Airports don't typically give you an adequate feel for the country or even for the city in which they're located because, in most cases, they are removed from populous places, are often situated on the outskirts of that city, are surrounded by farm land, forests, or empty fields. When I have been to an airport that finds itself in an urban centre, it is more likely than not to be a neighbour to an industrial park or factory district.
Who wants to live next to an airport anyway?
Until today, my only experience with Japan had been on my first trip, almost a year ago. For a couple of minutes, I saw Tokyo spread out before me, Mount Fuji like a small, lone goose bump. When my plane landed at Narita airport I could have been anywhere, except that I couldn't read any of the signs and the language on the airport speakers was foreign. I transferred to my next gate and continued on my way, without much further ado.
Airports are like that. They are conduits to and from other centres. They aren't your ultimate destination. No one hangs out at an airport unless he or she is an employee of that facility.
Or is a spy.
In my past life, I had spent enough time at airports, trying to blend in with real travellers, moving discretely around the ticket counters or near the arrival gates, trying to blend in, trying to pretend that I was waiting for someone, which was often the case, but it was not my duty to approach that person: there was a team of us, each trained to watch and trail that arrival for a limited distance, when another agent would take over. And so it went. No person would be near the target long enough to become familiar.
Occasionally, I would be required to pretend I was departing, a purchased ticket in hand. Once beyond security, I could move from gate to gate, pretending to file onto a plane with the real passengers, only to slip away, unseen, trying to not look suspicious, to the next gate, where other passengers sat about, waiting to board their respective flights. Waiting and watching. Looking like I was going somewhere, but never really going anywhere.
Getting out of the secure area was always the hardest part of surveillance: pretending that I had changed my mind about my flight, explaining to the exit-minders that I didn't want to go, casually displaying my NATO passport so as to avoid any chats with diligent security. All I needed to say, in most cases, was, "I've changed my mind. I'm not taking this flight," or "I've just been called back. It's business." I would hold up my clunky Motorola MicroTAC, the standard tool of successful businessmen and government officials.
And absolutely no one questioned the passport.
Things were different now. No longer did I spend hours in airports, neither coming nor going. No longer did I have that NATO passport to whisk me quickly through security, no questions asked. No longer did I wait, going nowhere, sitting in an airport that was outside city limits, offering no views beyond the coming and going of aircraft, of the flat farm land, the forests, or the barren, empty fields.
I needed no excuses.
Today, as my plane approached Fukuoka International Airport, I could see that we were landing within the city limits. The airport was in the centre of town. We landed alongside towering condos and office buildings. I passed through customs, carrying only my napsack—packed with only the essentials: fresh shirt and underwear, hair brush and toothbrush, my camera and the visa-application forms. This was meant to be a short trip and, if all went well, I wouldn't need the personal effects.
I exited the terminal into what was the core of the city. Immersed straight into a new and unknown culture. But I wasn't alone. At Kimp'o, waiting at my departure gate stood a cluster of other waeguks, none seeming to know the other, all seemingly as lost as I felt, all wondering what to do after we landed in Japan. Now that we were in Japan, we all seemed to be standing together outside the terminal like a group of tourists awaiting our guide, all holding makeshift maps and instructions on how to get ourselves to the Korean consulate, where we would have our E-2 visas processed. Some had official Fukuoka maps and printed forms with explicit instructions; others had photocopied pages with maps and directions, both crudely drawn and written by hand. I carried a well-worn city map, used many times by teachers of contracts gone by, that my university administration office had lent me. The Korean consulate was circled, as was the subway station that was nearest to the airport. An X showed where to get off and a dotted line led me down the streets to my destination.
Organized. I liked an organized institute. My last language institute, the Hwan Tae Pyeong Yang Waeguk-ah Hagwon, was disorganized to its demise. Kwon had been so interested in hustling for contracts for his waning trading company that he was bleeding his language institute dry. In the end, both businesses failed and he left his staff and their students out in the cold, without compensation.
It was almost two months since I had last spoken to Kwon, had tried to get the money he owed me. By now, I was sure he believed that I had given up and left the country. He was right on only one account: while I had essentially written him off, had lost the will to track him down, I was very much a resident of Chŏnju.
Outside the Fukuoka terminal, the other foreigners and I found our bearings and, as a single mass of white folk, made our way to the underground metro. While I enjoyed having people around me who were in the same boat, I did not want to feel that I was dependent on them. My instructions seemed thorough, were clear, so I didn't want to be influenced by other opinions. I just wanted to go. And so as soon as I was oriented, I headed off.
The others, seeing my apparent display of confidence, were soon on my heels. I didn't lead the group, but I didn't let them fall too far behind. The sidewalks were crowded and could easily swallow me. It was a field agent's dream: so easy to lose a tail, but if a tail was truly following me in this crowd, I couldn't be more conspicuous in this sea of Asian faces if I were wearing a bright read toque.
But I wasn't trying to lose them, and a voice was telling me to be kind, to be a beacon to the foreigners. I had spent a long time in Canada, and this Canadian characteristic was emerging. But I emerged with Fiona's voice. I led the group down a flight of dimly lit stairs into an underground mall. At every crowded turn, I would slow my pace. At each intersection, I would stop and take a long look before making a definitive turn.
Eventually, the mall opened into a large square with a row of automated ticket machines and maps. I oriented myself and found the line with my destination (thanks to the university secretaries, the names were written in English and Japanese—on the ticket machine, I saw only Japanese), purchased my ticket, and made my way slowly to the platform, after I saw that everyone had successfully followed my steps.
On the train, some fellow foreigners engaged in light-hearted conversation. I kept to myself. I didn't want to seem antisocial, but by the same token I wasn't interested in forming any companionships. While I had been eager to make friends in Chŏnju last year and had started forming amicable relationships with some of my co-workers, I didn't want to put myself in a position of making new friends from other parts of Korea. And, on this short trip, where I planned to be on my own, not thinking that I was going to be joining other teachers in the same position, I just wanted to get in, get my visa, and get out.
The subway system did not run as close to the Korean consulate as a stranger to Fukuoka would have liked. There was about a kilometre or so to walk. But nobody in the present company complained: the sun shone, the temperature was mild, and the scenery was pleasant. Streets were clean, buildings were new or in like-new condition. A narrow canal cut through the centre of a street, almost like a boulevard, reminding me in a small way of Amsterdam.
Fukuoka is a coastal town along the northern shore of Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu, across the Sea of Japan from Pusan, South Korea. One of the oldest cities in Japan, if not the oldest, it is said that the modern city earned its name by force, when a group of samurai overran a council meeting and pressured the councillors to use the name. Being the closest port to South Korea, the city is home to the Korean consulate.
As our group left a residential area and turned onto a main road, we could see a beach and the sea; further out, dark clouds, possibly over Pusan. A large, domed stadium blocked much of our view of the beach, itself surrounded in a sea of asphalt parking space. On a marquis in the stadium parking lot, an animated sign flashed in both Japanese and English, a well-recognized logo of wings with a circle and star prominently displayed: Aerosmith Live. The show was scheduled for tomorrow evening.
Too bad Siobhan wasn't here, I thought. She loveed that band. At least, she did when she was in high school. I wondered if she was still a fan. I would have considered staying an extra night had she been with me, even if her seeing it would have been for nostalgic reasons. She probably hadn't seen the band perform since they made an appearance in Ottawa, at SuperEx, the Central Canada Exhibition. When was that, 1985... '86?
When I next had access to the Internet, I'd drop her a message, let her know about the concert. Let her wander memory lane.
According to my map, the consulate was only a block away from the stadium. I quickened my pace. It wasn't far; if the others fell behind, they would find it from here.
* * *
It was going to be an overnight stay. Had I been able to drop off my documentation with the Korean consulate before noon, it would have been ready by the end of today. But because I didn't arrive at the consulate until a couple of hours before it closed, it wouldn't be ready until noon tomorrow.
Had I come alone, they might have put a rush on my document; at least, that's what the woman at the counter was indicating with her pauses. As soon as the rest of the foreigners walked, en masse, through the door, the clerk knew that she had her hands full.
Tomorrow, it would have to be.
I did not leave the consulate until the clerk had verified—twice—that my paperwork was complete and accurate. I wanted nothing to go wrong wanted to ensure that I would be catching my flight on time. I had purchased a round-trip ticked that was valid for twenty-four hours. It was good only for the flight that returned to Seoul today or tomorrow; if I missed tomorrow's flight, there would be an added cost to getting back to Korea.
With the paperwork settled, my next task was to find lodging. There was a hotel next to the stadium: a tall, narrow building that offered a spectacular view of the city on one side, a better view of the sea on the other. The others in the group of foreigners, naturally, saw it too and we travelled together to see if there was any vacancy.
There was, of course. Rooms could be had at such a low season, on a night before a concert. If you were willing to spend $300 or more for the room.
No, thank you.
Although I could afford the room, did I really need to spend the money? On the plus-side, I would be close to the Korean consulate. But the hotel seemed isolated from the rest of the city, separated by a huge residential area. There didn't seem to be anything to do in the hours between now and noon tomorrow. It was far too cool to hang out on the beach.
I wanted to be in the city proper.
Some of the foreigners, the ones who had arrived together, who were obviously friends, decided that they could pool their resources and pay for one room. Three guys split on a room with a double bed and a sofa. A couple, possibly married, took another room. That left three of us, two women and me, to forage for other accommodation.
We retraced our steps to the subway and returned to Hakata Station. From there, it was easy to find the tourism office and shop for cheap lodgings. A tourist hotel—Hotel Green—was tucked in an alley on the other side of the train station, through an underground shopping centre. Because the ladies, who I learned on our subway trip were Alison and Samantha, were insecure of being alone in an unknown city, they followed my lead. I suppose that to them, I appeared harmless. I was fine with that: leading a couple of people didn't seen as much of a responsibility as making decisions for a larger group.
Once we had checked in to Hotel Green, we agreed to meet in the lobby at nine o'clock the next morning and we'd travel to the consulate together.
"What about dinner?" asked Samantha. "Are you going to find something to eat or are you going to order from your room?"
"I hadn't thought about food, but I guess I'm hungry." In truth, I was starving. I hadn't eaten since I had grabbed a quick soup at Kimp'o. Travel always had a knack of messing with time and my body. No matter how long the flight was, I never felt hungry, always had to be reminded of the fact. "Did you see anything in the mall?"
"I saw people eating but I didn't see any food venues."
Alison went to the hotel counter and asked the clerk if it was possible to order food and have it delivered to her room. "I'm tired," she explained to Samantha and me, "I'm going to stay put, turn in early."
I looked at Samantha. "I want to check out the city, see what I can find to eat. What do you want to do?"
"I'll come along," she said. "I want to check out my room, drop my things and get freshened up."
"Agreed," I said. We bid Alison a good night, promised to meet in the lobby at nine the next morning. To Samantha, "See you in about thirty minutes?" I suggested.
The room was about half the size of a single-car garage. There was room for only a single-mattress bed and a small writing table. The bathroom was like a chamber in a submarine. I stepped over a seal and closed the small, oval-shaped door. Everything was plastic and glass. The toilet was in the same space as the shower and sink: everything would be soaked in the process of washing myself. Only the linen—a small towel, face and hand cloth—were strategically placed to stay dry. The toilet paper was enclosed in a plastic dispenser and came out in thin sheets.
My view looked out towards the airport and train station. Looking straight below, a bullet train sat along the platform. In the near distance low-lying hills rose to meet the setting sun. It would be dark soon. Best to unpack the few items I was carrying, wash my face, and grab my camera.
I was going to capture a few images of this city before I called it a night. Samantha could either tag along after we ate or not. It didn't matter to me what she did after dinner.
I wasn't here to make friends.
Ladies, dressed like airline attendants, standing on busy street corners, handing small packages of perfumed tissues to passers by. Sonic, the Hedgehog, dancing in front of a Sega store. We Are the World, the muzak rendition, piped through an ultra-modern shopping mall. A dancing fountain, changing its water flow from anything between a steady stream to a canon-like burst that was sent as a solid mass, several stories in the air, only to lose its integrity and explode into a fine mist as it returned to the ground. These are the memories that would last with me for the rest of my life. This was a glimpse of first-world East Asia. This was what Korea was striving to achieve.
Korea had a long way to go.
The core of Fukuoka became a ghost town after offices closed for the evening. It was much the same way in Ottawa: Bank Street, from the Queensway to Wellington, quieted right down. Sparks Street was almost devoid of human activity. Even Elgin Street, which was a haven of pubs and restaurants, emptied after the dinner hour.
Pubs and restaurants in Fukuoka's core seemed non-existent. By the time Samantha and I met in our hotel lobby and returned to the underground esplanade near the train station, most of the shops were closing for the evening. Fast-food restaurants were no longer serving food. The only other open stores included a department store that seemed to specialize in trinkets and souvenirs, and a Body Shop.
The main streets that spread out from the station were growing dark. Only a couple of sushi bars remained open, and because they didn't seem crowded, Samantha and I chose to avoid them. We both knew the rule of eating in unfamiliar restaurants: if it was busy, it was good; if it was quiet or empty, it was best to stay away.
We paid careful attention to our surroundings, making sure we didn't turn a corner without knowing the way to get back. We didn't want to get lost in an unfamiliar city while foraging for food.
When we found the second shopping mall, we had a little more success. Though many of the shops were closed, we did find a food court that was still feeding the few downtown stragglers. The busiest of the shops sold fried chicken and noodles, so we settled in, watching the fountain in the centre of the mall dance to We Are the World.
I searched for subjects to photograph, but there was very little and the mall was dimly lit. Because I was travelling light, a tripod wasn't part of the equipment I carried. I would pass on taking pictures tonight, I decided. Just something to fill my belly and then an early evening.
As we left the food court, Samantha saw a vendor who sketched caricatures, and asked if I would wait while she had her portrait drawn. The man seemed eager to draw a foreigner who was actually sitting in front of him. I seriously doubted whether Madonna had graced his kiosk. Or Brad Pitt.
Or Marilyn Monroe.
As Samantha's image emerged, the artist's talents were apparent. He captured her round cheeks, her bright eyes, her smile. Her glasses seemed oversized, however, taking up most of her face by the time he was finished. But the end result brought a smile to Samantha's face, and she happily payed him the modest amount of yen.
Walking back to the Green Hotel, it was hard to believe it was late February. The jacket that I wore in North Berwick, which was inadequate for the fierce winds and chill from the North Sea was more than enough for this southern Japanese island. By the time we reached the hotel, I had worked up a sweat. Or perhaps it was the chicken. A screen in the hotel lobby that displayed the weather forecast promised sunshine and temperatures in the low teens for tomorrow. Because the visa wasn't promised before ten o'clock, I promised myself that I would get an early start in the morning, would take the opportunity to photograph the beach near the Korean consulate.
"Tell Alison that I'm going ahead of our meeting time," I told Samantha. "I'll see you at the consulate at ten." I made sure she knew how to get there.
Not here to make friends, I said for the last time today.