One of the units we did in that class was about Asia, and we learned quite a bit about Japan. For Christmas this teacher gave us all a nice pair of plastic chopsticks, and I remember thinking this was the COOLEST thing ever. As I tried to figure out the correct way to hold them, I couldn't fathom how people actually ate with those things. It just seemed way too difficult to be a real method of eating.
I wish I could say it was that teacher who ignited my passion for Asia, but that's not really the case. She did ignite a certain curiosity in me about the world though, and it's only after now traveling to Japan that I can look back on seventh grade me and marvel at just where life has taken me and just how much I have learned while living in Asia. I never in a million years would have imagined that all these years later I would be living in Asia, traveling to Japan and not thinking twice about eating with chopsticks.
Even years later when I became interested in seeing Asia and decided to come to Korea, I think I was somewhat naive about Asian cultures. Westerners tend to see Asia as a homogeneous continent, where every country is roughly the same in terms of culture, and I think I fell into that mentality before coming here myself. Even when I first came to Korea, Japan was definitely not on the top of my list of countries I wanted to see because I figured it would pretty much be the same as Korea.
However, the more time I spent in Korea and the more I learned about the relationship between Japan and Korea's histories, the more interested I became in seeing Japan for myself. Koreans will gladly give you their opinion about Japan and tell you all of the terrible things Japan has done in the past, and this just fueled my curiosity about Korea's neighbor to the East.
I only spent three full days in Japan, which isn't long enough to really know much about a country, but it is long enough to get some impressions at the very least. Here's a quick list of the some of the things I'm taking away from Japan:
1. Architecture. Visiting the shrines, temples, and palace in Japan was very different from visiting similar sites in Korea. While Korea's temples and palaces are all painted with the same red, green and blue design, bright orange was the prevalent color of the shrines and temples in Japan. The large pagodas are also uniquely Japanese, and something I have only seen once in Korea.
2. Language. I go through most of my time in Korea feeling like I'm failing miserably at learning any of the language because I usually feel like I can't understand anything. However, nothing makes me realize how much I actually understand in Korea like going to another country where I literally know none of the language again. Japanese had a completely different sound from Korean, and it was a bit disorienting. Not to mention, not being able to read anything was strange. Although I don't know what most Korean signs say, I always read the words in my head as I walk by--I actually didn't realize how much I do this until I was made illiterate again.
I was recently thinking about how when I used to get instruction manuals written with multitudes of languages I used to think all the Asian languages looked the same. It's so funny to think back to that now because now I could NEVER mistake Korean for Japanese or Japanese for Chinese. Once you learn the differences between the languages it seems impossible that they ever seemed the same.
3. Money. In Japan 100 yen=1 US dollar. In Korea 1,000 won=1 dollar. Moving the decimal point two spots over instead of three took a while for my brain to get used to. Additionally, in Japan coins are a major part of everyday life. I usually HATE carrying coins around, but in Japan you don't really have a choice because even the 100 and 500 yen ($1 and $5) currencies are coins. There are only three bills for the 1,000 yen, 5,000 yen, and 10,000 yen notes. So basically, anything below the equivalent of $10 is coin. I know this is a more practical system because coins last much longer than bills, but I was not a fan of having to juggle so many coins.
Also, despite hearing so many warnings about how expensive Japan was, I was pleasantly surprised at how manageable it was. Yes, it's definitely more expensive than Korea, but for the most part I think the prices were about the same as American prices. Overall, I expected to spend a lot more than I did on the trip.
4. Food. Japanese food is everywhere in America and quite popular these days. I was excited to eat a lot of food on this trip, but with the exception of the sushi, I have to say I wasn't all that impressed with the food in Japan. Maybe we just weren't looking in the right places, but I can honestly say that I certainly think Korean food is far superior to Japanese food. Maybe I'm just used to having spicy food, or just a little too sensitive to the salty taste of the Japanese food, but I just wasn't all that impressed with the dining options in Japan. There was a lot of seafood too, which might be why I wasn't that impressed because I'm not a huge seafood person. We also saw a surprising amount of fried food, which I was also not expecting or a fan of. Overall, Korean food is still my favorite...and I think one of the best-kept secrets in the culinary world.
5. Transportation. Overall we found Japan's transportation system to be pretty confusing. There are so many ways to travel-- trains, subway, buses, but then also JR lines, which are a whole different system. You can get anywhere you want to go using the transportation system, but it's certainly not as straightforward as Korea's system. We were also surprised by the lack of English on the transportation maps. On the subway signs we had to use to figure out our fare, they were almost entirely in Japanese, which meant we had to try to match Japanese characters which was not really so fun. Also, the information centers for all of the types of transportation were on polar opposite ends of the stations. This means that so many times we would go to one place to try to get some help, only to be sent to the other side of the station because we needed a JR line instead of a regular line, or a regular line instead of a JR line. I've never appreciated my T-money card and Seoul's awesome and easy to follow subway so much.
6. Style. This is one of the first things I noticed about Japan. Koreans have a very specific style, whether it's the type of backpack that people use, the sneakers they wear, or the kind of hiking clothes they wear. Everyone in Korea dresses the same. There's really very, very little variation on what see in terms of fashion here. However, Japan was a totally different story! We saw people wearing all kinds of different things. It reminded me much more of America in that respect just because there was actually diversity in fashion. This was something I really enjoyed about Japan. Individuality for the win!
7. Tourism. Kyoto and Osaka are huge sites for tourism in Japan. Although I never expect a country to accommodate me, I was surprised at how few signs there were, and furthermore, how few of those already scarce signs had English. With tourists coming from all over the world to visit these places I was surprised at how difficult it was to navigate at times without knowing any Japanese. However, I have to say we stopped people for help multiple times each day, and every time the Japanese people were extremely kind and happy to help us.
Overall, I had an awesome time in Japan. Jen was great to travel with, and it was an all-around enjoyable trip. I wish we had more time, but I'm really glad we took advantage of our Chuseok break and seized the chance to travel outside of Korea.
Although, the problem with traveling is that it always makes me want to travel more. I thought this would be my only trip to Japan, but now I'm extremely curious to see Tokyo. I can't help but wonder how different Tokyo is from Kyoto and Osaka. In my mind I envision Japan to be this super modern country that is way ahead of Korea, but Kyoto and Osaka weren't really that at all, The cities actually felt a bit outdated, so I'm now wondering if Tokyo is more of what I expected Japan to be.
Japan, you treated us well! See you again....maybe!
This officially concludes my account of my time in Japan. Phew! Sorry for the choppy and boring writing...I wanted to write everything before the craziness of the week begins and before I forget what we did each day.