Live from Seoul

After over 24 hours of traveling, we made it here. We could’ve gotten here much sooner, but we decided to take the scenic route. On Thursday afternoon we both left work an hour early and I picked Julie up from her apartment, and we went to the Highway Oasis bus stop in Miyoshi and dropped off my car and caught a bus to Matsuyama, the biggest city on Shikoku and on the west coast of the island. We had dinner there and caught a bus to the ferry port, where we caught a massive overnight ferry to Kokura, in Kita-Kyushu (north Kyushu).

We took a train to Hakata/Fukuoka and caught a bus to the international ferry terminal there, where we caught the JR Beetle, a 3-hour hydrofoil ferry to Busan, South Korea. We very stupidly forgot we’d have to go through immigration, so we put off boarding while we waited for a large group of Korean students to go ahead of us, and we made it on just a couple of minutes before it took off. It was a really, really bumpy ride–I was able to knock myself out and tune the motion out, but Julie wasn’t so lucky. We were still both queasy in varying degrees when we got off the ship, though.

After getting to Busan, we managed–with our total lack of Korean knowledge (save what I’d written down and what was in Julie’s guidebook) to catch a taxi to the train station (taxis are cheap here, holy crap–it cost maybe $2 USD), where we hung out in a coffeeshop for a bit before catching the KTX up to Seoul. The KTX is a fairly new high-speed superexpress train system that’s essentially Korea’s shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train). It was a 3-hour ride, and we bought round-trip tickets for maybe $80 US, which is crazy, considering that a 3-hour roundtrip ticket on the shinkansen (Okayama to Tokyo, for example) costs over $300 USD.

It was raining when we arrived, so Julie bought an umbrella and we caught a taxi to our hostel, the Guesthouse Korea–with some difficulty, because it was a little tough to find, and we certainly couldn’t explain anything about how to get there. We finally made it, though–and the room was a bit of a surprise. I’ve never stayed in a hostel before–I stayed in a “backpacker’s hostel” in Tokyo which was actually just a really cheap but good-quality hotel–but our room was pretty run-down, with a really, really scary-looking bathroom. We both swore we’d look for a bathhouse and probably a different hotel in the morning, and we went to a local convenience store to find something to eat.

This morning, though, I think we’re feeling a bit differently. Our friend Sara and her friend are checking in here this afternoon, and originally we were going to wait to see how they felt about their room, but it’s really not that bad, and it’s in a good and convenient location–it’s kind of an adventure, as is traveling in a country where we have no familiarity with the language. It’s the first time for both of us–I’ve traveled abroad before, but I had at least a passing familiarity with the language in every other country I visited. We met a couple of other girls this morning, one from Colombia and one from Korea, both living in Kagoshima (Kyushu, southwest Japan), and they very kindly helped us find a pharmacy to get Julie some motion sickness medicine for the trip back–something we couldn’t have done on our own, since we couldn’t even read the signs to know what was a pharmacy and what wasn’t! It’s sort of taken us both back to our first few weeks in Japan back in 2005, and the same sort of disorientation–but at least everyone here speaks a little bit of English (even if it’s just “I’m sorry”) and I wrote down a few basic grammatical phrases from a Survival Korean website (as well as a ton of “please, please don’t put meat or fish in my food” phrases) that should come in handy.

We have some ideas of things we’d like to do–we’re shopping and sightseeing today, hopefully doing a vegetarian dinner theater tonight (at a place run by a former monk!), and doing a DMZ tour tomorrow afternoon. We also found a couple of “drama tours,” covering sites that various famous Korean dramas included, and there’s one for the huge series Winter Sonata, starring Bae-Yong Joon (a.k.a. Yon-sama), which Julie’s a big fan of (the film, not the actor!). I may go along with her, because it would show a lot of traditional Korean sights as well as a lot of natural beauty, but it’s a day-long tour and I may just take the guidebook and wander around Seoul for a day, since we really only have three full days here before we head back to Japan and Nagasaki.

Korea already feels different–the people are more brusque and not afraid to express themselves (we had a really grumpy clerk at the convenience store we went to last night), but they also will just start talking to you in Korean without a second thought, and not do a double-take and then back off because you’re a foreigner and therefore obviously can’t understand them. While it’s awkward to apologize and say we can’t understand, it’s also really refreshing that people aren’t so hesitant here–but of course, we’ve been here for less than a day so it’s not like I truly know what it’s like just yet. I was jokingly saying that maybe it’s halfway between Japanese and Chinese culture in some ways, and Julie, who’s been to China, thinks I’m right so far. We’ll see how it goes.

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