perjantai 24. kesäkuuta 2011

Pooling around

I promised a post about international indoor pool hunting about... Well, ages ago. But now, halfway down the road, there's actually a lot to blog about on that subject.

I love swimming but there are always some exciting challenges to the first time you enter a new pool, even back home. Where do you get in, which areas can you be naked in and which lanes can YOU swim on? Believe me, it's not as obvious everywhere as you'd think. Or hope.

In Hong Kong I thought they've got this thing thought through when I realised I can use my Octopus transit card to pay for my entrance to the sports center. No ticket hassle! I had used the pool for a week when one day trying to enter and beep the card in the reader the supervisor all of a sudden jumped from behind his desk and shouted: "No no!" He didn't let me go through the turnstile I'd chosen and made me take another one - beeping the card again and thus charging me twice. He didn't speak English so of course the reason for why I couldn't enter the first turnstile remained a mystery.

In Crystal Palace National Sports Center in London I got a bad case of locker room confusion. I wasn't sure but I remembered the Brits being a little conservative when it comes to being naked in front of other people so the large open space dressing room with lockers on one side of the room and dressing stalls on the other produced a bit of a challenge. How am I supposed to carry all my stuff with a towel wrapped around me (bound to fall off) from the dressing stalls' side to the lockers, open the locker, put the 20p in, shove my stuff in, turn the key and lock the thing? 

When I tried that the towel did fall off, I locked my iPhone out and had to open the locker again, lost the 20p because the locker ate the money, put in another 20p and locked out my wallet, ran out of 20p's so had to go to the front desk in my swimsuit to change money and finally got in the pool 15 min later than I thought.

In Cologne, Germany there was a school class having a swimming lesson when I started doing laps on bahn drei, minding my own business. I'd done about 200m when all of a sudden between breast strokes I heard screaming from one end of the pool. When I get up to look there's a 10-year-old kid yelling face all red: "Bahn zwei, bahn zwei!" The teachers were clearing lane three for the kids and this guy seemed eager to get in so he participated in giving orders. So me and the two others finished our swim, oh yes, on bahn zwei.

In Seoul I've taken my dips in the 1988 Olympic Swimming Pool. It's a wonderful venue with great facilites (saunas, too!) but everything is in Korean there. I mean everything, not even the "woman" and "man" images to point out the dressing rooms. Of course I first tried to enter the guys' side. Good thing there's a staff member there to hand you the keys - he pointed me to the right direction.

They have a swimming cap rule here in Seoul, like they did in Hiroshima, so I had to borrow one again and while I stood by the pool waiting one of the lifeguards stepped into a storage room to get me one and when I got it I noticed it was purple with Winnie the Pooh on it. A cap of champions! Serves me right for forgetting my own cap home.

The thing is you'll always be an ass the first time you go to a public swimming pool anywhere. But after that first time of total embarassment it's the most wonderful thing to dive in the pool, do the laps and then take a sauna and sit with the locals there. Even if I don't always understand the language, the tone and the tempo is the same everywhere, so probably the topics are, too: life and the men in it.

lauantai 18. kesäkuuta 2011

Seoul searching

Greetings from Korea! Got here on Monday evening after one bus ride, a ferry trip across the Sea of Japan and a train ride through the whole of South Korea.

The Japanese have a joke about how whenever they travel to Korea they can smell the kimchi even on the plane. But it's not just a joke. Both the ferry and train had that sharp smell of the Korean signature food. I decided to cheapo my way from Japan to Seoul which meant taking a 6-hour ferry ride from Fukuoka, Japan, to Busan, South Korea (instead of the three-hour one) and taking the 6-hour slow train from Busan to Seoul (instead of the 2,5 hour one).

As soon as I got to my wonderful hostel (Korea Central Backpackers, mark it down in case you ever come to Seoul) I met some other travellers and I joined them for dinner. One of the group was a vegetarian and in these hoods that can cause challenges in certain places, especially the kinds where the staff doesn't speak English. And our choice of restaurant was the kind where they didn't speak even a couple of words.

So we went back to the hostel where the owner wrote down the word "vegetarian" in Korean characters on a post-it and back we went into the same restaurant. The waiter was so happy to see us again she cooked the whole meal for us herself! Usually the guests fry the stuff on the heated pan themselves and then eat it.

If Japan was busy, South Korea and especially Seoul can be just crazy. I mean people are rushing into trains, escalators and through all kinds of doors like their lives are depending on making it through first. When we docked in Busan harbour I sort of got a feeling what an emergency evacuation on a ferry would feel like. People were elbowing their way out of the boat like they were running for their lives. I had an urge to shout: "People, it's okay, we're DOCKED not sinking!" but instead I just got pushed and shoved into customs and immigration.

You can really get hurt, too. In the subway in Seoul you especially have to look out for old people, mothers with children and invalids. They're transferring with a vengeance! So no matter how cruel it might seem, you just have to take your place - whatever that means - in the mass of people and hope you get shoved where you want to go. Mostly I've tried not to get aggressive and chill with an iced coffee or something and concentrate on my book (which has been knocked off my hands more than once).

One final thing: coming to Seoul I found some reeeeally nasty bug bites on me. And these are not mosquito, unfortunately. These are nasty enough to look like I've been shot in the leg three times. Thanks to an ointment I bought at the pharmacy, they're getting better though. The only weird thing: the lotion tube had a picture of a dog on it??

keskiviikko 8. kesäkuuta 2011

Japan - busy and asleep at the same time

I have no idea why I'm so sleepy all of a sudden. It must be something in the Japanese climate - everyone seems narcoleptic here in buses and trains. Salarymen, old ladies, young men... And now featuring me. Everyone takes a nap in public transportation. Some even do it standing. And nobody misses their stop (except me and I was awake then).

Shinjuku, Tokyo.
So far I've seen a fraction of Tokyo - because I don't think anyone can ever completely see it - and some of Kyoto, the former, historic capital of Japan. While Tokyo was big, bustling, lively and fun, it also felt overwhelming at times. The first mornings when I (eventually) woke up, I had no clue where to even start. As days passed though I managed to find some fascinating areas to roam (favourites being Ebisu, Meguro and Naka-Meguro) and delicious foods to eat.

And talking about delicious foods, I actually found the world's best ramen restaurant in Kyoto based on pretty much just one photo! My friends recommended the place to me and the only clue I had to find it was a photo of basically just Japanese lanterns and curtains outside this place. Okay and a vague direction where I should look for it.

So I roamed around Pontocho in Kyoto on two different nights and on the second one, just as me and a friend from my hostel were about to give up and go back, I saw it! And it was worth every compliment I'd heard. No wonder Nagahama Ramen is so famous. It's a street kitchen with a very local feel to it, even though it's touristy enough to have English menus. You can spice your ramen yourself with all kinds of toppings. They put Rice Krispies in the ramen! Will go there again tonight for sure.

And tonight is my last night in Kyoto. Tomorrow I'm getting my passport back from "daycare" at the Chinese consulate in Osaka and then I'm taking the Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima. On Sunday I'm off to Korea!