Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Travelogue #29: How I Ended Up at a Police Station in Fukuoka, Japan at 3am...and Somehow Found My Way Home

othing good comes out of a place called Happy Cock.

It's 2am in Fukuoka, a bustling Japanese port city that a month ago I didn't know existed. Outside the Happy Cock, my friends wait among Japanese girls in slinky t-shirts and tattered jeans and beering Japanese dudes in thick-zippered jackets. I'm not dressed for this: I'm wearing an Old Navy hoody and three hours of sleep on my face. Everybody within earshot pants for the all-you-can-drink deal, but I'm exhausted and ready to say good night.

"I'm heading back," I say. "What's the name of our place again?"

"Center Hotel," David replies quickly. The club doors fling open and closed, revealing a huddled and bopping standing-room-only crowd among showers of strobe lights. My friends want to join the debauchery, and they want to do it now.

"Center?" I ask.

David checks with Yong, our friend/language maestro. He's a man who speaks fluent English, Korean, and Japanese, and he's the reason why we aren't utterly lost in a city unknown to most American tourists. Yong is a man with answers.

"Yeah that's right that's right. Sorry, I seriously got to pee," he says, "Like now."

"Center," I chant to myself as I tell my friends goodbye and shuffle into the elevator. Center Hotel.

With that, an adventure begins, one that leaves me, hours later, wondering how the hell I'm going to find my way home.

Nothing good comes out of a place called Happy Cock.

After I tell him my destination, my taxi driver mumbles in Japanese. He tethers the word "Center" in between his syllables and I worry: what exactly is he saying?

The cab winds around illuminate storefronts and restaurants I only sketchily recognize. This is my first night in Fukuoka, so my knowledge of its geography is limited to thoughts like "There's that Chinese restaurant!" and "There's that AM/PM pharmacy!" A few disorienting turns later, the car brakes at the Central Hotel Fukuoka.


This looks like the wrong hotel, but I'm not worried. I recognize it from the afternoon, when my friends and I walked past it and talked about its 1970s pink-and-white decor. I'm close to where I need to be. I'm in the right neighborhood.

I'm not worried.

Through the narrow roads behind the Central Hotel Fukuoka, I walk. Something tells me my real hotel is close, maybe one street over, maybe two. I got a gut feeling that I'm right, even though it's late and getting later, dark and getting darker, and I'm wandering in a city I can't place on a map, a city whose language I don't understand, a city with more than one Center Hotel. I walk. Confidently. I can't call my friends because my phone doesn't work in Japan, and I don't have the number for Yong's Japanese cell. But this isn't New Year's in Seoul when I needed two high school girls to help me find my friends; this time, I'm close to where I need to be. So I walk.

My feet are moving faster than my brain. Is that the Hakata rail station to my right? What the hell? Where am I? Keep going, my feet say, keep going.

There's a hotel to my left. I see it. Big white sign.

The Central Hotel Fukuoka.

I must have walked in a circle.

With determination I step into the Central Hotel Fukuoka and turn left to the elevators. I try to tell myself that maybe this is my "home" after all, that maybe my friends and I did indeed check into this place. For real. There could very well be a rear entrance to this hotel with different signage. Maybe that's what's confusing me. My friends said Center Hotel, my cabbie took me to Center Hotel...this is my hotel. This has to be my hotel!

I study my room key. It's a generic one; all it says is 803. One thing I definitely know is that the eighth floor is the top floor of whatever hotel is mine. I rush into the elevator and look at the line-up of numbers, hoping to God they end at 8.

They end at 13.


"Excuse me," I say to a well-dressed man at the front desk. "I have a problem."

I hand him my room key. He inspects it as if he's appraising an antique: squinted eyes, thinking, calculating. He speaks only a marginal amount of English, but he looks absolutely focused in helping me any way he can. He's working phones and maps, maps and phones. I'm witnessing the much-ballyhooed Japanese hospitality firsthand. I appreciate it, but secretly I'm begging him to give me a definitive solution right now.

My room key tells him nothing. The phones tell him nothing. The maps? In front of me, he lays one out that lists all the hotels in Fukuoka. Urged by my pleading, he translates their Japanese-charactered names: one after another. After another. After another.

"Tenjin Center Hotel," he finally says.

"Yes! I think!" I say, grasping to his words like a life preserver. "I think! I think that's right!"

He marks the location in black ink and gives me the map. I leave shooting thank-you's and arrigatos, but his only response is a no-big-deal wave. That's Japanese hospitality.

"Tenjin...Center?" the cabbie asks.

I say the name again. Three times. He repeats it back to me and then he starts driving. My worry dissipates a bit as we enjoy small talk about Korea and teaching English. Small talk with a cabbie on the way home...this night is finally turning normal.

The car slides into reverse down a narrow alley. It stops. "This is hotel," he says. "It has changed name."

"Oh my God," I say, my head down at my chest. "This isn't it. This isn't it."

I don't know what else to tell him: in the rear view mirror all I can make out is his concerned eyes and his wispy moustache.

"This isn't it," I say again. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Police station I take you." He turns off the meter, making the ride to the police station free. Nice guy.

The officer swishes his finger across the map, pointing at a blue box lined with Japanese characters. "Is it Aire Max Hotel?" he asks.

"No, no, no," I sputter. "Center something, Center - "

"Center Hotel! Fukuoka Center Hotel!"

"No. That's not it. I'm sorry, I'm stupid, I can't remember. I'm stupid!" I jab my finger hard against the side of my head but this makes me no smarter.

The cabbie has delivered me to this English-speaking officer on what looks like a quiet night at the Fukuoka police station. A few confused cops are standing around, piping in every so often with a Japanese word. These guys were flipping through newspapers when I arrived; now they're trying to help a lost American find his way home.

"It's not Fukuoka Center Hotel?" he asks me, both of us hunched over the map.


With a befuddled brow he stares at me, as if I'm a victim of a terrible car accident and he doesn't know if it'd be better to pull at my limbs or leave me there, body bruised but in tact. "Do you have friend's phone number?"

"I don't," I say. "I made a mistake. Stupid. I was stupid and I made a mistake."

Stupid is the only word I say with swagger, and stupid is the word the cop best understands, for he nods when I say it.

We aren't getting anywhere, but believe it or not, I think I recognize the neon glow of hotels beyond the police station's wide windows. I think I remember the walkway up the Naka River, snapping pictures along that path hours ago, though it feels like days.

"I think I'm going to go," I say. "I think I'm close. Thank you for your help."

I don't know if I really believe my own words, and the cop can tell as much. The last thing I hear as I exit the station is his voice in the background, rising like a question mark.

It's late. Really, really late. And I walk. Oh God, how I walk. Through dark alleys with the occasional bright sign in Japanese lighting my path. My hotel is in a small alley, I remember that, but there are dozens of small alleys here and I keep taking the wrong one. My hotel is near the river but not on the river, I remember that, but every time I feel like I'm getting closer I end up inches from that stupid fucking river.

I'm kind of going crazy. I spot a random sign ahead that I think reads, "Memphis Diamonds." Memphis, Tennessee is my hometown. The sign actually reads "Member Diamonds." Am I hallucinating now? I hustle through random corners of Fukuoka lit by mockingly-glowing vending machines, and I hear stray voices that I swear, I swear, belong to my friends. I know they're at Happy Cock, but in this moment, with my eyes spotting every hotel in this city but my own, I want to see them here.

If my mom knew this was happening, she would have two heart attacks.

Walk walk walk I'm losing it WHY dark dark dark vending machine Japanese sign car headlights GOD WHY AM I SO STUPID? river bars still full people Japanese people I'm lost in Japan Jesus Christ!

Shidax Plaxa is a karaoke joint in Fukuoka, but in these wee hours, I'm praying it'll be my saving grace. I can't walk aimlessly anymore. The AM/PM pharmacy, the Chinese restaurant...I got to be close to my hotel, but I can't trust my judgement. No way. Not on this night.

A new Japanese man is helping me now. We're sitting at a table in the shiny lobby of Shidax Plaza, and we're looking at that same goddamn hotel map. I don't know anything anymore. Calling myself stupid has lost its verbal fizz. Worst-case scenarios cycle through my head: will my friends call the police station? Will that officer pick up the phone? "Yes, we did see a young man, but he wandered away, saying he knew where he was going." I'm drained. Defeated.


But the Shidax man is dogged in his concern. He studies my key and when I ask him about the internet, he takes me next door to Toyo Hotel and guides me to the computer.

I google "Center Hotel" and "Fukuoka", my fingers smudging the keys and switching to Japanese characters. I type sloppily but this stranger helps me tab the settings back to English. If nothing else, this night has granted me an overwhelming showcase of Japanese generosity. In my helplessness, I'm awed by the nonchalant kindness of these men whom I will never see again.

Online I find a hotel that looks familiar. There's a phone number next to its photograph, and the Shidax man promptly calls it. Could it be....? No. Out of service.

What now?

He gives my room key to a lady at the front desk of the Toyo. Meanwhile, I google in vain. Center. Center. Center. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I check my Gmail. Who can help me -

"She found your hotel," he declares.

No way. I don't believe him. No way -

"Court Hotel," he says. "Very close."

She found my hotel! She found it! I approach her to shake her hand but instead I take both her palms and hold them. "Thank you thank you," I say, like a peasant granted a fortune. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."

The Shidax man and a friend of his walk me home. The Court Hotel Fukuoka Tenjin is a two minute stride from Shidax Plaza. I don't know how I missed this one alley amid my dozens of twists and turns, but that's not important right now. I'm home.

When I tell the Shidax man thank you, how I appreciate him so much, his generosity, all he says is "take care."

I will. I will take care to be more responsible and independent in my travels. I will take care to be prepared, to write down important phone numbers, to write down the name of my hotel. In the future I might not be a smarter traveler, but at least I won't be so stupid.

The next morning David and Yong claim that they both said "Court Hotel," that I must have misheard them. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. But when I close my eyes, I find myself still searching. Walking walking walking. Center Hotel. I will find you. Any minute now.

I will find you.



David Ogles said...

I still hold with 100% certainty that I said "Court."

But I was really surprised to read the same level of detail as well as the same details themselves as I heard when you recounted the story at 3pm the next day. Pretty impressive...

Kira said...

I am having a heart attack now.

Kelly Ogles said...


It is clear that you never rode with David around Atlanta! The boy can't even make it to Villa Rica without calling home for the exit number! Buy a cheap hand held recorder and travel with that. Sorry for your frustration but you did see the sites of a city....I was in Japan for 2years while in the NAVY and loved every minute of it. Keep up the good writing, its the only way I get photos of my son!!

Kelly Ogles

Anonymous said...

Well, after reading this story, my heart is in my throat and I'm a nervous wreck. Weren't you scared to death? Your concern is here, but you're not freaking out like I would have. In a strange city, in a foreign country, don't speak the language...how much more could the odds be stacked against you? All I can say is you're one lucky guy.

Alex, please, please take care of you for those of us who can't. And, in the future, never take directions from David! ;~)


Jes said...


Ironically, a barista from Octane just spend a couple of months in Fukuoka learning how to roast coffee.

Impressive that you actually found the right hotel!

Alex Pollack said...

Some people have asked why I didn't just go back to the Happy Cock and meet up with my friends. Well, for one, by the time I knew I was utterly lost, I wasn't sure if my friends were still there. Two, I didn't know if the cabbies would understand me if I told them to take me to "Happy Cock." The bar was on the fifth floor of some building. So yes.

I was very lost.

b luis grey said...

Great writing.