Saturday, August 25, 2012

Korean Superstitions and Advice

Korean people are a fairly superstituous bunch and have lots of theories about the world and how best to live one's life within it.  The respect culture and confucian values also makes the older generation more emboldened than usual in giving out advice to the young.  Unfortunately, because of the swift ascent of Korea as a nation it is my experience that it is often the case that the older the person in Korea the less enlightened they actually are, as they are regularly a litttle behind the times.  This can make their advice a bit frustrating as well as almost equally strange.

When I am with my Korean in-laws I hear lots of advice coming to me and my wife on a range of topics, including; health, married life, my parents, and our own behaviour.  I think they feel like it is their job to impart all their knowledge they have on us so that we can live a happy and productive life.  The fact that they are so forthcoming with their worldly wisdom is mainly because they genuinely care about us - I realise that - but it really can become quite tiresome sometimes, especially when I know for a fact they do not know what they are talking about.

The advice given by my Korean family members comes from all sides; aunties, uncles, cousins, mother in-law and father in-law and is not always tactfully given.  For example, one day at a restaurant I was sitting next to my wife's 'bad' uncle (I am told that most people in Korea have an uncle they really do not like) when he commented for about ten minutes on the dry skin on my feet while everybody was eating  (my feet are not always the best as I exercise a lot).  He then suggested I take some Chinese medicine (which I am highly sceptical of) and eat special Korean salt because that would cure my dry skin.  Instead of following his advice I went to the pharmacy and got some athletes foot ointment and cleared it up within a week or two, a better option than the high blood pressure from added special salt in my diet on top of Korea's already salt-laden food.

Below: Chinese medicine and acupuncture is still widely believed and practiced in Korea.  My uncle in-law is a great believer in it and I have had some students who wanted to be traditional Chinese medicine doctors.  I am, however, very sceptical and highly dislike its horrible habit of hunting endangered animals to extinction because of spurious tales of the efficacy of certain parts of it for a range of ailments, like tiger penis for impotence and infertility.  They also have a reputation of extracting things from animals cruely, like in bear bile extraction, which can be seen here:

Like I mentioned before in a post about Korean death anniversaries( sometimes the amount of advice, in the guise of caring, is overwhelming when I am with a large group of family members.  Concerning my wife, how I am sitting, what I should eat, what I should drink, and so on.  Here is a mix of the advice and superstitions that often come up between me and my Korean family, of which some of you may of heard of before, and here is a link to The Korea Blog for some other odd and interesting superstitions

Eat lots of chillies, garlic, oysters, meat, fallic looking sea worm things, and generally anything else that even slightly represents a part of the male or female reproductive anatomy.

I have lost count of how many different foods my father in-law tells me are good for a man, as he flexes his bicep, clenches his fist, and looks towards his crotch.  If it is all true then I must be some kind of super-stud and sexual Tyranosaurus by now, as I eat loads of it because he is always pushing it all my way (I think he wants my wife and I to have a baby quite soon).

Fan Death

Often ridiculed as completely ridiculous among the foreigner community in Korea, this is a danger I have been warned about on more than one occasion.  Many Koreans believe that sleeping with the fan on is akin to having a death wish.  How anybody sleeps in the baking mid-summer without the fan on at night, however, I really don't know.

Eat lots of Kimchi

It can cure everything from cancer to the common cold.  It is clear that the best medical minds of the West must take note of this and make Kimchi an everyday part of all our diets, forming the base of the daily food pyramid.

Be cruel to animals before you kill them

This is a bit of a nasty superstition that some Koreans have.  When American soldiers first entered the country hailed as liberators in 1945, having kicked out the Japanese, they commented on their horrific treatment of dogs, in that they tended to string them up and slowly strangle them to death in the belief it would make the meat taste better.  This was just one of the many problems Americans had in understanding a culture very foreign to them and relating to the Korean people.  There are concerns that this practice still goes on, although it must be said on a much smaller scale as fewer and fewer people actually eat dog meat.  Dogs have also been known to be beaten to death as the fear and adrenalin it produces is thought to tenderise the meat.  I was hoping that this sort of treatment wasn't widely practised with other animals but to my horror my father in-law captured two free-range chickens the other day for my benefit, and in the attempt to make the meat as tasty as possible they were in the process of starving the chickens for 3-4 days in a potato sack, with a small opening for air in the middle of a Korean hot summer.  They were very proud to show me the chickens sitting on top of each other tied up in the bag.  Shortly after I said to my wife, 'do you think they would take it the wrong way if I thanked them for thinking of me, but I'd prefer it if they just set them free again', to which she replied, 'yes, they would take it the wrong way'.  I don't eat meat back in England but decided to eat it here for a smooth ride into the culture of my Korean family and Koreans as a whole.  With regard to the chickens, at least they were free range but why couldn't they have just killed them right after they got them?  I am pretty sure that no one would have noticed the difference in the taste.

Changing Names

Recently my brother in-law changed his name from 한태양 (Han Tae Yang) to 한승우 (Han Seung Woo) because it was thought by the family that the name was too 'strong' for him, following advice from a fortune teller.  Apparently many Koreans change their names when they are older and it is not really that big a deal.  I think this is probably to do with the fact that people often don't use someone's name in conversation and therefore it has less importance than in Western culture.  Instead, Koreans mostly refer to people by a title, like older brother, teacher, older sister, job title, etc.  This happens between friends and not just family member, as they will call each other older brother (어빠 'oppa' if the speaker is a girl, 형 'hyeong' if a boy) and older sister (눈나 'nuna' if the speaker is a boy, 언니 'onni' if a girl) even if they are not related.  Younger people in a conversation, though, are usually referred to by name and not younger brother or sister, although some other titles are often used.  I even noticed that my aunties in-law regularly forget my wife's name and my cousin in-law's name because they rarely use it in addressing them.

Visiting a Fortune Teller for Advice on Family Matters

My mother in-law often visits a fortune teller for advice on relationships within her family and the future.  Common questions usually focus on the suitability of her son and daughter's love interests, whether they should move house, and what the future will hold.  I have been told that I have been given the green light and the fortune tellers say good things about me (maybe that is because my mother in-law doesn't mention that I am not Korean) but my brother in-law's potential wife is another matter and she is worried about their future because of the soothsayer's warnings.  What is possibly not a coincidence is that my mother in-law was already worried as my brother in-law's fiance is quite overweight, something they are not afraid of pointing out and complaining about.  I suspect she probably brings into the meetings with the fortune teller an already noticeable dislike of her potential daughter in-law and he picks up on it and tells her what she wants to believe.
Whistling at Night

My wife really hates it when I do this as she thinks it might summon ghosts.  Of course she doesn't really believe it but this cultural superstition has obviously been taught to her from a young age and runs pretty deep.  With all those catchy advert tunes on the TV, however, I find it almost impossible not to whistle quite a lot and therefore get shouted at quite a lot because of this.

Eating Poisonous Soup for Health

This soup is called 옻닭, which is roughly translated as chicken lacquer soup, the lacquer coming from the sap of a tree.  My parents in-law offered me some one night but warned me that is can cause a bad reaction in some people, so with my overly-sensitive stomach and body I didn't touch it.  My father in-law also opted out as it gave him redness and swelling all over his body when he had it before.  I did watch the others drink the soup and all of them did become noticably red afterwards and all complained of being hot, but they said that it was good for health.  I am just glad I stayed away from it.

So, just in case you think I moan too much about the amount of advice I receive from my in-laws and think me conceited for thinking I know better, this is where the advice often comes from; fortune tellers, traditions, and self-interest.  That being said their caring is sweet and they have a good heart, I just wish they could give the silly stuff a rest sometimes.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What do Koreans Find Mysterious About Westerners?

Following on from last week's blog post in which I revealed some things that I find mysterious about Korean people and culture, I thought it would be interesting to ask my wife to have a discussion with her co-workers at the hospital and find out just what they find mysterious about Westerners.  My wife was more than happy to oblige, so here are her findings, some of which I already knew about and can be viewed on a previous blog post on Asian stereotypes,, as an example of stereotypes some Asians have of Westerners.  The only thing is that this is a purely Korean female perspective, which brought up some interesting connotations.

I will leave some of the old chestnuts to last, but some of the more interesting ones, first:

1. Why do Western women show off their breasts all the time?

Before I get started I must reiterate that while this is my blog and my writing, I am merely a messenger on this one, so please don't shoot me.  Her work colleagues thought that Western women were always putting themselves on display in this way, whether it be wearing bikinis at beaches, festivals, and river valleys, or just walking down the street showing a bit of cleavage.  They considered it a little slutty and were also critical of those people with less than perfect bodies who did it, especially older women, who they felt should be covering up.

In response, to me the reason for bikini and cleavage culture is obvious, 'If you've got it, flaunt it'.  Generally speaking, Korean women are less well-endowed in that department but, in my humble opinion, do tend to have rather nice legs.  It is no surprise, therefore, that this is what they show off, much to the disgust of some Western women who might very well be shouting 'Hussy!' right back at them.  I, myself, am rather happy with it all and often wish we could combine the two cultures for a better future.

2. Body mysteries - eye colour, hair colour, men's er... size, and circumcision??!!

Not so much hair colour but eye colour is something they appear to be very curious and amazed about.  They think it is mysterious how we have come to have coloured eyes and, in fact, the actual reason is something of a mystery as there is no scientific consensus on the matter.  It is thought to have no evolutionary advantage, although must be related to white people having less of a pigment called melanin in their skin and eyes (there is an evolutionary advantage to less melanin in the skin, enabling increased vitamin D production from sunlight).  It could be that it was just a random mutation that females liked and selected for, an example of sexual selection much the same as what happens in peacocks or birds of paradise with the exception that the trait is passed on to both sexes..

I am reliably informed that the size of men, well... down there, is a very common topic in conversation as it seems most of the nurses have never seen one from a foreigner in the flesh to confirm the rumours they have heard and, from what I hear, the pictures they have seen.  I will certainly not be offering my services to relieve their curiousity.  Again, (scout's honour) I am only relaying information.

It also seems that most Korean men are cut.  They say that it makes everything cleaner and they wonder why Westerners don't all get it done.  So why haven't we all done it, fellas?

The thing that I have found most enlightening of all is learning that women (at least this sample of sweet and innocent looking Korean nurses) seem as fascinated with men's naughty bits as we men are with theirs.  I never knew.

I dread to think of the conversations they have about me, they probably have some rather sensitive information. 

3. Do Western men really think Korean women are easy?

They didn't really know about this one, but they had obviously heard a rumour about it from somewhere and my wife said they would really like to know the truth as they themselves couldn't believe it.  I have to admit, I am with them on this one as, where I live at least, they appear to be anything but easy.  I have had a few friends in the past who have constantly cursed how difficult it is, not to get a date, but to get any further than that.  They are often curious enough to go on a dates but I think are too shy or frightened to go any further.  What their families would think is also a key element to this.  Easy Korean girls could be a Seoul or a big city phenomenon.  Having never lived in Seoul, however, (and rarely visited) I cannot comment.

4. Do we only think of ourselves?

Their curiosity of a common Korean stereotype about Western people was further perked by a couple of stories my wife told them about me.  One happened when my wife and I left Korea to live in England for a year and in the bus station about 5 minutes before leaving I, rather selfishly, went to get some snacks and drinks for the bus journey to Seoul and came back only with stuff for myself and not for my wife.  My in-laws were not amused and were immediately worried about how I was going to treat their daughter in England.  The other story was about a time my wife called me and told me to get a bottle of beer for her on the way home.  When I turned up with the beer, she was not a happy bunny as I had taken what she said literally and only got her one beer.  Apparently, a Korean man would have come back with a six-pack of beers, some fried chicken, and some ice cream.

Although I was shocked at being considered an ungenerous man, the nurses saw this as further evidence that all Western people think only of themselves and not of others.  My wife was quick to interject, however, with a comment about how Western people tend to have more individual thought processes but this doesn't necessarily mean selfishness as Koreans can be selfish but in different ways.  She said they looked sceptical about this.

5.  Why do we live for the moment and not save for the future?

They had the impression that Westerners mainly live for the moment, spending money on themselves in the present and not saving money for their family in the future.  They saw this as being linked with selfishness as they thought Westerners did not think of their children, saving for their education, particularly.  They were especially critical of the money we spend on travel, overseas and within the countries where we are living (think of weekends away).

Of course, there are plenty of people who save money for their children's education in the West and there are plenty that put away something for a rainy day, but it is perhaps true that we live more in the moment and consider present happiness more important than they do in Korea.  I actually think this is mostly a good thing, however, as in my experience when I have lived too much for tomorrow I tend to suffer too much in the present (tomorrow never comes, after all).  An example of this is my wife's tendency to not want to travel while she is in Korea to save for when we go back to England and have a family.  My take on things, though, is that once we have a family that will cutail some of the travelling we can do and once in England I don't think I am going to be going to places like Japan, China, or Taiwan.  We have the chance to travel to these places right now, while we are still young, so why not take it?

6. Why are we always cheating on our brother's and sister's wives and husbands and our best friend's partners?  And even more shocking, why are Westerners always getting divorced?

It seems that Western people's personal affairs come under a fair bit of scrutiny from the nurses.  For the first part of this, their wonder at how immoral and licentious we are in relationships could be derived from their sources.  Two aspects of popular Western culture are very popular in Korea and perhaps all round the world; US movies and TV dramas, and English Premiership football.  In the case of scandalous affairs, it is obvious that they will be more prevalent in dramas and movies, and English soccer players are hardly examples of the best role models when it comes to behaviour, morals, and intelligence.  As one of my students said to me the other day, 'Giggs, great player but why did he sex with his brother's wife?  He is crazy man.  His mind is trash.'  Maybe if we could throw some statistics into the mix, it could show that Westerners are a touch more individual and impulsive leaving the door open for more illicit affairs.  However, our movies, dramas, and soccer players can't be helping the situation.

Rather perversely, when it comes to divorce there could be a case of, 'The pot calling the kettle black', going on, as I was surprised to see Korea very high up on the list of divorce rates around the world, with some websites claiming they were tenth.  However, other websites didn't even have Korea in the top 40 in divorces per 1000 people, so it is a little tricky as I couldn't really find a reliable source.  The last word on most little debates though, wikipedia, show Korea to be higher than my country (the UK) back in 2004, so maybe they are right up there.  It at least appears to prove that their accusation that we are always having divorces is, if not wrong, a tad hypocritical.

7. Why do we love car chases in movies so much (Americans at least)?

I have come across this one before.  Some Koreans have told me that there is at least one car chase in every US movie, sometimes at the cost of the storyline, obviously referring to an excess of movies that are loaded heavily with special effects and action.  It is my experience, though, that most Western movies fit this stereotype because that is exactly what they like to import from us (mainly the US).  I am constantly frustrated by the lack of anything but the top US special effects blockbusters showing in the cinema.  But I guess they are not catering for the minority of foreigners.

The Old Chesnuts

I felt like the following probably didn't need that much explaining as we have all heard them before and they speak for themselves, but I thought they would be useful to list anyway:

Why do we eat such terrible and unhealthy food?
Why are most Westerners fat and eat pizza and hamburgers all the time (linked to above)?
Why are we so much less polite and without manners (highly ironic)?
Why do we have a 'Western smell' of body odour?
Why are we so open minded to sex and drugs?
Why do we not respect old people?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mysteries about Korea I Haven't Solved Yet

I'd like to think that my understanding of Korean culture is running pretty deep these days, having a Korean family will help with that, but there are still some things that even my wife cannot explain to me (at least that I can comprehend).  Here are some of the deep dark mysteries Korea has that still befuddle me:

1. Why is there always hair in the soap at the gym?

I remember my own shampoo but I often use the soap provided in the men's shower at my local gym.  What I can't get my head around is how probably 99 percent of the time (I swear I am not overstating this) there are hairs embedded in the soap.  I have experimented myself with rubbing my hairy areas (sorry for the picture) as hard and thoroughly as I possibly can with soap in hand and I cannot get one hair to come off and stick to the soap.  Usually, though, I have to search around to find a bar of soap with just one hair that I can scrape off easily and sometimes there are several hairs on the soap (long ones, so it is not down to shaving in the shower).  Is it that Korean's hair falls out more easily than Westerners?  Do they purposely pull it out and leave it on the soap?  I know this sounds disgusting but I genuinely have absolutely no idea on this one.

2. Why do they hit themselves when they exercise?

I am up early in the morning at least 3 times a week these days to go for my morning run.  Rather strangely, I admit, I run in special minimalist running sandals.  This is a whole other story, but needless to say I resemble an extra out of Gladiator or 300 and look rather bizarre.  I always wonder just who is the bigger weirdo, however, when I run through the park at 6.30am.  I always see a man doing rhythmical squats and hitting himself in the stomach, chest, and legs.  He looks at me, I look at him and I am sure we are thinking the same thing, 'What is that freak doing?'.  My reasons for being weird are that the sandals help me run in the correct way and avoid injury, but what are his reasons for hitting himself?  I don't know.

3. Why do Korean men clear their throats so noisily?

I noticed this lovely little habit from day one in Korea but have never really worked out a satisfactory explanation for it.  I never feel the urge to do it myself and not just out of the feeling that it might sound horrible and rude, it simply is not necessary in everyday life.  The only thing I can think of is that they have allergies.  In the summer time in England I usually have bad hayfever and sometimes my throat feels like it could benefit from a good clearing.  Never in Korea, though, and I thought the reason they took their shoes off was to avoid dirt and dust.  There is certainly less asthma here, possibly for this reason, so what's going on with the throat thing?  Maybe it is a combination of too much soju and too much smoking.  Perhaps they need to eat some more kimchi to counteract this evil, I am sure that will clear it up.

4. Why do they dye their pet dogs ears, feet, and tails?

I have also seen the poor little things (and they mostly are very little) dressed up in jackets and shoes.  I don't think I have ever met a dog that appreciates being dressed up and certainly not one who enjoys an extra hour or so at the doggy hairdressers for some highlights.  Small white dogs seem to be popular in Korea and the ears and tails are regularly dyed in vibrant pink, green, and purple colours.  I understand that many people think it makes them cuter, but dogs are the cutest of animals anyway, so I don't accept it as an explanation, sorry.

5. How do they eat so much?

If I spend a whole day with my Korean parents in-law it is astounding how much food they put away in a day.  It starts with the biggest and most difficult to digest breakfast imaginable and is followed by fruit and rice cake for a mid-morning snack.  Lunch is almost always loads of meat and/or seafood with lots of vegetables.  Very little in the way of carbs leaves me quite sleepy for the rest of the afternoon.  Just when I feel a little more awake and my stomach semi-recovered, it is dinner time.  Dinner usually consists of another few kilos of meat wrapped in some leaves and kimchi with a few raw cloves of garlic.  At the point of stomach bursting point I am always astounded by my very tiny mother in-law leading the charge for more food to finish off the meal, usually some cold noodles or extra rice and soup.  Perhaps I just eat more quickly than them so I actually eat more than I think while they are pacing themselves, who knows?

6. What do the police do?

There probably is less crime generally in Korea than back home, but that's not really what I mean.  There appear to be laws and rules in Korea that no one follows.  Companies don't follow the working hours laws, dog meat is actually illegal but still eaten (even advertised on shop menus), and there must be at least a few traffic rules (surely!) but people certainly are not following them.  Police are rarely called for issues of domestic violence and when they do they look like they have a quick chat and do nothing (I know because my wife and I made a call to the police once about her friend in an apartment opposite, but that's another story).  I am often in the car when taxi drivers flout all road traffic signs and cut up traffic and have on occasion seen a police car looking right at them, but nothing happens.  I live in a small city, Suncheon, but in almost three years I cannot recall ever seeing a police car rushing around with sirens flashing.  I have seen them as a presence at the scene of car accidents and although there are a lot of these accidents here, there can't be enough to take up a whole day.  I am genuinely curious about how they fill their day.  Solitaire?

7. What's going on with their cakes?

They look great but on closer inspection, when you make the first cut, they consist of 95% cream and 5% a weird sweet bread-like filling.  They can make muffins and doughnuts, which have a cake-like consistency to them so why don't they put this into action with their cakes.  As a passionate cricket-lover and Englishman, there is nothing I like better than a slice or two of homemade Victoria sponge cake at tea-time; now that's a proper cake.  I wonder if I could get one sent to me by FedEx just to show the Koreans what they are missing.  Their cheesecake too is disappointing as I have yet to have one with a crumbly biscuit bottom. They all have soft weird bottoms, give me a firm and tasty bottom and I'm much happier.

The are probably a few more enigmas out there I haven't solved yet, but I am on the case, searching for the answers.  Stay tuned for the real answers to the pubic hair on soap problem, the cake fiasco, the who is a bigger freak dilemma, and more in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Awesome Japan!

I have never been one for giving people advice, mostly because I hate receiving it myself unless I ask for it.  Advice is often given by self-interested people who want you to think and do what they want you to do and really don't want what is best for you.  If people wish to give me advice without me asking for it, I am always wary and on many occasions I suspect their motives.  All that being said, I strongly advise that (if you can afford to do so) you should visit Japan at least once in your life.

I had visited Japan once before but just for a visa run to Osaka so I could not really look around very much and didn't make it out of the city.  This time I started out in Osaka, just like before, but quickly moved on to a small city in the Minami Alps called Kofu, where my aim was to hike up Japan's second highest mountain, Kitadake.

My original intention was to climb the highest mountain, Mt Fuji, but I had heard many stories of what an uninspiring hike Mount Fuji was, especially in the peak season, which I was in.  The trouble is that the hike is a zigzag up the mountain, usually in a line behind many many tourists, this is what I had researched and been told about anyway.  I didn't really fancy that, despite the promise of a beautiful sunrise.  Kitadake looked a more interesting hike and looked like it had a great view of Mt Fuji at the top, so I chose this.  My mind wasn't made up, however, until a couple of seconds before I was asked where I wanted to go by the clerk in  Abenobashi bus station in Osaka.

After an overnight bus journey, I arrived in Kofu and fortunately about 2 minutes later a woman approached me asking if I was going to Hirogawa (the main trail head for Kitadake) and brought me to the bus which was just about to leave, perfect.  2 hours on the bus through the mountains and I realised I made the right call.  The mountain landscape was much more beautiful and more vast than I had imagined.  These mountains were over 1000 metres higher than anything in Korea and it made for some spectacular scenery.

Luckily for me, Hirogawa had a very well organised visitors centre with good facilities, which was just as well as I needed to charge my camera.  I had to wait an hour, because of this, before starting on the trail (what a disaster it would have been if there were no plug sockets and I had no power for my camera).

The heat during the day in Osaka and Kofu was almost unbearable, up at over 35 degrees but the start of the trail was already at over 1500 metres, which made the temperature about ten degrees lower and was very comfortable for hiking in shorts and T-shirt.  There had been stories of people in Korea getting into some trouble hiking in the summer heat, but there were no worries of that sort here.  My wife had been concerned about the heat, but after the sun went down that was to be the last of my problems, as even with plenty of clothing it was going to be freezing near the top.

One of the great things about hiking Kitadake and not Mount Fuji, is that the people I met on the mountain were just normal Japanese people out for a nice couple of days hike and there were not that many of them.  There were enough, however, for regular breaks and chats and, surprisingly, most of them spoke very good English.  Unlike Korea, though, I found that I had to start conversations.  I was finding out that Japanese people were generally a little less interested in me as a foreigner than in Korea and also a little less confident in coming up to speak to me.  Just like most Korean people, they were perfectly nice and kind when we did speak and I appreciated that they spoke English well as I knew only about 3 or 4 words and phrases in Japanese.  One thing that did stand out as different from Korea, were the greatly improved manners of the Japanese.  People made way for me on tighter sections of the trail and always said thank you when I did the same.  This seems a common courtesy but these are rare events indeed on a mountain in Korea.

I was in a place where few tourists go, and this was confirmed by the Japanese people who I met, who mentioned that most Japanese didn't even know about the mountain we were on, they just knew about Mt Fuji.  I knew immediately I was in the right place for me as when I have traveled to famous places, popular with tourists, they have always been a bit of a disappointment to me.  That is not to say that these places are not worth seeing, but the general atmosphere around them can become a little oppressive and depressing for me.  The big tourist attractions are often where you find the people who are not interested in anything but the contents of your wallet and what you can do for them.  You can be ripped-off, begged at, stuck in queues, and drowned out in the crowd; in short the experience becomes less personal and the culture of the country is a watered-down commercialised side of it.  It never seems genuine.  Give me the second highest mountain over the highest or a town over a big city any day to experience the truest side of a country's culture.  Then, what I find, is that I almost always like the people I meet and I become fascinated by the differences between us rather than irritated by them.  People want to speak with you because they want to know something about you (genuine curiosity), in this regard Japan was a world apart from my last vacation in Indonesia and has made me think that in the future a further exploration of the Far East is a better option than South East Asia.  South East Asia appears to be affected detrimentally by excess tourism and genuine experiences are becoming harder to come by.  That being said there are still many natural wonders and cultures in these areas that I want to see, but I get the feeling I will have to put up with a lot of crap for it.

Anyway, after a long hard slog up the mountain and the altitude and all the travelling taking it's toll, I finally made it to the top, but the real beauty was to come at sunset and then sunrise the following morning when the clouds cleared completely and left breathtaking views of Mount Fuji and the rest of the Minami Alps.  It was picture perfect Japan, and couldn't be more iconic of the 'land of the rising sun'.  Standing at the top in the morning looking out I didn't want to leave.  Tops of mountains are almost spiritual places for me but this was quite special, it was nature at its most spectacular and it was my moment in pure silence with no crowds to spoil it.

I was contemplating spending another night camping but reasoned that with the amount of time I had spent travelling and the lack of a good night's sleep, I could do with checking into a hotel.  This idea also could give me time to explore Kofu and see the cultural side of Japan as well as its splendid natural side.  Once I got down to the bottom of the mountain it was clear that this was a good plan as I crashed in the bus, it was impossible to keep my eyes open.  Once I checked into the hotel I then proceeded to sleep for 13 hours and very soundly.

I had one-day to have a look around Kofu, and I confess, I thought this more than enough as it looked like a sleepy little city.  To my surprise, however there was plenty to see; Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, castles, and other interesting little curiosities, everything was in fact fascinating.  It was incredibly hot, though, and wondering around all day in 35+ degrees heat did take its toll and perhaps this was another reason why I saw so few people all day.

Japan has interesting differences to Korea.  One thinks of Japan as a place at the height of technology, all lights, flashy new inventions, and computers, the most modern place on earth.  What a pleasant shock it was to find that outside of the big cities this is somewhat of a misleading interpretation.  Japan had an old charm to it, the way that Europe has with its history and fine buildings.  In Korea, everything is new and super-modern and it is the computer capital of the world with the fastest internet connection of any country, professional computer game players getting TV time and earning six-figure salaries, and people are constantly playing with their tablet touch phones when you are on the bus or subway.  Japan felt more traditional and more in touch and more comfortable and settled with its culture and history.  Japan felt like the  English gentleman of the Far East, with good manners and a love of its own history.  Korea, perhaps mainly because of the Japanese, does not feel nearly at ease with itself and has a strong desire to prove their worthiness to themselves and others as a strong and beautiful country on the world stage.  This is not surprising and is not really a criticism but it makes for a country that is not so comfortable in its own skin and a tad insecure.

For these reasons Japan was at the same time more welcoming than Korea and yet more foreign.  I felt as if they cared not one bit that visitors would find their culture or their language was difficult to crack, indeed they appeared to revel in the difficulty.  They weren't going to accommodate for foreigners, we would have to figure it all out for ourselves; it was their country and they didn't need to tell us about it or big it up, they just let it speak for itself.  Like their culture or not, it felt like they didn't care, they were just going to carry on as normal.  This made Japan feel a very genuine place to travel to me, they were not unfriendly but did not go out of their way to help me or highlight me.  I was different to them, but importantly I didn't feel it.  It was because of the fact they were less interested in me, because I was not paraded as different and in need of special help that I felt more relaxed and welcome.  In Korea there is nothing like a well-placed 'Hi, how are you?' among a crowd of people to make you feel a million miles away from home, some cynical people will say that deep-down that this is the whole point of someone saying something like that.  I think it is a mixture of friendliness, curiosity, and an unconscious urge to single you out as different, the ratio of each varies from person to person.

For these reasons Japan keeps a traditional and cultural charm which Korea lacks and means if any of you wish to travel to the Far East and you want to choose one place to go, Japan is your best bet.  On the surface, the culture is richer, the mountains are higher, the scenery is more spectacular, the architecture is older and more beautiful, and their are amusing differences aplenty.  I actually can't think of a more interesting place I have traveled to and I would love to spend more time there in the future.

It sounds like I am being a little harsh on poor old Korea.  I have a connection with Korea now that will always make it my second home.  To me I will always be interested in how they are getting on and wishing them well.  They are my second team in world sport and affairs behind England and I have a strange urge to see them defeat Japan at every opportunity, but have to admit to not being overly devastated when they do lose.  Japan might be the more appealing place to travel, but I am glad I chose to live in Korea and not just for the practical reasons of being able to save more money and the fact my lovely wife is Korean.  Korea has had a bizarre ability to make everyday life so convenient and easy while at the same time throwing up all sorts of challenges that can catch you completely off-guard.  The Korean way of being quite forward, unplanned, and interested in me has thrust me into some of the most awkward situations of my life.  These are the kind of situations that, at the time, you are dying to get away from but in hindsight are not only memorable and funny but truly educational.  Maybe I am wrong, but I can't help but feel that this would not happen in Japan quite so much because of how they seemed not to force you into participating in their culture.  I have delved deeper into the culture of the Far East by coming to Korea than I thought possible.  Whatever bad things I might say about aspects of Korean culture, the people are mostly great and my job and my students; well, perhaps I was just lucky, but I could not have wished for better.  I can't complain too much, Korea has treated me very well.

Sometimes you need a good push to get involved and Korea gives you plenty of those.  The people of Korea have a very unique character that can make you go from the extremes of love and hate.  Uncomfortable it maybe and a good moan I like to have sometimes, it does however, make life jolly interesting.