Sunday, November 25, 2012

22/11/12 – 23/11/12 – Travel is good for the Seoul. Japan is even better.


Today was our last day in South Korea, or, rather, it was our last morning before we had to rush off to the airport to take our flight to Tokyo. We had one goal for the morning – something which we try and achieve in every country we visit – go to a supermarket, to see what the average person buys and eats. Yunna had recommended one close to our hotel – only two stops away on the subway. While that may seem like a long distance, in a city like Seoul, where everything is so spread out that to get anywhere often takes a 30 minute journey on the subway, this was a very quick trip.

So we headed for Jamsil station. Our goal was to find the Lotte Mart store. Like most small Asian countries, the Koreans like to build vast underground malls, so finding the Lotte Mart was a simple walk out the exit of the subway, without needing to go above ground into the harsh morning cold. Or so we thought. While we didn’t have to surface to find the Lotte Mart, what we did find was an entire Lotte-themed world. For those of you who don’t know, “Lotte” is one of those massive Japanese/South Korean conglomerate companies with fingers in so many pies that they’ve actually inadvertedly created new pies and therefore had to make new fingers to stick in them. Think of Lotte as an Asian version of “Nestle”, or “GE”, or “Samsung” oh wait, scratch that last one.

Anyways, it turns out that not only had we found the “Lotte Mart”, this place was called “Lotte World”. It was this creepy conglomerate everything land, including an entire ripoff Disneyland theme park. They even copied the castle from the “Magic Kingdom” logo. It was thoroughly unsettling.

What Emma and I had failed to take into account was the difference in opening hours between Australia and Asia in general. As Harrry pointed out to us when we were in Hong Kong, the retail sector opens late and closes late – this is a double advantage. Firstly, it means that the city’s infrastructure doesn’t grind to a halt every morning as all of the corporate workers and retail workers try and catch the same bus/train/car, and it also means that they stay open later so that aforementioned corporate workers can actually shop inside these stores on their way home. Why in the hell can’t we operate like this??

The unfortunate side effect of this though was that we were at “Lotte Mart” a good 90 minutes before its scheduled opening time of 10am. By 10am we needed to be well on our way to the airport, so we decided to once again cut our losses and just head back to the hotel.

Before doing so, I grabbed some breakfast at the “Lotte-ria”. It was a McDonalds clone that really didn’t try to differentiate itself from McDonalds, except for their food practices which seemed to be about 10 years older than McDonalds’ current methods. I had a “Lotz Burger”, purely because it had an Asian cowboy on the promotional poster, which I thought was funny. The meal was rather disgusting, and I don’t know what made this burger worth promoting. It was pretty much a cheeseburger with mayonnaise instead of tomato sauce. Yep, cos that’s what cowboys eat.

The decision to forfeit our look around a supermarket did have an advantage – we were able to have a nice slow walk through the park near our hotel for the last time. The autumn leaves were in full bloom in the park, which had made for some very pleasant walks over the last few days, and today was no exception. I was going to miss this park, not to mention Seoul in general.

After checking out of our hotel, we caught a train to Samesong, and then were soon on the bus to the airport. It’s a long bus ride from Seoul to Incheon, but it was one full of interesting scenery and huge South Korean engineering marvels, such as massive wind turbines, huge urban developments, and bridges that defied physics in their size and complexity.

At the airport, we did our usual thing – check in was quick and efficient – we were the only people in the queue at that time. We then headed for the satellite terminal, where Emma made a bee-line for the makeup section, and I quickly ran around the terminal, snapping pictures of all of the different aircraft I couldn’t see at home. It was all very interesting, with a handful of domestic and international carriers (such as Aeroflot, the Russian carrier) that I had never seen (or heard of) before. Unfortunately, it was soon time for boarding, so I had to cut my plane spotting short.

Japan Airlines flight JL954 ICN – NRT
Boeing 767-300 JA651J
Captain Watanabe
Scheduled Pushback: 1340
Actual Pushback: 1350
Scheduled Arrival: 1600
Actual Arrival: 1604

Today we were on one of JAL’s retrofitted Boeing 767-300’s. For those of you who aren’t plane geeks (so everyone reading this blog), this means that they have been recently refurbished with JAL’s newest hard product. The cabin was nice and spacious, and each seat had a whopping great big seatback touchscreen entertainment unit thingy to play around with, meaning that this was going to be an enjoyable flight. One thing I was really looking forward to about this flight was the fact that they were screening an exclusive Studio Ghibli short on board, only viewable on a JAL flight, and at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. Unfortunately, as we were taxiing out to the runway, I read in the in-flight magazine that this promotion ended in October. Damn. Oh well, I’d have to watch it when I went to the Ghibli Museum at the end of this trip.

The plane soon roared into the atmosphere, with Emma and I grinning ear to ear as we went. We were finally on our way to Japan again – a place that we had been missing oh so dearly from the second we left in April, 2011.

What followed was to be a very comfortable and enjoyable flight with JAL. Firstly, the meal I got was easily the best economy class meal I’ve ever eaten. We got a neat little bento-box, filled with about six or eight different Japanese dishes, all of which, while cold, were very tasty. Emma’s gluten-free meal consisted of fruit and soy-yoghurt, which was incredibly sad looking. As they handed out the rest of the meals to other passengers, I asked if Emma could have a regular meal as well and she’d risk the gluten content. The flight attendant happily obliged.

As another note, the flight attendants were considerate enough that when Emma’s gluten free meal was brought out in advance of everybody else’s, they also brought out my meal as well, so that we could dine together. Very considerate.

I then sat back and half watched some anime show, and half watched the views out the window as we cruised towards Tokyo Narita airport. The show was made up of two twenty-minute episodes, and I stopped it after one of them as I didn’t really follow what was happening in them, and also because we were now cruising over the Japan Alps, which were captivating to look at from above. I snapped as many pictures as I could of the snow-capped mountains.

As we approached Narita, we were put in a holding pattern, but by the time we descended, we had touched down only four minutes later than our scheduled arrival time. As we taxied to our gate, the flight attendant spoke over the P/A, apologising for this unsightly delay due to congestion of the airport. Apologising profusely for a four minute delay? Yup, we were officially in Japan.

Immigration and customs were fairly quick, but not nearly as quick as our previous visit, but this was more to do with the fact that Narita Airport arrivals hall wasn’t a ghost town like it was last time, due to the disaster.

We were soon speeding towards Tokyo onboard the Keisei Skyliner, and about 30 minutes later, we were at Nippori station. Having already done this previously a year ago, this procedure was quite easy. It helped that we weren’t jetlagged out of our minds as well, but we quickly found our way to the correct train, and one highly-squeezed rush hour train trip later, we were safely checked in at the familiar Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku.

Sticking with our accidental tradition so far on this holiday, we had our first dinner from a convenience store. Lawson’s was our choice for tonight. However, unlike Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Seoul, this meal was actually quite tasty. Even Japan’s shitty convenience store food tastes amazing!

I wanted to track down a copy of a videogame so that I could play it on my travels throughout Japan. I was after “Ouendan 2”, a very crazy rhythm-based Japanese game for the Nintendo DS. I knew the perfect place to find it, so I set out to explore Akihabara – Tokyo’s infamous electronics district. Emma decided to sit this one out, instead deciding to stay home and watch crazy Japanese TV.

Unlike last time, I didn’t go into any buildings selling creepy anime statues or pillow girlfriends – I mainly stuck to the lower floors of video games and the like. Unfortunately, I had come at the wrong time of night, as most stores were either closed or in the process of closing. I did find one store that was open and that had an extensive range of Nintendo DS titles, but they didn’t have it in stock. Oh well, I’ll try again in Osaka, or when I’m back in Tokyo later.

After I left the store, I managed to get completely disoriented, and ended up walking through some of the seedier crossroads of Akihabara. I saw several young Japanese women standing at an intersection, clad in the typical “School Girl” uniform. I’m not sure if they were prostitutes dressed as schoolgirls, Escorts dressed as schoolgirls, or actual schoolgirls dressed as, well, schoolgirls. Either way, they were handing out pamphlets of some description, and I saw some of them go home with someone after giving him a pamphlet, so I didn’t really want to stick around and find out what they were doing. In my confused wanderings through the back streets of Akihabara, I did manage to see the coolest thing ever – a guy taking his pet duck out for a walk. On a leash. It was amazing. Quite possibly the most amazing thing ever. I even asked him if I could take a photo of it, which he was fine with. Awesomest. Duck. Ever.

After finally getting directions from a store security guard, I made my way back to the Akihabara station, and caught the train back to Shinjuku. There, I bought some ice cream for Emma and I, and headed back to the hotel, for an exhausted sleep.


There was no rest for the wicked though – my next day started bright and early once again. We had an absolute heap of travel to do today, so we checked out of the hotel early and headed straight for the station. Our destination today was Shibu Onsen, the small town up in the mountains where the snow monkeys bathed in the hot springs. We went there last time on our trip through Japan, and we were so spellbound by it that we just had to visit it again.

This meant a whole heap of travel. Firstly, it was a train to one of the outer stations of the Tokyo Ward area. There, we transferred to a Shinkansen, which took us to Nagano. Unfortunately, the previous day, I was unable to secure us reserved seating, which meant we had to just hope for a seat in the unreserved section. It was not to be. We ended up standing up for about half of the 80 minute journey. It’s a strange sensation standing upright, watching the world hurtle past you at 300+ kilometres per hour, just inches away from your window. Shinkansens were still damn fun though, even when you’re forced to stand.

After the first stop, we managed to grab a seat, and watched as the landscape outside changed from urban plots, to farmland, to alpine towns and more. Sadly, no snow to be seen this time, but the experience was fascinating nonetheless.

In Nagano, we then had to quickly transfer to our next train, which would take us the rest of the way. The great thing about travelling to places you’ve already been is that you have this instinct as to where to go. It took us only about 5 seconds to get our bearings as to where we were in Nagano, and then we were easily able to find the next train station.

Another hour on the train later (and a bento box from a convenience store for lunch), and we were finally at Yudanaka. We then caught one of the local buses, and we were back at the same Ryokan we stayed at last time.

They greeted us, and the little old man who ran the place showed us to our rooms. There, his wife, took us through the various procedures and customs of our room, all of which in Japanese, and then left us to our own devices. It was a struggle to ascertain exactly what she was saying, but we got the general idea, and we managed to communicate fairly alright between each other. We then dressed in our Yukatas, and hung out in our traditional Japanese-styled room for an hour or so, sipping on green tea.

We then got ready for the long trek to the Snow Monkey park, but before we left, we prepared a small gift for the Ryokan owners. I had read in the past that it is customary for guests to give the household owner a gift upon staying with them. And, while we weren’t really staying in their house, as we were paying for the room, we did still want to show our appreciation for us being able to stay there – it is fairly rare for Ryokans like this to open their doors to foreign travellers.

We presented them with a gift of Tim Tams and Vegemite – a small token of our appreciation, and things that are undeniably Australian. We also showed him a photo that he took of us on our previous visit to this Ryokan. It was difficult to get my point across through the tangled thicket that is the language barrier, but I was sort of able to communicate that we had stayed here in the past and that we were thankful to be able to again. He was very chuffed with his gift, and they seemed very grateful for it. It was quite an awkward exchange, but with smiles all around, it was definitely a fun experience.

We then put on our boots, and went for a stroll through the town. We bought an apple each from a local store, before heading up the mountain road towards the snow monkey park. The apples we bought were massive. Easily two to three times the size of apples in Australia. It took me a good 30 minutes to eat mine, as we walked along the forest road.

Unfortunately, there was no snow on our hike this time. I was praying for snow, but I knew given the time of year we were visiting at, it was very unlikely to see snow. What we did get though was just as nice – the most cool, refreshing alpine air I’ve ever breathed. Every inhalation was like sniffing a car air freshener. Every exhalation had a little puff of condensation to remind you that you were breathing in cool, crisp mountain air. I like to think that this is what parents mean when they say “go outside and get some fresh air”, because believe you me, that was by far the freshest air I’ve ever breathed.

After a long trek through the winding road, the smell of the fresh air was soon replaced by the unmistakable smell of sulphur. We were getting close to the hot springs, and to the monkeys. As we got closer to the park, we noticed that there were a lot more people here than there were last time we came. Once again, this was probably due to the disaster of the previous time we visited. It was good to see this many people here this time, but it also made us feel good about coming the previous time, as we were supporting them when they really did need the patronage.

As observed on our last trip, the monkeys were super cute. I decided to give Emma full creative control over the camera, and she went hog wild. She took countless photos of the monkeys scratching, bathing, eating, climbing, and just being generally monkey-like. There was a small pathway down to an area which was at water-level with the famous hot spring they sit in, which allowed for some really spectacular photographs. Pictures will come soon, I promise!

We also saw a guy almost get mauled by the monkeys because he put his face far too close to them. He was literally a finger length away from one of them. He then made the mistake of using his camera with its super blinding multi-flash photography, which caused the monkeys to scream angrily at him. Make no mistake – while cute and fluffy these animals are, they are still very much wild animals. Emma managed to get quite up close and personal with a little baby monkey, which had decided to perch placidly under a railing. It didn’t seem to mind Emma taking about a thousand photos of it – probably because she had the common sense to turn the flash off.

One note though on one of the less enjoyable parts of this experience – the smell. It smelled bad. Really bad. There was a stench of monkey urine in the air, which mixed in with the sulphur, and then in addition to that, the monkeys that bathed in the hot spring were very relaxed with their bowel movements, so while these monkeys sat in the steamy water, placidly playing away, you would see a great big turd float by – they were literally bathing in their own boiled shit.

The shortened northern autumn days were working against us though, and it was starting to get dark. We had to hurriedly walk back along the long trail to our town, and we managed to get back to the hotel just after dark. Being a hot spring (or onsen) town, means that there is almost always an abundance of steam and running water to be seen and heard. This steamy atmosphere mixed with the dimly-lit street lamps incredibly well, to give the town this beautiful but mysterious look.

It was soon dinner time, where, much like our last visit here, we were treated to another amazing feast of food. We each had about twelve different dishes on our plates, ranging from the delicious to the downright bizarre. Thankfully though, my palette had improved since our last visit, and I was able to finish almost every dish on my table. The only real shock of the meal came from the egg custard dish. This is quite a subtly flavoured dish, which does exactly what it says on the packet – it’s about halfway between the flavour of eggs and the texture of custard. What I wasn’t expecting was the super sour maraschino cherry at the bottom of it. Upon eating this, it caused me to screw up my face in disgust. It was like my tastebuds had been ambushed and then napalm-bombed by some horrible, vinegary cherry flavour. Very unpleasant.

After eating dinner, we returned to our rooms, where our futons had been set up for bed. We decided to head out into the town for one last walk around before bed. During our stroll, we found a hot spring foot bath. Emma and I were still not keen on the whole “get naked in front of everyone” concept of the bath houses, so we decided to stick to the happy medium that was a good soak in a foot bath. It was nice and hot, some sections more than others. As the water had literally come up from the depths of the earth, it obviously had no temperature control. I made the mistake of putting one of my feet in the very back section of the bath, the one closest to the spring. I scalded my foot pretty bad, and I now have one lobster-pink coloured foot.

And so, I limped back to the room, where we fell into our highly inviting futon beds, for another restful night’s sleep.

Up next: Lots and lots of train trips! Mountain gorges! Japanese seaside!

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