No, really. I have a few friends, virtual and otherwise, over there, and they are quick to jump up the ass of anyone who’s drunk the kool-aid and open their umbrellas. You know the type of travel-fanboys I mean, and my friends love to hate – men, mostly, who go to or end up in Japan to find something that they’re missing for some reason, something they can’t find wherever they are. These guys tend to fall in love – with the mythos, with a woman, with the culture, with the history, ex post facto or otherwise – and either sooner or later begin to buy into the casual Japanese certitude that the Japanese are just better than you. Better, stronger, faster, with tentacle and dismemberment porn that makes the next best tentacle and dimemberment porn offerings look like Curious George Goes To The Hospital. These fellows tend, in time, to become those annoyingly smug expats-in-Asia who are determined to overlook anything unpleasant in their adopted home, to blame the outsider, to spout platitudes that regardless of their high-minded elegance come down to ‘it’s not better or worse, it’s merely different.’ You know – the kinds of guys you want to bust in the f–king chops half the time, if only because they speak the language better than you do.
So, anyway, these friends of mine who’ve been in Japan for many years, they tend to have little patience for the kind of rah! rah! Japanophilia that I’m about to display, and for that I am profoundly sorry. All I can say is that I only spent somewhat more than 12 hours there, and the bulk of that was while I was slightly inebriated, so how much of the bad stuff could I reasonably have seen? I haven’t drunk the kool-aid, but I did drink the beer.
After getting rectally roto-rootered by my last employer and not finding another reasonable job before the contract term expired, I had to make a visa run and come back on a tourist visa, and the cheapest flight I could get was to Fukuoka. Sitting at the superb, gleaming new Incheon international airport, I noticed a flyer from Onse Telecom that said that wireless broadband was available in many of the departure gates, and if you didn’t have a laptop to take advantage of it, you could just come over to the desk and they’d give you one, for free.
This I promptly did, handing over my passport and getting a snazzy Samsung laptop in return. Good deal. I went back downstairs to the Burger King beside Gate 30, bought my first greaseburger in a few months, fired up the computer, and went surfing. I tried searching a bit for some hotels,but quickly got bored and just figured it would be groovier to do my usual trick from back in my backpacker days : show up with no pre-planning whatsoever, and see where the fates and random quantum flux took me. Instead of being prudent, I spent the next while posting snarky comments at Metafilter, until boarding time. It was about 4:30 pm, and my return flight was for 9 am the following morning.
A bumpy 90 minutes or so later, through red-lit thunderheads and millefeuille nimbostratus, across gut-levitating canyons of air – my favorite part of flying, those landscapes of cloud – we were glidepathing down into clean, green Fukuoka. It was overcast there, too, and more than 30 degrees, but I was pleased as I stepped out of the plane to find the air free of that horrendous fug to which one grudgingly becomes accustomed in Seoul.
I made my way through customs – the guy finding it odd that I only had an overnight bag, and amused when he found my two cup ramyeon packages inside – and straight to the hotel booking desk. Everyone on the various fora I’d checked before I’d left had said that the women who staffed that desk spoke excellent English, and were invariably helpful.
The girl there spoke English alright, but, in that annoyingly reticent way in which the Japanese break bad news, informed me that there wasn’t a single goddamn room left in the whole city.
She gave me a list to try and call myself, and after a few unsuccessful attempts punctuated by those pregnant silences that I was already starting to figure out were the Japanese equivalent of ‘sorry, buddy, you’re screwed,’ I figured I’d just have to wing it.
The shuttle bus to the domestic terminal, the subway two stops to Hakata, the centre of the action in Fukuoka.
By this time I was feeling a bit gritty-eye tired, sweaty, grumpy and increasingly sure that I was going to end up sleeping in a seat at the airport and looking like a rumpled rummy when I tried to get back into Korea the next morning. I’d done worse, years back when I had the youthful energy for travel hijinks of that sort, but these days I’m more into the Good Sleep than the Amusing Anecdote.
So I started walking around Hakata Station. The first five hotels I dragged my ass into knew what I was going to ask before I asked, and were already shaking their heads, politely, by the time I’d gotten to the desk and asked it. The two guys behind the desk at the sixth actually chuckled a bit at my stupidity – by this time I was drenched, both in sweat and by the steady rain that had started to fall, red-faced and getting extremely grumpy indeed – and I was about ready to give up and try the 5-Star (and probably more expensive than my plane ticket) Hotel Nikko.
I went into the 7-11 on the corner, bought a pack of cigarettes, and had my first sober smoke in more than three years. That helped.
As I did so, I noticed that the place across the sidestreet from me was a lobby of some sort – Hotel Cabinas Fukuoka, it said! ‘Cabinas? Capsule hotel? Yes! I’ve been wanting to stay in one of those since I first heard about them!’ thought I. I looked around for about 5 minutes trying to find somewhere to get rid of the cigarette butt – the streets were clean, and I was damned if I was going to mess them up by doing anything worse than dripping sweat on them – and then shuffled, chafing and praying, into the lobby.
One of the girls at the desk took one look as I stumbled into the lobby and – politely, mind you – said ‘Shoes…shoes please!’
Great. My first faux pas already. You were supposed to take your shoes off at the front door, before you even got into the lobby! That would have made more sense in Korea, where horking up throat oysters on the street is an Olympic-level sport, and wearing your mucous-encrusted shoes inside would definitely be unhygienic…but fair enough. I backed up to the door, quickly, mumbling ‘sorry, sorry’ while the couple of Japanese guys in pajamas in the lobby eyed me suspiciously for a moment or two, then went back to their newspapers.
I took off my shoes, came back to the desk. “Do you have any…umm…spaces?”
I almost kissed her when she said “Of course!” and pulled out a laminated menu showing two kinds of capsules – one in a little room of its own, and one set into a locker-like bank of them, 2 high. Even the ‘deluxe’ was well under the price I had expected to pay for lodging, and I immediately and gratefully pointed to the bigger one. It was 4300 yen – about $50 for the night, Canadian. Woohoo! There’s some beer money, right there, thought I.
She took my details and my cash, showed me the locker room off to the side of the check-in desk where I could put my shoes, gave me a plastic wristband with a key attached, told me about the sauna and showers on the 11th floor and the restaurant on the 10th, and wished me a pleasant stay, all in accented but excellent English. She was prettier than heck, too. Things were looking up.
This place, I neglected to mention, was nicer than most $200 a night places I’ve seen in Korea. Brightly lit, impeccably, spotlessly, surgically, clean, brand new. I’m a sucker for luxury – even faux luxury, to be honest – and although this was to all intents and purposes budget accommodation, cheaper than anywhere else I’d heard of in that city, it was nice. Really, really nice.
I took the elevator to the 6th floor, and through a set of glass doors was a set of corridors lined with capsule-rooms. Each one was a tiny hotel room, basically, with a folding, accordian door panel. Inside were a desk, built into a closet unit, and a capsule unit either in the top or the bottom. Mine was set into the top.
The capsule itself was a single piece, injection-molded plastic coffin, with a video screen, alarm clock and radio, aircon control, speakers behind either ear, and amidst a profusion of knobs and switches, a large red button labelled in Japanese only, that I thought of as the ‘ejection button,’ and was sorely tempted to press, later that evening.
I pulled shut the accordion door, doffed my sweat-soaked business shirt and tie – I always fly with a tie, and find it helps to smooth my way through immigration – pulled on my old friend’s band (‘MARY’) t-shirt, and went on the hunt for beer. Nobody even looked at me. No stares, no ‘Oh my god – it’s a foreign devil’ in the local lingo, no double takes or furtive muttering and pointing. None of the stuff, in other words, that I live with every time I leave the house in Korea.
I walked around for a bit, and marvelled at the cleanliness and order of the area. This was beside the biggest station in the city, bus and subway, the sort of area you’d expect to be heavy with The Scuzz, but it was downright pretty, by night at least. I imagined living there, and somehow managed to do so, as I often do, without concurrently entertaining any discouraging notions of work or budgetary constraints or anything of the kind. In my ‘let’s imagine that I live here’ games that I unfailingly engage in whenever I happen onto somewhere nice, reality rarely intrudes.
Back to the station I wandered, after that short look around, and although none of the 7-11ish convenience stores had had any beer to sell, to my transient chagrin, and there were none of the vending machines I’d heard so much about, there was a little hole-in-wall place that had a cooler full of beer, that I somehow navigated to flawlessly once I’d booted up the beer-radar, as if I’d been following the map to the Pirate Treasure. Big black gothic-font beery ‘X’.
I am inordinately fond of Japanese beer, especially Asahi. I’d been all a-drool all day thinking about it, after endless months of choking down the Korean swill that passes for lager there. I bought Eight Very Large Cans, just to be sure. Better to have too much than too little is my thinking when it comes to such things. The girl behind the counter didn’t even bat an eye. I was beginning to love Japan by this point, with a love deep and true.
As I left the station, there was a band busking outside the entrance. It is possible that my recent successes in securing lodging and sweet sweet beverages was rosying up my outlook a bit, but i swear they were the best band I’d heard in years. This judgement may also have been due in no small part to the fact that they were also the first band I’d heard in years. (There are no buskers in Korea, good, bad or otherwise. Beggars, yeah, who somehow can afford mobile freaking karaoke machines into which they wail their maudlin songs, lying prone on the ground, wrapped in black rubber, presumably entreating passers-by to give them some money so they’ll shut the f–k up. Never mind, I’m getting sidetracked…) A friend was passing out flyers, and they were called Chaba, and their website is here. After a couple of songs, a couple of cops came up and good-naturedly shut them down, and though I was tempted to follow them and listen some more, I had a whole bunch of cold beer gently sweating in a plastic bag, and I was thirstier than hell, and had to be on an airplane in approximately 13 hours.
Part Two, in which I wear pajamas, drink beer and listen to Prime Time Poetry in a language I don’t speak, and love it, is here.