on…Fukuoka and Japan being strangely familiar

Posted: 17/03/2011 in Travel
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I am just on the tail end of the Seolnal Holiday and have had 3 days off work. The days off fell nicely into an otherwise intense working calendar, they formed a kind of 5 day weekend from Wednesday to Sunday. Seolnal is the most important holiday in Korea, and possibly in China too. It marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and things have been revving up for a while, especially in the larger shops where shop assistants have been wearing Hanbok costumes and selling gift packs. Even the staff at the Ferry Terminal wore Hanbok. Generally at this time of year people visit home towns and families, there is also a small rite where younger members do a massive bow to their grandparents then receive money. This is the extent of the information I got from my students, some had a ‘grab the money and run’ attitude, others were looking forward to the various rice cakes and festivities. Apart from my studentipedia I have had really conflicting information about what happens at Seolnal, some have said it’s like a normal day, others have said that you cannot travel as everything is fully booked. I had a real fear that I would travel to Seoul or another destination only to find empty streets and nothing to do. The thought of staying at home for 5 days straight is very anti-Michael. I won’t get many holidays so every day off is an opportunity to see new things and visit new places. Before booking anything I really needed to know what the hell was going on.

After doing extensive research on the ‘New Year’ I found some interesting facts which were to have a direct result on my travel plans. The lunar new year isn’t actually lunar it’s lunisolar, this way of calculating the calendar is shared amongst many cultures and is still observed in countries which have had cultural contact with China and/or a Buddhist influence. The Burmese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Mongolian and of course Korean calendars all use the lunisolar method. Well done! Your calculations are very interesting!  I’m sure if the Sun or the Moon ever disappears you all have a back up plan with your over complicated astronomy. Funnily enough I couldn’t find the Japanese on the above list. During Japan’s modernisation period when Tom Cruise was helping Ken Watanabe kill bad men with rifles, the Japanese (in a wise decision) ceased to use this method. This happened in 1873. Suddenly my interest in Japan had reignited and it was no longer a distant dream to actually visit the land of the rising Sun. The fact that there was no holiday and everything was running normally was the tipping point in deciding to go to my spiritual home.

The general plan was already in my head and I just needed to do the boring stuff, booking things finding timetables etc. If you have spent half your life pouring over maps you will know that the city of Fukuoka on Kyushu island is pretty close to the rest of Asia, it’s certainly closer to Seoul than Tokyo. My problem with using maps as a source of reference instead of flight websites is that I often pick routes over the sea. Japan is remarkably easy to get to from Korea, especially Tokyo. However, I really needed to go over the sea from Busan. The initially simple websites for my nautical sojourn turned out to be really complex and I was almost resigned to staying in Korea. Fortunately,in a moment of last minute desperation, with the help of an extremely helpful Korean teacher, I booked a ferry ticket to Japan. It all happened quite quickly because I was close to the deadline for bookings,  I didn’t really realise the magnitude of the decision until late on Tuesday night… –

The skyline of Fukuoka as seen from the ferry.

I left Wednesday morning. Work has been going fast and furious and I  had little time to prepare for the 3 day holiday I was about to embark upon. As I mentioned, I don’t think I was psychologically ready to go to Japan, I thought it would have been a Summer trip. After various timetable changes, booking cancellations, text messgaes and passport queries I found myself on a high speed Hydrofoil sailing into Fukuoka. It was an exceptionally sunny day with a fresh almost balmy wind, I hadn’t seen snow or ice since leaving the mountainous West of Korea.

Fukuoka’s appearance reflects it’s history and it’s personality, with it’s back to the rest of Japan and it’s arms embracing the sea and the rest of it’s Asian neighbours. It’s geography on this South Eastern location has had a dramatic impact on both the city and on Japanese History. It is arguably the first city of the Japanese civilization, or at least the non-Jomon civilization. One of the many parallels with the British Isles is that the first settlers came over an ice bridge from the continent, this migration along with the first arrivals in present day Fukuoka form the population of modern Japan. The peoples of the Japanese archipelago have been seperated long enough to be fairly distinct from other Asian populations. Despite this physical seperation from the continent much of the culture and technology has arrived from China and Asia, this includes the Chinese writing system Hanja, Tea, Buddhism, Noodles and so on. Despite these similarities I was to discover that everything seemed slightly different from my experiences in other Asian places. As is the case with Britain’s island mentality, especially concerned with Europe, Japan has historically shared the same experiences yet on the other side of another continent. Japan has historically been close enough to receive ideas and culture but far enough away to reinvent the ideas and treat any external meddling with a mixture of ambivalence and disdain. Kublai Khan who remains one of the most powerful figures in history sent envoys to the Shogunate, but the constant refusal to meet his demands led to the first serious Mongol invasion.  Subsequent envoys to the Shogunate were less fortunate and lost their heads. Fukuoka was the first place in Japan to receive the Mongol threat, there were about 1000 ships and over 30,000 troops. Such numbers are always difficult to clarify but the court of Kublai was more than capable of raising such a ferocious army. The question is – how was an island nation which had never received any serious threat able to deal with the Mongol army? The answer is open to some debate but it seems that aside from poor tactics from the Mongols, insane acts of bravery by the Samurai retainers, the deciding factor was the ferocious storms that swept away the best part of the fleet. This event had a sequel several years later when the Mongols actually made headway into what is now Fukuoka only to be defeated by another storm. This ‘Divine Wind’ became known as the Kamikaze and is the origin of the fighter pilots who bravely or stupidly (depends on your point of view) flew into the U.S Naval vessels. This story is yet another in a long line of parallels with Britain where even the most patriotic of people will have to admit that the Spanish Armada was defeated as much by the weather as by naval tactics. Both the thwarted invasions were huge ‘what ifs’ for the path of geopolitics ever since

All this history was playing through my mind as I disembarked to the genteel bows of the Port Authority staff in Fukuoka, they also handed me a packet of tissues for me to wash the dirt of other countries off my hands. Being over the sea from the various diseases and criminal masterminds of Asia means that Japanese customs are somewhat more rigorous in their methods, just as the British have been in preventing rabies which all continental foxes have in mainland Europe. I had to place my fingers in a machine which took my prints, I also faced a camera which took my image then thanked me, even the machines are polite in Japan! After clearing the passport check I was met by a uniformed man holding what seemed to be a laminated picture of Porky the Pig and some other Looney Tunes cartoon cow. Unfortunately it wasn’t an embargo on pointless disney cartoon characters, it was a check for the very real threat of Foot and Mouth – a current problem in Korea. After the port I decided to walk to my guest house. I travel light and try to avoid public transport so walking out of an airport, bus station or port is always an interesting experience. Judging by the look of taxi drivers and bus drivers the World over, you are not supposed to do this. However, in Japan it seems you are rarely met with scolding glances or stares of disbelief. After Korea the streets of Fukuoka seemed strangely serene, in fact everything was strangely serene and polite. No car horns, no queue jostling, no traffic lights with risk of death, no elevated conversations on the Metro and people seemed to be apologizing to you even when they are not to blame. It was all strangely non-continental, it was all so strangely… erm … British. I can hold my hand on my heart and safely say that I have never felt more at home in any country before. This may all be blown out of the water when I go to other big Japanese cities, it may be unique to Fukuoka, it may be a quirk of vacation time, it may even be my near obsession with Japanese Cinema but a million little things gave me the sensation of familiarity with my own land. I had a similar feeling in New York which was shared by all, this was due to the sheer number of films and TV shows set in the area, but this was different. This subtle feeling is intangible and difficult to explain, how can a nation on the opposite side of the planet seem so unbelievably familiar, even the language seemed less alien than Korean. When asked to give actual proof as to why Fukuoka felt so homely I struggle, but I have tried to make sense of it so here goes. As I said, it’s mainly a non physical sensation but it can be seen in the way people interact with each other and the environment, it’s in the excessive attention to topiary, it’s the polite smiles between strangers, it’s the unease of dealing with the unfamiliar, it’s the teapots replacing large cardboard coffee cups, it’s the calm uniformity of office workers and uniformed school children, it’s the respect for traffic laws, the need to have trees and gardens in the smallest of spaces, the private personal bubble of an old man feeding pigeons in the park or the tired executive slurping noodles by himself. The respect for personal privacy and space was relaxing and took a burden off being able to wander round freely without people staring or questioning. The Koreans of course are very polite and respectful, but they give you less space to be yourself. I think some of this may be connected with being on holiday but I was technically on holiday in Busan but there was still a different feeling. In theory it should be easier for me to go into Korean places to eat or drink, but I found it easier in Japan. I went in a couple of bars and various people talked to me, including the staff, but they were far more reticent than Koreans who will often come and ask your name, age, place of birth and whether you like Kimchi before you have paused for breath. This feeling of general familiarity and ease has really blown my future travel plans and my week in China has now become a week in Japan. I am very keen to return.

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