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.