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Full Circle

Day 46: Hakata to Pusan

Kyongju, South Korea 
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The overnight ferry from Japan. First glimpse of the South Korea coast.
Michael Palin - Full CircleI'm discovering that Japan and Korea are completely different, not just linguistically, but socially and spiritually. From 1910 to 1945 Korea was occupied by the Japanese, who did their best to suppress the Korean language and culture. The bitter resentment left behind is now channelled into an intense commercial competitiveness (Japanese cars, films and music are banned in Korea) and an almost manic drive to modernize in the international way. (As from last week it became official government policy to convert all Korea's toilets from squat to Western style.)

At the bus station in Pusan a man is selling ginseng roots from a red plastic basket, and several others are watching over my shoulder as I note this fact in my diary. Curiosity is bold and open here. The Japanese concept of deferential conformity doesn't apply. Women chew bubble gum and stare back at you. A big beef-cake of a man noticing the camera, walks up, flexes a bicep and proclaims, much to the delight of the onlookers, 'In Korea they call me Terminator.'

A squat man in flares and a tight, buttoned jacket pushes him out of the way. 'If he Terminator, I King-Kong!' He beats what there is of his chest, acknowledges the laughter and disappears into the crowd.

What Japan and Korea do share, which is why they're both so successful, is a sense of national destiny which transcends individual aspirations. Things like privacy, holidays and time off, which we value so much in the West, are considered luxuries, always ready to be sacrificed to the national effort.

The bus deposits us at the town of Kyongju, 55 miles north of Pusan. At my hotel personal cleanliness is tackled with a vengeance. An enormous communal bathing area offers just about everything you might want to do with water. There are showers enough for a small army; a hot tub and semi-hot tub, a cold tub with high-pressure waterfall simulator, several jacuzzis, a ginseng-flavoured steam room and two capacious saunas. This palace of hydrophilia is filled with the soft, soothing sound of sloshing and scrubbing, spraying and gurgling, swilling, slapping and lathering.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 46
  • Country/sea: South Korea
  • Place: Kyongju
  • Book page no: 71

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