Even in recent days, Japan is often regarded as an “enemy” of Korea due to the deeply rooted historical rivalry between the two nations. But as time passes and generations change, Korea and Japan have grown respect for each other and become close countries that have similarities but hold distinct cultures of their own.
Arriving at Kansai airport, I did not realize right away that I was in a different country from the one I was in no more than two hours ago. Unlike western or even other Asian countries, the scenery of Japan – for instance, the familiar vending machines – resembles closely that of Korea. My four-day-long stay began in the Kansai region on Japan’s biggest island, Honshu.
For the first evening, my travel buddy/sister and I ventured out to Shinsaibashi – Osaka’s main shopping district. Many shops and boutiques were centered along the market street, better known as Shinsaibashi-suji. Being a Sunday evening, the roads were overcrowded with shoppers and fluorescent neon signs, reminding me of Myeong-dong in Korea. The beautiful iron bridge stood as a pedestrian overpass, and the Glico Man welcomed us to Dotonbori. After a dinner of sushi, tempura and udon, we checked into our hotel, but the first night hadn’t ended yet.
Perhaps one of the most distinct cultures of Japan is “konbini,” a short term for convenience stores. In Japan, you can hardly walk a block without spotting a konbini which offers everything that a 7-Eleven in Korea might, plus more. The role of konbini in the Japanese community is unspeakably immense, and many are open 24/7 to serve its customers (or to serve foreigners their midnight nibbles). Walking into a konbini, I immediately spotted aisles of quick grubs such as onigiri or tempura bento’s, alongside milk tea and a dozen different flavors of dessert pudding (the succulent treats recharged me throughout my trip.)
On the second day, we visited historical sites including temples and shrines. Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple) is a Buddhist temple complex in Nara, the one-time capital of Japan. The temple houses the Great Buddha Hall which is the largest wooden building in the world where you can find the gigantic Buddha. What caught my attention more than the Great Buddha’s giant nostrils (which were large enough to crawl through), were the hundreds of tame deer roaming around the park just outside the complex. Multiple vendors in the park have senbei for sale for visitors to feed and pet the deer. But do not be fooled by the deer’s innocent looks: As soon as they spot you holding senbei, they will nibble and drool on your clothes!
A classic tourist and sightseeing spot in the Kansai region is the Kobe Harborland. The Kobe bay has been reconstructed after the huge 1995 earthquake that killed over 6000 people. Today, Kobe Harborland offers the perfect combination of casual seaside relaxation and urban, modern and Western atmosphere. The Mosaic in Harborland is a shopping complex park right by the ocean that includes a simple amusement park as well.
Upon arriving, I had anticipated dining on traditional Japanese cuisine. However, having to translate the menu letter by letter at every meal, eating out in Japan turned out to be an admittedly exhausting (but still delightful) burden. After passing by a dozen window displays of plastic food, we found ourselves at Fugetsu, a chain restaurant that serves okonomiyaki. We struggled through the menu and regretfully ended up having to ask for an English version. Nevertheless, I had acquired my delectable dinner of the traditional okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake made with cabbage and eggs) and yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) along with a glass of Asahi beer: I had finally savored an authentic Japanese meal.
But there is far more to Japan than what is on the plate: While strolling around the more populated streets in Osaka and Kyoto, I could hear the comfort of K-pop artists including the notable girl groups such as Girls’ Generation and Kara. Recently, their debuts in Japan have brought back the “Korean wave” in Japan. I witnessed that despite a rough history, the two countries are still shaping each other through something as common as pop music.
The older generations in Korea still hold bitter feelings towards Japan from their acrimonious relationships in the unfortunate past. But through years of influencing each others’ trends and culture, the two countries are now similar and yet remain charmingly different.
Another upside to the trip was the lack of time difference, which allowed a more relaxed and flexible schedule. So whether it is for a quick shopping trip in Osaka or to visit beautiful, ancient shrines in Nara, throw out your prejudice and give the Kansai region a try: Scenes of five-story pagodas and ubiquitous bicycles still remain closely in my heart. Till next time, Japan – sayonara.