Short trip to Korea, pt. 1

And by short, I mean short. I’ve been in in Kumamoto, Japan on an extended business trip for most of the summer (since mid-May, in fact), working on a project here. In fact the trip is so long that I had a problem: one week before I left my wife pointed out to me that my scheduled stay was about 95 days, and I can only stay in Japan 90 days without a visa. Unfortunately the travel office for my company didn’t realize it either: I guess they generally deal with people going to Japan for a week or two, or a year or two, but not around 3 months.

It was too late to apply for a visa, so the alternative plan was for me to briefly leave Japan for a day or two while I was there, and when I get back my 90 days should reset. So I ended up with a ticket to go to Seoul, South Korea on July 1st and then fly back to Japan on July 2nd. I asked some Korean friends of mine for suggestions as to what I should do while I’m in Seoul for a whopping 24 hours. So here was how my trip began:

June 1st: 10:30 am: Leave from Fukuoaka airport on Korean airlines flight. The stewardesses (or flight attendants, if you insist on PC), were without exception, young, friendly, and very attractive. I reminded me a bit of Singapore airlines, although I don’t think anything comes close to those dresses the Singapore airlines stewardesses wear. All the Korea Air stewardesses had very good English, and impeccable Japanese that was so good I had trouble distinguishing it from native fluency.

June 1st: 11:30 am: (Just a 1 hour flight, and they still served a meal and drinks!) Arrive at Incheon airport. No problems with customs and immigration, I just have the clothes on my back and a backpack with a change of clothes. As soon as I leave customs and enter the public area of the airport, I must have had an unmistakable ‘wide-eyed lost foreigner’ look, because I’m immediately accosted by an older unkempt man with broken English asking if I need help getting a bus or taxi. It was tempting, since I was there as part of a business trip I could probably expense it, but I wanted to do it the hard way.

So I refused his help and went to the information desk, where the cheerful Korean young woman there was fluent in English and Japanese, so I was set. She gave me a map of the Seoul subway system (maybe only 30% as crazy as the Tokyo subway) and gave me general directions to my first destination: the Yongsan Electronics market.

So far things seemed pretty similar to Japan, except for the small fact that I couldn’t understand what half of the people were saying (the other half were Japanese, there were a lot of Japanese at the airport), and I couldn’t read all the hangul that was everywhere. However I got a big shock when I got my tickets for the express train to Seoul: it was super-cheap! The express train to Seoul station from the airport takes about an hour, and it cost 4300 won, or about $4.30. Compare that to the equivalent Narita Express from Narita Airport to Tokyo station, which takes about the same amount of time: it costs 2940 yen, or $37! I had heard that South Korea was really inexpensive compared to Japan, but I had no idea it would be that huge of a difference.

There was also this weird thing with the train system I never figured out: when you buy a train ticket, instead of getting an actual ticket, you get a plastic card that’s essentially like a credit card: made of plastic, same size, and it has a RFID chip on it. When you enter the station you place the card on the top of the reader, and then the turnstile unlocks for you. So at Incheon airport I bought a ticket to take me to Yongsan station from Incheon airport, which had on change of lines at Seoul station. So I ride all the way to Seoul station, get off, and start following the signs for ‘other lines’. However they take me out of the station so I have to flash my card again and go through the turnstiles. I thought, ‘the card has a record of how much money I put into it, and where my final destination is, so it shouldn’t be a problem.’ Well, I continued to follow the mass of people to the other lines, and when I got to the turnstiles there I flashed my card again. and a red light. So I was wrong. Exiting through the turnstile zeroed out my card. So how was I supposed to get to the other lines without exiting the turnstiles? I had the same problem the next day going back to the airport, and I never did figure it out. Well, at least the tickets are cheap so it wasn’t a huge loss. If the same thing had happened with a $40 ticket I would have been really ticked off.

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