I Seouled Out, Gangnam Style

There were more differences between South Korea and Japan than I had expected. Beth, Craig and I stayed in a super nice apartment in Gangnam, and to my surprise, not once did I do the Gangnam Style dance while there. (In fact, when I started singing it quietly under my breath I felt a sudden rush of shame and trailed off awkwardly.) We were living a street away from K-star Road, the road where most of the major signing companies for Pop stars had their offices, and crowds of people (particularly young girls) would hang out in nearby restaurants and cafes waiting for a glimpse of G-Dragon or Miss A. It was a really flashy area, and I loved the little conveniences like having a PIN code lock the door rather than a mechanical key, and heated floors being standard for an apartment. I could have done without the only window in the bathroom opening straight onto the street though. Got mighty foggy in that poorly-ventilated room, because I dunno, I found it kind of weird staring at passersby while I showered.

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Good Onew!

 

I didn’t have much of a plan for where to go or what to do in Korea, but Beth tracked down a few of the restaurants she really wanted to try (courtesy of Eat Your Kimchi) and we travelled to Itaewon, Myeondong and Hongdae in our journeying. I wasn’t really into doing much shopping (and there was quite a lot of merchandise advertised by SHINee and other big name K-pop stars), though I enjoyed wandering through the markets. One of my favourite finds was a small arcade that allowed us to shoot BB-rifles at various-sized targets (so damn satisfying. Happy to see my accuracy is continuing to be above average) and hosted a unique machine that measured the force of an uppercut. Here I am pictured impressing these girls with my intense power.

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Of all the really excellent food we had (excepting a chicken and beer restaurant, where I may well have been put off fried chicken for life due to the sheer quantity of the stuff), my biggest cullinary accomplishment was ordering and eating kimchi-jjigae. Keep in mind the only reason I wanted fermented cabbage stew was because it’s one of the four Korean phrases I know how to say, and it turned out to be one of the spiciest things I’ve ever been exposed to. It was a hell of a battle, and several paper towels drenched with sweat later, I conquered that sucker and could readily have taken a bite of the sun to cool my palette down.

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The highlight of the trip by quite a landslide was attending the Global Starcraft League tournament. I had not expected to be into Starcraft (though I was prepared to get swept away by the hype of it all), and when Craig showed me a few games and I got surprisingly into it. Poor Beth had to put up with a whole lot of jargon as Craig and I got into passionate discussions about’lings, banes, medanks, DT’s, Artosis Pylons and the like. By the time we arrived at the studio, I considered myself well versed in the ways of the Star Potato, and I had a heightened appreciation for the intense skill these world-class players exhibited as they performed hundreds of actions per minute, their hands moving in a frenzy on the mouse and keyboard. Craig and I had also come prepared for the moment the camera would turn to the audience (in between or at the start of matches), and we clutched our Hot 6’s for three hours before we got our international broadcast debut. When the camera cut to us, 15 000 viewers saw us raise our cans of energy drink, clink them together, and then scull them. I couldn’t help but grin as the Korean commentators stopped mid-sentence to go “WOOOOOOOOOOOOAH!” in appreciation and talk excitedly about us, presumably saying we were the first audience members to acknowledge the sponsors. The English commentators stopped talking about the game for several minutes while they applauded us and extolled the virtues of drinking Hot 6. On Twitch, the chat stream was filled with accusations of being sell outs, which I will happily claim. To view the moment yourself, click here! https://www.twitch.tv/gsl/v/58917017?t=165m16s

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Craig and I were buzzing with energy for several hours. He actually couldn’t sleep at all that night. HOT 6!

 

Overall, it was a great couple of days in Korea, and I’m really glad I went. I have to admit, I’m also not particularly keen to return. The culture is more distinct from Japan than I realised, and I have to say the many differences was quite off-putting to me. For instance, the difference in courtesy between the two countries was astonishing; salespeople in Japan almost always bow and call out irrashaimasse! to greet you, whereas salespeople in Korea seem to either follow you around, literally pushing menus and products in front of you, or otherwise ignore you indifferently. Admittedly, I did find it charming many people put their other hand under the elbow of their extended arm when giving or receiving something. In the end, I think it was a combination of the little things (like the language not sounding pleasant to my ears) and the big things (like little old ladies elbowing me as they passed despite plenty of room to walk around me) that make me hesitate to return some day.

 

Stay tuned for stories of our imminent, and grateful return to Tokyo.

Kyoto and Osaka

Last time we were in Japan, the house we rented in Kyoto was probably my favourite place to stay; it was nestled in the charming cobblestone streets beside a small river (which hosted several herons), our neighbours were separated by thin bamboo fences and there was this sweet old lady who sold traditional Japanese sweets at the end of the lane. Combined with the tatami floors and sliding paper doors, it was quintessential old Japan.

This time around we were a little less fortunate in our choice of accommodation. We were charmed by the few pictures on airbnb, and the description of a house surrounded by nature with a nearby bamboo grove and views of the forest. However, we didn’t realise it was a half hour walk to the nearest convenience store, or the major bus stops, down a very steep hill and through winding back alleys. Without the benefit of a pocket wi-fi, it was a terrifying journey to try and find our way to a main road to buy food and find our way home in the dark. However, Craig lent us his spare wi-fi from his accommodation and by the end, I found it quite charming (even enjoying the long walks and the challenge of the hill). Over time, the sakura trees, the beautiful neighbourhood shrine (apparently cared for by gigantic koi and a patient heron) and the numerous tanooki made me realise how beautiful an area it was. It also forced us to catch buses, which turned out to be a delightful experience in itself (as I bore witness to a 12-year-old girl who used her smart watch to send photos to her New 3DSXL. Oh Japan).

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Our neighbourhood shrine

One of my favourite places in Kyoto was Gion, so full of people (especially tourists) and so full of life. Beth and I returned to that enchanting Baskin Robbins for Easter special ice cream, we drummed in the arcade (next to some seriously hardcore guys who I’m pretty sure were actual taiko drummers because they brought their own sticks) and I bought a whole bunch of Japanese merch: a coin purse, a carry bag and so many tabi. We also hit up the Uniqlo there and bought half a new wardrobe, always a pleasurable experience.

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Visiting the Inari Shrine and climbing Mt Inari was also an experience I wasn’t able to have last time. It was such an enjoyable challenge to physically climb a mountain, and I was delighted at how quickly the crowds died off when it got slightly challenging. It was so special moving through those thousands of toori and then off the beaten tracks into the quieter paths through the forest. Some of my favourite memories were stumbling across semi-hidden shrines, a locked cabin, a path through the bamboo and a hidden bloom of sakura amidst the canopy.

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Of course the highlight of this section of the trip was a visit to Universal Studios Japan, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter therein. You can read a more detailed blog of the latter here. As for the rest of USJ, it was quite a wonder in itself. The energy was high (although we did stumble across a few people napping, in the midst of thousands, during a very noisy parade where paper was being shot from cannons nearby them) and there was much to see and do! True of any theme park, the wait times were lowest just before closing.

The thing I loved most (apart from the WWoHP) was by far the Resident Evil Escape Room 2. It was much more of a production than I expected, with very hot actors playing badass commandos or terrorists, with real fire and some pretty incredible costume and make-up work (she started cutting off his ear!). The puzzles themselves were super fun, though the zombies didn’t scare me much because I knew that they weren’t actually allowed to touch me so I didn’t take them seriously when they stormed down the corridor, just moving so I was out of sight so I didn’t waste any time avoiding them. As for the puzzles, set across four floors (though we weren’t able to access two of them initially), they were way harder than Craig and I were capable of solving. Out of respect for the creators, I won’t share any of the solutions here, but suffice it to say it needed some extremely clever thinking, some keen observation skills, and some manipulation of the apparently mundane props you were given to point to subtle clues. In the end, about a dozen of the hundred people solved all the clues. Craig and I couldn’t even get past the first (and easiest) puzzles for the “alpha” password. (Incidentally, if anyone out there has solved the six clues for alpha and can tell me how to solve the last one, I would be forever in their debt because even now it’s driving me crazy.)

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Craig and I thought we were soooo clever, trying to find the password before the event started. We had no idea how out of our depths we were.

We also took the liberty of visiting an old haunt while in Osaka; Hooters was actually a lot better than I was expecting. Being married now, the appeal of alcohol and large-breasted women, that smoky den where a guy could spontaneously drop to the floor and do push-ups with a cigarette in his mouth, no longer struck me in quite the same way. To my surprise, it was actually really nice having a conversation with the waitress who went out of her way to have a longer chat with us, and it was probably the most Japanese we’d ever spoken in one sitting. It turns out that Maco-chan left shortly after we visited two years previous, and when we joked about seeing Kae-chan in two more years time she told us that she’d have started her new job as a flight attendant for Japan Airlines and she’d see us in the air instead. I was so glad she got the job she set her heart on!

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It was also a pleasure to return to Ginkakuji and the Philosopher’s Path, this time with Bethwyn who was feeling well enough to join us. I became profoundly thoughtful in the quiet wabi-sabi gardens of the Silver Pavillion, and delighted as we strolled down the tetsugaku no michi. I returned to the second-hand kimono store and acquired a yukataobi and hakama to my great delight (where an obaa-san came up to me and said “Kakkoi!” while I was trying some stuff on). The cute river-side cafe we stopped at for lunch was visited by a guy in a white suit with a TV crew who agonised over their food-porn shots, and to my amazement as I passed him to find a bathroom, he said in perfect English and with dulcet tones to rival George Takei’s, “Through here, on the right.”

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It was with a surprisingly heavy heart we left Kyoto, and in a perfectly Japanese fashion, too. Our host had called a taxi for us to pick us up at 7am, and at 7:00 exactly I slid open the front door to see if they had arrived yet. Standing in the rain with the boot of his car open, umbrella at the ready, was our taxi-driver. I hastily got the rest of our stuff together and he took the luggage out of my hands to load himself, and then covered the frame of the car door so we didn’t bump our heads as we climbed into the back seat. With his crisp white gloves, he took us directly to the station in record-time, and after he had unpacked our things, he took his hat off and bowed deeply to farewell us. Nothing describes Japan so perfectly as this, where almost everyone I’ve met has taken deep pride in their job (no matter how modest) and put their heart and soul into doing the best work they could.

Stay tuned for our next leg of the adventure, this time into Seoul.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

True to form, I’m now in Tokyo and have quite a bit to catch up on. However, I just want to take a moment to blog specifically about a certain theme park and had, shall we say, an enchanting time. (This is the first of what I’m sure will be many bad puns.)

 

For those of you who don’t know, Universal Studios Japan hosts the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a recreation of Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley melded into one glorious wonderland. To be honest, with the haze of stress leading up to the wedding, standing in Diagon Alley in wizard robes was one of the only clear visions I had for what I hoped for on the honeymoon. Guys, let me tell you, it far exceeded my expectations. So wondrous was the experience that Craig and I deigned to repeat it the next day, buying additional full-day passes just to return to those wondrous cobblestone streets.

 

Having secured our ticket for the timed entry (we arrived at 12pm and the earliest we were allowed into TWWoHP was 5:10pm), we strode through the enchanting forest (with the crashed Ford Anglia and real birds living in real pine trees) and came upon the entrance.

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The sign reads “HOGSMEAD: PLEASE RESPECT THE SPELL LIMITS”

 

Jubilant, positively elated, I took a photo with the first cast member I met. He spoke with a heavy English accent (which I suspect was affected, but that only served to excite me further) and complimented me on my hat. It was an excellent start to the adventure.

 

The moment we enterred Gladrags Wizardwear, Craig claimed to be a super keen Hufflepuff despite failing most of my quiz questions (such as “Name any spell. Expellimarmus doesn’t count.”) and bought a full set of Hufflepuff robes with matching scarf. Beth and I decided not to get sets of our own (I thought they weren’t particularly flaterring, and Beth wasn’t sure when she would ever wear them.) Despite not wanting to be seen wearing them in public, Craig professed being a hardcore Hufflepuff, and our second day was largely spent scouting for other Puffs (“Badger badger badger!”) and letting them know they weren’t lonely potatoes in a world of lions and eagles and serpents. (To be fair, the other Puffs were delighted to see Craig as well, and their mutual Huffliness lead to some great conversations.)

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Another great highlight of the experience for me was attending Ollivanders wand shop. We were ushered into a tiny room full of dusty boxes where a lady explained in Japanese that we would be witness to a wand choosing ceremony today. She ushered us to go on through, and there was a confused murmuring at exactly where we were supposed to go when we were all packed into a small room. Then she said, “Ah!” with an apologetic bow and opened a secret door behind the store shelves. To my great and lasting delight, Bethwyn was selected by Garrick Ollivander himself for her first choosing. He spoke a delightful mix of English and Japanese, and set up a very special sort of atmosphere in the dim candlelight as he went from box to box and explained the properties of each wand to Beth. He asked Beth to cast a few spells before wondering aloud if a certain wand might suit her best. He very deliberately handed her the wand he thought was curious, and suddenly music swelled, light illuminated her from all around, her hair blew back in the breeze as she beheld the wand that chose her: she purchased it as soon as we left the demonstration room. To my amazement, Craig wasn’t remotely interested in purchasing a wand (despite his robes having a special pocket designed uniquely for such an instrument). I took about half an hour, pouring over the descriptions of each of the woods and handling them. I found with resounding satisfaction that the vine wand suited me best, to my surprise, being perfectly balanced and elegantly pointed. It reminds me very much of a jian, and I expect it only obeys those who wield it with a certain finesse.

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My wand, vine, 15 and a half inches.

 

Dining at the Three Broomsticks was a welcome affair. Although the food was pretty ordinary, and the serving sizes a little on the small side for your standard English pub, the drinks were mindboggling. Sadly, the secret menu item “pumpkin fizz” turned out not to exist in Japan (or, perhaps, I hadn’t tapped my wand on the right brick before enterring) so I settled for a butterbeer instead. That turned out to be the single best hot drink I’ve ever consumed. I tried the cold butterbeer which was delightful but not transcendant, and Bethwyn’s pumpkin juice, which was overly sweet even for my taste. Craig ordered a beer from the Hog’s Head, which tasted like ash to my uncultured tongue.

 

I also had the pleasure of attending the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride around 8pm when the wait-time was advertised as 50 minutes but actually took around half an hour. It was quite wonderful meandering through the castle, though there was something disappointing about the Japanese dubs for Dumbledore, Harry and Ron (a rare thing for me to say, because I previously believed Japanese dubs improved any experience). I ended up going on the ride with two cute high school girls who screamed the whole way through it. I can’t really describe how awesome it was to see a dragon breath fire, or how shocking it was to be spit on by an acromantula, or how terrifying it was to glide under a swarm of dementors while I whispered “expecto patronum, expecto patronum, expecto patronum!” under my breath. Afterwards, when Harry (that badass who hit a dementor who was reaching for him) saved us, and Dumbledore congratulated us on winning the Quidditch Cup, I felt both very proud and slightly queasy. Thankful for solid ground, I stumbled off the ride and laughed with the two girls about how scary it had been. The staff guided us to what I thought was the exit, but turned out to be the start of the ride again – they were giving us another free round because they were about to close. Back on I went, partially so I could continue my conversation with the two girls, and partially because it was too embarrassing to try and leave. I thoroughly enjoyed it a second time, though afterwards I felt nauseous for hours.

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As for loot, I picked up some quills, a Ravenclaw notebook, a Ravenclaw scarf (which Craig refused to wear, despite the freezing weather), exploding bonbons, fizzing whizbees, Honeyduke’s best chocolate, a truly sublime cauldron cake, and a Marauder’s Map mug (with feet that appear when you add hot liquid to it!). I also picked up an incredibly beautiful time turner necklace for Beth, who wasn’t well enough to join us the second day we went, and of course my wand, which I kept within arm’s reach as I slept that night. I also persuaded Craig to purchase a love potion from Zonko’s to give to the first cute Hufflepuff he saw, and my heart swelled with pride as he chatted with a young lady for some ten minutes in broken English while leaving me forgotten on the curb.

 

All in all, a truly wonderful place. I didn’t realise quite how much I loved Harry Potter, that building block of my childhood, until I started re-reading the books in preparation for this trip and revelled in the fandom once again. Those were precious memories from what is, undoubtedly, the most magical place on earth.

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