New Faces, New Places

Cool, mist-laden pre-dawn air muted my steps as I walked out into the early morning of Seoul.  It had rained the night before and there was a sense of freshness in this day already, always a rarity in the usual chaotic crush and rapid pulse of a city.  Walked 20 minutes to Seoul Station, my mind blank but receptive in that early morning.  Japan was a few hours away.  But first, shuttered stores, news stands and street meat huts.  Lady at counter directed me to the airport bus stop. W10,000.  Man, mid-thirties sitting amongst the few people waiting for a train, wailed, sounding like a woman, as inconsolable as anyone who’s lost something dear.  I’d a bus to catch.  Me and two other people sat quietly as the bus maneuvered the streets, twisting route of interchanges and seeming backtracks, soon along the ghostly gray of the Han River, cross a bridge.  Time for a short nap.

Ticket booth, lady asked “Do you have your immigration card?”  Going to the Korean consulate in Fukuoka to get a new one.  Security checkpoint, man takes my brand new tube of Crest toothpaste (over 100mL).  Damn, there goes the W6,500 and the minty freshness of American toothpaste that is impossible to find except in a hole in the wall place in Itaewon that has goods smuggled from the Army bases.  Lucky I didn’t get my new stick of deodorant confiscated or I would likely have stunk everyone out of Japan.  Anyhow, back to Korean toothpaste for now.

Saw many white folks on the plane, their goal likely the same as mine.  My mind focused on getting through immigration, I would make friends with these like-minded individuals after.  But Jed, a 41 year-old Yankee salesman-turn-teacher/writer from Chicago/Denver/Austin approached me, we decided to pal around in our quest for legal work status in Korea.  I needed the quick reminder on how easy it is to make friends when traveling.  As he and I talked of various things, Korean toddler pissed in a cup just ahead of me.  I love the smell of warm urine in the immigration line.  Smells like…victory.  Nothing like watching the mother, father and grandfather managing this just so they don’t have to get out of the line. 

Immigration asked, “Do you have your immigration card?”  On my way to take care of it, sweetheart.  Found a tourist map of the city, the shuttle bus to the subway, another new friend, late-twenties Anna from Poland who’s just left her sales job with Samsung to work in infrastructure development of Daewoo’s shipbuilding division.  She’s been to four or five other cities in Japan.  I was feeling fortunate to have met these seasoned travelers with whom to explore Fukuoka. 

And this is what travel is like, it is all coming back to me.  People with varying backgrounds and travel experience.   When at the last job, I planned travel with my friends, looked to the future, tried to save money, tried to take advantage of the little spare time in Korea.  With this short trip, I saw much more, unclouded by past failures or unsatisfactory work the following day, was in the present tense the whole time, a unique anxiety that comes with all the unfamiliarity and uncertainty right in front of me, observing my surroundings, learning about new people and a new culture.  The lessons learned on the Fall 1997 North America Tour all come flooding back to me, though I didn’t think of it at the time.  And, even if only for a short time in Japan, I was able to attain the elusive now-living.  I wonder if I will ever try to reach this now-living state in the domestic life I had once chosen in a past life.  It seems much easier to accomplish when obligations and loyalties back home are maintained in a much different way.

We took the subway not twenty-five minutes from the airport to our stop.  The subway is expensive (¥290 for the ride is roughly equal to $2.40 US or W2,260), clean (no gum, dirt on tiled floors, similar to Busan’s subway) and comfortable (the benches as soft as a good, antique sofa).  At our stop, we walked fifteen minutes to the consulate, walking along one of the many small rivers that stripe the landscape on that seaside town.  As it turns out, we were fifteen minutes late for the morning session, the consulate not accepting visa-seekers from 11AM to 130PM.  We, along with all the other whiteys, had a little time to kill.  Anna, Jed and I got some food (¥550 for a bowl of noodles with a couple slices of pork), looked at the map, went to the beach for a little bit, touched the warmish, clean water; Jed checked into a large, expensive hotel nearby, the women walked us up to his room that had a nice view of the ocean side and the Yahoo Dome.  They told us that there was a SeaHawks baseball game that night, and that sealed our plans for the evening.  We bought ¥1,000 tickets (the cheapest possible tickets, similar to bleachers) for the 6PM first pitch. 

Filled out paperwork and left passport at the consulate.  I have heard some less than glowing reviews of Fukuoka, the city of 5.5 million in the greater metropolitan area (   People have said there are only businesses and not much to do.  It seems, though, a good introduction to Japan, comprised of clean living, polite people and enough sites to see in a couple or three days.  Compared to any other city I have seen, I can’t remember ever seeing such varying styles of architecture in the business towers and residences—from traditional to modern to post-modern.  And I have never seen a stream running parallel the sidewalk.  A certain level of pride comes across in a city that is unique in these ways.  And from what Anna says, major Japanese cities are as unique as the architecture.  If this is what Japan has to offer form a “less desirable” city, you will hear from me again, hostelling and packing my way up and down that nation.

We spent nearly four hours walking around and taking pictures of Ohori Park and surrounding attractions (many can be done for little or no money) like the Gokoku Shrine and Fukuoka Castle Ruins, enjoying the 20˚ C weather, clean surroundings, sparse populations of a weekday afternoon, fresh air.  Took a nap on a bench on top of the ruins, headed toward the dome much refreshed and ready for some beer.  The cost of a beer was slightly less than it would be at an American game (¥700), but the domestic beers in Japan are the likes of Asahi and Kirin, not the relative swill K-beer (Hite—aka Shite—and Cass—aka Ass) or Yank domestics.  Even before first pitch, the visiting team’s section (near where we were seated) were chanting like the Euros do at their soccer/football matches, playing horns and making a general ruckus.  Soon, the home team fans got involved.  All told, the stadium was 90% full by mid-game.  Though the home team lost, it was by far the most entertaining game I have been to in terms of the fans.  Sure beats the usual bleacher fare of drunken Giants and Dodger fans fighting and throwing shit at each other.

After the game, the subway was closed, took an expensive cab ride (¥450 just to get in the cab) toward the hostel with Anna.  She was staying at a hotel nearby.  The hostel was closed so I ended up staying at the hotel for ¥7000, talking the clerk down from ¥7800 after he asked me “Do you have your passport?” Yeah, I got your passport right here, buddy.  I really wanted to save the money YES Yongdo had given me for this trip, but that wasn’t to be the case.  So it goes, though.  Roll with the punches.  The whole trip only ended up costing me about three bucks of my own money.  Not bad. 

Next morning, I feel content not to try and squeeze in another site before or after getting my passport and visa back at 10AM.  Would have been nice to see a Japanese outdoor market or maybe go to the top of Fukuoka Tower or hit the beach again, but we all felt a certain sense of satisfaction with all we had seen the day before.  Headed to the airport around 1PM, there in plenty of time for a 330 flight.  Back at Incheon International Airport—after “Do you have your immigration card?” and what makes you think I’m an immigrant?—we parted ways to varying destinations in this massive city, maybe to once again meet up for a beer and a ballgame on Korean soil or an adventure in outlying areas.

Next day, back in Seoul, my desire to see as much of the city in the next year stoked, my need to make comparisons between Seoul and Fukuoka a necessity of curiosity.  I may have only gotten a taste (not literally, with all those pig heads and raw fish and bandegi that I saw) of Namdemun Market and its massive number of passageways and wares, but since I am here for another year, there will be sure some more photos and friends with whom I will document the market maze of clothing, food, hardware, software, people.  Nonetheless, just as I appreciate Fukuoka for its cleanliness, I have always had a certain spot in me that wants the down and dirtiness of any city, the bacteria and germs found in that market, for example, are stimulants for the imagination and fascination.

Not much to speak of at Olympic Park.  Had a nice walk along a stream, saw the outside of a number of sporting arenas from the 1988 Olympics that are still in use.  Met up with Janine back near Namdemun for dinner, movie, a couple drinks and general silliness.


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