As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting on this site very much. Unfortunately, that will not be changing in the near future. I have been occupied with work and other matters, and this blog has become a bit too much to handle. I don’t want to post filler material just to keep the updates coming, so I will try to add some larger articles when I have time, but I can’t make any promises.

Thank you for reading, and I hope that the current information on the site can still be used for reference purposes by Fukuoka/Kyushu visitors and residents alike.

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Unforgettable: Kyushu by Local Train

Traveling across the Shimabara Peninsula

Traveling across the Shimabara Peninsula

In the spring of 2012, I took a trip around the island of Kyushu by train. The route was a massive loop hugging the coasts of the island, and the journey lasted almost two weeks. My primary means of transport was local trains with an emphasis on small, local lines (without use of limited express services or Shinkansen), although I was forced to use a bus and a ferry one time each as well as a train pulled by a steam locomotive (which was classified as a limited express train).

Train travel is undoubtedly one of the most relaxing and enjoyable ways to get around, and slow travel on a rustic train while sipping a beer or chu-hi and gazing out at coastal and mountain scenery has become one of my favorite pastimes. Shinkansen and limited express services get you where you need to go in a hurry and offer top-level comfort; highway buses provide a cheaper alternative to local trains; and air travel via low-cost airlines offers an inexpensive and extremely fast way to get between major urban centers. But these focus on efficiency in one form or another — in terms of time and/or money — which is what most standard, non-commuter train lines were originally intended to achieve.

Today, using standard trains to travel long distances is considered (in Japan) to be slow, inefficient and tiring. Nevertheless, there is something truly appealing about the inefficient, old-fashioned feel of traditional train travel. Those of you who rarely leave the urban centers of Japan may not realize just how small and clunky countryside trains can be as they follow single tracks (not pairs) through century-old tunnels and brightly colored agricultural fields one moment and sway precariously along cliffside, coastal tracks the next. And because Japan is an extremely mountainous country, direct routes are often difficult and expensive to build, resulting in indirect paths that take more time when compared with expressways, high-speed rail routes and the like.

Yet all trains are, by design, efficient in many ways. Trains and rails combined actually form some of the largest machine assemblies in the world, and passengers are conveyed quite effectively within these integrated systems. Trains also offer a relatively smooth ride compared with sea, air and road-based travel, and they are able to achieve high travel speeds with Shinkansen and other high-speed rail at the upper end of this spectrum.

More importantly, rural trains in Japan have character. They have soul.

In Saga Prefecture

A one-car  train in Saga Prefecture operated by a sole driver

They are also more human than machine. During my 2012 trip, I experienced something along these lines while traveling in a single-car train through an  extremely rural part of Saga Prefecture. We were crawling along at about 40 km/h (25 mph) across green paddy fields and through perfectly round tunnels punched through numerous small hills, moving parallel to a one-lane country road. As we neared the next station (with only one or two lone houses in its vicinity), a couple of young students came into view on the adjacent road. One was pedaling her bike furiously while the other yelling from behind while trying to keep up on foot. Both were heading toward the station to catch the only train that would come in the next two hours — their only public transportation lifeline. Obviously, the children were not as fast as the train and thus unable to make it to the station on time, but the driver was a kind old man and knew that no other trains would be coming for a while, so he simply waited an extra minute or two (unthinkable on an urban line) as the girls scrambled to buy their tickets and, bowing in apology, scurried aboard the train. Rural train services feature this type of human touch in an otherwise mechanical and rigid transport system, and it is one of the reasons that riding on such trains is so enjoyable

Viewing different cities as well as rural and suburban landscapes from the train window is another rewarding aspect of slow trains. Kyushu in particular has a wide range of local cultures, climates and traditions, and the variations in scenery that can be seen during a train journey is stunning. Although many people from other parts of the country (especially the mass media) arbitrarily label Kyushu as a homogeneous and static region, in reality it is one of the most diverse and dynamic places in Japan. The island is quite large and has a lot to see  and experience — I have only scratched the surface during my three years of constant traveling here. It is a place that begs the tourist to adopt a more leisurely pace, to avoid mere sight-based tourism as when visiting Tokyo or Kyoto.

Cherry blossoms and steam from hot springs in Kannawa Onsen (Beppu)

Cherry blossoms and steam from hot springs in Kannawa Onsen (Beppu)

Then there is the matter of solo travel. Although many people find traveling alone to be daunting and lonesome at times (which it is), traveling by yourself helps you take time off from daily obligations to observe, experience and meditate on the world you live in, which in turn encourages you to ruminate on your own life and changes you as a person. Putting personal, work-related and other issues aside and simply immersing yourself in new worlds, watching the people in them, and even interacting with those people if you feel so compelled can be deeply rewarding, and the sense of independence experienced through solo travel is both exhilarating and liberating. Every trip I have made by myself has changed me in a significant way and sculpted me into the person I am now. Such experiences are priceless.

St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Hirado

St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Hirado

In 2012, my journey took me through all seven of Kyushu’s prefectures in the following order: Fukuoka (starting in Fukuoka City), Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Oita and then Fukuoka again. More specifically, I went out to Karatsu in Saga Prefecture, popped down to Imari, took the Matsuura Railway west  to Hirado and then into Sasebo, went from there to Nagasaki City and then continued out around the Shimabara Peninsula using the Shimabara Railway Line, and crossed to Kumomoto City by ferry after visiting Shimabara City. After that I took a steam locomotive to Yatsushiro, rode the Hisatsu Orange Railway to Sendai in Kagoshima Prefecture (stopping at Minamata along the way), and then continued on to Kagoshima City and did some sightseeing in the area, including visits to the famous Ibusuki hot spring sand baths, the mountain town of Chiran (famous for samurai-district gardens and its museum on World War II “kamikaze” pilots) and Nishi-Oyama Station (the southernmost station in mainland Japan). Next I cut through the mountains via Miyakonojo over to Miyazaki City, took a slight southern detour to Aoshima Beach, continued up along the coast all the way into Oita, visited the old castle town of Usuki and stayed in Kannawa Hot Springs in Beppu, then followed the coastline again up to Kitakyushu to visit the lovely Mojiko port area before catching a train on the Kagoshima Main Line back to Fukuoka. (I have provided a rough outline of the route below.)

Nearly every day was packed with inspiring discoveries and unforeseen happenings. Here are just a few that stick out in my mind today:

(1) Karatsu Castle: The view on a sunny day out over the Nijinomatsubara pine forest, neighboring sandy beach and serene townscape is positively soothing. Additionally, the owner of the nearby ramen shop I visited was originally from my neighborhood in Fukuoka.

(2) Meeting a generous man on the bus that crosses the bridge into Hirado Island: He spent the rest of the day showing me around his deeply historic and beautiful town, including its castle, churches and museums, and even arranged for a ride back to the station when I missed the last bus. We still keep in touch today and have met up in Fukuoka.

View from Karatsu Castle

View from Karatsu Castle

(3) Skirting around an infamous volcano on the Shimabara Peninsula on a teeny, rickety train while chatting with a kind old man I met on the platform (there were only two of us). He was nice enough to make sure that I found my hotel when I got off in Shimabara City, seeing as it was my first visit.

(4) Riding the SL Hitoyoshi, a train hauled by a restored steam locomotive.

(5) Traveling the entire length of the Hisatsu Orange Railway, from Kumamoto to Kagoshima Prefecture, while savoring one of the most delicious handmade ekiben I have ever eaten (sold at the small vegetable shop inside the waiting area of the terminal station). This railway also had the best track-side scenery of any line I rode on during my trip, especially on the sections that pass right along the shore of the Yatsushiro Sea with the Amakusa Islands visible in the distance.

The SL Hitoyoshi departs from Yatsushiro Station

The SL Hitoyoshi departing from Yatsushiro Station

(6) The compact yet impressive gardens at various samurai residences in Chiran that have been opened to the public, and the friendly locals who made it so easy to strike up numerous conversations. Also, the delicious green tea, something the area is famous for. And the French couple I met, who were in Japan for their honeymoon.

(7) From the city center of Kagoshima, hearing the nearby volcanic island of island of Sakurajima rumble and watching it spew columns of smoke and ash over the city (as the common saying goes, nobody in Kagoshima owns a white car).

(8) Visiting Aoshima Beach, one of my all-time favorite beaches, in Miyazaki and enjoying a long conversation over beers with a pair of visitors who happened to sit nearby.

Sakurajima showering the city with ash, as viewed from Kagoshima-chuo Station

The volcano island of Sakurajima beginning to shower the city with ash (viewed from Kagoshima-chuo Station)

(9) Discovering the town of Usuki, one of the most beautiful places in Kyushu that retains the feel of old Japan…and becoming hopelessly lost in its tangle of old-fashioned, narrow streets when trying to return to the station.

(10) Visiting Mojiko for the first time and learning that the industrial city of Kitakyushu has more to it than initially meets the eye.

Retro architecture, old and new (in Mojiko, Kitakyushu)

Retro architecture, old and new (Mojiko, Kitakyushu)

These are just a few of the journey’s highlights in terms of food, people and scenery. There were also a handful of mishaps, such as my poor choice of capsule hotel in Sasebo (filled with loud-snoring, drunken salarymen) and poor choice of guesthouse in Kagoshima (lots of bugs, peeling paint and no insulation).

To conclude, I will leave you with a suggestion, which you can choose to consider or ignore: Take a week or two and travel in this fashion around Kyushu or any other part of Japan that interests you. You can travel cheaply by planning your lodging places carefully (or by camping or staying in capsule hotels / manga cafes), and using only standard trains, buses and ferries. Look out the window, walk slowly, and spend a majority of your time trying good food and wandering aimlessly rather than following a strict sightseeing itinerary. Go by yourself, no matter how daunting a challenge it may seem. Do things you would normally shy away from — break out of your shell. If you follow this advice, I guarantee that you will have an unforgettable, life-changing experience.

Back in Hakata Station (Fukuoka City) at the end of my journey

Back in Hakata Station (Fukuoka City) at the end of my journey

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Hakata Hanami 2014: Cherry Blossoms in Fukuoka City

Cherry blossoms in Nishi Park, Fukuoka

Cherry blossoms in Nishi Park, Fukuoka

This year’s winter weather has been up and down, with a few unusually cold and warm patches. In Fukuoka, the first cherry blossoms are expected to appear as normal or slightly earlier than usual. In 2014, most flowers will open around March 19 and the best time for viewing the flowers in is predicted to be from March 25 to April 2 (subject to change depending on the weather — I will update these dates periodically based on the latest forecasts). The following is a list of popular spots for viewing cherry blossoms in Fukuoka City.

Atago Shrine

A hilltop shrine with a great view of Hakata Bay and the surrounding city.

  • Location: 15 min. walk from Muromi Station (Kuko Subway Line)
  • Approx. number of Cherry Trees: 2,000

Maizuru Park

A large park with lots of space for picnics, with the remains of Fukuoka Castle as a backdrop.

  • Location: 7-10 min. walk from Ohorikoen Station (Kuko Subway Line)
  • Approx. number of Cherry Trees: 1,000

Nishi Park

A hillside park, known as one of the top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan.

  • Location: 10-15 min. walk from Ohorikoen Station
  • Approx. number of Cherry Trees: 1,300

Uminonakamichi Seaside Park

Cycling, disc golf, and seaside strolls combine with beautiful cherry blossoms in this massive multipurpose park.

  • Location: Near Uminonakamichi Station. Transfer from the JR Kagoshima Main Line at Kashii Station, and take the JR Uminonakamichi Line to Uminonakamichi Station (park entrance and bicycle rentals just outside the station).
  • Approx. number of Cherry Trees: 2,000

Minami Park

Cherry blossoms and greenery tucked away in a quiet corner of town.

  • Location: 15 min. walk from Sakurazaka Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
  • Approx. number of Cherry Trees: 1,400

Nokonoshima Island Park

Gorgeous natural scenery on one of Hataka Bay’s nearby islands.

  • Location: 10-15 min. by bus from Tosenba-mae (渡船場) bus stop on Nokonoshima Island. From central Fukuoka, take the train/subway to Meinohama Station (Kuko Subway Line, JR Chikuhi Line), take bus 98 from Meinohama Station (north exit) to Noko Tosenba (能古渡船場) bus stop (15 min.), then take the ferry from the nearby terminal to Nokonoshima Island (10 min.). Buses on Nokonoshima Island are infrequent, so it may be faster to take a taxi to the park.
  • Approx. number of Cherry Trees: 300

Forest City Aburayama

The beautiful Mt. Aburayama provides laid-back hiking trails and amazing scenery (including an unparalleled view of the city and bay from the summit). The addition of cherry blossoms makes it even more stunning.

  • Location: Take bus #13 from Tenjin (急行 / kyuko express bus) bound for Hibaru Eigyosho, or bus #113 from Hakata Station (急行 / kyuko express bus) bound for Hibaru Eigyosho, and get off at Aburayama Danchi-guchi (油山団地口) bus stop (takes approx. 30 min. using either bus). From Aburayama Danchi-guchi, it’s about a 1 hour walk to Forest City Aburayama or a 15 min. taxi ride, but there are special buses that go up on weekends (buses don’t run late and they arrive about every 1.5 hours — bus schedules are provided in Japanese on Forest City Aburayama’s website).
  • Approx. number of Cherry Trees: 2,000
Note: “Approx. number of Cherry Trees” statistic taken from http://www.innovade.co.jp/en/seasons/04/hanami/fukuokashinai.html
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B-kyu Cuisine: Delicious Undercurrent in the Japanese Culinary World

HIroshima-style okonomiyaki

If you have been in Japan for some time or enjoy following Japanese cultural trends, chances are you have already heard the phrase B-kyu cuisine or B-kyu gourmet. It is often used in reference to cheap and tasty foods, but what exactly does the phrase B-kyu mean?

The English phrase “B movie” was imported into Japanese not literally as B-eiga, but using the more natural wording B-kyu eiga. Out of context, the term B-kyu (B級) roughly translates into English as “B-grade” or “B-level” — in other words, something that is sub-par in some way, like a B movie. This has led many writers and translators to mistakenly explain the phrase B-kyu gurume as “B-grade cuisine” or similar, which misses the point entirely. For example, this article written by a shockingly uninformed writer describes it as “B-grade food” and also as a fad (only true if you define “fad” as a trend that continues for decades) as part of her unimaginative “look at this wacky country!” approach to travel writing. Unfortunately for diners everywhere, this type of misinterpretation/distortion is common in the Western world when it comes to the topic of B-kyu cuisine.

In reality, B-kyu cuisine exists in pretty much every country around the world (under different names). It encompasses ramen, takoyaki, yakisoba, deep-fried foods and other selections enjoyed by the average Joe (average Tanaka?) in Japan. The food is inexpensive, savory, filling, sometimes greasy and always satisfying. B-kyu is meant to act as a counterbalance to high-class cuisine such as kaiseki — it opposes the snobbish gourmet culture dating back to the Bubble years in Japan and instead focuses on down-to-earth, affordable cuisine that everybody can enjoy. In some cases, B-kyu cuisine also lacks the history and sense of established tradition found in other types of locally rooted cuisines, instead representing something innovative and fresh. Culturally, eating B-kyu in Japan is equivalent to going to your favorite local burger joint, pizza shop, burrito restaurant or food truck in the United States.

Although similar in wording to B-kyu eiga (B movies), B-kyu cuisine does not imply a lack of quality. However, as with B movies, B-kyu in this case does allude to a certain cult quality as well as a surprisingly high level of satisfaction despite low prices. B-kyu food is rarely served at high-end hotels and wedding receptions, and a restaurant serving B-kyu dishes is not the kind of place you go to impress your date or celebrate a wedding anniversary. B-kyu does away with all the high dining costs that come from famous names, lavish food arrangements, stuffy traditions and upscale restaurant atmospheres, instead providing the hungry and tired masses with something scrumptious to enjoy together with a glass of beer after work or on the weekend.

Personally, I think that B-kyu cuisine is much more rewarding than what is offered at most high-end izakaya and restaurants. Because our money is a direct representation of the time we devote to working rather than doing what we really want to do, wasting money is the same as wasting time, and time is the most valuable resource that we have in this life. I find it much more satisfying to spend my hard-earned money on a big plate of fried kushikatsu skewers with friends, some of Fukuoka’s top-tier ramen, or perhaps an iron skillet full of crispy, garlicky gyoza dumplings topped with a thick layer of molten cheese, than to blow it on a few tiny morsels served on an expensive plate in a restaurant with good mood lighting. I don’t care much for restaurants where waiters wear bow ties and bottles of wine are sold for upwards of tens of thousands of yen, because I feel more at home in a boisterous, bare-bones establishment with wooden benches, cheap drinks and food that leaves my stomach feeling happy.

Give B-kyu a chance. You may be surprised at just how “A-level” it can be.

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Finding Fukuoka: Kindle Edition

Happy New Year! The Kindle Edition of Finding Fukuoka: A Travel and Dining Guide for the Fukuoka City Area is now available via Amazon sites around the world! That means it can be purchased on Amazon Japan, Amazon USA and elsewhere (just search for “Finding Fukuoka” on your country’s Amazon website). This e-book version can be viewed on Kindle devices as well as smartphones, iPads and other devices (after downloading the Kindle app). It can also be viewed on your PC using free Kindle software from Amazon. Furthermore, customers who bought the original paperback edition from Amazon can purchase the Kindle edition for just $2.99.

The paperback edition is also available in Japan via the Finding Fukuoka online store and direct from me on Amazon Marketplace.

Happy reading!

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Finding Fukuoka Released in Japan (New Online Store)

book covers

The Finding Fukuoka online store is officially online! This means that  Finding Fukuoka: A Travel and Dining Guide for the Fukuoka City Area is now available to customers in Japan. My first travel guide, Osaka Insider: A Travel Guide for Osaka Prefecture, is also available in the store, and both works can be purchased together as a set for a discounted price.

Furthermore, customers in Japan have the option of adding and author signature and/or a personalized message to the book(s) they order. For customers in Europe and the United States, both Finding Fukuoka and Osaka Insider are still available as usual on amazon. Click on the appropriate link in the “My Publications” of the sidebar on the right or else visit to online store for links to relevant pages on Amazon in your country.

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Finding Fukuoka Guidebook Released in the United States and Europe

Finding Fukuoka cover

My second guidebook, Finding Fukuoka: A Travel and Dining Guide for the Fukuoka City Area, is now available in the United States and Europe through Amazon.

Finding Fukuoka is the first definitive English-language guide to the city of Fukuoka, Kyushu’s gateway to the world. It is packed with sightseeing information for all of Fukuoka City as well as nearby Dazaifu, Mojiko, Yanagawa, Karatsu and Okawachiyama (Imari). Furthermore, the restaurant and bar sections include more than 170 hand-picked shops — see for yourself why Fukuoka is considered to be one of Japan’s top dining destinations! The addition of a ramen guide, sake guide, beach guide, event guide, local train line guide and plenty of general information to help you get oriented in Japan makes this book a helpful resource for both visitors and current residents alike.

In about a week, I will begin selling copies of the book in Japan (along with Osaka Insider) through a new online store on this website. Payment via Paypal, Japan Post Bank transfer (free of charge between postal accounts), regular bank transfer and cash on delivery (COD) will be possible, and buyers here in Japan will be able to choose from additional options including author signature and personalized messages. Furthermore, I am currently working on the Kindle edition, which will most likely be ready for worldwide release in December.

To purchase the print copy of Finding Fukuoka, please visit one of the following sites. For buyers in Japan, the book will available in just a short time on this site’s new online store. If you do purchase a copy through Amazon and are satisfied with your product, please feel free to rate it and review it on the lower part of the Amazon page 🙂

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