“I wasn’t lost; I just didn’t know where I was for a few weeks.” ~ Pioneer mountain man Jim Bridger This morning I was able to wash my one set of clothes for the first time since I’ve been in Japan — not counting the odd river-rinse or campground-sink cycle. I feel like a million dollars — or should that be 92,026,068.88 yen? I’m back in Tokyo as of last night, where I bunked down again at the first capsule hotel I stayed in (I’ve since slept in two other pods in Sapporo). Another night there tonight, this time in the mixed dormitory, since the male-only one was full. I don’t know why so many Japanese businessmen stay there, since the atmosphere is very western youth hostel, though pretty quiet, with European longhairs lying about and piles of crap all over the hallway floor. But it’s cheap. Even with all those transient gaijin, 30 bucks for a night in Tokyo is pretty damned good. Today’s a rest day — a zero as we’d say on the trail. …
Konnichiwa from Nippon, folks! I’m tapping this on my laptop, via some sweet Japanese wifi technology, from a table in my favourite Starbucks, right next to the park in Kichijoji, Tokyo. I got in to Narita last night on a half-empty flight via Cairns, and crashed in an airport hotel room smaller than my bedroom at home. Dinner was omu rice, some inari zushi, a “steam cake” and a big-ass can of Sapporo beer, in one hit checking four favourite konbini (convenience store) culinary delights on my to-eat list. I’m here for 88 days — nope, not in this Starbucks; that would be excessive. In Japan, I mean. I wanted to make the most of my 90-day tourist visa, and I’m covering a fair bit of ground, old and new, revisiting some favourite old haunts and walking some new paths. Let me backtrack, briefly. My American plans have been put on hold for some personal and legal reasons I won’t go into here. It was a rough year, and I hit rock bottom for several months. …
The Korean War of 1950-1953 is probably more obscure for most non-Koreans — especially younger ones — than the older but far crazier, bigger, badder war of 1939-1945, and definitely than the more recent and oft-Hollywoodised Vietnam conflict. And what many westerners do “know” about Korea, they probably gleaned from eternal repeats of the M.A.S.H. sitcom. I never liked M.A.S.H. and anyway, it always seemed to me to be more about the Vietnam War than the Korean — I would even guess that many viewers thought they were watching yet another Vietnam show. The only time during my stint in Korea (as a teacher, not a soldier, although there were similarities) I was reminded of the sitcom war was one hot afternoon midway through my 13-day “Goat Killer Trail” death march up the roads of the Korean east coast. Passing this beautiful little ridge beyond some paddies as the sun-baked road hooked mercifully back towards the sea… ..I was reminded of those scrubby, arid hills stretching away beneath the dusty bubbles of those M.A.S.H. helicopters. In other words, it looked like a …
There were four times last Summer when the magic worked.
“What do you like?” This guy I was doing an English camp with, right before I left for America in August, hit me with a tough one. I wasn’t exactly Mr Positive at that point; I’ll spare you the details ’cause you’ve heard ’em all before. Fortunately he had plenty of positive to go around. “What do you mean — music?” “No, I mean about Korea. What do you like about Korea?” He had a Korean wife and was a little defensive, even though they were themselves on the verge of escaping to America and new lives far from any middle school English classroom. Without hesitation, I answered: “The insects. And the flowers.”
Funny how I always seem to be walking north. Well, until I reach the end and turn around… Exams from Thursday till yesterday meant a nice, relaxing few days at work — for me. Exams over, student motivation plummets even lower than usual — and mine with it. My goal is to do nothing in class but play movies for the next month, and little between lessons but read, write, edit and post. Prepare for a Goat that Wrote tsunami! Meanwhile, in the real world, I am beginning to wind up my affairs here in the Orient. Part of that is saying goodbye to my favourite local landmarks and paths. On Sunday I did a nice farewell hike up Big Ass Mountain. The golden autumnal weather just goes on and on, unbeatable rambling conditions. Let’s hope it hangs in there. Another part is dusting out the archives of unpublished Korean material while there’s still time, starting with the weekend before last, one of the top three or four in Korea for me. Really delightful weather, walking …
PEAKS & PILGRIMAGE TOUR TOKYO, SEPTEMBER 2013 The flight to Japan was the easy part. A couple of hours from Busan we were swooping over a green and crumpled landscape. With a surge of long-dormant affection I gazed down on the farmland and mountains that, even from that height, seemed comfortingly familiar. And what a thrill to recognise an old pal (and on one occasion a formidable foe) in the last light of Wednesday:
I’ve had a bad cold the last few days — think I pushed myself a little too hard in Tokyo for an old guy — and enjoyed Tuesday and yesterday at home. (And in a bakery — my second home.) And then today, as I was trudging to school, I became aware of an eerie silence, a delicious feeling of calm. My pulse quickened but I told myself to hold my fantasies in check — and then I entered the school grounds to find the place deserted.
Tokyo was a trip. I’m still recovering: my calves are sore, I’m rundown and cranky — and waking from a dream adventure to find yours is the only discernible pulse in a classroom full of dead-eyed rag dolls is the cruelest of reality crashes. What I really need, though, is a post-holiday holiday to grab some sleep. I spent one night in a wet sleeping bag on a 1,364m mountaintop harassed by God’s searchlight, a Chuseok full moon (just as I was a year ago on the third-highest peak in Korea). The following night, my last in Tokyo, was likewise far from restful. Bedding down in the bushes in a buzzing megalopolitan park seldom is.
One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork ~ Edward Abbey Hey, people. A brief interruption to scheduled programming, and the ongoing/interminable Upstate Saga, so I can spit out a bit of rage before it burns a hole somewhere painful. I’ll have the next American chapter — a far happier affair — out in a couple of days. Have a great weekend, and don’t forget to hug your favourite tree!
Howdy again. I’ve been a terrible blogger of late — I know it — but I start redeeming myself right here and right now. What’s it been since the last post, a week or so? Unforgivable — I was shooting for two or three posts per week, pre-computer breakdown. The shocking truth is that I can’t even blame the breakdown. Two Fridays ago, after skipping school at lunchtime and enduring one of those bruising trawls through the shabby Busan backstreets that I do so well, just as I was admitting defeat and retreating to the subway, I chanced upon a sign, which led me to an exit, and then a stairway, and finally the nondescript office building housing the approved Apple service joint serving the Southeast. A few minutes with the just-barely English-speaking technician, an arcane configuration of fingers on keys — something out of an I.T. Karma Sutra — and this here laptop was purring like a phlegmatic kitten.
Hey, all. It’s been a while, eh? Well, first the bad news (with me, you always get the bad news first): my significant other is no more. Relax, not Kate — we’re doing fine! At least, we were last time I checked. No, my once-trusty MacBook Pro bit the dust yesterday, a crippling blow to the world of medium-quality blogging. She just up and died after a mere three years of (admittedly heavy-duty) service. Suddenly I feel like the Lone Ranger without his Native American trusty steed.
Hey, all. I’m tapping this up in my favourite local cafe, after a Monday that began less than ideally with a student collapsing, distraught, onto the floor after I pretended to award his (evidently much-cherished) Rubik’s Cube as a prize to another student. My humour does not always settle comfortably into the Korean classroom.
Did you ever have one of those jobs where entering the office some mornings was like sailing a cursed clipper ship into a fog of doom? Actually, just about every job I’ve ever had has been like that.
“God damn it!” I was taking a hard-earned morning nap in the storeroom next to my Fortress of Solitude when that godawful bell ruined everything, announcing the conclusion of the day’s midterm exams. 12:15. I slumped grumpily to the window and watched the students escaping, free for the rest of their Friday. My Friday was free only of classes. I still had to turn up, to sit in the empty room with its broken computer for eight hours. I had seen no other teachers all morning. I flicked through a book — one of those paper ones they used to make last century — and stared out the window, itching for my own escape.
On Thursday he was uncharacteristically buoyant as he walked to school. The sun and birds and flowers and coffee were doing what they’re supposed to in early Spring. He texted his girlfriend in America and declared his love for her, the planet, its coffee, its blooms. He got to school early, ready to prep. He was characteristically un-prepped.
#701 I went to Japan for the first time in January 2000. The cheapest flight came with a stopover in Seoul. My one memory of Korea from that trip, apart from thinking it had a pretty nice airport, is the sight, from thousands of metres above, of hundreds of white apartment blocks jammed between the endless mountains.
I’ve been doing private lessons with three nice people — they use the names Sally, Rachael and Victor — on weekends for a few weeks now. Their English is excellent and though we start with an article from the Economist (their choice!) we inevitably veer off into a chat before too long. Last weekend I mentioned my recent frolics among the spring blooms and Sally said that a high school in downtown Gimhae was famed for its meihua — the Chinese plum/Japanese apricot trees I described in the last post — display, and that a festival of sorts was held there each Spring. And thus my Saturday afternoon plans were set.
A brief interruption to my New York Saga to share an episode of very-Korean weirdness I enjoyed this afternoon, Day 2 of my Four Hikes in Four Days Challenge. It’s a four-day weekend, you see, for Seollal, the Korean New Year, a break I desperately needed as I had aged approximately 17 years in my first week back in the killing fields of the Korean middle school. I thought having a pleasant goal to motivate me would make another year of teaching more tolerable. Instead I’ve entered the school grounds each morning like a condemned man stepping onto the scaffold. I needed a good walk or four to remember what living was all about…
It was minus 7 C this morning as I scurried, face half-paralysed with cold, towards coffee and life itself, prior to heading to N1 for the second-last time this year. An easy day, three classes, and I explicitly stated that there would be no learning whatsoever, which relaxed everyone immensely.