Friday, September 30, 2011

Right Place, Right Time

On a whim, I found myself on Tanegashima.

Where is Tanegashima?

Well, it all started when my good friend mentioned that she wanted to visit Yakushima, a small island south of Kyushu. It may not be know to westerners by name, but if you've heard of the movie, Princess Mononoke, by famed director Hayao Miyazaki, you at least know of this island--it served as the inspiration for the main island in the film.

Princess Mononoke Trail... With a convenient picture spot

So that sounded cool, but that still doesn't explain Tanegashima. Well, she just so happened to mention that she wanted to visit a nearby island, Tanegashima. I was a bit hesitant at first. What's there? It was an expensive addition of another Jetfoil on the way to Yakushima. Besides, no one we know has even heard of it. And then she mentioned that it's a Japanese surfer's mecca.


While trying to book an accommodation, each hotel was sold out. For a place that's supposedly not touristy, it made no sense. When I pressed for a reason, the receptionist would talk about the "rocket," and how that was why they had no rooms available. I was confused. How did the Jetfoil cause a shortage of rooms (appropriately named, ロケット)?

Well, it turned out, they were talking about an actual rocket. Tanegashima has its own space center and also has the distinct honor of having one of two launch pads in Japan. For the entire month of September (and part of August), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Association, JAXA, had been trying to send a shuttle into space. However, due to the typhoons that kept tearing through Japan, it had been postponed several weeks in a row.

The next rescheduled launch date: our last day in Tanegashima.

When we arrived, the weather was terrible... I mean, just look at this.

Who am I kidding, the weather was amazing.

By terrible, I mean terrible for surfing. Just missing Typhoon Roke, there was no wind or waves. But while such calm weather makes for terrible surfing, it meant perfect weather for a rocket launch.

And to be honest, I was giddy like a school child. I had never seen a rocket launch live before, and now that it seems that NASA has discontinued the shuttle program, I figured I'd never see one. (Note: I was ignorant as to which other countries launch space ships other than the US and Russia, and I didn't realize at the time that NASA will still send satellites into space, just not people.)

3km away from the launch site

The next day, we worked our way to the viewing area in the south of the island by bus, a bit of walking, and eventually taking up an offer for a ride by a stranger. By the time we got there, everyone was already seated and waiting. The announcer called off the countdown from 30 minutes. Then 20. Then 10. As if the anticipation wasn't killing me enough, at around 3 minutes, she started to countdown seconds. And then finally, we heard 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

Pardon the strong language... it was pretty exciting...

And that was it. All that work and hype for that one minute.

Totally lucky, and totally worth it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

AJET Connect Magazine - September

Just thought I'd share the National AJET sponsored magazine called AJET Connect. I revised a blog post from last year to be published in this month's issue. (There's also a funny post about sounding like a girl when you learn Japanese from women... an issue I've been dealing with...)

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Series of Unexpected Events

So there we were in Seomyeon, Busan, in South Korea. Being my second time, I didn't really care too much for the touristy aspect--for me, this was an inexpensive trip for drinking, eating, and shopping (in that order).

As such, we found ourselves outside on Saturday after an evening of drinking games at Thursday Party and Miller Time. While stumbling back to our hotel, someone suggested we go clubbing. Unsure of where to go, we ended up asking a random guy coming out of a bar. After failing to give us directions in Korean, he said (I'm guessing) that he'd show us where before heading off.

If only we had known what we were getting ourselves into...

All the neon should have been our first warning...

First thing that stood out to me--we had to buy a table. No choice. Even though we pointed to the dance floor to say we wanted to dance only, we were taken to a table and had to place an order. Thankfully, there was no cover (or rather, our $15 each for a beer, water, and snacks was our cover).

This leads to the second thing that was weird. Even though the club was huge, the dance floor was really small. Why were there so many tables throughout the club, and why were there so many hallways and doors leading to... karaoke rooms? VIP rooms?

No matter. We went out on the dance floor to do our thing. At least that would be normal, right?

Except there was something off about the dance floor as well... why were guys and girls awkwardly segregated like a middle school dance? And why did two male dancers appear on stage, start taking off their clothes, and make me question what kind of club we were at? Furthermore, why did everyone seem to know each song and dance in unison like a music video? And why was it that every 20 minutes, the DJ would play a slow song, the lights would dim, and instead of couples pairing up to slow dance, the dance floor would completely empty?

Moments before clothes start coming off... 

Back at our table during one of those random drinking breaks (as we decided to call them), we pondered the answer to all of these questions. And then we noticed something else that was weird. There were an unusually large number of hosts or servers leading girls around to the VIP rooms. As in, they were taking them by the arm or hand, and then dropping them off to meet whoever was inside.

Again, this caused us to question the kind of... establishment we were in. Did these seemingly innocent girls actually work for the club? Did we accidentally stumble across a hostess club? An escort bar? An underground brothel?

It turned out (we asked the owner of our hostel later), this was actually a certain kind of Korean nightclub. You dance with the friends you came with, but groups don't really mingle. There are occasionally performers as entertainment onstage. In our case, the exotic male dancers were actually a pretty famous hip-hop team (they could have fooled me). The reason for the slow song breaks? It's a chance for you to go back to your room, and you ask the hosts to bring you some girls you'd like to meet. If the girls don't like the room, they can always leave (though we did see one girl being chased by a guy as she stormed out of a room). This also explained why some girls would leave a room, only to be snatched immediately by a host to be taken to another. It's like speed-dating Korean-style.

So it was no wonder why all the girls were totally checking my friends and I out. They wanted us to invite them to our (non-existent) VIP room for some... stimulating conversation.

Well, that, or they were staring at our ridiculous attempt at copying their dance moves.

Now just imagine the entire dance floor doing this. (Starts around 4:25)
And not just the girls...