OK, hands up: how many of you have ever paid a visit to North Korea? For purposes of photography, our man Kuzo recently found himself crossing the border into what is admittedly a country that differs in many respects to anything many of us have ever seen before. While he was there, he kept a list of things that stood out, impressed and downright confused him. Our reporter’s top 10 awesome things about North Korea after the break.

Take it away, Kuzo!

The first thing that stood out for me was the country’s passport control. Or rather lack of it. The common practice of having one’s passport stamped on entry to the country was nowhere to be seen. From what I’ve heard, if you’re of Japanese nationality, it is possible to cross over into North Korea via China; at immigration, the stamp that usually goes on the passport is instead stamped on a separate ‘special’ form. For this reason, examining one’s passport alone, there is no indication of ever actually visiting the country itself.

This time around, I thought I’d compile a best 10 ranking of the things that might just leave any would-be visitors to the country exclaiming “Wow, absolutely unreal!”

1.) Munching on a hamburger- the North Korean style!

Perhaps to many a reader’s surprise, there’s even a hamburger chain in North Korea and it is seen as an establishment where the young converge. In North Korea, before getting your jaws around the juicy meat of a hamburger, it is custom to put on a plastic glove so as not to get your hands dirty. It seems that eating with your bare hands just isn’t part of the culture. One can’t help but think that introducing this custom into Japan, could create quite a following!

2.) iPhone and iPad get sealed in a plastic bag.

Bringing mobile phones or devices that carry the ability to connect to the outside world – in other words the Internet – is strictly prohibited. To be precise, even if one were to bring these devices into the country, they would promptly be sealed in a plastic bag. There have been reports that, as of March this year, the situation has improved and that mobile phones are now permitted for use in the country, however the exact truth behind this remains unclear.

3.) Suspicious behavior of young school girls.

Termed as ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) in Japanese, it becomes strikingly obvious that young girls are put up to behaving in a certain way around visitors to the country.

When a foreigner arrives in North Korea, they are without fail always escorted by a governmental adviser and tour guide. Upon being guided around the subway, I suddenly noticed a girl who looks like she could be from a well-to-do family appear on the station platform.

I wanted to photograph the station facilities so ended up spending a considerable amount of time roaming around on the platform. After about 10 minutes, another train came, so I jumped on board. However, the same girl that came onto the platform earlier also suddenly appeared in the carriage. “Eh? Didn’t I see you on the platform quite some time ago? Why are you riding the same carriage?”

To paint an even more peculiar story, of all the vacant seats on the train, the girl chose to sit directly opposite me. During this time, she sat motionless, fixing her gaze on where I was seated. Although I didn’t think about it much at the time, now reflecting upon it, this encounter was all a little too creepy.

4.) There was even a pinball parlor!

There was a pinball parlor located in the basement of the hotel I stayed in. A single box of balls could be rented for a total of one dollar. The model of the machines used was the same found in Japan decades ago and each time before use, the clerk could be seen plugging the electric cord into the mains. The cable was left pulled out in this way until any visitors came, so as to preserve energy. In contrast to modern pinball machines, the clerk refilled the machine with news balls from the back manually.

5.) Being able to walk around freely outside.

It is often reported that visitors to North Korea are restricted to just where they can walk around, but as I experienced first hand, this is not always the case. Upon visiting in January last year, I managed to walk around the capital Pyongyang taking pictures without being detained whatsoever.

6.) Petrol-fried clam is, despite what one may think, actually quite something!

If one were to cite a North Korean specialty food, it would have to be petrol-fried clam. There are even those out there that claim one hasn’t experienced true North Korea until they’ve tried this rare dish. If such a comment is testimony to its popularity, passing on such an opportunity would surely be a crime.

7.) Cold noodles are unbelievably delicious!

The soup leaves the palate refreshed whilst also packing in enough flavour to leave your taste buds tantalized. The most striking thing about these noodles is that the sensation and texture when chewing is spot on. What’s more, the more you chew, the more the taste seeps out. Introducing these cold noodles into Japan would be a dream come true.

8.) Regardless of temperatures that would literary leave your body frozen in a blink of an eye, there is no sign of any form of heating.

Despite being ridiculously cold, restaurants and shops don’t appear to use any form of heating. At the very least, entering into a building one can avoid the heavy winds and rain. In North Korea, one can’t help but think that this alone is what makes one appreciative. It’s not that electricity isn’t ready available but many organizations and public facilities seem to be conserving power. While electricity conservation is admittedly important, pushing it to the limits whereby one questions whether they could quite possibly be on the verge of freezing to death, remains questionable.

9.) Wherever you go, female workers in public places are absolutely stunning.

Whether it be the hotel, cafeteria, famous tourist spots, or just a place where tourists gather in general, one cannot help but notice the sheer beautyof the women. Of course, when it comes to tourist areas and hotels, to some degree, it’s not difficult to understand why one would exclusively employ gorgeous looking women. However, just why this becomes necessary for someone working in your average cafeteria or souvenir shop remains a mystery.

10.) In-flight meals are unbelievably disgusting.

As a result of the lack of moisture in the buns, the hamburger I tried was extremely dry and difficult to swallow. The patty wasn’t much of an improvement either, being hard and lacking in meat juices. Also, the fact that the hamburger was cold only served to compound the revolting taste further. One can’t help but wonder that if the burger had least been warmed up to a comfortable temperature, its dryness and lack of sauce may not have been so apparent.

So there you have it, the top ten lowdown of what I thought were the most incredible, and yet in some respects peculiar, things about North Korea.

(Original article by Kuzo)

[ Read in Japanese ]