Wednesday, March 23, 2011


The next time I came to Japan was to get a new Korean work visa, so that I could move close to Seoul.

Again, I took a ferry to Japan, and met a young Australian mate who was also on a visa run. It was Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), so I would have a few days in Japan to explore before I had to go to the embassy, once the holiday was over. I thought I would head to Nagasaki, since it was a close train ride from Fukuoka/Hakata, my new Australian friend told me he was taking an over-night ferry up to Osaka to find a girl he'd met on his last trip and that I should come with him. It sounded like an adventure I was up for, so as soon as hit land, we went straight to the train station to head to the port town a short ways across the island.

The train station apparently had even less English than the people in it, which both surprised me, a bit. We sort of stood in the middle of the floor looking exactly as clueless as we were, until a girl with one of the most beautiful, round, porcelain faces, perfect features, and round, smiling eyes, stopped to help us. She didn't speak a thing, just motioned for us to follow her, as she lead the way around the station, from one office to the next, until we finally handed over our cash and she handed back two tickets and our change. I have no idea where she was going or how late we made her, but she just smiled at us and waved. I had a small glass bottle of pomegranate juice in the pocket of my backpack, which was trendy at the time, and I offered it to her in gratitude. In Korea, people often give little drink bottles as gifts, I don't know if Japan is the same, but she accepted it, anyway. In my travels there are a few faces I haven't forgotten, and hers is one, not only because of her loveliness, but also for the kindness that shone from it.

Once we found our platform, my friend took out his mini-cell phone, about the size of your two thumbs put together, and started trying to call his friend. The girl waiting in front of us commented on how small the phone was, especially contrasted by the 6 ft., 200-something pound guy fumbling with it. She said even in Japan, they don't have phones that small... We kept chatting with her and she told us that she was on her way home to Hiroshima for the holiday, and was in Fukuoka studying French. When she was already waiting to graduate, and start her job as a translator at Mitsubishi. She said her French was actually much better than her English, which wasn't bad at all either. When I told her I also spoke French we switched languages, and she told me if I were to pass through Hiroshima, she would show me around. She wrote her email in my book, and just about that time our train showed up.

It was dark when we arrived at the port, and we were in a hurry to catch the boat, but I remember having an impression that things suddenly looked very old, like we'd just caught a train into the 1940's or something. I think it was the uniforms and hats of the men at the station, and how the street lamps glowing in the foggy darkness made the whole place look like a film set. We made it onboard with about two minutes to spare, I think they were actually waiting for the people coming on the train, and we found an empty room to crash in for the night. We woke up pretty early in the morning, bodies a bit stiff from the hard floor, and he told me I'd be talking in my sleep about a girl named Claire. The only friend named Claire I had was an old roommate who I hadn't spoken to in a few years, but my hometown is called Clare, so I wonder if I was talking about home? He said it was mostly just gibberish and he couldn't make any sense out of it, anyway.

We docked in the morning and caught a bus into the city. A few old women on the bus chatted us up and said they visited Korea a few times really enjoyed it. We wondered downtown, looking for a motel, but had a really hard time finding one that wasn't full, even at 10am. Eventually, we found one that had vacancy, but they two receptionists were giving us some strange looks. They pointed over to a big machine that looked something like a vending machine, that had a digital display of the rooms available, slightly different themes that all looked like over-the-top honeymoon sweets. We didn't care much about the decor, but were both on tight budgets, so we found one for 5000 yen, touched the image on the screen and a receipt came out. We took it to reception to pay, and what ever they'd probably wondered about us, they must have given us the benefit of their doubt and told us it was 5000 yen for one hour. We finally clued in what sort of motel we were in, and burst out laughing. I decided I'd just hang on to my backpack and spend the night at a capsule hotel, and my friend would wait for his girlfriend to find a place to stay.

Osaka, like Fukuoka, is a really fun city but it made Fukuoka feel more like a town, with all its tall buildings, crowded, busy streets, and when night came, neon, neon, neon!

Once we met up with his friend , she brought us to the Korean embassy to get our visas, then to visit Osaka-jo (castle). Honestly, I didn't find it all that amazing, I was more impressed with the little shrines, and small sake bars with traditional lantern one stumbles across in the small alleys downtown, but it made for a nice day trip, anyway. The inside has been transformed into a museum, and the view from the top floor stretched out towards the city.

I had been told by the people at work that the embassy would be closed on Friday, so I should go in on Monday, then pick it up first thing Tuesday morning so I could catch the ferry back to work. But, for some reason, the holiday in Japan was on Monday, so I was pretty lucky to have made it back to Korea with a visa at all!

When we got back into the city, they were ready for some time alone together, and I was just as ready for some time to myself, so we made a plan to meet the next morning, get our passports, and head to Kyoto together. I spent most of the night zigzagging around the canal, watching people, walking through old-fashioned side streets that lead to a several block stretch of a neon-carnival that made up downtown.

I walked back along the neon-tinted canal to the capsule hotel, which was a bit of an adventure in itself. They're set up sort of like a Korean jjim-jil-bang, where you head into a changing room attached to a sauna, except, here, instead of having a common room to relax in, you go into a hive of small cell, where you climb in with just a bed, a small TV built into the side, and an alarm in the wall above your pillow. As tight as it seem, once I was in, I was pleased by how cozy it was. The TV had two channels, one with porn, and the other showing gag/variety shows. I watch as they pranked several people by waiting for them to go inside a port-o-poty, then loading it on the back of a truck, then having the walls collapse, parading them down the street with their pants around their ankles. The sauna was almost exactly like in Korea, except for one big difference. While shower before going into the bath, I almost jumped off my seat when a woman came in to get the bin of used towels. In Korea, only men work in the men's side of the sauna. When she saw the foreign guy sitting there washing himself, she wasn't shy at, she lead around the wall and waved at me. All I could do was wave back!

I woke up really fresh and feeling great the next morning. I had a couple of hours before our meeting time, so I wandered back to a mostly empty downtown, lit by nothing but the drizzly morning, and found a really interesting shrine I hadn't noticed the night before. There was one large figure in front of a fountain, which I believe was carved from stone, but was covered in a thick layer of moss. I hadn't developed much devotion at that point, but I watched as people came by, dropped some money in the donation box, bowed, and tossed water from the fountain over the figure. I later discovered that this is called Hozemji Temple, and people come here to splash water on the statue for good luck in their business, which explained why early in the morning it seemed to be busier than the main strip, just around the corner. There was a really nice feeling there, though, where ever it came from, and I just sat there, soaking it and the soggy air in until it was time to go.


  1. Every time I look at that capsule hotel, it reminds me of a kennel!
    Did you have a chance to make it up to Kyoto or Nara?

  2. Kyoto will be tonight's blog, if I don't run out of gas! I didn't make it to Nara, though.

  3. Nara's nice, but if you only have time for one, it definitely has to be Kyoto. Nara's a bit more low-key with lots of parks and trees. Kyoto has about ten times more major temples and places.

  4. That photo of the four columns with the head caricatures at their bases - what perplexing incongruity!