I wrote the following as I screamed along the Japanese countryside between the cities of Hiroshima and Fukuoka at 200 miles per hour.
My family and I got ambitious and decided to escape our small island in the South Pacific known as Okinawa. We wanted a big adventure for the holidays. We booked flights for Da Nang, Vietnam. We booked a 5-star hotel. We booked adventures for each day of the nine days we planned to be there. On Dec. 23rd, we got to the airport and were told that our Visa paperwork had an error. The airline, knowing how strict Vietnam is, informed us that we would not be able to take our trip.
With tears in our eyes, we came to the realization that our big Christmas adventure was ruined. We sat in the airport wondering what our plan was now.
I got a wild hair…as I do from time to time and decided to find the cheapest flights to the mainland. We had already sunk most of our vacation budget into a bevy of things that would take 15 days to get refunds on. I needed to budget and budget fast.
I looked at the kids and their faces. I booked tickets for a few hours later to a city called Fukuoka, which is a large city near the Southern end of mainland Japan. I told the kids, “Don’t worry. I have a plan.” I didn’t really have a plan, but they didn’t need to know that. I then said, “We are going to mainland to ride the Bullet Train.” They jumped up and my 13-year-old yelled “Let’s Go!” It was at this point that I realized myself that our Christmas adventure was saved. My 11-year-old just sort of made a smiling squealing noise that I translated into joy and excitement.
We traveled back home to the airport and for the next few hours, I sat on my laptop in my dining room and strung together nine days worth of activities that would keep my family entertained. For the record, they would have been just fine staying home and playing on the PS5, but that is not the reason we moved overseas. I am not sitting around playing video games when I could be absorbing the culture of a far-off destination. I can play my PlayStation in the nursing home when I am old and too feeble to do anything else.
That evening, we took off for the mainland. We landed in Fukuoka and had booked a small apartment in the downtown area.
Day 1: We awoke in Fukuoka and explored an underground mall. I was thankful it was underground because of the intense cold and sporadic rain that we were experiencing. Okinawa does get chilly in the Winter, but the mainland has another level of cold that we were not accustomed to. We spent the day shopping and eating our way across the Fukuoka area. Basically, we were looking for anything indoors. We found a large mall that was advertising a Christmas Disco with a laser light and Water Worx laser light show with DJ Santa. There were also other attractions as well that kept us thoroughly entertained. We also bought tickets to ride to the top of the Fukuoka Tower, which is the third tallest tower in Japan. Nothing will be as impressive as our visit to Tokyo’s Skytree, but the Fukuoka Tower offered stunning views of the coastline and islands surrounding Fukuoka.
Day 2: We boarded a train in Fukuoka and traveled to the Dazaifu Shrine to meet my friend Makoto Shiraishi who lives in the nearby town of Kurume. As the uncultured Americans we are, we always refer to every religious site we go to as a “temple”, but we learned from Makoto-San that a shrine is a Shinto place of prayer and worship and a temple is a Buddhist place of prayer and worship. To my untrained eye, I barely know the difference. The one trick I have learned to tell them apart is to look for the tell-tale statue of Buddha. We had very lucky timing at the shrine. As we arrived, we noticed a poster in Kanji (the written language of Japan) telling us that a fire festival would occur that day. In the Shinto religion, it is believed that everything has a God. That tree in your backyard has its own God or spirit designated to it. The phone or computer you are reading this article with has a God or spirit designated to it. In my early 20s, I must’ve been at least a little bit Shinto, I found myself praying to the Porcelain God quite a bit. Anyways, throughout the year, Shinto priests collect prayers associated with the various Gods on paper. Every prayer is sacred and since they are associated with a God or spirit, they can’t just be thrown away. They must be burned. The smoke is released back into the heavens while an assortment of clergy chant prayers. It was a very interesting thing to see.
Also, Cortney enjoyed the shopping and touristy part of Dazaifu. Dexter enjoyed the fresh mochi being cooked up at the dozen or so little shops that were producing the treats so fast and efficiently, that they would make the Keebler Elves blush in shame. We ended our trip to Dazaifu with a visit to a special Ramen shop nearby. It was so delicious that I had to physically restrain myself from licking the bowl clean once I had finished gobbling the meat, veggies, and noodles and slurping down the salty, savory broth. Makoto offered to take us to the train station back in Kurume but stopped at a 65-meter-tall Buddhist Statue depicting Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy and we traversed the staircase to the top inside the statue. It seemed we had been climbing hills or stairs all day. On the way out, I stopped a Buddhist monk and discovered that the statue gets painted every 15 years. I tried using my limited Japanese to find out how many gallons/liters of paint it took, but my lack of Japanese failed me. After the long train ride back to the hotel, we crashed and were lazy until the next morning.
Day 3: Just as promised, this was the day we had all anticipated. This was our first ride on the bullet train, also known as the Shinkansen. We arrived at Hakata Station in Fukuoka and bought tickets for the bullet train to Hiroshima. Usually, the drive is roughly 4 hours if you take the expressway and pay the various tolls. The Shinkansen is a quick 1 hour trip and it is a smooth ride. The kids commented that the train was so nice and the seating areas were so spacious and comfortable, that it seemed better than first class in an airplane. Since I am the only one in our family who has ridden in first class, I can attest that this was indeed a more comfortable ride. As the bullet train ramped up to its top speed of 200 MPH, I noticed that it was so smooth, that it felt like it was just gliding above the ground on a carpet of air. Most of the day was taken up by a late start from the hotel and traveling, but once we got to Hiroshima, we had time to walk around and explore. The boys ended up spending most of the night in a furious Pokemon battle next door at a local mall. Cortney and I toured the Hiroshima Museum of Art. We got some great vistas and sunset photos.
Day 4: Ever since I announced to our family nearly two years ago that we would be moving to Japan, Cortney has been begging to see the Atomic Dome and Peace Museum in Hiroshima City. I knew this was not going to be our usual happy-go-lucky adventure. From the beginning of the permanent exhibit, Cortney’s eyes were filled with water. With every step through the long exhibit, I could hear whimpering and sniffling. I was about to ask Cortney to pull herself together when I realized many around me were crying. Some had retreated to a hallway bench to sob with their face in their hands. The carnage that occurred that fateful day in 1945 left a lasting imprint on the world. 200,000 people were killed, and many were instantly vaporized. After what I saw in the aftermath, I consider the vaporized ones as the luckiest in Hiroshima that day. The ones who survived endured a literal living hellscape until eventually their hair and teeth fell out and their skin began shedding off before their organs dissolved into a mush and they died a gruesome, undignified, and painful death.
At the end of the ordeal in the museum, I figured I needed to save the day…or at least put everyone in a better mood. Otherwise, we would be stuck in a sad state for the rest of the day. We walked down to an area on the river and boarded a fast ferry boat that took us to a magical little island called Miyajima. It was around this time the boys realized they had been capturing some cool shots with their phones. The great photography contest was underway. Throughout the day, they took some stunning shots that I had folks vote on to pick a winner. The scenery and the shrines were fun to view. The town on the island was surely a tourist trap, but it was fun and the street food was delicious. It was the perfect escape from the heaviness of the A-bomb exhibits.
Day 5: I have traveled to Kure several times for work. It is a small coastal town that is known for its shipbuilding. Basically, it is the Pascagoula of Japan. They are famed for their ship production now, but in WWII, they built numerous ships, including the Yamato, which was and still is the largest battleship ever built. We got cheap rooms on the tiny U.S. Army base there and the boys were enamored with shopping in the smallest commissary in the world. We spent the day visiting the Yamato Museum. It houses a 1-10th replica of the actual battleship. We also went across the street to a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s submarine museum. They use the museum as a recruitment tool, but it is also a cool attraction for the town. A decommissioned submarine is dry-docked there and is part of the museum. As we walked through the museum, I realized that I am way too tall to be a Japanese submariner. That night, we tried ramen from Kure and followed the lights to a pagoda-style temple up on the hill overlooking the shipyards. We hiked up a side of a hill and made our way there for a very spooky and chilly view of the city.
Day 6: We got up and realized the entire city of Kure was shut down for the New Year. We had an old beat-up loaner car and used it to get back to Miyajima Island. We made sure to get there early so we could take the cable cars to the top of an 1800-foot mountain called Mt. MIsen. At the top of this mountain, we found a small shrine that houses “The Eternal Flame.” The sign informed us that the Shinto priests have kept this flame burning for more than 1,200 years. They have used the flame to light the Olympics on numerous occasions. Everything was so beautiful.
Day 7: We made our way back to Fukuoka by train again. We wanted to be near our airport a day or two before we flew back to Okinawa. That night, we arrived and found a section of the city had been roped off for end-of-the-year festivals. I asked my friend Koji who is from Fukuoka what we should focus the last days of our vacation on and he said his “must do” item would experience Yatai culture. A Yatai is a small, mobile food stall. We saw the canal walkway lined up with them. The name Yatai literally translates to shop stand. A long row of these mobile kitchens were set up in a row and lines began to form. The usual stoic Japanese personalities were left at home over the next two nights as the city was filled with music, dancing, and laughter and I think I might have seen a few moments of public displays of affection, which are rare.
Last Day: We are on our way home and I can’t wait for a hot shower, a hamburger, and my own Tempurpedic mattress. We have made some memories this week that we will never forget. Japan continues to be a wonderful experience that we will always remember with love in our hearts.
The lesson I learned
I could have easily been angry with someone for the visa situation. I lost some money. I will get most of it back through refunds. I could have been completely angry with the whole situation. One of the commonly repeated and shared inside jokes in our small family is a recurring traumatic memory that Cortney had as a child. She can painfully recall a moment when her mother stated that she “ruined Christmas” one year. When it had become apparent that it was Cortney’s “fault” that the visa paperwork was not going to go as planned, both of my kids whipped out their sharp and cutting senses of humor and jokingly said, “Mom, you ruined Christmas”. She started crying hard and then we kinda shared hugs and a laugh about it.
The truth of the matter is that there is little that Cortney could do administratively to ruin Christmas. The most important part of this whole Christmas story is that we spent it together exploring the world as a family. As I sat in the airport at the beginning of this trip, I had a choice to make. I could have been angry and took my anger out on Cortney as an easy target. Instead, I put on a brave face and made a new plan. Had I decided to be angry, it would have been me who ruined Christmas. Christmas isn’t a destination or a present under the tree. A good Christmas is a memory shared with loved ones and the feeling of being surrounded by love. I hope my kids look back on our unconventional Christmas travels and realize that. Writing this story made me think back on how magical my parents and grandparents made Christmas for me. I have spent a lifetime appreciating that. Thanks, mom, dad, Granny, and Papaw.
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