Hakata Dolls, and First Impressions Of Fukuoka, Kyushu Island, Japan

Hakata Dolls, and First Impressions Of Fukuoka, Kyushu Island, Japan

The Airbnb apartment that we rented in Fukuoka is small, but full of light and centrally located.

We have everything we need to be comfortable in the city for a few weeks.
At our request, they installed a washing machine, and we have a good shower, a small but useful kitchen, a light-filled living room and comfortable and clean beds.

We have enrolled in WAHAHA Japanese language school, and every week we get to arrange our schedule.
We chose to study at WAHAHA, instead of at the more well-known Genki language school, mostly because they were able to offer us an extra curriculum of Manga drawing classes, which the Genki school does not have.

From the pictures we’ve seen, Fukuoka Genki school looks a little nicer, with its own cafe where you can sip tea and mingle, which the WAHAHA school does not have.
The WAHAHA school gives us free and unlimited tea and snacks, the teachers are all good, kind and patient, and they are flexible and willing to make changes to accommodate all our needs and wishes.

Every day we wake up early.
We meditate and then eat a light breakfast of a fruit salad with a serving of fresh creamy tofu on which I drizzle a bit of honey or peanut butter.
On mornings when we are very hungry, I also make us a small vegetable salad with fresh and pickled vegetables as well.

We walk to and from school every day, in order to exercise and stay fit.
In fact, we walk miles and miles every day, exploring the city on foot.

At first glance, I did not like Fukuoka very much.
It has a big red light district that at night is full of drunk business men, girly clubs and lots of smoky and unhealthy food joints.
But after a few days, I discovered another side to the city which I like very much.

I have ignored what the guidebooks and the Internet suggested are the best places to see and to eat in Fukuoka.
Instead, we have met wonderful people and discovered gentle and healthy places to eat, just by trusting our intuition and covering lots of miles on foot.

There is lots of great food in Fukuoka, beyond the pop-up Ramen places that open up all around the city after dark.
There are lots of good places to eat Korean food, Indian food, Thai food, Hawaiian eggs and pancakes, a few yummy vegan places, good places to eat skewered vegetables, lots of fresh soba and udon places, South Indian food, Italian food, salads and many cafes.

It was hard to find a quiet Tully’s cafe or Starbucks cafe in which to relax and do our homework, because the city is buzzing with people.

The Starbucks at the Tatsuya Bookstore in Tianjin has its entire second floor set aside for people to bring their school books, chat with each other, and do their homework.
It was the best place for us to do our homework.

We have learned so much, not by visiting the shops recommended for tourists, but by looking for special events which normally attract only local people who are interested in art, cultural events, and craft exhibitions.

We saw an amazing Manga drawing exhibition of 14 global artists who have created and illustrated stories about the Louvre Museum in Paris.
We came on the last day of the exhibition, held at the Asian Art Museum, and I was so happy that I got to see it before it closed.

Among the other exhibitions that we enjoyed was one showcasing the famous Hakata Dolls.
Hakata is the most central and busy part of Fukuoka.

These clay dolls have been made in Hakata for hundreds of years.
Created by local artists, the dolls depict local figures, Kabuki performers, Samurais, beautiful kimono clad ladies, farmers, children at play, and characters from the Taoist and Buddhist traditions.

Historically, each prototype doll was hand-sculpted from clay, but then the artisan made a cast and used the mold to create duplicate clay figures.

Some of the figures were very large, and they have been used in street parades as part of the floats that they carry and display at the yearly festivals (matsuri).

I am adding to this post some photos of the clay Hakata dolls that we have seen in Fukuoka.
The photos depicting children are all light fixtures, which we saw at an exhibition at ACROS, a modernist building in the center of the city which offers theater and music performances.
The building has a floating garden decorating one of its exterior facades, and the lush vegetation sprawls out into the streets below.

There is lots to do and see in Fukuoka.
There are parks full of birds, lakes full of lilies and turtles, large Buddhist temples and even larger Shinto Shrines with huge Tori gates and lots of interesting places to see.

The areas surrounding the city are full of beautiful mountains to hike, hot spring Onsens to enjoy, and much to explore.
I am starting to regret that we only have five weeks to enjoy it all…

One of our Japanese language teachers suggested to us that since we liked walking the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage, that we also walk the mini pilgrimage nearby in Sasaguri.

We did a bit of research, but could not find out anything written in English.
So we just took the train to Sasaguri and decided that we would describe the pilgrimage for those who might be looking for something to do in Fukuoka that is fun, wholesome and does not involve eating Ramen or going to the places to drink along the river.

When I am less busy with school and homework, I will post the information about the Sasaguri 88 temple pilgrimage which we started walking this past weekend, and plan to complete before we leave Fukuoka in a little over a month.

Sending you warm smiles and many blessings,

The Karatsu Kunchi Festival, and The Sights Of Karatsu, Kyushu Island, Japan

The Karatsu Kunchi Festival, and The Sights Of Karatsu, Kyushu Island, Japan

From Nagasaki, we took a train north to Karatsu.
Karatsu is a seaside town with a long history of producing beautiful earthenware pottery.

When a ceramic artist or a potter comes to work in Karatsu, they do not use the term “Establish a studio,” but say instead, “Establish A Kiln.”

This is because many potters can form dishes from clay, but the knowledge of how to successfully glaze and fire clay is paramount to this art form.
A Kiln is the heart and soul of this craft.

Today there are many kilns in active use around Karatsu, as well as ruins of old kilns scattered throughout Saga Prefecture.
Many of the kilns are ‘Climbing Kilns,’ or kilns that you can walk into.

Karatsu earthenware is made from a local clay that is high in iron, and is often left undecorated, or simply decorated with an iron-based underglaze.

The unadorned ceramic is very granulated, earthy, and simple, and it gives a very pleasing, organic natural tone to everyday pieces.

They make tea cups, rice bowls, vases, sake bottles and cups, plates, matcha bowls and dishes, all with this earthy granulated clay finish, which is very different from the elegant, smooth and shiny finish of porcelain.

I love the Karatsu wabi shabi pottery, and in general, I love non-symmetrical and a bit uneven pottery, where you can still see the fingerprints of the potter on the clay.

Karatsu earthenware pottery techniques have been practiced here since the late 16th century, after the technique was brought over from Korea.

The Karatsu Castle towers above the town, and its stone walls create a promenade along the sea.
It is a beautiful sight.
In the distance you can see small fishing islands rising from the sea.

We stayed in a beautiful guesthouse in Karatsu.
Ryokan Yoyokaku offered us a spacious room overlooking their manicured gardens.

It is a perfect example of the genius of Japanese architectural design, incorporating nature into interior design, that I love so much.

Over two hundred and fifty years ago, they completely transformed a large, square piece of flat and boring land. By integrating a fabulous design that interweaves the gardens with the buildings, which are connected by covered wooden walkways, they created a sanctuary of beauty and harmony.

The Ryokan has been open to guests for over two hundred years, and foreign guests have been welcomed here for the last fifty years, well before the rest of the traditional Ryokans in Japan agreed to admit foreigners.

They have hot baths on the main level, and an aged owner who still goes into the garden every morning, to attend to his sculpted trees and weed the beautiful garden.

One of the attendants who brought to our room hot water for tea and sweets after our daily long walks around Karatsu, was a funny and robust lady with a face so white that she looked like a Kabuki theater actress.
Her rolling laugh was very infectious.

We walked a lot during our visit to Karatsu.
We roamed the streets, the shops, the rivers and bridges and walked along the sandy shores of the sea.

400 years ago, during the Edo period, they planted a vast seaside pine forest to naturally block the heavy winds and protect the city from the many strong storms coming from the sea.

This wind barrier forest is called Niji-no-Matsubara.
It was enjoyable to walk in the shade of the pine forest for 13 kilometers round-trip.

The trees have reseeded themselves and multiplied through the years.
Nowadays this pine forest numbers over a million trees. The force of the winds have twisted many of the tree limbs and trunks into fantastical shapes.

We brought with us two pieces of fruit and an iced tea for the walk, but since it was a long distance, we needed some refreshments.

From the forest, we spotted on the road a truck that operated as a burger stand, and we went there hoping they might offer a veggie burger to eat.

“Karatsu Burger” didn’t offer a veggie burger, but they did agree to make us burgers without meat, but instead with an egg topped with a slice of cheese and their famous BBQ sauce.

We sat on a bench in the forest along with other people who had stopped on the road with their cars, and we all ate our nicely wrapped burgers.
They were delicious, and it was all we needed to continue on with our walk.

On another day, we visited the old Takatori residence.

Koreyoshi Takatori (1850 – 1927), was a very successful coal baron.
His residence has been designated a National Important Cultural Property of Japan.

We walked through the beautiful house and gardens that are now a museum, which teaches visitors about the period when Karatsu flourished as a coal producing area.

Visitors to the Takatori Residence can see his house with its exquisite design, complete with a restored Western-style room with a plaster ceiling, cedar doors with intricate carvings, and paintings of nature on sliding doors.

There are glowing old wooden floors and ceiling beams decorated with animals, reliefs of plants and even a Noh stage, on which traditional Japanese theater was performed to a small and intimate audience.

As we walked, we admired the grandeur of the timeless Japanese-style architecture, so filled with the talents of wood carvers, painters, craftspeople and dedicated gardeners who together created an admirable sanctuary for living.

But the highlight of our visit to Karatsu, and the main reason that we chose to visit, was to see the 400 year old Festival (Kunchi Matsuri) floats.

The festival takes place in the autumn at the Karatsu-jinja Shrine.
It has been going on for over 400 years, although most of the floats actually in use today date from the early to mid 19th century.

The Karatsu Kunchi Matsuri is one of the major festivals of Kyushu island, and a few of their most extraordinary floats are demonstrated at festivals all over the world.

This festival features floats that are called Hikiyama.
The Hikiyama portray brave Samurai masks, a mythical turtle, a magical red snapper, a dragon, gold, green and red lions and other mythical creatures.

In the 1600’s those intricately designed floats cost a fortune to make, an equivalent of millions of dollars each in today’s money.
The current versions, in perfect condition with brilliant lacquer colors, are breathtakingly beautiful.

The Hikiyama are made from thin bamboo frames that are covered with hundreds of layers of rice paper, which are then lacquered and finished with gold and silver leaf.

They are all tall and quite heavy, and are housed in a purpose-built museum hall in which they are shown to visitors until they are paraded through town once per year, during the four day autumn festival.

The largest one is 6.8 meters tall and weighs well over 3 tons.
Unlike other Matsuri floats, they are not actually carried by the dozens of men who parade them, but are wheeled on wooden wheeled carriages, and the sight of hundreds of people powerfully hauling 14 floats through the sand along Nishinohama Beach, with their wheels often getting stuck in the sand, is an amazing spectacle.

The images of lions, samurai helmets, sea bream, and flying dragons (called Hiryo,) are truly art pieces.

The old floats were repaired many times through the years, with some of the eyes made of imported glass being replaced by local glass blowers, but they still retain their original forms to this day.

The floats are normally displayed at the Hikiyama Float Exhibition Hall adjacent to Karatsu-jinja Shrine.
The hall also displays clips from a recent festival showing the crowds and the difficulty of maneuvering the big floats through the narrow streets.

The people parading the floats are traditionally dressed in different costumes and they shout, play musical instruments like flutes and drums and scatter salt for purification in all directions.

There is an interesting story about scattering salt for purification.

One of the floats that features a samurai black mask, belonged to the feudal lord Takeda, who in the year 1600 ruled over a mountainous area which had a limited amount of salt.
His region once experienced a total lack of salt.

Takeda received a large supply of relief salt for his people from his lifelong enemy, Kenshin Uesugi, another feudal Samurai lord who ruled over a territory by the sea.

This act of honor touched me.
Most people who go to war, think about how to weaken their enemy, but here you have a Samurai lord who gave an expensive gift of salt in order to strengthen his enemy…

Kenshin Uesugi gave salt to Takeda in order that he and his soldiers be strong and capable to fight a FAIR fight…a fight of equal opponents……

Out of honor and respect to its history, Takeda’s Samurai float STILL does not scatter salt during the festival, even after 400 years and not even for symbolic purification.

We ate only breakfast in our Ryokan, and did not indulge in their evening Kaiseki meals.
We did enjoy every morning the locally made fresh tofu which we drizzled with a good quality soy sauce and ate with a spoon.
For dinners, we chose local places to eat noodles, sushi and grilled Okonomiyaki which we cooked table-side on a griddle.

From Karatsu, we return to Fukuoka to stay in an apartment we rented on Airbnb, and to start learning Japanese at the Wahaha language school.

May your days be filled with light and laughter,


A few days in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan


A few days in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan

We walked down the spiral entrance path in the peace memorial hall in Nagasaki.
The years were written on the walls around us,
2017, 2010, 2001, 1995, 1990….
We were counting the years backwards,
Spiraling downwards,
We were walking backwards in time….

Back from the present year of 2017,
Back to the year the sky over Nagasaki turned ash black….
Back to 1945….

A wall clock was frozen at the exact time of the blast.
The time was 11:02am, August 9th, 1945.

If only we could walk back in time so easily….
Just as we were walking down that spiral path…

1945 was the year the “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki.
“Fat Man” was the code name of the US Army for that bomb,
Because it was mean, big and fat.

The atomic bomb that got dropped over Hiroshima,
Was code named “Little Boy.”

Don’t let the names mislead you.
Many more died in the terrible bombing of Hiroshima, than they did in Nagasaki.

When we reached the exhibition hall after walking back in time,
I read this on the screen:

“Take me back to the past
Just once more!
Oh, I want mother!
I want father!
I want my brother!
I want my sisters!”
So cried five year old Fuji Tsujimoto in a quote memorialized on the screen.

My heart clenched….
Somehow, my heart cried with that little boy, also for MY family…
Take me back in time…
Back to when my mother was healthy and happy and young…. laughing wholeheartedly with her beautiful teeth…..
Take me back in time to when my father was still alive and healthy and strong….
Oh! Take me back in time to more innocent times…..

“Why did they choose Nagasaki?”
I asked the volunteer at the museum who narrated the exhibition for Jules and myself.

“Because the Mitsubishi Armaments factory was located along the shores of Nagasaki.
They are still here, in the same location, but they no longer make war ships.”

“Actually,” said a Japanese woman who was also visiting the museum, in perfect English, “They did not plan to drop the bomb on Nagasaki, but on the city of Kokura.
But the weather above Kokura was very cloudy and they could not see the target.
So they went to the backup plan, to drop it on Nagasaki.
But the weather over Nagasaki was bad as well.
They almost turned around and went back because they were running low on fuel, but then the sky cleared over Nagasaki and the rest is history…. who can really tell why the clouds parted right at that moment?….”

It was cloudy when we left the peace memorial hall.

We signed our names to a petition to eliminate nuclear arms around the world, and left with heavy hearts.

We stayed in Hotel Monterey while we visited Nagasaki, which is centrally located and has some Portuguese design touches.

The city has a hilly Dutch neighborhood and an old but fairly small Chinatown with a famous Confucius shrine.

Many hundreds of tourists were offloaded from a cruise ship and they walked around the city in large groups, their guides running at the front, holding different color flags and yelling loudly in Chinese.

In the same way that all Italian roads are said to lead to Rome, all Chinese tour groups merged in Nagasaki at the Confucius shrine.

I wanted to see the shrine as well, but it was way too packed with people.

Instead, we did our laundry in a coin operated shop around the corner and went walking around the streets of the city.

I saw Zen Buddhist monks walk the streets of the city as well.
With their shaven heads and black flowing robes, they looked like sober and benevolent angels….

In a corner barber shop, they shaved Jules’ hair except for the little patch of hair in the back of his head, which he started growing in Varanasi India.
It is called a “Sikka” and it is meant to be shaved only when he reach enlightenment.

It is nearly the end of May in Nagasaki, and the weather is fine.

In front of the Nagasaki Train Station, they had an ice cream fair, with many manufacturers of gelatos, ice creams and sorbets from all over Japan.

I had never been to an ice cream fair before,
So we walked around it,

We bought a wild berry sorbet because…..
Well, it is nearly the end of May in Nagasaki, and the weather is HOT….