26 January 2009

First days in Japan

My trip to Japan was undertaken with relatively little preparation, it must be admitted. With a vague sort of plan consisting of places I wanted to see, I set out yesterday from my home city of Yeosu for the port city of Busan.

Busan is the second-largest city in Korea - it doesn't hold a candle to Seoul, of course, but it is still quite immense. Like so much of Korea, it looks built over the landscape; the forested mountains and hills that make up the Korean countryside are visible in their swelling magnificence, quite unchanged beneath the very new city that has sprung up over them like ripe tan mushrooms of apartment buildings. Certainly it is nothing like what Korea once looked like, before Japan and the war, but the cities are built following the contours of the land as it exists now.

I don't see much of Busan, however, since in short order I am on to Japan. Embarkation is confusing and difficult, and the ticket agents discuss my case in heated tones. As it turns out, the Korean friend who helped me book my tickets chose the wrong destination city. I am booked for the opposite side of Japan that I had intended. Instead of going straight to Osaka, it seems, I am instead for Fukoaka. So be it. I am an amiable traveler in the face of the unexpected, since my experiences here have taught me that any other attitude is an invitation to madness.

So to Fukoaka. The ship was not a ship as I have seen, but instead a high-speed hydrofoil. It took only four hours, with the two-hundred-passenger boat rising up on skids as it sped over the waves. The waters of the Eastern Sea are very blue, deepening as they darken until they are a rich velvet. I sat in my narrow seat (well-cushioned and warm) and eagerly waited to see Japan.

I had been staring for hours when I saw a darkened shape ahead. Leaning forward, I scrubbed the condensation from the window with my sleeve, clearing a view of a rocky spur emerging out of the sea, flanked by a rust-streaked and immense white trawler. This was Japan.

The first thing I noticed, as I reached the harbor of Fukoaka, was the immediate contrast with Busan. The Korean city lay across the surface of the land like a blanket of snow, but its Japanese cousin was slashed into the mountains next to the bay. This was an impression that would only be reinforced as I later traveled the countryside - everywhere, the land was cut and moved into place, and then the cities would exist in the cleared flat wells and valleys of Japan. The difference speaks, I believe, not so much of a difference of character between the two peoples, but rather just of the way they have developed. Almost all of Korea is new, with only some rare buildings being older than forty years (much like Florida). Japan, even though it endured a great deal of punishment during the Second World War, maintained many of its older buildings, and the subsequent American occupation brought a strong-arm way of construction.

I traveled from Fukoaka (an entirely uninteresting city) to Kyoto by way of shinkansen, or high-speed bullet train. This was an amazing device, slashing through hill and dale in straight lines or arcing over bridges in lightning curves. It was sleek and high-tech, moving almost silently, as if it was pouring forward along the rails. In between the spates of darkness that were the tunnels, there were visible long flashes of Japanese neighborhoods. Their roofs were tiled and curved at the ends, and their tops were heaped with melting snow. They gathered in the carved out floors of valleys like marbles dropped into a hollow, clustered closely along narrow streets.

So few people! Compared to Korea, where in any city of even a moderate size one must always elbow people out of your way, Japan was deserted. A few knots had gathered to play baseball, I glimpsed as the train flashed by the snow-dusted fields. And some walked the streets, going about their business or leaning on each other as they laughed. As the train whipped across the country, I saw a bit into the lives of thousands.

On the way to Kyoto by way of Osaka, I befriended a pleasant British fellow, Matt, who as it happened was also an English teacher in Korea. He taught on the opposite side of the country from me, but our shared experiences formed a good basis for discussion about comparisons and a base towards a swift friendship. Matt was a consummate planner when it came to traveling, very much my opposite; whereas I had only a vague set of ideas, he had meticulously planned out each day of his vacation in the land of the rising sun. This turned to my advantage when he had an amazing tip about a place to stay for the night: the hostel he had found was very cheap and well-recommended.

Even though I was dog-tired from the journey, Matt and I just slung our gear and headed out once more. We decided to go to a Japanese bath-house. Both of us were familiar with Korean jimjabangs (bath-houses), myself rather more than him, and we wanted to compare.

Jimjabangs are quite nice in Korea. You go to a big facility where the sexes are segregated, strip down, and enter into a huge bathing room. Saunas, steam rooms, massage pools, cold pools, and multiple spas make for amazing relaxation. Japanese bath-houses are much the same, as it turns out, but more extreme. Entering a squat wooden building, Matt and I put our shoes in lockers with hugely clunky wooden locks, paid the equivalent of five dollars, and entered the changing room. We removed our clothes and put them in another set of lockers whose keys were on elastic bands (for your wrist, so it isn't lost), and went into the bath-house - ignoring the Japanese men staring intently at us. The bath-house had a sauna, four spas, and a cold pool. The sauna was at 110 Celsius (much hotter than its Korean equivalents) and the cold pool was at some ridiculously low temperature, and switching from the one to the other was an experience not to be believed.

The next day I was up early and on my way, and had a full day. I will recount it later.


  1. That sounds like fun! I'm jealous :P

    Can't wait to read more about your trip!

  2. Sounds amazing. Very descriptive and well written. I'm glad for your experiences.