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Wow Place #246: Kampu Ferry

Airports are funny places. For one thing, they all look the same. Departure-level counters. Arrival-level baggage claim. A smattering of shops and restaurants. A modicum of artwork. Essentially, an airport’s job is to usher you onto a plane as efficiently as possible, and then get you out the door upon arrival. The whole process is like stepping into the transporter device of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek; one second you’re in a brightly-lit, sterile environment, the next you’re beamed over to another brightly-lit, sterile environment. The transition is seemless, and rather boring.

By and large, I’m happy to take part in this kind of speedy passage; plane travel certainly beats the olden days of sailing ships, when it could take you weeks or even months to reach a foreign destination. On the other hand, modern transit sometimes feels a bit too abrupt to me. Shouldn’t we feel the size of the Earth when we’re traveling? Don’t we need some mental and cultural transition time?

In many ways, the Kampu Ferry is the perfect way to shuttle between foreign countries. An overnight voyage from Shimonoseki, Japan to Busan, Korea, the ferry takes ~ 12 hours and only costs about $75. While traveling between countries this way, you feel the ocean lapping beneath your feet, and the journey, itself, is a cultural experience.

I should note that the Kampu Ferry is NOT a luxury experience. Although the ferry may offer private suites somewhere, I certainly never see them. My two sleeping choices are 1) a hard, plastic chair, or 2) a large, carpeted, communal floor area – and I use the word “carpeted” very lightly. Essentially, we’re sleeping on hard cement…although the ferry company at least offers passengers simple pillows and blankets.

Like the majority of my fellow travelers, I opt for the floor. Comfortable it most certainly is not, but I can rationalize the ordeal as a chance to “toughen” myself up, Asian-style—sort of like staying in a Zen temple for a night with other monks.

The next morning, stiff and achy, two Korean ladies approach me and assertively push a shopping bag of clothing into my chest.

“Take these items through customs for us. We’ll pay you $100 on the other side.”

What?!! I can only assume that clothes and fabric are cheaper in Japan, and these women are engaging in a little illicit “import export.” Any sane traveler would walk away from the deal fast, but at age 23, I’m about as far from sane as you can get. Naturally, I say, “Sure!” and stuff the clothes in my backpack.

Standing in line, approaching the customs at Busan Port, I start to get nervous. If I get caught, will I be fined? Is smuggling of low-cost frocks in South Korea a jail-able offense?

Customs Official: “What are these items?”
Me: “Clothes.”
Customs Official: “Did someone on the boat give them to you?”
Me: “Uh….”

In the end, I wind up admitting that, yes, the items aren’t mine. Everything is confiscated and they release me with a warning not to talk with strangers. Needless to say, the Korean ladies, who meet me again outside the Busan Ferry Termina, aren’t happy about the situation. What can I say? It’s my first trip to South Korea. I didn’t feel like getting myself confiscated.

The next time I’m in this part of the world, I’m definitely flying.

(How much are you willing to do for “the experience”? It’s a fine line, isn’t it? On the one hand, you certainly don’t want to get hurt on a trip, or wind up in jail. On the other hand, if you don’t take any risks, you don’t get any rewards – or any interesting stories. Like so many things in life, you have to use your experience and your gut when weighing risks and rewards. But I’ll bet you remember the chances you took more than the times you played it safe. Something to think about at the end of your life.)