The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Willy stew and obese wrestlers, it must be Korea and Japan!

We had built up the moment of arriving in Asia for months; the end of Western comforts and the start of the overland adventure home. It began well. After 2 hours of creeping through the industrial bedlam of the Kwangyang steel works freight terminal we landed ourselves a cheap hotel room. This was a surprise to us as the customs official said we were the first ever passengers to disembark at the freighter terminal and no one in town could speak English. Not exactly a well worn tourist trail. But the room came complete with its own slippers, hairdryer, styling combs, hair gel, tooth brushes, computer, neon lights and water cooler. Result! However, early optimism was lessened somewhat as I struggled to come to terms with having to eat what looked like penis broth and later turned out to be intenstine sausage.

Since that moment the whirlwind of Asia has been relentless. From the industrial backwaters of Kwangyang we hopped on a bus to cosmopolitan Busan; the gateway to the Korean Peninsula. Here we spent 3 very content days staying right next door to the huge Jagalchi fish market. For over a mile outside our hotel the streets were lined with overflowing tanks and buckets containing snapping crabs, inert urchins, phallic sea slugs, writhing eels, disgruntled lobsters and a thousand varieties of fish and molluscs. The worst thing we saw was the skinning of eels... alive. Once skinned they were left to wriggle around a plate until someone took an interest when they got thrown into a blender and whizzed up into some kind of bloody slop. Despite this, we braved some sushimi which involved the chef hauling an unsuspecting red giant from a tank and holding a knife to it's belly and waiting. We asked how much and promptly opted for something half the price. Big red goes back and 2 smaller ones are hauled up gulping for air. Before we even nodded guts were on the table and razor sharp knives sent the fish from tank to table in about 2 minutes. A little too fresh at first as our stomachs took a moment to adjust, but adding wasabi, soy and spring onions into the mix and the result was spectacular.

Pondering our imminent departure to Japan after only 5 days in South Korea we sat sipping the local rice wine, 'sojo' on the port side with hundreds of oldies, families and business men. We decided we liked the locals as their kids came over to try and teach us Korean and they smiled, laughed and chatted away. Shortly, one young man also came to chat to us who had incredible English and turned out to be one of the nicest people either of us have ever met. He talked about impressions of the English gentleman, Shakespeare, humanity, history, our travels and our love and commitment for each other. Before leaving he spent about 15 minutes just saying goodbye, blessing our futures and our happiness together which was so touching that tears ran freely down my face the moment he left. I think we may come back to Korea someday. But this was only to be a short sojourn as we boarded a hydrofoil and zoomed at pace to Japan. From there our traveling speeds only got greater as we tore up Japan on the high speed shinkansen trains for the next 10 days. Nick pretty much wet himself with excitement every time we got on one of the bullet trains and I was grateful that Nick's bro Ben was with us to share in the interest when mine was waning.

First impressions of Japan were of efficiency and tidiness, so much so that you feel inclined to tip toe around. You also very quickly get a sense of a thirst for modernity colliding with the very traditional. On our first evening we watched florescent dancing water displays in a huge mall with an artificial canal running through it and then headed back to our traditional guesthouse, with its tiny wooden corridors, bonzai planted courtyard, futon beds, shoes off and communal bath culture. It was summed up by on our first train journey when we saw the platform attendants bow to the high tech trains as they left the station.

Despite only having minimum time in Japan we managed to squeeze in a lot of things we have been excited about for the whole trip. Hiroshima was first up. Having both read John Heresy's horrifying account of the bomb we were intrigued to see how it was portrayed on site. It is an incredible place and between a very informative and harrowing museum and beautiful park memorial we were left with lots to ponder over. Like Einstein's role in encouraging its creation? Like the notes circulated in US government outlining the necessity of the bomb being seen to end the war to avoid awkward questions about the use of billions of dollars of tax money? Like how long Japan can be expected to obey their no military clause 9? To see beyond the city we spent the next day climbing to the top of the sacred island of Miyajima where the poor locals, out in their Sunday best, were given quite a shock at the sight of Tuppen sweats induced by the muggy temperatures. Luckily the bum scratching and bit picking monkeys meant we weren't the most disgraceful creatures on the island.

In an attempt to find a more random Japan we headed to a small island called Ikuchi Jima, home to 'Sunset Beach', which was more off season Bognor than Baywatch. But it was still a worthwhile stop, if only for watching Ben's reaction when his dinner was presented as 2 eggs, a bowl of uncooked vegetables, a pile of noodles, a variety of sauces and a hot plate after a crucial miming error. Next up was a cultural overload in Kyoto where we got lost in a magical mountain of shrines, gazed at geisha's in Gion and enjoyed bottles of sake by the river. In an attempt to avoid temple overload we whizzed out to another coastal town to see how the Japanese holiday. This time were we welcomed off the train by conductors in Hawaiian shirts and taken to 'Paradise Beach'. After enjoying a cliff side onsen bath and the white sand beach we were very entertained for the evening watching students run around in their bath robes, slugging back beer and throwing fireworks at each other. The last week of our Japanese stay was spent in Tokyo, a much anticipated destination. Wandering around never ceased to amaze, but obvious highlights were watching the night close in from Tokyo tower, admiring tuna auctioned at dawn in the fish market, eating tiny kebabs with giant beers in street stalls and celebrating a year of being on the road with some fat slapping, bum wagging sumo action.

As we traveled the country we couldn't believe how urban it is. From the train lines arrowing between tiny paddy fields and huge apartment blocks, there does not seem to be an inch of land left alone. Even when we tried to escape the civilized and headed to some remote coastal towns there were huge ports, bridges and radio masts everywhere you look; even lifts operate on cliffs so people can easily get up and down. There is constant artificial noise. Beeps, jingles, buzzes, speaking ads, announcements and singing vending machines. On top of this we were bombarded by the screeching enthusiasm of school children when they spot some tall white folk or the giggles of teenagers on hearing that Nick and I are engaged. But despite the bizarre nature of such communication, it was great to have so many people wanting to practice English with us. A 60 year old women chatted with us for an hour on a local train, walked us to our port to catch the boat and even bought us a box a cakes to say goodbye, because she was so thankful that she got to speak to English people.

Japan was always somewhere we were intrigued to visit and we left more intrigued than ever. It is a country that has all the development and wealth of the West but has evolved within a completely different tradition and culture. On the surface it puts the West to shame on most fronts. People are quiet, civilized and kind. There isn't a trace of litter anywhere to be seen. There is no obvious presence of authorities and very little crime. No one seems to have an ounce of fat on them and 60 year old women look about 40. Young people always seem very happy and excitable but are never threatening or out of control. There are vending machines selling beer for one quid on every street corner, but very little drunkenness. On the ferry out of Japan there were 4 other Westerners on board and we all expressed woe at why our societies had got to where they are now when Japan seems so perfect. The answer suggested to us by a young Japanese passenger was the calming influence of Buddhism.

But we couldn't help thinking that this 'perfect' society was partly held together by cultural undercurrents that we would find oppressive. There's an implicit judgement in the air if you step out of line. All the hype, noise and mania of the youth seems to be an immediate backlash against an agonisingly restrained older generation. In the city, men dominate the bars and clubs, where the younger men fawn on their bosses or senior colleagues. There are enclaves of seediness dotted all over the big cities, serving the wants of business men who otherwise lead restrained lives. One Sunday we found a sunny spot in the park and sat down to watch everyone lolling around on picnic blankets only for a policemen to turn up and angrily nudge everyone who was lying down ordering them to sit up. I was horrified that people's peace and quite could be shattered just like that!

We have now spent a week in China and can't help but draw some comparisons. In some ways people in the two countries seem to be the complete opposites. In China people are generally loud and boisterous, they will empty their noses or throats anywhere and everywhere and will eat anything and everything. From feeling oafish, sweaty and scruffy in Japan we seem quite clean and sophisticated in China. People here aren't oppressed in their behaviour but then the level of propaganda has far, FAR outweighed our expectations. But more on that to come.

Speaking of propaganda, we cannot get onto our website in China so sorry for the delay. In 5 days time we are heading over the Himalayas through Tibet to Kathmandu. Once there we will be back online and will update you with our 30 day epic, albeit very dusty, silk road adventure to the far flung West of China and back.

If you want to see more photos of Japan and Korea here they are:

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