While living in Korea I rarely became homesick, however missing the holidays wasn't always easy. My first year there I taught a "Thanksgiving vs. Chuseok" lesson and was quickly dreaming of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie - but then my focus shifted back to the present, the fact that I was leaving for Japan in two days! [the pie can wait]
Chuseok is, simplified version, the Korean Thanksgiving, many go to their hometowns to visit and spend time with family and remember their ancestors, for me it only meant a 5 day weekend. With 5 days off of school what better idea could I have then to venture to Japan. As Friday afternoon came to an end I prepared my escape , left school a bit early and was soon on a bus to Waegwan where I would pack into the train with dozens of other travelers on my way to Busan, to then hop on the ferry. Oh transportation, the love hate relationship I have with you is unreal.
The first leg of the journey was interesting, arriving at a deserted ferry terminal, I know they had told me check in began at 7pm but I thought that was a bit ridiculous given the 10:30 departure time. With my school schedule (even leaving early) arriving at the terminal by 7pm was just not an option, but I was pretty proud of the fact that I got there by 7:30! Well the ticket man thought differently, "Do you have a reservation? Why are you so late?" Thankfully I wasn't the last person on the boat, there were a few other hurried Koreans coming in behind me. I'm still confused with the whole boarding process because once I was on the boat (by 8pm) we proceeded to sit in the port for 2+ hours.
I'll give a breakdown of my adventures later but I wanted to start with some thoughts on my time spent in Japan. Was it beautiful? Yes. Did I like it more than Korea? Umm, I'm not sure, yes and no I suppose. But here's a few things I took away....
1. Japan really loves the squat toilet - seriously I think I had to use more squat toilets during my 5 day stay in Japan than I have during my entire seven months of living in Korea. Thankfully in some of the more touristy places there were options for the "western toilet" but it amazed me how many people would wait in line for a squatter to open up, really? You're telling me you enjoy those things? Well kudos to you.
2. Fashion - albeit sometimes strange, it exists in Japan! Aside from my few visits to Hongdae in Seoul there isn't much variety with the fashion in Korea. People seem to pretty much follow the trends, weather it's the preppy/put together style of the youth or the head to toe hiking gear for the ajumas, there's not much variation. It was refreshing to see a bit more personalized style and self expression in Japan, although i'm not quite sure I liked what I saw - at least they tried.
3. Transportation - I think the #1 question I got from friends and co-teachers, was how on earth did I manage to get around on my own in a foreign country. Ah hem, uhh I live in Korea.... It's funny though because after living in Korea for seven months I wasn't so much frustrated with the lack of English on some of the bus routes, it was the fact that I could not decipher the crazy characters, where's my Hangul!? I must say though, once you have a map and a daily bus pass (great deal in Kyoto at 500yen) the bus system is pretty darn easy to navigate, especially if you're taking one of the express buses which offer recordings in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korea (and yes I did listen to the Korea and pretend to understand everything they were saying). Also, I had some worries to taking overnight buses but given the circumstances I was impressed with the system and should give a shout out to the couple from Busan who introduced me to this idea. Final note on transportation, looking at the streets of Japan I seriously felt like I was transported back to the 1970's, maybe it's the ultra modern look of the Korean cars that I'm used to but I felt they needed a bit of an update.
5. People - I feel that this should have a comment but to be completely honest I don't have a distinct memory one way or the other. I don't think I had enough interaction with the Japanese to really judge one way or the other. I can say I got a few less stares than when in Korea (hmm except the train ride in Hiroshima, maybe I had something on my face that day...) but I never really had to reach out for help or anything so I can't say they went out of their way to be friendly. Actually, I had way too much interaction and sightings of other foreigners, American, British, Chinese, Australia, Korean - sooo many, I guess that's what you get for visiting the tourist Shrines, Temples and Museums.
6. Food - I don't think I ate enough but what I did eat was delicious. Sushi, real sushi, like without being smothered in mustard, cheese, mayo and other random sauces (silly Korean's). I must admit a large reason for my stop in Hiroshima was not to see the history of the Atomic bomb but rather to get a good sampling of Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (there's a little fat kid inside me somewhere, I promise). I must say though, sitting through hours of history at Abomb museum was worth it when I got to this....
I think I picked the perfect time for the visit Japan, the weather was beautiful, and there weren't many crowds. I really enjoyed my time and feel like I got my monies worth (which did I mention I think I did Japan in just under $600 - what a steal). Would I go back? Definitely, but to be honest it not at the top of my return to bucket list and of course there's still too many countries I haven't explored so I'm not quite ready to do repeat trips.
Recognized for great Sushi and Ramen, there's so much more to this country than it's food. Rich with history and culture this small group of Islands is a place not to be missed.