Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Korea Series - the Friendliness of Strangers

As most of you know, I'm an abnormally small girl. People will always guess my age to be younger than 23, All throughout college; I could have been passed off as a high school student. Now, as a professional, people guess I am a college student. I'm told I'm lucky, that this is an advantage compared to those that appear their age or older. For the most part, I'm completely accustomed to these assumptions. It's not until now, living and traveling in foreign countries that I feel grateful for my young-looking appearance.

I think others are more willing to go out of their way to help me since I appear so young and helpless. So many examples of this in prior entries. However, these examples are all from Japan. Now; I can say Koreans are just as willing to help pathetic looking foreigners as Japanese people are. I was going to do some traveling on my own since Corey had to work. I shuffled through my Korea Lonely Planet Guide and chose my itinerary for the day. I was first going to head to a small Buddhist monk village to check out the temples and area. From there, I was just going to finish up by going to the War Memorial Museum and see that part of Seoul before meeting Corey for dinner.

I woke up Corey to get some help with the trains and headed out on my way. I rode on public transports until it was my stop. I had my Lonely Planet(LP) so I figured I'd have no problems finding this buddhist town that LP coined the Inwangsan Shamanist Hillside Walk. According to my guide, I was to exit out of the train, make my first left down a winding alley and keep walking uphill until I reached the village.

I do as I read. I find the alley, no problem. It's certainly winding; I'm shocked that I am actually able to follow these really vague directions. And then, it was almost like walking right into a brick wall. One word: Construction. Shit. What do I do? I turn back around and make a slight right to see if there is anyway to get around it. Nope. I walk back, look left, nothing. Shit. I've come this far to get here; I have no back up plans. I'm standing in the middle of the street trying to make a decision. It's nearly my last day in Korea, I don't want to waste it.

Suddenly, a Korean woman with glasses and quite hip looking asks me "hfdsfjhsdkfhasdj?". Okay, I don't know what she asked me. But, if I could understand Korean, my guess would have been, "Can I help you?" or "Are you lost?". I responded to her in English & Japanese that I don't understand Korean. She then asked me, "hfjdskiahfdjfhjdskafhjsdkhfskd?" Which, I interpreted as, "Where are you going?" I showed her my LP guide and tried pronouncing the place in what I thought Korean would sound like.

Well, she understood either my made up Korean language or could read the English I was showing her. She then told me, "hfjksdajfdsjkfs" - which, certainly meant "Follow me." I followed her first to a store and then to someone's house. Whatever it is she was asking them must have not been the information she was looking for. Next, she was on her phone. Then she said in English, "daughter, apartment". I figured she wanted me to go to her apartment, so sure, why not. I followed her up the street and went into a parking garage. She told me to wait and she pulled out a woolly mammoth sized truck. Of course, I hopped into it because I'm all about adventure.

We drive maybe only three minutes and stop. Not saying anything to one another because neither of us really know a word of the other's language. Suddenly, a girl and a young boy hop into the back seat of the car. The girl introduces herself to me in English! She brought me to her daughter who speaks excellent English to help me! I tell the girl where it is I want to go and show her my LP.

No problem! They are going to take me there! Along the way, I chat with my new friends. The girl is 19 years old, the son is 8. Her mother is a housekeeper and the father a business man. They are proud Catholics and her godfather is from California. I told them my story and then bam! We've arrived. I figured that I would only be dropped off and go explore on my own. This is not what my new Korean tour guides had in mind. Apparently, they'd really like to show me around with the daughter as my guide.

This little village is located rather high up on a hill. When you're towards the bottom and look up - it kind of looks like the houses are all built on top of eachother. The colors are old very asian looking. It seemed that no matter where in the village you stood, you were never at the top and could always look all around you to see plateou's of houses everywhere.
This picture below shows a bronze bell that signifies the entrance to the largest temple in this area. My tour guides told me it was rung on New Year's Eve and it was heard all over the area below the village. I asked them if they heard it and they had. I was particularly intrigued by the bell because of all the inscripted Korean all over it. Additionally, I found the roof the bell house to be exquisitely painted.

After walking past the bell, you come to a gate. The gate had two doors that swung open. On the gates; were identical paintings. The picture below shows one of the doors. The paintings portray guardian kings of heaven who protect Buddhist people from evil.

Once walking past the protective paintings, you walk up to the largest temple named Bongwonsa. As a tourist, generally you are not allowed inside. However; the heavens were with me that day. Not only finding me my very own tour guides, but having them have the right friends to let us inside. So, basically, no one is allowed inside. But, my tour guides spoke with the monks that were around and they let us go see!
Inside, there were five golden Buddha statues. From a quick glance, they all appear the same. At a closer look, you see each of the five statues have a personality of their own. Each of their hand positions were different. In front of the five statues, was a large taiko drum. This drum was also eloquently painted to match the outside of this temple. (see picture above) The ceiling had many pink lanterns made of paper. I asked my guides about them because they loitered the ceiling and I assumed there was some significance. According to my guides, they said they symbolize Korea's national flower. To the right of the shrine was hundreds of small candles. I felt so honored and lucky to be able to view the inside of this temple. How was I so lucky to get inside of a building that tourists aren't allowed to see?

We finished up inside and headed up some more stairs. I felt bad making my translator get all this unwanted uphill exercise. We saw the outside of a shamanist shrine named Guksadang. My Korena tour guides didn't know much about it but according to my LP guide, it was originally built on this high hill in the middle of Seoul called Namsan (I will write about that later) but was demolished by the Japaense colonists in 1925. The Korean shamanists quietly rebuilt it on this hill. This shrine I wasn't lucky enough to see inside but again, my LP states that inside there is usually food offerings such as rice cakes, fruit, meat and to me, most notable - a pig's head.

We kept ascending heaps of stairs until we reached large, looming zen rocks. There was a man meditating in front of them; so we headed around the back of them so we could talk about the area. In the picture below; you will see a wall in the distance. This is called the Seoul fortress wall. This wall dates back to 1396 and is currently being renovated. They also told me that just beyond that wall in this area is a prison - so if you get too close, you may come into contact with prison guards. That seemed scary to me.

When the man was finished meditating, we headed back down to look at the rocks. I didn't take any pictures even though they encouraged me too. There were several times that I was prompted to take pictures - but I felt the situation was inappropriate even though the citizens of the country urged me to do so. There were two rocks that had several divots in it that had somehow been eroded away. I was told that over the years, many people had renamed these rocks because they always seem to morph into a new creative shape. At the moment, they are named because they appear like human skulls. It was quite an interesting way to imagine the rocks. My guides told me that Korean women come to these rocks to pray for sons. To try to make conversation; I asked the Mom if she had come here to pray for her son. It got quite awkward when she reinformed me that she is Catholic so she would not come here to pray for a son. Oops.

When finished with the abstract Zen rocks; we started heading back towards the car. They asked me where I was headed to afterwards. I told them I wanted to see the War Memorial Museum. I was invited to see a historical prison with them if I had time. I was interested in seeing it and I only had to meet Corey by 5:00 - so I accepted the invite.

This prison is called Seodaemun Prison. It was constructed in 1908 under the name of Gyeongseong Gamok. The name changed 6 more times before finally resting on it's current name since 1998. The prison now serves as a museum that tells of the history of Japanese colonialism in Korea. The picture below is what is left of the front gate of the prison.

My brochure from the prison states:
"Seodaemun Prison History Hall is a living education site for Korean history where visitors can pay a high tribute to the patriotic ancestors who valiantly fought against the Japanese invasion for sovereign independence, and renew the determination of the spirit of independence."

I found the whole situation to be very enlightening. I have always been aware that the Japanese invaded Korea years ago; but I never realized the extent of things that happened here. I won't bore you with historical facts but it was all very new to me. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a Korean family translating the facts to me. I could learn the history and ask their opinions and views of it all. I love history so this was great for me to see. You really couldn't view this prison without a translator; there were very few things in English. I still find it very shocking that our school system doesn't focus much on any World History or culture. I felt very ignorant and embarrassed to admit to my hosts how little about their country I knew. I suppose my hands on learning experiences are much more memorable than reading out of text books anyways.

I'd love to talk to anyone about my experience at this prison. I just feel it is not entirely appropriate to post it on here. The prison offered a lot of historical artifacts, pictures, information and eye opening re-enactments. The buildings that I was able to view included the entrance gate and watchtower (picture 1), the execution room, punishment cells, and seven of the original 1 5 buildings. If you happen to read Korean - here is the website to it:

After the prison - we went to this memorial in the picture below. After this wall, it got awkward. It was time to depart ways. We stopped walking and they told me that the there was nothing else to show me. I didn't know what to say or do. I mean what would you do if this family picked you up off the streets and showed you around for 4 hours in the middle of the afternoon? I didn't know if they wanted money or what their whole motive was. I asked if there was anything I could do for them; but they told me no, they were just very happy that I am interested in their country. I hugged them goodbye and tried showing my gratitude as best as I could.

I walked down towards the subway station. I had tears in my eyes because I just can't fathom how kind people are in this world. It's one of those situations that touches you emotionally. There was no way I could repay them for their kindness and it's so rare to see that kind of friendliness in America. I really wish I could express to you how I felt at this moment, but I can't. I don't know if I could ever express it in person either. There's a book out there - a travel writer's book called something along the lines of this post's name. I want to read it. It feels so amazing to know this world is filled with kind people when you most need them. I could tell you many stories from when I traveled Tasmania by myself and how people came out of the woodworks to help me there, too. And a few stories from New Zealand. I bet by the time I settle down, I could write a book on the friendliness of strangers as well. Perhaps, someday.

After, becoming lesser teary eyes, I decided to walk back up the stairs and check out the park that is next to the prison.

The park is called Independence Park. The structure below is named Dongnipwang or in English - Independence Hall. It was used for forums to promote national dependence, self - reliance, and rights of the people. The original one was actually destroyed by the Japanese, but this new one was reconstructed in 1996 for symbolic reasons.

This is Independence Gate which was built by the Independence Club in 1898. According to my LP, it was built where envoys from Chinese emperors used to be officially welcomed to Seoul, a ritual that symbolized Chinese soverainty over Korea, but was ended when the King of Seoul declared himself emperor in 1897.......

I found Korea to be much like America in many ways. The attitudes and ways of Koreans on the street reminded me a lot of home. It was very different from Japan. I felt Korea was almost more like America in many ways. After learning a bit more about their history on this day and speaking with a Korean family; I can understand why. I hadn't realized just how many times this country has been invaded by many nations. They are very proud of their independence and individualism. Much like how America had to fight for their independence, so has Korea. Maybe, this is where our countries have similarities that create the citizens of the country to be very individualistic. Just a conclusion, that a very young, possibly ignorant person like me can draw.

Next blog: Part 2 of this day


Other than my Korean blogging; things are going alright over here. It was really good to see most of you that read this two weeks ago. I did it, I handed in my recontracting papers yesterday. I am here until August 2008 atleast. I've been keeping busy with dinners with friends. I was a guest speaker on Sunday and am in tonight's newspaper. I dicussed the confusion of certain Japanese words that have been borrowed from other languages with an English professor at a nearby University. I made some new contacts that might be helpful.
Hopefully, soon; I will finish my Korea stories and get back to my everyday life in Japan.

One more thing: I am entering an essay contest where I might be able to win some money(I think only like 5 get money). If not, I'd still be ecstatic to get published. The stipulations are that is has to do with the program I am here with. If you could leave a comment or send me an e-mail about your favorite story from my blog (non- Korean or any weekend traveling trips)- I will take the highest tally and rewrite it really well to enter it into the contest. I want the one that has stuck in your mind the most, or touched your heart the most, or made you laugh the most, or made you wish you were here in Japan, etc. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Korea Series - Ending the old with something new

As with most things, my athletic abilities are rather mediocre. I find I'm a pretty average person, well-rounded person. I have the knowldge of an average person, my capacity to learn is that of an average person and yes my strength in sports is shock - average. (factor a)

In addition to the averagity (is that a word?) of my demeanor, I grew up in Buffalo, NY. This cold, snowy city is not only one of the flattest cities in NY, but also America. (factor b) This formula - a+b = c. C is the fact that I have never skiied before. Of course, I had ample opportunities in Plattsburgh. But, when the cost of one day of skiing equals how much my bi-weekly paycheck was - the idea of possibly breaking bones as opposed to having gas money, beer money and participating in other hobbies seemed not so appealing.

So, on my second morning or third day in Korea; I was awaken by Corey. It was New Year's Eve and I was out to try something new. We were going skiing! Staggering still half drunk, I packed my bag with all the warm items I bought at the markets the day before. I hoped that I remembered everything; still in my carefree, drunken hangover - Corey and I descended from his apartment to meet his two friends outside in the cold but sunny morning.

We caught a few trains to get us to where we needed to catch the bus that would transport us 3 hours from Seoul. Shortly, I was introduced to many others that would be joining us for the trip. We all marched onto the bus. I had really wanted to utilize the three hours to see the countside of Korea. My exhausted body prevented my curious eyes and mind from seeing much . I managed to wake into consciousness and peer through my window a few times throughout my trip.

Small mountain ranges provided relief from the monotany of the rices paddies along the way. The rural Korean towns and villages were randomly scattered. The shining sun enhances the colors so it all looked as beautiful as I had expected it to be.

It felt more like one hour, not three and we reached our ski resort. It turns out the group we were in was rather large. Decisions were made and shortly we were headed to our shelter that would ring in the New Year's. Cheap is good. Being carefree and flexible is almost a prerequisite for cheap travel. We reserved two rooms from a Korean style hotel. The plan of attack was sleeping eight to a room.

By room, I mean an average space with wood floors with enough futons for everyone if we slept two people per futon. After arranging everything, we grabbed lunch from a delicious Korean restaurant. (see Korean food blog for more)

After a sobering lunch, we returned back to the mountain. We had a large group that needed ski/snowboard rentals. Thankfully, there was a patient girl with us who had to translate for nearly all of us.

It wasn't before long that I resembled a handicapped Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with my bulky pants, jacket and learning to walk in ski boots for the first time. These awkward boots impeded my movement along with carrying two heavy skis across a busy street. Our group was so large; again pictures were taken for Marketing purposes (4th time since living overseas). Our lift ticket began at 6:30. I tested out my legs in skiing while Corey explained some of the basics to me.

According to someone in our group, New Year's Eve is the most popular day to ski. This was quite evident with the business of the mountain. I went down the bunny hill; trying my hardest not to kill everyone in the way.Corey decided the best way for me to learn was just to get out on the slopes. A successful start with the ski lift ended when I fell nearly 10 seconds after being on my skis. Thank God for Corey because I was popping my ski's off and falling into positions that I couldn't get myself out of. He showed me a few things and most importantly was very patient with me.

I made it down once, only to go back up the same trail. I improved slightly, getting more of a feel on what I should be doing. Learning new things at the age of 23 hinders the speed of improvement at new challenges. I would get the feel for skiing, gain some speed and then freak out. My panics always resulted in crash landings all over the slope. My safety rationale always prevented me from feeling safe while going that fast not inside a moving vehicle. Irregardless, I had still progressed some more. My third run would be on a new slope.

At this point, my bones and muscles hurt and my gloves were soaked through. Worse though, my bravery was slowly dissipating. I made it down and called it a night. Corey had been so tolerant, helping me each time I fell; I wanted to give him the opportunity to ski by himself.

After skiing and returning all our equipment back to the rightful owners - it was time to have some dinner. We ate at another Korean restaurant - and this is where we rang in the New Year's. Across the street from us was the ski resort that lit off fireworks when the New Year's began. My first time not watching the ball drop on television. Rather, I was having an unforgettable New Year's in Korea watching fireworks explode in the sky.

After dinner, we stocked up on alcohol and snack to bring back to our crowded hotel room. We played a few drinking games in a very large circle. I was having a great time, but starting feeling the sleepy effects of alcohol. I was just about ready to crash when Corey woke me. We went into the kitchen since everyone else decided to go to sleep. We played "dice". Evens, I drink; odds, he drinks. We're creative. Finally, we crashed onto our futon,; enjoying the way Korean's heat their buildings- from under the ground.
The following day; we hung around the ski resort and headed back to Seoul. It was too late to do much when we arrived, so we just went around for some drinks and researched a lot of statistics about Seoul on his computer. I tend to ask too many questions and we both wanted to know the answers.

Next blog: on my very own tour from a local Korean family.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

back back to America

I'm sitting in a Tokyo hostel drinking a beer.
I know I still haven't finished my Korea trip and I really want to. I was just getting to the best parts. I promise I will get to it.

I am going back to America tomorrow. In 12 hours, I will be on my way to the airport. So, see most of you that read this really soon.

My sister has my old cell phone. I forgot she's at college right now. I won't have access to call people until Friday. Please email me your phone number or call my house #.


see ya'all soon.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Korean Series - Day 2 Seoul by the moonlight

Acting much like a sloth on my first day in Korea, meant that I saw Seoul by the evening lights. I was on vacation after all. I lazily crawled out of bed to fumble around Corey's apartment. I ended up back in bed until he returned from work. Corey broke out his few Korea traveling guides and we decided on what we would do for the evening.

It was decided that we would see a palace in the moonlight followed by checking out many of the markets that Korea is a bit famous for. We hopped onto a train and were scheduled first to check out a palace by night. After a roundabout walk of the city – we arrived there. Since it was nightfall, I think only one person had walked past us while observing. I went up close to check out the colors a bit more. This palace was quite large. The architecture and colors reminded me a lot of Japan; which makes sense since it is an Asian country. According to one of my adult students, these architectural similarities are seen all over Asia. He told me it first started in China, then moved to Korea and lastly to Japan.

It makes sense for ideas to travel that way. As Korea is next to China, it only seems sensible that they would have the next dibs on the ideas. According to one of my college professors, Japan has a knack for stealing ideas and customs from other countries. This can be seen in such cultural ideas such as the Chinese writing system, at one point having strong Confucius beliefs taken from China, moving onto Buddhism, and now many Western ways of life being integrated into the culture.

Back to Korea. It is always nice seeing things by the moonlight because you don't have crowds of people. I am one of the people in that crowd, so I can't be cynical. Yet, that many people in such a historical spot often takes away from the reason you are there. After seeing the palace, we took a stroll along the streets of Korea to reach the markets. We passed “the secret garden” which Corey has yet to find a way in.

To cross the street in Seoul, frequently,you are required to walk under the street via a tunnel

provided. I haven't been to a city where I have needed to do this yet. As Corey and I discussed, there probably aren't too many cities in America where we would feel safe walking through a tunnel at night. Tunneling underground in Seoul wasn't something I thought twice about.

I suppose if someone from space was watching us through glass, the city of Seoul might represent something like an ant farm. All these underground routes to get us from A to B. Did you ever have an ant farm? I did and I remember my mom made me keep my ants in our garage. Imagine two thin pieces of glass pushing together sand. At first the sand is all in tact. After a few days, weeks, the ants have created a masterpiece of subterranean mazes. That's Seoul walking in a nutshell. We were all just a bunch of ants – Corey and I – two ants trying to get from a palace to the markets.

The Christmas lights in Seoul were still illuminating throughout the city. These lights decorated the city nicely and made it seem even more alive. The weather was wonderful, unlike all the rumors I had heard from my Japanese counterparts. Every person I told that I was headed to Seoul for the new years immediately followed up with ahhh totemo samui desu! Ippai yuki! Which basically is Seoul is very cold and there is lots of snow there! They were quite wrong – Seoul was a lot warmer than where I am living in Japan and there was no snow (but, it seems this happens to be a worldwide phenomenon).

The first market we went to was quite crowded with people – for the time to be so late in the evening – it was quite shocking that there were this many people moving around. Many of the vendors in this market were selling food, souvenirs, clothes, etc. The road was made of brick and all the different kiosks and stores were hugging both sides of the street. It was at the first market that I picked up the extent of the souvenirs I would purchase on this trip. I didn't have a lot of bag space for anything to come back to Japan with me. Unless one is out to shop – the experience of seeing the markets is still memorable. The hustling people, the different and new foods, Korean goods. This market is also where we purchased the bulk of our street food. (see my Korean food blog)

The second market we hit up was a bit different. This market had many, larger stores you could also enter. Imagine on the streets, towering buildings with small kiosks down below. Imagine the bully at recess threatening the little guy to give up their lunch money. The stores all looked expensive, while the family run stands provided goods for cheap. This market offered a lot of gloves, hats, outdoor stuff, as well as bootlegged DVDs, food, a vast array of items. Corey and I bought our skiing gear from this market. The vendors are all really friendly and I never felt they were too pushy to purchase anything. I ended up with a really cute hat that you will see in a lot of my Korea pictures. I wanted something practical but cute. The man that sold me my hat (and Corey's too) was memorable. Making small conversation with us – like where we are from and moving on to tell me I could be a model.

There was a boy standing around in this market as well. He was holding up a cardboard sign that said free hugs. People were gathered around him, but no one was hugging him. I felt, the only thing to do – was to give him a hug. I went and hugged him, a big hug since I never receive or distribute this in Japan. During our hug, he told me I love you. A lot of people laughed and I probably did look a bit like an idiot – but how can you pass up a free hug?

Our last market for the evening which Corey prepared me for was named Namdaemum Market. He warned me that if I thought the other two markets were swarming full of people – wait till I see this one! We weaved our way through the conglomeration of streets, underground tunnels, construction, people, all the mess of a city. Passing by all the Christmas lights again, the imposing buildings to reach what seemed to me a quieter part of the city. And that it was – the market was closed! Bummer – but I still got a feel for what it would have been like. It was very different from the first two we visited. These stands were all one right next to each other – little holes in the wall with much of their products on display outside. Many of the shops had awnings which peppered the street. Prices were not marked indicating there could be some bartering with the owner. The market was within narrow alleyways; I can imagine that if it were only semi- busy it would be brimming. It would be a sardine situation – with little walking space and lots of consumer-hungry tourists. It reminded me of older Asia, not that I really know older Asia; but the feel to it wasn't that of a newer market place like the first two we had visited. I purchased some omiyage. Which in Japanese – is basically like a souvenir but there is a small difference in meaning. I purchased nori or seaweed for Yumie and Yasko since they helped me get some of my trip situated.

Between the markets walk – we also crossed over a bridge that was keeping our feet dry from a river down below. Down by the river, there were heaps of people walking along the edge on a nicely paved sidewalk. I tried to take a photo – but again, we were night viewing which didn't allow for a good shot. I like cities that incorporate nature into them.

After finishing up with the last market, we found our way back to Corey's part of town. We took a train and Corey told me to keep an eye out for red crosses. I don't know what it is in Korea; but literally every two seconds you see a big, red illuminated cross hovering over everything around it. Sometimes, they switched it up and you would see a green one. I understand that there has been a lot of unrest over Catholicism in Korean history. According to, Catholicism first came to Korea in the first years of the 17th century. In the years 1839, 1846 and 1866 at least 8,000 people were persecuted for practicing. Maybe this is their way of saying “we won the right to practice and we will let you know by having crosses litter the view of Seoul.” According to the CIA world fact book, 26% of Korean people today are Christians. If you were to stare straight out the train window and not move your head or peripherals – you would see a red cross nearly every five seconds. As soon as one leaves your view, a new one comes flashing at you reminding you of Jesus Christ. I wish I knew the real meaning behind it since it was so peculiar.

Tonight was the night that we would do our beer taste test, learn Korean drinking games and go to the biggest night club. You can read about it in my first post of Korea.

My next blog: my first time skiing and New Year's Eve! (if I get to it before leaving for America! So much to blog, so little time!)

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Korea Series - The first Day

I landed into Incheon International Airport after a short two hour flight from Tokyo. The flight was pleasant. Flying over the landmass of Japan; I was delighted to have chosen a window seat – as I saw what was possibly Mt. Fuji protruding from the earth trying to intimidate the Gods of whatever heaven is above us. If that mountain was in fact, not Mt. Fuji; I can only imagine how breathtaking that mountain is amongst the rest of the winterly dead earth around it. I placed my headphones into my ears and watched the sunset. There is something indiscernible about the way I feel when I witness such beauty. I can't paint a picture for you the way the sun painted the skies for me – flying into a sunset leaves much to be unsaid.

Once the sun had finally met with the horizon, there was not much more to look at down below. I focused my attention on reading the free English weekly magazines in the pocket before me. I read all about the latest 2006 crazes – about youtube, myspace, facebook, all the internet junky stuff that I am also an addict of as well. At one point, I did glance back out the window and noticed hundreds of lights floating in the water. I assumed they were boats. Perhaps, belonging to the army since they were so close. I thought that would be an interesting life. Living out on sea with boat neighbors. It made me think again, how someday a cruise boat job would be fun.

Not too long and it was evident we were over the country of Korea inching our way closer to the airport. We landed and sat on the tarmac for quite a while. According to the Aussie pilot, the airport was full and there was nothing he could do about it. I loved the way he expressed how it's “out of his control”. The words he was using were definitely none that a person who understands English as a second language would follow easily. Therefore, myself and the one other white person on the plane were probably one of the few who even understood him.

I waited my turn to depart off the machine that bullets through the sky. I had my large pack and my passport and headed straight to immigration. I waited in a rather long line. I handed my passport to the Korean woman who flipped through my pages. She chose one and stamped in my arrival to Korea. I scurried my way to the customs guy to hand him my piece of paper marking, “No, I am not bringing any crocodiles into Korea” (honestly, it asked that). I don't think he looked at my declaration; I continued to stand there, thinking there has got to be more than this. There wasn't – he motioned for me to continue walking. I did and now I was in Korea. I followed the directions Corey had provided for me which led me to the outside world.

I needed to buy a bus ticket and found the booth that was described. I stood there waiting for the man at the booth to acknowledge me. Here is my first realization that maybe I should have tried to learn a simple few phrases. For example, “excuse me”. He never noticed my existence, so a man pushed right past me and put his money before the booth man. Pushy man got his ticket and the booth man looked right back down – not wanting to recognize that I was there. This time, I just said where I needed to go. “Coex”. He understood, great. He put his finger up indicating “1”. I responded, “hai” or yes in Japanese. Just as Katie had warned me – when you're in a foreign country – you're going to try to speak Japanese to them. I didn't think it would really happen – but without even thinking; I had responded to him in Japanese. Realizing how stupid I must sound I said “gomen nasai” or I'm sorry in Japanese. Wow! Such an idiot. I just laughed and walked away feeling so rude.

I stood in the line that everyone was standing in. I wasn't entirely sure if it was the right line but it was my gut instinct so I went with it. I realized that at least in Japan I can communicate enough to ask if this is the right bus or not. I was prepared to encounter all the difficulties I had when I was a fledgling in Japan. A bus pulled up – and I was going to board but I looked at the tickets people had in their hands. I couldn't see what people had in their hands getting onto the bus – but I saw the people around me had the same tickets as me and they weren't boarding. I decided that I will stick with the folks around me that had the same picture on their tickets as me. There was always the possibility that some of these people were Japanese and that I could ask if this bus was right. It seemed though, if I confused a Korean with a Japanese person, the outcome may have been the same as confusing an American as a Canadian. Finally, after being quite cold and getting more anxious as time went on – another bus pulled up. I followed the crowd into getting my bag placed underneath and jumping aboard. Two other foreigners – which was positive that if I got into any dire problems, at least there were English speakers. The back of the bus was going to be my resting place for the next hour. A Korean man sat next to me.

I peered out the window which was basically like lying in your bed and staring at your ceiling. There wasn't much to look at since it was dark out. I lazily noticed cars driving by and the Korean writing system hangeul on the road signs. At last – city lights! I was getting excited now, one quick stop and then the next stop was mine! I collect my pack and walk into the biggest underground mall in all of Asia - The Coex mall. I take a good, long look at where I was dropped off so that I know where I need to meet Corey in one hour. Dinner sounds like a good idea at this point since I was served only the meat option on the airplane. I go down to the mall and am bombarded with places to choose from to eat. It's Friday night and all the locals are out with their friends and I am stumbling around with my pack. I choose the least packed place – a small tea shoppe.

I walk up to the counter and the woman asks me in English if I need help. I said, “I want tea”. She kind of laughed at me and gave me a menu. I chose scones since the last time I digested these yummy English delights was in Australia. The kind woman clears off a table for me and I drop my pack to the floor and wait. Shortly, my strawberry flavored tea and two small scones are brought out in front of me. One more hour to go and I get to meet up with Corey. I decide to eat slowly and break out my journal to write in. This small meal was rather pricey – nearly $10 – I paid the woman and went back upstairs to wait.

I was sitting on a bench and this man started chatting me up in English. Quite shocked that a stranger is willing to try English with me. I never encounter this in Japan – even when I am in bigger cities. He informed me he was waiting for his two signs to arrive – one coming from Japan. I told him I live in Japan but I don't think he understood me. Chatting some more and then I see Corey walking towards me! I excused myself from the conversation and hugged Corey. Walked back to his apartment together catching up on the last two years. Dropped off my stuff and headed straight to the bar to meet up with his friends. It was so relieving to be in a social situation again. I really miss it.

We spent the first night at a bar – altogether there were 6 of us. I tried their bar food which tasted a bit like kix but in different shapes. We had a few pitchers, some food, and 3 of them left. The last 3 of us stayed at this bar for a little while longer and then proceeded to their favorite late night food place. I don't remember much but it turns out after that – it was just Corey and I headed to the casino.

I got myself lost in the casino. I remember trying to tell security I am looking for a white guy wearing a blue shirt. I don't remember if they spoke English – but I'm pretty sure I was probably trying both English and Japanese. Thankfully though, Corey found me before I found him. We sat at the table – playing some game or other. Corey explained it to me a lot but I didn't understand at all. I remember thinking how perfect the Korean woman was at being the table master. I remembered thinking a lot of feminist things. It was a relief to find out the next morning that I was only thinking them and not expressing them.

The next post: Korean Markets and walking around the city.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Korea Series - Korean food, drink & etiquette.

Kimchi, Side Dishes & Soju – these are a few of my favorite things.

When exploring a new country – exposing yourself to the customary food, drink & table etiquette is one of the more fun experiences to be had. Of course, being a strict vegetarian always is an obstacle for me.

Korea is famous for kimchi – the first time having kimchi was experienced in Japan. But now! I had the real Korean experience and I was surrounded by it! It's fair to say that half of my meals eaten in Korean food restaurants served me that delicious Chinese cabbage all smothered in spicy, red sauce.

According to my Lonely Planet guide, kimchi was made to preserve vegetables and ensure proper nutrition during harsh winters.

Korean table customs are a bit similar to my host country o f Japan. Typically you sit on the floor on a mat for meals. At some of the Korean style restaurants – your meal is cooked right there in front of you. A flame is either built into the center of the table or a small flame (imagine cooking equipment style) stove is brought out to your table.

The dish is eaten from by everyone. If you've ordered soup – everyone dips into the same steaming bowl of deliciousness. In addition to your main order – the restaurant provides several side dishes – for free. It seemed standard that the restaurants placed 4 – 6 dishes before us.

The fun part of side dishes is that you never know what will be placed before you. They choose – and it's always different. For those chefs that want to cook in a freelance style – they should move to Korea and become a chef there. Lucky for me - nearly all side dishes were vegetarian.

Some examples of side dishes that I had include- kimchi, seaweed, pickled daikon (large, white radish), bean sprouts, random vegetables that I didn't know, a delicious root, other vegetables that some claim were pulled right from the ground since you could “taste the dirt.” Finally, some nut like food – only to name a few.

Koreans use chopsticks – but utilize spoons as well to handle their food. The chopsticks are different from Japan. In Japan – they are wooden & plastic. A bit thicker at the top where you hold – but becomes thinner at the top where the stick meets your food and mouth. A nice feature of the Japanese chopstick is the food grabbing part – has ridges. Thus, making it less likely you will drop your food.

The Korean chopstick is distinctive – it's made of silver – creating a trickier situation to handle them easily. Shiny chopsticks cause them to be a bit heavier and a lot more slippier while in use. Although my Korean chopstick usage was probably equivalent to that of a young learner -still dropping food on myself and the table; just as in Japan – a man in the restaurant in the ski town on New Years day – made hand motions indicating that possibly he was impressed with chopstick abilities.

According to my Lonely Planet guide regarding the practice of silver chopsticks

It is said that the kings, ever vigilant about security, would insist on using silver chopsticks as silver would tarnish in the presence of toxins. The tradition caught on and was passed down to the common people.

Restaurants provide napkins for you to rest your chopsticks on. Just like in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan – it is not customary to tip at the restaurant or bars. A buzzer is used to inform the server you need something – order your food, more drinks or anything else you may need. The check is always paid at the door.

Moving onto one of my favorite topics – drinks. It is considered bad manners to pour your own drink. Always keep an eye out for your friends – to see if a refill is necessary. I enjoy this cultural difference a lot – it almost provides a feeling of companionship. Being aware that someone is looking out for you and being expected to vigilantly watch after your comrade – it provides some unspoken bonding.

The only bad part is – you might have an overgenerous friend who often gets you too drunk for your own good (cough, Corey, cough).

Soju – I drank night after night of soju. Soju tastes like a mixture of water and vodka. It's not as strong as vodka – secretly condoning you to take just one more shot. In the end, it only provides the same results – a drunken evening.

The second night in Korea – Corey and I decided to have a beer taste test. I closed my eyes just as he cracked open 4 large beers. We shared the same opinion in that Prime was the best tasting beer followed by O.B. I researched the initials for OB and it stands for Oriental Brewery. It seemed the most common beer to drink was one named Hite. After our mini testing - we went to a bar called Charley's. It was there he taught me the game titanic. You place a shot glass into a cup of beer. Then - one person pours a bit of soju into the shot glass. You keep going back and forth until someone sinks it. If it sinks - that person has to drink the glass full of beer and now a shot of Soju. I won both times - well, maybe not the second time - but Corey was a gentleman and chugged both times.

The last spot we hit on this night was an absolutely swarming night club. We danced and took shots and had a Heineken - or atleast - so I'm told.

Our 4th night out – we checked out a place Corey often goes to so I could try the Korean rice wine called makgeolli. It's served chilled – so chilled there were tiny piece of ice. It is inside a caldron bowl and served with a large wooden spoon/ladle. It was decent tasting and got me drunk pretty quickly.

Except for a Heineken, a shot of tequilla and a pitcher of Miller's – we kept it all strictly Korean.


It seems the most Korean food I ate – aside from the side dishes – was a bowl of bibimbap. It turns out – it is Corey's favorite dish and it definitely turned into mine. There are different versions and I tried three of them while in Korea.

The first one I tried is called sanchae – made with vegetables only. You add in rice, red pepper taste sauce (gochujang) and mix it all together with your chopsticks. This one had an egg in it as well. After mixing with the sticks, you eat with a spoon. Absolutely delicious.

The second version I tried is called dolsot - the main difference is that it is served in a hot stone bowl. While mixing everything together – the egg cooks up in the bowl.

The last version I tried was served with some sort of fish – where I took it out and placed it into Corey's bowl. Any of these can be served with meat as well. I am already having a craving for it again.


The first one we went for we actually received quite the performance from the men making it. Even more intriguing is that they did it all in English for us! The name is ggultarae – and it appears like many long strands of white hair. Each time the man stretched and moved them – they split exponentially creating many, many thin pieces of this thread stuff created from honey. All the while it was splitting – the men were performing a bit of a show – saying 2 then 4 and now 8 and 16 and 32! They went way past the thousands counting and counting. From there – these threadlike strings are turned into small balls. You can purchase many different flavors. They were delicious as well.

The second street vendor food we went for – were things that were shaped in a circle like a cookie. The texture was that of fried dough or similar to a donut. That is how Corey first explained it to me. Inside of these circular, doughy, fried food is cinnamon! Yum! It was so good, I still have some of the cinnamon that came oozing out of the bottom all over the front of my jacket.

The last street vendor food I had was something white on a stick that was very chewy. On the outside were many nuts. All these foods were yummy.

Of course, there were many foods, that as a vegetarian I couldn't try. For example, octopus tentacles, snails, and skewers of meat. Most noteable – even though I did not try would be beondegi or in English – silkworms. I did want to try but never built up enough courage to give it a go. The smell of them was pretty horrific and Corey said they don't taste much better. I only could think of New Zealand and the silkworm cave tour I went to with Ferris.

One great Vegetarian story.

I have found it interesting on how people perceive vegetarianism in Japan. I have received some interesting questions and a lot of confusion on just what is a vegetarian. The most unique dish I received occurred in this most random place in Seoul. Corey and I picked a random restaurant and climbed the steps to the top. We entered into an Americana styled pub with an American flag with three girls in thongs bent over. Random old beer bottles from around the world, Native Americans loitering the walls and license plates. The name – Indi Jones. That is – according to the restaurant signs. According to our check, it was Indi Zones.

In Korea, when you order a pitcher of beer – you are expected to order food as well. However, if we're in a restaurant with no pictures – it is tough for me to order anything. Additionally, neither Corey nor I speak or read Korean. The restaurant owner understood when we said “no meat”. He said, “nachos?” and we said sure.

We sort of got nachos. It was a plate full of tortillas. On top of the chips was squeeze cheese, rainbow sprinkles, and chocolate. He also brought out a small serving of salsa to dip them into it. At first, we were really confused, we wanted to laugh but the owner was watching our reaction. Clearly, he said okay, and whipped something up in the back – because nothing else they offered had no meat.

He also charged us like $12 or something for the plate. My memory is failing – but I am pretty sure the bill was $25 with out pitcher of beer. It was something outrageous for what we ordered and what we received. That is creativity at it's best.

Sorry about the wierd font changes - I wrote it on word at work and now it's all wierd when I transferred it onto my blog.