Sunday, July 30, 2006

Entry #70: Japan Reigns Supreme!

Given that the name of this blog is 'North of Japan,' I decided to venture down South and see exactly what it is that I am North of. Two days in Japan sounds so short, and indeed it is.. but we managed to cram in a lot of things: walking through shrine areas in the city, sightseeing at a temple + reclining buddha tucked in the countryside, hiking through a giant bamboo forest, strolling through shops at Canal City, people watching in the park, clubbing, arcade (to play airhockey and take stickyphotos... I haven't done that since grade 10!!!), Fukuoka Historical Museum, more clubbing, and watching the sunrise on the beach. Food highlights included sushi, okinomiyaki (Japanese pizza), bubble tea and soba noodles. I attempted to go shopping, but 45 minutes was just barely scratching the surface, so what better excuse than that to visit again sometime.

My shopping excursion resulted in a jackpot of a different sort: I managed to run into the yamamba-est of all yamamba gangs. This in itself made the whole trip worthwhile. About 4 girls and a guy, walking down the street, looking similar to this:

They were crossing the street in the opposite direction, and my heart actually beat faster from the shock! I couldn't decide whether to chase them for a photo or not (they looked pretty intimidating) but by the time I actually decided to turn around and look for them, they had disappeared. Yamambas are a subculture in Japan; they spend hours tanning and applying white theatrical makeup to their eyes, lips, and most recently, noses. They wear stuffed animals, 5-inch platforms, and sometimes pajamas, in order to stand out.

Later that evening, after dusk, we came upon what were probably the same group I'd seen earlier. We watched as the yamambas in pajamas practiced their ritual 'para para' dance by a pond in the park. It looked sort of like raver-with-glowsticks dance in slow motion. The lines between the cliques in the park were so distinct, due to clothing and appearance alone.. the skater punks, the yamambas, the barbies, the 2-inch skirt group, etc. It was like highschool, magnified to grotesque proportions. And yet, the cliques were calm and laid back, with nobody trying to pick flights like they would have back home.

I can't believe how much Japan surpassed my expectations. I always thought of Japan as being crowded, expensive, with robotic people and sensory-overload. (Everyone and their dog wants to go, or has gone to Japan, or at the very least praises the culture.. so I suppose this also made me skeptical of its greatness.) But it was indeed the opposite! Streets were busy but never crowded, prices were about the same as Vancouver ($18 haircut, $18 for a big meal of sushi, $6 cocktails at clubs, etc), people were amazingly friendly and spoke excellent English (every old person seemed to know how to say 'excuse me!'), and I don't think I saw a single piece of litter on the ground. They are definitely environmentally friendly.. many bikes, like Amsterdam.

However, it was not at all a 'sterile' place - every nook and cranny is brimming with character, little gardens, fountains and plants. Lush and green and diverse foliage. There is nothing ugly in Japan.. it is basically an aesthetic nazi's heaven. The air smells fresh and clean, and you can see the blue sky. The sun is amazingly bright. Japanese are incredibly friendly and hospitable! Hanging out at the deserted train station by the temple, a man and his wife gave us handfuls of red bean fish pastries.. for no reason at all other than to be nice!

Some of the other cool things I saw but didn't take pictures of were:

-A modified ATV with a microphone attached; its Japanese owner just parked it and started rapping
-Around 5 am, a motorcycle gang of youth- each motorcycle glowed a different colour in the dark
-Electronic traffic maps above major intersections, showing traffic problems and best routes
-Beautiful songs play when you cross the street
-Black leather seats and UV-protected windows on the local sky train
-Modified car, that lit up the road underneath it with various changing colours
-Cabs look like little English cars, with lace-lined seats; the doors automatically open and close
-Tall palm trees here and there, thanks to sub-tropical climate

The only things I noticed Japan didn't have were very many good places to dance / go clubbing. It was also hard to hail a cab, and cabs are very expensive (They start at $5 and go up $1 each minute). But really, a drop in the bucket considering everything else. I'll definitely be going back to Japan!

More pics here: Fukuoka Pics

Three more weeks left to post entries in "North of Japan." I'm curious who still reads this blog.. If you're reading this, I invite thee to post a comment underneath, to commemorate entry #70! :)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Korea.. Random Thoughts after Almost One Year!

Wow, less than a month and it's over already?!! The second half of this year in Korea has gone by in the blink of an eye. The weekends of the last few months have more or less been spent on the beach in Pusan, or clubbing till daylight. I still find that a fascinating thing, clubbing till daylight. I think I might've done it once or twice in Vangroovy, but it's definitely a hard task to accomplish, considering most clubs close at 2 or the latest 4 am.

I'm really going to miss clubbing/barhopping here, despite the questionable music. I'll miss the flyers strewn so thickly you can barely see the streets, the easygoing crowd, the ridiculous black clubs-on-wheels (modified buses) that drive by to promote their venue, the abundance of stages to dance on and poles to swing around. I'll miss how everyone in the teacher community knows everyone by one degree at most. I'll miss strolling home at 7 am on a Sunday morning while the odd adjuma passes by, smiling as she reminisces her younger clubbing days. And hearing the birds chirp in a quiet, foggy, hazy city that would normally violate all sorts of sound pollution bylaws back home. Something else I appreciate is how the weigooks here are always ready to hang out or try new things.. I've met a lot of adventurous and inspirational types here. Of course, there are lots of adventurous and inspirational types in Vancouver too. One month before I came to Korea, I was missing Vancouver so much already, and enjoying life so much.. now it's the exact opposite.. missing Korea already, having a great time.. though if I knew I had a whole year ahead of me I'd probably want to be in Vancouver.

Just a few random pics I uploaded.. here's some galbi (sambap style.. aka with rice, wrapped in leaves) I cooked tonight! I'm gonna explain how to make it! First, go to a Korean supermarket and ask for 'dwegi galbi.' It's thinly cut meat attached to the rib, very flavorful. Grab some galbi marinade (I'm using asian pear variety now) and pour it on, with salt and pepper. Sear the galbi in a frying pan at high temperature, then slow cook it a bit more. Drain the juice as you cook it. Then, cut some garlic into large pieces, and roast in the pan. Stir fry some veggies. Grab a thick stack of sesame leaves and some samjang (this is salty soybean paste. It is crucial, in my opinion, because I'm such a diehard fan/addict) MMMM. This is where it gets good.

Pile in rice, lots of garlic (don't be shy.. Korea is the biggest consumer of garlic in the world... you can't out-eat them when it comes to garlic.. in fact, that's the story of how the Korean race was started. To make a long story short, a bear ate garlic for 40 days and became human, procreated with a god, and the first Korean was born.) Add galbi, samjang, raw white onion, kimchi, etc, to the leaf and stuff it in your mouth. You must insert the full leaf for the best effect, so that all the flavors combine! :D

I will never ever be able to make galbi as good as Mijung does it. But it satisfies. If I ever come back to Korea, I'll definitely come to Daegu for the galbi alone.

As much as I love some Korean food, such as galbi, I also have bitterly missed other food this year, such as Chinese food. Hell, I've missed Chinese culture a lot. Who would have thought Vancouver would have way more Chinese culture than Korea does? I was CRAVING congee the past few months (Hong Kong style, not the gross prisoner gruel that Koreans call congee) and have nearly perfected the recipe. Actually, coming to Korea may have been a good thing in that I never bothered to try making my own congee at home, since it was so readily available. Anyway, I put in chicken, seafood, green onions, lots of ginger, dried fish.. mmmm it was good! I have to figure out how to add flavor (ie. chicken broth) without turning the whole thing brown though.

Here are some first attempts at Chinese watercolor painting during that 'homesick for Chinese culture' weekend as well:

To be honest, part of the reason I came here was to try and discover more about the 'asian' side of my family. Because.. you know.. Asia is one big homogenous blob! Hahaha.. WRONG! I can't believe how much Korea has managed not to fit into my stereoptype of 'Asia!' It's got the small spaces, the busy city, the noise.. but it didn't have the mooncake, the dimsum, the gaudy red and gold dragons, the dragon dance, the raucous businessmen screaming about money, the extravagence, the gambling, the savory and methodical blending of flavors to create food that takes on an art form, and the international awareness I was expecting.

But don't get me wrong.. as much as I have been assured of my cultural preferences, I have come to love and appreciate certain things about Korea. Korea is one tough country. Every country around it has tried to conquer it at some point.. China, Japan, North Korea, Stalinist Russia, and of course now it's filled with American troops. But Korea withstood all of that and is developing SO FAST. It's amazing to be in a country where people work so doggedly, and this mindset is reflected in every part of the culture. Korea may not have gaudy gold art, but that's because it's humble and too busy working 12 hours a day to dabble in fine arts. Even it's food reflects it's hardworking, survivor nature. It's simple, unprocessed, and healthy (the real meals, like galbi.. not the street meat). I can just picture the Koreans saying "Quick, Japan's attacking! Throw all your food in this sesame leaf! Let's call it sambap.. but first, run for your life! Or.. let's throw this rice, tuna, and radish into some seaweed and wrap it up! A hearty meal for the battlefield.

I'll miss many other things about Korea than solely what I wrote here.. for example, the feisty adjumas, all the kind shopowners on our street, the language, the customer service, the low taxes, the excellent transit system, and just the excitement of being part of a rapidly growing country. I have so much more to say about Korea.. perhaps I'll make another entry later, with a big pro/cons list. In short, I could see myself coming back to Korea in the future to work.. the jobs are good and plenty. But right now, time to search for some info on Japan nightlife, in time for this coming long weekend!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Happy Birthday Canada!

11 beers in my tummy and it's only 4 o'clock! ;)