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May 27, 2009 22:06 +0100  |  Culture Friends Japan Korea Transit Travel 1

The Pagoda in Asakusa
This was the main tourist attraction near our hostel, a beautiful pagoda right next to a Buddhist temple.
The Buddhist temple in Asakusa
The view of the courtyard from just inside the Asakusa temple.
Downtown Shibuya
This is a fragment of the density that is Shibuya. I've heard that Bladerunner was modelled after this.
Susan at the Meiji Shrine
The Meiji Shrine is really a great big part in the heart of Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace in Tokyo
This is the present home of the Emperor of Japan. The role is purely symbolic now (unlike Canada, he isn't officially the Head of State), but he's still treated as though he is.
Me in a field of yellow flowers
One of the few good shots taken of me on this trip. This is in Hama Rikyu Teien, a giant garden within walking distance of the world-renouned Tsukiji fish market.
Susan ina field of yellow flowers
Susan made a face for this one to be funny, so don't worry, she's not mad :-)
Susan loves ladybugs
Susan loves ladybugs
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
The The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is one of the tallest in the city and they offer a free elevator ride to the top so you can check out the skyline.
Imperial Palace, Kyoto.
The seat of Imperial power for nearly 1000years, this is was shot in the garden of the Imperial Palace, Kyoto.
Nintendo!
This is the closest they would let us get, but I still feel all special for being there.
A pagoda in Gion
As part of the lantern festival in Gion, this pagoda was illuminated.
Susan and cookie
Everything is cute in Japan, even the cookies.
Susan and the view
The view from our lunch stop in Okinawa.

I've not been very studious about my Japan update and for that I'm sorry. Life's been a bit crazy since I returned "home" and I guess I figured that if I put up the pictures, I could put it off a bit but as the details of the whole trip are beginning to fade from memory, this is becoming more urgent.

So where shall I start? Lets start with a good one: Susan is awesome. Our relationship before the trip was a rather disconnected one. We knew each other only a little when I left Toronto, but I honestly believe that we've grown much closer as a result of this trip. It's always a risk, choosing to travel a foreign country with a friend and I'm really glad that it worked out so well. She compensated for my weaknesses and I for hers. I just thought that I might get that out first.

General

Japan is an interesting place. Though not as foreign as you may think, it's still quite different from Canada. This became quite clear to me no less than 15minutes after we landed at Narita Airport: I was fingerprinted as I came through customs. Those of you who know me know that this was quite traumatic for me. I've managed to go 29years without being treated like a criminal and here I was, at customs in a foreign country where I didn't know my rights in this regard. The man pointed at the little computer, and holding my passport he said: "Fingers. Put". I complied and it's really been bothering me ever since. I've even found myself trying to think of ways to mutilate the tips of those two fingers...

So yeah, Japanese folk seem to have fewer concerns about how much power the State has over them. This probably bothered me more than anything during my stay. A close second though would be the social acceptance of smoking over there. They still ask you: "Smoking or non?" when you enter a restaurant. Nasty. At least they can't smoke on the subway.

The subways were a bit of a disappointment really. All those stories you hear about pushers on the trains? Never saw one. In fact, the trains we were on never got any more crowded than a TTC or Seoul subway car does. From what I hear though, the JR Line trains from the surrounding areas are what started this rumour, as they support the suburbanites, but since we never went there, it never happened.

Tokyo

Transit is a good place from which to segue into Tokyo though. My gods it was impressive. Not so much the stations or the trains themselves, but the sheer number of lines and how the city manages its mass. Tokyo supports within its borders the entire population of Canada. 12million in Tokyo proper, and 33million when you include the suburbs.

But here's the kicker: you wouldn't know it. Excluding a few famous intersections, the focal points of the city are sufficiently dispersed that you don't have the "downtown" problem that plagues most North American cities. Instead of funnelling all 33million people into a single urbanised core, Tokyo supports many, many "cores", each with a mix of residential, commercial and even industrial uses. People will often live in Shinjuku and work in Roppongi, both "downtowns" in their own right, but within the same city. For the Vancouver people, imagine if Burnaby were a real destination for people, or if it wasn't unique to live in Vancouver but work in Richmond. Now imagine that all of that space were one great big city. That's Tokyo -- but with real transit.

One more note on the transit: it's massive. It's a mesh of 13 subway lines and 282 stations (not including the commuter rail (JR) lines) criss-crossing above and below ground, all different colours, sporting hard-to-remember names and managed by two different private companies. Now, imagine that even with all of that complexity, that it was super-easy to navigate: Each station is sequentially numbered and colour-coded so if you're going from A to B, you find the coloured line you're likely to take on the many free multi-lingual maps, find the start and end points and take their numbers. If you're going from 13 to 26, then you make sure that the numbers are getting bigger as you ride. If not, you're going the wrong way. Transit way-finding in Tokyo was never a problem.

Another common myth people hear about Tokyo is that it's a concrete desert, but nothing could be further from the truth. True, much of it is paved, but there are beautiful gardens everywhere, and I'm not talking about these lame Toronto-style parkettes, or these new mini parks that are popping up in Vancouver, I'm talking about acres of tended streams, trees and flowers right in the midst of the city. Some like the The Hama Rikyu Teien Gardens near the Tsukiji Fish Market cost a few hundred yen (100¥ was roughly $1.30CAD), and others like the Meiji Shrine are totally free. Beautiful landscaped public spaces nestled between the urban spaces to help keep people sane. It's really very impressive.

We only had three days in Tokyo though, so we couldn't possibly have seen everything we wanted to. Squaresoft and Joypolis would have to wait for another time. We did however see the busiest intersection in the world, in an area of town called Shibuya, visit Asakusa for its beautiful old Buddhist temple, walk through Shinjuku to see some awesome architecture as well as the Imperial Palace (though we couldn't wake up early enough to get inside the grounds). Tokyo is awesome, but expensive. You should go, but make sure that you're prepared to drop about $75CAD a day... assuming that you're staying in a hostel.

Kyoto

Like every rational country, Japan links its major cities with high-speed rail that plugs into local transit. You can take the subway from Asakusa to Tokyo station in 20minutes and without leaving the building, hop on a bullet train to a city hundreds of kilometres away. We were in Kyoto in a matter of hours.

Kyoto is pretty much the opposite of Tokyo. Where Tokyo is sky scrapers and 33million people, Kyoto is a quiet, traditional Japanese town riddled with centuries-old temples and a less-than-impressive subway system. You don't come to Kyoto for the bustle and night life, you come for the culture, history and peace.

Susan had booked us into Tani House, a hostel that bills itself as a traditional home converted for hostel living. We got a whole house to ourselves, complete with kitchen, living room, bathroom and a few bedrooms and the old woman who runs the place even made us tea when we arrived. We ate on the floor, we slept on the floor in the paper-walled bedroom and let the high-energy memory from Tokyo fade away. It's a great place to stay, I muchly recommend :-)

While digging around for a link to Tani House, I happened upon this YouTube video of the interior. Check it out if you're interested.

We didn't have a lot of time there, so sightseeing of Kyoto was rather rushed. We spent one day visiting the Imperial Palace1 complete with English language tour and acres of cherry blossoms and continued into the rest of the city to do some general sightseeing. Kyoto is divided by a massive river that the public uses for everything from jogging to picnics to makeouts. It's really quite beautiful. Have I said that enough yet? We spent an evening in Gion at a lantern festival, and we even paid a rather entertained cab driver to take us to The Nintendo Building. That's right, I can has culture.

Kyoto: Learn Your Pronunciation

One final note on Kyoto before I move on. We realised early on in our stay there that as Kyoto is overrun with beautiful old temples, the locals (and for the sake of this story, the cab drivers) usually navigate by the temple names rather than street intersections. This can be dangerous if you don't have the pronunciation down.

We'd done everything right. Susan had acquired a map of the city and directions to our hostel. We'd found the temple nearest our hostel (Daikaku-ji) and circled it on the map and after a long day of sightseeing, figured that a cab ride home was only appropriate. We handed the map to the driver, pointed at the circled portion and we were off.

It wasn't long before Susan and I both started to feel as though we weren't on the right track. The surrounding areas looked less and less familiar as the ride continued on and eventually the city began to fade away. With fewer and fewer lights on the streets outside, we started to freak out just a little. We asked the driver: "Daitoku-ji?" and he smiled, though looking a little confused and nodded. We had put all of our faith in a map and a stranger and now there was a lake coming up on our right.

30minutes and about 30 000¥ later, he pulls into a dark, deserted temple and asks for his cash. We panic. Much confusion ensues. Clearly he was sure that he'd taken us to the right place, but this was obviously not where we wanted to go. The driver figured that we did in fact want to be at this temple, we just didn't know where our hostel was from here. He turned off the meter and took us a little further into town where he proceeded to ask strangers for us regarding the location of this "Tani House" place. No luck. We got him to take us somewhere near civilisation, paid the incredibly patient man and got out. It was 10pm and we were on a strange street in a foreign country with a phrase book, an (apparently useless) map and just under about 100000¥.

It took us some time (and a few fruitless enquiries with non-English-speaking locals) to figure out that when we'd initially circled the temple on the map, we'd gotten a syllable wrong. Daikaku-ji was in the middle of nowhere. Daitoku-ji was where we wanted to be. It hadn't been a problem before because we'd followed the aforementioned directions to our hostel the first time.

So let this be a lesson to you kids:

  • Get a map
  • Make sure you've got the right place on that map.
  • Trust the cab drivers in Kyoto, they're awesome, but feel free to second-guess yourself.
  • Make sure that you have lots of cash -- just in case.

Tangent: Language

For those who already know, I apologise for stating the seemingly obvious, but since I didn't know, I must assume that I'm not the only one. Written Japanese is in fact three different character sets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Most people know this much but what surprised and impressed me was the fact that each of these character sets have their own purpose -- ie. they're not exactly interchangeable.

Kanji for example is probably the closest thing to what Westerners often assume all Asian languages are like. Each symbol is a single character (as opposed to Korean which is a composite of symbols representing a syllable) which represents an idea or thought. "Home" has it's own symbol, as does "food" and "vehicle". These symbols are then combined into statements, often only a few symbols long that culturally mean something. "Car parkade" cannot be represented in Kanji, instead they symbol for "vehicle" and "place" are used and everyone understands.

The problem with Kanji though is that it's limiting. You can't really create full sentences with it easily. For this, hiragana is provided as the sort of "glue". The symbols are noticeably different and actually "spell out" into words rather than independently represent ideas. I don't really understand much more than this.

Lastly, there's katakana, which as my guidebook explained, is often used for foreign words. My name would be spelt with katakana as would "Vancouver" or probably even "meat loaf" as there's likely is no Japanese word for it. katakana appears deceptively similar to hiragana (for the uninitiated) so understanding signage with a little guidebook is really tough.

If there's anything that I've taken away from this trip, it's that I apparently have an aptitude for languages, or at the very least a sincere interest. I managed to pick up the basics in no time and have little touble handling navigation and simple conversation. It's fun! You should try :-)

If you're interested in finding more information about the various writing types in Japan, I found this handy site that covers not only the modern usage, but the historical roots of all three types as well.

Okinawa

Frankly, I was surprised that you can't take a train to Okinawa. Of course I knew that it was an island, but I figured that Japan of all places would have tried to run a train there :-) Sadly, this wasn't the case though, so we took a train from Kyoto station to Kansai airport in Osaka and boarded a short flight to Okinawa where we met Susan's friend Yasuko (pronounced "yes-ko") who would serve as our awesome guide for the duration of our stay in Japan.

The differences between Okinawa and either of our previous destinations are night & day. Everything from climate (tropical) to urban design (far more suburban) to culture (it's like another country) is drastically different from either Tokyo or Kyoto. Where Tokyo has skyscrapers, Okinawa has decaying low-rises, instead of subways, there are highways. The presence of Americans too is staggering. There's a US air force base within the city limits and everywhere you look you see American military types with their families. It's amazing how your personal feel for safety changes as well. In Kyoto Susan watched a girl leave her laptop on a table in a Starbucks while she went to the bathroom, but that kind of thing is much less likely in Okinawa.

But outside of the city, Okinawa is surrounded with tropical forest. Yasuko drove us all over the countryside to holy shrines and sleepy little villages where we took pictures of the flora, were eaten by bugs and enjoyed the scenery. We ate at a little place called "Pizza and Sky" with an amazing view and visited a series of cottage factories where people were making glass sculpture by hand. This is the kind of thing you just can't do on your own and Yasuko made this possible. She is awesome.

Our last big stop in our Okinawa trip was the Churaumi Aquarium a massive building on the shore that plays host to hundreds of different aquatic species. There was the traditional dolphin show as well as the biggest fish tank I've ever seen. I saw a fish that was bigger than a house dude. Crazy, crazy stuff.

Going Home

All of the above took place in the space of a week. There was more of course but as it is, this post is already way too long. Japan is just fascinating. With its mountain of cute toys (Hello Kitty anyone?), ancient culture and honourable people, it's an amazing place to experience. I'll have to go back, as I just didn't have enough time for everything I wanted to see. Next time I'll have to spend more time in Tokyo and Kyoto and be sure to visit Hiroshima as well. When I do return though, I hope that Susan will come with me too. She was fun :-)

Footnotes

  1. Kyoto was actually the original seat of the Emperor from way back in the 8th Century. In fact, "Kyoto" means "capital city". It was later moved to Edo (Tokyo) in the 1800's.

March 30, 2009 17:28 +0100  |  Japan Korea 3

I may not have found the time to blog about the whole thing, but I did managed to put (nearly) all of the images from my trip up on my imager. Here they are by broken up into sets:

I'll try to post an actual recap soon.

March 13, 2009 02:48 +0000  |  Friends Japan Korea Transit Travel 4

You know, I intended on updating more often than this, but frankly my life here in Seoul hasn't been all that "epic" :-) I guess a post every 5 to 7 days will have to suffice.

Shawna & Friends

Even with Emily-Jane's poor timing in her moving back to Toronto only a week before I arrived, I've still managed to spend lots of time with friends in Seoul since Shawna moved here from Yeosu (여수시) at roughly the same time as Emily-Jane left.

Jeong-Yeon
At the end of my first day in Seoul, Jeong-Yeon and I were quite tired from our wanderings as we headed home.
Shawna and Me
Shawna and I messing around at the restaurant where I had the kangaroo.
Make Yourself Fucking Lovely
Yes this says what you think it says. It's a little clothing store in Itaewon.
Shawna's friend Paul
Paul is Shawna's really cool neighbour who babysat me for a day and speands a great deal of time with Shawna. He's a cool guy and it was nice to have met him.
Seoul City Subway turnstyles
Seoul uses a turnstyle system for it's underground. You can buy a Tmoney card and charge it up with Won, which is later automatically debitted by these two-way machines. Billing is based on distance travelled rather than Toronto's one-price-for-all or Vancouver's zone system.
A Korean washing machine
This is Shawna's washing machine. If you had only a week's worth of clothes to your name, could you be sure that you knew how to operate this thing?

My first night here was shared with Shawna, her new English-teacher neighbours and an old friend from high school, Jeong-Yeon (whom I visited last time I was in Seoul). We ate pizza, talked about Buffy and got along swimmingly. As the week has gone on, Shawna, Paul (one of her neighbours) and I have spent a great deal of time together -- pretty much every evening has had the three of us doing something. Paul got off work early and took me around town to buy some tailor-made shirts and pick up a loner phone (call me or txt me! 011-82-10-8686-6551) and Jeong-Yeon did some wandering with me as well. Everyone here has been really helpful and supportive.

Some of you had expressed doubt as to my ability to survive in Korea due to my horribly picky eating habits, so I thought that I would mention that I've yet to consume any traditionally Korean food this week :-) Instead, I've enjoyed unlimited steak at a Brazilian steakhouse, some incredibly good kangaroo at a high-end restaurant & winery, french toast at a cafe down the street and ice cream at Cold Stone. Paul even brought over some gelato last night :-) Shawna has assured me though that tonight we're going out for real Korean food. I hope it's BBQ :-)

So yes, Seoul is very much an international city. Not nearly as foreigner-friendly as Berlin or even Florence, but you can see that they're making serious efforts. Unlike Yeosu, where white-folk are extremely rare, I've noticed a rough ratio of 1:40 in the subway system. Some neighbourhoods like Itaewon (이태원동) are more westernised but anyone navigate the awesome underground thanks to the excellent way-finding signs and maps throughout the city.

Quest for the Spatula

It was based on these observations that I decided to go out wandering on my own yesterday. Armed with about 60 000 원, (won) (about $52 CAD), a phrasebook, a cellphone, and some rudimentary phrases like "hello", "thank you", and "I'll take that", I went for a walk with the intention of getting lost and finding my way again. Turns out it wasn't all that hard to do both.

The plan was to return home with a new power strip for Shawna's desk, a plastic spatula (she only has a metal one for her Teflon pan) and some groceries. The power strip was tough. I walked into a hardware store to find someone who spoke just enough English to tell me how much something cost but not enough to figure out what I wanted. She handed me a pen and paper and we played pictionary for a few minutes while she bounced around the tiny store pointing at things to see if that's what I was looking for. Eventually we got it though. She asked for "one, two" and I handed her twelve-thousand won.

The rest of the trip was far less fruitful. I would walk down a street for 20 or 30 minutes passing a pharmacy, then a phone store, then a office supply store, then another pharmacy, then another phone store... repeat until exhausted. Then I'd turn a corner and it'd be the same thing, only this time with furniture stores. Who would have thought that finding a cheap plastic spatula would be so difficult? I spent much of the rest of the day just strolling through zig-zaggy streets, stopping in to corner stores looking for some salt & pepper for Shawna's kitchen or some cooking oil but nothing was more elusive than that damned spatula... so I gave up and got on the subway, deciding to favour the entropy approach: I picked a station that didn't look to be too far away (I was getting tired) and hopped on.

서울

There wasn't much at Nakseongdae Station (낙성대역) either but as I was sitting there waiting for the subway I started to realise that I understanding Korean writing really isn't all that hard. The name station name Nakseongdae was written on a support beam just above the Korean and without thinking I began sounding out the script. Once you understand the basic composition of the vowels and syllables, everything seems elementary. Once on the subway, I began scanning the map looking for other station names I could pronounce -- it was awesome. I can't say that I understand Korean yet, but it's a hell of a thing to feel that click in your brain when you at least start down that path.

Software

My only regret so far (and frankly, this isn't that big of a deal) is that I've not had much time to work on my own technical stuff. I wanted to finish my password-tracking program so it could handle groups, or learn more about Django but neither of those have happened. I've done a lot of relaxing though and that, more than anything else is what I've needed lately.

Susan is arriving from Daegu (대구) tonight and she'll be staying here at Shawna's with me and Soomi. This tiny little place is going to be a full house, but not for long -- Susan and I will be getting on an early flight out of here to Tokyo in the morning. Then begins the really foreign part of my trip :-)

March 11, 2009 01:08 +0000  |  Geek Stuff Korea Web Development 0

I know that I'm in Korea and I "should" be out seeing the sites, but I have to explain that the primary reason for my visit here was less to see Seoul and more to see Shawna and just... relax. Since Shawna works during the day, I took the morning and after noon off to just do nothing yesterday and today I'm catching up on my crazy-sized email backlog. I'll be going out around 11am though with a friend of Shawna's to do some exploring and pick up a temporary phone.

For the moment though, I just wrote a rather long email to my uncle to help him with his Google ranking and figured that since this was the second time I've had to go through all of this with someone, that it might be a good idea to post it all here for future reference. If you think that I've missed anything, please let me know and I'll update.

Google bases your page rank on a few things: linkage, content, and formatting. I believe that it's even in that order. I'll explain one at a time.

Linkage

The number of links to your site and the ranking of the origin sites. So for example if "Bob's blog" links to you, that link is worth significantly less than if it were from Amazon.com or Slate etc. More links is better, and Google will even attribute the content of the origin site to your own. In other words, if a site about Pizza links to you, Google will assume that you have something to do with Pizza. So the best links to get are things *within your field* rather than from anywhere lest you run the risk of diluting your rank with non-relevant rankings.

Content

This is the easiest, but a lot of people miss it. First of all, so-called "rich media" isn't recognised by Google (and pretty much all other search engines too). Flash, Youtube, Silverlight etc. won't get read by Google so don't make your site dependent on such formats. Instead, lots of relevant content with links to other sites and proper use of keywords with which you want to be found.

For example, on my dad's site, he wanted to be found with the keyword "optical" but we never once used it on his site. Instead, we used "optician". As a result, he was #1 for "optician Kelowna" but had no mention for "optical".

It's also important to note that grammar is important. You can't just fill up the page with abnormal uses of keywords you for which want to be indexed. Google pays very smart people a lot of money to write code that will recognise poor-grammar-as-planted-keywords so don't mess with a good thing. The truth of it is that if you have a good site with relevant content, people will find you, link to you and your rank will improve over time.

Format

Back when I was in school we were taught that the format of your code was relevant to your search ranking. I'm not sure of how true this is anymore but it's a good practise nonetheless. Do put headers in header tags (<h1>..<h6>), put text in the alt="" portion of your <img> tags and don't try to screw with them by putting a bunch of keywords in a text block and then hide it by making the text the same colour as the background or by hiding the box altogether. They hate that and their scripts catch you, you risk being delisted.

Lastly, a handy thing to do is to install Google Analytics. It will do fun stuff like track page hits by hour, week, and month as well as give you country of origin stats, search engine references etc. It's awesome and it's free (as in beer, not Freedom).

March 09, 2009 00:46 +0000  |  Korea 1

So I landed in Seoul last night, so I thought that I'd post here to let you all know that I'm ok, baggage arrived etc. and Shawana was waiting at the airport for me. Let me just say that this trip was considerably less stressful than my last visit to Korea -- even the jet lag was less painful.

For those interested, I appear to have avoided the worst of the jet lag by being sure to take a mid-afternoon flight out of Vancouver. I arrived at ICN after a 12hr flight at about 6pm local time. By the time I got to sleep Shawna's I was exhausted but still mobile as it was only 4am-ish Vancouver time. Today, I woke up around 8am local time and I feel relaxed and well rested. All is good.

Well there is some bad: Shawna's internet connection here doesn't seem to like my laptop. There's a flaky unencrypted wireless connection around here called "default" but I've only be able to get on that once and her hard-line connection... I'm not sure if it's DSL or cable or what, but it doesn't like me. I'll poke Shawna's brain some more when she gets home but until then my laptop won't be online which means no shell access, no email and no Skype. For now I must blog on Shawna's Windows laptop (ew).

Jeong-Yeon and I are about to go out for breakfast, so I must go, I just wanted to check in and say "hi" to you all :-)

March 05, 2009 07:11 +0000  |  Family Friends Japan Korea Linux Python Scrubby Travel 4

It's true. I'm still alive, though I couldn't blame you if you'd considered otherwise. I've been neglecting this blog of late. Actually, I've been neglecting most of my life lately but soon, very soon, I shall have a break and I wanted to get this Long List of Stuff out of the way before that happens so here goes:

Carmen

A little over a month ago, I attempted to expand my cultural horizons by taking in My First Opera at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I accompanied Margaret, Dianna, and Aisha to the show and like good opera-goers we dressed up pretty for the night, then quietly mocked the yahoos who felt that jeans and a tshirt was appropriate.

For my part, I can't say that I really enjoyed the opera. (Sorry Diana). I didn't hate it either though. Frankly, it didn't do much for me at all. I found much of the music frustratingly simple when compared to a symphony or even broadway show, and the characters completely unbelievable. The emotion they conveyed (quite brilliantly I admit) didn't make any sense when the story seemed so trivial. I guess Opera just isn't for me.

I still have trouble getting over the fact that they would hold something like an opera in a venue that doesn't really lend itself to acoustic projection. The QE Theatre, while quite functional as a normal theatre, doesn't hold a candle to the acoustics you find in The Orpheum, yet they hold rock concerts in the latter and opera in the former. This makes no sense to me.

Choir

Not too long after my night at the opera, I went to my first choir practise in years. Simple Gifts, a local amateur choir run by Ieva Wool and for the most part, I liked them. The people I sang with had talent, the director was patient and helpful and overall everyone in the room seemed to really enjoy the whole experience. The only negatives were the average age of the singers (~50ish) and the fact that the practise was held on Tuesday nights... I had no idea how tiring a regular weekday practise from 7:30 - 9:30 would be, but it was.

I had the opportunity to try out the choir for two practises before I decided whether or not I was "in" or not, and the decision of whether or not to keep going came down to a simple gut feeling: I was just too tired. That is, the idea of going to choir on Tuesday felt more like a responsibility ("you're going to like, this so you have to go") as opposed to a joy ("yay! choir!"). I chalked it up to the general energy level of the choir (dear gods I miss Mr. Rhan sometimes) and my own energy reserves at the end of my work day. I just couldn't give anymore, so I declined to join.

If my situations changes for the next "term", I'll drop in again and give it another go, but for now, I just didn't feel like I was getting what I needed out of it.

The Super Secret Project

My father is an Idea man. Much like myself, he has new ideas all the time, though the difference between us is that his ideas are usually profit-driven while mine remain the betterment of mankind-types. His latest idea however has been snowballing into a full-blown project and will likely launch this year. Through the life cycle of his this beast, he's been coming back to me asking questions about how he could do "x" and I would work out with him roughly how everything would work... well it's time, now he wants me to build it.

I've done some research and it looks like I'll be installing Gentoo Linux on one of these running a really cool Python script I wrote that captures mouse clicks and logs stuff to the database and then pushes said data over the Internet to a master server via one of these things. It's gonna be fun.

Korea and Japan

And now for the big one: I'm going to Korea on Saturday and then to Japan on the 14th, then home by the 22nd. It's gonna be frickin' cool. My friend Susan, who's currently teaching English in Daegu, Korea was looking for company for a Japan trip and I jumped at the chance (finances be damned!). The way I see it, Japan is too foreign a country for me to be comfortable exploring on my own, and frankly, few of my friends have the money or the interest in making the trip. This opportunity was too rare to pass up... and so I go!

It looks like th total cost of flights, trains and accommodation will be in the neighbourhood of $3000CAD which may sound crazy high but you have to remember that it is the other side of the world -- the two trans-Pacific flights alone make up 50% of that sum.

It'll be fun to hang with Susan though -- we never spent enough time together when we were both in Toronto, so this will give us time to catch up :-) She has her heart set on a traditional costuming thing that they do regularly in a park in Tokyo, and I'm really stoked about both riding the subway in there and visiting the Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto... no, I don't know if they have tours, but I don't care. I just want my picture in front of the Nintendo sign :-)

I'm currently taking orders for stuff people want me to bring back, so if you want on the list, just drop me a comment. Also, if you think that there's something I should see out that way, let me know and I'll try to add it to our itinerary. The cities I'll be in are: Seoul, Daegu (maybe), Tokyo, Kyoto, Okinawa City, and Naha.

Alright, I figure that makes up for my rather long absence. I'll try to be more studious when I'm blogging on the other side of the planet :-)

November 30, 2007 09:47 +0000  |  Korea 'Round-the-World Travel 5

The view from N. Seoul Tower

So I mention in passing that I have pictures of my Korea trip on my website today and then realise: "wait a sec, I haven't actually put them *live* yet..." So I just set them up now.

Most of my favourites made it into my final RtW post, but there's still a bunch of pretty ones in there if you're interested. Emily-Jane, you feature prominently (obviously), as does Jeong-yeon, though I don't think she reads this site.

Here are the categoires:

And now that it's almost 2am, I'm going to bed. More interviews tomorrow and then a trip to Kelowna to see the parents and get some of my packed stuff out of boxes. Internet will be sketchy there, so don't expect to hear from me while I'm gone eh?

November 27, 2007 00:01 +0000  |  Korea 0

Shawna just informed me that Yeosu, Korea has won the World Expo bid! Apparently, there were fireworks at 5:30am in the little town to celebrate.

Anyway, knowing to what lengths the town has gone to to win the fair, I'm really quite happy for them so I wanted to share :-)

Oh, and John Howard, the bigoted Prime Minister of Australia got his ass handed to him in the polls.

Generally, it's been a good couple days on planet Earth... unless of course you live in Morocco or happen to be a racist war hawk ;-)

November 16, 2007 12:54 +0000  |  Korea 'Round-the-World Travel 13

I'd like to preface this post with the following statement: I have awesome friends. Seriously, Shawna, Emily-Jane and Jeong-Yeon hadn't seen me in over 2years and in the short time I spent in Korea I was practically treated like the Pope (but in a good way). You were all wonderful to me -- thank you so much for making my time in such a foreign place so amazing.

I'd also like to mention that I have a lot of pictures that I want to include here so this post is likely to be long. If you're committed to reading it all, you've been warned.

Charity & Emily-Jane in the Secret Garden Emily-Jane was born in the year of the Pig Shawna was born in the year of the Monkey The daylighted river by night Emily-Jane in front of the river The fish tickle when they eat you Jeong-Yeon is much prettier when she looks like herself Jeong-Yeon's friend was pretty and this picture came out just right Little locks were affixed to the chainlink fence atop the Seoul Tower The Seoul subway system I never really got to taste it, it just scalded my mouth This was pretty A view of Seoul from the N. Seoul Tower

Leaving Yeosu

So when I left you, I was preparing to leave the little town of Yeosu for the bigger, shinier city of Seoul. I was glad to be getting out of there frankly -- not because I have anything against Yeosu or my superawesome host, but... well... Yeosu's small. It's car dependent and pretty insular. White people are gawked at etc. Actually, it's kinda like a Korean Langley -- it's even got the Christian dominance down ;-)

But I still like Yeosu better than Langley :-)

Oh, and before I forget, I forgot to mention that Shawna and I are internet famous now thanks to one of her co-teachers who writes for an independent paper in Korea. I have no idea what the site says, but there's pictures!

So, after one last day of relaxing in Korea's Turtle Ship capital, Shawna and I boarded the 11pm bus to Seoul which would have us meet up with her friend Charity in Seoul at 4am the following morning. It's a 5hour trip for 30000₩ or a 45min flight for 66000₩ and while I would have rather flown (I don't sleep well in transit) the others couldn't do the same so I bit the bullet and agreed.

Tangent: Systemic Racism

Something that really surprised me was how racist Korea seems to be. I'd read about the problems Emily-Jane had run into but figured that they were isolated incidents but sadly, this appears to not be the case. Koreans are very passionate about how great Korea is, but at the same time, they appear to be deeply distrusting of foreigners. Business often reject non-Korean visitors and something as simple as taking money out of an ATM tends to be restricted to the few key machines available around town.

The simplest form of this exclusionary behaviour would be how we tried to book our bus tickets online. The bus company's website has an English side and Korean side, but only the Korean side allows online bookings. Shawna can understand Korean though, so she just hopped on the useful side of the site and proceeded to order our tix... until she got to the spot where you had to input your Korean citizen card number. A valid credit card was not enough, nor was a residence card. No, you have to be Korean to book your seats ahead of time. Foreigners can find out what's left when they get to the station.

Most of the people I met there either don't know about this (as they're not foreigners, they don't notice these things) or don't think that it's a very big deal. Shawna didn't seem to have a problem with it (maybe she's used to it) and Emily-Jane has come to bitterly expect it. I however was furious. This kind of thing would never fly in Canada. It'd be called for what it is: racist and exclusionary. Yes, I'm bitter.

Back to the Story: Seoul Day 1

Mentally foggy and weighed down by my heavy pack, I hobbled through the Seoul bus station behind a reasonably well-rested Shawna. We met up with Charity, hopped on the subway, and made our way through Seoul's subway system to Emily-Jane's house where we were met with smiles, coffee, bacon and eggs... at 6am. That Emily-Jane is frickin' awesome.

They let me get an hour or two of sleep before we headed out to see the city. Shawna and Charity were only here for the weekend and there was a lot to see.

After meeting up with Shawna's cousin (totally green at teaching English in Korea), we toured the city, hitting a series of temples complete with nifty statues and burial sites. As is the case with most old stuff in this country, the Japanese invaded and burned the majority of these buildings to the ground years ago, so what we were looking at were recreations, but pretty nonetheless. I'll have more pics in my imager soon.

We rounded out the day with dinner in a western bar (I had a burger! After 2 burger-free months, it tasted amazing) where we met a friend of Charity's. Then, on to a boat cruise up the river that divides Seoul. The city of roughly 10million is split evenly on either side of this river and as such there are a number of bridges cris-crossing it's banks making for an interesting tour. We got some nice sights which unfortunately don't come out well on my camera so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Shawna / Emily-Jane handoff

All four of us crashed at Emily-Jane's that night, but Shawna and Charity had to get back to their respective towns so the following day, Shawna left me for home and I started on the final leg of my trip: the big scary city of Seoul.

Emily-Jane gave me a mini tour my first day, and over the days that followed, we showed each other around the city. I'd heard of the Cheonggyecheon, a river here in Seoul that had been daylighted and so Emily-Jane talked to a few information booths for me until we got what we needed. There's a picture here for you, and I've got some more ready for my imager, but seriously, you've gotta see it for yourself. They've really done a great job cutting nature into the city like that. The river is a few kilometres long, includes trees, brush and yes, fish. It's the original river, dug up from under the city and prettied-up to make it a great place to hang out at night.

Throughout the rest of the week Emily-Jane took me from landmarks to malls, all the while getting me used to the crazy-sized subway system (300+ stations! To give you some concept of scale, Toronto has about 43). We saw a movie (Beowulf -- it was horrible), had some tasty food (Coldstone!) and some less-than-tasty, yet more cultured food (Shabu-shabu). I even ate octopus! Or rather I tried, but it burned my lip so bad, I still have the sores as I write this.

To give Emily-Jane a break (and to let her go to work as she'd called in sick to spend time with me once already) I met up with Jeong-Yeon for two of my days in Seoul. She took me to a photo shoot (she needs professional pics for her career), where I was introduced to "doctor fish". These fish live in a tank where people put their bare feet and the fish nibble at the dead skin etc. Apparently, it's pretty big in Turkey and it's gaining ground Korea. How does it feel? Kinda like there's a hundred little fish chewing on your feet actually: ticklish ;-)

Jeong-Yeon also introduced me to her jazz friends (big band) and I got to see them perform for a paying gig. I took some more pictures there of her and her friends but only a few came out due to the low light. After that, Emily-Jane met up with us and after some fooding, I returned to Emily-Jane's. We sorta developed a pattern for my time there. The day was her working and my sightseeing, the evenings something simple like karaoke (Emily-Jane is frickin' high-larious in the mic), then a late-night movie (purchased from a fake-DVD vendor on the street for 2000₩). Dude, I bought so many DVDs on this trip. Most of them anime! It was really wonderful to spend time with Emily-Jane this time around. Back when we lived in Toronto, I don't think we spent nearly enough one-on-one time and now I feel like we're closer because of it. ...and she's so damned pretty! It's tough not to be in a good mood in the morning when you wake up to that smile :-)

Final Days

I ended up extending my trip by a couple days thanks to Jeong-Yeon and Emily-Jane's coaxing and used that time in much the same way the rest of the week had unfolded. I managed to navigate the subway labyrinth flawlessly to make the 120min trip to Jeong-Yeon's side of the city and visit the hospital where she's doing her post-accident physio, and then get all the way back to Gunpo (Emily-Jane's neighbourhood) in time for a dinner party at a home of one of Emily-Jane's friends watching (wait for it) Project Runway Canada. Of course I was only told that I was going to her friend's house for a dinner shindig (nice one Emily-Jane!) but despite the lameness inherent in such a trivial show, it was still fun. Her friends are super cool.

I wrapped up my final day with the intention of going to Youngsan electronics market to buy a new media player (Cowan D2 8GB baby!) but halfway there I realised that I didn't have enough time in my day to do everything I wanted so I abandoned the toy in favour of ordering one online later. I did some shopping at E-mart (Walmart for Koreans as Walmart FAILED there), cleaned up Emily-Jane's place some, packed up my stuff and headed to the airport... where my flight was delayed for four hours.

Observations

So that's pretty much my whole trip. I thought that I would finish this post off with a big list of observations about Korea as I was compiling a multi-page booklet based on the weirdness I ran into day to day there. It should be noted though that these are just that: observations so it's entirely possible that I don't have my facts straight. I only write what I see. It should also be noted that as cracked-out as I think the country is, I still love Korea.

  • Korea appears to suffer from a small cartel of companies running the whole country behind the scenes. Everywhere you look, the buildings you're in, the escalator you're on, the phone you're using, the gas you're pumping, the car you're driving, the bank you're visiting... it's all owned by one of a few brands: Samsung, LG, KT, SK, Hyundai.
  • Fish cookies do indeed exist, and they're sold on the streets of both Yeosu and Seoul.
  • Commercial business on multiple floors of a building is a common sight in Korea. While the ground floor may play host to a shoe shop and convenience store, the second floor could be a bar, the third a karaoke room, the fourth, a DVD room, the fifth floor host to a Gumdo gym.
  • DVD rooms are cool. Instead of renting a flick and taking it home to your crappy system, check out a DVD room and for 10000₩ you get a small theatre for two on leather couches.
  • Yeosu, and to a lesser extent Seoul, suffers from a skilled labour surplus. Kids go to school, work their asses off for 16hours/day, get into university and emerge with impressive degrees... and they pick up garbage because that's the only job available.
  • Koreans still burn garbage. They don't appear to see this as a problem.
  • In Yeosu especially, it's tough to find a local restaurant with chairs. Sitting cross-legged is the norm, and if you're 180cm tall with knees that don't like to be crossed, tough luck.
  • The streets are chaotic. Drivers regularly run red lights and speed in Yeosu. Pedestrians are not afforded much.
  • Due to a parking shortage, all cars must have a phone number available on the dash so that when you double-park, you can be easily contacted to move your vehicle.
  • Most of the cars you see are riddled with add-ons and upgrades. From the simplest (a wider rearview mirror) to the more elaborate talking GPS navigators and sensors at the back to tell you how far you are from the curb, there is a considerable amount of money and technology in these things.
  • Cars are very much a mainstay of transportation. Even in a city like Seoul, with a subway system as impressive as theirs, a massive number of people commute by car.
  • No one pulls over for ambulances. If you're dying, you might wanna call a cab instead. They might have better luck getting through the city quickly.
  • Yeosu is host to a series of obnoxious night clubs that advertise themselves by driving trucks sporting golden mascots around town blasting music.
  • The vast majority of commercial stores sell mobile phones. Seriously, it's pretty much cell phones, convenience store, hair salon, cell phones, convenience store, hair salon... etc.
  • Txting is preferred over actually calling someone.
  • Mobile phones are WAY cooler. Emily-Jane's sports an interactive subway map, English/Korean translator and unit converter. Shawna's talks when you open it, and Jeong-Yeon's actually does video conferencing.
  • You can sign up for a service there that sends your cellphone a text message whenever your credit card is used. How cool is that?
  • The Mobile network is not world-friendly. That is to say, phones you buy in Korea work in Korea... and only Korea.
  • Boiling tap water is far and away the norm.
  • Food is shared from a common plate. That is to say, you don't have a plate of your own and so everyone's saliva-coated chopsticks are jabbed into the common food bowls. This, from a nation so afraid of germs that its citizens often walk around outside in face masks.
  • There is a definite culture of service. People serve others at the table as a matter of course, and the service sector is really wonderful. Everywhere you go, someone is bowing at you.
  • $1 = 1000₩. This means that there is no such thing as fractional prices. Also, taxes (VAT) is always included so your bill is usually a very round number.
  • Systemic Racism (see above)
  • While people drive on the right side of the road, they walk on the left side of the hall.
  • Respect for your elders is built right into the language. Instead of addressing an old man with a friendly "hello", Koreans say "adge-i-shee" (old man) or "adge-i-ma" (old woman), a term of respect.
  • Fan Death, that is, being suffocated to death by running a fan in a closed room is a common fear among Koreans. Many people won't run a fan, or even an air conditioner (!!) in a closed room. As a result, all fans in Korea come equipped with a timer to prevent such a horrific occurrence.
  • Emily-Jane gets a secret discount for being cute in the open market from time to time.
  • Buildings new and old are often equipped with various energy-saving technologies like auto-on lights, heated flooring, and manual/instant water heating. Other nifty things include convenience store refrigerators that play classical music when you forget to close the door all the way.
  • Individually wrapping things that have already been group wrapped is common.
  • Some of Seoul's subways sport a cool light-up map that shows you where on the subway line you are.
  • Christians are everywhere. In what used to be a predominantly Buddhist country, you see little red neon crosses absolutely everywhere. They're aggressively attacking the population, with missionaries in the streets trying even to convert foreigners with their pamphlets of propaganda.
  • Seoul shares it's subway system with freight trains that use the tracks to deliver stuff throughout the city.
  • Seoul has made available online a downloadable, updateable transit map that you can install on your cellphone, PDA or laptop.
  • Since most phones in Korea use the same power adaptor, public charging stations are available in train stations and on the trains themselves. There are also numerous commercial stores that offer a charging service for a fee.
  • Seoul's transit system is managed by an in and out turnstyle system. You use your ticket to get on and off the train. Costs are based on distance, so if you pay 1300₩ for a trip that should cost 1500₩, you can't leave the station without paying more.
  • Korean tallying notation is different. I can't reproduce it in this format, but trust me, it's nifty.
  • Number pads at ATMs are inconsistent. That is to say, some pads run 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 and others run 7 8 9 4 5 6 1 2 3. This proposes a problem if you haven't memorised your pin code, so much as the pattern which it makes on said number pad.
  • They love Anne of Green Gables but many have no idea where in Canada it actually is.
  • Korean hospitality is awesome. So long as they know that you love Korea, they buy/serve you food, give you money and will talk your ear off about Korean history.
  • Advertising often features white models when anyone who's tried to shop there knows that a white person would never fit the clothes advertised.
  • You don't wait for waiters in restaurants. Instead you call them over or in some cases, there's a button on the table to summon the wait staff.
  • There are large barriers at the edges of streets and subway platforms to help the blind find their way and not get hurt.
  • The Seoul subway has designated door-opening spots where the subway always stops. This, when the trains are human-driven.

Closing and Future

So yeah, that's my take on Korea. The next 50years will probably be pretty exciting over there. On the one hand you have this time-hardened culture of geritocracy and service plagued with insular racism, and on the other you have fanatical Christian missionaries trying to fuck up I mean, fix a culture that isn't broken. Along with that you're getting Western influences like everyone-for-themselves capitalism and a massive influx of foreigners. Korea's going to change... a lot. I just hope that it does it well.

November 13, 2007 16:40 +0000  |  Korea 'Round-the-World Travel 3

...on the 14th that is. I've decided to extend my stay in Seoul, Korea 'till the 16th 'cause I like it here so much and I feel like there's more to see. Besides, Emily-Jane and Jeong-Yeon are too cool to fly all the way here and see them for so little time.

So yeah, if you were planning on dropping by YVR to say hi on the 14th, don't 'cause well... I won't be there :-)

Update: Itinerary

For those who have asked, here's my new itinerary.