The pamphlets lined up at tourist centers scream, “Experience the real Korean-style aesthetic treatment and make your skin smooth!” “Spend three full days in Seoul sightseeing and shopping!”

They reflect a recent phenomenon — that South Korea has become one of the hottest destinations for young Japanese travelers.

The recent tide of Japanese travelers to South Korea has only been boosted by the two nations’ roles as cohosts of the World Cup.

And South Korean tourists are increasingly flocking to Tokyo, as Seoul’s step-by-step deregulation has allowed some Japanese pop culture into the nation over the past few years and helped raise interest.

Tourists from the two nations go looking for different things. Japanese are frenzied shoppers taking advantage of Seoul’s lower prices, while South Korean tourists are more keen on checking out Tokyo’s latest fashions and technology.

Yet, the travel boom between the two countries — so close on the map but divided by lingering bitterness over Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula — should help develop closer ties. Whatever the initial motive, a trip provides chances for tourists to communicate with local people and help the two nations better understand each other, experts say.

“The boom is really a good sign,” said Fukumi Kuroda, a Japanese actress who is so obsessed with South Korea that she has taken more than 100 trips and published a guidebook “Seoul no Tatsujin” (“The Master of Seoul”). Publishing the original version in 1994, she has revised it twice, with the latest version launched in April.

In the past, only the dark side of the two countries’ relations was highlighted, she said, citing Japan’s discrimination against Japan-born Koreans and its wartime atrocities on the peninsula.

“But the reality is, young people are just skipping over the history, and they have been increasingly attracted to South Korea as a place they can go and enjoy easily at low prices,” she said.

Young Japanese can enjoy Seoul and other South Korean cities based on their own interests. Such happy experiences can be a gateway to understanding the country and the history, particularly if travelers communicate with locals, Kuroda said.

“Such travel plays the role of diplomacy at the citizens’ level,” she said.

The number of Japanese tourists to South Korea has jumped more than 10 percent year-on-year since 1998, except for last year when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks damaged not only tourism to the U.S. but worldwide, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization.

“Japan’s growing trend of going to (South) Korea has been backed by three booms among young women in their 20s: gormandize, beauty therapy and shopping,” said Yi Sang Woo, a spokesman for the Korea National Tourism Organization.

“Also, Japan’s recession has turned their eyes to places that are inexpensive, close to Japan, and easy to reach. Seoul fits all these factors.”

Tourists’ attention to South Korea grew when the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s devalued many Asian currencies, making goods and services in the region cheaper for yen holders.

Yi said the KNTO Tokyo office receives 250 queries a day on average via telephone, mail, fax and the Internet.

The South Koreans’ openness and friendliness underlie the recent Japanese tourism boom, Kuroda said.

“You don’t have to worry about the language if you want to communicate with them,” she said. “Open a map on a street. Within five minutes, someone will come up to you and ask if you have a problem. Since the very first day of my first trip to South Korea, I was overwhelmed by their kindness.”

But she also stressed the significance of intercultural communication.

“A trip generally means a combination of shopping, sightseeing and eating. But these things can be obtained by anyone as long as they have money. They are one-way communications,” she said. “Contacting the local people, on the other hand, is the only way to enjoy two-way communications.”

Destination China

Japanese travelers’ desire to visit nearby destinations is also evident in the growing popularity of travel to China, whose diplomatic relations with Japan will see their 30th anniversary this fall.

Japanese tourists to China surged by around 18 percent two years in a row in 1999 and 2000, and marked an 8.3 percent increase in 2001. Only China and Taiwan enjoyed surges that year, JNTO said.

China is drawing a lot of attention due to its joining the World Trade Organization, its growing economy and its hosting of the 2008 Olympics.

Meanwhile, the launch of a second runway at Narita airport on April 18 led to a 45 percent increase in the number of flights to South Korea, and those flying to China more than doubled, said JTB Corp., Japan’s top travel agency.

The additional flights are aimed at meeting the demand for travel in Asia. But prices for flights between Narita and Seoul could be weighed down after the soccer finals, which in turn could help to whet travelers’ appetite for flights to South Korea, a JNTO official said.

An increasing number of South Koreans and Chinese are also traveling to Japan. Some 1.13 million South Koreans visited Japan in 2001, up 6.5 percent from a year earlier, after the number jumped by 12.9 percent in 2000 and 30.1 percent in 1999. The number of Chinese travelers has increased more than 10 percent for three consecutive years since 1999, according to the latest JNTO figures.

China’s deregulations related to private travel allowed Chinese tourists to go sightseeing in Japan for the first time in September 2000 — although only in groups.

Reflecting the trend, ATC Japan Tours Inc., a group company of JTB, started in February half-day bus tours exclusively for South Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese travelers in Tokyo. Each tour provides guide services in Korean or Chinese, depending on the day.

A tour takes four to five hours, stopping at several sightseeing spots, including historical sites such as the Asakusa district and newly developed areas like Odaiba.

Lee Hwa Soon, a freelance guide who works on the tour, said people from South Korea enjoy seeing modernized places, such as the Odaiba district and Tokyo International Forum, both of which are included on the tour.

“Many people want to look at something new, something that has advanced more than South Korea,” said Lee, who has lived in Japan for 18 years. Recently developed on a man-made island, Odaiba has won popularity with its shopping malls and amusement facilities, while the forum was built in 1996 where the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office once stood.

Jun Byung Oh, who went on the tour earlier this month, said he came to Tokyo to buy high-quality electronics devices.

The previous day, he went to Akihabara and Shinjuku looking for a video camera — the same day he came on the 1 1/2-hour flight from Pusan to Narita airport.

“I decided to buy this video camera because the price was not as high as I expected,” he said, pointing to his new gadget. “Prior to the trip, I checked on the Internet where these shops are located, so we didn’t have any trouble finding them.”

The guide Lee said the tours have afforded her opportunities to meet interesting people. One time, a Korean woman in her 80s joined the tour to reminisce — she had visited Japan on a school trip during the colonial rule period.

The tour usually draws about 10 people a day, but at times there can be three times that number, Lee said.

“Recently, more and more people, including students, come to Japan because they are more open-minded,” said Kim Dae Yil, a professor at the school of digital design at Kyungdong University, who was on a five-day tour accompanying his 41 students to show them chic cafes and stylish shops in Tokyo.

“In particular, young people are very much interested in modern Japanese culture,” he said.

Kim, who worked as an interior designer before entering academia, said fast-changing fashions in Japan and the size of the market draw people working for the South Korean fashion industry to the heart of Tokyo.

Booming travel between the two countries helps people understand each other, said Nozomi Akizuki, a professor specializing in South Korean history at Meiji Gakuin University.

Akizuki said that Japanese and South Koreans share many characteristics, but there are differences.

“What is important for Japanese travelers is to discover the differences and enjoy the differences themselves, Akizuki said.

“If Japanese travelers succeed in finding differences, they can rediscover Japan, too,” he noted. “If they don’t, such trips leave them only with the fact that they went to South Korea.”

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