Police get on my case, and I visit Korea
I think it is well known that foreigners in Japan need to carry official ID at all times. I gave this policy my own interpretation. I only carried it when I felt like it. My ID was my passport—I had not yet gotten my ‘alien registration’ card, small enough to fit in my wallet. Since my passport was too big to fit in my pocket, I often went without, especially if I was only going around my local neighborhood.
At that time, snail mail was still crucial. I had no telephone in my room, and anyway, calls to the US were just too expensive. So, I tried to write frequent letters to my family. I located the nearest (walking distance—oh the conveniences of Tokyo!) post office. After writing a letter, I set off for the post office fairly early in the day. On my return trip, I passed a ‘koban,’ a tiny police box, also known as a field office. Every neighborhood has one, and the police try to establish relationships with the residents. If nothing else, the police will leave a card for you to fill out with your name and contacts in case of disasters, etc. But that was yet to come. On that day, as I passed the koban, an officer stepped out and asked for my ID. I couldn’t speak much Japanese, and he couldn’t speak much English, but he got his point across. I got my point across—my passport is in my room, just down that street. Well, that was not good enough. I was made to wait, and in a few minutes a patrol car pulled up. The officer opened the door, gestured for me to get in!?!? Was I being arrested? Where were they taking me? We drove for five or ten minutes, and arrived at a major police station. I was taken to a meeting room? Interrogation room? A plain-clothes officer, actually a detective, came to interview me. His English was not so great, but enough to conduct a pretty thorough interview. He asked my name, place and date of birth, and nationality. He also asked for full names of my parents and siblings, and their addresses. This was a pretty excruciating process, mostly because the way foreign names are transliterated into Japanese is pretty clumsy. But we persevered and eventually the interview was finished. Oh, I forgot to mention, I was in Japan on a tourist visa, but I had found a teaching job and was working. So, the police decide they want to come to my room. The room was not in good shape, as I was not expecting visitors. They saw my class notebooks on the shelf. They asked if I was working, and I said yes. It is not illegal to rent an apartment on a tourist visa, but it is illegal to work. I told them that I hoped to apply for a work visa (which required a visit to an overseas Japanese embassy to apply, and then either wait several weeks there, or return to the overseas embassy later to pick up the visa). So, that was the end of that.
The closest embassy, and cheapest plane ticket, was in South Korea. I was eager to follow all the rules, so I wondered whether I would need a visa to enter South Korea. Rather than try to talk on the phone, I decided to go to the SK embassy to ask in person. I got there around noon, and the embassy was closed for lunch. The neighborhood was residential (and rather ritzy) but there was a little coffee shop/eatery nearby. It conveniently had a glass case beside the door with food models, as many places in Tokyo did and still do. Makes ordering much easier for those who don’t speak Japanese! I saw a bowl of rice with a few unrecognizable vegetables on top, with red sauce. One thing I did recognize was bean sprouts, which I liked, so I dragged the server outside to point out my choice. When the dish was served, a manager or owner person came over and said ‘This is bee beem bopp.’ I was later to know this dish by the Japanese pronunciation, which is more like be beem bah. It was pretty much like the model, and the little dollop of red sauce was a bit spicy.
It turned out a visa was not necessary, but I got one just to be sure. My trip to Seoul was an eye-opener. South Korea at that time was at a lower level of development compared to Japan. So, it was interesting to visit a new country, but some things were a bit difficult. I think the streets of every city or country have distinctive smells. For example, in Tokyo, you often encounter the acrid smoky smell of oily fish being broiled. And soy sauce, and incense, and, in the summer, mosquito coils. In Seoul, I could not escape the smell of garlic. And, a coal-like smell from yontan, a cylinder of pressed coal powder widely used as fuel for heating and cooking in those days. I stayed in a yogwan, a traditional economy-class inn. The rooms were floored with a kind of laquered paper or something, and yontan was burned below to heat the floors. It was very effective as a heating system, but it was hard to get used to the smell. Also, the only control of the heating was to ask the manager to use giant tongs to insert or pull out the burning coal cake. In the next room at the inn were a couple of non-Koreans. They were great for helping me cope with various things. They mentioned that it was common for guests of the inn to order food to be delivered from nearby restaurants. They offered to order something for me, so I asked for bee beem bopp. When it came, it was surprising, or maybe a little shocking. It was a much bigger deal than the rice bowl I had near the embassy in Tokyo. The Tokyo version had just a small bite of kimchi, the famous delicacy made from veggies pickled in garlic and hot pepper. The Seoul version had like five dishes of different varieties of very hot kimchi. And the hot sauce was about ten times hotter. So, the sauce and the kimchi overdose pushed me way beyond my safe zone for spicy food. (Maybe I was a bit more sensitive to such things in those days.)
I don’t remember what else I ate in Seoul, except for one time when I went to the coffee shop at the big multi-star hotel. I was happy to get western food and escape the garlic cloud for a while.