01 April 2015

Land of the Morning Calm part 1

Spring is a unique time for me. It's not my favorite season and it has weather-related problems such as rain and tornadoes. But I do like seeing the trees blossom and the scent of allergies in the air. It also reminds me that a new year is beginning. (Remember, most civilizations began their calendar year in spring, not December.) I have good memories of springs past.

One spring in particular, I'll tell you about here. I was living in Japan, teaching English, and decided 
during my time off to visit a friend from college who lived in Korea. It turned out to be a case of everything going wrong that could go wrong. I assure you that, while this is a subjective reportage, every word is true.

[I posted previously about another, briefer visit to Korea I took back during my Japan days. You can read it here.]


 (or how we used to travel in the good ol' days)

For the spring break holidays at the end of March [the Japanese school year ends then], my original plan was to fly from where I lived in Japan over to Korea and return by ferry. 

Then I decided a round trip flight was most economical. By then, however, I could only get a confirmed reservation going, not returning. I checked about every day during my week and all flights were full. I even had to leave a day earlier than expected to get on the flight from Fukuoka to Pusan. Even taking the shinkansen (“bullet train”) to Hakata (Fukuoka’s station) so I could fly from Fukuoka cost less than the direct flight from Okayama to Seoul and connecting flight back to Pusan. 

My friends lived in the southern tier so I didn’t see any reason to go to Seoul first. Up to the last day, I couldn’t get off the waiting list for the return flight, so not wanting to be fooling with it, I told the KAL girl in Okayama to cancel the return and I planned on taking the 15-hour ferry (overnight) back from Pusan to Shimonoseki (north of Fukuoka). That was my final plan when I arrived at Pusan’s Kimhae airport.

To get there, I had to get up early the morning of March 26 [1992], already packed the night before, take out the trash (it was trash day) and get to the bus stop by 7 am, wearing my black jacket with the liner in it and my gloves, the sky threatening to rain and a cold wind blowing. I got on the bus and made the transfer at the next town over,Takahashi, to get on the train and also at Okayama, using the shinkansen ticket I bought three weeks earlier. 

Except that I had to stand all the way to Hiroshima, something I really like considering the high prices they charge for a seat—but it was the only way to get to Fukuoka in time for the 2 pm flight. 

At Hakata/Fukuoka, I saw the signs for the subway, and remembered that they had been constructing an extension of the line all the way to the airport. So I looked and looked for the right entrance, finally asked a ticket taker who said I had to take the bus. Then why did they have the signs up in English that said to take the Chikushi line to the airport? 

So I went next door to the bus center and took the bus to the airport, arrived two hours before my flight departure. As I had yet to actually pay for my ticket, I wanted plenty of time to correct the hassle if they were wrong.

First, I had to wait in line---a line which kept expanding in front of me as mobs of Korean tourists were stepping in front of me as though I wasn’t even there, pushing their bags ahead inch by inch to grab the extra advantage. 

After they finally opened our gate to let us go up to the check-in counter and I was first in line, naturally I was told that I had to go to another counter---which was outside the gate---to purchase a ticket. 

At that particular counter, a bunch of yakuza types in black pinstriped shirts and white suits, kept cutting in front of me. I was angry---enough that I didn’t care who they were. Especially since the main guy was just “canceling” his flight, I heard them saying. Finally they stepped aside, while one attendant ran to get some paperwork, and the girl gave me my ticket. 
Then, back in the other line, now twenty people were ahead of me.

A different KAL jet leaving Fukuoka airport more recently than my trip.

I did get on the right plane, however, and the flight lasted 30 minutes---excluding take off and landing. Hardly worth all the trouble of checking in and going through all of the security procedures. (This was, of course, back in 1992.) The short flight left little time for serving any drinks---we got a small tin of ice cream only---but enough time to take orders for duty-free junk. I thought Korean Airlines was cheap---I went to them because of the direct flight they had from Okayama (where I lived) to Seoul, then stuck with them because I thought they operated the only Fukuoka-Pusan flight, too.

I had planned on making my own way to Pusan and staying there two nights to sightsee on my own, then going north to Ulsan and then turn west across the peninsula to Kyong-ju. But in the final weeks before my trip, my Korean friend from the university in Kansas that I attended could not meet me and show me around, so he arranged for his sister to be my tour guide. At the last minute, I was told she would meet me at the Kimhae airport outside of Pusan---a three hour trip from Ulsan where she was a live-in teacher at a special education school.

Again I was first in line at the Immigration line, but of course that was not to be. No-one on the plane had seen fit to give me the little white immigration card to fill out, so back I went to fill one out at a counter in the back of the room. 

Then, back in line, I was again behind twenty other people. The immigration guy tried to give me a hard time, asking me if I had a visa. I had read in my guide book that no visa was needed for stays of up 15 days and I was only staying seven. I told him so. Then he asked a lot of questions, who I was seeing, where I was going, was I really an English teacher, how much money did I have on me. Still, I passed. 

Then on to Customs where they tore apart my carefully and precisely packed bag looking for illegal drugs---because I was, of course, an American who was not wearing a business suit and tie. They didn’t find any, though they could have found my Coricidin and Advil if they had bothered to open my small toilet article kit.

I’d had about enough of my trip so far when I charged through the automatic doors and dozens of people were staring at me, waiting for their friends and relatives. I heard someone calling my name and it was my friend’s sister. 

Eun-Sook greeted me and took me to find the bus into Pusan. It was a “local” bus, which meant crowded and dirty but cheap. It was the first of many. Eun-Sook’s English was passable; she seemed to understand more than speak (maybe also from shyness).

We rode the bus to the “local” bus terminal, still a long way from the center of town. I wanted to go “downtown” to check on the ferry schedule and cost, as long as I was there, and get some postcards to work on in the evening. But it was not that simple. 

We took another “local” bus downtown, which took about an hour through the packed rush hour traffic, me standing with my black bag between my feet, bumping the others who had crowded into the bus. One college-age guy introduced himself and asked if it was all right to speak with me, so he told me about his computer studies at the local university and asked me about my job and reasons for coming to Korea---not bad English ability.
Pusan on a brighter, much more recent day.

Once downtown, Eun-Sook looked for the signs indicating the pier for the ferry. She didn’t know where it was but she had a map book of Korean cities, so I determined our location based on the configuration of the streets as we passed through the city and other landmarks and decided we should get off at X stop, which we did---right in front of the ferry pier. 

Eun-Sook was so amazed that I could "read" Korean. “No,” I said, “I read maps!” 

In all fairness, the map of Pusan did show several places (hotels, etc.) in Roman letters, but that was how we got around Pusan: me reading the maps and getting us to the right block, Eun-Sook reading the signs to get us to the exact doorstep.

At first glance, downtown Pusan made me think of Hong Kong with its seaside piers and hotels and shopping, but Pusan was several steps below what I had experienced in Hong Kong. Maybe I was just seeing the “low end” of the district. There were no souvenir shops, no big department stores (“Pusan Dept. Store” on the corner of the main intersection at the end of the peninsula looked like something out of the 1950s but was closed anyway, being after 5 pm.) I was really not very impressed with it. It was nothing like the pictures I had seen of the city in books. (Remember, this was 1992.)

I was getting tired lugging my bag around town and since I had the number of the ferry office I decided we could call later, and so we looked for a place to eat dinner.

I was a little sick (no lunch while standing in many different lines at Fukuoka airport, then the flight, then the two bus rides) and did not think I could take strange and hot native food and wanted something simple and plain. American, perhaps. 

Nothing to be found, except a Lotteria hamburger shop in an underground shopping arcade, but that was out of the question for Eun-Sook! She was determined to show me around in place of her brother and to “let” me try real Korean food. 

Finally, we settled on a decent looking place specializing in the “grand table” (my name), in which dozens of little bowls, each with something different, are put on the table at the same time and the diners stuff themselves. That sounded great, but in actuality it wasn’t. Some things were very good, but others didn’t look good, smell good, or taste good, plus the fact that I wasn’t too hungry after all of my exertions that day!
Something like this, but mine was not as colorful.

After that, it was getting dark and we agreed to go on to Ulsan for the night. It was previously arranged for me to stay at the inn her family ran. (Actually it was not their immediate family but some other distant relative, how distant, I didn’t know, but further than cousins.) 

Well, I'd had enough of buses for one day and I opted for the train, which on the map seemed more direct anyway. All I could base my Korea plans on was how things were in Japan, schedule-wise and cost-wise. But when I finally convinced Eun-Sook that the train would be more comfortable and quicker---since it was getting late---we went back and forth looking for Pusan Station. Finally we found it and I was feeling encouraged---until we got inside. On the outside, it didn’t look bad, but inside it was old, I mean, really old: paint-stripped wood and creaking floors, and people in long lines at three windows waiting for the clerks to hand-type each of the tickets. I’m serious!

While standing in line (of course, behind thirty or so people), I was scanning the timetable, seeing the names of the cities in Roman letters and I saw that the last train to Ulsan was at 6:30! It was now almost 7:30.

I tapped Eun-Sook on the shoulder and pointed to the timetable. She did not immediately understand and turned back to wait in line. So I explained in very enunciated English that we had missed the last train so we had no choice but to take the bus after all. That made her happy. I guess she had never ridden a train in Korea---though I could see why not. 

So down to the subway line, riding it north for seven or eight stops to yet another bus terminal.

It had a McDonald’s next door, which I was interested in, but we didn’t want to take any more time---couldn’t miss the bus! We got our tickets and found the bus, climbed aboard (no-one else was on it) and waited. I wanted to make a quick stop in the restroom inthe terminal but Eun-Sook thought I might miss the bus if I did. I pointed out that there weren’t anyone else on the bus. Then a driver came and she asked about our bus and he directed us to another bus gate on the opposite side of the terminal. We ran over there and still got good seats (near the front, as I wanted to prevent motion sickness). The bus pulled away about a minute later. Whew!
Pusan train station - spruced up.

I fell asleep on the bus somehow---until it began twisting and turning. I looked out the windows as the driver hugged the curves of the winding road, horns and headlights of the oncoming cars fighting back. Was this driver crazy? I wondered why he had to go so fast on such an obviously dangerous road. Eun-Sook explained that all bus drivers drove like that. (I rode many buses during my trip and found that to be true---also taxi drivers.) 

We nevertheless arrived in one piece, if not a little nervous. The bus dropped us off at the curb in the “fashionable part of town” where the sidewalks were crowded with young people, in front of a disco or something like a disco. But of course, we had to take a different bus to get to the inn, and my shoulders were ready to fall off from carrying my bag around all afternoon and evening.

A bus pulled up and Eun-Sook gave me a bus token to use and I fought the crowd, cutting my way through them with my bag ahead of me, trying to hold them back so Eun-Sook could get on, too, but as I was at the top of the stairs she called back that it was the wrong bus. Too late! The door closed and we were off! Me, on a bus in Korea all by myself!

But it was just for a couple blocks. The bus stopped at the next regular stop and I got off and walked back to our original place. 

Eun-Sook was definitely not good with directions or getting around, but since I couldn’t read the Hangûl characters, I had to rely on her.

We got on the right bus and got off at the right stop. 

We also found the right inn, which seemed to be nearly empty. It was cheap, though, which was good for my budget. I thought that since it was the family’s business that I might get a room for free or with a discount, but since it was a relative’s inn, I still had to pay. 

It was 15,000 Won for a night, which is about ¥2000 (about $20). I was starting to learn the value---or lack---of money. The exchange rate when I changed my Yen at Kimhae airport, was 571 Won for ¥100, or about 750 Won per $1. Not knowing the costs of things in Korean, though I assumed everything would be less than in Japan, I could only calculate what they would cost in Japanese Yen. Everything was less, much less, sometimes less than half the cost in Japan! 
A yogwon, a family-run inn.

Anyway, Eun-Sook signed me in, writing my name phonetically in Hangûl, then left to go back to her school for night shift duty. It was a little strange checking in. I was given a personal bottle of mineral water for the night. The second night I asked for and got another bottle. Also, they did not give out the keys. Instead, I had to have them open the room for me whenever I went out and returned.

The next day was all mine in Ulsan. Eun-Sook had to work. Feeling a cold coming on, I took a maximum dose of Coricidin before I went to bed at about 10:30 and slept until 11:00 the next morning, awakening to a full-fledged cold.

[to be continued]

*The original report was a letter home to my parents.


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  1. Wow--I'm tired just reading this! What a long journey!

    1. You're right. I suppose I should have condensed this report, maybe something like "Be careful what you ask for...."