The sun was setting; lights on a legion of buildings were turning on and I couldn’t pronounce the name of the neighbourhood not even if it helped to save my bacon. Speaking of bacon, I hadn’t eaten since the breakfast omelette, served on the plane a good eight hours before that moment. It was about time to get something down the gullet.
Dining in an unknown city – and if you cannot read the signs it couldn’t get any more foreign than that – is an art I did not, and still don’t, master. Sure, there were some familiar places: a 7-11 with its load of soft buns filled with red bean paste, labelled “Japan Bread Technology”, and a burger joint named Lotteria (lottery, in Italian). In the solitude of my 19t floor room, whilst outside light flickered suavely and traffic ebbed and flowed, I hatched a plan.
There was a fish market in Noryangjin, a few stations away from my hotel: images of Tsuijiki in mind I reasoned that if there was fish on sale there would be people cooking it for the benefit of workers or shoppers with a short appetite fuse. Like me. Deal.
Signs in halting English guided me out of the train station, along a road, down some steps and into an underground passageway to a large building, more distribution centre than Boqueria market. Inside, massive lamps bounced crude, clinical white light on an orange floor made lucid by an omnipresent film of water. Notices, signs and leaflets were everywhere: pinned to walls, hanging from ceilings, stapled to desks and stalls. I looked at them, written in intelligible Hangul characters, and marvelled at the simple, futuristic beauty of Korean writing. One could use these elegant letters as the blueprint for circuit boards, fully expecting the resulting hardware to function.
Contrary to other such establishment, Noryangjin market was open all around the clock. On the way there I wondered how on Earth that could be achieved and fretted about freezers or exsiccation; once inside, it turned out that, much to the contrary, the merchandise was as fresh as it got.
Under the relentless lights swam, crawled and walked countless fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Groupers, bass, sole, snappers and many more unknown finfish floated in huge tanks, gazing with their bulbous eyes at trays of molluscs and at tubs where crabs of all sorts stood, in chitinous stoicism, one on top of the other. Customers would come and point at one of the swimmers: promptly the unlucky sod would be plucked out of the gurgling water, dispatched and turned into sashimi or fillets. Crabs, on the other hand, would be bundled into black bin bags for their journey to the pot.
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I must admit a feeling of faint unease. I couldn’t but help relating what I was witnessing to a scene from the first Planet of the Apes, the one with Charlton Heston, that featured men in cages. I scurried upstairs, on the lookout for the promised restaurants.
The second level of the market was the promised land. Small restaurants, often nothing more than a few plastic tables, lined wide corridors running behind the trading floor. It seemed that each and every place was guarded by two or more punters tucking into a bewildering array of seafood prepared in ways I could only begin to understand. I couldn’t but feel some sympathy for the young couple that, in one corner, was smiling nervously at one another as they contemplated the gargantuan snow crab that had just been plonked on their table. Where do you start with that thing?
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Everything was new, mysterious and strange to the point that even the simple act of sitting down somewhere and ordering something felt as confusing as being initiated into a secret society. Humbled by such a display of culinary prowess I resolved to play more modestly, opting for a stall that did a brisk trade in fried animals of the deep. Aided by a friendly couple I settled for an optimistically large serving of whole shrimps and squid in batter, garnished with just a squirt of lime juice.
I might’ve had a few too many deep-fried crustaceans. That might explain why, once I alighted at Yeongdeungpo station, I chose to take the long way back, through some inviting back roads that promised to offer just the sort of walkabout that I needed to burn a few calories off.
The neighbourhood echoed of Tokyo’s Ueno with its narrow streets, low buildings and gingko trees yellowing in the autumnal night. A barber was still open, and so did a few convenience stores, casual restaurants and delis. Gluttony tempted me towards more fishy goodness under the form of fried tentacles, impaled on a stick and sprinkled with sesame seeds, but I resisted: I had more than my share for tonight.
People were walking home to a cluster of residential skyscrapers. On the walls of this forest of identical towers were abstract motifs, 3-digit numbers and a word in Latin characters, Prugio, its constructed meaning lost on me. A dark overpass led away from the clump of condominiums and towards the other side, above the rumbling trains. Memories of another gangway – the one above Aralsk’s railyard – rushed through my mind, but it could’ve been another planet.
The other side was decidedly less well kept. Minuscule rowhouses, built of flimsy wood, lined one side of the alley, giving way to cars parked on the street this flowed into: a herringbone of Hyundais and Kias sitting beneath a giant concrete overpass curving, almost with grace, above us. It was at that point that I noticed the people around me, including the elderly lady, hair coiffured with curlers, that beckoned me into one of the houses. She had an urgency that would’ve felt suspicious even if showed by the most welcoming Tajik villager: I looked around and noticed the prostitutes waiting for clients. I had to laugh: how likely was it for a foreigner to be coming here by chance? Most certainly, I reasoned as I giggled away, I had to be the first Westerner who decided to use a red-light district for a post-prandial stroll.
I pressed on, past the abandoned bedding of a homeless and three labourers playing dice; a little further twinkled some familiar signs: 7-11, Lotte Mart and, further still, Marriott. I was “home”.