“Aaa-eeh,” the punter sang, “tsukino dokoromo hatsukano yamimoe.” His throat danced around a different note for each of the syllables of the old Japanese poem. The sun was beating down, making me wish we had forked out the 100円for a kasa hat. Still, listening to his voice and water lapping up gently against the side of the donkobune was like a massage for the soul.
It’s easy to see why 1.3 million visitors descend on Yanagawa, Fukuoka every year to ride one of these traditional boats around the city’s canals. In total, 930 km (578 mi) of ancient waterways reticulate the affectionately nicknamed “Little Venice of Kyushu”. The architecture, atmosphere and cuisine is worlds away from its Italian counterpart, but Yanagawa is a city of water in its own right.
To the southwest of it lies the Ariake Sea, known for its high tidal range which reaches 6 meters in some areas. The strong ebb and flow of the tides grinds down earth and sand brought into the sea by rivers into a fine silt, creating vast mud flats at low tide.
What if you could offer the comfort and companionship of pets to millions of people who don’t have the space, or are forbidden by landlords, to keep their own? It was this idea that led to the opening of Japan’s first cat cafe in Tokyo in 2005.
Although not a unique concept – Taiwan opened the world’s first in 1998 – it was one that gained popularity fast. The cafes became a hit with locals and tourists alike, with many of the former visiting for stress relief while the latter were drawn to the unconventionality of it all. In just five years, the ‘pet-rental’ business in Japan had grown to include 79 cat cafes alone.
Today, stores offer more than just cats. Customers can spend time with rabbits, dogs, snakes, goats, or – the latest trend – owls.
Almost everyone I know who has been to Fukuoka has visited the Hakata branch of Owl Family, which opened in January 2014 . Intrigued by the idea of getting to see the magnificent birds of prey up close, I begged Mark – who’d already been once before – to take Ken and I for a look after our trip to Nanzoin Temple. But during our visit, the novelty wore off fast.
Having your own little Kei in the inaka of Japan is gold – they’re cheap, easy on petrol and, like all cars, you can jump in on a whim and go wherever the road takes you. The downside? They aren’t really built for frequent, long road trips. This, I was reminded of as I opened my eyes and let them slowly adjust through the polka-dotted window onto a grey, misty parking lot. “Where are we? What’s wrong?” I asked, looking around trying to get my bearings. Mark laughed nervously, “The engine’s overheated.”
I had been taking my role of backseat passenger (read: napper) very seriously, while Mark drove and Ken navigated us to Fukuoka. Our first stop was supposed to be Nanzoin Temple in Sasaguri Town, just outside of Hakata. But now it looked like we might not make it. When we stopped again at a petrol station further up the road, the attendants agreed that something was very wrong. “There’s a car shop off the next exit.”
The Honda service station was in a place called Asakura, 50 min from the temple. The mechanic confirmed our worst fears: the engine was, essentially, fucked.