Monday, March 5, 2001

Today we split from the comfort and guidance of our friends Mark and Traci, and Tom and I headed out on our own into the enigma that is Japan. We hopped on the subway down the hill from their house and made our way to Shin-Yokohama train station to catch our shinkansen. We were to take the bullet train as far as Fukuoka/Hakata, the end of the line, and then catch a local express train to Nagasaki. Tom had made ryokan reservations for us last night, so we had a destination.

It was a pretty long train ride, but we were in no big hurry, and it gave us a chance to see a big chunk of Japan as we passed by. Strangely enough, we never seemed to leave the Tokyo metro area. We kept thinking we'd be out in the country eventually, but we were mistaken. Our train made stops in Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Kokura and more! We sat at the front of our train car, and we took notice that every railroad employee that went through the car bowed both upon entering the compartment and upon exiting. The ladies that came through selling refreshments bowed in an especially charming way.

The shinkansen (bullet train)

It took about six hours to get as far as Hakata, where we had to change trains. We were now in Kyushu, the southern-most of the four major islands of Japan, and things were different here. When we stepped off the shinkansen at Hakata station, the first thing we noticed was a startling deficit of signs in roman characters. Most everything was written in Japanese script, which was largely inpenatrable to our western eyes. To find our train, we had to find the word Nagasaki written in Japanese characters in our guidebook and then match those characters to the ones on the train schedule. Once we were fairly sure of a match, we were able to find the time and track number. Is everything going to be this difficult? Maybe.

The tokkyu (limited expres) train we rode from Hakata to Nagasaki was surprisinly plush. It had comfy leather seats and - get this - hardwood floors! Since we didn't have reserved seats on this train, I, in my infinite wisdom, suggested we might have better luck finding a seat in the smoking car. Well, we got seats, but we should've ridden in the non-smoking car even if we had to stand. I don't mind a little smoke, but I also don't mind a little oxygen. Even Tom said it was bad in there. The Japanese like their tobacco!

This cigarette ad pretty much sums up
the additude toward smoking in Japan.

Finally though, things were getting more rural. Just a few minutes after pulling out of the train station, Kyushu was already our favorite part of Japan. Everything was green and beautiful, and the houses weren't all right on top of each other. We were looking forward to our stay here. Only two more hours till we arrive!

Tom riding the chipmunk (or whatever it is)

We got to Nagasaki station about 8:00 p.m. It was good to finally get there. We'd been on the road, rail, etcetera, for almost 12 hours. The lady at the ryokan had faxed Tom directions last night, so we jumped on a streetcar and got there without a problem. We were staying at Nishikiso Ryokan, just on the edge of Chinatown. The owner, Kazuko Omura, spoke a little (very little) bit of English, and after just a few minutes and a few misunderstandings, we were all checked in. A lady who worked there showed us to our room and made us green tea while we sat on the floor. Green tea is better when served in your ryokan room by a Japanese lady.

Big Tom

When we checked in, Kazuko told us our room tonight was not a very good one, and that we'd be moving to a better one the next night. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with the room, but it sure was tiny. It was a six-tatami room. A tatami mat is a woven straw mat about an inch thick, six feet long, and three feet wide, and they are arranged wall to wall. Also, Tom had asked the night before for a room with a bath, but they either didn't have one available or the bath got lost in the translation. We had to go down the hall - no big deal.

A word about slippers. We were changing shoes constantly. When we entered the ryokan, we had to leave our shoes by the door. Then we were provided slippers that we were to wear as far as the threshold of our room. Before stepping onto the tatami floor of our room, we had to take off the slippers and go completely without shoes. Then, upon entering the restroom, when stepping into the room, you put on yet another pair of slippers that was provided expressly for that purpose. They said on them "Toilet" in English, lest there be any misunderstanding for us stupid westerners. We didn't feel bad though, because by the western-style toilet there were signs in Japanese along with drawings depicting what one was to do with the toilet seat on the western toilets, as Japanese-style toilets are squat-at-ground-level type, and they didn't want any confusion on their part either. The toilet slippers also have a picture of a bride and groom on them. We don't know why.

Nice slippers!

After checking out the digs, we went to scope out our neighborhood and find some dinner. We were staying in the Shian-bashi area on the edge of Chinatown. Shian-bashi was described in our guidebook as the entertainment area of Nagasaki, and Tom and I were certainly entertained. We saw several hookers all decked out in fancifal costumes - among others, we saw a nurse, a police-lady, and a bunny rabbit. The biggest group of prostitutes we saw was hanging out by the police box. I guess they liked the extra protection. A girl can't be too careful; after all, there were a lot of drunk businessmen in the area.

We walked and walked along the streets and alleyways just taking in all the Japaneseness and really enjoying ourselves, but we were starting to get really hungry. We finally made a unanimous decision of two to go to McDonald's, and we once again got the excellent customer service to which we were quickly becoming accustomed. We scarfed some burgers and wandered slowly back to our inn.

Cruel and unusual entertainment

On the way back, we saw what I think is one of the strangest and cruelest forms of entertainment I have ever witnessed. We walked past an arcade and saw a group of young men playing a most unusual game. I'm sure we're all familiar with the games where you put money in and get a chance to win a stuffed animal by grabbing it with a crane. Well, this arcade had two games with the same premise, only instead of stuffed animals, one could try to grab fish or lobsters. We went by later when the guys were gone, and those poor little fish were in bad shape. Poor fishies. I'm certainly no bleeding-heart vegetarian, but there's no need in that.

Continue to Day 6

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