I’ve now been working fully online for over a year. Obviously the circumstances are not ideal, but I have enjoyed the freedom of working from home. Now that I’m pretty comfortable with it (and have a steady enough income) I started thinking about how I can use this remote working situation to my advantage. Initially, I thought I’d go spend a month or so living somewhere else in Japan. However, after contemplating the various potential problems (mostly wifi related) I decided to just take a week off and go on a vacation instead.
Of course the first consideration when planning a pandemic vacation is the current “situation”. Japan, like many countries, has been in and out of real and quasi states of emergency since last year. At the time of my planning we were actually in one, and I aimed to time my vacation for once it ended, when it seemed both safe for me and more importantly for the people living at my destination.
Once I overcame the mental hurdles, I quickly realized I was out of practice in traveling. I honestly can’t believe I lived in this constant “travel planning” phase for nearly a year. Just picking an accommodation, let alone a route, was exhausting. Not to mention the added constant question: “Does this location/timing/transport/restaurant/activity make sense given COVID?”
After much deliberation, I landed on three cities in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu: Fukuoka, Kumamoto, and Nagasaki. After a cancelled and rescheduled flight, and briefly extended and then lifted state of emergency, I was off!
Fukuoka is Japan’s 6th largest city, with about 1.5 million people. I love visiting big cities so I was naturally interested in this one, plus it’s sandwiched between the ocean and mountains, and it’s known as the birthplace of tonkatsu (pork) ramen so…no further convincing necessary.
From the minute my plane touched down I was confronted with a major difference between Kyushu and Tokyo – people in Kyushu are sooooo nice. Don’t get me wrong, people in Tokyo are polite, especially if you compare them to San Franciscans or New Yorkers. They’ll speak to you with the highest level of formality and bow and all that, but unless you seek out help no one is going to help you. And if you do ask they’ll probably shyly (but politely) tell you they’re sorry but they don’t speak English. In Tokyo you don’t stand out as a foreigner so you are generally left to your own devices and nobody bothers (or bothers to help) you.
So you can image my surprise when, while walking off the plane in Fukuoka, another passenger made direct eye contact with me and asked me, in perfect English, “Where are you from?” “Um, the US,” I said. “Cool, I lived in New York once.” “Oh… nice.” And then I awkwardly walked away and into the bathroom. While in the bathroom I reflected on the fact that I was kind of rude to this man. I think it was a mixture of not wanting to talk to someone in an airport (COVID) and genuine surprise that a complete stranger would speak to me in Japan. I vowed to change my attitude.
Luckily, later that day I had a chance to redeem myself. I was minding my own business, sitting on a bench drinking a Starbucks Matcha Frappuccino (vacation day 1, ok!) when a young man parked his bicycle in an area too close to my bench to be an accident, looked directly at me and said, “Hello, may I ask where are you from?” Twice in a day, what is with this place? “Sure!” I responded, perhaps too enthusiastically. He sat down and we had a rather one sided conversation as his English wasn’t quite good enough to ask me any questions. But he enjoyed telling me everything he could possibly say in English (a few things twice), tried to give me some recommendations for my time in Fukuoka, and then rode off.
As I made my way around Fukuoka, I quickly came to learn one of the biggest advantages of pandemic travel – no crowds. Japan has been closed to international tourists for over a year, plus I timed this trip a couple of weeks before Golden Week, a week long national holiday and Japan’s busiest travel period. Nearly everywhere I went I was alone, with the exception of groups of uniformed students on school field trips (honestly, I don’t know when these kids are ever in class).
Normally, travel in Japan is a crowded venture, especially when you’re visiting tourist attractions, so it’s unusual to get much attention from staff. However, on this trip nearly every staff personally assisted me with everything – buying tickets at vending machines, filling out Japanese only forms with my contact information (COVID related?), understanding proper routes (in Japan there’s always a correct direction to walk), etc. My favorite was the old man who helped me use the vending machine to rent a bicycle at a park who, upon finding out I was from San Francisco, started naming everything about San Francisco he could think of: “Golden Gate Bridge!” “San Francisco Giants!” “Pier Thirty…umm…”. When I returned the bike 3 hours later he picked up right where he had left off, “Clam chowder!”
Kumamoto / Miyazaki
One of the reasons I chose Kyushu for this trip is I have a friend who lives there! I met her my first weekend living in Tokyo and we continued to stay in touch after she moved to Kyushu last year. We met in Kumamoto and rented a car to visit some of the beautiful nature spots around Kumamoto and Miyazaki. It was a nice change of pace for me to travel in Japan with a friend, not to mention a Japanese friend who can handle ALL the communication and sign reading!
Naturally, when Americans think of Nagasaki the first thought is that it was the second city bombed in World War II. However, I quickly learned that Nagasaki city has far more history to offer.
Before I left for my trip I told some of my students about it and one of them recommended I read the book Silence, by Shusaku Endo (you may have seen the Martin Scorsese film of the same name). It’s about the “Hidden Christians” in Nagasaki during the Edo Period (17th to 19th century). The Portuguese first brought Christianity to Japan in the 16th century and it was pretty popular. But it started to gain a little too much momentum for the Japanese emperor and near the end of the 16th century Japan banned missionaries from entering the country. In 1597, to further drive the point home, 26 Catholics, known as the 26 Martyrs of Japan, were brutally executed in Nagasaki.
Christianity as a religion was completely outlawed in the 17th century, many more were executed, and those continuing to practice were driven underground and forced to practice in secret, leading to the term “Hidden Christians.” Freedom of religion was finally restored after the Edo period ended in 1868. These days you can find monuments to the 26 Martyrs and many churches around Nagasaki city.
Around the same time period that Christians were going into hiding, Dejima was built. Literally translating to “Exit Island”, it was an artificial island built just off the mainland in Nagasaki connected by one small bridge. The general idea was to keep an eye on the Dutch employees from the Dutch East India company by making them all live and work in one place. At the time, Japan’s borders were closed to all foreigners and foreign trade with the sole exception of Nagasaki, which allowed Dutch and Chinese ships to trade (of course no religious items were allowed). Today, Dejima has been reconstructed to look as it did in the early 19th century and serves as a museum. I was really impressed with the amount and quality of information available, especially when it came to English!
Overall, planning and executing a vacation amid a pandemic was stressful. The emergency I had been waiting on to end in order to travel ended way too early, and case counts were already on the rise while I was on my trip. In fact, the current state of emergency was renewed (round 3!) in Tokyo on the day I returned. It was always on my mind when someone asked where I was visiting from as Tokyo can be a toxic word to smaller cities these days. Despite the immense kindness I was shown, I always felt a bit like a burden, but honestly I believe that was 99% in my head.
Nevertheless, I’m really glad I went. I loved feeling adventurous again (literally there is not one street left unexplored in my neighborhood). I was reminded of the many Japanese customs and oddities that I came to love on my first Japanese adventure that have recently been overshadowed by ineffective COVID counter-measures and inefficient vaccine rollouts. And upon returning home, I felt both refreshed and happy to be back in the comfort of my Tokyo shoebox.
Anyway, for those of you still following me, I hope you are all happy and healthy and enjoying the return to some semblance of normal! Also, I apologize for the ads you may now be seeing, I stopped paying for WordPress because one post a year just doesn’t make economic sense anymore!