This is a VERY long blog post. In fact, it's basically my trip diary.
If you are just here for the highlights, please enjoy the slideshow below
or review my FB page (Bard Judith).
But if you'd like the good, bad, and ugly details
about our transport, food, and observations, feel free to read on!
Monday, Feb 27, 2017:
B meets one of his classes. Katherine does the dishes and collects the laundry from the drying line on the balcony. Judy packs. We have one bag each (Kath and I choose knapsacks, Bryan takes his computer bag) plus my purse. Clothing, tech, notebook, money, and the all-important passports and visa documents! The lovely Ji-Hyun calls us a taxi when we're ready to depart for the Pohang bus station. Two hours on a bus into Pusan, the big port city in the south-east of the Korean peninsula – the terminal is surrounded by gaudily-neoned 'love hotels', which every traveller knows are the inexpensive but clean option to the big-name Hyatts and Hiltons.
We pick the streamlined G2, and for seventy thousand won get a luxurious, dimly-lit, three-bed room with an en suite whirlpool bath, bidet toilet, rainshower, and complimentary toiletries bag with, shall we say, everything a peregrinatory couple might possibly require. Surfaces are quality and immaculate, beds are made up with beautifully-lofty pure white comforters, and not only is there free wifi, there is a computer as well as a tv in the room. Kath and I are fresh out of the tub and feeling like spa attendees in our crisp white robes, lounging on our lush beds while checking our messages/games.
Tuesday, Feb 28, 2017:
Up at 4:30 am! This is why we left Pohang yesterday – to get to the Pusan international airport in good time. I set out breakfast neatly on a hotel towel – boiled eggs from home, a chunk of cheese, pre-buttered bread, cherry tomatoes, blueberry danishes from the terminal CU mart. We pack everything up and leave in the pre-dawn gloom, motel signs flashing garishly along the alley behind the bus terminal. 'Name cards' showing cross-sectioned strawberries and peaches are propped along the curbs; advertisements for female escorts and nighttime companions. There are taxis along the main drag, waiting in the lineup despite the early hour, ready for the night bus travellers and the over-imbibing salaryman. Our driver interrogates Bryan brusquely while charging along the road with his GPS scolding him for exceeding the speed limit, but depositing us at the terminal in one piece and with a compliment on Bry's Korean.
Currency exchange at the airport tells us they'd have to do two swaps: CAN$ to KRW, then KRW to yen – we decide to do a direct transfer in Fukuoka instead. Quick, short lines through security and immigration, boarding efficiently. We have time to read the inflight magazine, fill in the entry cards, and are served one glass of water, before the plane starts tilting downwards for our descent into Japan again!
An easy transfer from FUK to the airport subway station, and take the Kobe line directly to Tojin-machi. A brisk three-block walk gets us to the embassy @ 11:00, just in time before it closes acceptance of visa papers! We fill in the three application forms, thankful that we already have a) our visa issuance numbers from Mr. Ko, and b) our passport photos ready to be swiped on with the provided glue sticks. A 20,000 Y processing fee puts a dent in our finances, but the most essential part of our trip is DONE...now we can consider ourself 'on vacation' til Friday morning!
We trudge another three blocks to the Seaside Momochi – much humbler and smaller than our last night's accommodations, but clean, and with ingratiatingly helpful staff. Three beds with puffy white comforters, faux-rice-hull pillows, a mini fridge, mini table, and mini bathroom, a window looking into the circular lightwell at the centre of the hotel rather than out over the ocean. Lunch is a priority, we decide – breakfast was, after all, in another country and seven hours ago! Hotto Motto, a bento take-out, is just outside the hotel's front door; it looks cheap and smells good. We choose three bento boxes with chicken chunks, rice, a miniature garnish of cooked sauced spinach with three shreds of carrot, and devour them on the first park bench we encounter.
Bryan wants to know why everything in the area is called 'seaside' if he can't actually SEE the ocean, so we wend our way to Seaside Park - a long barren beach with a boardwalk, some associated cafes, and a grandiose Spanish-hacienda-styled wedding pavilion out over the water which looks like a set from a big budget Zorro film plopped down on concrete pillars. It's amusing to hear the familiar sounds of Korean on a Japanese beach; a vacationing family is trying to keep their youngest members out of the ice-cold water.
Traffic runs on the left here so vehicles are constantly where one least expects them, though everything is meticulously signed visually and aurally, so if you jaywalk you'll find little sympathy. Buses do not idle at lights; the motor goes off and is restarted. Crows and sea eagles vouch for the resulting high air quality.
Flowers! It's subtropical, feeling more like April or even May, with vivid pink rosettes on the boulevard bushes, yellow spikes of something in the daisy family beside light stanchions, and fruit trees in bloom against a baby blue spring sky....though there is still a nip in the sea breeze and most pedestrians are still wearing light jackets.
Lovely old buildings in the traditional Japanese manner, with grey or black roof tiles and the classic scorched-wood exteriors, are tucked back in the alleys, while the main streets sport the modern glass and concrete, office buildings and shops, asphalt and metal poles and overhead wires, that could be any major city on any continent...except, of course, that here the streets are immaculate and sidewalks innocent of litter, while all the signage is in kanji with a few romanizations.
I can't rid myself of guilt for not speaking or even attempting Japanese while I'm here; it feels like I'm the typical self-centred tourist assuming that everyone should speak MY language, the ugly (North) American stereotype, the Victorian Englishwoman playing the memsahib to the hilt. Look, I tell myself: you speak English exceptionally well, decent French, a bit of Dutch, a smattering of Spanish, and survival Korean. Plus a good handful of Latin vocabulary. You've invested in the countries you've lived in, and you'll probably never be back in Japan in your life. Just be courteous and appreciative when they make the effort to communicate with you! It doesn't help that I actually know about twenty or thirty useful Japanese words but my brain insists on opening the Korean file drawer for all the basic phrases instead, so I wind up tongue-tied in every interaction unless I default to English.
Post our afternoon siesta back at the hotel, we grab some maps from the front desk and negotiate with the concierge for a good restaurant. 50% off here if you mention our name, he tells us, and, hai, they have gyoza! It's a long walk back to the subway line, but interesting – along the Sazae-san road honouring a famous Japanese cartoonist from the Fukuoka area – we avoid the many bicyclists en route and ask directions repeatedly.
Third time pays for all, as usual, as a young sales clerk leaves his store and actually walks us around the corner and to the front entrance to make sure we are at Hakata Kurogane. It's an elegant traditional place on the second floor, overlooking the Nishijin subway entrance. Dark, quiet: delectable chicken skewers, rice, gyoza with a lemony soy that Kath and I nearly lick off the plate. On the way back to the hotel we stop at a grocery store and go into sticker shock at the food prices. We'll have to be thrifty, B cautions me, so we buy a simple half-loaf of bread, a small jar of jam, and a chunk of cheese for breakfast the next morning.
Wednesday, March 1, 2017:
I spend a wakeful night with nerve/pain issues. A quick breakfast, then a stop at a pharmacy for some relief before we all head out to Canal City. Hike back to Nishijin, transfer at Nakatsu-Katabawa, exit at Hakata, the downtown core of Fukuoka! We can't decide on one place to eat, so we split up for lunch – B goes for a bowl of udon noodles with tempura, while Katherine and I have strawberry-banana crepes at Dipper Dan's, followed by a rosemary-pork sandwich at our rendezvous point, the Starbucks (with its free wifi and computer charging stations) at the back of Central Court. The budget is tight, but we manage to get K a small Dayan cat figurine out of the Japanese change in my coat pocket, after ogling the rest of the feline-themed 'character goods' store in the South Building, and taking fan pictures at the Ultraman shop.
I desert B and K at the Starbucks to rest their legs and spend some time on their devices while I hunt some little souvenirs at the Daiso around the corner. I also discover the Canal Tourist Lounge and drag them both back to help me decide on an onsen for tomorrow. The two staff look happy to have some gaijin to actually serve, and have intense discussions in Japanese as to exactly which onsen would be the simplest for us to get to before turning to us and rattling out equally intense sentences in accented English. I write everything down carefully, double-check the maps they give us, and we head out again content with tomorrow's schedule!
Thursday, March 2, 2017:
Onsen day! It was an adventure that involved walking, subway, train, taxi, shuttle bus, bus, train, subway, and walking, but we made it to a traditional hot spring and soaked away some stress.
It dawned cloudy, cold, and rainy: B and I both had hats/hoods and reasonably water-resistant jackets, but the darling daughter had left HER coat in Korea and chosen to go with her beloved dragon hoodie for the entire trip. We bought her a 500 Y umbrella which she promptly managed to invert five minutes later, bending the ribs irrevocably. It still kept her dry until we got to the subway, anyhow. Subway from Tenjin, transfer to the Nishitetsutenjin-Omuta train line (say that three times fast), exit at what I transcribed as 'Foot-Sky-Ji' (actually Futsukaichi) station, show a taxi driver the brochure and repeat 'Ten-pai-no-sato?' in a cheerfully inquisitive tone, a short ride through free-standing Japanese houses and up onto the slopes of a pine-clad mountain just outside the suburbs.
Tourist images of hot springs tend to favour the most exotic: smoky pools surrounded by snowy rocks, kimono-clad maids proffering warmed cotton robes, wooden slippers artfully arranged on bamboo mats.... which is all very well if you are a wealthy tourist looking for the 'authentic' artfully arranged onsen experience, but doesn't reflect the typical bathhouse. To us, familiar with Korean mogyoktangs and jimjilbangs, it was not particularly exotic – but it was the relaxing and enjoyable experience we'd hoped for.
We navigated the entryway with its rows of small lockers above tatami mats easily, confidently taking off our footwear and tucking it into a locker, then ran the gauntlet of the restaurant area with helpful staff bobbing out to greet us and gesture at menus, to get to the actual onsen entrance. Pink banners over the women's side, blue over the men's – but first we needed to figure out the ticket machine. An obsequious maitre-de was summoned from the restaurant by credit of having more English than the rest of the staff, and patiently attempted to guide us through the intricacies of the various fees; since we clearly did not have towels with us, we would need to either buy or rent towels, and the big size were only rentals but the small size for purchase was so small (all this accompanied with gestures and about fifty percent Japanese) and the ladies want to share a towel to save money, oh dear, not done.... and would we please look at this poster with the rules for the onsen and read it carefully? Honestly, I mutter to Bryan, Korean mogyoktangs GIVE you a towel and pyjamas with the entrance fee and don't make nearly this much fuss about it. No warmed robes or wooden slippers, no free bath essences or hair products or bamboo scrubbies... But once we were in, and past the formulaic rows of changing lockers and benches, ah, familiar steamy bliss.
A large wooden dome over stone and tile floors and various hot and cold pools. A line of seats and hand-held showers along the left side, glass windows along the right looking out to the open air pool. Saunas to one side, complete with a TV behind protective glass, and a huge container of salt. Kat and I, well-trained, headed straight for the small wooden shower seats, filled our bamboo buckets, and began scrubbing down. Fully clean and rinsed, we took a few moments in the inside pools but then made a beeline for the exterior and the open-air pool, which we had completely to ourselves for the majority of the time. A five-foot wooden wall around the stone pool allowed us both privacy and a view of the grey sky over the pine-covered mountains; standing on tiptoe let me peek down over the town and its dark grey tiled roofs. Part of the pool contained a shallow submerged bench with a thatched roof over it, where one could lie back with the warm water lapping around one's edges, but I was happy to perch on the stone edging and soak up the contrasts of texture.
Wood and stone, cold breeze and steaming water, pine trees and cloudy sky, with the occasional ray of sunshine breaking through to illuminate our pale Canadian skin against the amber water. Two hours of sensory bliss, calm and peaceful and nourishing.
On finally emerging, we realize we have no way of getting back to the station unless we ask the staff to call us a taxi – which we already know will be expensive- and which Mr. Maitre-de humbly points out. He also wishes to inform us that there is a bus to the station, but.... and here his English breaks down, but we surmise that it's a bit of a hike to the bus stop from Ten-pai-no-sato Onsen. We stare at each other in mutually good-natured frustration for a moment and then his eyes light up. He beckons us to the entryway, where we quickly retrieve our shoes and shoulder our knapsacks again. “Wait,” he hisses, and dashes off through a Staff Only exit. Within moments he pulls up outside the door in a small white van with the onsen's logo prominently on the side and waves us in proudly. He has just deserted his restaurant and wait staff, and, presumably, clients, in order to drive us three lost gaijin down the mountain to the bus stop. And there it is, turning its motor on at the stop, just as we screech to a halt behind it. We pant our too-hasty thanks as we scramble out of the van and into the bus, digging for hundred-yen coins for the fare. Kat and I, as always, are energized by our time at the bathhouse, while Bryan is enervated and pleasantly drowsy, but we all agree we're hungry. Unusually, there's not much open in the Futsukaichi area – we follow our noses to a bento place and gulp down some rather good teriyaki chicken on rice with a side of oriental coleslaw, before finding our tickets and our platform to train back into Fukuoka central.
Friday, March 3, 2017:
Down to the bottom of our budget and Bry discovers I still have a wad of Korean bills tucked away; he decides we'll exchange 50 thousand, splurge and enjoy our last day in Japan.
We go for a Subway breakfast sandwich - somewhat disconcertingly, the 'B' in their BLTs and breakfast sandwiches is supplemented with a kind of crispy salami, but it's warm and filling to start off the day. Our schedule as B lays it out, is to exchange a bit more money, then kill time, maybe at Hakata station, until 1:30 when the embassy is open for visa pickup, then to hustle it to the airport for our 4:00 flight. But, he adds, we might as well stop by the embassy and see if one person can pick up all three passports so that Katherine and I don't have to hike back from wherever we choose to spend the morning.
A bright sunny day, after yesterday's cloudy drizzle, gives us energy to stroll along the river bank to the grey-tiled Korean embassy, and we wait outside while Bry consults with the gate guard and is eventually let in. He emerges a few minutes later through the little barred wicket gate with a big grin and a double thumbs-up; the amiable clerk has asked him for his last name, rummaged behind the counter, and handed over our vital documents on the spot! So now in possession of the essentials, we are free to do what we want as long as we make it to the airport in time.
Hakata Station and the surrounding shopping areas are busy, bright, richly packed with things to do, see, buy, and eat. We wander down the underground 'Peace Street' with its hole-in-the-wall restaurants, emerge into a gigantic department store, find the currency exchange, and eventually negotiate a place to eat. I choose a gingered pork set, Kath picks gyoza (which she insists on calling mandu), and Bry is happy with his roast mackerel.
Reading to digest, dessert at a coffee shop, browsing, then back on the subway and the shuttle to the international terminal. An interesting model of the Lindbergh family's Lockheed Sirius is on display – I'd had no idea they'd landed in Fukuoka at one point.
The flight itself is the same monotonous up, level off, drink a glass of water and re-read the air magazine (no inflight entertainment here) in a painfully tight seat, angle back down, land (all right, that part was white-knuckle as we come screaming into Pusan's runway with flaps wailing). We swing our knapsacks on and make an efficient escape through security, immigration, and quarantine, and find a taxi happy to take us back to the Pusan bus terminal.
“Let's eat first, then grab our tickets,” one of us suggests, and since the food court on the second level is sending an amazing waft of aromas and a wide choice of items, we all acquiesce rapidly. A sushi tray for me, with succulent cold shrimp and strips of sweet salmon daintily balanced on their wasabi-tinted platforms of rice.
Back downstairs, pick the right line at the ticket booths, and blithely ask the stone-eyed clerk behind the counter for three tickets to Pohang. At this point plans suddenly come radically derailed: she gives us a flat look and mumbles 'Sold out.' Bryan's incredulous look, and repeating the time of the next (and last) bus elicits no sympathy, only a repetition – 'sold out'. Clearly we aren't about to negotiate with her, Koreans already pressing in behind us to try to get their tickets.
We turn away and regroup off to one side, trying to process this and suggest alternatives. I'm for trying to get to Kyongju, or Daegu, or another town at least in the vicinity of home, and then grabbing another local bus from there to Pohang. B vetos this as chancy and points out that busses may stop running earlier in smaller towns and then we are still stuck. At least here we are two minutes' walk from the motel section, a known variable. No one is particularly happy, but we agree to get a hotel for the night and then take the first morning bus home. I point out, Pollyanna-fashion, that at least this way I can stop at the Home Plus at the Pohang station and grab some groceries before we take the taxi back out to the university – thus sparing ourselves a comfortless evening and next morning in a foodless apartment, and a subsequent taxi into town and back. (Yes, we are all quite heartily sick of doing without a personal vehicle, and the calculations attached thereto...)
The G2 hotellier recognizes us but her broad grin dies when I insist on a cheaper room, pointing out that Japan is an expensive country – with which first proposition she agrees – and that as a result we have very little money left. In fact, she wants to charge us extra for Katherine this time. I smile sweetly, gather my family around my coattails with a queenly gesture, and sweep out. The gentleman behind the counter at the SS proves far more amenable to reason, and we not only obtain our simple double bed but an extra pile of quilts and blankets so the Kitkat can bed down on the ondol floor beside us. Perforce, we rest up for the evening instead of travelling, and prepare ourselves for sleep early.
Saturday, March 4, 2017:
A quick breaking of our fast on rather unsatisfactory CU Mart items, eaten perched on the edge of the orange plastic terminal seats, and three tickets successfully bought for Pohang and home. The bus is full, even at seven-thirty in the morning, but it empties out at Kyongju, the half-way mark, and we each get a double seat to ourselves the rest of the way. Pine trees on sandy soil, the familiar shapes and colours of Korean farmhouses, industrial parks, plazas full of mountaineering gear brandnames, toll gates, bridges, and the sturdy shapes of Korean peaks rising from the flat farmed plains....good to be back in our 'ain countree' and reading hangul instead of kanji again!
I park B and K at the Starbucks while I grab a hundred bucks' worth of groceries – some treats along with the basics, mind you... oats, balsamic vinegar, REAL Western bacon, biscuit mix – and we pile our bags and baggage into one last taxi to get us back to Handong University and home. Sans sofa, sans bed frame, sans bookcases and sans most of the basic necessities for gracious living, our little sixth-floor apartment is nonetheless already 'home' and we are so thankful to be back in it.
As I say to Bryan later, making the three of us lunch over my own stove again, 'Home is where the hearth is...' and he agrees; a mattress is a mattress, and one can sleep almost anywhere, but cooking and eating in your own kitchen means that you are truly at home. Grateful. Now, one day of rest – tomorrow our Sabbath – and then Monday new adventures await. See you then!
Bryan & Judy Alkema are educators, travellers, pilgrims, wordsmiths, and global learners. They are returning to Asia for the third time in their 25-year marriage and look forward to sharing their travel writing, cross-cultural experiences, wisdom perspectives, and beautiful images with you.