Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Korea trip Part I

Hisashiburi! Long time! Boy, have these past two weeks been crazy! I went to South Korea, had a business trip and writers meeting, cooked dinner for nine people, visited 48 waterfall (yes, I actually managed to hike to all 48 this time) hosted a Thanksgiving/dance party, saw my first student baptized, and of course, worked my full-time job and wrote, wrote wrote! November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and the goal is to write a 60,000 word novel (2,000 words a day) in that time. But I have yet to complete that challenge, as I`m always right in the middle of a project in November and I don`t like to stop and start something new for something arbitrary like that. I did, however, meet my own writing goal, 150 solidly good pages in the middle of An Honest Assassin that set up and partly resolve the religious conflict and complicate the central internal/external battle for the protagonist.

But you don`t want to hear about that boring stuff, do you? (Come on, tell us about Korea!) Ok, Ok, it was great, but not at all what I expected. I`ve been told that South Korea is a lot like America, or what people expected Japan to be like. Some went so far as to say “South Korea is exactly like America, except the people speak Korean.” Are there two countries named Korea? (Well, technically there are, North and South, but we`ll get into that later.) Either way, that`s not what I saw! A better recipe for South Korea might be this: take one part ancient China, one part 1950s America, and one part modern Japan and a whole lot of spice, smash it all together, stir, toss, nook it (a reference to the bombs North Korea just dropped on a South Korean civilian island a mere two hours after I came back to Japan), and viola! South Korea.

Perhaps that is an unfair assessment, as I only spent two and a half days there (totally not enough time), but it makes sense in a way. On the train to the airport I read up on Korean history and culture and learned that for a long time it was a territory of China, then was taken over by Japan several times (mostly recently in WWII), and was then occupied by the United States for a period just after the war and during the Korean Revolution. The result is a stable economy based heavily on high-quality advanced electronics (Samsung, for example), one of the world`s top education systems, and a per capita income of around $28,000 a year. (That`s about $5,000/7,000 less than the US/Japan respectively, though they can buy a lot more for less due to close proximity to Tailand/Taiwan, plus supply and demand. Exact numbers vary depending on currency exchange and what group is doing the assessment.) It also makes for an interesting mix of religion, with about 30% Christian, 50% non-religious, and the rest Buddhist. Again: America, Japanese, and Chinese influence. We`ll get more into the negative effects later.

I stayed with my friend Casey, an old friend from University. She decided to teach in Korea, me in Japan, and we agreed we would have to visit each other sometime. She was really nice to put me up and show me around; I think I would have been totally lost at first without her. I left Saturday morning at 5:15 for my train, got to the airport at 8:30, and caught my 10:30 flight. Here`s a picture from the plane. The black rafts are Ise bay`s oyster beds, where they harvest pearls:

Normally I fly out of KIX airport in Osaka, which only takes me two hours to get to, but the only flights available this time within a regular train`s day trip were from Nagoya (Chubu International Airport). Tokyo takes me about eight hours and two hundred dollars to get to. No thanks. Many people were traveling because of the national holiday on Tuesday (the reason I chose it too; a free day off), but a word to the wise: if traveling on a national holiday in Japan, book at least four months in advance. I booked three months and got really lousy tickets. It was actually completely full, and I asked the travel agent to call me the instant there was an opening. Two weeks before departure, someone canceled and I grabbed it, but paid a heavy price for it.

I arrived in Seoul, the capital, around noon. I had so many plans for that first day, including a folk village and a gondola ride up a mountain to Seoul tower to see the sunset over Seoul and the fall colors, but that was way unrealistic. My friend who was picking me up was about two hours late. So I sat and watched Korean TV in the lobby. It was exactly like Japanese TV. Anime, dumb talk shows, and ridiculous sports like ping pong. Then, by the time we got to her apartment to drop off my stuff, it was 4:00, and we had tickets to see a show called Nanta at 8:00. Since it takes an hour to get anywhere in Seoul via the subway (and an hour to get back), we just had dinner and walked around downtown Seoul. I`d had Korean BBQ in Japan, but this was quite different. Here`s a picture:

Rather than cooking it yourself, (in many Japanese restaurants, you cook your own food in the middle of the table which is actually a giant griddle), they cook it for you on the table griddle, along with a dozen other small side dishes which are “bottomless,” (you can ask for as much as you want). These included a long and skinny (but very tasty) omelet with cheese, onion and ketchup, mixed corn (not so good), vanilla ice cream, rice, lettuce, pickles, barbequed vegetables, chijimi (Korean pancakes with kimchi inside), and the all-famous Korean staple, kimchi, fermented cabbage with chili pepper. It sounds disgusting, but it`s really amazing, and the Koreans don’t feel that they`ve eaten without it. Casey informed me that most of her students eat rice and kimchi for every meal, with very little else. Turns out one could survive quite healthy on that diet, as it contains most of the essential nutrients. (My brother doesn’t believe me, but truly, some things do become healthier once they are fermented. The fermentation process actually releases extra vitamins and minerals. Soy beans, cabbage, and grapes are the best examples. However, beer and most alcoholic drinks, with the exception of wine, are not.) So, when there was a cabbage shortage, the Koreans couldn`t make kimchi, and the whole country went into a panic and the Korean president had to make a public address about how families would have to “do without,” and promised to subsidize import costs from China. Something similar happened in Japan when there was a shortage of rice and seaweed. Every country`s got it`s fix. Just wait until America runs out of peanut butter.

Anyway, it was a lot of food. Japan is skimpy on the amount they give you. One could easily pay $10 at a regular family restaurant and still walk away hungry. All you can eat buffets, (extremely rare to begin with) usually price at around $25 and often exclude meat and dessert and are extremely lacking in the variety of American buffets (they only serve Japanese and “Italian”; if you`re wondering why that`s in quotes, please see my earlier post on foreign cousin in Japan). Likewise, while Japanese meat is the sweetest and most savory I`ve ever had, (due to the unhealthy fat content), Korean meat is not so good, but there`s a lot more of it! It was nice to be in a land of people who love food…and yes, if you want to know the major difference in appearance between Japanese and Koreans, it would definitely be their size. Not that most Koreans are grotesquely fat, rather than Japanese are often ridiculously skinny. (They have the highest anorexia rate in the world. Just to give you an idea, there was one lady at the Thanksgiving party who was as skinny as my brother Benjamin and about half as tall who asked how many calories were in each dish I brought. When I told her I didn`t know, she refused to eat them.) Accordingly, Japanese are also the shortest race I have ever encountered on a large scale. Koreans appear to be about average.

After dinner, we went for a walk around downtown Seoul to see all the fancy lights. Due to a lack of the Thanksgiving holiday, most of Asia starts getting into the Christmas hype right after Halloween, basically involving lots of pretty lights, poorly sung Christmas tunes blasting over radios, and cake. Lots of cake. One building was entirely covered in LCDs (the building itself was a giant screen) that projected commercials of smiling blonds in Christmas ware chasing after Santa`s sleigh. (Most of the advertisements I saw were of Caucasian blonds, unlike Japan which features almost entirely domestic models. Much to it`s own detriment, Korea has a definite Westernophile outlook; more on that later.) Here`s another fancy department store all flashing:

Finally, time for the Nanta show. Wow! It was about three famous chefs who loved to drum while they cooked. If you`ve ever heard of the American show Stomp, it was kind of like that, a giant percussion show, only entirely with kitchen ware. The story was that they had one hour to cook a huge wedding banquet for a very important client, and to make matters worse, the maƮtre d` of the restaurant gets mad at one of the chefs and tries to kick him out, substituting his nephew who dreams of being a chef, but can`t cook to save his life. But he can drum! It was really funny. Most of it was mimed, with some English and simple Korean thrown in (which Casey understood), so I could follow everything. They started with an ancient drumming number, then antic followed by antic, and finally ended with a modern Japanese taiko (giant drum) performance. (Of course, they would probably tell you it was Korea to the core, but they were even wearing the traditional Japanese costumes worn in taiko, so, sorry. Everybody knows human-sized drums were invented by the Chinese anyway.) There was one number in which two guys were fighting over the girl chef, and they took brooms, popped off the brushes, and started fighting taekwondo (Korean martial art) style, simultaneously creating intricate beat patterns with their sticks. I want to know who invented that number, it was pure genius! If you`re in Korea and you got the time, I definitely recommend it.

After that, we headed back to Casey`s apartment and crashed around midnight. The next day we saw the palaces, secret garden, National Folk museum, 63 building, and the world`s largest church! But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fall colors at Mt. Gozaisho!

I`m back! Sorry for the long hiatus. I went to the doctor and it turned out I had acute bronchitis. He said it might take awhile before I feel like myself again and I was in and out of school for the past two weeks, but the worst is over. Just coughing and still pretty tired all the time. But it`s given me a lot of time to write the second book in the Treasure Traitor series, An Honest Assassin , and catch up on reading.

But this weekend, I decided some mountain air might be good for me (and I wasn`t about to miss the entire beautiful leaf season again this year), so I headed to see my sometimes host family in Komono. The mother Kazuko and I went up the gondola of Mt. Gozaisho to see the koyo, or colorful autumn leaves. What a spectacular display of gold and crimson and emerald color! See for yourself:

At the top, the leaves were mostly done for, but the cold was not as bad as we had expected (with our thermals and heavy coats, gloves, etc), so we enjoyed a pleasant walk around. Here we are together at the highest point:

There was a small shrine at the top to some random god in Guma prefecture no one had ever heard of, but in typical Japanese fashion they were all lined up to clap their hands and "make a wish." As usual I just watched, but indulged myself a little by ringing a lone gong by the shrine pond and listening to the sound vibrate through the miniature bamboo forest. It was kind of surreal. One of those "yep, I`m in Japan" moments.

Another way the Japanese like to "make a wish" is to stack the tiny prehistoric volcanic stones on top of each other. That made for some rather interesting shapes:

We took the chair lift up to the ski resort, but there wasn`t much there, as it`s only open for about two months out of the year and I`ve heard it`s pretty pathetic compared to Nagano and Hokkaido where most folks go. Though it might be perfect like a novice like me; I`ll at least check it out come ski season.

We had our bento (lunch box) overlooking the surrounding mountains:

Here`s a rock shaped like a turtle at one cliff:

And some red leaves atop another vista:

Then we took the gondola back down again. Here`s the carpet of leaves beneath us:

Here`s a video of what the gondola mechanism looks like. It`s one of the world`s longest gondolas with the largest support structure in Japan:

And here`s what they look like from a distance; beautiful in an unexpected way:

And my favorite red leaves, up close:

And that`s the famous Komono koyo! It was packed that day; everyone in Mie and Shiga prefectures it seemed was there. (There`s actually a place on top of the mountain where you can stand in both prefectures at the same time.) Good thing they have a lot of gondolas!

I`ve just got one other thing to say that`s been bothering me as I laid in bed sick. i`ve said in the past that Japan need to be a lot more internationaly minded, especially in regards to foreigners living in their country (particularily other Asians and Latin Americans) and facilitating healthy integration into their society. Well, my mother told me about something the other day that tells me my home is no better, and in some ways much worse. The vote just came up in Oklahoma for whether or not to include Spanish on road signs and doctor`s offices and other public places. It was almost unanimously voted down.

I suppose the main complaint is that Hispanic immigrants need to learn English. Fine, they do. But what about those who just arrived? I can tell you it was IMMENSELY comforting when I first came to Japan to find all the signs in English. I don`t know how many times it saved me from being completely and hopelessly lost. Just two weeks ago when I was in Nagoya, a Bolivian man ran up to me, practically in tears, because he had just arrived in Japan and was supposed to meet someone at Nagoya station but that somebody never showed up. His cell phone didn`t work in Japan. All he needed to find was a public phone. Fortunately, I and a friend (mostly my friend) were able to translate from Spanish to Japanese and get the man what he needed and thirty minutes later he met up with his Japanese friend. But what if he hadn`t found us? You read stories all the time of people getting lost in foreign countries precisely because of stuff like that.

Think of it from an economic standpoint. Are the signs not paid for by tax dollars? Are not the majority of Hispanics paying taxes? Then we should have the signs in a language they understand. Does it hurt us to have two languages on our signs like the vast majority of the world? If anything, it could help us! This is perhaps the best argument for it, I think: Having two languages on signs could improve tourism. People are a lot more likely to visit a place that is easier to travel to and in than a place that is not. Why do you think Latino and Asian tourists mostly go to L.A. and New York? Not just because they`re big cities and there is more of their own culture there. There is plenty of Hispanic, Chinese, Indian, and various other ethnic cultures in Oklahoma as well. We might get more foreign tourists if we become more foreign friendly. Having pamphlets and other materials translated into major languages is a big step in that direction. And then you need someone to translate into those languages, which provides jobs for educated people who are really struggling to find jobs now. Everyone wins!

What most people mean when they call Oklahoma a "backward state" I think is that we are resistant to change. Well, the world is changing. We can either find creative ways to maintain our historic identity, expand it to include more diverse people groups, and update ourselves in the global economy or continue to wallow in a financial and cultural crisis. Take your pick. You can not have prosperity together with stagnation.

Prayer Requests for this week: For heath! Also, I am headed for Korea this Saturday morning. One thing I plan to do is visit the largest church in the world, Yoido Full Gospel Church. Please pray for safe travel!

Until next time, keep praying and keep loving, no matter what the cost,
Laura Jane Popp (L. J. Popp)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Flowers and miracles!

This is going to be a rather short post, since I`m feeling a bit under the weather. Saturday, October 23rd I went to Nabana no Sato with a friend to see the famous cosmos and dahlias. Wow! Here`s some pictures:

Me in front of the mums:

The huge feild of cosmos:

The gigantic dahlias:

And the beautiful chapel in the middle of the garden:

In another week or so nabana no sato will have their most famous display, the lightup! It`s one of the largest lightups in Japan and lasts four months! So there will be plenty of time to go.

After that, I enjoyed a delicious steak lunch at the beer garden resteraunt on premisis (with no beer) and then headed for my writers` meeting with some friends, which went well.

Other than that, the only thing of note was the surprise Nabari festival on Thursday the 28th with lots of delcious food stalls centered around the shrine. There were also game and carnival stalls, like this one selling glowing stuff:

And a flower shop:

Most of the events took place during the day while I was at work, so I missed them and I`m not exactly sure what the festival was about, but given the timing and prominence of the shrine, I would say it`s probably the local tenjin or thanksgiving festival for the harvest. Here`s a family all dressed up in traditional costumes from the feudal era:

Imagine the contrast that evening when two ladies in my English and Evangelism class prayed for Jesus to save them! The Japanese are no longer satisfied with festivals and rites that hold no meaning for them. We were talking about kanashibari, which I think I`ve mentioned here before, a kind of severe sleep paralysis unique to the Japanese. I asked the three ladies attending if they had experienced it, and they all said yes. They then began chattering away amoung themselves about how bad there experiences were, and while I couldn`t understand everything they said, I got the jist. Basically they had all woken up feeling as if they were bound, someone was strangling them, there were nails ripping at their flesh, etc. Kind of sounds like hell, doesn`t it? After their horrific stories, I asked Miwa to please share her story with the others, and she explained how she prayed to Jesus to set her free from kanashibari and she had never experienced it since. The other two ladies were shocked.

"Does Jesus really have that kind of power?" one of them asked.

"Yes," Miwa insisted. "Like Laura said last week, Jesus can set you free from all your fear and worry. But you have to ask him and believe he will do it."

They asked how this was possible. In turn, I asked them what they thought caused kanashibari. They all agreed it was demons, a power of darkness.

"Exactly! Jesus is God, and God has power over demons. That`s why he can set you free from kanashibari!"

Once they both seemed convinced, we prayed for Jesus to set them free from kanashibari and to be their lord and savior. But that wasn`t the end! I was sure to explain to them that life wouldn`t neccisarily be easier. Jesus sets us free from fear and worry because in him, we realize that the things we worry about are not so important after all. We needn`t fear death, or what other people think about us, because we are children of God who will go to be with him in paradise. One of the ladies started crying. The other one, when we gave her a Bible, began to read it immediately, asking,

"This is God`s love letter to us, right?"

Yes! That`s the response I`ve been praying for for the past year! This is so exciting! Please pray for these ladies, that they will continue to grow in their new faith and not just see Jesus as a "cure all" to their problems. Please also pray for a young lady who last year prayed for salvation, but has stopped coming and says she wants a "break from the Bible" due to peer preasure from her non-Christian friends. And another older lady seems to be curious but she`s really struggling with the divinity of Christ and science "disproving" religion. Last week I wanted to give her a really helpful DVD but she wasn`t there. Please pray for her! I wish I could give you their names, but I don`t think they would like that. But God knows who you mean.

More prayer requests:

Like I said, I`m feeling a bit under the weather. Please pray for health, especially since I want to go see the leaves in Kyoto soon. I had to cancel a trip on Wednesday, the national holiday, but I hope I can reschedule for Saturday.

Until next time, keep praying and keep loving, no matter what the cost.

Laura Jane Popp (L. J. Popp)