International travel by water, a hundred years ago still a normal part of what we continue to call ‘going overseas,’ is something of a novelty in most parts of the world today (at least for those who travel for pleasure rather than out of necessity, and temporarily discounting that peculiar breed of human – the cruise-liner fanatic). And so it was for us, as we sped smoothly between Fukuoka, Japan, and Busan, South Korea, by hydrofoil in a mere three hours, without so much as a wave or nervously fondled sick-bag in sight.
Prior to departing on this Northeast Asian sojourn, I had imagined the Republic of Korea as something of a wild young sidekick to Japan – a greatly developed, super-clean, hi-tech nation that just didn’t quite spark the imagination or bring in the tourists in the way that Japan does. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Korea was just sort of out there in the rest of Northeast Asia that I knew decidedly too little about, having spent all my time in the region in mainland China. Perhaps the 2002 World Cup caused me to engage in subconscious mental categorisation. Whatever the case, I had my preconceived ideas firmly in place.
As soon as we landed at Busan Port, though, it became patently clear that South Korea is no carbon copy of Japan. The streets are a little dirtier, a little smellier. The people are generally more inclined to approach you just to say hello (and this may have a lot to do with tourists being more of a novelty here). The whole city of Busan seems slightly more disorganised and organic than similar cities in Japan. There are less drawcard historical and cultural ‘sites’ than in Japan. There is less of a slavish devotion to civilities and politeness (our usual mish-mash Family Mart breakfast was treated like a Family Mart breakfast by the Korean check-out worker as opposed to the careful attentiveness given to our jellied fruit and various pastries in Japan). There is generally less English signage, even at tourist sites.
After a fairly aimless day in Busan, we bussed our way to the ancient Silla capital of Gyeongju (more about that later), and differences were again vividly in evidence. For one, in case you missed it, we were in A BUS. This would be inconceivable in Japan, where trains rule supreme and are so frequent and efficient that the only reason you would commonly have to take a bus would be to get to a train station. Also, the landscape that cruised past our window was starkly different to that which we’d seen across the waters. Here, bleak and desolate plains rolled by beneath washed-out grey skies like so many tracts of rural farmland I had seen from train windows in Northern China in winter. In Japan, even wintery forests had a beauty to them that is so far absent in what I have seen of Korea.
Of course, there are also many similarities between what I have experienced in the two countries we visited on this trip, but the sudden jolting onset of Korea when I was just getting used to Japan certainly made me look at the places I had travelled through over there in a new light. One similarity must be mentioned here. As I said, in Japan trains rule the isles. In Korea, riding buses is the done thing. However, Korean buses lose none of the comforts and efficiency of Japanese trains. Our coach to Gyeongju was kitted out with wide seats that reclined almost to the horizontal, automatic footrests, and in-chair speakers that you could control individually to listen to the live news being streamed into the TV at the front of the bus. If there is one thing that unites these countries, it has to be their innate understanding of what it is to travel in comfort.