A 747 to Seoul

Lonely Planet says "Japan is still a smoker's paradise" (from memory - didn't check the reference), but I think that line may have been left over from a few years ago. Not only are the smokers corralled into small "smoking areas" at train stations and malls, there's signage embedded in a lot of sidewalks saying (in both English and Japanese, as far as I can tell) "don't smoke and walk." As a non-smoker, it's been a very good experience for me so far.

Vending machines: they're everywhere, and they almost always sell drinks. The only other thing I've seen on this trip is ice cream - the idea of a power outage worries me slightly. I'm still looking for the fabled vending machines for: bananas, underwear, and chicken curry (saw that one in a YouTube video: the guy refilled it twice a day like clockwork ... probably not common!). I've seen beer mixed in with other drinks in vending machines, and there are also machines selling hot drinks. My hotel's drink machine also had small bottles of whisky.

Anyone who tells you "leave extra time when travelling" clearly wasn't talking about Japan: if you have your tickets and you know the schedule ... you're good. You KNOW when you'll be there. On my last trip's very firm recommendation, I took the Keisei Skyliner to Narita airport: it's a straight shot from Ueno station (a ten minute walk from my hotel) to the airport in comfort, at speed, and perfectly on schedule. And I left extra time, so I had a lot of time to look in the duty free shops in Narita. Which are a lot of fun. I concluded on my last trip that buying technological toys in Japan was a bad idea: if it's available in your country, it'll be cheaper. And if it isn't, how will you get it supported? Will you even be able to plug it in? I can imagine there are exceptions, things people would really want, but I'm avoiding the technotoys.

photo: The infamous plastic food on display at Narita

Multiple Japanese meals displayed incredibly convincingly in plastic, advertising a restaurant

However, I did manage to find my tacky magnet. For those not familiar with the rituals of my team at the library, each of us must bring back a tacky magnet from any trip we make. As I've often said, I thought it was a really dumb idea the first time I heard it, but I've ended up becoming one of the biggest advocates of what has now become a truly amazing collection of spellbindingly ugly fridge magnets. We've often joked about cataloguing it, or putting photos up on the web, but nothing has happened yet. And most of the collection is in boxes while we're at a temporary location, it will only be unboxed when we get back to our permanent home. I bought a fridge magnet with sumo wrestlers on it. Saying that, it sounds even tackier than it is: regardless, it's pretty entertaining.

The flight to Seoul was on a 747-800. I couldn't tell you why I have a soft spot for the 747, but I do. Perhaps it was because it was the BIG THING (both quite literally and in a commercial sense) when I was a kid, I don't know. Anyway, I enjoyed that.

The person at the information desk at Incheon airport seemed a bit surprised when I asked where I could buy a T-money card, but happily sent me off to the convenience store at the end of the terminal. The T-money card is essentially the same beast as the Pasmo card I was using in Tokyo, a pre-paid transit card. Grabbed the subway train from Incheon to Seoul Station - that's about an hour ride, but only costs about ₩4000 (about $4CA!). Seoul Station is absolutely massive - the city's train transport hub and the intersection of three metro lines. A very long walk (feels like Tokyo) from the airport line to line 1 and I was on my way three stops to Jongno 3-ga (pronounced "sam-ga") where I popped out into a very light drizzle and had no trouble finding my hotel. I couldn't find it on Google street view, but I guessed correctly that it was new and one of the holes in the ground pictured in street view was, in fact, the home of the Makers Hotel. Opened in February 2016, and my room still has the lovely smell of fresh cut exposed wood from which it was made so recently. Great room! Three times the size of the one in Tokyo - room for a real desk and a double bed (instead of a single), and a decent-sized washroom. In fact I think the entire Tokyo bathroom might fit in the shower stall here. And the neighbourhood - my god, "boisterous" doesn't do it justice. The sidewalk is cracked and barely usable (reminding me strongly of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam), the plastic stools in the tiny little restaurants that appear in the evening overflow onto the sidewalk, and the flood of pedestrians spills into the street.

The young guy at the hotel showed me their home-made guide book to the local restaurants, and directed me to a noodle place for dinner - he said "it's down that street" pointing off at an angle to the street we were on ... It took me a second to realize he was pointing at an alleyway less than two metres wide, which turns out to be crawling with more tiny bars and restaurants. The recommended place has no English signage, and their English menu is a bit of a joke: it only tells you what you can see from the pictures, you're getting seafood soup or meat dumplings (that's as detailed as the English got - and the full extent of their menu, as I'd been warned). You sit at a counter barely wider than your bowl, on your little red plastic stool in the soup kitchen humidity ... Not knowing what was in the dumplings, I went seafood (although a friendly local was later to inform me that the dumplings have pork in them, making them edible to me). The soup had thick chewy noodles, good seafood broth, lots of clams and mussels. I'm not huge on mussels, but it was surprisingly good, and it set me back all of ₩6000.

Lonely Planet's endorsement of the city tap water ("those who drink it seem to suffer no ill effects") had left me slightly disheartened, so I went to the local 7-11 to pick up some water. Sitting quite close to the water in the cooler was a bunch of glass bottles of what I took to be alcohol - available in several flavours. I could tell the flavour from the picture - everything else was just a guess. I grabbed the grapefruit one, which cost just ₩1660 - at that price I could throw it away if I was wrong ... The guy at the hotel told me it was soju - essentially a vodka-like distillation, although he pointed out that this is soju-light - only 13% alcohol instead of the more traditional 19%. That's right: I bought a 360ml bottle of alcohol for under $2CA. I'm not a fan of straight soju (like vodka, it tastes mostly of just alcohol), but this isn't too bad. For comparison, the 2L bottle of water I picked up set me back $1.50.