Friday, July 22, 2016

My Tumble in Kyoto, and Down and Out in Osaka

I'm in Kyoto Station. I'm in a great mood; I've had a wonderful day. Actually, a wonderful past few days. Come to think of it, my week has been over the top.  I'm getting ready to go to Osaka, my next stop in Japan.

The only minor bummer to this exceptional week was that last night, before I went to bed, I went to feel in my pocket for my subway passes (I had two of them...I got one in Fukuoka and got another one in Tokyo before I realized that they were redundant because just about any that you get in any major city works all over the country), and they were gone. They had been there ever since I got them in Japan, and now they were just inexplicably not there.

My first reaction was to freak out. But I soon realized that it was not that big a deal, that I could just get another subway pass, and that I'd only lost $15 or so stored on it. So take it down a notch, be mellow. But it's not that easy. I had just been arranging some of my further travel plans before going to sleep, and I discovered the missing passes right before I turned off the light to go to sleep. I'm pretty sure I know what happened. I bought some rice snack crackers, and stuck them in the same pocket, and at one point when I pulled them out to munch on them, I probably pulled the cards out too, and they fell on the ground somewhere. But letting that go when you're falling shouldn't be that big a deal, right?

Anyway, I did manage to fall asleep after a period of unjustified, overemphasized worry about the stupid passes. And I woke up the next day just making a cursory search for them, realizing I had probably dropped them somewhere walking around the city, mourning slightly, and mostly letting it go. I walked around the city a little more, and finally made my way to Kyoto Station by taking a bus...this time I had to pay cash, because I couldn't use a subway pass (the pass works on the buses as well).

So. Back to Kyoto Station. I get off the bus, and I am walking to catch the train, when my left foot catches a pavement brick that is sticking up maybe a centimeter or two higher than the other bricks. I trip on it, and I start to stumble. My first thought is that I'll just easily right myself, and my body acts like that is just going to happen, because it should in this scenario. But I have my full pack on, and my center of gravity is totally altered in a fashion that I'm not prepared for. So instead of catching myself, I watch in horror as I just continue to tumble downward, down, down. My brain is catching up to the reality of what is happening, as compared to the initial perception of what it thinks should have happened, and comes to the sudden realization that this is going to be bad. I careen to the ground, trying to catch myself as best I can, but nothing is working as it should due to the changed center of gravity. I hit the ground in several places, the last of which is my face slamming into the ground right at my right cheekbone.

I'm lying on the ground, stunned. There is a huge rush of people just making their way by me. Nobody stops to see if I'm all right. In fact, they seem to speed up. I'm an uncomfortable obstacle to the next place they are going. I'm lying on the ground, groaning. People are passing by, like purposeful, congruent meteors, and I can't even gather my thoughts yet. There is just a rush of pedestrians going to the next vortex of their overburdened lives. It's as though I'm not even there, bleeding on the ground.

And, yes, I am bleeding. I'm bleeding profusely from my left toe, sticking out of my sandaled foot, and overflowing onto the ground. The skin is torn pretty badly, and there is a lot of blood dripping out. I slowly start to take stock as the constant rush of commuting gazelles flits by me. Both knees have abrasions of the type that go into the white stuff at the fatty layer. My left arm is abraded similarly in one spot, and has spotty abrasions down the forearm. But it's the left toe that is really throbbing and bleeding heavily. I manage to start to stagger to my feet as the pedestrian gazelles passing me part slightly in an acknowledgement to my slow but increasing verticality. I walk a few meters to get out of the pedestrian zoo and sit in a place under a map of the station. I remember I have a few band-aids in my pack and dig for them. I am overwhelmed at this point. I am starting to shiver, and my teeth are rattling, and I think to myself, I'm going into shock. I pull out the band-aids and first start to stem the blood flowing from my toe. The skin looks completely separated, but I'm not really looking at it, I'm just trying to cover it so it won't continue to bleed. I put three band-aids on it haphazardly. Each is jutting out awkwardly, but it is covered; still I can see blood seeping through. Then I attend to the other abrasions and cover them as best I can. They are not an immediate concern, because they are not actively pouring blood out, just sidewalk-rashed. Next, I feel my cheekbone. It is surprisingly unproblematic, considering the force with which I felt my face hit the ground. I poke and push at it enough to ascertain with a reasonable degree of certainty that nothing there is broken, at least. Still haven't seen my face in a mirror, so I have no idea what it looks like.  And I really don't give a flying horch; if it's scary, I just have more street cred.

A guy in a uniform and a station interpreter come rushing up to me. Are you OK, she asks. I tell her I'll be fine. She asks if I am sure. I say yes. She asks me several times. Really, even though I'm hurt, I'm relatively not hurt badly in a fashion that calls for medical attention (especially if I have to pay for it). I'm comparatively unscathed, when you consider what could have happened as a result of a fall like that. But I'm not in good shape. After they leave, I slowly stagger to my feet, now that I'm bandaged up. And I'd been sitting in the sun, so I sauntered aver to a shady spot to sit for a bit,  take stock of everything, and get ready to move along again.  Because of the toe injury, I'm having a LOT of trouble walking. But fuck it. I'm ambulatory, even if it is slow and painful. I'm gonna make it to Osaka. But it's not gonna be easy.

But also, mind you, I have no subway pass. I haven't eaten. I'm almost out of money. And I need medical supplies in a realm where I can't even easily figure out what a pharmacy is. All of these things would be problems easily solved if I was uninjured, but now they are big problems that require some serious planning and effort to solve.  And suddenly distances are much, much longer, because I'm hobbling in a huge amount of pain.

I slowly start trudging my way through the station to the place where the train to Osaka is. I stop at several places I see along the way and try to load up on a couple days' worth of food, and some beverages, because my instincts tell me I'm going to be trapped in some hellhole in Osaka, unable to move. I can't find medical supplies at the station; that's OK, maybe I will find a pharmacy on the way to the hotel. I don't get a subway pass because it is just too far to hobble to the subway office. But I figure out that I can take regional Japan Rail lines for free from Osaka Station to the hotel with my Japan Rail pass, though it means more walking (hobbling). Groan.

So I get on the JP train, which is going to require a transfer from Shin-Osaka Station to Osaka Station, and then beyond to hotel land. I dutifully execute the transfer, then end up dropped off somewhere in Osaka, close to the hotel where I'll be staying.

At this point, I'm still oozing blood fairly precipitously from my body's lowest region (but a zone that is damned important for general ambulation). So I have got to find a pharmacy to get some medical supplies, and I have got to get to the hotel I've booked, so I can wash this shit up...I don't want to get gangrenous cholera or whatever, and I'm really not into the amputation thing, be it for dieting, political statements, aesthetics, or whatever the fuck.

So I decide to check Google Maps for "pharmacy" and see if one comes up nearby. One is not to far away, but not quite on the way to the hotel. That's OK, I can slowly make my way there. So I slowly and methodically limp down the street to the pharmacy. When I get there, I pull out Google Translate for the supplies I need. I type band-aids, tape, hydrogen peroxide. They have those, and put them on the counter. I try to see if they have any ointment for pain, so I type ointment and then benzocaine, lidocaine. Doesn't seem like they have anything of the sort. But the pharmacist brings out some kind of ointment...I have no idea what it is, because it is all in Japanese, but I go ahead and get it.

Then I slowly hobble back up the street to the hotel. This one is not really a hostel; it has private rooms. But the rooms are tiny, musty and dingy. They are about the size of the capsule hotel I stayed in in Tokyo, but stretch all the way to the ceiling. And the light switch is in the outside of the room, in the hallway. There is a rolled up thin futon and some bedding, so I unroll it. I lay there for a while. I see some tiny smears of blood on the futon, crap, I hope they are not mine. I'm actually hoping it is someone else's blood. There is no air conditioning and it is stifling hot, but at least there is a fan. The data signal is sporadic, and the wifi doesn't work on the sixth floor, it is only on the ground floor. My room is on the sixth floor, but for some perverse reason, the elevator only goes to the odd floors, so I have to go to five or seven and walk a flight of stairs. At least I don't have to limp all the way up the stairs...i wouldnt mind taking them normally, but the toe is in pain with every step and still oozing blood beyond the bandage. And the bathroom is on the first is a communal shower room packed with tons of naked men all vying for space in one room. This is not the ideal place for dressing my wounds, but it will have to do, I guess. But later I find what looks like a mop sink on my floor, and it works better for me. I changed all the dressings I had put on hastily at the train station, washed the abrasions, and put on hydrogen peroxide and the mysterious ointment, and then covered it all with bandages and tape. Then I went to collapse in my tiny flophouse room.

Later, I make my way downstairs, and decide to try to limp around the neighborhood a little. My new toe bandage is saturated with dried blood already. I make my way into an arcade mall, and it is loaded with bars filled with older Japanese guys surrounded by young, beautiful hostesses. Looks like a money suck and an empty experience, I'll pass. There are some pachenko halls, which are some kind of pseudogambling, and little stores of all kinds. There is a small supermarket, so I get a little bit of food. Then I walk around the arcade some more, trying to practice walking without a limp...I did that a lot while healing up after I broke my ankle a couple years ago. I'm not really up for a huge amount of walking yet, so I make my way back to the hotel.

There are a bunch of people hanging out in the lobby talking, even though it's kind of a narrow space, but at least it has some chairs. It's enjoyable to sit there talking to travelers from different parts of the world. Somebody asks about my bandages, so I tell them about my fall earlier in the day. They all say they can't see any signs of injury on my cheekbone; I still haven't seen myself in a mirror, but that's a good sign. It hurts a little when I push on it, but I don't think anything is broken. We all spend several hours talking in the lobby, then I head back up to my dingy room around one in the morning to sleep.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tokyo, Small Cars, Railway Passes, and the Capsule Hotel

In Japan, they have these smaller cars that have yellow license plates on them. They wouldn't be legal in the United States, but they're ok on the streets in Japan. They are called "kei cars", and are limited to 660 cc engines. Since my friend Philip pointed them out to me, I have been noticing them more and more.  There are really a lot of them and they make up a pretty high proportion of the cars on the road.

I arrived in Tokyo yesterday coming in on the bullet train from Fukuoka. The bullet train was a great experience and I enjoyed crossing Japan with it. I have a Japan Rail pass that allows me to take any JR train for free, but not all trains are JR trains. Some are private, and some are public but not part of JR. But I do get to take shinkansen, or bullet trains, except for the highest echelon of them, for some reason. But the ones I can take are about the same as the supposedly better ones, so I don't see why the higher status ones are not included.

The subways in each city are not included in the JR Pass, but there are regional JR trains that parallel the subways in many cases. Usually they have less stops, but they are free with my pass. All I have to do is show my pass, and I get to pass through a special manned gate at the train station. You can only get the JR Pass from outside the country, so I ordered it when I was in Korea, and got the voucher for it by FedEx at the hostel in Busan. Then, when I got to Japan, I had to exchange the voucher for the pass at the train station, and select the starting date. I also reserved tickets on the bullet train from Fukuoka to Osaka, then Osaka to Tokyo. There was only a fourteen minute layover in Osaka, so I was a bit worried about catching the next train (especially with the language barrier), but it was not a problem. I even used my JR Pass today just to get past the train gates so I could use the bathroom which was in the ticketed area. Just another perk.

Many large cities in Japan have subway systems that are separate from JR Rail. So they have subway cards you can buy and recharge with money as needed. You just swipe them at the turnstile, and it charges you the fare. In Fukuoka, the card was called Hayakaken. I got one of those cards, but when I left, I still had about ten bucks left on it. Then I got to Tokyo, and their card is called Pasmo, so I got one of those. But I didn't realize that the cards are interchangeable within both cities' subway systems (and those of many other Japanese cities), so I could have used my Hayakaken card in Tokyo. Oh, well, I can use both,  and probably in other cities as well. And I have heard they also work for buses and JR Rail, and even to make purchases in stores. But the funny thing is that I haven't even used the Tokyo subway yet, I've just been able to use the JR regional trains for free with my pass. I probably will ride the subway at some point, though.

I'm staying at a capsule hotel in Tokyo, which is a hotel that has a small chamber that you can sleep in. I have no problem with the small space (it's about two cubic meters, 1 X 1 X 2), but it is the convoluted rules that are more difficult. It is for men only, no tattoos are allowed, and you wear a robe that they assign to you. They kept my large backpack behind the front desk.  When I checked in, I had to put my shoes in a shoe locker, and it locks with a key that you can take away from the locker. Then I had to turn in that key to the front desk to get the key to my personal effects locker, which is not very big at all. The personal effects locker has the same number as the cubicle I sleep in. There is no door to the cubicle, only a bamboo mat that covers the front of it.

So every time I want to leave, I have to go to the front desk, turn in my locker key and get my shoe locker key so I can get my shoes. And there is almost always a slow-moving line at the front desk. Also, every time I want to get something out of my backpack, I have to get it from behind the front desk, and they are not very tolerant of me unpacking it in the lobby to get whatever it is I need. And I have to plan out my backpack retrieval adventure, so I can get things I need when I need them. It's kind of a pain in the ass. And whenever you leave, you are not supposed to leave anything in your cubicle, though I have seen some people leave items in there. But I take all my stuff and stuff it in the locker, then go beg for my shoes so I can leave. I suppose I could just take off barefoot, but that would probably really freak them out, and I don't really relish walking barefoot on the streets of Tokyo.

There is an outlet, a light, and a radio and TV in the cubicle. The wifi in the cube is weak and sporadic but I get a data signal in there. There is a hot spring bath, or onsen (as they are called in Japan) that comes with the capsule hotel (another's about $17 a night for the cubicle, which includes unlimited use of the hot bath and sauna), and if they see a tattoo while you are bathing naked, you could get kicked out. Everybody bathes naked in a communal fashion. This is the first one I have seen that has women walking around in the nude men area. Not women bathers, but employees of the establishment who are fully clothed; I'm not sure exactly what they do.  Some of them give massages, I think, because there are signs for massage around the place.  Some of them might clean up the place. I don't really know.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

From Busan Complacence to Fukuoka Insomnia

I left Busan, South Korea yesterday morning, to fly to Fukuoka, Japan. I really wish I had taken the ferry instead of flying, but it is what it is, and I made it intact. I am not the biggest fan of flying. I don't mind the flying itself, in fact that's kind of cool. What i don't like about flying is the bureacratic part of it. The regulations of what you can bring and how you can bring stuff, the focus that is going to be placed on you by probing individuals, and the general hassles involved with getting from one side of an airport to another relatively intact. I suppose a certain amount of that is unavoidable, but some of the details get downright surrealistic. The focus on things like liquids and shoes can seem a little heavy-handed. And a lot of this seems to be peculiarly focused on air transportation rather than other forms. I always have to do a complete air travel repack. Discard the big liquids. I left a bottle of shampoo and a bottle of cooking oil behind at the Busan hostel. I also had to leave a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide behind, because you can't take that on a plane.  Find all my liquids of less than three ounces and put them in a baggie. Put all my electronics in a carry-on. Sharps (pocket knife and nail clippers) go in the checked baggage. Then when I get to my destination, I have to reassemble from the airplane repack to a more practical assembly of my stuff. But, oh, well, the airplane dance is over for me until the next time, so time to focus on new things.

My shoe crisis is somewhat resolved for now. My old shoes are waterlogged and on the verge of collapse, which led me to seek new footwear in a land where I understand very little and others understand very little from me, and shoe stores were difficult to find. My first stop was at a shoe store that was small and really didn't have many choices that worked for me, but I had to get something. So I bought some water socks and a pair of soles. They handle wetness well, but are really not meant for heavy walking. So after walking about fifty kilometers over three days, they were pretty much ruined. The soles held up fine, but they both have nickel-sized holes behind the heels. There is thirty bucks down the tube, but I had to have something on my feet. Then I found an underground mall in Busan and had a huge number of small booth stores, and a much wider selection. So I got a pair of decent walking sandals with enough fastening around the foot to provide for good support and good bottom soles. Hopefully the problem is solved for now, but I eventually will have to buy some closed-toe shoes. And right now, I'm hauling around my waterlogged old shoes that I tried unsuccessfully to dry out with a hair dryer at the old hostel, and are now taking up huge amounts of valuable space in my pack. I have just had the one pair of shoes up until now, and now I have three, which means two pair (both wet) take up pack space.

When you leave a country you've been traveling in and go to a new country that you've never been to before, you have to discard a whole set of learned behaviors that you have acquired in response to the cultural norms and prepare to learn a whole new set of strategies. But some things you learned in one country might carry over to the next one, too. You never know. What you have learned about the country you have spent time in brings you to a certain level of complacence that you have to trade for nearly constant vigilance when you get to the next place. And the whole process, combined with the constant moving and the packing and the lugging, can be exhausting. When I got to Fukuoka, I was exhausted. But I still had to find the hostel with full pack regalia attached to my body. I went through the orienteering ritual, combined with the occasional moments of frustration ritual, with the sit-and-rest-and-mentally-regroup moments, and this process led me to the hostel, after circling the block a few times to find my elusive prey. Then I checked in and got settled and just collapsed in sleep on the bed at five in the afternoon. Now I'm awake at two in the morning, kinda needing to go through my pack and get some stuff done, but everybody here is crashed out or at least peacefully perusing their digital devices in bed, so now is not the time for a repack and assessment. Oh, well. Maybe I can at least dig out my Kindle and read some travel guidebooks or something, to kind of get an inkling as to what the Fukuoka plan will be. I already excavated some snack bars, so my rumbling tummy is relatively satisfied now. Gotta get some water soon...discarded my water bottles for the airplane but forgot to get some on the way to the hostel. Wish I could reach for some water right now, but I'll live. Hopefully, I'll survive the night intact and move on to more challenges on the morrow. In the meantime, I'm here wide awake laying in bed at two in the morning.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Case of the Waterlogged Shoes

I've had quite a saga in Korea. I've managed to spend a little over a month here, starting in Seoul, heading up to the DMZ and briefly setting foot in North Korea, to Chuncheon to Gangneung, stopping in Wonju and Jecheon, then Daegu, Jeonju and, finally, here in Busan. I've taken trains, inter-city buses, and express buses. Transportation for the most part is amazingly cheap, and there is a card called T-money that you can use in just about every city's subway and bus system. You can even use it for most taxis, and on ground transportation across the country. The transportational network is well-integrated and seamless.

South Korea in general is very high-tech. The T-money cards can have value added to them through touch pad machines; you just lay the card on the pad and add money. The machines are easy to use even if you don't understand Korean...most of them have an English option, but I used some that didn't, and they were very intuitive to follow. There are escalators that don't start up until you step on them. At first, I thought they just didn't work, and took the stairs. But then I started to walk up one escalator, and it just started moving. When you press some elevator buttons, sometimes if you press them a second time, it cancels the floor request.

South Korea also has the fastest average Internet speeds in the world. Most wifi I have used has been really fast. I never encounter wifi that you have to just be in a certain corner of the room for it to barely work, like I have in a lot of countries (including the US). Most of the hostels have touchpad locks to enter; they all pretty much work the same way. You lift up the cover, enter a code (usually four digits but sometimes it adds on a # or * key before or after the four digits), and lower the cover again, and the door unlocks.  A little song plays from the announcement speakers in the train station when your train is arriving (I think they did that in China too).

The rainy season is here in Korea, and up until I arrived in Busan, I had been lucky. I had only encountered sporadic rain, but mostly sun or rainless clouds. But since I arrived in Busan, it has been a different story. It has been raining almost constantly. It will often vary in intensity, but mostly it has been a steady downpour,  with occasional respites. I don't mind so much getting wet, especially when it is warm like it is here now. And I'd rather be wet than put on a raincoat and be uncomfortably sweaty under the plastic. But what I can't deal with are constantly waterlogged shoes, which I had had until yesterday.

The shoes I brought with me were not of the greatest quality. In hindsight, I might have bought better shoes. But I wanted shoes that fastened with Velcro straps rather than laces. This preference arose a couple years ago when I was in the Arctic wilderness in Alaska, and had shoes that were constantly coming untied, then one day I was startled by a bear, and one of my shoes was untied. I decided the next time I bought shoes, they would have Velcro straps.

My Velcro-strapped shoes have been serving me well,  but they don't do well in the rain,  and they are probably near what most people would consider their useful life anyway. But I usually wear shoes long after they become ragged, even though it is probably time to buy another pair for when they suddenly blow a sole or something catastrophic. And I have walked around a thousand miles so far, so it is understandable that they would be a little worn. And now they are constantly waterlogged from being in the rain, and rotting. No. Not a comfortable feeling when walking long distances every day (at least most days).

So I set off to find a shoe store, and try to buy some good walking sandals made of materials that handle rain well. But shoe stores are hard to find, given the language barrier and the limited capabilities of Google Maps in South Korea. I finally did find some shoe stores, but they were mostly small and had crappy selections. None of the sandals fastened well enough for walking, or had good enough soles. One store had some Crocs, which I consideted, but they didn't have any in my size (damn my big Western ape feet!). I finally found a quasi-acceptable solution at the third store I stopped at. I bought some water socks, but the soles were barefooty, so I then inserted some walking soles. It is actually not too bad, though I will need to buy some shoes pretty soon, and may also want some sandals too. And, if I get to a thirty-below kinda place in the winter, which is entirely possible, I'll need even another footwear solution. But I don't have a lot of room in my backpack...right now, shoving my other pair of shoes in there will be a challenge.  And they will most likely be wet. I've filled them with baking soda to try to keep the rot down, but they are definitely on their last legs.

Busan is a nice place, but the rain has made it more of a challenge to get around on foot. Still, it is doable. But it is not the best weather to enjoy the beaches, which I am hoping to get to soon. I spent one rainy day soaking in hot springs, which was wonderful. I went to Hurshimchung Spa at Dongnae Hot Springs. The water is a natural hot spring fed into the spa. There were several different pools of different temperatures, a medicinal herb bath, a "champagne bath" (which didn't actually have champagne in it, but it did have lemony effervescent water), and several scrub areas where you could swath yourself in salts, scrub down, and then shower. They give you a bracelet that unlocks two sets of lockers, one for shoes, and the next for everything else. And there was an outdoor hot pool that I sat in while it poured rain. I always feel so relaxed after sitting in the hot springs, so it was a great way to spend the day.

Then the next day, I took a day trip to Gimhae, and slogged my way through pouring rain all day. The regional airport, Gimhae Airport, is about halfway between Busan and Gimhae, and I passed it on the way. When I arrived in Gimhae, I went to a park that had a steep hill in it, but it started getting a little flash-floody (there was deep muddy water starting to pour down the rock steps, and rushing streams starting to form several inches deep), so I abandoned ship on that plan. So I visited a traditional market,  and the Tomb of King Suro, and walked around the town some before heading back to Busan on the train.