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South Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village

Seoul, S. Korea

Today was my last day in Seoul. I made an early attempt to visit the Bukchon Hanok Village. My two maps disagreed as to where it was.
Bukchon Hanok?

Bukchon Hanok?


First, I followed the wall of the Palace north. I found a quiet neighborhood with beautiful old-style architecture. The doors to the houses were engraved with exquisite designs. I loved the juxtaposition between the modern cars sitting on the streets and the traditional buildings. People actually live in these homes, some of which appear to be hundreds or years old.
Bukchon Hanok?

Bukchon Hanok?


Bukchon Hanok?

Bukchon Hanok?


Next, I went to the actual intersection with the name of the village. In this area, I didn't see much. The area I think was marked incorrectly was much cooler to see than the real area.
Bukchon Hanok?

Bukchon Hanok?


I had heard about "Dr. Fish," one of those spas where the fish eat the dead skin off your feet. Myeongdong market was supposed to have a place, so I checked it out. I saw a sign for a spa. The sign cotained pictures of fish swimming and doing the foot spa thing. But when Iwent inside, they said they didn't have that. False advertising! I wandered the streets a bit, but it's mainly just regular shopping stores at this time of day- nothing too exciting going on in the streets.

And that was it. I had to get back in order to catch my flight. My adventure in South Korea is over... for now.

Posted by spsadventures 23:29 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Bongeunsa Temple

Seoul, S. Korea

Today is my last work day here. The weather is beautiful, so I went for a run this morning. Due to the rain and the midnight meetings, this is only the third time I've been able to take a morning run.

Today, I ran through some neighborhoods in the direction of the river. The apartment buidlings are tall, but the wide streets allow the sun to bathe the trees in light. The area I ran had dozens of tiny parks or green areas where you could almost feel as if you weren't in a big city. Seoul is very good for greenery- I even noticed several rooftop gardens last night.

I headed to work as usual. Lunch surprised me a bit. I had to get it from a bakery again. I thought I was getting something savory- one clearly had cheddar and corn on it and another had garlic, chives, and cheese. But both were filled with sweet cream (or maybe cream cheese?) making them totally unexpected.

After work, I took a brief detour back to the great bagel place, and then got off the train at Bongeunsa. This station is named for the temple nearby, which is what I came to see.
Temple

Temple

] Temple

Temple


The temple architecture was very similar to all of the palaces I had been to, but these buildings were actively in use. That completely changes everything. The temple was much more majestic and alive than the dusty palaces. It brimmed with music and spirit. Thousands of prayer lanterns swayed in the breeze. Hundreds of lotus plants reached for the sun in large planters. Even the simple things were more here. The altars weren't just roped off displays, like at the palaces, they were inviting you to come in and sit on a plush cushion and admire them.
Temple

Temple

Temple Lanterns

Temple Lanterns

Temple Painting

Temple Painting

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

Giant Buddha

Giant Buddha


From the temple, I checked out the nearest grocery store to stock up on kimchi and other goods to take home. The prices here were so much better than at the fancy mall, and I picked up enough food that we will be eating Korean for quite some time after I get home.

Posted by spsadventures 23:19 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Kimchi Day

Seoul, S. Korea


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Today, I had some more flexible work hours due to the advanced status of the install and the midnight meetings. I worked a leisurely 5 hours from the hotel in the morning, with a short swimming break.

When I usually go to the pool (6am) it's full of business people getting in their morning swim. Around 10 though, music pumped for a pool aerobics class. The vibes are totally different.

I took advantage of my stretched-out work hours to stop by the kimchi museum, which is only open during the day. I got in free with a coupon from the Insadong visitors' center! I learned how to make kimchi, the difference between fermentation and rot, and most importantly- there are sooo many kinds of kimchi. The spicy napa cabbage kimchi that comes to mind as "default" is like the dill pickled cucumbers that come to mind when somebody says "pickles." But just like pickled eggs or mango are also pickles, there is eggplant kimchi and not-hot kimchi. Pretty much anything that uses the specific cold fermentation process can be considered kimchi.
Kimchi in Museum

Kimchi in Museum


The museum is near Insadong Street, the old-style artist street full of interesting shops.
Insadong St Artisan Shop

Insadong St Artisan Shop

Insadong Shop

Insadong Shop


(Not at the museum) I also had lunch. I saw a bakery with something called a "Potato Volcano" and knew I had to try it. It's a bread "mountain" exploding with cheese and potatoes in a form close to Arby's curly fries. It's spicy and cheesy and chewy and sweet. It's something I'm going to try to replicate at home.
Insadong St Artisan Shop

Insadong St Artisan Shop

Insadong Shop

Insadong Shop


After lunch, I worked a few more hours, then headed out again for dinner. Tonight, I had reservations at a Michelin star restaurant. It has a set menu that was very reasonable for a Michelin restaurant, but over twice what I'd generally spent on a whole day's food. I originally was hesitant to try it due to the cost and because the menu was a bit mushroom-heavy (and I don't usually like mushrooms), but I'm glad I did. It was a very unique experience.
Michelin Dinner

Michelin Dinner


First, the diners are all separated into little booth-rooms that hold 2 tables each. They block some, but not all, noise from the neighboring tables, and give a sense of privacy and exclusivity.

The waiters bring the course to the table and give a full explanation of everything before you eat it. The courses generally contained lots of tiny bites, but even so, I was very full at the end, and couldn't finish the last meal course. Most of the food was tasty and elegant, but a few items stood out.

The tea was bitter like coffee and was the only thing that stood out in a negative way all night.

One of the kimchi dishes had a taste similar to real deli-style sour pickles. There was a tang and bubbly sourness that I loved. One of the dishes involved a 7-year aged persimmon vinegar. I usually don't love persimmons, but I would love to know where they got that vinegar so I could bring a bottle home. Another dish had dried acorn jelly. I usually don't like acorn jelly, but dried, it was amazing! It has this great chewiness to it and this delicious umami taste. I have no idea how to replicate it, but you bet I'm going to see if I can learn. Prickly ash berries-they're the size of peppercorns, and have a bright, peppery flavor. They were strong and really popped. I think they added a lot to the meal, and this is another ingredient that I'm gling to investigate and see if I can do something with it.

I guess a mark of a good chef is the ability to make least-favorite foods into enjoyable dishes. I actually really enjoyed the deep-fried mushrooms in gochujang sauce, even though mushrooms aren't usually my thing. Of course, there were also several items that were exciting just because I never had them before- burdock, the prickly ash berries, corn noodles, red bean jelly, and kimchi pancakes.

This was definitely a meal worth the price. I'm so glad my Guy convinced me to spend the money!

After dinner, I walked over to Gyeongbokgung palace. This one has a night program. From 7:30pm, they start letting a limited number of people in to see all of the buildings lit up. I was able to get in to a special, shorter line for foreigners, so I got a ticket.
Palace at Night

Palace at Night

Palace lit up at night

Palace lit up at night


The temple is beautiful at night. The architecture is similar to all of the others I already saw, but everything is different at night. The other major difference is that this palace has a glassy pond around one of the buildings, which makes for great reflection photos. All the locals know this, and swarm the place with their tripods for hanbok photos.
Traditional Costume

Traditional Costume


A hanbok is a traditional Korean dress outfit. Renting them is a big business, although if you want to try one for a few minutes for free, go to the kimchi museum. From my understanding, a good analogy would be people swarming the Louve at night wearing Marie Antoinette costumes. Or people wearing prom dresses, ball gowns, and tuxes for a night out. Half the fun was the palace, but the couples in hanboks provided the other half. Even some children wore them. Everywhere I looked, throngs of people gathered for photos in all of their glittery embroidered splendor.
Traditional Costumes

Traditional Costumes


Later, the palace stage lit up and a performance started. Ladies in traditional costumes beautifully banged on drums to create stunning music. A singer (in another hanbok) sang a Korean song. And then some guy in a suit sang Italian opera. I don't imagine that was very traditional. At the second opera song, I moved on to other parts of the palace. I did have to get back for a few more hours of work.
Palace Show

Palace Show


On the way out, I noticed a protest for the regulation of cat and dog meat. Interesting. Koreans actually seem very fond of protests and petitions. Earlier in the day, I passed some protesters banging on drums by the temple. I registered this trip with the State Department, and I get an almost-daily email about the various protests taking place that I should avoid. I'm intrigued by how their democracy seems to work.
Protesters by the Palace

Protesters by the Palace

Protesters by the Temple earlier in the day

Protesters by the Temple earlier in the day

Posted by spsadventures 23:01 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Food

Seoul, S. Korea


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A few more cultural notes: I've noticed that lots of cars have little pieces of foam stuck to the door. Apparently, it's a courtesy to other cars in the parking lot. You uglify your car a bit so that when you open he door, there's no way it can scratch somebody else's car. I've never heard of that before, and can't imagine it being popular anywhere else I've been.

The hygiene here is amazing. I already mentioned the toothbrush stations in the bathrooms at work. But also they have a thing with shoes. People take their "outside shoes" off before entering a work area. Where I'm working, they have indoor sandals that people change into. And this isn't just because we are working in a cleanroom environment. I passed some government offices that had piles of shoes at the entrance. And of course, some restaurants have shelves at the entrance for you to deposit your shoes before entering.

Beyond the shoe thing, eating out is quite a different experience It is assumed that you want water at a restaurant, but they give you tiny cups for it (maybe 3/4 cup size or even smaller). You have to keep getting up to get more, or they put a small bottle (the size of an American restaurant cup) on your table for everybody to share.

Most people don't drink soda with their meals, and some restaurants don't even have it on the menu. You have to get it from vending machines if you want to try it. I've so far had chilsung cider (the national lemon-lime drink), some sort of rice soda with actual grains of rice in it (tastes like plain rice milk, but with soda thinness), grape soda that tastes the same as anywhere, and of course blueberry milk.

Another interesting difference I've noticed is the lack of salt and pepper or other condiments on tables. The tables do usually contain a drawer or bin for the silverware though (silverware = metal chopsticks and spoons).

The menus almost always are pictures. They may even have little shellacked plastic versions of the meals. Even if there's a language barrier, you can usually figure out approximately what the restaurant serves and then point at the pictures to be understood.

If you see a red bottle that you think is ketchup, it's not. It's gochujang, a spicy red sauce. It is used like ketchup- people put it on everything. It's in kimchi, soups, ramen, meat, vegetables, noodles, everything. For the first 2 weeks, it's exciting. But now, I've got to admit, I'm a tad tired of every meal tasting the same.

I'm also tired of having to get up early to go hunt down breakfast. For all that the hotel is amazing and seems to have everything, I don't have a microwave in my room, just an electric tea kettle. So this requires some creativity. I stopped off at a No Brand store. I know the idea is that they aren't a brand, but they're very popular in Korea, to the point they have a whole store. I picked up some pasta and sauce, and have been cooking it in the tea kettle for breakfast. It's not the best, but it means that one meal per day doesn't taste of gochujang and it means I don't have to get up earlier for breakfast.

I've had a few days in a row where we worked long hours or I had evening meetings and didn't get a chance to get out for anything other than food. Due to the time differences, I've been at midnight meetings and still been up at 5:30 am for other calls, and then gone and worked a full day.

At at least some of the food adventures were fun. Tonight, I went to another restaurant where you leave your shoes at the door and sit on the floor. It is a vegan restaurant. Apparently monks not only don't eat meat, but they also avoid certain spices- like garlic. So, the menu was marked with what foods were spicy or contained onions/garlic for those with restrictions beyond "no meat."
Dumplings

Dumplings


They brought out way too much food for one person, but I tried a little bit of everything. The vegan Korean Barbecue was ok, but I really enjoyed the sweet and sour dumplings. The sweet and sour sauce tasted just like the same thick sauce that comes with Chinese food anywhere else. And of course, like everywhere, kimchi and pickled radish were brought out with the food. They had a few additional small sides, but the only standout was the miso.
There was a night market near the restaurant, so I walked through it a bit.
Food at Night Market

Food at Night Market

Night Market

Night Market


Lit up at night

Lit up at night

Posted by spsadventures 22:53 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Suwon- History and Toilets

Suwon, S. Korea


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Yesterday was kimchi for lunch again, but this time I got pictures! It was another long day where I didn't get a chance to go out in the evening.
Kimchi Soup

Kimchi Soup

Kimchi Restaurant

Kimchi Restaurant


But today, it's the weekend! I headed out to Suwon to see a UNESCO world heritage fortress and a toilet museum.

The Suwon tourist info booth is right at the subway exit and the ladies there were super helpful. I easily got the bus to the fortress.
Fortress

Fortress

Fortress

Fortress


But there's a market right outside the fortress, so of course I poked around there first. I ended up with a bunch of mochi, although here they're called tteok. I enjoyed watching the ladies sitting on the street stringing some sort of long bean. And I even tried to buy a jacket. Of course, the largest size they carried (in men's) was still a good 2 inches short of reaching my wrists.
Market

Market

Market

Market


I started by walking the city walls. From there, I got a good view of both the fully-modern city outside the walls, and the similar but shorter city inside the walls.
Path Along the Walls

Path Along the Walls


After one initial small set of stairs, for the most part, it was flat and easy. This is a well-kept city wall. Along the way, several turrets, bastions, and pavilions dotted the path. All were clearly marked with signs in multiple languages.

These are beautifully painted, just like the palaces back in Seoul. You have to check out the pictures for all of the bright colors and repeating geometric designs. It's not just the palace in the fortress that's decorated this way, even the definsive building are decorated brightly. They'd be quite impressive for medieval times. But these are all young. Like younger than the USA, Napoleon young. At one of the larger stopping points, people were participaring in archery lessons. I'm really hoping that when Europe was fighting gun battles, the Koreans weren't trying to defend with arrows. I saw a few tiny cannons, so maybe the archery is just anachronistic fun.
Archery

Archery


I was about halfway around the wall before anybody bothered to ask me for a ticket. I guess they don't put ticket takers at the part of the wall that is less touristy and has better city access. Apparently, you are supposed to pay in order to hike the walls. I was not aware of this. For a dollar though, it wasn't a big deal to go over to the booth and get a ticket. The wall was worth more than that.
Fortress

Fortress

Fortress

Fortress

Great building panels

Great building panels

Fortress

Fortress


Later, I also got a ticket to ring a huge (taller than me) bell. A dollar gets you three swings of the battering ram. The bell can be heard from quite some distance away.
Big Bell

Big Bell


At some point, the flatness slowly became a bit of a slope. And then BAM stairs. I thought it was a few, so I didn't count. Then there were more. And more. And hundreds of stairs to climb to get to the top.

Apparently, I accidentally climbed a mountain. The last major part of the fortress is at the top of the mountain for a great view of the surrounding area. I descended back to the beginning of the wall. The whole circuit took about 3 hours and left me a little gross from the last part.
Top of the Fortress

Top of the Fortress


I went back a bit into the quaint little city part and found a sit-on-the-floor restaurant for lunch. I appreciated the extra liquid in the miso soup- the hike had definitely taken some sweat out of me.
Lunch place

Lunch place


I wandered a little street filled with craftspeople and their wares. Most of the goods were very impressive artistically, but useless except for collecting dust.
Handmade Items

Handmade Items


Then, I wandered the food market. I saw all sorts of weird meats including sea snails, chicken feet, and pigs heads for sale. Vegetables included huge daikon radishes, ginseng, and those long beans again. And of course, there was a plethora of seafood, much of it still moving. I saw one shopkeeper pull out a big fishing net to go pick out a fish for a customer. She had to go fishing, right in her little bucket, and put the fish in some other container to die. That's fresh!
Fishing in the Market

Fishing in the Market


In many places, the vendors were actively preparing food as they waited for customers. Some ladies peeled roots. Others sliced cucumbers, their hands deftly knowing what to do while the ladies payed attention elsewhere. One location featured a girl filling some sort of dough with red bean paste and plopping it on a cook top. The line was long, so I tried some. The red bean paste wasn't as sweet as I'm used to, but the dough was great.

From here, I grabbed a cab to Mr. Toilet House, the toilet museum. This place wasn't as crappy as Poopoo Land (pun intended). This place actually had quite a lot of information about toilets, poop, and sanitation. They used interactive displays to show how paper is made from elephant poop. They had actual dried/preserved poop from different animals so that we could see the difference. And there were lots of examples of various types of toilets, from ancient Roman latrines, to a modern toilet with glass walls that turn translucent when the light switches on. It was worth the visit.
Mr. Toilet House

Mr. Toilet House

Mr. Toilet House display

Mr. Toilet House display


Finally, I metroed to the National Museum. I finally made it!

The museum is free, which is nice, and it's rather large. The first floor teaches Korean history, the second has artwork and artifacts that were donated by private collectors, and the third floor has foreign stuff.

On the first floor, the signage is in English (and other languages), so I got a good understanding of what was going on. Also, they didn't just leave a collection of objects lying in a glass case and call it a day. They filled in some of the blanks. Like if only half of a carving was recovered, they put a drawing of what the other half would look like in place of the other half. They had a horse helmet, and then they had a model horse wearing a replica, so that we could really get a feel for how the items were used in the past.

It starts with standard pre-history stuff -rock tools and such, but quickly moves on to the interesting parts. It tells about all of the various cultures that existed in various parts of the Korean peninsula, and then spends a lot of time on the Joseon Dynasty (which became the Korean Empire).

This is a particulary interesting period because a bunch of the smart people were in charge, (the museum calls them Korean literati) and supposedly they kept the top guys in check by making them set examples for the peasants. This period lasted several hundred years. This is the period where Korean writing is invented. To answer my question from before, the Joseon dynasty did have firearms when that fortress was built. And at the end of the "dynasty" some guy decided that Korea would become and Empire, because it sounded better. Of course, that led to Japanese colonization, but that's afterwards.

The history lesson ends with the Japanese colonization and doesn't really touch the most modern history.

The next floor was interesting, but less so. The art wasn't my style, although people who like traditional Chinese or Japanese style art might like it. And the collections didn't do anythign for me. Basically, instead of breaking objects up by what period they're from, they located them based on who donated them. One guy had an affinity for pottery, another for furniture. But it's not really all connected. It's as if they had to appease the donors by honoring their individual collections as a separate entity.
National Museum

National Museum


I didn't go to the 3rd floor due to time, but also because it wasn't Korean and I've seen objects from other places.

I grabbed an udon soup on the way back to the hotel. (Even though it's hot outside, the extra liquid in the soup is exactly what I need, again.) The cool and different part of this particular udon soup was that they threw tempura vegetables (onions, carrots, etc) into the soup for some additional flavor and texture. Also, I got this cool "rice ball" stuff ed with kimchi and daikon. I'd recommend the (fast-food) place, but I didn't catch the name, and it was all in Korean anyway.

Posted by spsadventures 22:14 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

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