Funnily enough, we got our first impression ( or should I say, first “reminder” ) while still on the ship from Busan. The ship is Japanese ( but managed together with a Korean company ) so it has more of a Japanese “flavour” one might say – tatami rooms that could sleep up to 10 people, its own “sento” ( hot bath ) and, something else we have only ever seen in Japan – beer sold from vending machines ( common not just on the ship but all over Japan ) ! Most people reading this blog live in North American or Australia – in any of those countries it would be emptied by under age kids in short order ! The Japanese, though, are known for following rules – even adolescents, it seems.

Japan is the only country we have been to where beer ( and other alcohol ) is sold in vending machines.
Our happy moment – finally leaving the Port of Fukuoka.
The day was not perfectly clear on arrival in Fukuoka but was much better than the air quality we experienced in Busan.

After an extraordinarily long first day dealing with customs, carnet  and insurance issues, it was exciting to finally drive out of the ferry terminal, with our van, ready to explore Japan. Fukuoka itself, a nice enough mid-sized Japanese city, does not have a ton of sights of interest but certainly enough to fill a day so we started our Japan sightseeing right there. On top of the interesting sights, a real delight was stumbling upon one of the city’s older, and very popular, yakitori restaurants; enjoyed the best wasabi-flavored chicken skewers ever, washed down with a generous serving of sake to celebrate our safe arrival in the country. Definitely a memorable moment, made more enjoyable by the company of some super friendly and helpful locals.

Downtown Fukuoka is a reasonably nice Japanese city, super clean, and very easy to get around.
Ohiri Park Japanese garden, Fukuoka.
Remains of Fukuoka castle.
Mist show, Japanese garden, Fukuoka.
The flowers were beautiful. Azaleas in a Fukuoka garden.
Loved this yakitori restaurant..!
The sake came in a glass, placed in a box. They filled the sake to overflowing so that it almost filled the box. Once you finish the glass one empties to rest of the sake from the box into the glass. Perhaps it’s a Kyushu thing !

From Fukuoka, the plan was generally to travel southwest in the direction of Nagasaki. Where possible, toll roads were avoided ( not hard to do ) giving us a great perspective on life in rural Kyushu; small towns, farms, fishing villages and the odd larger centre filled our first few days. Some great beach camping, scenic coastal drives and our first Michi-no-Eki ( literally “road side station” ) experience were highlights. We have nothing quite like a Michi-no-Eki; think of a farmers market, running every day from 9-5, with plenty of parking, impeccably clean toilet facilities and perhaps a small store. Place it on a main road so that passing travellers have a place to pull over, rest ( for a few hours, or even overnight ) and sample regional specialties that are for sale. These have only been around for 20 years but are now all over Japan…..well over 1,000 of them in fact, and they make great places to park up for the night as many Japanese (and others) do. It’s been a hugely successful idea- we are already fans.

Lois in a michi-no-eki near Nagasaki.
Beach camping, just south of Fukuoka.
Terraced rice fields, rural Kyushu.

Travel on Japanese back roads is slow, with much of it done between 40 and 60km/h but being in no hurry that gave us the opportunity to better appreciate the whole experience. Given that distances are not great, and the roads are usually windy in mostly mountainous conditions, the slow speed is not an issue- but I would not want to be driving across Canada at that speed. For most of our first few days the weather was either overcast or drizzling – unfortunate ( and unseasonal we were assured ) but it’s what we had so it limited some of our outdoor options.

By the time we reached Nagasaki, things had improved somewhat and we had reasonably clear days there. The A-Bomb museum and nearby Memorial to the Victims were priorities and both truly conveyed the horrors of war, especially nuclear war, well. Hard not to get emotional when looking at some of the displays – it was not lost on either of us that, given the Japanese people’s general longevity, and the fact that it occurred only 78 years ago, there would still be a significant number of survivors alive in the city with clear memories of it.

The impressive Memorial to Victims, right beside the A Bomb Museum, Nagasaki.
Replica of the actual bomb that was dropped, known as “Fat Man”.

Downtown traffic, Nagasaki.

In addition to the slightly kitschy “Megane Bridge” there were a few other sights we’d hoped to see in the city but had to abort those plans when we realized two things: a) Nagasaki’s streets are really narrow ( even for Japan ) and challenged our ability even just to turn in some cases, and b) while there were parking places which we would have happily paid for, they were all way too small for our 7m long van ! Worse, many parking spaces, (even those in open air locations) have height considerations which treat our van as a (perish the thought)….bus !!! Japanese parking lots consider our van to be enormous and where we have been able to park ( based on either length or height ) we have been hit with “bus” size parking fees ( almost 5 times what a car pays ) in some cases. Not something we can’t work around but definitely a consideration that will require a little more “strategizing” as we visit some of the larger cities ( in rural parts, no issue ).

“Megane” ( spectacles ) Bridge, Nagasaki.
Parked here, back in Fukuoka and assumed we’d pay the ( posted ) car rate of ¥700 ( $6 Cdn ). Did not notice the vertical bars (with hidden cameras) that measured our height and stung us for the “bus” rate of ¥3,000 as we departed. Height as a cost criteria – in an open air lot ? Ouch. We’re learning fast.
First week in Japan.

Before I wrap up this week’s blog with a look at some facets of the country that are, well, uniquely Japanese ( enjoy ), an interesting little side note on Nagasaki and that fateful event on August 9th, 1945: it was not the intended destination for the 2nd A bomb. It was actually destined for Kokura, further north. The plane with the bomb actually flew to Kokura, circled several times and then aborted the target due to persistent cloud cover. The plane banked and headed south to Nagasaki, where, initially anyway, there was also cloud cover. They decided to wait there a bit longer – just before they would have had to turn for home, the cloud cover broke and the world’s second atomic bomb was released….the rest, as they say, is history.

You Know You’re In Japan When:

…..the taxi diver is wearing white gloves ( and always opens the rear curbside door for you from inside the car ) !
….the apples are blemish free, individually wrapped in clear film, and THEN wrapped again in protective foam mesh ! Always. And everywhere.
….ditto for avocados !
….in many fuel stations there is no “bowser” as such. Hoses are pulled down from ceiling pods in stations like this. In the big cities, it’s all about space !
…..and finally, in Japan even a visit to a simple public toilet is high tech. This one is typical – seat heats up as you open the door, it automatically flushes as you stand up ( but the blue button on the wall allows for a manual flush). The other 5 controls on the wall ? Two controls for the bidet, one other for the bidet water stream strength, another for sound volume control ( the sound of running water is heard while you do your business ), and a manual “stop” control. The small, wall mounted seat in front of the toilet is to place an infant ( should you be carrying one ) ! They’ve got it all covered here…….

Till next week……..