North East Asia

In April I got to visit two new countries in one week, teaching Nutanix courses in Seoul and Tokyo back to back. My week was 20,000KM flying, six airports, two hotels and a lot of different cars. I met a lot of Nutanix staff and even more Nutanix partners. One of the things I really like about my work is going different places and meeting different people. This week definitely delivered both people and places.

Seoul, Korea

My three days in Seoul were interesting. Arriving late on Sunday afternoon I didn’t get to see much more than the view from the taxi window. The drive from Incheon airport to the city follows a river from the coast inland to the city. One of the main features were a lot of bridges, rail and road, crossing the river. In the narrow strip between the six lane motorway I was on and the river were small parks. Being Sunday afternoon many families were picnicking and some flying kites. In a city as vast and crowded as Seoul I imagine that any green space is valued. I did enjoy the view of a narrow lane lined with Cherry trees in bloom. I associate cherry blossom with Japan but saw quite a lot of cherry in bloom in Seoul.

The training centre was quite a drive from the hotel, so I saw some more of Seoul through car windows. My impression was of a very mixed place, dozens of high rise apartment buildings and dozens of little garden plots growing vegetables. On hill sides there were more cherry trees, in bloom but I presume growing for fruit. The apartment blocks would be fifteen floors tall and stand in groups of six or more, usually with the name of some giant corporation on the side. Then there would be rows of poly-tunnel greenhouses growing food, followed by more apartments.

Right across the road from my hotel was an ancient Buddhist temple, the home of Korean Buddhism. I had a wander around the temple which was being prepared to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, huge numbers of red lanterns were being hung. The temple is very serene, particularly for the middle of Seoul. Old trees supported by wooden poles, ancient buildings, drummers and gongs. The other interesting feature was the devotion of the faithful, something I don’t share but find wonderful to watch. One of the ways people in Seoul escape the relentless pace is by spending a week living the life of a monk in a temple. Peace and quiet that is rare in a modern city.

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I saw a lot of contrast in Seoul, the high rise apartments and the tiny farms growing vegetables. A single cherry tree in blossom in a dirty car park outside an office building. Tiny streets with tiny family restaurants across the road from high rise buildings. Unfortunately a lot seemed to be being rebuilt while I was there. The underground COEX mall beside my hotel was closed for redevelopment. Many of the roads were being torn up and something bigger or better built. It was a bit too chaotic for my liking. The peace of the Buddhist temple was very welcome.

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I left Seoul through Gimpo airport; this is the old airport and is much closer to the city than Incheon where I arrived. The airport was built on the site of a Korean War airbase. Gimpo has a small international terminal, only about six or eight gates. The International terminal is used for short haul flights and shows it’s 1960s origins. Not the busiest terminal I’ve been in but still two duty free shops doing a strong trade.

Tokyo, Japan

Flying into Tokyo’s Haneda airport I had a great view of Tokyo, it is a vast city. Miles and miles of large buildings, huge amounts of commercial and industrial development. Again I wasn’t brave enough to try public transport, so took a taxi. My driver didn’t speak English and I have no Japanese. Luckily the taxis are equipped with printed and laminated sheets of common questions in several languages, so we could work out that I was happy to take toll roads. What I saw of Tokyo was a very orderly city, clean and tidy. I really liked that there were trees and bushes by the side of almost every street. My Japanese friends told me that the seasonal changes to these parts are a joy to people who live in city as they show nature.

One of the well known cultural differences in Asia is the importance of business cards. Cards are always handed and received with two hands, not the casual flick that Kiwis are inclined to use. Particularly in Japan there is an accepted ritual of offering cards which I started to learn. The ritual I was bamboozled by was the bowing. Bowing would occur for no reason I could understand, ripple back and forth and then end before I realised it had begun. I had read enough to know that this is what happens & that it takes years to get the hang of it. Luckily westerners travel to Japan enough that it was accepted when I did not understand and no offence was taken.

One of the things I found a little confronting was people in the street wearing surgical masks. Even in the classroom there were three or four students who wore masks the whole time. I never saw much of their faces even when I was answering their question. I had a perception that the masks were to avoid catching a disease. Over the couple of days I realised the opposite was true, these students had colds and didn’t want to spread the disease. My Japanese friends also told me that in spring there a lot of allergy sufferers. One in three commuters would be wearing a mask to filter out the pollen. The take away is about not judging people from other cultures by the values of your own culture. This also applies to accents, if you are speaking to someone with a difficult accent then they probably find your accent difficult.

On my final night in Tokyo I was taken to dinner by Shimizu-San, to a little restaurant that would seat a maximum of twenty diners. There we ate some great Japanese food and I learned a little about Sake. One surprise was how good deep fried fish bones are, crunch salty and tasty. Naturally the Sashimi was great, beautiful Tuna. Below the Sashimi in the photo is raw Squid in Squid intestine sauce, the squid was good but the sauce wasn’t to my taste. I discovered that my taste in Sake is for the very best, the Sake at the airport lounge the next day was disappointing.

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As a geek one part of Tokyo I wanted to visit was Akihabara. Luckily it was only a couple of miles from my hotel, so I walked there and back on Saturday morning, before my evening flight home. There are still multi floor buildings full of small stalls selling electronic components of all sorts, along with vintage and modern consumer electronics. I had a nice time wandering around these & seeing what pieces of history were still on sale. Of course these stalls are slowly dying out as stocks of post war components run out. Also the advent of mail order and the Internet have hurt this trade. Hopefully Akihabara can retain its character and not be overrun with big box stores like the massive Yodobashi, although that was an experience of its own. Yodobashi-akiba is a massive superstore of computers spread over several floors like a department store. I spent another hour just looking there, a mesmerizing range of everything computer.

On my way back to the hotel from Akihabara I stopped for some lunch. The block where I decided to eat was on a side street beside the overhead train line. The little restaurants had signs showing what looked like eel. It turns out it was eel and my waiter recommended I have it with a “clear soup with eel organs”. The grilled eel was delicious; I was definitely pleased with my choice to have Unagi.

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I didn’t get to see much of Tokyo, it’s a huge city so simply getting around takes a while. I wanted to visit the Shibuya crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world and an area of shopping and anime culture. That will have to wait until I’m in Tokyo again, ideally with my family. Since I was taken around in taxis I never learned how to use the trains. If I was staying a bit longer these would have been great, they go everywhere and have pre-paid chip cards that cover almost everything.

I did use a train to get to Narita airport to leave. There are a couple of services that make the trip. I used the Japan Rail N’EX which takes a little under an hour from Tokyo station to the airport. Out the window I saw high rise living and little houses, sports fields and local shopping centres. As we got closer to Narita we passed quite a few rice paddies, even a few with people driving tractors through the fields. To make the tractors work in the flooded muddy fields the wheels had paddles.

At the airport I saw an illustration of Japanese courtesy. A gentleman in his early thirties was late for his flight and wanted to get to the head of the immigration queue. He asked permission from every single person in the queue one by one, naturally we all consented. In the end he jumped to the front of the queue and everyone in the queue felt that they had done a good thing to help someone. In most parts of the world he would only have asked the person at the front of the queue. The rest of us would have felt resentful of the queue jumper. I definitely like a courteous country.

All too soon I left Japan and took the twelve hours flight back to New Zealand. As usual I got a little taste of the country. Like Korea I feel like I’ve seen some random small part. The orderly and clean nature of Tokyo appealed more to me than the chaotic impression I had of Seoul. I would like to see more of both countries; the view out the window isn’t enough. This is how I see places when I’m working, a few days of full time work in a training centre with travel either side. I get a little time each day after the course and maybe half a day before my onward flight to see the city. Mostly I see the city through the windows of my taxi or train, the training centre and the hotel. I definitely see only a small part and seldom a part that represents the whole city or country. Often the most local thing I get are the food and the students. It always seems a shame to travel so far and experience so little of the places. On the other hand I spend more than 50% of my nights away from my lovely wife and daughters. Staying away extra days to be a solo tourist doesn’t appeal. One day they will travel with me and we’ll stay a while, moving more slowly.

One of the things that I’d been warned about was that Asian students that they would not ask questions. My classroom is usually a place for questions and I rely on questions to drill into areas until they are understood. Happily both my classes had plenty of questions, mostly asked in the local language and answered by the local tech guys. Some questions were translated for me to address. I got a lot more feedback from students than I expected, mostly in nods and smiles when I talk about the life of IT administrators. Having local tech staff to translate and intermediate for me definitely helped and I’m sure improved the course for the students.

© 2014, Alastair. All rights reserved.

About Alastair

I am a professional geek, working in IT Infrastructure. Mostly I help to communicate and educate around the use of current technology and the direction of future technologies.
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