A Taste of Tokyo

Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, August 27, 2007

         For my first official vacation from ICEV, a teacher friend (Fran) from Vegas visited for two weeks. Instead of one long vacation, we decided to take two extended weekends; one to Japan and one to Busan (Southern SK city). This was done mostly because I couldn't take a contiguous week off and partially because we wanted to see more places. The next two entries will travelogue (now a verb) those two weekends.

Japan Departure: Harder Than Expected

        To give Fran a taste of what I do every day and to more easily catch our flight, she came to my school on Friday. As a special education teacher in a poor school in Las Vegas, she was a bit shocked to see just how easy my work is. Every Friday my Shakespeare classes give a performance for half the school (two performances run simultaneously). Fran's entire exposure to ICEV teaching was practicing and performing this so-called masterpiece. Although it's not exactly content heavy, Fridays are very fun and she seemed to be smiling most of the time.
        After my stunning performance, we were given a ride to the subway station and made it to the airport with 2 hours to spare. However there was one problem, I forgot my passport! I jumped into a cab and headed back to my house. Usually cab rides are fairly painless, the foreigner (waeguk in Korean) does their best to pronounce the destination as accurately as possible and conversation mostly shuts down from there. On this occasion my Korean failed me (not the first time). I called a Korean friend to translate. After a nerve-racking subway ride and an exhausting run to the airport, we made our flight, but could no longer sit together, oh well. Unfortunately, this chaotic tardiness was to become an unintended theme to the trip.

Shinjuku is huge!

       We arrived in Japan thinking we had left our tardy ways in Korea. Little did we know about the beastly subway station we had to navigate, Shinjuku. This largest subway station in Tokyo has to be the biggest in the world as well. Millions of people walk through the labyrinth-like halls centrally located at the center of the city. Walking from one end to the other takes a half-hour, at least it felt like that. To add to the confusion, half of the 38 Tokyo subway lines are private and have corresponding exits based on the nearest line, sort of.
      The confusion really got to us that first night. Despite a couple strangers offering their help, it took about 2 hours to find our hotel, which was supposedly a ten minute walk from the station. By the time we arrived, we had passed curfew and they gave the room away. Luckily, they were able to put us up in a hotel a 5 minute walk away.

Doing the tourist thing in Roppongi Hills

      The next day we decided to see what the city was really made of, literally. Traveling to Roppongi Hills, we scaled Mori tower (home to Goldman Sachs and Yahoo! Japan) and were treated to a phenomenal view of the skyline, minus Mt. Fuji (too foggy, sad). From this vantage point it was fairly clear that Tokyo deserved its largest city in the world title, though many estimates would dispute this. Dominating the skyline is Tokyo Tower, a bright orange Eiffel Tower-shaped steel structure that is not only taller but is also much lighter than its Parisian counterpart. Also prominent is the massive Emperor's Palace, a huge natural area reserved for the royal family and only open to the public twice a year.
      After truly grasping the magnitude of the metropolis, we took in some fish. That's right, an aquarium on the 54th floor. Although there weren't any large fish, the displays were artistic and interesting. My favorite was a giant fishbowl illuminated with neon lights housing hundreds of koi. The large fishbowl was overflowing gracefully into a circular, smaller pond with a current that forced all the fish to swim in one direction or risk being swam over. Not only was it aesthetically pleasing, it also provided a great debate topic: which tank would you rather swim in? 
     Before returning to the ground floor we also took in an art exhibit about Le Corbusier, also on the 54th floor. The highlight of this French architect's exhibit was the life size model of one his houses. That night we headed to Harajuka (the trendy fashion district) for all you can eat sushi, delicious! After getting our tourist fill, we were ready to escape the megatropolis. 

Something New, Exploring Kofu
             I have one friend in Japan, a former ICEV employee, who now teaches in Kofu City, a two-hour bus ride from Tokyo. Kofu is known for its excellent views of Mt. Fuji (we couldn't see it) and its castle. Sticking out like a sore thumb, the historic castle rises over what seems like an endless city landscape nestled between green mountains. Shortly after arriving, we set out to climb one of the distant hills in order to ease our restless city legs.
              Having not a clue which way to go, we wove our way over train tracks and through enormous, ornate cemeteries, not ever seeming to make any progress. Finally, we jumped a fence, paused to say hello to a giant Buddha statue, and found a road that seemed to be heading in the right direction. The trail was steep and marked only in Japanese. A half-hour of uphill hiking brought us to a park on the top of the mountain complete with an overlook of the entire city, exactly what we were looking for. Unfortunately, Mt. Fuji continued to escape us.
              The rest of the evening was spent exploring the few bars open on a Sunday, relaxing and drinking an oddly named whiskey, Black Nikka. Despite the price, I found the drink tasty enough to transport back to Korea. The next morning we awoke to rain. Two hours later in Tokyo, it was still raining.

Chinese Umbrellas in Tokyo
             In fact, it was raining so hard that we needed to splurge for some umbrellas. We headed to the cavernous Shinjuku station to make our purchase. Because it's an expensive city, and we were on a pretty tight budget, we looked for some cheap ones. Us, and about everyone else in Tokyo, bought the clear, quasi-stylish umbrella manufactured in China. Almost every umbrella we saw, which was thousands, was the clear Chinese one. It turned into a game of finding an umbrella that was not the same as the two we bought.  
             Feeling like we were fitting in a bit more, we headed to the Emperor's Palace. As we neared the exit to the subway, we could see the sun beams. It was clear that we would not need our new, popular umbrellas. Slightly defeated, the palace definitely picked up our spirits. We walked around the outside, since the inside is only available to the public on New Year's and the Emperor's birthday, which it was neither. A huge moat surrounded the grounds with swans, bridges and tiled roofed guard houses.
             Wishing to walk through a green area, rather than around, we headed to a park. The park included acrobats balancing plates while riding 8-foot unicycles, a Hiroshima shrine, a boating pond and the largest lily pads I've ever seen. Overall, it was a great walk in one of the most diverse parks I've ever seen.
             We returned home never using our umbrellas. That night we left for dinner without them expecting not to need them. After a rather uneventful dinner at a restaurant called King Kong, we headed to the Time Square of Tokyo, Shibuya! After crossing the largest intersection in the world, we landed at a foreign bar, where we met a couple Americans who were teaching English in Korea (one actually knew one of my ICEV co-workers, small world!). When we stepped out of the bar it was raining again, oops!
Fish and Tea before we Leave

             On our last day we were blessed with some sun, yeah! We decided to see the largest fish market in Japan and explore a park before returning to Korea. As usual, we showed up entirely too late for the fish market. Tsukiji market is a crazy place at 5 a.m., selling massive tuna by auction, and any other prize catches to the general public and seafood vendors. By 11 a.m., the place is basically closing up shop.In addition to being late, we were almost run over by forklifts countless times. Although the fish are gone, the fisherman stick around for many hours cleaning up and preparing for the next hectic day. All was not lost. A small market provided the perfect venue for gift buying. 
           Rather disappointed, we left the fsh market for a large park within close walking distance. Surprised to pay a small entrance fee, we soon discovered why; it was gorgeous! Heavily wooded and meticulously landscaped, the scenery was wonderfully contrasted by looming skyscrapers (a feature of Tokyo's sky in most parts of the city). The reason for the beauty seemed to be royal. The emperor used to own the land privately and entertain foreign guests on the island tea house. In a clear pond, are two walk ways that lead to an isle located at the center of the water. For a modest price, you can enjoy a traditional cup of green tea (hot or cold) and dessert. This was a perfectly fitting way to end our Tokyo adventure. Tea, traditional style, on a beautiful lake with a wooded, skyscraper background. One guidebook claimed that everyone's Tokyo moment is a little different, but when it comes, it hits you hard. Well, that moment hit me hard, and I was then very happy for coming.

Korea vs. Japan

         I'm sure you are wondering how these two Asian countries compare. Considering they are both westernizing, experiencing positive economic growth and come from quasi-similar and at times intertwined histories and cultures, it makes sense to be curious. Here are my observations:

         Japan is much more expensive and open. The cost of living is much higher. A typical meal in Japan is $10-20 compared to $5 in Korea. Hotels are hard to find under $80, while Korea offers many more cheap lodging options. Also, Japan's culture is much less conservative. For one,people watching is much more intriguing in Tokyo than Korea (though Hongdae in Seoul is entertainingly trendy). I was surprised by the number of people with brown dyed hair, among other colors in Japan. In Korea, a vast majority of people maintain their jet black hair. Furthermore, the dress is much trendier and sexier. In Korea, most women (very beautiful, don't get me wrong) look like they are on their way to church, high heels and a long dress or skirt. The Japanese are much more prone to knee-high socks and short skirts (Britney Spears school girl look). The guys (I wasn't as focused on them) also sport a larger variety of hairstyles. 
           Overall it seemed that sex is much more pervasive. While it's a taboo topic of conversation in Korea, the Japanese seemed to flaunt it more. Basically, I found the Japanese to be much flashier (a word my Dad suggested when I was trying to describe the difference, thanks Dad!).
           As an English teacher, I definitley noticed that the Japanese seem to be more proficient English speakers. It was never a problem to know nothing more than hello, goodbye and thank you in the native tongue. Not that Koreans aren't good English speakers, because I work with 20+ bilingual Koreans, who can communicate almost any idea they please in either language. Overall though, I think the Japanese are stronger speakers and definitely less shy to use English. 
          Finally, the Japanese are a very polite people. When we looked lost with map in hand, someone usually appeared and asked if they could help. Asking for walking directions, people would travel with us or draw maps to make sure we arrived at the correct spot. Even though Koreans are wonderful people, the culture as a whole is a little less polite. After leaving my phone in the subway, we received a call from my phone by the person who picked it up. She explained where she lived and waited out in the rain to hand it to our taxi when we arrived. In general though, one has to get used to being pushed and prodded when getting on or off a subway without any 'excuse me' or 'sorry.' Plus, the older men here are notorious soju over-consumers and often quite rude or harassing, especially to women.
         Anyway, I'm no expert, but as a teacher who has lived in Korea for 5 months and travelled to Japan, you can take my opinion for what it's worth, not too much.

Annyeong (bye in Korean)

As always, thanks for reading. Please drop me an e-mail or comment. I would love to hear your thoughts or hear how you are doing. Coming soon are two entries about Busan (southern Korean coast) and Sokcho (eastern Korean coast). Annyeong!

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jbburghardt on

Sounds wonderful!
I can definitely empathize with the passport fiasco. At least you didn't have to carry around a bag of Fran's wet clothes.

I'm definitely going to try to come visit next summer. I'd love to see you. Hope you're doing well.

Love JB

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