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Noticing Immediate Differences: Japan and Korea

I’m sitting at one of Fukuoka city’s famous yatai: a food stall lining the river, usually stocking fresh ramen or sushi. This time, as I perch myself on one of the red stools and start slurping loud enough to attract the attention of Japanese, it’s as though I’m settling into a warm bath. With Japanese signs around me, Japanese speakers chattering away, and the local food settling in my stomach, it’s no wonder I feel a great sense of relief and excitement coming back. I’m certainly comfortable in Korea, but I can’t read all the signs, I can’t speak worth anything, and I’m much more lax in getting to know people. Maybe it’s because I’ve just been abroad too long.


As if on cue, a young lady strolled up to my yatai, looking inquisitive but a little out of place. The owner greets her in Japanese and directs her to a stool, but she remains standing, asking for something in particular.

“It’s ramen,” the owner says to her.

She said something I didn’t catch, so I chimed in, assuming she was Japanese: “It’s delicious, the best in Fukuoka!”

She didn’t react at all to what I said, but, as if making up her mind, slowly sat down and waited for a bowl. I thought I might as well enjoy a conversation about the food:

“福岡に住んでいる?” (Do you live in Fukuoka?)

Again, no reaction. I was confused now, until I realized she had only spoken one word of Japanese.

“Korea?” I asked, a little uncertain. But she nodded. “Ahhh, 안녕하세요!” As if on cue, the Japanese man to my right commented on my eating habits:

“I’ve never seen a foreigner eat ramen like a Japanese.”

So, of course, to be polite, I spoke with him for a few minutes. About food, my travels in Japan, his work… and then it hit me.


Two months in Korea, and I can’t even ask a Korean person if she’s Korean. Two years in Japan, and I can understand why a Japanese might look funnily at a foreigner loudly slurping noodles. Not only that, but I can talk to him about it at length. It was almost the perfect contrast between the life I had, and the one I’m living now. Will I one day be eating 고기구이 in Busan, talking merrily in Korean to the people sitting around me? Or will I stick with my affinity to Japan? It’s only been two months, but I still feel as though Nippon has more of a draw for me than Korea.

A few things happened on this last trip that made me reevaluate my experiences in Japan. True, I was coming to the country as a tourist this time around, which definitely affected my perspective: why should I care if Japanese instinctively speak English to me if I am in fact a visiting English speaker (who just happens to know a little Japanese)? But… as I was visiting an onsen ryokan in Hakone at the request of, I probably felt more respected that day and night than any other time in my two years in Japan.

Maybe I’m mistaken. But I certainly didn’t feel professionally respected during my year teaching at AEON, as I was basically an interchangeable part of the eikaiwa machine. I did enjoy my time at Shin Nippon Biomedical in Kagoshima, but the company was so laid-back by Japanese standards; not that this was a problem, mind you… I just felt I was given more attention in Hakone. I was respected as a travel writer, and that alone may have boosted my ego more than one year in a scientific company ever could have:

– It was the first time I can recall being addressed as “Turner-sama
– Conversation between my contact and the owner was smooth; they trusted my Japanese ability when it was necessary, and we switched to English as needed
– I think I received more than just superficial flattery when asked about my travel experiences in Japan; they both seemed genuinely impressed with my knowledge and appreciation of onsen

In any case, when I first disembarked the JR Beetle International Ferry in Fukuoka, a few things were immediately obvious. Korea has a fine system of roads and sidewalks, but Japan’s are definitely more orderly and cleaner. Citizens of both countries use bowing as a form of respect and introduction, but Japanese are much more genki about it; just walking into a 7-11 I immediately noticed that eyes were on me in a way they hadn’t been for two months at any Family Mart in Busan, Uljin, Seoul, or Gangneung. In that sense, I suppose customer service is just more user-friendly; workers are always “on” in Japan, from beginning to end.


Some things I had forgotten… the money is quite big. I remember how small US bills were by comparison. Japanese women, IMHO, are more attractive. To me, of course. But I also think they age considerably better. Food and cost of living are markedly more than that of Korea, but that was to be expected. It was just so surreal being back in a place where life had been going on the whole time I was away; it was as if I expected things to just freeze and await my return. Instead, I discovered Hakata Station was completely rebuilt, my favorite ramen yatai was relocated, and my language skills were much better than I had assumed they would be; memories and words came flooding back once they were required.

Another benefit to being back was getting a haircut. Of course there are plenty of cheap and decent places to get your hair cut in Korea, but this is one area I hate experimenting with the language for the first time; when it happened in Thailand, I ended up with a buzz cut: the barber thought I wanted to leave a quarter inch, not just cut it off. In addition, in Korea I might have accidentally walked into a place of prostitution:


Certainly looks innocuous enough, but in Korea, two of these means it’s a front for sexual services. One is legitimate. In the end, it was easier to pay ¥1000 at a discount place in Shizuoka and state I just wanted a trim.