…and don’t come back!

We arrived in Kyoto on Monday night, a lot later than anticipated owing to our unplanned adventures in Hiroshima.

We were staying in a very traditional Japanese guest house, the owner of which had insisted, on the phone, that Irish Friend Two was French. We don’t know why – perhaps her name sounded French, perhaps her accent sounded French, who can say? “I’m not French,” she explained patiently, several times. “I’m Irish… and listen, do you have a room?”

He did, and we trundled up to the building door to claim it. The door was locked. There was no one in the dimly lit reception area within. It was only 9pm, so we couldn’t be locked out for the night, surely? Indignant, we shook the door and hammered on it.

“Right, enough of this,” said Irish Friend Two, stalking off to find a phone. She returned looking irritated. There had been a few communication problems during her brief conversation, but eventually they’d established who she was. “Oh, you’re the French girl,” he said. “YES!” exclaimed Irish Friend Two, relieved. “Look, we’re standing outside the door, and it’s locked.” The man sounded confused. “I am not there, just go in, I left you message.” Irish Friend Two was getting a little annoyed. “But the door is locked!!” she repeated. “Is not locked!!” he retorted. This went on for some time, until he told her that he’d be there in half an hour.

We shook the door again just to confirm that it was indeed locked and that the man was talking out of his backside. “I gave him a piece of my mind,” said IFT as we sat back down on the doorstep, sweltering in the humidity as usual. Eventually she walked down to the nearest shop to get us a nice cold beer each, while I sat on with the bags. Meanwhile, two non-Japanese guys came along and looked at me sitting on the step. We nodded at each other. They stepped over me. And just as I opened my mouth to tell them the unfortunate news that the door was locked…

…they slid open the sliding doors.

How embarrassing. I explained the matter to IFT when she returned, and we scurried inside with our bags to find a sweet little note written to us in French, directing us to our beautiful room, where we sat and sipped our beers until the owner came back. “Bon soir!” he said, shortly before he worked out that we weren’t French. We apologised. He told us he’d waited for us for 3 hours before he had to go out. We apologised. He told IFT off for setting her beer on the floor by her sleeping mat. We apologised. Then he turned and kicked over my beer, also on the floor, and spilled it all over the tatami, to his (and our) utter horror.

We arrive late, ruin his day, yell at him about the clearly open door being locked, lie about our nationality, sit in the room drinking beer, and then spill it over the sacred tatami. We are the worst guests ever.

Help!

“Let’s just go and get some money out before we go to the Peace Park”, suggested Irish Friend Two as we headed out on Monday morning to explore Hiroshima.

This simple, 5 minute detour ended up taking us most of the day.

It wasn’t our fault, obviously. We are responsible, organised, together adults, as I have explained. We knew that we couldn’t use our Korean bank cards in Japan, didn’t we? And we knew that my back-up UK card was being helpfully blocked by my bank because they thought it was strange that someone was trying to use it in another country, didn’t we? And we changed more than a couple of hundred thousand won (about a hundred pounds) into yen before we left Korea, didn’t we?

Forlorn and confused and with panic beginning to set in at the thought of a week without money in what seems to be the most expensive country in the entire world, we stood beside the apparently useless international ATM in the post office contemplating starvation. It was not a happy moment.

We were approached by a women and her two young sons. The older boy, only about 9 or 10 years old, asked politely if he could help us. Apparently our clueless appearance now prompts small children to offer us their assistance. We explained our predicament to the woman via her incredibly fluent-in-English son, and she spent the next hour and a half taking us from bank to bank, communicating with the staff for us and trying to find some way of getting us our money.

Eventually she had to go, leaving us at a point where it looked like things were going to be OK (optimism that turned out to be premature, as it happened), but just as an aside, I have never, throughout all my travels, encountered a nation of people as friendly and helpful as the Japanese. This woman looked after us as if we were her own daughters, giving no thought to sacrificing her morning, without us even asking for help – and she’s just one of many. I don’t know if Irish Friend Two and I just happen to look so ridiculously incapable at times that people feel morally obliged to come to our rescue, but we have never experienced anything like this before. All we have to do is pause to check our map, and someone will stop and ask if they can help us. If they can, they’ll then go out of their way to personally walk us in the right direction. If they can’t, they will stay with us until they find someone who can, almost as if we became their responsibility as soon as they spoke to us. It’s heart-warming. Tonight, I was returning to the hostel alone by subway and the man I’d asked which was the correct line for my stop then accompanied me, with his friends, to the station where I had to change trains. They weren’t even going that way! I told them I was fine, and I knew how to use the subway, but they insisted. One of them even presented me with his fan, because my tatty old one (a bit worse for wear since I rather stupidly tried to use it as shelter from a monsoon the other week) had seen better days. “A Japanese gift”, he said with a lovely smile. They saw me on to my train, and waved me off like old friends. The selflessly helpful attitude of the people here is making me resolve to always approach a lost or worried-looking stranger and offer my assistance without being asked – this beautifully warm thoughtfulness actually makes me feel guilty for never having behaved in such a way myself!

But to return to my original story, Irish Friend Two and I decided not to waste any more of our only day in Hiroshima, and put off worrying about money until we’d seen the site of the H-bomb. More about that another time. For now, I will wind up my tale by saying that I’ve been extremely surprised to discover the lack of free wifi in public places in Japan. In Korea, you can get online practically anywhere in town, and I confess that I’ve always had this image in my head of Japan as a sort of futuristic land that is practically run by space-age robots. I was half expecting to be able to connect to the Internet here without even having any kind of electronic device on which to do so, the wifi being so advanced that you can check your email using the power of your mind. As turns out, Korea is actually ahead… well, in terms of Internet connectivity, anyway. ;)

Which is how I came to be sitting in a rare but welcome wifi zone in the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, arguing in hushed tones with Mark from Alliance and Leicester via Skype on my iPad, surrounded by images of mushroom clouds and charred remains of clothing. It felt very inappropriate, and very surreal… but the joy when the lovely, lovely Mark fixed everything for his damsel in distress certainly lightened the mood after an afternoon spent in what must be one of the world’s saddest places.

“We’ll laugh about this, one day”, I’d said to Irish Friend two at one stage when we were panicking and trudging despairingly through the streets of Hiroshima, sweltering in the heat and clinging to the walls for shade, counting what little money we had and cursing ourselves for not having more common sense. “One day” turned out to be later that same day. At least we’ll always have our sense of humor, even if we end up sleeping on a park bench before the week’s through! :)

Bubbling Hot

WRITTEN ON SUNDAY
BEPPU

The title of this post refers both to my condition throughout most of today, and to the Nine Hells of Beppu (real name, not made up by me) which is where we spent the day. 

I’m not sure how much hotter than Korea Japan really is, if at all. However, when I’m in Korea, I’m never outside throughout the day any more. I don’t have a death wish. The few times when I’ve had to venture out of my nice air-conditioned classroom to go to the bank, I’ve had to stop in the shade several times so that I don’t faint. Here, however… well, it would be a bit of a waste to come to Japan and sit hugging the air conditioner all day, so endure the heat I must.

We explored Beppu by hopping on buses from one beauty spot to the next. It really is an incredible place. One of the most geothermally active regions in the world, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie when you approach it: near-boiling water bubbles and froths and roars under the ground, surfacing in thousands of hot springs, roaring clouds of steam, and powerful geysers. The steam is everywhere, billowing across the mountains and seeping out from under the rocks and paving stones. I’ve never seen anything like it. 

Beppu is best known for its Nine Hells, or ‘jigoku’, pits of bubbling, steaming water and mud. The areas around them have been carefully landscaped to form beautiful, surreal gardens. One of the ‘jigoku’ is a fiery pit of bubbling red water emitting clouds of red steam. Another is a pool of boiling, belching, squelching mud. And then of course there are the countless public baths created from the naturally hot water, which is where we finished up.

Well, Irish Friend Two did. After spending the afternoon dangerously dehydrated despite drinking what seemed like gallons of water, and having resorted to wearing a towel around my neck to soak up the private bubbling water that my skin was producing, I could think of no greater personal Hell of Beppu than getting into a steaming hot bath. Instead, I sat on at the mountaintop restaurant where we’d eaten dinner, assuring IFT that I genuinely did not mind her going for soak without me, and looked after our bags and sipped an iced coffee and typed up a blog post on my iPad like a pretentious poser, while enjoying the view. That’s much more my idea of a relaxing evening than quite literally being boiled alive.

Each to their own!    

Ramen

WRITTEN ON SATURDAY 
FUKUOKA

In Korea, they’re mad about ramen – noodles in a thin broth. There’s always a whole aisle devoted to ramen in even the smallest of convenience stores, and it’s the ideal quick meal when you don’t have time to cook in between work and rushing out somewhere. 

However, I never really got what the big deal was about ramen. I mean, it’s basically super noodles in flavored water! So I wasn’t particularly excited when I read that the speciality food of Fukuoka was ramen, but both Irish Friend Two and I felt that we had to give it a try.

Hot and hungry, we stood outside a mysterious, curtained off restaurant of sorts. Many of the restaurants seem to be hiding behind various drapes and curtains, whether for decorative purposes or privacy of diners, I can’t tell. There was, however, a poster giving us instructions on how to use the restaurant. 

1. Please purchase a meal ticket at the machine.

We peeked round the door. Just in front of the mysterious curtained off portion was a machine with buttons and pictures, from which we managed to get our dinner tickets after much uncertainty involving the coins in our purses. (It’s very hard to get used to the idea of coins actually being worth something again, when you’ve got hundreds of them lying around in various places in your apartment. Even the smaller Korean notes aren’t worth enough to stop you casually leaving them lying around like a handful of small change.) 

2. Please sit down and circle what you want on the order sheet.

We ducked under the curtain and found ourselves in what looked like an office or bank or something, only more cosy and pleasant. There was a row of cubicles, almost like the old-fashioned private study desks we had in the Sixth Form study hall. We each sat in our own booth, and specified how we wanted our ramen by circling things on the order sheet in front of us. Garlic:  half clove… Spice heat: medium… Noodle texture: soft… that kind of thing. 

3. Push the button in front of you when you are ready.

As if by magic, hands appeared through the narrow hatch in each booth, and took our order sheets. We couldn’t see their owners, and their owners couldn’t see us. And when the food arrived, disembodied voices told us to enjoy our meal, and thin bamboo screens were lowered over the hatches to give us complete privacy from the staff behind them. 

The whole thing was set up so that you didn’t have to see or be seen by a single member of staff throughout your meal. It was strange, but I really liked the concept. And I liked slurping my noodles and knowing that no one could see me making a mess. :)

Oh and as for the ramen… delicious!   

Where the Fukuoka…?!

WRITTEN ON SATURDAY
FUKUOKA

Irish Friend Two and I are very alike. Painfully alike, it might be argued, given that we both have reputations for being scatterbrained and disorganised, in the kind of way that if we lose something or forget something or do something demonstrating a lack of general common sense, people who know us roll their eyes as if to say “that doesn’t surprise me in the slightest”, and give a knowing (but hopefully affectionate) laugh.

And so it came to pass that the two of us headed off to Japan, as I explained, without even a fraction of a plan in place. In the middle of all this, Irish Friend Two’s phone had had a fatal encounter with a monsoon, so even contacting each other was difficult. But we made it to the beautiful coastal city of Fukuoka with no major disasters (unless you count trying to get on the ferry without our boarding passes, which were sitting where we’d left them at our backsides in the waiting lounge, but we decided to not, in fact, count that), and wandered happily through the streets to the nearest hostel. Which was full. As were all the other hostels the kind receptionist phoned for us. And the “affordable” hotels.

Oops.

After traipsing homelessly through the balmy streets, our clothes sticking to us and sweat dripping attractively from our noses, we decided we no longer cared about our budget and walked into the first hotel we came to. Much swankier than the places I’m used to staying in, and a million times more expensive than the same quality of hotel would be in Korea or even at home. We didn’t care.

“I mean, it’s not like I’m broke and unemployed this time”, I reflected, almost to justify it to myself, as I sipped a refreshing cup of green tea by the window overlooking a beautiful turquoise canal. “And you know what, I EARNED this holiday!”.

I have spent a relaxing hour gazing out of the window, reading, and writing this post, while Irish Friend Two fights with the travel adaptor for her hair straighteners. Now we’re going out to explore the city by night before heading to Beppu in the morning. So far we have managed to embarrass ourselves by speaking Korean to everyone we’ve encountered. You wouldn’t believe how natural it is to say “please”, “thank you”, “hello”, and “here” (the latter while pointing at where we wanted to go on our map) in Korean, even though we’ve learned the relevant Japanese words. The people just look strangely at us. Two white girls (well, one white, and one kinda pink) jabbering in Korean for some inexplicable reason, given that they’re in Japan.

My only other observation of note at the moment is how incredibly polite the public toilets are here. I have never encountered such manners from a toilet before.

A time to work, and a time to… eat sushi.

I’m going to Japan on Saturday!

It’s all very exciting. Much as I love living and working in a country that is foreign to me, I’m surprised at how quickly a lot of the “foreign” feel disappears. Things that once seemed bizarre, odd, unusual, or exciting to me are now common, everyday things that I take for granted. There are still a lot of great experiences waiting to be enjoyed in Korea, but for a few months now I’ve been itching to get out and see what another country has to offer. My trip to China now seems like a blurry, distant dream, and I haven’t had a holiday since then. But my one summer week off is almost here, and I’m off to the Land Of The Rising Sun. Yay!

It is, without a doubt, my most unplanned trip to date. I am blaming this on a combination of factors including a hectic schedule, a travel partner who is probably far too like me in terms of being laid-back and somewhat disorganised, and the “group ignorance” I mentioned in a previous post, where it’s far too easy to just assume that the other person will have more of a clue what’s going on than you do. We’ve managed to book the ferry from Busan to Fukuoka, and buy our 7 day rail passes, but that’s the extent of our preparations. An emergency planning meeting over coffee earlier in the week left us with a coffee-stained scrap of paper with an extremely vague itinerary on it. And that’s all we’ve got. We are winging it. Just me, Irish Friend Two, a guide book, and lots of mosquito repellent and sun cream. I think this is going to be fun. :)

So what would you go and see in Japan? Or, if you’ve already been, what would you advise us not to miss? Leave me a comment or send me an email if you’ve any suggestions or tips! And in the meantime, here’s the only plan we have:

Not much detail there, I admit – but so many possibilities! It gives me a thrill just to look at it. Yes, living in Korea is great… but I’ve been in one place for too long, and I’m so ready to quench my travel thirst again. Japan, here I come!

Oh!!!

Oh!!!

Koreans make this surprised sound a bit differently from how I’m used to hearing it. They sort of… breathe it rather than say it, and add undertones of grunts so that it comes out sounding like they’ve been punched in the stomach. It’s terribly dramatic.

I spent all day on Monday hearing this sound, having forgotten to put on suncream during the very briefest of trips to the beach before we left Boryeong on Sunday afternoon. I was there for under an hour, I was swimming and chatting, it slipped my mind, OK? Anyway, by the time I left the opticians and went to meet the others for dinner, my new skin colour had developed nicely, much like a negative in a darkroom. I skipped happily into the restaurant, marvelling at the clarity of everything around me, and was greeted by half a dozen startled expressions, stopping me in my tracks. Had I chosen some particularly unattractive frames? Had I been given the wrong prescription and mistaken a bunch of strangers for my friends?

My God, Hails, you’re a tomato, said Irish Friend One in his polite and tactful way.

When I saw myself in a bathroom mirror a few hours later, I realised that not only was I a tomato, I was a radioactive tomato. With burns. Wearing a lot of rouge. And blushing. My face glowed so brightly at me from the mirror that I, too, let a startled “Oh!” escape my lips. My taxi driver on the way home greeted me with an “Oh!” and spent the entire journey looking at me in the rear view mirror and laughing hysterically.

The next morning, I actually tried wearing some make-up to cover the horror story that was my face, but of course by the time I arrived in school after my brief walk, I remembered why I can’t wear make-up here in the summer – a combination of humidity and sweat meant that it was practically running down my face in murky beige rivers. I sighed and washed my face clean, turning to face a day of “Oh!”s.

“Oh!” said every child who came into my classroom. “Oh!” said every colleague who met me in the corridor – often regardless of whether they’d already seen me and “Oh!”ed at me. “Oh!” said the Cooking Lady, the postman, the bus drivers, and a couple of parents. I spent the first ten minutes of every class explaining to the children and their equally bewildered teachers why anyone would lie out in the sun, even if they were wearing suncream. It was exhausting.

And then yesterday morning, I was sitting at my desk drinking my iced coffee and preparing for the day ahead, when Ellen, one of my newest Korean colleagues, came in with a bag of potatoes, a cheese grater, a mixing bowl, and a tub of flour. I looked at her in the way that you’d look at anyone if they came into your workspace with a bag of potatoes, a cheese grater, a mixing bowl, and a tub of flour. These are for you, she said as if she was in fact carrying a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine, and not what she was actually carrying (a bag of potatoes, a cheese grater, a mixing bowl, and a tub of flour, in case you missed it).

With very little in the way of explanations, she proceeded to grate potatoes and mix them with the flour until she had a gloopy paste that looked not unlike vomit. Then she tucked my t-shirt sleeves up into my bra strap and spread the stuff all over my arms and shoulders. She almost did the same to my face until I protested quite strongly. It will help your burns, she said with great conviction as she produced some cling film from her bag and wrapped me up in it.

I waddled into my first Musical class with my cling filmed arms sticking out at my sides like a penguin’s wings. This made teaching dance routines decidedly difficult, and then of course all the movement made the cling film start to come loose. I first became aware of this when I slipped on something and looked down to see a trail of potato mush on the floor. It was seeping out from the cling film, dripping down my arms, and sticking to the floor, my t-shirt, my shorts, the children…

I ended up spending the last half of the class carrying a towel around to catch the potatoey gloop oozing from my shrink wrapped arms, and that’s a sentence I very much doubt anyone in the world has ever used before.

How is your burn today? asked Ellen anxiously when I met her at the water cooler this morning. I couldn’t help but notice that she had some potato-shaped objects in a bag. Oh, all better now, perfect, excellent, thank you! I lied, grinning insanely and backing away. I forced myself to hold on to the smile rather than scream in agony when she patted me on the shoulder. I cannot spend another day smelling like potatoes and covered in blobs of mush.

I am almost completely certain that this kind of thing does not happen to normal people.