A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Welcome home," said Nova Scotia.

"Thanks," I said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world."

She blushed.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Seoul Sought, or, So long and thanks for all the kimchi

I leave Korea tomorrow, homeward bound for Halifax via Toronto and a brief back-flip through time, and thankfully no layover in the United States (no offense; airport hassles, you guys know the drill).

I've said most of what I wanted to say about Korea through this past year in posts. I have been trying to think of something conclusive about what I'll take with me from my time here—nursing bekseju, pondering Han, laughing with the most wonderfully spirited children I've ever gotten to know.

If anything, I've taken equal parts pride and humility from this year: pride at where I come from, and the things that I realize make up my idea of home, but also the humility that comes from being a long-term guest in a country where life can be baffling, and you tend to feel like a creature of spectacle.

I am incredibly grateful for all the kindness and generosity people have shown me here, from my endlessly obliging hagwon boss, to the kind Paris Baguette proprietor Mr. Kim and his countless free pastries, to the friendly restaurant ajummas who would smile and flip an extra fried egg onto my bowl of bibimbap.

Today was my last day at the school, and I faced a barrage of little people hugging my legs and saying:

"Bye-bye, Sam Teacher!"

"Thank you!"

"I love you!"

"Bye-eeeeeee! Goodbye!"

It was pretty sweet. I'm going to miss these little ones. Part of me wants to smuggle a few off in my suitcase and take them off somewhere green, and as far from a classroom as possible.

Thanks to all who read and were entertained by Seoul Seeking. Though this is my last post from Korea, feel free to check back every now and then and I'll post links to any new writing or blogging that's worth a spit.


And so it went that 25-year-old Sam-Sam shed both a Sam and a tacked-on Korean birth year as he climbed onto an airplane and began a long haul backwards in time, grateful for the memories and the new perspective on this mostly green and blue cosmic lump we all inhabit our own little nooks of.

Sometimes it helps to not be so exclusive with our choice of nooks.

Annyonghi kyeseyo, Korea.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Don't forget to remember

In my mailbox this morning I found a helpful letter from the Korean government reminding me that my Visa expires in 10 days.

That's kind of like shouting to a trapeze artist with one hand on the final bar, "Hey! You're almost there!"

Thoughtful, but profoundly unnecessary.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Singin' the Kogal, Eggman, Idoru blues

The search for Eggman was not over easy.

In fact it was impossible.

I never found the chimeric music club as I wandered through the rain-slick streets of Shibuya in the early evening. With only the map in my Lonely Planet book and a few incongruous landmarks, the streets seemed to me only as a maze of empty yet still open designer boutiques with one word English names.

It was still early on Thursday night, but I had no sense of my surroundings. I knew Shibuya was the creche of Tokyo youth culture along with Harajuku (a fact which Gwen Stefani shamelessly exploits) so with a few spots on a year old map, I was hoping I could find some kind of show to take in.

It was harder than I thought.

I had been walking in the wrong direction for easily 20-minutes, and when I doubled back, I doubled back too far, and found myself walking up and along the infamous Love Hotel Hill.

I got tired and gave up entirely too easy.

It had already been a long day by about 5:00.

Having spent Wednesday night in Asakusa, and the afternoon wandering the Imperial Palace Gardens and the swanky Roppongi Hills, I wanted a calm start to my final full day in Tokyo, followed by an electro-shock of neon signs and street fashion as it started to get dark.

That morning I took the subway to Meiji-jingu, the forested Shinto shrine dedicated to the restoration Emperor of the same name. It was spitting enough that I had to buy an umbrella at the subway station, but the rain really added to the atmosphere of the shrine. I stood at the huge wooden Torii, at the entrance to a 175 acre evergreen forest with just a handful of Korean tourists and residents out to walk. It was remarkable. Here, flanked on all sides by Harajuku, Omote-sando, and Shibuya, centres of couture and consumption all, was a massive forest and temple, dedicated to the souls of passed royalty. Sort of like Central Park if you replaced the park bench wankers with Empress Shoken's memorial lily garden.

Sort of.

The light rain, made the turquoise roofs of the temple proper shine, and the green of the 120,000 trees seemed that much deeper. I was able to get lost in the woods in the middle of Tokyo. That's pretty awesome.

After savoring the green, I headed down Omotesando, billed as Tokyo's Champs-Elysees. I had lunch at a great little fusion restaurant with fluent English speaking staff and then, belly full of swordfish, headed down the street where affluent Tokyoites get their D&G, Benetton and other international names.

Shibuya was next, mid-afternoon. I crossed with the masses at Hachiko square and guessed I had never been part of so big a single crowd before. It's hard to take a step in Shibuya without running into a kogal and her ten thousand friends. Essentially the Japanese valley girl, kogal is a catch-all term for a young thing with bleach blond hair, tanning-bed complexion and clutch-purse fat with disposable income. It's a strange look to see on the Japanese figure and face, but there are thousands of girls who look like this. They make themselves pretty obvious, since people tend to come to Shibuya to be seen. I spent about an hour floating through an HMV listening to the latest J-pop, from L'arc~en-Ciel (who I sadly missed at Incheon) to a group called Ketchup Mania. I got a coffee at the world's busiest Starbucks, but had to drink it sitting on a bench next to Hachiko, since inside there were no seats, since probably years before.

When night fell, I thought of going to Shinjuku and seeing the Park Hyatt where they filmed Lost in Translation. But I was so tired and daunted by the world's biggest city's biggest transport hub, I thought I'd try to seek out some new sound.

"Do you have battle in your life!?" a large video screen asked me, while I waited at the busiest pedestrian thoroughfare on the planet.

"That's a reasonable question," I thought, having not given it much consideration until that point.

"I suppose I don't."

Apparently I also missed my chance, since battle, the aggressive sign went on to explain, was a band playing a popular club next week. Sold out.

This was just the kind of thing I wanted to take in tonight.

However my hopes for Eggman were promptly scrambled (is it just me, or do I get funnier by the minute?) and like the protagonist of William Gibson's Idoru (which I had picked up in Roppongi to help narrate my trip) I found myself seeking a single club in a place where they live about as long as mayflies, in order to dig up the dirt on how a universally popular Irish/Chinese rock musician announced his intentions to marry a holographic Tokyo pop "idoru" and plunge the dataflow into new depths of subterfuge and manipulation.

Or maybe the last part wasn't quite like me.

As I said, it had been a long day about 4 hours back.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


My toothpaste was confiscated at Incheon airport. Apparently it exceeded the 100g liquid or gel quota for carry-on baggage. I was going to protest that since the tube itself was 3/4s empty, that it's original capacity was meaningless, but I didn't want to find myself on a no fly list. I can understand their concern in these troubled times. After all, those offending 25 grams could have consisted of snakes.

The complimentary toothpaste at my hotel was just smaller than my pinkie, and weighted in at a respectable 5 grams.

It made me feel safe.

Nothing lurking in there except fluoride.

I guess we're never really safe...

Arriving in Japan was overcast, but the train from Narita to Ueno was a nice ride past some bamboo thickets, so fat with trees they were spilling out over the stone track walls. The sprawl began shortly after, and from that point on I couldn't see anything but city until I was back on a plane over the sea.

Surprisingly, navigating the Tokyo subway system was probably the easiest part of my trip. I cut my public transport teeth in Seoul (I had never been on a subway before) so I can safely say I'm now a pro. Despite the rainbow web of tracks and the multitude of tickets you'd theoretically need for each trip, you can bypass the calculation by purchasing a quick and easy 1000 yen ($10) Passnet card, marked on the ticket machines by a speedy orange public works-issue stick man, whipping through the turnstiles with the confidence of modern Japanese efficiency. All the stops and maps are marked in English also.

Everyone hears horror stories about uniformed men in white gloves, paid to shove that extra parcel of commuting flesh through the metro doors, but I was blessed with well-planned routes through relatively calm transit areas (old Asakusa was my base camp). I did see the infamous white-gloved ones, but they did little but provide helpful service announcements in slightly effeminate Japanese.

Initial observations on arriving at Asakusa from the Narita airport:

- Bikes.

In the short walk to my hotel from the subway station I saw about 300% more cyclists than I've seen in an entire year in Korea. Everyone rides bikes in Asakusa: old ladies, monks, trendy 20-somethings with their skinny black ties flapping at their sides. It's very refreshing.

- Pornography.

Prominently displayed in the front row of all subway magazine and concession stands, even (or was it especially...) those run by ancient old ladies. I don't think there is such thing as a Korean porno magazine! The naughty side of Japan is hardly hidden. In both Shibuya and Omote-sando, I saw a shop (chain?) called "Condomania!"

- Convenience store food.

I can only imagine how many people take most of their meals from Family Mart or 7-11. Not because you're hard pressed to find a meal under $13 otherwise, but because the selection of sandwiches, noodles, steamed buns, fresh-looking salads, and those triangle seaweed rice affairs, is actually quite appealing... and cheap!

I checked into the pleasant Asakusa View Hotel and spent the evening strolling through the streets around Senso-ji. Apparently, it's one of the city's biggest tourist draws, and there was quite a crowd even on a Tuesday evening. The temple itself was most impressive at night, when the pagoda and gate roofs are light up golden against the red. The prominence of red on the Tori gates and temples themselves was something very different between Japan and Korea. The Korean temples tend to feature incredibly detailed under painting in green, white, red and blue, which gives much more of a complex look when standing under the eaves. The redness of the Japanese buildings (as you can see from the photos, last post) is much bolder in effect.

More throughout the week.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Tokyo photos

The crappy weather in Tokyo during my visit had me taking a lot less pictures than I wanted to, but here are a few of the better ones.

Shibuya, as seen from Hachiko Plaza.

Same deal, but at night.

Shibuya crossing, reputedly one of the busiest pedestrian scrambles in the world. The Starbucks on the second floor of the building on the left is also supposed to be one of the world's busiest. I got an iced coffee there at 2:00 p.m. and the place was still packed to the gills when I passed again at 9:00.

I can only imagine what goes on in this establishment...

Lanterns on a gate leading to Senso-ji in Asakusa.

The main temple at Senso-ji. I love how the lighting turned out in this shot.

The main gate leading into the temple.

Senso-ji's famous five-storey pagoda. Spectacular at night.

Tori gate at Meiji-jingu, the largest Shinto Shrine in Tokyo. Deep green and blissfully still amid 35 million souls.

One of the main guard houses of the Imperial Palace, seen from the outside.

A guard keeping the riffraff at bay since, unlike the palaces of Seoul, this one still plays home to a functioning Imperial family.

A closer look from the inside.

"Maman" a statue of a giant spider at the ritzy Roppongi Hills development.

Popular canned coffee godhead who seems to be channeling a stern, Japanese Bob Dobbs.

More photos and stories to come.