Monday, July 23, 2012

Japan vs Korea

I'm not suggesting that the State of Japan and Republic of Korea should have a fight to decide which one is the best, though Korea would probably win. The Japanese might outnumber them more than two to one (127.5 million to 48.9 million), but Japan isn't allowed an army after being a bit naughty last time, whereas you can't walk down a Korean street or get on a bus without seeing drafted teenagers in military garb, thanks to the country's dodgy neighbour to the north. I'm hoping that by using such childish language, I can downplay the severity of these things.

Those are the only things resembling facts or statistics you're going to see in this post by the way, which will be an entirely subjective, meandering analysis of which country I personally like spending my time in more out of two countries that I like quite a lot. These are definitely the places I feel most comfortable in Asia without getting bored - Singapore falls at that second hurdle, as well as for its over-the-top commercialism and general corruption. Plus, there's only so much unpleasant spitting and public bogie evacuations I can take. And it's a bit hot.

Japan's larger size and tectonic plate boundary naturally mean it's got more going on and there's more chance of an interesting volcano or forest sprouting up, but this has the contrasting effect of making Korea more appealing to my obscure tastes as the underdog. I'd heard a lot about Japan before I went there (there were still some surprises), but I knew practically nothing about Korea before I started travelling, and slowly put the pieces into place as I went along by making friends and more-than-friends. If you want to pretend this blog and my travels have any story behind them to make the random nature of life more meaningful, I had Japan in mind as a possible, far-off destination before I even started, but it was arriving in Korea that really felt like I'd accomplished something.

And now I'm back for a bit more, now the sun's come out, the ice has melted and I can visit all those national parks that would have killed me last time.


Some pleasant water in Korea

Japan has more things to do, and more of what could politely be called 'unique' experiences too. I'd recommend Tokyo over Seoul for people who want to see this 'weird' side of Asia, though Bangkok probably takes the biscuit in the weird/disturbing stakes. When it comes to nature and heritage, both Japan and Korea seem equally well endowed - both countries have an abundance of temples and shrines like the rest of Asia, and some of the architecture follows the same style (gargantuan Shinto shrine gates and pagodas notwithstanding), though both are a little lacking in genuinely old relics thanks to their enemies destroying the hell out of them over the centuries. For Korea, this mostly meant the Japanese, but let's not hold any grudges here.


Jedis look out for your safety in sci-fi Japan

It's a little easier to get around as a foreign tourist in Japan, but only because there are more websites and travel guides to hold your hand. The level of spoken English and English signage is similar, and if you're insistent on using local transport and eating local food, you'll need to put in some effort. Finding the best places in Korea takes more time and research (until recently, there was only one activity listed in Wikitravel's 'Do' section for the entire country), but that helps to keep away the tourists... alright, it's pretty obvious already which direction my infatuation is leaning, but hopefully there'll still be some pretense of suspense if you're slow. Which country is he going to pick? It's exciting!


Note to mother: Those drinks aren't all mine

One consequence of Korea's relative obscurity is that there's far fewer tourists, which is a good thing when you're as introverted as me and don't really want to see crowds of white people everywhere when you're still pursuing exotic difference. My worst experiences in Korea involved English language teachers, whose attitude to the country they're contractually obliged to be exiled in for a year or two is understandably very different to that of the traveller who's free to sample what he wants and leave when he gets bored. I've learned to avoid Seoul hostels at weekends, when teachers flock from all parts of the country to 'party.' Travelling in Japan, most people were there on holiday to experience the country, and this made for a better atmosphere.

The Koreans themselves are pretty good, and I don't just mean their extremely attractive women. I was a little disappointed when I found out how widespread cosmetic surgery is in this country, but really that's nothing to do with it, as I'm not so attracted to girls with unnaturally large extraterrestrial eyes who are trying to look more Western. Why would you want to do that?

I haven't made any Japanese friends or spoken much with anyone who wasn't serving me in some capacity in that country, but they seem nice, don't they? Hey, I didn't claim this would be a balanced overview. Korean people are more likely to bump into you by being engrossed in their LG Optimus handsets, while Japanese people are more likely to run you over on the pavement on their bicycles, so pick your mild inconvenience.


Clothes for your dog.
Japan's trying, but it'll never be as weird as Taiwan in this regard

I made a big deal out of Korea's latent homophobia last time I was here, but after I stopped looking for ways to get pissed off, the country stopped providing fodder. Japan generally seems to be more forward thinking and less conservative in most ways though (that's right, I'm using loaded terms like 'forwards' and 'backwards' based on my own ideals. I told you this was going to be subjective. If you're looking for travel tips, you're on the wrong website), and difference seems to be celebrated rather than shied away from. Though admittedly, this 'difference' usually involves styling your hair to look like David Bowie in Labyrinth.

Attitudes towards men and women's roles in life are still pretty 'traditional,' to use the most neutral term possible, but compared to most other countries I've visited, I'll let them off for simply having very gender-specific job positions culminating in the default career of housewife for most women over 30.

Korea's alleged racism also counts against the country, brought about by its ethnic 'purity' and certainly not helped by a lack of equal opportunities in employment, but I don't know enough about this to make any outlandish claims. I've met a couple of black English teachers, so it can happen, but heard pretty unpleasant third hand accounts about people who didn't make it on account of nothing more than the ethnicity of their parents.

'How can you be trusted to teach English if your mother was Hispanic? I don't care if you were brought up in Washington DC and have a degree in education - send in the pissed, Caucasian gap year student who threw up all over the bottom bunk yesterday. We don't trust our kids' education to just anyone.'


I've got several million of these, but I'll spare you until I need some blog filler

Both languages have practically the same grammar and make a lot more sense than English. I find them fun to learn, anyway. Korean writing is much easier to learn than Japanese characters, but the Japanese spoken language is easier than Korean. Both are a damn sight easier than Chinese - you don't need to worry about tones - though when you learn that Korean distinguishes between 'polite formal' and 'polite informal' honorifics, or that Japanese has two additional writing styles once you've mastered katakana, you might have to resist the urge to throw your Berlitz language guide into the river.


How could you even stay here if you were a bit fat?
Would they break the news when you checked in, or let you discover it for yourself?

For whatever economic reasons I have no interest to bother researching, the cost of travelling/temporary living in South Korea is less than half that of Japan, at least in the aspects that affect me. This makes the country a lot more appealing, especially as I spend a lot of days working, writing blogs or otherwise wasting my time in a hotel room that could be located anywhere in the world, so it feels like a waste to pay more for that. Oh, except Korean hotel rooms have those ace heated floors and blankets, which were so nice in the winter. And rooms in Japan are a little on the cramped side out of necessity (sometimes excessively).

My money goes further in Korea, but there are always ways to cut costs in Japan if you look. Like swapping the expensive bullet trains for intercity night buses, which are hardly spoken about at all but are a hell of a lot cheaper, especially when you factor in the saving of one night's accommodation cost. You probably won't get any sleep, but at least it's a smoother ride than that night bus in Indonesia where the driver kept honking the horn literally every five seconds. But I'm not here to bitch about those frustrating places, I'm here to pick holes in countries I actually like.


Who needs puny Earthlings?

It's not 1923 any more, so you don't have to go to Korea to enjoy bulgogi, though I found I knew less about Japanese food before I arrived there. Their curries for instance, which I ate for about half my meals, are brilliant. That's partly because it's so convenient to order your food from an illustrated, bilingual screen that prints out a ticket you can give to the waitress and look forward to receiving your food without having to struggle with your awful language skills.

Sure, it's minimising the human element to the point that the serving staff seem like reluctant necessities of the system before they develop effective hospitality droids to replace them, but this dangerous futurism is part of Japan's charm. I think I like Korean food more, but then I seem to like everything about this place more, don't I? It's not like you can't get all types of Japanese food in Korea, you just have to deal with humans to get it. How 20th century. Catch up, Korea!

Japan also has more varieties of Kit Kat than you could possibly need
(i.e. more than one)

So which one is the best?

Make your own metaphor

Korea, innit? I spent four times as long there as Japan and only left when visa expiry forced me to, compared to Japan which I've dipped in and out of as frequently as cheap fares have let me. I'll probably be back in Japan some time (I'd like to see Hokkaido at least), but I don't see it as somewhere I could stay for the long term. Not unless they halved their prices. Really, that's the only thing restricting me from exploring further and getting to know it better - but still, it's no South Korea.

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