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Further Thoughts on Korea and Japan

New Year's lanterns outside the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

Oh, Japan. You just can’t keep me away.

When I had a break over Chuseok, I skipped off to see Kyoto for a few days. Like all good vacations, it was too short. With 10 days for winter vacation plus my 5-day bonus for re-signing my contract with Gangwon Province, I knew I wanted to go back and spend more quality time with Japan. I decided to return to Kansai province for a little while to spend time with a friend from Osaka with whom I’d reconnected on Facebook. Then I was off to Tokyo.

0-P1161158Akihabara (Tokyo)

Korea seems to define itself a lot in relation and opposition to Japan. It makes sense, given the countries’ past relations. As a foreign resident of one land and frequent tourist of the other, I was interested in reflecting on the similarities and differences between the two. I could print a list, but I think my best anecdotes come from examples.


1. The Volunteers 

A friend from the hostel and I walked into Shinjuku Station. This is the busiest train station in the world, serving about 3.5 million people per day. My friend and I were stopped by a map in the station for all of three seconds when an elderly Japanese man approached us to ask (in English) if we needed to help.

  2-P1120642The view from a skyway outside of Shinjuku station.

In Japan, especially in the Kansai region, I met a lot of elderly Japanese volunteers who gave free tours to improve their English and continue to aid the community after retirement. In Tokyo, they didn’t even need to be affiliated with the tourism industry to want to help. 


2. The Metro Phone Call

3-IMG_0934This is a map of the JR train lines going in and around Tokyo (metro excluded).

While riding a largely empty late-morning train in Tokyo, the man a few seats down from me got a phone call. He stood up and shuffled into the aisle by the door, his hand cupped over the receiver. All I caught was the Japanese word for “train,” so I imagine he told his caller he was riding in the metro and would return the call when he was out. After a 30-second call, the man hung up, shuffled back to his seat, and apologized to the person sitting next to him.

In Japan, where so many people commute, the train is a place of silence. Even if you’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, at least you know you’ll have some peace and quiet.

When I waited for my plane to Incheon at the Kansai International Airport, I overheard a young Korean woman conversing loudly on her phone and heaved a sigh for the end of my vacation.


3. “Sumimasen.”

While staying in Osaka, I took a day trip to Himeji to view the famous castle. I had a hasty transfer at the station and, in the hustle, accidentally stepped on the heel of a young man walking before me. He allowed it to go unmentioned—until I accidentally stepped on his shoe a second time. Then he turned around and cast me a serious stink-eye before looking forward again.

“S-sumimasen,” I stammered. 

This is a phrase you hear almost everywhere in Japan. Even in a crowded country, people often apologize when they bump into each other or cause some other impediment. It had been a while since I listened to a lot of Japanese, but “excuse me” is a phrase I picked up pretty quickly.

In Seoul, when you bump into a person in the street or on a subway, you usually don’t say anything unless you’ve knocked someone or something over. I learn most of my Korean by what I hear around town. I had to look up how to say “excuse me” in Korean.

Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing. You’d think you’d bump into more people here.


4. Pizza in Shibuya

Toward the end of the day, crossing through the shops at Shibuya, I came across a cheap Neapolitan pizza place.

I’m in Japan,” I thought. “So I should eat Japanese food. But I also live in rural Korea, where it’s hard to find Neapolitan pizza.”

I don’t know if it was similar to the real deal, but it was delicious.

Japan seems to have a slightly better understanding of foreign food than Korea, which seems to do this odd, almost caricaturic “fusion” food

For the record, there’s a Koreatown in Shinjuku. I investigated the menus outside the restaurants. Looks legit!

6-IMG_1281_2Koreatown in Shinjuku is also full of shops dedicated to K-pop stars (left).

Of course, Tokyo also does excellent sushi. 



5. Himeji Castle (Among Other Sites)

Because of its design and structure, Himeji Castle was never attacked, so it is remains the best example of Japanese castle-building. Among other productions, the castle was used in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice

You can see it from the train station.


Himeji Castle is built almost like a big wooden puzzle, so that when one column started to rot they could easily take it out and put in another. This design has also made the castle flexible in the event of an earthquake. (Since Japan was usually the winner in military conflict, it’s had the luxury of nurturing and supporting many of its innovative thinkers.)

The main tower of the castle is under construction, and won’t be open again until the end of March—just in time for the cherry blossom viewing.

“When did they begin reconstruction?” I asked my guide out of curiosity.

“2009,” was the reply.

In that time, they took the castle apart piece by piece, reassembling it using traditional construction techniques. It’s a long and laborious process, but it ensures that Himeji Castle will be around for many more years. 


I don’t want to delve into too much detail about this, but a couple years ago an arsonist set fire to Sungnyemun, Korea’s number one national treasure. The government decided to rebuild it, but despite the time and money invested, the gate has already started to come apart.


Tips for Traveling in Japan:

1. Get the address of the place(s) where you will be staying in Japanese as well as English. If you get lost, you can show the address to a taxi driver or a helpful stranger.

2. You can save a lot of money on metro fare by planning your itinerary in terms of geographic location. For example: the Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, Harajuku, and Shibuya are all within reasonable walking distance of each other.   

3. If you’d like to take a couple days trips around Tokyo, look into getting a JR Kanto Area Pass. It covers many common itineraries, includes certain bullet train lines, and is valid for 3 days. The price is 8,300 yen. With the pass, I saved about as much as I spent.

11-DayTripsMy day trips out of Tokyo: Nikko, Kawaguchiko (to the base of Mt. Fuji), and Kamakura

4. You can find really good deals on rush tickets to a kabuki play if you have the time. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, it’s worth it! 

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