Tag - NYE

London: Stranger in Familiar Lands

Christmas 2015 saw my first return to the UK since moving to Japan 17 long months ago – so what did we learn about the UK? Well…

English Only Please

Even at the airport, all signs are in English! It was almost embarrassing! Having spent months reading (I used reading very generously) signs in English, Japanese, and often Korean and Chinese it was most bizarre to only see a single language – surely we should at least have Chinese characters or something?

So much to understand

It’s surprising how little you need to understand what’s going on around you to serve. Guess a couple of meanings from a couple of familiar words on a poster, observe someone’s face, learn from experience.

Drop yourself back in England and you’re bombarded with sounds, people you don’t even know of dying, or talk of traffic ja…m….s….. zzzzz all dull stuff! Then posters! You can understand everything! Why are they sooooooo long? So much information and nonsense!

Japan has definitely been a lesson in minimal communication, thinking about user experience and designing for behaviour – so much superfluous stuff everywhere!

No Special Entry

It took so much longer to get back into the UK than it does in Japan! Despite the electronification of border control, the large queue of fellow Europeans meant this took maybe 15-20 minutes vs the first in line for the Special Entry permit back in Japan – thanks Japan!

Supersize me

OMG! Everybody is so much bigger in the UK! I forgot I’m not actually a giant! Trains feel smaller since every takes up so much space, so many much fatter people – or is it just cos they’re taller they seem fatter – I don’t know! There also seems to a lot more old people – or is it people let themselves go at a lot younger age? I’ve met many a foxy 40 or 50 something in Japan, whilst 30 seems to be some upper age limit here? Does cultural acceptance of obesity (I myself being medically considered overweight!) permit people to assume all hope is loss and fit and maturity and only achievable by the rich and famous?

On the one hand I think, though don’t know directly, that Japan has a lot of pressure to be slim and petite, I also have come across far more active lifestyles, with nearly everybody engaged in some active sports or recreational sport, even into the 60s and 70s. Food for thought.

Mirror Mirror

Seeing men my own age – boy have I let myself go! But so weird to fall back under the pressure of appearance, to feel invaluable and unconfident due to efforts of those around me! To once again feel like I’m competing, and out of place in even my old stomping ground nightclub.

No career, no house, no car – those pressues already feel soul destroying after a week of being back, and at only 25! At least I’ve not fallen under the pressure of marriage and kids, though no doubt that time will come!

Not understanding things

Perhaps a touch counter-intuitive, but it was strange not understanding other languages.

In Japan, you only hear Japanese, and it’s natural not to understand everything going on around you. Coming back, you have the hyper-awareness of everything around you since it’s in English, that is until, you hear a different foreign language! Suddenly there’s a little bubble of language you don’t understand instead what feels like the whole world!

The polite-meter

Getting on the bus, buying a snack, as the bar, it felt very strange to talk so much, and I found I had no idea of how polite to be. My throat rattled as small, everyday sentences climbed their way out of my mouth, against my usually quiet manner in Japan and I felt the nerves of what should I do, what should I say as I interacted with people in the street and those paid to serve me.

Angry Eyebrows

So many aggressively plucked, aggressively shaped, pointy eyebrows that just made ladies look angry – please sort this out, along with…

Oompa Loompas

When did it become acceptable to ACTUALLY be orange? Not tanned, but orange, as orange as an actually flipping oompa loompa.

Fashion

Britain, get your act together! In Japan, it’s clear what’s in fashion – soft hats and camel coats. It gives the place a nice coherent look, like an event where every adheres to the dresscode, that makes the place look tidy.

The Rolling Hills of Home

Britain is barren in winter ain’t it? From frost nipped fields, to naked hedgerows and trees that look like they’ve been turned on their head, when did every part of the countryside become as bleak as Wuthering Heights? The evergreen hills (and dare I call them mountains?), coupled with copious bright sunshine – the kind that reminds me of break times spent in primary schools lying on the ground and looking at the sun with me eyes closed (just me?) – makes even winter feel a bit more like an eternal spring.

I think I saw the sun once in 17 days?

Final Thoughts

So what was it like being a stranger in my own land?

It was bizarre feeling such a stranger in somewhere that should feel so much like home. I spent the past 17 months calling London the best city in the world, but there were moments where it felt as foreign and unsafe as the Nairobi of my gap year.

I learnt that London is most definitely not the season to spend in central London, wherein the greys of the skies mirror a little too closely the dull greys of the buildings and the grey of the ennui of those passing through, broken only by pockets of illumination and merriment.

What I think Japan has given me is a much greater appreciation for the countryside and such pursuits, but then again I’m quite sure I will speed up and adapt back to London life – I guess time will tell.

Seoul Part 1: BBQ to Bukchon

So after finally getting our sorry asses together, an ALT mob of 7 would ultimately make its way to the G Guest House (The ‘G’ can only stand for Gangsta right?) to welcome the new year in Korean style.

After traversing almost the entire width of Kyushu to Fukuoka airport, it didn’t take too long to spot my old Blighty pal Nick and we were ready to check in!

At least that was what we thought, until Japan taught us that they have a “you can’t check in more than 2 hours early” policy that seemed somewhat at ends with the general Western idea of getting to the airport 3 hours early for an international flight!

Running into the wall of airline policy, and realising we were on holiday, this meant it was time for a beer!

Being jolted awake upon landing in Korea was reminiscent of my arrival in Oita, and soon I knew I was in a strange new land, when once again I was faced with a scripture in which the only symbol I had learned was an ‘n’ sound.

Thanks to the rather convenient YouTube video provided by the hostel, our journey to the hostel was a piece of Korean cake, and we soon found ourselves in the urban sprawl and bright lights of Itaewon. The main strip illuminated like the best of any I’d seen. Yet within metres we found ourselves in the condensed, narrow and grimy backstreets of Itaewon, no doubt made more intimidating by the darkness of the evening. Restaurants, shops and people of all nationalities filled the narrow streets, from Turkish kebabs, to African foods, International supermarkets to pig snouts.

10537411_10152497460945667_887967581634504986_o

The view from the steps of G Guesthouse, Itaewon

In a short time we had arrived at the hostel, met the owner Shrek and were getting food recommendations for the best Korean BBQ house in the area – which it truly was!

Getting our Food on!

The building itself had, what I can best describe as, grown organically. Whilst once there was a main restaurant building, it now had grown to include a large porch in which diners sat under a wooden frame, tarpaulin covered shelter to dine, onto the front of which a lean-to entrance had been thrown up.

10917209_10152497460670667_5634750361322663803_o

The most awesome Korean BBQ house in Itaewon

Our eyes grew greedy as we ordered things recommended by our host, and feasted on pork belly, ribs and spicy ribs, with a massive helping of roasted vegetables and garlic, with a variety of dipping sauces. It was one of the most flavoursome meals I’d had in months, and in all the excitement I had badly burnt my mouth.

Tackling beers and a bottle of soju (Korean rice alcohol), the evening was off to a flying start that could only guarantee a fantastic night. An American bar, local bars, stumbling across “hooker hill” and “homo hill”, dancing in Queens, it had been a fine first night, ending in KFC at 5 in the morning.

Soaking up the Culture

Not ones to sit on our laurels, Nick and I made it down for breakfast and began planning our day, capitalising on the opportunity to see the sights before the rest of the group would be flying in to join us.

10750105_10152497461410667_2822388400762461190_o

One man wolf pack: Nick looking at Hangul founder Sejong the Great

In a flying summary, we saw the statue of King Sejong, the inventor of the Korean scripture Hangul – literally the only language with a definitive creator, he created it as he realised the study and production of works based on the Chinese characters (Hanja) were so difficult and time consuming to master, that only elite males were able to reach fluency, and this meant high illiteracy for the common people. As such he is considered the bee’s knees in both Koreas for his bettering of the masses and one of a few leaders given the title of ‘Great’.

From there were explored the Changdeokgung Palace. A strangely peaceful place. After walking through skyscrapers, you stumble upon an avenue, in which the low, place walls stretch out indefinitely, and at the rear of the palace sit rolling mountains – all viewable from between skyscrapers, as if the city just suddenly stopped growing.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

The outer walls of Gyeongbokgung Palace

Sadly, only 30% of the original buildings survive since their destruction during Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, but still they provide a huge relief from the city, containing intricate buildings and a frozen, natural environment to explore.

Gardens at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Inside the gardens at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Next to this sits the Folk Museum that provided background to the history of Korea from the prehistoric, up until the reflections of Confucianism in contemporary Korean society.

Desperately searching for the Bukchon village, Nick bought a hat, and unwittingly started a trend for the holiday. Ultimately we stumbled a food area – which I could not tell you where it was or the name of – but it definitely felt cultural to eat food from a street vendor, with queues of Koreans desperately seeking to purchase the delicious fried and steamed dumplings on offer.

Street Food

Eating delicious steamed dumplings from the stall in the top image

The Three-‘man’ Wolf Pack

Returning to the hostel, the next of our party had arrived, Rachael, and our two man wolf pack had become a three. Keen to showcase our locals’ knowledge, we took Rachael and friend Emma for a night on the town –I’m sure it ended at a 5am run to Taco Bell and some quesadillas.

We learnt the hard way that Monday is a dead day in Seoul, after several attempts to visit museums were faced with closed gates. The wolf pack did manage to find a quick guided tour of Jongmyo Shrine, in which lay the mortuary tablets of generations of Kings and relatives.

Jongmyo Shrin

Three man wolfpack: At the Jongmyo Shrin

A UNESCO heritage sight, it has 19 different rooms to remember 19 different Kings, running from East to West in chronological order. Though Korea no longer has monarchy, the traditional memorial services continue, with the descendants of the monarchy coming to partake in the ceremony.

Mulled Wine

Mulled Wine: Without which no winter is complete

Exploring the streets once more, we realised we had finally stumbled upon the true Bukchon village, and began exploring the meandering streets up and down the hillsides – even stopping in a café for mulled wine – truly it was still the festive season!

Finally our wolf pack was complete as Taylor, KJ, Becca and Savvy all arrived, and we consumed to our first night in Seoul together.