korea and what-not

Korea was a smashing success. I was really blessed that everything on the timeline went like clockwork, and even things that didn't appear to be in the end fit in perfectly. Ethan and I stayed principally in Seoul, leaving only to visit the DMZ and JSA (Joint Security Area).

That part of the trip was interesting. Finding a place that accepted reservations via the Internet was a challenge, so I ended up having to call. The tour company I called sadly didn't have the tour I wanted to take (the one with the JSA included) listed as departing that day, so I was sad.. but figured something would be better than nothing. I called and hoped for English, but the lady there that didn't speak English. Only Japanese. I was scared, but tried my best. It seemed to work though. I got all the tour information; leaving 11a from the 6th floor of the Lotte Hotel. No problem. The lady didn't know what to think of me though. Not because my Japanese was particularly good, but just had no idea what nationality to guess I was.

The morning of the day I left, I called to confirm and was thrilled to find English help... except she told me the tour time and meeting were wrong. We were meeting at 8am on the 1st floor. I crossed all my stuff out, and re-wrote it. 8 hours later they called back and reconfirmed the original time and place.

So finally, the next day we're headed over to pick the tour up and they call me again, in Japanese re-re-reconfirming. It was pretty funny. I mean, organizing a tour in 2 languages with at least 2 different people. It all worked out in the end. Our tour was in English and quite interesting. I'm glad we got to go.

Beyond that there was lots of eating and walking around, and when neither of those appealed we stopped in one of two places. A jimjilbang or DVD bang.

The first (jimjilbang) is similar to an onsen, but totally different. The main focus is a sauna, but more than just a sauna. Many saunas, of varying types and with different qualities. The first place we went to had one whose interior was completely covered in amethyst. It was like being inside of a very hot, and very large geode. It was really pretty. The other room was germanium themed, possibly scented. It was hot.

The other main difference is that boys and girls can mingle. Everyone is given clothes to wear (and sweat in) so the sauna part, and rest areas are coed.

The other place we went to had cold rooms, and tons of other crazy stuff. It was quite a bit bigger and even had tons of places to sleep. Many have suggested using them as cheap overnight places to stay, and it certainly would be. The second one we went to was only $6! Not bad at all. (Although the hostel we stayed at was only $10/night)

The jimjilbang we went to also had sex-segregated baths that were more or less the same as upscale onsen or ofuro. Different baths with different qualities and lots of naked dudes. It was wonderful and perfect for tired feet.

The DVD-bang were also awesome. It's like a combination video rental and karaoke box. By that I mean you pick your movie, and you get a private room to watch it in. In the room is a big comfy place to lay down, blankets, a projector and nice stereo system. It rules. It's like having nice things without having to pay for them! Plus it was cheap. For the length of the movie it was between $12 and $15. I totally wish they had these here in Japan, especially considering how expensive the theatre is.

I was really surprised to see so many American franchises set up. They really had almost everything. In that sense it was like the promised land! A Krispy Kreme on every corner, Burger Kings abounding and even Quiznos and Sbarro. I'm sure people in North America now think that sounds horrible. In a way I'm inclined to agree. American companies marring the culture of a place, and all that. Yet I can't help but be enthusiastic about familiar products being readily available. Neither can I help but feel a bit of nostalgia when a slice of pizza from Sbarro tastes just like at home. (although there were Korean variations. At one point we ordered pizza at Pizza Hut with potato wedges as one of the main toppings) Of course we were in Seoul only, so no doubt outside is quite a bit different.

All in all it was a great trip. Got to see a lot of cool stuff, and experience first-hand a culture very different from the one I'm living in. I have to say it was quite different, and in ways I didn't expect it to be. I really haven't had much Korean influence in my life, so I went in rather ignorant. But, maybe that's the best way. I really would like to spend some serious time there. The surface view of 5 days in country barely scratched the surface, but it didn't seem like it would be hard to love.

At least once while I'm here I'd like to take my car over on the ferry from Fukuoka. Wouldn't that be an awesome roadtrip? Especially considering they drive on the right side of the road in Korea!! Yeah!

... actually it'll probably be scary. But, still an adventure.

re-establishing

It's been a busy time pegged with long periods of soul-sucking boredom.

School has now started again, which is nice. Summer vacation was also nice. My school is quite nice to their ALT in turning a blind eye to my irregular summer schedule. Suffice to say, while sometimes boring, it was by no means tortuous. I got a lot of piano playing in, and learned how to shoot a free throw.

The new people have all arrived, and are quickly establishing themselves as real people. Cell-phones have been acquired, car leases signed and internet installed. It's quite exciting to see! I'm also excited to see their interest in Japanese language. I think we're all excited at first about it, but soon realize how easy it is to be passive and not learn anything. Especially with a program like JET where there is such a strong built-in support system. In many ways we're lucky in that regard, but it can definitely be a crutch when coming to integration and language.

For almost 2 weeks in August we had unseasonably cool and rainy weather. This is not at all a complaint. Last years summer was record breaking, and quite miserable. While this summer certainly had hot days, it was much preferable to that of last. Unfortunately the heat has returned in the past couple of days, and with it's evil friend humidity, in spades. Thankfully it's now September, so we can expect the temperature to start dropping relatively soon.

Of course we're also entering typhoon season, so while the temperature may drop that won't much increase outdoor activities. Sometimes you just can't win.

I'm going to Korea in a few weeks, which I'm really excited about. I haven't left Japan since I got here last year, so it'll be a nice break. I remember fondly leaving Benin for the first time with Ly to go to Ghana. It was really refreshing, and provided exactly the motivation and encouragement that I needed at the time to keep going. I'm hoping for something similar from this short trip.

Regardless of the outcome, the preparations have been fun. I learned how to read Hangul and am now trying to build up my reading speed. Perhaps I won't always understand what I read, but to at least be able to try and say things on menus and try and figure things out will be fun. It really wasn't much of an investment in time. Hangul was designed to be easy to learn, and within just a few hours of starting I was getting 100% on reading quizzes. The nice thing about it is that it's phonetic; composed of blocks in turn composed of characters that represent a single sound. For example:서울 (Seoul) is composed of two blocks. The first contains the characters: ㅅ(s)ㅓ(eo). The second contains the characters: ㅜ(u) ㄹ(l). Easy right? (the little circle in the second character on the top in that position is not pronounced - in case you were wondering) I'm not sure if reading Japanese had anything to do with the speed or not. I certainly used links from written Japanese to help remember pronunciations (although the two writing systems aren't related at all). Try and learn to read Hangul and tell me how long it takes you!

I'm still trying to gather examples of common foreign words so I can get a grasp on the 'rules' they use for putting it into their phonetic system. It's been somewhat difficult so far. I guess we'll see when I get there! Still, it's a fun break from Japanese.

On the Japanese front, lessons are still going well. I'm actually moving to 3 lessons a week starting this week. I found a great teacher whose teaching style matches my learning style really well. Lots of ridiculous humor, saying weird things and just plain old conversation. I'm really happy, and have high hopes for my Japanese study this year. Recently I've been a lot more confident, and am starting to feel like I'm becoming a real person again. For example, I went to the travel agent the other day to see about booking for Korea, and didn't have any trouble communicating what I wanted or understanding what was being presented. It's small successes like these that remind me that my Japanese actually has improved over the course of the year, when most days it feels like it hasn't at all.