Leaving South Korea and reaching Japan on a ferry. Finally!
Day 2,010 since October 10th 2013: 178 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Japan is everything they say – and more.
The Saga can be pretty lonely. First of all I’m the only person on earth who knows exactly what it has taken to get this far. But furthermore I do many things alone: buy a ticket, eat, walk the streets and these days people around me have been less social than in other cultures. I guess these countries are too developed.
In Denmark people will look at you strange if you ask them how they are and they do not know you. That is not completely true but pretty close though. There isn’t much interaction between strangers in Denmark outside of work environment, parties and sporting events. If the conversation goes beyond “do you know what time it is?” or “can you help me with directions?” then I would be pretty surprised. It’s not that Danes are cold. Privacy is valued in Denmark. I won’t disturb you and in return I expect you will return the favour. Make a Danish friend and you’ll probably have one for life. Just don’t expect to make that friend on a bus, in a train or on the street. A lot of Chinese people do not speak English and in mandarin I have not advanced beyond: “Hi”, “how are you” and “thank you”. So China was kind of lonely and in so many ways highly developed. South Korea was also a little lonely but my sister came to visit and kept me company. South Korea is polite but also highly developed and in my experience people in highly developed countries are less busy reaching out to strangers. Japan which I have now reached is also highly developed and I see the same phenomenon. I guess that’s just the way society goes when it advances in development…people get lonely. I know that loneliness is a huge subject for the Danish Red Cross and something they do a lot about in Denmark. Funny that we can have lonely people on a planet with seven billion people.
My younger sister takes off at Busan airport. Miss her already.
My sister took good care of me while she visited. She covered all expenses relating accommodation and a lot of our meals and travel expenses. She is a pretty smart cookie and has done well for herself. Good job, solid income, own home, lots of friends, good heath…yeah…she’s one to be proud about. And although she’s five years younger she came to take care of her tired old brother. I took her to the airport and saw her off. Her route home was from Busan to Seoul. Seoul to Beijing. Beijing to Copenhagen. And then I was alone again…but not for long. Raphael had invited me to join him at his weekend house. Raphael is a friend of Bjarke from Denmark. Bjarke and I were shipping trainees together a long time ago and have stayed friends ever since. Raphael contacted me and said: “any friend of Bjarke is a friend of mine!” As such I took a bus from the airport to a stop where Raphael picked me up and introduced me to two of his friends: Jean (Taiwan) and Lunes (France). The three of us made a short drive and then stopped for an amazing Korean style lunch! Raphael’s treat. Then we made it further out of Busan until we reached Tongdosa Temple which is famous because there are no Buddha statues inside it since relics of Buddha are preserved there. Tongdosa was established in 646 CE and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Above and below: Tongdosa Temple (UNESCO)
Raphael’s weekend house was nearby and there we joined up with his wife Nie, from China, and their two boys Shinzo and Sinwoo who are both into ice hockey. Since it was weekend both boys went practicing Saturday and Sunday! We had good food and a good time. I was especially fascinated by the high tech toilet which had a million buttons along with the “intelligence” to open the seat automatically once I entered the bathroom. It would also flush automatically. I’ve seen several high tech toilets across South Korea but this was the first one which “greeted me” by opening the lid. As I wrote last week; I’m very fascinated with South Korea. It is a highly impressive country. Well advanced within technology. Strong economy. Strong passport. Rich in history. Good food. Mountainous and beautiful. Much good can be said about South Korea. In spite of a language barrier in some cases I found people to be kind, courteous and helpful. And South Korean products are found all over the world: Samsung, Hyundai, LG, KIA…those are just the famous ones. They are also massive players in regards to export of oil, plastic articles, optical, technical, medical apparatus, organic chemicals, iron, steel and they build lots of boats and huge ships.
Hahoe and Yangdong historic villages (UNESCO)
Cheomseongdae astronomical tower (UNESCO)
I was told several times that my sister and I were lucky with the clean air while we visited. Air quality has become such a huge topic in recent years. Nobody spoke much about it when I left Denmark but these days many have an app installed on their phone to tell them the AQI (Air Quality Index) at their location. China is rich in factories and production. That can be good for the economy but often not for air quality. And the wind tends to carry some of that air with it. South Korea suffers from it but also has its own production adding to the high values in AQ. The numbers were low while my sister and I were in Seoul and yet many were still wearing masks. Silly thing! Masks? We don’t need them – do we? Well actually they are recommended for sensitive individuals once the AQ reaches 150 and for the general public from 200 and above. Sensitive individuals should avoid outdoor activity already at 50 AQ. At this moment of writing New York is 7, Lagos is 40, Copenhagen is 30, Qingdao is 102, Delhi is 139, Dhaka is 160, Seoul is 63 and Tokyo is 23. I’ve been to cities were it went above 300. Alongside this obvious problem when the numbers run high we also have areas where the tap water is polluted with heavy metals. The thing that gets me here is that we are not talking about some dystopian future…this is now?!? I have already touched upon this topic in a recent blog and I only do it now gain because I’m constantly reminded about it when I see all those people around me wearing masks. It does make me conscious about it.
Fortunately my sister and I had fresh air and so did Raphael, Jean, Lunes, Nie, Shinzo and Sinwoo. The weekend continued as Raphael drove us all to a beautiful garden where the cherry blossoms showed themselves from their best side. And the smartphones immediately came out of everyone’s pockets because this is after all 2019 and we can’t just enjoy looking at something anymore. No. Those days are long gone. Did it even happen if it was not caught on camera and posted online? ;)
Yeah, I just promote smiles and make random tags with Korean women ;)
Sunday evening Raphael, who had been the perfect ambassador for his country, dropped me off at a hostel I had chosen. Raphael told me that it was in Busan’s Chinatown however today it was mostly Russians and ladies of the night who frequented the area. It was fine. I quote good hostel actually in a vibrant part of Busan. Walking distance to Maersk and to the ferry terminal. Not a coincidence. The next day I met up with Maersk in Busan for my second Saga presentation at a Maersk office in South Korea. And with that I celebrated my 40th visit to a Maersk office worldwide. Combine that with having spotted a Maersk container in 174 countries worldwide and you’ve certainly have a solid #MaerskMoment. The company is Danish and a world leader within global shipping. And they have been kind and supportive towards my efforts for several years. Maersk is not an official partner of Once Upon A Saga however certainly a very good friend. They are also instrumental in my departure from Japan to Taiwan.
The Maesk team in Busan :)
However first I had to reach Japan. That is not a problem from South Korea. There are several ferry departures every day. And they are not cheap. I caught the “Beetle” between Busan and Fukuoka which is high speed ferry that takes you between South Korea and Japan in only three hours. That ran me about $150 USD. Ouch. There have been some high costs within the Saga lately. Going back to my two day visit in Bhutan, my five days in North Korea, the bullet trains across China, the JR pass and now the “Beetle” ferry. Looking at these costs in the big perspective though, is not worrisome. That is how big an endeavour the Saga is by now. Accumulate those costs and they will hardly make a dent in a $20/day budget over five and a half year. You should have noticed that I added a JR pass to my list of costs. Did you? The JR pass is highly recommended for travellers visiting Japan. In some ways it is similar to Interrail in Europe for those of you who are familiar with that. Basically it is a rail pass for overseas visitors sold by the Japan Railways Group, and is valid for travel on all major forms of transportation provided by the JR Group in Japan (with a few exceptions). The Rail Pass is designed to stimulate travel and tourism throughout the country. It however cost me $261 for seven days. I went back and forth to work out if it was worthwhile for my stay in Japan? I knew I’d reach Fukuoka in the south and needed to head up to Tokyo roughly 1,000 km (620 mi) north. That train ride would already pay more than half of the pass. I guess I didn’t really, really need it? However it would offer me the option of flexibility throughout Japan for seven days and to Kyoto and back.
They said the water would be bad for the South Korea / Japan crossover so I popped a motion sickness tablet and off we went. There was free high-speed wifi on board the “Beetle”. It was a comfortable ride across on the catamaran. We moved forward with about 80 kph (50 mph). I soon reached Japan. It was grey and rainy. It wasn’t cold though. Japan…Nippon… Nihonjin… “The Land of the Rising Sun”. I’ve been talking about it for years!! One of the few countries I have really been looking forward to visiting. I had made it. We did it! We reached Japan and made it country number 178 in an unbroken journey completely without flying. Never in my life had I ever imagined that I would reach Japan on a ferry? I’ve always imagined that I would fly there some day. I also never imagined that I would one day be reaching every country in the world? And certainly not without flying. People sometimes refer to the Saga as my dream? It was never a dream of mine. It was an idea which formed in 2013 which then became a plan and now more than five years execution has been undertaken. Welcome to Japan: country number 178. 25 more to go…
It didn’t take me long to understand a few things about Japan. Japan is everything it is famous for and likely a whole lot more. Japan is efficient, clean, modern, expensive, exotic, polite, different, funny, serious…and more than anything else: a place where people are just people. AND NIJAS!! Japan has Nijas everywhere!! I would not have stood a chance if I had not been given the opportunity to fight all those crazy Koreans day in and day out with their Taekwondo!! And there is no way I would have survived South Korea if I had not just come from China where I was battling with Pandas day in and day out. Pandas are quite skilful when it comes to kung fu. They look cute but don’t let that fool you! Yeah, so all that martial arts has been keeping me sharp lately. True story. Or maybe not? The world is full of clichés. Did you know that I spent two years and three months visiting every country in Africa and I never saw a lion anywhere? I did see a lot of smartphones though. Where am I going with this? Can’t remember. Hopefully you had a chuckle. Let’s get back on track.
Fukuoka looked like a nice town and since Japan is as interesting as it is I’m fairly sure I lost out on a lot by leaving the next day. After checking into my hostel I walked up to the train station and stood in line for two quarters of an eternity. Then it was suddenly my turn and I swiftly received my JR Pass against my voucher from South Korea. On my way back I had a brilliant sizzling meal in a narrow alleyway and then returned to the hostel where I replied to emails until late into the night. There is far less free wifi options in Japan compared to South Korea. However there are generally enough and the speeds are quite okay.
Blasting across Japan like a bullet!!
The next day I made it to the JR operated bullet train which is locally known as Shinkansen. That translates into “trunkline” but that in no way sounds as cool as bullet train! They move across the country with speeds up towards 320 kph (186 mph). I had to take two of them. One from Fukuoka to Osaka and another the rest of the way up to Tokyo. The first one had free wifi the second did not. Looking out the windows it was mostly industrial buildings which were near the rails. However in the backdrop I could see some fairly impressive mountains with heavy fog dancing between them under the silver grey sky. At Osaka station I bought a brilliant lunch. They are known as bento boxes and definitely beat chewing on a sandwich. Sushi, maki and vegetables – fresh! Well done Japan.
My bento box train lunch :)
Finding accommodation in Tokyo had been severely time consuming. It was basically impossible to find a bed for less than $20/night and that would only take care of accommodation. So I wrote a bunch of people on couchsurfing and reached out to roughly fifteen hotels asking if they wanted to collaborate. Four people have over the years reached out to me across social media asking me to contact them once I approached Japan. Status on all of that was that only three hotels replied saying that it was high season for them and that they were not interested. Everyone on couchsurfing declined with various reasoning. The four people who had reached out to me all had guests and couldn’t host me. However one of them suggested that I would write a post in two facebook groups for Danes abroad in Japan. So I did and mostly had silence apart from a few likes. Thomas saved the day! He’s a Danish, Dane from Denmark. True Viking in heart and spirit. Also married to Anna, another Danish Viking, and together they have three wonderful children: Ella, Olivia and Anton. They have a house in Tokyo and sent me an open invitation to stay with them. Perfect! There shouldn’t be much doubt left for anyone at this point that the Saga’s motto is true: a stranger is a friend you’ve never met before. But more about this wonderful family next week.
Ceremony for Empress Shoken.
After waking up for my first day in Tokyo I had breakfast and joined Anna and the children who were off to Yoyogi park for a weird combination of fitness and coffee :) I continued on my own from there to visit the shrine of Meiji Jingu which is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. I just so happened to show up as a ceremony was about to begin. It was April 11th which was the date on which Empress Shoken passed away in 1914. As such the ceremony was in place to remember her virtues. That in itself was pretty good timing on my part as it gave me a far more interesting experience at the shrine. Watching the traditionally dressed men follow a mystical ritual and walk among the old buildings as if it was a hundred years ago. They were dressed primarily in white accompanied by some black. They wore peculiar hats and shoes. And they were silent. Very interesting.
When I first reached Tokyo it was raining and I saw that these people clearly are fond of umbrellas. Thankfully it cleared up the next day.
However far more interesting is this! I’m conducting the Saga as a goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross and as such I have paid a visit to the Red Cross or Red Crescent in 173 countries at this point. Today, Friday, I am scheduled to visit the Japanese Red Cross Cross. Empress Shoken devoted herself to promoting national welfare and women’s education. She was also concerned about social welfare in the world. She was known to offer tremendous support to the Japanese Red Cross (founded in 1877 as the Philanthropic Society), but also donated one hundred thousand yen to the International Federation of the Red Cross in Geneva. What are the odds that I would arrive on the day of the ceremony at the time of the ceremony and that the Empress would have that connection to the Red Cross and that I would be visiting the Red Cross the following day? Pretty small I guess. However sometimes in life we see coincidences when we look for them. The shrine is by the way in a beautiful forest surrounded by trees from all over Japan and even from foreign countries. It is quite a place.
My "Jack moment" at Maersk in Tokyo :)
Afterward I visited Maersk in Tokyo and reunited with Mike whom I had first met in Seoul more than a week before. He is in the process of beginning a new job at Maersk in Japan. The Tokyo team was great fun and I really enjoyed interacting with them. We laughed a lot and I got to make my “I’m the king of the world” pose at the bow of a ship ;)
I'm holding that passport because I kept on keeping on!!
Then I raced off in a Maersk sponsored taxi for my meeting with the Danish embassy. A long time ago when I was in Moscow (Russia) I visited the Danish embassy there and applied for two new passports. A regular ten year passport and an additional two year passport. For whatever reason the Danish police did not want to grant me the secondary passport as they had done several times in the past. So when I reached the Danish embassy in Delhi (India) I was only able to pick up the regular passport. Behind the curtains of the Saga I have spent an awful lot of time corresponding with the Danish police through the amazing staff at the embassy in Moscow. And for a while it was looking like it was going nowhere. However I’m not one to quit and some time ago I was told that it had been granted and I asked if they could forward it to Tokyo (Japan). That was one reason for visiting the embassy. Another was to be interviewed by Ida who’s an intern within public diplomacy and strategic partnership. On top of that the Danish ambassador, Freddy, wanted to meet me. So there were all sorts of reasons to visit the embassy. Ida and Freddy were great! And I do enjoy visiting a Danish diplomatic mission in connection to the Saga. It makes me think of The Danish Arabia Expedition from 1761-67 in which the five expedition members would frequently visit Danish representatives along their journey.
Ambassador Freddy Svane in his office.
That’s kind of where we stand now. My Danish family of five here in Tokyo invited me to go skiing with them on Saturday so that was a big YES THANK YOU!! On Sunday I will be taking over the Instagram account for AwesomeMaps to post stories (video) from across Tokyo. I will also be launching a competition in collaboration with AwesomeMaps soon. So stay tuned if you’re on Instagram. On Monday I’ll be meeting with a new friend at the BBC. For Tuesday I have been invited to join the celebration of the Danish Queens birthday at the Danish Embassy. Wednesday I hope to elope to Kyoto for the day and on Thursday I’ll be boarding the good ship ALS Vesta destined for Taiwan. It has been organized by Sealand Asia which is a sister company of Maersk. High-fives all the way around!!! So the week will be fairly interesting.
Not to late for the cherry blossoms in Japan...
Japan is a huge country. 123 million beating hearts live across all of these islands and with the negative growth rate, which is common for many countries now, I read that they will be less than 100 million people by 2049. Germany which is about 80 million beating hearts will be down to about 67 million by 2050. Oh, I went off track again…well…Japan is large and there is no way that I would ever be able to see everything this country has to offer. I would not even manage to explore Tokyo if I had several months. But we will see something. Best thing so far in Japan is that I don’t feel lonely. Not at all :)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Working past 03:00am...again...
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga