Monday, October 6, 2008

Well, damn...

In an effort to try to be two weeks ahead of the curve, assigning early essays, and then dealing with the reality of marking them, I won't be getting to Kyoto until later in the week. That makes me a bit sad, but it'll be good to be finished with my essay marking responsibilities once and for all. For those keeping score, I collectively marked 160 essays last month. Ask me how many I'm getting paid for...

I'll see you again in a couple of days...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thoughts on Japan - part 2 (Tokyo)

One of the things that I was most looking forward to about seeing Tokyo, was just seeing the difference between that big Asian city, and the big Asian city I've been living quite close to for over a year. Depending on how you define city limits, both "cities" have a population of roughly 10 million people, both cities are built upon the ruins of former occupation and war, and both cities are built "up" in a way that is still a bit surprising to little ol' Western Canadian me. For a guy who's never been to New York, Tokyo still seemed like the biggest city I could visit and after having been there, I'm still a bit undecided about whether or not I would like to go back.

There again, you base your opinion on your limited experience, and as we only had 2 and a half days to wander the streets of Tokyo, I left that city (as I did the others) with a very unfair and unbalanced impression. Still, there was a lot to see, a lot we did see, and some things I might even go back again for or to see for the first time.

We arrived at Narita airport a lot later than expected as our flight had been delayed 2 hours. As a result, we found ourselves on the Tokyo subway late at night, doing our best to navigate our way towards our capsule hotel that we had booked in advance. The capsule hotel held a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my first time sleeping in a space no bigger than a sit-up coffin (the "pod" is essentially your hotel room), and it was my first time showering and bathing with Japanese commuters followed by naked strolls on the 9th floor balcony over-looking the Asakusa neighborhood. Hell - you only live once.

Tokyo for us was a bit of a schmozel. Again, if you want the details, there's lots to see and read in my photos and it would be trying to go into the details here. But, for the purpose of offering overall opinions, I can say that I'm not entirely convinced that I would get back to the city any time soon. I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like to live in Japan, then visit Seoul for 2.5 days in the rain. My estimation is that it would have been a similar experience: crazy crowded shopping districts, lots of neon, some extremely upscale areas, and a whole lotta people.

There was, to be sure, plenty of cool stuff. Being a popular culture aficionado at least to some degree, I was pretty excited to check-out some of the more famous districts just to see what was there. There were a few times, in Shinjuku and Akihabara most clearly, when I felt like a plastic figure on a huge model railway set. There's obviously a great deal of modernity in Tokyo, but there are other places where you feel the age of the city. Yes, most of it is post WWII as a result of the fire-bombing, but some areas cling to that '50s feel and that was interesting to step into.

We did see some historical sites (temples and monuments) while in Tokyo, but most of our time was devoted to the city stuff. Seeing the shrines and temples we did see however, it was interesting to note how most structures had been rebuilt as a result of allied bombing. After having toured countless palaces and temples in Korea that had been rebuilt after Japanese occupation, centuries-old invasions, or the Korean War, it brought a little bit of perspective to where I was. Let it be said that the design of the Japanese temples may be less colorful than their Korean counterparts, but they are no less majestic or beautiful.

So, I promised general statements about Tokyo and I have been getting a little too detailed, haven't I? Okay, well let's throw some highlights out there - in no particular order of course:

1) The capsule hotel - After getting over any claustrophobia I didn't know I had, I really dug being in there. You've got privacy, you've got a tv and radio if you need it, you've got a light and you've got The Lonely Planet: Japan. Best of all, you've got a throw-back pressing nostalgia for sleep-overs and summer camp. Lots of friendly people too - not mention three Swedes who each had their own huge coffee table sized copy of "Arnold's Guide to Body Building." It's good to have a hobby when you're travelling.

2) Shibuya Crossing - That place we all saw in Lost in Translation, the huge video screens, the massive five-way cross-walk. Lonely planet is described it the best: "A green light given to pedestrians releases a timed surge of humanity." I still think I would prefer Main Street in Bedford Falls, but this was very cool. I could have crossed that street all day.

3) Shinjuku - The West and East side. The West offers some of the most modern high-rise office buildings in Asia and we were happy to get a view from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Municipal Government Tower. From there, we could see the Park Hyatt Hotel where Charlotte and Bob stayed in Sofia Coppola's flick. We would have gone in for a beer if only I had packed my suit in my backpack.

From here you can see a lot of the luxury of Tokyo. On a clear day, we could have seen Mount Fuji. It was here that we were reminded that this is a city that asks its visitors for perhaps more money than we have. The East side was ridiculous - insane neon, back-alley sex and porn shops and some truly seedy-looking action. It was fun to walk around, and to see the many doors labeled "Japanese Only", but it mostly looked like a pre Guilianni Times Square - interesting, but inaccessible.

4) Harajuku - this one almost fell into a separate "Disappointments" category as a result of the weather. Hoping to see the goth / Lolita / cosplay girls in their finest finery, we had to unfortunately settle for catching the odd one as she ran away from the rain under her umbrella. Still, it was a cool place to visit and I would go back on a good day. Walked around, looked at crazy architecture and things we mostly couldn't afford, but that was half of the fun - seeing how the other half lives.

5) Asakusa - I'm perhaps a little biased, but it was nice to have one of the premiere sites in Tokyo literally five minutes from our capsule hotel. Senso-Ji is the most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo and it was nice to be able to wander there at night and during the day to see throngs of people lighting incense, then waving the smoke over themselves to purify before approaching the main hall.

And that about wraps-up Tokyo. I saw more than this. Akihabara and Ginza don't really make the list of places I'd go back to though - certainly not on another 2-day itinerary. But Tokyo was interesting. We were wet with rain, tired from a month of intensives, and more than a little too cranky for a city that busy and of that size. But still, I survived two days in Tokyo, we saw a lot and if we ever win the lottery or become over-the-hill famous enough to shoot commercials for Suntory beverages, we'll be sure to stay at the Park Hyatt and see Tokyo as perhaps it's meant to be seen. Either way, like all places, we needed more time and more money, but were mostly satisfied with what we were able to squeeze-in.

Thoughts on Japan - part 1

All right - so I didn't blog every day since the last one. Here I am now and since the rest of my photos from Japan have finally been loaded onto flickr (you can see them by clicking on the "my pictures" link near the top left of this page), the time has come to actually say something about our trip. I won't go into grand detail here as I spent a lot of time going into grand detail in each photo description in flickr. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to comment on a few things I noticed before, during and after my trip.

I guess the first thing to say would be that we almost considered not going. After planning bills, debts to be paid back home, our upcoming trip to Southeast Asia, and the cold reality of a few months without pay when I get back to Korea in the new year, the news about a little work-related decision made months earlier really started to hit home. Without going into specifics, a decision was made by the majority of the teachers in our branch to go another way with one of our work responsibilities. The result: apparent increased free time for those who wanted it, and a loss of over $1200 for me over a period of 4 months.

So, Japan for us was dangerously close on being set-aside. Of course, that would have simply pissed me off too much, so we made the choice to bite the bullet and just go.

Like many westerners, before coming to Korea, I didn't know a whole helluva lot about Korea other than from what I learned watching Oldboy, The Host, and M*A*S*H, not to mention the reports from people who had travelled here previously. Popular culture is something I participate in as much as the next person, in some ways even more so, but even through popular means, Korea does get over-looked as the "lesser East Asian country" for the most part. I suppose that's a result of general western ignorace as well as our lack of proper schooling on the "hermit kingdom". Whatever the cause, I thought I knew a lot more about Japan and China before coming here, even if what I knew about them was really very little.

In a year of teaching and living in Korea, having ventured outside of Seoul for weekends with friends - both foreigners and Koreans, I feel that I've gotten to know at least a piece of the country that I've called home for the last 13 months, but clearly I am still a child when it comes to the actual amount that I really do know about Korea. Work keeps me busy most of the time and that's the reality of working in a country that values dedication to and time spent at work. You work here, you're not really travelling here.

Which brings me to the first real point I wanted to make about my trip to Japan. Living in Korea, it's a common knowledge among most foreign teachers (apparently) that Japan is just "better". Better food, you ask? Better jobs? Better popular music? Well, know - it's just a "better" country according to some.

Being a guy who likes to count myself among the less judgemental of foreigners (I can only judge by what I see around me), I think that the best word to describe my reaction to this general sentiment is "surprise". And yet, I'm not sure why I should be surprised. Though there have been a lot of great foreigners here that I've met, befriended and come to respect, there have been other people, foreign and Korean, who have given more intense and concrete meaning to the term "Judgemental". Social circles sometimes ebb and flow around summer camp / junior high school mentailities of labeling and excluding, "higher minded" individuals cast aspersions on people they don't understand, and others reveal personal beliefs that, if expressed loud enough, might have gotten them a VP nomination for the GOP. In my time here in Korea, I never thought I would have to hear a person express the following: "I know people who used to be homosexuals", only after expressing that he also knows "saved" people who "used to be muslims". But I digress.

Point is, there's a lotta judgement being thrown around. I would like to think that my experience here isn't the norm in this regard, but I'm sure that's not the case. The Korean English language newspapers here are often full of op-ed columns from foreigners mocking Koreans for the ways in which they protest political issues or react to political shifts. For some, Koreans being protective and to some extent reactionary over the cattle trade with the US, or the recent and continuing furor over disputed islets in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) can easily be laughed-off by some as the actions of a hysterical people.

As a Canadian who cannot really read Korean and hasn't been able to participate in the society here at a level that has given me any kind of true understanding, I'm not quite so comfortable in laying out the condemnation for something I don't understand.

Which brings me back to Japan. I know people who have worked in both Japan and Korea as teachers. Some prefer their experiences here in Korea, while others had a better time teaching in Japan. That's all good. What I see as being less good however is the assertion from some that "Japan is better."

Maybe it's the Canadian in me. I know what it's like being the neighbor of a bolder nation. I know the parallels perhaps end there, but there's something to be said for giving a chance to understanding nations that often get overlooked for nations that are maybe more demanding of the world's attention.

What we can't really understand after working here for one or two years is the fact that Korea is new - modern Korea, redundancy be damned, just is newer than most places in the world. It's discovering itself at a faster rate than most developed countries and that comes with a price - one of which being the fact Koreans battle with tradition and modernization more than other countries might. When your grandmother remembers the effects of the Korean War on her undeveloped country, and now has to sit through Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) ancestral rites while her grandchildren twitch in boredom - longing to head to the PC room to play Starcraft, you know that there is perhaps too much happening - too soon.

But that's what's going on. There's too much to say for me to even begin. So I'll leave my comments for a time when I know what the hell I'm talking about. For now, I'll be contented in relating my feelings on this small and perhaps inconsequential reality: it really bugs me when people say that they think Japan is better than Korea. The main reason is this: most people who say that have only ever been there for a 10 day vacation. You know what? working in a country is a hell of a lot different from cruising around on bullet trains, eating new food, and taking pictures of cool shit. Secondly, even if you have worked there, do you really feel that your limited experience of the country: hanging in ramen shops, clubbing in Rapponggi, and being in a bubble of mostly foreigners, actually qualifies that statement?

To be fair, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I'm sure that some people just dig on one country more than another. For me though, I'm content in knowing that my vacation to Japan was wonderful. After living a year in Korea, a country that had been colonized and treated unfairly and often unforgivably cruelly by the Japanese, I am happy to report that as nice a time as I did have in the land of the rising sun, I will not be telling my fellow (just as ignorant) foreigner friends that one country is better than the other. Really, I'm just not qualified enough on the subject.