From South Korea, sans Seoul

[2 November 2009]

By tjmHolden

Dear All,

It’s been a long time since I’ve written home. Sorry. It’s on account of the two manuscripts that have kept me scratching my head every waking hour for the last ten months. But they are both at the point where I can get them out to publishers; hence, I have begun to hear strains of the road’s siren call, beckoning, once more.

Today I’m holed up in a hotel somewhere in South Korea and so, thought I’d catch you up. Even though it is a two hour flight into Incheon from my abode, one country over, it took me about twelve hours to get from my apartment in Sendai, over to Daejeon, which is where I’m sitting now. For those of you who haven’t traveled here—do! it’s still all good—but just so that you know: the airport in Incheon is a one hour limo ride outside Seoul; and Daejeon—known as South Korea’s Tech City—is another hour by train to the south. So if you are coming this way, be prepared for some seat time.

As an aside, you’d have to think that the one hour trip to work is one drawback for the pilots, stews and stewards based in Seoul who work for Korean Air. Looking at that bus ride either before or after the long day of riding the jet stream to and fro, here and there, would get old rather quick. For those of us with short commutes, that falls on the list of blessings counted.

As for me, the day didn’t begin without surprise. Into November and Sendai train station is still flying its tanabata decorations. Seems as if the city elders have decided that this festival, which is celebrated in July in most Japanese cities (though in August in Sendai), might just be the perfect symbol for a city devoid of many natural landmarks or—aside from Date Masamune, the ferocious one-eyed warrior-chief—moments in cultural history.


Then there was the revamped Narita Express. Now in its eighteenth year, and getting a bit long in the tooth, new trains have been unveiled, with lockable luggage racks (I always worried about people jumping off the train with my bag at the stop prior to mine—and judging from the locks, I guess that probably actually happened once or twice in the past). There were also video consoles with not only the latest news, but the kinds of information that few savvy travelers actually need (since they’ve already checked it before leaving the hotel), such as weather updates from around the world, and flight schedules for various carriers at the two Narita terminals.


Once in Korea the biggest surprise is not how unattractive the environment can be:


or how hard and militaristic the architecture often is:

We all probably know some of that. This is still a country trying to grow into itself, and cultivate an indigenous identity alongside the encroaching global identities that touch and seek to speak to it.

No, the biggest surprise was the art in public spaces.

For instance, the Korean ceramic urns at the airport:


. . . and the Chinese and Japanese art in the subway station:

The latter, the Japanese pen and inks, coming as a pleasant surprise—given the residual anger Koreans often express over the colonial legacy.

Still, perhaps the day’s greatest surprise was in my encounter with a subway station staffer, who inadvertently provided me with some more information about where South Korea stands in its quest for greater internationalization.

As the sun had long set and I was hankering for the warm confines of my hotel room, I was hoping to avoid marching out of the wrong subway exit and in the wrong direction to my final point of rest. So, I approached a woman in her early twenties, seated behind a desk labeled “Information” in English. Directing a map with my Hotel name written in roman script under the glass partition, I asked (in English) “which way, please?” She squinted through the pane separating us, then turned her eyes skyward, in thought. After a couple beats she held up her hand, universal gesture, one supposes, for “just a sec”. She then reached for a white, glossy book, which she opened to a page somewhere in the middle, moved her finger down the page until she had what her hand was searching for, then looked at me, then down at the book for reassurance, and then raised her outstretched hand—all fingers splayed and pointing upward.

“Five,” she said aloud. Simply. That one word.

Then she extended one digit past my shoulder.

Following the direction of her finger I spied a warren of tunnels, all leading toward exits, all numbered—from 1 to 8. So, Exit Five, I would imagine is what she had meant.

I thanked her, with a bow, then headed off in the direction of “Five” . . .

and onto my next Korean adventure.



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