Saturday, October 10, 2009

South Korea

At the end of September, myself and five other English teachers that I work with here in Japan took a trip to Seoul, South Korea. Japan has many national holidays. The week of September 20th there were three national holidays. Monday, September 21st was Respect for the Aged Day (hooray for the elderly!), Tuesday, September 22nd was National Holiday (hooray for the nation!), and Wednesday, September 23rd was Autumnal Equinox Day (hooray for seasonal change!). Myself and the other teachers took vacation days on September 24th and September 25th, so we had a week off.

I live on the island of Kyushu, which is Japan's third largest and is located southwest of Japan's main island, Honshu. I live in Oita Prefecture which is on the northeastern coast of Kyushu. The largest city in Kyushu, Fukuoka is about a three hour bus ride east of Oita. Fukuoka also has the closest international airport. So, naturally we flew out of Fukuoka. South Korea happens to be quite close to Japan. The flight from Fukuoka only took one hour and forty minutes.

We flew to Korea on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 22nd. The following pictures and stories are from the trip. I hope you enjoy.

Swine flu is dangerous. Before traveling, make sure you have a mask for yourself and each of your family members.

If you don't wear a mask, you may get eaten by a giant microorganism, illustrated by the artwork below.

We arrived in Seoul, South Korea late in the evening on Tuesday. Myself and two other teachers, Javi and JT stayed in Itaewon, the "foreigner district" which also houses US military bases. We were, therefore, close to some American-style restaurants and clothing stores with 'big size,' two things that are lacking in Oita. Tuesday night we went out for a few beers and bar food in Itaewon. The next day we headed to the main commercial district in Seoul.

We spent the morning and early afternoon checking out stores and taking in the sites and sounds of downtown Seoul. We climbed statues to complete our pre-lunch kcal burning exercises.

Seoul has Krispy-Kreme. Javi wore his hat inside the store. JT likes glazed doughnuts.

After spending the afternoon in the name-brand commercial district, we decided to check out one of the cheaper markets.

I think it's a pig, but I'm not sure. I don't speak Korean.

The food in Korea was delicious. There were many Korean barbecue restaurants in Seoul, that we call yakiniku in Japan. Basically, you sit down at a table with a grille built into its center. The wait staff immediately serves a number of side dishes, called banchan. Included are dishes of kimchi (spicy fermented vegetables), namul (steamed, marinated, or stir-fried vegetables), bokkeum (dishes stir-fried with a sauce) and others.

Customers then order assorted meats, soups and other dishes. We often ordered beef, chicken and pork which was cooked at the grille in the center of our table.

After dinner, we walked around the commercial district we had spent time at earlier in the day. The streets were filled with vendors, selling a wide range of items, from french fries on a stick to counterfeit Armani underpants.

It was quite different seeing the streets filled with people and stores open past 10 pm on a weekday which rarely happens in Oita.

I bought some underpants and socks from this man. If they don't make it through the first few wash cycles, be forewarned underpants man, I have your picture.

Our second full day in Seoul we took a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between South and North Korea. Our first stop on the tour was a site overlooking North Korea. The soldiers wanted me to sign up after they saw my Rambo-style automatic weapon poses.

Our guide pointed out that North Korea has cut down a large portion of it's forests to use the wood as a fuel source. A large contrast to South Korea which has developed as one the world's largest economies (hooray for democracy!).

When you see the fencing, you maybe frightened, but as our guard pointed out, the DMZ has become a wildlife sanctuary (hooray for birds!).

Give peace a chance (hooray for ribbons!).

Our next stop was "Freedom Bridge," the only bridge that crosses the Imjin River and the only bridge that directly connects North and South Korea. Approximately 13000 Korean War captives were allowed to return to South Korea across this bridge. The captives cried, "hooray for freedom!" which gave the bridge its name.

After Freedom Bridge, we stopped at a completed, but unused train station close to the North Korean border. South Korean hopes that one day they will be able to connect to the Trans Eurasian Railway Network. Of course their relations with North Korea will have to improve before that happens.

After lunch we toured the Joint Security Area (JSA), where military talks between North and South Korea are held. More recently the JSA has also been host to meetings between families separated by 60 years of conflict between North and South Korea. Behind me is a North Korean controlled building.

North Korean Guard

South Korean/UN officer

Our tour guide

After spending eight hours learning about the conflict between North and South Korea we were ready to let lose. We spent the evening and night out in Seoul, eating, partying and dancing. My dancing was not the best. I tried to dance with a Korean Woman that was humping a column, but she denied my request. I guess the column was more appealing than me, or maybe she had a form of mental retardation. Who knows. Nevertheless, we had a lot of fun. We met up with former teacher from Japan, Melissa (hooray for lasers!).

Friday afternoon, we went to see the Korean Comic Martial Arts Performance JUMP. The performance mixed taekwondo and comedy. The performance is a satire of a Korean family of taekwondo experts. At one point one of the performers, came off stage and into the audience. He asked our group where we were from. He then asked me to come out into the aisle, asked me if I liked sports, told me to defend myself and then tried to hit me with a fan, which I successfully deflected. He then brought me up on stage and suggested that I prove my manhood by fighting the Uncle of the family. We bowed to each other and then the Uncle showed off his skills with a ten second display of kicks, flips, and rolls. I was then instructed to do the same. I didn't want the Uncle to know how great I was, so I simply took a few steps forward and did a roll on the ground. Then they checked us for weapons. Of course, the Uncle was clean, but when they checked me they stealthy pulled out all kinds of prop weapons from me. They then ran and hid in the corner of the stage and acted frightened. So, I picked up a sword and then they yelled, "You Win! You Win!" Then they presented me with a free picture book of the show and escorted me off stage. Quite a nerve racking, but overall great experience (hooray for theatre and free stuff!).

The cast signing my free picture book.

After the show, we out to eat, relaxed at the hotel for a little while and then hit the downtown commercial districts. We didn't stay out too late because we had to leave our hotel the next morning at 5 AM, but when we headed back to the hotel around 1 AM Seoul was still full of energy. Some shops didn't open until 10 or 11 pm, people were drinking coffee, eating dinner, and shopping late into the night.

We came across a free fashion show.

I thought it was interesting that, although there were high calorie snacks for sale, there were also, healthy foods being sold by vendors late at night. How many cities have you been to where street vendors sell fresh fruit on a stick at midnight in commercial districts?

I had a great time in Seoul and hope to visit there again before I come back to the states.

Much Peace and Love


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