One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Snickers bar

I forgot to mention last night that I saw a middle-aged man in traditional Buddhist pilgrim's dress, with a big straw farmer's hat, walking down the street near my ryokan. He looked tired and bedraggled. I wonder where he's going, and where he's been.

The customs search yesterday must have taken more out of me than I realized, because it was hard to get up this morning, and not just because my futon was on the floor. I woke up too late to use the bath, but I had a shower of sorts in the communal men's bathroom. I sat on this little plastic stool at the end of a row of low showerheads and shaved, washed my hair, etc., while holding the removeable showerhead in one hand. This morning was my first time wearing the Japanese robe and belt, to and from the bathroom, and I think I pulled it off okay -- I tied the belt just like the karate belts I used to wear as a kid. I was very happy that I remembered how to do it.

I went out at midday to take care of some business at Hakata Station. I exchanged my rail pass voucher for the real thing, and a girl at the information desk taught me how to use it. If you don't care about having an assigned seat, you can just show the pass as you get on the train. She also gave me a timetable. I think there must be 20 trains going from Fukuoka to Hiroshima tomorrow, starting at 6:30 a.m. I'll wait until rush hour is over and take one at 10:00 a.m. or so. The trip is only an hour and fifteen minutes.

It was enjoyable just to wander around Hakata Station, looking at the people and all the shops, restaurants, and kiosks serving various purposes. There were many business-type people of all ages, rushing around in severe black suits and white shirts, but also a number of young people with clothes, haircuts, and accessories that didn't conform to this profile -- colourful, fun, and stylish to the point of being outlandish. There are at least a couple of fish markets right inside the station, and many places to buy cold boxed lunches. I walked over to the Hotel Centraza, because I knew they had an ATM there that would accept international cards, and I needed some more cash.

After taking care of all that business, and finding my way out from the depths of the station, I found a yakatori restaurant where I could get an affordable meal. A kindly employee showed me how to feed bills into a machine at the front of the restaurant and then press a button with a picture of the meal that I wanted, from about 40 options. I chose pork strips with salad, for 680 yen. The machine dispensed my change from a 1000 yen bill, and the kindly woman showed me to a table, where there was a pitcher of cold, unsweetened iced tea waiting. The food arrived quickly, and I think I'll go back and have the same thing again, because it was simple and good. I managed pretty well with the chopsticks.

As I ate, I leafed through Fukuoka Now, an English-language monthly magazine. The articles were not as interesting as the advertisements and the personals. An ad for a capsule hotel in the area stated, apologetically, that no one with a tattoo could be accepted as a guest. Another ad, from Kyushi Electric Power Company, showed a grinning mother and daughter in a spotless kitchen and asked, "Shouldn't you too be considering an all-electric home?" In the personals, a New Zealander expat asked if anyone wanted to share his enthusiasm for unicycling: "I got some extreme unicycling tricks I can share with you if ya interested. Also dead keen on BMX!" A Japanese girl was looking for people to skateboard with, and another girl was looking for someone to tango with. A number of people, both Japanese and foreign, were looking for language partners. Unsurprisingly, a number of Western men were looking for Japanese girlfriends. A dear, sweet Japanese girl was looking for a high-quality Western man for her lonely and single mother. A 31-year-old Japanese woman was looking for a man who shares her love for the music of Avril Lavigne.

It seems to me, based on 24 hours of experience, that the Japanese have elevated the labelling of objects -- items for sale, maps, kiosks, fire hydrants, etc. -- into an art. Everything has a label on it, clear and perfect, often tilted slightly for optimal viewing. Everything is explained. Of course, this doesn't apply to the streets, which are as mysterious and difficult as everything else is simple and easy.

I went into 7-11 to buy a Snickers bar and a bottle of water earlier, and was intrigued by all the thick comic books for sale. These were explicit manga comics, with images and storylines that we would definitely call "mature." Some of them even had a label in English on the front proclaiming, "Men's comic." Anyway, I wanted to say that no chocolate bar purchase in my life has involved so much bowing as this one did. I like the bowing a lot. It's fun, it's more hygienic than shaking hands, and it makes me feel connected -- even if it's in a rather superficial way -- to traditional Japanese culture.

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