Return from Down Under, part 1 continued

Continued from Part 1

Early autumn colors.

Sunday November 16, 2014: Fukuoka Castle

On my 2013 trip, I never made it to a Japanese castle, despite being in reach of castles in Kyoto, Osaka, Iga-Ueno, Iwakuni and Hiroshima during the course of that trip. A lack of time and higher priority destinations killed that idea. So I was determined to visit a number of castle sites this time around. Today it was the remains of Fukuoka Castle.

As explained earlier in the travelogue, Fukuoka Castle and its surrounding area was named for the home town of its builder, Fukuoka in Okayama Prefecture (which is immediately east of Hiroshima Prefecture on Honshu). Since it was on the other side of town from Hakata Station and my hotel, it was back on the Subway to make my way there.

I had my choice of two stations to walk from, both equidistant from the site. Thus, I went with the nearer one to me, Akasuka. Then it was a just five minute walk to the entry to the castle grounds.


The entrance to Maizaru Park and the remains of the perimeter wall of Fukuoka Castle.

A Visitors’ Information sign in multiple languages highlighting the park’s sights.

The first thing you see on the castle grounds is the outer castle wall and the pathway into the grounds. A sign stands before it with information in multiple languages, including English, explaining that the park is popular with families for picnics and for cherry blossom viewing. It has a storied history of being a major sporting venue, as well as a significant historic site.

A sign showing how it Korokan is believed to have looked in its heyday.

The grounds surrounding Fukuoka Castle, known today as Maizaru Park, are home to several sporting facilities, including tennis, track and field, and rugby. For several decades, the area just past the perimeter wall was the site of Heiwadai Stadium, a 32,000-capacity arena primarily used for baseball. At separate times, it is home to two different Nippon Professional Baseball teams. In 1987, renovations of part of the stadium unearthed artifacts from Korokan, an ancient guest residence for foreign diplomats (from the 8th to the 12th century) from China.

Sometime after the stadium was no longer used for baseball, it was carefully demolished to allow an archeological excavation of the site. Today, the entire area is fenced off, and signs attached to the fence tell the story of Korokan, Fukuoka Castle, the key historical figures of the area, and the archeological excavation. An adjacent information center offers virtual tours of what the site would have looked like centuries ago via the use of a tablet computer. A museum on the far side of the excavation site from the castle’s perimeter wall houses another dig site.

Several signs explaining the history of the site of both Korokan and Heiwadai Stadium.
There were numerous other signs attached to the fence surrounding the archaeological dig site.

While I was walking past the excavation site toward the inner confines of the castle, I passed the athletics oval, which was also being used for American Football, and had players training at the time, as well as a rugby ground where a schoolboy-level game was underway. (Japan is considered a developing Rugby nation, and while it can’t compete with more powerful rugby sides like New Zealand and South Africa, it still competes in the Rugby World Cup.) The park also has a number of benches overlooking the athletics field, which is on a level below my path. I continued my way through the structure of the castle, heading to where the inner confines once stood.


The Athletics field in Maizaru Park.

A schoolboy Rugby match in progress.

While the park area had its share of trees bearing autumn colors, half or more of the trees there were sakura (cherry blossoms) and thus devoid of any foliage. It was nice to see some autumn leaves this early in the trip, but I think this park’s true time to shine is understandably the cherry blossom viewing season (spring).


Ruins in the inner castle area. These might have been the Keep’s foundation stones.

The view from the observation platform inside the main castle area.

Not a lot remains of Fukuoka Castle, and there has been no effort to restore it. This is in part likely due to the fact that they have no historical evidence to suggest that there was a central keep (giant castle tower) despite the extant foundations for such a structure. A lot of the platforms around the inner castle still exist, as do outer parts of the castle. But most of the outer walls still exist, as do some gates which are currently relocated to nearby temples, but reportedly may be returned to their original location.

Paddleboats adorn the lake in neighboring Ohori Park.

After leaving the castle grounds, I ventured to the adjacent Ohori Park, a large recreational park with a small lake and a bridged island. Since it was a busy Sunday with all sorts of events in the area, I decided to head back to Hakata. On the way back through the park, a warning sign caught my eye: there was an infestation of spiders in the area…. and not just any spiders. To me it looked like the distinctive stripe of the Australian Red-Back spider, which is more or less the American Black Widow spider (Hiroshi Ban pointed out to me on Facebook that it was a Black Widow). It wasn’t surprising, animals like this frequently migrate to other countries via shipping containers. Clearly that’s how these spiders arrived in Fukuoka.

After a finding the train line to Fukuoka Seaside Park, but learning that I’d have a substantial wait for the next one, combined with sore feet from two hours of walking (the weight I had put on since the last trip to Japan was really taking its toll), I opted to rest the remainder of the day.

Monday November 17, 2014: Kagoshima

Sakurajima looms in
the distance

Kagoshima, the southernmost major city on Kyushu (and thus mainland Japan) was on my short list due to its proximity to Sakurajima, an active volcano only 15 minutes away by ferry, and the lure of the famed Kagoshima Black Pig Tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet). In order to maximize my time there, I took an early Shinkansen from Hakata Station, and reached Kagoshima-Chuo Station less than 90 minutes later.

The weather was both cold and overcast, and intermittent showers weren’t helping things in terms of temperature. After finding a tourist map that had little to no English, I saw that I would have to either take a tram or another train to Kagoshima Station, which was on the opposite side of town, to get closer to the ferry to Sakurajima, so I took the next train. As I walked out of the small, antiquated station, I had a look around to get my bearings. Then, poking out of the clouds, was the caldera of Sakurajima. Yep, I thought the volcano was my next order of business for the day.

Volcanic ash covers the sidewalks.

As I made my way toward the ferry terminal, I noticed that the footpath around me was black. I initially thought it was asphalt, but on closer inspection, it was indeed concrete – covered in volcanic ash. I’d forgotten what my Japanese-born work colleague told me about the city; due to the constant spewing of volcanic ash from Sakurajima, the streets are almost always covered. I decided right there and then that (a) you wouldn’t want to be an asthmatic living here and (b) Kagoshima Street Sweeper would have to be one of the worst (albeit most secure) jobs on the planet.

I made my way to the Sakurajima ferry terminal, and found they left four times an hour. The fare arrangement was a little different: board here and pay at Sakurajima. I guess that way the money goes toward the upkeep of the island. The ferry is for vehicles as well as passengers, and you could see cars driving aboard from the complex access ramps used to service three docking ports. After getting some views of the ferry, I went to the cabin where I found a lot of service area for such a short trip. They had vending machines, a snack bar, coffee, soft ice-cream, and what looked to be a ramen restaurant. I settled for a can of cocoa from the vending machine (served hot, no less), and found a seat near the front of the ferry.


One of the Sakurajima ferries

Inside the ferry cabin.

Before I knew it, the ferry was already approaching the island. The trip is approximately fifteen minutes. Sakurajima was a rather foreboding sight, even with most of it obscured by cloud. I had a look around the terminal, where miniature models of the various ferries were on display. After that, I noticed that a tour loop bus would pick up and drop off at various points on the island. It was easiest to get the 500-yen day pass. I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t do the express tour and just ride it all the way back to the ferry terminal, since rain made it the most likely scenario. Plus, the day ticket was a unique thing I hadn’t come across – it had a scratch panel like an instant lottery, to scratch the month and date for the ticket’s validity.


A model of one of the Sakurajima Ferries.

The unique day ticket for the Sakurajima Tour Bus

After a short wait, I boarded the sightseeing bus, a minibus-sized vehicle which was ridiculously overcrowded with Japanese and foreign tourists, and off we went. The whole trip took about 45 minutes to an hour, including a 15-minute stop at the main observatory point which allowed photos of the caldera. Soon enough, we were off back down the mountain, and I was back on the ferry to Kagoshima.


The caldera of Sakurajima, from a distance…

… and close up!

The other thing I’d hoped to do while in Kagoshima was sample some kurobuta tonkatsu, deep-fried pork cutlet made from Kagoshima’s special Black Pig, which is the “wagyu beef” of pork in Japan. I’d consulted TripAdvisor for some restaurants in the city that served it, and of the three with highest ratings, only one was easy to reach. After a short ride back to Kagoshima-Chuo Station, I started heading for the day’s one opportunity for Tonkatsu. Alas, it was not to be. After 15 minutes’ searching for it on two loops around the block, I realized I had passed it on the first attempt – and it was closed! Dang. Seems restaurants closing on Mondays is universal.

On the ferry back from Sakurajima.

While on the topic of things universal, let’s talk about lowering one’s lunch sites…to McDonald’s. Planning for a fine kurobuta tonkatsu and having to settle for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese…. ugh. It would also mean breaking a plan not to resort to McDonald’s in Japan (I made it through my 2013 trip without nothing more than a Coke from there). I’ve now eaten McDonald’s in three countries (Australia, the USA and Japan), and I can say without a shadow of doubt that the food is consistent across the globe.

A stained-glass window of Sakurajima at Kagoshima-Chuo’s shinkansen station.

After lunch, I headed for the Shinkansen platform and boarded my train back to Hakata Station. By the time I got back, it was past 3:30pm, which meant there was very little daylight left (and to top it off, it was still raining). So I chose to go back to the hotel room and do some research for the next day.

Tuesday November 18, 2014: Kumamoto and Nagasaki

First order of business was to take my suitcase to the hotel concierge, to forward to my next hotel in Hiroshima. I used Kuroneko Yamato’s luggage-forwarding service many times on this trip, and I recommend it to anyone staying in more than one place. You can even forward it to your departure airport – cheap and quick – usually one or two days, and just keep an overnight bag with you.

From there, my destination was Kumamoto Castle, the first step in making up for seeing no castles in 2013. (Or the second if you count the Fukuoka Castle ruins two days earlier). I had thought about going to Reigan-do, the cave near Kumamoto where the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (namesake of the IJN Yamato’s sister ship) spent his last days, and died not long after completing his famous Book of Five Rings. However, after researching how to get there, it was clear that there was no quick way in or out, and it would take half a day to complete. So I settled for Kumamoto Castle before heading to Nagasaki.


A turret on the corner of Kumamoto Castle’s perimeter wall.

Kumamoto Castle’s keep from the lower side.

At Kumamoto Station, I hailed a taxi to take me to Kumamoto Castle. A few minutes and 1200 yen later, I was standing outside the gates to a most majestic-looking Japanese Castle. I had at best an hour before my planned return to Kumamoto Station to get going for Nagasaki. It was 8:30, which didn’t give me a lot of time. I needed to be out and back in an hour. I didn’t like my chances, meaning those tickets I’d booked before leaving would likely go to waste.


One of the castle’s underground tunnels.

Kumamoto Castle’s main structure (keep) from the front.

The Kumamoto Castle grounds are massive, and aside from the keep, there are the huge stone walls around the castle and its precincts, as well as the palace and other buildings to explore. Given my limited time, I started through the the walkway to the courtyard, where I was treated to a magnificent view. Of course, very few original buildings remain of any castle in Japan, so it came as no surprise that the main keep and the Lord’s Palace were both restorations. Still, that doesn’t change how incredible they look, since the utmost attention to detail has been taken.

Inside the keep is a treasure trove of the castle’s history and artifacts: armor, knives, swords, bows and arrows, rifles, and more. There are also two turrets to observe the surrounding area. The view from the low turret is pretty good, but the one from the main turret is spectacular. After a walk around the inner wall, I decided that if I wanted a reasonable amount of time in Nagasaki, I would need to cut this short.


The view from atop one of the Castle’s towers.

A scale model of Kumamoto Castle inside the main building.

Another taxi, another 1200 yen. At the station I got a ticket to Nagasaki and just made it to the Shinkansen platform. The trip would take about two hours, with a change at Shin-Tosu since Nagasaki itself is not serviced by the Shinkansen.


A ship model on the platform at Nagasaki Station.

Nagasaki Station promotes the city’s Christian history with stained-glass windows in the entryway to the station.

Arriving in Nagasaki, I was greeted by a large sailing ship model on the platform, and a much smaller station than I expected for this city. It was 12:50pm when I went through the ticket gate, noting the stained-glass windows which symbolizes Nagasaki’s Christian heritage. I had about four hours before heading to a nearby viewing spot to see Nagasaki at night, an oft-advertised must-see among Japan travel sites.

After an hour of walking around to find lunch, I had my first experience in a Japanese family restaurant (a very tasty sirloin steak) right next to the station. Then it was off to see what I could in the space of four hours. The Triposo app calculated a short course for me, which I figured I could do despite the hilly terrain and my woeful fitness, allowing time enough to immerse myself in the sights.


The Memorial to the 26 Martyrs of Japan.

The famed Meganebashi (Glasses Bridge).

The first stop, only a few hundred meters away from the station (many of them at a 45-degree angle) was Nishizaka Hill, the site of the Martyrdom of the 26 Martyrs of Japan. In February 1597, six European priests and 20 Japanese Christians were forced to walk from Kyoto and Osaka, where they were arrested for practicing Christianity, to Nagasaki, where they were publicly executed as a deterrant to Nagasaki’s large Christian population.

When I was there, the monument was undergoing restoration, but I managed to photograph it and the uniquely-designed church nearby before heading toward the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. After almost getting lost and following an elderly gentleman who seemed to be going in the same direction, we both arrived at the museum only to find it was closed. We parted ways, and I started off in the direction of Meganebashi, the “Glasses Bridge.”

It took about 20 minutes with my feet aching like crazy, but the site was worth the trip. The bridge is a fine example of Nagasaki’s western-inspired architecture. The day was getting on a bit, so it was time to head to the Dejima Trading Post.


One of Dejima’s restored buildings, used as a cafe.

A unique sculpture promoting goodwill between Japan and Portugal, for whose traders Dejima was originally built.

Dejima (literally “Exit Island”) is an artificial island built in Nagasaki by local merchants in the mid-17th Century to enable them to trade with foreign merchants without violating the isolationist sakoku policy of the era. This island was the only part of Japan that foreigners were allowed to set foot in right through to the Edo Period.

While Portuguese traders were the initial intended inhabitants, it was occupied by the Dutch for the vast majority of its operational lifetime. Today many of its buildings are being restored, and attract Japanese and foreigners alike. There is a miniature model of how the post looked in its heyday, as well as displays of artifacts unearthed during archeological studies of the site.

A miniature model of Dejima in the grounds.

By the time I had my fill of Dejima, it was after 4:30pm and the sun had already set. I had planned to go to the viewing site on Mt Inasa, but aching feet, a rising cold wind, a lack of energy, and an apprehension about using a ropeway or cable car (due to my fear of heights) made me decide instead to get a train back to Fukuoka. There was packing to do before leaving for Hiroshima the next day, and some last-minute sightseeing to plan for Wednesday morning.

I highly recommend visiting Nagasaki. Like Hiroshima, there’s much more to it than its unfortunate place in history as the target of an atomic bomb, and the effects of European influence can be seen in its decor and tasted in its food.

Author’s Note (Oct 9, 2016): I will return there on the 2017 Yamatour, however in the course of planning I found that trains from Fukuoka to Nagasaki don’t start running until 9:55am and take nearly two hours to get there, and the last back to Fukuoka leaves at 9:30pm at the time of writing. So if you want to spend more than a half-day here, I recommend booking a hotel in Nagasaki rather than travelling from another city. That said, aside from the Nagasaki Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum, many of the sights of Nagasaki are nestled in the area to the south of JR Nagasaki, so a judiciously-planned afternoon could allow you to see a lot.

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