Saturday, June 3, 2006
What the Fuk..ukoka?!
I have the most amazing husband, and every day I think about how lucky I am to be blessed with a man like Matt, and an incredible son Joe.
For Mother's Day, my guys gave me an amazing gift. Matt and Joe sent me on a four day vacation to Fukuoka, Japan. Other than the occasional airport transfer, it was my first time in "the land of the rising sun" (strangely enough, Korea is known as "the land of the morning calm", but in my estimation, there is nothing particularly calm about the morning, nor any other time of day here, when the freeways are packed with automobiles full of cranky, stressed-out and terribly hung-over commuters filling the morning skies with the daily recommended dose of smog). Anyway, I managed to wrangle two days off work, left waaay too early on the morning of May 25, and arrived in Fukuoka after a quick 1 hour flight.
One thing I really love about solo travel is the opportunity to meet people that you would probably never encounter otherwise. In the airport, I met up with a couple whities doing their visa runs, and accompanied them to the Korean embassy, which happened to be a few short blocks away from my hostel. There, we found another couple of English teachers picking up their visas, and decided to go hang out in nearby Ohori Park, a massive oasis of green in the middle of the ("small") city comprising 1.3 million people. It was a beautiful day, and we strolled leisurely through the park before, much to our delight, we stumbled upon a traditional Japanese garden tucked away quietly at the end of the park.
On the plane, I had been doing some reading about Japan in an outdated travel guidebook I had inherited from a previous English teacher at our school. Apparently, the Yakuza are THE organized crime ring in Japan, and frighteningly efficient - like the Mafia, but bigger and much more powerful. Members are easily identified by huge, intricate tattoos that adorn their backs and wind over their shoulders and down their arms. They are also known to have unsuccessful careers as pianists: the Yakuza punishes its members for their transgressions by lopping off their fingers at the joints. Anyway, after we had strolled through the garden, we stopped at a shaded rest area for a quick beer. A group of benign-looking elderly men were sitting around playing some kind of checkers game and downing sake. One man, chattering rapidly to his friends, staggered to his feet as we arrived, and through his slurred, incomprehensible English, we managed somehow to discern that he was asking us where we were from (apparently, it's a game that Koreans play amongst themselves, too - "Guess where that white person is from!"). He was a friendly sort, and proudly showed off his tattoos to the girls, all the while saying "I love you, I love you!", before sneakily showing the two guys his half-missing pinky finger (look closely at his left hand). Sure, benign old men just sitting in the park, right?
Japan is extraordinarily expensive - I couldn't believe I was shelling out over 7$ US for a stupid bowl of udon, but incredibly beautiful, and worlds away from Korea. In some ways, Japan is a lot more similar to Canada than Korea is to Japan. I've heard that many comparisons can be made between Japan and England (for instance, they are very polite, but never say what they are thinking), and Korea and Italy (they're very intense and passionate). Stereotypes aside, though, the Japanese do seem to have a bubble of "personal space" that surrounds them, and they do not intrude on the space of others. Ha! Yesterday while shopping for our weekly groceries, I was forcibly elbowed out of the way by an old grandmother who didn't even otherwise acknowledge my presence. Not to mention the constant shopping cart crashes in the aisles. Personal space be damned! After a couple days in Japan, though, I started to feel exceedingly awkward at what I found to be their excessive politeness, and terribly clumsy as well, due to the fact that not only am I twice the size of most of the women, but I am also so accustomed to the common discourtesy of Korea. One morning in Japan, as I waited for the bus, I noticed a neat and orderly lineup of about 8 people that had formed as if from nowhere. Using my developing Korean mentality, I thought "like hell I'm waiting in that line" and smoothly elbowed my way first through the doors as the bus pulled to a stop. "Those Canadians! So rude!!"
There are some images, though, that I will always remember. One afternoon as I drank from the hallowed trough of American corporate culture (ah, Starbucks, you give my life meaning), four geisha came in to order their lattes. I will remember the man in the park, the temples and shrines, the businesspeople on bicycles and the general cleanliness and efficiency with which everything seems to proceed in Japan.
When I arrived home on Sunday night, I realized that the last airporter bus had departed 10 minutes earlier, and my only other option was a taxi for the hour-long trip back to Uiwang. Within minutes, I was involved in a "Konglish" screaming match with three drivers, as we all flailed our arms and yelled in each others' faces, while I tried to haggle the best fare - not because we were angry, but because in Korea, it's just how you talk to each other.