Spent a sleepless night, packing and playing with the cat. For some reason I got in the habit of pulling all-nighters before big trips. Not "for some reason," actually: it's because I procrastinate and don't start packing till the last minute. Was (and am, residually) as tired as you might expect.
Dropped the cat off at friend Katie's around 6 or 6:30. Poor baby was completely bewildered: I packed up all his stuff, including his litterbox and all his toys, and abandoned him at a strange woman's house with only a hug and snuggle goodbye. I have since heard that he started off the morning by pooping on Katie's bed, and now won't snuggle with her. As I am in another country, I hope he starts to adjust a little better soon. :( How do you explain to a cat that you're just leaving him with a baby-sitter and will be back soon? He was okay at my mom's house last summer...
It was an absolutely BEAUTIFUL day out, and I had a lovely ride from the Gimpo airport to the Incheon one. (Shortest and best way to get to Incheon International is a bus to Gimpo Airport and then a half-hour on the Airport Railway.) Instead of long stretches of mud, I saw estuaries, covered in grass and populated by egrets or whatever those white birds are. Tried to practice with "My Japanese Coach" (DS game) and got a little done.
There was a brief kerfuffel over my visa, which expired on the 14th. Sleep-deprived as I was, I had a hard time explaining to two airport staff members that I would in fact be getting a new visa as soon as I came back to Korea. I was allowed to go, eventually, but Korean Customs kept my alien card. Hope I'll get back into the country okay.
Plane ride: Asiana; short and painless. Awful food, though.
The first thing I noticed about Japan was that it is hot. Or, at least, that they let more gaps through their AC systems than Koreans do (Koreans have a horror of natural weather patterns, I think). Customs was amazing-- quickest immigration procedure I've ever been through. Got mug-shotted and fingerprinted, and out the door I went. There was an airport employee making all the foreigners show him their disembarkation forms before they got to the front, so he could be sure they were all filled out correctly. About ten minutes after I got to Customs-- maybe fifteen-- I was buying a train ticket for Ueno. Twenty minutes after that, I was on the train.
At first glance, the Japanese countryside is both different and not-different from Korea's. The houses weren't too dissimilar, but there were more of them-- not nearly as many high-rise apartment complexes here, at least not that I've seen. In some ways, this country feels more familiar to me than Korea ever does. People seem much more casual here. The Metro actually reminds me a little bit of the one in Paris, though I can't pin down why.
I actually feel a little guilty for liking Japan so much already-- like I'm being disloyal to Korea. I don't think I'm going to share this blog with any Korean friends-- I'd hate to hurt their feelings. I like the styles here better, and the food at least as much. It also just feels more comfortable. There are fewer stares-- people are more used to foreigners. There's also a more relaxed feel to the whole area. In Korea, a lot of people are constantly on edge, as if they're afraid of putting a toe out of line.
I navigated the subway to Nezu, having decided to check up on some of the ryokan there. (Ryokan are traditional-style Japanese inns.) Once I got to Nezu, I stood around for a while and looked like an idiot, because I'd progressed far enough into sleep deprivation that I was having a hard time deciphering maps. People in Korea, if they see you looking lost, will very quickly come up and ask you if they can help you find something-- in English, half the time. I've been spoiled, and it took me a while to figure out that wasn't going to happen here. (The only people who've approached me on the street so far have been hustlers; you attract them by pausing on the street while leading a suitcase and being white.) It's good for my self-sufficiency, I guess.
I finally made my brain work out the way to the first ryokan on my list, and made it most of the way there by myself. I finally double-checked with a couple on the street, and they jumped to help me the second I looked twice at them-- both of them speaking almost-perfect English. It's not that people aren't perfectly willing to help you, apparently; you just have to let them know that you would in fact like some help. Good to know. :)
I found the ryokan I had been looking for-- Sawanoya Ryokan, it's called. I hadn't made a reservation, because I wasn't comfortable doing it sight-unseen over the internet, but they had a room available for three nights. I took it, figuring that left me three days to find another hotel.
I thought, for a few minutes, that I'd be over the ryokan thing by the time three days were up. It's nice, sure, like a family-run B&B aimed at tourists, but I figured that the novelty would wear off soon.
What I didn't count on, however, was the scent of the tatami mats. They smell like fresh-cut grass. IT IS INCREDIBLY ADDICTIVE. I had never realized that tatami mats had a smell! I almost wonder if I could get away with having a room like this at home. The setup, for the uninitiated, is a small room with a floor covered by rectangular woven-grass mats. There's a thin, flat mattress to sleep on (I think it's what the Japanese actually call a futon) with a big thick duvet over that. The duvet in my room is stuffed with down. My room has a regular sliding door to the balcony, and more traditional wood-and-parchment screens just inside. Wall panels swing and slide open for storage space. There's a low table with a tea set, a corner with a phone and a DSL modem (which, sadly, does not appear to work) and a small sink by the door, which shuts and locks in the traditional hotel-room way. Instead of hotel bathrobes, you get a yukata (a light summer kimono). They put origami planes on the pillows, I guess to keep the tourists happy.
I was EXHAUSTED, but resolved at least to go out for dinner. On the way out, I noticed a book-exchange shelf. Fabulous! I took the marked neighborhood map the ryokan owner gave me and went out, seeking food.
I am ashamed to say this, but I must: I had Indian. It was so late at night, and I was so tired, that I didn't feel like going into a restaurant where I couldn't read the menu or understand any questions-- and the Indian place was right there. I had mutton curry and garlic nan. (Curry was -ish; nan was amazing.) The (Indian) waiter kept smiling like we were sharing a private joke; when I left, he thanked me in Japanese. I just managed to answer him in kind.
I am amazed by the fleets of bicycles I see here. They were out in force last night. Everyone seems to have one; most of them don't even seem to be locked up, though I haven't looked really closely. The air (at least right here) is quite clean, and the streets are much quieter than in other cities I've been to. Something to think about.