Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Trip to Japan, Day One

From last Saturday until Tuesday, Keegan and I were away exploring a new country for us: Japan! I've had a hankering to go there ever since I found out that you can reach Japan by ferry from Korea in just three hours. Keegan's four-day weekend for the Lunar New Year seemed like the perfect time to plan a quick trip.

The first thing we learned on our trip is that the three-hour ferry ride is only a tiny part of the long day of travel that goes into getting to Nagasaki from Geoje Island. All in all, our travel ended up taking about twelve hours! The first leg was the now familiar ferry ride to Busan. In Busan, we walked a few blocks from the domestic ferry terminal to the international one, where we were able to get on an earlier ferry to Japan than we had planned on. The ferry to Japan was a hydrofoil, which means that the bulk of the boat is actually lifted out of the water by two slender wings underneath. The ride was fast and fairly smooth, although at one point the boat had to slow suddenly, and we lost lift. The boat crashed back down into the water with a dramatic splash that woke up all of the sleeping passengers. Fortunately, all was well, and we continued on to Japan without further incident.

As we traveled, we headed into more and more clouds, and by the time we got to Fukuoka, it was snowing! We headed quickly into the ferry terminal to go through immigration. Then it was time to figure out how to get to the train station. There was a bus stop right outside the door, and we knew we could take a bus to the station, so we hopped on one. This was our first taste of Japan, and we were wide-eyed and curious. Some teenaged girls got on the bus and wowed us with their elaborately teased hair. It was like a regular ponytail that exploded in the back like fireworks. We were amused. We were also impressed by the way the bus driver turned the bus off at all the traffic lights, instead of idling. How fuel-efficient! After some time on the bus, I became convinced that we were not on the right bus and persuaded Keegan that we should get off and take a taxi. We flagged one over, and the driver pushed a button that made the back door swing open automatically. I asked him to take us to the train station. About two blocks later, we were there. I felt a little sheepish, but at least we got where we needed to go!

In the train station, we got tickets on a train to Nagasaki and then stopped in a little bakery to get some lunch. It was cold and snowy on the platform, so we took shelter in a tiny glassed-in, heated waiting room. When it got too crowded, Keegan found a little noodle stand and proceeded to order a bowl of noodles. The way it worked was that you put coins into a vending machine and selected the dish that you wanted (all in Japanese of course, so we just picked at random). The machine gives you a ticket, which you then take to the vendor, who dishes you up your bowl of noodles. Very clever.

Keegan eats noodles at the tiny noodle stand in Fukuoka.

The train was very comfortable. We sat in a car where we had reserved seats, and there weren't many other people in it. We were impressed by the seats, which you could rotate 180 degrees so that you could face your fellow travelers if you wanted to. We were also impressed by the scenery going by outside the window. We noticed that Japanese apartment buildings have exterior balconies (unlike their Korean counterparts) and exterior staircases (for earthquake emergencies?). We also noticed that there were many more single family homes in Japan than there are in Korea. I thought the Japanese countryside was similar to Poland, but with an Asian flair, of course. The trip was made beautiful by the snow which fell almost the whole way.

Once in Nagasaki, we found our way outside to the streetcar stop. There we experienced our first example of how helpful Japanese people often are. We were comparing the map of the tram route to our Lonely Planet, and trying to figure out where we were going and how to get there. Another man on the platform noticed us and told us that we needed to cross the street to catch the tram going the other direction. His help was much appreciated. On the streetcar, I was again impressed when another man voluntarily held my duffle bag on his lap so that it would be out of the way of the mass of people crowded into the car. He didn't look particularly happy about it, but he was very kind.

At our hotel at last, we were greeted by a cadre of extremely friendly hotel staff. They got us checked in and helped us up to our room on the seventh floor. The woman who carried my bag gave us the weather report on the way up in the elevator. Our room was very small, but comfortable, with two purple and green kimonos laid out for us on the bed. I wanted to put one on and relax for a while, but we decided to get dinner instead. The guidebook recommended a restaurant close to the hotel, and it turned out to be a good recommendation. The restaurant was warm and cozy, and the food was delicious!

Once we had taken our shoes off and left them in a little shoe locker, we were ushered into the dining room. It looked like we would have to sit on the floor, but in fact, the tables had cut-outs underneath them so that you could sit on the "first floor" with your legs under the table and your feet beneath on the "second floor" if you wanted to. There was a small heater under our table, so I was quite happy that I could warm my feet! Fortunately, there was an English menu, so Keegan and I were able to order two set meals. The waitress brought us two enormous trays with a variety of foods on them. I had a tempura set with veggie and seafood tempura as well as miso soup, rice, a soft-boiled egg, and a delicious dish of soft tofu with ginger and soy sauce. Keegan's set was similar, but it also had some sashimi that he enjoyed. We got a huge pot of green tea to go with the meal.

Ellen enjoys dinner in Nagasaki.

By the time we finished with the huge dinner, it was definitely time for bed. We spent a little time watching a Japanese firefighter show and trying to figure out what was going on, but then we decided to go to sleep in order to be ready for a very busy day of tourism ahead.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


For Christmas, I got a great new digital camera that's small enough to carry around in my purse. This is important here on Geoje Island because you never know what odd things you're going to see next. Here's a sampling:

A Spam gift set for the Lunar New Year. I guess processed meat does say something about possibilities for reinventing yourself in the new year.

A fish market stall near my yoga class. Drying fish on clotheslines is a common activity this time of year.

We saw these at the market. They were alive and writhing. I'm pretty sure they were meant to eat.

Two of Keegan's co-workers, Rachael and Amorn, with me after dinner at a duck restaurant.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


As I'm sitting here trying to think of something interesting to blog about, I am listening to the droning tones of a truck's loudspeaker. Back in Norfolk, we used to hear the cheery sound of the ice cream truck passing several times a day. Here in Doekpo, we hear gravelly chanting in Korean as we're passed by the fruit and vegetable truck, the appliance spare parts/repair truck, and occasionally the pots and pans or clothing trucks. In Okpo, it's common for farmers to set up trucks with produce around the town, but out here in Doekpo, they're mostly mobile, and that's why they need a chant to alert people that they're cruising by. Keegan and I like to imagine what they're saying in that rhythmic monotone: "Tomatoes, grapes, bananaaaaaaaaas....Oranges, apples, peeeeeaaaaars."

We're also graced with a stationary loudspeaker somewhere nearby that goes off at the oddest times. We have no idea what this one is broadcasting, though we joke that they're continually announcing invasion by the North Koreans. Once, we heard a loud siren that went on for so long that we started looking around for North Korean airplanes or naval ships. Fortunately, it must have been just a test.

Another funny auditory note - many trucks here, instead of emitting an annoying repetitive beep when they are in reverse, play Beethoven's Fur Elise. Keegan says that many of the cranes at the shipyard also play tinny Beethoven to alert people in the shipyard that they are moving. I think Beethoven is probably rolling over in his grave.

For those of you who followed last week's kitten saga, the cats are doing great. We're taking them to the vet this afternoon to have their stitches removed. I'm so glad that whole experience is over!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Quiet Sunday

It was a good thing for a quiet Sunday since I didn't sleep well again last night.  Chili was tugging at her stitches so much that I decided I'd better put her plastic collar on her to keep her from irritating the wound.  But of course, that also was difficult to do and to watch, so I worried after that and didn't sleep.  Today I was zonked.  Fortunately for me, Glenda agreed to keep both Pepper and Chili for a few hours while I took a nap and went for a much-needed run.  She said I was like a new mother who needed a break.  I picked both cats up in the afternoon, and they were really happy to be home together.  So much so that they groomed each other fervently for several minutes and then curled up and went to sleep.  Pepper has no respect for or understanding of Chili's wound, so I continually readjusted his paws and head out of her stomach area.  They are so sweet together.

This evening when they awoke, Chili seems almost back to normal. She's eating and drinking, and she even played quite excitedly with her kitten fishing pole this evening.  So I am much less worried.  Now if I could just keep her from chewing her stitches...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Adventures at the Vet

The past couple days have been doozies. Yesterday's big activity was taking the cats to the vet to be spayed and neutered. Glenda came with me. We took the cats into the vet's office, and there was a little dog there (with ears dyed blue, of course) wandering around. The cats, who were already nervous, were not thrilled. We carried Pepper in a top-loading cat carrier (i.e. picnic basket) that Glenda lent me. Chili was in a more familiar model with a door that opened on the front, so she was a bit harder to get out. The vet asked me to pull her out. It was difficult to oblige as I tried to shoo the dog away with one hand and pry a terrified Chili out with the other. We weighed Chili and took her over to the exam table for a sedative shot. Cue Chili yowling loudly and springing off the table in terror. It is not until this point that the vet finally realized he should put the dog into its crate. Chili went back into her carrier to wait until the sedative kicked in. Glenda and I left with heavy hearts.

In the parking lot, I got a phone call from Keegan, whose ship was just off the coast where he could get some cell phone reception. I was distracted and worried about the cats and about being rude to Glenda.

Glenda and I decided to try a new Turkish restaurant for lunch. She had a lamb wrap, and they made me a special vegetarian shish-kebab with falafel instead of meat. It was good but a little spicy. After lunch, we wandered around a bit doing some shopping. One of our stops was the market, where we found, to our horror, a new item for sale: giant, squirming, caterpillar-like grubs in a bin of sawdust. Blearghh!

In the afternoon, we met Joy and Kayoko for coffee at the Pompeii coffeeshop, which is a really great new place that we've started hanging out. Kayoko and I had enormous pots of peppermint tea, Joy had coffee, and Glenda had a beautiful hot chocolate. We shared a huge waffle with ice cream. I really enjoyed our conversation. Kayoko has been helping us plan our trip to Japan, so we talked a bit about that, but also a lot about current events and some about how there are a lot of really scary poisionous snakes in Wyoming (where Glenda is from).

Finally, it was time to collect the kittens. They were both wearing those horrible plastic space-cat collars and were absolutely miserable about it. Pepper struggled manfully against his all the way home. When we got there, he leapt out of his carrier, took a long break at the litterbox, and then stalked around searching for food. Chili was a little slower to emerge and clearly felt much, much worse. I was a total basket case worrying about the two of them and worrying about taking them back to the vet today for "after care." Glenda kept me company, helped me keep Pepper entertained by things other than licking his wound, and offered to take Pepper home with her to enjoy playing with her cats and so he wouldn't bother Chili. I took her up on it. Following was a night with very little sleep, during which I woke up every time Chili did and followed her like a madwoman making sure she was ok. She was.

Today I spent the morning being a basket case and watching the set-up for the annual Doekpo Beach Penguin Swim, where a bunch of crazy people go swimming in the icy ocean. I couldn't believe how long some of them stayed in the water! Today there was a particularly cold wind, too. I talked to Mom and Dad on the phone and on Skype and agonized over whether it would be worth further trauma to take the kittens back to the vet. I took them, and it wasn't so bad. The dog was safely stowed, the kittens both got antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and their wounds cleaned, and we were in and out quickly.

The afternoon was long and relaxed. Chili and I are bonding while she lies around sick and miserable. I am worried that she hasn't been eating much. She has eaten a few meager bites of food off of my finger, but not much more. I wish I could ask her how she feels. And I wish Keegan wasn't gone, so he could tell me not to worry, like he always does.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Busy Thursday

This morning I got up and went for a run.  It's amazing how similar the climate is here to Lynchburg - rarely gets so cold that it's truly uncomfortable for running, even on winter mornings.  As much as I miss snow, I have to admit it would be hard to move somewhere much colder.

Over breakfast, I worked on finalizing plans for our trip to Japan over the Lunar New Year.  We now have ferry reservations on the high speed ferry from Busan to Fukuoka!  It's been a long time since I've visited a brand new country (as a tourist, anyway).  I'm excited.  From Fukuoka, we're going to take a train to Nagasaki and spend a couple days there.  I picked Nagasaki because it's not far from Fukuoka, but also because I've met a Japanese woman here who is from Nagasaki.  So she's given us good advice about places to visit.  She also told us that there is a big lantern festival there for the New Year.  You all should expect many, many photos in your future!

In the afternoon, I had three lessons.  I met my student Rita's two sons today.  They are both planning to do some graduate classes in Korea next year, and they are anxious to learn English to help them with the Korean language class they'll have to take, which is taught in English.  Whew!  I think they're brave.  It's nice to have some male students to round out my group for a while, although it is only temporary.  It's good to have a reminder that not everyone responds favorably to the topics "shopping" and "your upcoming wedding."  It's also nice to have more advanced students who are easier to talk to.  I think that my beginning students and I manage to communicate surprisingly well, but sometimes it's frustrating not to be able to have more complicated conversations.  

After my lessons, I went to the supermarket and ran into Joy, a friend from Bulgaria.  She had heard we were planning a trip to Japan (this really is a small town) and said she and her husband were thinking of going too.  If they're planning to go for the lantern festival also, it would be fun to get together for an adventurous Japanese dinner.

I stopped by Glenda's house on the way home to pick up an extra cat carrier for tomorrow's adventure:  taking the kittens to the vet for spaying and neutering!  Poor little things are blithely unaware.  Glenda and I have a nice afternoon planned to distract me from feeling sorry for my babies.  We're going to try out a Turkish restaurant and maybe do some shopping.  Another mind-numbingly detailed update is sure to follow.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Updates for Keegan

Keegan left yesterday for a sea trial.  As Laura put it this morning, he is basically test driving the ship he's been working on.  He'll be gone for ten days.  Blah.  Since I usually tell Keegan, in mind-numbing detail, about my days, I've decided to tell you all instead.  So brace yourselves for some exciting reviews of my day-to-day.

This morning I woke up around 8 and read another story in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, which I love.  I eventually extracted myself from the cats and made my way out of bed and into the living room to do a workout on the bike trainer while watching the Gilmore Girls.  The workouts are getting easier - I'll have to up the intensity on my next ride!  

While I was riding, the Magic Jack rang a couple times, and then the house phone rang.  Fearing it might be an emergency, I unclipped from the bike, swiped a towel over my sweaty brow, and answered the phone.  It was Laura!  I called her after my bike workout while I was drinking my delicious banana-yogurt-orange juice smoothie concoction.  Laura's doing well, and, as always, it was really nice to talk to her.  

My student came this afternoon, and we had a nice lesson.  She told me all about her trip to Seoul over New Year's.  She wasn't very enthusiastic.  She said that the city was very gray, and that she "froze a lot."  She used to live in Shanghai and had a much more favorable impression of that city than of Seoul.  But she and her husband liked their hotel and the restaurants, and they took a bus tour that looked pretty cool (she showed me a brochure).  

I was a whirlwind of activity in the evening and did some cleaning and lesson planning for tomorrow.  I'm a little nervous because I'm meeting some temporary new students.  They are the sons of another student, and they'll just be here until the end of January.  I think tomorrow is really just a planning session, and I have a plan, so things should work out well.  I spent the evening online catching up on e-mail and watching movie trailers.  I heard a story on NPR and want to see just about every movie mentioned in the top 10.  Looks like we'll have lots to rent when Keegan gets back!