Japan 2009: A Study in Contrasts

By Marcie Miller©

I am in Fukuoka (Foo-koo-OH-kah), Japan as I write this, sent here to get a new visa stamp. That’s a long, ugly story that I won’t go into here. I’m on what is fondly known among foreign teachers in Korea as a “visa run.” How it works: fly to Fukuoka, being the closest port from Jeju, drop off your passport and new visa application at the Korean embassy, shop and eat in lovely Fukuoka for a day, pick up your passport with the shiny new visa stamp the next day, fly back to Korea.

A classic koi pond graces a temple grounds in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo copyright Marcie Miller

A classic koi pond graces a temple grounds in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo copyright Marcie Miller

I got here Sunday afternoon and dropped off my application at 9 this morning (Monday), so I’ve had all day to look around. I gotta say, it’s pretty cool here. Compared to Jeju, the sidewalks are wider and in better repair, traffic is quieter, with almost no honking and I haven’t been nearly run over at all. On Jeju crossing the street is always a life-threatening experience. Also the people are prettier and trendier, with amazing clothes and hair. Korea is very conservative by comparison, and no one really looks “different.” That’s especially true in provincial Jeju. Japan even has gay people! (Korea denies their existence.)

I’m staying in Hakata, which has a lovely canal system running through it, that actually has water in it. Jeju has several large but dry canals, apparently reserved for storm runoff. I got here via a fast, clean and efficient subway system, right from the airport. Jeju, being one big volcanic rock, has no subway system, just crazy bus and taxi drivers.

This area boasts some of the most impressive shrines in Fukuoka, including one a stone’s throw from my hotel, Kushida Shrine. Two blocks in the other direction is a shrine that houses the largest wooden Buddha in Japan.  I managed to get one photo, sans flash, before I was told “no photo!” Oops. He is 16 meters tall, which is nearly 50 feet. For such an amazing statue he was in a very unamazing space, like a Buddha-in-a-box.

After dropping off my passport this morning I went exploring on foot. It was a beautiful spring day, with the cherry blossoms straining to burst into bloom. The massive Cherry Blossom Festival officially starts next weekend, so they’ve probably been put on notice not to bust out early. I first went to Ohori Park, a lovely green space surrounding a lake. There is a land bridge cutting across the middle of the lake, with quaint arched bridges, pagodas, weeping willows and sweeping views of the city skyline.

At one million plus population, Fukuoka is a major city with amazing architecture. After crossing the lake I explored the adjacent “ruins of Fukuoka Castle” grounds. There is no castle at all, but some massive stone walls, topped by a viewing platform with a 360 degree view of the city and environs. While the vegetation in the park is pruned with manic Japanese precision, there were also many homeless encampments lodged under trees and against the stone fort walls. I’ve always wondered by Jeju doesn’t have a homeless population, but it is alive and well in Japan. OK, one point for Korea. Unless this is where they ship the homeless Koreans…

After basking in the sun at the top of the “fort,” I took the subway back to Hakata for lunch and shopping. I brought very little money with me, and was relying totally on cash – no credit cards!! – so I had to really watch my spending. Everyone says Japan is more expensive than Korea, but that depends on what you buy. I would have loved to check out some pricey Japanese restaurants, or bought lots of souvenirs, but I stuck to browsing and buying food at convenience stores and cafes.

I got out of the subway at the Nakasu-Kawabata stop, which is right at a huge designer label, multi-story shopping center called “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo.” Really. I don’t know why. As I stepped into the elevator I realized I didn’t have my leather jacket. I had shed it earlier, as it was very warm out. I figured I must have either left it at the first subway stop when I was waiting for the train, or on the train. I went back to the subway station, where a very kind man at the ticket booth managed to piece together what I was saying, and made a few phone calls, but no luck. He gave me a number to call and said to check later. Darn.

I went back to my hotel, where I told the receptionist my problem. She, like the toll booth guy, apologized for not speaking English. I apologized for not speaking Japanese. Bows were exchanged all around. But hey, if I haven’t learned Korean in 6 months it’s unlikely I’m going to learn Japanese for a 2-day trip. She understood what I wanted though, and very kindly called the subway lost and found. Again, no luck.

When I came back to the hotel several hours later, she immediately went into pouty face mode, shaking her head sadly. I think she was more upset than I was. I’m bummed, but what can you do? At least it wasn’t my passport, camera or wallet! Some homeless person is probably strutting the streets in it right now. Oh well.

But back to the shopping. From my hotel I strolled across the grounds of the Kushida Shrine and directly into the Kawabata arcade, a covered shopping area that stretches for several blocks. If one had money to spend, there is plenty to buy, from beautiful silk kimonos and pottery to incense and handmade Japanese folk dolls. But of course, as in Korea, none of the clothes or shoes would fit me anyway.

The kawabata arcade is bookended by Eeny Meeny Miny Mo on one end and Canal City on the other. Canal City is a sprawling, multi-story covered mall, with a man-made canal running through it. I watched as the fountains in the middle of the canal spurted in time to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Nearby a balloon clown entertained the crowd overlooking his canal-side platform.

After browsing through Canal City, I came out in what can only be called the red light district: blocks upon blocks of nothing but “gentlemen’s clubs,” with advertisements that left little to the imagination. I am very curious though, about the business labeled only with a British flag and “Diana.” What the??

There were lot of very pretty, skimpily dressed women in spike heels, but then, you see them everywhere. One young woman with bleach-blonde hair wore spike-heeled boots, fishnets under cutoff denim hotpants, and a leopard print jacket, while riding a Stingray bike. In Korea there is a modesty code that is skirted (so to speak) by wearing black tights with hotpants, or a tank top under a plunging neckline, in Japan they let it all hang out. Not that there’s much to hang out….

It will be interesting to see how I feel about Jeju after seeing “the other side” of Asian life.


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