Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Weekend in Japan

The lunar new year came and went a couple of weeks ago. It's a big holiday in Korea with most businesses getting a short holiday. We decided to spend the long weekend in Osaka, Japan, for a change. It turned out to be well worth the effort. Japan and Korea both have their pros and cons.

It was raining heavily when we arrived in Namba, Osaka, late in the afternoon. With only a tiny umbrella and a rain-soaked map printed from a computer, things were beginning to look a little challenging as we couldn't figure out where our hotel was. Luckily, with the help of a few locals, we found it near the station and hauled our luggage upstairs.

The hotel staff were friendly and spoke decent English. The hotel itself was clean and neat, with vending machines on every floor and internet access in the lobby. In front of the reception counter you can see a basket with clear umbrellas for sale, at 300 yen each.

The room was nice, a little small but pretty much what we expected in Japan. We collapsed on the beds for a while, before contemplating how to spend the rest of the afternoon.

With a few directions from the hotel staff, we found our way to the nearby shopping district. Namba has the world's longest undercover continuous shopping mall in the world. Along it there are a lot of hotels, restaurants and pachinko parlours. Pachinko is a mechanical-electronic game mostly played by older men that resembles poker machines. I don't understand it completely, but the idea is to win small silver ball-bearings and redeem them for prizes.

The first thing we did is stop for okonomiyaki, a pancake that fries on a hotplate. Okonomiyaki can be bought in various formats, but often contains seafood and cabbage topped with a special sauce and fish flakes. Osaka is famous as it's birthplace and it can be found on just about every corner. The fresh and mild flavour was accompanied by some crazy wasabi mustard that was so strong it made me cough the first and second time I tried it. It was a very good dish and I'd highly recommend it.

We met up with Jimmy, one of my sister's friends who turned out to be a super tour guide. He took this photo of us standing in front of an area that the Osaka city council have been developing for years, but apparently with little progress. The neon lights were dazzling and pretty. I learned Japanese in high school and actually retained portions of my reading ability.

Jimmy took us to a good western bar called Zero. It had a mellow atmosphere and friendly people, including a lot of English teachers. We drank a cocktail called Caipirinha for the first time, which I'd never seen in Korea. It's a Brazilian invention, with some quality gin, lime and plenty of sugar. One of the best cocktails I've ever had, and a nice change from the staple Long Islands we usually drink.

This is Alfred, a sociable ex-pat from Germany who has been living in Japan for 22 years. People like him are valuable contributors to ex-pat communities, being a wealth of advice and knowledge to newcomers. Someone recently made a documentary about him.
In this photo he's drinking a beer using a special technique. You punch a large hole into the side of a horizontal beer can with your fingers and pour it into your mouth at the same time as you open it from the top. Air flows in through the top and if you do it right, it just shoots straight into your stomach in less than 2 seconds.

That's my sister there on the left with her new boyfriend, Dominic. I actually emailed my sister the wrong date that we were arriving, so it was an interesting surprise when I called her phone that day. She's been teaching English in Japan for seven years or so, but is heading out soon.

We left Zero and walked to another bar down near the river. On the way we picked up another famous Osaka morsel, takoyaki. These are little octopus-dough balls that are served hot. You buy them with sauce after watching a guy like this flip them around in special little cooking notches with a special little takoyaki poker.

Early the next morning, Jimmy and his Japanese friend, Ryol, took us to Kobe. Jimmy had heard sippets of information about a ferry that was rumoured to travel between Kansai airport and Kobe, but it had perhaps closed and reopened and may or may not have been a figment of his imagination. So we went down to Kansai airport to search for it. Turns out it did exist after all and was the perfect way to get there.

The tickets were cheap and there were televisions and plenty of seats on board. The boat was a hydrofoil, meaning that it has a T-shaped double keel that rises up in the water during transit, resulting in a smoother ride due to less wave resistance. You can thank Wikipedia for that one.

There's Ryol in the centre and Jimmy on the left. Both of them were very interesting people and great hosts. If they ever come to Korea, I am most definitely buying them some expensive imported Japanese beer here.

The boat stopped at Kobe airport, which was sparkling new. Kobe took a beating from the old Hanshin quake in '95 but has largely recovered.

The airport has been a subject of controversy in Japan, having been built on reclaimed land for around US $8.7 billion. Jimmy told me that there had been a lot of political nonsense that occurred before it's opening, resulting in it becoming partially-redundant due to the virtually simultaneous construction of the nearby Kansai Airport in Osaka. It did seem to be a little bit empty.

The main feature that draws your attention inside is the abundant display of flowers. They were very well maintained (probably by professional horticulturalists). It made the building feel more like a greenhouse than an airport terminal, which is a good thing.

Upstairs there was an open roof allowing visitors to view the runway. The island itself looked a little drab and miserable in comparison to the rest of the city. Photo: Jimmy Simms

On the upper deck was a wildlife display put on by a conservation society. This live owl had a small string around its foot, tying it to the stump. Owls have amazing eyes, but one thing they're not good at is eye contact. I tried to get it to look at me, but it kept turning its head away.

You were allowed to touch the penguin, but had to wash your hands afterwards with some detergent they provided. It may have been another frivolous manifestation of the bird flu hype going around Asia. In Kansai airport they have a small welcome mat at the arrival terminal with a sign that says 'Please wipe your feet on this mat to prevent bird flu transmission'.

Here's Jimmy hanging out near the railway station. He's a very cheerful bloke from New Zealand and has Jaimaican parents. That translates into a lot of fun things.

Kobe is a very clean and modern city, with many of the roads and buildings newly constructed. It was fairly crowded when we were there, although I'm not sure if that was normal. Shopping malls in Japan like this one are very westernised, but the individual shop stalls are smaller on average.

The Chinese community still celebrate lunar new year in Japan, whereas the Japanese normally don't. We decided to go and get lunch in Chinatown and see some of the celebrations. It was very crowded, with lion dances and lots of festive food. The crowds were so thick that on some of the pedestrian paths you could only walk in one direction.

Here we are posing for a photo in one of the main streets. You can't see much of it, but the ground was spotless, even though there were tonnes of people eating things. Japan in general is a very tidy place. Photo: Jimmy Simms

And here's a closer photo of the friendly Ryol, with a special greeting for the Lee's Korea Blog readers. Photo: Jimmy Simms.

We tried a lot of different food that day, all of which was delicious. But the highlight of it all were these gyoza, steamed and fried Chinese style dumplings. They were fresh and perfectly flavoured with not too much oil or salt.

It turned out to be a fun and fascinating day trip. Kobe felt like less of a metropolis than Osaka did, which was good. Thanks go out to Jimmy and Ryol for all of their energy and hospitality.

We did a lot of things in Japan, so I'll cut this blog post here and post the other half soon. Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Wedding in Seoul

A couple of weekends ago, a friend of a friend kindly invited us to their wedding in Seoul. There are two things I like about weddings: Free food and Free alcohol. As my old man used to say "There's no such thing as a free lunch, except for at weddings and various other free-lunch events."

So we ran to Busan station with only a couple of minutes to spare before the train left. Even though there was plenty of time to get there at a decent hour, somehow we found ourselves running for the turnstiles at the last minute. That reminds me of my exams in university, even though I had weeks to study, I always left it to the last minute and found myself cramming the night before thinking 'How did it ever come to this?'

The KTX is a fairly new high speed train that runs from Busan to Seoul in about two and a half hours. Tickets cost about forty five dollars, but can be cheaper if you pool together and make a group booking. Prior to this, the same journey used to take about six hours.

The ride was fairly smooth and the cabins reminded me of an airplane. There are a couple of vending machines onboard and also some train-host-persons (which I believe is the politically correct term) that occasionally push a trolley past with things like green tea and walnut chocolate for sale. It was comfortable enough for the journey, although not a lot of leg space and the chairs don't recline. Kind of like a lecture theatre without a lecturer. Most people fall asleep.

If you're staying overnight in a Korean city, a cheap accommodation option is to sleep at a chimchilbang, which is a public bath house with saunas and showers. You can just sleep on the heated floor with a whole bunch of strangers seemingly from every facet of society. We decided to sleep at one in Seoul and I found it to be very interesting. Let's just say that I've never seen so many naked Korean men in my life. This is a photo from the locker room, I'm afraid you'll have to use your imagination for what the rest of the place looked like.

Because there isn't a whole lot of space in big cities like Seoul, a lot of people have their weddings in purpose built wedding halls like this. The wedding entourages are quickly herded in and out in a few hours to make way for the next paying couple. The venue was fairly nice and the food was alright. On the left-hand side of the aisle were the groom's family and on the right were the bride's.

Here's the bride with some friends. We had just arrived at the venue and went into the photo room. Look how natural and relaxed I am in this photo.

And this is me hanging out with Heather's sister, Emily. Bring on the food I say.

The lights dimmed according to plan and appropriate music emanated from unseen speakers. Then a speech was given by a man who looked wise, but unfortunately I couldn't understand what gems of knowledge he was imparting on us all. My Korean now is nearly as good as a native four year old. Well, a four year old who has a suspiciously large alcohol-related vocabulary.

There were many western elements in the ceremony but what struck me was that there was a lot of bowing and no kissing. Also there was no ring-giving part. Maybe the best man forgot to bring them like it happens in the movies. Altogether it was a pleasant and interesting experience. Thanks to Yong-Gyu and Seung-Yon for inviting us, even though that day was the first time I'd ever met them and all I did was consume their consumables.

There was a nice ice sculpture in the reception area. The names of the bride and groom are inside the ice.

So in less than 24 hours we were on the KTX again and heading back for Busan. I noticed that Seoul was much busier than Busan on the metro, there was a sea of people everywhere. They also seemed to walk a lot faster than I remembered.

Family-Mart are a chain of convenience stores in Korea where you can buy everything from smoked eggs to pre-warmed coffee in a can. As part of their ingenius customer loyalty program advertised here (which the store workers haven't heard of), you can apparently get a 'Family-Mart Bonus', otherwise known as a Fonus. What a catchy name.

Family-Mart and every other self respecting chain store in Korea stock special gift sets, which are popular for occasions like chuseok and christmas. You can get all sorts of types, from hand cream and toiletries to Spam. In the Spam gift set you get 6 little cans of Spam and 4 big ones. Koreans are pretty crazy about Spam, to the extent where it has spawned a whole supermarket genre of 'fake Spam' brands. Oh, and they eat bread for dessert too. In western restaurants you can order a loaf of bread with a dollop of raspberry icecream on top.

Remember that sushi place we went to last blog post? Well we went back there again because it was so good. Here's a new fusion sushi for you to admire. It's a rice bed with cabbage in it, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, dried fish flakes and ... strawberry mayonnaise. I found it to be a surprisingly inoffensive flavour combination.

On Sunday nights we've been heading up to Dalmaji hill, an area overlooking Haeundae beach for trivia nights at a local bar. It's run by English teachers and draws a crowd from across the city. Sometimes the questions are a bit shoddy, but most of the time it's a nice way to drink up and end the week. The other week we won first prize, which is always a bottle of tequila. Dee-rishious! (delicious!)

That particular night, one of the bonus points was for a drinking competition (or sculling as we say in Australia). The challenge was to drink half a litre of beer as fast as possible. That guy in the cap is Kyung-Won, Meaghan's boyfriend from our table who won it for us. He can drink really fast, it took him around 3 seconds.

On the subway there are sometimes salespeople selling things like umbrellas, gadgets or stain removers. They always give a quick speech first, sometimes followed by a demonstration and then they move onto the next carriage. I bought an LED torch from this guy, it cost me about $1 and on the packet it says 'easy to use'. For that price, I would hope so.

Kamjatang is a pleasingly priced and perfectly presented popular pork and potato uhh ... stew. It cooks at your table with vegetables and various side dishes. There are always a lot of large bones that boil in the soup which make it extra 'hearty'. I remember the old Heinz soups back in Australia used to be called things like 'Hearty Beef Soup'. This is the first time I've ever used that word. Try using it in your vocabulary today.

This is one of my younger student's pencil case. 'Believe in the best omnibus' is actually a popular stationery brand here. Whatever it means, it sounds like decent enough advice.

Here's the nice Family Toast lady who works a stone's throw away from our school. Family Toast is a franchise here that sell toasted sandwiches. A hot ham and cheese sandwich will only cost you about a dollar. Quite comforting on these cold winter days. Busan's temperature has dropped to around 3 degrees celsius during the day time. Apparently, if you have an outside tap around your house and there's water stuck inside it, it can freeze and burst the pipe overnight. My friend told me that's why some people leave their outside taps running at night.

This is a cat that I spotted sleeping on the roof next door from work. Cats and dogs in Korea behave a little differently here. They're usually more scared of humans and it's difficult to get close to them without invoking a fight-or-flight response.

And here's a view down a street close to my house which has a lot of night markets open on weekdays. You can buy things like fruit, vegetables and fish from the lovely ajummas. It's so cold at night that they just put the fish on the tables in the open air without any ice.

Tomorrow is seollal, or lunar new year, which is a big holiday in Korea. For the long weekend I'm off to Japan to catch up with my sister and have a poke around. Should be fun, stay tuned!