Korea & Japan

07th December 2010

This week I have mostly been - hanging round the Buenos Aires docks. The Landcruiser is in container number 3998-CG84. I can see it but I can't get it. The suction-cup covered tentacles of international trade regulation have me in their grip. The nightmare process has me so distracted I took a fifteen minute shower this morning and realised when I got out that I had forgotten to wash.

When I was in Syria, many lives ago, it became clear to me that in a third world country where you don't speak the language, one practical thing a day is all you can reasonably expect to get done, even if that one thing is just posting a letter.

I have started taking my laptop to the port to write up my blog during the endless waiting. There is a golden retriever that hangs around the EMBA customs office, which is currently sitting under the table and nibbling my ankle. His good temper has been making the whole thing bearable. Dogs are good for the soul.

Most of the officials here are surprisingly helpful and friendly, with the exception of the head of co-ordination, a miserable old git born pre-caricatured as a spitting image puppet. I have been busy memorising his face so that I can carry on hating him after I get back to the hostel.

In between going to the port, I am restocking for the next leg of the trip. I intend to bring a European fashion sense to the locals along with Jesus and smallpox. Sadly H&M - the one-stop solution for the man with no money who hates shopping - does not exist in Buenos Aires. Uniqlo will do at a pinch.

Blog updates may be more sporadic than usual going forward, as I am working hard on the launch of a new fund in London. This is a project that has been ongoing for several months and is now coming together.

Despite the fact that I am without question the holiest and most sinless person you will ever meet, God appears to have been targeting me in childish burn-the-ant-with-a-magnifying-glass fashion. There are better times ahead. I have a kilo of chocolate ice cream waiting for me in the fridge and a DVD of "the Expendables " with some guy called Silvester Stallone in it. I truly know how to live.

South Korea
I spent a mere two weeks in the Land of the Morning Calm. The country is tiny. The longest bus trip you can take is 5 hours. I had just boarded this bus and settled in for a snooze when I spotted someone getting on. To my horror, I realize it’s a Sbolidav (stoned backpacker of limited intelligence with dreadlocks and verbal-diarrhea). Dear god, no.

Surprise, surprise, the Sbolidav ignores all of the empty seats and corners me in the back. I attract these people like a magnet. After feeding me some preposterous chat about the 12 freemasons that control the world, the Sbolidav starts a pointless rant about Facebook being an ego-hook where people just try to impress each other with cool profile pictures and witty status updates. Clearly true but who cares. People also spend their real lives seeking validation. This is not news.

  • Seoul: I had a great time here. The temple type stuff is top-notch. If you go during the week, all the historical sites are overrun by schoolchildren who want to interview you for a school assignment. The nightlife is also great and alcohol costs next to nothing. I went to lots of clubs and also to see a Korean punk rock act in Hongdae. They were excellent if you like that kind of thing but unfortunately their fans were of the too-self-conscious-to-mosh variety.

    Noryanjin is the main fish market in Seoul and although much smaller than Tsukiji in Tokyo, it’s well worth a visit. Absolutely every creature that floats or swims is on sale here, mostly alive in rows of tanks. You just point to the thing you want and in about 5 seconds it has been pulled out, killed, gutted and sliced up. Any one of the adjacent restaurants will cook it for you on the spot.

    They have a great system in Korea where you can drink on the pavement outside convenience stores. They provide everything - plastic cups, tables, chairs and parasols. When the weather is good, this really is the way to go, combining people watching opportunities and a British beer garden environment. In Korea, the people watching tends to be pretty entertaining. The Koreans go in for much the same kind of silly clothing as in Japan - couples wearing matching outfits, guys in tiger print capes and so on. This is an example of a couple out for a stroll:

    The Koreans lead the world in miniturisation and everyone has mobile phones the size and shape of an After-Eight that can take pictures, play music and trim your body hair. Korean girls are generally very good looking and wear stuff that makes the average English teenager's outfit look like something a retired schoolmistress might wear in Antarctica. Knee-high boots and hot pants are currently “in”, which is fantastic. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about:

  • Other highlights were Naejangsan National Park and Gyeongju, the ancient capital. If you go, be sure to visit Bulguksa, a stunning temple outside town which was originally built in 528, some 1459 years before the cinematic release of “Predator”.

    The Koreans absolutely hate the Japanese, not in a jokey way, and claim that they are responsible for all the wars there have ever been in Asia. This is not true. It's common knowledge that the Japanese are only to blame for 75% of the wars, tops. Every week, elderly "comfort women", who were forced into prostitution as teenagers gather to demonstrate outside the Japanese Embassy. Although their government has refused to apologise, groups of Japanese tourists come and line up to bow to them. Nice touch.

  • Busan is the only other major city in South Korea. In fact, outside of Seoul and Busan, there’s really not much to do but hike in the mountains or watch squid dry. I spent a few days hanging out with Michele, who, despite only being 26, is coach of the German national table-tennis team. He was in Korea for the world championships and was taking a few days to travel around afterwards. We did a bit of drinking, a bit of sightseeing, and the obligatory citadel trek on the hill over the city:

    The place was swarming with locals. Koreans are the world’s most over-equipped hikers, dressed in full gore-tex ninja outfits and sun visors when going for a two hour walk.

    North vs South
    The exchange of artillery fire across the DMZ was by far the biggest news item in the country while I was there, and understandably the main topic of discussion among locals and foreigners. North Korea remains a bizarre one off – a bankrupt totalitarian state ruled by a paranoid child in a bouffant wig, boiler suit and joke-shop sunglasses. It is a major surprise that this parody of government has not disintegrated.

    The obvious point is that these crises are not accidental, but a carefully considered strategy to draw the Americans and South Koreans to the negotiating table. In fact, the central tool in the regime’s strategy in recent years has been the use of nuclear weapons development to gain concessions and aid. They are merely getting on board with the age-old fashion in Asian discourse, namely making naked threats.

    North Korea's bankrupt economy, Kim Jong Il’s poor health and question marks over his son’s credentials has put the regime in a precarious position. The current crisis seems to be partly a show of force to strengthen their position internally as they go through the leadership transition.

    The South Koreans are profoundly dependent on the US military umbrella for defence. Their own capability is limited to sending their teenagers out to freeze their knackers off for a year in the DMZ and keep an eye out for commie infiltrators. It's a tricky situation. The South Koreans are up against a country with a huge military capability and nothing to lose. For years they have been following a strategy of half-hearted condemnations and regularly paying the danegeld of economic concessions. Unfortunately, there's really only one outcome when you start paying danegeld.

    The Chinese are often criticized for their role in defending the North Koreans, but the fact is that there are no good options available to them. They are playing a holding game so as to avoid an all-out conflict or a collapse of the regime, either of which would spark a refugee crisis. Still, this is a political structure that they saved and supported, so it’s their problem.

    I woke up on the plane as I was about to land at Nagoya and had a run-in with the old "first morning abroad reconstruct your life history" routine. I was somehow feeling jetlagged, despite only crossing two timezones. Maybe I'm just used to feeling jetlagged in Japan. In the movies Scarlet Johansson shows up and flirts with you in your hotel bar, but there was no sign of her so I just hung around in town before getting the nightbus to Tokyo. The Autumn Sumo Basho was on, so I watched a bit of that on telly in the station. I absolutely love this sport. I know it’s basically just two fat men in nappies running into each other while a man in a dress waves a fan at them, but there is something compelling about it. The build-up is superb.

    Japan still excels in the field of freaking out foreigners. Things I saw in Nagoya in a single 12 hour period:

  • A girl getting onto a bus wearing a T-shirt with the words "Ugly Bitch".
  • A man wearing a dress made out of a David Beckham calendar.
  • A kid in McDonalds alternating bites of a Filet-o-fish and spoonfuls of McFlurry.
  • A woman wiping a dog's bum after it had finished its business.
  • This:

    Useful for a guy who wants to use his kennel as a garage.

    In Tokyo, I stayed with Ed, an old friend from university, and spent a few days enjoying his heated toilet seat and state-of-the-art entertainment system. Having lived in Japan for almost two years at different times, I very quickly settled back into the Japanese way of doing things - slurping your noodles, bowing when talking on the phone, and sitting on the train with a drunk salaryman asleep on your shoulder.

    I did all of the touristy stuff in Tokyo years ago, so I wanted to take pictures of a few Japanese oddities while I was there. Things I wanted to do:

  • Hit home runs at the batting cages.
  • Get wrecked in a Karaoke box and murder "Imagine" with my eyes screwed shut.
  • Visit the gayberhood near Shinjuku Nichome.
  • Check out a little temple in Ueno that has a memorial to dead insects.
  • Go to the new cross-dressing Maid Café in Harajuku.
  • Find the middle-aged salaryman who hangs around in Kabukicho and charges people a thousand yen to punch him as hard as they can in the stomach. Punch him in the stomach.
  • See the Infamous Hello Kitty S&M dungeon in the Adonis love hotel.
  • Go to the pet shop in Higashi-Nakano that sells only owls and only opens at night.
  • Visit the storm drain system in Saitama. This is the one that I really wanted to do. Fantastic location for weird photography. This is what looks like (not my picture):

    Things I actually did:
  • Day trip to Kamakura in Ed's Lamborghini.

  • Watched all three seasons of “The Inbetweeners”
  • Talked about World of Warcraft with Ed.

    We also did a bit of shopping and went drinking in the tiny bars that fill a small network of urine-soaked alleys in Shibuya. Very entertaining.

    After spending five years studying Japanese at one of the world's finest universities, it is satisfying to see that I can now only communicate by pointing and making monkey noises.

    One thing that struck me is how little green space there is in urban Japan. Most of the "parks" have a few stumpy trees, a broken swing, some sickly tufts of grass and a load of homeless people. I had forgotten how the tramps always lay out a little cardboard tatami area, where they take off their shoes.

    It also seems that this kind of absolute nonsense still goes on around Harajuku:

    (Nicked from another Gaijin)

    I briefly visited a Pachinko parlour. This is a kind of Japanese vertical pinball. You load metal ball-bearings into the top of a machine and they fall down past some pins. You control the speed of the balls' release using a dial, and watch them bounce around a bit, before disappearing into one of the holes. That's it. Your job is to get them into the winning hole. It's basically a slot machine with a degree of imaginary skill added.

    The noise inside a Pachinko Parlour is absolutely deafening. Apparently this is designed to prevent any social interaction that might slow down the rate of play. To combat the noise, players often stick the metal balls in their ears. If you play well, you win more balls, which can be exchanged for cash at a Yakuza-operated booth in an alley round the back. Then you take this cash into the parlour and put it back in the machines. The whole thing defies belief.

    A night in the life - Drinking in Ginza
    I have a number of university friends who are now working in Japan and married to Japanese ladies. We all agreed to meet up for some night maneuvers, and there were a few I hadn't seen in a long time, so I had my drinking hat well and truly on.

    My alcohol intake has been about 5% of normal for two years, which has mixed benefits. I am slimmer and feel great, but my memory still leaks like bird shot. The point is - I was aware that my tolerance is no longer what it used to be when I spent my days intravenously attached to the Becks tap in the King's Arms. Anyway, as a man who represents the towering pinnacle of British manhood, with perfect hair, the physique of a greek statue and a grip that turns coal to diamonds, I figured this wouldn't necessarily be a problem.

    My first mistake is deciding to have a couple of beers with some of the guys before dinner. Unfortunately, since a couple of beers is about my limit right now, I'm half in the bag by the time we get to the Izakaya.

    I kick off by demanding that everyone down a half pint of Shochu, a vile Japanese spirit made from something or other. Shouting down their embarrassing objections, I insist everyone downs a second. The traditional method is this - stand, raise the glass and shout "Ikki", then suppress the gag reflex as the smell reaches your nose, bolt it and try not to throw up as it strips the enamel from your teeth and scorches your asophagus.

    The whole thing reminded me of the kind of idiocy that has typified my behaviour when going out over the past two decades. What on earth have I been doing? God help anyone who becomes a prisoner of his own reputation as a fun guy.

    We stumble out of the Izakaya and straight into another bar for some vodka tonics. I remember thinking at one point - "Leo looks a bit drunk, we might need to go easy on him". This is called irony.

    I soon realise that I might be suffering from excess at table. "I am strong, I am fast, I am light" I think to myself. The very next minute i am being carried out of the bar.

    I have had a donor card in my wallet ever since a friend suggested that rather than thinking of donating organs as giving up part of myself to keep a stranger alive, I should think of it as a stranger giving up almost all of themselves to keep part of me alive. I should perhaps now make a note on it that I have the liver of a 90 year old man.

    Anyway, I’ve been under a lot of pressure because of things… and stuff. Also it's clear that someone spiked my drinks. There will be consequences. Fortunately, I beat Ed's high score on Angry Birds, so there are entries on both sides of the ledger.

    I spent four days in Kyoto taking pictures of the autumn colours. With all the foliage to look at, I never got templed out, despite traipsing round dozens. Virtually all my photos from Japan are from these four days. The key to good pictures is to position yourself carefully to avoid the hideous power lines that hang a couple of inches above every temple roof.

    The colours are truly incredible. The problem is that everyone knows this and half the country descends on Kyoto in the same week. You end up in a vast crowd, shuffling along like in March of the Penguins down a half kilometre-long street filled with shops selling miniature shrines, polyester kimonos and a variety of "replica" weapons from famous computer games and films. I was briefly tempted by a plastic Mjolnir and the chain swords from God of War, but they wouldn't have fitted in my luggage. Fortunately, as foreigners, we skip the sub-queues in the temples where the locals wait their turn to splash themselves with water or rub a turtle statue's head.

    There is a law in Japan that bloggers can only describe Kyoto in the autumn using the adjectives - glorious, ancient and exquisite. Failure to comply results in a five year prison sentence. Kyoto highlights were:

  • Tenryu-ji - A temple in the Arashyama area, which has been famous for its autumn colours for centuries. It didn't disappoint - the whole area is a blaze of primary colours interspersed with groves of bamboo forest.

  • Ryoan-ji - a historic Zen temple where you can sit and ponder some gravel with three rocks sticking out of it.

  • Shisen-do - My favourite. An old Samurai residence in northern Kyoto. I love traditional Japanese homes. They fill me with a tremendous sense of wellbeing - the painted wooden screens, the smell of tatami mats and open verandas overlooking beautifully laid-out gardens.

  • Wandering around Gion taking pictures of Geishas was also fun. Check out the footwear.

    Quote From Something I’m Reading
    “It has always seemed to me, after all, that Christmas, with its spirit of giving, offers us all a wonderful opportunity each year to reflect on what we all most sincerely and deeply believe in. I refer of course, to money.” Tom Lehrer

    Best/Worst Food
    Korean food is excellent but no matter what you order, it will contain chillies. Every meal has the sweat pouring off you. They also have their fair share of foul locals-only food, including Bundaeggi (silk worm larvae), which they cook in stinking vats in the street.

    They have almost no English menus in the country, which can be a problem. My established system is to just take pot luck by randomly pointing at menu items. In Korea, your luck tends to run out quick. Most of the menu is taken up by a series of uncompromising side dishes that include fermented fish heads, rotting tofu and raw chillies. Fortunately, having spent two months in China enjoying breakfasts of chicken necks sitting in congealed blood and garnished with rancid yak butter, it takes plenty to put me off. Still, I once ended up with five different kinds of Kimchi as my entire order.

    Of course you can just do what most foreigners do - order Bibimbap every time (a very tasty mix of vegetables, rice, meat and a fried egg). Just pretend to read the menu and then order exactly what you've always ordered. The other solution is to go to restaurants carrying a piece of paper with "No brains or rotting material please" like a kid with a sicknote from his mum.

  • Japan: I've lived there, so I feel no compunction to try raw horse meat or squid ink ice cream. In fact, other than a bit of yaki-tori here and there, I ate only two types of food in Japan - sushi and tonkatsu.

    A good tonkatsu is sheer perfection - the juicy pork fillet, clothed in delicate breadcrumbs, reclines like an idle sultan on a bed of crunchy shredded cabbage, attended by a cheeky squirt of lemon and a stately bowl of rich, cohesive brown sauce. If I could only eat one thing, it would be this.

    I had forgotten the weird obsession that the Japanese have with Beaujolais Nouveau, which was going on sale while I was there. I’m sure the French can’t believe their luck - the stuff is absolute filth.

    Best Moments
  • Kyoto, especially Shisen-Do.
  • Jiu-jitsu in Busan.

  • Thanksgiving in LA.
  • Clubbing in Hongdae, Seoul.
  • The trek in Naejangsan National Park

    Worst Moments
  • Tipping scalding noodle soup onto my genitals, Busan.
  • Getting on the plane absolutely starving and being presented with a rocket salad. Rocket is the bane of my existence. This shit didn't even exist ten years ago. Some smacked-out hippy just dug it up in his yard and threw it on a plate.
  • Savagely burning my tongue on Takoyaki in Kyoto.

    I have the car! I spent my first night on the roof for many months and I have to say it was a real joy to wake up with the sun on my face. I swung my legs off the memory-foam mattress, watched my bumprint slowly fade away, and jumped down to start my well-oiled coffee making routine.

    I have a nasty rash on my cheek, which has been there for quite a while and has proved resistant to every conceivable cream. It may well be the beginnings of a sex change caused by a build-up of female hormones. I've never really trusted the milk in Asia. Or it could be the disease from 28 Days Later. Either way, I have finally got around to seeing a Dermatologist, who spoke perfect English but spent all of his time tutting and talking about Chaucer.

    "Do you take drugs?" he asked bizarrely.
    "My drugs of choice are alcohol, which I doubt I’ll ever give up, and tobacco, which I gave up the day I left London."

    It seems that the rumours of a shiny yellow thing in the sky are true. The weather in Buenos Aires is phenomenal. Tomorrow I will be going to see Independiente vs Goias in the final of the Copa Sudamerica. Stoked.

    All I eat here are choripans and ribs, which leaves me stinking like a butcher's apron for half the day. Then I get home and brush my teeth with my Chinese toothpaste that tastes like you've just bitten into a urinal cake. Must do something about this.

    After a few months of complimentary emails, I am pleased to say that the China blog entry sparked some quality hate mail. In light of this development I am proposing a new system - if you send me money, I promise be nice about your country.

    The time difference between South East Asia and Nevada is about 14 hours, a fact that has been consistently and selfishly ignored by the Las Vegas casinos when they schedule major boxing events. Thankfully I am now a mere 3 hours out of sync and have been enjoying watching people get punched in the head live!

    Christmas in Argentina will most likely be rather similar to Christmas in the UK – cheap decorations, fat people in Santa outfits, excessive drinking, and absolutely no going to church whatsoever. Also, thank-god, no presents. Any sensible analysis will conclude that giving presents is a hugely inefficient transfer of resources designed purely to enrich retailers. I’m just saying.

    Sunburn one day, frostbite the next. I head south towards Patagonia on Thursday. In a couple of weeks I expect to be leaning chin-first into a howling blizzard, steely eyes fixed on the horizon, fists knuckling like ribs through the pockets of my windbreaker. I may well have to survive by shooting penguins and fishing through a hole in a frozen lake.

    Merry Christmas everyone.