Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Peninsulanter - 반도 - 농담

From the 15th – 22nd March, I enjoyed a wonderful long weekend in Seoul and Busan in South Korea with Dan-chama and Hiro-chama (though, as of now, Honda-sensei). There was some hassle in organising the trip in the first place as Dan-chama had to negotiate the politics of getting days off from a Japanese employer, and I was in the middle of making arrangements for my coming trip to the US. Still, the plan became as follows: Dan-chama and I booked super-cheap tickets on a newly open ferry service from Hakata to Busan. We would then take the high-speed train up to Seoul. Hiro-chama, having just come back to Asia from his escapades in Switzerland, France and the UK, would join us two nights later.

The ferry crossing was perfectly pleasant, though slower than we had expected. The straits of Korea, possibly the busiest shipping lane in the world, are wider than the map leads you to think. Still, you get to see – and muse upon the exploits of the inhabitants of – various tiny islands, and many huge huge cargo ships and oil rigs. The cheap Korean beer makes it go faster too.

The weekend before we set off, we had met up with Dan-chamas Korean mate from his Kanazawa days, now living in Nagasaki. Said mate brought along with him two gorgeous girls, one Korean, one Japanese, who happened to be taking the same ferry as us. The Korean girl’s dad kindly dropped us off at the station while the Japanese girl – clearly not impressed by our banter – dropped us at the station, booking a ticket for a train that she couldn’t possibly have caught in time just to escape us!

We got the 8:00 KTX to Seoul. Trains in Korea work on a trust basis, and there’s a stated policy of making very little effort to check tickets. They do, however, hire evil babies to stare suspiciously at you for the journey. They’ve seen all of your gaga-goo-goo faces before, so don’t bother.

Our original plan had been to stay in (aaaaa bawa cawa) Busan for a night, but instead we made it to Seoul, Dan-chama having booked a hostel on his i-Phone mid-sea. When we arrived, at around 11:30, the hostel had written a little note with our names on to tell us where to go (they’d upgraded us to an incredible room just around the corner). We were warmly welcomed and the facilities were incredible.

Welcome to Seoul: city of people who never sleep.

In Seoul, we stayed in two hostels. They were both exemplary: at the risk of turning this into a travel recommendation website, they were both comfortable, very welcoming and provided all kinds of facilities.
What was interesting, though, was the nature of the service. It was warm and therefore, in complete contrast to Japan, quite informal. Jake, the guy who ran the second hostel we stayed at, was a very friendly (if somewhat erratic) bloke who thought it very funny to wake me up at 11am when he knew I would have an excruciating hangover. He did, however, provide paracetamol. His dog Jelly was also a welcoming member of staff.

Korea’s crowning glory was, of course, the food. Dan-chama is something of a food expert and had wonderful places to take me and show me.

Food in Korea is considerably spicier than in Japan and much more garlic-y (ever heard of a Korean vampire?). The flavours are stronger and so are the colours, and most of it is very interactive (ie, cook it yourself), so it’s a mistake wearing any clothes when eating food in Korea because you will inevitably get it all over yourself.
Most Korean meals come with all you can eat kimchee (fermented spicy cabbage) and other sides. It’s probably among the healthiest cuisine in the world, which probably gives us a little insight into why the Koreans are possibly the most gorgeous nation on Earth too.

One of the highlights was Ddeokbokki (at least, that’s how Dan has tagged it on facebook, though I seem to remember it being pronounced something like ‘roppogi’) – a big pan full of spicy red sauce and rice sticks and whatever other delights you tick off on a list they ram in your face before they let you anywhere near. We chose cheese, beef and gyoza among others. Then, when you’re nearly done, they take away the big pan which has been cooking in front of you, then whack in some rice, sweetcorn and seaweed to mop up the juice. Mmmm. Some pictures:

The bibimbap was also wonderful.
My favourite though was the ‘sangyopsal’ (or however it should be spelled). The streets of Seoul are lined with eateries that offer meat, meat and nothing but meat (and kimchee, obviously). You sit around a table and a little old lady rocks up with a heavy metal bucket of flaming charcoals that she shoves in between you. You put the grill on and the meat starts arriving. You grill it for as long as you like and then the fun begins. Korean cuisine is nowhere near as prescriptive as Japanese (you won’t have people sniggering and laughing at you and saying how foreign you seem because you use this sauce instead of that sauce, or snap your wooden chopsticks horizontally instead of vertically, the larks!), so Korean barbecue offers a lot of possibilities. The most fun (and the messiest!) way of going about things is to get a lettuce leaf and fill it up with all kinds of treats and then just ram it in your food hole. Wash this down with beer (mixed with some Sho-ju - Korean rice wine – it’s delicious but you’ll regret it in the morning) and the meal is complete.

Bars in Korea are marginally cheaper than in Japan, but buying alcohol in convenience stores is a lot less expensive. One of the best things we had, though, was fruit flavoured makgeolli (pronounced something like ‘makkory’) cocktails. Like so many other things, wonderful at the time, a huge regret in the morning.

Fresh from the ferry, you notice immediately that the Koreans adore coffee. A bit like in Paris, every street has a couple of coffee consumeries, ready to get you caffeine up or calmed down. Many of them have the air of chains, even if they’re not (‘The Angel in Me’, for example), but some are quirky and independent and full of pretty junk.

Of all the places I have been, I have been nowhere with the same energy as Seoul. Staggering out of nightclubs at 5:30 in the morning, the streets are as buzzing with people eating and shouting and kissing and crying and getting up to all kinds of things they shouldn’t be, as if it were midnight.

Some Japanese people love to comment on how dirty and smelly Korea is. I thought, and still do to an extent, that this was a manifestation of the less than perfect relationship between the two countries; some of it’s true though. The place is covered in litter and refuse, and there is the smell of raw sewage in a lot of places. Reminds you of China.

But it’s so much more natural and alive than Japan. The architecture of the city is so much more beautiful: in Japan people find a plot of land and just build something, anything, which on its own is fine but has no relationship with the aesthetic around it. In Korea, things are congruous and it makes it much more liveable, to my mind at least.

People in Korea are wild, energetic, rude, optimistic, they kiss on the street, they wear what they want to wear. They stay up all night and are all born popstars. They standard of English is actually quite good, and I think this comes from their have-a-go hearts: when someone doesn’t know how to say something, they just babble lots of words excitedly until you know what they mean. No embarrassment here!

Korea was a wonderful, energising experience. You must all go.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

On Ongaku

Ongaku (音楽) is Japanese for music.

I think it’s fair to say that Japan has not really had a big impact on the music scene in the west. Think of Japanese music and you’ll inevitably conjure an image of decorated bamboo screens, elegant kimonos, and plucked shamisen strings. If not, it’ll be the Mario theme-tune.

Since being here, I have developed an affection for some styles of Japanese music. My favourite is enka (演歌), essentially post-war sop. In the past, I have found that learning a language is made easier by learning songs, especially soppy ballads. There is a wealth of such stuff available in French: it’s often romantic, often tragic and, in the main, of extremely high quality. I’m thinking of the best of Brel, or Aznavour or Brassens.
In Japan, it’s quite similar. The songs are often sad or over the top romantic but, I think, compelling and make you want to sing along. And they’ve done wonders for my Japanese. Here are some of my favourite Japanese songs of yester-toshi:

Kyu Sakamoto, “Ue o muite arukô” (上を向いて歩こう)
This is the only Japanese song that ever made it big in the West, under the title “Sukiyaki”. The record company was concerned that no English speaker could ever be bothered to learn to pronounce the beautiful Japanese, and gave it a title that means “beef stew”.

Misora Hibari, “Kawa no Nagare no youni” (川の流れのように) “Like the flowing of a river”.
The Japanese Maria Callas at her lung-punching best.

Japan’s most famous comedians (though originally Kyu Sakamoto), “Ashita ga aru” (“明日がある”), “There’s always tomorrow”.
Every so slightly Japanterous song about being too shy to talk to girls, a very topical problem in a Japan with an extremely low birth rate! 

These are just a few highlights, and I’m sure there’s far more to discover. I should say that I’m not a big fan of the ubiquitour “J-pop” that many in Japan go crazy over. Anyway, if you want pretty and preened people, K-pop (Korean pop) does it miles better anyway!

Arty Farty

Need I say more...? : http://www.broadsheet.ie/2012/02/20/japanese-fart-wars/

Girls' Day

On the 3rd March, it is “Hinamatsuri” which is usually called “Girls’ Day” but can be translated as “Cuteness Festival”.
My impression is that this festival is not a terribly big deal but - as with most things here - has a long but largely unknown history. Often when I ask a Japanese person to explain the origins or the purpose of a festival I get contradictory information, or the sorry admission of ignorance.

I had imagined Girls’ Day as being a hyper-feminine celebration of the womanly, along the lines of the Roman Bona Dea, men being forbidden to witness and thereby pollute the mysteries. Not so…
Happily, in class yesterday, Ikehara-sensei was on hand to explain. The information sheet she gave us describes it like this:
The original festival, mentioned in The Tale of Genji, written at the beginning of the 11th Century, was to protect people from evil. Everyone made his own statue or doll; wrote his name on it, and floated it down a stream, hoping evil fortune would float away with the statue.
In the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1867), people made elaborate dolls that they displayed only on red-felt-carpeted special steps inside the house, as can be commonly seen today.The set is made up of fifteen dolls in formal classical court costumes: Emperor and Empress on the top, three ladies in waiting, five musicians, two retainers and three guards. Two bonbori lanters, a miniature cherry blossom and an orange tree lend a festive air on the steps.
We were surprised to find such a set of steps erected in Linden Hall a few weeks ago. They’re quite beautiful and, like so much else here, hugely-expensive. Henry-sama is already musing on a discount doll emporium to bring the fun of the ages to the masses.

Another account of the tradition that I have been told, and here is the association with the female of the species, is that the dolls bring luck to a family with a daughter: “luck” of course, means that she’ll be married early. That’s why the dolls are supposed to be taken down on Girl’s Day too. If they’re up late, she’ll be married off late.

Ikehara-sensei also got us to make little origami boxes, into which she poured some hina arare, little crispy snacks flavoured and coloured with sugar and soy-sauce. 
I returned home to find a bottle of “amasake” which literally means “sweet alcohol” on the table in the kitchen. It looks like curdled milk, but tastes like a mix of rice-pudding and vodka. I’m pleased to announce that, thanks to the repulsion of the other guys on the floor, I’ll be drinking it alone! 
Long live Girls’ Day then.