Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Tale of Reading The Tale of Genji

I like to think I'm a fairly well-read person, so I don't typically consider the finishing of a book to be cause for celebration. However, a few days ago I finally finished a book that I had been reading for the past three years and that has much to do with my studies. That book is the unabridged monumental Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari) written by Murasaki Shikibu (that's a pen-name; some people think her real name was Fujiwara Takako and that she was a lady-in-waiting at the palace in Kyoto, though this is often debated). Written in the 11th century, Tale of Genji is widely considered to be the first piece of prose fiction (which technically makes it the first novel) ever written. The authoritative English translation by Royall Tyler -- a very interesting person in his own right -- released by Penguin Books a few years back, is a whopping 1,120 pages, and that's not including the forewords, introductions, indexes, maps, timeline guides, etc. The story itself depicts the lives of aristocrats living in Kyoto, then the capital of Japan and home to the emperor, in the Heian period (794-1185 C.E.). So why did I decide to read the 11th-century Japanese equivalent of War and Peace, minus the war? And why did it take me so long!? I shall tell you a tale . . .

This is the version I read, but if you want to get a sense of the story without reading this giant tome there are a number of abridged versions and adaptations. 
The way I originally came to own Tale of Genji is actually kind of an amusing tale in itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a pretty big fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series of comics by Stan Sakai -- if you haven't read any and like samurai and Sengoku-period stuff, you should consider checking it out. Some years ago I read a particular volume of Usagi Yojimbo that recounted the famous naval battle between the Genji and Heike clans during the Genpai War (1180-85 C.E). I was totally into samurai and East Asian military history in those days (I suppose I still am) and heard that that particular battle was recorded in detail in a famous piece of Japanese historical literature, and I decided I really wanted to read it. I can't remember exactly what happened after that, but I think I was poking around in a bookstore and I saw Tale of Genji on a shelf or something. I just assumed that it was the story I wanted to read, as I'd heard that it was a famous work and associated the Genji in the title with the Genji clan described in the Usagi Yojimbo comic (this was before I was an East Asian Studies major, mind you). So when Christmas rolled around, I put Tale of Genji on my list and my mother, impressed that I had asked for a renowned classical piece of literature, bought it for me. 

This is the book I actually wanted, apparently, though to this day I still don't own a copy.  
I was happy to receive it, though I didn't read it right away, as it was huge and intimidating and I was still trying to get through a heavily annotated version of Dante's Divine Comedy at the time (which also took me a few years). Genji stayed in my bookshelf for a few years until I began my foray into East Asian studies. It didn't take long for us to get to Genji in Introduction to East Asian History; I quickly found out that Tale of Genji was not the tale I had initially thought it was. I initially toyed with the idea of offloading the book to one of my friends, as it sounded thoroughly uninteresting to me at the time. "There's nothing worse than a bunch of whiny aristocrats sitting around talking about art and how sad they are that some prospective mate isn't returning their letters!" was more or less what I thought. 

This illustration is from the Tale of Genji emaki, or scroll, a famous work that depicts a number of scenes from the story. This one appears to be of a nobleman and noblewoman having some intimate moments while her gentlewomen wait behind a screen. This happens a lot in the story, with various characters.  
It wasn't until second year that I learned a bit more about the tale and its importance to the study of East Asian history, when we began studying the Heian period, and I realized that it was something I might want to read after all. Tale of Genji represented a major turning point in Japanese literature, following the emergence of a native Japanese writing system known as kana (in this case, hiragana specifically). Before kana the Japanese used kanji (Chinese characters) exclusively, and according to my sources, women were discouraged from learning it for a number of archaic and misguided reasons (though some did, evidently). However, when hiragana came along, it was supposedly easier to learn and was thus considered ideal for women. Many women in the court started learning and writing in hiragana, which led to a small literary renaissance of sorts. The Tale of Genji is one of the results of this, as well as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, another famous work from the same period, which I'll likely read and review later this year.        

In second year we were given excerpts from the tale that we had to analyze, and it seemed to me that Genji, the main character of the story, could be thought of as the Japanese equivalent of Casanova or Don Juan or some such famous lover in literature. I'm generally not a huge fan of lovers in classical literature, so I received my first B+ mark writing an essay about how I thought Genji was a spoiled and naive idiot who did most of his thinking through his member and had no regard for any of the women whose lives he had ruined through his wanton ways. Still, we were told that, while fiction, the tale paints an extremely detailed portrait of the time in which the author lived and also had many interesting philosophical elements in its subtext. Of these, the concept of mono-no-aware is one of the most prominent; it denotes an appreciation of temporary things precisely because of their temporary nature (that's my understanding of it, anyway) -- in other words, appreciating things because they won't be around forever. So at the end of second year I decided to hunker down and give Tale of Genji the attention it apparently deserved. That was three years ago, and now I can cross the tale off my "monumental classics of literature" list.

Here's another scene from the scroll, with a female aristocrat apparently sleeping and her women (servants) hanging out outside the curtains engaging in various pastimes.  

My experience reading the tale can be described as intermittently wondrous, fascinating, frustrating, and even at times tedious. Don't get me wrong -- all in all I can say that I enjoyed reading it, and this translation is very well done, considering the subject matter. However, there are reasons why I consider Genji the hardest book I've ever forced myself to finish. I feel it's best to introduce subheadings here, so . . .

Alex's Personal List of Wondrous and Problematic Elements in the Penguin Classics Royall Tyler Translation of Tale of Genji (Unabridged)   

The following is a list of things that I personally found both awesome and frustrating while reading Tale of Genji. It also may be viewed as a list of what to expect and potential obstacles for those who are seriously thinking about reading it.   

Better believe there is a manga adaptation! (I'm sure there must be a translation out there, at least in scan form if not published.)
1. The Setting

According to the book, Heian Japan sounds like a really beautiful place to be if you're an aristocrat. Flowing streams; lush gardens; cherry blossoms; beautiful handmade robes featuring intricate patterns and soft, subtle colours; perfumes; healthy food; handsome villas; everyone playing music all the time and dancing and writing poetry. If you're a fan of the arts like me, then Heian aristocratic society may sound very attractive at first glance. However, it was also an extremely restrictive society in which everyone had to observe ridiculously stringent protocol and women had almost no say in . . . well, anything really. Here's some case studies based on a number of situations in the story.

A. Having trouble with an idiot courtier whom you must deal with on a regular basis? Well, even if you outrank him, you can't just give him a piece of your mind -- that would be too brazen! You must take the roundabout approach and get his servants or someone close to him to subtly persuade him to stop being an idiot, which can take days, weeks, or months or just never get done. Fortunately the average lifespan of the Heian noble seems to be about 54 years, so you won't have to suffer forever!

B. You're a woman, and a decently ranking male aristocrat whom you don't particularly like has expressed interest in you and asks if he can gain an audience with you. What do you do? Well, you can't say no, and ignoring him -- simply out of the question! Either of those responses would be just too rude and crass; what would everyone say about you!? You don't want people talking negatively about you behind your back, so thus you must acquiesce. What if he decides that, instead of simply talking with you, he'd rather just walk into your bedroom and have his way with you? Well, tough, your servants can't kick him out because he outranks them all, and you can't just hit him with something, because that's rude! You'll just have to learn to get used to having this new guy around. This actually happens several times in the story and is often perpetrated by the main character, Genji himself. There are a number of scenes in which a female character essentially gets raped by her would-be suitor and then the man chews her out for being 'distressed.' What the hell, Shikibu!?

Now listen, I'm not an idiot. I know the story was written by a woman and there is a historical context to be understood here. I imagine that in many societies in the world, the 1000s would not be considered progressive by today's standards by any stretch of the imagination. So when I read chapters in which these sorts of things happened, I tried my best to put myself in the mentality of the time -- I suppose stuff like that just happened and was fairly common and not a huge deal, depending on whom it happened to and why. Still, for a 21st-century feminist (yeah, that's right, I'm a feminist and a heterosexual male), it was at times hard to swallow. Near the end of the tale a female character straight up refuses to acknowledge a male suitor's advances for a number of reasons, and I found it to be one of the most satisfying moments in the whole tale.

So yes, in brief, I like the way Heian looks and plays, but if I had a time machine, while I might visit for a week or so, I wouldn't want to move there.

2. The Character Names and Titles

Here's a genealogical chart of the various main characters and how they are all related to each other. I don't think the version I have included this.  
Tale of  Genji has a lot of characters -- around 30 to 40 who show up every so often and a whack-tonne of minor characters who show up maybe once or twice. This may not sound like a lot; after all, many epics boast impressive rosters. However, in Tale of Genji their names change several times throughout the course of the story! I shall explain how this works. For whatever reason, Shikibu named all the characters after ranks in the Heian aristocratic hierarchy. It would seem that, based on the book, multiple advancement is possible within this hierarchy; therefore every time someone gets a promotion their name changes! Good gravy!

So, for example, the main character is referred to as Genji in the early part of the story (a genji seems to be like a squire or something similar). However, as he advances the text starts referring to him as "his grace," and then in another chapter, "his excellency," etc. etc. By the end of the book I think they're calling him "his honorary highness" or something like that.

Let me just say that I am awful at memorizing names to begin with, and when they are constantly changing, it's just a nightmare. Fortunately Tyler (the translator) puts these nice cast lists at the beginning of each chapter with each character's initial title and the one they are currently going by. Still, this requires you to flip back a few pages every time you forget who they are talking about, which in my case was pretty darn frequently. Still, it is a fact of the writing, so I guess you just have to deal with it. Think of this as less of a complaint and more of a warning for those who wish to give Genji their time -- it's kind of complicated.

Still, seeing as how this was the first novel ever, I think I can cut Ms. Shikibu some slack.

There are a number of anime adaptations as well, I believe this shot is from the most recent, titled Genji Monogatari Senneki. 

3. The Pacing

I'm just gonna say this straight up. Sometimes Tale of Genji is what is popularly referred to as boring. If you're reading this book and you didn't do your research and you're waiting for the part where all the samurai come out and start fighting each other, you will be utterly disappointed. Guess what? In Heian times, samurai (as many of us know them) didn't exist yet! The Heian times were actually very peaceful, so Tale of Genji is entirely about aristocrats sitting around doing aristocratic things like writing letters and poems to each other, contemplating the weather, practising calligraphy, going to temples, playing music, and doing artsy-fartsy capital-C culture stuff.

Now I actually like this kind of stuff -- maybe because I do a fair bit of capital-C cultural stuff myself (like reading this book) -- and seeing the details of how people lived is one of the most fascinating things about studying the history of any country, in my opinion. Like the characters, I'm also prone to Zen-like contemplation of my immediate surroundings (I read a lot of Zen stuff as a kid and teenager and it sort of stuck with me), so there is a lot in Tale of Genji that speaks to me personally. Despite this, even though I was generally engaged with the subject matter, there were times when I would zone out or get impatient when, for example, several pages were devoted to illustrating how broken up characters were because a person they were courting couldn't see them for a day or two. Okay, they're sad -- I get it! May we should move to the next plot point now?

There was still a lot I personally enjoyed in the narrative -- if I hadn't enjoyed reading this book to some degree I wouldn't have completed it. However, it was admittedly a bit of a grind at times, and if you like your narrative, fast, furious, and most of all concise, then you will probably find the pacing of this book somewhat unappealing. At times I'd zone out when the narrative casually switched to other, previously unmentioned characters; I'd get really confused and have to reread huge chunks of the chapter, which was another reason why it took so long to finish.

Again, it is technically the first novel ever and was not originally intended for present-day audiences, so fine, I can forgive it.

Don't forget movies! The Tale of Genji, 1951.
4. The Poetry

I like poetry generally and I like the poetry in Tale of Genji, as much of it is derived from classical Chinese and Japanese pieces and it's as beautiful as it is simple. Tyler did a wonderful job of translating the poetry in this book, and that couldn't have been an easy feat. The text is quite frequently interspersed with poems that the characters write in order to express feelings of longing or disdain, one-up each other, or just comment on an event or condition. The poems are often just two lines long, usually touch on natural motifs, and are often annotated in order for you to make more sense of them. I personally think it helps liven things up a bit, but some folks don't like this sort of thing. Just something to keep in mind.

Here's a picture I took of one of the maps featured in the back of the book. This one is of a ranking nobleman's house.

5. The Illustrations and Visual Aids

The version I have contains a collection of illustrations drawn in a style similar to the Tale of Genji emaki that I posted above. These are scattered throughout the book and provide some excellent visual cues to give you a better idea of how everything might have looked in Heian Japan. Also this version has maps and diagrams in the back of the book to show you how the city of Kyoto was arranged in those days, as well as what a noble's house and living quarters probably would have looked like. I found these immensely useful and they really added to my enjoyment of the story itself. One of the pages even has a summary of the entire timeline, which I used a number of times to make absolutely sure I knew what was going on and also to refresh my memory after having put down the book for an extended period.
The tale has inspired many artists to attempt to capture its scenes. I feel that this one does an especially good job.
 6. The Story

One would likely expect this to be at the top of this list, but I thought it would be a nice note to end on. As I previously mentioned, to the modern reader it may seem that on the surface Tale of Genji is about a bunch of effete (just learned this word) aristocrats who sit around all day, make too much of a big deal about everything, and become enamoured with one another much too easily. Still, if this was all the tale had to offer, I doubt it would be as famous and often-studied as it is. What I got out of reading the tale was that it is really about the passage of time and the complexity and temporary nature of human relationships, and how those too are affected by time (remember mono-no-aware!).

The story is very long, which allows for a much larger span of time to pass from beginning to end than most other novels. Because of this, the reader plays witness to the changing of the seasons (many times over), the births and deaths of integral characters, and the way characters may come together or grow apart. Considering how much time is spent on the minute details of the goings-on, one really gets a sense of the consequences, importance, and even significance of all these events and relationships in the grater scheme of things. In my case I found it gave me a sobering bit of perspective in relation to my own life and the various relationships I have had with family, friends, girlfriends, etc.

Now I'm going to get a bit personal here. Perhaps one of the reasons these elements of Tale of Genji resonated so well with me was that when I started reading it, I had just started dating a woman whom I came to love deeply. After dating for almost a year and a half we broke up, for a number of reasons, and the rest is history. During all of this I was reading this tale in which characters are going through and lamenting the very same things and emotions that I was experiencing at the time. It actually brought me some comfort during and after the breakup, because I knew that what I was feeling was nothing new. It was one of those "the more things change, the more they stay the same" moments.

Also I feel that there may even be some subversiveness in the narrative. After all, the tale is very long and was written by a woman living in a largely misogynistic society, long before the first printing presses were widely available. One has to wonder why someone would spend so many years of her (likely) short life writing by hand something of this length and complexity. And the story often highlights female characters going through negative emotional trials and tribulations brought on by aggressive and wanton male suitors. Even the final chapter culminates in a woman flat out rejecting two male characters' advances to instead become a Buddhist nun. Could it be that Tale of the Genji is some sort of early feminist commentary, pondering the lack of agency women generally had during the Heian period? Though we will likely never know the answer to this question, I think it's worth thinking about and I'm fairly certain there is an entire area of study centred around this idea. Seriously, google "Tale of Genji + feminism + gender studies" if you're interested; I'd imagine there would be a lot of results.

And so the list ends here. And in conclusion . . .

It may seem that I'm trying to dissuade people from reading The Tale of Genji by saying it's boring or hard, but I simply wish to express the things I felt as I was reading it and to give you an idea of what you might be in for should you choose to read it yourself. When all is said and done, the Tale of Genji is an investment. It will likely take you a long time to read, even if you're the type to blaze through this kind of stuff, but you may come out of it with a new outlook on life and the world around you. Perhaps you will find a greater appreciation for the small things; maybe you'll have a better understanding of Japanese history and traditional culture; maybe you'll have heightened appreciation for poetry. At the very least, you can impress people by telling them you read a long and important piece of classical literature. As for me? I feel as if I've gotten all these things and more from reading the tale. Maybe I'll read it again in another decade or so, and see what more I can get out of it. It's one of those things you're meant to come back to, I think. Regardless, I would say that I recommend the Tale of the Genji if you have the time and patience -- it's a classic for a reason.                           

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Japan 2013 Travel Log Part 3: Kyoto Day 2 - Ramen and Temples!

We awoke at 11 am, got showered and dressed, and immediately consulted the guy (probably the owner) at the front desk of Haruya Aqua regarding how we might buy tickets for the overnight bus to Tokyo that night. We also made a point of asking him which local sights were close together so that we could cover as much as possible in one day. After determining a route, we hopped on our bikes and headed to a ramen restaurant that the owner had recommended, Kobushi Ramen.

The ramen shop looked rather low-key; it sported a handsome blue and white sign in Japanese kana with a romanized subheading reading "Kobushi." As we entered the restaurant we noticed to our left a bar at which a number of Japanese men were seated, busily devouring their ramen. To our right was a large enough table to accommodate several people, with two Japanese women seated on the other side chatting. We sat down at the table and were immediately approached by a waiter; he looked particularly non-Japanese and spoke excellent though somewhat accented English. We asked him what the signature dish was and he recommended a dish that, sadly, I can't remember the name of.

Biking through the suburbs of Kyoto is as relaxing as it is wondrous. You never know what charming vista you'll encounter next!    
The dish had orange eggs in it and was designed to be eaten in two stages. First you eat half of the dish just like regular old ramen and then at a certain point you crush the eggs and mix everything together so that, as the waiter explained, it would taste like "Italian food" -- I think rose sauce is what he likened it to. In any case, it was quite delicious! I eventually asked the waiter where he came from, and he explained that he was a Spanish student who had transferred from his university in Spain to study in Japan, as he had essentially fallen in love with the country. His Japanese appeared to be impeccable; he was very helpful in explaining the menu, which was entirely in Japanese (seriously, if you're planning a big trip to Japan sometime, learning at least some kana would be advisable).

In the suburbs Kyle happened to spy this group of schoolchildren on their way home from class and thought their colourful backpacks would make for an interesting shot, so I took the liberty.  
After we finished our brunch, we asked a construction worker who was smoking outside how to get to Kyoto Station so that we could reserve overnight bus tickets to Tokyo for that night. After much gesturing and exchanges in my broken Japanese and his broken English, he eventually got us on the right track. Kyoto Station was quite large and bustling. It has a famous bakery that we unfortunately were not able to take advantage of right away, as we were eager to get on the road and see some sights. We secured our tickets using simple English, and once that was out of the way we continued onward.

This little shrine was on the corner of a residential street, surrounded by houses. It was too pretty to pass up. 
We'd had trouble finding a place to lock our bikes and eventually locked them to a fence. I was a bit paranoid because no one else had locked their bikes to anything but bicycle stands, and I was afraid someone would try to remove them while we were buying our tickets. Interestingly enough, though, some people hadn't even locked their bikes! Apparently larceny is relatively uncommon in Japan, so some people apparently don't feel the need to secure their bikes -- I wish I could say the same for my city. After we acquired our tickets we continued on our journey.

My very own photo of the Golden Pavilion from across the pond. 
Our first stop was the famous Rokuan Temple (Rokuanji), which is home to the popular tourist attraction and often photographed Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji). I had seen photographs of the place in all sorts of galleries and sushi restaurants in Toronto, so I'd decided I simply had to see it in person. It took about 40 minutes to bike there from Kyoto Station. As we biked farther and farther out into the suburbs we were charmed by the quaint houses, a mix of traditional Japanese and modern architecture, that lined the streets. Kyoto is indeed a beautiful place to find yourself in.

When we arrived at the entrance to the temple grounds, we found that they were home to several interesting features besides the pavilion itself. The grounds are quite large and offer some truly wonderful spaces in the forms of gardens, ponds, and shrines. In the video I muse about how the Golden Pavilion may have been mentioned in that monumental work of fictional prose Tale of the Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu; later I realized that was impossible, because the temple hadn't been built at the time it was written. I was obviously misquoting -- the importance of research is once again made apparent.

After viewing the pavilion itself we walked around the grounds and eventually happened upon another shrine that many people were gathered around. At this shrine you can buy a candle for a nominal donation and burn it for good fortune in an area of your choice (details in the video above). The candle I chose was for family safety, since my grandmother is in her early nineties (though healthy) and my mother had informed me that my father was trying to keep his blood pressure down. Though I don't consider myself superstitious, I figured a little help from the various Bodhisattvas and Shinto deities couldn't hurt. On the way out of the temple we bought some green tea ice cream to fuel our bike ride, and I picked up two long-life charms from the temple, one of which I gave to Kyle as a gift.

That's the charm as it currently looks, hanging from my messenger bag. According to the charm seller, it is supposed to bring good health and long life. Inside the cloth bag is a wooden talisman that is meant not to be removed. Charms like these may be purchased at all sorts of temples throughout Japan. This one cost me 300 yen (about $3). 
Our next stop was Ryoan Temple (Ryoanji), which was only about a 15- to 20-minute bike ride from Rokuanji. So we hopped on our bikes and set out. Along the way we occasionally got disoriented and had to ask for directions, but we did have a map and the locals were very helpful. Ryoanji is home to a very famous Zen garden that, like the Golden Pavilion, is often photographed and can be seen on countless websites and in countless books around the world. We decided we had to see it, especially since it was so close to where we had just been.

There's Kyle prepping the bikes for our next destination. 
Like Ruokuanji, Ryoanji is situated in a rather large compound that also features several beautiful gardens and shrines. We figured we'd look at these after the Zen garden, so we made a beeline for that. When I paid to get into the temple, the woman at the front desk forgot to give me an actual paper ticket, so I wasn't initially allowed to enter the Zen garden. I had to go back to the ticket hut and have the woman call the people at the garden to let in "a foreigner named Alex." It was kind of embarrassing but everyone was pretty nice about it and finally I was allowed to see the Zen garden itself. In the area overlooking the garden you are not allowed to talk loudly or use your phone, as it is meant to be contemplated in silence. A young couple and a number of older folks were looking on, though there were not many people as it was the end of January. It was very peaceful indeed.

Here's the area overlooking the garden. In the video I refer to it as a "rock garden" on many occasions, but my Edo period urbanization professor would never let me hear the end of it if she heard me calling it that. Zen gardens are quite distinct from simple rock gardens and serve a special purpose. 
After surveying the Zen garden we walked around the grounds and checked out a number of the vistas and shrines in the compound. Again it was quite beautiful and very relaxing. We were quite lucky, because the weather was very nice despite it's being the middle of winter, and because of that there were much fewer tourists about than usual. It was perfect! We spent about an hour or so in the grounds and then we mounted our bikes once more and moved to our final destination, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

This is just a random lantern we saw by the roadside not far from Arashiyama. Just seeing it there made it seem uncanny and mysterious, and I loved the way it looked. 
Arashiyama was quite a long way from the temples we had visited and it took another 30 to 40 minutes to get out there. Much to our delight, the trip took us out into the countryside, and we took a number of detours along some country roads to see what rare sights they had in store for us. Because of that it took quite a bit longer to get where we were going than we had originally planned, but it was well worth it. Both Kyle and I were pleased that we had managed to make it out of the city and see some real nature! However, by the time we made it to the bamboo grove, it was almost dark.

The path through the bamboo grove was unlit, and since the sun had all but set it was delightfully eerie and almost magical. I half expected a Catbus to pull up. The light you see here is from my camera's flash.
It took us quite a while to find the bamboo grove, as it was in a park behind a large temple compound, where we secured our bikes and took the liberty of doing some investigating. Sadly, I have few pictures of the temple because of the lack of decent lighting (my camera is not very high-end). After we walked through the temple compound and as the sun was setting, we came across a riverbank dotted with stalls and a number of locals and a few tourists. We walked along a lit path following the river, surrounded by majestic mountains on either side, and eventually found some stairs leading up to the bamboo grove -- we actually discovered them wholly by accident. The bamboo grove is located in a park and we were afraid that we might be barred entry on account of the time. Fortunately it doesn't actually close, so we were able to walk through the grove as the last bit of sunlight was disappearing. As we walked through the deserted grove, with only the dim blue of the last dwindling sunlight to light our way, I felt as though I was in some sort of fable. It was otherworldly.

The area outside the temple compound is also very quaint and charming. It helped me understand why so many people who visit Japan have nothing but praise for Kyoto's scenery, both manmade and natural. 
After exiting the grove we decided it was time to go back to the hostel, as we needed to return our bicycles and pick up our bags (which the manager was holding for us) by 9 pm, before the manager left his post. We were quite hungry and made sure to have a little snack before the long hour-and-a-half bike ride back to Kyoto proper for dinner. We also had to catch our bus to Tokyo, which wasn't until around 12 am, so we were fine in that respect. The bike ride back to the city was just as fun and charming as the ride out, and though we were quite tired we still enjoyed it tremendously, now that the street lights were lit. We arrived back at the hostel by about 8:40, returned our bikes and picked up our luggage, and began the trek to Kyoto Station, about 20 minutes away on foot. We were absolutely exhausted after a full day of bike riding, and carrying our luggage (about two weeks' worth of clothes and other necessities) was pretty rough. We decided to find a restaurant close to the station and hang out there and relax for a few hours until it was time to catch our bus. We felt like we'd earned it.

After making conversation with these local high school teachers, who barely spoke English, they treated us to some additional sake and food. It was great! The guy in the back is a French dude who was touring the area. It looks like I'm holding that guy's hand there, but it's just the shot -- we weren't that friendly.
We found an izakaya down the street from the bus terminal and decided it would do. Fortunately the owner had spent a great deal of time in the States and spoke English fluently, which was great because we were very tired and hungry and preferred not to play guessing games. We ordered some food (I can't remember what) as well as sake and beer, as we planned to be there a while. Also in the izakaya was a table of Japanese men in suits who were talking animatedly and seemed to be from the area. After a while one of them asked us where we were from, and soon we were plunged into full-scale conversation. We learned that they were local high school teachers. Their English was quite broken and sometimes we clearly could not understand each other, but the owner played translator when we got stuck. In the end, we were able to have a fun and engaging conversation with the teachers. Eventually they insisted on treating us to more sake and some additional dishes, and they informed us that no one is kinder or more generous than the people of Kansai (the region that Kyoto is in), especially Kyoto. When we told them we were going to Tokyo, they jokingly said it was too busy and unfriendly there, so we should just stay in Kyoto . . . and a small part of me wanted to.

Eventually the time came to head to the terminal, so we reluctantly bid our culinary benefactors farewell and set off. It was a fine way to end our first Kyoto experience, and we felt that things could not have gone more smoothly, especially considering that we had planned everything at the last minute. I felt that we were extremely lucky and I decided that Kyoto is a place I will go back to again and again if I have the means. Charming, mysterious, and beautiful -- these are just a few of the words I'd use to describe Kyoto, based on my experiences there.

Next stop, the big city. Tokyo, here we come!

For those of you who are interested, here is the official website for the hostel we stayed at in Kyoto. I highly recommend it!          

Monday, January 6, 2014

Don't Let This Sleeping Dog Lie. . .

So here's the deal: since I want to keep things varied on this blog, I'm writing about my Japan trip with every other post so I can still write about the random East Asian stuff I encounter on an almost daily basis. I know a lot of people have been to Japan and write about it and know more about Japan than I do, but I thought my trip was unique in some respects and that's why I'm sharing it with y'all! So basically I'm going to alternate between the travel log and the usual mishmash of topics that populates this blog. Thank you all for reading! And now . . . video games!    

Christmas was good to me this year: I received a number of neat things from my family. But one in particular was Sleeping Dogs, developed by United Front and published by Square Enix, which I completed earlier this week.

This game has been out for a while and I guess is considered last-gen now with the release of PS4 and Xbox One, but I just got around to playing it and I thought it was worth highlighting. I blogged about this game way back when it was in production, a year or two ago. At the time I was stoked to see this being developed, as I remembered thinking back in high school how awesome a GTA Hong Kong would be and it finally looked like it was becoming a reality.

However, I was not blindly optimistic. I'd heard that Sleeping Dogs had a sordid production history and was originally slated to be an entry in the True Crime series of games, the first iteration of which I played a bit some years ago. I remember thinking that, aside from the fighting system, just about everything else in the game felt like a poor man's GTA; it just didn't have the polish and staying power to set it apart. So when Sleeping Dogs was in production I was really hoping that it wouldn't end up as some half-baked GTA clone. I went to study in Korea without a game console, so when Sleeping Dogs was released I wasn't able to play it. Then I came back to Canada and temporarily forgot that it existed. After remembering that I had wanted to play it, I asked a game-guru friend of mine if he had tried it, and he said it was one of the best games he had played all year! That was high praise coming from a guy who I know is very critical about his games, and so my hope was restored.

A virtual Hong Kong night market in as seen in Sleeping Dogs.
I had put the game on my Christmas list, not really expecting to get it, so on Christmas morning when I opened up a DVD-shaped gift, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I now owned the PS3 port of the game. When I first started playing it after Christmas dinner (tired and somewhat intoxicated), my initial reaction was sort of "meh." The graphics looked rough, the driving mechanics seemed a little too arcade-like, and I couldn't really get into it. It wasn't a deal-breaker, though, and I decided I'd sleep on it and try it again the next day. Suffice it to say, that following day I don't think I left my room save to eat and go to the washroom. Sleeping Dogs was the game I had been waiting for for a long time -- GTA Hong Kong had finally been realized, and it went beyond my expectations. Good job, United Front!

You're bound to meet a lot of shady characters in the Hong Kong underworld, many of them voiced by your favourite Asian-American actors.
The first thing I noticed about the game was the voice credits, particularly the appearance of such names as Will Yun Lee, the notorious Edison Chen, Kelly Hu, Byron Mann, Robin "Lu Kang" Shou, the legendary James Hong, Kim Yunjin, and even Conan-frickin'-Lee from Tiger on Beat! It's a veritable smorgasbord of Asian and Asian-American acting talent -- nice touch! Even Emma Stone has a cameo, as a foreign tourist you can date in the game as a side mission -- pretty cool! The game is set in a fictional version of Hong Kong that uses real names such as Aberdeen and Kennedy Town, but the geography is totally different from the actual place, which I found kind of odd. Despite this, the game does a good job of making you feel like you're in Hong Kong, or at least in a cinematic version of it (I have yet to actually visit Hong Kong). I was a little surprised to see that Kowloon and its infamous apartment slums make no appearance in the game. Saving it for a future title, maybe? In the end I felt the setting was pretty well fleshed-out.

 An aerial view of Sleeping Dog's Hong Kong.
I think my game-guru friend said it best when describing the gameplay in this title. The driving is halfway between GTA and Saint's Row -- a good mix of arcade and simulation (though leaning much more to the arcade side), the fighting is like a somewhat less polished Arkham Asylum system, and the shooting is satisfying, with guns that feel powerful and weighty and hit detection and physics that ensure that your enemies react as they might in some of the best scenes from John Woo's finest "bullet ballets." It makes for a pretty slick package. The game certainly does not look as polished as GTA V and there is some glitchy animation here and there, but it still does an excellent job of making you feel like a badass HK movie protagonist. The experience of walking through virtual Hong Kong reminded me of a blend of GTA and Yakuza: a good mix of fun and exhilarating driving, with enough interactivity to make the city feel like a living, breathing place. The ability to leap out of your car onto another and subsequently jack it in mid-drive is kind of an awesome touch. When you aim a gun while you're driving, the game goes into slow motion, making it easier to shoot out the tires of an enemy car or motorcycle and watch it barrel down the street and explode into flaming wreckage -- totally awesome.

The story conjures up memories of Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled, City on Fire, and myriad other films. I just can't get enough! 
It is obvious that Hong Kong cinema was the inspiration for the narrative of this game. You're an undercover cop, Wei Shen, whose mission is to bring down a major triad group called the Sun On Yee from the inside. You meet all sorts of shady characters who feel as if they might have been pulled right out of one of Johnny To's film noir gangster romps or one of John Woo's high-octane bullet ballets. There's even a part in the game in which you must fight a bunch of monks in a temple, à la a period kung-fu flick. The story is a cornucopia of movie references both subtle and non, which is all too wonderful for an Asian film geek like myself.

The language of the game is primarily accented English, though you do meet a number of characters who speak Cantonese exclusively. This does take away from the authenticity of the setting to some degree, but it is a North American game so I didn't find this too surprising; and English is pretty much the second language of Hong Kong, so I guess it kind of works if you think about it. If you pay attention to the dialogue you can learn a number of Cantonese swear words that you can use on your friends! (Just remember to use them sparingly.) My only complaint is that the game felt a bit too short (though I did play it for three days straight, so that may have something to do with it) and the ending ties things up a little too nicely if you ask me (though this could be thought of as an homage to old-school Hong Kong movies, which tend to end rather abruptly and almost too perfectly).

One of the DLC packs titled Movie Masters Pack allows you to play as, among other things, a Shaolin bronze man from the old-school kung-fu flick 18 Bronze Men of Shaolin -- an awesome film in its own right!
All in all, I have to say a huge thank-you to United Front for being the folks to finally get this game to the light of day. Having a GTA-type game take place exclusively in Hong Kong is kind of a gutsy decision, and given the history of this game's development, it could all have gone very wrong. In the end, Sleeping Dogs is a complete package, with fun fighting, driving, and shooting and a storyline that makes you feel like you're in an HK movie. I had always wanted this game to exist, and now that I've finally played it, I'm not disappointed in the least! Sure, it has a few noticeable seams, but in the end I am definitely satisfied with this competent effort.

I wonder if there's a sequel in the works. I can only hope. There's some DLC available that adds a mission to the narrative that is straight out of Enter the Dragon, I might just have to pick that up. Anyway, if you haven't played this game by now, you may want to give it a try. It's pretty damn good!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Japan 2013 Travel Log Part 2: Day 1 in Kyoto

And now more of my travel log from last year's Japan trip.

My buddy Kyle on the train from Osaka to Kyoto.
After we woke up in Osaka, Kyle was itching to get out of the big city and see some nature, and I had heard that Kyoto was more relaxed than Osaka (in the off-season, anyway), and so we decided to head out there via the Hankyu line, which our Korean acquaintance from the airport bus had told us cost a mere 380 yen (about $4). It was exactly that price, and the trip was only 30 to 40 minutes. We didn't have a proper guidebook and my knowledge of Japanese geography was woefully lacking. I knew Kyoto was not too far from Osaka but I had no idea how to get there, so it was a good thing that we had asked someone and that getting there was so easy. We left for Kyoto after breakfast.           

The video I took really shows how little I knew about Kyoto and the whole Kansai region at the time, as I make a number of erroneous statements pertaining to the local geography (I have since learned a lot more). This shows the importance of researching the places you visit before you go. Always do your research, my friends; don't be ignorant like old Alex and sound like an idiot when you talk about things (for the record, I knew Orangina wasn't Japanese -- I was trying to be funny). Moving on . . .

The previous evening we had booked a single night at a hostel called Haruya. Initially I thought it was in Gion, which is why I say so in the video, but our hostel was actually down the street from the Kyoto Aquarium, in a wonderfully low-key part of the city (apparently it's a sister hostel called Haruya Aqua). The hostel operates out of a 200-year-old house and has traditional tatami rooms and sliding doors -- very charming indeed. Because the hostel was virtually empty that particular evening, we were upgraded to the main tatami room, which was very spacious and visually splendid. I'd always wanted to stay at a place like this and I finally got my wish.

The main tatami room at Haruya Aqua.
We split the cost of the room and it came to about $26 a person, though we were paying for the room we'd booked initially, which was smaller and cheaper and not a tatami room. The hostel offers bike rentals that are normally 500 yen (about $5) a day, but we were given them free on account of the lack of other visitors that evening, so we took them out for a spin. The hostel also gave us a free map, which was very detailed and in English, so it was extremely helpful. Kyle has a tonne of experience with backpacking and the like, so he was our navigator and performed admirably. Our first mission was looking for food, as we were starving. So we stopped at an izakaya, a kind of Japanese pub, for some refreshments to fuel us for our bike ride.

This izakaya was located at a quiet intersection in a residential area near our hostel. It was too charming to pass up. 
The izakaya was tiny, and as we slid the door open we were greeted by the chef, presumably the owner, and two customers who seemed to be regulars, watching TV and talking energetically to the owner in Kansai dialect. The situation was initially like a puzzle to us, as both Kyle and I had only the most rudimentary Japanese language capabilities, which did not include reading or writing; the entire menu was in Japanese; and it was evident that the staff didn't speak a lick of English.

Here's me posing with our hard-won Asahi. I was trying to look like one of those foreigners who occasionally appear in Japanese advertisements.
At first we just chose a few things at random, but when that yielded interesting though somewhat lacklustre results, we devised a way around our predicament. One of the regulars was ordering some really tasty-looking stuff, and fortunately I had a phrasebook on my phone that I had downloaded prior to the trip. I looked up "What do you call that?" and politely said to him, "Excuse me," and started pointing to all the food he had ordered, asking him, "What do you call that?" for each one. I wrote down the answers he gave me on a piece of paper, thanked him, and apologized for bothering him. He was pretty friendly, though, and didn't seem to mind at all. I read off all the things he had told me and also ordered some Kirin, my favourite Japanese beer; they didn't have it, so we got Asahi instead. Pleased with our ingenuity, Kyle and I proceeded to drink our beer and eat our snacks, which ended up being quite delicious indeed. After sitting around for a bit, we continued our evening bike trip to Gion -- the traditional geisha district of Kyoto.

This is the path leading to Yasaka Shrine in Gion. It was practically empty when we got there.
As we cycled into Gion, at a large intersection we spied the entrance to Yasaka Shrine, a handsome, traditionally built orange gate. It was open and looked much too interesting to pass up, so before we went into Gion proper we took a walk around the grounds. There were lanterns everywhere, which gave a unique warmth to the place. The grounds were practically deserted save for a few people who had stopped by to offer some prayers or stroll around. I saw a man who looked as if he might be a Shinto priest enter one of the buildings and not come out, so I suppose he lived there. The path I walk down in the video, with its lanterns on each side, was wonderfully mysterious and romantic. If I end up going to Kyoto with a future girlfriend, we'll definitely visit Yasaka Shrine in the evening -- it's too romantic not to. After taking a thorough tour of the grounds, we entered Gion.

Our first mission was to find a restaurant that was not too expensive (the area is quite popular among tourists and prices there seemed to be higher than elsewhere). Eventually we found a ramen shop that was part of a popular chain and ate there. Not exactly glamorous, but we were poor students who still had six days in Japan and were heading to the Philippines afterwards, so we couldn't exactly splurge. After that we wandered around the main street of Gion, looking at shops and things. Having heard that Gion was a historical geisha district, we hoped we might spy one of the modern equivalents of geisha.

We did actually see one walking along; she was decked out in a pretty kimono with the traditional wig, powdered face, and red lips -- quite a sight indeed! We also noticed a lot of rather attractive, somewhat heavily made-up women (think gyaru style -- *look it up here) wandering the streets, calling out to men as they walked by. Some seemed to be soliciting and others were handing out flyers for what I can only guess were hostess bars. I'm not sure if any of them were actual prostitutes or whether they were strictly hostesses, but I was certainly not used to "ladies of the night" being so forthcoming. We got a few calls ourselves, and then we turned a corner and ended up in hostess-bar-land! There were hostesses, escorts, mama-sans, and patrons all over the place! I'd never seen such a sight!

The winding backstreets of Gion are full of restaurants and attractive bars. This area was just beyond the Kamo River.
Though calling it a red light district, as I do in the video, may not be entirely accurate, it seems that Gion's tradition of being a "pleasure zone" is still being upheld, with little sign of slowing down. I wanted to video the scene, but when we returned to the area after dinner, it seemed that everyone had left. The place was practically deserted save for a few gyaru types who tried to get our attention and a mama-san leading a rather drunk patron to a taxi. It was the strangest thing, considering that it was so full of people just an hour or so before. Suffice it to say, Kyle and I were not looking for "that sort" of entertainment (probably couldn't have afforded it even if we wanted to -- hostess bars are supposedly quite expensive, and I can imagine that any "services" beyond that would be even more so) and decided to head to a "normal" old bar down one of the picturesque side streets that run parallel with the Kamo River.

The bar we eventually chose (at random) was rather pricey but not lacking in character in the least! It was a tiny little place full of middle-aged Japanese men and women singing karaoke. The bartender was transgendered and sang duet songs doing both the male and female parts very convincingly . . . seriously, I'm not making this up. It was yet another charming place, and the customers seemed quite amused that two young foreign guys had randomly wandered into their bar. Still, it wasn't the least bit shady and the customers seemed like artist types and regulars. We had some Suntory whisky and I sang a few songs. After some time we decided to head back to the hostel and catch some shuteye to prepare for the all-day biking trip we had planned for the next day. We'd had our first taste of Kyoto and we were liking it, but it wasn't until the next day that I really started falling in love with the place.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

5 Reasons Why I Love South Korea

Happy New Year and Merry Belated Christmas, readers, friends and friendly readers! I haven't posted anything in a while and that was because I was dealing with holiday stuff . . . and then much of Toronto suffered a multiple-day power outage that not only lowered my house's indoor temperature to somewhere around 6 degrees centigrade but knocked out the Internet for around two weeks. I could see my breath in my bedroom -- it was awful. Fortunately the lights came back on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and so, at my house, Christmas was saved! And now . . . a post!

I've been a Korea aficionado for about 6 years now and in that time I've visited Korea 3 times, lived there for a year, and can't wait to go back and perhaps work there in the future. It is my goal to do graduate studies in Korea and I'm currently doing my utmost to ensure that this goal is realized. Throughout these past years, the most common question asked me by both Koreans and non is "Why Korea?" And that is a perfectly legitimate question.

This is a meme I made for my friends to have a giggle. The picture is me in 2008, when I first travelled to Korea. Hallyu is also known as "the Korean wave" and denotes the spreading popularity of Korean media (namely K-pop and television dramas) throughout the rest of Asia and beyond. It reportedly didn't hit North America until 2009.
I thought it would be fun to answer that question today by making a list of the 5 things I personally find most endearing about South Korea. However, I must stress that this is not a "why Korea is better than any other country" list. South Korea, like every other country in the world, is not perfect; it has its own unique set of issues and problematic elements that are being debated, discussed, and written about as we speak. So no, I'm not naive enough to think that Korea is some sort of utopian country where everyone is happy all the time -- I've lived there myself, after all. I would also like to stress that I like and am interested in countries other than Korea; it's just that over the years I have built up a special connection to Korea and am currently fixated on it for my future. So now that you know I'm not a Korea zealot, I present to you the 5 reasons why I love South Korea (the order does not reflect their value to me).

1. The Language

Anyone interested in the Korean language should check out this book at some point. It contains countless idioms, expressions, and proverbs that are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. 
Comparatively, the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is pretty easy to learn if your first language uses a phonetic alphabet. At first glance Hangul looks like a bunch of random shapes -- circles, squares, lines -- how could this be an alphabet!? However, it's actually fairly simple to learn how to read and write at least phonetically. It took me a few months to really get it down when I wasn't even taking a class at the time, and I am notoriously bad at memorizing patterns and the like, so it worked out pretty well for me. And beyond the writing system I find the Korean language to be wonderfully expressive. There are all kinds of idioms and expressions that touch on Korea's history and traditional philosophies that are nearly untranslatable into English. I just love that kind of stuff.

Finally, Korean is just a "raw"-sounding language to me. It's one of those languages where if you don't understand it and you hear two people having a lively conversation, you might think they're cussing each other out. I like Cantonese, Kansai-dialect Japanese, and a number of Southeast Asian dialects for the same reason. The choppiness, volume, and elongated vowels may be annoying to some, but to me they sound hearty! In my opinion, the sound of Korean really matches the tumultuous history of the nation. Maybe I'm being overly romantic (and overly general) here, but I feel as if all the crap the Korean populace has had to put up with in their 3,000-plus years of history is reflected in the way their language sounds. A hearty language for a hearty people. (Before anyone says anything, I realize I've just described two-thirds of the languages in the world, but hey, this is why I like Korean.)

2. The Look and Feel of the Place

Technically this may be two things, but in my experience one is conducive to the other. In my humble opinion Korea is just really neat-looking. This most likely has a lot to do with the fact that I was not born there and thus have not become desensitized to the look of the place, but whether you are in the city or the country, South Korea has some truly nifty sights.

Here's a night view of Seoul's skyline that I took from the top of Ansan Mountain, beside Yonsei University.
In the city . . .

Huge skyscrapers, massive urban sprawl, rows of apartment buildings, clean streets, shops and restaurants literally piled on top of each other in space-efficient plazas. Little side streets hidden among the sprawl, with cafés and boutiques that you wouldn't be able to find if you hadn't stumbled across them. Parks that offer a little slice of nature in the concrete jungle. Every corner you turn may reveal some new place or experience. The cities are just so full of stuff and everything is so packed in, but the use of space is as ingenious as it is haphazard -- a sort of organized chaos. For someone with ADHD (like me), it's kind of perfect, really -- I could live in Seoul my whole life and never see everything. I can definitely understand how some people would find this totally unattractive, but despite the fact that it is essentially a side-effect of overpopulation, I like it. I sometimes feel like I'm living in a sci-fi novel when I'm over there. The city is always moving; everyone seems to have a purpose and moves with urgency and I get caught up in it. I feel as if I ought to be getting stuff done myself -- it's motivating. Even the poorer areas are interesting and relatively safe, while offering intrepid explorers a look at a bygone era. What can I say? I was born in the city.

I took this while I was working on a farm in Gyeonggido.

In the country . . .

Rice paddies, fresh air, green mountains, forests and temples, streams, roadside eateries, and tanned, hearty farmer folk offering me drinks and asking me all sorts of questions about who I am and where I come from, once they learn I can speak a bit of  their language. For me, the South Korean countryside is a charming place indeed (again, likely because I am not a native of it). My first exposure to the countryside came almost immediately after I arrived in South Korea in 2008. My girlfriend at the time decided to whisk me off to meet her grandparents in a tiny village in Namhei (one of the southernmost points on the Korean peninsula), a mere two days after I arrived and still suffering from jet lag. The village was home to mostly children, elderly people, and a number of farm animals, and you could walk from one end to the other in probably less than 20 minutes. I remember rice paddies, thatched roofs, and mountains jutting up in the distance; I felt like I was in a film -- it was great! Since then I've had tonnes of fun in the Korean countryside, consisting of picnics, camping, swimming in rivers, and even working on a farm. Good times!

3. The Past 100 Years of Korean History: The Ultimate Underdog Story

South Korea went from this (taken in 1910) . . .

. . . to this (2013) in a relatively short amount of time. The path was a bumpy one indeed.
I would argue that everyone loves a good underdog story, because I'm pretty sure that everyone during the course of their life has felt like an underdog at some point or another. To me, the past 100 years of Korean history represent a period as tragic as it is inspiring. Being a fairly tiny country situated between East Asia's two largest superpowers -- China and Japan -- the country we currently know as Korea has had to deal with invasion after invasion for centuries. However, the past 100 years are a pretty good example of how Korea can take a lickin' and keep on tickin'.

In case you're unfamiliar with its history, in 1910 Korea was annexed by Japan, which subsequently ruled over it for more than 30 years. Koreans' language and culture were harshly suppressed and their national history was tampered with; they also endured a whole bunch of other nasty things at the hands of their colonial masters that I won't get into right now. They achieved independence in 1946 but shortly after became ideologically split into two separate regions, which led to a civil war in which more than a million people died. After rebuilding, the South Koreans then lived through four consecutive military dictatorships (the result of multiple coups d'état) in which various forms of oppression and corruption were rampant. Finally, in 1997, the country went bankrupt and came under control of the IMF. It managed to pull itself out of debt in only two years.

This all happened over the course of only 100 years. Despite these horrible experiences, they are now one of the top manufacturers of electronics, appliances, cars, and ships in the world, making them an economic superpower to be reckoned with. Simply put, presently South Korea looks pretty darn good for a country that was considered to be a Third World military dictatorship a mere 30 years ago. I don't know about you, but I think that's a pretty inspiring story.

4. The People

There's me and my friends from Yonsei University's pungmul club Ddae. Pungmul is a kind of traditional group drumming performance. I joined the club in my second term there and it was super fun! Guess which one I am!
I really wanted to avoid putting a people entry in this post, because people as individuals are so multifaceted and complicated, and everywhere you go you're bound to meet nice people as well as jerks. I just think it's problematic to talk about the people of a specific country, culture, or ethnicity as a collective unless you're quoting statistics. Hence I shall use the proper wording here. In my experience, I've met more nice Korean people than I have mean ones. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, being a white male, I am obviously not Korean and therefore, especially when in smaller cities that are not as frequented by foreigners, kind of a curiosity. I'm also willing to try almost any food at least once (very helpful when dealing with people in any country), know a lot of random facts about Korea (since I study it academically), have many Korean friends, and can speak the language to some degree (though not very well). So yeah, I think it's fair to assume that I receive special treatment on account of my being in touch with Korean things while being obviously non-Korean.

That being said, I have experienced first-hand a number of genuinely touching displays of kindness from both friends and strangers in Korea. I've been bought drinks and food; I've engaged in a number of interesting conversations in bars, on trains, and in buses with strangers, sometimes in a mishmash of broken English and Korean, and the list goes on. In my experience I have found Korean people -- men and women, young and old -- to be generally spunky, outgoing, energetic, pretty open, and high-spirited, which suits my personality pretty well because I'm basically like that myself. Traditional Korean society is agrarian, and as a result many Koreans tend to retain a fairly group-oriented mentality. While that can have both advantages and disadvantages, it also means that there's not a lot of vandalism and considerably less larceny, and society is overall fairly inclusive in many respects (I'd like to remind you that I am generalizing heavily here). Living in a place like North America, where individualism and exclusivity tend to be more highly prized (this has its own set of pros and cons, and again I am generalizing), this is honestly kind of refreshing and, well . . . pretty nice! I am aware that some people want to leave Korea for this very reason, but let's face it, I will never be able to truly know what it's like to be a Korean person in Korea. In my case, I think the whole group-oriented thing is pretty neat. If you don't . . . well, that's fine.

5. Food Culture

This was a farewell party for one of my first Korean friends in one of Toronto's Koreatowns back in 2006 (I think I was 20). I'm the unfashionable guy in the striped polo and hat. This was before I had ever set foot in Korea.  
Korean food is tasty and varied; there are entire blogs, magazines, books, television shows, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels devoted to it. I love Korean food to the point where I taught myself how to make several dishes so I could eat it more frequently without having to pay restaurant prices. Still, it's not only the food that I love; it's the culture surrounding it that I'm partial to. In my experience, the Korean philosophy of eating and drinking seems to be the more the merrier -- for both food and people. I have warm memories from both Toronto and various cities in South Korea of sitting around a table with happy friends, Korean or otherwise, sharing a grill of samgyupsal (sometimes referred to as Korean bacon) or a large pot of stew and watching the empty beer and soju bottles pile up . . . and then going for round two -- more drinking, perhaps followed by karaoke. Korean culture does have a huge drinking element. Koreans both young and old have myriad drinking games that I played a lot while I was studying over there. While many people, Korean and non, decry this as a sort of cultural alcoholism, in moderation, drinking Korean-style can be pretty fun. And eating Korean-style is always fun . . . for me, anyway.

So there you have it! The 5 reasons I just can't leave South Korea alone. I love it and it seems to love me -- we get along swimmingly. As I previously mentioned, I know South Korea is not a country without problems -- no country is problem-free -- but one of my philosophies is that to truly love something, you have to accept that it will not always be perfect, and that you may at some point run into things that leave a sour taste in your mouth. I've had this experience with many people as well as with South Korea on a number of occasions, but I also know that countries and societies are made up of people, and people are always changing and evolving. South Korea is no exception. Like a good friend, I would love nothing more than to grow and evolve alongside it (or inside it). So yeah . . . I love South Korea and know ya'll know.

Stay tuned for more of my travels in Japan, coming next post! Whoo!