Retail Rituals

In Korea, there’s F-Mart and D-Mart, L-Mart and G-Mart, and the current top dog of the X-Mart retailers, E-Mart. They are all much of a muchness, and are a microcosmic case study, I suppose, of the Korean predilection (and skill, it must be said) in taking someone else’s idea (in this case, a household goods retailer, K-mart (of course)), reshaping it for the Korean market, and barfing it out again, adding only the most cursory Groucho-glasses-and-nose disguise.

Yesterday we went to the nearby E-Mart to do some shopping, pick up some beer, and generally engage in the Retail Ritual. The Retail Ritual calms me, these days, if it’s in one of these huge ultramodern, brightly lit stores. Odd, for an old hippiepunk like me, who has little good to say about our marketing-driven civilization.
That said, I loathe shopping for anything other than food, so I guess I can still fly my freak flag proudly. And although stores like Walmart and Costco are a scourge on the landscape back in North America, sucking the life out of smalltown centres, feeding low-wage, no-security, permanent part-time slavery, homogenizing the already desperately whitebread-and-mayonnaise landscape even further….that’s not so much the case here. The box stores sit in the middle of already existing major shopping areas, beside subway stops, and have the opposite effect, if anything, revitalizing cruddy areas and triggering some urban renewal. These stores also tend to employ women under better conditions and for better wages than they might otherwise receive in this sexist nightmare of a nation. But more on that later.
So the wife and I were trundling around with our cart, happily sampling and grazing and knocking small children down (well, I was the one knocking them down, and the wife was the one scolding me – she pretends to understand my aversion to the little bastards, but I don’t think she really does), when one of those spine-chillingly weird Korea moments happened, that nobody else much seems to notice or comment on, a situation which sometimes leads me to theorize that I’m living an extended hallucination in a goo-filled pod somewhere, fed imagery to pacify me by some higher machine intelligence which is extracting my life energy to run pachinko machines or some f–king thing.
[Note to self : try not to injure children, at least when SK’s looking.]
Some facts first that will help explain, I hope, my flash of The Weird.
In Korea, like Japan, walking into a shop or restaurant will usually result in a hail of welcomes and other ritualized greetings from the employees. I hate these, but I must admit they make me feel all shiny and special too. I am a good consumer, and I really am welcome here, and I should buy something to celebrate that, I say to myself, before I realize their cunning ploy and adopt the anti-salesperson scowl that is my customary demeanor while in-store.
In Korea, it’s (and excuse the romanization, but I’m going for clarity of pronunciation more than the current textbook romanization) ‘uh-suh-ohseyo,’ which more or less translates to ‘welcome, and please buy lots of our crap!’ On departure, particularly if you have in fact purchased some crap, it’s ‘kahmsahmnida‘ or ‘kohmuhpsoomnida‘, both of which mean ‘thank you, and crap again’ more or less.
The other necessary fact to know is that upmarket department store chains like Hyundai or Lotte and also these more middle-class retails outlets like E-Mart and Walmart and Carrefour (and so on) all employ way, way too many people. Behind a typical watch-counter at Lotte, for example, you might see 6 to 8 men (always men, behind the watch counter, for some reason) loitering about, trying desperately to look busy, beseeching you with their eyes to please come and look at a watch or two, just for a f–king minute you rich bastard, come on …and then swarming up like Keystone-Kops-as-filmed-by-David-Lynch when someone does.
It’s good, in some ways, that so many are employed when they might otherwise not be, but you can be sure that the only way such a situation can be justified is by paying extremely low wages. The idea behind these clusters of clerks is that such heavy concentrations of service-people enhance the feeling — that wealthier Koreans, including the growing middle class, seem to just love — of being catered to by hordes of low-born types, grovelling before the shopper’s imperial whims. See also : Dynasty, Chosun.
Walking around the aisles of the supermarket sections of these stores is a hazard course of (usually) miniskirt-clad (invariably) young female product demonstrators, who want to give you a sample of coffee, or help you choose that perfect shampoo, and (usually) older (invariably) females in the fresh-food areas, cooking up some pork or slicing up some veggies, and inviting you to chow down, using the (invariably) plastic green toothpicks.
(What’s the female equivalent of ‘avuncular’? Damned if I know, but that’s what these fresh-food ladies are. Ajummacular, perhaps.)
The younger ones, the ones that staff the toiletries and dry-good aisles, are just plain goooood-lookin’, though, and pretty obviously hired on that basis, and apparently instructed to bend over, but demurely, whenever possible. Which makes astonishingly little sense, even ignoring the sex-discriminatory aspects, as the vast majority of shoppers are middle-aged women, who are unlikely to be seduced by the milky thighs of these miniskirted productistas.
Anyway. Any given row in the supermarket sections of these chains will house anywhere from a minimum to two to a maximum of six women, some of whom are apparently hired just to stand there and smile at people.
So back to the trundling and the shopping and the running-over of children. As we were rolling down the ramyeon aisle, the sixth or seventh repetition of the ecstatically faux-happy, 50’s-style E-Mart Song was coming to an orgasmic close, and there was a slight crackle over the PA, and a voice.
A female voice, one that was absolutely perfect in its unctuous, saccharine, mind-colonizing tone, oozing into your ears, grabbing whatever handholds it could find and whispering, irresistably : everything’s going to be all right, there there, just lay your weary head on my soft, perfumed bosom….
Anyway, this voice sweetly but firmly intoned ‘uh-suh-ohseyo.’ And every single woman employee in the place turned from whatever they were doing, as one, faced in the same direction, and repeated ‘uh-suh-ohseyo’ while bowing deeply, to nobody in particular. The voice paused a few seconds, then said ‘kohmuhpsoomnida‘, and once again, every single woman, matching the weirdly unnatural, woman-as-service-automaton voice, chanted ‘kohmuhpsoomnida.
This repeated perhaps four or five times, and you could hear the chorus of voices throughout the store. Nobody else even batted an eyelid, but I was just transfixed, with chills literally running up my spine. The Weird.
I know what the rationale behind it was, and understand that many Koreans really think that sort of stuff is spiffy, and are drawn to shop somewhere that shows that kind of rigorous employee-indoctrination methodology, but it was still deeply, excitingly Weird.
Of course, I forgot about it 5 minutes later, while buying beer, which was, after all, my secret mission for the day.

A New House and A Walk In The Woods

I learned an important lesson about living in Korea today, and I learned it at the point of a gun, which may just make it stick for a while, for a change.
Most people who come to Korea to teach, whether at a hakwon (the catch-all term for the private-study schools that can be found literally 10 to a city block, catering to the monomania not for quality but quantity of education here in Korea, many of which specialize in English and employ most of the short-termers in Korea), or a university or foreign school, or in-house at a company, or somewhere else entirely… most of them are provided with housing.
This is, few actually realize, mandated by the legislation controlling E-2 (English Teacher) visas. Which is not to say that this legislation is universally obeyed (‘rule of law’ not being a concept that has caught on to any great extent in Korea thus far), of course, but it goes some way to explaining why the feared-and-loathed, almost invariably dishonest and money-grubbing hakwon owners actually do something that does not financially reward them in any tangible way. That is, provide housing for their English Monkeys.
There are some decent private schools around, and a fair number of goodish universities, at least in terms of working conditions, and they do occasionally provide their foreign employees with reasonable accommodation. Some very few go one better, and provide housing that is very comfortable indeed. This is the exception, rather than the rule, naturally.
Back when I was a bachelor in the mighty metropolis of Busan†, I lived for nearly two years — although I was working for one of the better schools — in a 3 metre by 4 metre closet in which there was room for a bed, desk, fridge, (and a few dozen empty bottles, of course), located right beside a textile factory. By right beside, I mean that my one window looked directly into a window on the factory floor, about 18 inches away. Right beside.
[†I liked it better when Busan was romanized as Pusan, and pronounced Poosan by foreigners, ‘san’ being the Chinese character meaning ‘mountain’, and I could thus refer to the city as ‘Poo Mountain’ and actually be able to explain why without being quite as longwinded as I am right now. ‘Boo Mountain’ just doesn’t have the same sophomoric poop-humour ring to it.]
The chatter of hundreds of sewing machines didn’t actually bother me much, as I was too regularly and fully inebriated at that point in my life to care, and rarely at ‘home’ other than to sleep, anyway. Life was good, in a dissipated and decadent, perpetually-sozzled sort of way. It was the last gasp of a bachelorhood that was becoming less amusing, rapidly.
The last couple of years, though, have seen my wife (who I met as I was leaving behind that rocket-fueled lifestyle) in the lap of relative luxury, in Australia, and after our return to Korea, in the two large, brand-new apartments which were provided by the university where I worked until recently.
The other reason for schools to offer accommodation when you take a job with them — the one that people usually assume to be the primary one — is that it is effectively impossible to find your own, as a non-Korean. This is in part a manifestation of the blithe racism that informs much of mercantile Korea’s dealings with us hairy barbarians, and in part a reasonable response to the infamous behaviour exhibited by most GIs and many young, inebriate, wacked-out English teachers (of which I was once one, with a vengeance). Stereotypes exist for a reason, after all. Not what you’d call most-favoured tenant types, most non-executive expats in Korea. If you’re married to a Korean, yes, but alone : nuh-uh, unless you want to rent a room in one of the ubiquitous yogwan f–k-hotels on a monthly basis, which many single guys do.
I’ve known some of them, guys who were capable of ignoring the nasty omnipresent fug of stale semen and cut-rate detergent, the dim green and pink lighting (creating that ambience of a festive abbatoir that just screams romance) and the weekend puddles of pinkish kimchi vomit in the hallway, the drunken screams and shouts from 11 pm to perhaps 3 or 4 am each and every night from the short-timers. Better than we deserve, though, I’m sure.
So when my contract wasn’t up for renewal (for reasons that boiled down to my lack of over-demonstrative lovin’ for the baby jesus™, basically) last month, it was a particularly stressful time, as I was forced not only to look for other work, which would then allow me to get a visa, but to do so before the beginning of September, in order for us to actually have somewhere to live (and put our worryingly large collection of furniture).
The right job didn’t materialize, and in between our chicken-little panic-stricken thoughts of bailing to Canada, or Mexico, or Thailand, or anywhere, really, we decided the cheapest and wisest option was just for me to do a visa run to Japan (Canadians get 6 month tourist visas here, on entry) and come back, and to rent our own house. That sounds blindingly obvious to the good people out there in Normal, Illinois, I know, but being locked into the mindset of job=visa=house, it really hadn’t occurred to us. Plus, I was kind of keen on hitting the beach somewhere, somewhere other than Korea. She Who Must Be Obeyed had predictable thoughts on that idea, unfortunately, and the plan was dismissed out of hand.
So we wandered hither and thither and even over yon a bit, looking for places to live, even as I was going to first and second interviews with likely employers and finding them all wanting, in one aspect or another. Seoul, for those of you who might wonder, is not small. Hither is about 3 hours from yon, and thither is another couple of hours beyond that.
Anyone who’s been reading the ‘bottle for any length of time knows how much I loathed the industrial nightmare of an area where we used to live, nuts deep in garbage and banana-peel-slipping-around on the constellations of comedy throat oysters horked up by the denizens of Gunpo City, south of Seoul, near Suwon. It was true that most of the other places around the city and its skirts that we looked were somewhat nicer, but mostly only in degree. Unpleasant, of course, but less so. Not precisely enticing, particularly when I had been thinking along the lines of Koh Samui or Whistler or Zihuatanejo.
Until we found the area we’re living now. I’m telling you, angels descended and blew their tinny trumpets in my ears (not unlike the appearance of the choir invisible when I first used an electronic bumrocket bidet machine in Japan on my subsequent visa run) when we started looking around here. It is the first place — anywhere in Korea — that I’ve seen that shows evidence of actual urban planning, where things are built on an almost-human scale, neither crowded together like barnacles nor consisting of massive slabs of concrete looming over massive courtyards of concrete, brutalist Pyongyang penile-surrogate stylee. No, this area was clearly designed for cyclists and walkers as well as cars, and isn’t outright antagonistic to its residents, unlike most other places in Seoul I’ve been.
Seoul is a city (like every other urban environment in Korea) that hates its residents.
I could tell this suburb was different, though, as soon as we’d walked around a bit. About as far to the west of downtown as we were to the south in Gunpo, I saw the full bike-racks beside the subway station (something I’d never seen before in Korea, as there are few cyclists in most places, it being simply too dangerous and heavily trafficked to bother) and tree-lined paths winding through each block, expressly for pedestrians. Trees everywhere, in fact, not just on top of the fortunate stubs of mountains that hadn’t yet been leveled to feed into grinders and rise again as the vast human beehives where 70% of the population of the country live. Wide, straight roads. And, astonishingly, people who didn’t perform the ‘oh-my-god-he’s-not-Korean‘ doubletake that had left me so unwilling to dare set foot outside our apartment for the last couple of years.
Even my wife, who’s spent almost her entire 31 years in Korea, said she didn’t know there were places like this here.
So we found an apartment, in one of the newer style buildings that have started springing up all over Korea, geared to singles and young couples, called ‘Officetels’ in Konglish. Basically — and completely unlike the standard, cookie-cutter ‘apart’ concrete beehive family apartment buildings that rise everywhere out the earth like buboes on a plague victim — they’re like western-style apartment buildings, down to the gardens on the roof, the hot-water-on-demand, and the emphasis on sky-light, and air, and brightly lit cleanliness.
We found a small loft, with west-facing 4 metre windows taking up one entire wall, and rather than sucking car-exhaust from the perpetually-roaring highway that was behind our first apartment, or looking straight into the baby-factory slum windows over which our second apartment had a glorious low-rise, low-rent panorama, I can watch the sun go down out over towards the West Sea. I honestly never thought we’d live in such a lovely place, here in Korea. I hadn’t thought they existed, except for the rich in downtown Seoul, and on TV. We gave our huge fridge and washing machine to the wife’s bachelor brother, and left some furniture in the apartment for the new (cheaper and more malleable, more bible-thumping) university hire to use (rather than just chuck it all), and moved on up. To the top. To a deluxe apartment. In the sky-eye-eye.
It’s no Sydney, or Vancouver — hell it’s not even Toronto — but it’s pretty nice.
One of the only good points of our previous university-supplied place, other than the fact that we were first to live there and thus didn’t need to deal with filth, was the proximity of a small mountain ridge, up and along which we (and thousands of others, it seemed) could walk, escaping the apocalyptic vision, if not the all-pervasive noise, of the concrete wasteland that is Gunpo. That was pleasant, and walking there in unaccustomed green along the trail that wound its way a few kilometres along the ridge was enough to recharge my batteries, at least when there weren’t too many shrieking, pudgy children up there too, dragged away from their computers and compelled to exercise by their parents.
The new area, Songnae, has a few wooded mini-mountains within walking distance as well, and I resolved today, after failing to find my way through a military base to a likely trail at another nearby mountain to the west, last week, to attempt to find my way up the even closer megahillock to the south. The wife begged off, and I headed out, with my usual lack of preparation. I crossed the subway tracks – on the surface, this far from downtown – and wandered around for a good hour before I found a trail that led upwards.
The weather has been flawless for a good week after a miserable summer – unsmoggy blue skies, dotted with fluffy cumuli, hot sun cool shade. It was gorgeous today; the sun spattered through the leaves as the wide trail wound its way up to higher heights, at a much steeper grade than our old daily walk in Gunpo. I got past the thundering-heart first ten minutes, and fell into the euphoric groove that exercise almost always brings, when I’m out in nature, senses heightened, brain clear. There were only a couple of people around, trudging down as I headed up. Past small plots of vegetables the trail rose, and soon became almost alpine, studded with those massive, rounded rocks protruding from that tightly-packed, cafe latte-coloured dirt that always make me think of Korea and Japan. The perfume of pines baking in sunlight. I was happier than I have been in a while, and it was good.
I reached the first summit, and there were a number of smaller trails heading off from the glade atop the ridge, wandering off to various points of the compass. Thinking one might lead to a vantage point unscreened by greenery, where I could get a good look at the geography of our new home, I struck out along one of the paths, towards the sinking sun. I realize now that that military base I’d been unable to find my way around last week was to the west, too. You know, the direction I was walking.
After about 5 minutes of blissed-out traipsing along the trail, all Homer-in-Chocolate-Land, and before I quite knew what was happening, there were shouts in Korean, and as I abruptly came back to earth, I noticed in quick succession that: the clearing ahead of me had a tall chicken- and barbed-wire fence along it, that there various dishes and antennae and stuff behind that, and that the half dozen camo-clad Korean men approaching at a trot were all carrying weapons that I could only presume were automatic.
My crappy command of Korean being what it is, I had no idea what they were saying, but from their tone I could infer that they weren’t asking me in for a cup of tea. They were young, of course — just the age of many of my university students, and no doubt doing their two years of compulsory military service and quite happy to have pulled light duty sitting on top of a mountain somewhere. Nonetheless, their excitement coupled with their tendency to gesticulate with their guns was making me a wee bit nervous, I have to admit. In response to what I thought was an inquiry as to precisely what the f–k I was doing, I shrugged, and made the two-fingers-walking gesture, which in conjunction with a goofy grin and vacant swinging of the head, as if communing with butterflies, was what I hope was the universal sign-language for ‘just, you know, wandering around, being a nature-boy doofus’.
They peppered me with more questions in Korean, none of which I understood sufficiently to make any attempt at answering, in sign-language or otherwise, and eventually the eldest, who couldn’t have been more than 25 or so, said “OK” quite clearly, waved the back of his hand in the general direction of the trail along which I’d been walking, and said something in Korean which, near as I could tell translated roughly to “Get the f–k outta here, and you’re lucky we don’t arrest your ass. Sir.”
I got the f–k out, and continued my walk, no worse for wear, up into the almost-alpine and the green, blue and white, being extra-careful to stick to the main trail.
And so, my lesson for the day, one that all Koreans seem to learn at some point: stray from the well-trodden path at your own peril, smart boy. A lesson that came complete with a moderately-sized brown spot in my boxers, for punctuation.

Japan Rocks Part Two

Part One can be found here.
Back to the capsule hotel I went, almost skipping with glee. I dropped my shoes in a locker this time, dropped the locker key at the front desk, retrieved my wristband key from one of the desk clerks, and rode the Super Fun Luxury Lift to the 6th floor. I figured I’d drink a couple of Asahis, then go exploring.
Back at the room, I closed the accordion door, climbed the metal ladder into my top-bunk capsule, leaned back, switched on the TV that protruded organically from the plastic wall of my coffin, cracked a can, took a deep and almost orgasmically satisfying pull of my long-anticipated Asahi, set it down on the little extruded-plastic shelf to my right, grinned and sighed.
Pushing a little metal chicklet set into the airliner-like control panel cycled me through the TV channels on my 7-inch monitor. There were a couple of scrambled stations in the line-up, tantalizing, flickering shards of heaving pink and purple meat, the audio tracks for which were subdued sighs, gutteral man-grunts, and the occasional squelch. Either the Abbatoir Channel, or The Legendary Japanese Porn, apparently. The girl at the front desk hadn’t been taught how to say ‘You want porn with that?’ in English, I guess. I was briefly disappointed, but I figured drinking and smoking were vices enough for a short 12 hours in-country. No big deal, and although I can’t say that I wasn’t curious, I also wasn’t curious enough to go down to the desk and ask, possibly in pantomime, please may I have some porno?
I spent the first beer fiddling with switches (something from which it is apparently in my genetic code to derive great pleasure), channel-surfing, adjusting the air-con nozzle just-so, and the second beer watching some kind of top-20 countdown of neat shops and restaurants in (I believe) Tokyo.
It was time to explore a bit, I reckoned. Also, I had to take a crap. You know how that is.
There were a few more guys around, sitting in front of the pedestal ashtrays in the smoking lounge near the elevators and getting drinks from the vending machines, than there had been before, and they were all wearing identical pajamas. Ding! A light went on, and I suddenly realized what that pile of cloth had been, the one I’d dumped on the tiny desk in the room in my rush to climb up into the capsule and play around. I went back to my cubicle, stripped down to my boxers, and put on the 3/4 length jammy bottoms and v-neck top. They actually fit pretty well, which surprised the hell out of me. I am not a small man, and I’ve been lifting weights again for the last couple of months.
Suitably attired, and feeling like a million bucks, I made my way back to the toilets. You could have eaten off them. No, seriously. If there’s anything I like better than a cold beer, it’s a clean bathroom. I blame my mother for this minor quirk. She’s a very clean lady.
Attached to the side of the porcelain pot was one of those electronic bidet machines that are getting so popular in Korea, but that everyone (or possibly just me, I don’t know) associates with weird Japanese poophole fetishism. I’d never used one, although I’d tried the low-tech variety of bidet in Europe when I was travelling there, with, shall we say, mixed results, usually involving too-cold water and Extreme Scrotum Tightening. (“Next up on ESPN : EXtreme Scrotum Tightening! Brought to you by Asahi Beer!”)
The angelic choir descends!
I was feeling adventurous, and mildly euphoric from the first couple of Very Large Cans. After nature had taken its course, I centred myself, as it were, chose a button at random, and pressed it.
Wahhhh-ahhhhh! The angelic choir descended, I’m telling you. The portal to a new world opened briefly, as water warmed to a perfectly refreshing temperature cascaded and burbled playfully around my grateful sphincter. It was pure bliss, for about 20 seconds.
Aware that it would sound a bit strange (and that I might be arrested) if I were to just sit there and hit that button over and over again for the next several hours, like the wirehead monkey hitting the button for the electrical jolt to his pleasure centre, oblivious to the world, I reluctantly patted dry and padded out, casting wistful glances back at the stall. Maybe I’d need to do a #2 again later. Maybe. Hopefully.
Walking with a new spring in my step, I hopped on the elevator, and rode up to the 11th floor. As expected, the shower facilities were well-stocked with towels and lotions and unguents of all sorts, spotlessly clean, and brightly lit, in a welcoming, warmly incandescent kind of way. Not only that, but there was a sauna, all marble pools and steam and cascading water, which I vowed to try in the morning, if I had time.
Steamy. Where are the nekkid wimmen, though?
The restaurant on the floor below was similarly excellent in appearance, with a bar and a menu card chock-a-block with enticing-looking dishes. beer.gif
I had an appointment with 6 more rapidly warming cans of beer, though, and beer trumps food, always. Besides, the shouted greetings from the employees anytime someone came in the door, as in Korea, put me off.
Back in my capsule, butthole absolutely singing, I cracked another can, and switched the TV on. It was about almost 9pm by this point, and although I had to get up in less than 9 hours, get on a flight back to Seoul and convince immigration that they should let me in again with no visible means of support, I was feeling frisky, if not frisky enough to do anything but drink in bed.
That’s when Japan suddenly became the Greatest Country In The World, a status for which, in my mind at least, it had already been building a good case for candidacy.
There was a show on for about an hour that involved really goofy costumes, senseless violence, public humilation, sumo wrestlers, fat guys dressed like sumos wearing Elvis wigs and riding motorcycles in quarries, more random violence, and it was the funniest.thing.evar. No, really. Dumber than dumb, but beautifully so, if you know what I mean. One segment involved one of the fat shameless guys wearing a radio earpiece and acting out the instructions of his controllers in front of a department store, which would be less funny and more of The Usual TV Crap if the people watching weren’t Japanese. That somehow made it comedy gold for me, as did the fact that half the time you almost couldn’t see the poor guy through the crowds of onlookers, every single one of whom was pointing their mobile phone camera at him, snapping digital pics like no tomorrow. I laughed until tears came, and that doesn’t happen often, dour bastard that I usually am.
But for all the fun inherent in that program, the moment of truth came afterwards. This is primetime Saturday night, keep in mind. The show, which lasted two hours or more (things got a bit fuzzy there towards the end), was called The Poetry Bout.
It was a tournament, with the loser of each two-person bout knocked out and progressing to the next round, of Poetry Reading. Poetry! On a Saturday night! On TV, with flawless high production values, in front of a rapt and appreciative live crowd! With (what I presume were) celebrity judges and just-plain-folks, singly and in groups, in bars and homes, butchershops and schools and street-food places all over the country, via live video, giving their own commentary and votes for the winners of each round. The contestants were anywhere in age from middleschool to retiree, male and female, some eliciting laughter, some tears, some a kind of liquid silence, all clearly in love with language.
It was riveting. I didn’t understand a goddamned word, but I was glued to the set, rooting for my favorites, for a couple of hours and several more of those Very Large Beers. As the winners of the preliminary rounds went on to challenge winners of other heats, I began to become familiar with their style, and was surprised for example when a happy funster would change strategy, and pull a change-up with a poem all serious and heartfelt, instead. This, the beer was telling me, was the way poetry was meant to be appreciated – not on the page, all dismembered and nullified with dead-soul dissection, but as music, incomprehensible, glorious music, in front of a crowd that laughs and cries and farts along with the poet.
And, you know (apologies in advance to Dan, if you read this), I f–king hate poetry sometimes, unless it’s being subverted by someone like Buk. This is how much I liked this show.
The final round, although some of the oldsters and art college types had put in a good showing, was between a teenage boy and a teenage girl. She, I think, for no real reason that I can tell, was the better poet, but he frequently made his listeners both laugh and shed a tear in a single poem, and, although shy and involuted, was clearly their favorite.
When it was over, I had to go out to the lounge and smoke a cigarette, and think about what I’d seen. It seemed to me if as I’d seen something about Japan, no doubt glamourized and stage-managed and cheapened in the way that television does, but something that I had not expected. I couldn’t imagine the same thing happening, or being watched, in Korea, where the fake, the maudlin and the sentimental trump the real as a matter of policy, and though that’s what Canada may be like in my distant, half-fantasy memories of the place, I know for truth that the latest tits-and-explosions import from America is more likely to be greeted with enthusiasm there.
This wasn’t a niche show, for intellectuals and fruitbats – there were people from all walks of life watching this thing, cheering and high-fiving, of all ages, and it didn’t look like they were doing it to the insistent flashing of APPLAUSE prompters, either.
I stayed up, smoking in the lounge and finishing my last couple of beers, and thought about it a bit, and decided that I would have to write about it, start writing yet again, because, damn it, I realized that I wanted to be one of those poets too, up in that ring, and I wanted to try and make people laugh and cry with my words.
And so here I am, back in the saddle. I hope you like my poem.

Japan Rocks Part One

Japan rocks.
No, really. I have a few friends, virtual and otherwise, over there, and they are quick to jump up the ass of anyone who’s drunk the kool-aid and open their umbrellas. You know the type of travel-fanboys I mean, and my friends love to hate – men, mostly, who go to or end up in Japan to find something that they’re missing for some reason, something they can’t find wherever they are. These guys tend to fall in love – with the mythos, with a woman, with the culture, with the history, ex post facto or otherwise – and either sooner or later begin to buy into the casual Japanese certitude that the Japanese are just better than you. Better, stronger, faster, with tentacle and dismemberment porn that makes the next best tentacle and dimemberment porn offerings look like Curious George Goes To The Hospital. These fellows tend, in time, to become those annoyingly smug expats-in-Asia who are determined to overlook anything unpleasant in their adopted home, to blame the outsider, to spout platitudes that regardless of their high-minded elegance come down to ‘it’s not better or worse, it’s merely different.’ You know – the kinds of guys you want to bust in the f–king chops half the time, if only because they speak the language better than you do.
So, anyway, these friends of mine who’ve been in Japan for many years, they tend to have little patience for the kind of rah! rah! Japanophilia that I’m about to display, and for that I am profoundly sorry. All I can say is that I only spent somewhat more than 12 hours there, and the bulk of that was while I was slightly inebriated, so how much of the bad stuff could I reasonably have seen? I haven’t drunk the kool-aid, but I did drink the beer.
After getting rectally roto-rootered by my last employer and not finding another reasonable job before the contract term expired, I had to make a visa run and come back on a tourist visa, and the cheapest flight I could get was to Fukuoka. Sitting at the superb, gleaming new Incheon international airport, I noticed a flyer from Onse Telecom that said that wireless broadband was available in many of the departure gates, and if you didn’t have a laptop to take advantage of it, you could just come over to the desk and they’d give you one, for free.
This I promptly did, handing over my passport and getting a snazzy Samsung laptop in return. Good deal. I went back downstairs to the Burger King beside Gate 30, bought my first greaseburger in a few months, fired up the computer, and went surfing. I tried searching a bit for some hotels,but quickly got bored and just figured it would be groovier to do my usual trick from back in my backpacker days : show up with no pre-planning whatsoever, and see where the fates and random quantum flux took me. Instead of being prudent, I spent the next while posting snarky comments at Metafilter, until boarding time. It was about 4:30 pm, and my return flight was for 9 am the following morning.
A bumpy 90 minutes or so later, through red-lit thunderheads and millefeuille nimbostratus, across gut-levitating canyons of air – my favorite part of flying, those landscapes of cloud – we were glidepathing down into clean, green Fukuoka. It was overcast there, too, and more than 30 degrees, but I was pleased as I stepped out of the plane to find the air free of that horrendous fug to which one grudgingly becomes accustomed in Seoul.
I made my way through customs – the guy finding it odd that I only had an overnight bag, and amused when he found my two cup ramyeon packages inside – and straight to the hotel booking desk. Everyone on the various fora I’d checked before I’d left had said that the women who staffed that desk spoke excellent English, and were invariably helpful.
The girl there spoke English alright, but, in that annoyingly reticent way in which the Japanese break bad news, informed me that there wasn’t a single goddamn room left in the whole city.
Ah, sh-t.
She gave me a list to try and call myself, and after a few unsuccessful attempts punctuated by those pregnant silences that I was already starting to figure out were the Japanese equivalent of ‘sorry, buddy, you’re screwed,’ I figured I’d just have to wing it.
The shuttle bus to the domestic terminal, the subway two stops to Hakata, the centre of the action in Fukuoka.
By this time I was feeling a bit gritty-eye tired, sweaty, grumpy and increasingly sure that I was going to end up sleeping in a seat at the airport and looking like a rumpled rummy when I tried to get back into Korea the next morning. I’d done worse, years back when I had the youthful energy for travel hijinks of that sort, but these days I’m more into the Good Sleep than the Amusing Anecdote.
So I started walking around Hakata Station. The first five hotels I dragged my ass into knew what I was going to ask before I asked, and were already shaking their heads, politely, by the time I’d gotten to the desk and asked it. The two guys behind the desk at the sixth actually chuckled a bit at my stupidity – by this time I was drenched, both in sweat and by the steady rain that had started to fall, red-faced and getting extremely grumpy indeed – and I was about ready to give up and try the 5-Star (and probably more expensive than my plane ticket) Hotel Nikko.
I went into the 7-11 on the corner, bought a pack of cigarettes, and had my first sober smoke in more than three years. That helped.
As I did so, I noticed that the place across the sidestreet from me was a lobby of some sort – Hotel Cabinas Fukuoka, it said! ‘Cabinas? Capsule hotel? Yes! I’ve been wanting to stay in one of those since I first heard about them!’ thought I. I looked around for about 5 minutes trying to find somewhere to get rid of the cigarette butt – the streets were clean, and I was damned if I was going to mess them up by doing anything worse than dripping sweat on them – and then shuffled, chafing and praying, into the lobby.
One of the girls at the desk took one look as I stumbled into the lobby and – politely, mind you – said ‘Shoes…shoes please!’

No shoes, dumbass!

Great. My first faux pas already. You were supposed to take your shoes off at the front door, before you even got into the lobby! That would have made more sense in Korea, where horking up throat oysters on the street is an Olympic-level sport, and wearing your mucous-encrusted shoes inside would definitely be unhygienic…but fair enough. I backed up to the door, quickly, mumbling ‘sorry, sorry’ while the couple of Japanese guys in pajamas in the lobby eyed me suspiciously for a moment or two, then went back to their newspapers.
I took off my shoes, came back to the desk. “Do you have any…umm…spaces?”
I almost kissed her when she said “Of course!” and pulled out a laminated menu showing two kinds of capsules – one in a little room of its own, and one set into a locker-like bank of them, 2 high. Even the ‘deluxe’ was well under the price I had expected to pay for lodging, and I immediately and gratefully pointed to the bigger one. It was 4300 yen – about $50 for the night, Canadian. Woohoo! There’s some beer money, right there, thought I.

Rack 'em and stack 'em

She took my details and my cash, showed me the locker room off to the side of the check-in desk where I could put my shoes, gave me a plastic wristband with a key attached, told me about the sauna and showers on the 11th floor and the restaurant on the 10th, and wished me a pleasant stay, all in accented but excellent English. She was prettier than heck, too. Things were looking up.
This place, I neglected to mention, was nicer than most $200 a night places I’ve seen in Korea. Brightly lit, impeccably, spotlessly, surgically, clean, brand new. I’m a sucker for luxury – even faux luxury, to be honest – and although this was to all intents and purposes budget accommodation, cheaper than anywhere else I’d heard of in that city, it was nice. Really, really nice.
I took the elevator to the 6th floor, and through a set of glass doors was a set of corridors lined with capsule-rooms. Each one was a tiny hotel room, basically, with a folding, accordian door panel. Inside were a desk, built into a closet unit, and a capsule unit either in the top or the bottom. Mine was set into the top.

Big Cabin

The capsule itself was a single piece, injection-molded plastic coffin, with a video screen, alarm clock and radio, aircon control, speakers behind either ear, and amidst a profusion of knobs and switches, a large red button labelled in Japanese only, that I thought of as the ‘ejection button,’ and was sorely tempted to press, later that evening.
I pulled shut the accordion door, doffed my sweat-soaked business shirt and tie – I always fly with a tie, and find it helps to smooth my way through immigration – pulled on my old friend’s band (‘MARY’) t-shirt, and went on the hunt for beer. Nobody even looked at me. No stares, no ‘Oh my god – it’s a foreign devil’ in the local lingo, no double takes or furtive muttering and pointing. None of the stuff, in other words, that I live with every time I leave the house in Korea.
I walked around for a bit, and marvelled at the cleanliness and order of the area. This was beside the biggest station in the city, bus and subway, the sort of area you’d expect to be heavy with The Scuzz, but it was downright pretty, by night at least. I imagined living there, and somehow managed to do so, as I often do, without concurrently entertaining any discouraging notions of work or budgetary constraints or anything of the kind. In my ‘let’s imagine that I live here’ games that I unfailingly engage in whenever I happen onto somewhere nice, reality rarely intrudes.
Back to the station I wandered, after that short look around, and although none of the 7-11ish convenience stores had had any beer to sell, to my transient chagrin, and there were none of the vending machines I’d heard so much about, there was a little hole-in-wall place that had a cooler full of beer, that I somehow navigated to flawlessly once I’d booted up the beer-radar, as if I’d been following the map to the Pirate Treasure. Big black gothic-font beery ‘X’.
I am inordinately fond of Japanese beer, especially Asahi. I’d been all a-drool all day thinking about it, after endless months of choking down the Korean swill that passes for lager there. I bought Eight Very Large Cans, just to be sure. Better to have too much than too little is my thinking when it comes to such things. The girl behind the counter didn’t even bat an eye. I was beginning to love Japan by this point, with a love deep and true.
As I left the station, there was a band busking outside the entrance. It is possible that my recent successes in securing lodging and sweet sweet beverages was rosying up my outlook a bit, but i swear they were the best band I’d heard in years. This judgement may also have been due in no small part to the fact that they were also the first band I’d heard in years. (There are no buskers in Korea, good, bad or otherwise. Beggars, yeah, who somehow can afford mobile freaking karaoke machines into which they wail their maudlin songs, lying prone on the ground, wrapped in black rubber, presumably entreating passers-by to give them some money so they’ll shut the f–k up. Never mind, I’m getting sidetracked…) A friend was passing out flyers, and they were called Chaba, and their website is here. After a couple of songs, a couple of cops came up and good-naturedly shut them down, and though I was tempted to follow them and listen some more, I had a whole bunch of cold beer gently sweating in a plastic bag, and I was thirstier than hell, and had to be on an airplane in approximately 13 hours.
Part Two, in which I wear pajamas, drink beer and listen to Prime Time Poetry in a language I don’t speak, and love it, is here.