Wow! I can’t believe we ate it all.

As public school teachers in Jeollanamdo, we get 24 days of winter vacation.  (There are also national holidays, summer vacation, and  a vacation for renewing our contracts.)  Anyway, we took 10 of those days and went to the Kansai region of Japan.  It was an overwhelmingly mind-filling trip. It was a deliciously stomach filling trip as well.

Sadly, it started with my (Akasha) getting a nasty stomach virus.  (I’ll post on the awesomely different Korean public health care system later.)  We had to stay home a bit longer and miss our previously planned Seoul leg of the trip.  On Sunday night we headed up to Busan for two nights.  I was tired and only “eating” broth, so I got to watch Mike eat a beautiful burger and  Korean grilled lamb ribs as I nursed myself up to drinking smoothies.  Torture.  I love lamb. It is like really cute bacon.  I miss hamburgers so much…

Leaving Busan Harbor

On Tuesday the 17th, we left for Osaka on the 16 hour long Panstar Ferry.  It is pretty cool.  For about $200 USD round trip each, we went to Osaka.  There is a cafe with full bar and 3 window/ walls providing a spectacular view of the ocean with wifi.  The bunks in our rooms were small but comfy.  The buffet was okay.  The “show,” which was either a guy with a ponytail playing the flute or a woman in a ballgown playing electric cello, both to a pre-recorded background music (sort of a jazz-fusion karaoke) was as ultra cheesy, as you’d imagine.  The staff was kind and the boat was very clean.  It is in serious need of a costmetic update, has very 80’s decor, but the staff are constantly polishing every bit of glass and brass in their downtime.  It had a Korean style spa that needs an update, but the facilities were clean.  Best of all, we traveled internationally without the stress and rush of an international airport.(grrr, airports aren’t fun anymore)

Vamping at the castle

After a night being swayed gently to sleep by the rocking of the boat, we arrived in Osaka at 10 or so on Wednesday morning, and began to look around the city. Our previous stay had been in Fukuoka, a smaller, working class city; by contrast Osaka is larger (22 million in the Kansai region), more cosmopolitan, with a host of world class attractions including huge ferris wheels, long suspension bridges, and great art museums. We intended to see as much as we could in the five days we had.

Our first hotel was the Hostel 64 Osaka , a quaint hostel run by an architecture firm, so it was artistic and comfortable, with a great, friendly staff. So we checked in, dropped off our bags, and started the walk across the city to Osaka castle.

Shinsekai district

From here, we took the subway down to the Shinsekai district to get a look at the great tower that was first built over a hundred years ago, then rebuilt after World War II. The district around here is retro-futurey, with lots of exposed steel, neon, cheesey golden statues, crowded streets and colorful ‘characters’ who want you to eat in their shops and play pachinko in their parlors.

Then, it was up to the HEP 5 shopping mall, where there is one of the two great ferris wheels of Osaka.

Hep 5 Ferris Wheel

We went up just as the sun was setting, so we saw the city spread out below us in the great reds and oranges of the sun reflecting off the glass and metal of the buildings in the great sprawl of Osaka. It was romantic, and beautiful, and we wished we could go around again, but it was getting late and we had to find dinner.

The next day was cold and rainy, which was a disappointment, as we had planned to take a short train ride up to Minoh and see a waterfall in the region. But no matter. One of the hotel clerks, a very friendly woman named Nami, gave us directions to the art museum, which was right next to her favorite Udon noodle place. So, we spent the afternoon with a belly full of fresh-made noodles, looking at some recent modern art by Yayoi Kusama, who I’d never heard of but has been creating conceptual and ‘obsessive’ art since the 1950’s. Good, but weird, stuff.

After completely exhausting everything there is to see in Osaka in 36 hours (Mike jokes) we went up north, to Kyoto, former capital of Japan and still its traditional cultural heart. But Kyoto deserves its own post.

Exhausted in the subway

Not the real whale shark

When we returned to Osaka, three days later, there was surprisingly still a lot of city to see, and a lot of great meals to be eaten. First, we went to the Osaka aquarium, which has one of the largest tanks we’ve ever seen. This one was large enough to hole an entire whale shark, a school of groupers, and devil rays about the size of a beach umbrella. We stood enchanted, watching them circle, for at least two hours. Then there were jellyfish, giant crabs, and seals that wanted to kiss Akasha through the glass. It was amazing!

After the aquarium, we’d planned to ride the other ferris wheel in Osaka, a monster called the Tempozan, which is one of the largest in the world. However, due to strong winds, it had been shut down. Akasha was very disappointed. But, this meant we could go have burritos in a place across town. Bad news, however, was that the burrito place was closed, so we had to go across the street to a bistro that served up some nice pizza, a fruit tort that was pretty incredible, and wine by the glass.  They were playing Amelie on their wall .

Minoh Waterfall. No monkeys.

The next day, we were able to take a day trip up to Minoh, a small town on the end of the Hankyu line. This was another nice little town whose main road leads up the side of a mountain until the village disappears and you’re taking a nice nature walk that ends in a pretty fifty-foot waterfall. We kept seeing signs that featured monkeys, and wondered why. Later, we learned that Minoh is famous for semi-wild monkeys. How we missed them, we have no idea. Maybe their vacation matched up with ours, and they were out of town…

When we got back to Osaka, we made another attempt at the Ferris wheel, and it was working! So we went around and got another spectacular view of the massive sprawl of Osaka. And then feeling lucky, we returned to El Zocalo, the burrito place that had been closed the day before, and… it was open! So we had a lovely dinner of burritos, homemade chips, and Dos Equis. El Zocalo is run by some Osakans who lived in San Francisco for years and the burritos were the real thing. Osaka is a fantastic international city. We also chatted with a nice guy named Guido, who turned us on to the best sushi place in town, which we vowed to visit before our ferry left the next day.

After the sushi

The next day we ended our Osaka adventure by visiting Endo Sushi at the Osaka fish market.  This place is amazing.  It is allegdly where the fish buyers go to taste what they buy.  It is open from early dawn until 1 p.m.  These bloggers did an excellent job describing the experience, I’ll let them do it for us.

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Fukuoka! -or- a short trip to Japan

So much has been going on, it’s hard to know where to start. We have finally, after four or five months, gotten off of the mainland and made a trip to Japan, which many people consider the heart of the Pacific Asian Rim. It was, of course, fabulous, even if it wasn’t exactly, or even close, to what we had planned.

The first hint that our plans would be disrupted came at immigration. Akasha grabbed a nice lady who chatted with her about her plans – we would be there three or four days, visit Osaka, see a baseball game – and then was waved through. Mike’s customs guy was crotchety and nearsighted, and was offended, first of all, that I hadn’t filled out the back of the form. Then he wanted to see my return ticket. When I told him I didn’t have one, he face-palmed. He said, Do you have money? Where will you stay? Show me your reservation, he demanded. Akasha had it, so I had to get her involved. Eventually, he let me through. (A Japanese man had pantomimed to me that Mike was having problems and I should go back and help.)

A charming side street near Canal City

Our next adventure came when we tried to get train tickets for Osaka. Long story short, none of our cards went through. Panicking only slightly, we decided we would be staying the night in Fukuoka. As we’d been planning to come back and see a ball game here two nights later, this wasn’t wholly disastrous. We’d save the train fare, and still be in Japan. The nice ladies at the information desk called a hostel for us, and we started the walk.

I’m pretty sure this is when it started to rain. It started slow, then built up, and by the time we found the hostel, it was raining pretty hard. The Khaoson Fukuoka hostel is plain, clean, dry, and friendly. The staff at the hostel sent us to a great local diner where we waited in line for Hakata Ramen. It was awesome, and erased some of the damage the heavy rain had done.  It was served with locally made Asahi beer.

In the morning, we called our card companies to clear them for use in Japan. Then, we walked back to the train station. We found a cute little VW Westfalia that had been converted to a mobile diner, so we had a breakfast of taco meat on cabbage and rice. As we walked, the rain continued. And not only rain, but thunder! We would see a flash of light in the sky and moments later honest to god thunder was rolling down the street for several long seconds. It was a sound we hadn’t heard in months, not even as the typhoon was passing by. It was, oddly, a welcoming sound of home.

Shrine in Fukuoka behind mossy tree

Then we came to a shrine temple. Right in the middle of the city, just off the busy streets, stand calm open lands, which would seem to be parks, but instead are religious sites with working shrines and dormitories for the monks around the back. People walk in off the street to perform their rites, and lit candles and insense, available in the entry way. Then they walk up to the gate of the temple, throw in a coin. They bow. They clap twice, then pull a cord to ring a bell. Then they stand still, perhaps praying; then they leave. I don’t understand what it means or why they do it, but it seems calming, and meditative.

Temple in the rain.

This particular temple had one of the largest wooden buddha sculptures in Asia. It sat on the second floor of a side building, behind a pot where you placed incense to burn. Buddha was maybe twenty feet high, and slightly angry looking. Behind Buddha was a pathway decorated with scenes of what appeared to be souls being tormented by demons; behind that was another tunnel that looped back twice, and was completely unlit. We passed through the darkness holding hands, guided by the handrail, through the hairpins, until we emerged into the light back under Buddha’s watching gaze. It reminded me of the Basilica in Mary in Minneapolis, quiet, beautiful, ornate, reflective, but completely outdoors and open-sided.

Fukuoka itself is a beautiful, small, working class city. There’s a large harbor, and a lot of steel buildings; the streets are wide and uncrowded, despite what you may imagine as crowds of Japanese being stuffed into subway cars.

Canal City courtyard

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We wandered through the intermittent rain to Canal City, a waterside shopping mall, and found a cool series of alleyways along side it.  We grabbed an awesome 5,000 yen sashimi lunch and a very small lunch stop.  It was delicious, affordable, and our host was very generous.  He drew us a picture of our plate and labeled it in Kanji.

The next day we went on a tour of the Asahi factory. They gave us a choice of a Korean tour or  Japanese tour.  We did the tour in Korean, picking up bits and pieces here and there. It was mainly a tour of a bunch of signs and where the cans go into boxes.  Akasha did the Leine’s tour last summer and went to several of the mash tanks there.  At the end we were given two eight oz “super dry”  beers and beer snacks (shrimp and squid flavored crackers.)

From there we made our way to the Yahoo Dome to see the Soft Bank Hawks play the Chiba Lotte Marines.   It is a great dome with a retractable roof (closed for the night), with fewer seats than Target Field, clean and neat with awesome food.  There is so much to say about how Japanese baseball is same/different from US baseball, but it was all said by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. It was an incredible day with delicious food, and people were so kind to us along the way. After the game we followed Bourdain’s advice and went to a neighborhood bar by the dome.  It was a cozy bar, and as he said in the episode, beers are 40 yen (50 cents)after the game.

The next morning we took a quick trip to a Shinto temple, then boarded the hydro foil back to Busan.

Here is a video tour of the Shintotemple in the middle of downtown Fukuoka, a city of about 2.5 million people.