Transitions

I woke up early on my second full day in Korea. My old friend had arranged for me to be guided through Seoul by two of her old friends, both Korean men in their mid-20s. One, like me, is a Korean history graduate student. The other holds a degree in kinesiology and is a certified swim-instructor. Due to my inability to read signs clearly written in the Roman alphabet I was 15 minutes behind schedule, having travelled north instead of south and only realising it 4 stops later.

After a few hours of discussions on topics ranging from Korean history to the universal commonalities of prehistoric implements we went to have lunch. For those who do not know, I am quite fond of Korean food. Nabchae bokum, octopus in a red chilli sauce, is my absolute favourite dish.  The two called around to find the best restaurant serving that and my favourite new alcoholic beverage, makgeolli. The Nabchae bokum really was excellent, and fresh. After receiving the order the cook went to the octopus tank and took out three mid-sized and lively octopi killing and cleaning it just before chopping it up to cook with the sauce and spring onions. The lunch was incredible. It’s difficult to describe the sensation one gets from eating a fresh, properly-prepared Korean meal. Whatever it is, it is magical. They refused to let me pay, or even contribute. My attempt was met with insulted looks and a brusque refusal.

We parted at one of Seoul’s major stations. My old friend met me there and went shopping at the Namdaemun market with me. I bought a few small things, mostly Korean embroidery. She bought me a postcard set of my favourite Korean boy band, Super Junior. We talked for hours about the nearly 10 years we’ve known each other, music, food, architecture, music, and such. We parted after having dinner, Korean shabu shabu.

Korea was magical. The people are unbelievably friendly and genuine. A bit grouchy, but not in a hostile way. There is an energy in the air, a feeling of things getting better. It’s intoxicating, life-giving. Not a day went by that I didn’t collapse in bed, or in the bathtub out of exhaustion. Every day I went and went and went and went. Always going somewhere, doing something. Running, laughing, eating, drinking coffee, taking pictures. Just living. Not “living” in the sense of going through nature’s natural physical cycles, but truly making every second of one’s brief existence count.

As all things good, and bad, must come to an end the day came for me to fly to Japan. Not usually being the emotional type, I was quite out of myself. I struggled to hold back the tears. Leaving Korea was difficult, heart-breaking. One of my final memories is that of being treated to a free chamber-music concert held in the departure terminal. The flight, however, was mercifully short, the East Sea being most narrow between the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and southern Japan. In barely over an hour we landed in Hiroshima.

I took the bus. It was not too dear, about 1,200 yen. The bus was clean and efficient, taking me to Hiroshima Bus Centre. From there I took the taxi to hotel. It was late, dark, and I couldn’t be bothered to drag two pieces of luggage and my computer through the winding streets of a Japanese city. It was a short drive, but sometimes it’s worth it to spend a few quid.

My first day in Hiroshima was uneventful. I just walked. A lot. The Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, just here and there. On the second day I met up with two acquaintances who were born and raised in Hiroshima. One was my flatmate in Hawai’i, the other is his friend. We met in Tokyo in 2010. Dinner was at a Japanese pub, one of the more famous ones as it turns out. Watching the two wrangle over which of the two should pay more than the other quickly irked me. I paid. That settled it.

The next day my old flatmate and I went with his mother to Miyajima, one of Japan’s three greatest views. There was something very serene there, despite the hordes of tourists and morbidly obese deer. We had lunch there, grilled eel before having coffee at a quiet cafe with one of my flatmate’s old acquaintances, the owner. Soon after that we left to go back to the mainland.

That evening was decidedly different. At first it seemed innocent, a quick trip to the grocer’s to buy a few things for a home-made dinner. It quickly turned strange. A small group of older Japanese women came. I was told that they would have a small religious meeting. What I didn’t know was that I’d be in the middle of it. They all belonged to a new age sect that believed in channelling the  vital forces of the universe to heal body, mind, and soul. They asked me if I had any sort of pain or soreness. It would have been better for me to lie, to not tell them about my arthritis. For the next 80 minutes I was sat down on a chair while they tried to heal me. The performance was exhausting. No, not the vital forces of the universe doing their work. It was the amount of energy required not to burst out laughing as they hovered over me chanting and gesturing like late-1960s Indian gurus.

Dinner was good, at least. Sukiyaki. Everything was home-made, including the sauce. My old flatmate who was supposed to drive me back to my hotel on the other side of Hiroshima kept making excuses, delaying things. First he made sure to get to dinner half an hour late, then he wanted to watch things on television. When it was nearly 11 at night he asked me if I still wanted to go back to hotel. At that point it didn’t seem worth it and I declined, deciding against my better judgement. We talked for a long time that night and settled a few things.

The next morning he took me back to my hotel and I could finally pack. We went to have lunch and coffee before he saw me off at the Shinkansen station.

I arrived in Kyoto late afternoon on Thursday. The city isn’t as spectacular as it is made out to be. Or, rather, the weather has been miserable. Kyoto is a city where the pavement rolls in at 6 PM leaving only a few restaurants and convenience stores open. In short, the only thing I really did was spend money. Lots and lots of money.

Tomorrow I will go to Tokyo, the final, and shortest, part of my holiday. I’m not too sad to be leaving Kyoto and, honestly, none too sad to leave Japan. It’s a lovely country, one I’d highly recommend visiting. It’s just that there are some complicated things involving an old relationship I had to deal with, things that could not be ignored or put off any longer. I feel a bit drained, a bit sad. Nor do I look forward to the return flight. Each time I leave the US it gets more and more difficult to return to it. Perhaps after finishing my MA I will leave and not return.

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  1. March 23, 2012 at 12:26 pm | #1

    Thanks,Christopher.

    A brilliant travelogue: an emotional journey as well.

  2. March 23, 2012 at 1:35 pm | #2

    Minty: thank you! There will likely be one more before I’m finished.

  3. Four-eyed English Genius
    March 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm | #3

    A good read, Christopher, but maybe a “more” tag in the text would have been useful.

  4. christinaosborne
    March 23, 2012 at 3:31 pm | #4

    There is always the temptation to ‘revisit’ emotional relationships to either tidy them up or attempt to restart them.
    Both are generally doomed to failure but only life and time teaches this.
    The old adage, ‘never go back, never apologise and never explain’ is far kinder than it sounds.
    Sounds like you have just explored that lesson.

    Frankly Japan sounds pretty dreary, but Korea more than interesting.
    Have you ever seen their TV series ‘Daimo’. Seriously weird, depressing but fascinating, there is about 14 hours of it, generally available at libraries in the US and subtitled. It is set in the 1600s.

  5. Janus
    March 23, 2012 at 3:43 pm | #5

    CO, in fact Japan like most other places gets more intriguing as you leave the big cities and meet ‘real’ people on farms and in villages. They are extremely hospitable and full of a mild humour. And staying in a traditional hotel with fire-pots, paper walls and hot spring pools is an education!

  6. christinaosborne
    March 23, 2012 at 8:43 pm | #6

    Janus I’m sure you are right there! True about nearly everywhere these days, cities really have become quite disgusting in all sorts of ways. Rather fancy the fire pots, note to self, reactivate Zoroastrianism!

  7. March 23, 2012 at 8:44 pm | #7

    All the more reason to stick to rural areas, market towns and villages, Tina. :)

  8. March 23, 2012 at 11:02 pm | #8

    CO: I’ve watched a handful of Korean films and series. They’re ideal if one wishes to have a premature end to one’s life. My love of Korean pop culture does not extend far beyond Korean pop music.
    My conclusion on the relationship bit is simply to stay on the other side of the East Sea and let the distance do the rest.

    Janus and CO: Japan itself is not that bad. The cities are also hardly run down. They’re clean, efficient, and well-organised. They’re also quite safe. Korea is simply much, much more energetic. Japan is wonderful when one is travelling with or staying with friends. I do not plan on going back for a while, if ever. It’s too complicated right now.

    Minty: one must tolerate cities. After all, where else would they place airports near?

  9. March 23, 2012 at 11:06 pm | #9

    True, Christopher, but since I rarely fly these days, I try my best to avoid cities.

    I have to admit I used to find them exciting, but not any more, and I really would not want to live in one!

  10. March 23, 2012 at 11:25 pm | #10

    Minty: true, very true. I could honestly live without them myself. Western cities, especially, are the pits.
    I’ve concluded that anything over about 70,000 people is too much.

  11. March 23, 2012 at 11:33 pm | #11

    I’m older, Christopher so I draw the line at 14,000 as my nearest civilisation, and I still prefer to live in relatively close proximity in a small village.

    I didn’t used to think like this, but one’s requirements tend to change with age.

  12. christinaosborne
    March 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm | #12

    Chris I seriously recommend that Daimyo, bit throat cutting, but seriously interesting culturally.

    Sounds like you’ve learnt your lesson on old relationships!!!
    Clean slate up on the border!
    Bellingham is 70,000 and just fine, sort of agree on the size limitation. I avoid Seattle and Vancouver like the plague. Too many potshotting each other on the streets, not quick enough to dodge in my old age.

    The boy had very amusing tales of dodging the snipers on the way to lunch in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, evidently no one had told the ragheads that the civil war was over a couple of years previously. Evidently they dived up side alleys and wended their way to the restaurants through the back alleys, no one appeared to be put off their lunches! Totally bizarre.

  13. March 26, 2012 at 8:05 am | #13

    CO: you are right, of course, it’s better just to let things go. It’s a bit like getting a tumour removed. It’s not pleasant, often quite painful, but necessary. I will go back to Japan before too long, to visit some friends there — but I think I will spend more time across the East Sea in Korea.

  14. Janus
    March 26, 2012 at 8:35 am | #14

    Christopher, the pain will fade but not the memory. Put it somewhere safe and cherish it from time to time.

  15. christinaosborne
    March 26, 2012 at 8:35 am | #15

    Yes, it was pretty obvious that you enjoyed Korea far more than Japan, no point flogging a dead horse.

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