Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cheap public transportation

After norebang we had to find another way back to our hotel, because our ride took off just before all the singing action. It was already after midnight and if we’d been in Japan this would have been an expensive joke. In Japan, trains, subways and buses stop running around and before midnight, and the only way home is inside an expensive taxi. But here in Seoul public transportation keeps running until 5AM (but less frequent than during the day), and starts up again at 6AM. Yet, Jungwon still summoned a taxi for us to ride ‘home’ in... Why? Because using a taxi is jaw-droppingly cheap here!
Using the bus costs near to nothing already, it’s kind of a flat-rate system, a dollar to get on the bus and get off wherever you want, no matter how long the trip. We’ve been using the bus all day because we’ve been traveling from one end of the city to the other. But we weren’t going far tonight and in such a case a taxi is easier and cheaper than three already-cheap-bus-fares. I’m no longer surprised Jungwon likes using a taxi on a very frequent basis, who wouldn’t at these prices? I’m pretty sure we’ll end up in a few more Korean taxicabs this vacation.

Norebang a.k.a. Korean karaoke

We had a lot of fun during dinner and decided to extend the evening with an hour of karaoke, or norebang as they call it in Korea. Yoel Hoe drove us in his Samsung car (didn’t even know those existed) to some Norebang place across town, after which he suddenly had to leave to help out some friend. So Yoel Hoe left the three of us in a creepy, princessy Norebang Palace to sing for an hour without him. The whole place had a horrible kitsch atmosphere, with white walls and golden mirrors, glass doors (so everyone could observe our norebang-action) dozens of awfully pink-and-rosy pillows and microphones covered in some flowery pink cloth.
Our room was huge, with 4 TV screens, 3 tables, and enough space to sit for at least 15 people. It was so big we could even do some ballroom dancing and jumping around in it. Norebang isn’t as popular in Korea as karaoke is in Japan, so Jungwon wasn’t really an experienced singer. Even with a microphone she was barely audible so at one point we just gave her two mics to sing in, which improved the matter a little.
Besides singing and dancing there were other things to enjoy in this Norebang palace. Like as much ice-cream as we could eat, kind of like drinking as much as you can at a Japanese karaoke chain, but different. Not sure whether buckets of ice-cream are quite as useful as beverages when singing, still we got some ice-cream because it was free. But we never tasted it because we forgot all about our ice-cream once we started singing, and were only reminded of it when we knocked over a container of melted sticky goo while dancing around the room. Besides the free ice-cream and rosy pillows the room came with a box full of instruments like maracas and tambourines. Which are a lot of fun to shake about when you or your friends are singing.
I like norebang, but I prefer karaoke, it’s a bit more private and you get free drinks, but one nice thing about norebang is that the computer kept giving us free singing time extensions, not sure why. But we ended up singing for almost two hours even though we paid for just one.

The smell of garlic

For dinner we met one of Jungwon’s old coworkers from Samsung, Yoel Hoe. Jungwon has changed jobs already but Yoel He still works there and he often travels to Japan for business so he was fluent in Japanese. Which was fun for Yasu but useless to me, but luckily he also spoke English. We were supposed to go eat some topogi, sticky rice-cake cylinders with red spicy sauce, Jungwon’s favorite Korean food, but we ended up having dinner at an Italian restaurant. When we were walking past the restaurant the smell of garlic was so irresistible, we forgot all about topogi and opted for pizza and pasta instead.
It wasn’t the best choice we made today, I mean the food wasn’t bad but we’re in Korea for only a few days and we ought to experience as much Korean cuisine as we can. And let’s face it the Koreans are just as good as the Japanese at cooking Italian food, which is what we should have expected. The smell of garlic is a sweet seductress and I wish we wouldn’t have succumbed to it so easily, especially since the waiters couldn’t even figure out what dish smelled so garlicky, so we never got to eat what smelled so good outside. Still we had a lot of fun and that’s what’s really important.

Prada Transformer

Yesterday Jungwon told us we would be visiting the Prada Transformer today. Of course, we had no clue what that was and she told us it was a new building that changes by itself, and will be different in a couple of months. This vague explanation didn’t really enlighten us, actually it confused us more as we were now expecting to see a building that is constantly but slowly moving, somehow... Like a real-life but sluggish transformer, which the name kind of seems to suggest. So we were slightly disappointed to find a rather ugly tent-like building which didn’t move at all.
Inside was an exhibition of Prada skirts, and some of them actually did move, or at least the mechanisms they were draped upon. They had dozens of skirts and card-board cut-outs of skirts in that weird building and all we could do there is look at them or take pictures of them, which is what I did to entertain myself, as I’m not really into skirts.
Yasu isn’t really into skirts or fashion either, and he doesn’t work a camera so he spent his time doing a little work-out with the stone benches outside the Transformer. He’s so strong!
So why is this building named Transformer? Because in a month or so the walls are moved to a different position (by people, not by itself) and the skirts are taken out and a big TV screen is taken in to create a temporary cinema. Which is probably more entertaining than a collection of skirts, but by then we won’t be in Seoul anymore.
Prada Transformer

Spicy lunch

For lunch Jungwon took us to a small Korean restaurant this is what he had:
On the left: bibimbap, which is a typical Korean dish. It’s basically a heap of rice topped with a bunch of vegetables and usually some kind of meat or seafood, in a hot stone bowl. You’re supposed to stir the whole lot while it’s still sizzling in your stone bowl, cooking it on the sides and add as much chili pepper paste as you can stand. Apparently, they also have cold versions of bibimbap, but I’m not sure how that works, because I’ve never had it.
In the middle: jeon (the Japanese call this chijimi), which is similar to a Dutch pancake, as it’s thick and filled with a lot of stuff. Only the stuff we put in our pancakes is very different from the stuff the Koreans put in theirs. For example, we like cheese and apples, the Koreans like shrimp and fermented cabbage.
On the right: japchea, which are cellophane noodles (they’re see-through, hence the name) stir fried with a bunch of vegetables and beef in sesame oil. This has been my favorite Korean dish ever since I first tried it in San Francisco at Jungwon’s cousin’s place.
We were very tired from dragging ourselves from one sightseeing spot to another and very hungry because regular lunch hour had already come and gone by the time we finally sat down for it. So we were very pleased with our chairs and our food. Especially the bibimbap was very spicy, as it should be, and my poor Japanese boyfriend was sweating his face off while eating it. Japanese cuisine is all about mild and subtle tastes, so it was quite an experience for Yasu. But that’s why we’re here in Seoul, to experience non-Japanese things.
Dessert was American ice cream from Cold Stone, which we also have in Japan, but we never go there. Besides it reminded us of Emory, because they had one in Emory village, right outside the campus gates. It wasn’t bad, but we were too full from lunch, so we had a hard time finishing it.

Cops and pink ribbons

So far we’ve seen lots of interesting things we don’t normally see in Japan, like multiple-lane streets, hundreds of Western stores, restaurants and brands and a herd of cops both standing and sitting on the Seoul streets.
But we also found thousands of pink ribbons to honor our fifth anniversary... Not really, it was to promote some girly or gay product, but we used the opportunity to celebrate our anniversary some more.
I think the presence of cops was related to the presence of pink ribbons. I mean who can stand that many pink ribbons at once, even if the street is wide, with high buildings and multiple lanes, we need those hundreds of cops to protect us from going ‘pinksane’.
Cops and pink ribbons

Changing guards

We observed a changing of the royal guard ceremony at Deoksugung Palace, which is held three times a day since 1996, after thorough research by leading historians. The ceremony, complete with traditional musical instruments, swords, password-exchange, drum-beating and order-bellowing is held at the Daehanmun Gate and lasts about 30 minutes. We really enjoyed and agreed with the show:
Of course, we also wanted a picture with one of those stern-looking guards and Yasu and Jungwon even changed into some of those Korean traditional outfits. Apparently, they looked authentic enough to confuse other tourists and suddenly I wasn’t the only one interested in taking pictures of and with them anymore.
The ceremony reminded me of the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, only more colorful and noisy with the loud voice-over explaining what was going on in 4 different languages. Everything looked impressive, but I don’t think it was real, I think it was just to amaze us tourists. I say this because afterwards they devoted ample time to us tourists and our cameras, and they had those Korean traditional costumes to try on for free. Which is why I’d recommend it to all tourists.
Changing guards


Jungwon wanted to make some silly pictures so I suggested her and Yasu to jump, they had no idea what I had in mind, but jumped on my command anyway. And we ended up with several hilarious pictures of Yasu and Jungwon in the air:
Obviously, they loved the pictures and so we decided to try and make some with the three of us using the camera’s timer function. It’s challenging to take a picture of that split second two people are both air-born, and getting three people to jump and one camera to take a picture at the exact same time proved impossible... But we still had fun trying:
Unfortunately, we never managed to get a picture of the three of us in the air together, still these failed pictures make me laugh out loud every time I look at them!

Deoksugung Palace

At the entrance of Deoksugung Palace we found some very colorfully dressed guards which we had to play around with a bit, of course. But these fake guards were as serious as the real guards outside of Buckingham Palace in London, and they remained statue like during the whole ordeal.
Inside the castle grounds we found a statue of King Sejong the Great the guy that invented Hangul, and who is also depicted on a 10,000 won bill. Hangul is the Korean writing script (with all those cute circles) that replaced the Chinese characters, which were too difficult to use for the common people to write down their Korean words and sounds.
The buildings reminded me a lot of Japanese buildings, just with a larger variation of colors, but one of the buildings didn’t look Asian at all. Jungwon told us it was on purpose, and that the building was influenced by the colonial style of early 19th century America. It looked quite out of place between all those old style Korean buildings.
These buildings were all inhabited by various Korean royalties until the Japanese ended it by occupying Korea at the turn of the twentieth century, and these days it's just a tourist attraction. I’ve done a lot of sightseeing in Japan already and at some point these buildings all start to look alike and kind of stop being interesting. But all that doesn’t matter when you are there with the right people, that’ll make anything fun.
Deoksugung Palace

Seoul Museum of Art?

We were heading for Deoksugung Palace but Yasu, a.k.a. Mr. Pee-a-lot, needed a toilet first so we made a small detour to the Seoul Museum of Art, where they have nice and clean toilets we heard from our tour guide Jungwon. On the way there Jungwon was very happy to discover a famous wall, which couples are supposed to walk by hand in hand to ensure their future happiness. So we made sure to hold hands when we walked to the museum, and now we expect to live our lives happily ever after.
At the museum some kind of weird art expo was going on outdoors, which was introduced by a bunch of small and large plastic blow-up bodyguards hiding between the trees and bushes, and uncomfortably protecting their special areas.
They also had some pandas, a big one dragging its baby along and a Pooh Panda which seemed to have caused some kind of explosion and likes his honey blood-red.
Some art was thirsty. There were blue otters enjoying a cup of coffee, and s child soldier on a big army tank was drinking very popular Korean banana milk through his gas mask hose.
Other art was inexplicable, like a huge pointy face just lying around somewhere and a couple of what seemed to be clouds and cow utters blended together just flying around.
But our absolute favorite was the big mosaic turd. Yasu and Jungwon displayed some excellent teamwork while producing the lump of colorful excrement, and then we enjoyed it as a nice and warm place to hang and look cool.
Yasu and I’ve never really been into art, but we enjoyed this exposition nonetheless. But I’m not sure if we can classify this kind of stuff under art...
Seoul Museum of Art?


In Emory, Jungwon and I used to study together after dinner in the university's computer-lab and we’d often bring a seriously huge (about 1 liter) smoothie from the Smoothie King in the food court. So when I spotted a Smoothie King on our way to the bus stop I made us all go in for a smoothie to enjoy during our bus-ride to Deoksu Palace.
The American Smoothie King was very flexible and I would usually choose 5 or 6 kinds of fruit to be mixed into one delicious smoothie, and it was a bit disappointing the Korean version wasn’t willing to sell custom-made smoothies and the available fruit-combination (with just 2 or 3 different kinds of fruit) options were limited. Still the end-product was satisfyingly fruity and smooth.
Smoothie King

At Butterfinger's

Last night we stuffed ourselves with Korean food, and this morning we stuffed ourselves with American food at Butterfinger Pancakes. Jungwon and I loved to eat American breakfast in the States, didn’t matter if it was morning or even the middle of the night. So she wanted to introduce us to this very popular American breakfast restaurant. But because it’s Thursday it wasn’t busy at all this morning, but at least the other two customers in the restaurant were Korean celebrities: pianist and music composer Noh Young Shim and her husband movie director Han Ji Seung. Jungwon only recognized the woman and told us about her, which prompted Yasu to ask her if she’s a ‘famous Korean music composer’, at which she shyly replied “yes” with a headbow. And even though we had no idea who she was we still felt compelled to take a picture with her, and she was very willing to help these foreigners out.
They had a very extensive menu and we had a hard time choosing. So Yasu and I ended up sharing a “Split Decision Plate”. A huge plate with a little bit of all typical American breakfast foods. Jungwon made sure the waiters served our plate with a burning ‘5’ candle, which I brought from Japan as a little surprise for Yasu. Jungwon made us blow out the candle together to celebrate our anniversary.
Jungwon ordered some cereal with yoghurt and berries and we all had huge Americano coffees. The coffees were awful, the food was awesome. I hope we’ll go here again this week, but I’ll definitely order another kind of coffee then.
Butterfinger Pancakes

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

5 whole years...

When Yasu and I first got together I thought the relationship was doomed because of the long distance, but I no longer think so. We’ve been together for 5 years today, and like my mom’s card with the polar bears said: “we’re still crazy with each other” and often we’re crazy by ourselves too.
We’re still going strong and happier and more certain of each other than ever. We’re celebrating this milestone with our 5-day trip to Seoul. I can’t wait to find out where we’ll be 5 years from now. Yasu, thank you for 5 wonderful years, I love you.

Meeting the Kims

Seoul is huge. It has 25 districts (gu) and each gu is subdivided into neighborhoods (dong), and in total the city has 522 different dongs. Without realizing it, I booked a hotel in the exact same neighborhood Jungwon lives: Cheongdam-dong in Gangnam-gu. So it only took about 5 minutes to drive to her parents’ apartment (most Seoulites live in spacious apartments not houses), and it could have easily been more than an hour if I had chosen a hotel in another dong across town.
We were very warmly welcomed into her house with lovely balloons and huge smiles and hugs. Jungwon met my entire family in 2004 when she traveled home with me after my semester at Emory university, but I only knew her family from pictures and stories. And today I finally got to meet her parents and her twin sister Jungyoon, and they seemed very eager to meet us too.
Jungwon’s mother cooked a lot of Korean food, and she kept saying “eat a lot” (her English was very limited). And “eat a lot” we did, but somehow we couldn’t convince her we had enough and she kept urging us to “eat a lot”. I wished we could because the food was delicious, she served my Korean favorites, japchae and bulgogi, because Jungwon told her about them. But there was so much more food, like salad, barbecue chicken, mushrooms, kimchi (of course) and many more side dishes like Korean seaweed, soup and rice.
After dinner she served Korean fruit for dessert which we had to eat very quickly because Jungwon and Jungyoon were taking us to check out the Coex Mall before it closed. We had to hurry but we couldn’t leave without a quick tour of the huge apartment (definitely in a different league than those Japanese shoebox apartments) and stuffing some more fruit into our mouths to make Jungwon’s mom happy. At the Coex Mall the twins took us and our balloons to Dunkin' Donuts, to buy us some more dessert because their mom was worried we hadn’t eaten enough that evening (she had texted her concerns to Jungwon’s cellphone).
After walking down memory lane, going over the next day’s schedule, and very slowly eating our donuts we called it a night and walked back to the hotel to get some rest and enjoy the American TV channels.
Meeting the KimsCoex Mall

Seoul, here we are!

After we both had a very comfortable (meaning hardly any other passengers) flight on two separate airlines, we reconvened at beautiful and huge Seoul Incheon Airport. After a some coffee at the Coffee Bean and donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts we hopped on a bus to the city. Jungwon had given us all the details before our trip, so we had no problem finding the limosine bus at the airport, the right bus stop and our hotel in Seoul.
Soon after settling in at the hotel, Jungwon came to pick us up and seeing her again after almost 5 years was fantastic. She is still the crazy and cheeky girl from back then, she just looks a little more like a woman than a girl with her make-up and high heels. I wonder when I’m ever going to graduate to that stage? Anyway, This is going to be a fun trip here in Seoul with Jungwon guiding us through the city she grew up in.
Going to KoreaMeeting the Kims