crashing Buddha's birthday party!


Everybody seems to have a region that they love to travel in the most. When asked which region has my heart, my simplified answer is Asia, which often leads to this reaction:

„Oh yeah, I loved my travels in Asia, Full Moon parties, cheap beer and street food!“
This is what 90% of backpackers all over the world seem to rave about. South East Asia. I can see those countries' appeal, but when I specify and say “East Asia”, many faces go blank.

Geographically and culturally, East Asia is China, the upper half of Vietnam, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan and Japan, and each of those countries has about as much in common with Thailand as Germany has in common with Greece.

So, what makes me go back there?

Busi-ness and Urban-ness
Dotombori, Osaka - probably my favourite skyline in the world!
It's fast, it's competitive and there's always something new to see and do. All of these countries are heavily urbanized, and this is how I like it. I can appreciate countryside – and all of these countries have amazing countryside! - as long as it's easily reachable within a day trip. I love to just walk around disappear in the crowd. Most of it all, I love the fast-paced rhythm and energy of East Asian cities, whether it's Seoul, Hanoi, Osaka or Hong Kong – try as they may, other cities of a similar size, be it London, New York, Buenos Aires or Paris can't pull off this feeling.

The food

I always knew food is important to me, but I didn't know just how much until I went to South America (no more sad bus station empanadas, please!).
$8 sushi dinner. Got your attention?

I am actually writing this on a ferry, travelling from Kobe to Takamatsu. Even in “expensive” Japan, $5 buys you a delicious noodle lunch plus green tea ice green and a good coffee. And this is probably the “worst” food I've experienced in Japan! In Asia, food is everywhere, at any time of night or day. And you know what? I've never had bad food before in all of East Asia. Even airport food is affordable and delicious (why can't European airports do this?). Experience-wise, you can choose between eating in a glamorous restaurants, with snacks bought from a convenience store, in a little corner bar that fits only 5 customers or in a plastic tent by the road side. In most places, you get to choose between local and international foods, too. Cafes, little bakeries and coffee shops are everywhere. Hygiene and freshness are a priority (Vietnam's touristy boat trips are the notable exception) and you're unlikely to get sick from any food you'll eat. 

$6 airport meal!

Friendliness & safety
Ask someone for the way in Japan: there's a high chance (unless you are in Tokyo or in a crowded train station) that they will either walk you all the way or offer to drive you in their car. I've accidentally poured a bottle of chili oil over a poor guy's shirt on the train in Taiwan, and he kept apologizing to ME (he had knocked my backpack down which broke the bottle, so it was kind of his own fault, but still). I've forgotten my backpack by the roadside in Korea while going into a shop, and an hour later, it was still there. If people miss the last train home, it's not unknown to see them sleep in the park, and survive the night unscathed and with all their belongings. There are many other stories like this, but the main point is, people are honest, friendly and polite (except maybe in mainland China, as I am told – this is one reason why I hesitate visiting a little).

Non-touristyness
Looking to get off the beaten track? Welcome, anywhere in Japan outside Tokyo and Kyoto, Korea outside Seoul, or Vietnam outside Ho Chin Minh City and Hanoi's Old Quarter. Taiwan or China don't even have a beaten track! Tourists pay the same prices as locals and you don't get ripped off (again, Vietnam is an exception to this, but nowhere near as much as Thailand, in my experience). Actually, in Japan and Korea, I've found that many museums, sights and events are actually free for foreigners, and that “cultural” experiences are often subsidized by the government!
just one of the half a dozen free cultural performances I stumbled across during a weekend in Seoul

So, what are the cons that keep people from travel in East Asia?

The prices (not really)
Many people say they can't afford to travel in East Asia. Considering the tourist rip off you are suspect to in many other countries, availability of good public transport, cheap and healthy food options and high quality accommodation, travel in East Asia doesn't have to cost more than even South East Asia or India. My budget for my current 1 month trip to Japan and Korea is $1500 (not including flights), and that is while staying in my own room all the time, travelling a fairly standard mid-range travel style with some expensive meals, shopping and sightseeing thrown in. The famous “pricy” Japan especially doesn't exist – there's been no inflation here since the bubble economy crashed in the 90's. Outside the two big tourist draws (Tokyo and Kyoto), travel in Japan is cheaper than in Europe (and that's the most expensive country!). An important tip to notice is that hostels in East Asia seem to cost the same as hotels and guesthouses – mid-range pretty much costs the same as bare bones. So yes, a $20 a day shoestring budget won't get you anywhere, but double that and you get a very good standard in Vietnam (where a three star hotels are more like 4 star hotels in Europe, and cost an average of $25 a night, including generous breakfast) and even a fun time in Japan without having to share a room!


Am I being too euphemistic? - Society and conformity -
I've given serious thought to living in East Asia long term, and while I can imagine going back for longer stretches of time, I wouldn't want to make any of these countries my permanent home unless things change a lot. The main reason for this is the competitiveness that leads to a society that has ridiculous expectations of people. It's all about getting in the right school, the right uni, the right company, wearing the right clothes and having the right, conformist lifestile. Another factor is the gender-discrimination women face even today, and the almost total ignorance all of East Asia shows towards GLBT people or basically, anyone who somehow sticks out. You can never be skinny, rich, smart and same-y enough. Even today, the old Japanese proverb “The nail who sticks out must be hammered down” holds truth...

But will this affect you as a traveller? Not at all!

Which is your favourite region to travel in, and why? Are there any you are not interested in at all?


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