Sunday, August 4
I started a 12 day Obon vacation. I was going to be busy.
Wednesday, August 7
I flew out of Tokyo on the first flight of the morning; the 8:05 to Seoul. I had booked a flight to spend four days in the capital of South Korea. For the first time since coming to Japan I decided to venture off the islands. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was excited!
I touched down in Incheon, Korea a mere two hours after taking off from Tokyo. I moved through immigration and customs in a breeze and stepped out into the arrivals lobby. I looked around and saw an unfamiliar writing system (hangul) and heard a language totally foreign. I was on my own in a new land. I skipped along to the metro station and headed deep into Seoul.
I arrived to the college district of Hongdae and checked into my hostel, the Closest Hostel. I recommend booking there! The owner, a Korean with an English name of Rick, joined me for lunch. I found a good restaurant in my guidebook and wanted to go. I’m glad Rick came. I was completely useless in the restaurant. In Japan I can breeze through most any situation like that. I ate some traditional Korean food, including a whole baby squid. Yum! And after that I was on my own.
I took a bus to south of the river, think Gangnam Style, and walked down to the National Assembly, South Korea’s national legislative building. I wandered their visitor’s center and the grounds. I’m really interested in government and politics, so that was a treat. My mood was slightly altered by the weather. The temperature was 32 C (90 F) and the humidity 90%. Their was so much moisture in the air that a fog hung over the city. My whole body was sweating and I kept wiping at my forehead. The weather back in Tokyo was perfectly wonderful by comparison. (The weather in Tokyo is also hot and humid.)
Near the National Assembly is the Han River, an important symbol of South Korea’s economic rise. I walked along the concrete paved banks and found a bicycle to rent. I took a 10 kilometer cruise along the river and enjoyed people watching. With the sun beginning to set I returned the bike and caught a train back north to my hostel.
I caught Rick as he was leaving for the day. We were both hungry and decided to head out to dinner together. He took me to a popular local restaurant. The speciality: steamed pork calf. We were served the meat and an assortment of side dishes. Rick told me about Korean culture over dinner and a bottle of beer.
Totally wiped after dinner, we separated and I returned to the hostel. An ice-cold shower and glass of water later and I was asleep.
Thursday, August 8
I woke early on Thursday, grabbed my day bag and crossed the street. There I ate an American style breakfast at Cafe Travel Maker, if you’re ever in Seoul, it’s totally worth the breakfast. While eating my pancakes and bacon an elderly American gentleman came in, Bill. We struck up a conversation and it turns out he graduated from the University of Nebraska. We hit it off and kept chatting through the coffee.
I arrived at Gyeongbokgung, the most famous of Seoul’s palaces. I exited the subway to the sounds of Chinese. Wherever I went the Chinese tourists were there before me. I bought a ticket and paused to watch the changing of the guard. Inside the palace I cruised around in well under the suggested time. But after all of the Japanese shrines and temples I’ve seen, everything begins to look the same. Even if it is a Korean palace.
After the palace I cruised south to the Myeong-Dong district, popular for shopping. At around 1 PM my spirits were running low. I was a little hesitant to visit a restaurant and deal with the language barrier. But traveling alone I persevered. I entered a small shop my guidebook recommended. Before I could attempt to speak the server saw me and directed me to an empty seat. Eating alone had its benefits! I ordered from the menu and was quickly served a bowl of buckwheat noodles, Korean dumplings and a side of kimchi. I scarfed down everything and washed it back with several glasses of ice water. Full of food I felt my spirits soar and I left ready for the next task.
I made a short walk to Namsangol Hanok Village, a reconstructed village made to demonstrate traditional Korean living. I moved through the village quickly, because it was very similar to what I had already seen in Japan. This would be a theme throughout my vacation.
I made a move to the center of the city and began a hike up a massive hill. After 90 minutes and lots of sweat I reached the top. Before me stood N Seoul Tower, the official landmark of the city. Near the tower’s base was the geographical center of Seoul. I posed for a picture and then sat down with a bottle of cold tea. It was still so foggy that visibility was severely limited. I thought an (expensive) trip up the tower was unnecessary with the fog and so I began the much shorter hike down.
I took a train back north to my hostel and met my new bunk mate, Umberto. Umberto was from Switzerland and visiting Korea for a few months. We shook hands and he joined me for dinner. We got some grub and enjoyed a bottle of Korean sake (makgeolli). We seemed to hit it off and got along swimmingly. However the heat from the day had taken it’s toll on me and we were soon back in the hostel, where I was soon asleep.
Friday, August 9
I was up and out early. Breakfast. Train. Go.
I visited the War Memorial of Korea. I needed at least a full day to enjoy the entire museum. I had two hours. I spend through three thousand years of war in Korea. I learned the Korean peninsula has long been a bloody place. Whether at the hands of the Japanese, the Chinese or the Koreans themselves, the country has a long and depressing history of killing. However the museum was tasteful and well done.
I stopped by a convenience store for a walking lunch and then entered the USO office at Camp Kim and checked in. I was going to the DMZ.
The Korean DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a four-kilometer band with a MDL (Military Demarcation Line) running through it’s center. The DMZ has separated North and South Korea since 1953, but who are still technically at war. It is one of the most heavily fortified places in the world and is often a location for tenseness. These days it’s a popular tourist attraction.
I booked a service through the USO and rode a bus north from Seoul. The DMZ only sits 50 km (30 mi) from the capital city of Seoul, so we were there within an hour. We crossed a bridge full of roadblocks and we were inside the DMZ. As we pulled into a visitors center my first thought was, “this is really touristy.” There was parking for buses, restrooms, a museum and a gift shop. Our first stop was the Third Infiltration Tunnel.
Over the past 70 years, the North has dug at least four tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea. All of which have been found and announced. The Third Tunnel is opened to tour groups and you can walk through it right up the MDL. We walked down a steep slope and marched towards the north. Hunched over and wearing a hard hat I approached the concrete barrier at the end. I ran my hands along the tunnel walls. The north even painted some of the rocks black to claim it was a coal mining tunnel.
We then visited the Dora observatory, a lookout post from where you can see into North Korea. On a clear day you can see three cities, including one empty propaganda village. Unfortunately it was too foggy to see much of anything.
Next was Dorasan station. This is a train station situated in the DMZ and is a recent addition. It is the only railway connecting the North in the South. Just last year it was functioning as both sides were working on joint factories. However because of the rhetoric from the North this year, it has been temporarily closed.
Finally we reached the climax, the JSA or Joint Security Area. This is a very small village run jointly between the North and South. It was where the armistice agreement was signed. Until 1976 it was an open area where both sides could freely move. However in ‘76, there was the “Axe Murder Incident” in which two US soldiers were brutally murdered. After this event the JSA was divided following the same MDL and a physical concrete marker was poured in the center to divide the two sides.
That’s how I found it. We exited the bus and were told very clearly by our US military escorts to form two lines. We were told not to engage the North Korean soldiers at all. We then proceeded to move into the center of the compound. Before me stood three blue buildings and six hard-looking South Korean soldiers. On the far side, less than 100 meters away, was North Korea. It was right there.
We went down the stairs and entered one of the blue buildings, where the armistice had been signed. We were given five minutes in the building to pose with the two soldiers. When I crossed into the northern half of the room I had in fact crossed into North Korea. I felt a small thrill knowing where I was. I took a picture with a soldier from South Korea, or the Republic of Korea, ROK for short. The soldier was standing in a position called “ROK Ready,” a modified taekwondo stance. Between the man’s height, his posture, and his aviators, he looked really impressive.
We soon exited the JSA without incident and boarded our bus. We had a brief stop for dinner and then I found myself back in Seoul. The whole experience had been a rush. I highly recommend it.
Throughout the day I had made friends with many people. As we exited the bus I flagged a few of them down. It was eight o’clock Friday evening and we were in Seoul! It would have been a shame to go home. I organized a posse and we set out for some drinks. So two Brits and two Yanks set off for a short evening adventure. We found a watering hole and I ordered a glass of the local beer.
For the record: Korean beer leaves a lot to be desired.
We had a good time and I caught the metro back to my room in the hostel. There in his bed was Umberto, enjoying the air conditioning, waiting for me. I changed shirts and we set out.
Umberto, knowing the area better than I, took us on a trek through the winding streets. We ended in a park on top a hill. It was 11 and it was hopping. Young people of dozens of nationalities, half of which were Korean, were standing and enjoy a beverage. Umberto and I visited a convenience store and each picked up a can of beer. Back at the park we quickly made friends with anyone around us. There were a lot of good vibes in the air. And it wasn’t long until the two of us had made friends with two beautiful young ladies.
(If you didn’t know, I am now single.)
We chatted in pidgin and enjoyed the evening. Seoul nightlife is well-known throughout Asia, so we made a movie to a club. Entry was 5,000 Won ($5) and that included a comped drink. Once inside a beer was only 3,000 Won. These weren’t Tokyo prices! I danced my way around the club. I ended up having a dance-off with a Korean boy. With no clear winner, we hugged it out and the night continued.
4 AM. The club was starting to clear out and the day was catching up with me. Umberto and I bid goodbye to our new friends and we made our way back through the still-busy streets to our hostel. My friend crashed right away, but I had to take a shower. Then, I crashed.
Saturday, August 10
Wouldn’t you know it, late to bed, late to rise. I allowed myself a little extra sleep in the morning. I had been going nonstop since I had arrived and after all, I was on vacation. Hours before Umberto, I forced myself up and shuffled across the street for a big plate of pancakes, hash browns and sausage. The place was packed and when a lone man came in I offered him the seat across from me. His name was Pierre, a Floridian, and an English teacher in Korea. The conversation was nice so I ordered a cafe latte and hung around a bit.
A steady drizzle continued through the morning. Undeterred, I packed my day bag and set out for the Dragon Hill Spa. This spa is a Korean “jjimjil-bang,” a glorified sauna. I meekly walked in through the front doors. The entrance is one of those places with a dozens signs placed in no real order. My eyes drifted across the boards, the different prices, the maps, the promotions. Finally my eyes settled over the reception desk. A short Korean lady stood behind the counter.
“May I explain this to you,” she asked.
“Yes! I mean, yes. Please.”
She sat me down and worked through their English pamphlet. There were seven floors, three for women, one for men, and four shared floors. She showed me the special packages and recommended the “Gold Package for Men.” This included: a body scrub, steam massage, oil acupressure, leg massage, muscle massage, facial massage, head acupressure, and shampoo.
The package was exactly what I was hunting for. She signed me up for a four o’clock appointment, handed me some gym clothes, and then showed me around the first floor. There were many novelty sauna rooms, an arcade, outdoor pool, a juice bar and a big communal area. She asked if I had any questions.
“Yes. I’m from Japan, and at our hot springs we get naked and…”
Before I could finish my question he jumped in, “No, no, no! Do NOT get naked here.”
Clearly she had a prior experience.
“Okay,” I continued, “so I put on these gym clothes, then sit in the sauna and sweat?”
“Yes. Then when you’ve finished, go upstairs and take a shower. Then you may enjoy your Gold Package.”
I took the elevator to the men’s floor and stripped down. Just like in Japan, I drew a few stares. Just like in Japan, I did not care.
Back downstairs I rotated through the different saunas. Hot, hot, kind of hot, hot, really hot, hot. I felt a little Japanese as I sat in the same borrowed clothes as everyone else. I was sweating away in a t-shirt that someone else had sweat in before me, and someone else would sweat in after me. Wouldn’t it be much more sanitary just to do this naked?
After plenty of sweating I enjoyed a nice organic tea and sat on the floor in the communal room. Again, my inner-Japanese surfaced. Wasn’t it odd that sweaty people and clean people were all lying on the same tile floor together?
The clock approached four and I went upstairs for a shower. I hosed off and entered the back of the spa to the treatment room. A tiny 50-year-old man in a thong told me to lie down on the massage table. He didn’t so much tell me, as he did bark it at me and point. Whatever, I got it.
He picked up a rough towel and set to work. He rubbed the towel against my skin to peel off my dead skin. And he did not take it easy on me.
He worked through the Gold Package. Massaging, grunting, oiling, the works. The little man finished up with a shampooing. I rinsed off, dried off and dressed up.
I found my way to the exit and the woman from before found me.
“Well, how was it” she asked.
“Great. I feel like a king.”
She laughed. “Good, well tell your friends about us!”
I told her I would. Dragon Hills Spa. Now I have.
I took a train back to central Seoul and found a nice coffee shop to slip into. The menu had Korean, Japanese, and English. In that order. So I ordered in Japanese. The waiter was certainly perplexed by my language of choice, but I just smiled back.
I wrote in my travel journal, looked out the window and enjoyed a quiet moment alone in the cool air conditioning. When my coffee was finished I was back outside. I set out to do a little souvenir shopping.
The beauty industry is big business in Korea. Face masks in particular are a big seller. So I set out for a few of those. I walked down the busy shopping street full of Koreans and tourists alike. I had my headphones off and I was listening for one of two specific things: Japanese or English. I heard the Japanese first.
“いらしゃいませ (Welcome to our store)!” A little Korean girl shouted out
I walked up, “こんにちは。すみません、これはいくらですか。(Hello. Excuse me, but how much is this?)”
She stared at me. “これ (this),” I repeated.
“八千ヲンです。 (Eight thousand won.) ($8)”
“ちょっと高いですね。(It’s a little expensive, isn’t it?)”
She started to get her senses back. “それは七千ヲンです。(That’s seven thousand won.)”
“じゃ、” I let her hang for a moment, “お願いします。 (“Well, I’ll take it.”)
She rang up my purchase and I walked away. As I exited I said to the girl, “あなたの日本語は上手です。(Your Japanese is really good.)”
Back at the hostel I met Umberto and changed shirts. We were soon out the door and headed to dinner; korean barbecue.
Korean barbecue is famous all over the world. You grill big slabs of meat at your table and chop them up with big scissors. When the meat is ready you place it on a piece of lettuce, add some veggies and sauce and wrap it up. It’s like a little slice of heaven on your tongue.
We returned to the park and started making some rounds. One of Umberto’s Korean friends joined us. We were then joined by a stranger, Pablo, from New Zealand. He was new in town and all alone so we took him under our wings.
We chatted with the locals and even watched amateur boxing in the park. It was a lively Saturday evening. Unfortunately I was still wiped out from Friday night and I had a plane to catch Sunday morning. I said goodbye to my friends and managed to navigate the streets back home. I crossed a group of students drinking beer and inviting me to join them. I resisted the urge and made it back to the hostel.
Laying in bed with the A/C blasting full throttle I fell asleep.
Sunday, August 11
I heard the door open and Umberto quietly stepped in it. It was 6 AM.
“Good night,” I asked.
I rolled over back to bed.
Up. Dressed. Pack over my back. I nudged Umberto.
“Nice to have met you,” I said.
“Yeah, you too.”
“Let’s keep in touch,” I said.
I quietly slipped out the front door and put on my shoes.
Take out breakfast. Hot coffee. Train.
At the airport I struck up a conversation with the American next to me, Zoe from Minneapolis. We chatted through check in and security. Then I was on my own.
I had 50,000 won in my pocket, or $50. It didn’t seem worth the time, or fee, to exchange it. So I set out to quickly spend my pocket change. A souvenir, coffee and magazine at the airport quickly wiped out my money and I so I boarded the plane.
Two hours later I was walking through immigration in Tokyo. I bypassed the long tourist line and entered the shorter line for visa holders. The woman behind the counter spoke polite Japanese to me, of which I understood 90%. I answered her questions and was quickly let through. It felt so good to be able to communicate with someone again.
Customs. Trains. Home.
I entered my clean apartment and turned on the a/c.
I was home.
During my travels I kept a journal and recorded my thoughts throughout the day. Here are a few points I thought worth sharing.
-Advertising. One of the first differences I noticed in Korea was the lack of advertising. The train from the airport had less than 10 posters in it. Contrast that with Tokyo. It regularly looks like an advertisement threw up in a train car. Ads everywhere.
-Cleanliness. The next thing I noticed was outside the train station. There was litter on the street. Litter everywhere. I visited a 7/11 convenience store and was shocked to find dust clinging to everything. At museums I found handprints and smudges everywhere. Generally I found the whole country to be very untidy. Contrast that with Tokyo, where everything is shined to a gloss.
-Professionalism. I was also taken aback by the lack of professionalism in Korea. Everywhere people at work were on their cell phones. Employees took little interest, or care in their customers. I was routinely asked to wait while an employee would finish typing their email. Again, contrast that with Tokyo, where customer service is the top priority.
-Wealth. It didn’t take long to notice the difference of wealth between Japan and South Korea. Japan has the world’s third largest GDP, followed by South Korea in 15th place. However Korea’s GDP is actually a fifth as much as Japan’s, and it was completely apparent to me. The infrastructure, the architecture, the amenities, the apparent wealth of an individual. There was a huge gap.
-Relativity. Luckily it took me less than a day to put these observations in context. Korea isn’t really that dirty; Japan is just really clean. Korea isn’t really that poor, Japan is just that rich. If I were to visit a developing country in southeast Asia or Africa, I’m sure South Korea would look like a paradise. So, for the rest of my journey I tried to keep this relatively in the back of my mind. I think it made my experience much better.
-The Chinese. The Chinese tourists I’ve met in the United States, Japan and now Korea are really doing themselves a disservice. Perhaps it’s their culture, but their behavior is really grating and at times appalling. And it’s not just me. They’re infamous all over the world. To those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I can only describe the behavior of many Chinese tourists as nouveau riche (new money). I’m sure not all Chinese people are like this, and if I were to meet people in China, not just those abroad, I would likely have a different image. But come on people, get with the program!
-Headphones. While traveling in Seoul I actively chose not to wear headphones. I wanted to hear the sounds of the city. I wanted to hear the language. And most importantly, I wanted to make myself approachable. It worked. I had several people walk up and start chatting with me. I could overhear others’ conversations and jump it. And I heard Seoul for what it was.
-WiFi. You may have heard how great Korea’s Internet technology is. It’s true. I’ve seen firsthand how fast their connectivity is. Lightening fast. Not only is it fast, but it’s cheap. Free WiFi is available all over the city. Nearly every restaurant I went to offered it. Since I had my phone with me, I was in business. I was never more than a few hours from plugging in to the system. In a foreign country for a few days and I’m still able to chat with friends in Tokyo or family in Nebraska. How cool is that?
-Friendliness. I ate nine meals in Korea, and I only ate one alone. I think that’s a noteworthy accomplishment. Everywhere I went I made friends with total strangers. I think generally the people you meet abroad are more friendly and willing to engage a stranger. But I still had to put myself out there a lot. I did and I wasn’t disappointed.
Tuesday, August 13
I decided I wanted another go at Mt. Fuji (富士山). This time I wanted to do it for speed. So I decided to do it alone. The recommended time up was five to seven hours. I could shorten that.
I took a bus to the north side of the mountain and the fifth station. I arrived at 10 PM and started up shortly thereafter. I moved at a brisk pace, I moved higher and the oxygen started to drop. I made a game out of it. Every three switchbacks I would stop for 15 seconds to catch my breath. Then back to it.
At the seventh station I hit a traffic jam. One of the mountain huts was clearing out. Fifty people in a single tour group were starting up together. As a mountain enthusiast I was highly irritated. The tour organizers should have broken their party in five sections, out of courtesy to other hikers. I swam through the crowd and passed the bottleneck. I looked at the rocky path in front of me. I could get in line with the 50 hikers and take the easy route. Or I could go around the hikers on the more difficult route and scramble past them.
You know what I chose.
I tore past the slow hikers and scrambled to the top of the pack in a few short minutes. I wanted to stop and catch my breath, but the hikers kept moving. They were like zombies chasing me. No time to rest.
I came to the eighth checkpoint and saw the whole show over again. I sat down to have a quick snack break and catch my breath. I chatted with some people from Michigan as we watched a second half-asleep, 50-strong, hiking group set up.
I stood up and fastened my pack on tight. I said goodbye to my new friends and set up. Again I scrambled past the long line of hikers and breezed along.
At the ninth checkpoint I stopped again for a quick break. I looked at my watch. 12:00 AM. I looked at the sign pointing to the top. One hour to go. The sun would rise at 5 AM. I was moving fast. Way too fast. I had to slow my pace. I finished my Red Bull and started again. A little slower.
Just after 1 AM I made summit.
Mt. Fuji recommended climbing time: 5-7 hours.
Mt. Fuji recommended time for Alex: 3 hours.
“Four hours early. Way to go, Al. Now enjoy your victory by freezing to death,” I thought.
On the top of Fuji during the night the temperature usually hangs around freezing. With the windchill it was definitely below freezing.
I found a seat on the bench where I had sat two years earlier. I laid down a towel to sit on, for insulation. I wrapped my tinfoil-like emergency blanket around my chest and pulled a windbreaker over it. I snapped two hand warmers and shoved them in my pockets. Then I reached into my bag and pulled out my phone. I turned it on. Full bars, LTE. On the top of the tallest mountain in Japan I had full cellphone reception.
I surfed the web for a few and put my phone away. I tried to get my gas stove fired up for some coffee and ramen noodles. I tried but couldn’t get the oxygen level balanced well. Bummer. I ate a chocolate bar and looked out to the horizon. I looked down and saw hundreds of head torches in a line. The tour groups were making slow but steady progress up the mountain.
At 4:30 the sky started to lighten up. I could clearly see the horizon stretch on endlessly. Behind me stood a thick crowd. Everyone with their camera ready. I had snapped away last time and wasn’t so concerned with taking pictures.
“BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP.” My phone was chiming.
I picked it up and it was my parents calling me via Skype. I answered and the video connection started. Looking at the screen on my phone I could see my mother & father at home in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. I was sending back video of the sun rising over Japan, coming live from Mount Fuji.
I am a child of the Internet and technology, but even I was impressed for a moment at what we were able to achieve.
After the sun broke the horizon I let my parents go. I made the crater walk along the rim of Fuji. I climbed to the top of the weather station on the mountain, the official highest point in the country. Then I started down. Three to five hours were recommended to descend the mountain. I could shorten that.
Two hours later I was back at the bus station. It was 9 AM and my bus didn’t leave until 12 PM.
“Good job, Al. You didn’t again,” I thought.
The three hours passed quickly and I was soon a bus back to Tokyo. And I was soon asleep.
Saturday, August 18
Because one mountain in one week wasn’t enough, I wanted more.
I went north to Saitama (埼玉県) to stay the night at Elisha and Yoshi’s apartment. At 4 AM we were up and at ‘em! Elisha quietly grumbled as we got dressed in the dark. But Yoshi and I were on the same page, we’re both early birds.
I had hiked with Elisha and Yoshi twice before. Our first outing to Mt. Fuji was a complete success. Our second hike to My. Ryokami ended up being a wash. Third time’s the charm.
We drove north for two hours to Nagano (長野県) to Myogi Quasi-National Park. Myogi is a small mountain chain with several rock formations that jet out of the forest like smoke stacks. We spent the morning grappling with chains and hiking along the rocks. The highlight of which was a 20 meter straight vertical climb. It was basically rock climbing without a harness. It was totally rad.
We exited the mountains at noon already having climbed for five hours. We made a quick pit stop at a hot spring (温泉) and jumped back in the car. The last time I went hiking with my friends I had crashed in the back seat within five minutes. I would not succumb again. I must stay awake. Must stay awake. Stay awake. Awake.
I made it 10 minutes.
-僕は日本人です。(I am Japanese.)-
I’ve known for sometime that living in Japan will leave an impression on me. After nearly three years I’m beginning to become aware of that impression. However I wasn’t aware just how deeply Japan has affected me until I left it.
As I shared dinner with Rick in Korea, he made a comment.
“Alex, you look American, you sound American, but you behave like a Japanese person.”
I chuckled. That was a compliment, I guessed.
But it’s true. My demeanor, my speech, my outlook on life, it’s all been twisted a little living here. Surely some of my quirks will die off when I get back home. Others won’t. What’s more, I like some of these changes. For example, I’ve gotten REALLY good at walking into a room and reading the social subtext in under a minute. That’s an amazing skill that will help make me successful anywhere I go.
Twice in Seoul I saw Japanese people and made a beeline for them. I felt an immediate connection with them. Much like I did when I saw other foreigners when I was new to Japan. My Japanese isn’t great, but I still chatted with them for a short time. They were, I considered, my people.
When I flew back into Tokyo, I flew back home.
I’ll always be me, but Japan has made me a better person. I’ll be eternally thankful for that.