What I did on my spring vacation

(Oh, man, this is another mammoth entry…sorry! Just think how much longer it would’ve been if I’d written it in paragraph-form, and count yourselves grateful. Or something.)

I finally remembered to grab the notebook with my bullet-point retrospective during my mad dash to get to work on time this morning (I was ten minutes late, but I did get the notebook). I’m flipping through it and I can’t help but laugh at the fact that I wrote down 2 full pages’ worth of Korean phrases, front and back, and in the end I only ended up using two during the whole trip: “kam sah ham-ni-dah” (thank you–unsure of the proper romanization) and “gogi” (meat–I used this in conjunction with the English word “no” at the Seoul Station Burger King), and I had to fight to keep myself from busting out with Japanese every single time I opened my mouth to talk to a Korean person, too.

I guess it’s kind of a pride issue. I mean, after living in Japan for nearly two years and achieving a more or less pera-pera language level (according to the teachers I work with, anyway; the kyouto-sensei actually said as much during the shokuin shoukai at the nyuugakushiki yesterday, which really surprised me, to the point that I stifled a surprised and self-conscious laugh in front of the whole assembly and on Ikeda cable TV, which had a camera crew there taping it–very smooth), I want to be able to operate as seamlessly anywhere in Asia as I can in Japan, and I want to prepare myself accordingly so I don’t stick out as a blatant tourist and newcomer to eastern Asia. I definitely wanted to try using the language, and I regret that I didn’t, but there was always the point to consider that I had no familiarity with Korean outside of watching KBS segments on NHK, and there was no guarantee I’d understand the responses I’d receive. The same would hold true in any other non-Japanese language in Asia, outside of conversational Tamil in India.

Actually, speaking of languages, do any of you who studied Spanish in high school or watched public TV in the US remember a show called Destinos: An Introduction to Spanish? Someone on the Facebook Destinos group posted a link to a site that has all the Destinos episodes streaming, and I spent some time this weekend watching the first several episodes and reliving so many great memories (I still remember so many nuances about that show–ahh, how natsukashii to see Raquel Rodriguez’s massive shoulder pads and rocking 80s fashion sense and Don Fernando crumpling that letter fifty times again!), as well as recalling a lot of Spanish. I had a great Spanish foundation and can still remember a lot and produce an accurate Spanish accent, and I was able to understand almost everything that was said, which was a really good feeling. Man, what a great show. I actually named my scarlet-colored Toyota Corolla back in the US Rosario, in honor of this show. (I know “Rosario” means “rosary,” but it also sounds like “rose,” and roses are red, and it’s a red car, so…)

Okay, ANYWAY. On to Korea!

Wednesday, March 28:

  • left work an hour early, picked up Julie and went to the Miyoshi Highway Oasis to catch a bus to Matsuyama
  • took the Matsuyama-Kokura overnight ferry

Thursday, March 29:

  • arrived in Kokura, caught a slow train to Hakata (Fukuoka)
  • had a lunchtime hanami at Shofukuji Temple in Fukuoka
  • caught the Kobee hydrofoil from Hakata Port and endured a very, very rocky 3-hour ride to Busan, South Korea – nearly missed our ferry because we forgot about going through immigration in Hakata
  • caught the KTX from Busan to Seoul, after getting our land legs back
  • caught a taxi from Seoul Station to our hostel, the Guesthouse Korea
  • hit up a konbini for a late-night dinnery snack

Friday, March 30 – all around Seoul:

  • met two girls (one Colombian, one Korean) living in Kagoshima (in Japan), who took us to a pharmacy so Julie could buy motion sickness meds for the trip home
  • ran into Sara and Steve that morning (and a chatty British guy, probably in his mid-30s, who shot down the DMZ tour we planned to go on and said it was boring and a waste)
  • had these really delicious veggie foods from a streetside vendor–these little rice-based tubes in a spicy tomato-based sauce, and those fish-shaped anko-filled tarts you can find in Japan, but these were crispy and fresh
  • went to a really cute coffeeshop in Anguk Station for a late breakfast/brunch
  • went to the bookstore next door, where we found lots of hilarious Engrish, and where I finally found the blue-black pens Hamza had requested me to buy for him (the ink is blue in some light and black in others)
  • toured Changdeokgung Palace, the auxiliary-turned-primary palace of the last Korean dynasty
  • caught a taxi to Itaewon, the international (and very touristy) district
  • they went to have bulgogi (Korean barbecue) for lunch, so I had Indo-Pakistani food instead
  • we met up at Starbucks and then wandered the extremely overtouristy street vendor stalls, all selling cheap stuff for too much
  • don’t remember what we did for dinner
  • after 2 unsuccessful attempts to find a karaoke bar (we actually found a male snack bar the first time–lots of hot Japanese-speaking Korean guys, one of whom was watching p*rn in the back room), we found a nice one
  • we tried catching a taxi back to the hostel, but the taxi driver abruptly dropped us off in front of several malls–which was cool, because there were some concerts and stuff going on
  • caught the subway back

* edited, to avoid really nasty Google hits

Saturday, March 31 – DMZ Tour Day:

  • got a late start; I ran to a konbini to get lunch food since I didn’t know what our options would be like, and I ran into the same British dude from the previous day, hereafter referred to as Our Sarcastic British Friend, who asked me if we went clubbing because “you got such an early start today”
  • we were picked up at 11:20 for the tour, and we joined a bunch of Japanese tourists and an Aussie guy named Will, and then we picked up our bilingual tour guide and drove an hour north of Seoul, and suddenly we started driving alongside a barbed-wire fence with guardposts every 200 meters, which was it
  • our passports were checked at the border by a very young- and fresh-looking soldier (South Korean men must serve 2 mandatory years in the military; North Korean men serve 9 and women serve 7)
  • we visited a tunnel the North Koreans had started to dig under the border and into South Korea, with the intent of pouring troops into SK to attack Seoul, until the South Koreans noticed and intercepted it–defectors told SK authorities that there were 20 tunnels built, but only four have been discovered, the most recent in 1991…ironically, the NKs vehemently denied it was theirs at first, but once SK converted it into a tourist attraction and made money from it, NK started demanding to receive some of the profit!
  • we visited an overlook just 400 meters from the actual SK/NK border; it was really foggy, which added immensely to the mood of the setting, but though the terrain was uniform between the north and south, it was really amazing and chilling, realizing that we were looking at North Korea–there was a camera line about 15 feet behind the observation point, and a person stepped ahead of the line and snapped some photos, and immediately a soldier took his camera and deleted the photos
  • Dorasan Station is a unifying station within the DMZ connecting the northern and southern rail lines; there are trains 3 times a day that go there from Seoul, but no further. There are a lot of very optimistic signs and images throughout the station–the architecture is very spacious and light, and there’s a big parking lot under construction, in anticipation of the day when the two Koreas will be united again (there’s a DMZ because they never actually declared peace after the Korean War–just a ceasefire)
  • we also learned that despite the utter separation of the north and south (families torn apart for decades, even), there have been attempts lately for peace, like a factory town in NK that’s staffed by SK workers and that gets free power from SK
  • visited a town of SK citizens living in the DMZ who grow organic goods, and Julie and I bought some brown rice (DMZ-brand brown rice! I’m saving the packaging)
  • returned to Seoul, where we were for whatever reason ferried to an amethyst jewelry gallery where ladies with high-pressure sales pitches tried to push us to buy stuff…very awkward
  • rested up at the hostel for a bit, then hit up the Insadong district, which was wonderful–very artsy and lively and organic, lots of truly authentic and high-quality goods
  • went to Sanchon, a dinner theater restaurant run by a former monk who cooks up a 12-course 100% vegetarian meal (it was delicious), with traditional Korean dance and music for about an hour starting at 8PM

Sunday, April 1

  • Julie went on a Winter Sonata drama tour (WS is the most popular drama in Korean history), so I hung out with Sara and Steve for the day
  • the weather was very, very dusty (dust from the Gobi Desert!), and the sky was yellow–it made all my photos appear sepia-tinted
  • we went to the Jongmyo Royal Shrine, which was a huge temple complex, and which I enjoyed far more than Changdeokgung Palace
  • caught the commuter rail to the 63 Building on the outskirts of Seoul, which is the tallest building in eastern Asia–we went to the top floor and tried to take photos but the dust made everything very hazy; we had lunch at the bottom in the food court
  • had coffee in the Anguk Station coffeehouse for about an hour, just hung out and chatted
  • met up with Julie at the hostel (she had a great time on the tour) and went back to Insadong
  • there was a multistory bazaar of sorts of stores run by independent artists, which had some agreement with the MoMA in NYC–Julie and I went through every single one when Sara and Steve went back to the hostel for Sara’s camera, and I’m amazed I bought as little as I did because there were so many gorgeous pieces there
  • Julie, Sara, and Steve really wanted to have Indian food (I actually would have preferred to have Korean food, haha), so we went to this Insadong restaurant called Little India–it had a great and really relaxed atmosphere, and they served AUTHENTIC CHAPATIS AND MADRAS COFFEE! The curry was mad spicy, though, way too spicy for all of us, especially Julie
  • we wandered the backstreets, taking our time going back, since it was our last night there, and Julie and I said our farewells to Sara and Steve
  • I was accosted by Our Sarcastic British Friend once I got there, and he kept me talking for about 45 minutes…I only realized later that the reason he was talking mainly to me was because he was Indian or at least half, but while he looked kind of dusky, I didn’t pick up on it at all–anyway, he wanted to learn more about JET, but he seemed pretty opportunistic and was trying to ask me how much we make and the like, so I sort of evaded his questions, and ended our conversation by playing the I’m Tired card soon after he described himself as “insidious”

Monday, April 2

  • I woke up Sara and Steve at 7 AM, since their alarms weren’t working
  • Julie and I caught the subway to Seoul Station, and I had Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast–SO, SO GOOD!
  • we decided to buy Burger King food for the 3-hour KTX train (like Japan’s shinkansen, but much cheaper) to Busan…I actually was mentally prepping myself to fight for veggie food, and I even drew a picture of a burger with the meat on the side at Julie’s insistence, but as soon as I said the word “vegetarian” to the guy behind the counter, he understood, and immediately put in my order for a Whopper with no meat with no problems–a far cry from the pained smiles and hesitation of every single Japanese McDonald’s employee I’ve had the same conversation with! Julie and I had a good laugh about that
  • caught our KTX to Busan, walked to the ferry port and got straight on our JR Beetle hydrofoil back to Fukuoka/Hakata–the ride was much more pleasant
  • when we got into Fukuoka, we shipped off our suitcases to my apartment
  • we totally lucked out and found a great izakaya right outside Hakata Station
  • slight mess-up with the train times, but we caught a 10:15 PM Kamome Express train out of Hakata/Fukuoka and to Nagasaki, and got to our hotel by 12:15 AM – Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was on TV

Tuesday, April 3

  • breakfast at Royal Host, Japan’s equivalent of Denny’s
  • visited the atomic bomb hypocentre and the Peace Park, bought some drinks and sat under the sakura for a while in the park
  • spent time wandering around
  • headed to Glover Garden in the afternoon, a garden with houses and buildings from the Dutch citizens of Nagasaki–we had tea and cake there to hold us till dinner, and just spent time wandering around…and it was beautiful! Neither of us were expecting a whole lot, I think, but we were very, very impressed, especially by the views the houses gave of Nagasaki Harbor
  • also wandered briefly around the remnants of Dejima, the manmade island the Dutch were confined to during Japan’s period of seclusion (the island has since been incorporated into the mainland)
  • went back to the hotel, went in search of a French/Russian restaurant called Harbin, and a really, really sweet woman named Nou-san (who’d spent time in the US and was really eager to practice her English with us) walked us most of the way there!
  • the restaurant was really fancy–the food was wonderful, and we each had a glass of very strong red wine, but my veggie food wasn’t at all filling and I made the very stereotypical mood of hitting up McDonald’s after we left
  • went back to the hotel, where Michael Keaton’s Live In Baghdad was on, about the CNN crew who was in Baghdad when the US attacked Iraq during the Persian Gulf conflict–a surprisingly good film

Wednesday, April 4

  • Julie and I split up–she left early to head out to Aso and spend the rest of her week in Kyushu
  • I checked out and went to the Genbaku Hakubutsukan (atomic bomb museum)…like Hiroshima, there were some very chilling exhibits there, but I was really turned off by how this museum painted the western allies as the aggressors and said nothing about Japan’s true role in the war–granted, I didn’t pick up the audio guide, and the museum could have been focusing more on the actual atrocities and less on the history, but the history they did present felt very slanted to me, and I left quickly and with a bad taste in my mouth
  • Chalice had recommended a temple, but I got a bit mixed up and didn’t make it out there, but that was okay–did some walking, and the weather was really nice
  • had lunch, got my Starbucks Nagasaki receipt, and got back only to find that I’d just narrowly missed the 1:30 train to Fukuoka/Hakata (by 6 minutes) and had to wait for an hour
  • caught the 2:30…and we got a very clear and incredible view of Unzen and the Shimabara Peninsula that left me truly transfixed and just staring at it for 15 solid minutes
  • after getting into Hakata, I bought some snacks for the shink ride and then caught an eastbound Nozomi
  • caught my local express train in Okayama with no problems (it was the first train out of Okayama I’d been on that was going to split with half the cars going to Kochi via Ikeda (my line) and half going to Tokushima)
  • got home, went grocery shopping, met up with Chalice and Ashley, found a package from Linsday and a postcard from Andy’s trip to Egypt, and Chalice very kindly took me to retrieve my car from the Miyoshi Highway Oasis

(The next day, my suitcases came in, and Chalice and Ashley and I had an afternoon hanami under the sakura in the park right behind our place, and on Saturday I picked up Julie and took her and her suitcase back to Mikamo, and on Sunday, Julie, Brian, Ashley, Brian’s friend Jen, and I had a late-night hanami in the same park, and we all lived happily ever after. The end!)

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