This post is really six short stories that make up one in-depth tale! If there’re specific things you want to know about Fukuoka, these links will take you there right away:
- Yanagawa Canal (柳川市)
- The promise (約束)
- Fukuoka City (福岡市)
- Unagi no Seiro Mushi (鰻の蒸籠蒸し)
- Hakata Gion Yamakasa (博多祇園山笠)
- Ohori Park (大濠公園)
- Ja Mata! (じゃ、また!)
Yanagawa Canal (柳川市)
I’m beginning this blog post by the canal of a small town called Yanagawa. Yanagawa is about 45 minutes away from Fukuoka by train. Among other things, it’s known for its steamed grilled eel on rice.
It’s a blistering hot and humid day. The sky’s a striking azure, and cicadas chirp loudly in the background. A quintessential Japanese summer day.
I’m alone. I’ve travelled to about 25 countries, been to Japan seven times, but this is my first solo trip. It’s a personal challenge I’ve wanted to do for a while. My chance finally came when I left my job in June 2018, leaving me with some free time to travel.
I’m alone, but I don’t feel lonely. It’s actually quite refreshing to be on my own and 100% in charge of my travels. Empowering, even.
So here I am, chilling out in the shelter of a small wooden boat dock in Yanagawa. It’s day three of my five days trip. I just had one of the best lunches, ever.
I am happy.
The promise (約束)
Half an hour after I touched down at Fukuoka International Airport, I ran into trouble.
There was a problem with my luggage lock that prevented me from opening it. The combination number I used was correct, but something happened that caused the lock to jam. I tugged and pulled at it to no avail.
Panic. Frustration. My trip had not even begun and already I was having trouble?! I swore aloud, scaring off a few folks sitting near me.
Finally, I sent my Ma an SOS via WhatsApp. She had encountered a similar situation before, and with her help, we managed to open the lock.
Shaken, I went to the restroom to cool down. I looked at my flustered self in the mirror. That’s me. The one who’s fully responsible for how this trip would turn out.
I reminded myself why I wanted to do this trip. To go somewhere I’ve never been to on my own. To attend the Hakata Gion Yamakasa, one of the most famous summer festivals in Japan. To relax and have fun before resuming work again.
Above all, to understand myself and my strengths better. Maybe this was the only reason. Everything else was further justification.
I looked myself in the eye. Calm down. You just got started. “No matter what happens this trip, I trust myself to figure things out” I said aloud. “I am capable”.
I gathered my belongings and walked out.
Fukuoka City (福岡市)
Walking around Fukuoka, I had a sense that everything was familiar and unfamiliar.
This was my eighth visit to Japan. Therefore, things like the rarity of public garbage cans and the ubiquity of vending machines did not surprise me. For my first solo trip, I didn’t want to do anything too ambitious so I went to a familiar country.
But this was also Fukuoka, a place in Japan I’ve never been to before. Fukuoka is not as famous as other Japanese cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Sapporo. But it’s by no means insignificant. Fukuoka is the sixth largest city in Japan, known for Hakata-style ramen and the Hakata Gion Yamakasa.
From my experiences, the best way to approach any new situation is to be observant and open-minded. Be 100% in the present.
That’s when I began noticing the little things:
I noticed that udon is as popular as ramen, and that Fukuoka folks have various ways of enjoying their udon. Soup udon topped with burdock tempura (delicious!) is popular here. Another unusual preparation is udon in a sudachi (a kind of lime) infused water bath.
I noticed the dedication that goes into making the Hakata Gion Yamakasa a success. The seriousness with which participants took their trial runs. The painstaking effort that goes into the Kazariyama and Kakiyama floats. The massive support from the locals.
I noticed that smoking regulations in Fukuoka are less strict than in Singapore. Cigarette ads are allowed but come with health warnings. Many malls have rooms for people to smoke. Once, I saw a vending machine for cigarettes.
In the end, I did not cover a lot of places during my five days in Fukuoka. I attended various Hakata Gion Yamakasa activities and explored various parts of the city. One time, I took the subway to a random suburb, Chayama (literally “tea mountain”) to see what the suburbs are like. I walked about one kilometre straight down from the train station, passing by houses of various sizes and reading the name plates at their entrances to see who lived there. Contrary to its name, Chayama has no tea plantations and the mountains are in the far distance.
The only time I ventured outside Fukuoka city was when I visited Yanagawa. I’d visit more places in the region, if I had more time.
But that’s OK. Taking things slow, savouring the present, and keeping an open mind created rich and beautiful memories. Memories that I know I’d look back on fondly even after years.
Unagi no Seiro Mushi (鰻の蒸籠蒸し)
Eating unagi no seiro mushi is my main reason for visiting Yanagawa. Why not? This dish is difficult to find in other parts of Japan, much less outside Japan. Besides, I wanted to do as locals do and eat eel during summer. I don’t know if that really improves stamina, as they say, but a good serving of protein never hurts.
I knew I had arrived at Motoyoshiya before I saw it, thanks to the smokey smell of grilled eel that wafted down the road. At 11.30am, there was already a queue forming outside.
“This is a little intimidating” I thought. Here I am, in a traditional Japanese building, where shoes must be removed before entering. The décor and furniture were Japanese. All the patrons and staff were Japanese. Instructions were in Japanese only. For the first time in my various travels around Japan, I was acutely aware of my foreign-ness.
Thankfully, I am fairly familiar with Japanese culture and have basic proficiency in the language, so I wasn’t too worried. Stay observant, stay open-minded, I reminded myself. When a staff member called for the next batch of patrons to proceed to the dining area, I went along with a group of four.
We went to a dining room on the second floor. My four dining companions consisted of an elderly couple, and a couple in their forties. They were related and travelling around the region together.
The older bloke asked me in heavily accented English, “Are you Taiwanese?” I smiled and replied in Japanese, “Singaporean”. “Ah…”
My dining companions were a nice bunch. They did not mind at all that I was a stranger sitting among them and were impressed with my language skills. Even though they knew some English, I tried my best to respond in Japanese, so that I could practise speaking. I told them that this was my eighth trip to Japan, first time in the Fukuoka region, and that I was looking forward to the Hakata Gion Yamakasa the next day.
The younger couple mentioned that they were from Yokohama and the group was doing a road trip. Next stop for them was Saga prefecture. I would love to ask them more about what they do, or travel recommendations, but couldn’t due to my limited language skills. What a shame, as they were such a friendly bunch.
Our unagi no seiro mushi arrived and everyone tucked in. I loved every bit of it: lightly crisped steamed grilled eel on a bed of flavourful and fragrant rice, topped with slivers of thin omelette. The dish was great with a sprinkling of sansho pepper. The eel liver soup on the side had no hint of gaminess or fishy-ness. Highly recommended!!!
My dining companions had to make an early move, so we bid each other farewell and happy travels. I stayed behind for about 20 minutes, savouring my meal and enjoying the lovely view outside. How often do you get to have an excellent meal with excellent company and in excellent surroundings?
Finally, it was time to go. I went to the rest room, then made my way downstairs, and told the receptionist my table number. She went to get my bill, and I waited.
Another receptionist came to the counter. To my astonishment, she told me that my dining companions had paid my bill! I couldn’t believe it. That meal was not cheap; the unagi no seiro mushi plus some cold tea I ordered came up to about US$35.
“Did they, really? That was so kind of them …” I said.
“Yes, they did!” The receptionist beamed.
I thanked her for the excellent meal and stepped out into the sunlight. The queue of patrons was as long as ever. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, despite the intense summer heat.
I wished those patrons a happy and hearty meal like I had.
I wished Motoyoshiya many more successful years of making unagi no seiro mushi.
I wished my dining companions many memorable journeys. Perhaps my valiant attempts to communicate in Japanese had won them over? Maybe they were impressed that I visited Japan many times? Or maybe they were just big-hearted folks? Whatever it was, I am touched by their kindness and happy that our paths crossed, even if only for two hours.
There was nothing but pure joy in my heart.
Hakata Gion Yamakasa (博多祇園山笠)
Yes, OF COURSE you should check out the Hakata Gion Yamakasa if you have the chance!
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa is essentially a float-carrying race involving teams from seven districts of Hakata ward, in Fukuoka city. The 770+ years old festival is held every first half of July and attracts about a million spectators.
I was there to see the teams kick off their trial runs. I was there to see some of the painstaking preparations behind the big race. I was one of those who woke up in the wee hours of 15 July to go out and watch the race begin at 4.59 am sharp.
The colours, vibrancy, unusual rituals, and more make the festival so worth it. I’ve never seen anything like it in Singapore.
“In Fukuoka, summer does not really begin until the Hakata Gion Yamakasa is over” a local friend told me.
Well, in Singapore, we don’t mark the beginning of summer in any way, because almost every day is summer. In fact, there are no real seasons in Singapore, except for the monsoon season at year end.
Whereas in Japan, there are many traditions and festivals that celebrate the seasons. There’s cherry blossom viewing in spring, numerous large and small summer festivals, Momijigari in autumn, and various snow festivals in winter.
Whatever the reasons for celebrating, I think it’s beautiful how festivals like the Hakata Gion Yamakasa bring people together. Young and old, believers and non-believers, locals and tourists. Now I’m inspired to attend more cultural festivals in my future travels.
Ohori Park (大濠公園)
Here I am writing in front of another body of water, in another place. Ohori Park, in Fukuoka city. It’s another blistering hot and humid summer day.
I sit in the cool shade of trees by the lake, watching pedal-powered swan-shaped boats go by. There’s soothing instrumental music coming from somewhere, possibly one of the boats. The fifth or sixth plane flies overhead.
Tomorrow I return to Singapore. I wonder if my plane would fly over Ohori Park too?
I think back to my main reason for doing this solo trip.
I can’t say that I’ve had any major revelations or transformations here. Nor was I expecting to anyway; that’s too much to ask of a short solo trip. My idea of self-discovery was to place myself in a new situation and see how I’d take things from there.
And how did I do in five days?
I managed to figure my way around in a short time.
I overcame language barriers and connected with people.
I had rich, beautiful, and memorable experiences.
I did all that while keeping well within my budget.
I realised I am not as awkward and bumbling as I sometimes think I am.
When I first got here, I looked at myself in the mirror, and said I trusted myself to work things out no matter what happened. I did well. Better than expected, actually. All because I opened my heart and mind.
I can go home feeling confident, accomplished, and well-rested.
I should do this again 😊
Ja Mata! (じゃ、また!)
At about 7.30am, I gathered my belongings and lugged them downstairs. To my astonishment, I ran into Y at the reception area.
Y was the first hostel staff I met, the guy who received me the day I arrived at the hostel, all sweaty and flustered. He is a Fukuoka native, a little older than me. I later found out that he managed the hostel’s bar.
I usually saw Y on my way out of the hostel and when I came back. He didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Japanese. So, we ended up communicating in a mix of both. Somehow, despite the language barrier, we connected.
The day before, I came back earlier to say a proper goodbye, only to find out that he had left already. I was gutted. Gutted? How could I feel so strongly about someone I’d known for a short while? I decided that the best thing to do was to write a thank you note with my contact details included. Then I left the note with his colleagues to pass to him.
I stared at Y, wide-eyed, and sputtered, “I thought today was your day off!”
He thought I left already and was equally astonished to see me. “Yes, it is. My shift ends at 9am” he said, smiling.
I smiled back.
“I’m so glad I managed to catch you before I go. I’m off to the airport now, my flight’s at 10am. But you can keep in touch with me on social media or email. My contact details are in the note I left you.”
“I got the note. Thank you very much.”
As much as we’d like to chat more, I had to go. “Keep in touch and remember to let me know if you visit Singapore. Let’s have a beer or a meal together someday!”
Y held his hand out to shake my hand, and I took it. He placed his other hand over our handshake. Surprised, I did the same. We stood there, in the sun-drenched hostel bar, smiling and clasping hands.
I don’t think I’ve ever held hands with someone like that before.
He opened the door for me. “Ja mata!” he called out as I was leaving. That meant see you later, something we always said to each other whenever I left in the morning.
Would we see each other again?
When would that be?
How often would we meet, considering that we live in different countries?
I didn’t want to think so hard about these. Instead, I waved and replied, “Ja mata!”. Goodbyes and farewells are final, but “Ja mata” suggests that we’d meet again.
Maybe we’d see each other the next time I come to Japan, maybe when he visits Singapore. Or perhaps we’d run into each other somewhere else in the world. One thing I’ve realised over the years is that the world is smaller than we think it is.
Till then, Y!
Take care and all the best.
Be well, wherever you are, wherever you may be.