Since I have been back I have been trying to figure out why it is so hard to summarize the experience of this trip for people who ask me how it was. Most of the time people are interested, but only have a few minutes to listen to my babbling. It is good to have a sentence or two that summarizes the experience. For some reason this time I cannot come up with one.
This week I have had a good friend who listened to me for longer than a few minutes and I was able to put into words what was different about this trip. What bothered me was that I did not feel the need or desire to learn the basic words (hello, excuse me, thank you) in Japanese or Korean. I also had a few times when I just wanted "normal" food. One day I made Steve search with me for food I recognized and we bought an apple, string cheese and crackers to eat! I actually had McDonalds in Japan and really enjoyed cooking a home meal in Hawaii. Usually I am glad not to ever cook while traveling.
I think that the main thing is that I felt so foreign, like I did not belong there. I was the wrong color and the wrong size. It didn't matter if I didn't learn the language or like the food somehow.
Also, I think that European food is more similar to ours and so it is an easier transition. Japanese food has a different taste that is unique. I have heard the word umami to describe what I think it might be (Wikipedia says, "Since umami has its own receptors rather than arising out of a combination of the traditionally recognized taste receptors, scientists now consider umami to be a distinct taste."). Korean food included things like chicken feet and textures that I was not used to. Philippino food often came with bones and had more of a fish flavor or fish broth for soup. Each evening when it came time for dinner I had to try to figure out where to eat and that got tiring. Don't get me wrong, there were delicious things and food that I enjoyed, but in general I felt wary.
The final issue is being a tourist. I don't like the kind of traveling where I am a tourist, even though I always really am. I like being in one place for a while rather than just seeing the sights in a place while racing on to the next place. Going to three (four?) very different places in 5 weeks made it impossible to be more than someone just passing through and made just seeing the sights the main thing to do. As I write this I realize it is not totally true. In each country we were in there were people we knew that showed us places out of the ordinary and gave us insights.
So, all of that is to say that I do not want to discourage anyone to visit this part of the world or any other. It was not my favorite, but I have totally expanded my understanding of the world. When Philippines, Japan, or Korea is in the news I feel much more connected to what I read. Geography of that area has taken on meaning and I am fascinated by history there also. Those are great reasons to travel.