Monday, 28 June 2010

Cupcakes and Kimchi

I finally managed to scrape enough money together to take a trip to Japan's closest neighbour, South Korea. I only have five more weeks left in Asia, so was really happy to be able to see one more Asian country before I head back to the West.

Yumi, Ed and I spent four days in South Korea's bustling capital city, 서울, Seoul. It was one of the busiest trips I had ever been on - so much to see, do (and eat!) and so little time to fit them all in. First of all, thank you so much to Vivian and Jenny. Korea would not have been as enjoyable an experience without your help;Vivian compiled an amazing list of things to see (thank you so much!) and my Korean friend Jenny was the best guide ever, taking us to all of her favourite places and telling us about Korean cuisine. One of my favourite things that Jenny told me was about age in Korea. Jenny was born in 1988, making her 22, however, in Korea, she is 23. In Korea,a person's first year is counted as year one, rather than year zero. So Jenny has two ages - an international age and a Korean age. :-)

I enjoyed the food in Korea so much. I found it to be much more satisfying than Japanese food. Everything is very spicy with lots more vegetables than Japanese food. It was nice to eat spicy food again after so long.

I forget the name of it, but one of my favourite dishes was cold spicy noodles (it even had ice cubes in it to keep it extra cold). I liked adding loads of kimchi (spicy vegetables) to make it even spicier. Scissors are a staple item in Korean dining. They are used to cut everything from lettuce leaves to noodles into more manageable sizes - cute eh?

I loved jijimi; a Korean style pancake. It's traditionally made from the leftover scraps of vegetables. It was divine.

Seoul is a huge metropolis. I loved riding the subway and changing trains all the time - it really made me feel nostalgic for the hustle and bustle of London (not long now!) There are an abundance of things to do in Seoul and everything is available. For the most part I liked this - I enjoyed being able to have nice smoothies, good coffee and interesting salads whenever and wherever I pleased, and I took full advantage of the cheap cosmetics shops that seemed to appear on every corner.

That said, the Americanisation of everything was something I hadn't anticipated. In many ways, Seoul seemed far more advanced than even Tokyo; everything Western is embraced. Japan is definitely more perseverant in retaining its own idiosyncrasies and I do believe that there are merits and disadvantages to each approach. I think however, that if I hadn't stuck to eating largely Korean food and didn't have Jenny with me, Seoul is the kind of place where one can have a 'city' experience, rather than an authentically Korean one. It's an international, cosmpolitan kind of place and authentic culture can be overshadowed by modernism. I guess it's the same for every major world city though - authentic culture is often hard to define now.

I love the Korean script so much. I like all the little signs that look like 'o's. I think it is much less ferocious looking than Japanese writing hehe.

The Leeum Museum was a really beautifully designed art museum in the neighbourhood of Itaewon, filled to the brim with interesting pieces.

We spent ages there and even longer outside with these spider sculptures.

I am always on the quest for a good piece of cake and Vivian recommended a small cake shop located just by the Leeum which I successfully found. It was the cutest little shop and my green tea cupcake was delectable.

High on my list of things to see was the heavily populated student area of Hongdae. Hongdae is the best - it's full of these tiny little shops, selling pretty things and bars and restaurants a-plenty.

We rested our feet in this really cute restaurant/bar hidden away in the back streets. Dining outside is not so common in Japan and Seoul is no where near as humid, so it was really lovely to be outside, chatting away into the early hours.

Hongdae is just as buzzing during the day. On Saturday, Jenny took us to a little restaurant where we had the amazing spicy cold noodles for lunch, again, with lots of kimchi.

After a spot of rain and an impromptu co-ordinated umbrella party....

...we went to Hongdae Saturday Flea Market. I loved it so much; it was full of young artists and designers selling their produce, with live music and lots of places to sit down and relax in the sunshine.

After we had stocked up on treasures, we took a walk down to Cheonggyecheon, a newly developed area of the city....

...before trying another traditional Korean dish for dinner. Galbi is grilled meat (usually pork or beef) eaten in a lettuce leaf, with a variety of side dishes, kimchi and grilled vegetables. I didn't really like this too much, I don't eat much meat and it was a little too heavy for me. I snacked on kimchi, the lettuce leaves and the lovely sides instead.

That evening, we headed to the Central Plaza area of the city to watch the South Korea v. Uruguay football match. It was so much fun to be in Seoul at this time and despite the fact that it poured with rain for the entirety of the match, the area was teeming with people.

Jenny and Gin, the red devils.

We stayed out all night on Saturday, so spent Sunday, our final day, mooching about in coffee shops, stocking up on face products and taking it easy (yet still managed to almost miss our flight!). Our final taste of Korean food was this bibimbap; a bowl of sauteed and seasoned vegetables (and often meat)and chilli pepper paste that is mixed with rice. Mmmhmm.

I had such a wonderful time in Seoul. Despite its proximity to Japan, it boasts a flavour and feel that bears no relation at all to the culture I am experiencing here in Nihon. It amazed me that two neighbouring countries could have such different taste buds! Seoul was such an exiting, fun loving and vibrant city to visit and if I was in Asia for longer, I would not hesitate about returning.

Hearts for Seoul!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Genichiro Inokuma

Last week, my friend Shin ( maker of cakes, server of ginger tea, owner of La Taupe, the most wonderful cafe in Marugame) gave me a ticket to see the current exhibition at the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art. All of my friends are having lazy Sundays, so after an equally lazy Sunday morning in bed, I decided to have a look.

The MIMOCA is such a little treasure in this town. It's the first thing you see upon leaving the train station and was purposefully designed as a 'station-front' museum, both for convenience and to promote and encourage art and culture. I like its design a lot - it looks very striking in the context of the older buildings surrounding it. The interior is really beautiful too; airy and spacious, with lots of natural light.
I've been to the MIMOCA once before, on my very first day in Marugame. I had no bicycle and stumbled upon the MIMOCA after a bewildered walk around, trying to find the city center. I remember looking at about two pieces of work before bursting into tears and thinking how ridiculous I was for deciding to come and live in a tiny little place in the middle of the countryside where I knew nobody and where the 'city centre' consisted of a quaint little train station and some rocks that glow in the dark at night time. How far I have come this year; I quite like my city centre with its orange haired youths hanging about and being obnoxious to the cute little Marugame police men (I think they are the countryside equivalent of delinquents - I love watching them so much), its little train station with friendly ticket inspector Percy, and I have even warmed to the glow in the dark rocks. :-) I also like the city centre because I associate it with my cherished weekend escapes from Marugame when countryside living gets a little too intolerable...

The MIMOCA is named after Genichiro Inokuma (1902-1993), an artist born here in Marugame.
He was also a former student at Maruko, one of the schools I teach at.

Inokuma-san's work is mostly abstract; he liked birds, cats and horses very much. Funny little bird, cat and horse like figures are prominent features in his work. He also enjoyed painting faces, and imagined 2D aerial views of cities in bright, vivid colours.

His work was really fun and engaging to look at and it made me wonder; What was the Marugame that Inokuma grew up in like? What did he take inspiration from? Where were his favourite haunts and places? And an after thought, did he enjoy his English lessons at Maruko?

This week I am poor, but it's ok because I am going to Seoul on Thursday, hurrah!
I finally feel content with my decision to leave Japan in August. I'm trying hard not to worry about my return to London and to enjoy my final weeks here with my best friends and my blue bicycle. I'm also really excited to revisit my favourite places in Kansai again to say a final goodbye (for now at least...)


P.S Happy Father's Day, Dad! I posted a card and gift to you on Wednesday, so both should arrive soon!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Host Boys of Japan

Host/hostess clubs are one of the most lucrative aspects of Japan's multi-faceted sex and night time entertainment industry. Host bars are thriving in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Kabukicho, and the Umeda and Namba districts of Osaka.

Osaka is one of my favourite cities and whenever I visit, I continue to be fascinated, enamoured and intrigued by the droves of host boys on the Dotonbori Bridge (a popular meeting spot, where everybody gathers before being scattered by the winds to Osaka's labyrinth of seemingly infinite bars and clubs). A host is typically in his late teens to mid twenties, whose job it is to entertain female clients with his charming, engaging demeanour, physical attractiveness, and light conversation. Often he will sport a special talent; he may be a burgeoning magician, the perfect karaoke companion, or if all else fails, will be able to win a girl's heart with his perfectly coiffed hair and snappy suit.The basic wage of a host boy is pitiful and high earnings are derived through commission, so being on the constant look out for potential customers is a vital part of the job. Host boys usually venture out in the early evening (known as 'The Twighlight Shift') to look for women who look like they have money to spend. A woman with a designer handbag or a healthy looking haircut could be a potential client. A woman with money means the possibility of more expensive drinks, which means higher earnings for the host boys. Vivian and I have been befriended by two sets of host boys on the Dotonbori, though Aki and Bruce were somewhat lacking in the charm factor (they asked for my bank book and passport straight away....perhaps they're apprentices....)

Appearance is everything for a host boy. Most host bars have picture menus, from which female customers can select the boy they would like to spend time with. Once again, it comes down to cash - the more attractive the host, the more attention and money he will get. The Osaka host boys are immaculately groomed with their pedantically styled hair (often in dubious shades of orange...), suits, well polished shoes and good skin. This is an advert for an Osaka club that I snapped on my very first visit;

A few weeks ago, I watched a very insightful documentary about the host industry of Osaka. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (dir. Jake Clennel) follows the life of twenty four year old Issei, the successful owner of a host bar called Rakkyo Club. Issei makes numerous references to his line of work throughout the documentary, describing his job as 'selling dreams and happiness' in the form of romantic attention. The Great Happiness Space was fascinating to watch and I particularly liked it for its objective stance and lack of moral judgement.

What I found to be the most poignant thing about the documentary was the rather sad underbelly of the seemingly glamorous, hedonistic and care free exterior of the industry. The hosts at Rakkyo work to the point of exhaustion, drinking heavily in order to get through the long night of entertainment. On the Dotonbori, the host boys exude charm, happiness and youthfulness, but the documentary showed lots of very tired and disillusioned young men. One host described himself as 'a product' for girls, which I thought was kind of sad.
What's more,many of the female customers at Rakkyo are hostesses and prostitutes. The money they make from entertaining men is spent on acquiring what they believe to be more genuine attention and affection from the host boys, which makes for quite a pitiful vicious circle.

I am still so intrigued to visit a host club, but seeing the documentary did make me think a bit. Out on the street, the host boys are so much fun. Though they are witty, charming and seem to personify lightheartedness and often vacuousness, they are no doubt just as complex as you and I.


Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Thank you!

In two weeks time, I will be able to take my trip to Seoul after all. Thank you so much Nana! :-)