Last summer, I did something I had never done before. I went on a Japanese package holiday. A tour. The only other time I have gone on a package holiday was when I was 22. I went on a last minute deal to Benidorm. Yes, I know, but I thought we could ignore the riff raff and just enjoy the weather. By ‘we’ I mean my friend Jeremy and I. Now, now, it wasn’t like that. We both just happened to have some time off and none of our other friends were available. Or at least they said they weren’t. So we went together, just the two of us. Mind you, checking in did put me in mind of my feelings when I go to the cinema with a male friend. It was very hard not to say, ‘I’d just like to check these bags in and confirm that we’re a couple of blokes going on holiday together. Nothing more.’
We were met at the airport in Spain by a uniformed holiday rep with sun- or smoke-toughened skin and obviously dyed hair. She led us to a waiting bus. We boarded alongside a variety of northern Brits who apparently collected neck tattoos and criminal convictions, and women who hadn’t yet realized that crop tops weren’t designed for hugely fat people. I know it makes me sound snobby, but I think we were the only ones on the bus that knew the plural of ‘you’ wasn’t ‘yous’.
Jeremy and I knew we could never fit in when we took our seats near the front of the bus and I felt a couple of small things hit the back of my neck.
‘I just felt something hit my neck,’ I said.
‘Me too,’ Jeremy replied out of the side of his mouth. ‘They’re throwing things at us.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Do we just ignore it?’
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t get to know any of our fellow travellers on that holiday. We stepped over one who was lying in a pool of his own vomit outside our apartment door one morning, but we didn’t actually speak to any of them. Even when a bright red fat bloke belly flopped into the communal pool and soaked me and my book, I just laughed it off and pretended I was feeling a bit hot anyway.
But this tour wouldn’t be like that. I was going with Japanese people, not British chavs. I was worried they might all be retirees, but at least I knew they wouldn’t kick my head in or give me a wedgey.
At Incheon airport in Seoul we were met by our guide, a small woman with a Japanese name and who spoke fluent Japanese with a Korean accent. My wife and I were among the first to meet her and as our group gradually gathered together, I was pleased to see that there was only one very old person amongst us. Most were in their twenties and thirties, and, as I had suspected, most were female.
It was two o’clock local time when we arrived in Korea. I had expected to go first to our hotel because, well, because that’s what you do when you go on holiday, isn’t it? Arrive, get out of the airport, check into the hotel, open all the drawers and cupboards in the room, nose around the bathroom, look at all the little shampoos and soaps and things, have a surreptitious glance at the menu showing what adult viewing is available, and then maybe head out to explore. But we were only on a three day tour and hence there was evidently no time to waste with such frivolities. Instead it was down to the most important aspect of any Japanese tour: shopping.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like shopping in foreign lands. I love going to supermarkets and seeing the odd foods and wondering what they are. I like looking at the fish I have never seen before, smelling that foreign foodstore smell, and I can happily spend entire days exploring markets with heaps of coloured spices, barking stallholders, and bustling middle-aged women elbowing you out of the way without so much as an excuse me. But that wasn’t the kind of shopping experience our guide had in mind for us.
Rather, we were taken to a duty-free emporium where all the staff spoke in Japanese, even to me, and all the prices were quoted in dollars and yen. You had to ask to find out the price in Korean won. Nearly everybody paid in yen. The shop was full of typical Korean souvenirs – kimchi, ginseng, chilli pepper chocolates, dried seaweed, and lots of skin products and cosmetics.
The shop was okay for ten minutes, but we were to stay there for forty-five. Then we were driven to another almost identical shop, selling almost identical products. This one, though, was in a department store, and so my wife and I quickly headed down to the basement and nosed around the food section. There you could get the kimchi and seaweed at much better prices than they were selling it upstairs, just in less pretty boxes.
Our group re-assembled on the tour bus and we were taken for dinner. The venue was a yakiniku restaurant – basically, barbecued beef. On the way there we were told that to drink soup directly from the bowl, as is common in Japan, is impolite in Korea and should be avoided. Almost everybody in our group drank from the bowl.
We sat on cushions on the floor along either side of long low tables. The meat was cooked on metal trays above hot coals which sat in small pits built into the tables. We took pieces of meat off the grill with our metal chopsticks and placed them on large green leaves. If desired, you could add beansprouts and hot spicy sauce before folding the leaf around the meat and popping it into the mouth. It was lovely, as was the accompanying kimchi of which we were allowed to eat as much as we could. I understand why the Koreans eat so much of the stuff. I don’t understand how they ever get laid after dinner.
Stuffed, smelly, and ready for a nice lie-down, we shuffled out of the restaurant and got back on the bus.
‘Is it the hotel now?’ I asked the wife.
‘Night shopping,’ she said.
We were taken to yet another shopping emporium. This time I didn’t even bother going in, but walked off down the far more interesting looking side streets. These were thronged with people and lined with stalls selling everything from hand-made jewellery to shoes, to postcards and food. Loud music blasted from a stage where some kind of live street version of Blind Date seemed to be taking place. In the balmy evening, couples wandered hand-in-hand, and arm-in-arm, much more so than you see in Japan. I could have spent hours there. But our guide was back at the bus, tapping her foot and looking at her watch.
We had only been in Seoul for a few hours but my wife and I were already the only ones without bags full of products readily available at similar prices in Japanese department stores. Our fellow travellers had got an early start on loads of omiyage for their friends and colleagues in Japan. I had a couple of Hite beers for the room. It was after ten when we were finally able to check into the hotel – the pleasingly swank Ritz Carleton. I drank my beer and fell into deep sleep, disturbing the peace with garlic snores.
We were to meet our guide at nine the next morning in the hotel lobby. She was going to take us shopping.