My first spell in Japan coincided with the the Japan/Korea Football World Cup. That was fun. England’s training camp was on this Bond-villain island lair somewhere, in keeping with their friendly and approachable image, but Ireland’s was in some rural backwater in western Japan, so I tagged along with a couple of Irish mates to see their team train and play a practice match against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
However, with all the local sensitivity and foresight for which FIFA are rightly famed, ticket prices had been set at exactly the same levels in both Korea and Japan. So while they were ‘pricey but doable’ in Japan, they were frankly well out of reach for a lot of Koreans. I realize the respective economic trajectories of each country over the last decade or so make that sentence seem a little strange now but anyway, it meant there were a lot more tickets available in Korea if you weren’t particularly picky about which games you saw.
I wasn’t, so we ended up with tickets for the opening match (France vs Senegal) in Seoul, followed by Uruguay vs Denmark in Ulsan the following day. We ran into a few hitches along the way, and the various japes and travails of On the Road with the Kamo Brothers could be turned into a sitcom. Not a particularly hilarious sitcom, admittedly. Mildly amusing, at best. Probably quite tedious, in all honesty. Still better than Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps though.
We’ll maybe come back to those another time; suffice to say that Korean tourist information clerks don’t seem to understand the difference between a twin and a double room, when they say, “No, no. The Aphrodite Inn definitely isn’t a love hotel,” they’re usually lying, and that Ulsan is an absolute hole.
A grim, grey, post-apocalyptic industrial shithole with crap signage at the airport. We thus ended up wondering around it for an hour or two in the height of the June sun, sweating like a pair of testicles in rubber pants. There’s a phenomenon called the urban heat island, whereby the concrete and brick of cities reflect and retain more heat than the surrounding countryside. It’s one of many reasons why green spaces are so important in urban environments. There were no green spaces in Ulsan. There were no brown or blue spaces either. Nothing but grey; a heat continent of baking, reflective concrete stretching to infinity, horizontally and vertically, all seemingly designed with the sole intent of focusing the full force of the sun’s rays on the two lost foreigners who were apparently the only people dumb enough to venture out of doors.
We saw no-one. It was like the start of a zombie apocalypse movie. All that was missing was the occasional distant sounds of groaning and scattered gunfire. Instead we would occasionally see a car flitting past at the opposite end of whichever parched and arid thoroughfare we were stumbling down, as though scuttling from its holdfast in a hastily fortified apartment block in order to scavenge bottled water and canned goods from the burned-out wreckage of a nearby convenience store. We’d try to hail taxis in the manner of a lost desert explorer pleading for water, only to see them flash by in a haze of heat, thirst, and shattered hopes. After a while, discussing the exact identity of the Danish right-back didn’t seem quite so pressing.
|"Braaains. No, waaaater. No, braaaaains.|
Fortunately for us we eventually stumbled upon out our own caravanserai in the form of a pair of golden arches, rising before us like the gates of Jericho. John Mills’ relief at finally getting his Carlsberg pales into absurdity compared to ours for our Egg MacMuffins. By that point I frankly wouldn’t have cared if my brother had turned out to be a German spy.
Equally important was the fact that this refuge from the heat and sterility of the
desert city outside seemed to
attract a number of other lost and desperate beasts and wanderers. Also taxis.
And that, my friends, is where our adventure really began…