Thursday, 24 June 2010

Arrival back in Japan and the Need to Clear My Head.

Arriving back in Japan has been strange and interesting. My path has been dictated by visiting old friends and revisiting old haunts. My journey has become one of repeat experiences: doing things or visiting places for the first time since... 2006, or 2002, or even 2000 (although it is difficult to think of many things that I did in 2000 that I did not repeat in 2001-2 or 2004-6).

I had forgotten quite how frustrating Japan can be at times: it often seems that there is a set way of doing things and if you don't do something the way it should be done, you have a really hard time of it. Wireless internet, for example, is almost impossible to find unless you have a subscription to one of Japan's mobile phone networks. And to travel, you pay for what you get: if you want to go faster, you can take the shinkansen, but it will cost you: some of these are the Japanese train equivalent of flying on Concorde (I guess that comparison's a bit out of date now). Veering towards the cheap side of expensive (i.e. wanting to cover lots of ground without spending too much money, and having enough time to do it slowly) I took a wild but logical route from Hakata 博多: by slow train to my former workplace of Yoshitomi 吉富, by slightly faster train to visit Texan Dan in Beppu 別府 (everyone's favourite hotspring resort: twinned with Rotorua and Bath), then by overnight ferry to Osaka 大阪. (This was the same as the last ferry journey I made in Japan just before I left 4 years ago.)

I had also forgotten quite how wonderfully hospitable Japan can be: In Osaka, I had a wonderful 3 days being treated somewhat like a prodigal son by my Sensei and her husband, and revisiting Kurama-san 鞍馬山, a favourite mountain temple near Kyoto. I then took the cheapest rail option to Tokyo 東京 (11 hours instead of 3 and a half, but half the price.)

For the last few days I have been staying with Ken who I worked with 4 years ago, in 三鷹市 where I lived 8 years ago.

Outside Sakura heights - 8 years on! (a new building, I think)

I have now moved on to the residence of Ryan and Nami, who, likewise, I haven't seen for 4-5 years, and who live nearby with their 2-year-old daughter. I am promised a trip with them up Takao-san 高尾山, a favourite mountain temple near Tokyo. Meanwhile, tomorrow I am meeting up (for the 1st time in 6 years) with Durham friends Dan and Helen (and Helen's fiancé), for some monja-yaki (which I haven't eaten for 5 years).

I really ought to be looking for a job, to fulfill my fortunate position as the holder of a Working Holiday Visa. But first, as I may have been insinuating in recent posts, my head needs clearing. I have been attempting to do this by staying in the cities and starting to fill in some of the gaps in my blog but it doesn't seem to be working as completely as I thought it might. (I have done a few entries: to find them, click on the arrow by May, to the left of this post. Also new Toilets on Trains images...)

Good advice from Steve (bro) and Jo (who I left in London but have been chatting with on Gmail) as well as a touch of serendipity / gut feeling (advice from God?) are all pointing towards a trip out into the wild as a means to clear my head, and this is what I am planning. I have left half my luggage in Ken's spacious loft, and will probably walk on from Takao-san into pastures - or forests - unknown. There is a travel book entitled All The Right Places at the start of which the author finds his way to Takao-san, and knows not where he is going next. I am in much the same position.

Unlike the protagonist in the film Into The Wild, I'll be in touch.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Raw Uncertain Displacement and the 日本の私への変化 (Transition to my Japanese self)

In Seoul, I had the rather dubious pleasure of seeing Japanese tourists behaving all foreign and rude... This I have not experienced before. Admittedly, the service in Seoul was not quite what you might get in Japan, but does this necessitate shouting their order loudly in Japanese or clapping hands to get attention?
One of the ladies in the group looked across at me apologetically. Afterwards, I approached them and asked how long they were in Seoul.
I had never before been on quite such a level footing with Japanese people - always having been either a guest in their country or a host in my own - here, though, we were all tourists in this strange and different country, coping with the language barrier and illiteracy, and the raw uncertain displacement of foreignness.

I am now sitting in 푸산 International Ferry Terminal where I have just bought myself a ticket for a Friday night ferry to 博多. Right now in front of me is a group fresh off the boat having a roll-call by a lady with the ubiquitous tour-guiding flag.

It's so refreshing to be able to understand what's being said! To be able to communicate!

It's strange, but I can feel a different sense of self bubbling up inside me - it's my Japanese self! Already I've started nattering in Japanese, and sending Japanese emails to people I'd refrained from contacting just because of the laziness of the trans-planetary language barrier.

In the past, this transition has been lost in the chaos of a 12-hour flight, but here in the gradual overland nearing, I can experience it palpably.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Leaving (my) Seoul Behind

I have now been being bewildered in South Korea for just over 11 days, and have spent most of this time with my sister Clare, who has just finished teaching English here for a year and a half. I am less literate in this country even than in Beijing, so Clare's knowledge of Korean and its 한굴 writing system has been most helpful. We spent a few days exploring the woods and mountains of Jiri-san National Park (including the highest peak on the South Korean mainland) and then spent a couple of days wandering around the area she's been living, engaged in flying paper aeroplanes from high-rise apartment blocks and other such frivolities. Yesterday morning I accompanied her to Incheon airport to catch a plane to Vietnam, and then sat in the airport for a few hours, attempting to catch up with myself. Even the smallest iota of self-catch-up organization takes many hours, and I have had so much input, and so many varied experiences during the last month that I need a good bit of time and space to process it all.

After the airport, I was going to head straight to Busan, but 서울 sucked me in, as these big cities have a tendency to do. Seoul seems to be on a frantic mission to be a demonstrative example of the most modern, perfect city possible. It seems to be doing pretty well, although as with any such city, there is plenty of evidence of homelessness. Skyscrapers abound, with many more on the way, and in the spaces between them, extreme looking rocky peaks form a backdrop that seems almost as planned as the city. Information and advertising are everywhere you look, and the whole effect is a frenetic mix of organization and disorganisation. I can imagine Ulaan Baatar becoming very like this city in about 10 or 20 years time. 北京, by comparison, seemed very chilled out.

Last night, I found myself on the first bed that I have slept on (not including dormitory bunks) since leaving Jo and Tom's Wood Green flat 33 days ago. I had been looking around for a 짐질방 that Clare had told me was opposite Seoul station. Since there were a myriad of things opposite the station (from the 서울Hilton to the 東京 Japanese restaurant), the 짐질방 eluded me, and I eventually found myself wandering a backstreet in the direction of a sign saying "Motel". Long before I reached this, however, an old lady approached me asking if - or insisting that - I wanted a motel room for the night. Without giving me a chance to refuse, she ushered me down the road in the opposite direction, around the corner through crowds of drunken businessmen, and up a dingy staircase into a corridor above a row of restaurants. She told me that checkout time was midday, and she would charge me 30000 won (just over £15). While this is 3 times the cost of a Chinese or Mongolian dorm room, and several times what it would have cost me for a mat on the floor of a 짐질방 (which may also be filled with drunken businessmen in varying states of slumber), it turns out to be fairly reasonable for what I got: a not-overly-dingy private bedsit with TV, aircon and ensuite shower. Pointing out the shower, the lady told me in no uncertain charades that I stank terribly and had better use it ASAP.

Having de-stinked, slept off yesterday morning's early start, and checked out - by leaving the room key in the ashtray and nodding to the lady as I passed her standing in the same spot where she had originally accosted me - I found a place to fill up on supposedly meat free 김밮 (which nevertheless contained some sort of reconstituted pigflesh). Thence to the station, and I am now being whisked backwards on the Southbound KTX.

KTX is Korea's high-speed train, and is almost indistinguishable from France's TGV. I was excited to notice, as I entered the carriage, a sign on the door saying "@ internet Zone". Like on the Brussels-Koln Thalys, however, the internet service is only for those willing to pay extra money. We have just stopped at 대구, which means that by spending the journey typing, I have missed the chance to see from the train the town called 구미 where Clare has been living. Now at last I am en-route to 부산, Korea's second largest city and the main port for ferry crossings to Japan, in search of a place to stop and spend a few days catching up with myself, perhaps filling in a few of the glaring holes in this blog, and then a few more days formulating a plan for Japan.