In 1989 I went on my first trip to South Korea.
I travelled there in a party of first-year students from Yamaguchi University. One of the teachers had suggested I come along and had explained that I could improve my Japanese by mixing with the students on the trip.
I suspected the real reason for the invitation was actually so I could provide extra help with speaking English in Korea. Nevertheless I was curious as to what Korea would be like and so I signed up.
If I recall correctly I was the only non-Japanese on the trip. We crossed on the Kanpu ferry travelling overnight from Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi to Pusan at the southern tip of Korea. We slept roughly on the tatami mats on board and were woken up ridiculously early when the ship docked.
The plan involved us travelling around together for a few days by tour bus. The bus was already waiting for us as we descended the gangway and with it came a Japanese-speaking female Korean tour guide.
For some reason she thought it would be a good idea to include a tirade about the cruel Japanese occupation of the country (until 1945) in her welcoming speech. Then, possibly thinking I was American, she continued to lecture us on how the Americans had ruined things in South Korea a bit too.
Luckily no one seemed to mind and I wondered if the Japanese students even knew enough history to know what she was talking about anyway.
After a while she settled down into a more relaxing commentary about the culture of the country and what we were seeing out of the window.
It all seemed a bit odd at the time. I have been to Korea several times since and the people are a little obsessed with the war, but they probably have their reasons for that I suppose.
Looking out of that window I could discern a few differences from Japan. The writing was dramatically different and they drove on the right hand side of the road. I saw that there were no Japanese cars either. In fact there seemed to be almost no cars that were not Korean. I also thought that the country looked poorer than Japan but not dramatically so.
We spent our first night in a large Korean version of a Japanese ryokan. I’d tasted Korean food before in Japan and I had liked it. Being hot and spicy, it provided a good contrast to Japanese food. There was a lot of delicious grilled beef and the most famous accompaniment was fermented chili cabbage or “Kimchi”. It was an acquired taste, but I loved it.
We then went to Gwangju, a city in the South West, and there we were met by students of the Chonnam University in a kind of exchange visit programme. It all went well and the Korean students were excellent hosts, but they seemed a lot more grown up and more mature than the equivalent Japanese students.
Their English seemed a little better too and I was able to have some interesting conversations with them, something I never really managed much with the Japanese on the trip.
The difference between the two groups became more apparent when we were taken to see a display about the 1980 Gwangju uprising. This tragic event had killed over 600 people in the city just 9 years before. Government troops had launched attacks against the student protesters, including those from Chonnam University, and many of them had been battered and some had been killed.
The display featured colour photographs of people with smashed-in faces and dead mangled bodies. The Korean students explained it all in their best Japanese, but it was clear that most of the Japanese couldn’t comprehend it at all and they all looked as if they thought they had landed on a different planet.
I think that incident helped to create the impression that I still have of Korea. I think that it is a harsher and more serious country than Japan. Japanese society often does a very good act of pretending to be innocent and almost childlike but Korean society is much more grown up.
The people as individuals seem harsher too; you certainly see more arguments and fights on the streets than you ever do in Japan. The reverse side of this means that the people can also appear much friendlier than the Japanese, and certainly the Koreans seem less inhibited about hugging and showing affection to each other.
From Gwangju we headed up to Seoul on the bus. The students checked into a small hotel and I left them. I had arranged to leave the tour at this point. They had another two days sightseeing before returning to Pusan on the bus and then the ferry home, but I was staying in Seoul a little longer. I planned to make my own way back to Yamaguchi by flying back via Tokyo on Northwest airlines.
I spent a week staying with an old teacher friend from Tokyo who had moved to Seoul and was teaching at Seoul University.
Staying with him I got a different view of Korea again. He confirmed my initial observations and told me he found it more interesting than Japan because the people were more emotional and challenging. The living standard wasn’t as high though and that is what he said he missed most from Japan.
I spent the rest of my trip exploring Seoul during the day and then eating and drinking near the university with a new growing circle of British and Korean friends in the evening.
The city was spread out and difficult to navigate at times. The metro system was still growing then and wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as it is now. Nevertheless I managed to get around most of the major sights and more besides.
My initial appreciation of Korean food turned into a love affair. I tasted some absolutely wonderful stuff including Bibimbap, which became my favourite Korean dish, for the first time.
I have returned to South Korea several times since.