Just one of our small travelling group has never been to Japan before. As we arrived in Osaka – big city – travelled to Kobe – big city – then to Kyoto – big city, she was beginning to question if the Japan of the travel brochures really existed. Japan does feel incredibly built up and industrialised all around the edges, and even hurtling through the wider countryside on their incredibly efficient train system, you don’t see many areas of wilderness, trees, open space.
On our second day in Fukuoka, we escaped the big city and headed for the hills. Chris lives and works here, and he and his family live on the outskirts, close to the University where he now teaches. He’s originally from Rotherham, an Aston lad, and he took us away from the city and up into the hills that back all the coastal areas. What a transformation. Bobbie finally found her ‘real Japan’.
Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall, set on a hill overlooking the flat plains, with a view of the sea in the distance. We had passed through fields of rice, through smallholdings being worked by one or two, mainly elderly, Japanese people, often working by hand or with small tractors and machinery. Our discussions ranged from the drift of the young to the cities, the need to import large amounts of basic food, such as rice, and the natural threats from earthquakes, typhoons and active volcanoes. Chris has experienced them all, and his University is actively working to stay viable, attracting students from all across Asia. Several universities have closed due to the lack of students.
It’s cooler in the hills, very welcome after the sticky heat of the city. Another conversation topic, as usually by now the temperatures are cooler, but this has been a long, hot, humid summer in Japan.
We’d done ‘fishing for your tea’ the night before and now it seemed that there was a new food-orientated game up in the hills. Catch your noodles with chopsticks…!
I’m used to being tricked by these 2 old friends in Japan, and I’m still not entirely sure Chris was telling the truth, but apparently you buy your noodles, then release them into the running water in the bamboo trough, and attempt to catch them with your chopsticks before they reach the end. Honestly!
Our second cultural stop was to an ancient shrine hidden away towards the top of the mountain. From the outside it looked small but it stretched away, both up and down, over acres of beautiful forest and streams. Originally the mountain had hundreds of shrines, but slowly they have died away, until now they are consolidated in this one beautiful space.
As it is still a working shrine, the monk on duty gave us a tour of the innermost sacred area, complete with incense, chanting, drums and sound bowls, explaining the history and religious significance of the 1000 year old carvings. He was even considerate enough to provide little chairs, although Chris, recognised as being ‘sort-of’ Japanese, had to sit on the tatami floor. It was a stunningly beautiful, calm, and serene place and will stay long in the memory when we leave.
After that it was back to the city, for food with Chris and his family, and more discussions about what life is like in Japan, especially for children. As we wandered along a fairly busy road, three small kids were heading home from school, backpacks, caps, uniforms, play fighting as they went. They were about 4 to 6 years old, and not an adult in sight. Kids in Japan regularly walk themselves to school, take the train or the bus, from a very young age, with no adult supervision at all, and it is seen as normal. Huge contrast to the UK!
Both Chris’ boys are well into the rugby, enjoying the rough and tumble of it, even if throwing the ball around indoors is banned! I got into trouble for that one.
Hopefully the schools will start to follow this interest more after the World Cup, as most of the sports we saw being played on school fields this weekend were baseball and football, for boys and girls. Growing the game here still may be a challenge despite the interest raised by the tournament.
Next stop, Oita, and the chance to see Conor Keys against the All Blacks!