It is a bit odd getting used to being a solo traveller again. There is something nice about discovering things with a good travel buddy like Ken. Still, I have been really enjoying wandering around Seoul, which is a very different place than Tokyo, despite several people telling me that they found them to be similar. Today I got to know the subway system, which is really top notch, walked around tiny bit in my local hood called Itaewon, then made my way over to the impressive and somewhat creepy war memorial and museum. Although parts of the museum are really great, I find that it glorifies war way too much for my taste. The museum has artifacts and history on every war that Korea has ever fought, and there are a lot of them. The most interesting parts for me were the sections that deal with the Korean War and detail the history and timeline of the events. I felt like I had a much better understanding of South Korea after viewing those. And there are a few very interesting spaces in the building that are worth seeing for the design. After that I went to a cool area of old Korean houses called Bukchon, that had a lot of restored traditional architecture. I have a ton of notes on my impressions so far, but will save those for tomorrow’s post. For now, check out the pics by clicking on the image below:
I bid a fond farewell to Ken yesterday (about 22 hours ago, the poor guy is STILL in transit) and boarded my flight to Seoul, where I now find myself. Once I got in and settled, it was about 6 in the evening, so I took a brief nap before heading out to meet Kevin, Jason, and Uin (super nice friends of my friend Gabe) for dinner in the neighborhood. They took me to a great Korean place where we had things whose names I can’t remember (despite asking at least 3 times) and that now I wish I had taken a few photos of. There were some fried vegetables with a kind of savory pancake thing beneath, there was a spicy chicken dish in a thick broth, there was kimchi and beans and something else. All of it was pretty delicious. In any event, by the end of the evening we had all drank so much delicious soju that I could barely walk. I am staying in the center of Seoul, in a neighborhood called Itaewon, which is very lively and also happens to be the heart of foreign and gay nightlife here. I will head out soon to explore the area and take pictures and report back later on what I find.
Ah Japan, it has been great. I will miss many things about you. Things like your perfect showers. Your butt warming, butt washing toilets. Your attention to detail in everything. Your ramen, your sushi, your yakitori. How spotless you are. Ken and I are on our way to the airport in a few minutes, where he will head back to NYC and I will continue on to a new adventure in Seoul. Before I leave, I have one final list of odd notes about Japan, things that I found interesting or strange:
– It is frustratingly difficult to find a trash can here. For a people so obsessed with being clean, there is almost no place to toss the odd drink can or wrapper, I almost always had to give it back to the person behind the counter of whatever establishment I had purchased from, as they saw me wandering around with a bewildered look.
– Many people having photos of themselves taken will flash the peace (or victory) sign with one or both hands.
– There are far too many people wearing Crocs here.
– Google maps walking time estimates are always much lower than the actual trip. If it says 10 minute walk it is almost always 20. Which is really strange because in New York, if Google estimates 10 minutes, I usually get there in 8.
– There are a lot of crows in Japan.
– Horsemeat is on a lot of menus here.
– People seem to eat very early here, even by my midwestern standards.
After riding the trains in Japan, I really felt they deserved their own post. They are incredible in so many ways, and make me completely envious and upset that we can’t have a system like this in the US. How are they so wonderful? Let me count the ways:
1. The trains, whether old or new are always beautiful and spotless and well maintained. I have no idea how they keep them is such incredible order, but it makes for pleasant journeys everywhere one goes.
2. Everything is crazy punctual. Nothing is ever late or early, but exactly as described in the schedules. This kind of super reliability makes taking the trains a pleasure and removes a lot of stress. I was reading somewhere a statistic that Japan Rail trains are on average no more than 35 seconds late. You read that correctly, across the entire system! And this takes into account suicides and other unforeseen events that could really retard a schedule. Amazing.
3. Stations and platforms are well organized and easy to navigate, even though one does not speak Japanese. You always know where your platform is, where your car is, and where and when to board.
4. Although I have complained about not being able to book tickets online, going to the JR office at any station is very easy and efficient. Getting reservations and tickets is a snap, and again, no Japanese necessary, you can just point at a calendar or pull up a schedule beforehand to show them. (And the Hyperdia app on the iphone, a must if you are visiting Japan, makes all this a total breeze.)
5. The stations, like the trains, are spotless and have many shops and restaurants to purchase items for your trip. My favorite are the bento box lunch stands on every platform, where you can buy a beautiful and tasty lunch that is wrapped like a gorgeous xmas present.
6. Bullet trains are so fast and amazing.
7. And although I have been taking about the national (regional really) system, it bears saying here that the local train systems and subways are likewise amazingly simple to use, from buying tickets to finding your train.
8 From all of the above, you would assume (as I did) that the system must be some incredibly subsidized government bureaucracy, right? But no! Japan Rail is a private and profitable system! And the ticket prices are not that high, we pay much more on Amtrak for much worse service. WTF is up with that??
Today’s marathon trip around Kyoto was book-ended by the standout colors of two magnificent places we visited. In the morning we went down to see Fushimi Inari Taisha and the famous walk of orange gates that surround the place, walking the entire path through the hills in stunning morning light. And in the early evening, we made our way to the gorgeous (if over crowded) Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, with green light filtered throughout. In between we added to our sampled Japanese cuisine types with an excellent yakitori lunch at a place called Kushikura, and a trip to the Nishiri market. We are back home now and completely exhausted, but very happy with our day’s adventures.
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When Ken and I were looking at apartments to rent in Kyoto on AirBnB, we came across the traditional Japanese residence in which we are now staying and were charmed by the idea of it. All the traditional elements seemed to be there: the mats, the walls, the futons, the low table, the intense order, the rice paper screens. It just screamed Japan, and we were thrilled at the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture. Well, I can tell you that after a few days here, the charm of this space has warn off and we are feeling more and more as if we are in some Japanese version of Huit-Clos. The discomfort begins when arriving at the room from the outside. As is the custom, we must remove our shoes before entering. But because of the single large step-up and the location of the door and shoe rack on the outside, we must perform this balancing ritual with the dexterity of an Ebola nurse removing her protective clothing. Once inside for a while, the closed-off nature of the room induces a bit of claustrophobia, and there is a creepy feeling that there could be anything outside the space, or total abyss. And after inhabiting the room some time, you realize that there is no single place one can ever get comfortable. The table is low and has no chairs, so one must sit cross-legged in front of it. This usually lasts about 10 or 15 minutes before our legs begin to get pins and needles and we are forced to sit in one of the few other approved positions, such as on our knees. This also lasts a punishingly short period of time until the pain forces a move to another position. So we move to the thin futons to lay on stomach or back for a few minutes, but this is hardly ideal for reading or writing. Most of the wall space is made of delicate materials not suitable for leaning against, and even the small areas we can use are likewise painful after several minutes. In the corner of the room is a chair for sitting in, but it is cruelly low and one can never get comfortable in it, one’s knees are always too high and it is too small. At night we sleep on the aforementioned thin yet surprisingly squishy futons, which seem perfectly designed to induce lower back ailments ranging from muscle twisting to slipped disc. The constant inability to get comfortable is leading to frayed nerves and shortened tempers. Ken and I are looking forward to leaving this place tomorrow, not a moment too soon. We are at least able to laugh about it for now, but too much more time and it will look like a seppuku slaughter in here.
Editor’s note: Outside of our apartment choice, I highly recommend Kyoto, it is lovely.
One of my favorite ways to explore a new city is on foot. I like to set a destination or task, and let the city unfold in front of me on my way to it. Ken is much the same, so we travel well together in this regard. This morning we set our sites on Kiyomizu-dera, about a 40 minute walk from our place. Along the way we saw a bunch of cute neighborhoods, some very touristy streets, and a few gorgeous shrines and temples. I was impressed by how crowded everything was, but I suppose this is a Sunday after all, and there were bound to be tourists. The worst crush of them was at our destination, or at least it was until a torrential downpour began and they all seemed to scurry away. We were lucky to duck into a charming outdoor covered food stand for a surprisingly yummy soup bowl of udon with egg. We missed most of the worst of the heavy rain, and then set out on a different path to get ourselves home. The rain continued on and off, and we were a little wet and fatigued by the time we got back, but all in all it was a beautiful walk. And other than the rain, this seems a perfect time to visit Kyoto, because the fall colors are beautiful.
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We arrived in Kyoto yesterday but have yet to really dig in to explore, just a bit around our neighborhood which is a little out of the way (having been rather quickly chosen on AirBnB) and not exactly densely packed with major sites, as least not that we can tell so far. And since it was raining heavily yesterday, we didn’t venture too far afield. Weather permitting, today we will see some major temples, shrines, and other buildings. Separately from specific musings about this place, I have been maintaining a small list of things I have noticed in general about Japan and Japanese culture which I will share below:
– This country is shockingly clean. There is no garbage anywhere to be seen, everything is neat and ordered and tidy. Anyone that knows me knows that for this reason alone I am in heaven here.
– Probably not unrelated, the entire culture seems a little OCD about a lot of things. For example, almost without fail we see cars backing into spaces where possible for easy exit afterwards.
– There is a particular way of walking here, especially among the old, but even a bit among the young. They definitely favor many smaller strides over fewer longer ones. Everyone seems to be hopping about a bit.
– Similarly, people always seem in a hurry and are rushing to get places, which speeds up the above small steps routine into something staccato and cartoonish, especially when they are pushing into a crowd of people.
– I have mixed feelings about Japansese desserts involving rice and forms of gelatin. They are not hugely satisfying to me and often represent a choking hazard. On the other hand, the creamy and bready things they make are often better and tastier than their analogues in the west.
– Moist (very often plastic wrapped) towels are everywhere, hot and cold. It feels as though I have wiped my hands with these more times in a week than in my entire life beforehand.
– And they really seem to eschew napkins in general, especially dry ones. Everyone is just so clean while eating that they never need one I guess.
– I really love the fancy toilets here. The seats are warm on a cold night. They lovingly spray wash your ass with whatever temperature or pressure of water you like. And yet, their aim is somehow always perfect, how do they accomplish that? Is there some sensor that judges the exact distance to your asshole from the back of the seat?
– Japan is much less expensive than I had heard about. Granted, we are not in 5 star luxury, but without trying to be budget-conscious here everything is very affordable. The housing, the taxis, the food — all of it surprisingly good value.
– The train system here is mostly amazing in how well setup and modern it all seems, and how easy it is to use, even then you don’t speak the language. And yet, for as advanced as everything is, why can’t you reserve and get your ticket online? Why on earth can’t I have an electronic ticket on my phone and present that instead of the paper one? This seems silly and backward in a country that is so otherwise far in advance of us with trains.