Saturday, March 29, 2008

3/30/08 Korean Barbeque and a Cathedral

It was March 23rd, half way through our Korean vacation, and we still hadn't tried any of the famous Korean barbeque. We were in the middle of a "what's for dinner" conversation when I spotted a neon lit bull's head on a storefront.

Look at that delicious red face of his.

By the time we paid the bill we had eaten one of the best meals of our stay. Little plates full of various spicy vegetables covered the table to the extent that we all expressed pity for the dishwasher. I must say that I appreciate this style of dining. Even in a fairly humble eatery such as this, I really felt like my hunger would be satisfied one way or another.

The usual kimchi was available, as well as a few sauces, some garlic to throw on the grill, and a little salad or two.

This was indeed a barbeque restaurant. That became evident early, as every table in the room was centered with its own little barbeque pit. We grunted while pointing at some nice looking pictures of meat assortments on the menu, then sat back and enjoyed the ride.

When someone brought the pale of hot coals in with a set of tongs, the excitement grew. Our waitress assumed that in addition to being unable to speak any Korean, we couldn't operate a heat source, so she did just about everything that needed to be done. She checked on us incessantly throughout our stay, so we wanted to get a picture with her before we left.

I pointed at what I thought was a vegetable plate, but it ended up being a large bowl of bibimbap. The pile of vegetables was simply showing what the dish would consist of, which is basically a large variety of plants and a bit of meat mixed with rice. It is a pretty famous Korean dish, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had happened to stumble on to it.

Bibimbap is my new favorite.

The meal ended with these tiny little cups of liquid being passed out. I couldn't pinpoint exactly what the little chilled drinks consisted of, but they were slightly sweet and a little bit fruity.

Here we are with our favorite Korean waitress ever.

When we left, the old woman operating the cash register was happily bidding us farewell in Korean. We of course replied with English, but the words don't really matter when trying to convey basic emotions. She threw a bit of Japanese in at the end as well, which I thought was interesting. My understanding is that many of the older people in Korea will know some Japanese due to Japan's efforts to force everyone to learn it's language and forget Korean. I was a bit surprised to hear it though, as I thought maybe the language might have some bad feelings associated with it. As for the several times that I did hear Japanese, I didn't respond. Partly because I didn't want to get involved, and partly because it was ruining my exotic vacation experience.

Well, this was Easter evening, and I couldn't think of a better time to go visit Myeongdong, and its Myeongdong Cathedral. The Myeongdong area is a pretty hip and happening place. Younger shoppers are prevalent, and clothing stores, coffee shops, and upscale restaurants line the streets. This area is also a big deal to Japanese tourists, and I would say that this is the place where I heard the most Japanese. Japanese characters were commonly found on store signs in this district as well.

One of the highlights from this area for me was a couple of hilarious guys making kkultarae, a court cake made of honey and malt wrapped around a nut mixture. According to the marketing, it was once eaten by kings and honored guests. The presentation was awesome, the cakes tasted pretty good, and it was a pretty unique experience all around. They were cheap enough that I bought a few boxes to bring back to the teachers at my school in Japan. It is customary to bring a little present for your coworkers when you go on a trip. I think that it is partly to apologize for leaving the team to go have fun. I mostly just do it to pay everyone back for the mounds of little treats that I frequently receive.

Anyway, here's a quick video that I snapped of the two guys in action. One of the funniest bits was the guy's sidekick. His English wasn't very developed, so he simply repeated the last word of just about every sentence that the other guy spoke. Pretty good stuff.

Well by the time we finally made it through the solid maze of capitalism and found the cathedral, a steady stream of people were walking back our direction. I assume that meant that a mass had recently concluded. I had read a bit about the cathedral before hand. It is over a hundred years old, and is the first catholic cathedral built in the country. I was unpleasantly surprised on our approach to the landmark, however.

It was apparently under construction, covered in cloth and looking quite unfortunate. A picture of a cathedral was drawn onto the fabric. Wow. The interior was still nice, although it wasn't the grand fusion of Korean and Gothic architecture I was hoping to see.

(According to the CIA Factbook, South Korea's population is 26.3% Christian)


Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988, and it proved to be a significant event for the country. It made South Korea the second Asian country after Japan to host the event. The intense scrutiny being experienced by China now probably has a parallel in the spot light aimed at Korea's totalitarian regime at the time(some Olympics-related criticism of China, if you haven't heard any in the last 5 minutes, can be found here). In 1981 South Korea won the right to host the games , but the country's first democratically elected president only took office in late 1987. Supposedly the country did it's best to make a smooth transition to democracy, so as to not spoil the world theater production that is the Olympics.

Anyway, I mention this because I was surprised at the references to the Olympics I could still find after two decades. The Olympic Park was listed in my travel book as a place worth checking out. During our many subway rides, I occasionally saw this cartoon animal depicted taking part in several different sports. He looked cheesy and colorful enough to be Olympics-related.

Turns out his name is Hodori, and he is the official mascot of the 1988 Summer Olympics. I should really be a detective or something.


A little something on present-day Japan. The cherry blossoms(sakura in Japanese) are beginning to bloom, and Japan is crazy about these things. The Japanese do something called hanami (pretty much translates to "flower watching"). I don't know that there's anything particularly special happening, but people like to get together and eat and drink under the trees. Can't argue with that.

Here are some kids pounding their little drums with reckless abandon.

A day or two before we left for Korea, it was the plum trees' turn to blossom. Back in the day (pre-Heian Period) it was the plum blossoms that were popular, rather than the cherry ones. So we kicked it old school style and had a little picnic under the trees.

When Mike gets that dreamy look I think he's really trying to remember the names of all the Pokemon.

Friday, March 28, 2008

3/29/08 Seoul, Land of Markets

Our first order of business on the third day was the huge Chungbu market, mostly because it was about a block away from the hotel. This market was unique from the others because it mainly offered food. While I found it very interesting to look at everything being offered, my good sense prevented me from buying any of it. The thought of a fish sitting out in the open air for who knows how long didn't seem very sanitary.

Here is a large pile of dried fish, mouths all agape.

Could someone kindly direct me to the frozen food aisle?

Here is some ginseng on display. Korea is crazy about ginseng. I've seen the little roots advertised in medicine, drinks, and even cosmetics around town. It apparently has the power to cure every illness except extreme gullibility.

This little area was much more to my liking. Everything was covered in an impervious layer of life giving plastic.

We saw these uncomplicated looking animals sitting in a tank in front of a restaurant, presumably waiting for their chance to be eaten. I'll say I've never eaten one of these, but nowadays I can never be sure.

We spotted this place on the way to Dongdaemun. All this guy was selling were little patches with random designs on them. Not a huge business, I wouldn't imagine. He was surprisingly high tech, though. We could see his computerized machine relentlessly sewing the patches four at a time in the back of his shop.

We traveled straight from Chungbu to the Dongdaemun market where we had scouted a bit on our first night in the country. In the center of the Dongdaemun area are two sports stadiums. A happy secret is that one of the stadiums is filled with the giant Pungmul flea market (lots of markets around these parts, I know).

Some hardcore flea marketing going on here.

Unfortunately when the Koreans say that something is "used" they really mean it. Most of the stuff being offered was so used that I didn't want to touch it with my bare hands. There was plenty of good stuff that didn't come from someone's garage, though. I was pretty successful in my hunting. I found a nice new South Korean flag which will be gracing my apartment's walls soon.

My favorite purchase of the day was a little 2007 coin set issued by the Bank of Korea. Oooh, shiny!

After all the shopping, we all wanted a change of pace. Our next stop was Seodaemun Prison. The prison was built in 1908 and was used by the Japanese to house those who fought against Japanese colonial rule. The story turned out to be much more gruesome than what I had expected. Special attention was given to portraying the atrocities committed by the Japanese within the prison.

Several of the original buildings were preserved for future study.

I liked the metal work on the fences that dotted the park.

My trial at the hands of the "Japanese aggressors".

Patriotic Tung getting the noose.

According to the sign that stood at the entrance of the mock trial room:
At the early stage of righteous army struggle, the Japanese aggressors tried to suppress it by committing such atrocities as immediate execution of captured righteous fighters on site, but under a severe criticism from the international community and mounting anti-Japanese sentiment by the Korean public, it reluctantly adopted a formal trial for punishment later.
A drastic surge in the number of prisoners from 1908 to 1910 was resulted directly from the increasingly intensified independence movement by the righteous fighters and a full-scale crack down against them.
You will have an opportunity to share the experience of the patriotic ancestors who were standing at the trial board for a summary execution.

Entrance to the building where the executions took place.

The Japanese built this tunnel leading out of the prison in order to secretly dispose of the bodies.

I think this is a list of names of people who were confirmed to have died at the prison.

I found the prison to be interesting and definitely worth the quick stop that we made. I was less than impressed with some of the signs, however. The explanations provided often had a propagandistic feel to them, incessantly using phrases like "the patriotic fighters" and "the Japanese aggressors". I think that that the story this place tells is powerful enough that it deserves to be told with a more historic, neutral point of view.

We explored around town quite a bit more until we arrived at the Seven Luck Casino. The Casino itself wasn't much, it was clean and classy, but super small inside.

The part that I found interesting was that only foreigners were allowed to enter. It must be that gambling is illegal in Korea, but that us heathen foreigners are allowed to do it just to inject some cash into the local economy. Tung made the mistake of leaving his passport at home on this particular day, so we had a long conversation with the staff guarding the door about where he was from. Even with his Japanese foreigner card, we had to wait for a manager to stroll over and approve us.

A bit from the sign outside.

Clarence and I felt that Tung was missing out on a large part of his Australian heritage, so after days of his begging we finally took him to Outback Steakhouse.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

3/27/08 Korea Day 2

Its so hard to write when I am on a trip like this. I have so much going on, and no time to sit down and think about it. Then I strain to remember the details weeks later. Argh!

After a good night's rest, we were energized and thirsty for some heavy tourism. We headed straight for Gyeongbokgung, the Palace of Shining Happiness. In addition to all the happiness, the palace is notable for being the largest and most important palace built by the Joseon Dynasty, which ended with the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. First of all, from a aesthetic viewpoint, Korea's palaces and temples are a Mardi Gras street parade in comparison to those found in Japan. The paintwork found mostly on the underside of the roof of buildings is called dancheong(detailed description here). It uses red, blue, yellow, black, and white in patterns so intricate that a few steps backwards causes one's eyes to blend the colors together. See for yourself.

We arrived at the palace just in time to catch the tail end of a changing of the guard ceremony. The traditional soldiers standing watch are snappily dressed but purely ornamental. The buildings were beautiful, but the history of the place was a bit hard for me to get interested in.

Small bit of the changing of the guard.

I enjoyed getting my picture taken with the palace's colorful and unmoving sentries.

This very advanced little electronic audio guide was available for about 2 dollars. I was impressed enough to check out the company's website. The secret involves an invisible film on the paper that lets the reader know what to recite.

Having zero frame of reference in Korean history, the endless proper nouns and dates flowing from the audio guide were in danger of permanently putting me to sleep, but that certainly didn't take away from the beauty of the area.

Here's a nice little shot of the interior of one of the buildings.

Quite serene.

We then went scouting for an interesting spot to eat, and ended up stopping at a nice little place that specialized in oysters. Without the gift of literacy or even knowledge of food's names, our main criteria for quality restaurants has become the number of pictures on the menu, and the number of other patrons present. This place had both, and ended up being a solid choice.

First came out a variety of spicy vegetables, collectively called kimchi. They were unordered but much appreciated. A brave bite into one of the green peppers left me with a pronounced stinging that would stay with me for an hour.

The two things that we ordered were excellent. This one was some sort of ground up meat and vegetable sausage with some sliced pork on the side.

This was explained to us as Korean pizza. It featured oysters and octopus meat.

Koreans have done an excellent job in displaying their kindness. This large bowl of soup was given to us with no explanation other than "free".

Koreans predominantly use stainless steel chopsticks as opposed to the plastic, wooden, or bamboo varieties that populate Japan. The smooth surface of the sticks might prove challenging to all but the most tested chopstick master.

We took a long stroll though one of the other main markets in the city, namdaemun market. This market was a bit more to my liking, as it wasn't completely comprised of sketchy knock-off clothing. This market had a bit more touristy fare, and I could frequently hear Japanese from buyers and sellers alike.

Just like dongdaemun from the day before, namdaemun is a large gate that exists from the days when a large wall surrounded the city. Or, it was a large gate, I should say. Less than two weeks before we started our fantastic voyage, the gate was razed by an arsonist(article here). As "national treasure #1", it was a bit like the Statue of Liberty burning down the week before one's trip to New York.

The building's former location was covered by a high wall. I suspect that the barrier shielded the public from the psychological shock of seeing the beloved building in such a sorry state.

Perhaps the most unusual event for me on this day was tasting a little Korean snack called beondegi. Beondegi are the silkworm pupae I have seen boiling in the occasional market stall pot. My travel book had mentioned their existence, so I was on the look out for a taste test.

Looking down at the pot, I wondered if I could simply get a sample rather than buying this stuff. At only 2 dollars for a cup full, though, I figured I might as well make the investment.

Here's the cup full of the little edible beasts up close.

The smell coming from the cup was considerable and unwelcome. I picked one up fast and ate it before the aroma dampened my bravery.

One was all that I needed. These aren't knocking jelly beans off my favorite snack list any time soon.

Last but not least, some random interestings from the day.

While wandering around town, we spotted maybe the coolest post office building I have yet seen.

A patriotic-looking statue right in front of the post office.

Every day Koreans compete with the Japanese to decide who can smash the most humanity into one train car.

Several of these are present in every subway station. Seem to be some sort of gas masks. A nice effort, but I don't see how the 15 masks will be helpful to the thousands of us underground.

Closeup of the sign showing how to don the masks.

A nice little building hanging out with the skyscrapers.

We passed by the American embassy during our wanderings. For a nation that we are fairly closely allied with, I was surprised at the massive police presence. Maybe 20 armored police buses lined the streets adjacent to the barbwired walls of the complex. Authorities in a variety of uniforms patrolled the sidewalks whilst looking intimidating.

The flag peeking out from behind its cage.

I could see a large number of apparently off duty police hanging out in the parked buses.

Interesting artwork on display.

This store was dedicated solely to Japanese toy vending machines. Surprising business.

That's all folks! More soon.