(also, longest entry ever, fyi)
This post was written on Sunday, August 22nd.
Today was my day to visit some sights in Kurume on my own. It was my first time venturing anywhere alone other than on foot or bike. I walked to Hainuzuka, our train station, and used the ticket machine to get the right tickets. I read the sign board (mostly in Japanese) to figure out what platform to get on.
A train came, and I fumblingly asked a woman in Japanese whether it was going to Kurume. We barely managed to communicate, but we did manage, and she explained that I needed a different train, what time it would leave, and where I should wait.
So I got on the right train and listened to the announcements (in Japanese, of course) to tell me where to get off. I got to Kurume, made my way to the information desk after approaching the wrong desk, asked for a map, and speaking Jap-lish with the attendant there I learned how to get to the sights I wanted to see.
Let me pause here to explain something. Every time I say I “managed” to do something or “made my way” to some place or another, you’ve got to picture me in near-PANIC. Looking frantically at maps, convincing myself I’d never figure out where I was going, and almost ready to give up at every turn. Every single time. And yet I made it. And I talked to amazing people and saw and did beautiful things. And I used more Japanese, today, and recalled more words that I didn’t even think I knew, than I ever had before.
So even though the things I’m reporting may sound humdrum, each step of today’s journey felt like a huge accomplishment. Yeah. Best day ever.
My first stop was Bairinji Temple, the largest Zen training temple…in Fukuoka? On Kyushu? Something like that. It was gorgeous. Quite large, too. I entered the temple, which was completely empty, and spent a few moments meditating on the tatami in front of the small altar. I walked around, took pictures, strolled in the gardens, all in perfect solitude.
All of this, as it turns out, is completely verboten. But no one was around to tell me so until later on. So I enjoyed the complete peace of an empty Buddhist temple.
After Bairinji I returned to the station and hopped on a bus—navigating a strange bus system, in Japanese; just add it to the day’s achievements. 😀 I was following the directions of the attendant at the station’s info booth, of course. She also directed me to ask for direction at the bus station’s info booth if I needed them, so I dropped by after I got off the bus.
At the booth a tall Indian dude was speaking in Japlish with the attendant, trying to find a sight in Kurume he had yet to visit. I summoned the courage to step forward and suggest the street full of temples that I was going to see, since he hadn’t been there yet.
“Are you from NYC?” the woman in the information booth asked me in great English. I said yes, shocked that she had guessed. “My colleague called to tell me you were coming!” In other words, the woman from the train station booth had called to tell this woman to expect me. Oh, Japan.
This woman, Satomi-san, already had a map made out for me and gave me detailed directions. While we were chatting a group of white dudes and Japanese ladies dropped by the booth, and she introduced me to her English teacher, and invited me to a party at her place that night. I didn’t go, but we did exchange contact details.
I found my way to the temples—again, panicking at various points along the way and coming close to turning back. The “tera-machi”, or temple area, part of Kurume is a long street lined with 17 Buddhist temples from the 1600s. They are huge, and beautiful, and tumble one right after another so you don’t even know where to start.
It isn’t even just the architecture, though that was stunning—all wooden, triangular roofs, some painted, all unique, different colors. But the landscaping also took my breath away. Landscaping in Japan is always impressive, from what I’ve seen so far; it’s the bonsai tradition, I guess. But the small gardens in front of the temples were pretty enough to make you cry. Lush, but neat; you could get lost in it, but not really, because it’s all so orderly. It’s like the perfect mix between French and English gardening.
As I was leaving the street I ran into the Indian guy, who had biked there from the station. We spoke briefly, and I was astounded to learn that he had biked to Kurume… from Fukuoka City. Which is, like, a half-hour’s train ride away. It took him four hours, and he was biking home that evening. What a nut, but pretty amazing.
Sadly, all of the temples were closed. I don’t think they’re ever open to the general public, except for official ceremonies. I think that’s kind of a bummer, but what’re you gonna do. I admired from the outside.
I made my way home after that. On the walk back from Hainuzuka there’s a little playground with a shrine in it, and I saw a festival being held. Flushed with the day’s success I decided to drop in and check it out. The festival was totally uninteresting but the shrine was open, for once, and a dude was sitting inside of it.
I made to enter and the guy said “dozo,” which means “go ahead,” so I took off my shoes and started to climb the six or seven steps up to the small one-room, maybe 50 square foot shrine.
The guy kicked me out, lol, and pointed and repeated something numerous times in Japanese. Another old man came over, gestured, spoke in Japanese. No capeesh. Some schoolchildren wandered over and also started gesturing, trying to get through to my thick self. One boy finally overtly gestured something that looked like “pay” and said “o-kane,” which I randomly remembered meant “money.”
So! We began. Threw some money in. Then, following the lead of the second old man, I pulled a cord to ring the bell, clapped my hands twice, and prayed. He led me through each step via demonstration. Afterwards, we briefly chatted. I told them where I’m from, that I was an English teacher, and that I lived nearby. I thanked everyone (thanked the kids in English and got a “bye” out of them) and went home.
I ran into some of my fellow JETs at the jutaku and we went out for a really nice, long udon dinner, and then came home to watch “Leon,” one of the best movies out there.
And to cap off the perfect day, one JET got the lizard out of my bathroom! This tiny, adorable lizard that I don’t want anywhere near me set up house somewhere in my water closet, so I’ve been using other JETs’ bathrooms after dark for at least a week. Now…the lizard is gone! I can use my bathroom at night again!
I have to say. When the train was pulling into Hainuzuka, I gazed out at our town’s landscape with a heart full of love. Nondescript two-story buildings, phone lines, rice fields, tiled roofs. Oh, Chikugo. I love you for being so average and yet shining nonetheless. Same for Kurume and this entire area—there’s nothing to spark a tourist industry, but plenty of places of beauty and interest for those who live here. Small temples and shrines. The people. The cool trains. I love it all and want to stay forever.