The Korean summer vacation is significantly shorter than what my American compatriots experience (or have experienced in the past). The children who don’t attend private academies get 4-5 weeks at most while those whose parents enroll them in said academies are lucky if they get a week. Most are forced to study at home regardless. So with my 5 day summer vacation, I hopped on a flight to the Land of the Rising Sun… Japan.
Now I struggled this past week to come up with a theme, subject, topic, or message for this article. You’ve seen the photos already. And you even were treated to a bit of poetry. So what’s left? I hesitate to write a play-by-play of everything that happened to me while I left one foreign land to go to a different foreign land. There were some pitfalls and some victories. Mostly it was a relaxing time and a wonderful way to gain exposure to another country, culture, and people.
A couple of my coworkers were also in Japan during the break. We had two separate philosophies on our travel plans. I chose to pick a single location and spend the duration of my trip there. The two reasons were that I didn’t want to spend too much of my trip in transit and I certainly didn’t want to stress myself out with timetables and schedules. Also since Kyoto was my first choice of a city to live while teaching abroad, I felt an unseen magnetic pull to that place. I needed to breathe it in, soak it up, and experience as much of that one city as I could for as long as I could. My friends, on the other hand, bounced around and saw quite a few places while they were there. Who had the better vacation? I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer that fully but I can say that although my vacation was relaxing, part of me wishes I had taken the opportunity – after all I was already in the country – to see more of the beautiful country… especially since I have no idea if I’ll ever have the chance to return.
Kyoto is home to hundreds of tourist destinations: shrines, temples, museums, and many other sights. While I was there I noticed how many ‘westerners’ shared the streets, buses, trains, restaurants, hotels, and attractions with me. They were everywhere. In the course of my five days in Japan I met people from the following countries:
- The Philippines
The streets of Kyoto were wide, paved, and spotlessly clean. Even in the center of the downtown intersections, the roads were 4-6 lanes across each way. Everyone was very helpful and, like in Korea, when needed spoke just enough English to point me in the right direction, get me on the appropriate bus, or a ticket for the correct train. While there were a few differences in Japan, that wasn’t what surprised me. What surprised me were the similarities.
The Japanese city layout felt more like a city in America or Canada than any place I’ve been in Korea so far (in spite of the fact that they drive on the left, or British, side of the road). Many of the signs were written in Japanese and English and the landscape as well as general architecture put me at ease. In Korea, you know instantly you are in Korea simply by glancing at the sides of the many skyscrapers. They are all covered with writing. But the Kyoto skyline could be that of any major city in North America.
Korea is one of the most densely population countries on Earth. With a population of 48 million people all living in the square mileage of what amounts to Wisconsin, people are forced to live literally on top of each other – in compact apartments in high rises that dot both the city and the countryside. Japan felt more like home – between the cities, there were suburban communities. Quaint Asian style houses sprawled out across mountainsides and fields between Osaka and Kyoto (I happened to catch the ‘local’ to get to Kyoto instead of the express). If it weren’t 96 degrees during the middle of the afternoon, I might have actually gotten off to walk around one of little villages. They looked so appealing, almost like I had stepped onto a movie set.
And speaking of movie sets (did you like that segue?), while I was visiting the Ninna-Ji Temple on the northwest side of Kyoto, there happened to be a Japanese production company shooting a TV show. I stepped through the gate to find almost 100 shogun warriors marching down the main road toward the temple. Immediately, I raised my camera and started snapping as many photos as I could while a PA ran up waving his arms at me and shouting in Japanese to ‘get out of the shot’. I knew exactly how he felt, as I had been in his shoes many times before.
I bowed and ran off to the side so they could reset and ‘go again’ but continued to take photos. After they were done, I tried to converse with some of the crew, letting them know I was in production in New York and Hollywood. Alas, they didn’t speak English so our talk was brief. And while the rest of the temple was nice, it didn’t live up to the momentary exhilaration of stumbling into a production happening mid-take.
The single time I got sushi for dinner while I was in Japan (believe it or not they don’t eat as much sushi as you’d think and many of the dishes resemble their Korean counterparts – i.e. broths, noodles, rice, etc) was a lot of fun. I sat next to two tourists from Italy so I got to practice my limited Italian (a nice change of pace from the Korean and Japanese) and the restaurant was a counter top. Above the counter was a conveyor belt with little plates moving past you. On each plate was two or three pieces of sushi. If you saw something you liked, you’d just grab the plate from the belt, eat it, and stack your plates in front of you. When you were finished your meal, the waitress would tally up the number of plates and you’d pay per plate. It was a rather quirky and fun way to eat a meal!
Another funny anecdote was on the express train back to Kansai Airport. A young, American attorney sat next to me and we had a rather pleasant conversation. I was happy to speak so much English and it also helped to pass the time on the hour and a half train ride. We started talking about the Japanese men and how they view and treat women in their culture. PREFACE: There is a common Japanese fascination with the ‘schoolgirl’ and many men go way overboard with this – moreso than even in America. The funny part is that when I mentioned these men had what is called Arrested Development, she started laughing and said how much she loved that show! I wasn’t talking about the sitcom, I was referring to the psychological condition. I guess they don’t teach psychology in law school.
Those are some of the highlights of my trip to Japan and I was glad to scratch it off my bucket list. I can also report that I felt a wave of relief returning to Korea, a land I’m slightly more familiar with even if it is less like home that Japan.
Until next time…