Checkpoint: Japan & South Korea Vacation Edition

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I’ve just returned from a two week vacation in Japan and South Korea. We made our way through Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Seoul. It was a great trip with the girlfriend (now fiancee). We saw lots of great sights, ate lots of great food, and caught glimpses of what life is like in those great nations and cities. 

We took plenty of photos and videos but those we’ll likely remain on Facebook for now. In its stead, here are some thoughts in text form.

Tokyo

We landed in Tokyo first and experienced the best of modern Japan. I loved how exceptional the service was. Everyone was so polite, helpful, and patient with us English speakers. Getting around the city was initially confusing but careful reading of the English signage coupled with Google Maps, we made our way through Tokyo’s excellent subway system. 

We loved how clean the city was and how safe we felt. We visited Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, Toyosu Fish Market, Senso-ji temple, Sumida Aquarian, and the Tokyo Skytree. All of those spots were wonderful.

Shinkansen

We made our way to Kyoto via the JR Shinkansen which was an exceptional way to travel. The reputation of timeliness of these amazing high speed trains was known but we just didn’t appreciate how timely everything in Tokyo was which resulted in us waiting around for over an hour. We didn’t have confidence in Tokyo’s public transit and our ability to navigate so we gave ourselves a lot of unnecessary buffer time. 

So we people watched and explored Tokyo station a bit before eventually zooming away to Kyoto. We got to Kyoto in 2 hours or so. The distance between Tokyo and Kyoto is roughly the same as Ottawa and Toronto and it takes nearly double that time via car. Going by VIA Rail is even longer. I miss Tokyo’s transit but I will miss Japan’s Shinkansen more. I would gladly spend $150 to just zip into Toronto in 2.5 hours in comfort. 

Kyoto 

We spent approximately $100 – $120 per night accommodations in each city. As a result, we got to see how far our money took us in each city. The Comfort Inn in Tokyo was older but alright. Kyoto’s was like a mini modern day guesthouse full of some neat gadgets. I was particularly impressed with the LED lighting with adjustable temperature function. There was no complimentary breakfast here so we were forced to fend ourselves. It turns out, breakfast in Kyoto is a bit tricky. We eventually found a few solid spots near our hotel but our options were limited if we weren’t feeling coffee shops or western styled breakfast spots in subway stations.

Our time in Kyoto was spent seeking out more traditional Japan. We caught glimpses of two geisha in Gion, spent time with the monkeys in Arashiyama, and visited some picturesque temples. We also tried some kobe beef which was exceptionally rich and tasty. 

Osaka

A short 12 minute Shinkansen ride brought us to our final Japanese city, Osaka. Osaka was a bit of a shocker to me because it broke the mould in cleanliness in Japan. Osaka wasn’t filthy like other like Montreal or Toronto but it reminded me of downtown Ottawa. It was the first time I noticed a lot of trash and cigarette butts on the ground in Japan. A bit of research online suggested that Osaka is more laid back compared to Tokyo and I can see it. Still, that bit of uncleanliness didn’t dampen our food adventures in this great city. We spent more time out at night in Osaka, trying to soak in the lights and glamour of Dotombori. 

Our tatami style Osaka accommodations saw us spend some time sleeping on the floor. It wasn’t terrible but it certainly wasn’t preferable for more than a few days. 

Kansai and Incheon Airports

I don’t enjoy being rushed and as a result, Canadian airports like YVR and YOW irk me a bit with their security processes. Kansai and Incheon Airports on the other hand allow me to take my time to unpack my stuff into bins and still manage to process people at a brisk pace. They’re also friendly and professional without the hint of disdain for their jobs. They’re both also very modern airports with the sensible niceties to go with it — I felt I did more walking in YOW than in the other two considerably larger airports. 

Seoul

A short Peach airline flight later, we made it to Incheon and then eventually Seoul. Incheon was over an hour away from our hotel in Seoul but thankfully there were solid bus shuttle options. We were dropped off right at the doorstep which was very convenient. Our accommodations in Seoul were also the best of the trip. It wasn’t the newest but it was the most spacious, comfortable, and luxurious. Accommodation wise, our money easily went the furthest here.

Our money also went rather far in the food department as well, portions weren’t small in Japan but we both felt many places heaped it on in Seoul. This was especially true with kimchi and soups. 

Seoul was also the most tricky of the places to navigate in the rain. A combination of questionable surface materials and slightly worn out shoes resulted in perilous treks in the rain. Thankfully it was just one day. 

My fiancee loved the fashion and cosmetic offerings in Seoul. She gorged herself in so much of it without making a huge dent in the wallet. The options and competition available Myeong-dong were staggering. 

Traffic & Bikes

There were a lot of takeaways from my trip to Japan and Seoul. One of the more prominent ones were the relationship between traffic and bikes. Japan was a nation of smaller vehicles with plenty of bike traffic on sidewalks and on the streets. Bikes were maneuvering between pedestrians and cars without issue. People from all walks of life were riding their bikes in Tokyo. Businessmen, mothers with children in child seats, and older folks were all riding. And these bike riders didn’t even wear helmets and we did not witness a single spill or accident. 

Despite the density of people and cars, patience and courtesy seems to have allowed bikes, cars, and people to coexist in relative harmony.

Common Trust

Many folks leave the bikes unlocked. Many store shops leave expensive items out in front with nothing but a camera in sight and sometimes not even that. The level of trust both Japanese and Koreans have of their countrymen and tourists is commendable and refreshing. Razors are being locked here in North American grocery stores while I’m seeing SKII Essence bottles being left out in front unattended.

Clean Chaos

Even at its most chaotic, the traffic jams and throngs of people funnelling through subway stations and busy streets, I felt safe and not at all annoyed by it all. The worst of it was in Seoul where the car horn was used liberally but even then I didn’t witness any outbursts of discontent like I would have in North America.

Will Return

This was my first big trip overseas and it was wonderful. I would love to go back to both nations and soak in more of what they have to offer. My expectations of Japan were set by the Yakuza and Persona games and they were largely accurate. I didn’t know what to expect of Seoul but it largely resembled a mix of North America and Japan. I don’t know when we’ll make it back there but I miss it already — there’s just so much you cannot find here.