Despite the fact that it was only weeks after my challenge to be in seven cities in seven days, I was itching to get back out travelling again. I was facing ten days with no school thanks to our extended Golden Week and I was determined to not spend all that time in Yokohama.
Most people who know me in real life (and those of you who’ve come from my old blog – hi!) may remember that my first visit to Japan came in 2016, when I studied Japanese in Fukuoka. I spent a month going to daily classes, enjoying cultural exchanges, and figuring out if life in Japan was right for me. It’s the whole reason why I’m here today. Major props to people who move here without visiting first, but I am definitely not brave enough for that.
Ever since I left, I wanted to go back. I even requested a Fukuoka placement on my application form… although I’m certainly not complaining with where I ended up. Like I said in this post, I wasn’t finished with the area, mainly due to my classes being in the early afternoon and subsequently cutting my days in half. I wanted to see more of the city, and more of the surrounding areas.
There was no real thought put into this trip, more of an “imagine if we did this” mindset, but after a kind of sleep-deprived impulse booking online, I’d already got a place in a hostel. I had just under a week to decide whether I could justify the expense after the month before, and literally the night of the cancellation deadline, my mind was made up.
For a start, April had already taught me to stop stressing too much about the financial side of travelling, because I’d saved up money from not travelling last year. Secondly, if I was going to go back to Fukuoka it would have to be in the spring because with it being on the southern island of Kyushu, the summer would be too damn hot. And lastly, I had no idea if I was going to get sick again this summer and if it’s anything like last year, I’d be going nowhere.
It was a now or never kind of deal so with that decision firmly cemented in my mind, I went to Shin-Yokohama Station.
Shin-Yokohama is the third stop on the shinkansen (新幹線, or bullet train) heading away from Tokyo all the way down to Fukuoka’s Hakata Station. I did not fancy spending over 14 hours on a bus so I figured I could cross something off my Japan bucket list at the same time as taking a trip down memory lane. I think practically everyone knows about Japan’s bullet trains but I actually know exactly where I first learnt about them.
My sister and I used to have a Disney book – and still do because I saved it from the last big clear out – which followed Mickey Mouse on his adventures around Japan. This was my first introduction to Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日, Children’s Day) and many other parts of life over here. I was about 7 or 8 years old when I read it for the first time so I didn’t remember it word for word, but reading it again at the age of 24 hit me with some realisations.
It talked about taking the shinkansen from Tokyo to Fukuoka and I did a double take. The fact that I used to live in a city that was briefly mentioned in a book I read as a child blew my mind.
I thought about that book when I was queuing to buy my tickets, and even though I wasn’t going all the way from Tokyo (because why would I travel further away just to come back again?) I was making that very same journey.
When Golden Week had officially begun, I was back at Shin-Yokohama bright and early to make the most of my day. It’s kind of tradition to buy an ekiben (駅弁: a portmanteau of eki 駅, station and bento 弁当, lunchbox) to eat on the shinkansen but I didn’t fancy very many of the options and the ones I did want were sold out. I settled for some conbini food as a substitute and boarded the train.
Thanks to the national holiday it was pretty busy, so I ended up perching on my suitcase in the space by the door. Fortunately that wouldn’t be the case for the whole journey and once we arrived in Nagoya, enough people vacated their seats for me to grab one. I could relax then, sticking my headphones in my ears and listening to the new BAND-MAIKO album I’d bought a few days beforehand.
I loved being able to see the Japanese countryside flash by, experiencing more of this country in one concentrated package. We were moving so fast that my Google maps couldn’t really keep up so I was left to guess where we were for most of the time.
After 4.5 hours and my entire back-catalogue of BAND-MAID and Blackpink songs, we arrived in Hakata and I could feel my heart in my chest. It was like it was rising up to my throat, filling me with nostalgia-fuelled excitement.
I was back.
I walked through the station, marvelling incredulously that I was really there. It seemed like a lifetime ago since I’d been in that precise location, despite being less than 3 years ago, and I couldn’t really believe that I’d returned.
Opting to take a wander round the shops, I popped into Tokyu Hands to find an ‘I ♥ Fukuoka’ B-Side label to replace the one I lost, but they were nowhere to be seen. I made a few laps before giving up, figuring that by the time I arrived at the hostel it would be time to check in.
I could’ve got the subway but that would have meant more of a walk on the other end, so I chose to take the bus. After all, it was raining and if I could cut down on juggling a suitcase and an umbrella, I would. I get the bus every day in Yokohama, but the payment methods aren’t standardised across the country and I knew from 2016 that they were different in Fukuoka.
Instead of entering through the front door and tapping your IC card once, you have to enter through the back door, tap your card once on entry and once when you exit through the front door. Having an IC card is way more convenient than bothering with cash, so I would recommend it. It definitely helped in this case.
Once I arrived at my hostel it was a little bit before check in time but the owner allowed me to do it early. Soaking wet despite the bus, I was very self-conscious that I was dripping water all over the floor but he gave me a towel and a moment to compose myself before explaining the house rules. I was shown to my bed and honestly, the room was adorable. With high ceilings, tatami, and wooden beams, it felt very cosy and I was pretty impressed. The whole hostel was converted from a traditional Japanese house and it showed through in its homely atmosphere.
The rain was hammering down by now, so I had to postpone leaving for a little while. I wasn’t complaining though and I took some time to relax and connect to the wifi (although I’m not sure how relaxing avoiding Game of Thrones spoilers was).
After the rain died down, it was back out and I knew exactly where to go first.
I used to spend a lot of time in the Tenjin area because it was close to my school and it was good for shopping, grabbing a coffee, and going to the cinema. One of my friends told me that the Vivre department store was closing soon so I knew I had to make one last visit before it did. Cutting through Tenjin Core – the neighbouring depaato – I headed straight to the 6th floor to check out the Animate branch I used to shop at. I didn’t find anything I wanted to buy but just being there was a nostalgia trip in itself. Next was back down to the Thank You Mart, where I’d bought stuff for my last minute Halloween costume. It had moved to a different floor but I could still buy a couple of things, including a mesh shirt that looks pretty badass.
I said goodbye to Tenjin Vivre, and next was the chikagai: the underground shopping centre below.
It has a kind of European theme, so I remembered playing a game of “spot the French” with my friend. I whispered “found it” under my breath when I came across the Eiffel Tower wall. I stopped off at the Starbucks for a matcha latte (just like 3 years ago) and I sat in my favourite seat.
I was pretty hungry by that point and I knew a cake wouldn’t cut it. And there’s one food that you have to have in Fukuoka… tonkotsu ramen. Leaving Tenjin, I walked along Meiji Dori to Nakasu-kawabata, another place where I used to go. Nakasu is home to yatai (street food stalls), Kushida Shrine, and a pretty cool shotengai. I gazed across the river as I crossed Nishi Ohashi Bridge, thinking about the past. I did get a little bit emotional as I realised how far I’d come since then.
Following the left bank of the river and heading in the direction of Canal City, I passed several yatai on the way. I had previously considered revisiting the yatai experience and testing how much my Japanese had improved, but thanks to the long queues and wet weather, I decided to find an indoor restaurant. I wasn’t going to choose Ichiran because I can get that anywhere in Japan, so Canal City was my best option.
Canal City is another shopping centre, more like a mall with a courtyard and clearly defined stores. There’s a water feature in the middle and the wall behind is used for projections and light shows. I think the one that night was Godzilla to promote the new movie but I didn’t have time to stop and watch. It was up to the 5th floor to check out the Ramen Stadium.
Fukuoka is famous for its iconic ramen and you can find several different restaurants at the Ramen Stadium. As far as I could tell they were all award-winning, so I selected one at random (Shodai Hidechan), bought my ticket at the vending machine, and went inside. One of the first things I noticed was the sheer amount of autographs on the wall. Clearly I’d chosen a popular one – one which Japanese celebrities visited. I recognised a few of the names and I smiled to myself.
A little while later and my ramen was served, piping hot and steaming, which was perfect after a miserable rainy day. I can’t remember if I burnt my tongue or not but knowing me, I probably did. What I do remember, however, is that it was delicious. It’s a shame I couldn’t finish all of the broth, but I made sure that I at least managed the noodles. I walked out of there very full, my stomach straining against my shirt a little.
My hostel was close to the Nakasu-kawabata area so it made sense to walk back, despite the rain which had started again. It was more of a fine drizzle this time, but the kind that would make you wet through if you stayed out in it too long so I still needed my umbrella.
I let my legs carry me to the other end of Canal City, across the bridge and down the escalator, until I was facing Kushida Jinja. Kushida Jinja was built around 757AD – the same time period that Hakata was becoming a hub for trade with China. It was intended to emulate Mie Prefecture’s Ise Jingu by honouring the goddess Amaterasu, but this shrine is actually dedicated to three kami: Amaterasu, Susano’o, and Ohatanushi. I wished I had enough time to look around but it was dark and wet and definitely not the right conditions to revisit. It’s a pity, especially given that I took my homepage’s header image there.
Regardless, it was still nice to be there again. A quick hello would have to suffice for now, and I continued on my journey back, walking down the shotengai on my way. It brought back so many memories: feeling excited while passing through on my way to the Sailor Moon musical, looking for souvenirs, and stopping off at Caffe Veloce after trying on kimono and attending Oktoberfest. The familiarity gave me a warm feeling and I was really happy despite my tiredness.
I found my way back to the hostel, ready to head to bed. It was nearing 11pm before I returned so I pretty much went straight to sleep. Any time close to midnight and I’m practically useless the next day, and considering my plan, I would need all the sleep I could get…
Part 2 coming soon! Hakata ramen is definitely high up on my list of favourite Japanese foods but what’s yours? Are there any Japanese dishes you’d love to try? Let me know in the comments…