Friday, October 12, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.4

Ok, this delay is getting silly. In addition to my standard excuses of now having a job that actually occupies me full-time, and a relationship that occupies many of my weekends, I was recently struck down with a nasty kidney infection. For a full week I was rendered pretty much useless between waves of fever, nausea, and fatigue. But my urinary system is once again firing on all cylinders, and it's time to finally put this countdown to bed.

As I write this, I'm on a shink speeding north of a friday night to see my sweetheart. I have eschewed my normal shink entertainments - studying Japanese vocab, listening to Scottish hip-hop, and watching possible-glimpse-into-my-own-future Breaking Bad - and hefted out my laptop. Let's do this.

2. Izu peninsula, June
Leaving our rather sketchy hotel at a brutally early hour, Amber and I strode to the bus stop, hiking boots on feet and rucksacks on backs. About an hour later, we were dropped at a golf course, from which we began to hike through the drizzle up Amagi-dake.

Within a couple of hours we had reached the summit. The hike was fairly tame; more of a traverse across a ridge than a proper peak ascent. Sadly, because of the weather there weren't really any views to speak of, although given that it was rainy season, I suppose we lucky to get away with only a gentle moistening. In fact, as we descended through the forest on the other side, the sun made an appearance.

Pleasant though our downhill woodland stroll was, it did go on a bit. As the hours wore on and still the trail continued, we began to get a little concerned about catching the last bus back to civilisation. But as it happened, we made it with about half an hour to spare, during which time I managed to cockily bag a cache.

The bus took us to the only slightly less middle-of-nowhere locale where we would be spending the night. Given Amber's dietary disability, it was tough finding a place to eat, but we eventually settled on a cosy little bistro, where I had the local specialty of venison curry, though it was a little dear. Hahahahaha.

By sheer dumb luck we happened to be there during the firefly festival, so after dinner we went down to the river and saw some local schoolkids re-enact the memorable moment when the Serenity crew gave the Reavers the slip by pulling a "crazy Ivan". That's not true. What we did see was dozens of bioluminscent insects, which Amber had never previously witnessed. It was all quite romantic.

At last it was time to walk our now-aching legs to the ryokan. As soon as we got there, we realised we had lucked out: the place was seriously nice, overlooking a river in a beautiful steep-sided mountain valley. It was the sort of place that would normally cost an arm and a leg, but thanks to a) it being a sunday night and b) us having opted out of dinner and breakfast, it actually worked out cheaper than the crappy hotel we'd stayed in the previous night. Thus, we thought nothing of paying an extra thousand yen to book the private onsen for an hour of boozy bathing.

1. The DMZ, November (photos)
Well, in a shock development, this year's number one doesn't take place in Japan.

Once again, it was an inhumanely early start as we made our way across Seoul to Camp Kim, which turned out to be a US army base, not just a particularly flamboyant Korean guy. From there a bus took us north, and after about an hour we got our first glimpse of the "Democratic" "People's" "Republic" of Korea across the water as we drove along the heavily fortified coast of a wide bay. From there, things just got spookier and spookier.

Our first destination was another army base, just outside of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Here we were ushered into an auditorium and given a briefing on the history and politics of the North/South Korea border. I suppose I could have called it a presentation, but I think when it's delivered in a rapid monotone by a guy in camouflage, it's a briefing. At this point we were also made to sign a disclaimer, and told the rules. Basically, we were not to do anything that could conceivably be viewed as provoking the North, which included pointing at them. Oh, and don't photograph anything unless explicitly told that you may.

Being sure to display our visitor passes clearly, we got back onto the bus, and negotiated the 2km gauntlet of checkpoints and Jersey barrier slaloms to heart of the DMZ. We visited Conference Row, a series of huts straddling the border, for tense pow-wows between the two sides. From here one could look across and see North Korean soldiers standing guard perhaps 50m away. We were allowed into one of the huts, meaning that we were able to step over the line bisecting the building and technically be in North Korea. Of course, a mean-looking South Korean soldier in mirrored shades was guarding the door on the north side. Apparently they are all masters of taekwondo, though I'm willing to take their word on that.

After that we were taken to an observation post, and then to the site of the infamous poplar tree incident of 1976. The last stop in the DMZ was a place where one could view "Propaganda Village". You see, each side is allowed to have one settlement inside the DMZ. While the South's one is about as ordinary a village as it's possible to have within around a mile of the world's most heavily fortified border, the North's appears to be just for show - it's home to an enormous flagpole but apparently no actual people other than a skeleton crew of janitors. Or so we are told, though of course one has to remember that propaganda works both ways. Anyway, being able to stare out across no-mans-land to this supposed Communist ghost town was intensely interesting. I'm pretty confident that I will never experience a better coin-op telescope thing in my life. I'm convinced that I spotted a group of people running, as if they were training...

After that we stopped for lunch and a couple of second-string tourist spots including a formerly secret tunnel from the North. Being outside of the DMZ, any Tom, Dick or Harry could access these, and they were mobbed. If you are ever in the area, I heartily recommend ponying up for the military escort into the DMZ proper.

Once back in town, we spent the afternoon in Bukchon, the picturesque historical district which appeared to be home to lots of hipster boutiques and coffee shops. Then for dinner, Amber had her heart set on a traditional Buddhist restaurant that served only vegetarian food. In this upmarket but quirky establishment, there was no menu as such; everyone was served twenty - count them, twenty - different little dishes, with not a morsel of flesh among them. Even Amber, who voluntarily eats vegetarian food every day of her life, had to admit that it got a bit samey, and at least 30% of the dishes were rubbish. On the plus side, we ordered "homemade rice wine", which turned out to be a milky liquid a little like Japanese nigorizake (cloudy, unfiltered sake), served in a huge wooden bowl with a ladle. The drink turned out to makkori, a Korean beverage popular in Japan, which I have had a taste for ever since.

Tired and pleasantly full of makkori (and somewhat less pleasantly full of unidentified leaves and pulses), we returned to "Jelly Hotel", which was very much designed to cater for couples, if you know what I mean. Never before have I seen complimentary contraceptives alongside the usual soap and toothpaste. Although it meant nothing to us at the time, I'm retroactively very pleased that our love hotel was situated in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Oppan Gangnam style!

Well, that's it. I think the main conclusion that can be drawn here is that drunkenly bathing with Amber is to 2011-12 what drunkenly screaming Rinda Rinda was to 2010-11. Which I suppose is progress of a sort.

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