Postcard from the Edge of a Symbol

So my first trip to South Korea left me reeling a bit. Arriving at Incheon Airport in Seoul, I was expecting a high-tech, efficiently run airport, but immigration had the most asinine, inefficient queuing system I have seen since being in Africa. After 50 minutes of queuing (compared to 10 minutes for another random queue) I made it out to the airport bus to my hotel ready for sightseeing the next morning.

The huge metro has some unusual facets. Firstly, buying a travel card was next to impossible for a non-Korean speaker. I eventually got one and in order to decipher the instructions, I downloaded a handy app where you take a picture of the text, which is then automatically translated. The results are shown below – I only used the app once.

After my card opened the magic barrier, I stepped on what must be the world’s slowest escalator system. As I descended snails zoomed by and several generations fruit fly evolved. Eventually arriving on the platform, I was fascinated by a common sight in the stations, a large cabinet housing bio-hazard suits and gas masks. Living under the shadow of North Korea obviously has the authorities concerned; some stations are also ear-marked as bomb shelters.

Trying to exit the metro presented its own unique set of challenges. In every other city, area maps showing the area round the station typically have north pointing to the top of the map. In Seoul, the station is centered east-to-west in the map regardless of actual orientation, so north could be any direction. It took me a while to figure this out and as I kept exiting through the wrong door, getting hopelessly lost.

The first day was spent looking at some of the cultural highlights, the Gyeongbokgung royal palace, where I was just in time to see the changing of the guard. Up until now the only change I had witnessed was at Buckingham Palace, but apart of the descriptor, the similarities are few. In Seoul, a big drum is hit and a guy enters blowing a conch shell followed by group of guards wielding knives and shields, who then shout a lot and waggle their weird shoes. The dignity I was expecting somehow lacking.

From there it was off to the excellent Korean War Memorial which offers an excellent depiction of the recent history of the country, and is sponsored heavily by the UN. A whole gallery is dedicated to glorifying their role. From there, it was off to the actual DMZ. Having already visited this area from the north, I was looking forward to entering it from the south. This must be the furthest you have travel to get from one side of a building to the other. Surprisingly the amount of red tape you need to enter from the south was far more arduous than it was from the north. The overzealous guards forbad us from taking photos as there was tour going on at the north side and spouted rubbishy propaganda about the north and Kijŏngdong (the “uninhabited” propaganda village) that can be seen from the south. We had driven through the village 2 years ago and it certainly seemed to be inhabited. I left feeling very disenchanted with the tour, even if it was sponsored by the shiny do-no-wrong UN.

The next few days were spent working and trying to figure out how to flush the toilets. Now, call me old-fashioned, but any appliance you get intimate with, and that has direct connections to both water and electricity supply, needs to be treated with respect and understanding. However, the instrument panel on the side just let me baffled and perplexed, and irrevocably damp in places I had not foreseen. The battle with the porcelain was sustained as I continued my trip to Tokyo.

Tokyo was even hotter and clammier than Seoul, 35°c and 75% humidity which made my sight-seeing really unpleasant. It necessitated regular visits in to anything air conditioned along the way, which left me with some incredible insights. On the way to the Sinjo Temple, I ducked in to a 6 story building which was especially busy at 9:00am on a Sunday. Each floor was an open hall, filled with me just standing about. There were a number of machines along the wall with huge monitors around the walls displaying what looked like odds. After a while horse racing appeared on a screen and I realized I was in a mega-betting shop. It seems that the pachinko (bagatelle) parlors that used to litter just about every street are sadly being replaced.
Electronics were a common theme. I visited the sadly bland Sony Center, which seemed to trying to differentiate itself with environmentally friendly goods. Unfortunately it was just like a large electronics store, with “me-too” products. From there I went to Yodobashi Camera a really large electronics store. Spread over 10 buildings it has everything and more besides, just finding what you wanted was an issue, I got lost and ended up spending more time looking for an exit than at actual product.

The last few days were spent working, where more electronics assailed me. Just using the gents need a small reactor to power everything including: automatic lights, a digital notice board showing which cubicles were free (a “Scheisleitsystem” for the German speakers), automatic flush, automatic soap dispenser, electronic selection of water temperature, electronic hand sanitizer dispenser, automatic hand dryer with UV light build in for sterilization.

Despite the strangeness, I thoroughly enjoyed my trips such foreign lands.. and will be back shortly.

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