March 31, 2011

Seoul, South Korea

Inspecting the film crew's documents.

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Unicorns. They get flipping unicorns on their passports. 
 

March 30, 2011

Jeju Island, South Korea

Suddenly whisked away on a 2 week lap around the globe to shoot a commercial.

First stop: Jeju Island, with a mandatory visit to the "Love Land" sex theme park.

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I've been to both Koreas now, and I honestly couldn't tell you which one is weirder.

February 29, 2008

Seoul, South Korea
Arson and Axe Murders

[This post is from February 29th. I'm bumping it up temporarily.]

I got to the South Korea dancing spot on time, for once. It's the big, ancient gate that used to serve as the entrance to the city. I got there before any of the invitees, so I pulled out my book and waited. World War Z. Great book.

It got closer and closer to 6pm, the designated dancing time. Still no people. 6:15, 6:30, I'm feeling a little hurt.

Do South Koreans hate my guts? What'd I do?

Killing time, I stumbled upon a nearby plaque.

"Domdaemun (the East Gate) was built in the year..."

Hang on. Domdaemun. East Gate. East Gate? That doesn't sound right.

I can vaguely recall what I wrote in the invite. I pull out my guide book.

"Domdaemun. East Gate."

"Namdaemun. Southern Gate."

Crap. I'm at the wrong gate.

In my defense, they look and sound an awful lot alike. When I scanned the map, my eyes landed on Domdaemun, which was close enough to the word I was looking for.

I mean, the thing is, it's a giant, ancient gate. There aren't very many of them. One is unlikely to assume one is at the wrong one.

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I was about to head back to the hotel in shame when it occurred to me that there might still be a few stragglers waiting at the right location. I hopped in a cab, raced over, and even though I was an hour late, there were still a good 20 people holding out hope.

We danced.

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Despite my sincere and sustained apologizing, they made me feel even worse by showing me a video of the much bigger crowd that had only just left, dancing in front of the gate and screaming "Where the hell is matt?"

Like an arrow to my heart.

So anyway, the bulk of the crowd was an English class that had been corralled by their American teacher, Joshua. They invited me out to a Korean barbecue restaurant.

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They introduced me to Korean rice wine, which has a deceptively benign taste.

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Afterward, we went out to a bar/clubby place that played surprisingly good jazz.

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They also had a cocktail menu that was positively ribald.

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The evening was a great opportunity to interrogate a bunch of teenagers about their culture and their take on some of its finer points.

As a gamer, I'm familiar with their reputation as the most fanatical players in the world. The stories of kids spending weeks in front of their computers, dropping dead on their keyboards from malnutrition, tales of violent real-world retribution for slights committed between rival online gangs, special police task forces assigned to deal with it all. Weird stuff, and apparently not far from the truth.

I asked the girls what they think about it and got a pretty familiar answer. They play games too, but they recognize the need for balance and they struggle to get their boyfriends to go outside every once in a while.

We talked about North Korea and their feelings about reunification. I know the older generation has some deep emotions on the subject. I was surprised to learn the kids don't really care much. The primary concern for the kids I asked was the financial burden, which I imagine would be similar to what West Germany went through. In fact, it would probably be much worse for South Korea, dealing with a sibling nation that is so astonishingly backwards, when they themselves are on a rocket sled into the future.

Things wound down. When I got to my hotel room, I sent out an apology email with a photo that I think says it all.

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I invited everyone back in two days to try again.

Got up at the buttcrack of dawn the next day to go on the USO tour of the Demilitarized Zone. Turned out it wasn't running that day, so I went back to my room and slept through most of the day. Eventually I crawled out to explore Seoul a bit.

Crazy space architecture.

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South Korea is way into fancy light displays. The shadow of Samsung looms large.

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I am unwavering in my conviction that the event depicted in this sculpture never actually happened.

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I find this one ever-so-slightly more plausible.

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Brilliant.

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Not at all brilliant.

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This is a great example of the generation gap I mentioned earlier.

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Dog clothing.

What could possibly better illustrate the shift in thinking? For their parents, it was once perfectly commonplace to eat dogs. Now their kids are dressing them up and carrying them around town as accessories.

This got me thinking: imagine if your mom wanted to eat your dog.

Wow.

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The guys who made this ice cream cone for me were unnerved by the cavalier manner with which I brandished my frozen treat. They warned me of impending disaster.

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I wandered around the electronics district hoping to find some good deals fresh from the factory floor. Sadly, the day for that sort of thing is past. Mega-retailers have closed that niche. There's nothing worth buying on the streets of Seoul that you can't get cheaper at Best Buy.

...at least nothing I could find.

This ice skating rink is in the middle of the city.

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I really liked the lights, so I danced in front of them. Not terribly interesting, but not much of a bother to dance in front of either.

And besides, it's my job, right?

Okay, Demilitarized Zone. This is going to take forever.

I mean, good God it's a fascinating situation. Truly bizarre. Unlike anything I've ever seen or heard of. I'm exhausted at the thought of trying to document everything I learned. So for your benefit and mine, I will strive for concision.

The Demilitarized Zone is a band of terrain about 4 kilometers wide and 250 kilometers long, running roughly east-west between the two countries at 38 degrees north latitude. It is the mostly heavily guarded border in the world. It was designated in 1953 at the end of the Korean war, the consequence of a monumental stalemate -- a fault line dividing two radically opposed social philosophies.

The fault line metaphor is extended to the point of absurdity by an educational video they show you as you enter. The version we saw was in English, but clearly translated from Korean and geared toward a Korean audience. In other words, it is totally insane.

The video starts with a little girl wandering through the forest. She becomes frightened when the screen suddenly turns red and sirens blare. She drops to the ground for cover, but then the ground splits open and she is swallowed by a massive fissure. Another victim of the Demilitarized Zone.

Holy crap!

The video goes on to make several strange and confusing statements. My favorite:

"Today, the Demilitarized Zone is home to many extinct species."

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This is the building on the North Korean side of the DMZ. You can see a teeny tiny man at the top of the steps. Here's a better shot.

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He's watching us. When the tour group steps out of the building on the South Korean side, it's his job to take photos of all of us and stare at us through binoculars.

Visitors are instructed not to make eye contact with the North Korean guards or gesture to them in any way.

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That line of concrete just behind the South Korean border guard is the actual, technical border dividing the two countries. The buildings on either side are for meetings and negotiations.

This scenario begs the question: what would happen if you just ran for it.

Good question.

If you're on the South Korean side and you head north, the South Korean guards will do everything they can to stop you. If you make it across, there's nothing they can do. The North Koreans will (probably) not shoot at you. They will welcome you into their country, take you in for questioning, and try to figure out some use for you.

Apparently there's a German guy who believes he's destined to save the North Korean people, and every year or so he shows up on the tour and tries to get across. He has yet to succeed.

Now if you're coming from North Korea and you want to head south, the situation is very different. In 1984, a Soviet tour guide named Vasily Matauzik made a run for the border. Several North Korean guards followed him across, guns blazing. South Korean guards fired back Eight North Koreans were shot and three were killed. Of the South Korean guards, one was wounded and another was killed.

Vasily Matauzik lived. He's a professor in California now, or something like that.

I'm not sure how to feel about the guy. He got a bunch of people killed, but can you blame him for doing whatever he could to get out of there?

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This was taken inside the meeting room. The border runs along the center line of the table and between the legs of the South Korean guard. He is frozen in a modified Taekwondo stance designed for immobility. Visitors are instructed not to touch him and not to walk between him and the table. However, you can cross the border on the other side of the table and wander around in about 100 square feet of what is technically North Korea. Another South Korean guard is posted in front of the door leading out into North Korea.

I asked permission from the USO tour guide, handed the camera to one of the other visitors, and danced in front of the door.

...so I got a North Korean dancing clip.

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This is called the Bridge of No Return. It's where the two countries orchestrated their prisoner exchanges at the end of the war and in the years after. It is so named because a prisoner, once given the choice of whether to cross it, was told he could never cross back into the country where he was captured.

The dramatic tension of this decision eludes me. I'm guessing it was a tougher choice for the North Korean soldiers than the South Koreans.

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A tree used to stand where this picture was taken, very near to the bridge on the South Korean side. In the summer months it blocked the view for South Korean border guards, so in August of 1976 they decided to trim it. This led to what is called the DMZ Axe Murder Incident. I'm going to get the details wrong, so if you're really interested, just click on the link for the full story.

A team of 18 soldiers and workers from the Joint Security Force (our side) went out to take care of the problem. While they were working, some North Korean soldiers walked over and yelled at them to stop. They didn't stop. One thing led to another. The North Koreans grabbed some axes and clubs and attacked. Here's a photo.

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They killed one US officer who was overseeing the action. Another US officer survived by crawling into a ditch and hiding.

A tense political stand-off ensued with conflicting versions of events. Three days later, the UN initiated Operation Paul Bunyan.

A convoy of 23 vehicles raced up to the tree unannounced. Sixteen men armed with chainsaws jumped out under the protection of two armed platoons and a 64-man special forces company.

Cover for the operation was provided by 20 utility helicopters and 7 cobra attack helicopters. B-52s circled overhead, escorted by F-4 and F-5 fighter planes, while the aircraft carrier Midway waited on standby near the shore.

The tree was successfully chopped down.

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Someone put a plaque up.

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What you're looking at there is the tallest flagpole in the world. Mounted atop it is the second largest flag in the world (the biggest is apparently in Maryland). It stands in the center of Kjong-dong, a city near the border on the North Korean side. We were able to see it from a hilltop viewing station that offers a pretty substantial glimpse into the country.

Here's what's amazing about Kjong-dong: it's empty. No one lives there. It's a fake propaganda city that was built as a rebuttal to a farming village on the South Korean side. South Korea had a village, so North Korea had to have a city. South Korea put a really big flag in their village, so North Korea had to have an even bigger one.

This is what it boils down to. This is what South Korea is up against. A sociopathic infant.

The tour took us into one of the North Korean tunnels. We couldn't take pictures, unfortunately. Throughout the 1970s, South Korea kept finding tunnels being built under their feet by North Koreans in a hair-brained effort to mount a surprise invasion. The plan was to get one of these tunnels far enough across the border that they could emerge in an unwatched patch of forest and pour hundreds of thousands of infantry through the tunnel before anyone noticed. They never even came close to success, and let's ignore the glaring impracticalities of trying to invade a country on foot...it still scared the bejeezus out of South Koreans, and that's fair enough.

The tunnel was hot, wet, narrow, and low-cielinged. All along it we could see holes in the rock where the diggers stuck their dynamite. About 600 meters in, we hit a concrete wall with a tiny porthole. On the other side of that wall is a very big gun pointed at North Korea, followed by a mine field, followed by another concrete wall, another mine field, and one more concrete wall. Beyond that, North Korea. If North Korea ever tries to use the tunnel again, it's not likely to work out well for them.

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Howsabout some DMZ rice? Sounds delicious.

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As we left, a helicopter landed with a bunch of good old-fashioned cheerleaders coming to entertain the troops. I was surprised to hear the troops still go for that sort of thing. Seems kinda quaint, doesn't it?

I got back to Seoul in time to get to Namdaemun for the make-up dance. A good crowd turned out a second time. I expressed my continued apologies and gratitude. We danced.

And then, 12 days later, the 600 year old structure of Namdaemun was burned down by an arsonist.

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I know from all the emails I got afterward that Namdaemun means a lot to South Koreans as a symbol of their country. To dance with joy in front of it just moments before its untimely destruction stirred some real emotion in people. I don't know what to say about that other than that I will, of course, be including the clip in the video.

January 29, 2008

Seoul, South Korea
Big In Japan

Every hotel room should have a “Do Not Disturb” button next to the bed. Every hotel room power socket should be universal, allowing plugs from any region. Not every toilet seat should be heated, though I’m open-minded about the retracting butt sprinkler.

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I've been stewing for a long time about the great vacuum in the hotel industry. There is no hotel chain I know of that comes close to suiting my needs -- and I don't think my needs are particularly particular.

They offer plenty of things I don't need, like shoe-shiners and shower caps, and little that I would value, like a comfortable seating arrangement for laptop use.

But the biggest disconnects are definitely the colossal waste of space and excessive prices. I do not need to luxuriate in my entry hall or writhe around in the gutters on either side of my bed. I'd be more than happy to trade half my square footage for some elegant design and thoughtful amenities. And how in the world did these rooms get to cost hundreds a night? Where is the value?

Someone needs to do for hotels what IKEA did for furniture. I want a chain that provides practical, compact rooms for half what all the other hotels are charging. I believe it can be done. Ditch the pool and beef up the gym. Get rid of reception and put in a touch screen, credit card swipe, and a key dispenser. Oh, and how about some actual food in the mini-bar? Like real, nourishing, life-sustaining food. I'd pay the jacked-up prices if it wasn't just Chee-tos and Toblerone. How about an apple?

Now it is time for me to digress.

I am in a traditional Korean restaurant called “Bennigan’s.” I have ordered something called “chicken quesadilla.” It’s delicious.

Oh, I’m so disappointed in you, Matt. I thought you enjoyed discovering new cultures. I thought you were a citizen of the world. Turns out you’re just another fat American.

Yes, I’ve heard it. But when I want to write, nothing beats a booth at an American chain restaurant. I once wrote an entire videogame script in a Denny’s. Also, sometimes you just need a basket full of fried cheese.

I got invited on a Japanese talk show while I was in town. They decided to play a practical joke on me and cut the legs off all the chairs in my dressing room.

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They also asked me to bring my luggage and walk onto the show carrying it.

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They wanted it to appear as if I’d just parachuted into Tokyo or something. The people you see next to me aren’t the real hosts. They’re stand-ins used for the rehearsal. To make sure it goes smoothly, they walk through the whole thing before the real hosts even show up. The real hosts, I’m told, are famous comedians.

The segment before mine was about the new Japanese fashion trend of dipping women in a layer of pink latex.

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…kidding! It was about the Japanese beauty ideal and how women have been getting dramatically taller in recent years as a result of dietary changes. To illustrate, they had this year’s Miss Japan on as a guest.

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If you ask me, she could stand to lose a few.

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They hauled out prints of their favorite clips from the video to discuss. Japanese TV shows still use old fashioned physical props, which is kind of charming. They build the gigantic flatscreens that make Wolf Blitzer look like Jiminy Cricket, and yet for their own shows they prefer mounted foam boards and adhesive plastic rain clouds.

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We danced.

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The next morning, Daisuke, the producer of the segment, came by the hotel to be my guide for the day. Daisuke lives way up north outside Tokyo. It takes him two hours to get to work every day – each way – but he prefers to live in the country so he can keep a vegetable garden and show his son what the color green looks like. Twice on this visit I have kept him out so late that he had to sleep in his office. I feel very bad about that.

Daisuke was in Yemen on September 11th, 2001. He was outside a restaurant when the TVs began showing a smoking World Trade Center. He asked some of the locals what was going on -- who was responsible. They told him it was the Japanese Red Army.

The Japanese Red Army is, to me, an obscure bit of trivia buried somewhere in the back of my brain. Less the case for Daisuke, who was momentarily distressed for understandable reasons that, ironically, had nothing to do with being in the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden.

This is a soccer field on top of an office building. Neat!

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We walked by this restaurant that serves whale meat.

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Of course it launched a spirited discussion on the practice. I've had similar conversations with Norwegians, so I was prepared to have my many meat hypocricies pointed out to me. Why, for example, is it only whales that we feel the need to protect?

"Well, it's actually not just whales. I'd feel a similar need to prevent the unnecessary slaughter of any endangered species."

Yes, but what if they're no longer endangered? Research shows that some whale species are at healthy numbers.

"Right. And who determines what healthy is? Not to mention, how certain can they be in their estimates of a population that migrates throughout the open ocean? Whales have had a tough century. Let's give them a break."

This went on, remaining a civil and friendly difference of opinion.

Finally, Daisuke said, "In Japan we have a long tradition of whaling."
"Uh huh. In America we have a long tradition of slavery..."

I win!

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Daisuke took me to Harajuku, the fashion district.

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It being a Sunday afternoon, we were able to check out the Harajuku girls on display near the edge of the park.

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They're there to hang out with friends and have their pictures taken by tourists and gawkers. They do not ask for or accept money for these pictures. Evidently they just enjoy the attention.

The outfits are spectacular. Goth has recently taken hold and been interpreted to suit Japanese tastes.

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I can understand someone deciding this is all very strange and unhealthy, but on reflection I think it's harmless fun. At least it's social. At least it's outdoors.

The kids are all right.

Yoyogi Park is incredibly vibrant on the weekends. Teenage rock bands line the sidewalk. Not really street performers, they just seem to play for anyone who'll listen.

I saw a group of kids rehearsing an elaborate swordfight routine with wooden sticks. A bit further on, some guy was flailing around topless with a pair of nunchucks. I stopped to watch and he hit himself in the ribs, so I apologized and kept on going.

Some guy passed by walking about a dozen Dachsund puppies on one mega-leash. Dog-lovers, forgive me if I've got the breed wrong.

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I think that's the mom in the middle, looking appropriately beleaguered. At the bottom of the frame are a pair that is bound together on a short leash with no human attached. The method seems to work pretty well. Their efforts to run off cancel each other out. They were frozen in a constant tug-of-war that had me in stitches.

Then there's these guys.

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I've seen them before on YouTube. Actually, here ya go...

It's not just a group -- it's more like a subculture. Daisuke didn't know the name, but they vaguely resemble something we might have called greasers...about 50 years ago. The thing is, though: they dance. It's this bombastic shimmy that looks exhausting under all that leather and hair gel.

I was taken by the idea of getting them to dance with me. They're a pretty intimidating lot, believe it or not -- they seem to barely tolerate spectators rather than actively drawing them in, and their closed circle formation made it clear that audience participation was discouraged.

I enlisted Daisuke to ask them, during a break, if I could dance with them on camera for a few seconds. Daisuke became uncomfortable, emphasizing how inappropriate it would be to proposition them.

"They are very...conservative. They do not speak with people outside their group. Like modern samurai."

Wow. Really? Samurai? I'm pretty sure Daisuke wasn't kidding. And I don't think they were kidding either. In fact, I think an important thing to understand about Japan is that no one is kidding, ever. The concept of irony doesn't seem to translate. Similarly, I tried at one point to explain to Daisuke what a cliché is. It was like trying to explain baseball to an octopus. I got as far as defining corniness, which isn't really the same thing.

I pressured and prodded Daisuke and he finally approached one of the guys. He got a terse look, along the lines of "How dare you?" and that was the end of it.

So that was a minor disappointment. But then we had the dancing event.

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Over 60 people turned up. It was a fun crowd. We had a lot of random spectators and some of them even joined in.

But it was freezing cold, so we only did three takes and then I posed for about 4000 pictures before it wound down.

Reijiro is another producer from the show. He joined Daisuke and I in our further wanderings.

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They took me to Akihabara to pick up a memory stick for my new videocamera.

Ooh. I guess I haven't mentioned that. I switched to the new Sony CX7.

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It's about half the size of my already-tiny SR1. It ditches the hard drive that caused so many problems in the past and uses memory sticks instead. Solid state data means no worries in weightless environments. Yay! Memory sticks also make transferring the data a lot easier, but the cards can each only hold an hour of HD footage, whereas the hard drive held four. The cards are expensive too, but overall I prefer this slimmer, more efficient model.

We had dinner at a shabu shabu restaurant. It's a bit like fondue. You get thin slices of beef and a boiling pot of water in the center of your table. You dip the beef in the water and chant "shabu shabu, shabu shabu" for about five seconds, then dip the meat in sauce and eat it. Fun and delicious.

Daisuke asked if I wanted to go to a Maidu coffee place. I could tell from their looks that it was illicit, but I couldn't discern exactly how. Daisuke said he'd never been before, but would be willing to try it if it was something I was interested in. Reijiro owned up to having been once, which Daisuke gave him a lot of crap about, suggesting he'd perhaps been a little more often than that.

Curiosity piqued.

I'm not sure if I'm spelling Maidu right, but that's more or less how it sounds when they say it. It's Japanese girls dressed up as french maids. The whole operation is like a strip club, except instead of taking their clothes off, the girls play board games with you.

You pay for a 90 minute package, which includes a round of non-alcoholic drinks, one board game, and a few minutes of conversation with each of the four girls. That's it.

There were about a dozen other men in the small coffee shop. Some young, some old, all Japanese.

I tried to take a picture of one of the maids, which got me into trouble. She pointed to a price list that puts a photo at 1000 Yen -- about $10. So instead of a picture, I will rely on an old friend to describe it.

The dresses were black and there was no grating baby talk, but that pretty much paints the scene.

Though prohibited from photographing the girls, I was allowed to point the camera in the other direction, so I took pictures of Reijiro instead.

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Here we are playing a game I'd never heard of. You take turns sticking plastic swords into a barrel until Jack Sparrow pops his head out and berates you. If your sword is the one to make him pop out, you lose. It's basically Russian Roulette. Reijiro lost three games, so Daisuke and I got chocolate bars as prizes and Reijiro had to wear the kitty cat ears.

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Next came the conversations. The first girl spoke a bit of English and asked where I'm from. Daisuke explained, "He is famous American dancer."

Silence. The girl took a step back, covered her mouth with her hand, and then...

"YOU TUUUUUUBE!"

Everyone stopped what they were doing. The place pretty much shut down for five minutes. The girls explained that in most coffee shops the workers would not be familiar with me, but they are young and spend a lot of time on the internet. They each had me sign their journals. Then one of them asked if I'd take a picture with her. I told her it would cost 1000 Yen. She didn't get it.

There was some deliberation about whether she would be allowed to take a picture with a non-paying customer. She had to clear it with her boss. Daisuke followed the back and forth with some interest. "This is very confusing situation," he said.

They agreed to dance with me for the next video. I still had some release forms with me, so they all signed, explaining that I was not to reveal their real names to anyone. "Top secret," they said. I guess they use fake names for work.

We danced.

Daisuke and Rejiero took me to Don Quixote, a chain of Japanese stores that sells...well, all sorts of stuff. I don't know how to describe it, but here's some girls' underpants and Daisuke reprimanding me for pulling out the camera again.

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On the way back to my hotel, we passed my arch nemesi: the Free Hugs people.

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It was cute for a very brief period. Now it's just creepy and annoying.

...of course, one could say the same thing about what I do.

I saw the glint in Daisuke's eye and stopped him from pulling the "famous American dancer" stunt again.

The next day was all about travel. I went to the wrong airport and missed my flight, then a layover in a place called Fukuoka. Seoul has great mass transit, but holy crap it's cold here. I walked to the hotel I'd picked out, but it was full. Exhausted, I couldn't bear to go back out there, so I checked into the pricey Best Western next door.

Dancing again tonight, then I've got a few days to screw around before I move on.