After spending four days in Tokyo, we took a Bullet Train to the southwest part of Japan: Fukuoka. In under six hours, we covered a thousand kilometers. Fukuoka was a serendipitous addition to our itinerary because we had originally planned to watch a sumo wrestling match in Tokyo or in a town nearby. Due to our schedule, in order to catch a live match in November, we would have to travel to the other side of the country, Fukuoka.
So what’s there to see in Fukuoka in November? From the Wikitravel, we learned that Fukuoka practically borders South Korea and that it has a melting pot feel to it; there’s a red light district and a unique street food scene characterized by the Yatai. A Yatai is an outside food stall that looks like a cozy cabin; on the street, they dot the sidewalks like mini greenhouses. Popular dishes include Hakata Ramen Noodles, fresh dumplings, spicy cod fish and sake.
After we checked into our Airbnb, a few steps into our walking tour late in the evening, we passed a crowd of Japanese people being boisterous – a contrast to Tokyo where I’m usually the loudest. The person who we purchased laundry detergent from at the 7-11 was from Nepal and spoke some English; that was as much contact that we’ve had with the west in a minute! My mission for that night was one thing only: To have Hakata Ramen noodles at a Yatai. And sake! Yes, alcohol. Whenever I travel inside a train or bus, the feeling I’m left with is always: I could use a drink. Sure the Bullet Train was comfortable but after three hours, my ass can’t tell the difference between a narrow bicycle seat and a big comfy couch so half way through the ride, I let out a loud sigh. This made the passenger next to me laugh.
These Yatais have a plastic curtain over them which are surprisingly effective with keeping the heat in. Through the small plastic square windows, you can see whether or not there are any seats left. The first few Yatais we passed had no seats. Then finally, as my level of hunger went from peckish to enough already, I poked my head in a Yatai and saw space for two. The chef was doing his thing, chatting and entertaining the five or six Japanese men in grey and black business suits, half of them drunk. I had no idea what he served and I didn’t care. I was suddenly transported to a scene in Kill Bill, Volume 1, just moments before Lucy Liu chopped that guy’s head off. I wanted to be a part of that scene!
James, let’s go in! But there’s no room, he said. Yes there is, c’mon.
I pulled the heavy curtain over my husband and he squeezed himself between two men. I squeezed in between two other men and sat diagonally across from him.
The man next to James had a medium glass overflowing with sake and he pointed to it with approval.
“Konbawa,” I said with conviction to the chef.” “Simmimasen, sake ni, kudasai!”
Translation: Good evening. Excuse me, sake for two please!
It worked because I enunciated my Japanese with enough zeal to cover my chagrin. It worked because I learned the polite way to ask for things. It worked because we got sake.
My medium glass was filled to the brim with alcohol, and much more was left inside the box where it was placed in. I probably had a quarter of a bottle, I was very happy.
Food time! This Yatai specialized in serving farm animal organs which I’m NOT a fan of. Perhaps it’s the menudo and blended liver soup that I was force fed growing up… I live by the motto of, “I’ll try anything once,” but I’ve made an exception with animal organs. What’s that, chicken liver you say? Gizzard? Just the sound of it spooks my taste buds so I’ll pass. But we ordered grilled chicken intestines. We shared. I then ordered a marinated boiled egg, or tamago, to help me down the sake and chicken intestines.
The guy next to me began to ask me questions in Japanese. I froze like the deer in headlights and felt completely off guard. Why, Jane? I had studied the Rosetta Stone for a month, did the free podcasts, listened to the same Japanese song for weeks while on the treadmill, took notes and read blogs and yet, none of it was helping me at the moment.
Then I heard “douku”.
I replied, “California des!”
He nodded and passed on to the crowd that I’m from California.
He proceeded to talk and I proceeded to down my sake. I heard “nin” and “Nihon” so I figured that he was asking me, how long do I plan to stay in Japan?
“San weeks,” I said in Japanese and English. Three weeks.
He understood. He pointed to James and I heard, “Something, something, anata wa, something.”
I took a sip of my warm sake and digested “anata wa” + James. He wants to know who I’m traveling with!
I dabbed my lips and felt the sake warm my stomach, and my heart. Oh, I knew that one because I practiced it for that very occasion!
“Otto des,” I said.
Translation: He’s my husband.
And to myself, I thought, it sounds good in English and in Japanese. I tried to remember the words for “honeymoon” but it was his turn to talk, so I listened.
Our evening began with us walking into another huge city in Japan and within moments, our world shrunk as we were transported to this cozy and smoky cabin. The crowd of businessmen talked, they laughed, they ate and drank. It was the loudest scene I’ve been in since I landed in Japan and I loved it. Even though I had very little idea of what they were talking about, it felt great to just be there, observing, with James, my husband who was enjoying the scene, too.
All those weeks of studying Japanese had paid off in small increments. For the rest of the night I practiced saying “totemo oishi” which means “very delicious.” Meaning, the sake is very delicious. I probably didn’t get as much mileage for the amount of time I’ve put into studying but whenever I understood even one word, and whenever someone understood me – effectively communicating with me – it stroked my ego immensely. Best of all, I can tell that they appreciated me for trying.