A sense of obligation and heavy work responsibilities can make taking paid holiday difficult in Japan. However, Japan has a profusion of national holidays. When paired with a day of artfully used paid leave, national holidays can make a weekend long enough for a quick getaway. Silver Week falls towards the end of September every year, with two national holidays in close proximity to each other. In Silver Week 2016, I jumped on a bus and headed to Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands of Japan.
Day 1: Fukuoka
I had visited Fukuoka previously and felt that I already had the measure of the city. Every time I come here, despite good intentions to be a cultural tourist, all I seem to end up doing is shopping and eating. There are some wonderful cultural sites, such as the impressive Dazifu Tenmangu (大宰府天満宮), a shrine to learning. However, although I am ashamed to say so, seeing the high-street shops felt like rain after a drought.
Fukuoka has several shopping districts, the main ones being the Tenjin area, West Tenjin street (西天神通り) which runs above and below ground and the labyrinthine Canal City. After a day shopping there is nothing better than a good meal. The main options in Fukuoka are ramen noodles (noodles cooked in rich pork both), motsunabe (a warming stew-style dish made with offal), and squid. However, if meat is not for you, there are plenty of veggie options too. We enjoyed the Hungry Heaven burger shop (ハングリーへブン福岡店), a short step from Tenjin (really making the most of Japanese food culture, I know).
The night scene in Fukuoka is great. I will let others vouch for the clubbing and the bars because, once again, I am talking about food. There are night stalls or yatai (屋台) which
pop up every evening along the waterfront near Canal City. Only successive generations of a small number of families who have the rights to each plot may erect these stalls. They offer ramen, gyoza dumplings, other greasy quick-serve foods and beer. The atmosphere is very lively, with lights dancing on the water. Although the stall we ate at was a little over-priced, the food was very yummy and it was fun to knock knees and bump elbows with the locals.
Day 2: Unzen (雲仙)
After the bustle of Fukuoka, it seemed a relief to take a train, then a local bus out to the secluded Unzen. A little off the beaten track, Unzen can make a nice stop-off between Fukuoka and Nagasaki.
The Unzen area is situated on an active volcano. As such, it is an onsen (hot spring) town, with steam rising up from drains along the roads as we passed. At Unzen, we stayed at a traditional-style Fukiya Ryokan (富貴屋旅館) situated right next to a patch of ground known as jigoku or ‘Hell’. The reason for this name, as you can perhaps imagine, is the steam perpetually billowing up from the ground, the strong sulphurous smell in the air and the pools of bubbling water. We took a walk through this volcanic landscape, remarking on the heat of the stones beneath our feet, the cats attracted by the warmth, and how the rock was yellowed in places by the sulphurous gasses.
We ate onsen tamago eggs cooked in the sulphurous waters. They tasted more delicious than normal, but perhaps I was just very happy to be in such an invigorating landscape.
Day 3: Nagasaki
Feeling rejuvenated after our lovely stay at Unzen, we took a bus for a little over an hour and arrived in Nagasaki. I had wanted to visit Nagasaki for a long time. As the only port to remain open for foreign trade throughout the closed country period, Nagasaki was a place where cultures intermingled. Nagasaki now cashes in on this eclectic heritage to great effect. Castella cakes (Portugal), Turk rice (supposedly Turkish but if so only a distant relation) and Chamen noodles (China) are local specialties which speak of Nagasaki’s cultural heritage.
I was also interested in the Christian heritage of Nagasaki. Although not Christian (or anything) myself, in Europe my family and I always made sure to visit the churches or cathedrals that we passed, as they were often focal points for incredible artistic innovation. Ōura church (大浦天主堂), a roman catholic church and the Glover House (旧グラバー住宅), home of Scottish merchant Thomas Glover can easily be explored as a set. Ōura church was very interesting, with bamboo used for some parts of the construction and stained glass windows, but I was surprised at how simple it seemed. If not compared to European churches however, it was certainly very impressive.
A nice highlight was finding two stone hearts in Nagasaki. One in the ground as part of the Glover House paving, and the other built into the stone wall near Megane-bashi (眼鏡橋) or ‘Glasses Bridge’, so called because its arches are reminiscent of a pair of pince-nez.
Taking the cable car up the mountain overlooking Nagasaki and seeing the ‘Million Dollar View’ (百万ドラー夜景) was a lovely way to end the evening. The voice-over in the cable car claimed this is one of the top three night views in the world. I doubt this claim, but it was certainly very pretty.
- Ōura Church (大浦天主堂) – Try Castella Ice-cream cake if you see it (カステラーアイス).
- Glover House (旧グラバー住宅) – Eat ice cream in the garden, find the heart on the patio (near the bust of Glover) and buy feed for the Koi carp.
- Climb the Dutch Hill (オランダの坂)
- Chinese district (中華街) – Eat Nagasaki chamen noodles (長崎ちゃめん)
- Megane Bashi (眼鏡橋) – find the stone heart by this curiously-shaped bridge.
- Peace Park and Museum – Feel horrified at the inhumanity of war.
- If you’re feeling peckish, have Turk Rice at a café
- Take a bus and cable car to see the ‘million-dollar night view’
- Late supper by Dejima Port (出島)
A bus, a train and another bus later, I am back in rural Hagi. A little foot-sore but with very happy memories and looking forward to my next national holiday.