Rice fields mingle with old and new buildings in Japan / Patrick M. Lydon

Cities, Trains, and Cultures in a Pandemic

A journey between Japan and Korea in these times, means government health checkpoints, special bullet trains, hazmat teams, and disinfectant baths. Through it all, different ways of viewing ourselves, our cities, and viruses, become clear.

Story and images by
Patrick M. Lydon

On the Nankai Line train heading toward the airport, Osaka feels as it always has. Somewhat fewer passengers are seated on the train, but then again it’s late morning. Rush hour is finished. One difference about train travel in Japan that has captured my attention since the onset of this pandemic, is that the windows are always open. Fresh air circulation. It’s noisier, but somehow, I enjoy the sound and the breeze.

Suhee and I are beginning our journey from our home in Osaka, to the suburbs north of Busan, the large port city at the very southern tip of the Korean peninsula. We’re not sure how long we’ll be there. With all of the changes in border security and visas between countries, our return to Japan might not be possible until next year.

I try not to think about it though. None of that can be controlled by me, and in truth I’d rather savor the view from the train. Though most Japanese probably think little of the view along the Nankai Airport Line, it has become one of my favorites. Every arrival to Japan, every departure to somewhere else has, for the past several years, been on this train. As the carriage glides away from the busy Namba shopping district, the sounds of the city center are taken over by varied tempos and rhythms of click-clack and thump-thwak through the window.

We cross the Yamato River.

The Yamato River is one of a hundred or so “Class A” rivers in Japan. This means the water and surrounding land is an important asset to the economy, nation, and the well being of the natural environment. A nice gesture to make for a river. It’s one of the many acknowledgements in this country—formal and informal—of the inherent value of nature.

Image: The Yamato River in Japan, with Osaka’s Tennoji District in the distance

As the train crosses to the other side of the river, the ancient tombs of Sakai city mingle with typical small suburban dwellings next to equally small rice farms. Though most of the buildings and farms occupy similarly tiny footprints, their style, color, orientation, and vertical posture change often. These hundreds of small, unique shapes come to a crescendo at the major stations.

Westerners sometimes think of design in this country as homogeneous. This depends what you pay attention to. In one sense, there is a somewhat united aesthetic truth to building here; in another, some of the most visually diverse neighborhoods in the world are in Japan.

Further along toward the airport, we pass Izumiōtsu Station, and while the urban crescendo and decrescendo continues its variations, the horizon begins to rise behind it, as mountains become visible.

These mountains have defined the borders between Osaka, Wakayama, and Nara prefectures since the Meiji era. As their ridges peek in and out of the typical light mist, I suddenly feel like I’d rather be sitting out there, than in here.

Image: View of Izumiōtsu (泉大津駅) in the southern edge of Osaka Prefecture, with mist-covered mountains in the distance.

Maybe one of these days I’ll suddenly get off the train and start walking toward Wakayama. Not today though. We should get to Korea.

We get off the train at Kansai Airport, and the first people to greet us are the police. Smiling, they ask us to present our passports. Never one to resist the demands of a smiling Japanese police officer, I comply, while they record our information and allow us to pass through.

Besides Suhee and myself, we see only three other people checking in for the flight: one man, one woman, and a child, all together. Checkin and security is quick.

Inside the terminal, the duty free shops are still open. Workers are in full plastic face shields, yet sadly there are no shoppers to be shielded from. I contemplate changing that by purchasing a bottle of whiskey, but the contemplation stays there as an idea. We already have too much luggage, and it seems we’re in for a long and uncertain trip once we arrive in Korea.

On the airplane, a hand-full of passengers are spaced apart from each other. Most of the seats are empty. The plane lifts off, and we proceed, uneventfully, to Korea’s Incheon Airport. Though quiet, everything about this trip so far seems strangely fluid and easy.

Image: Inside a Jeju Air flight between Osaka and Incheon during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, we arrive to Incheon.

An entourage of police, military, airport workers, and medical staff greet arriving passengers. There is a slight tinge of chaos. This is to be expected, I think. Jobs like “COVID Border Control Disease Assessment Squadron” and “Immigrant Tracking & Isolation Management” are new occupations in this world.

In other words, everyone here is new at their job.

Given the circumstances, folks seem very patient and kind, as we move from checkpoint to checkpoint within the arrival area. One person takes our temperature, another hands us a bunch of forms, and a young man from the Army checks to make sure that we and the other arriving passengers have a smartphone with Korea’s COVID-19 monitoring, tracking, and diagnosis application installed.

This could be a problem.

Suhee has a smartphone. I don’t. I read some of the signs posted around the checkpoint: “Foreign nationals who refuse to install the COVID-19 application on their smartphone will be deported immediately.

My palms become a bit sweaty. Suhee explains to the kind Army man, that I don’t own a smartphone, but we can share hers—actually, hers is a second-hand iPhone without phone service, but no matter. The man seems confused, and leaves his post and talks to others with more stripes on their shoulders. He returns some minutes later and, somehow, I don’t get deported. We proceed to the next of several checkpoints. By now it feels like we’re all in some strange adventure game, and we just passed the Level 3 boss. I see little point in continuing to be nervous. Even the bosses here are probably wondering what the heck is going on in this world.

The boss of Level 4 is a young woman with black ear-length hair, and a determined, but not unkind, way about her. She asks me to fill out some information—name, date, address, passport, and lastly, a promise that I will not spread the virus. I complete this same sequence several times, on several different forms. Each time I think we’re done, another form comes. After the form fiesta, we reach the final boss. The immigration inspector. She has a problem with my address, but otherwise it’s the same quick and painless fingerprinting and photo as normal when entering Korea.

A few temperature checks and many pages of paperwork later, we grab our luggage and look for how, exactly, we are going to get to the apartment where we’ll be for two weeks of isolation.

In normal times, we wouldn’t actually need to come to Incheon at all, as there are many flights direct to Busan. All of these flights have been canceled. That means we’ll need to find another way to get to the other side of the country before night. To me it sounds tricky, given how strictly they are tracking and quarantining arriving passengers in Korea. Suhee tells me the government has it all figured out.

Indeed, they do.

Over the next eight hours as we cross the country, we are directed by various government officials—all of whom already know who we are and where we are going—to take a specially chartered bus, bullet train, and personal escort vehicle to the apartment where we’ll be staying.

Image (Suhee Kang): A chartered bus between Incheon Airport and Gwangmyeong Station, the specified rail hub for all international arrivals during the pandemic.

Everyone who comes off an international flight these days in Korea, gets the same service, regardless of where they are traveling in the country. All arrivals must be tracked.

Public transit here is quick, well-connected, reasonably priced, and seems to be operating as it normally does. Well, there are some differences. There are specially reserved quarantine train cars, police escorts, dedicated platform areas for international arrivals—staffed by station workers and army personnel—and an exacting coordination of where we will be, and when we will be there.

Okay. It’s pretty radically different than normal. But the trains are running as they usually do.

The station where our bus from the airport arrives is called Gwangmyeong. This is where all international arrivals—at least those traveling by the KTX bullet train—are taken, registered, and ticketed. International arrivals are escorted to designated areas, away from other passengers.

Image: View of the main platform area at Gwangmyeong Station from the isolation area.

At each station platform along the train line, gatherings of hazmat-clad officers wait with a list of arriving quarantine passengers. Those coming out of a quarantined train car are thoroughly sprayed by the hazmat team with disinfectant as they step off the train. Its a bit comical, like something out of a surreal science fiction movie. Then again, we are all kind of living in the middle of a surreal science fiction movie, aren’t we?

Other than the sci-fi station platforms, the scenery from the train is gorgeous this time of year. We zoom past bright green rice fields and thickly-forested mountains, some of them occasionally succumbing to new high-rise developments.

The way of development in Korea tends to be large, abrupt, and uniform when compared to Japan. Yet just as I find myself missing something about the diverse rise and fall, the delicate crescendo and decrescendo alongside the Nankai Line, we enter and emerge from a tunnel, and a new landscape appears. Small rice fields. Forests. A cluster of apartments in the distance.

Image: A view of the Korean countryside along the KTX bullet train.

Further along, the valley opens up to reveal a wide river. Brown water surrounds an island of trees that appears nearly submerged. The monsoon rains have been unpredictable and torrential this year. I make a short prayer for the farmers, and the trees.

As we arrive near the southern end of the line and step from the train, an official checks our names off a list, and guides us through some of the darker back passageways of the station. We slip under and behind the main building, away from the crowds. When we emerge, there is a silver Hyundai van with the Yangsan City logo on the side. It is waiting for us. Inside the van, a sheet of plastic is hastily screwed to the ceiling, walls, and floor, separating us from the driver.

Each city handles the arrivals of international passengers differently. The city of Yangsan, where we are staying, offers transportation from the train station to your isolation space as a free service. Suhee says the same service will be taking us to the clinic tomorrow for testing. I ask her if they will deliver a free box of shin ramen to us—I had heard rumors of free ramen. Suhee doesn’t have the energy to roll her eyes, but shakes her head silently and turns to look out the window.

We arrive at an apartment an hour later, just as night has taken hold of the sky, and the moon shines with clarity, a day after the height of its brightness. Its light lands gently, along rows of forested hills, and dimly-lit apartment towers; our view for the next two weeks.

Image: The moon rising after nightfall at a typical Korean apartment development.

The next morning, as the sun’s rays struggle to show themselves through the season’s monsoon clouds and downpours, Suhee tells me how amazed she is, by the massive amount of care and coordination between people here. “Even if we are strangers to them. They work so hard, and really care about each other.”

Sitting here now, after having just made a record of my health on a smartphone—loaned to me by the local government for this purpose—I too can’t help but marvel at how such a response has manifested here in such short time. I think about how next week, on the start of the new moon, we’ll likely be out there, in the middle of a too-hot and too-wet summer, filled with people going about their lives, going to school, visiting markets, holding community events, mostly as they always have.

Suhee’s words stay close to mind, about they way in which Korea—as well as Japan, Taiwan, and many other countries in this part of the world—come together in such times.

It’s true that there is extraordinary effort and attention at play here, but there is something more.

There is also something of a mentality floating around these parts, that is based not primarily on fighting against an enemy, but firstly on caring for a world and the people in it—whoever they are, wherever they are from. Woven into this is a way of doing not to win the prize, or to hoist oneself above the losers, but simply to do the best job one can do given your role as a unique human being, for we are all unique human beings.

There are hints at a way of life here, that it seems we still haven’t quite figured out. Or at least, not given proper attention to.

There is no magic bullet, yet based on how well such countries are handling the pandemic—even absent a vaccine, and without widespread lockdowns—perhaps a little compassion, and the acknowledgment of ‘being in this together’ is the missing “Factor X” we could all use a bit more of.

Patrick M. Lydon is an American ecological writer and media artist living in Japan. He is founder of City as Nature, and arts & culture editor at The Nature of Cities (New York). @pmlydon

This article is part of The Possible City, an independently produced series by City as Nature. We like to keep our content open access with no pay wall. If you liked this article, you can help us produce more by making a donation. Likewise, you can also sign up to get more stories like this sent to your inbox.

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