Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Fine and Private Place

There are probably few readers aware of this, but this blog was initially not a blog on mystery fiction. I originally opened the blog to write about my life studying in Japan, as I was going to first study for three months in Tokyo, and then for another year in Fukuoka. It was only after my return that I decided to write about (Japanese) mystery fiction here, and.... oh-my-god I hadn't even noticed I've working on this blog for eight years already.

Anyway, so much of the earlier days of this blog were about my life in the city of Fukuoka, a place that is still dear to me. And even after I left Fukuoka, even after I started to write about mystery fiction exclusively here, Fukuoka remained a presence on the blog. For the attentive reader will have noticed that I sometimes read books that are explicitly set in Fukuoka. It shouldn't surprise you when I say that many of the mystery stories I read are either set in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, or the Kansai district, which features famous cities like Osaka and Kyoto. These are of course the most densely populated areas in Japan, and serve as economical and socio-cultural centres of Japan. People know about these places, even if they have never been to them. Media has a tendency to focus on these centres of socio-cultural and economical influences, and for many (both authors and readers), the "default" setting will be Tokyo.

Both of the geographical areas mentioned above lie on the main island of Honshu, whereas Fukuoka lies on the southern island of Kyushu, which is quite far from Tokyo (to illustrate: new book releases are usually two, three days late in Fukuoka compared to Tokyo). Fukuoka is the largest metropolis on the island about the size of the Netherlands, but is not as popular as a fictional setting in mystery fiction in general, even though it is an interesting background setting, as the commercial and cultural capital of Kyushu and as a popular tourist destination both domestic and international. The current Fukuoka City (capital of Fukuoka Prefecture) came into existence after a merger between the towns of Hakata (a merchant town) and Fukuoka (a samurai town) in 1889. While Fukuoka City is the current name, the name Hakata is still alive and strongly associated with the area's culture. Fukuoka's main train station is called Hakata Station for example, and one usually refers to Hakata dialect rather than to Fukuoka dialect. The local variant of ramen noodles is also considered an imporant element of Hakata culture: the noodles of tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen (sometimes referred to as Hakata tonkotsu ramen) are distinctly thinner than the common Tokyo variant, and usually cooked al-dente, while served in a white broth (made of pork bones simmered for many, many, many hours).

So I thought it might be interesting to plot out the couple of Fukuoka-set mystery stories I've read on a map, to give the readers a glimpse in a Fukuoka that exists on the page! I decided to only pick out the stories set within Fukuoka City (not the prefecture) and to make it clear: I do not claim that this is a complete list. There are obviously many more mystery novels set in Fukuoka in existence, but I think this will serve as a nice introduction. The map below shows where each story/book is mainly set.

1) KashiiTen to Sen ("Points and Lines", 1958).

Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen opens with an investigation into two dead bodies lying on the beach of Kashiihama. While at first it looks like double suicide, a stubborn old police detective suspects there might be much more behind this case, as statements made by witnesses who saw the couple walk from one of the two nearby Kashii Stations to the beach don't add up. There is a need to solve the case quickly though, as one of the victims was also a suspect, and key witness in a grand corruption case unfolding in Tokyo at the same time. The case soon grows into an investigation covering the whole country of Japan, from the southern city of Fukuoka all the way to the northern capital of Hokkaido.

Let's start with the place I know best! For I actually lived in Kashiihama during my year in Fukuoka, the actual beach being only a five minute walk away from my room. It's clear Matsumoto knew the suburbean areas of Kashiihama and Kashii quite well, because he makes brilliant use of the fact that there are two Kashii Stations (one operated by JR, one by Nishitetsu) in close vicinity (basically on the same street). The route from the stations to the beach is described as "a lonely one", which might've been true in 1958, but nowadays it'll bring you along a busy shopping arcade and an even busier automobile road that's lively from the earliest until the latest hour of the day.

2) Hakozaki - Houkago Spring Train ("After School Spring Train", 2016)

Yoshino Izumi's debut work introduces us to Izumi, your ordinary high school student living an ordinary life. Talking with friends about potential boyfriends, trying to win that one monthly contest at school for a free food coupon, and sometimes coming across strange happenings.  For example: why didn't that lady stand up even though she was sitting on Izumi's skirt in the train? And why would a kid lie about what kind of plant he was growing? These little mysteries are of course nothing but small nuisances at best, but these questions bug Izumi immensely, but her friend Tobiki, a student at Q University, luckily always has a an answer for her.

Another book set in a very familar place. Izumi's school is located in the above-mentioned Kashii, but she lives in the Hakozaki neigbourhood, near the Hakozaki Campus of Q University. Q University is of course based on Kyushu University, and it just happens that I was studying there, at the Hakozaki Campus in my year in Fukuoka, so I know the area well. The description of Hakozaki Campus in this book is hilarious, as it's described a town of ruins. Which it basically is! Hakozaki Campus used to be the main campus of the Kyushu Imperial University (it changed to Kyushu University after World War II), and many of the buildings are really old. But because the main campus of the university has now moved elsewhere in the city, many building are actually left unused and without any maintenance, as they are scheduled for demolition.

3) Maidashi - Dogura Magura (1935)

Yumeno Kyuusaku's infamous anti-mystery Dogura Magura starts in the psychological ward of Kyushu Imperial University, where a young man is being held captive. Why is he there? What did he do? Who is that professor who keeps visiting him, telling him to remember something, some deed he commited in the past? Questions is all our protagonists has, but answers are rarely given to them, and the answers he is given, are definitely not what he had expected. As the tale develops, both the protagonist and the reader start to suspect that absolutely nothing is what it seems in this world as they get entangled in a maze of deception, fantasy and madness.

The medical facilities of the Kyushu Imperial University and its associated hospital are situated in Maidashi, just next to the Hakozaki Campus. The medical faculty of Kyushu Imperial University became infamous itself when it was discovered that horrible vivisections had been conducted on prisoners-of-war during World War II. Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura is set many years before the war, but he was way ahead of his time by portraying the medical faculty as a place where strange medical experiments are being held. There's not much to do in Maidashi itself nowadays though: it's still the home of many of Kyushu University's medical facilities, as well as other educational institutions.

4) Nakasu - Hakata Tantei Jiken File series ("Hakata Detective Case File series", 2009-2015)

Yuge Takumi is a private detective located in Nakasu, the entertainment district of Fukuoka, flanked by the Naka and Hakata Rivers. Yuge's cases brings him in contact with all sides of Fukuoka society, including the underworld, but he knows how to survive everywhere. His father used to be a ramen noodle stand owner, and it's Yuge's knowledge of ramen noodles and its culture that often enable him to solve the case, as for some reason his investigations often have parallels with ramen noodles. The theme of ramen noodles is also connected to his father, as Yuge's dad disappeared one day many years ago, and finding him is the reason why Yuge started his detective business in the first place.

Nakasu is without a doubt the nightlife entertainment district of Fukuoka, with all the clubs and the red light district located there. At night, the river banks are also crowded with yatai stands: mobile food carts that only come out at night. Yatai are an important element of Fukuoka food culture, and many tourist will have an evening meal (or snack) there near the river. Considering Yuge's connection to ramen, it's not strange his offices are located in Nakasu, as most of these food stands serve ramen noodles

5) Tenjin - Tekki & Kyuuta series (2001-2006)

Tekki and Kyuuta used to be a pair of troublemakers at school, but now that they're adults.... they're still the same. Tekki runs a ramen yatai stand in Nagahama nowadays, near the main shopping area Tenjin, while Kyuuta is making a living by working as an investigating operative for a dating agency, but even now, the two have a tendency to get in a lot of trouble together. Well, Kyuuta actually gets in a lot of trouble on his own, just like in the good old days. Tekki is still very good at thinking things through and solving the most baffling mysteries though, and it's their teamwork that makes them a feared duo in the streets of Fukuoka.

Most visitors to Fukuoka will know Tenjin the best, as it is the main shopping area, featuring all the big department stores, shopping malls and restaurants. It's not far away from Hakata Station (one could walk the distance), so I think that most (short-term) visitors will in fact only see the area near the station and Tenjin. Nagahama is to the north-west of the main Tenjin area, and is the home to Nagahama ramen, a variant of tonkotsu ramen (and yes, there are yatai stands there).

And that's it! Huh, I had never noticed that I hadn't read any books set west of Tenjin. To be honest, I'm not too familiar with that area myself, as my own space of activity spanned from Kashiihama (1 on the map above) where I lived, until Tenjin (5 on the map) where the main shopping area was, and it happens that this is the exact area covered by the books I read. Well, I know some of the short stories in the books I mentioned do also take place west of Tenjin, but none of them are focused or based there.

And thus concludes my introduction to Fukuoka City and its appearances in mystery fiction. And as for my tourist recommendations: go eat tonkotsu ramen noodles there. There's a reason why it was mentioned so often in this article. And don't go in the summer, because it gets crazy hot there.

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