Posts Tagged 'Travel'

Days 4 & 5: Sugar in the Sauce

THE WATERCOLOR GLOW OF RED and white lanterns washes over Pontocho alley as dusk slips silently into night. We had set out to find the perfect setting for our final dinner in Kyoto, but after being brusquely turned away from our first pick (no reservation) we find ourselves wandering. The restaurants all appear nameless, their doors hidden. The tiny rooms we pass are filled with diners and brimming with conversation. To my ears the words are an indiscernible murmur, but I imagine they speak of an Old Japan that even then was colored by change.

With no knowledge of written Japanese, we pause only at places that include pictures on their menus. We soon realize, however, that whether or not a restaurant uses photos is indicative of its atmosphere and caliber. Those that seem the most refined or traditional rely solely on the printed word to list their dishes. And so we feel our options whittled down to a potentially embarrassing/unappetizing meal at an upscale establishment or a more common experience if we play it safe.

Just as we consider exiting the alley to seek food elsewhere, a small, simple menu outside the doorway of an aged wooden building catches our eye. There are only a few things printed in English and no descriptions. But the name of one dish touches on the fading memory of a meal I once ate as a child — sukiyaki.

Continue reading ‘Days 4 & 5: Sugar in the Sauce’

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

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’

The Holidays, Far from Home

SEOUL — I DUG MY SPOON into a bubbling pot of chicken stew nearly glowing red with spice as an old recording of Silent Night warbled incongruously in the background. I was battling another cold, an unusual and annoying relapse this early in the winter. But I suppose it was due. My only exercise lately been in the realms of frustration and finger aerobics, with occasional breaks for walking around in the cold and shutter-clicking.

It didn’t feel like the holidays, and in a way that made it easier. Two days before, as I was about to descend a final flight of stairs toward the subway platform and my commute home, the sound of a live band playing Jingle Bells gave me pause. The sound was coming from the other end of the station, down a long, tiled hallway.

For a moment I considered going and taking in the sight. But just as the thought crossed my mind the sound stopped, the notes hushed up while the players took a breather. I turned and went on my way, just as an echoey Hark the Herald Angels Sing! struck up in the background.

***

The upcoming Christmas will be the first that either my wife or I have ever spent not under our parents roofs. While strings of lights and elaborate department store displays strive to emulate that winter feeling we remember so fondly, a yawning distance between us and all our family and friends has made the hues of the season seem paler, cooler.

Somewhere, there are candles and food and cheer. But in our apartment, there is an empty Papa Johns pizza box (yes, they’re here, too ) and not a spring of pine, a string of garland or a colored bulb to be found.

For all of South Korea’s devout Christians, the holiday has hardly attained the sacred status it carries Stateside. I’ve heard that we can expect many businesses to be open. Which is great — it means I can run out for a bite should I get munchy in the middle of my shift. (Yes, I will be among those poor saps slaving through the holiday.)

In all the superficial ways, Seoul is buzzing with the spirit of Christmas — although thankfully no one has been trampled to death at E-Mart, Lotte Mart or any other discount retailer here. But, for us at least, the warm center is missing.

We’ve heard from folks back home that snow is piling up in Seattle and in Madison, icing over the streets and bringing our cities to a halt. A calm white sweeping over the landscape, keeping people indoors and in front of their fires before the holiday. Here, the air is cold and tinder dry but there’s been barely a dusting of flakes. Everything keeps moving, sighing, hustling.

North Village

BUKCHON, Seoul – HAD I WOKEN UP on these uneven streets with a dose of amnesia, I could have easily guessed that I’d been dropped into some far off town or fallen through a seam in the fabric of time. This is a Seoul that I have never seen; it is calm, even reflective. Walking down its  alleyways puts me in touch with the human element of times now past, like opening an ancient book of poetry and seeing tea stains made by the master who penned it.

The patchwork of traditional hanok homes that form Seoul’s North Village (Bukchon) is iconographic of the city’s roots, but so too is the plaster that fills in its cracks and the newly finished timber of half of the neighborhood’s doorways. This place may feel ancient, but the destruction wrought by war and development means that many of these homes are replicas. Still, they exude a homey character that has been decimated by the ambitious wrecking ball in most other corners of the city.


I can’t help but wonder what the capital might have looked like if the iron-fisted general behind South Korea’s economic miracle had possessed a nostalgic streak, or been even mildly inspired by traditional aesthetics. Imagine if the now shamelessly gaudy South River neighborhoods had preserved some of their rice fields; if the dilapidated, communist-bloc inspired apartment buildings that define the skyline were instead low, wooden housing developments that would last.

I’ve written before about the destruction of Beijing’s hutong. The difference between here and there is that at least there’s a conversation about China erasing the physical remnants of its history. Here, it is a non-issue. This neighborhood will likely continue to be protected, but elsewhere in the city, progress continues.


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