Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Golden Week

久しぶり !! (hisashiburi, It's been a while) !! My last post was April 27th, which in truth is only two weeks ago, but when you are used to posting two or three times a week it really feels like a long time. I have good excuse for my absence, however, as last week was our Golden Week holiday, and Michelle and I spent it out of the country exploring South Korea!

Golden Week is actually a series of individual holidays that is one of Japan's busiest travel seasons (the official Japanese term is 大型連休, or Oogata Renkyu, which translates literally into "many consecutive holidays"). The concept of Golden Week is relatively new, having begun after World War II in 1948. The reason that Golden Week was created is simply that Japanese people never take vacation. Most of my co-workers receive a month of vacation a year, but are lucky to use five days of it, and lose the time they don't use. Whether its a stigma to take a day off, or if it's that they are really just that busy (which I highly doubt, if my schools are in anyway representative of work life in Japan in general), Japanese never take a vacation, so Japan's tourist and leisure-based industries suffer. To solve this, the Japanese government created four national holidays and placed them all together to "force" the Japanese to actually take a long vacation and go out and spend money. Indeed, for those of us living in Japan it seems like Golden Week is one of the only times Japanese people travel. Roads are clogged beyond belief, and prices for anything travel related magically double or triple overnight. Initially Michelle and I wanted to go to Bangkok for Golden Week, as the normal round trip flight from Fukuoka costs only $350. During those few special days, however, the price was $1,200. Needless to say, Bangkok didn't happen.

We are glad Bangkok didn't happen though, as we were lucky enough to find a reasonably priced round trip ferry ticket from Fukuoka to Busan, South Korea. I had visited Seoul, South Korea before, with my brother back in 2006, but had only spent two nights there as a part of our whirlwind tour of Asia. This time, Michelle and I were spending six days in South Korea between Busan and Seoul, enough time to really get a taste of the culture and people. Another huge difference between my visit in 2006 and now was that back in 2006, South Korea was a new experience within an ocean of new experiences. It was my first visit to Japan, China and South Korea, and all of the culture, food and newness of everything really blended together. I didn't perceive many differences between any two countries - they were all foreign and different. This time around though I have spent 9 months living in Japan beforehand, and the Japanese language, food and way of life have become second nature to me, so when I arrived in South Korea I found the difference between the two countries striking. 

Michelle and I at the Fukuoka Ferry Terminal on our way to Busan!

The biggest shock was the language. I have no knowledge of Korean, period. Upon arriving in Busan I didn't know one word, not even "thank you", "please" or "excuse me." Of course, at least intellectually, I realized that this would make communication difficult. In reality though, after my first encounter with Korean after arriving in Busan, I was utterly dumbfounded by my complete inability to communicate ANYTHING. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Michelle then promptely interrupted my train of thought with laughter and a big and loud "welcome to my world!!". Nothing like your wife being there for moral support lol... I had, however, taken for granted being able to communicate in Japan, and now here we were just a short three hour ferry ride away in Korea unable to say anything. If a restaurant didn't have pictures on their menu, what we were getting was a surprise (which happened often). If they asked me a question about what I ordered all I did was nod. Who knows what they were asking. I spent the majority of the six days with a dumb look on my face and arms raised trying to make the international symbol of "I have no idea". Even Michelle admitted that it was a bizarre experience. Even though she isn't formally studying Japanese, she has picked up quite a lot while living here, and has gotten used to the language and customs that dictate life in Japan. In Korea, all that was out the window.

As for the trip, we wound up spending almost all of our time in Seoul, and had some really great experiences. We went to Seoul's famous fortresses and markets, shopped in the art and culture district of Insadong, went to the Korean War Museum and climbed Mount Bukhan, the tallest mountain to the north of Seoul (unfortunately the view was quite diminished by the "yellow sand" that had blown in from the deserts of Mongolia and China). We also went to the top of the Seoul Tower, visited the DMZ (demilitarized zone - crazy intense), took a night cruise on the Han River (the massive river that divides Seoul into north/south districts) and watched two of Seoul's famous "non-verbal" plays (the first, a ninja comedy story, was absolutely incredible). On top of that, we each had about one hundred different varieties of Korean food (completely different than Japanese food and utterly amazing) and both ate copious amounts of kimchi (fermented cabbage).

Walking through Gyeongbokgung Palace, downtown Seoul

Seoul Tower

From the top of the tower, Seoul stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see

On the summit of Mount Bukhan. The city of Seoul is barely visible through the thick "Yellow Sand" that had blown in from China and Mongolia.

Michelle and I taking a stroll through a cozy back street in Insadong, downtown Seoul

Fighting our way through Namdaemun Market, downtown Seoul

For all of the differences between life in Korea and Japan, Michelle and I both absolutely LOVED Korea. It was a very welcome break from our life in Japan. Being our first international trip while living in Japan, we both captured some of that adrenaline that comes from exploring a completely foreign land, adrenaline that we certainly had when we arrived in Japan but that had faded over the past months as we grew accustomed to our lives here. Honestly, we found the city of Seoul favorable to most of the cities in Japan we have been too. The people and culture felt more relaxed, the cost of living was WAY lower and the society as a whole, while still homogeneous, definitely felt more open to foreigners.

Loaded - holding my fat stack o' Korean cash. Too bad 10,000 Won is equal to only $9, but thats a ton of money when that 10,000 Won will pay for one night in a hostel...

I'm not quite finished with Korea yet! I still hope to have another post or two about our experiences there - stay tuned!

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