Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Fukuoka, Japan

Because of bureaucratic Korean regulations, foreigners who are applying for work visas must do so outside of the country. That means even high-demand foreigners such as English teachers must get a visa before they leave or they must make a “visa run” to a neighboring country and apply at the Korean embassy or consulate in that country. Fukuoka, Japan is usually the quickest and easiest place to go.

Our group left for our visa-run at 7am in the morning. We rode in a van that despite the obvious wear-and-tear was tricked out with a neon dome light, quite large GPS navigation/TV display on the dash, and in-car MP3 jukebox system. The flight from Pusan to Fukuoka, Japan was barely long enough to get up to a cruising altitude before we started to descend. Gate-to-gate, the trip was 45 minutes!

We took the subway from the airport to the center of Fukuoka City. All of the stops were labeled in Japanese, Chinese, English, and color-coded symbols such as trees and bowls of rice. Once we emerged from the subway most of us realized that we came unprepared: it was going to be a rainy day mixed with a lot of walking. The rain on the way to the Korean consulate can be described as a light drizzle—a mist maybe. When we arrived at the consulate, it became immediately clear that we were not the only foreigners who needed our passports. There were at least fifty people in line—and we were coming in on the afternoon shift. I can’t imagine how many people showed up in the morning for the same thing.

Afterwards, we went to the JBB hotel. The walk was made through a steady rain that left me soaked to the bone. Instead of the standard black or navy umbrellas you see in the states, 95% of the umbrellas we saw were clear. There also seems to be an umbrella culture because every place we entered had an umbrella stand at the door—some even having a umbrella-baggy dispenser that covered the wet umbrella.

Most of us had wanted to stay at a capsule hotel geared towards students. These beds are literally like coffins with no private room of which to speak. However, these places offer spa-type services like saunas and massage. However, they have a no-tattoo policy to keep away the Japanese street gangs. So we ended up at the JBB since a few of our members had tattoos. The rooms are without a doubt the smallest I have ever seen. They featured a full-size bed with just enough room the walk around it. There is enough room between bed and dresser/desk/TV stand again for one person. However, it was a great place to sit and collect ourselves and dry our clothes with the in-room hair dryers.

Then we split up into groups of five and went off to dinner. We wanted to have some sushi since we were in the land of sushi. However, it was way too expensive—like $75 to $100 per person. So, being adventurous we asked a local person about food. They directed us to this little noodle joint. We ate a huge bowl of noodle soup and each enjoyed a generous-sized glass of sake for about $8 each—still expensive, but a bargain in Japan.

From there, our small group went wandering around the city. It had become night and all of the signs and billboards were illuminated. These signs were amazing. They are bright lights that change color and are animated—I’m guessing they are some advanced LED light. They are not TVs but can display logos and other advertisements. I was really impressed.

By chance we found this little club on the third floor of one of the buildings. It was a western-style jazz bar run by a Japanese husband and wife. The bar was obviously a place for big spenders but since business was slow that Thursday night, they catered everything to us. There were only three tables in the place and a bar since most of the floor space was taken up by the stage. We ordered some Japanese beer and asked them to play some music. Then, Nate, one of the guys in our group said he played saxophone. So, they prepped the sax for him to play and the owner and an older guy who plays the bass got on their instruments. They played some American favorites including John Denver’s “Reaving on a Jet Prane.” (In most Asian languages, the “L” and “R” get mixed in pronunciation). Then, our friend Tiffany got up and started singing. I joined in a few songs later—my first karaoke experience was in Japan with live accompaniment! Then, the owner’s wife got up and sang some songs for us. The whole experience is easily the most memorable yet.

I got up early the next morning and went to view some of the Shinto temples in the area. One was called the Ryugu Temple. According to legend a mermaid was caught in the nearby sea and was buried in the land, therefore making it holy. There was also a much larger temple complex named for Hagak, the god of the town of Fukuoka. The picture below is of a float that is used for the festivals. We returned to the consulate the next morning to retrieve our passports and visas. Then came a long travel ordeal. We had to take a flight from Fukuoka to Seoul (instead of directly back to Pusan), then had to transfer airports to Seoul’s domestic airport, then another flight into Pusan. The process took ten hours! Much more drawn our then our 45 minute flight they previous day. After our long day in Japan, it almost felt like coming home when we landed in Korea again.

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