East Asia is a cultural and geographic region of Asia.
Countries and regions
East Asia, also popularly known as "the Far East" (especially when compared the the other "East", the Middle East) is what used to be known in the West as The Orient, a mysterious land inhabited by a race of inscrutable tea-sipping Orientals. Behind the caricature, though, is a uniting factor in the form of Chinese influence: China, as by far the largest and, historically, the most technologically and societally advanced culture in the region, has given its writing system (Chinese characters), religion (Mahayana Buddhism) and philosophy (Confucianism) to all the countries in East Asia.
However, underneath these superficial similarities lie a vast range of differences. The geography alone covers the gamut, from the arid steppes of Mongolia to the vast deserts of northwestern China, the lush rice paddies of south central China and the beaches of the subtropical islands of Okinawa. The upheaval of the past centuries has also led the countries of the region along strikingly different paths, with the hyper-modern skyscrapers and consumerist culture of Japan having little if anything in common with the Stalinist austerity of North Korea.
Despite the unifying factor of Chinese influence, scratch below the surface and you will find a wide range of cultural differences. In China itself, even within the "Han Chinese" community, the local customs, traditional architecture and cuisine vary widely from region to region, and people native to one region may find certain customs from other regions entirely foreign. In addition, the respective ethnic minorities also practise their own local customs. While the traditional cultures of Korea and Japan have obvious Chinese influences, they still retain many native elements which make them unique in their own right.
East Asia was one of the cradles of world civilisation, with China developing its first civilisations at about the same time as Egypt, Babylonia and India. China stood out as a leading civilisation for thousands of years, building great cities and developing various technologies which were to be unmatched in the West until centuries later. The Han and Tang dynasties in particular are regarded as the golden ages of Chinese civilisation, during which China was not only strong militarily, but also saw the arts and sciences flourish in Chinese society. It was also during these periods that China exported much of its culture to its neighbours, and till this day, one can notice Chinese influences in the traditional cultures of Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
Korea and Japan had historically been under the Chinese cultural sphere of influence, adopting the Chinese script, and incorporating Chinese religion and philosophy into their traditional culture. Nevertheless, both cultures retain many distinctive elements which make them unique in their own right.
However, Chinese dominance was to end during the 19th century, when Western powers arrived and forced the various East Asian states to sign unequal treaties. It first started with Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States forcing Japan, which had adopted an isolationist policy for centuries, to open up to the West, which eventually resulted in collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and started the Meiji restoration. China was also not spared from Western imperialism, and by then, government corruption had reduced what once was one of the world's greatest civilisations to a sorry state. As a result, China lost several wars to the Western powers as well as its newly modernised neighbour, Japan. As a result of these wars, China lost Hong Kong and Weihai to Britain, while Taiwan, Manchuria and the Liaodong peninsula were ceded to Japan. China also lost control of its tributaries, with Vietnam being annexed by the French, and Korea and the Ryukyu Islands being annexed by the Japanese. Shanghai was also divided among eight different countries (France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Japan).
World War II was to have disastrous consequences on East Asia, as Japan's drive to modernise turned into a drive to colonise its neighbours. The war brought great suffering to many, and destroyed much of East Asia's infrastructure. Japan itself was also not spared, as much of the nation was destroyed by American carpet bombing, and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed by atomic bomb attacks. Japan's defeat after World War II forced it to give up its colonies, with Taiwan being returned to China, and Korea regaining its independence. However, the end of the war was anything but peaceful. The Chinese Civil War continued, which resulted in victory for the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, giving them control of much of the mainland, and the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan and several offshore islands of Fujian, where they remain in control to this day. Korea was split after World War II, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a Communist regime in the north with the support of the Soviet Union, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime in the south with the support of the United States. The Korean War began when Kim Il-Sung attacked the south. The war lasted for 3 years and had disastrous consequences, which ended with neither side making any significant territorial gains. North Korea and the United States signed an armistice in 1953 which ended the armed conflict, with South Korea refusing to sign, but no peace treaty was ever signed and the two Koreas remain officially at war with each other to this day.
Despite decades of turmoil, East Asia has begun to grow into one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced regions in the world. Japan was the first to rise from the ruins of World War II, rapidly modernising in the 1950s-1960s and eventually conquering the world's marketplaces with its automobiles and advanced consumer electronic products to become the world's second largest economy after the United States. This was followed by the rise of the Asian Tigers, which included South Korea, Taiwan and the British colony of Hong Kong, who overcame war and poverty to achieve unprecedented growth rates during the 1970s-1980s, earning their places among the world's richest economies. Today, South Korea and Taiwan are among the world leaders in consumer technology, while Hong Kong remains a leading financial center of the world.
More changes were to come at the end of the 20th century. The death of Mao Zedong resulted in the end of the disastrous cultural revolution. After a brief power struggle with Mao's appointed successor, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping emerged victorious and abandoned a hardline Communist policy to introduce market-oriented reforms, which have transformed China into one of the world's fastest growing economies, and eventually saw China overtaking Japan to become the world's second largest economy. The 1990's then saw the return of the British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau respectively to Chinese rule. While the larger cities near the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have grown to become rich and modern, much of the country still suffers from poverty and current president Hu Jintao has pledged to modernise the more inland parts of the country, though whether or not China can rise from the ashes to achieve its past glories during the Han and Tang dynasties remains to be seen. Pretty much the only exception to East Asia's economic success is North Korea, which has refused market-oriented reforms and continues to adopt a hardline Stalinist policy to this day.
East Asia's major languages, including the many "dialects" of Chinese, are not mutually intelligible. However, while the spoken languages are very different, written Chinese characters can be puzzled out by Japanese and Koreans as well — although even these have wide differences from country to country. (The characters 手紙, literally "hand paper" and meaning "letter" to the Japanese, would be taken as "toilet paper" in China, for example.)
Overall, English remains a traveler's most useful language, though outside the former British colony of Hong Kong, English speakers tend to be few and far between. When looking for English speakers, tourist areas tend to be a good bet and, in general, younger people or those around universities are most likely to speak at least a little. Outside of that you'll encounter many areas where no English is spoken, so patience and a good phrasebook come in handy. For longer stays picking up at least some of the local language is essential. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language (as are many other Asian tongues) so just because you say something does not mean you will be understood. However, people tend to be very patient or at least not rude when dealing with non-Chinese speakers.
The main intercontinental gateways to East Asia are Beijing Capital (second in the world in 2013 passenger traffic) and Hong Kong (China), Seoul-Incheon (South Korea) and Tokyo-Narita (Japan). Other airports with good intercontinental connections included Osaka-Kansai, Taipei-Taoyuan, Shanghai-Pudong and Guangzhou. However, there are also many other cities with connections to other parts of Asia, which can be convenient entry points for certain travellers. Transferring through mainland China, though increasingly an option in terms of flights, is painful and time-consuming (you may also require visas) and best avoided. If arriving from Europe, transiting via Bangkok or Singapore in South-East Asia may prove cheaper than a direct flight.
The Trans-Siberian Railway connects Russia to Mongolia and China, and China is also linked to Vietnam with the jointly operated Kunming and Nanning to Hanoi routes. Another increasingly popular alternative is going via Central Asia and take the twice weekly service between Almaty in Kazakhstan and Urumqi in China, a journey of around 31 hours dubbed the "new silk route".
It's possible to take ferries from the Russian Far East to Japan and Korea, try Dungchon Ferry  (Zarubina - Sokcho), Heartland Ferry  (Korsakov - Wakkanai) and Fesco  (Vladivostok - Toyama) for the easiest options.
Plane travel is the fastest way to travel between countries in East Asia, as well as within them. Plane travel within China tends to be cheap by Western standards, although there is some governmental price regulation to keep the prices from being too low. Most flights include meals, which can range from boxes with assorted snacks to steaming hot meals. Vegetarian or halal meals are usually not available at short notice, but may be available if you make arrangements with the airline well in advance. To be safe, check with the airline or your travel agent before you book your flights. Delays are common in some places (like China), sometimes by several hours.
Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei all have two main airports; one within the city centre for domestic flights, and one far from the city for international flights. Transferring from the domestic to the international airport and vice-versa can take up to two hours or more, depending on traffic conditions, so make sure you give yourself ample time to make any transfers.
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have extensive train networks, but for reasons of geography and politics none connect to the mainland. China also has an extensive network, which is used as the main mode of long distance travel.
Japan has a well developed high-speed rail network known as the Shinkansen, which covers most of the country except Hokkaido and Okinawa. South Korea and Taiwan have begun to develop their own high-speed networks, with a high-speed service along the main business corridors between Seoul and Busan in South Korea and between Taipei and Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Services in China are more limited, and are largely confined to the areas around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou but more recently have opened lines in the interior of the country (Chengdu-Chongqing), and is now home to the fastest speed train in service.
Many long distance bus routes connect different cities within countries.
Domestic travel by car is possible, though with the exception of Japan, and Hong Kong, driving habits and road courtesy are not up to the standards of the West which varies from annoying to outright reckless. Roads are generally well maintained, though snow can be a problem in the winter in the northern parts of Japan and China, with expressways often having to close due to heavy snow.
Those with no experience driving in big cities should generally avoid doing so in East Asia. East Asia is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, meaning that most of the major East Asian cities are plagued with massive traffic jams, coupled with expensive to non-existent parking spaces. These, combined with reckless driving habits, mean that exploring the cities by car is not for the faint hearted. East Asian cities have some of the best public transportation networks anywhere in the world, and you should try to use that as your main mode of transport.
Renting a car is usually the best way to see the countryside and smaller towns, but most locals would consider the prospect of touring the likes of Tokyo, Shanghai or Taipei in a rented car completely laugable.
East Asia is arguably the best place to experience baseball culture outside the Americas. The sport is hugely popular in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, with professional leagues that often draw a full house of spectators. In fact, the baseball league in Japan is considered by many to be the best professional league outside the United States.
The entertainment industry is huge in East Asia, which has caused it to developed a distinctive pop culture scene. Famous pop stars often perform at concerts which attract sell-out crowds.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are the main centres of Chinese popular culture, with most famous singers and actors originating or based in the two territories. Due to the linguistic variation of the "Chinese language", in addition to Mandarin, songs may also be performed in Cantonese or Minnan. Due to stricter government controls, which include the banning of popular television programmes such as Super Girl, the pop culture scene is not as well developed in mainland China, though it is also slowly beginning to emerge, with several good quality wuxia series being produced in the mainland in recent times.
South Korea is a relatively new comer to the international pop culture scene, though the hallyu or Korean wave phenomenon at the turn of the millenium has sent waves across much of the continent. Despite the language barriers, many famous Korean singers have almost always performed to sell-out crowds in other East Asian countries, and Korean soap operas carry a loyal following in many neighbouring countries. On the other hand, the pop culture scene is non-existent in North Korea, and only government propaganda is allowed to be broadcast in the mass media.
Perhaps the pop culture scene in Japan needs no introduction, as most Westerners would already be familiar with it to some extent through games, comics (漫画 manga) and cartoons (アニメ anime). In addition, the music scene is also very vibrant, with famous singers like Ayumi Hamasaki and Koda Kumi making headlines in newspapers all over the world.
A unique feature of pop culture in East Asia is the karaoke lounge, which was invented in Japan, but has since spread and is immensely popular throughout the region. Lounges vary from respectable to super-dodgy, with some geared for for groups of friends and colleagues getting together to sing their favourite songs and socialise, and others best known for extortionately priced booze and skimpily dressed hostesses who provide sexual services.
For those wanting to bathe in a hot spring resort, East Asia is undoubtedly one of, if not the best places to do so. Hot springs form an integral part of the local culture in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and as such are plentiful and usually maintained to a high standard. Facilities in resorts range from basic to over the top luxury, depending on how much you are willing to pay. Hot spring resorts are also becoming more common in China, but hygiene standards can sometimes be poor in lower end resorts.
Every country in East Asia, as well as the Chinese special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau issue their own currencies, which are the sole legal tender in each of their respective countries/territories. US dollars and Euros are accepted at most banks and money changers, and are also widely accepted in larger department stores and major tourist attractions, though rates in those areas are usually poor. Other widely accepted currencies at banks and money changers include Swiss francs, British pounds, Australian dollars, Canadian dollars, New Zealand dollars and Singapore dollars.
Mongolia is relatively cheap, but prices are generally expensive elsewhere. Within China, prices vary widely; Shanghai is the priciest (on par with most Western countries) while other areas, especially the rural parts, remain cheaper. Expect the cost of living to be on par with most Western countries in Japan, and only slightly cheaper in South Korea, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong.
Chopsticks are the eating utensil of East Asia. Outside of restaurants specializing in Western cuisine, forks are rarely available and knives are not to be used at the table but spoons are necessary and available for soup!
Rice is an East Asian staple, although in much of northern China and Mongolia wheat predominates.
Fried rice is another popular dish, prepared in a variety of ways in different regions. Fried rice usually has some combination of eggs, vegetables, meat, and/or seafood fried with the rice. Occasionally, some places have other varieties, such as a fruit fried rice.
Tea is the quintessential East Asian drink. Generally, green (unfermented) varieties are preferred over Western-style black tea, but the varieties available cover the entire color and taste spectrum. China, in particular, produces a wide variety of tea, ranging from green teas to black teas, and even the same type of tea comes in many different grades. Note that East Asians generally drink their tea neat, so unless you are at a shop which specifically makes milk tea, milk and sugar may not be available.
East Asia is probably one of the safest regions on the planet for travelers, at least when it comes to violent crime and is characterized by stable politics and low crime. The main exceptions are China's restive western territories of Xinjiang and Tibet, along with its accompanying counties and prefectures, but even there the heavy police presence keeps crime low and it's not usually foreigners who are targeted. It is standard practice to block visitor entry at the slightest hint of trouble to China's Tibetan regions or during important dates, so know before you go or you may be turned away from buying a bus or train ticket and have to re-route your entire trip in sudden frustration.
Large parts of China and especially Japan and Taiwan are at significant risk from earthquakes. If you're indoors and you feel a shake, stay indoors, as running outside during a quake is the most likely way you'll be injured or killed. Extinguish gas burners and candles and beware of falling objects and toppling furniture. Shelter under furniture or a doorway if necessary. If you're outdoors, stay away from brick walls, glass panels and vending machines, and beware of falling objects, telephone cables etc. Falling roof tiles from older and traditional buildings are particularly dangerous, as they can drop long after the quake has ended.
Many parts of East Asia are mountainous. Use caution when driving or trekking up in these areas. Driving in mainland China can be very dangerous with little to no law enforcement and very risky road habits.
The air quality in the mega-cities of China can border on terrible to out right dangerous. People with serious respiratory problems should seriously consider not traveling here for long periods. The fact that over 60% of the adult male population smokes doesn't help matters. With the exception of Hong Kong (with strict enforcement), and a few western establishments and places in Beijing nothing is off limits for tobacco smoke in China.