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For many years, Korea and Japan remained isolated from the West. Seoul was a closed city, secretive and aloof, until the late 19th century. With its opening to the outside world, prosperity ensued. Today, the gleaming glass skyscrapers of the Gangnam District, a symbol of the expansion of South Korea’s giant corporations, tower over the traditional markets clouded with steam from the carts of roaming noodle vendors. Proud as they may be of the rapid modernization of their architectural landscape, the authorities still keep jealous watch over Gyeongbokgung, the former royal palace. Destroyed several times in the course of its six centuries of existence, it has recovered most of its original splendor, offering visitors an oasis of peace in the middle of the tumultuous city. Just like Samcheong-dong, one of the last traditional neighborhoods: clinging to the hillside, its tiled-roofed wooden houses have been restored and now house art galleries and showrooms where visitors can discover the creative variety of contemporary Korean ceramics.

The same dichotomy can be found in Tokyo. In the heart of a chaotic city, people still take time to stroll the azalea-lined paths of the Imperial Palace Gardens or worship in a Shinto shrine. To unwind after a hectic day on the streets of the capital, many locals head for the public bath houses. Often installed in old-fashioned buildings, the baths represent a tradition that lives on for the pleasure it affords rather than necessity. All over town, in gastronomic restaurants and more modest eateries, the finest products from the Tsukiji fish market are carefully prepared as sashimi, a high form of the Japanese culinary arts. Its philosophy is embodied in the expression kasshu hoju, which means “the cutting is most important, the cooking comes second.”

The even more epicurean town of Osaka is the origin of the termkuidaore — self-destructive indulgence in eating. At nightfall, in the multicolored light of countless neon signs, the Dotonbori District offers an infinite choice of yatai, open-air stalls serving grilled octopus dumplings called takoyaki, for which every cook follows a closely-guarded secret recipe. A stone’s throw away, night workers stream into Hozen-ji Temple, a small sanctuary shielded from the noise of the city, to pray before a moss-covered statue of Fudô-myô-ô, a Buddhist divinity with a fierce, frowning face. Here again, a study in contrasts…

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