Vacation to South Korea and Japan – Journal

Before I begin spewing my thoughts on my vacation, it would be helpful to the readers if I first outlined the itinerary of what I did during the vacation:

Day 00 – May 04, 2009 – Left Vancouver
Day 01 – May 05, 2009 – Arrived at Seoul, shopped in the area near our hostel in Hyewha
Day 02 – May 06, 2009 – Shopped at Myeong-dong, went atop Seoul Tower
Day 03 – May 07, 2009 – Went to Lotte World Amusement Park
Day 04 – May 08, 2009 – Visited Gyeonbokgung Palace, shopped at Insa-dong
Day 05 – May 09, 2009 – Visited Changdeokgung Palace, visited Korea University, drank at a bar and played pool
Day 06 – May 10, 2009 – Visited a Korean friend’s place
Day 07 – May 11, 2009 – Went to Dragon Spa in Sinyongsan, shopped in a nearby electronics mall
Day 08 – May 12, 2009 – Left Seoul, arrived at Tokyo via air
Day 09 – May 13, 2009 – Visited Meiji Shrine, explored and shopped at Akihabara
Day 10 – May 14, 2009 – Went to Shinjuku, shopped at Ochanomizu, went to Shibuya
Day 11 – May 15, 2009 – Visited Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon Temple), shopped at Akihabara some more
Day 12 – May 16, 2009 – Left Tokyo, arrived at Kyoto via Shinkansen, went atop Kyoto Tower
Day 13 – May 17, 2009 – Visited Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion Temple), explored the Nishiki Food Market, visited Kiyomizudera Temple, explored Gion district
Day 14 – May 18, 2009 – Attended Geisha show at Kamogawa Odori, Left Kyoto, arrived at Osaka by train, visited Umeda Sky Building
Day 15 – May 19, 2009 – Visited Osaka Castle, explored and shopped at Den Den Town (Nipponbashi)
Day 16 – May 20, 2009 – Left Osaka, arrived at Seoul via air, explored COEX mall
Day 17 – May 21, 2009 – Shopped at COEX mall, drank severely and karaoke at Sinchon area
Day 18 – May 22, 2009 – Left Seoul, arrived at Vancouver

Photo album in chronological order from the top, left to right, with descriptions for each picture, can be seen here. The password is koreajapan. All images and videos, including the panoramic shots, are taken by my cameras and edited by me. The following paragraphs would make more sense if one saw my pictures beforehand.
You may have noticed I used the words “what I did” instead of “what we did”, even though I went with a group of friends. This is because we had conflicting interests, so we would sometimes split and do our own thing before meeting up later. Unfortunately I was the only one among my friends who was not into fashion and clothing, so I found the first two days, which was mostly shopping for tidbits and clothing, very boring. Henceforth after day two every time my friends would want to go fashion shopping or do something I do not want to do, I would go off on my own for a few hours. The end result is everyone in our group has a schedule slightly different from each other. For example, I was the only one to see the Maikos and Geishas dance at the Kamogawa Odori in Kyoto.

Seoul, South Korea
One thing I first noticed when I arrived in Seoul is that the city bears a resemblance to the large cities of my birth country, Taiwan. There is a paucity of single houses, almost all living spaces are in apartments, and every building is multi-leveled. It reflects a more efficient use of space, and a premium on land. This is in total contrast to Canada, where land is abundant, the most common real estate are single one level houses with large lawns, and trees dominate the scenery. One difference between Seoul and, say, Taipei, is that scooters/mopeds are much more common in Taiwan. And also, as one may expect, almost everyone in Seoul drives a Hyundai.
With a higher population density, the streets of Seoul are much livelier. Night life can be easily found in nearly any street in Seoul. Shops, clubs, bars, and restaurants line up the streets. And often times shops selling the same things can be found next to each other, even in malls. As a consequence, the competition between the shops are fierce. A lot of stores hire a draw, usually a pretty girl, to stand outside and yell advertisement into the crowd all day, and attempt to draw in customers. It is a tough job.
Because of the heavy competition, a lot of things are much cheaper in Seoul as well, including clothing, food, and the country’s signature liquor, Soju. Here in Vancouver, a cheap lunch in a restaurant usually cost around $10 CND, and that’s not including the as of now 12% taxes and mandatory minimum 10% tip. Lunch can be had in Seoul for 5000 won (~$5 CND), with taxes already included and no need for tipping. I really like the fact that taxes are nearly always included in the prices in Seoul (and Japan as well). 375ml bottles of Soju (~10-20% alcohol content) can be bought at convenience stores for as low as 1250 won! That is a very high alcohol to price ratio. The same bottles of Soju cost more in bars, at around 3000 won per bottle, the extra price pays for the drinking environment.
One displeasure of Seoul were the open sewers. Every street is sprinkled with open sewer gratings, and frequently one would walk into a cloud of invisible sewer stink. It is very nauseating and annoying. While the beautiful ones (like the girls one would see in advertisements) are indeed beautiful, on average Korean girls are not as pretty as Japanese girls, and the attractive Korean girls are fewer and far in between. Of course this is filtered through my eyes and brain, and my assertion could speak more of my biases and preferences than anything objective. You know, the usual “in my opinion” dodge.

Tokyo – When I was in Tokyo my retinas were saturated with businessmen/salarymen. Even on the most off hours one can still see men in suits and ties roaming about, on trains, in temples, in specialty shops, in every crack and corner of the city. They are never out of sight. Salarymen seem to permeate the very fabric of Tokyo. Essential and ever present, like red blood cells are to your body.
Musical instruments define Ochanomizu as electronics and otaku goods define Akihabara. While my friends were shopping at Shinjuku, I excused myself to Ochanomizu district, where I found stores after stores that sold instruments, mostly guitars. I explored almost all of the guitar shops in Ochanomizu at a brisk pace, ignoring non guitar related stores. It was almost heaven, save for one detail: in every store every guitar had large price tags stuck between the strings, and the strings detuned. Some of the guitars were even strapped into the guitar stands. One had to ask for assistance from an employee to try out a guitar. This is exasperatingly different from the music shops here in Canada, where one could pick up any guitar they can reach and play it to their hearts content. So I asked if I can try two different guitars from two stores, and for both stores, the employees were over protective of their guitars. One of them stopped me from performing Drifting, and another forbade me to hit the guitar at all! It really pissed me off not being allowed to play what I want to play. I was extremely disappointed by this restrictive aspect of these music stores.

On the Shinkansen – While on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, I saw the countrysides of Japan race by. White clouds floated just above green trees and gentle hills like cotton candy. Houses dotted the landscape, overseeing acres of farms. The scenery was halcyon. Having spent most of my lifetime in big cities such as Taipei, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, it awakened in me a desire to live in a such a rural place.

Kyoto – Kyoto is a city of temples and shrines. Kyoto is almost completely surrounded by hills and mountains, and in every direction pointing at the foot of any hill or mountain there were temples and shrines. The city itself is also liberally sprinkled with temples and shrines as well. In every block there would be one (or more) temple or shrine. It would take a person years, if not a life time, to fully explore and appreciate the temples and shrines of Kyoto, and is part of the reason why I want to return, and maybe even live, there.
Interestingly enough, while Tokyo had a complex web of subway train routes, Kyoto only had two main railways and a handful of smaller tracks. Busing was the norm in Kyoto.
With ever dwindling numbers, Geishas are not only a cultural signature, but also a national treasure of Japan. They are well trained in the traditional arts: dancing, conversation, tea ceremony, just to name a few. Their attire and and behavior reflects their elegance. Geishas are the epitome of female Japanese beauty. Being appreciative to sophisticated and refined women, one of my main goals in Japan was to see Maikos and Geishas. I had a glimpse of a Geisha walking in public while my friends and I were on the bus to the Gion district. We later strolled in the Gion district for over an hour, but I did not encounter any more Maikos or Geishas that day. Perhaps the Geishas were in hiding because the weather was raining, and that it was Sunday. But regardless, I was deeply unsatisfied of having seen only for a few fleeting seconds of one Geisha. The next day all my friends left for Osaka in the morning, but I decided to stay in Kyoto a little longer, and attended a Geisha performance at 12:30PM at the Kamogawa Odori. The performance was about an hour and twenty minutes long, divided into two halves. The first half was a play containing a love story performed by traditional theatre actors and actresses. The second was more about a show than a play, and if there was a story, it was all but incomprehensible to me. The Geishas and Maikos danced in the second half, and I went on my way to Osaka with a smile.

Osaka – Osaka’s Nipponbashi, also known as Den Den Town, is a place of electronics, anime, and manga goods. Some call Nipponbashi the “Akihabara of West Japan”. Both districts are similiar in size, with Akihabara being more populated than Den Den Town. Osaka’s railway routes are a lot more logical than Tokyo’s.
We visited Osaka in the wake of a H1N1 outbreak in the city. Swine flu fears were heightened: between one third to half the population in Osaka was wearing a mask (a much higher occurrence rate than in Tokyo and Kyoto), and school was closed for a week.

In addition to irreplaceable pictures and memories, I obtained a few souvenirs for myself, my parents, and my coworkers. I bought myself a Shiki Ryougi 1/6 scale figure by Good Smile Company, and a Mushishi fan book. I gave a bottle of Soju to each of my parents. I will be giving anti-bad luck charms (not quite the same as good luck charms) in the shape of the Kinkakuji, and buns that look like bread, smell like bread, and feels like bread, but it’s not bread that I got in Seoul for my coworkers.
Fatigue and three grand are small prices to pay for the fantastic time and sights I have seen in this vacation. Despite his gross underestimation of money needed, and his impulsive planning, I have to give thanks to my good friend who researched, organized, and lead us through this trip. Thanks Peter.

Published in: on May 25, 2009 at 2:55 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great!
    I was always searching for a site like this so that i can get some tips to find guitar stores. The above information given by you is very impressive and helpful to me.
    Thanks for your help.

  2. Hey great site. I am always interested in going to visit “Modern” Asia (Japan, South Korea and North Korea :P, China, etc.) But maybe expensive, so until I get a hold of more money. Surfing the net and reading and looking at other peoples trip will most definately do. Props on the details and date of outline.

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