Japan & Jakob Oct. 2008

Jakob Bay and Japan

October trip to Kyushu Island, Japan

When Jakob announced that he would come out to visit us for two weeks in October, we were not slow to suggest that at least some of that time should be spent in Japan. I didn't really have any spare vacation for this year, but it would be silly to pass on such an opportunity. So we booked three seats on the ferry from Busan to Fukuoka in Japan.

So when are we supposed to check in ?!?

We hooked up with Jakob at the train station in Busan, after he had spent two not-so-successful days in Seoul. Despite the fact that most people seem to really like Seoul, he hadn't been able to see the attraction. Partly because of the fog/smog and partly because he kept getting lost ! (his own words!). Anyway, we met at the train station in Busan and took a short taxi ride down to the ferry terminal. Three hours later we were safely in Japan. Paula had already checked out a few hostals/pensions on the internet and we had book a nice looking traditional Japanese pension (Ryokan). We were not disappointed ! The minute we walked in the door we were transported to a different age. If it wasn't for the two computers in the lobby, we might as well have been part of the Shogun cast. The rooms were so nice that I didn't even mind having to sleep on the floor, which normally isn't something I enjoy very much.

Yes - this will work !

After a few cups of tea we felt ready for a bit of exploration. Fukuoka is quite a bit smaller than Busan and a lot easier to get around. This is partly because the city is fairly flat. At least compared to Busan, which is spread out over several mountains and therefore a little complicated to orient yourself in. Fukuoka is in fact two smaller towns merged when they outgrew the territory around them. So now it is Hakata on one side of the river and Fukuoka on the other. Downtown is conveniently located on an island in the river or close to the river banks. Most western tourists will find themselves a little more at home in Japan than in Korea, I think. And this is mainly due to the food ! For Paula and I it was such a pleasure to be able to walk in to any restaurant and ask to be fed - knowing that we would be fed somthing really deliscious. Even if we don't understand the menu or speak enough Japanese to order. In Korea this doesn't happen. Here we would be fed something outrageously spicy and would end up eating only the plain rice which follows the meal.

Fukuoka by night

The traffic is also more orderly in Japan. Even if they drive in the wrong side of the street. I also think they have fewer cars in Japan. Ulsan is a little smaller than Fukuoka but much more hectic on the street. A lot of the small annoyances in Ulsan are absent in Fukuoka, so we immediately felt comfortable in the city. We had a walk around some of the temples, the river and the shopping streets. Dinner ??? Sashimi, of course !

One of the very nice restaurants we came upon by chance. As it happened, this was a sashimi restaurant.

Next morning we had breakfast at a small local restaurant, run by an elderly couple. The restaurant was more like a part of their living room. It was pretty quaint. Then we were off to the train station to buy our three-day rail pass and catch the train to Nagasaki. Nagasaki is a good two-hour train ride from Fukuoka through beautiful mountain villages and scenery. The villages in Japan have a more traditional feel to them than the villages in Korea. Many people prefer to live in apartment blocks in Korea, where it seems that it is much more common to live in town houses in Japan. Traditional town houses. It makes the villages very fotogenic, but unfortunately we didn't have time enough to go village hopping so we stayed on the train until we reached Nagasaki.

Typical scenery, as we saw it from the train to Nagasaki.

The hostel-reception in Nagasaki was closed at the time we got there, but the door was open so we left our luggage there and went out for a late lunch. After checking in at the hostel, we walked a bit around town, checking out a few temples and the restored "dutch" trading post at the river mouth. At the time of the trading post, all foreigners were called dutch, no matter where they were from. Nagasaki was the first European trading post in Japan and the only one during Japans 2-300 years of isolation. I am not normally a big fan of these restored "historical" places, but it was kind of neat to see this place, as I have read about it in Shogun and similar books. The historical significance of this tiny man made island is huge - for Japan and for Europe.

The first - and for many years the only - European trading post in Japan.

Hearing that Nagasaki isn't a very lively place at night, we of course had to go and see if this was true. So after a good meal of Rahmen (noodle soup) we walked a bit around the area we thought would be the place to be at night. We spotted a tiny little bar and after a few problems finding the door (you had to basically go through the window) we settled in at one end of the bar. Within long we found ourselves talking to a former inlaw to the Royal Malaysian family. This was the story we were told anyway, and who knows ? Either way - it was not boring! After a couple of hours at this tiny bar, our new best friend took us to another just-as-small-but-much-crowdier sake and shochu bar. Shochu is made on sweet potato and not too disagreable. The bar was so crowded that if the person furthest in had to go to the loo, the whole bar would have to be emptied for him to get out. I think they call these tiny Japanese style bars for izakaya. Well worth trying out if you ever make it to Japan, as it is an excellent place to meet people. It is practically impossible not to make friends here !!

Our bar tender.

Next morning we caught the street car to the Atomic Bomb museum and the Peace Park. The museum is a very sad experience but one that no visitor to Kyushu Island (or Japan for that sake) should be without. The horrors of this (mostly) civilian attack are unfathomable - even standing there in front of all the evidence; hundreds of photos and relics.

Elderly woman lighting a candle in front of the Hypocentre Monument in Nagasaki.

From Nagasaki we had to return to Fukuoka and then catch another train to get to Beppu - the hot spring capital of Kyushu Island. Beppu seemed to be a bit of a resort town, but seeing that we came there out of season, it didn't really feel like anything more than a sleepy town to us. No matter, as all we were after was some hot healing water ! We started our hot spring mania in the hotel, where we managed to get two sessions in the private spas (Onsens) the first evening. The small private spas suited us fine, as most of the public spas are separated into male and female sections. But here we could all fit in. And the spas were nicely decorated and HOT.


Next morning after our morning spa (!), we went to see one of the Hells - one of the ponds too hot for the touch. we picked one of the more spectacular ones, but still agreed that the spas were a much better way of spending our time. So we returned to the city and visited the Takegawara Spa, just around the corner from our hotel. This is one of the best known public spas in Beppu, but even if the buiding was spectacular, we were still there for their sand baths! Jakob and I got our tickets while Paula decided to sit this one out.We were a little confused with regards to the whole procedure - there are a full set of rules and etiquette for using the spas, but luckily we were almost alone at the spa, so there were not so many around to loose our face to !!

A red "Hell".

We lay down in the huge sand pit and immediately two women started using their hoes to cover us with hot sand. Under our neck they had placed two small wooden stools, to keep our heads out of the sand. These stools were removed at the end and the cavity filled with sand. With the exception of our heads, we were now completely covered in wet hot sand. I started feeling my puse all over my body - especially in the tips of my fingers and toes. It was a rather unusual feeling. Carefully tilting my head to Look over at Jakob, I had to laugh a little. He was the spitting image of Tutenkhamem - the Egyptian teanage faraoh. The two women also couldn't help laughing, but Iwe never figured out what they were laughing about ! Halfway through, when sweat broke out on our forehead, the women would stop laughing and come over and wipe our faces. After ten minutes were were told to get up and get out. A truely unique experience was over. Now ... how do I install a sand bath in our apartment ?!?! I loved it !

Takegawara Onsen in Beppu, where we took our sand bath.

Back in Fukuoka we did a last bit of shopping (Hello Kitty) and had a last good meal, before returning to Ulsan the next day. I had to work next day and we were all a bit wasted from all the travelling, so we just ordered a pizza and stayed in. Wednesday Paula showed Jakob a little bit of our neighborhood, but as the weather had turned a little ugly it didn't amount to much more than Ilsan Beach and Ulgi Lighthouse. After work and dinner we went to the driving range as the planned poker night had been cancelled, and the weather was no good for mountain biking.

Thursday Jakob went on a tour of Hyundai Heavy Industries (the shipyard) in the pouring rain. In the afternoon he joined Paula in her painting class, where he tried out caligraphy. In the evening Jakob and I went on a little tour of the MTB shops, as he was interested in buying a mountain bike here, if he could find a good deal. Then the three of us went bowling.

Jakob trying out caligraphy under the strict (!) supervision of the teacher, Julie.

Friday Paula took Jakob downtown to check out the shopping and to buy one of the bikes we had checked out the day before. In the evening we had been invited to a vollyball game. I sometimes play with a bunch of Russian and Ukrainian guys, and they had been invited to play against a local team. What we didn't know was that the Koreans play 9 against 9 !!! After one set I was well pissed off, so I dedicated my time to taking pictures instead. Jakob played on, but I doubt he touched the ball more than 10 times in total in three sets. I am amazed how these guys can ruin a good game like volleyball !! Who ever came up with the idea of placing an almost complete soccer team on each side of a volleyball net ???!! I was not pleased ...

9 on 9 volleyball. Look at how excited Jakob is in the back (black t-shirt) !

Saturday morning we did our usual yoga lesson before heading out on the bikes. As could be expected, Jakob was a bit overwhelmed by the steep climbs we have here. They are a little steep the first time around. But he still enjoyed it, he said. Even if it was almost harder to walk up the hills than to ride up ! In the afternoon we met with three other friends and drove up to GolGul Temple, where we had booked a temple stay for one night. We were there in spring and wanted Jakob to have this experience as well. My biggest impression from the first temple stay was the very little comfort encountered both during the day and the night. And second time around was not much different ! We started with dinner on the floor followed by chanting, during which we have to do bows, i.e. stand up, kneel, stand up, kneel, stand up etc. Already there my knees were killing me ! After chanting it was time for Sunmudo training. Sunmudo is a rare Korean martial art and Golgul Temple is "Headquarter". The same French guy who taught us in the spring was still there this time. He has now lived at Golgul Temple for 3-4 years. It's limited what you can learn in 2 hours and when we came to the kicks, it was obvious that he didn't have much talent to work with !! But we did our best ...

Getting ready for the evening prayer.

At night we had to sleep on what resembled a piece of paper. It was as soft as a piece of paper ... And when 6 guys share a room, it is guaranteed that there will be snoring in the air. Need I say that I didn't get much sleep ? So it didn't really matter that wake-up call was at 4am ! We had to join the morning chant. More sitting on the floor and more bows. I was SOOO uncomfortable ! And as that wasn't enough, the chanting was followed by a half hour zen meditation (sitting) 2 minutes into the meditation I had to change position for the first time. I am just no good with sitting on the floor. Paula did much better. After the sitting meditation we did 15 minutes of walking meditation and a bit of morning gymnastics before heading for the dining room for breakfast. this being a Sunday, we had to join a traditional Buddha breakfast. There is a complicated ritual to be followed, so we needed a thorough introduction before the actual ceremony. The problem is how to remember all the steps. And as it is not allowed to talk during the ceremony (harder for some people than others!), there's not too much help to get from your neighbors. We got through it alright, though.

Ready for a night on the floor ?!?

After a bit of free time we gathered for a tea ceremony with one of the monks. It was quite interesting to talk to a monk and hear how his passes his days and why he is there. It wasn't really much of a ceremony but more of an excuse to get to know eachother.

We spent a lot time on the floor ! Here at the tea ceremony.

The monk performing the tea ceremony.

After the tea ceremony we drove back home. We had had a good experience, but as the program was over, we didn't feel the need to hang around any longer. Jakob and I headed for the mountains to drive out some of the stiffness. In the evening we were pretty tired - it had been a long day.

Ready for whatever the mountain throws at us !

Monday, as Paula and Jakob were driving back from the bamboo forest, the front suspension gave up and died. Luckily they were only a few hundred meters from my work, so they could limp down to the parking lot and change cars. After work Jakob came down to the yard to have a little tour of a somewhat smaller yard (compared to HHI)! Early Tuesday morning we drove Jakob to the airport here in Ulsan and said our goodbyes. A busy two weeks were over .... It was really good to have Jakob here - it is not much we see of our friends while we are in Korea - and it gave us an excuse to shake our daily routine around a little.

We were hooked on Japanese food - even after we came back to Ulsan. Here at the Japanese at Ilsan beach.

Below you can see a slideshow with all the photos from the past two weeks: