Monday, 16 December 2013

Memory Lane: Busan, Korea

It's been a very long time coming, but for the sake of this blog's completeness, and for my own peace of mind, I cannot help but write a little post or two about my time in Korea. 

I was in a bit of an odd place mentally by this point - after a full six months of being on the road nonstop, I was beginning to think more and more about what would happen when I got back home: in terms of a job, and a flat, and all those basic things you need to get by in Europe. I was also fast running out of money, limiting my options for exploration. Finally, Korea is not a country that lends itself to effortless exploration outside of cities: I found its tourist infrastructure a lot less Westerner-friendly (or non-Korean-speaker-friendly, rather) than Japan's. And so I found myself dividing my four weeks here between just two cities - Busan on the southern coast, and Seoul. 

While the above three factors somewhat limited my keenness to explore and go out of my way to find hidden gems, I still had an excellent time in Korea. This is to no small extent thanks to my friend Dan, whom I first met travelling Israel in summer 2011. He moved to Busan in February to teach English for a year, and very kindly agreed to put me up in his lad pad in Busan's Deokcheon district for a week. 

A man who enjoys his fry-up - pictured here in an "Irish Pub", Korean style. 

Exploring the immediate neighbourhood, Dan and I quickly got hooked on the profusion of fried chicken on offer everywhere in Korea: this is very much a middle-class dish here, while pork (belly in particular) is the "common" meat. Of course, this wouldn't be the Far East if there weren't some absolutely mouth-scorching sauces and marinades on offer; despite many a manly tear being shed we never quite learned our lesson and had it almost daily. 

Deokcheon - lights and cartoon characters as characteristic for Korea.

A less savoury aspect of Korean cuisine is that of eating dog. While not necessarily a common practice, we still came across some kennels. These dogs were still young enough to be quite cute, and possibly the worst bit was that the cage holding the live dogs was right next to the glass container exhibiting the dead ones - skinned, but with feet and head still attached. At this point, my open-mindedness ended and I decided against pursuing this particular delicacy. 

Moving on from food - reluctantly - Busan also boasts the world's biggest department store (yep - beats Macy's and Selfridge's comfortably). I rocked up just before opening time to find a cavernous space filled with atrocious faux-Classical statues dwarfing a little gathering of Koreans already eagerly awaiting the opening of the food hall. Having not seen it from the outside, this is what it looks like

The tube terminal at Shinsegae Department Store
I didn't consider the fact that this would not be the best place to visit as a poor traveller whose budget has pretty much run out. However, this place is so big that it houses an ice rink and a huge hot-bath complex. After a heavy night of soju - an infernal vodka-type drink made from fermented sweet potatoes - with Dan and other English teachers (shout out to Nina, Cheyne, Liam, Ryann, and everyone else!), Dan and I decided a few hours of soaking would be the perfect cure for a mild hangover. 

Similar to Japan's onsens, Korean Jimjilbangs are a great place to get clean, soak and relax. That said, Shinsegae's Spaland took things a little over the top for the sake of luxury: we were fairly certain that most of the dozen or so saunas differed in nothing but their lighting concept and background soundscape. 

Busan's other high point was a trip to Haeundae beach - one of the benefits of a harbour city! 

This was a spectacular opportunity to observe some of the idiosyncracies in Korean culture live. There's not really a better way to show this than with a few examples.

This guy rode up and down the beachfront, straddling his jetski backwards, for a good two hours. No girls took the bait :(
Verging on the creepy, several middle-aged men with large...lenses photographing some teenage girls posing for their friends.
Finally, I give you the dubious fashion sense displayed, it seemed, without the slightest hint of irony or fancy dress...
...and the matching couples. Backpacks, shoes, tops...these guys are almost out of line wearing different trousers! 

My remaining days in Busan were spent wandering the city's temples and markets, looking for camera lenses and photo opportunities. The latter were plentiful - although, again, mostly related to food. On the whole, the cheap availability of an incredible variety of street food - ranging from utterly delicious to, well, interesting, was one of my favourite things about Korea. 

Snacks made from pancake-like batter and green onions.

To round off this little trip down Busan's memory lane, I leave you with a picture of a dog carrying his own essentials. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Of Caves and Nukes and Volcanoes

Since the last post went on a bit longer than I'd expected, the last little bit of Matsuyama got shoved into this one. I didn't want to scrimp too much on this part, because on the morning of my departure from Shikoku I visited what has got to be the weirdest temple in all of Japan - Ishite-ji, number 51 of Shikoku's 88-temple pilgrimage.  

Well - that's not quite accurate. The temple is a little unusual in that it's more cluttered and sprawling and less organised than most others I've seen - but that wouldn't in itself be enough to  write about. 

What was cool, however, was the surrounding area. Ishite-ji is nestled at the foot of a tall, forested hill, with my access route being a path over said hill. In fact, the hill was crisscrossed by a spiderweb of little unkempt tracks, so it was purely by good fortune that I happened to follow the one that went past the hilltop. From here, I got some very pretty views of the city...

...and of a huge Buddha statue someone built on a nearby hill for no discernible reason other than that it never hurts to have one more Buddha statue. 

Then, of course, there was the random golden sphere which seemed to serve no particular purpose - it was completely deserted apart from a few builders, and I'm not sure what exactly they were doing there. I couldn't figure out whether the whole place was derelict or unsafe to enter or anything - the path leading up to it was pretty overgrown and the inside looked pitch black, so I gave it a miss. It was only later that I found out that this place is packed with disturbing statues which would have been worth a visit. 

Now what makes Ishite-ji really weird is one of its least-known entrances. Matt at my hostel had told me of a tunnel-like cave which led to this temple, and this was what I was originally looking for when I meandered around the hill and eventually reached the hilltop instead. The cave mouth turned out to be a little further down the road, right by the roadside but cleverly hidden by some carved stonework so that at first glance it wasn't apparent that there was anything behind it. 

I had imagined a short passageway, maybe 20m long but not much more than that - I could not have been more wrong. I'm not embarassed to admit that this tunnel creeped me the hell out. It was some 250m long, low enough that I had to stoop and lit only by tiny lamps at intervals which left 90% of it in near-complete blackness - just enough to let the dozens of little 2-foot tall stone statues cast some seriously eerie shadows. It didn't help that these statues also all wore clothes like the ones pictured in the first photo of this post, which moved in the breeze to add an extra bit of realism to the shadows. There were also a few larger alcoves which were guarded by 10ft statues staring grimly out of the blackness. 

Here's the exit at the temple end of the tunnel. Here's a taster of the inside, though rather better lit than when I was there. In conclusion - yes, I'm a massive wuss...

And on that note, onwards to Hiroshima! This is one of those places that will only ever be famous for one thing. Trying to promote Hiroshima for its pretty rivers or anything else is a bit like seeing Daniel Radcliffe/Elijah Wood in any non-Harry Potter/Frodo role: it just doesn't work. They will always be those two characters, and Hiroshima will always be the city that got nuked. 

That said, Hiroshima is a very pleasant city to while away a few days in. Aside from everything being named "Peace..." - pagodas, parks, boulevards, everything - I can't really think of anything unpleasant about it. There are no signs at all that this city was a nuclear wasteland less than 70 years ago - except for the A-bomb dome, a powerful ruin right in the city centre. It is almost exactly below the hypocentre of the bomb (which exploded above ground level for maximum effect), and by some freak incident the framework of the structure remained standing. During the cleanup efforts in the 50s it was decided to keep the dome as a memorial, and it's a pretty haunting one. A nuclear blast is one of those things it can't be possible to imagine unless one's been affected by one - watching them (e.g. here or here or here) never fails to fill me with a mixture of awe and horror. 

A pillar warped in the heat of the explosion.
Right next to the A-bomb dome is the Peace Park, which covers an island in one of Hiroshima's four rivers and is packed with memorials and monuments to all imaginable population groups and minorities affected by the bomb. It also houses the "Flame of Peace", which will be extinguished once all nuclear weapons on Earth have been destroyed. 

Thousands of origami cranes at the children's memorial. A girl who witnessed the bomb as a baby and got leukaemia a decade later decided to fold 1000 of these in her hospital bed, hoping she'd get better. She died before she could complete the thousand, but her class, and eventually schools around Japan and the world, began to contribute. 
The A-bomb dome makes for a rather better background for the Flame of Peace...
...than the rather drab-looking museum.
Despite its squat, unattractive exterior, the A-bomb museum is pretty interesting. I hadn't known that the mayor of Hiroshima has written a letter protesting every single nuclear test that has ever occurred - they covered several walls! The other exhibits do a fair job at conveying the aftereffects of the blast - some are positively chilling, such as this tricycle.

On a rather more cheerful note, the food in Hiroshima is excellent! Okonomiyaki literally translates as "grilled 'whatever-you-want'", and while this doesn't mean an unlimited meatfest such as the more extravagant mind might conjure up, the result is still tasty. The Hiroshima version consists of yakisoba noodles, cabbage, pork, beef and various squiddy seafood all grilled with batter and egg to make a giant pancake layered with all sorts of goodness and topped with an unidentified but fantastic brown sauce. The whole thing is then served on the grill, and you get a spatula to help yourself with. Winner!

And for no good reason, Hiroshima castle's walls at sunset. I really need to get home and start straightening all these photos...
Followers of this blog will remember the Three Views of Japan, one of which I visited in northern Honshu (and in the previous blog post); the time had now come to find another one of these. Fortunately, I had the common sense to leave early and arrived on Miyajima Island at 6.45am, thus avoiding the crowds. And what crowds they were...the tour groups began streaming in around the same time I left, and they were fearsome indeed.

This island is home to the Floating Torii (the archways which mark the entrance to a shrine). I had done my homework and had even checked the tide timetable to make sure I came on the right day - at low tide, the floating torii actually stands in an expanse of mud which I imagine would be rather less photogenic. As it was, though, only a handful of other early birds were at the shrine with me and I spent a good hour and a half wandering its planks and gangways in the search for the best views. 

Now this is undeniably a beautiful affair, but sadly the Japanese ability to build the most monstrous concrete hotel blocks right in front of their greatest treasures rears its ugly head yet again. Fortunately, the Inland Sea's far shore is far enough away that this isn't too big a deal, but still - what on Earth were they thinking?! 

A fair few of the monks sported some of the most excellent minty blue kit anyone could wish for...
Gotta get those cherry blossoms in the frame!
And at long last, we get to my last stop in Japan. At the southernmost extremity of Kyushu, Kagoshima lies along a bay across which is one of the world's most active volcanoes. It is, in fact, officially currently erupting, though nobody seems to mind very much: the tourism industry (read: gift and snack shops) along its flank are thriving. I didn't have the time to actually head over there myself, but upon my 5am start to get to nearby Kirishima-Yaku National Park for a good day's hiking I was treated to a rather shapely little plume by Sakurajima.   

This set the mood nicely for the rest of the day, which was spent in a volcanic wasteland which, while cool, was no match for New Zealand's Tongariro National Park. Alas, it's truly a hard life having seen some of the world's more spectacular places (an unreasonable fraction of which seem to be crammed into New Zealand)!

Still, it was nice to get out and about once more, and the landscape provided an interesting contrast from the lush greenery of Shikoku. 

This used to be a crater lake used to film the villain's HQ in 007: You Only Live Twice.
Then the volcano erupted. No more lake... 
 My original plan had been to hike across a chain of volcanic peaks from one hamlet to another, but since the second volcano in the chain was in the process of blowing its top off the path was closed. This left me to climb Karakuni-jima, where the above shots were taken, and then wander around a nearby crater lake before heading back to complete the loop. On the way, I met another English chap named Benedict, who was excellent company and had conveniently stayed in a hotel next to the bus station the previous night. This meant that a cheeky onsen visit was on the cards after the hike, and I can confirm that there is no better way to finish a wander than a hot soak. 

And so ended the penultimate stage of my adventure. After a few uneventful days in Fukuoka which were mostly spent wandering the aisles of a 5-story camera shop but not buying anything, I hopped on a plane to Korea. More on that soon...