The Next Step: part nine - hitching a ride

Tuesday, May 2. 2006
If I could do it again, I would think long and hard about how I made the jump from Shikoku to Kyushu. I would probably still get on a ferry, I probably wouldnt do it at night. Or if I did, I would consider long the prospect of maybe getting a bedroom, something above second class. Because yes, it was accommodation and transport in one but I think these are two things that should, like church and state, be separate. Especially if the only thing harder than the floor you are sleeping on is the paper-thin futon provided and the only thing more uncomfortable than the futon is the pillow. The noise I can put up with, the public setting is not an issue, the movement of the boat I can handle. But the combination of these things and a rock hard sleeping setting equals the worst nights sleep you can possibly imagine. Hyperbole? Yeah, I guess. I mean, excluding myself, the mean age of the other passengers must have been well over fifty. They all slept like logs and were up and gone as soon as the boat hit the pier. I stayed the extra few hours and almost got some rest.

I dragged my sorry carcass off and out into the brisk morning. Suddenly, I was awake. Aware. The scene of the big empty dock will stay with me for a long time. The moment I set foot on Kyushu was another Cry Freedom moment best seven am ever.

The dude who was next to me came off after me. He was carrying a suitcase and started talking to me. Where was I from, where was I going, all that. I told him my plan was Fukuoka followed by Nagasaki and he offered to drive me to Fukuoka. Hell yes, replied our hero, snagging a free ride somewhere. Then he offered to buy me breakfast as he had to wait for the rental car place to open. Why the hell not.

Tetsu, as his name was, ended up driving me all the way to Kumamoto. Out of the way? Sort of, but adventure is nothing if not flexible. He had some business to attend to, so if I could wait somewhere for an hour or so he would drive to Kumamoto castle and then to wherever I needed to go to get to Nagasaki. Somewhere the need to visit Fukuoka vanished, mostly because it was my visual link-point between Kokura and Nagasaki. So it ended up I walked around Kumamoto castle with an almost total stranger of a salary man on a business trip who paid for everything just so he could have some company. I was glad of it too, because these things are always more enjoyable with someone else. He was extremely friendly and I was genuinely sad to say goodbye at Hakata station, where I took a bus to Nagasaki.

The castle at Kumamoto, as I am obliged to reflect here, is one of the three great castles of Japan. One of the others is in Himeji, the other I am not sure about. Kumamoto castle boasts a long history of violence and revolution and owing to this legacy, most of the castle is a reconstruction. Enough remains of the walls to get an idea of the grandeur of the building, but the interior is a refitted museum. Not always bad, but I like my castle innards intact and wooden, not concrete. Call me a traditionalist.

Fukuoka, from what I saw of it, looks pleasant enough, but I was racing the clock by that point to get to Nagasaki in time to find accommodation. So I saw a little of it from the bus window and arrived in Nagasaki just in time to find a place to stay, literally moments before the tourist information window closed. Goddamn lucky, that was. It was late and I was tired, so I booked two nights and set the next day aside to see all that Nagasaki had to offer. I found the place, a Minshuku called Fumi. A Minshuku is basically someones house, where the spare rooms are rented out to travellers. They dont have the conveniences of a real hotel but are friendly and cheap. The owner here was a lovely old man with a limp and a lot of very interesting habits. We had a long talk about this and that before I did my laundry, took a long overdue shower and hit the sack.

***

A whole day lay ahead of me to see the sights and enjoy the city. I could leave my things at my accommodation and take nothing but my camera out. These are the best days for sightseeing! Oh yes. And Nagasaki is indeed a wonderful place, steeped in both history and tragedy, sometimes seemingly in equal amounts but thankfully there are more good times than bad in this colourful past.

No-where is it better captured than the new Historical Museum at the south end of town. Artefacts from the cities long relationship with western traders and Christianity as well as relics from the sometimes turbulent neighbouring Korea and China are all exhibited alongside a recreation of the old governors residence. The sight of Christian images on traditional Japanese pottery is an odd one and very likely unique to this part of the country. Likewise are the Korean made tea ceremony implements, from a time when they were in fashion. The long trade history that Nagasaki has is unique among Japanese cities, for a long time it was the main point of foreign trade and even during the closed country period, visitors and foreign goods still came into Japan via this port. It was for a long time the sole mixing point of cultures and many of the displays reflect these times.

In all, a worthy place to visit. Next, I went to Glover Garden, once the home of a wealthy trader, now a tourist attraction that brings in the elderly audience. The grounds of the house have all been restored and maintained and offer the rarest of insights into what it might have been like to live as a foreigner there at the time. These were some of the House of the Dragons forefathers and we salute them. They all had Japanese wives (probably more than enough mistresses too) and were stinking bloody rich. They were winners, all of them, and also started the company now know as Kirin Beer. Again, I salute!

The gardens are a very European style and the houses are very much western styled. Of the many points of interest, the numerous waterfalls stand out clearly the man loved his waterfalls. Other things include the first asphalt road in Japan and hundreds of photographs of the time. These are invaluable in their insight, to see just how much has changed. Glover Gardens are also well worth a visit, just stay out of the old ladys ways. Also look out for the oldest church in Japan, right next door.

Dejima was for two hundred years the sole point of contact Japan had with the outside world. All trade went through the tiny man-made island, all visitors came through there and all contact was regulated. The primary reason was to stop further spreading of the Christian faith, which had been tolerated since it first came to Japan but had incurred the Shogunates wrath and suffered severe persecution. Cutting off all ties with the West would have been ideal, but the merchant class had some sway even with such a brutal government and trade was kept alive. The Dutch had the biggest stake in Japan and so Dejima became the Netherlandss little toehold into Japan and is the biggest chapter in a very interesting book on relations between the two nations.

So following the two successes, my next stop was what I had thought would be the easiest of victories. With the weight of history on its shoulders and prime location hear the heart of proceedings, Dejima island could only be a winner. Alas, the island itself has long since been swallowed by further land reclamation, probably in the name of progress and the Emperor, after the country opened itself up again. It was no longer needed, to be sure, as the Dutch factory was closed and trade moved into the city itself and international relations began almost anew. The buildings fell into disuse and what was left (if anything actually remained by that time) were likely wiped away in the war. Very recently the island had been slowly bought back to life, with excavations recreating the shape and setting, and recreations of the buildings adorning it. These buildings are immaculate and indeed so new that you can still smell the pine. The street is concrete and the period costume clad workers look almost sharp. This is entirely out of tune to the image I had of what Dejima would be like, dirty and festering, almost loathsome. A pustule of Western civilization on the asscrack of Japanese culture. A bad image, yes but all reports say that it was cramped and the visitors had little interest in extra hygiene simply because they were in Japan and the buildings were often in less-than-perfect condition, spoiled stock was common. Maybe in a few years when the new car smell is gone it will be something a bit special. Until then, it is a novelty, a plastic remake of a tragically totally lost past (the fault of no-one, it must be said) that deserves its right place I just think it could have been done better. But Japan is the land of the concrete castle, so that is such wishful thinking that I deserve punishment.

I headed back toward the station in hope of lunch. I went to another Chinese place and had the other local specialty. I then headed uptown, to the sombre of Nagasakis highlights.