Sunday, October 25, 2009

Three days in Seoul, South Korea

Seoul's financial district

Last month the calendar days fell just right, resulting in three consecutive holidays on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday for what the Japanese termed the "Silver Week" holidays (a follow-up to May's "Golden Week"). It seemed like the perfect time to go to South Korea for a few days.

In planning the trip, though, we found that the normally obscenely high priced flights out of Hiroshima Airport were even higher due to the holiday period — around $850 round-trip. That being the case, we decided to take the overnight ferry to Korea instead and just purchase a one-way flight back to Hiroshima. Slower, but cheaper.

The ferry left from Shimonoseki, on the southern tip of Honshu, Japan's biggest main island. We traveled there by bullet train first and wandered the city a bit before boarding the ship.

Shimonoseki had some impressive new looking buildings and a very nice system of elevated sidewalks so you could walk all around without ever having to deal with traffic. Though, a lot of the Japanese people I saw looked rather rough around the edges. Quite a few punks. There were even some Japanese boys with old tricked-out cars riding low to the ground, blasting loud music as they drove too fast through areas full of pedestrians. That's one of the few times I'd seen such American-like Japanese deviants. It reminded me of one of the great things about Japan — almost never having to deal with those kind of punkasses.

Walking around a bit, we decided to head toward this interesting tower that looked like it may serve as an observatory.

Indeed it did, so we bought tickets. On our way to the elevators we did a double take as we passed this cardboard sign.

Does this look... wrong... to anyone else besides us? Japan... I love you, but... What the hell were you thinking??! Haha!

Here's the view of our ferry from the top of the tower.

We purchased tickets for a private room with bunk beds, slightly more expensive than the cheapest ticket, which would have gotten us a space on a futon on the floor in a large room with lots of other people. It was definitely a tight space but we were really glad we got the room. The beds were comfortable enough and it was nice to have a private bathroom.

Remembering how Joe had turned positively green on our ferry ride to Koh Tao in Thailand, I had been a little worried about this trip, but he had insisted that he wanted the adventure of the ferry ride. As it turned out the boat was so big we didn't have to worry about it rocking too much.

The ferry shipped out sometime around 6 p.m. Touring the boat, I was impressed by what the boat had to offer. A cafeteria, small cafe, karaoke room, lobby, and even a convenience store and duty free shop. It seemed like the majority of the passengers were Korean, and they were pretty friendly.

There was one other Western family on the ship. We'd watched with curiousity when this couple with four young children showed up in the boarding area with bags of McDonald's.

Later, in the cafeteria for dinner, they were there eating...again.

The first authentic Korean dish Joe and I ordered was called tonkotsu soup in Japanese — pork bone soup. We were ravenous. Being accustomed to the tiny Japanese portions we always get in restaurants, we fully expected this meal too to leave us unsatisfied. When the waiter finally brought our meals, I was stunned:

Nothing could have made me happier at that moment than to see a heaping bowl of hearty soup with pork falling off the bone. This stuff was so spicy it made me sweat. It was so good, I stuffed as much in as I could but even though I'd been ready to gnaw my own arm off at the start, it was still too much to finish.

Halfway through the meal, the foreign family's kids began running wild through the cafeteria. One boy, maybe 4 years old, grabbed a waiter's towel as he walked by and absolutely refused to let go. The wait staff was pleading with this boy to let go and tried yanking it away from him, but the boy just allowed himself to be dragged. This turned into a whole ordeal as the mother and father sat at the table ignoring everything that was happening. Shortly thereafter the mother and oldest child started moaning at length about how full they were, and the boy asked to be excused. The father insisted he stay right there till the boy finished his meal, which resulted in incessant, full-out whining about how full he was he couldn't eat another bite, all while his father continually told him he had to finish the entire thing. I believe a comment was made about there being starving people in the world. The carrying on was beyond ridiculous, and if I hadn't been sitting with my back to the guy I'm sure the lasers shooting out of my eyes could have caught his hair on fire. If I could not finish this meal when I was so hungry, I have no idea how a 10-year-old boy who'd just polished off McDonald's would be able to cram down the entire thing. Joe and I looked at each other and murmured about how we hoped they weren't American. Please God. Don't be American.

Eventually the father let the kids go, and Joe and I finished and got up to leave. That's when he called us over and started talking to us. We sat down and as we started to chat, that's when I realized — the guy was totally soused. He's there drinking beer and slurring all his words.

Turns out Wonder Boy's hometown is none other than Steubenville, Ohio, though he lived in Denver before joining the military and moving to Japan.

While we were chatting, the oldest boy came bounding back in to tell Dad he was going to explore the ship. Dad asked if Mom had given him a little money to have fun with and the boy held out his hand to reveal some coins. Upon hearing that the boy intended to spend them in the arcade room, Dad told him, "You know you ought to go buy some ice cream with that. You play a video game, and then it's gone. You buy an ice cream, it'll last longer."


I have no idea where the fat, ugly American stereotype comes from.

No surprise that this dude's kids ran up and down the aisles of the ship later — yelling. We avoided them like the plague for the rest of the ride.

Joe and I enjoyed hanging out on the deck of the ship up near the bow. The night air was cool, a bit drizzly, and the lights of other ships speckled the horizon all around us. We were surprised to see so many other boats on the water late at night.

The ferry actually arrived in the South Korean port of Pusan around 3 a.m., and then hung out until the port opened at 8. After breezing through immigration, we headed straight for the train station and bought tickets on the high speed train to Seoul. The train was very comfortable, nearly as nice as Japan's bullet train. Three hours later, we were in Seoul.

It was a bit confusing at first trying to find our way around, but Koreans wasted no time approaching us asking if they could help. Their English was excellent, with very little accent.

In other places their English was not so good, but what we found was that even if they couldn't speak English, they knew Japanese pretty well, so we could try to communicate in Japanese.

I was struck by how different Seoul felt from Japan. Granted, I haven't done any sightseeing in Tokyo yet, so it could be that Tokyo also would be this way, but Seoul felt very Western to me. The fashion was noticeably more relaxed than Japan. Whereas the Japanese all seem to be wearing clothes that are clean, crisp and fashionable, and generally all seem to have the same types of hair styles, there was a lot more diversity among the Koreans. They didn't seem so formal and buttoned up. Everyone looked different. And all around me I saw Western food chains that I've never seen in Japan. Burger King, Bennigan's and Outback steakhouses, Coldstone Creamery, Dunkin' Donuts. Unfortunately we never ate at any of them, since while we were in Korea we wanted to eat... Korean.

Our hotel, the Eastgate Tower Hotel, was in the Dongdaemun fashion shopping district. From our room on the 19th floor, we had a pretty sweet view at night when it was all lit up.

Photo by Joe

Photo by Joe

We didn't go into Seoul on any kind of mission to tick off a bunch of sightseeing spots, but we figured we'd roam wherever our whims would take us. Mainly we spent our time exploring some temples, wandering the markets and city streets, and eating. Ah yes, eating... Korean food was awesome. Our delicious pork-bone soup was just the beginning.

The first real meal we had was yakiniku (as they call it in Japanese), or in other words, Korean barbecue. The meal came with plenty of side dishes ranging in spice level from "make you sweat a bit" to "melt your brain."

Korean barbecue

No idea what most of the side dishes were, but a lot of them were pickled and salted and spicy. Some good, some not, but it's always fun to try something new.

Another winner was some kind of stew that also cooked right there at the table. Again, hot hot hot!! As we ate, more and more of the broth cooked off, only making the remaining broth spicier.

The street food was another delight. The first thing we tried was chijimi, which is like a kimchi pancake. (Kimchi is very spicy pickled cabbage, a famous Korean side-dish.) I don't like kimchi — it's just too hot — but the chijimi was good. It was served with a sweet dipping sauce that helped to offset the heat.

Chijimi is in the front

Perhaps even better was the ddeokbokki, rice cakes in a fiery chili sauce.

The ddeokbokki is the stuff in the orange sauce in the middle.

When I say rice cakes, don't think of the barely-edible styrofoam slices they sell in the U.S. They're more like soft, chewy chunks made of what is probably pounded rice. It's kind of like Japanese mochi, but not as heavy. This was my favorite food of the trip. For anyone adventurous enough to try making this at home, here's a detailed, step-by-step recipe. I may just have to try my hand at it.

I loved just wandering the street markets and looking at all the foods laid out for sale. Who knows what a lot of this is, but it looked interesting.

Giant animal legs of some kind.

Care for some pig snout?

How about some mysterious insect-looking things? Num, num.

Nostalgia rice drink. Pretty sweet liquid with rice at the bottom. So-so.

Pineapple Fanta: Thumbs DOWN!

Besides grazing on the street food, I enjoyed just wandering aimlessly around Seoul's street markets, drinking in all the sights and smells. They remind me a little of Chinatown, minus the crack. Lots of little stores and stalls crammed full of millions of trinkets and everything imaginable. One market had an incredible collection of camera shops brimming with thousands of old cameras and equipment.

A lot of Japanese people go to Korea to shop because things are cheaper there. And indeed, in the fashion district where we stayed, the department stores stayed open until 5 a.m.! I guess the goods were cheaper than in Japan but not so cheap that I wanted to go out and buy lots of stuff I didn't need. Then again, I didn't look that hard either considering I hate shopping, and the last thing I really feel like doing on vacation is trying on lots of clothes.

We did see plenty of temples and palaces in Seoul though. They didn't look drastically different from Japan's, really, and most of them looked the same. They were more colorful than Japan's, and the windows had more of a grid-like pattern on them. The grounds around several temples was often just concrete, no landscaping of any kind.

I enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of all the ancient temples against Seoul's tall modern buildings.

Without question the best sights were at Gyeongbokgung Palace, a name which according to Wikipedia translates to "Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven."

Heungnyemun Gate at the entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung was first built in 1394, reconstructed in 1867, and, having suffered heavy damage during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s, presently is being restored. We were lucky enough to see some the changing of the guard ceremony in front of the entrance gate with lots of guys dressed up like old warriors.

Photo by Joe

Geunjeongjeon Hall, where the king once greeted foreign leaders.

Inside Geunjeongjeon Hall


Photo by Joe

There are many structures on the palace grounds, but perhaps the prettiest is Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, originally built in 1412. It is one of Korea's National Treasures.

Gyeonghoeru Pavilion

Interesting wooden carvings on the palace grounds

Benefiting from Joe's superior innate navigation skills, we made it around the subway system pretty easily and saw quite a bit.

Bio-hazard masks in the subway in case those pesky North Koreans decide to misbehave and cause some trouble.

In addition to exploring all the temples and markets, we also spent a few hours in the Itaewon district, an international section of the city with a heavy American presence due to the U.S. military base located nearby. We hung out in a bar called the Fishbowl, drinking soju, some local drink made from Kool-Aid and liquor, and watching a couple chicks we're pretty sure were prostitutes trying to pick people up.

We also made it to Seoul Tower, an observation tower on top of a hill in the middle of the city. From there you could see the entire city lit up at night in every direction. It felt like the whole city was a giant Christmas tree. Absolutely beautiful.

Joe and I at the top of Seoul Tower

If we had had more time in Seoul, we probably would have taken a tour out to visit the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea, and Panmunjeom, a little village right there on the border. You can actually go shopping in the town, under military escort the entire time. But there's a dress code to go there — decent pants (no jeans) and a collared shirt, which neither Joe or I brought. And as it turned out, I fell horribly ill the last day of our trip as my body declared all-out war on Korean spices, leading to lots of vomiting and gastrointestinal distress, so even if we'd signed up for a tour we would not have made it. I wanted to blame some bad chijimi, but Joe ate the same thing I did and felt fine, so maybe my stomach's just weak. At any rate, had Joe not been there to drag me to the airport, there's no way I ever would have made it back. But despite the lousy ending to our trip, I still enjoyed Korea and have plenty of fond memories of our time there. I hope we can go back again one day.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The flavor we've all been waiting for...

Fruits Ass. Well you know. I really wanted strawberry, but I guessed this'd do.

Guess this package designer fell asleep in English class. If you're curious, when I peeled back the sandal sticker, it actually said "Fruits Assort." Eh, close enough to what they meant, right?

This wasn't even an unfortunate placement of a sticker on just one container, sad to say — they all looked this way.

For the record, I still like strawberry better than Fruits Ass.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Treasure Ball ritual on Miyajima

The gent with the ball is now Man of the Year. Lucky man!

Japan is an island nation and Hiroshima is right on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, but sometimes it's easy to forget that when you're constantly surrounded by buildings and traffic. Japan is not exactly famous for beautiful beaches since a good bit of the coastline is buried in concrete (oh how the Japanese love concrete — good for erosion control, I assume). There are supposed to be a number of decent beaches around the Seto Inland Sea, though, and after realizing this past summer that I'd somehow managed to live in Hiroshima for two years without ever going to a beach (nearby, at least), I made a point to visit one before the official end of the beach season at the end of August.

Coincidentally, on August 22 Miyajima was supposed to have a wacky-sounding ritual involving scantily clad men in fundoshi (loin cloths). Well. You can't pass that up, so that cinched it. I decided to head to Miyajima to witness the Tamatori-sai (Treasure Ball Festival) and hit the beach.

The Tamatori-sai involves the placement of a wooden frame in the sea in front of Miyajima's famous "floating" torii gate. Suspended from a rope in the middle of this frame is a small platform holding a sacred wooden ball placed there by the priests of Itsukushima Shrine. The platform is actually hooked up to a kind of pulley system running to shore so that the priests can pull the rope to move the platform up and down. During this ceremony, a bunch of Japanese guys swim over to the tower and scramble to capture this sacred ball. The man who finally manages to grab hold of the moving platform and haul himself aboard to get the ball is considered to have good luck for the following year. I'm not sure why they do this or what the history of this ritual is, but it's apparently been going on for 400 years and it looks like a lot of fun.

The pictures I'd seen of this event showed lots of Japanese guys in fundoshi, but in reality there were only a couple old guys wearing them. Everyone else was in swim trunks. Boo! I bet they didn't have swim trunks 400 years ago! Oh well, no Japanese butts for me.

It took around half an hour before one lucky guy finally captured the sacred ball, and there were quite a lot of entertaining gymnastics performed in the process. Actually, to me it looked like the gymnastics that students perform on Sports Day were probably pretty good preparation for this physical challenge. Same human pyramids, but with the added element of water.

Here's a video clip of the end to give you an idea what it looked like. I'm not sure if I might have inadvertently spliced in the drumming in the background to this video, but I'd already erased the original footage off my camera and wasn't sure how to fix it. But it's not bad background music anyway.

I really love Japanese taiko drumming performances. It's like you can feel the energy of these big drums flow through you. There was a troupe there doing performances in the time leading up to the ceremony, and they were really good!

Here's a video clip of one of their performances.

Once all the excitement was over, I grabbed some lunch and rented a bicycle to ride around to Tsutsumigaura Beach, on the other side of the island.

The beach area had some decent facilities, though the beach itself was just so-so. It was around half a mile long, but the sand wasn't very fine and felt rather rough on the feet.

It was a hot day and I was looking forward to wading in until I saw some little kids with their mom, freaking out and pointing at some jellyfish washing up on shore. As I walked along the waterline I saw several jellyfish. There were plenty of people swimming, which made me wonder if the jellyfish were harmless, but... I've never heard of harmless jellyfish. So I decided to stay out of the water rather than risk it. Maybe next summer I'll try a different island, different beach.