For my first few weeks in Busan I was starting to worry whether I had made the right decision to come here after all.. The experiences I was having weren’t anything special , after an number of fairly disappointing restaurant visits, I decided to cook most of my meals at home. I tried a few bars around PNU where I work but they were not the places you could go to alone and get talking to people very easily. Most Koreans go to such places to be with their friends, where they can sit on large tables big enough to hold all their snacks and drinks.
Then last Friday I had an experience that restored my faith somewhat and made me see that it is possible to have a good time here, even as a foreigner on your own with no friends.
It all started when I took a ride with one of my students to Dongnae, an area I had heard was a new hot place for drinking. The first place I tried was an Izakaya and as usual I was the only foreigner in that place. I didn’t fancy ordering any food so I chose a bottle of soju instead. The good thing is that you can take the bottle with you if you can’t finish it in one place.
I looked around me and saw just a few Koreans sitting in groups. It didn’t seem like the kind of place anyone was going to speak to a foreigner. i gulped down a shot of soju and finished the free soup they had given to me.
The next place I went to was called Sherlock Holmes. It looked like a really bad impression of a British pub, all totally inauthentic, the kind of place only someone with no idea about pubs would go to. After the waiter seemed to have trouble understanding me, I left without sampling any of the beer which was no doubt horribly overpriced. It was on leaving this pub that I ended up talking to someone who was going to be very helpful for the evening.
I saw him smoking outside one of the restaurants. Usually when I am in a place i don’t know I ask a local for some advice. It can really help if you tell someone that you don’t know where to go, because 9 times out of 10, people will go out of their way to help you. Admittedly you might run the risk of asking someone who either misunderstands your request and sends you to a really bad place, or even worse will act with malice and lead you to somewhere like Ye Olde Shithole but I promise it’s hardly ever happened to me.
Talking to this guy led me first to go to a beer house where we drunk one giant jug of Miller between us and then we decided to visit a raw fish place. I had wanted to try it since I first came here. finally i had the chance. The platter we tried had three kinds of fish but they were all fairly similar in terms of taste and texture, and nothing like sashimi.
By the time we had finished it was past midnight, which meant that there were no more trains or buses headed back to PNU. so i had no option but to go back with him to Yangsan, which I found out later is actually another city outside Busan (although its still connected to the subway system).
God knows what time it was, but the old guy still wanted to drink, and before i could protest he had dragged me into a karaoke place. It looked like most of the places I had been to before, a bunch of private rooms with a song selection book. We ordered some beers and he proceeded to belt out a version of My Way at earsplitting volume. I settled down to an evening of drinking and singing some of my favourite songs. Then half way through my particularly fine rendition of Living On a Prayer the door was opened and in came a couple of Korean hostess women.
I guess that they must have worked there. They were laden with a giant tray of fruit (its common to order fruit when drinking) and a tray of drinks including a bottle of whisky. Shots were poured and quickly drunk. they were impressive drinkers if they could match us drink for drink. My woman sat right beside me, much closer than was strictly necessary. To be honest I was glad of the company. Although South Korea has a lot of attractive women, its not easy to find anyone interested in any physical contact, especially a one-night stand.
We started holding hands and I stroked her back under her shirt, but nothing more. The best thing was that she chose some great songs (James Taylor’s Handyman, Bee Gees’ Devotion for us to sing together. For some reason Bee Gees songs always come up at Karaoke whenever Koreans are singing.
Sadly, the drink had got the better of my friend and his companion – who was wearing a low dress that made the most of her large cleavage- had to spend most of the evening mopping his face with a wet towel and pouring water in his mouth. She was definitely attractive and had she been with me I would have liked to have gone further.
As it happens, we didn’t get the best women that worked there, because when I went to the bathroom I went into a different karaoke room and saw a much younger and more attractive woman with a young man. These places aren’t like strip clubs where you can see all the women that they have.
I left before they showed me the bill. and don’t worry, I spoke to the old man and a few days later and he was fine, although the hangover from the bill and the booze can’t have been good.
I believe that these places can be an interesting novelty for anyone wanting to experience the more seamy side of Korean night life. You can guarantee I will be going again, if the price isn’t too high.
A city I have always wanted to visit. A place about which so much is known but little is understood. Here is an account of how I spent my first days there and some of the things I got up to.
We got up early on Sunday to visit the Tsukuji fish market which is near the Ginza area. It’s the largest open fish market in the world and the amount of stalls is overwhelming. We probably should have chosen a different day to go because the crowds were out.
I tried the Oyaku Don (chicken and rice with scrambled eggs) and the combination was pleasing.
They also have some great ice-creams including flavours I haven’t seen anywhere else (sakura, white peach). The sushi was good but not outstanding for some reason (maybe I made some bad choices).
Back in central Tokyo, we visited the Shinjuku park. You have to pay to enter which was a good idea to keep it safe.
I wanted a cold drink and I’d heard about the melon flavoured drinks for sale here. Imagine a very sweet, slightly artificial tasting soda the colour of crème de menthe and topped with soft ice cream and that’s what it looks like.
We met Miho’s friend near the busy Shibuya area. We had ramen (Chinese noodles in pork broth). You can specify the thickness, and the hardness of the noodles as well as how spicy you want the broth). By ordering at a vending machine, it takes less than 10 minutes for your food to arrive.
It wasn’t really satisfying enough so we walked to another place. We went to an Izakaya restaurant. Sometimes they are translated as pubs but that seems to be doing them a disservice. The focus is very much on the food but the drinks are very good. I particularly like the range of sours (yuzu, pear, apricot).
It’s still legal to smoke in many indoor bars and restaurants but with good ventilation you don’t notice the smell of the smoke.
Then we went to Starbucks which is popular here and offers some more interesting choices than are available anywhere else.
Another thing. You can still smoke in many restaurants, cafes, bars. This being Japan, its hard to notice any smell as the ventilation means the smoke is sucked up into the air. Then you should also bear in mind that life expectancy is the highest in the world and you have to wonder whether we haven’t been overly alarmist in having a total smoking ban.
The next day is Miho’s first day back at work, so I spend the day alone. I type up a story that’s been running through my mind recently. With so many people going to exotic places on their holiday, would it be possible to spend the entire duration of a holiday alone in a hotel room? You could argue that many famous tourist sites are disappointing. a nd with the recent terrorist attacks, there is more danger than ever in visiting cities.
In the afternoon I want some company so I contact Jun, my A irbnb host. She asks me what I think of the apartment and I answer that its very small. a problem with airnbnb for me is that when you’re staying in someone’s house you feel inclined to be positive. Yet you’re also spending money so you want to get your money’s worth.
She recommends a few places and I leave with my head full of things I won’t have half enough time for. But one of the places she recommends is Yoyogi Park, which I can walk to.
There are lots of trees and some shrubs. At the end of it there is shrine, where many tourists come to visit. Right at the end you get to Harajuku, the centre of youth culture and fashion. In fact, it was made famous outside of Japan by Gwen Stefani in her song ‘Rich Girl’. I also check out the massive, monolithic structure that was built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
I take a walk around the Shibuya area and pay attention to all the kids on the streets. one thing you soon notice in Japan is how differently the young people dress, They have their different tribes that they belong to. It’s said that most Asian trends develop here and you can well believe it.
I still have time before I have to meet Miho so I go over to Asakusa; another busy area popular with tourists.
I stop off in one of the many convenience stores. I’m fascinated by these well-run, clean treasure troves which are so well-stocked. for one thing, they never seem to close. Secondly, they sell things that you would actually want to buy. For example, packs of rice balls. Bread, even yakitori. You can buy pornographic magazines which are sold next to fashion and sports magazines.
There are dozens of restaurants. I also spot a famous revolving car stand, which allows the vehicle to spin round before pulling out.
It starts to pour with rain before I can meet Miho. Not just light shower but heavy driving rain. I arrive back at our apartment absolutely soaked to my skin.
The rain continues so I stay in the flat for a few hours. then I walk over to Yoyogi hatchiman, an area close to where I am staying. There are several nice-looking shops ( I mean traditional, not chain stores here). I want to buy some katsu curry which is so good here. But no point buying it too early I suppose. Instead, I take the metro to another area of Tokyo for the araki exhibition. an entire display devoted to photos of his wife Yuko. Some of the photos are stunning and he is clearly a master of his form. But what also impresses is the total respect that patrons have for the exhibition. No-one stands in front of the pictures for too long. No one pushes or shoves. I spend a good hour taking in all the photos.
I go to an area I have already heard a lot about. The electronics area of Tokyo Is called Akhibara. Actually, first I went to Ueno but it was pouring rain and the place was full of locals still on their vacation. So its better to go somewhere else. there is also a market near the station: Ameyoko. But there is nothing of interest to buy there.
Although most people visit the area for electronics, computer games etc, I’m more interested to find girls who work in Maido-kissas. These are cafes where women dressed in maid costumes serve coffee and cakes to men using extremely polite and deferential language. It looks a little bit like prostitution but there’s nothing sexual about the service they provide. I’m tempted but the funny thing is the service is already plenty polite everywhere I have been so far.
Going for lunch in a soba restaurant I meet another traveller. Ocasionally when I’m travelling alone I like to talk to other foreigners. So I ask Alex about what he has done so far in Tokyo.
Oh and they have ‘cat cafes’ here. I’ve never seen them anywhere else. But it seems people go there to stroke and play with cats for a thirty minute time slot. Another concept that originated here and will be unlikely to spread anywhere else although its possible I suppose.
A cool discovery was seeing a street that only sold musical instruments. On one side were several guitar shops and then on the other side several stores selling brass instruments. It makes things very easy for the customer but probably causes unnecessary competition for the other shops.
The other thing out here is they have people everywhere to guide you, or answer any questions. The other day I was walking near Akhibara and there was someone standing by a part of the road that had been closed off; he wasn’t doing any roadwork, he was there to apologise to pedestrians over the inconvenience of the road being closed!
As well as people manning the train station platforms, there are almost always staff standing outside shops and restaurants to invite people in. You can have as many free samples of snacks in the department stores and no-one seems to mind. I had expected my purchases to be carefully wrapped, but other than the occaisional ribbon, most things are simply quickly put into a plastic bag and handed directly to you. Or maybe its just that I haven’t been buying any big ticket items.
I have found the apartments I have been staying in a little hard to get used to. The rooms are very small with low ceilings. And the bathrooms are strange too. There is often no separate compartment for the shower. You turn it on and the water floods everywhere, so you slosh around until you are done. they also have the air conditioning on all the time and I have to remind myself to turn it off when I’m not in the room.
I’ve seen plenty of lone diners. Today I went for my morning coffee at about 8:30. The place was full of workers on their way to the station, drinking coffee and chain-smoking. You can still smoke in bars and restaurants without a problem. Its seems like a very civilized way to live.
The quality of life is what makes it so special here. Of course, there are one or two things I’m not so comfortable with. For example, when you order something in a restaurant, you’re not expected to be able to change your mind, or ccomplain if something isn’t right. It’s a different concept they have to human rights, or consumer rights.
I’ve noticed that Miho would rather eat her way through a bad meal in silence than kick up a stink. Whereas in the same situation I would be itching to ask for a replacement or a refund.
Speaking of food, you have to look around for the best prices. Its possible to eat a bowl of ramen in a quick-self service restaurant (order by vending machine)for lss than 5 pounds. But for something of higher quality (cooked to order) you will have to spend up to 900 yen, which is about 6 pounds. Sometimes the price of food is close to what you would spend on coffee. Its pretty strange. Starbucks is poular and there are several local brands that do something very similar for a lower price. In any case, it seems that coffee is more popular than tea for most people. It’s usually drunk cold in a glass half filled with cubes, but ask if you want it hot and they will do it for you.
I’ve seen a lot of attractive women here, similar to those in Korea. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that they are more attractive than Korean women because they have less plastic surgery. They are also more likely to show individual taste in their fashion sense rather than dress the same way.
I’ll be visiting some more museums here. You need to pay unfortunately. I’ve been to the museum of photography and the museum of Oriental ceramics. Tomorrow I’m getting up early to go to the Ghibli museum, then I might wander over to the cemetery where several famous Japanese authors are buried, including Yukio Mishima.
When it comes to obvious places to visit, I’m usually disappointed. When we were in Osaka, we thought about visiting the sky observatory. We went as far as the 38th floor, and then looked at all the tourists queuing for tickets, and we decided against it. I think I remembered not going more than actually going upo there. Then a few days later, we had some time to kill before travelling to the airport, so we went up there and this time we paid for a ticket. In the end, we were right to have our doubts, as it was nothing special , just a view of the skyscrapers and nothing more. As in so many areas of life, things are better in imagination than reality.