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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Land of the Rising Sun - Day 1: Fukuoka, Kurume & Dazaifu

For this long vacation, I wanted to go to Cambodia and my friend's pick was Taiwan but eventually we decided to meet halfway since we still wanted to go to my home country, the Philippines, afterwards. So we came to decide, either to go to South Korea or Japan. Finally, the prospect of volcanic landscapes in combination with a rich cultural heritage won over and it was decided: Japan!

We started our long flight from Berlin to Fukuoka with a stop-over in Amsterdam with KLM. The whole flight took about twelve hours. The major entry points to Japan from Europe seem to be Tokyo, Osaka and of course, Fukuoka. As we planned to make the island of Kyushu in the west of Japan our main focus, we decided to start our tour in Fukuoka, which also has excellent train connections to the rest of Japan.


After finally arriving in Fukuoka shortly after eight o´clock in the morning and without being able to really sleep on the plane, we first had to wait in a long queue for immigration, where a photo and fingerprints were taken. When we were finally through, our holiday could begin! The airport in Fukuoka is just outside the town. We took the free shuttle bus right in front of the airport to the subway station (we had asked at the tourist information at the airport). In the subway station we bought a day ticket for the subway in Fukuoka, which we managed because the ticket machines works in English too. From there it was just two stations to the Hakata Station, the main train station in Fukuoka, where we had booked our hotel, the Nishitetsu Inn Hakata, for two nights.


Inside the Hakata station we first took care of our train tickets. We already bought a 7-day-Japan Rail Pass as well as a 5-day-Northern Kyushu Rail Pass in Germany. Japan has a variety of rail passes, which foreign tourists can (and must) buy outside of Japan. With the Japan Rail Pass, you can travel all around Japan for 7, 14 or 21 days. It is not only much cheaper than buying tickets for every trip, but also more convenient. With the rail pass, you can always just walk spontaneously to the trains you want and don´t have to bother with ticket machines. If you just need train rides in a special region of Japan you can buy cheaper, regional rail passes. For our trip we took a combination of two passes. For the first five days we used the Northern Kyushu Area Pass, one day we didn´t need any pass, then we used the Japan Rail Pass for seven days and for the last days in Kyoto we didn´t need a rail pass. We ordered our passes online and got vouchers, that we had to exchange for our tickets in major train stations and airports in Japan. We went to look for the counter of Japan Railways (JR) at the Hakata station. Fortunately they have their sign in English so we immediately exchanged our vouchers for the rail pass.



We had printed out some google maps and then just walked to our hotel. We chose the Nishitetsu Inn Hakata because of its nice reviews and especially because of its very convenient location which is just a 5-minute-walk from the train station. It was so huge, that we couldn´t miss it. Unfortunately, we couldn't check in yet, which was a shame, because after the long trip we really would have needed at least a shower. But we've learned later on, that all hotels in Japan are very strict about the check in times. We could, however, leave our luggage there and so just went back to the train station to start our first excursions with our brand new Northern Kyushu Rail Pass!


After taking photos with some anime figures in front of the Hakata Station we headed inside the train station and followed the (English) signs to the Shinkansen, the high-speed trains, entrance that are also covered by the Northern Kyushu Rail Pass. When you want to enter a train in Japan you need to go through a gate where you have to tuck in your ticket, so that the gate opens. With our pass we could instead walk past an employee, where we just showed our pass. There were electronic displays in Japanese and English and we saw, that there was enough time for a coffee, until the next train to Kurume was leaving. We wanted to go to Kurume because it has a really big statue at the Daihonzan Naritasan Kurume Temple and we have never seen something like this before.



Travelling by train in Japan proved to be very convenient. When we went to Kurume, it was indicated in which wagon there are seats for guests without a seat reservation and at the platform you can see where exactly which wagon will be. So we just waited in front of the gate for the entrance to the unreserved wagon and had no problem to get seated without a reservation. It took just 15 minutes to Kurume station, but from there to the statue it was still some distance. We had planned to take the Bus 31 from Kurume Station for about 13 bus stops until Kamitsu-machi Station and then walk to the shrine. While bus stops were just in front of the Kurume Station, we didn't really see where and when exactly this bus would leave. So we decided to take a cab. The driver didn't speak English, but there was another old guy who also didn't speak English, but wanted to help. When we repeated "Narita-san" and indicated in hand gestures that we wanted to go to a huge statue, it actually worked! It was a typical situation in Japan -  most people don't speak English, but they are very patient and always willing to help.


Off we went for a cab ride to the temple with the huge statue. We exited the cab at the parking lot and got the first view of the temple complex which is a bit above the city and of course the statue, which is impressively huge. Then we paid the entrance fee and went inside the statue and climbed up the stairs inside to the top. There was not much to see on the top and there were just some small openings to see the town. But in the basement of the statue there are some figures, a little museum and some kind of walk-through display of "hell" with moving figures in the dark, trying to scare you. We were not expecting that, but it was something different, a curiosity!


When we left the temple complex in order to get to the main road, where the bus stops are, we came along a souvenir shop, where they sold a lot of cookies and stuff. The woman was so nice and encouraged us in Japanese to taste some cookies, so of course we had to buy something and took some seaweed cookies, before we walked down to the main road, where the bus stop is. Soon the bus 31 to the train station arrived. We had already read, that you enter a bus in Japan at the back and then pull out a little paper with a number on it. You exit the bus at the front. At the front there´s also an electronic display with numbers and the fare to pay below that. When you exit, you just have to look what fare to pay for the number you pulled out and pay next to the bus driver. If you don´t have the exact money in coins, you can change a 1.000 Yen note into coins, also in front of the bus. Fortunately we knew what the Kurume Train Station looked like, so we had no trouble to disembark at the right spot.


From Kurume Train Station we made more use of our Northern Kyushu Rail Pass and took a train to Futsukaichi Station, about 20 minutes away. It was easy, because basically all the regional trains from Kurume to Hakata Station in Fukuoka stop there (although the Shinkansen doesn´t). From Futsukaichi Station we walked for about 10 minutes to the Nishitetsu Futsukaichi Station (with the help of our google map), which is the station for a private train. We needed to go there, because from there we had to take a train for another two stations to our next sightseeing destination, Dazaifu.


We wanted to go Dazaifu to mainly because of the Tenmangu Shrine, which is located just a short walk from the Dazaifu Train Station. But after exiting the train I first needed a proper meal, so we went to a little restaurant next to the train station. Energized, we decided to go first to the Kyushu National Museum, because the admission time is only until 4.30 p.m. and it was already nearly 4 p.m. The museum is also just a short walk from the Dazaifu Train Station and there were some signs. On the way we came along the Komyozenji Temple and stopped briefly, before continuing to the museum, which was a bit on a hill.


The Kyushu National Museum was quite a sight. It is huge, modern and surrounded by greens. In the entrance hall alone you could build a little village. After buying our tickets we took the escalators, always guided by personnel, who signaled the way to go and entered a great exhibition about Asian artifacts from statues to craft. The exhibition rooms were very elegant, spacious and well maintained., Unfortunately, we had way too little time, as they were soon announcing the closing for the day. So we had to leave and went on to the Tenmangu Shrine, which is impressively connected by escalators with the museum.


The Tenmangu Shrine is a beautiful complex, but we were a little exhausted and didn´t stay long. After all we didn´t really sleep in the plane (Japan is eight hours ahead of Germany). So we went back to the Dazaifu Train Station through a touristic street with a lot of food and souvenir shops, where I bought some textile and took the train for two stations back to the Nishitetsu Futsukaichi Station, walked from there to the Futsukaichi Station and then took a train back to the Hakata Station and went to the hotel to finally checked in!


Our hotel, the Nishitetsu Inn Hakata is huge, but our room wasn't that big. It is clean and modern though. We were asleep in no time.

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