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Published: November 28th 2020
Flower gardens on Nokonoshima
There is something flowering all year on this island in Fukuoka Bay. These are the cosmos flowers in October.
I was sad when our 13 months in Fukuoka came to an end. I was also apprehensive to be leaving a country that had neither a huge covid outbreak nor a lockdown nor stringent restrictions in order to move to Europe where the streets were seemingly oozing with covid and no fun was to be had. I would say it was a successful year in terms of my research project at Kyushu University, which went well, despite being unable to go to Nepal after February to finish off the fieldwork. It was also definitely a successful year in terms of visiting much of Japan. So much so that I have decided to divide my living in Japan experience into six blogs; one for each of the main islands and a general one about living in Japan. That latter one is this one.
Things I will miss about living in Japan:
#7 Restaurants. For so many reasons. The effusive shouted welcome when you enter that is completely contradictory to the usual quiet of Japan and its people. The fact that the waiter/waitress never returns to your table to check that everything is ok with your meal
Itoshima Oyster Season
Running from around November to April when barbecue filled tents pop up around Itoshima harbours.
because if it wasn’t perfect they wouldn’t have served it to you. I think Japan is the only place in the world where the food you are served looks better and is bigger than the pictures on the menu and the advertisements outside. Eating out does not cost much more than cooking for yourself meaning you do it a lot. Tipping is offensive because it suggests the people serving are below you and need your cash. A pitcher of water is always provided; it’s not expected to buy a drink. Food arrives within minutes; even when there seems to be only one staff member taking orders, cooking various dishes, and dealing with payment, and there are plenty of people in the restaurant, quite elaborate food will be in front of you wonderfully speedily.
#41 Toilets. Upon first arrival, the array of buttons beside the toilet bowl is most confusing, though thankfully there are usually subtle symbols for guidance. I never really made much use of the “sound princess” feature, which plays white noise, or the sound of flowing water, or sometimes Japanese classical music to disguise the reason you were in there. However, the heated seat was
lovely in the winter, the “deodorizer” was likely a welcome addition, and once you get over the initial shock of the “posterior wash” – whose jets have precision that can only be described as “alarming” – it is altogether a not unpleasant experience. My favourite, and seemingly so obvious I don’t know why other places don’t have it, feature is the tap and small plug-less sink above the cistern so when the toilet flushes you can immediately wash your hands and that water is recycled for the subsequent flush.
#4 Covid. Japan was one of the better places to ride out a pandemic. People do as they are told and immediately everyone wore masks at all times, reduced travel, worked from home where possible, and disinfected their hands continually on the ever-present bottles of sanitizer. Consequently, there was no kind of lockdown or closing of shops, cafes and restaurants. Our life was fairly normal, other than avoiding the office, though I generally saw nobody all day at work anyway so it was hardly hazardous for me to be there.
#13 Volcanos. I love a volcano. Japan has loads. And many of them are continually
Yoshinogari Historical Park
Over the mountains in the distance is Fukuoka.
erupting. I find their natural expression of Mother Earth’s power very humbling. Sakurajima is my favourite (see the later Kyushu blog).
#5 Honesty. A couple of examples of what I mean. A group of us went running on Wednesday evenings around Ohori Koen, a really nice park in Fukuoka with a dedicated 2 km running track around a lake. Our bags would be hung in a tree or put on a rock and off we went. Phones were often the last to be stashed because they were in pockets so they would sit on top of the bags and off we would go. All the other running groups did the same. It just never crossed anybody’s mind that the phones and bags would not be there when we finished running three or so laps later. Similarly, it was common to see people fast asleep on the subway with their phones, keys and wallets on the seat beside them.
#8 Wildlife. Despite being famously populous with very big and busy cities, Japan has a lot of wild space. I saw wildlife in Japan I had always wanted to see and didn’t imagine that I would
see here. The highlights were definitely bears in Hokkaido and a thresher shark in Okinawa. These will be discussed further in later blogs. In addition, we saw wild boar, raccoon dogs, furry macaques, spotted deer, a variety of snakes, pterodactyl-like herons in every patch of water, kites constantly circling overhead, hefty very pretty koi carp in ornamental gardens, and our friends the turtles who would pop up to entertain us during our regular afternoon strolls to Ohori Koen where we would sit by the lake eating donuts and catching the last of the sun.
#18 Ramen. I had formerly, and shamefully, thought of ramen as glorified pot noodle. How wrong I was. A few times a week, and commonly if I was lacking in imagination while at the supermarket, I would go for ramen. The varieties of broth (Fukuoka was famous for tonkotsu
, or pork bone broth, thick and grey and smelly, I loved it), the varieties of noodle type (some restaurants allow you to specify the noodle thickness in millimetres, as well as its texture), the additions available on most tables (pickled ginger, raw finely chopped spring onions, different sauces, little crispy tempura bits), and the
myriad fillings (slabs of belly pork, tempura shrimps or vegetables, halved boiled eggs, sheets of seaweed). My mouth is literally watering writing this.
#6 Weather. This was a reason for wanting to leave Newcastle upon Tyne. Even though Fukuoka received a lot more rain than the northeast of England, it fell in torrential downpours, as opposed to the relentless depressing light drizzle we had gotten used to. Kyushu is pretty far south, about the same latitude as the southern USA, and experiences a much more tropical climate than most of Japan. In winter it was considered cold when it dropped below 10 o
C, whereas for a few months in the summer it rarely dipped below 30 o
C, even in the middle of the night. It was great to be able to wake up nearly every morning and put shorts on; during the couple of months of purely working from home in the summer I rarely bothered with a t-shirt. Laundry was a seldom occurring chore. The climate did mean we were in the path of typhoons, and though a few passed pretty closely, one of which had people taping and boarding up windows, they always just missed.
#3 Islands. In addition to the four main islands that constitute the majority of Japan (and on which the subsequent blogs are based) there are 7000 more islands of which over 400 are inhabited. Some are sizeable with large populations, cities, airports, volcanos, mountain ranges, and their own UNESCO sites. Others are so small it’s hard to believe anyone would go to the trouble of living there – and they are becoming increasingly depopulated as the young move to cities and the birth rate is so low; this is the case for rural Japan generally. I really enjoyed visiting the smaller islands around Japan. All have something about them, usually a unique dish, endemic animal, or unusual attraction. I’m thinking of ancient burial tombs and sea urchin on Iki, flower fields on Nokonoshima, temples, deer and cracking views of the Seto Inland Sea on Miyajima, and enchanted forests, misty mountains and flying fish tempura on Yakushima.
#10 Forests. Anywhere in Japan that is other than flat topography, is covered in forest. It is interesting to look down on the landscape from any lofty point and see the forested “islands” amongst urban sprawl and little
Zen Temple garden not far from Fukuoka.
fields. Japan is apparently 73% mountains, and consequently is 69% forest. This leads to #8 above. It is lovely and easy to escape from the noise and grey of the city into the peace and green of a forest. And while Japan generally likes to throw masses of concrete at any natural “issue” (e.g. a landslide, a coastline, a stream) the forests are usually wild with lots of fallen trees and dense understorey. There are bamboo groves not only in selfie-capital Kyoto, massive ancient cedars, persimmon orchards, both tropical evergreen and temperate deciduous forest, and generally a waterfall or at least a babbling brook. It is easy to see why “forest bathing” is a thing in Japan.
#22 Mossy boulders. One thing Japan does very well is a mossy boulder. This may be in an ornate garden by an ancient villa, part of a zen temple, or naturally occurring in a damp forested gorge.
#15 Politeness. Japan is quite simply the most polite country in the world. Manners are taken very seriously, which is how such crowded cities function without people killing each other. There are countless examples, including how staff of some restaurants,
Hakozakigu Shrine, Fukuoka
January's Tamaseseri Festival where half-naked farmers battle half-naked fisherman for a big wooden ball while having buckets of cold water thrown over them to ensure a bountiful harvest.
guesthouses, shops and other services will walk you beyond their door then continue to bow every time you turn around until you have walked into the distance. These manners apply to illness, hence to covid: people here wore masks anyway, not out of fear of catching something but so as not to pass anything on, which would be extremely rude.
#2 Seafood. Itoshima oyster season (1 kg for ¥1000!), sea urchin from tiny ancient still freediving ladies, sushi that makes sushi anywhere else in the world seem like supermarket sushi, Hokkaido kaisendon (all kinds of fruits of the sea, some identifiable, some mysterious, in a bowl atop rice), crabs as big as dogs, etc...
#30 Mystical woodland shrines. While hiking or trail running in the forests and mountains, it was common to come across a torii gate, or a corridor of torii
gates, leading to a shrine. They were generally wooden so seemingly not that old. However, it was the stone statues, stone lanterns and stone little baths for the pre-prayer ablutions that seemed as old as the rocks on which they perched. Often, they sat on mountain summits within wispy clouds or in
Somewhere on the ridge stretching from Karatsu Bay to Fukuoka
This was a very clear winter day following a second breakfast of Itoshima oysters. You could see Iki Island and beyond that Tsushima Island, which was about 110 km away and more than halfway to Korea. We hiked the whole ridge over multiple weekends when the first covid wave had us not leaving the prefecture.
the darkest densest patches of woodland. I don’t know who maintained them or swept the long flights of steps up to their base. I usually rang the bell and asked for help for the world.
#27 Flowers. The cherry blossoms in spring are perhaps the most famous, and rightly so. Sakura
season is a sight to behold and one you would be very lucky to see unless you spent the entire spring here. Though the meteorological agency do their best to assist by predicting the blossom timing for different prefectures to the nearest day based on winter temperatures. Second most popular here is chasing the blood red autumn maple leaves as they spread down the country – I suppose they are not actually flowers. In addition, there are the carpets of alpine flowers that bloom as the snows melt on the higher peaks, the lilies and orchids that poke through the mountain grasslands, flower fields that bloom all year as they rotate through different species, and the city parks, hedges and road verges that are immaculately well kept and always flowering.
#34 Foot spas. Given the volcanos everywhere and outpourings of steam with their
Itoshima Oyster Season
Everybody gets a matching plastic coat (the oysters spit while they are cooking). The fruits of the sea could not be fresher - you are brought them alive!
associated onsen resorts – Japanese love nothing more than getting their kit off and sitting in a communal scalding bath – many places have foot spas. These are generally a wooden shelter, or they may be completely open air, with communal benches under which runs naturally hot and mineral-rich water. Some are in town centres, some are beside lakes offering great views, others are on campsites. When sightseeing in winter they are lovely but it’s hard to get your feet out of the water back into the cold. Even better is when you find them at the end of a hike.
#29 Cleanliness. The streets, public transport, parks, everywhere really, are spotless. Yet there are no bins anywhere. I often made the mistake of grabbing an apple to eat when setting off shopping and only two hours later when I got home could I put the core in the bin. Shoes off when you enter a home or hotel room is enforced, suited office-workers are often seen in front of their buildings sweeping up leaves, I’ve seen shopkeepers even vacuuming the pavement in front of their shops, and you’ll see cleaners with feather dusters in train and
bus stations reaching behind, above, below and into every nook and cranny.
#17 How trail running in Kyushu makes you an excellent hurdler. Kyushu has a lot of snakes. All those on the photographs are non-venomous but still make you subsequently leap over every root and stick you come across. Snake record was 5 in a day.
#26 Japanese Gin. This was one of my new covid-related hobbies. The quality is inversely proportional to the height of the bottle (see the photo), i.e. Komasa is best - made from the world's smallest orange grown on Japan's most active volcano.
Things I won’t miss about living in Japan:
#1 Single use plastic. Japan is terrible for plastic waste. Every time you buy anything from a convenience store, which you do a lot because they are literally on every street corner and do pretty good food, it is already in plastic packaging, it will be put in a plastic bag, along with chopsticks wrapped in plastic and a wet-wipe in a plastic wrapper. At the supermarket lemons and other naturally wrapped fruit are sold individually wrapped in plastic. Have a
View from our 10th floor flat in Fukuoka
Having entirely windows on two sides made working from home very bearable. If you look very carefully on the left you can see the sea.
coffee inside a café and it comes in a disposable plastic cup. I always carry fabric shopping bags but often on seeing this the checkout person would consequently put all my items in individual smaller plastic bags. In 2020 a fee was introduced for plastic shopping bags so hopefully this is a step in the right direction.
#3 Bureaucracy. Despite being seemingly so technologically advanced, at times Japan could seem quite archaic. Everything bureaucratic is done on hardcopy rather than electronically and requires actual signatures. Thus, you find yourself having to post a lot of documents because scans and electronic signatures are not permitted. There is also the inkan
, or little personal stamp/seal that needs to go on all forms, which again cannot be a scan or copy. Admin departments are enormous to cope with the volume of paperwork, and to then digitise it. Registering our address at the ward office took hours, changing my address at the bank took hours, getting an email address at my new place of work took a week, changing my email address to get my name in the right order took another week. Whenever you have to go and do anything
official, take a book.
#2 Price of fruit. A Mango for £40, a two pack of melons for £100, nowhere near as extravagant but even apples were at least £2 each. We learnt to binge on whatever fruit was locally in season when its price was a fraction of what it normally would be, that might be persimmon or satsumas or pineapples. As healthy as our diet was in Japan, I really missed having masses of fruit.
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