“Oh, you will go to South Korea?” Matsumoto Sensei said as she hovered over her steaming bowl of chanpon. Assorted bits of seafood bobbed up and down in the murky lard broth.
She cocked her head to the side and gave us her signature knowing look. Her lips pursed in amusement and her heavily painted eyebrows raised so high that I was worried they were going to fall off her forehead.
Having given each of us The Look, she brought her chopsticks to her mouth, noodles dangling and juice dripping into the spoon held beneath them.
The noodles suddenly disappeared into her mouth at speeds I would have expected from a retractable tape measure and not a woman in her late fifties. She daintily placed the spoon back in the lightly-colored soup and laid her chopsticks across the top. Everything (well, almost everything) she did was so perfect and proper.
Matsumoto Sensei, after all, was proper. A short woman with a big personality, she was the director of English at a prestigious private high school in Yatsushiro. Her English was spot on and I was often surprised at just how fluent she was at conversing in it.
She loved hanging out with the ALTs whenever she could. At first, we thought it was just because she liked practicing her English…but we gradually discovered another motive: gossip. Matsumoto Sensei was the definitive Mouth of the South in Yatsushiro. Her influence and wealth of knowledge was staggering and almost a bit frightening She knew everything about everyone and anything in the city.
“Well,” she started, leaning forward as if she were going to tell us a secret of some sort. “You’ll have to be careful.”
“Koreans…” her fingers splayed delicately on top of the table. “…all smell like kimchi.”
Olympia, Fred and I stared at her aghast for a moment.
“Well it’s because they eat it every day. With every meal. It’s spicy, you know.” she continued, not seeming to grasp that we were staring at her with more of an ‘’Are you for real?’ expression than an ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ look.
“I don’t…think that makes them all smell like kimchi, though…” Olympia said slowly.
Matsumoto Sensei shrugged dismissively, picked up her chopsticks and loudly tore into her soup once more. She came up for air shortly after, wiping some broth droplets from her chin.
“Well they’ve all had plastic surgery, you know,” she continued smugly. “They all look like mannequins, not real people.”
“So what are YOU doing for Golden Week, Matsumoto Sensei?” I asked, abruptly ending the conversation before she began talking about who the island chain between the two countries belonged to.
“Oh…” she began, once again pressing her lips together knowingly for a moment. “I don’t plan to do much. Just stay at home.”
From late April to early May, there is something in Japan known as ‘Golden Week’. It is comprised of a slew of holidays that all happen to fall in the same time period. The emperor’s birthday, Children’s Day, Constitution Memorial Day, Green Day and a few others. Since these usually fall in the same week, it’s pretty much the longest consecutive amount of time off that Japanese society has.
During this time, so many people travel that trying to get anywhere within Japan is a nightmare. As such, many JETs leave Japan for more exotic locations – like a mass exodus of migratory birds with a disposable income.
Living on the southern island of Kyushu, domestic travel is not as convenient as it is for those who live up on Honshu, the main island. Instead of spending a ton of money to fight over full trains, hotels and crowded touristy spots, our group of six decided to travel to South Korea for Golden Week.
We were, after all, closer to Seoul than to Tokyo.
In recent years, Korean exports in Japan have become increasingly popular – the Hallyu Wave, as it’s called. Korean dramas occupy prime time television slots and Japanese versions of infectious Korean pop songs dominate the radio (and high school girls’ hearts). Some purikura – Japanese photo booths – are now even equipped with the option to write in Hangul!
This is a complete one-eighty from the unsavory relationship that the two countries have shared, both politically and socially, for the past few decades. Tension still exists, though, and not just in the form of noodle-slurping old women. Thankfully, it’s getting harder and harder to hear over the sounds of sugary, addictive music and dramatic TV shows that are flooding in to Japan.
We planned to hit the coastal city of Busan for three days first and then travel up to Seoul for the remaining five using the Korean version of the Shinkansen or, bullet train. In order to get to Busan, we would leave through the port of Fukuoka on a high speed ferry known as The Beetle.
Golden Week came and, with our ferry tickets in hand, we arrived at Fukuoka Port to began our journey to B/Pusan. There were several other people milling about the sleekly designed interior of the port building. Signs were displayed in Japanese, Korean AND English writing.
I stared at the Hangul in excitement. I had been trying to learn to read Korean before the trip. I’m the kind of traveller who likes to (attempt to) learn the language before travelling somewhere. One can never tell when it could come in handy!
“Hu…ku…oh…ka-hey!” I said excitedly to my friend Melinda. “This says….Fukuoka! In Hangul!”
“Oh…cool, you can read it?” She responded as she counted and organized the brightly colored Won we had just exchanged.
“Yeah..well, I kind of just learned basic stuff,” I semi-bragged. “It’s not that hard to pick up, actually.”
Although I hesitate to say that any language is ‘easy’, I actually did pick up the Korean alphabet fairly quickly. Unlike Japanese, Hangul follows a consonant-plus-vowel structure which makes it similar to English. The real difficulty I encountered were the vowel sounds – of which Korean has like eleven.
“Oh okay,” Melinda said skeptically. “What does that say, then?”
I looked toward the sign she was pointing toward and squinted my eyes at the blocky characters that were written on it.
“Well…er….” I began, realizing that what she was asking me to read was a bit more complex than my infantile proficiency level could handle.
“…Bu…son…san! Busan! Hae…Ho…erm….dal…na ya….no wait, yo…m…ni da…?”
Melinda gave me an unimpressed smirk. “You’re full of shit.”
“No, no!” I protested, eager to prove myself. “It’s just that I haven’t been studying it very long and the vowels are really hard!”
“But really, that says ‘Busan’ right there! I swear it!”
She laughed and returned to dividing up her Won.
Before long, we made our way to the dock where the ferry awaited us. As we walked down the platform, the entire thing rocked and swayed with the movement of the sea. The Beetle, a modest double decker ferry, sat at the end of the dock.
A dank smell permeated the inside of the cabin as we found our seats on the bottom deck. They were beige-ish and covered in colorful squares. Although they looked to be plucked straight from the 70s, they were surprisingly comfortable.
As we waited for The Beetle to depart the harbor, I gazed out the small window. Outside, the Fukuoka Port bobbed lazily up and down. My stomach turned and flipped uneasily in response. Motion sickness and I have quite a history but it never usually started so early.
“Ladies and Gentleman, thank you for choosing The Beetle.”
Trying to take my mind off my stomach that was rising and falling with the movement of the boat, I began to watch the informational video being played overhead about how the vessel worked.
The Beetle was a normal ferry, it seemed, until it got out in to deeper water. After a certain point, it would pull some ‘Go-Go Gadget’ shit, raise itself up on stilt-like apparatuses and shoot across the water as if it were going in to warp-speed.
“While not common…” the chipper British announcer on the video said. “…there is a danger of hitting sea animals. To ensure your safety in the event of a collision, please keep your seatbelt fastened securely at all times.”
We exchanged nervous looks, but didn’t have much time to think about what would happen if we were to collide with a dolphin or whale. Suddenly, we heard a loud whirring noise and felt the boat rise – sending us up a good level. Within minutes we had accelerated quite a bit and were zooming across the water, bouncing effortlessly over the waves like a flat stone being skipped across the surface of a lake.
As we zipped over the sea, my stomach gradually unclenched and I felt much better. I settled in to my multicolred seat, plugged in my headphones and lulled myself to sleep with the glittering, saccharine sounds of Kpop.
When I woke up, I had arrived in a different country. Taking out my headphones, I watched excitedly as we slowly pulled in to Busan port. We passed enormous barges with massive cranes attached to them that looked to be carrying any number of things. Hangul and Chinese writing were printed on the side – mostly illegible to me.
“Hoorayyy,” my friend Hermán said next to me as we continued to watch signs and ships pass us. “I’m illiterate again.”
He was absolutely right.
To be continued