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Japan and South Korea 2010

a travel blog by chertop


My sister Mary and I travel to Japan and South Korea
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The IDEA is hatched

Bennington, United States


When my niece Jennifer and her fiance accepted a posting to South Korea, I was not surprised that my sister Mary made plans to go to visit her daughter. When Mary, thinking of stopping somewhere warm en route to Korea, asked if I was interested in a winter vacation in Hawaii, my answer was "sure, but I'd really like to go all the way to Asia." We discovered that both of us would most like to be away from home in November when the autumn colors are gone and winter darkness, and sometimes blues, close in.
Time and finances ruled out a stop in Hawaii, but Lonely Planet guidebooks on Japan and Korea presented adventures enough for dozens of months more than the one we have.
Being unable to read straight through a guidebook, I proceed by fits and starts, looking at and combining LP suggested itineraries, surfing the internet for discount flights within Japan, ways of crossing to Korea, ways of evaluating whether the Japan Rail Pass is worthwhile for our itinerary, and accommodation ranging from youth hostels to Japanese inns or ryokan. Making each actual booking, I feel the anxiety of uncertainty whether it's the right decision, even though I know travel is full of uncertainties, and there are many different roads to travel and each might be "right" just in different ways. I reward myself for decisions made by letting myself indulge in the tangible pleasure of throwing clothing candidates for the trip on the guest bed, along with camera, passport and travel paraphernalia. 9 days to departure and I am starting to wake early with pre-trip excitement, revisions to my to-do list, and another day of tasks and mental activity divided between Vermont and northern Asia.


permalink written by  chertop on October 21, 2010 from Bennington, United States
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Pre-trip Preparations

Bennington, United States


The day at last and almost too soon. It seems no time since it was weeks, then 9, 8, 7 days before my departure for Japan and Korea. My “to do” list on the computer got printed out in revised versions, then I festooned the paper version with additions and with cross-outs as the tasks got done.
Perhaps the annoying and persistent anxiety I felt in the last week came from the many tasks large and small that I felt compelled to complete, not only for this voyage but for our church's Snowball Bazaar publicity and for the book of my poems which I was trying to compile and get to my brother Glenn (who offered to help me put together a book) as well as to my reader/editor/friends Chris and Gail. Uncertainty about how much time was needed for these tasks as well as whatever further items I would add to my “To Do” list may have been expressed in the dream a few nights ago in which I was trying to return from China but bureaucratic officials made impossible regulations that I was trying to get around.
Trying to keep in mind to “Be here now,” I looked at the preparations as part of the trip..but I was amazed when someone confided to me that they planned a trip so thoroughly that ultimately they didn't need to take it! I never plan that well and every trip I have ever taken emerges as I travel. Some involved my first reading my Lonely Planet guidebook on the plane; some just going and discovering once I got there. As the poet Theodore Roetke said “I learn by going where I have to go.”
But, because of the many travelers in Japan and the potential expense and vexation of being without reservations, I had worked on-line and by phone to make reservations for our first night (a hotel 10 minutes from the Tokyo-Narita airport), our flight the next day to
Fukuoka city in southwest Japan, 4 nights in the Fukuoka Youth Hostel (where Mary and I are to have the luxury of a twin room and, I hope, the chance to meet other travelers and get some helpful tips about that area of Japan); return tickets for the hydrofoil boat from Fukuoka-Hakata to Busan, South Korea; and Japan Rail Passes for when we return to Japan November 15.
In between computer and guidebook and selecting what to take, piling those things on the guest bed, I was rescued from mental work by raking leaves, twice in the almost dark in the evening when the pool was closed (broken pump) and the hard physical exertion of raking raised my sweat and lowered my tension. Several times Hamilton rescued me from planning, inviting me to participate in the opportunity of raking or of helping him pull the tarp laden with heavy, wet leaves. Working with Ham, I would look up into flocks of golden yellow leaves on our maple tree, a gentle drizzle of leaves descending as we raked, and the azure sky brilliant beyond the leaves. For three nights we saw the full moon, at times unobstructed and at times sailing in and out of night clouds, illuminating the edges with magical, sacred light.
Wednesday evening Hamilton and I drove to East Greenbush for the funeral of his cousin, our generation, amongst other things a reminder to seize these opportunities to explore the world, to have adventures, and seize opportunities for extraordinary living.
After a full and intense day Thursday, Hamilton and I came in from raking leaves and I was so tired that I didn't know what to do with myself. Caffeine wouldn't help, it was too late for a nap (I thought), I had already swum at noon – Hamilton and I sat down on our sofa and I fell asleep on his shoulder, until he woke me over an hour later. The butterflies in my stomach threatened to revolt if I fed them anything fiercer than an omelette: I brought out the beautiful farmers' market eggs - green, beige and brown - and made us the best looking omelette of my life, golden brown and delicious with cheddar and tomatoes in the center. Friday evening, the night before I left, Hamilton made dinner that included the delicious new potatoes and spinach from the farmer's market. After parking my bags on the launching pad near our side door, Hamilton and I managed to be in bed between 8-9pm, our goal!


permalink written by  chertop on October 22, 2010 from Bennington, United States
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In flight

Newark, United States


October 30 Departure Day
Two alarms set for 4:30am woke us. I turned on the coffee maker and made yerba mate for Hamilton, donned the clothes I had set out (amazing how quickly they slip on after all the deciding what exactly to take!). Before 5am we were on the road, predictably empty of cars in the early morning darkness. I was grateful to feel a 7am wakefulness, instead of 4am grogginess. And to have finally dropped into my “travel mode” in which my pre-trip anxiety is replaced with a sense of “here we go” - the adventure is on, I'll deal with whatever happens.
It's also a relief that my carry-on items are all in my daypack and waist belt, plus my much-traveled photojacket, so that walking through security and to the gate in Albany was easy, and I had a comfortable (though major) hike from the gate where we landed in Newark to the far distant gate for the flight to Japan.
During the wait in Newark, drawing 2 moveable chairs over to the electrical outlet in the middle of an empty wall, I set my pack on one, together with wireless mouse on a pad which I improvised from a box of Vermont maple candy. I plugged in the computer and, even though you have to purchase internet connection, I began to describe my trip, an adventure where even mundane details take on the special significance of the voyage.

October 30,10:45pm Vermont time or Oct 31, 11:45am Tokyo time. I started out on the tarmac at Newark reading and highlighting my guidebook, delving into the cultural treasures of Kyoto and Nara which I hadn't found time to explore before leaving, amazed and gratified that my mind was clearer than at home, freed of pre-travel tasks. I watched the film Coco Before Chanel, then part of Fellini's La Docle Vita, and suffered through the violence of Rio de Janiero slums in City of God. Marvelous to have one's own small screen in the seat ahead of me and be able to start, as well as pause, a film at one's convenience.
After Coco, I started to explore games, especially Berlitz language learning... but first I had to figure out how to work the wizard wand to get the selection to learn Japanese. The words for days of the weeks, months, counting, simple phrases that I learned years ago! when I spent an academic year studying at Waseda university in Tokyo... had a forgotten familiarity. Reinforcing the learning were video games of shooting down the numbered spaceship matching the Japanese name for the number, though I never did figure out how to save Rapunzel in her tower from the dragon by getting the hero to jump up to the correct month.
Another welcome surprise was the hot meals. When the first, a dinner, appeared, the woman across the aisle exclaimed, “And we don't have to pay for them?!” to which the flight attendant answered, “You pay for them all right.” Yakuniku with good sticky Japanese rice. Afterwards, great sleepiness overcame me so I inflated my pillow, covered my eyes with my black mask and huddled under my blanket. Good Bennington time for a nap.
The woman next to me and her preteen daughter have had some arguments. She wears a skimpy top and long black fingernails decorated with gold symbols – as far from a geisha as one could imagine. They have kosher meals and I'm curious about how one would keep the Jewish dietary laws in Japan.
I have gotten up almost every hour, a benefit of my choosing an aisle seat, found a space near the emergency exits where I could stretch and do some isometric exercises. Three hours into the flight we are over Hudson Bay, temperature ranges from minus 50 to minus 81 degrees outside. Eight hours later when I am trying again to sleep and the mother taps me to let her get out for the restroom, I feel a burst of annoyance, I've had enough of this flight and the man ahead pushing his chair back and knocking my tray table frays my nerves more – it takes effort to keep calm externally and go with the flow – how would I do in a mine a half mile underground with all these people for 69 days?
Some eleven hours into the flight we are over the sea of Okutsk (according to the video monitor)...but when I raise the blind just enough to look out, I see stark snowy and rock mountains then wilderness like one hardly associates with the huge populations of Asia – perhaps the remote islands north of Hokkaido, Japan?

permalink written by  chertop on October 30, 2010 from Newark, United States
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Arrival in Japan

Narita, Japan


Finally we descend into Tokyo. After a 14 hour flight it ironically seems to end too fast. Passengers race walk down the corridors, as briskly as they can without seeming rude, to get to Immigration and Customs ahead of as many people as possible Looking for the right Immigration line, I didn't notice a double-decker wheeled piece of luggage arc in front of me; I instinctively called out “God!” as I fell; the Japanese man pulling it made a conciliatory gesture --- I made a note to be more aware, even if slower.
Despite all the airports I have arrived at alone, I could not stifle a longing to be met, a scanning of people waiting. but then I was off to Information, Money Exchange and the Keisei train to Narita station, grateful my luggage is not any heavier as I sweated up stairs and escalators and over overpasses. Hesitating, then I go to the ticket booth to find which is the east exit; up over the overpass where there are big planters of colorful flowers. Narita's Comfort Inn is a very ordinary Western-style hotel, ours a small twin room but it's the Hilton compared to wandering the narrow streets looking for the ryokans that didn't return my inquiry or .... over an hour being hot and sweaty on a train into Tokyo.
After a very welcome shower, shedding sweaty clothes, and sorting my belongings, I ventured out walking the outdoor mezzanine back to the station, out the other side to a busy urban environment – yet one so human-sized that it seems minature to someone accustomed to the oversize selling-boxes of North American big box stores. The one lane street has about 2 feet wide pedestrian lanes marked on each side, lanes shared with bikes and parked cars. Small shops sell an array of beautifully presented edibles, sweets to take as hospitality gifts, fabrics for kimonos, simple and elegant salons, gaudy souvenirs, I noticed tall stylish young women with slender, pant-clad legs and leather boots. It's a town living its Japanese life in which I floated down the curved street to its temple.
Especially after the compact shops, the huge complex of enormous Buddhist temple buildings blew me away. Steeply climbing up the rocky hillside, were the imposing gate, array of temple buildings, multi-storied pagoda, hanging red lanterns, fierce guardian deities which all spoke to me as powerfully as the soaring cathedrals of Europe. The falling rain and dimming evening added a sombre dignity. I saw no foreigners, no cameras, but young couples together and older people bringing plastic bags to make offerings to the statues of Boddhisatvas at the smaller temples. Two lighted pavilions that looked like food shops, turned out to be places to buy inscribed papers and wood. I felt myself in the presence of the Divine and gave thanks for being here.
At the upper reaches of the temple, where it extends into the greeness of garden and park, I suddenly felt the nausea of too long without sleep. Descending slowly, I stopped under the eaves as rain fell and as the gong began a solemn conversation with the deep temple bell. I glimpsed, peering between temple buildings, the man on a distant temple balcony, striking the large gong. Walking back, I saw hanging red lanterns, Some older women, with the bent over backs from inadequate nutrition during childhood, were working with husbands to close up the shops. Passing a small supermarket, I strolled in, past shelves of unrecognizable packaged foodstuffs, but also fruit including persimmons, that I recall first encountering here in Japan in the 1970s. I hadn't expected to buy anything, but stryfoam cups of soup noodles caught my eye and I left with them and a Kirin beer so Mary and I would not have to go out again in the rain.
Back at our small white nest of a room, when I heard the expected knock at the door and opened it to the wide smile and rain-soaked hair of my sister Mary, I felt the joyous miracle – each of us had come from different places, traveled separately half way round the world and found each other at the appointed time in this 4th storey niche.
Flopped on armchair and bed, we poured each other the beer, in Japanese custom of serving each other, and shared high and low points of our flights. I had boiled water in the electric heater so we ate the soup noodles using disposable chopsticks that the shop girl had thoughfully offered. I brought out the cheese, crackers, pecans and dried cranberries that were my emergency rations for the plane, since I didn't expect the two dinners and a snack. Eventually so tired that I would lose the thread of a conversation, I fell asleep almost as soon as we decided it was legitimately bedtime (by Japanese time) and turned out the light.


permalink written by  chertop on October 31, 2010 from Narita, Japan
from the travel blog: Japan and South Korea 2010
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From Tokyo subways to Hakata (Fukuoka) ramen

Hakata, Japan


Monday (Getsuyobi) November 1
Waking numerous times in the night, I was grateful to keep going back to sleep until quarter to six when I got up and went to the second floor breakfast area, and pressed the button that asked me to choose my “desired” coffee, ground fresh from beans I could see through the plexiglass. Soon almost every table was filling with young traveling Japanese.
I took my travel mug with fresh ground coffee up for Mary, had a welcome shower and breakfast of miso soup, orange juice, croissant, egg boiled in salt water (doesn't need salting), yoghurt and Danish – truly an international breakfast! We walked over to the temple,walked back and checked out and headed into Tokyo by train for Haneda airport. En route I began to suspect that there were two trains on the one track, only one of which went to Haneda... we got talking to a man nearby who got off at the same station and showed us the station where we could transfer to an express train. He even waited with us until the correct train arrived before he left for his gym. It was his day off from work in a hotel and he told us he used to work for airlines. Even with the express train, we rode for 2 hours, longer than our flight time to Fukuoka city in southwest Japan from where we will cross to Korea.
We were at the airport 1 ¼ hours before our flight and checked in, then were in the Ladies room when I heard an announcement about gate change. Checking the departure listings we headed for gate 9, a loo-ong hike, where we rested in the priority seating since few other seats were available and there were no elderly people around to use the chairs. But, trying to board, we found we were at the JAL flight for the same city departing at the same time as our Skymark flight. We sprang out of our handicapped seating and ran all the way back to where we'd come through security and then an equally long distance on the other side to gate 24, only to find the people gone, gate locked and yet the plane sitting outside attached to the gate. An airport employee approached and indicated we were again at the wrong gate. We ran again, for gate 38, though I was tempted to abandon the struggle, sure the plane would have gone. We arrived sweaty and breathless and discovered the departure had been delayed.... so another wait.
Flying over Tokyo gave me an idea of its enormity. Then we were over sharp and rugged mountains. Water and harbor as we descended into Fukuoka. We took a taxi to the International hostel where we had a twin room reserved, not much bigger than the bunkbeds. Supper at a nearby ramen house where we sat at the counter and watched the steam rise from the ramen pot of boiling water, watched the bowls being heated, steaming soup and slices of pork added. The soup was delicious, the pork ramen a specialty of Fukuoka, the décor, in red and blank, traditional Japanese style, the pickled bean sprouts crunchy and spiced with hot pepper, the pickled ginger hot to the tongue, You not only chose your type of soup but also the doneness of your noodles – 5 degrees of doneness from childishly soft all the way past al dente to the crunchy, barely cooked rare version. Walking back, we found the air delightfully cool and less humid that in Tokyo.


permalink written by  chertop on November 1, 2010 from Hakata, Japan
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Gift of a day in Fukuoka with Professor Nagano

Hakata, Japan


November 2
Woke during the night several times and had to climb down the ladder but amazingly slept until 7:30am (both Mary and I blessedly spared the worst of jet lag). Going up to the 3rd floor kitchen to make coffee, I met 5 sisters from the Netherlands traveling together. Then a German woman trying to book a flight from Tokyo to Bangkok asked our help with the Internet; she is on a year-long world trip, having divorced after 27 years of marriage because she no longer loves the man ... so chose to seek and follow her own desires. At the bakery “Gratie” on the main street, we encountered an artistic array of beautiful pastries and free coffee so delicious that I drank it black.
We walked down the busy main drag to Hakata railway station seeking an ATM which we had been told we could find in a convenience store but those ATMs were Japanese language only. Used our map to find the main bank of the Fukuoka bank where, at the “Foreign Exchange” we laboriously tried to explain that we wanted to use our bank or credit cards to get money. Not possible we learned (rather disconcerting as we have not only found our money evaporating quickly but our credit card not accepted even in places like the Fukuoka accommodation where I'd used my credit card to reserve our room). So each of us was exchanging US dollars cash when a retired Japanese man came over and asked if he could help us. Not only did he interface and translate with the bank staff whose English was almost as limited as our Japanese but he took us to the post office where our cards worked - a big relief. As we waited I showed him the places we intended to visit today and asked his opinion.
He even offered and kindly accompanied us the to Kuniyoshi temple where he explained so much of what goes on, how one dips and pours water over one's hands and rinses one's mouth for ritual cleanliness before approaching the shrine, how one bows twice and claps the hands twice then bows again and pulls down on the thick cord, ringing the bell to let the gods know one is there. He showed us where to obtain our fortune on a small paper, in English, and indicated where to toss a coin through the grate. At the side, was a shop with an array of beautiful good luck charms and tokens which he explained Japanese buy to avoid trouble, carrying these good luck tokens on their person, or in their cars.
He then guided us an a walk through the very hip and chic covered arcade of stylish small shops, where everything was so compact, and then out into the downtown of skyscrapers and other huge, architecturally innovative buildings, where everything was, in contrast, so expansive. Swarms of pedestrians and of bicycles on the sidewalks were going both ways yet avoiding the seemingly inevitable crashes. Everyone waits at the intersection for the traffic light, no one jaywalking; and at the Walk signal, a melody plays to indicate aurally that it is safe to cross --- the most memorable to us was “Coming through the Rye.”
He took us across the city by taxi to Fukuoka's “Central Park” where we first encountered the foundations or the enormous ruined castle, and were astounded at the huge scale. Walking and climbing to the high point of the castle ruins, we rested above the city looking out on the modernity, the harbor, baseball dome, tower, and the mountains of Kyushu. Then we descended into the park with its Chinese style low curving bridges over the vast pond and its scarlet pavilions, its paddle boats in the shape of swans, its tree-lined causeway a walking path across the middle of the pond.
The park was such a welcome and restful contrast to the intensity of the city, to which we returned, refreshed, by taxi to Sumiyoshi Shrine which was a brilliant, brilliant orange, with palaquins in boat shapes resting in the courtyard. Our Japanese friend showed us where sumo wrestlers practice in early morning just outside the shrine. And the subtle classical building where No theatre is performed. Hearing the drum beat as darkness fell, we returned to the shrine and were so fortunate to watch the Shinto priest conduct a ceremony of bowing repeatedly, chanting from a scroll, waving a white tassled standard, and turning to all directions to bow and bow again even more deeply.
At the park, where our Japanese friend had planned to leave us, I repeated my thanks once again and offered my name card with my invitation for him and his wife to visit us in Vermont should their world travels take them there. I had made cards for both Mary and me and she also offered hers with her own invitation for Calgary.
Not only was the Sumiyoshi shrine a further treat, especially when unexpectedly it was lit at night, a glowing orange, but our friend took us finally to his favorite izakaya restaurant, an underground refuge of elegant Japanese simplicity. Especially after all his kindness and numerous taxis, Mary and I wanted to invite him, but he repeated that he wanted to pass on the kindness he had received in Canada and the US on his various trips to conferences as an agricultural irrigation engineer. He ordered Mary a beer and me a sake, then many small dishes beautifully presented, finally rice with nori (seaweed) and into which we placed a pickled plum and poured in green tea for a beautiful digestive end to an exquisite meal. A very leisurely dining with conversation, sharing, some jokes and laughter. After 3 beers, he laughed easily but, had no intention of driving home...instead we three walked...his office was on the same street as our hostel, Mary and I continuing down the street further after our goodbyes.


permalink written by  chertop on November 2, 2010 from Hakata, Japan
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Karatsu Kunchi festival - Cultural Day

Karatsu, Japan


November 3 Cultural Day throughout Japan
After Gratie coffee and egg pizza plus chewy cranberry bun, we walked to the main bus terminal where we bought tickets to Karatsu, miraculously catching a bus at the gate 32, the closest one, due to leave in less than 10 minutes. Leaving Fukuoka, we passed its enormous suspension bridge, beaches, harbors along the water. Apartment buildings gave way to traditional Japanese houses set amongst rice paddies, perfectly rectangular vegetable farm lots, and greenhouses.
Reaching Karatsu in about 70 minutes, we descended into a crowded city where the sound of drums drew us towards nearby narrow streets where huge floats were being drawn by long ropes, children at the front end, adult men closer to the floats themselves. At the corner the float suddenly swung around at a right angle.
After watching a half dozen floats pulled by teams in identically colored traditional garb (hapi coats with leggings and zori sandals), we let the crowd carry us down the street.... past an amazing array of food stalls and souvenirs for sale. Much of the crowd was surging into the approach to the temple. We skirted around side streets and were deciphering a poster in Japanese about the festival's schedule when a young woman approached us and led us to the beach. She was there for the festiva lwith her parents, all from Tendai. When we found the floats, they were arriving in a crowded, sandy square, swinging violently around yet another corner to be lined up 7 facing 7. Children were emerging from inside the floats as well as climbing on them to be photographed by parents. Men in traditional garb who had been pulling the floats were beating the drums or climbing to the highest point on the floats like king of the castle.
Officially uniformed police controlling the crowd smiled but obliged when I asked about where were toilets. We found port-a-potties with 2 stalls for women, each with a door, plus an open stall with a urinal for men and a fourth stall for hand washing. Sitting in the shade, we made a lunch, and had a rest, with trail mix, chocolate and water.
Rejoining the crowd, many sitting on the curb waiting for the afternoon parade of the 14 floats back to their owner shops, we made our way to the train station and information booth where an English speaking staffperson answered our questions about Karatsu pottery. Her instructions sent us down streets to the canal, across it by bridge and along a narrow residential road until we emerged on a busy street full of partytime pachinko (slot machine/pinball) parlors and neon funhouses with names like “Lucky Day.”
On the corner was a pottery gallery of extremely expensive works by the most famous potter of the region, a glorious collection of tea ceremony cups, sake vessels, flower vases --- irregular shapes, earthy surfaces, glazes of infinite variations – the kind of vessel you turn around and around, admiring every side. The elegant, black clad woman bid us two scruffy foreigners welcome, pointed out some aspects of the pottery and graciously allowed me to make some photos.
Returning along the lane, where painted tiles were set among the brick cobblestones, we explored the path veering off, a narrow path into a compact neighborhood of tranquil, traditional Japanese homes and gardens, small and perfect, with trained pine trees, hanging white blossoms, climbing morning glory flowers.... and huge golden striped spiders in webs against the sky... blessed peace and quiet after the noise and crowds of the festival.
Back at the canal, we watched two cranes fishing in the shallow water, watched the small fish glint in the sun as they turned, flashing their bright bellies. Osprey and buzzards soared overhead on the wind currents.
We queued for the 5:30pm bus and road into darkness back to Fukuoka's lights - multicolored in the night. Walked from the bus station to the Umauma ramen shop where we sat at the counter having beer, pork ramen and fried gwazu..all delicious, especially the broth which was rich with marrow flavor. The black clad young men frying gwazu, dishing up the ramen, and washing dishes got a kick out of our enjoyment and our attempts at Japanese, just as we were entertained watching their busy rapid-fire cooking and washing up.
We walked back, under the train track, colorful graffiti on the tunnel walls and to the hostel, another marvelous adventure of a day.


permalink written by  chertop on November 3, 2010 from Karatsu, Japan
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By Hydrofoil to South Korea

Pusan, South Korea


November 4 Thursday
After the precious coffee at Gratie bakery and a few of their delicious pastries, we packed up. The young woman at the Fukuoka hostel took our photo just before Mary and I got into the taxi (she is going to put it on their website) and headed to the International Port for our hydrofoil to Korea. The numerous bureaucratic procedures, fuel surcharge, and the cost of departure tax had me wondering why anyone would purchase the weekend round-trip tickets, in spite of their being cheaper than our tickets for a longer stay. We boarded the Beetle, an enclosed pod that slipped out of the harbor and skimmed softly and smoothly but speedily over the blue water, past steeply rising island mountains, under a brilliant blue sky. It was surprising how fast we were traveling - a ferry journey of 8 hours took us less than three.

As we approached the skyline of Busan port, the sky was milky white. Jennifer and Miriam, Dennis' mother, met us and Jenn drove us through the city until, in a small lane, a man rushed out and ushered Jenn's car down a narrow, pedestrian-crowded street to the entrance to a parking garage. Jenn stopped the car and we piled out, leaving the parking to a valet.

Walking the market streets, we saw squid hanging in curtains of tentacles, chestnuts roasting in a churning mass of black coals, decorative socks, Korean silk. At a small upstairs restaurant, we ate bulgogi - which came as a bowl of various colorful ingredients - strips of marinated beef together with vegetables, rice - dark, white, green and red... which you mix together into a delicious combination.
Walking market streets back to the car, I was interested in the stores selling luggage of all sizes and shapes because the zipper on mine had jammed. But prices were not Third World! Reluctantly I admitted that I could get a better price on luggage in Bennington!


We drove back to Ulsan on very modern expressways with tolls, about an hour's trip, past a lot of industry (including the huge Hyundai plant) to Jenn's condo in a high rise. There her little Boston terrier had an energetic frenzy of greeting us, sniffing, and gnashing the dog toy Mary had brought him.

Jennifer took us to a Korean cafe where we had a typical and delicious lunch of beef strips, vegetables and egg on a bowl of rice. Then, on the hour's drive back to Ulsan, we got an idea of the intensity of traffic, the extent of industrialization in South Korea.


permalink written by  chertop on November 4, 2010 from Pusan, South Korea
from the travel blog: Japan and South Korea 2010
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From Fukuoka, Japan to Busan, Ulsan and Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea


Up early November 5 for a 8am flight to Seoul, we rose into clouds and descended into Seoul's milky smog a scant 40 minutes later. The several subway rides, with transfers, from Gimpo domestic airport into the city took at least twice that long. By 2:30pm we had hauled our luggage along urban streets, checked into the Ramada, had coffee and bought tickets to ride more subways, an intimidating process of first finding one's destination on the intricately complicated map of subway lines (most info in Korean script) and then inserting adequate money for the machine to spit out tickets. At the end of the trip, assuming you have survived the jaws of the turnstile trying to snag you captive, you feed your ticket into another machine and receive whatever change you are due as refund.
Finally getting to explore the market streets, we found beautiful handmade paper made into cards with appliqued doll figures, silk covered pencil boxes, pashmina scarves, huge stone carvings from Laos and Cambodia in an antiques shop. In the middle of the sidewalk some men in bright red garb rolled out sheets of something like rice crispy bars and then cut it with a cleaver against a straight edge. Mary and I stopped to watch candy makers take a glob of honey and dip it into cornstarch, then stretch it, dip it again into the cornstarch, double it and stretch it again. Every time they doubled it over they would double their count of strands - 2, 4, 8, 16, 32,...256. When Japanese visitors stopped to watch, the men began counting in Japanese also. After they had a multitude of small strands, they would break off a length of 4-5 inches, place a spoonful of almond paste in the center of one end, and wrap the strands into a roll. One of them beckoned me to a side and gave me one to taste - a strangely floury texture around the almond nugget.
Mary and I ventured down numerous narrow, often crooked lanes off the main road - street vendors selling jewelery and souvenirs, tea houses, old houses with tile roofs and walls made with broken tiles embedded in mortar. One elegant Tea Museum had an entire wall of different types of tea - chrysanthemum, persimmon, rooibos - as well as beautiful, individual tea bowls, each with a glaze that invites you to turn it around and around in your hands, admiring the color variations of the glaze, the particularities of the shape, and the personality of the bowl.
After two more crowded subways during rush hour, and a welcome shower back at our hotel, I luxuriated in curling up on the sofa in the 14th floor lounge, having a beer with Mary, Miriam, Jenn and Dennis. Mary and I stayed when the others went out to dinner, making a supper of the hors d'oeuvres - soup, sushi, oysters, and a delicious, subtle-flavored steamed Chinese custard with mushrooms and other delicate vegetables embedded in it. Back in our room, we looked out on the city lights, especially a distant wall of irregular, ever-changing vertical neon colors in an always changing rainbow of hues.


permalink written by  chertop on November 5, 2010 from Seoul, South Korea
from the travel blog: Japan and South Korea 2010
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Demilitarized Zone - 56 kilometers from Seoul

Seoul, South Korea


November 6 Saturday
At 7:30am we left the hotel by bus for the DMZ, traveling out from Seoul into a countryside of fields. Beside the expressway ran barbed wire which became higher as we drove north. Before we were allowed to enter the Demilitarized Zone, a soldier of South Korea, the ROK, came on the bus to check our passports – tall, young, unsmiling, in camouflage, with white helmet and large sunglasses despite the milky smog that obliterated the sun and any view from the observation point. Ironically, considering the weather, the observation point had a yellow line – no photos allowed from beyond it. We got an idea of the landscape, including the mountains, from a film and relief model. The 2km no man's land on either side of the Demarcation Line has become a refuge for wildlife – deer, birds, ... we saw a photo of fish swimming over bullets lying in a stream.
Wearing bright yellow helmets, we descended into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of 4 discovered by the the ROK and blamed on the North Koreans' attempt to get 30,000 soldiers a hour through to attack Seoul, only 56 m away. The tunnel was blasted through granite with yellow splashes of paint marking the dynamite holes. The walls were blackened to support the claim that North Korea, the DRK, was searching for coal. An 11% grade heads steeply down 73 meters below the surface, all cool wet granite, down to where a concrete and steel barrier blocked off the further reaches of the tunnel. I don't suffer from claustrophobia but began to feel nauseous so I climbed back up slowly. (South Korean soldiers used to be posted at the barrier but no longer since the air is such poor quality.)
Numerous souvenir shops sold North Korean beer and shogu (vodka-like rice alcohol), rice, and chocolate made with soybeans. The tour then took us to a government-run shop with uniformed Korean women giving a hard-sell, promoting the ginseng products. Offered a thimble cup of ginseng powder in liquid, I drank it and my stomach recovered more than from the coke.
We endured an endless drive back through crowded, gridlocked traffic. The guide would not take us to our hotels but offered 2 drop places in central Seoul. We chose one close to the palace and were just in time to watch a changing of the guard - traditionally garbed Korean nobility in stunning red and yellow court costumes. After the procession, we lunched in a Vietnamese noodle shop – anise-flavored broth with shaved beef.
Mary and I walked to a canal and came upon a lantern festival extending at least a kilometer along the water. Festive lanterns came in all sizes - some so big they occupied a whole float. Descending to the path along the water, we walked past ones illustrating everything from Korean fairytales to themes of the countries participating in the coming G20 conference - kangaroos, Maori, Big Ben. Under a bridge kids were making paper lanterns to hang from the ceiling.
Crossing the canal on large stepping stones, we ascended the stairs again and found ourselves in the hardware district - many lighting shops shone brilliantly with multi-colored lamps as twilight darkened the city. We ducked into covered arcades where sellers offered bric-a-brac, beads, traditional Korean attire, lace, and bead headdresses worthy of Cher.
My legs ached and once we reached the subway, I wanted only to return to the hotel - even if I had to make my way by myself through the intimidating Seoul Underground. But, ironically, this turned out to be the very subway station where Jenn, Den and Miriam were to meet Mary in about an hour to go to dinner. Unsure whether to go or stay, I sat on the floor my calves against the cool hard floor of the station, writing in my notebook while Mary went foraging for a coffee. I suddenly heard a man say “Hello, mama,” and I looked up. The man asked where I was going and where was I from. He left but after Mary returned, he came back with 3 packages of “lunch” for us - glutinous rice cakes and warm soy milk. In return, Mary gave him the Canadian decoration from her handbag and he seemed very pleased with that.
Miriam arrived and seemed not to want anything to do with us, stayed at a distance except for a moment during which I took the opportunity to introduce her and our benefactor, John, a Baptist minister who could recite scripture and count in Aramaic. When Jenn and Den arrived, they also stayed at a distance --- For Mary and me, it was an unexpected adventure of interacting with a local person in a friendly way.... but the others seemed horrified. Miriam figured people thought we were begging or homeless.
Upstairs in a Korean barbecue, we sat on the heated floor. A waiter started a round barbecue set in the table at each end of the table. We cooked black pork belly meat and ate it with a great array of side dishes, rice and soup at the end.


permalink written by  chertop on November 6, 2010 from Seoul, South Korea
from the travel blog: Japan and South Korea 2010
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