Today is Monday January 30th, 2012
This morning I find myself back behind my desk after 3 weeks vacation. Thinking about my time in Japan and the 9 days of blissful relaxation that followed is like a real physical pain, deep down in my gut, now that I’m facing two days of 8 hour desk warming sessions. The kids are back in class on Wednesday but until then you bet I’m stuck here with nothing to do but blog and surf the net.
Japan was, all in all, an awesome experience. I got to see three different versions of Japanese cities; the industrial Osaka, ultra modern Tokyo and traditional Kyoto. One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet in my ramblings on Japan, and that I keep getting asked here in Korea, is whether or not Japan is expensive. The answer is yes. Extremely. 100 Japanese yen is equal to about $1.30 Canadian, and it is impossible to find anything for less than 100 yen. Cokes out of vending machines were 120 yen (about $1.70, though if anyone wants to bother with a calculator I may be a little off). Coffee was 3-400 yen and it was hard to find a meal for less than 1000 Y ($13 CDN). I suppose this might not seem all that expensive to some people, but bear in mind I’ve been living in Korea, the land where a 2 liter bottle of water costs .50$ and I can have a hearty meal for $4. In that way I guess visiting Japan was like a preview of what life will be like when I return home, where everything is expensive and eating out is a treat, not an everyday occurrence.
Not only did I find Japan more expensive than Korea, but it was different in other, more subtle ways as well. One of the key differences I noticed was how Japanese people walk. They walk a lot like westerners; they follow straight lines along the sidewalk and tend to stay on the same side as other people moving in the same direction. Korea, on the other hand, is a comparatively chaotic place to walk. Koreans move in odd numbered groups, totally oblivious to the speed and direction of other walkers. I think I’ve talked about this before, but it seems like Koreans intentionally pretend not to notice each other, and I’ve even had my shoulder brushed or even bumped by Korean walkers when the sidewalk is totally empty and my other shoulder is brushing the building. As I wandered through Tokyo I found I barely knew where to stand or how to walk, I’ve unlearned the orderly western style of sidewalk etiquette. Maybe you think I’m joking, but I’m not.
Another difference between Japan and Korea is the cleanliness. Neither country is dirty, and both Japan and Korea have amazingly clean cities compared to Canada, but even so Japan puts Korea to shame. For one thing, Japan has conveniently placed trash bins all over the place. In Korea there are very, very few public trash bins. Most people just throw their trash on the ground where is it soon picked up by one of the army of ajummas (old ladies) employed by the city to pick up litter. The ajumma collection system is extremely effective, although sometimes as you walk down a Korean street you will pass a little pile of garbage that hasn’t been discovered and removed yet. Not so in Japan. Everywhere I looked expecting to see garbage, and this is especially true in Kyoto, I would instead see pottted plants, small bushes, trees or just clean, swept concrete. In Korea I can very rarely bring myself to litter (even though I know it is socially acceptable and that it will be picked up shortly), my Canadian instincts to preserve nature are too strong. The result, however, is that I often walk around with pockets full of receipts, wrappers and assorted other garbage until I find one of the rare public trash bins. In Japan I’d spot a trash bin and excitedly run over to empty my pockets only to discover them garbage free, as I’d already emptied them moment before at the trash 50 yards behind me.
I find it strange to be talking about how I was culture shocked in Japan, but I’m using Korean culture as a comparison rather than my native culture. Its not unusual, because I have lived in Korea for very close to a year now, but still: being shocked by an alien culture and then feeling at home when you arrive in a different strange culture takes some getting used to.
One final word of advice for anyone who may stumble upon this blog while living in Korea: Don’t believe a word any Korean says about Japan. Koreans and Japanese don’t get along. Before going to Japan I heard that no one in Japan speaks English (not true; most Japanese I interacted with in the subways, bus stations, airports and restaurants all spoke excellent English), that Japanese people are rude, especially to foreigners (a blatant fabrication, I found the Japanese, at least in the big cities I visited, to be perfectly polite) and that Japanese are all sex crazed (true, but no more so than westerners – strip clubs and adult theaters were prevalent, but no more so than you’d find in say, Montreal. I actually found Japan refreshing after spending so long in sexually repressed Korea).
Okay, let me move along to the big moment: I’m going to reveal my super-ultra-giga-mega plan. I have alluded to this grand scheme several times in previous entries, always with instructions to stay tuned for more info soon. Well the time has come for me to reveal some of the details of my plan. My contract and time in Korea finishes at the end of February. At this time I will fly to Beijing. From Beijing, using only my wits, willpower and a massive infrastructure of railways and roads, I will attempt to travel – by land – to London. The route will take me through 9 or so countries and cross over 8100 km. I will start on the trans-siberian railway leaving from Beijing. My three day train ride to Irkutsk, Russia, will take me through northern China and across Mongolia. I will take a two day rest stop in Irkutsk, which is situated on the shore of lake Baikal, one of the deepest lakes in the world. Next I will board the train once more and start on a 4 day journey that will take me across siberia, through the northern parts of the Gobi desert and finally to Moscow. From Moscow I will travel my way across Europe (this part of the super mega giga plan is not entirely fleshed out yet, so I can’t say exactly what countries I will visit) and finally fly home from London or Paris.
So there you have it, my final thoughts on Japan and the outline of my mega super ultra giga plan. Next week I will be going to Thailand for a few days, so stay tuned for an update on that.
That’s all for now.