Tuesday, September 23, 2008

For breakfast today I had coffee, toast, orange juice, nominally cooked fish and small bread balls stuffed with octopus. Those were just a few of the things on the spread at the breakfast downstairs at my very classy hotel, which also offers "items for hire". So, if you want to give an out-of-work iron some work, or offer a bench-riding pillow a chance to hit the big leagues, give the front desk a call. Don't, however, order the room service: it's 600 yen (about $6) for coffee, not to be confused with American coffee, which is also 600 yen, 800 yen for orange juice, and 1,000 yen for the "toast set", consisting of toast and tea or coffee, quite possibly the most classless set ever invented.

I wanted to grab a newspaper after I'd helped myself to the more palatable items, i.e. not the french fries, but something about the woman's expression indicated that although I could go get one, it was only because I was a foreigner. In the event, I would abide, but often I like to do things that I can't do but can't be expected to know not to do because I'm a foreigner. In fact, I don't even know what they are, but generally speaking, in Korea, I can pretty much do anything because Western expectations of behaviour don't apply, and neither do Korean standards. I can do whatever I want with my food, walk where I want, touch things I'm not supposed to touch, and so on.

One place that's a maddening etiquette-free free-for-all is the sidewalk. An army of cyclists, shoppers and walker-abouters are on the sidewalk at all hours. Sometimes, like on this street, they're in the street, because there is no sidewalk. Depending on how much traffic there is, I can walk in the middle of the street or on the side. Running on the sidewalk here is a cross between racing bicycles at about 15 km/h and having all the patience and agility of an NFL running back, waiting for creases holes to open up and then exploding through them lest. Last night, I got to run through a traffic jam and wound up running with the slow-moving taxis, constantly looking over to see if they were as impressed with my speed as I was. Likely not: this is the country of Toshihiko Seko (two-time winner of the Boston marathon, who remarked "The marathon is my only girlfriend. I give her everything I have."), Mizuki Noguchi, Toshinari Takaoka and countless other world-class marathoners.

There aren't many fat people in Japan and there aren't many slow people in Japan. The sporting goods store I sauntered into had about a dozen trainers for men and a dozen racers, some of the lightest, coolest looking shoes I've ever seen in my life. Marathons here are nationally televised and, uh, people actually watch them. The Osaka Ladies Marathon here in February is a world-class race, and this year had 344 finishers, with last place finishing in 3:35. The Fukuoka Marathon is the male equivalent, where last year's winner went on to win the Olympic marathon, and the last-place finisher was 312th with a time of 2:47.

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