Today was a travel day. We left the New Otani Hotel by chartered bus at 11:30AM and arrived at the Haneda Airport about an hour later. We flew south from Tokyo to Kumamoto in a huge Boeing 777. I mention the plane because it had something I had never seen before: a live feed from two cameras. One camera was under the plane and the other was a view from the cockpit. So when we taxied out, took off, approached the next airport, and landed, we could see on the flat panel displays all around the plane exactly what was in front of us and below us. Landing looked like we were playing a video game as we approached the runway.
The terrain as we approached Kumamoto by air was astounding. I didn't have my camera or I would certainly have shot pictures of it. The jagged, plantless mountainous areas on my left side really looked like the product of volcanic activity. Their eroded starkness made them very dramatic and beautiful.
Once we landed, we took another chartered bus to the hotel in Fukuoko. We passed by the rice fields. I will upload some pictures later. A small red machine was driving through one area harvesting the rice. As I had only seen pictures of rice fields (and those were mostly Vietnamese), they did not look as I imagined them. They are only flooded during the Spring. So these fields were very dry with a thick fabric of rice plants about knee high.
My room in Fukuoko is considerably smaller than what we enjoyed in Tokyo, just a bit larger than enough space for the standard bed and desk area with a very small TV. The floor in the bathroom area is almost a foot higher than the main room--quite the step up. And my room is near a busy train track. Periodically I faintly hear the slight click-i-dy clack of a passing train. To be as close as I am, I surprised it makes so little sound. No train horns thank goodness.
And now the fun begins: dinner on our own deep inside an infinitely smaller (than Tokyo) Japanese town. We were the only non-Japanese in town, and trust me, we stood out like a sore thumb!
We were given a map of the area immediately around the hotel. There were several types of restaurants from which to pick: an Izakaya (like a bar that serves some food), Rahman (that served noodle dishes), western (that didn't sound too good), and sushi (which could vary wildly in price). The people in my little group (9 of us) chose Rahman.
We walked a few blocks, not much more than a half mile I would guess, before finding the restaurant. Were it not for the map, I would have never known this was a restaurant. Inside was an amazing, deeply pervasive, acidic smell. Immediately, several people left the tiny restaurant saying that they couldn't eat in a place that had such a strong smell. However, a few moments later they had gathered their courage and returned.
We took up 2 tables, which, not considering a bar that wrapped around a large center pole with seats around it, accounted for about half of the restaurant. As is typical in Japan, the space was very small.
A young family was seated across from us. They seemed to enjoy posing for pictures by members of our group. Everyone in the restaurant was amused by us I'm sure. Including an older gentleman seated around the pole. He gently rocked back and forth with a big smile. It was obvious that he was trying to watch us in total amusement without appearing to be rude. He was indeed enjoying the "ordering spectacle."
Our group had two black ladies. The Japanese are not a multiethnic society. So, as I said earlier, we stood out. Everywhere we walked, people looked us over! In fact we were cautioned to always have our passports and JFMF identification tags with us in case we were stopped by the police.
Fortunately, one of the ladies at my table knows a little bit of Japanese. Since they had no picture menus, actually no menus at all, ordering would have been dreadfully challenging. Once I knew the egg was cooked, I ordered Rahman with a boiled egg. Our table also ordered something else, that was really very tasty, but I don't know what it was or how it was cooked.
My bowl of Rahmen arrive with a typical Japanese spoon in it. How ever was I to eat the noodles with this spoon? Not to worry, the table had a container of chopsticks--but noodles in soup are wet and slippery. I somehow managed to manipulate the chopsticks to eat the noodles and the whole boiled egg without creating an international incident.
Oh, one other important point: no napkins. Imagine trying to slurp in these long wet noodles. (Yes, it is customary and considered polite to slurp when eating in Japan, and I now know why! Doing otherwise is impossible!) Napkin required! One particularly difficult and long noodle did some amazing and bizarre squiggle dance thing before going into my mouth and splattered a drop of soup on my glasses. Thank goodness it was small!
After dinner, being the chocolate addict that I am, and having been in severe chocolate withdrawal now all this time, we walked across the street to a large shopping area that included a big store called You Me Store. Yes, the name was in English. It looked like a typical American store. At the entrance was a Starbucks, a donut shop named Mr. Donut, and a McDonalds, among other less known eateries.
We (3 of us at this point) split up. I also had a Diet Coke craving. They are impossible to find in Japan as the Japanese are so thin and prefer the regular Coke and Pepsi products which can be found everywhere. I went to the McDonalds.
As the young girl at the register saw me approaching, a look of horror came across her face until she located the giant picture menu which she plopped down in front of me with a big smile as she said something gesturing to the menu. I said "Diet Coke" and pointed to a picture of the Diet Coke logo on the sheet. She smiled and said in English, "Size?" I said, "Large." and the look of horror reappeared in her eyes. So I then gestured big,larger, and then montrous and said "Huge." She laughed and handed me what in the US would be a medium. The medium is large in Japan. The Japanese medium is the US small. The Japanese small is a tiny little cup we do not have in the US.
I was then off to the donut shop, where we were all meeting after the others got their Starbucks fix. Customers go down a line with a tray and pair of tongs and put the donuts they want on the tray. When I arrived at the cashier (there were 2 side by side) the young man said something in Japanese. I replied that I did not understand him. The young lady standing next to him ringing up another customer and he, without a word, just instantly switched positions as if someone had pressed a button.
Said said, "Eat in or out?" I told her I would be eating in, so she placed my donuts on a plate. She seemed pleasantly surprised that I understood their currency and paid with the correct amount. In fact, she had the look of an elementary school teacher who is very happy when her young student unexpectedly gets the right answer.
Words can not adequately express how good that chocolate donut (OK, OK, I confess to eating 2.) and "large" Diet Coke were!
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