May 21 is a national holiday in Korea, for Buddha's birthday. This meant that we had a long weekend, and a long overdue opportunity to go travelling. I'd run out of digits on my hands and feet if I listed all of the places I wanted to visit in Eastern Asia, but one in particular stood out - Tokyo, Japan. This was the chance to go, and when my American friend Ellen suggested it a few months ago, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. From the evening of Thursday, May 20, to the evening of Sunday, May 23, we visited the busiest, biggest city in the world. This is our story...
We work in schools across the road from one another, and both of them were holding sports day on the Thursday. Nice easy day, and also an opportunity to get out of school early to get our 1930 flight from Gimpo Airport. Gimpo is Gatwick, Incheon is Heathrow. Actually, Gimpo is more like Stansted or Luton, but the point remains. Our trip to the airport was trouble-free, save for one of my students squirting me with her water pistol. Outside of school, not a good idea love. It was a hot day, though, so it felt pretty nice and soon dried off.
It was strange how hassle-free everything seemed to be going. We were at the airport on time, hadn't forgotten anything important, tickets were issued (although we were sat a couple of rows away from each other), and nothing perverse had happened. Then we get to the X-ray machines. I am fine, but Ellen gets metal detected, and then they call her over. Something in her bag was causing the security staff a bit of grief. Search, search, search...oh, there's the problem. A YOGHURT. Accidentally left in, but naturally could blow up a plane. Well, at least they're thorough.
Pretty soon we are on our plane, strapped in, and on our way. As I mentioned, we were in different rows, so it was initially quiet time. The other people on the plane probably appreciated not hearing my voice for a while. Didn't last, though. Our food - and my Kirin beer - soon arrived, and when it did the two people next to me started trying to talk to me. I realised, from looks and lingo, that they were probably married, and definitely Korean. They realised that I was definitely not. I guess they were interested, and I was happy to play along with them.
We ended up talking - well, communicating, as the wife couldn't speak English, and the husband was as limited as I was for Korean - for the remaining hour of the flight. It was great fun. Ellen later said she was a bit jealous, as the men next to her weren't as fascinated. In that they didn't say a word to her. I was talking to a married couple called 남자, or Namja (the husband), and 아이, or Ahi (the wife). They were visiting their daughter, who lives and/or studies in Tokyo. I mention that my 'number one' (complete with hand gesture) food is ddak galbi, and their eyes light up. The husband takes my sudoku book, and on the inside cover starts to write something. It's in Hangul, but I give it a shot, and eventually understand what it says. It was the name of a university, a subway stop, and the city Incheon. It then had his name, Mr. Hwang, and a phone number. After this was Saturday, 1pm.
Basically, what has happened is they have invited me to go with them for ddak galbi on any Saturday after 1pm. Supposedly it is the 'best in Korea'. Naturally. Only one way to find out, and I am sure that one Saturday I will not be hungover or busy and will gladly take them up on this incredible gesture. So so nice. They were great fun, and the flight flew by, no pun intended. After a brief hold-up at immigration, for an unknown reason, we were soon on our way to get a subway to the city.
Aah, the subway. We had been told about this before leaving. It's mental. Mental and massive. I'm confident about my navigating skills, but this is contrasted with many many experiences of getting lost, both in Korea and when travelling around Europe. Those who I dragged around Milan for a day trying to find a building which wasn't actually in Milan can testify to that. We get on the bus to take us to the subway terminal. It's either terminal 1 or 2. I'm convinced it's 1. It stops at 1, and just about everyone else gets off. Umm, what? We dither for a bit, then ask the last person getting off the bus. Does she speak English? You can bet your bottom yen she can! Very, very well, in fact. And she was hot. I fell in love at that moment, and she directed us to the subway.
She also helped us get our ticket, which isn't the easiest thing to do either. You have to find your destination on the map above. Under each destination is a price. That is how much you put in. Sounds simple - bit more difficult when most of the maps are solely in Japanese. Often we ended up putting in the minimal amount and going to the ticket man when we got to our point of interest. The subway was quiet, but coming from an airport after 10pm this wasn't surprising. We navigated it quite comfortably, and were soon in Asakusa, our resting place for the night.
Asakusa is the more local, more traditional area of Japan, and an ideal place to start and settle down to deciding our itinerary. However, this does mean that its a wee bit quiet on a Thursday night. After getting a couple of drinks at the bar, chatting to the barkeep and his piano-playing friend, and finding out exactly why the 5Y coin has a hole in it (so they could put loads of them on a metal rod, making them easier to carry), Ellen went to bed, so I started chatting to the few remaining souls in the bar. Chatting obviously means drinking and story-swapping with. I haven't changed my travelling style in that respect.
Drinking in Tokyo is not a cheap business. Not if you drink inside, anyway. The way around it is our technique - 7/11. Cans bought, then sat outside drinking and talking. This sounds good, until you realise that it had been, and still was raining. It relented a little while after, but it got me back in my travelling spirit that I had began to miss. Our poison of choice was Asahi Strong Off - the Japanese Special Brew/Super Tennant's/Cass Red. The unnecessarily strong stuff.
Many of this famous five (English, Israeli, and two Italians) had been in Tokyo for a while. The Englishman, Jamie, had been there for six weeks, and had been sleeping on the street for the last two. When bedtime came, we snuck him into the hostel, where he slept on the floor. 'Best night's sleep in two weeks'. Whilst walking back we discussed the notion of going to the famous fish market, which opened at 4.30am. This was after 3am. Needless to say, it didn't happen.
Interesting and enlightening start to our Japanese adventure, but the trip was really starting on the Friday. Happy birthday Buddha!
Love you all