Don’t get me wrong: I’ve loved my time living on Jeju. I’ve had magical experiences and have met loads of friends that I’m sure will be lifelong.  However, there’s no denying the extreme differences that I noticed when I swapped islands for a few days. Some people might find this offensive: please know that I don’t mean it to be. Our perceptions can only be based on our individual experiences alone, and I’m just being honest and forthright about what I experienced last week in Okinawa, Japan compared to what I’ve lived with for nearly a year in Jeju, South Korea.  Both places rock (and are ironically lined with volcanic rock), but there are just some things that the Japanese have figured out that Koreans have yet to adopt.

1. Driving

Although the motorists I encountered while living in Istanbul were by far the worst I’ve ever seen, Koreans come in a very close second.  Each day, I have a five minute bicycle ride to work during which time I am nearly hit by a car at least 5 times. I mean it: at LEAST 5 times.  The other day, I even witnessed a man get pummeled by a truck by no fault of his own: it was due to total negligence, incapacity, and a lack of confidence behind the wheel on the part of Koreans.  There seem to be no rules, despite it apparently being challenging to obtain a license.  In Japan, however, I didn’t hear a single horn beeped.  The rules were respectfully upheld and the use of common sense was at a peak level.  As I was roadtripping (and thus driving), I was particularly observant of behavior on the road, which is why “driving” made number one on this list.  I never feared for my life due to someone else’s incompetence, nor were my ears bullied by the ever-present horn honking that occurs in Korea.  Japan wins this category hands down.

2. Hygiene

While many Koreans are very prim, proper, and overly-prissy, I’m still disgusted on a daily basis at the amount of spitting and other repulsive bodily functions that I see being performed in public.  Yeah, everyone does it, I know: that doesn’t mean I want to see (or hear) it.  In Jeju, I’ve also found it to be quite a rarity to use a public restroom that provides hand soap.  You might score with restaurants, but in general it’s just a faucet. Gross.  I assure you: I am not a princess.  I’ve done some pretty au natural things in my travel days, but I don’t think anyone wants to use a grimy public toilet without the option to disinfect.  Japan’s public toilets, on the other hand, were pristine; they even had all those buttons with options for cleaning and warming your “area” afterward.  Always soap, always clean. I dug it.

3. Food

It’s no secret that I’ve found Korea to be difficult, although not impossible, as a vegetarian.  There are a few authentic dishes that don’t contain/can be made without meat, but I do mean “a few’ in a very literal sense.  I’ve also found Korea’s meatless dishes to be rather redundant and monotonous.  Most Korean side dishes are fermented, which gets old quickly, or are covered in the same “red sauce”.  At first, I could deal with this sauce, but after all this time, I’m starting to agree with J’s sentiment that the taste resembles “urea paste”, and I much prefer gochujang, which only really goes with a few things anyhow.

When planning my trip to Japan, I was worried that it would be difficult to find things that did not contain fish- it is the mecca of sushi, after all.  It’s true that fish was EVERYWHERE in Japan; however, there were plenty of other things that did not have fish.  I found the variety of snacks and even main dishes in Japan to greatly exceed Korea, and the prices for fruit and veg were much more reasonable than most of the corresponding prices in Jeju.  It was also easier to find little things like side salads, noodles, and other quick grabs from supermarkets.  This might just be Jeju specific as opposed to all of Korea, but again, this is has been a struggle for me since I arrived here.  Thanks for the options, Japan.

On the sweets front, the two places are tied- I love those rice cakes.

4. Friendliness

While living in Korea, I’ve had the fortune to meet some lovely people who have been friendly, welcoming, and helpful, especially while hiking the Olle Trails and using the restroom at five star hotels.  However, as with most places in the world, I’ve also had the misfortune of coming into contact with another breed of person: the loud, rude, irritable, nasty kind. Every day, I hear shouting, shouting of the most obnoxious degree. Every night, I’m kept awake by the sound of obscenely drunken men and women screaming at the top of their lungs, fighting and being sick on the streets. I’ve grown to accept this- I don’t know why.  I’d almost forgotten about kindness and general politeness on the street until I arrived in Japan.  As I have never lived there, I can’t accurately comment on the expat experience there.  However, basing my thoughts solely on a week’s worth of impressions, I was blown away by the kindness of the Japanese.  Throughout my time there, people went above and beyond to be kind, smile, and be helpful- no shouting, no fighting.  On one occasion, three guys stopped what they were doing to walk with me and help me locate my hidden hostel; on another, two parking lot attendants directed me to my friend who had been circling the block.  Both of these things were done without a request from me: they just saw that I might need assistance and acted on it, no strings attached. I wish more people in the world were like this.

5. Phones

This is not such a big deal, just more of an innocent observation about something that irks me. In Korea, the obsession with gadgets and technology is at an all-time high; never in my life have I seen so many people, old and young alike, with phones the size of small TVs.  I have not had a phone for two years, so I guess I’m particularly biased against them.  Sure, they come in handy, but I feel like people depend on them far too much nowadays, especially in Korea.  They play on the things 24/7: at bus stops, on the bus, on the train, in the car, and while sitting at dinner with another person.  It’s an obsession that severely limits real personal interaction with real people, and I blame a lot of the social awkwardness on this phenomenon.  Although the Japanese also had their share of fancy smartphones, I saw this antisocial behavior far less in Okinawa.  On the metro and in public, people were reading real books. talking to others, or doing nothing at all.  The use of phones was incomparable to Korea. I wish the modern world as a whole would take a step back and put the phones down for a minute.

6. Care for the Outside World

By this, I mean care for the environment and the beauty of the outdoors.  Korea has some breathtakingly beautiful eco-tourism, but the cities are just a bit crappy. In Jeju, it’s damn near impossible to find a trash bin when you need one; they are just far and few between.  This leads to a lot of litter and filth, as most people seem to not really give a damn.  It’s true that they are less far along in their development as a modern nation, so hopefully they will catch up to other countries as far as managing waste goes.  I frequently see people discard their rubbish right on the sidewalk or street and am always finding garbage scattered about beaches. Korea is nowhere near the worst for littering and a general disregard for cleanliness in public places- that would be unfair.  Still, it’s certainly an issue. By contrast, Japan is one of the cleanest places that I’ve ever traveled to.  I never saw a single piece of litter in all the places I went.  The bins were plentiful, and each was divided into different recycling compartments.  Koreans have bins for separating different recyclables at the dumpsters, but it gets pretty messy and grotesque.  Apart from trash, the Japanese even restrict which streets (entire streets) you can smoke on.  Korea: you’ve got some catching up to do.

7. Spacial Awareness

This is by far the item with most significance for me.  Sometimes, I find walking down the street very unpleasant in Korea.  On top of that, I live in a crowded market.  I do not mind crowds for the most part. People can be very lovely.  However, I do not find crowds of people in Korea to be very lovely.  When people walk, there is no sense of spacial awareness: they are completely in their own world and have no regard for the space around them.  In Western countries, if I am walking directly at someone, both of us will step around to avoid anything close to a collision. This is not the case in Jeju.  They sure as salt aren’t moving, so you better get used to it.  In Japan, by contrast, everyone stayed on their own side of the walkway and the space was collectively shared.  If someone accidentally bumped into me, I received superfluous apologies for the incident while in Korea I have never heard a single one.  A little common courtesy goes a long way in my book- just sayin’.

Korea: I still love you, but, in the words of my travel buddy, “I had an affair with Japan”. And it was a hot one.