I may have been going home, but my final week in Japan started off with a bang.
After buying my ticket for the Sailor Moon musical the week before, the day of the show arrived, altogether too slowly and too quickly at the same time. I donned my Sailor Moon shirt and hat and left for Canal City, all too ready for the excitement to begin. As I said in my last post, this was a combination of two of my favourite things so why wouldn’t I be?
I cried at the end of Act I, because just seeing all ten Sailor Senshi together on stage made me really emotional. It felt really familiar, not only because I grew up watching the original series, but because this was the story arc I was watching when I’d began to plan this trip. I always feel at home at the theatre, whether it be on stage or off, and it’s nice to know that it’s the same no matter which country I’m in.
The characterisation was perfect from Minako’s need for attention, to Makoto’s mature attitude. Hawk’s Eye, Tiger’s Eye and Fish Eye had an audience participation segment at the end of the interval, which just showed off the actors’ skills. The details were great too, with the costuming and set departments working to translate from screen to stage as closely as physically possible (extra points for including the Amazon Bar, as well as Tiger’s Eye’s fantastically 90s hair). Because the Amazon Trio are part of the Dead Moon Circus, whose aim is to capture Pegasus, this gave the opportunity for an acrobatics section which looked absolutely amazing. Plus, watching Usagi fail at the circus audition was hilarious. The use of contemporary dance to show how trapped Helios felt in his Pegasus form worked really well, even if contemporary is one of my least favourite styles. Also, the Outer Senshi got their time to shine, especially Uranus and Neptune. There were small moments which really showed their love for each other, like Haruka checking to see if Michiru was alright before caring about herself. When their actors came on stage for the finale, they hugged, and they were holding hands when they came back for the encore (something that not even Mamoru and Usagi did). Toei Animation… where’s my spin-off of HaruMichi raising Hotaru as their adopted daughter?
I have never been so attracted to Mamoru Chiba in my entire life, but maybe there’s just something about a girl who wears suits and leather and can also sing and dance…
One thing I’d noticed in Japan is how even an extrovert who likes socialising can hit a limit of how many people they can meet. I’m a bit of a weird combination, extroverted in the sense that I like going out with friends and spending time with others but also painfully shy. It takes a while for me to warm up to new people but once I have, there’s no getting rid of me. The first few weeks had definitely taken being social to the next level and it took until the end of week 3 for me to finally admit to myself that I was exhausted. When speaking in your native language, there’s a lot of talking that flies under the radar because it’s subconscious and feels natural. But in an environment where you’re learning a language and have to use it most of the time, there’s a lot more thinking involved. Even little things, like being asked if you want a bag at the supermarket, start to take up mental energy.
Immersive learning may be very effective, but it isn’t easy.
Monday was a quiet day, because I had a headache and some things I had to do back at the dorm. However, I knew I needed to compensate for that on Tuesday, so I woke up early so I could walk to Fukuoka Tower. I’ve been to the area a few times now, but I’d never actually gone up the tower itself. I’d been trying to wait for a good sunset but given my timetable and the fact that time was running out, I decided to just go for it. The viewing floor is 123m up, overlooking Fukuoka City, Hakata Bay, and the surrounding islands. It’s currently Japan’s tallest sightseeing tower outside of Tokyo, only being beaten by Tokyo Tower and the Skytree. And, if you’re a foreigner, you get a discount on the price of your ticket.
I was looking over the city I’d been living in for the past three weeks, and it was in that moment when I realised just how much it had affected me. Twenty two days is far from a long time, and it passed really quickly, but I survived that time living in a foreign country by myself with a language and culture barrier to contend with. And that’s a pretty big deal.
The next floor down is a café and the floor under that is dedicated to the Lovers Sanctuary, where the windows are lined with hundreds of heart lockets with messages written on them. You can add your own for an extra fee.
Next, it was down and out to the Yafuoku! Dome to be an even bigger tourist. While sumo wrestling is the national sport, baseball is the most popular sport in Japan and this stadium on Fukuoka’s coastline is home to the SoftBank Hawks. It’s very difficult to avoid Hawks posters and flyers in the city, because they’re literally everywhere, and they’re so popular that they have a Hilton hotel and an area of Tojinmachi named after them. Even if I’m not a sports fan by any stretch of the imagination, it made sense to pay the Dome a visit. On the way, I stumbled upon an elementary school trip, where all the kids seemed very excited to see me and called out ‘hello’ in English, with a couple of them laughing at my monkey bag.
After class on Tuesday, I finally got round to eating at Coco Ichibanya. A curry franchise, cited as food and travel vloggers Simon and Martina’s favourite restaurant chain in Japan, I was desperate to go… because I like curry (a lot). And it was good; I surprised myself by not completely hating the pickles that are provided as an extra topping. If you arrive by yourself and don’t want to just sit and eat, they’ve got you covered with shelves full of manga for you to read, and my local Coco had several copies of Bleach and Naruto.
Wednesday morning, it was back to Ohori Koen and the surrounding area, because I’d already decided that I wanted to visit Fukuoka Castle in my last week. While not everything remains intact, you can walk around the grounds and learn more about its history. I already knew that Fukuoka and Hakata used to be separate places, but I hadn’t known that there was such a divide between the merchant town of Hakata and the samurai town of Fukuoka. The construction of the castle began in 1601 after the first lord of the Chikuzen Fukuoka clan decided he needed a bigger one, and it was once one of Japan’s largest at 410,000m.
I was taken to a lot of museums, castles, and national parks as a child (more recently as well), and visiting things like those is something I still enjoy. It did feel very weird to be walking round the castle alone, and I definitely thought “I wish my parents could see this”. The top of the ruins provides a panoramic view of the city, from Hakata Bay to the Sefuri Mountains, so if you don’t want to pay the entrance fee for Fukuoka Tower, there are still places where you can see all of Fukuoka for free. Nearby is the Korokan Ruins Museum, which houses a preserved reception hall, a restored accommodation chamber, and relics from as far back as the seventh century. By the door, you can get a stamp as a souvenir of your visit.
After class, I decided that I should go back to the cinema, this time to watch the new Death Note movie. So far I’ve seen everything, and I’ve collected all the manga, all the anime, and all the live action DVDs. Seven years ago, my first cosplay character was Misa Amane – cliché, I know – and last year I revisited and improved it. One of my favourite series from my hardcore otaku phase in high school, I knew I needed to see it. When buying my ticket, the transaction went so much smoother than the first time, knowing what I needed to say and speaking as clearly as I could. It’s amazing how much difference a week’s worth of intensive Japanese tuition can make. I was worried that the film wouldn’t feel like Death Note, seeing as it was set after Light’s era as ‘the god of the new world’. But thankfully, it just felt like the same old series I used to know, possibly helped by a few familiar faces among the new cast.
Thursday was a national holiday in Japan, as it was Bunka no Hi (or Culture Day). Celebrated on the 3rd of November every year, it’s a time to appreciate arts and culture as well as education. We acknowledged this holiday by attending the Bara Matsuri at Fukuoka’s Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Bara, or rose in English, is a flower who’s meaning changes with each colour and this is the same in both Hanakotoba and the Western language of flowers. What doesn’t stay the same is the meaning of each colour. Whereas in Western culture, the yellow rose signifies friendship, in Hanakotoba it means jealousy. In Japanese culture, a pink rose shows trust and happiness, but go west and it means grace. Although, regardless of where you are, a red rose is a universal symbol for romance.
So many flowers where in bloom and it was a dry and sunny day, so I got to fully appreciate them. It was less of a festival and more of a casual meander through the gardens so there was very little pressure to do things. It was just a nice chilled out afternoon with some friendly company. We also walked around the zoo part of the park, which is home to both foreign and domestic animals. The ones I wanted to see the most were the macaque monkeys, which are native to Japan. They had a slide, a playground spring rider – and funnily enough – monkey bars in their enclosure, and watching the babies play around was probably the cutest thing I’ve seen all month.
I’ve been planning on visiting the City Museum ever since I got to Fukuoka, but with everything else going on, I hadn’t been able to. So on Friday, with two days to go, I decided it was time. It was really interesting to learn more about the city I’ve lived in for the past month, especially its role as place where cultures could meet. Because it’s so close to the mainland, Kyushu is Japan’s gateway to the rest of the world. From Korea’s introduction of rice farming circa 300BC, to the Dutch coming to Dejima and Nagasaki during the sakoku period, the island’s historical importance is huge.
It was then time to go to my final Japanese lesson, the first half an hour of which was a long discussion covering what I’d studied in the last month, all spoken in Japanese. In that moment I truly realised that I’d achieved my goal for this year, and while I still have a lot to learn, I’ve managed to do what I barely thought possible. When I was younger, I was too shy to order in Spanish on holiday. Now, I’ve been to Japan and used the language on a daily basis until I can actually hold a decent conversation.
I’ve said goodbye to my newly made friends, and I’ve said goodbye to my teachers, which was more emotional than I thought it would be. To distract myself from feeling sad, I went to Hakata for one last look around, and then back to the local Ichiran for some ramen. Now a global brand, Ichiran was founded in Fukuoka back in 1960, and specialises in tonkotsu ramen (pork bone broth) with their secret recipe red sauce. I’d had Hakata Ramen earlier on in my stay, but it kind of felt like blasphemy if I’d been here a month and hadn’t tried one of the city’s most international exports.
The set up is simple once you’ve figured it out, and I ended up watching the person ahead of me to find out what to do. You choose your ramen at the vending machine by the door then it issues you a ticket. You then sit down at a booth and a member of staff takes your ticket, giving you a form to fill in with your taste preferences. You can choose how firm you want your noodles, whether you want onions and/or meat, how strong a flavour you want, how oily you want your broth, how much red sauce you want and if you want any side dishes. Definitely a lot of choices for a menu that only has one item on it and it can be intimidating. Thankfully I was given an English form, and it gives you their recommendation for the standard Ichiran experience. I followed those options because I didn’t want to play around with the ramen formula too much. It was absolutely delicious and I’m definitely glad I waited until my last few days because I would have blown all my money on noodles (worse things to get addicted to, I know).
My last day was spent with a perfect fusion of old and new Japanese culture. We attended a show, which had traditional music and dance and a display of kimono. This was held at Sumiyoshi Jinja, a shrine that’s dedicated to safe travel at sea. One of the buildings has a wooden stage that was surrounded by tatami and small cushions for the audience to sit on. It was a perfect setting for something quite so beautiful, and all of the dancers were unbelievably graceful including the young girl who held her own among the adults. There was then a demonstration of Shinto wedding clothes, from the white robe to the wataboshi, the hood which is worn by the bride. A short break later and the fashion show began, taking the kimono and innovating it, turning it into something modern. A contemporary take on old Japan, the clothes showed both sides of the country’s culture. Despite there being such a contrast between the two, it doesn’t seem like there’s much conflict between them and for the most part they exist harmoniously together. And you could see that in the designs perfectly.
Afterwards it was time to head to an izakaya for one last send off, then back to the dormitory to finish packing.
By the time this blog has been published, I will be back home in England. I knew at the start of this journey that a month would go by quickly, but I didn’t understand just how quickly until now. I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I could in this short amount of time and if my trip to Japan has taught me anything, it’s that I’m capable of so much more than I think. I’m a changed person: more confident, more open to change, and not afraid to push myself that little bit more.
For more about my trip, click here.