Wednesday, April 30, 2008

4/30/08 Korea War Museum

March 26th: Korea

The beginning of our last full day in Korea was spent at the War Memorial of Korea(website), a giant museum/memorial complex covering Korean conflicts stretching into prehistory. While a great deal of conflicts were covered, the Korean War dominated a large portion of the museum's material.

The land around the face of the museum was covered in large memorial statues and plaques. Around the backside of the building, then, was completely covered in retired war machines. Tanks, aircraft, missiles, and the occasional small water vehicle hailing from a multitude of nations were lined up. Little signs informed a bit about the importance of the armaments followed by a few boring technical specs.

The museum interior was large. Very large. Definitely the largest war museum that I have ever seen. It's hard to quantify how “long” a museum is in terms of the time required to experience everything. My guidebook estimated 3 hours, but I think thats a low figure. The amount of scattered video footage alone was at least an hour. Its really up to one's own attention span. How much war history can you handle? I was pretty interested in the whole thing, but by the end of our trip I was practically jogging through the exhibits.

One of several story telling aides were the life sized models depicting key moments in the wars. I was surprised at how good they looked.

I don't remember why it happened, but students were armed in order to fight the North Koreans during the Korean War. Pretty gruesome scene.

I didn't take a picture out of fear of being beaten, but there were several groups of military personnel touring the museum. Amusingly, on several occasions we saw groups of them holding hands. Grown men, walking through the museum in a chain, all holding hands, like kindergärtners. I didn't think it wise to point and laugh at these guys, but wow. Never leave a man behind, indeed.

One of my favorite bits was a case full of propaganda leaflets meant to undermine the opponents moral. I believe this one is addressed to Chinese soldiers, implying that Stalin is pushing them to their deaths.

Here's my favorite one. This looks to be aimed at Americans. To summarize, your family is worried about you, and the only safe way out of the war is to surrender. The smiling lady is a new POW's wife, pretty excited that her husband has been captured.

One new thing that I learned about the Korean War was the number of countries involved. Besides the Koreas, I knew of only the US and some sort of Chinese involvement. In reality the force fighting for the South was a United Nations force, comprised of the efforts of 17 nations.

The flags of the good guys.

A few more randoms.

This thing was pretty cool. It's meant to be a tear drop made from dog tags, covered in barbed wire.

Known as a turtle ship, these were some sort of technical advancement that was used to try to fend off the Japanese from Korean shores.

A little model of the Axe Murder Incident which took place in the Demilitarized Zone. A few men went in to chop down a tree that was obstructing the view of a guard post. The North Koreans sent in a truck full of soldiers and attacked the UN people with their own axes, killing two Americans. We viewed a plaque marking where the incident took place during our DMZ tour.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

4/20/08 The Garbage Plot Thickens

You might recall that I wrote a blog entry complaining about all of the rules concerning the handling of garbage. Well, those have officially become the good ol' days. The sorting is unchanged, but starting this month, all burnable(non-recyclable) trash must be put in a special pink bag designated by the city. These bags can be purchased at several stores in town. The biggest size, 45 liters, costs 600 yen(USD5.78) for a pack of ten. Curse you, garbage man!!

Look at his smug little pink face. Mocking me.

This past week began the first classes of the new year(Japan's school year starts in April). Some of the teachers are new, which is fun, plus a whole new class of first years is on the scene. I like to interact with them. They are cheerful and haven't yet become too cool for school, so they stretch the limit of their language ability to talk with me.

I was trying not to smile when I saw the way everyone planned out their schedules for the year. They moved around little plastic pieces with names written on them into slots corresponding to day and time. It felt like I was in a 1940s war room, or maybe playing a giant game of Battleship.


Nothing too exciting happening this weekend, but last weekend we took a little trip to Tokyo. This time we checked out an entertainment district located on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay called.... Odaiba. Covered in convention centers, malls, and little theme park rides, the island's layout made me feel like I was in another country. The buildings seem to be taller than they are on the mainland, and the streets wider. I really felt like I was in the US.

Rainbow Bridge to the left, and fake Statue of Liberty to the right. Nothing says touristy class like a fake Lady Liberty.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

4/14/08 Demilitarized Zone

March 25th: Korea

I knew that any trip to Korea for me was going to include a tour to the Demilitarized Zone. I am a big international politics geek, and the DMZ is a focal point. I have heard it described as the last place on earth where the cold war is still raging, and I read that it is the most heavily armed border in the world. The antics that occur between the north and south often unfold through this patch of earth. The fact that tours are safe and allowed seems pretty amazing.

Of all days, my camera picked this one to weird out on me. An unexplained little blob appeared in my pictures, no matter how many times I tried to wipe off the lens. I haven't noticed it recently, so I'm hoping that its gone. Soo, all of my pictures from probably the coolest part of the trip are less than perfect. Oh well.

The DMZ is the strip of land that separates the two Koreas. The Joint Security Area(JSA), by contrast, is contained within the zone and serves as a place that officials from the two Koreas often have talks. It is the only place where the two countries actually touch.

The bus ride down freedom road was pretty smooth. The road's main purpose is to allow tanks and military personnel access to the border in case of conflict, and I don't believe we saw another automobile the entire trip. A river ran adjacent to the road for a while. The riverbank was covered in barbed wire and dotted with guard posts and search lights, as the opposing river bank was North Korea. One interesting feature were the large concrete structures that were occasionally built over the road like bridges. In fact, they were structures filled with explosives that would be blown to block the road in case of an attack.

The first stop was Ballinger Hall, where we were given a short intro on the history and the significance of what we were about to see. The "in front of them all" slogan was plastered everywhere, and it refers to the fact that the base is the closest to North Korea.

We were also asked to sign this waver. The first line really sets a cheery tone. "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."

The cool part was unfortunately short. We were led into the United Nations blue buildings that straddle the line between North and South. I took a couple of shots with our cool dude military police escort.

A meeting table was stuck sideways in the building. The opposing rows of seats were in different countries. I thought it was pretty cool when I walked over to the other side of the room into the axis of evil.

This sun-spectacled gentlemen is guarding the door that opens into North Korea. He didn't seem receptive to me having a little peek.

Then I began looking out the window in search of my forbidden friends."Where the heck were all the Northies?" Not a soul was guarding the north side of the line. Our annoying tour guide started to push everyone towards the door when some North Korean soldiers goose-stepped their way over. Perhaps there was a changing of the guard or something. I snapped a quick couple pictures before I was ushered out... the last tourist to leave the building, of course.

You might notice that North Korea has no gravel on their side. Score one for America's embargo!

I think he was trying to send me a message with his eyes. It was either "Please take me with you!" or "Please die, capitalist pig-dog!". You can just make out the Kim Sung Il pin over his heart, a requirement for all adult North Koreans.

Here's a nice little pan of the buildings on our way out. You can hear our annoying tour guide in the background.

Here was a guard post on the North side. Complete with little guard man.

Later on we saw this model, which gives a bit better idea of how the buildings are situated.

The tour continued on from there, but it seemed silly to do the coolest part first. Nothing could possibly beat what we had already seen.

We got a couple of glimpses at the world's tallest flag pole. It is located in Kijong-dong, also known as propaganda village due to the fact that it the area is well maintained but largely uninhabited.

My favorite souvenir find has got to be this bottle of Insamsul. It's apparently ginseng flavored, and it even has a small root right in the bottle. Its made in Kaesong, right over the border in the DPRK. Wow.

Quite the trip!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

4/07/08 Korea: Movie Premier, Electronics Market, Theme Park... A Long Day in a Good Way

On Monday the 24th of March it was a nice sunny day. We decided that then would be a good time to go visit the War Memorial of Korea(English website here). After a solid little subway journey and a bit of wandering on street level, we found it. We could see some large statues and memorials from the street, so we read the plaques and gazed at them a bit before going any further.

There was quite a bit of this imagery. Split families, a split country, a split earth, and so forth.

All those killed fighting the Korean War had their names inscribed in these huge plaques, separated by country. There were so many from the US that they were further divided into states. Illinois had a few whole walls to itself.

Upon finally arriving at the front doors to the building, the lone woman at the entrance nonchalantly informed us that the museum is closed on Mondays. I couldn't see the faces that we made at her announcement, but I imagine that they were quite unpleasant.

The museum/memorial is giant, so we had alloted quite a chunk of time to its exploration. We had a Dunkin' Donut while we pondered what to do next. Korea has a different variety of American franchises than Japan, so we occasionally snuck in to have a guilty fix of whatever unhealthy food was available. After a bit of idealess staring at each other, we decided that we might as well check out another market. This one was completely dedicated to electronics, so we correctly assumed that it might be a bit different that the markets we had seen previously.

We soon found ourselves at I'Park Mall, as it was the starting point in the travel book's directions to the market. A movie ticket isn't as awful in Korea (it was like 7 dollars) so we wanted to check the movie times before embarking. An average trip to the box office it was not.

There was a bit of a commotion. A group of mostly women had formed, many of them holding signs, a couple had flowers. I didn't bother to ask anyone what was going on, it was pretty obvious that some sort of famous person was going to be here. We just loitered around and asked ourselves aloud who we thought it could be. I was so sure it would be Brad Pitt that I had decided to write “I love you Brad” on my chest with a black marker. Luckily, a lady with a pretty solid grasp of English intervened and told us a bit about the situation. Seemed Andy Lau (a famous Hong Kong performer, actor, and producer) was going to be making an appearance. We later learned that this was because of the world premier for (IMDB). As he was supposed to show any minute, I figured I might as well hang around and wait a moment. It was only like 20 minutes later when he slipped by with his little entourage. He waved a bit but he didn't bother to come closer to the small crowd. I was satisfied but I felt a bit bad for the other people. Who knows how long they had been standing there waiting for him.

Its hard to see, but he pokes his head out at 1:34

We stumbled onto the setting of the actual premier once it had already concluded. A bit low budget, but so was the movie I imagine.

The Yongsan electronics market had a similar feel to the Dongdaemun market that we had visited earlier in the week. It was a hybrid between indoor big box electronics store and street market. We crossed a pedestrian bridge from the shopping mall onto an upper floor of a building filled with electronics. The floor was divided up into small stalls, where things like cell phones and small televisions were being hawked. There were so many cellphone stalls selling seemingly the exact same thing that I wondered about how hard it must be to compete. I would think that bartering with them would involve a lot of price checking and walking around. So we walked floor by floor downwards until we reached the ground floor. This was where the street market seamlessly flowed from the building above. I don't recall much separation between the white tiled floor and the busy street outside. Perhaps there were no doors.

This place exhibited a busy, bustling quality that I had seen all over Seoul and I was beginning to very much enjoy. Every morning, the short walk from our hotel to the closest train station involved walking past various small factories. With plenty of windows and a door perpetually open, groups of one or two people fiddled with their machines. One was always printing various layouts on glossy sheets of paper. I enjoyed the little hint of the day's work given by the box of rejected prints sitting out front. Next came the forklifts spinning around in the middle of the street and all over the sidewalk. Dodging them quickly removed any morning grogginess from my brain. The little factories and the food market directly across the street needed to be fed daily with large boxes of supplies. Then there were two or three motorcycle repair shops. Often there were so many bikes waiting for sale or repair on the sidewalk that a short detour through the street was needed to pass them. Some of the bikes were sporty and brightly painted. Others, though, were the workhorses.

These things were half motorcycle, half flat bed truck. I was impressed with the large and often awkward shaped loads that were strapped to the back of these things. And, like everyone else, the drivers harbored no qualms about driving up on the sidewalk when it suited them. My guidebook noted that Seoul has a large amount of accidents that involve pedestrians... somehow I'm not surprised.

Well, our electronics market was more of this. TVs and refrigerators were being unloaded from trucks instead of boxes of paper and dried fish, but the activity was the same. I picked up a few cheap Korean movies on DVD from a peddler early in the day. During the course of the day I probably saw 20 such stalls selling the same thing. I walked by them quickly to avoid the sales pitch.

We had gotten out of bed much earlier than usual in order to learn about Korean wars, so even after everything that had happened we still had a good chunk of day to fill. So we did what any group of three planless dudes would do. We went to a theme park. I couldn't pass up the chance to add one more to my list of international theme park conquests. I imagine I am becoming a theme park connoisseur of sorts.

Of course, most of my admiration is reserved for the Disney brand parks. I like the nostalgia of the places and the rides, of course. On a different level, I also like the idea of building a different world. Before his death changed the course of things, Walt Disney had planned to make Epcot(Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) a real city with residents and a complete working infrastructure, much more than the perpetual world's fair that it is today. The idea of trying to build a utopia is always an interesting one, but can you imagine Walt as the benevolent dictator of your city? Couldn't Disney World simply expand over time until it became a major metropolitan center?

A very interesting promotional video where Walt reveals his plans for world domination.

Sooo, we hopped into a taxi and yelled “Lotte World!!” like little kids might. Then I yelled it about ten more times with different pronunciations until the cab driver understood me.

Lotte World(English site here). Where to start? First of all, the building itself is a beast. The indoor section is housed in a building with a rounded roof, a bit like a sports dome. Connected to the domed land is a slightly smaller outside area, where the Disney-ripoff castle sits. The outdoor rides are the ones that wouldn't fit inside, and it even features a haunted house.

Our tickets included admission into the Lotte World Folk Museum, which offered a lot on Korean history and culture. I went to the museum first, and realized the folly in building a folk museum adjacent to a theme park. Its hard to concentrate on the lifestyles of royalty in the Choseon castle when theres a ferris wheel and $1.50 cotton candy being sold next door. I imagine school children might feel the same way. I fast-walked through the place with a purpose. I might have seen 7 other people in the whole building.

Here is some Korean history seen through the eyes of a guy who would really rather be at a theme park. Annnnnd, GO!

First, there's this gentlemen.

Cave guys.

There was a parade.

Buddha was there.

Japanese police are mean.

The End.

Then came the fun part.

This was a fairly quality park. One of the things I pay attention to is how well the park is themed. Disney's big strength is that is has so many stories and characters from which to pull concepts. Here there were only a few little characters, and they don't seem to have much of a back story. Lotte World does a good job though, I think. The park is divided into areas that feature a world culture, and the rides are loosely based on that theme. The award for best named ride goes to The French Revolution, a ride that spins.. quite the pun.

Another excellent part of this park were the prices. Admission was about 24 dollars and a decent sized soft drink cost about a dollar fifty. The pairs of ears we're wearing ran about 3 dollars. Quite a good value, I think.

One of my favorite attractions was the Aeronauts Balloon Ride, which consisted of a hot air balloon-shaped sky-ride that ran on a track on the ceiling, giving a nice view of the park.

Mmmm, Churros.

We went to see this show thing.... definitely best appreciated with an open mind.

Taking aim at Desperados, an attraction that involved bouncing horses, light guns, and a movie screen filled with characters who deserved to get shot. What else do you need?

A parade broke out at one point. Several floats and dancers covered in lights did little performances while they walked the indoor route. The funny part was that every last person in the parade was Caucasian. It was most certainly more white people than I had seen since I got off the plane. We got a bit of special attention from the parade. Many of the performers gave us a “hello” as they walked. I seem to recall one giving Tung a high five while passing. I don't think they get too many foreigners around those parts. I wondered what their story was. The tale of an American ending up dancing in parades at a Korean theme park much be one worth hearing. Unfortunately I didn't see a trace of them once the parade was completed. Too bad.

Some parade action.

As the day progressed, the park got more and more busy, with groups of school children beginning to appear. Lines that were laughingly short when we arrive soon became logged with ride goers. The wisdom of arriving early at Lotte World in Seoul, Korea is probably information that I won't be able to benefit from, as I don't imagine being back. But the rest of you have been advised.

The night ended with a laser light show thing. Their seemed to be no more than five laser projectors involved in a presentation that ended up feeling a bit low tech. It was more weirdish than amazing, but it finished off with some pyrotechnics which were much appreciated by the crowd. A very enjoyable evening.

Good times.



The last week at school has been like no other that I have yet experienced. First of all, we are still in the middle of spring break, which I must say is completely awesome. The teachers, including myself, have all changed from stressed-out working machines back into real people. I have savored the time, trying to chat as much as possible with the other teachers. They really are good people.

Spring vacation marks the end of the school year in Japan. As a result, we have gone through the process of changing teachers. Friday of the week before last, the principal of our school announced what teachers would teach in what grade, and which teachers would be leaving. I don't really understand the criteria, but certain teachers are told that they will be moving to another school in the school district. It seemed that no one knew for sure who would stay and who would go prior to this day. Then, Tuesday of last week, at the beginning of the day, all 15 or so of the teachers that will be leaving lined up at one end of the staff room and gave little goodbye speeches. The next day, the same line up was for the new teachers, with each one giving a little intro about themselves.

As a result, I have two new English teachers with whom I need to get accustomed. Wish me luck.