Archive for January, 2009

Day 3: A Slow Walk to the End of Daylight

A FRENCHMAN WHO LIVES in Australia is looking for a jazz club in downtown Kyoto. He pensively inspects a folded map, looks towards the corner of Sanjo and Gokomachi, and then eyes me. A black saxophone case is slung on his shoulder.

“Do you speak English?” he asks, a muted sense of urgency between his scattered accents. I tell him I do and a relieved smile spreads across his face — the kind one might get upon finding their emergency cigarette at the end of a hard day.  “Oh man, that’s great!” he says, pausing for a moment to enjoy this good fortune. But at his second question, Do you know your way around here?, it becomes clear this celebration may have been premature.

He’s supposed to meet friends at eight o’clock at the venue, and it’s supposed to be right here. Janice and I lend him our eyes, sweeping the intersection once over and even looking at the map ourselves. But no dice. We’re just wrapping up our second day in the city and our local knowledge is thin. We wish our new friend good luck and start on our way back to the ryokan.

Then Jan sees it — Le Club Jazz (yes, that really is the name), on the second floor above an Italian restaurant overflowing with lubricated wedding party merriment, groomsmen outside chatting with glowing faces. I run down the street and catch up with our international musician and point him in the right direction. Champagne bubbles of thanks and excitement flow in return, and we consider checking out the club ourselves as we say a more final farewell. But we’ve been exploring since the morning, and a hot bath and our futon are singing a shamisen siren song.

Continue reading ‘Day 3: A Slow Walk to the End of Daylight’

Day 2: Honeymoon Breeze

TOIRRETU. THIS IS A WORD every foreign traveler in Japan should know, unless they are fond of doing that awkward dance one does when trying not to wet themselves. But don’t expect to find this word, dear reader, in the pages of Lonely Planet’s Kyoto City Guide. Though they have devoted in their glossary an entry for the word sabi — “a poetic ideal of finding beauty and pleasure in imperfection; often used in conjunction with wabi” — the LP staff thought it unnecessary to include the correct Japanese pronunciation for “toilet.”

And so there I was, aboard one of the sleekest and fastest trains in the world, painfully trying to communicate with the ticket-taker. “Batharoomu wa doko deska?” I asked, hoping that if slid a few Japanese-sounding vowels into my English that he would understand.

He didn’t. He cocked his head to the side for a moment, and then with an Ah! it seemed to click. Then, using his arms to make an “X” he said, “No Batharoomu.” And so I went back to my seat, confused and squirmy with two hours ahead.

Continue reading ‘Day 2: Honeymoon Breeze’

Passport Cover by Park Jin Ok

passport
THE UBIQUITY OF PASSPORT covers in South Korean shops speaks volumes to this society’s new internationalism. Spending a month in the outskirts of Newcastle to do an MBA program or jetting off to Vancouver, B.C., for an English-language course have become commonplace adventures — necessary to reach a level of relative success. Coming across a cover that communicates a matching sense of class to customs agents, however, is less frequent.

I picked up this hand-sewn, goat leather passport cover by designer Park Jin Ok (or “Janey,” as is stitched on the detail tag) in the homewares section of A Land in Seoul’s Myeongdong district on a recent shopping trip. The way the corners don’t exactly match up gives it a rough-edged DIY feel that contrasts nicely against the material’s baby-softness; the small inner pockets are handy for keeping track of train, ferry and plane tickets. The truffle brown color of the leather is classic, and will show the nicks, stains and wear from the years’ travels.

KRW16,000 (US$12)
http://www.a-land.co.kr

Canal Expansion Would Put Ecosystem at Risk

Photo from the Citizens Movement for Environmental Justice

Photo from the Citizens' Movement for Environmental Justice

SEOUL – HE’S A MAN WHO likes his running water.

While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has officially dropped his plans for a nationwide canal he claimed would have revived the heartland, his government is continuing to push forward with similar schemes to resuscitate the economy. One is a major maintenance project intended to restore the banks of the country’s four largest rivers and bolster the sagging construction sector. Another is the expansion of an existing canal that would connect the Han River, which snakes through the heart of the capital, with the Yellow Sea.

Lee gained widespread popularity before becoming president as the mayor of Seoul for tearing up a massive arterial to make way for a park tracing Cheongye Stream, which had been buried underneath. But his latest projects have landed him on the blacklists of South Korea’s environmental groups. The Han-Yellow Sea expansion of the Kyeongin Canal has drawn the ire of a several in the area who lampoon the project as wasteful and unnecessary — not to mention ecologically disastrous.

Kwon Chang-sik, secretary general of the Joint Committee Against the Canal, recently told the Kyunghyang Sinmun that the Kyeongin Canal is full of standing water tainted by sewage. Were it to be connected to the Han River, oil and other runoff would flow into an estuary along the banks of the Han and destroy a habitat for seasonal birds. The economic benefits of the expanding the canal are nil, Kwon said. “Traveling the distance of the canal takes 30 minutes by car but would take 4 hours by boat.”

Velib-style Program Far Off in Seoul

jongno
SEOUL — A RACK FULL OF IDENTICAL silver bicycles caused me turn my head and pause a moment as I made hurried strides away from my office. With baskets hanging from the handlebars, they looked  utilitarian but not sturdy; the bikes’ clunky design gave off a shine of cheapness. Their frames were adorned with lettering praising the supposedly clean air of Seoul’s Jongno District, and they were locked with identical locks. Briefly considering  their proximity to the district office, I was led to an exciting conclusion — these must be public bikes!

Unfortunately, it was the wrong conclusion. I stopped by the Jongno office on Tuesday to ask about registration but ended up speaking with a man who told me the bikes were for use only by civil servants (who likely weren’t using them due to a cold snap). He lamented that a program styled after Paris’ Velib was a long way off in Seoul. While the government recently announced plans to expand the capital’s shoddy network of bike lanes (which are often used by pedestrians, roller-bladers and flippant men and women on scooters), getting together the funding to create such a program would be difficult, he said.

In sharp contrast, the provincial city of Changwon in Korea’s far south set up a thoroughly advanced bike-sharing program last year. Citizens can check out bicycles digitally, lock up at dozens of stations around town and feel safe knowing that any medical bills resulting from accidents will be at least partially covered by the municipal government. All of the bikes are also equipped with navigation systems that sit between the handlebars.

It’s great that small towns are cutting new pathways towards sustainability, but shouldn’t Seoul be leading the way? A big part of the problem is a jumbled mess of roads and merciless traffic, admitted the Jongno employee. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon met with the head of National Geographic Channel Asia to sign an MoU on combating climate change earlier this week. But whether Oh will make any groundbreaking changes to foster a bike-friendly culture in the city remains to be seen. Certainly getting public workers to see the streets from the saddle is a step in the right direction.

Day 1: By Land and Sea

I LOVE THE SOUND of trains passing. Our car rocks gently to the side and there is a thrumming like a sudden pulse of drums or the the roar of a factory; air moving in invisible and violent ripples.

We’re about an hour south of Seoul. The cities we pass are cold, industrial. Pale gray apartment clusters tower above the brown landscape while in the distance pillars of steam ascend into azure oblivion. The rural patches in between are dotted by low brick shanties with tiled roofs and rows of greenhouses made with wire and plastic. Rolling into Daejeon Station, an old man in a newsboy cap and protective face mask waits with his bicycle next to the tracks. Where he will go after we pass is only a flicker of a thought as my eyes soak in the rushing landscape; my mind is like heavy paper slowly and longingly being dipped in watercolor.

***

With the exception of a weekend jaunt out to the east coast in November, my wife and I had not left the capital since we arrived in July — two days after our wedding. Planning an overdue escape to Japan was thrilling in itself; the sense of relief I felt as we pulled away on the KTX was like finishing the last day of seventh grade. I pushed any notion of having to make a return trip as far out of my mind as I could muster.

We arrived in the port city of Busan and quickly hopped aboard a blue bus driven by a round-faced thirty-something sporting aviator sun glasses whom we soon learned had the most boring route in the city: shuttling tourists the two mile stretch between the station and the international ferry terminal. Traveler convenience, at the price of a young man’s sanity.

The boat was smaller than we both expected. The cabin was clean but its air was permeated by a distinct sourness indicative of past bouts of seasickness. I took notice of the presence of safety belts warily. An explanation saying that the Beetle Ferry sometimes has to take evasive maneuvers to avoid sea creatures (the Kraken?) did little to settle the force of our combined anxieties.

Continue reading ‘Day 1: By Land and Sea’

Hello 2009: Looking Back, and Forward

ferry

SEOUL — THE FERRY PITCHED AND ROCKED in the dark waters of the Tsushima Strait. Foamy white caps spun off the tops of waves outside as attendants rushed wobbly-legged around the cabin, passing out sick-bags left and right to passengers appearing in need. The engine of the hydrofoil shuddered to a stop and then started again as the captain negotiated the rollers. An older, heavyset woman stumbled to the back row looking pale and queasy before she was escorted to first class to lay down on top of a blanket. I looked across the aisle at Janice; her eyes were shut tight and her hand cupped around her lips. Things were not looking good.

It was an unfitting end to what had been a calm, even enlightening trip to the southwest of Japan. Our initial voyage to Fukuoka from the South Korean port city of Busan had been smooth: we knocked out soon after we hit the seats, thanks to the Dramamine. Since then we had rocketed to Kyoto aboard the Shinkansen Hikari bullet train, meandered peacefully from temple to temple and soaked in the public baths of our ryokan. We had strolled the Blade Runner landscape of Osaka, ate tacoyaki along its famed Dotonbori and watched the last sunset of 2008 from the top floor of the Umeda Sky Building.

Our journey (what I say was “Honeymoon Part I,” with promises that “Part II” will involve beaches and hammocks) also gave me the opportunity I had been craving to evaluate the raft of changes that have taken place in my life. Looking back on the past six months I saw transformations in myself with which I am uncomfortable, mostly relating to my attitudes towards work and my ambitions as a writer and to how I’ve (not) settled myself in Seoul. But orienting oneself on the map is only the first step; the next is determining the heading.

One of my major regrets is allowing my posts to this blog to become so infrequent. I feel confident that the quality of content still maintains a high standard, but I aim to make the site flower over the next few months to the tune of my new mantra: substance first, then style. Expect to see more, if not truly daily, writing here in the near future — beginning with a thorough travelogue of my adventures in Japan and unfolding into what I hope will be an insightful look at the complex nation in which I now reside.

I wrote when I moved here that this site would not become a Korea blog, a vague term I used to encompass the lot of blogs run by expats here: those both shallow and incisive, aimed at keeping in touch with family back home, venting about the maddening aspects of this society or following and dissecting its news. While I still aim to keep The Daily Transit cosmopolitan and travel-oriented, it seems foolish to avoid publishing my observations or leave unexplored issues into which I now have a unique window.

Cheers to you readers who have stuck with me and best wishes in the New Year.  Stay tuned for the full chronicle of our Japan journey, and safe travels.


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