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Injoo has returned to Korea from his five-month sojourn in Canada. It looks like he partied too hard. Brant, Terra and I met him at Sh-wing last week, and he fell asleep after two beers.

Yogurt Soju

He didn’t tell us many stories about his experience other than he had a great time.

As for Sh-wing, the place is under new management and the service and quality have been declining. I don’t think I want to go there anymore. We need a new hangout.

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Thursday I headed back to Fukuoka, Japan, to finally do my official visa run. Chris told me officially about it on Wednesday. I thought I was going to go to Osaka, so I didn’t know until then that it would be Fukuoka. I panicked a little because I knew where to get a cheap hotel in Osaka. Didn’t know in Fukuoka.

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Overreaction, really.

Nonetheless, I made sure I had everything I needed. I stayed up late researching hotels and directions. I had done the Japanese capsule hotel thing. Eun Jeong suggested another experience – a ryokan – a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast.

I stayed up way too late and woke up at six. I got everything together and was about to go out the door when I remembered something important.

Passport!

I was so worried about everything that I had forgotten the most important item. It wasn’t here. I remember Chris had borrowed it at work to get my ticket, and I had assumed it was in my jacket pocket when I left work. I was wrong. I called Chris and woke him up.

“Yeah?”

“Chris. You didn’t give me back my passport.”

“Yes, I did. I put it on your desk.”

“Uh, oh.”

Poor guy got on his motorcycle and met me at the airport limousine bus stop with my passport. He said it was okay, but Eun Jeong was angry at me for waking them up.

I had no trouble with Immigration this time at the airport, but the line for check-in was very long. When I arrived at the counter, it was past the cut-off point to check in for the flight to Fukuoka. The counter lady had to call in and set me up specially.

Money Exchange, Security and Immigration had almost no lines, so they were fast. I made it to the plane on time.

Landed in Fukuoka, rushed through Immigration and customs. No problem. Took the shuttle bus to the domestic terminal. Caught the subway. Rushed to the Korean consulate. Ran up to the guard.

He chuckled. “Lunch time. One thirty. Back.”

So I killed some time. We were next to the sports dome and a mall. I went into a game parlor and played shoot-em-up games for a while. I then wandered to the beach.

I grew up on the beach, and I am happy to the report that the ocean smells the same wherever you go. A flood of memories hit me when I walked out on the windy pier. It felt the same. The sticky salt air. The only difference was that there were mountainous islands in the background. There aren’t mountain islands in the Gulf of Mexico.

The ocean Harbor

And the beaches don’t have bamboo driftwood.

Beach Bamboo driftwood

I returned to the consulate at 1:30. I filled out the paperwork, glued on my picture and stood in line. The process this time was very easy and polite compared to the two previous applications I had done in Osaka. It was staffed by a very cute small woman who made everyone feel at ease with her giggles, smiles, and assurances that everything was okay.

Korean consulate

And everything was okay. I just paid my 5,000 yen ($50), gave her my papers and passport, and was on my way.

My next challenge was finding a place to stay. As with everything else I’ve experienced in Japan, it took a long time to find the hotel I wanted to stay at. The directions on the web sites and all were wrong. The best directions were on the map at the Gion subway station. Since then, I have posted more detailed directions on Galbijim.

The Ryokan Kashima Honkan has had a long history. It’s an old place, and it shows. But that was good. That’s what I wanted. The traditional Japanese experience in a very – traditional – building.

Japanese Ryokan Kashima Honkan

The lady at the front desk was nice, even though she didn’t speak much English. She spoke enough to help me get my room. It was very easy. She took me upstairs to my room. On the way, we passed an enclosed garden that was the centerpiece of the little hotel.

Hotel hallway Japanese garden

The stairs, by the way, were hard for my big clumsy feet to manage with the hotel’s slippers. The lady opened the room and looked inside. The clucked her tongue and embarrassingly stated that the room wasn’t ready yet. I said it was no problem.

We went downstairs, where she took my bag for me. She said it would be ready in thirty minutes.

I took the opportunity to get out and familiarize myself with the area more – so I wouldn’t get lost again in finding the hotel. The area is flanked by old Buddhist temples and Japanese shrines. There were many interesting little restaurants that beckoned me. Little holes in the wall.

Temple

Thirty minutes passed, and I returned. She showed me my room, and I was impressed with what I got for the money I paid. I paid the equivalent to a capsule hotel. This was what I considered a full sized hotel room for a city like this. The charm was what really made it. It was run down but not dirty. Rustic. It was exactly like walking into Shogun and the old wood smell reminded me of sweet potatoes.

What's behind the closet door

Yukata and towels

That pile of cushions and sheets was my bed, all folded up. A thermos of hot water awaited me on a table, which stayed hot my entire stay there. On a table was a few towels and my yukata, my Japanese house robe. I didn’t wear it outside of the room because I couldn’t figure how to tie the twelve foot band around my waist properly.

I took the time to relax a bit. My muscles were screaming from lack of sleep, lots of walking, and the usual stresses of traveling and dealing with governmental business. I couldn’t relax for long, though. I had an appointment.

Earlier this week, a reader of the web site and friend asked where the soba restaurant was in Fukuoka. He was getting his visa this week. I found out Wednesday that I was going too, so I emailed him quickly to see if we could meet. I couldn’t wait for a reply email Thursday morning because I was running out the door, so my last email I said to meet at his hotel lobby at five o’clock.

I found his hotel after getting lost in the subway station. Manuel was very cool and a much needed companion for my travels in Japan. I love food, but I’m also a bit shy and embarrassed from all the gaffes I do. Anyone who knows me understands that I tend to clumsily screw up the most simple of situations. So having a companion distributes the embarrassment, and I’m more confident to go out and explore as a result.

I hadn’t eaten anything all day except the little sandwiches they served on the airplane. Manuel and I wandered around a bit for some food. We went into a convenience store and got some beer. I also got some convenience store sushi. Manuel got a Corona with a convenient little lime juice packet.

Corona with lime juice packet

I got a Japanese beer I had never tried before. It was a very full bodied beer. I noticed this time some Japanese beers on the market that tasted more and more like American microbrews. I hope this trend spreads to Korea soon.

Japanese beer

My sushi was great, even though it came from a convenience store.

Convenience store sushi

It had the cool stuff that I liked: salmon roe, some pickled cod roe, oily mackerel, unagi (freshwater eel), and tuna. I was starting to get sushi burnout in Korea, since it seems most all Korean sushi is bland whitefish. This helped me revive my love for the stuff.

Sushi

We sat and ate next to a baseball field where a pick up game of baseball was being played. Manuel tossed a stray ball back to the players as we finished our beers.

We still had some time to kill before meeting his colleagues for dinner, so we settled at a bar. The menu was a lot of fun. I just wanted something light and cheap, and on impulse just picked the one thing that made me go, “What the freak is that?”

A few minutes later, the “Japanese-style Cream Cheese” appetizer arrived. At first, I thought it was the cream cheese itself that was some traditional Japanese concoction. But it was the preparation that made it “Japanese style.”

Japanese-style cream cheese

It was cubes of hardened cream cheese dressed with soy sauce, lots of wasabi, and tiny scallions. Great stuff. It was smooth with the chive flavor of the scallions – and then suddenly it hit me with the pungent kick of wasabi. Then it smoothed out again.

We then ordered a mushroom pizza dressed with black truffles. It was also pretty good, but the cheese was more memorable.

We met Manuel’s teaching colleagues, two men and two women also on visa runs, at his hotel. We headed out and tried to figure out where to eat. I was less desperate since I had just had some snacks, and that was a good thing. Otherwise I would have been more irritating to them with my jumping at each and every strange food place.

We entered one restaurant that had torches outside the building that looked interesting, but it turned out to be a highly expensive steak and sushi place. Nothing wrong with that, but we were too hungry for sushi. We wanted more substance for our yen.

In the end, we had dinner at an udon diner. It was like Denny’s for noodle soups. Look at the menu.

Udon menu

No English descriptions, but the pictures said enough. I looked for something exotic on the menu. One dish stood out a bit. It had some ingredients in there I couldn’t immediately identify. I pointed at it to our waitress. She asked, “Hot? Cold?”

“Oh, cold, definitely.”

I have learned in Asia that noodles served cold tend to be great treats. They have more flavor, and they surprise you with new concepts of what noodles and soups can taste like.

Udon Udon

Friends

My udon came out with a side of soy-based chilled broth, like soba broth, to pour inside. There was this one item in there that intrigued me. I asked Manuel what it was. “Is it a pig testicle? I don’t know.”

Manuel’s guess was the correct one. He suggested it might be a pickled plum. It definitely was. Sour, sour, sour. After eating the whole thing foolhardily, I slurped out the noodles to wash out the sting, and it all matched perfectly.

After the udon diner, we went out for a drink. We passed a little bar, where the stocky female proprietor cajoled us into entering. It was a sake bar, and it helped me check another “to do” off my list. I wanted to have a drink at a sake bar.

The group sat at the bar and ordered their beers. She looked at me.

“Beer?”

“Sake.”

She smiled. “Hot? Cold?”

I get asked that question a lot, it seems.

“Cold.”

A satisfied nod matched her smile. Her bartender fixed up my sake. It’s traditional, I’ve heard to pour sake so that it overflows the glass. It’s an act of generosity. To keep it from making a big mess, the glass is put into a box to catch the spillover.

Canal City Sake Sake

Manuel

Me Bar owner

I enjoyed my first sake in Asia. Can you believe I’ve been in Asia for two and a half years and not had sake yet? Oh, it was so nice. I asked the proprietor what to do with the sake in the box. I was about to drink it straight out of the box. She pointed out the obvious. I was to pour the spillover into my glass.

After the drinks, the rest of the gang went back to the hotel, leaving Manuel and me to roam the streets. I had one more thing I wanted to do on this trip.

Food stalls Hakata ramen
Hakata ramen

Over the canal was a row of Fukuoka’s famous street food stalls. Fukuoka is famous for a type of ramen noodles made in a pork broth. It didn’t sound so exotic to me, so it wasn’t on the top of my list before. But I had to see what the big fuss was about.

Of course, we sat at the booth where the guys were inviting us to join. It’s not a normal practice of mine to always solicit businesses with carnies bugging you, but this wasn’t bugging. Like the sake bar, the guy was being genuine, and he looked proud of his and his pals’ food.

We sat down at some stools and ordered two beers. I ordered a bowl of ramen.

Now, this is different from our concept of boil out of a bag ramen noodles. The noodles themselves are made fresh. They’re chewy. The bowls are dressed with different sauces, oils, vegetables, seaweed, and a slice of pork. The broth cooks in a large cauldron. Later, we saw the broth cook stir and pull out a series of pig skulls from the liquid, ripping the skulls apart like wet cardboard and tossing them back in. I said to Manuel, “What’s a Thursday night without a little head?”

As our time progressed at the stall, we were continuously asked to move to the left by the guys to make room for salaryfolks. We made it all the way to the left wing of the stall, where we could more accurately observe the action.

After that night of marathon eating, we called it a night. I returned to my humble ryokan, put on my yukata, and had a cup of green tea.

I also reenacted scenes from Bruce Lee and Kurosawa movies.

Even though I was comfortable in the room, I again didn’t sleep well that night. I guess I was worried about sleeping through my scheduled breakfast. When I know I have to wake up for something at a certain time, I have a hard time sleeping comfortably.

No matter. I showered and enjoyed the Japanese bath. I had the whole place to myself it seemed. I lay down and watched the sun rise in my room, listening to more university lectures on my MP3 player (yes, I’m still excruciatingly dull).

I got dressed and headed to the dining room next to the garden for breakfast. I expected to sit down to a crowded area and tell the waitress that I had ordered the Japanese breakfast at check-in.

Instead, I walked in and discovered this.

Breakfast

What was that? Is that someone else’s table and maybe he got up to go to the restroom or something?

My name, alright

Nope, it was my table. My breakfast. Waiting there for me. How cool is that?

The waitress, who I think was also the cook, was putting the finishing touches on it. I had a plate of little interesting bits and pieces. The stuff in the metal cupcake tin was barley mixed in something sweet with a hint of wasabi. The egg was light with a few subtle flavors. The pink thing was just a tasteless bit of rice cake that had a nice texture. The salmon looking stuff on the top right was pickled codfish roe, and the stringy black stuff, I guess was smoked seaweed. It tasted like it was smoked and surprised me. Behind it was a piece of charcoal grilled fish. To the left was a porridge that, I am pretty sure, was full of natto.

Natto is the gooey soybeans that even Tony Bourdain turned down. I actually liked the mucousy stuff. It was flavored with seaweed and yuzu, the lightly sour, very citrusy citrus fruit from Japan. To my right was some rice and miso soup. The best miso soup I’ve ever had. To the far north was a salad with an egg and a pleasant shaved ham.

In the black pot was some greens and tofu in water. The waitress lit a sterno underneath and directed me to wait until it boiled, then dip the stuff in the bowl of sauce before eating. The greens were firm and peppery, like arugula. The tofu was – tofu. There was another small saucer of greens to the side that were flavored with yuzu. I found myself getting hooked on this yuzu.

The breakfast, overall, was very much the Japanese experience. I couldn’t eat a breakfast like that every day, but I would definitely do it again.

I went up to my room and tried to relax some more before check-out time.

Check-out was at ten. The visas were to be ready at eleven. I had time to kill, and I didn’t have to be there exactly at eleven to pick up my visa. I perused the Fukuoka tourist guide, the same one I got on my first trip. A small picture I hadn’t noticed before caught my attention. Robosquare. A robot museum and place where one could see and interact with the latest of robots.

It took a while to find it. It’s in the second basement of the Hakata Riverain shopping complex. I was the only one there, and the young woman who worked there, and also spoke good English, showed me around.

This was by far my favorite site in Japan. I’ve been to Osaka Castle. I’ve wandered the gardens of Kyoto. But scratching a robot Aibo dog behind the ear and having it react like a real dog totally floored me. I had seen these things on TV, and I wasn’t that impressed. I guess it was because they always showed them doing tricks especially for the cameras. You have to actually touch and play with these things in person to understand what an incredible achievement these robots are. They don’t move slowly. They aren’t stilted like C-3PO. They’re active, playful, fast, and very aware of there surroundings.

The Aibos I played with would chase balls, ride skateboards, and even had silly personalities. One Aibo picked up a toy bone. When I held my hand under its chin, it dropped the bone into my hand. I then put the bone somewhere else. The Aibo ran to it and picked it up again. I put my hand under its chin again, but it turned its head away and refused. It didn’t want to let go of it that time.

The other robot there that impressed me was the Paro, the baby seal robot. The girl at the place showed me that it was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most therapeutic robot. The thing was screaming cuteness. I don’t care how jaded you are. You… just… have… to… pet… it.

Can’t… resist… petting… it.

I’ve even seen video of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi cuddling with one.

It was difficult, but I finally tore myself away from Robosquare. (Don’t worry, Aibo, I’ll be back one day.)

I ran into Manuel and Co. at the Consulate, but he couldn’t stick around for long. He was looking into getting an earlier flight out that day. So we said goodbye, and he left.

I got my visa and headed out. Back to my usual Japan tradition of getting very, very lost and walking non-stop for hours. To the south was Ohori Park, a large park surrounding a lake and a few islands. I took pictures until my memory card was full. A bald man was practicing his tennis swing and greeted me as I passed. He asked where I was from and all that. He told me about himself a bit. He was an opera singer and owned a boxing gym. He was also seventy years old but looked like he was fifty. Dude was fit. He actually had me punch him in the stomach, and it was like punching a brick wall. He said he did two hundred sit-ups a day, and I believe it.

After circumscribing the park, I headed south to find the subway station. I wanted to see this market that was advertised in the brochure. Yet I couldn’t find the subway station at all. I walked, and walked, and walked in the heat.

An hour or so later, I was in Tenjin in downtown Fukuoka. Screw the subway, I guess. I found the market and was disappointed that it wasn’t some big thing like what I saw in Osaka. It was just a small fish market and attached grocery store. Still, the critters were interesting. There were some blue crabs that were turquoise all over. I had never seen crabs like those. There was also lots of tuna, and I was tempted to get some. But I was not in the mood for Japanese food. I wanted something more substantial. I was craving a hamburger and beer. And in the rare instance I actually make a decision about something, I latch onto it.

At the market, I did buy some concentrated yuzu juice, yuzu peel, and a bottle of soy and yuzu dipping sauce. That stuff made an impression on me at breakfast. I headed back to Tenjin. I knew there was a place near the consulate called Hamburg and Beer, but I had just finished walking a long mile from there. I didn’t want to go back. There surely had to be a simple burger and beer joint in the tourist area.

If there was, I couldn’t find it. Time pressed on, and it got closer to the deadline to get to the airport. I bought some Hakata ramen as souvenirs. I had less than an hour to get to the airport in ample time to get my ticket and pass through security and such. I decided to head the bar I went to with Manuel the previous evening, where we had the Japanese cream cheese and pizza.

I got to the subway station and couldn’t find the dang bar for the life of me! I was so angry. I’m so sick of never finding what I’m looking for in Japan! How could the bar have disappeared? I went exactly the route we went the day before. Am I already getting this senile at thirty-two?

I still had a bunch of coins in my pocket, and I had to spend them. The money exchange doesn’t deal with coins, so you have to use them or they’re wasted. I got a beer at a beer and coffee shop. They had pasta on their menu – but it was no hamburger. I needed a hamburger.

I gave up and went to the subway station. The fare was 250 yen. Just my luck that I had 240 yen in coins. Seriously. In my attempts to get rid of my coins, I ended up with even more coins.

I came up with a solution for that. I bought the ticket with a 5,000 yen bill. It did give me a few bills back and some more coins. I made it to the airport in plenty of time. I got my boarding pass. My poor little passport was majorly crumpled from being in my back pocket during my travails through the hot city all day. There were no lines at security or immigration. It was very fast. At the gate, I used as many coins as I could to finally get me some food. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it was 5:30. I got a bottle of a really good Japanese microbrew and a sandwich that I guess was roasted duck with wasabi mayonnaise. I ended up with only 190 in coins. That was a good accomplishment.

On the plane ride back, I was stuck on the seat by the plane exit next to a New Zealander who wasted his entire time in Japan wasted at foreigner bars. Why travel if you’re going to insulate yourself the whole time? The dude was the typical skuzzy ESL teacher who loved to talk down about Korea while not displaying any redeeming qualities himself. I exchanged some polite small talk with him as he took off his sandals to rest his crusty toenail feet on the bathroom wall while flirting with the stewardess as she strapped herself in her seat for takeoff.

Am I too negative on foreigners in Korea? Nah. It’s just the ones that obviously weren’t ready to leave Mom’s kitchen and help support the stereotype Koreans have of us as lazy unshaven losers who can’t get jobs back in our home countries and are only in Korea to get drunk, make money, and have sex with Korean women.

We landed at Incheon. The Immigration officer half jokingly berated me for overstaying my previous visa. I explained the reason, but he wasn’t interested. I didn’t care either. I was back home in Korea.

I passed customs and exchanged my money. Passed through the automatic doors to the receiving area, scrutinized by the groups waiting behind the ropes for whatever passengers they’re to pick up.

I called Eun Jeong on the pay phone. She was at her mom’s place in Gyeongju. So she finally took the trip home she had been delaying for months because of my Labor Board problems. I was happy.

I got a beer at the Family Mart in the airport and some Big Macs at McDonald’s. I boarded the airport limousine bus and finally had my hamburger and beer.

I could barely walk when I got home. My inner thighs were rubbed raw to the point of bleeding, and my feet were ripped up with blisters. It’s felt like walking on knives all this weekend.

Nonetheless, I think it was worth it. I finally went to Japan and did what I wanted to do. I had sake at a sake bar. I enjoyed street food with salarymen. I had a traditional Japanese breakfast at a traditional Japanese boarding house. I played with robots.

Now I’m ready for autumn.

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