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Asia : East Asia
East Asia is a cultural and geographic region of Asia.
East Asia 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 hypermodern skyscrapers and consumerist culture of Japan having little if anything in common with the Stalinist austerity of North Korea.
East Asia's major languages are not mutually intelligible. 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 ??, "letter" to the Japanese, would mean "toilet paper" in China! In all, English remains a traveller's most useful language overall, although for longer stays in any East Asian country picking up at least some of the local language is essential.
The main international gateways to East Asia are Tokyo (Japan), Hong Kong (China) and Seoul (South Korea). If arriving from Europe, transiting via Bangkok and Singapore in South-East Asia may prove cheaper than a direct flight.
Rice is an East Asian staple, although in much of northern China and Mongolia wheat predominates.
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.