Friday, September 24, 2010

Sex and the City (of Fukuoka)

When I was getting my visa renewed a few days ago I also got my work permit renewed. This allows me to work part time, which isn't normally permitted on a student visa. I mainly need it for the editing and research jobs I do for some profs on occasion.

While the immigration official was explaining the limits of my work permit (can't work more than 28 hours per week, etc) he made a point of telling me I was not permitted to do any "fuzoku" work. This made me laugh out loud as "fuzoku" jobs are basically jobs in the sex industry. In other words he was warning me against working as a male prostitute.
Above: exactly the type of thing immigration officials are striving to keep out of Fukuoka.

Decidedly not reassured by my reaction, he drove home the point "Seriously. Don't work at Nakasu Soapland. It will be a violation of your work permit and you will risk deportation."

Looking down at my T-shirt and shorts from discount retailer Uniqlo, rubbing my 33 year old pot belly with one hand while running the other through my buzz-cut hair (1,000 yen at the mall) I thought of asking him what on earth made him think I was somehow the type of person who would be likely to find work in the sex industry. Realizing that no matter how I phrased it such a question would only lead to trouble I instead opted to meekly thank the official for his wise guidance and promise to refrain from embarking on any untoward career moves.

Afterward I kind of got to thinking with some amusement about the Nakasu district of Fukuoka. You know a neighborhood has a bad reputation if immigration officials are specifically enjoining foreign residents from working there by name as a condition of their getting a work permit.

As I've noted before Nakasu is the centre of Fukuoka's red light district. Its actually a small island separated by canals from the rest of the city (though you barely notice this when riding through). I have to cross through there on my way to and from downtown, though I've never really explored the area. Mainly this is because I'm a little scared of the place after dark - all sorts of aggressive and shady looking characters populate its sidewalks at night so I just zip on through.

Since I've been keeping this blog though I've really wanted to take a few pictures there because its the sort of thing you don't see back in Canada. As I was passing through at around 1 o'clock in the afternoon today and I thought everything was closed (and thus no aggressive/shady people around) I determined to take a quick spin through the streets of Nakasu. My trip revealed to me the folly of believing that Nakasu ever closes down.

The main street that I often cross, though almost never ride down, was in fact more or less empty:
The store fronts of hostess bars had pictures of the women who worked there and their rates. Hostess bars I should note are not a form of prostitution. They don't really have an equivalent in Canada. They are just bars where women work and their job is to pour drinks and laugh and listen to the stories of salarymen who want to feel like important guys:
I also stumbled across one of the weirder fads in Japan these days, maid cafes. To the best of my knowledge these are just normal cafes except the waitresses are dressed up as maids. The mere fact that places such as these exist just perplexes me to no end.
Men also work in Nakasu at places geared towards a female clientele:
If it hadn't been for the helpful warning from the kind immigration official, my face might have ended up on this billboard. I would probably have adopted the facial expression of the guy second from the left.

Up until this point I had just been riding along the main street, which was more or less empty in the middle of the afternoon. Emboldened by this I resolved to do a little cycling off the beaten track and into some of the interesting looking side streets. This turned out to be something of a mistake.

It turns out that the main street of Nakasu is just where the more pedestrian businesses are mostly located. The seedy, blatantly obvious brothels are located on the side streets. Or at least on the side street that I happened to ride down.

While riding the empty main street nobody had bothered me at all. The side street looked pretty quiet at first, but the very second my front tire crossed into it I was swarmed by the Japanese equivalent of pimps on all sides trying to get me into their establishments.

"Come and look at the pictures of my girls" said a middle-aged woman, running backwards in front of me "they are so beautiful."

"Come here, you'll have such a good time with my women" said an older man ambling over to me on the other side who could best be described as a Japanese version of Jack from "Father Ted":
It was all too much for an innocent boy from rural Ontario like me to take. "abdabadabeduh" I stammered, my face turning bright red, "heh-heh, no thank you.....heh".

I pedaled past the woman, desperate to find an exit to the bloody street. More pimps bellowed at me to come into their establishment. "No thank you" I said, smiling while desperately hoping not to run into anyone I knew, "I promised immigration I wouldn't."

Finally I came to the end of the street, which was at the canal that formed one of the borders of Nakasu. I spun around and took a picture of the street which, disappointingly, looks like just any other street in photo form.
Each of those shop fronts has a kind of "pimp" (not necessarily an accurate word to describe them, but I don't know of another that accurately conveys the meaning of "someone who stands on the street and looks for clients to have some sort of sexual service performed by a third party") sitting in front who springs into action the moment a person walks past.

Yet another seedy part of Fukuoka's urban fabric laid bare. With that I headed home.

Postscript (November 4, 2010):

Since I put this post up I've noticed that my blog has rather oddly started to get a lot more traffic than it used to. This got me curious.

Google blogger has a neat function that allows the person running the blog to know what search terms people entered into google in order to reach the blog. So for example if you reached my blog because you did a google search for "Fukuoka sightseeing" I would know that fact thanks to blogger.

Prior to putting up this post, I used to get a lot of visits by people looking for relatively innocent information about things like "Kyushu University information" or "Fukuoka travel" or something. After putting up this post, which regrettably has the word "sex" in the title, I started getting visitors of a different kind.

I won't put up any of the more imaginative search terms here (this is a family friendly blog after all) but suffice it to say that judging from some of them my blog and this post in particular seem to be getting visited by a class of people that I would generally characterize as "out of town businessmen looking for information about where they can procure the services of prostitutes during their stay in Fukuoka."

Now, I'm not a particularly judgmental kind of guy, but I have to say that I do not in any way want my blog to in any way be facilitating the sex trade. Its a brutal industry that promotes either directly or indirectly all sorts of bad things against vulnerable people - probably the most notorious being human trafficking. So I've gone through and edited out all the details of my trip so as to minimize its use for that purpose.

Related Posts:

Fukuoka Night Rider

Embarrassing Google Searches and My Little Blog

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fukuoka Airport and Shime Coal Mine: An Odd Combination, But That is Where I Went Today

I had to bike out to Fukuoka Airport today to renew my visa. I don't really like heading to the airport because its a really unpleasant ride mostly through an industrial area. The only interesting thing brightening the journey is the tasteful artwork to be found in a Pachinko Parlour parking lot:
I actually like Fukuoka airport. Its close to downtown, easily accessible by subway (less than 10 minutes to the heart of the city) and....well other than that its just a normal airport. Which is fine.

Up until about a year ago the newest public works boondoggle-in-the-making was an entirely new Fukuoka airport to be built on an artificially constructed island at an estimated cost of 920 billion yen (about 9 billion US dollars). Thankfully the governor said "no", which made me quite happy. These artificial island airports are such a waste of money and resources. Where we used to live in the Kansai area what can only be called idiotic decision making (particularly by the Kobe city government) led to two of these monstrosities (KIX and Kobe) being built right next to each other even though there was already an airport (Itami) servicing the region. The struggles of these new airports have been news fodder for some time now. Both Osaka and Kobe's city governments are massively in debt and they have these airports to thank for it. Joining in on the idiotic, unnecessary airport building boom was rural Ibaraki, which just opened its own finance-destroying airport much to the amusement of the mass media in March.

Anyway, enough about that. The one thing I find amusing about Fukouka's airport actually isn't in the airport itself, its what is across the street when you leave the front door:
Welcome to Fukuoka! Land of....ugly billboards. So, you know....come to Fukuoka...if you like billboards and stuff. Cuz we got lots of them.

These things are visible from miles away at night, when we take a bus out of town on the return trip I always look for these signs because they are the only Fukuoka landmark visible from the highway (which doesn't run anywhere near them) that is instantly recognizable. If you look closely, some of these are actually built directly over people's homes.

After finishing my business at the airport I decided to head over to nearby Shime town, which is only about 20 minutes by bike away. Shime is a former coal mining town whose mines shut down a long time ago. Last December the remnants of the Shime coal mine were declared an important cultural property by the central government. This is part of a new trend to recognize and protect former industrial sites for posterity's sake, NHK even did a show about it (not just about Shime, but the mine was included in one segment). I just had to go check it out for myself.

The road from the airport to Shime, I have to say, is not an attractive one. Especially on a rainy day, this guy provided the only color:
Anyway, after a few minutes of pedaling I arrived at Shime. Finding the coal mine wasn't hard as the shaft tower looms over the entire town and is easily visible in the distance:
The Shime mine began operations in the late 19th century, though the above structure (which is really all that is left above ground) was built during the war when the mine was used to supply coal to the Japanese Navy. It is a well-documented fact that a lot of coal mines in Fukuoka employed Allied POWs during the war in some really atrocious conditions. None of the signs which gave the building's history gave any hint of whether that was the case at Shime mine as well, though the time of its construction (1943) and its use by the Navy make me suspect it may have been.

At any rate, I have to admit that the building has an odd charm about it. Something about its odd shape, it looks different from different angles:

The mine was closed in 1964 and the structure sat abandoned until recently people became interested in preserving it as a form of cultural property. As you can see the concrete is in pretty rough shape:
While I found the building itself to be fairly interesting, the overall experience of going there was a bit of a let-down. While the structure itself has been barred up since it was closed, up until some time in the recent past it had been possible to walk right up to the building. There is a landscaped path that leads right next to it. Unfortunately they recently surrounded the thing with a tall chain-link fence that prevents anyone from getting within about 50 metres of it. The fence cuts across the path that used to lead right up to it:
There wasn't anyone around and I couldn't find out why they had done this, the signs just say "Entry prohibited". There may have been some valid safety concerns involved here, but closing it off like this really takes a lot out of the experience.

Actually the surrounding area isn't particularly nice either. They've built a giant public recreation hall right next to it and a park that has a few useless structures that do nothing to protect passing bloggers from the rain as I discovered during a sudden downpour while I was there:
Fencing things off, building parks and recreation halls is OK, but.....I think what needs pointing out is that - basically - this mine shaft is an ugly, ugly piece of concrete shit. The only thing that makes it interesting is its kind of brooding, derelict-looking state that can really make people's imaginations work. If you fence it off and surround it with the same sterile old shlocky municipal park-type crap with a big ugly recreation centre and huge parking lot right next to it, then you rob it of even that. I'm certainly not saying they should have just left it to rot, but there must have been a better way to do this.

Hmmm...on second thought maybe they should have left it to rot. Beautiful neighborhoods lined with lovely old wooden machiya getting bulldozed across the country and THIS is what they decide to invest money in protecting as important cultural property? Ah, screw it, I'll never understand this country.

Anyway, with the help of a cropping function I can still capture some of its brooding dereliction:

The entrance to the mine itself is nearby, also fenced off:
The town of Shime, once you get off the awful main road, isn't too bad. They seem to have had a lot of red bricks brought in at some time as some of the side streets are full of lovely walls made of them:
The tower looms over them:
Related Posts:

- Urban Ghost Town: The Bewitching Ugliness of Chiyomachi Nichome
- Shoutengai and Kashii: The Bulldozer Comes to Higashi Ku
- Kyudai Hakozaki: The Elegant Decay of a Dying Campus

Postscript - April 8, 2011

In the first few months since I put this post up it got a little over a 100 pageviews total. Then one day last week it suddenly got almost 2,000 in a single day.

Enter the Anti-Zombie Fortress meme. Apparently somebody noticed that the Shime coal mine would make a perfect anti-zombie fortress and the whole internet took notice of this bizarre fact and everyone suddenly wanted to know everything they could about the previously-obscure Shime coal mine. This post of mine and this one at Abandoned Kansai seem to be the only English blog entries out there detailing the mine, hence the surge of traffic.

Anyway, anyone out there looking to play with the Anti-Zombie fortress thing, I hereby give you permission and encourage you to use the photos on this post for whatever creative zombie related endeavours you may have, assuming this thing hasn't completely played itself out yet, which it might well have.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Urban Ghost Town: The Bewitching Ugliness of Chiyomachi Nichome

When I ride my bike downtown I take a route that passes by the Fukuoka prefectural government’s capital building. It is a utilitarian, ugly grey edifice that isn’t worth photographing in its own right (hence the lack of photos here) but it does have the benefit of an avenue lined with lovely, mature camphor trees running in front of it which makes for a much more pleasant cycling experience than the smog-filled, treeless abomination that is route 3.

On passing the government buildings, the scenery abruptly changes. The interest of city planners in beautifying the area only seems to have extended as far as the line of site from the governor’s office reached. At that point we return to the usual indifferently laid out roadway that characterizes most of Fukuoka’s (and indeed any Japanese city’s) city-scape. Mature camphor trees turn to stunted, miserable looking deciduous trees whose limbs are regularly stripped of all greenery by city workers and the wide, tiled sidewalk turns narrow and bumpy.

At this point we have entered the strange nether land in the urban fabric of Fukuoka that is Chiyomachi Ni-chome.

Chiyomachi Ni-Chome (for the sake of brevity, “Chiyomachi”, though in actual fact I’m mainly talking about only the Ni-chome part of Chiyomachi) is perhaps one of the most miserable looking neighborhoods in Fukuoka. It exhibits layer upon layer of Japanese architectural and city-planning history that coalesce into an economically unviable, depressingly ugly mess of a neighborhood whose existence is pretty much ignored by everyone. In light of my recent fascination with the crumbling, desolate side of Japan as exhibited on this blog (like here and here) I just had to explore the area with my camera.

When one approaches Chiyomachi on just about any side on one of the several main roads that surround and bisect it, the buildings facing the street are the usual assortment of ghastly apartment buildings that developers have inflicted on every corner of the archipelago in recent years:

These buildings form a kind of wall facing out onto the main roads. One could pass through Chiyomachi on those roads and think the neighborhood was nothing but giant ugly apartment blocks. But hidden behind these apartment blocks on the back streets are the remnants of the townhouses and shoutengai of old Chiyomachi.

Proceeding down the road from the government buildings one gets a rare peak at this old world in an odd building whose façade is barely visible in a break between the high-rise edifices of the modern apartment and office buildings. It is a building that I’m sure everyone who has ever ridden a bike down this road will instantly recognize as it is the sort of thing that you can’t miss noticing. Those who zip by in cars probably won’t as it would go by in a flash. How the building is still standing is a mystery:The sight of this place is what first interested me in Chiyomachi. I’ve been watching it slowly crumbling bit by bit every week for the longest time. The roof finally caved in a few weeks ago and I thought I had better take some pictures of it quickly before it completely falls apart:I really have no idea why this thing has been allowed to slowly collapse in on itself for this long. In the countryside it isn’t unusual to find abandoned buildings slowly deteriorating, but this is in the middle of the city. The street is partially blocked by debris that has fallen off, with red pylons marking off the danger area:Even the scaffolding erected to hold it up looks ancient and like it might fall over with the building:

This is actually pretty much the typical fate of old townhouses like this, albeit most get pulled down before they reach this level of deterioration. Even in the midst of its decay and the patchwork of add-ons like the sheet metal siding you can see that in its prime it must have been quite an attractive wood building owned by some merchant or artisan in the old town. Chiyomachi was once dominated by buildings like this, as is evidenced by old pictures of the area, but they are a dying breed.

Actually, wood townhouses (“machiya”) like these have had a really hard time in Japan in recent decades. Up until about 40 years ago Kyoto – the cultural and traditional capital of Japan - had city streets which were lined by lovely rows of such machiya, giving the city a charming, traditional feel. Or at least so I’m told. By the time I made my first trip to Kyoto in 1999 most of those had been torn down and replaced by a generation of architecture that strictly followed the aesthetic demands of the “brutalist ugly plastic and concrete shit” school. A stake had been driven through the old city’s heart and it has never really recovered, a fact lamented by pretty much every western writer with an artistic bent who has visited Kyoto since the 1970s. In the past decade though the trend there has thankfully reversed itself and these lovely old machiya, once considered passé, are now back in vogue and efforts to preserve those that remain are helped by the fact that they command a price premium on the real estate market. They are, after all, quite attractive when well maintained as this one in Chiyomachi attests to:

This refreshing new trend in Kyoto unfortunately hasn’t washed up on Fukuoka’s shores yet and the rule here seems to be if you want to sell a piece of property with a machiya on it you are better off demolishing the machiya first and just selling the land, as it is worth more without it than with. As a result, most of the ones left are just waiting to be torn down when their current occupants, mostly old pensioners, pass away and the land moves on to other hands.

Very few attractive machiya exist in Chiyomachi these days, of the few that remain most have had plastic, concrete or metal facades added over the years that have robbed them of their traditional, wooden charm. Nonetheless, in the back streets you can see the struggling remnants of the old neighborhood somehow still existing in the shadows of the high rises that now surround them. Strolling the streets one is confronted by the obvious fact that this neighborhood has no more energy left in it. While most of the buildings are still occupied, not a soul stirs on what once upon a time must have been a bustling shopping street. All the shops now sit shuttered on a sunny Saturday afternoon:

Other houses sit abandoned, though not quite as near their ultimate fate as the one above:
A few potted plants at least give these places some vibrancy, indicating that people actually live here and care enough to water them:
Around the corner, more boarded up shops sit empty, no more customers to darken their doorways:
The look of decay on some corners resemble the type of thing you see in pictures of shanty towns in the less economically endowed parts of the world, though at least the places look lived in:
Back on the main road, one sees the bizarre results of trying to squeeze a 5 floor modern apartment building onto a parcel of land originally designed to hold a single machiya:

Across one of the major roads, a slightly more “alive” part of Chiyomachi boasts an interesting building still in business. This is a public bath, a dying breed in modern Japan where everyone has their own bath to use. In the old days though these were a mainstay of every neighborhood, just like barber shops and grocery stores. The door on the left leads to the women’s bath, the one on the right to the men’s.

Here is another well-preserved machiya. Unfortunately they lose a lot of their charm when surrounded by asphalt, ugly high-rises and power lines as this one is:
This side also boasts another struggling form of business that is dying out across the country: the old mom and pop style general store:
The sign says it sells “soap, cleaning goods, toothpaste and daily use goods” though one suspects that the cigarette machine provides its main source of income these days.

Another block reveals another era of Japanese urban development. Sometime in the 1970s (judging from the building style) a large part of Chiyomachi was replaced by some large scale apartment blocks. These are a bit different from the ones that front the major streets in that they take up the entire blocks on which they sit, meaning that all of the old town where these ones are was completely obliterated at the time of their construction.

The apartments are ugly and drab, but their most interesting feature are the storefronts that were built around them to front onto the sidewalks:

These have the look of strip malls, yet unlike most big developments these weren’t filled with big chain stores. Rather the little stores and restaurants of the old neighborhood seem to have moved in. It creates a strange contrast. The building obviously was a major undertaking which required a huge amount of financing to build. Yet the shops that occupy it are more or less the same kind of haphazardly organized places on sees in the run-down old buildings on shoutengai like those in Kashii. So you’ve got places like this vegetable shop with a mix-matched variety of tarps and empty boxes spilling out over the sidewalk and even onto the street:
The fact that it is in a big, expensive building hasn’t really done much to prevent this shoutengai from meeting the fate of so many others around Japan and large stretches of shops are to be found shuttered:Anyway, that is Chiyomachi Ni-chome. Only a few blocks away from Hakata station – the busiest piece of real estate in Kyushu (home to 13 million people) and yet it looks like the land that time forgot. I may be the first person ever to have bothered to write about it in English. A google search turns up precious little on the neighborhood. Even a Japanese language web search doesn’t turn up much. Its Japanese Wikipedia page just gives you some of the dry facts (date of foundation, population, etc) but tells you nothing of substance about it. Most of the other Japanese sites aren’t about Chiyomachi per se but sites dedicated to other things with which Chiyomachi happened to be connected, like Fukuoka’s old streetcar line (which used to run through Chiyomachi before the subway replaced it). In a few years the remaining houses will probably be cleared away and the whole neighborhood turned into a pachinko parlor parking lot or something. Kind of sad, but what are you going to do?