With the flight time of 1.5 hour, from Osaka Seoul is closer than some of the domestic destinations. For the past couple of decades there have been times when Seoul became a hot tourist destination from Japan, but somehow I was never interested in going there. I just didn’t have strong enough incentive to go there, and I didn’t like going where everyone else was going – to do what? join the queue of other Japanese visitors to taste the most popular kimchi in town? Instead, all those years in university and after, I kept flying back and forth between Australia and Japan, not stopping in our closest neighbour. But over the years I’ve had friends from there, who went there, and the lovely girl who cuts my hair at salon every month is from Korea, too. Korean movies and drama have become very popular in Japan and there would be Korean presenters on the national channel TV shows, unthinkable when I was a kid. So I thought, maybe it’s time I visited the place and saw it with my own eyes.
A friend I met during a trip 8 years ago was recently back in contact and told me she was living back in Seoul, and kindly offered to put me up, so I enjoyed a very relaxing time, without suffering from the cold or skin issues (I have dry skin and occasional incidents of allergic reactions). Given that perfect base, I was able to make the best of my time in Korea, and walked everywhere, just like I do in any new place. Just walk, and my senses will be awaken.
I blame the school teachers from my childhood for making history classes boring. And because math teachers were more animated, I spent more time dealing with mathematical challenges, rather than reading about what happened between Japan and Korea 1,000 years ago. Still, I vaguely recall that my home country has had a lot of influence from the Peninsula over the centuries. Many of our ancestors came through their land. Strong cultural influence in the continent (China and beyond) was cascaded down through the hands of what is now called Korea. In the pre-modern Japan when men’s formal attire included tied hair with shaved side, dress-like loose pants, and sword in case of Samurai clans, Japan treated the diplomats from Korea like loyalties. States that were along the way of their journey to Edo (Tokyo) almost went bankrupt every time those diplomats passed through them. Well, that’s what my mom told me – she majored history in University; I guess her history teacher was more interesting than mine.
From the times of Hideyoshi (the first dictator who ruled Japan under one leadership for the first time in the nation’s history) Japanese military leaders had their agenda for Korean Peninsula and the resources of the continent beyond it. In the years leading towards the Pacific War (World War II), Japan declared itself one of the colonial powers (though it was already becoming an ‘old idea’ in Europe where the ideology originated) and walked all over the lives of people there. Korea edition of Lonely Planet was one of their poor ones in my opinion (Laos version I used a few years ago was shockingly incorrect), but at least it gave me some insights into how the historical artifact was affected by the Japanese control. The Shamanism temple in Inwangsen on the north western edge of the city looked modern and our of the beaten path. Reading the guidebook about it explained it – it used to be a major temple that stood proudly on the hill right in the city but was destroyed by the Japanese, and it was secretly reestablished in the present place so it wouldn’t attract the attention of the conqueror. I can only imagine how magnificent it might have been in the old days. What if, like Kyoto, the war spared the historical city from the war, what would it look like today?
Visiting the palace in the city centre that has been restored and maintained for tourist, however, I can see the evidence of the rich culture that the Japanese used to admire and respect. The layout of the buildings and their surrounding walls is not based on grid and its straight lines but curved and angled – so that the impact of the building’s presence is maximised when viewed by the visitor. The roof line of large structure is gradually curved towards the end of straight lines, so that it would fix the optical distortion. I recall reading about how Japanese architect learned this from the Peninsula when they built the large palace-style mansion that we see engraved on the back of 10-yen coin.
Humans have built so much but lost a lot of it in their lack of respect for each other. Travelers visit our neighbour by walking through their front gate with our hat off and head bowed low; tourists sit comfortably in the air-con bus and ride straight into their living room. Let us be ‘travelers’. Let us be humble, respectful, interested and graceful, and talk of the beauty of the land we visit. Carry on telling the story of our teachers, before the self-centred people destroy this beautiful world, with their guys, their carbon emission, their nuclear waste and their commercial influences.