It’s hard to believe that I’d been in Fukuoka for over a week before I’d set foot in Tenjin properly. One of the busiest areas of the city, alongside Hakata, Tenjin is home to several department stores. We have them in the UK, but Japan takes it to the next level.
Tenjin Core was my first experience with a Japanese depaato, right by Exit 5 of the Tenjin subway station, and within about ten minutes of walking in I was already feeling like I was going to get lost. Possibly bigger than any mall I’ve ever been to (yes, that is including the ones in the US) and filled with a lot more stuff, it’d be so easy to lose your way. Thankfully I stuck close by the escalators so that wouldn’t happen.
The neighbouring depaato Tenjin Vivre is connected and easily accessible via the underground tunnels, which also have several shops. On the sixth floor of Vivre is the Fukuoka branch of Animate, the nationally renowned retail franchise for anime. While the Akihabara store is by far the most famous, having been featured in series like Durarara!!, the Tenjin version is still pretty damn good.
I didn’t have nearly as much time as I’d have liked in there, because the whole reason I was in Tenjin was to have a meeting in a nearby café and sit in on a casual English lesson.
Afterwards, I took another look around, this time focusing on the clothes stores. Growing up, no-one would ever consider me a fashionable person, but over the last few years I’ve matured and developed my own sense of style. And yes, that style has been heavily influenced by Japanese fashion. I’m a sucker for plaid shirts, high waisted skirts and over the knee socks. If I had to sum up my ideal wardrobe in two words, they’d probably be ‘kawaii librarian’. Within a few days of being in Japan, I’d already been told that my clothes were cute, and after going round a department store for half an hour I could see why. I’m going to have keep a close eye on my money if I don’t want to spend it all making myself fit my perfect ‘look’ (like seriously, it’s dangerous).
The next couple of days, I didn’t do much, wanting to focus on getting the important things sorted. However, I returned to the Nishijin McDonalds on Tuesday, deciding to try the Halloween Choco Fries. Some people may remember the limited edition chocolate fries from a few months ago, but this time they’ve made a comeback… looking violently orange with promises of a pumpkin flavour. If there’s one thing Japan likes, it’s the seasonal item, and Halloween is prime territory for the weird and wonderful. Baskin Robbins in Japan are currently offering habanero pepper and glow in the dark ice creams, and that’s just one example. The fries themselves tasted kind of like a chocolate croissant… if you dumped a pile of salt on top. There was absolutely no trace of pumpkin, and even if they weren’t bad I don’t think I’d be buying them again. Still, someone needs to nudge Starbucks Japan and tell them that everywhere’s doing pumpkin themed things this month. Yes, I’m still bitter.
On Wednesday morning, I woke up early to catch the chikatetsu (subway) into Tenjin to meet a friend I’d made from school. And I am so thankful for Japan’s rail efficiency because having lost track of time, we had less than fifteen minutes to get to class. Once we’d got to the station, it was approximately 2 minutes wait on the platform, 2 minutes to travel and 1 minute to walk to school, so we just about made it in time.
I’ve been mostly staying away from buying things just because they’re anime related, unless they’re cheap and/or useful like notepads or folders. However, on the couple of occasions I treated myself I’ve been very fortunate. A lot of merchandise is in blind boxes or similar, meaning that you have no idea what you’re going to get. I managed to catch the last of the High School Fleet biscuits at Lawson because they were reduced to clear, and they had Mashiro Munetani’s character card inside. While Mashiro is only my second favourite out of the four characters available, she’s one of my top three Haifuri girls so I counted that as a win. I decided that the first Gashapon machine I’d use in Japan would be one with the soul gems from Madoka Magica, and I got Homura’s gem first try, which was extremely lucky because that’s the one I wanted.
Thursday meant more socialising and four of us went to a local restaurant to have lunch before class. I chose the yakiniku gohan (lit. grilled meat rice), which was fried rice with nori seaweed and onions, topped with grilled meat and a fried egg, and served with a mushroom miso soup. Whenever I eat in public in Japan, I’m always super thankful that I learnt to use chopsticks before I came, although Japanese rice sticks together more than rice in the UK so it’s miles easier to pick up.
Friday was definitely the busiest day I’ve had so far. Despite the fact that I’d prepared a bento (Japanese lunchbox) the night before, I still had to wake up early to make it to school because my lesson was three hours earlier. Two hours of tuition later and I had half an hour to sit and eat my lunch, which consisted of rice, sweetcorn, and a kabocha katsu from the supermarket, which is a kind of pumpkin croquette coated in panko breadcrumbs. We then got the subway into Hakata to go to Canal City for a kimono and calligraphy workshop.
I had never done calligraphy before, not even in my own language, so I listened carefully to all of the instructions which included how to sit, how to hold the brush and the order of the brush strokes. I can write quite a few kanji by now, but seeing as I taught myself, stroke order wasn’t really a high priority as long as it was legible. It was a whole other level to be writing under the watchful gaze of our instructor, although he very kindly corrected me if I made a mistake. Our kanji were transferred onto a T-shirt each and we got to take both that and our paper home with us.
After a quick drink of matcha, it was time to try on the kimono.
I remember being seven years old, and reading a Mickey Mouse book about Japan. Instantly I was captivated by the idea of Kodomo no Hi, a whole day celebrating children. But I loved the pictures of the kimono, and I’ve been desperate to wear one ever since. Sixteen years later and I got my wish, having someone dress me up in the countless layers and separate pieces. As soon as I saw myself in the mirror, I never wanted to take it off. I felt so ridiculously pretty it was unreal.
Unfortunately I had to stop wearing it eventually, and after a short informal photoshoot it was time to return the kimono. However, I was given a Polaroid to commemorate the occasion and I think I’ll treasure it for a very very long time.
There was definitely no rest for the wicked because almost straight after it was time to move on to Fukuoka’s Oktoberfest celebration for a healthy dose of cultural whiplash. There’s something quite surreal about going from kimono and calligraphy to beer and pretzels but I wasn’t complaining. And it was sat in that tent when I realised just how much my Japanese had improved. My new year’s resolution for 2016 was to talk in Japanese with a native speaker, and even though I still haven’t had a discussion where I knew every single one of the words, I’ve been able to string together enough of a coherent conversation. I think it also helps that my language skills seem better after a beer.
I also had to contend with one of my biggest obstacles that night: the dreaded squat toilet. For the last two weeks I’ve avoided them like the plague but I knew it couldn’t last forever. And if there’s anything worse than a squat toilet, it’s a Porta Potty squat toilet. None of the event’s toilets were Western style and I may have been extremely reluctant but my body’s needs far outweighed my dignity’s so I had to swallow my pride. Sorry, too much information, I know… but I’d rather not sugarcoat things.
On Saturday I’d volunteered to help out at a Halloween Party for young children, to gain some practical experience of an English school environment. The two hours seemed to go by ridiculously quickly, playing games, singing, and face painting. Saturday was also the first time I’ve ever been called Jennifer-sensei and just hearing that honorific made me feel all warm inside.
All of the adults had a meal together afterwards and I stayed for about six hours, just eating and chatting and having fun. Towards the end of the evening, the hosts offered me some sake. Known in Japan as nihonshu (lit. Japanese liquor) because sake is a general term for all alcohol, it’s a relatively strong wine made from rice. I had never drank nihonshu before and I tend to stay away from alcohol with an ABV over 5%, but seeing as I’ve wanted to try it for a while and I didn’t want to be rude, I accepted. It was sweeter than expected and not entirely dissimilar to Western wine so I’d definitely drink it again. Next I need to try shouchu, which is another Japanese alcoholic beverage. It’s more popular than sake in Kyushu, because of its historical ties with Kagoshima: two and a half hours’ ride away from Fukuoka on the shinkansen (bullet train).
It’s weird to think that I’ve been here for two weeks already, because it almost feels like no time has passed at all. Half of my stay is already over and if the next half goes as quickly, I don’t think that it’ll feel like it’s enough. Regardless, I think I’ll be very thankful to see my family soon.
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