokyo Station, I buy a ticket for the Bullet Train; the Shinkansen Nozomi. This high-speed train boasts speeds of up to 186 mph. I hand over my ¥22,310 and receive my ticket. I arrive at the platform and wait thirty minutes while the train is cleaned in preparation for departure. I forgot just how much noise from other platforms, announcements, station staff, and random whistles and bells are present when catching a Bullet Train; but it was beginning to flood back to me.

I take my ‘reserved’ seat by the window. The perfect seat. No one sitting next to me, and a plug socket for all my charging needs. If I had booked a ‘non-reserved’ seat, it would have meant queuing outside one of the first three carriages. When the doors open it is basically a free-for-all-first-come-first-serve-seat-selection-fight-scene; considering my journey is an exact 4 hours 48 minutes, rushing and fighting over a seat was out of the question. If there are no seats left you are forced to stand up. A seat in a reserved carriage is well worth the extra couple of thousand Yen.

Back at my seat, I weigh up the prices. A seven-day JR Rail Pass costs ¥29,110; this allows unlimited travel on all JR Rail lines for an activated seven-day period. Considering I still have the second leg of travel tomorrow (which will cost another ¥4,000), the JR Rail Pass is a necessity if you are visiting Japan and plan to travel across the country. Travelling from Tokyo to Beppu will almost cost me the same as the seven-day pass.

The food cart eventually passes and I buy a packet of crisps for breakfast (Anytime, anywhere; right?) and a beer. I work my way through a third of Murakami’s ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’. Three beers later and I go for a doze. I wake up with an hour to go so listen to OK Computer. OK, Commuter. I arrive at Kokura. My journey is an exact 288 minutes. Not a second more. Not a second less.

Kokura is located between Honshū and Kyūshū; two of the largest of the four main islands that make up Japan’s geography. Honshū is the largest island, referred to as the Japanese mainland. It is the island that I’ve just left. Kyūshū is the most southwesterly island, and where I am heading. Outside Kokura Station I am surprised to see a vending machine that for ¥650 sells unusual bottles containing fish in a brown liquid. I have no idea.

I am still reeling from the fish vending machine. With no sense of direction, I find that my hotel is clearly marked on the Township Guide Map. Hooray! I take an unhurried walk carrying all of my stuff on my back for the first time in a month; I am sure it is heavier than I remember. I hate this kind of travel, moving to a hotel for just a day, then on to somewhere else. Nope. Book two weeks at a time minimum in the same place, that’s how I prefer it. I can take my time and take it all in. One thing a day. I don’t like to rush about.

After checking in to the hotel, I venture out for some food. Exhausted from the hours on a train and a few too many heavy nights of drinking; I grab some quick stand up sushi and head back to the hotel. The hotel was really cheap, ¥3400 cheap; and I understand why. The room is the size of a small cupboard. I can’t get the television to work, but luckily there are instructions in Japanese. I take a photograph of the instructions and my camera translates them to English. “Press and hold Power then press 3, 1, 3.” It works! I spend the night watching game shows and talent shows before falling asleep.

The next day…

I wake up to find time has moved the day to Sunday. I check out of the hotel early. Not to miss an opportunity, I head for Kokura Castle. The skies are hot and clear and I feel out of place with an umbrella and a rucksack. After seeing the Castle, I head back to Kokura Station.

No one I have met has spoken English in Kokura. I get through the ticket booking process by nodding and saying “Hai!” I think the first question was, “single or return?” The second was probably, “reserved or non-reserved?” I receive my single reserved ticket, it costs me ¥4,220 for 1 hour 8 minutes on a train. This weekend is getting expensive and I still have to hand over ¥18,000 for two weeks at the hostel. On the way back, at least my travel time will be broken up by two week intervals as I sweep back towards Tokyo. Between now and then I have 7 weeks of semi-planned stops along the way.

Beppu-bound on the Limited Express Sonic Train, I am glad for the rest. Having my own space and a bathtub were quite the treat. On the train, I continue to read  ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ and find myself laughing out loud at regular intervals. I would be in Beppu by 11am. The train journey flies by in no time at all.

I leave Beppu Station in awe. Beppu is by the sea and surrounded in every direction by tall mountains covered in wildlife. At my hostel, I discover that I am a one minute walk from the beach and a two minute walk from Beppu Tower. As I hand over my ¥18000, the women at the reception desk finds it unusual that I am staying for two weeks. “What are you going to be doing for two weeks?” I don’t know.

It is Sunday and there is a nearby section of interesting intersecting streets filled with shops, bars, and restaurants; mostly closed. I find a vending machine selling not fish, but ice cream. I also find that my Suica card works on the vending machines here, a nice surprise. These little Japanese pre-paid cards can be used at Seven Eleven stores, some vending machines, and ticket barriers. I didn’t think they would work this far from Tokyo. The Pasmo card definitely doesn’t work. If you plan on travelling around Japan, always choose the Suica card over the Pasmo card.

I find a pasta and pizza restaurant with no English menu. I order a glass of wine and a pizza in Japanese. This is the first time I’ve felt I needed to speak the native language in a while. In Tokyo, 4 I could get by just fine. Perhaps this is for the better; I got a little too comfortable and this might just give me some motivation to actually study a bit harder. The food costs ¥842 for the lot. At least I’ll save some money on food here.

Back at the hostel, I find my room; it is a traditional Japanese-style room with a Tatami flooring. Four beds, so sharing with just three others. Less crowded which is good. The view from the balcony is amazing. I can see Beppu Tower, which lights up at night. I can see a horizon of skyscraper obstructed mountains. I wonder which way the sun comes up; my sense of direction very much missing.

I explore my local surroundings. There is an international bar called Hot Bepper, it is thirty seconds away. You might think I exaggerate with my walking distances sometimes, but I can actually see the bar from the hostel. The bar has its very own table tennis table and is hosting a tournament next week. Hot Bepper is also run by the same company that runs the hostels I’ve been staying at. I like the pun name too, considering where I am.

I swing by the nearby Family Mart. An occurrence that will never fail to make me smile occurs. Staff at a convenience store greeting me through the door, bowing, saying thank you, bowing, and saying goodbye as I leave. Back at the hostel, I drink Suntory Highball’s and write up the article you’ve just read. I plan now to take a hot spring bath in the hostel’s very own hot spring baths; before heading out to the Hot Bepper bar, which will probably be closed on Sundays.

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I visit a place called Crocodile Hell by clicking here.

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