Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 4: Home

After Nagasaki, the rest of my Visa run really wasn't that exciting. If you've ever been to Japan, you know how expensive it is. Once I had that Visa in hand, I hopped on the next flight to Busan and was back home on Friday evening to have dinner with my friends.

It's strange because, for something as important as a Visa, the actual process of getting that Visa is very easy. It's a little page in your passport. That's it. All the stuff around it is the hard part. Like, for instance, right now I'm waiting on my Alien Registration Card. That's the ID all foreigners carry. It's a month long process and, until that card comes in, I don't have internet or a phone. I need to do so much more registration and go through a long process before, finally, I can get settled in here.

Visa runs aren't usually fun, but they can be eye opening. With all our technological advances and our 'globalized' world, we still rely on all this paperwork to verify something as simple as someone's identity. It's a tedious and taxing process, and often the Visa process is enough to deter people from working abroad.

I'm sometimes in that boat. Every time I do this, I ask myself "Is this really worth it?". After the panic attacks subside, I often come to the realization of how lucky I really am. Not many people work abroad. It's a privilege and a wonderful experience, one that opens your mind to culture and obstacles you would never get at home. It makes you strong and capable of taking on anything, and the process that allows you to work abroad is just one of those hurdles you must over come. I do have to remind myself of that sometimes...

Now...for that next adventure? Well, it's just around the corner. My job is in full swing now, and at the end of September I should have some news to share with all of you. I told you that this was just a beginning. I got the Visa in my hand now. I'm ready to rock, and I hope that the ESL world is ready for what's coming.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 3: Nagasaki and A Thousand Paper Cranes

*This is a long one. Grab some coffee and take a bathroom break.*

After waking up, grabbing some grub, and packing my backpack, I headed out this morning to take care of my Visa paperwork. This was the most painless part of my trip: the lady looked up my Visa Confirmation Number and gave me the thumbs up. I paid the fee and she told me to pick up my passport tomorrow afternoon. Perfect. I had business to take care of.

I headed directly to Hakata Station, which is the main train hub for Fukuoka. JR Railways, which is the main railroad company in Japan, has an office there. I walked inside and asked around for an English speaking clerk. Eventually, I came to this younger gentleman in the corner of the room. Japan is known for its impeccable customer service, but this guy took it to a new level.

I told him that I was an American, and I was interested in seeing one of the Atomic Bomb museums in either Nagasaki or Hiroshima. I wanted the one that was the least expensive and didn’t take up my entire day. He smiled and said “Let me see if I can find you some discount tickets.” He looked around for about 5 minutes and eventually came to these options:

  1. Take the Bullet Train to Hiroshima. It takes 1 hour there and 1 hour to get back and costs ¥13,000 (about $165). 
  2. Take the High-Speed JR line to Nagasaki. It takes 2 hours to get there and 2 hours to get back and costs ¥6,000 (about $76). It is also an open-ended ticket, meaning I can come back at anytime in the next month.

My time here is precious, but at the same time I was in no rush. My mission was to get my Visa, and that was being taken care of. I was extremely mobile. I had no hotel I needed to stay at tonight and all my things were on my back. I literally could go anywhere and do anything, with money being my only inhibitor.

I opted for the Nagasaki trip as I had heard there are more buildings to see there and it has a more comprehensive look at what happened when the bomb fell. Today was a history kind of day, and I also wanted to take my time. If I had to spend the night in Nagasaki, then it was simply part of the adventure.

He gave me my tickets, explained how to claim the Nagasaki return ticket on my way back, and 15 minutes later I was on a train speeding through the Japanese countryside.

This was one of the of the perks about traveling with no plans and no reservations. I could ask people to show me how to travel like a local and I was bound my no schedule, which allowed me to basically go anywhere and do anything.

The train ride was amazing in itself. It wasn’t the Bullet Train, but it was the No-Joke train as it didn’t mess around. If I had to guess the speed of this thing, I would say it was going at least 80-90MPH in the country and a little slower in the city. Trying to focus on objects near the train was hard enough, yet alone take a picture of the beautiful countryside. I was able to sneak one in, however.

I miss places like this. I’ve been effectively living in a city for the past year and a half, and seeing green as far as the eye could see with only a handful of buildings to dot the landscape is a refreshing sight. The mountains were covered by clouds, and it was cool seeing powerlines disappear into the distance as they went up the mountainside.

Gorgeous days like these are rare, as is having days like these in amazing places like this. Traveling alone does have its perks, but sometimes I wish I did have a traveling buddy to share this with. That’s why I have you guys, right?

I arrived in Nagasaki 2 hours later just as the sun decided to come down an bless me with plenty of sunshine and sweltering, humid heat. Nagasaki is a beautiful harbor city nestled between two mountain ranges. Compared to Fukuoka or Tokyo, Nagasaki was quiet. The station was bustling, but small. People smiled at you as you walked by. At its core, it is a country city.

I picked up a local map and studied it for a couple minutes over a cup coffee. The city is small and, although I could spend a couple days here exploring the mountains around the city, I decided that returning to Fukuoka this evening was probably a good idea.

The city has a couple small light-rail lines that run through the city, and for a modest ¥120 I could get anywhere I needed to. The Atomic Bomb Museum was only a 5 minute ride from the station, and so after a small coffee break I was off to the Museum.

When I arrived at the Museum’s station I noticed there were 4 places in the vicinity that were linked to the Atomic Bomb catastrophe: The Hypocenter, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, Peace Park, and an elementary school that ‘survived’ the bomb. I visited all four, and each played a roll in painting a picture of the horror that the citizens of Nagasaki went through on August 9th, 1945...and what they have done since then.
The Hypocenter
A hypocenter in a nuclear blast is the center of the blast radius. This is where the bomb was dropped on August 9th, 1945. It is also where you can see the clearest picture of how the bomb devastated Nagasaki.

When you think of how a nuclear bomb goes off, you have to take 2 things into account: 1) The bomb actually explodes above the target, and 2) it blows up in a sphere. When the bomb blew up above the Hypocenter, it effectively pushed the earth directly below it down and the earth around it outward. What this did was create a small hill in the middle of the city at the exact point where it went off.

As you walk up to the Hypocenter, there are signs marking the original elevation of the city. It’s a good 20-30 feet above where the city is today. The bomb did more than just level the city: it plowed it over in a sea of fire and light.

Today, the Hypocenter is marked by a black monolith in the center of a park. Standing in front of the monolith is a black altar where flowers and gifts are often placed in memorial. Three rings of grass ripple away from the monolith. This is called the ‘Circle of Prayer’, where people will often pray for the victims and pray for a nuclear-free future. It was said that vegetation wouldn’t grow in this spot for 75 years. 67 years later the park...and the city itself....is flourishing.

When I went there was nobody in the park. It was incredibly peaceful and I was free to explore it without distractions. To a degree I was a little creeped out by the place. This spot...literally right in this spot an atomic bomb exploded, killing over 70,000 people in the blink of an eye. Without trying to sound overly dramatic, it’s like I could feel the souls of all those people in the silence of this monolith.

It was also the first time in a very long time where I felt the overwhelming urge to pray in public. I firmly believe that the way you pray or worship, or the way you don’t worship, is completely your own. As long as you don’t infringe on the rights of others and force your religion or anti-religion on your peers what you believe is between you and your beliefs. This is also why I refrain from praying in public...most of the time. Today, I couldn’t help it. I won’t share my prayer with you. That’s between me and God. I will say that I prayed for peace, and that he gave me a hint of an answer....but more on that later.

Right next to the Hypocenter stands the remnants of the church that once stood there. One pillar survived the blast. On the pillar is a carving of Peter with an outstretched hand. He was holding hands with Jesus, but that part of the carving didn’t survive the blast.

On my way out I found these strings of paper cranes. There were thousands of cranes in beautiful colors strung together in chains. I would later learn the story of the cranes, and I’ll share it with you towards the end of this post.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
This, for me, was the reason I chose to come to Nagasaki over Hiroshima. I was told that Nagasaki paints a much clearer picture of what happened, and that advice turned out to be true. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum horrified, informed, and touched me  to the point where I had to sit down afterwards and cope with the sadness I felt for the victims and the volatile anger towards my own country for what we did and how we describe this event in our history books. History is written by the victor, and the victor rarely likes to paint himself as a villain.

The museum is a bargain for ¥200, but you can tell that the museum has a firm purpose and mission. They aren’t in this for the money, and that’s why they tell the story without bias.

For a country that strives to ‘save face’, I was blown away by how frank the museum depicted the Japanese before and during WWII. They recognize that their army did horrible things during the war, and that their intentions were not pure. They wanted to conquer. To this day, to a certain degree, I think the Japanese regret their past actions, and that’s part of the reason why they rebuilt their nation as a peaceful country after Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

I had written a very comprehensive report on the Manhattan Project when I was in school, and alot of what I learned during that research project resurfaced as I read the exhibits and the story that the museum was trying to tell. They talked about how the project cost more than the GDP of Japan at the time, how Japan was preparing to surrender before the bombs were dropped, how Nagasaki was a secondary target that day, and how many of the top officials in the US Army (including Eisenhower) as well as the entire research team that built the bomb (including physicists like Einstein and Bohr) were strongly against using it. They all foresaw the Cold War and what kind of world we would be forced to live in if things played out like they did. It was strange knowing now how right they were, and how a group of physicists and soldiers can be so insightful on the faults of humanity.

What really sickened me at the exhibit was seeing how many nukes the US owned, how we are one of the few countries not signing the pledge to disarm, and seeing the statistics on the casualties of the bomb. Over 70,000 died in the blast, with another 70,000 dying from the radiation and injuries suffered that day. Nearly 70% of the people in Nagasaki at the time were women and children, as most of the men were at war. This wasn’t a military target.

People didn’t just die. They were burned alive. They were trapped in buildings as the impending fire after the blast consumed them. They had all their hair fall out, sores open all over their body, and ultimately died in the most horrible way possible.

One story written was from a 10 year old boy. He wrote about how his sister got trapped underneath a giant pillar after the blast. His mother was burned all over and weak, and the soldiers there couldn’t lift the pillar. The city burned for a while after the blast, and they could see the fire line approaching his sister. They couldn’t do anything, and had to listen to the screams of his sister as she died in a sea of fire.

The museum showed us these objects and told these stories for a reason: to plead the world to not let anything like this happen again. And, as much as I struggled with this story in particular and wasn’t sure if I should share or not, I think that these stories are necessary in waking us up. These aren’t just bombs dropped in far away lands, and people should feel ashamed and appalled that tools of such massive destruction can even exist.

After the museum I needed a late lunch. I needed to sit down and catalog the feelings I was having. The best place to do this was at Peace Park. I bought a couple paper cranes and headed there.

Peace Park
Peace Park is a park right near the Hypocenter that shows Nagasaki’s commitment to world peace and the disarmament of nuclear weapons. Countries from around the world (excluding the nations with nuclear missiles, which includes the USA) were invited to place sculptures in the park depicting the concept of ‘peace’.

Places like Brazil and Norway did obscure art, while other countries created works of art that all mimicked the same thing: a mother holding a sick child. The child symbolizes Japan, and the mother symbolizes the world community that came to embrace Japan after the bombs were dropped.

The biggest statue of them all was this man striking a very odd pose. He was sitting. One arm pointed up towards the sky and the other pointed off into the distance. The arm pointing up to the sky symbolizes the bomb that dropped from the sky, and the outstretched arm symbolizes Nagasaki calling out to the world for peace...and to never let something like this happen again.

Next to the man was two shrines. Each had a golden paper crane at the top and inside were those strings of cranes again.

Shiroyama Elementary School
My last stop before heading back to Fukuoka was an elementary school near the Hypocenter that partially survived the blast. I didn’t get to see much of it, actually. It was a hike up this little hill, and the wall that survived was covered in trees.

What I did see was a bunch of children getting picked up by their parents and taken home. In the middle of the courtyard was the statue of a boy holding a dove. Next to him were those strings of cranes again, all in vivid colors. In front of the boy were two students gossiping.

It’s strange seeing these monuments and memorials integrated into the living breathing city of Nagasaki. To those girls, the Atomic Bomb is a history story. They have known peace all their life, and Nagasaki kindly reminds them that there are horrors in this world. Nagasaki also reminds them that these horrors can be prevented as long as there are enough people to stand up and call for peace.
Shortly after that I was back on a train for Fukuoka. I knew this was going to be a hard day. It was going to be a trip I would never forget, and I was right. I am a very sensitive person. I feel things on a very personal level...sometimes more than I should. What that does, though, is tune me in to what it means to be human. I feel connected to the world and to people. It’s also why I get such a thrill from traveling. The more I learn about other cultures, the more I feel connected. As I feel more connected, I want to help others and stand up to injustice. It gives me my ‘fighting’ spirit.

Seeing something like Nagasaki in person is life changing for me. It was always just a history story to me. Now it’s a place. It’s a group of people. It’s a story that should never be forgotten in order to ensure that something like this never happens again.

It also sickens me to think that it was my country that did this, and that we intentionally leave out facts to cover our shame. I am an American, and I have so much to be proud of. My country is home. I also feel ashamed that we see this as nothing more than a ‘necessary evil’ to end a war. We haven’t learned, and you can hear it today in the rhetoric we use on a daily basis. People talk about making Afghanistan or Iraq into a 'parking lot'. We talk about nukes like they are sticks on the playground and we are the bully that wields them to threaten and scare others into submission. And, for the most part, we don’t stand up to our government and demand that they try to correct these injustices. We even encourage them to build more and wield them in the name of ‘protection’.

I am proud to be an American, but what I just said will ultimately be our downfall. It’s up to us as individuals to change that. I hope and pray that we do, much like I hope and pray that the world knows peace.

And that brings me to the story of the paper cranes. In the years that followed Hiroshima, there was this young girl who was suffering from the late stages of leukemia. She survived the initial blast by getting thrown through a window when she was 2, but later on she developed complications from the radiation. There was no hope for her, and when she was 12 years old the doctors gave her only 1 year to live.

If you have ever spent an extended amount of time with a child, you know how they hate to say ‘no’. In their innocence is a never-give-up spirit.

There is an ancient Japanese story that says that, if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, you will be granted a wish from the gods. When she was put into the hospital, her best friend came by and brought her a piece of golden origami paper folded into a paper crane (allusions to that first golden crane can be found everywhere in Nagasaki).

While in the hospital, she folded paper cranes to pass the time and...possibly...she would be able to wish the leukemia away. She would borrow paper from everywhere she could find it, including unused medical wrappings and paper brought from friends.

When I imagine this little girl folding paper cranes, I think of those stories of the kid who beats cancer. The good guy wins. She gets to go home and live on with her life.

This story didn't have that happy ending. She died in the hospital later that year.

According to the story, she only got to 644 cranes. Before she was buried, all her friends rallied and helped her finish her 1,000 cranes. They buried the cranes with her.

I don't think her wish was to become a symbol of peace around the world, but that's what came true. Her story caught fire and is now firmly embedded in Japanese lore. Many girls look up to her and see her as a heroine. She turned the crane into symbol of hope...that we would never know the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ever again, and that the world will know peace.

Her name was Sadako Sasaki, and she helped stir up hope in millions of hearts around the world. 67 years after the bombs, her story lives on in these cranes that populate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And sometimes, a story of hope like Sadako's is just what is needed to push humanity in the right direction.

*You can read her story in this book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. There are a couple iterations of Sadako's story, but each has the same moral behind it. This one is the children's book version.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 2: Encapsulated

So I made it to Fukuoka, safe and sound. It’s been smooth sailing since I boarded that flight in Busan. Asia works so efficiently and so methodical that, so far, everything has been on time to the minute. Everything from the plane ride to the train to the consulate: even though I’ve been out here for over a year, I’m still in awe.

Fukuoka is an interesting city to get lost in, and that’s exactly what I did today. After paying a visit to the Korean consulate, it was only 1pm. And, as I had no idea where I was staying, it only made sense to walk around until I found something.

Japan in general is a trip for anybody. This is my 3rd time visiting the country, so I did kinda know what to expect. Regardless, I still found myself at times staring at the vivid colors and sheer volume of advertisements or giving myself a headache just trying to read 1 word in Japanese. The culture is off the wall in terms of style, and people march to their own beat here. It’s vastly different from Seoul, and the more I think about it the more I miss my soon-to-be home.

The top priority today, aside from locating the consulate, was finding a place to crash for the night. I carry gear with me, and there’s nothing worse than strolling in a foreign city not knowing where you’re going to sleep or worrying about getting mobbed for all your stuff. Fortunately for me, I stumbled upon a gem of a place that is not only a rad place to stay, but it’s actually affordable. And for Japan, that’s good. The Yen is kicking our butt right now.

It’s called the Hotel Cabinas, and it is a combination capsule hotel and sauna for about $50USD a night (most 3-star hotels will cost you $150 or more in Japan). Now I am already a professed connoisseur of Korean saunas, and to combine that with the concept of a capsule makes this place an absolute steal.

The capsules come in 2 flavors: shared, and private. I opted for the private one, and my ‘room’ looks something like this:

It’s the perfect home base for me! I don’t need big rooms, I just need a place to drop my gear. I can lock everything up and not worry about the thing. The capsule comes with a reading light, pajamas, and the Swiss-Army knife equivalent of a remote control that powers a TV, radio, and your alarm. Effectively, I could live in this thing if someone kept feeding me. It does make me feel like a puppy at the store, though. It has a strange vibe to it.

The best part of the capsule hotel is with a room you also get access to their rooftop sauna. They have pools that put the Korean saunas to shame, all including an outdoor pool overlooking the 15th story warmed to a perfect 40C. I’ve already spent a great deal of time there, and after walking the entire city with a ton of gear on my back my body needed the break.

Tomorrow is shaping up to be a doozy as well. I have to talk to the consulate in the morning to finalize stuff, then get my Visa. From there, I have so many travel options...and for the first time, it was easy to nail it down to one that is a must see. I’m going to try and visit it tomorrow and take some pictures. It’s going to be an emotionally taxing day to boot.

Now it’s 7pm here, and I’ve been effectively awake since 3am.The fatigue is starting to set in, so it’s about time to settle in my capsule and call it a night. I can’t wait till tomorrow. I’ve been waiting a long time for this one.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 1: He Took the Midnight Train Going Anywhere

I was trying to explain the concept of a Visa Run to a non-traveling friend of mine the other day, only realizing afterwards that it was impossible to explain without sounding like I was doing something shady. In the traveling world, the concept ‘Visa Run’ is very well known and accepted as part of the reality that you really are far away from home, and that as a guest in a said country you must abide by their laws. To someone outside that circle, however, a Visa Run sounds like something of a spy movie. Papers, Embassies, Last Minute Flights, Confirmation Numbers. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it really is.

Regardless, it marks the beginning of a new Adventure of the Orange Sweater, and I’m excited to let you in on this mini-adventure that kicks off a series of more adventures that is sure to be....well, quite adventurous indeed!

This adventure starts with a midnight train in Seoul, speeding off into the distance to catch a flight on the other side of the country.

Well, actually, it starts at my soon-to-be office. To be exact, it started a couple weeks ago during the tedious process of applying for an E-7 Visa in Korea.

For those of you not familiar with the concept of Visa’s, let me explain. A Visa is not a credit card, but a piece of paper or stamp in your passport that lawfully allows you to be in a country. When you travel, the most common type of Visa is a Travel Visa. This is usually nothing more than a stamp saying the date you arrived and the date you must leave. Sometimes you pay a fee, sometimes you answer questions, and sometimes you must apply weeks beforehand and get permission from the local embassy. The time you are allowed in a certain country can vary from a handful of weeks to 6 months. For a country like Korea, it is completely dependent on what country you call home. I am an American citizen, and as of June of 2012 you are granted a 3 month traveler’s Visa when you enter the country.

Now, in nearly all cases, you are not allowed to do alot of things on a traveler’s Visa. As far as the government is concerned, you are simply a guest in their country. You cannot own a cell phone or a house. You also legally cannot work. To be a more permanent guest in a country, you need to secure a long-term Visa. There are some specific for Diplomats, ones for Marriage, Students, Workers, and just about any situation that requires a person to be in a foreign country for longer than the duration of a Traveler’s Visa.

In my case, I am getting an E-7 Visa, which is a working Visa reserved for professionals in an industry in Korea. My Visa is for Video Producers. Previously, I was on an E-2 Visa  when I taught here, which is the standard Teaching Visa. And as for the past 3 months? Well, I was visiting my Girlfriend on a travel Visa set to expire at the end of September.

Now, as complicated as that sounds, that’s the short and sweet version of the Visa application process. When you turn in all your paperwork and Immigration accepts everything, you are then given a Visa confirmation number. That number is your ticket to  go get a Visa at any Embassy for that country in the world. So, for example, if you are getting a Visa for the UK you will need to visit a UK Embassy.

The silly part about this process is that an Embassy for a country cannot be found in that country. So, for people that are in Korea and require an Korean Visa, you will need to leave the country to get the Visa. This is much more common than it sounds, and so the concept of a Visa Run is the time honored tradition of literally running out of the country to get a piece of paper that says you can stay in that country. You would think, in this age, they would have an easier way of doing this...

Anyways, I just got my Visa Confirmation number for my E-7 Friday of last week. The following Monday(today), I booked a slew of tickets, including a train ticket leaving Seoul station this very evening.

My route is pretty simple: my destination is the Fukuoka Korean Consulate in Japan. It’s a 2 day process to get my Visa, and I was able to cushion that time frame with an additional 2 days to compensate for any kind of hiccup in the process.

To get to Fukuoka from Seoul in the most economical way possible on literally last minute notice was to book a midnight train to Busan, a city on the southern tip of Korea, and take a plane from there to Japan. There was the option of taking a ferry, but the ticket buying process was in Japanese and I couldn’t navigate the website without having weird anime characters jumping around the screen.

So now here I am: on a midnight train going to Busan to catch a morning flight to Japan. It’s that quick. This morning I wasn’t planning on doing much. This evening, I packed a backpack in a scramble and was running after a train. It happened that quick.

I’ve been napping most of the train ride, but I did get up at around 3am to take a peek outside. It’s strange seeing the countryside of Korea. Sometimes I forget that Korea isn’t just Seoul. It’s a proper country. This night in particular was something special. We were in these foothills that went on for miles, all with rice paddies carved into the side of the hills. A harvest must have just taken place, as the paddies were empty. Rather, there were just hundreds of circular ponds sprawling as far as the eye could see. A morning fog was rolling in, and the moon had this eerie glow that bounced off the water that illuminated the landscape. In the distance, I could see 1 small house with the light on. It was probably a farmer preparing for his day. He must get to wake up to this wonderful piece of land every morning.

I didn’t have much time to dwell on it, as just like that the train was in a tunnel and I was riding through Daejeon, another Korean city. I dozed off again shortly after that.

My train is finally coming to a stop now. It’s 4am. I have about 6 hours until my flight. I think a quick trip to the sauna will do me alot of good. It’s been quite a day, and I wasn’t expecting such a spontaneous. Nevertheless, I’m intoxicated on the thrill of it all. This is what traveling is all about: you, a backpack, and the uncertainty of what is up ahead. I’ll see you all in Japan!