As the Korean academic year is the other way round, we have a very long break in the winter—just over two months! When planning the year I was adamant that I’d spend this time travelling across some of Asia, using the springboard of Korea to save a tonne of money on flights—so that’s exactly what I have done!
But before I ventured out of the country I was fortunate enough to be visited by my girlfriend (Tina), all the way from England. This reunion was obviously long awaited as we have been together 7½ years, and had never been apart for so long. It was exciting to have her visit for many reasons, but it was interesting as it was very different from any of the travelling that followed. After being given the opportunity to show someone around, I realise how well I’ve settled in over the last 4 months. We did a lot, but it didn’t feel hectic at all as the main thing was simply spending time together. One of the highlights for Tina was a Racoon café, which is exactly what it sounds like… a café filled with racoons. Although animal welfare issues immediately come to mind with the concept, the racoons were hugely playful and would even try to stick their hands in your pocket looking for treats! Time really flew by, as we had anticipated, but before we could jet off to Japan together I had to move house. It was a great time for Tina to come, because I managed to share with her where I lived for first semester and where I would live for the next one. Moving into the house became complicated, as there had been a leak in the roof and my supposed bedroom was entirely flooded! Luckily I didn’t need to use it for the next two months (and the landlady had sorted out temporary accommodation for the others).
Although it felt like Tina had just arrived it had already been almost a week—already time to leave for Japan. We landed in Tokyo on the 22nd December, late, and hopped on a bus destined for Shinjuku station. Little did we know we were about to drive through the most mesmerising cityscapes we had ever seen! Elevated highways cutting through the densely packed skyscrapers, glittered with lights, it truly felt like we were entering a futurist city and that’s before we were dropped at the busiest station in the world! Being from London we thought that the subway system would be easy, and pretty self explanatory… oh how we were wrong. Hundreds of people hurtling through the gates to board trains of 12 different lines, we struggled at the ticketing machine for a while but eventually got a hand from one of the locals. Later that evening we explored the area which just solidified Tokyo as utterly an utterly insane, chaotic, futurist but charming and vibrant place. The week was filled with more of the same amazement and local charm. We even managed to spend Christmas day (which isn’t really celebrated in Japan) at an Onsen, a hotspring bath-house complex. Sadly it’s gender separated so we had to experience it separately, but it was a wonderful contrast to the overwhelming speed of Tokyo.
The 27th quickly approached, and beckoned in the time for Tina to leave for England—as I had already stolen too much of her revision time. This transition was so difficult to accept, it signified another goodbye—this time for even longer than the last—while knowing that Tina was returning to a world of stress and long work days which I wouldn’t be able to help with. Not to mention I had the quick transition from travelling as a couple to travelling alone ahead of me, especially daunting as I had never been travelling alone for so long. Yet time plodded on as always, at the same predictable pace, and we had to savour those last moments together for the coming months. After dropping her at the airport I was, I admit, quite lost. I had a night bus in Tokyo leaving at 10pm, and Tina’s flight was in the morning. To try and keep my mind off everything I visited a number of museums and the Imperial Palace, where I lay down in the warn beaming down on the courtyard and slept for a couple of hours… I think it all was really too much.
Kyoto brought a complete contrast to Tokyo, despite their similarity alphabetically! Calmer, quieter, filled with tradition and many, many warm and welcoming individuals. I arrived at my hostel around 5am and was greeted by a lovely Japanese guy working there, Tatsuki, with whom I immediately clicked with—both having a keen interest in film/videography. The next few mornings I woke early and he showed me around a couple key sites in Kyoto, Fushimi Inari, the Bamboo forest at Arashiyama and a wonderful wooden temple. I think this immediate friendship helped me deal with the loneliness that struck me the day Tina left Tokyo. Kyoto was a lovely place to spend a few relatively quiet and reflective days, before I moved off to Osaka to end my brief tour of central Japan.
Osaka again contrasted both Tokyo and Kyoto. It felt like an aged version of Tokyo’s future. I stayed near an area called Shinsekai (The new world) which was created in 1912 to envision that exact futurist design, and it’s funny because that is exactly what it still feels like—an aged version of what the future might look like. It kind of reminded me, at least in the feeling it gave me, of films like Brazil (1985) that picture a future which has been displaced in favour of another version of the future… Osaka also had an interesting atmosphere compared to Tokyo, it reminded me of a contrast I had felt before between London and Manchester. Both cities being hugely alive, vibrant and covered in culture but one feeling a little more rough around the edges… But I might be a little biased, as I visited Osaka over the new year holiday—possibly the largest national holiday in Japan—which meant many of the museums and galleries I had planned to visit were closed, leaving me to improvise a little!
Japan was more than I had imagined, but Tokyo just blew my mind… I had expected a technological city with packed subway lines and bustling streets but I hadn’t quite expected it to be that much! I also found it fascinating that all the Japanese film culture I have absorbed over the years (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Miike Takashi etc.) which seem so insane and far-fetched to an English eye all seemed to make sense when walking Tokyo’s streets, eating at it’s vending-machine ramen restaurants and being packed onto trains—all while being swamped with a wealth of advertising colours. Another huge contrast to my norms (especially from Korea) was the amount of un-hidden pornography, and the (near) complete non-taboo of it. I would walk into a DVD or bookshop, looking for a Miike Takashi or Kore-eda film, and would turn a corner to an aisle covered in pink selling nothing but pornography (be it filmed, written or drawn) with tonnes of men browsing away with no shame (as I’m sure many would feel in the UK). Reading about it, it was suggested that pornography and other sexual material isn’t so taboo as traditional Japanese culture never made it the taboo most western religions did—which in turn have made it a complete taboo in our society until this day!
Strange to end this blog post talking about pornography… but I thought it was a really interesting part of the culture, which I was never really told before seeing it first-hand. My flight from Kansai (Osaka airport) to Taipei was one of the best I’ve ever had, soaring above golden cotton I spent almost the entire two hours staring out of the window ready to start stage two of my travels, in a two-and-a-half week trip from the north to the south of Taiwan… you’ll hear about it in the next post!