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Saturday, March 26, 2011

KUMAMOTO, SAKURA AND PEARL

First of all, the Fukushima nuclear near apocalypse can be followed on the IAEA (pro-nuclear) log, which tends to reflect Tokyo Electric Power Company views, or many others, as for example,  a typical blog, or the New York Times or Wikipedia.  While now up to level 6, it seems that today is better than yesterday.  However, the sea around Fukushima is 1000 times more radioactive than before, and, get this, the official report is they don't know what's causing this.  Amazing.

Seems I was right.  No cherry blossoms in Fukuoka.  However, Google informs me that Kumamoto Castle began blooming three days ago, and it is only 50 miles away, half an hour by Shinkensen.  That's another advantage of Japan Rail Pass.  I hurry off to their ticket office, and step onto a Green Car within minutes with a return ticket.

I get to Kumamoto (state population 1.8 million and city of .73 million), but need to catch a tram, which comes right up.  Fifteen minutes later I arrive, but don't know how to pay, so just ignore it.  It costs about $6 to enter the castle, which is huge.  You've seen one, you've seen all:  a moat, high walls:


The cherry blossoms are just beginning to bloom.  I pick a spot to have my hanami (picnic while viewing cherry blossoms) of shochu at 16% and a package of kakimochi and almonds.  I have a major dinner tonight, and it was already 1PM, so I had to eat light.


Must be the field of view, for you can't see the castle above, so here is a close up:


As this is the first cherry blossom I've seen for two years, and that was with Pearl, I lay some of her ashes here.  I learn that this castle was started in 1467, before Columbus discovered America.  There are other flowers:


And a cat:


I then hurried off to Suizenji Jojuen Garden, which has been around since 1632.


And there are cherry blossoms in bloom:


And animals:


And more birds:


And a bear:


The weather was much warmer here than Fukuoka.  But I rush back to catch the 3:24 PM to Hakata, and just miss it by a minute.  So I stroll over to the ticket office, show my Japan Rail Pass and ask for the next Green Car to Fukuoka.  Twenty minutes later, I'm on my way.  Their computer system does not care if you miss any train.  Another advantage of the Japan Rail Pass.  All in all a great accidental outing.

I asked the concierge what was the best restaurant in town for authentic Fukuoka food, so she sent me to Sagano, two subway stops away.  There are three high end restaurants on the top floor of a flashy building.  I learned that there was no English menu, and no one here spoke English, so to protect me from some accidental crustacean, I thought I would try one of the other two.

Next door was a French restaurant, but I think it is related to Robuchon, where I went to two nights ago.  Thus, I ended up at a teppanyaki place called Hachi, where again, no one spoke english.  But there was a set menu and one course did not appear to have any dangerous food.  I started with a 1978 Chateau Mouton Rothschild


And ended with a Chateau d'Yquem


Actually, I'm kidding.  I just took these photos as I left the restaurant.  Hachi apparently had no sake or beer unique to Fukuoka, or, at least no one understood my questions, so I had a hot sake and cold beer (not sure who made them)


The steak came from Saga, only a few miles away, and was excellent, here flambe'ed:


The dessert came with expresso:


I show this photo because one item is a packet you open to wipe your glasses.  Nice touch.

I leave tomorrow for Nagasaki.  But before I do, I must comment on the difference between the JR Kyushu Hotel Fukuoka and the Tokyo Westin.  First, I walked by the entrance because it was so small, but at least it is close to the Hakata Station, unlike the Westin, which is a 15 minute walk to the Ebesu Station on the Yamanote Line.  My room is about one-third the size of the Westin, but, actually, quite functional, with the internet system free and quicker than Tokyo.  My view is the wall of the next building, whereas I always get a Mount Fuji view at the Westin.  Unfortunately, the air pollution generally obscures everything at distance.  There is English CNN on a flat screen high definition TV and the room smells good.  The breakfast is free and outstanding, and while it normally costs about $11, would set you back $35 in a typical Tokyo hotel:


For all the above the room price was one-third that of the Tokyo Westin.  However, the best part of the JR Kyushu Hotel Fukuoka is the staff.  They are all young, eager, enthusiastic and supremely helpful.  While the Tokyo Westin also has excellent staffing, they should send their workers to this Fukuoka hotel to observe how they can become better.  For the next couple of nights I'll be at the JR Kyushu Hotel Nagasaki, so let's see how their staff compares.

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