Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Travelogue #31: My Not-So-Lonely Planet Guide to Fukuoka, Japan and Busan, South Korea

I got bafflingly lost and I ate fifty-dollar blowfish. But that's not all I experienced in my trip to Fukuoka, Japan via Busan, Korea. What follows is my not-so-lonely planet guide to two Asian hotspots that don't get the press of a Tokyo or a Bangkok, but that still offer dynamic sights, sounds, and salsa-splattered broccoli.

I'll explain that one later.


Forget airplanes. You can get from Seoul-to-Busan-to-Fukuoka by train and ferry for a round-trip total of $230. There's one caveat: the trains are so suffocatingly overheated that they can drive a sane man to hike up his sweatpants and start cursing like Andrew Dice Clay. You might wonder why I was wearing sweatpants then and why I am name-dropping the Diceman now. I don't have answers to those questions. All I know is that I tried blanking out the heat with my headphones and the quirkfest of the Juno soundtrack. The time was 6am, and I closed my eyes, looking for peace and sleep.

It didn't work.

"$%% #@#$!" I muttered, ripping off the headphones in disgust and blindly flinging them at my neighbor. "Sorry, Jason," I said. "It's okay, man," he replied, opening his eyes a wink, bewildered by the projectile strike of a pair of headphones to his chest.

Indoor temperatures, Koreans, and me: this has been a unsatisfying triangle since my arrival in October. There's no seeing eye-to-eye, for on a warm day after this trip, I wore shorts to school and my students were shocked. "Teacher, it's cold!" they exclaimed. When they saw I had hair on my legs, they lost it. "Why don't you shave?" they said. "You look like a wolf!"

On the train I waited miserably, sweatpants riding high on my wolf legs. "Are you guys not hot?" I asked my friends. They weren't, at least not to the degree I was. I kind of hated them for not sharing in my agony.

Relief came in the open waters.

Ferry time. We hopped something called the JR Kyushu 'Beetle' Hydrofoil from Busan to Seoul. Though it bobbed like a rubber duck at first, the ferry calmed down to slash across the Sea of Japan in under three hours.

Hello, Fukuoka.


Look at the pictures above and you'll see Japanese hospitality in action. We came to the country relatively aimless and definitely hotel-less. Employees at the AM/PM Pharmacy made it their personal mission to not only find us nearby places to stay, but to also find us the best block for Fukuoka nightlife. Twenty-five minutes later, they had drawn a map to everywhere we needed to go and see.

After a few nervous moments, we landed a hotel for $80 a night: Court Hotel Fukuoka Tenjin.

I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever forget the name of that hotel.

As for Busan, Lonely Planet: Korea warns that, "it's best to avoid Texas St. - a small district opposite Busan station that's home for shifty people, Russians, hostess bars, and the occasional street hold-up- a night." I read this snippet days after we'd returned home, and I laughed, because guess where my friends and I ended up after our arrival in Busan?

Yep - Texas St, except we had no clue about its reputation. Upon first glance it looked like many other big city Korean streets, what with its neon lights and bars and restaurants stacked high, one atop another, rising into the sky in a blur of brightness. "There's a motel!" I said, wanting to take charge after a trip spent either lost or following others' leads.

"Motel" was a darkened building without a front desk. Its bellhop sat behind a sliding glass door, the kind you'd see on a tollbooth. "25 a night," he said. We asked to see a room, and he indifferently showed us to the end of an empty hall and opened a door. We were greeted by the thick smell of old smoke, a battered chair by the window, and a sad bed that had probably seen its share of questionable bodies doing questionable things. Jason compared it to the place where Tom Hanks stays in Big, a seedy high-rise peppered with gunshots and accented arguments among strangers.

For only five dollars more, we found a perfect hotel in the heart of Busan: Hotel Angel.

We were not shot.


If you're looking for cheap food and drinks, don't come to Japan. Even ice cubes will run you $2 a head at some establishments, including the one in the following picture:

Notice our smiling faces. Notice how we hadn't yet received the check.

But we did eventually.

In brighter news, one of our favorite meals came in a restaurant, like many others, incospiciously hiding along a narrow alley. The name of the place is Yusuke Matsuzono, and its motto is "Be Happy."

We were very happy, savoring a multi-course meal of a delectably luscious chicken leg followed by something mysteriously and deliciously mozzarellay (a rarity in Asia). Some courses were tastier than others, but one specifically registered with me: a simple one. Broccoli...broccoli splattered with salsa.

I never ate broccoli in the United States. I mean never. I associated it with greens like spinach, and if Popeye couldn't convince me that spinach was worthy of a chomp, then I figured nobody could turn me on to greens.

But I didn't account for the one-two punch of Japan and salsa, odd cousins brought together for the sole purpose of introducing me to broccoli. Salsa, meet broccoli. Broccoli, say hi to your new amigo, salsa. I didn't know you two had anything to do with Japan, but here's to new tastes on new tongues. Here's to broccoli. Next time my mom offers you up, I will accept you and your bushy green crunchiness. That is a promise.

Then there was the ramen. Not the kind you get in the crunchy baggies at Publix, but a meticulously-prepared version with a strangely comforting tinge of sweetness with its spices. I think I enjoyed it in retrospect more than at the time of consumption, for it was deep into the night and I was thrown off-kilter by the process. Yes, it was a process to eat this ramen. First, we had to select our preferred soup via a vending machine outside the restaurant. We pressed buttons for extra rice or even a glass of beer. Next, we were shown inside to a curtained cubby. The idea is that one must be, well, one with his ramen.

Somebody, one of my friends but I don't remember who, compared the setting of this place to that of a former porn shop, where the owners decided to throw up their hands and say, forget it, let's keep the curtains, let's keep the privacy, but we'll lose the Everybody Really Loves Raymond videos and gain the ramen.


Presenting the Hakozaki Shrine, Fukuoka's oldest shrine. Built in 923 to honor an emperor, an empress, and a princess, we felt its majestic pull at sundown, the sky gradually tinting black, thunder crackling as if we were on a movie set. And there was also the fact that we were the only ones there.

For that hour the shrine was ours. The air felt different. Mystical but real. We felt transported to a different time...well, almost. We took too many pictures to have a full-scale Back to the Future moment.


No, you're not seeing things: those are indeed women playing video games. Step into a Japanese arcade and you won't see a crowd of pointdexter Revenge of the Nerds extras; you'll see grown men and grown women playing everything from Tekken to Virtual Tennis around the clock. Speaking of Virtual Tennis, I found myself in a heated battle in the role of Roger Federer, scrapping for points against a Japanese man at a parallel console playing the role of Lleyton Hewitt. He won. I considered shaking his hand afterwards, but opted instead for a you-cool-man nod. I didn't know if I broke the rules of Japanese arcade etiquette, mainly because I didn't know that there were any rules.

I didn't see any Dance Dance Revolution. Maybe I was five years too late for that.


In our only night in Busan, my friends and I were exposed to this:

How pleasingly mind-boggling is it that Unk, the black rapper who brought us "Walk It Out," was likely asleep in his Buckhead mansion at 10am Atlanta time while a pack of droopy-jeaned Koreans perfectly mimicked the dance moves to his song at 12am in a Busan, Korea nightclub? Does Unk know this is happening as it is happening? Would he care? If he doesn't, he should, because I'm not talking about some random AP article that says hip-hop music is big in Asia; I'm talking about one real moment in time. A few seconds, a few minutes. Walked it out. Walked it out.

It's a not-so-lonely planet after all.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmmmmmmm...a great travelouge with no trauma; great pictures, good food and fun times. Alex, are you trying to make us feel better after the previous installment? You Mom may never recover from that one no matter what you write about your travels from here on out! ;~)