Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

After having my coffee and snack at the Ueno Starbucks yesterday, I took the subway to Tokyo Station, close to the Imperial Palace. Navigating the system wasn’t too difficult. The ticket machines have English, but not much route information. In order to figure out how much you need to pay you need to look at one of the maps that has English, compare that to the map that shows prices to stations from your current location and then press the appropriate button on and insert the appropriate cash into the ticket machine. Alternatively, you could just buy the cheapest ticket – as I did for Tokyo station – and either look for a fare adjustment machine or – as I did – hand your ticket in at a desk and pay the difference.

The weather yesterday, as well as being overcast, was quite hazy. Visibility wasn’t great, but it lent a certain mysterious, atmospheric quality to the cityscape. The Imperial Palace is, I suppose, Japan’s Buckingham palace, but its ground are much more fortified. It’s surrounded by extensive grounds and large moats with steep slopes or stone walls on the inner edges. Much of the grounds that I saw had close-cropped lawns with an orderly forest of manicured evergreen trees.

I walked around part of the Palace grounds and then headed to a pair of gardens – western and Japanese; of which, the latter was quite pleasant, the former quite dull – which were adjacent to the National Diet Building – ‘Diet’ as in legislative body. Not a terribly interesting sight. I walked around the nearby government buildings. It was very quiet – there were probably more police officers than pedestrians – and not that many of those. It’s not a patch on Whitehall, frankly – it’s all mid to late twentieth century buildings.

Then I headed to Shinjuku, a big train/subway station and shopping area. The narrow side streets reminded me a little of Myeongdong in Seoul (although they weren’t pedestrianised), while the main roads were reminiscent of Oxford Street in London. I had a pretty lame but cheap coffee and did some game work, then took the subway back up to Asakusa.

There, I had a nice noodle soup and some fried dumplings at a restaurant and went back to the hostel. I had a long conversation with my friend Alex via Skype – something we don’t do often enough. Habiba was probably out, and she hadn’t left me any replies to my message during the day. Now, the following day (Sunday), I’m waiting for her to get on Skype, but she’s either fallen fast asleep or she’s gone out.

I don’t really have any plans for the day – I’m just going to head to the airport early. I’ve already bought some snacks for Habiba and me (maybe this time she’ll let me have some) and some chocolate biscuit sticks for my homeroom children. The Japanese brand of these sticks is Pocky, but in Korea they’re called Pepero – and 11th November is Pepero Day. I now have enough money for the train to the airport with a bit left over.

See you in Seoul.

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My flight to Tokyo went without hitch. I sat next to a German woman, Jana, at the back of the plane. We talked a lot on the way over. It turned out that we were staying in the same area of the city, so we got a train together, too, and made vague plans to meet – haven’t heard from her so far. I’ll see her on Sunday, anyway, as we’re on the same flight back to Incheon.

I had planned to couchsurf while I was here, but left it very late to find a host. As a back-up I printed out maps and addresses for a couple of hostels. One of them was in Asakusa, near to where Jana and her friend were staying. I got off the train at Asakusa Station and found the place readily enough. Only then it turned out to be more expensive than I was expecting – ¥3,500 (£28) for one night in a capsule (the hostels website said they had cheaper dorm beds, but it didn’t seem that way when I got there).

The receptionist gave me directions to an internet place, where I had to become a member in order to use the internet. I found another hostel not far away and went there instead. The Khaosan Tokyo Annex is cheap (¥2,000 – £16 – per bed per night), friendly and has reasonable facilities – free wifi, kitchens with free tea and coffee; the beds are quite well sized, too, although the pillows are just a big piece of foam in a slip.

Last night I spent some time walking around the area near Asakusa Station, taking some photos of the Buddhist and Shinto temples, Senso-ji and Asakusa-jinja. Then I had dinner at a quick and cheap curry place. You can design your meal to suit your needs: you can choose the amount of rice and the spiciness of the sauce. I got an egg salad and a chicken curry with 400 grammes of rice and level 3 spiciness (out of 10). It was pretty simple, but quite tasty, and the spice level was pleasantly hot (I wonder what the higher levels are like).

This morning, I got up at nine o’clock, ate my trail mix and hard tack for breakfast along with some of the aforementioned free coffee. Then I headed out to hire a bicycle for the day. The bike rental place was pointed out to me by the nice Japanese guy who was working in the hostel last night when I checked in. It’s in a tunnel running parallel to the river at Asakusa Station. However, when I got there, the old man at the counter turned a Japanese sign on the counter round to show the English side – no bikes available. He put his hands together in apology.

I decided to walk to Ueno Park – two or three kilometres away. The weather has been strange compared to Korea. It’s been quite warm and today the sky is veiled in pale overcast. I’m walking around in a T-shirt (and possibly some other items of clothing) and still sweating a lot. Ueno Park was quite pleasant, but nothing special. There is a lake divided into three or more parts by causeways and at the centre is Benten-do, a temple dedicated to a Buddhist goddess of the arts (not to a boy with an alien wristwatch). Part of the lake is full of aquatic plants with big umbrella leaves, part is clear and has pedalos. There are lots of ducks, seagulls and carp. At one point I, and a bunch of other people, watched as a terrapin fought in vain to drag itself on to a platform; people threw bread to the ducks and the fish.

As I write this I’m having a coffee and a bite to eat in a Starbucks, listening to Rammstein’s magnificent Liebe Ist Für Alle Da. I’m trying not to spend too much, but the familiarity of the coffee shop is quite comforting. I plan to take the subway down to central Tokyo to check out the Imperial Palace and gardens.

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It doesn’t seem all that long since I took the bullet train to Busan and a ferry to the Japanese island of Tsushima for the purposes of getting a new visa, but here I am again. Except I’m taking a different route. In about two hours, I’ll be on a flight to Tokyo for a long weekend. Then it’s back to Korea for another three months before repeating the whole process in (or before) January.

I don’t have too many firm plans for Tokyo yet. I want to visit the Imperial Palace. I’m hoping to couchsurf with someone, but I left it very late organising that (like yesterday) and I may end up at a hostel. Even if I just do one touristy thing, a bit of walking and the rest of the time hanging out reading, writing and watching TV or films I’ll be happy. I don’t want to spend too much money – Habiba and I have a grand tour of Europe planned for next year and we both need to conserve our pennies.

The weekend will – hopefully – give me a chance to put some finishing touches to version 6.1 of my roleplaying game system, and to blog in more detail (or any detail at all) about my new job.

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Several weeks ago, now, shortly after my appendicectomy, I went to the Japanese island of Tsushima in order to get a fresh, three-month tourist visa in Korea. Tsushima (or Daemado, in Korean) is mid-way between Korea and Japan, and also about mid-way between the Sea of Japan to the north-east and the Korea Strait to the south-west. My friend Matthew had given me the details of a tour company that ran trips there, so I took gratefully advantage of that.

Early on Saturday morning, I took the bullet train down to Busan, caught the conveniently located and timed shuttle bus to the ferry terminal a short distance away, met a chubby, slightly cross-eyed young woman from the travel agency there, got my tickets and boarded the ferry.

There was a typhoon in the vicinity, so the voyage across was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, and it took longer than expected – so much so that its leaving time was brought ahead an hour so people returning to Korea could get back on time.

I arrived in Tsushima with plenty of daylight left, however. Once out of the ferry terminal there I didn’t really know what to do. I had the name of a hotel, so I asked directions (forgetting for a moment that the Japanese are culturally disinclined to given negative responses – which makes asking direction in Japan a hit-and-miss affair) and found the place a little later.

Then I had the problem that the receptionist, a middle-aged woman, didn’t speak any English at all and apparently wasn’t expecting a clueless westerner. Eventually, I was able to give her the phone number from the travel agency and she checked me in. Once I got to my room, I realised I had no adapter for the sockets – I asked in various shops and was even led to other places by a woman and a young boy, but with no luck. My laptop’s battery was almost flat, so no blogging, writing, films, TV or porn for me.

The town that I found myself in – Izuhara – was a pleasant little place that had a small channel running through it with lots of bridges and trees along its length, reminding me of Amsterdam. I spent some time wandering round. There was a little temple complex and a pretty, hillside cemetery.

The following morning, I was due to hook up with a Korean tour group, with whom I would travel across the island to the other town – from where we would take the ferry back to Busan. I was expecting to just be bussed across and to have the rest of the day to myself, but we stopped at various places of interest along the way – a fish farm, a Mount Eboshidake, Watazumi Shrine, which has five gates running in a line from the land to the sea (and where a young boy with the group was encouraged to talk to me – his family took photos of us), a restaurant for lunch (I was segregated from the group here and had sweet potato noodles with the staff) and a lookout point by the sea.

The Koreans were pretty friendly and tried to engage me in conversation – they might have had better luck with someone more outgoing. Some of them were wearing badges that said that Daemado and Dokdo (also known as the Liancourt Rocks, where a couple of Korean fishers live guarded by 37 police officers – the island is a cause célèbre of territorial contention between South Korea and Japan) are Korean land.

The tour guide was a Japanese man who spoke fluent Korean and spent the entire bus journey shouting at us over the PA system – often to rounds of applause from the Koreans.

The ferry departure time had been brought forward, and we got to the terminal at Hitakatsu with not too much time to spare. The ride back was as bumpy as the previous day’s, but was, at least, a lot shorter. The key part of the trip – getting a new visa – went without a hitch. I had been worried about getting back in time for my return train, but, in the event, I had plenty of time to spare.

I returned to Habiba with a few little gifts – some snacks (which I don’t think we’ve even touched yet) and a couple of things from the Japanese equivalent of a pound shop (a 100 yen shop): a pair-of-tongs-like device for squeezing as much as possible out of a sachet of, say, curry, and a square of black, spongey rubber about two and a half inches on a side for rubbing cat hair off fabric. They both work quite well.

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It’s been a while now since my operation (which Wikipedia assures me is actually called an appendicectomy). For a few days, it seemed like the amount of discharge I was squeezing out of the main surgical wound wasn’t decreasing. One day, I happened to squeeze a little harder than usual and forced out a maggot of solid, pale green-yellow pus; and then I squeezed out another, larger lump, almost the size of a bean (although not as wide) – and later on, a third. After the last one, the liquid pus, mixed with a little blood, flowed more freely.

Even I was somewhat disgusted. Habiba’s exclamations at the last specimen were quite entertaining.

Since then, the amount of discharge has slowly tailed off, to the point where it now only generally comes out when I squeeze it – yesterday’s daytime gauze and pad were untainted when I removed them.

I could probably leave the incision alone and it might heal, better, but I’d be worried about a build up of pus inside me. Then again, the body must have ways of dealing with that kind of thing.

As I write this, I’m in a 24-hour McDonalds near City Hall in Seoul. It’s the middle of the night. I have a 5:30 train to catch down to Busan on the south coast (a bullet train, no less), from where I’ll take a ferry to Tsushima, a Japanese island in the Korea Strait. I have to: my tourist visa is due to expire on Sunday. Habiba and I had been planning to go to Japan last week, but events conspired against us. Now, I’ll return on Sunday with another tourist visa good for three months.

Hopefully, I won’t need another. I’ve started making inquiries into getting a job for September. This will actually require another visa run, as the E-2 teaching visa can only be obtained in a foreign country. I’ll probably be heading down to Japan again.

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