Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fishy Friends

My last stop in South Korea was Busan, the country's major port, located at the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. The steep, indented coastline with its myriad islands as an ideal deepwater port location and has long been Korea's gateway to the world. The densely-packed city of over 4 million coalesces at the feet of the surrounding hills into discreet neighbourhoods connected with each other by an intricate maze of tunnels and bridges. Like many port towns Busan is loud and brash - at least by Korean standards where conformism and not rocking the boat are desired traits. A place where conspicuous consumption is lauded with the world's largest department store along with one of the world's tallest towers also under construction. There are few worries about the future in this prosperous city. Way gooks (white foreigners) are far more conspicuous than elsewhere in the country, and it's not just the English teachers; there's even a Russian ghetto in town where you can get your fill of pirozhki and stock up on Baltika beer.

Panorama of Busan's crowded harbor area.

Unfortunately I just missed out on the Busan International Film Festival, the highlight of Busan's entertainment calendar, but I was recompensed with the tastes, sights and smells of its fish festival where all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures of the deep could be seen in stall tanks before being skewered and stuck on a grill for the culinary delight of the punters (except for some of the smaller octopi which are quickly hacked to pieces and eaten fresh whilst the dismembered limbs are still wriggling - just remember to chew well as the suckers still function...).

The octopus stall at the Busan fish market. Mmmm, chewy.

Although ship-building and shipping have overtaken the fishing industry in Busan the same cannot be said for Shimonoseki, my port of entry to Japan. Once an important and very strategic city, guarding as it does the Kanmon Straights between the two main islands of Honshu and Kyushu, it has stagnated in recent times whilst other, upstart ports, have overtaken it in importance. Nevertheless it has maintained its crown as the fugu (pufferfish) capital of Japan. Pufferfish are not eaten in other countries (except perhaps South Korea to a limited extent) because they are highly poisonous. Fugu chefs must train for several years before they are allowed to prepare the fish for human consumption by safely cutting away the most poisonous parts such as the skin and liver. For this reason fugu is famous in the West for the frisson of danger that it offers to potential patrons, and it has become an essential item on the menu for all adventurous visitors to Japan. (Un)Luckily I'm allergic to fish and so have a legitimate excuse not to try it, not that I believe it's dangerous mind you, given the sheer quantity of fugu products on sale in Shimonoseki where cute, balloon-shaped depictions of cuddly pufferfish adorn every available space: on street signs, shop windows, posters, biscuits, children's toys and even manhole covers.

Elegantly prepared plate of fugu sashimi.

It's not just fish that Busan and Shimonoseki share in common. Both are tightly packed urban spaces spooled around steep hills. Nevertheless I was surprised by the low-rise nature of Shimonoseki's urbanism. Instead of Busan's taste for the vertical the Japanese have opted for ergonomics and everything is shrunk to its smallest usable size. Roads in residential areas are improbably narrow and usually lack pavements; to deal with this so-called kei cars are ubiquitous: tiny, ergonomic boxes that lack the sleek, aerodynamic looks of European cars but which are perfect for urban environments and impose lower taxes; even light commercial vehicles (vans) only have one litre engines and can probably be lifted by a handful of men; and flats are rarely anything but cramped, studio apartments. And although I think we would do well to learn from the automotive needs of the Japanese I am glad that I grew up somewhere I could have a room to myself.

No, it's not an optical illusion, and neither was my host Seiji a giant. Instead cars in Japan are rather small

P.S. Since leaving Central Europe over a year ago I have been travelling through the Traffic Twilight Zone, where the rules of the road are blatantly disregarded (or just don't exist), car horns are used instead of brakes, and where pedestrians are seen as being fair game. It has therefore come as a pleasant shock to the system to be in a country where drivers respect lanes and traffic lights, pedestrians are given the right of way, and the sound of honking horns is rarer than gold dust. I am enjoying this warm cocoon of traffic safety as much as possible by jaywalking at every opportunity because I know that it cannot last and soon I will have to return to the real world of car-dodging when I return to China.

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