Monday, March 7, 2011

Japan: The Germany of Asia?

The title of this post is a good indication of how I enjoyed my trip to Japan. Japan, while definitely very "Asian" often made me feel like I accidentally taken a plane to Europe (a good thing in my opinion). Before leaving for Japan though, in typical Rachel fashion, I had to have an extremely busy morning that made getting to the airport for my flight a real challenge.

I think I'm incapable of not leaving things until the last minute when it comes to my trips. My Saturday (I left for Japan on Feb. 26th): got up at 5 am to set out my laundry, eat breakfast and finalize the last details of my trip, pay bills for the month. 5.50 am: left my apartment to meet my trusty running buddy to do our last long run before the marathon. Hopped on the subway for the 40 minute ride to the Han River in Seoul (only place where we can really run for three hours). And at 6 am on a Saturday the subway is unfortunately still crowded. Ran for three hours (yes there are many better things I can think of to fill up three hours). Hopped back on the subway, returned to Incheon at 11.15 am. Showered, finished packing, got money from the bank, ate some kimbap for lunch, and scrambled out of my apartment to the catch the subway for my 2 pm flight. I think I have a guardian angel working overtime to make sure things always work out right because everything went smoothly. Thank goodness for Asian airports where you can arrive 50 minutes prior to an international flight and still make it through everything with time to spare. They've spoiled me and made me lazy. 

I arrived in Osaka, Japan quick and painlessly. Unfortunately, I discovered that you can't send text messages in Japan (unless I have the same carrier as the person I am texting), so I wasn't able to inform my couch surf host of my arrival. But, Japan rivals Korea for being the most technologically connected country. So I simply paid 100 yen to use the computers and send him a message. About 75 minutes later I safely met my host. 

My host Lawrence is an American who has been living in Japan for twenty years. He is married to a Japanese woman and they live in the outskirts of Osaka in a beautiful remodeled traditional Japanese home. The abundance of traditional homes that I noticed on the bus ride from the airport was the first stark difference between Korea and Japan. Besides the many temples that Korea preserves, no one lives in traditional homes anymore. The few areas that have the old style architecture are run down and dirty. Japan, however, boasts many homes that preserve the beautiful Japanese architecture. 

Lawrence's neighborhood seemed like the Europe of Asia: tiny cars, narrow cobbled streets, an abundance of bikes at every corner, and beautiful quaint Japanese architecture. And the best part? The homes had YARDS!!! What? haha! Forgot how much I missed a small chunk of green space. Another observation: in Japan they drive on the left side of the road. I always thought the only countries that drive on the left are those that have some kind of British influence in their history. But perhaps Japan did and I'm just not aware of it. 

After dropping my stuff off at his place we headed downtown to meet some of Lawrence's friends. Downtown Osaka reminded me that I was in fact in Asia and not Europe. It was a typical Asian city with neon lights times a million. Entire buildings were lit up with neon light displays. It certainly fit my preconceived image of Japan. 

We wandered off the beaten path through some alleyways, as I gawked once again at the number of bikes I saw, and ended up at a "standing bar". The name is exactly what it is. There were several of these establishments tucked away in the street we strolled through. The bar was literally the size of a closet. There was only enough room for us to stand. But the coziness of the bar made it easy to talk to each other in peace and quiet and the owner and other customers.  

Culture shock number two came when we caught the last subway back to Lawrence's house. Like the other places I've been in Asia the subway stops running around midnight or a bit before, meaning that the last subway is cram packed. So I expected frantic crowds and pushing and shoving to make the last train. In Korea, I have learned to ready myself to stand my ground against old women and men ready to push me aside to get inside the subway first. I prepared for a similar experience in Japan. There was an equally abundant number of people in the subway but unlike Korea people were calmly waiting in line at the subway doors. Miraculously, I barely even brushed against the hoards of people stepping onto the subway! WHAT? I have heard tales of Japanese politeness but to witness it in action was incredibly refreshing. 

I spent all of Sunday in Osaka wandering through the many shopping areas, getting lost in the coolest art store ever and trying not to spend all my money there, meeting one of Lawrence's Japanese friends for the most delicious sushi ever, and simply marveling at the cleanliness of the sidewalks. I'm fairly certain I could safely eat food picked up from a Japanese sidewalk. It was incredible. Sidewalks in Korea glisten with gobs of spit, vomit, random paper, trash, soju bottles, other unknown dirt, food, wrappers... The list goes on. Japanese sidewalks practically glisten in cleanliness. Once again I felt that I had returned to Germany. How these two neighboring countries can be so similar in many ways yet so startlingly different amazes me. 

Sunday evening I caught a train to nearby Kyoto to meet my friend Laurin, and the rest of a Valpo spring break group. Kyoto was beautiful! The entire city preserved traditional Japanese style buildings, temples, and shrines, and had a more relaxed feel than any other Asian city. Even arriving at 8 pm and feeling how dead the city was surprised me after being used to the 24/7 action of other places in Asia. It was wonderful to catch up with Laurin and fascinating to follow her class around to different temples and shrines and view them from a more academic standpoint. 

Tuesday afternoon I hopped on a high speed train back to the airport to return to dirty, BUT cheap Korea (in comparison). I was relieved to pay for Korean transportation versus Japanese. It is EXPENSIVE!!!! Japan exposed to me the effects of Korea's hasty development: generic boring apartment buildings (or human storage units as some of my friends like to call them), and a huge discrepancy between the economic development of Korea and social development. I think in twenty years Korea will be at the same point as Japan, although I have no explanation for the differences in what I consider polite. Korea is on the upswing of their economic development, whereas Japan has mellowed out a bit because of the slower economy. 

Notes for the week: 
-I have now been in Korea for 6 months! Crazy! Now the question is where will I go next?
-I will be teaching grades one and two after school this year. They have almost zero English knowledge and I will have no co-teacher. I asked for something more challenging and I guess it got handed to me! :)
-Koreans know how to let loose after work (thoughts on this will be posted later). Perhaps this is because they also work the most hours per week of any country in the world. 
-I will post pictures from Japan soon. Actually been busy at work for a change!

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