Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Joseon is pronounced Cho-son and other adventures

Yesterday, I made a very long day of a visit to Seoul.  I took the KTX bullet train, which is pleasant and fast.  It's also remarkably cheap.  It's an hour to Seoul station and the cost translates to about $25 -- about half of what a similar trip in Japan would cost.  Rather than switch the seats depending on which way the train is running so that they all face front, half the seats face front and half face rear, with one set in the middle with a table in between.  All seats are reserved, and there is a handy button for "English" (for that read Romaji, or the western alphabet) so that one can actually use the vending machines with no difficulty.  Electronic reader boards switch between Hangol and Romaji, so there's no difficulty about determining what track to head for, and any delays -- which were always a matter of a very few minutes -- are clearly shown.  They also announce in Korean and English.  The train is nice, clean and very fast.  One can check luggage.  The seat pitch is a little tighter than in Japan, but that's offset by being able to check bags.
In Pusan/Busan -- the pronunciation is halfway in between -- the subways announce in four languages -- Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English -- so I had a 50% chance of actually understanding the announcements.  In Daejeon (Tay-jon), the subways do announce in English and Korean, but the volume is very soft.  They have helpful TV screens that announce in print, if you can see them, and in the middle of each car, a lighted map shows where you are and the direction of travel.  Romaji is everywhere in the train and subway systems, including the vending machines.
In Daejeon, you get a token that you use to get through the turnstiles.  In Seoul, you get a card, on which you pay a deposit.  You can get the deposit back by returning the card to a machine just outside the exit, and the turnstile (electronic gate, really) reminds you to do so.
The train and subway systems are remarkably easy to navigate, once you have figured out where you are going.
However, Korean is pronounced nothing like the way it is spelled, as I discovered my first trip.  I haven't been here enough to know the rules, but they seem to have no logic comprehensible to me.  I've heard that the romanization of Asian languages is often set up to make absolute phonetic sense to a native speaker of the language.  If you're not, ask people to please write the name phonetically for you, or say it several times so you can.  Seoul, for example is Shi-ol.
People talk and use their phones on the subways and trains, and cluster in groups walking and using their phones.  This is a problem because they walk slowly when using their phones.  I haven't got my big-city legs back totally yet, but I am much faster than someone staring at her or his phone.  In Korea, the manners are more American than anything, and one dodges, shoves and wouldn't dream of letting people get off the subway before charging on.  Queues are a mystery, even where the painted lines indicate people should line up.
Did I mention the stairs?  Near as I can tell, Koreans LOVE stairs.  They are everywhere!  Lots of them!  In many stations, there are escalators and elevators in some places, and sometimes there are even signs pointing to them, but there are entire stations where finding the "Way Out" you want means three or even four flights of stairs with no other options.  Signs end once you've achieved street level, in my experience, so that can be a problem, unless what you want is obvious or there is an information booth nearby.
Tuesday, I went to an area known for hot springs, which boasts a (crammed) free public foot bath and an entire hot spring theme street.  Maps aren't oriented by direction in Asia, so the top isn't always north.  The tourist information booth had the map of the street on two separate sheets, which could be put next to each other for a complete map.  Unevenly.  However, the nice lady wrote upside down on one, and that made navigation problematic, as did the fact that there is no common symbol used here to indicate "hot spring."  However, even with no Korean -- Japanese isn't useful here like it was in Busan/Pusan, except at the hotel, and there isn't much English at all -- once I found a spa, I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It isn't nearly as formal as a Japanese one.  Everybody talks constantly.  Sometimes buttons work; sometimes they don't.  There was a children's pool, temperatures were clearly marked, and nobody cared one bit that two little girls -- having a ball -- were running on the wet floors as they carried toys from pool to pool.  That was great fun!
Seoul is full of palaces, museums and sights to see.  Many are clustered around the National Palace Museum, which makes life easier.  Except for the stairs.  These are center around the Joseon era, which ended in the early 20th century when the King of Joseon decided he would become the Emperor of Korea.

Public art in Korea is nothing new.  Angry Grandfather here is from Jeju Island, off the southwest corner of Korea.  The tradition there is to place an Angry Grandfather statue at the entrance to a village to frighten away evil spirits and other marauders.  There are plenty more pictures on my FB timeline.  I once again am having trouble importing photos to where I want them.  He says some interesting things about Korean grandfathers, doesn't he?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

On the road again: Daejeon

There's a little glitch in visa-land.  I had to leave Japan quickly, for a (I hope) very short while.  The last bit of paper I need SHOULD arrive shortly (via overnight express from my lawyer in Japan).  Then I SHOULD be able to go to the Embassy/Consulate in Seoul and get the actual visa within a few days.  

I am in Daejeon, Korea.  It's quick, it's cheap and I was able to get in. Remember when you used to be able to obtain show-up-and-get-it 90 day tourist visas most anywhere?  Since the US doesn't do that any more (you have to fill out forms months in advance and be pre-cleared now) other countries are doing likewise.  Finding someplace that would simply take me was no longer a "where would I like to go?" sort of thing.  Those who have suggestions about where I should go or stay should please recall they needed to make those suggestions three months ago -- before I even knew I had to go!

Of course, this whole trip is complicated by the winter Olympics, and Seoul is packed.   Daejeon is the D.C. of ROK, and on their KTX (bullet train) line.  It's a place in its own right with stuff to do, and if you take the train, it's 45 minutes to downtown Seoul. NOT expensive, either. In fact, Korea is mostly remarkably cheap, except for the big Western chain hotels, which are insanely expensive.  There is, however, another side to that story.

Remember the Knight Bus from Harry Potter? THAT is what I rode from the airport to get here, after being assured by the nice Information people (and Koreans are very nice and helpful) that was the best way! Cheapest, for sure, at about $15, for nearly 3 hours of jerking, squealing, swaying, rickety-rackety adventure, with a 10 minute break at a truck stop that boasted a Dunkin' Donuts and, it very nearly seemed, no restrooms.

I am staying at a comfortable and convenient Toyoko Inn (where they speak Japanese, highly useful since I speak no Korean and few speak English beyond a few words).  Aside from the wildly expensive Western and Western-style chain hotels, there are gazillions of hostels, guest houses and mini-tels all over the place. I tried one in Pusan last November.  Not very nice, though clean. Endless flights of stairs. Broken, inadequate furniture. Most display the "Onsen" sign to get out of having private baths.  This one looked great on a major travel site, though, and they are a "chain" that uses the internet well.  Neither the neighborhood nor the stairs worked for me at all.  I was able to move to a Toyoko Inn by Pusan station for only a little more ($10 a day or so, for a total of about $45), rather than a big Western or Western-style chain for 10X+ the price -- $450 - $500+ per night -- and liked it. I am paid up here for a week. There is no way I could work in a hostel, and I do need to work.  Books?  Deadlines?  Publishing?  You know, what I DO. 

This visa thing is so frustrating. I am way behind. I have even negotiated the cleaning here so I don't have to be out all day, which is usual in hotels in Asia. So perhaps my time here won't be a total waste. Most of the sights are beautiful views (it is pretty here) with not much to do. I have a good book with museum listings. A few have exhibits (not just documents) and sound interesting. I will get to those. There are a few Moroccan journalists here for the Olympics, also due to the dearth of rooms and inability to share bunk beds in a dorm like backpacking college students (those are full, too, however.)

We bonded over attempting to get vegetarian food. I had forgotten I can use my phone to translate. They had not!  Hurray!

No cream or milk for coffee (but a huge fancy machine), no salt, no tofu, white sandwich bread for toast, undercooked black beans, black bean and sesame seed rice, also slightly undercooked, and NO FREAKING TEA of any description. You get a couple of bags in your room each day, though. I didn't care much for Korean tea, so I brought my own, but not enough to share, so they are out of luck. The broccoli and carrots were good, and the green salad was fresh and fine. There was a leek and potato soup the journalists determined was vegetarian, and it was excellent. And SALTY -- so they actually DO have salt in this country! Just got a text from the cell phone carrier. They offer a somewhat limited translation service (weekdays during business hours) in many languages, including English, Japanese and Korean. So there may be actual food here after all.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Modern Japan & Language Learning

This was so cute, I have to write about it.  The photos are on the TGSB facebook page because I can't get them to upload here.  Well, here's one of them, anyway.

The other night, I left The Cupboard Over The Stairs and saw a most marvelous sight.

It was a motor scooter with a heated food delivery box on the back.  It's a lousy picture, but it sure is cute.

It was from McDonald's!

So, naturally, I had to run inside to grab my iPhone to take a picture of such a wonder, and got there just at the same time as the delivery driver returned.  Being Japanese, he had to tell me all about it.  He was very proud of this service, which is new, and not common.  This delivery service is from the McDonald's at Meguro station.  You can telephone or go online to place an order, but you must connect with this store directly, as not all of them have this service.  This one only delivers in Meguro, so he can't go just anywhere.  There is a delivery fee of 300 yen.  People really like it and he enjoys delivering food to hungry people!

Oh -- he also told me about Uber Delivers, which is a service provided by Uber.  Basically, you can call a restaurant, any restaurant, order take-away and get Uber to pick it up and bring it you!  It's not 300 yen, though.

Now this doesn't seem quite as fantastic as all that, except that my Japanese listening comprehension improves every day!  There's nothing like living in a place for learning the language.

Monday, January 8, 2018

I love Japan!

My personal Japan isn't about samurai, chado, shinobi, ikebana and times long past that I hope to recreate in the present, ignoring current realities.  I'm no weeaboo -- one who loves everything Japanese merely because it IS Japanese.  I live in the modern world.  In modern Japan.

The Toki-girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, though, is set in the Meiji era and explores the history and events through which Japan came into the modern world through the lives and adventures of common, though unusual, humans and other beings.  The series examines the culture and character that allowed Japan to make the incredible leap from a decaying feudalism to a first-world power and that persists to this day, permeating the people and the society so deeply they hardly sense it, in the context of personal stories and adventures.  

Yesterday, I went to Sensho-ji, an enormous tourist temple in Asakusa, not far, as it happens, from SkyTree.  It's in the old Edo part of this enormous city and preserves traditional businesses, customs and foods for the benefit of locals as well as tourists.  Tourist temples, on the whole, make me sad because the few people who are trying to practice any form of Buddhism (or Shinto, as they often are coupled with shrines, as is this one) are crowded out by noisy hordes eager to see the architecture and art and to shop.  Sensho-ji's shopping streets and arcades, though, are great fun. 

It was Coming-of-Age day, a holiday recognizing those who have turned 20 as legal adults.  Many wear traditional costumes -- the girls in fancy kimono and the boys in hakama were charming to watch -- and come to shrines, temples and other public forums for ceremonies and public recognition.  Then, as one might expect, they all go out and party!  

I was there to shop, for research purposes.  I remembered a couple of wigmakers there who sell modern wigs as well as theatrical wigs for Kabuki and Noh; wigs for real, professional geisha; costume wigs; wedding wigs, and also display historic wigs.  Japanese wigs, by the way, are of exceptional quality.  Even those made of artificial hair are so well done it's hard to tell even by touch.  Due to the kindness of the shop assistant, I found out what I needed to know in short order, and went exploring.

Many temples and shrines have statues of traditional spirit guardians.  These include Chinese style dogs.  I saw this one outside Sesho-ji's main hall and started laughing.  It is so typical of modern Japan:  a traditional form in a modern execution, in a highly traditional location, sponsored by SOFTBANK, which is cellphone company.  It couldn't be more Japanese.  

This is particularly for author Susan Spann, who writes neatly crafted mysteries set about 300 years before the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series.  Susan's also a gifted photographer and I envy her photos of traditional sites and ancient monuments.  I, of course, am the World's Worst Photographer, but I had to take this picture (with my Softbank phone, of course.)  I do love Japan!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Attaching pictures here

I can't get them to the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook page, but they're on mine.  I am also working on getting them right here.  Let's hope it works!  Ueno castle, ninja working wear, a deer who knows where to find food at the source, a tiny shrine on the grounds of Kasuga Taisha shrine, and the main hall at Todaiji.

Maddeningly, I can't get to other photos of this trip. Try MY FB page if you want to see the Daibutsu's Giant Hands, the Shrine drums, and my snack at the Todaiji museum.  Frustrating, this.

Nara, World Heritage Sites, Tourist Temples and dinner!

Nara, definitely worth a visit, has almost as many World Heritage Sites as it has of its famous bowing, and sometimes pushy, deer. One nibbled at my teal L.L.Bean parka and also tried for a bite of my Louis Vuitton purse.  It got its nose slapped for its trouble.  Only polite deer get Shika Senbei -the special nutritious and tasty deer crackers, which are all they are supposed to be fed.
The deer are highly protected as they are said to originate from a particular famous white deer who bore a kami from Kashima Shrine to the new Kasuga Shine, founded by the Fujiwara family in the 8th Century.  The shrine is still there, still operating, and is not only a World Heritage Site, but home to many national treasures, continuing important Shinto Ceremonies and an interesting museum.  This had a display of swords when I visited it.  The swords were listed by the maker of the blade when the blade was signed.  One, a national treasure, was listed as the property of the principle kami of the shrine, who presumably was not displeased at its display.  There was also a modern replica of one sword located during excavations, displayed next to the original.  It was gorgeous, with gems and mother of pearl on the scabbard and hilt, and of course a blade that can only be called a work of art.
There are also two gigantic taiko, one Phoenix and one Dragon, male and female, used in a ceremony in which the kami is transferred from one shine to another, at night, annually.
This being Japan, there is a well-made video of this ceremony, which beats standing out in the cold, and perhaps rain, to watch in person.  The original drums, though beautifully preserved and maintained, are now housed in the museum, and replicas are used in the ceremony.
Horyji temple includes the oldest wooden buildings in the world, dating from the early 8th Century, though it was founded in 607.  It is amazing to see the methods of construction, still used today.
In Japan, things are often closed on Mondays, including Christmas Day, which is not a holiday in Japan and generally not celebrated.  There are few Christians in Japan, and Santa, bearing fried chicken, wears thin, with Christmas vanishing overnight as the big build up to New Year's, Japan's seasonal holiday period, begins.  This was true of a number of museums that were on my list.  The National Museum was closed, to reopen January 1 with a new exhibit, for example.
Kofukuji was open, though its museum was similarly closed, and the main structure was enveloped in a superstructure to allow for renovation of this historically significant building in a protected environment.
Todaiji is the Big One.  It has what it claims is the largest temple entry gate in Japan.  I could be wrong, but Taisekiji's Sanmon is very nearly as large and of similar construction.  Todaiji's is unpainted wood, and crowded with tourists and deer.  The big attraction is the largest wooden building in the world; though it used to be larger and was reduced by one-third at its last reconstruction, it is still the record holder.  This is the home of the enormous Daibutsu, a statue of Shakyamuni, flanked by huge statues of Kannon and (I think) Amida.  This temple was founded in the 700s.  One of its museums was closed for a new exhibit, but the other was open, and out front are full-sized replicas of the hands of the Daibutsu.  The museum cafe offers very good traditional snacks.  I had o-cha and tiny lotus root buns.  Excellent!
The actual temple is filled with not only altars and a very few people trying to actually practice some form of Buddhism but also with souvenir shops (want a deer hat?  A t-shirt?), amulet sellers and fortune tellers, all wearing a Todaiji uniform.  It was impossible to tell if they were clergy or not.
To me it is very sad to see what I think of as "Tourist Temples," which are primarily viewed as places of historic significance with no actual relevance today.  Yes, it's nice to see all the tourists (mainly Chinese, from the language -- Christmas is an ordinary workday in Japan; the holidays come after New Year's) admiring the beauty, but it seems to me the purpose of the temples has been lost.  Taisekiji, home of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, is not only historic but contains important historic buildings and is also the home of an active and vibrant world religion with a consistent and singular practice since its founding.  No admission is charged, and while thousands and thousands of people visit every year, Taisekiji is not set up as a tourist attraction. Rather, it clings to the actual purpose of a Buddhist temple -- to teach Buddhism and help people attain enlightenment.
In Nara, I also visited Gangoji, which is the oldest Buddhist Temple in Japan.  Timbers and roof tiles have been dated to 588CE.  It was originally located in Asuka but was moved in 710 when the capital of Japan was moved to Nara.  Although this World Heritage site charges admission, it is also attached to a monastery where nuns and monks study and practice several forms of Buddhism, which is something I found rather confusing, but at least it felt like a working temple, and neighborhood people dropped in to pay their respects; it was not crammed with cell-phone bearing tourists and felt peaceful and nice, if confused.  It is clearly a rich temple; the buildings, gardens and grounds are beautifully kept, the museum is very good, and it is attached to the Ganjoji Research Institute for Cultural Property, which studies the various artifacts owned by the Temple and other historic sites in Nara.  One can see x-rays of early statues of Prince Shotoku, responsible for bringing Buddhism to Japan somewhere between 538 to 552CE.  The dates vary by source, but that was very long ago.  Because of this connection, the museum was very interesting.
It's hard to be a vegetarian in Japan, because dashi (fish stock) is everywhere, and I can't eat it.  But I passed a ten-don place on the way back to the station that offered vegetable ten (tempura) don (served over rice in a bowl) and I was hungry, so I stopped for dinner.  After a couple of false starts, the chefs managed to produce a delicious selection of vegetable tempura and a small jug of sake, accompanied by an irregular sauce that did not include dashi.  It was great and I was full!
I barely scratched the surface of Nara.  I've been before, and I want to return to see even more of Japan's early history and culture, carefully preserved.
Photos are still troublesome.  Please check The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook page for those.  I think I can get them there.

The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook Page

This is the main hall at Todaiji.

Trains, Ninja and Basho

Trains in Japan range from the fantastically fast Nozomi Shinkansen (2 hours and 10 minutes from central Kyoto to Shinagawa in Tokyo -- YES!  I got to ride it!) to funky little tourist trains like the one that takes you to Uenoshi station, location of Iga-ryu, on the Iga-Tanabe line.

Iga-ryu is where the largest and most famous ninja museum and show are held.  The train is a few cars, colorfully painted with ninja symbolism.  One is blue, the other pink.  I have a photo but am still having problems I can't seem to solve in uploading them here.  Please check The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook page.  I can get them there.  Mostly.
This train runs through a mountain range with rivers, campgrounds and fishing lodges as well as rice paddies and gardens, all small, and forests.  Then it descends into a large valley, where Ueno castle  rises above the plains and Iga-ryu is contained within the grounds.

Tips for navigating castles:  they are tall.  There are many stairs.  They are steep.
If you have a tendency to vertigo or wear progressive glasses, take the glasses off so you can see the stairs clearly when descending, and you might want to try going down backwards or sideways.  The views from the top are usually worth the effort.

When regarded strategically, Japanese castles are exceptionally difficult to attack, as they are positioned on high ground, with steep walls, often have moats, and have narrow entries.  Only a guerrilla force of stealth fighters could climb the walls to attack from within.

This maybe why this ninja center is so close.

However, the preferred method of attacking castles was to infiltrate a kunoichi -- a term specific for female ninja -- into the castle so that she can simply open a door.

Basho is a famous, probably the most famous, haiku poet ever.  He wandered the country writing poetry, much of which is preserved, and which serves as not only good reading material but also as a model for many students of haiku.  Though simple, just 17 syllables arranged in lines of 5-7-5, there are rules for constructing this kind of poetry.  There should be a natural image, and it should evoke and emotion.  It's not just any 17 syllables.

Basho was born right in the confines of what is now Ueno park, and his home is preserved as a museum.  Unfortunately, I don't read kanji well enough to truly appreciate the poetry in its original form but I definitely appreciate the translations.  I like formal poetry, and I often write haiku, so this was a treat!

Ueno is a word often seen in Japan.  It means "above the field," so it is a location that often occurs. These locations often back on hilly woods or mountains, so they are good places to build defensive structures like castles.  Ueno-jo is worth the trip, as is the rest of the day-long experience.

Including riding, as I did, local trains in a great circle route all around the area.  If you like trains, and I do, this is a fun way to get there.

The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook Page