The Continent

January 29 2008

On November 14 1929 Toynbee sailed from Shimonoseki on the main Japanese island of Honshu to Busan in Japanese-controlled Korea. The full itinerary for his Asian journey is here.

He calls Busan by its Japanese name during the occupation, Fusan; after 1945, in the McCune-Reischauer Korean romanisation, it was called Pusan; under the Revised Romanization adopted in 2000, it is Busan. The crossing he made was over the Korea Strait – not the easily-confused, narrow Shimonoseki or Kanmon Strait, which separates Honshu from the southern island of Kyushu.

I was heading for home; yet here I was in a boat-train, being carried from the capital city of an island to a port from which I was to be ferried over to the Continent. In my English mind, that process was associated with the first and not the last lap of a journey – with “going abroad” and starting on one’s travels. But the faint illusion of being en route from Victoria to Dover Harbour was wholly dissipated that evening when we arrived at Shimonoseki and went on board the Japanese cross-channel packet-boat that was to convey us, during the night, to Korean Fusan. The quiet efficiency with which our persons and our baggage were transferred from train to steamer – far different from the usual scene on the Admiralty Pier – was like some incredible fulfilment of “Nordic Man’s” dream of how he (and he alone) “does things properly.” The smartness and speed of the steamer put the English and Belgian channel-steamers to shame. As that steamer left the quay, quietly and swiftly, on the stroke of the hour, I could no longer pretend to myself that this remarkable island was my native land. I consoled myself with the thought that at any rate the Continent for which I was bound was the same Continent whose opposite cliffs one can see, on a clear day, from the South Foreland Lighthouse.

Next morning, when I found myself on terra firma at Fusan, the feel of the Continent enfolded me. I had not experienced that delightful sense of solidity and solidarity since, just seven weeks before, I had parted company with the Continent at Bombay; and now, as I set foot on land, the feeling took possession of me again. Walking up the main street of the little Korean port while I waited for the Korean train (a standard-gauge train which could have run on the metals of France or Italy!), I realized that I had only to go on walking – putting one foot before the other and doing it again and again – in order to arrive, sooner or later, at Calais and gaze across another channel at the shores of another island that would be my own.

I made that same overnight crossing in 1990. I like Japan and love Korea, and found myself thinking, confusing time and space as the land receded: However much the muddle of Japan gets to you, it ends. Why did you worry? It wasn’t forever, there’s a shore.

When I arrived in Pusan the next morning I had the emotion that Toynbee had. I hadn’t read his account, but perhaps I also remembered boat-trains. I consciously thought: This is the slab of land on which Paris stands! I felt the surge, charge, earthing, which any islander feels when landing on the Continent and wanted to run around in happy circles, like a dog which has come home.

A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

Before that, probably, The Manchester Guardian

One Response to “The Continent”

  1. […] Berlin is as far from Russia as Busan in South Korea is. You’re off an island. And I described the feeling of returning to this Continent on arriving in Busan from Shimonoseki in Japan here. […]

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