Archive for April, 2009

Korean Pictures

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Thoughts on South Korea

Most Japanese schools are year-round, so the year ends in March and begins again in April. During this limbo time, my friends and I took a week off to travel to South Korea. Here’s what I think of it.

First off, the food was crazy delicious. There was a flavor of Thailand in the various street vendors lining Seoul’s alleys; sausage, fried dough, dried squid…not quite as adventurous for the pallet as in Bangkok (alas, no cockroaches), but tasty nonetheless. There was also a Western flavor in the myriad of Baskin Robbins, Subways, and Outback Steakhouses throughout the city. And of course, the Korean flavor: do-it-yourself (or server-does-it-for-you-because-you-thought-tofu-goes-on-the-grill) Korean barbecues; deliciously spicy kimchi among the billion side dishes that accompany your meal, and the 3,000cc pitchers of Korean beer, with definitely more flavor than skunked Sam Adams.

Unfortunately, like in Thailand, food or some other sickness hit our group. Luckily this time around, we had a savior. Our hostel owner, after touching our friend’s hands and stating that food was still stuck in his belly, asked him to come to her office. Turns out, she was not only a hostel owner, karaoke singer, and Sopranos fan, but also an acupuncturist. She wrapped string tightly around his thumbs, then relieved the pressure by inserting a sterilized needle just below each thumbnail. She squeezed out some blood and noted that the dark red color meant…bad circulation? I forget exactly what she diagnosed, but after all was said and done, our friend actually felt better. He questioned whether it was the needles or simply her kindness that affected his health. In any case, I’m thankful the Korean sickness skipped me, but a little bummed I wasn’t able to be acupunctured. Site-seeing-wise, we spent most of our time in Seoul. We visited some palaces, some gates of palaces, a kimchi museum, a university campus, a dance club, a thousand street markets, a hookah bar for Taka’s birthday, again because he conveniently left his hat, and an amazing culinary rhythm/martial arts show; now in my kitchen, I see knives as drumsticks, the cutting board as a snare, and salad plates as ninja stars.

We also visited the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), the no-man’s-land between North and South Korea created at the end of the Korea War. For more than 50 years, no one has set foot within the DMZ borders, creating one of the most well-preserved wildlife areas in the world. In the viewing area, you can look through telescopes to see this abundance of nature and the mystery that is North Korea. When I looked, I saw some trees and, in the far distance, a few farms and small buildings. I felt like I was back in Shichinohe.

We spent a few days in breezy Busan, a seaside city on the south-eastern coast of Korea. The serene sea, the vibrant blooming cherry blossoms, and playing ping pong with our hostel owner on his homemade table on the roof of our guest house all contributed to Busan’s beauty. We also hiked to the Great Wall of Busan, gondola’d to a temple in the hills, and bathed at supposedly the largest bathhouse in Asia. With two stories of hot tubs, saunas, and nude patrons, it was definitely the largest I’ve been to, but didn’t quite have the same quality. For example, it claimed to have cherry and jasmine-flavored baths, but after taste testing, we’re pretty certain they were just hot water and food coloring.

All in all, it was an awesome trip. Perhaps, out of everything, what I’m most impressed with is the attitude of the Korean people. From what little I know of their history, they have had Japan, like an unwelcome party crasher, invade and reside in their country, have been the rope of an international tug-o-war between China and the U.S., and were in a bloody civil war up until just the last fifty years. And after all of this, they seem to have a very upbeat, optimistic view toward foreigners, each other, and their future. They were definitely as kind, polite, and helpful to us as the Japanese, but in a way, more outgoing in their kindness. If you look lost in the subway station, they have no trouble taking your arm and guiding you to the correct train; if you’re admiring the view outside, they’ll readily challenge you to ping pong on the roof; if you look sick, they certainly won’t mind sticking a needle in your thumb to aid digestion. It was this Pay It Forward way of thinking that I enjoyed most about Korea, and I hope I’ve brought a bit of it back home with me.


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