Friday, July 18, 2014

The day to eat the chicken--Laura's post

So, this Friday was a holiday celebrated in South Korea.  Asking my coworkers for more details, I found that Friday was "The day to eat the chicken".

Picture of samgyetang on Wikipedia

Two of the three lunch items in the cafeteria were chicken in broth, and the third appeared to be sliced roasted duck.  One chicken in broth was a small whole chicken in a soup, and the other was a full chicken leg in a soup.  Lunch was very well attended, with festive colored signs everywhere (presumably saying something about the holiday).

"The day to eat the chicken" wasn't enough information for me, so I scoured the internet for more details. Three hottest days of summer are identified according to the lunar calendar, and celebrated as holidays to mark the passing of summer.  These are the sambok days: chobok(beginning), jungbok (middle), and malbok (last), and there's 10 days between each holiday.  On these days, Koreans celebrate by eating full nutritious meals, served piping hot, to give them strength in the summer heat.

I had one of the most popular nutritious meals, samgyetang, a ginseng-chicken soup*.  It was reminiscent of our typical american chicken soup, with a few differences.  The chicken leg was still on the bone, with no meat separated out into the soup.  The broth contained green onions and rice, and was very flavorful, but without salt.  Instead, a pile of mixed salt and pepper was served alongside for the diner to add as desired.  The usual panoply of sauces and accompaniments came with this soup, and today they were kimchi, pickled daikon, mung bean pancakes with tentacles (octopus? squid?), white rice, sesame oil with salt, korean miso, and fresh zucchini.

I've been doing more than my fair share of sweating since I came to South Korea, both in and out of work, and perhaps samgyetang had been just what I was missing.  I certainly found it delicious and refreshing, and I  only wish I'd be here to enjoy the rest of the sambok days.

Still, I think we'll be able to get in a few more adventures before we head back to the states next week.  Tomorrow we plan to head in to Seoul again, to see the main traditional market in Insadong.  I'll be on the lookout for interesting pottery, and plan to enjoy tea in a few of the many teahouses there.

*The internet also suggests that sambok days are when it's traditional to eat dog for it's nutritional value.  They did not appear to be serving it at the work cafeteria, and I think the tradition has mostly fallen out of favor.  I have seen a lot of pet stores here with some adorable little critters, and several Koreans toting their dogs around in baby carriages. To me, this suggests that dogs are falling squarely into the pet category these days.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Panmunjeom, City of Brotherly Love

As explained in another post about the DMZ, the cease-fire line between the two Koreas zig-zags the 38th parallel (38°N), and on either side there is a 2km-wide "demilitarized" no-man's land.  Each side maintains a civilian farming village in the DMZ for propaganda purposes--the South village agriculturally productive, the North village mostly for show--and the former village of Panmunjeom, site of the "Joint Security Area" (JSA), where both militaries literally stare each other down on either side of a row of three one-room conference buildings, each of which are smaller than the portable classroom you might have had 7th grade health class in.

Starting out at 5:30 in the morning, I took at cab to the rail station, got the 6:25 train to Seoul, and arrived a bit past 7.  I then took the subway one stop to City Hall, then slowly found my way to the Lotte Hotel for the 8:30 tour.  From here you board a bus with assigned seats, and are taken to Camp Bonifas, a United Nations Command base just outside the DMZ.  Though it is a UN base, with the flags of 16 countries flying, I only saw ROK army personal plus a couple U.S. soldiers.  We were assigned a minder in the person of an ROK soldier and given bright yellow badges identifying us as UN guests.

At a visitor center set up at Camp Bonifas, we were given an historical briefing, including details of the Axe Murder Incident (1976), in which a U.S. army captain named Arthur Bonifas was killed, hence the name of the base, and the Soviet Defector Incident (1984), in which a Soviet citizen fled across the border into the South, pursued by KPA soldiers who then holed up in a sunken garden bed and engaged in a 20-minute firefight with UN forces.  The point being, I think, that violent incidents can and do suddenly start without warning.  They then made us sign waivers of liability holding the UN, U.S., and ROK blameless in the event of our injury or death in the even of enemy action.

We then boarded another bus bearing UN placards, told to sit in the same seats we had on the civilian tour bus, and headed into the DMZ, winding down an empty road, surrounded by foliage on all sides.  Quite suddenly we were in Panmunjeom, dominated by the Freedom House, an impressive new structure ostensibly for the Red Cross to host cross-border family reunion, should they ever be allowed, but mostly, I suspect, as a way to stare down the DPRK's equivalent structure, Panmungak, in similar fashion to the "flagpole wars," where North and South built successively taller flagpoles (phallic substitutes), the North finally topping out at 160m with a 300kg flag, beating the South's puny 100m/150kg.

We were then ushered out of the bus and into the Freedom House, where we waited several minutes for the all-clear to proceed into one of the conference buildings.  Since the Axe Murder Incident (more below), UN and KPA personnel have been absolutely separated, with the only jointly held territory now limited to the conference rooms which straddle the border.  So only after verifying the buildings were empty were we allowed in them.

The buildings inside and out are a garish, unhealthy shade of UN blue.  Inside is no bigger than double our hotel room, and considerably smaller than a portable classroom, as I've said.  It consists of a door south, a door north, two observation rooms with one-way glass on each end, a conference table straddling the border, and two others, each by one door or the other.  Inside are two impossibly still ROK MPs, in M1 steel helmets and aviator glasses, in a taekwondo ready pose, one at the head of the main table, the other by the DPRK door.  As was explained to us, these are the cream of the ROK army.  They have to be a certain height, good-looking, practice judo or taekwondo, and have a perfectly clean security background--even having divorced parents is disqualifying for service in the JSA.  All this is meant to be psychological warfare against the KPA.

We were then allowed to mill about the room, the only instruction being we weren't allowed to take any photos looking south, only towards the North.  This was the only time we were actually, technically in North Korea, and not by much more than 12 feet, at most.  After a few minutes we were ushered back outside to stand on the steps of the Freedom House to take photos of the North Koreans (of which there weren't any in sight) and Panmungak.  The minder walked back and forth making sure we stood in a single line on a single step, though after a while we sorta began to mill a bit on the step to get better photos this way or that.

It was then, quietly, that two KPA guards appeared on balconies of two buildings bookending Panmungak.  Then out of Panmungak came soldiers who marched up to the border (marked by a low concrete step between the conference buildings) and took their positions opposite the ROK guards.  The ROK guards, as previously described, stand in their martial arts poses, two with the bodies half exposed by the corners of the buildings, one standing fully exposed in the center.  Three KPA guards, meanwhile, are positioned so that two face each other right next to the concrete step, and a third faces Panmungak, with his back to the South.  While this can be explained symbolically, the practical reason suggested by our tour guide is that this allows the third soldier to intercept any defectors who decided to make a dash for the South, as happened in the 1984 incident.  The KPA guards were wearing short-sleeved summer uniforms, like their ROKA counterparts, the first year our tour guide has seen them wearing a different uniform between cold and warm weather, and ballistic helmets in a PASGT shape, which the tour guide said appeared a couple years ago, replacing the more familiar, and formal, peaked cap.  The reason for the appearance of the KPA soldiers became evident when a large tour group--composed entirely of Westerners to look at them--appeared on the balcony of Panmungak to take pictures of us.  I felt strange for not feeling like I was in any particular danger, and for enjoying the peace and quiet of the place.  But it was also a strange feeling to know there were other Americans and Europeans on the other side--us on the steps of the Freedom House, them on the terrace of Panmungak--maybe 200m apart, and we couldn't even wave to each other because of this artificial, man-made separation in front of us.  Maybe that's how Koreans on both sides feel all the time.

I was asked on Facebook if the North looks any different: in Panmunjeom, not really.  The northern buildings are older than the Freedom House, but then so too are a lot of the UN buildings.  The North has a clean-swept but slightly weathered look, and the brutalist look of Panmungak is dated, in the same way a lot of mid-century SUNY campus buildings are back home.  From the Dora Observatory, one can see over the other side of the DMZ, which looks a bit more built-up than the ROK side, but largely deserted.  If one travels back down the highway along the Imjin River towards Seoul, on less hazy days you can see North Korean hills which have been clear-cut for fuel for heating and cooking.

Here's a link to another blog whose author traveled through North Korea and saw Panmunjeom from the other side of the border:

When our minder figured we'd seen enough, we were ushered back into the bus and returned to Camp Bonifas.  Along the way we saw the "Bridge of no return," where POWs were exchanged in 1953, as well as Checkpoint Three, site of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident.  Prior to 1976, the whole of the JSA was jointly controlled by both sides, with KPA and UN soldiers in physical proximity, and buildings mixed together.  A situation occurred where a poplar tree had come to obscure CP3 from Observation post 5, the nearest UN post.  Meanwhile the KPA had erected three posts around CP3, creating what was called the "Loneliest outpost in the world."  UN Command then decided to cut down the poplar to restore the line of sight between CP3 and OP5.  A squad of men, including U.S. Army captain Arthur Bonifas and 1LT Mark Barrett, came out to cut the tree down.  A KPA officer told them to stop, and when they ignored him, the KPA seized their axes and hatcheted the officers to death, wounding the rest of the squad save one.  A couple days later, the USS Midway had been moved close to shore, and the UN responded with "Operation Paul Bunyan," where 60 armed men, 30 vehicles, attack helicopters, and even F-4 Phantom and B-52 Stratofortress overflights.  The UN soldiers, this time armed with chainsaws, took the tree down while the KPA watched silently from a distance, then departed.  Ultimately the JSA was divided into security areas with a strict division, and Kim Il-sung issuing a statement of "regret."  The KPA outposts on the UN side were then dismantled.

At Camp Bonifas we had time to go to bathroom (under CCTV surveillance, signs told us) and visit the gift shop.  I ended up with a set of DPRK banknotes and coins, the banknotes being former issue but the coins being in present circulations, and a pair of carved Korean wedding ducks.  These are traditionally given at a wedding, with ribbons tied around the beaks to remind the couple that silence is a virtue.  They're then displayed prominently in the home, beak-to-beak to show the couple isn't quarreling, and then they're given to the couple's eldest daughter on her wedding day, and passed down that way.  After that we were taken for lunch at a Korean place in Paju and served bulgogi, where I had a chance to chat with my seatmate on the bus, an Austrian kid backpacking his way around Asia.  Is it true few Americans have passports, he asked.  Is it true most Americans don't speak any language besides English?  True and true, I said.  About a third have passports, and a quarter speak two or more languages.  Which, I noted, has implications for the American worldview and foreign policy.

On the way back to Seoul, we had the chance to chat with a North Korean defector, with the tour guide as a translator.  She had left the North some few years back, taking her family with her.  She paid off a border guard at the Yalu River, and they snuck across the frozen river at night, and then a network of smugglers transported them to Thailand, where the ROK maintains a refugee camp for defectors.  She said most escapees never make it that far, either being shot by border troops, drowning in the Yalu, or being arrested by the Chinese and repatriated to North Korea, where they are most certainly executed.  The one family member she left behind was her husband, she didn't say why, but presumably he was loyal to the regime, or she didn't much care for him, or both.  A cousin with a telephone later told her that her husband had been subsequently arrested, held for 10 days, then released when the police were satisfied he didn't have prior knowledge of the defection.  She had kept it a secret from him for three years.

The answer to the question of "why" was the mass starvations in the 1990s.  When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the government shut down for a month and food wasn't distributed.  Then as the '90s wore on, food shortages became full-on famines, where even the army was only getting 700kcal a day.  She said they'd send around a wagon twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., to collect the dead.  North Koreans remain genuinely fond of Kim Il-sung, but have no confidence or respect for his son or grandson, and are obedient only out of fear.  There is about 30 percent of the population she says that is privileged at the expense of the rest, and these are the ones in the government and army hierarchies, and these are the ones propping up the regime.  The rest of the population is sick to death of it, often literally, but is paralyzed with fear.

On this cheery note, we were dropped off at the Lotte Hotel again.  The tour guide asked me if I thought Panmunjeom was scarier than the Third Tunnel of Aggression, and to her surprise I said no.  "There's nowhere to run in a tunnel.  At least in Panmunjeom, I have the illusion I could run for cover and hide."

After this I walked up the street to try seeing the Anglican cathedral again.  It was "meh," much more interesting from the outside than the inside.  The woman at the door strangely, for an Anglican, spoke no English, but somehow I convinced her to show me the crypt chapel, where a magnificent memorial brass covers the body of a former bishop.  She then showed me a picture of their bishop meeting Queen Elizabeth II in Seoul in 1999, of which she was obviously very proud.  I headed back outside to catch the metro back to Seoul Station and the KTX to Cheonan-Asan and home.  I saw a gaggle of clergy in collars in the parking lot, smoking like the iron hinges of hades.  I asked if they were the cathedral chapter, and they gave me the most profoundly blank look.  None of them spoke English.  Anglicans, in the Korean city with the most and best English-speaking Koreans, right next to the British Embassy, and not one of them speaks English.  It was a strange feeling to cap a day of strange feelings.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lakeside park, Seoul palaces, and shopping trip to Cheonan

On Thursday Laura and I walked to the fabled lake south of Asan, about 3 or 4km from the hotel.  There we found a very nice view of the lake, together with a model of a turtle ship, various trellises, arbors, boardwalks, exercise equipment, sculptures, and even a petting zoo (goats, sheep, rabbits) along the 1.5km path circling the lake.  What we never got to was the actual lake, though we only did about a third of the way around and back.  It was always 50 feet away or more.  But if we weren't allowed to go up to the lake, then why?  A protected source of drinking water for the city?  Fear of Communist saboteurs?  Or was it all industrial runoff that would melt our feet off ere we'd waded in half a foot?

In any event, by the time we got back to the entrance, we were very warm, as it was supposed to be 33­°C that day.  Nevertheless, we saw on our map there was supposed to be a monument to Admiral Yi Sun-shin across the street, so we stopped for a breather in the shade before continuing on to see the giant bronze statue in front of a huge carved granite tableau of one of his many famous battles.  We then set off back to the hotel, thoroughly wilted with heat and humidity, though it was only noon.

Saturday we caught the KTX to Seoul, then took the one hop on the metro to City Hall.  We first saw Sungnyemun, the South Gate, a monumental roofed gate in an ancient city wall that no longer exists.  It seems as though the Japanese destroyed it, but the Koreans duly rebuilt it after they left.  As this was by the famous Namdaemun Market, we decided to stroll through there.  There wasn't much of interest, mostly clothing which we knew would never fit our typically American physiques.  We did see boiled silkworm larvae, which we had heard about but wondered if we'd see any.  I am told the smell is disgusting, but luckily the wind wasn't blowing in our direction.  From here we hoofed it back in the direction of the metro stop and the palaces.  Along the way we stopped at the Bank of Korea Museum, which has information on production, circulation, withdrawal, and destruction of money, as well as various specimens from around the world.

From here we walked to Deoksugung, the Western Palace, across from City Hall.  We saw the changing of the guard, who are good at drilling, and have neat period costumes, but are in fact not guards so much as reenactors.  The palace itself is a collection of mid- to late Joseon buildings, famous for being the refuge of King Seonjo during the Japanese invasions of the 16th-17th centuries, and the gilded prison of King Gojong at the hands of the Japanese in the 20th--most of which have been destroyed or rebuilt.  I have seen a lot of traditional Korean architecture at this point, and I have to admit it's blurring together a bit.  Invariably, all these buildings are constructed the same way, varying little except in dimensions and ornamental painting.  They all have a similar story, too: Koreans build them, the Japanese burn them down, the Koreans rebuild them, the Japanese pull them down and build other stuff, the Koreans pull down the Japanese stuff and rebuild their own earlier stuff.  Deoksugung Palace is also home of the national contemporary art museum, so we took a stroll in there, as well, before heading off to the great main palace, Gyeonbokgung.

Gyeonbokgung Palace is at the end of a great boulevard with a mall in the center.  Along one side of the boulevard is the American Embassy, which, in contrast to the British Embassy (which we'd seen earlier) with its lone, sleepy security guard, is heavily fortified by a tall fence topped with razor wire and a policeman every so many feet.  This also explained the score of police buses parked down the boulevard, with riot shields lined up against them.  It seems that anti-American sentiment is waxing in South Korea, and anytime protesters want to make a big fuss, they target the U.S. Embassy.  Judging how comparatively ignored their embassy is, I think the British got out of the empire-building business at the right time. 

Along the boulevard mall are monumental statues, first to Admiral Yi, and then to King Sejong the Great, inventor (or patron of the inventors) of Hangul, the Korean alphabet.  At the end of the mall is Gyeonbokgung, the main palace, torn down to build the Japanese colonial governor's headquarters, itself torn down to put the old palace back up.   The gate is again guarded by impressively costumed but fake guards with blunt halberds.  There's not much to say about it, in that it looks like the other palace, only scaled up, and unlike Deoksugung, it is overly crowded without intimate access to any of the buildings.  Both buildings contain no artifacts, furnishings, etc., to show what the buildings looked like in use.  The landscaping was better at Gyeonbokgung, however, with several ponds packed with fish and waterlilies, and it sits propitiously with its back to picturesque Bugaksan Mountain to the north, and somewhere unseen to the south, the Hangang River.

Headed back towards the metro, we were subjected to the bullhorn rantings of Korean evangelicals, threatening passersby with hell if they didn't convert.  Their vinyl banner said as much, reading "Repent, Jesus = heaven, no belief = hell."  I can't stand this shit at home, still less abroad.  Koreans famously converted themselves to Christianity (at least the third of the country that is Christian--a third is Buddhist and the rest irreligious), but Americans have been dumping money and missions into Korea for the last 60 years, and have succeeded in establishing here the most fanatical, obnoxious variety of Christianity we have to offer.  Of course, what's unfortunate is the reaction to Soviet imperialism is American and Christian imperialism.  Your only alternative to imperialism in Korea is another flavor of imperialism.  Maybe it's Buddhism that's the third way here, but even that was imported from abroad, only somewhat longer ago.

We had a hearty Japanese dinner at Seoul Station, then headed home on the KTX.

The next day Laura had it in mind to do some shopping in Cheonan, the next big town over from Asan.  We took the metro from Asan, and here I clearly noticed a phenomenon I'd only peripherally noticed before: Korean women, largely older ones, avoiding sitting next to me on public conveyances.  One woman sat down next to me because there were no other seats, then promptly moved to the other side when another seat opened up; a second woman sat next to me, and when the other seat next to her opened up, she scooted into it.  Also next to a man, but at least the other man was Korean.  Coming out of the metro, we had to slip past some earnest evangelical cultists pressing literature on exiting passengers.  Thus, we'd hardly arrived at Cheonan, and already the trip was soured.

Having come out the station on the less attractive side (quite literally the wrong side of the tracks), with no map and only the occasional wifi signal, we stumped north up a long street, then headed east again, since the market she wanted to visit was northeast of the metro station.  I declared the town a dump and grimly pressed on, while Laura was becoming a bit unraveled by the roughness of her environs.  I reassured her there was little violent crime in South Korea, with scant success.  Crossing back over the tracks, we found ourselves in an appreciably better neighborhood, and after a bit of guesswork and backtracking, at last came to our destination, a shopping mall thick with human beings to an extent reminiscent of Guinness bee-beards.  Now it was my turn to be freaked out, since I like no space to contain more than one or two of the species.

We repaired to a Pizza Hut, since we were hungry, it was air conditioned (remember, it's 90 degrees here, with 90 percent humidity and no breezes, every day), relatively quiet, and we were curious about how the chain's offerings differed here.  They are in fact quite different, and we ordered a bulgogi and garlic clove pizza, pointing to a picture the menu, as it was entirely in Korean and English is less frequently spoken in Cheonan, hoping against hope it was indeed beef and not grilled squid or the like.  Despite the unorthodox toppings, it was in fact better than any Pizza Hut I've suffered in the U.S.

Having got a bit of my calm back, and both of us cooler and fed, we headed back into the mall next door, and Laura got several lovely pairs of earrings as keepsakes of the trip.  Done fooling with the metro, we caught a taxi back to Asan and the hotel, then later went out for a more properly Korean dinner of galbi, barbecue.

Today I ventured out briefly to the post office, then found myself chatting with some Mormon missionaries at the CVS, for no reason than that they were bright-eyed American kids.  No talk about religion--could they smell the superior religion wafting off my holy brow?--just where you from, how long you been here, how are you making out with the language, and so on.  I made my purchase and wished them well, reminding them to take care to look both ways when crossing the street.  In Korea, it's deadly earnest advice.

Tomorrow early I head off to see Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area in the DMZ, briefly stroll across the border into North Korea, and catch my first glimpse of the fierce and much-feared KPA soldier.  Should be fun.

Ferry tsu Tsushima, part II: The issue into Izuhara

Tshusima is a Japanese island more or less equidistant between Japan and Korea, about 40km long and no more than 10km wide at any point, and administratively part of Nagasaki.  Entirely mountainous and largely unsettled, it has been not only a meeting place for the Japanese and Koreans, it has been the occasional launching point for Japanese invasions of Korea, as well as a nest of pirates preying on Japan and Korea both.  The capital and principal port of Tsushima is Izuhara, where our ferry docked.

Coming ashore, we weren't asked to declare anything.  An immigration officer, a portly middle-aged man in blue uniform and peaked cap, seemed interested in the fact that I was arriving in the morning and departing in the afternoon, less fearful of my activities in Japan and more personal interest in my interest in Tsushima.  He seemed like a great people watcher.  Having gotten loose from customs, I exited the building into a comparative steam bath and started down the road on foot.  Immediately on my right was a revered old hill, called Tategami, or the Standing Turtle, which is nevertheless covered in a metal mesh to protect the buildings below from erosion and rockfall.  I didn't know it at the time, but there's apparently a shrine at the top of it.  Knowing that I owed a 1700Y cash fee to the port before I could disembark, the first thing I did was set out for the post office, which my map said hosted a global ATM.  I got out my money, and then headed across the street to the Red Cabbage, the local grocery store, as Laura is a great fan of grocery stores.

I think she would have liked the Red Cabbage.  Not only does it have a true diversity of items, the store was visually interesting, not just with great produce, but great advertising and funny advertising, with murals of farmers and a model of Godzilla's foot crushing through the ceiling.  I took lots of photos (Facebook) for Laura, but could find nothing that interested me for lunch.  I went down the street and found the Hotto Motto, a bento lunch counter.  For 600Y and some, I got tempura veggies and chicken on a bed of rice, plus iced green tea.  The lady behind the counter spoke no English, but I got along just fine by pointing at pictures in the advertisements on the wall.  Having found the entrance to the former Kaneishi Castle, I sat on a low wall and dug in.  I was starved, and the meal was cooked perfectly.  At one point a little boy wandered by and said "Hi," and I was sure to return a friendly "Hello," albeit through a mouthful of rice.

The gate of the former Kaneishi Castle is part gate, part donjon, and part pagoda, and was reconstructed in 1990, from what remnants (a stone foundation?), and from what historical records (drawings? contemporary surviving structures?), I could not say.  From there I walked to the former castle gardens, which today is mostly just a pond, some Zen boulders, and part of an old wall.  I didn't get very far, and only took a few photos, before a gardener shooed me out.  The gate was open and the garden was supposed to be open to the public, so I don't know what happened.  There's also supposed to be a 300Y fee, but I didn't see anyone to take my money, so.  But there wasn't much to see, so I scampered off.

The path from the gate to the garden then continues around to dump you at the end of the street you started the path on, in front of Banshoin Temple, a Buddhist shrine built in 1615 by the 20th daimyo (lord) of the So clan to honor his father, the 19th daimyo.  The temple isn't original, having been reduced to ashes on several occasions, but the gate is, flanked by two scary looking wood-carved statues of Buddhist demons.  I paid a 300Y fee to enter the grounds, though I skipped the temple itself, as I didn't care to remove my shoes, which at that point were already a bit muddy just from walking the 50 metres from the ticketing window to the temple porch (or stupa stoop, as I'd like to call it).  I leaned in though and got a few photos.  It doesn't appear to be a regularly ritually active site, but offerings are left on a daily basis.

Heading back out and to the left, one continues up a giant stone staircase lined by ishidoro, stone lanterns of a funerary cast, the fire and smoke of which remind visitors of the ethereal, airy nature of the soul.  Here along the way were terraces containing the graves (ashes) of the So clan, the daimyos of Tsushima.  These are all stone pillars in the form of a stupa, surrounded by a low stone wall, sometimes attended by a stone bodhisattva.  Generally the higher one went, the more recent--and ostentatious--the graves.  Here you are truly ascending into the rainforest that is the Tsushima hillside and mountains, and everything is wet and carpeted with various mosses and slimes.  The photos fail to capture just how green everything is.  That combined with the age of the site, and the stone walls and graves, gave everything a distinct Indiana Jones flavor.

Many people do not attempt to climb the Banshoin graves because of health and fitness issues, but I made it to the top, and then back down again, no worse for the wear than a mosquito bite.  At this point I decided my next destination should be Hachimangu Shrine, a Shinto temple to the southeast along the main street.  I should mention here what the neighborhoods are like.  Generally, except for two major thoroughfares with proper two-way traffic, all other steets in town are more like alleys, where cars can only pass with considerably difficulty.  They are all lined with neatly dressed and fitted stone.  Houses are very compact, and no space goes to waste.  That space not occupied by the house or parking for a single vehicle is usually given over to carefully cultivated ornamental gardens.  And odd though typically (according to Laura) Japanese feature is the presence of a vending machine on every corner--no matter how abandoned--selling small cans of coffee, soft drinks, or soup.  Almost as frequent are Jizo shrines, small hutches containing the effigy of the kami or bodhisattva Jizo, a creepy hairless doll-like figure, supposed to help the sick children of people leaving offerings, usually coins.  Who collects these coins is unknown to me, but it seems like brisk business.

Hachimangu Shrine is noticed from the main road by its large stone torii, an sort of arch or gate that delineates sacred space from the profane.  It was free, especially in that it was empty of any people who could accept a fee.  Coming up a few flights of stone steps, one walks right under a roofed gate towards the shrine proper, past rows of graves, a sacred spigot, and a roofed rack or screen to which are tied various prayers or spells, to the left; to the right seem like a series of practical buildings.  At the end of the paved walk is the shrine itself, but the doors were closed and even the approach to peek inside was barred by a low stone table or altar.  Headed back out the gate, there were two smaller shrines, each with their doors slightly open, empty but for a broom in the one.  Both had smaller shrine buildings behind these, but they were closed up and inaccessible except through the fore-shrine, which I was pretty sure weren't for visitors to enter unbidden.  

I then came back out of Hachimangu and crossed the street, headed south to Kokubunji Temple through a warren of side streets.  The good thing about Izuhara is that it is so small that if you head in generally the right direction, you will presently stumble across whatever you're looking for.  Kokubunji is an active Buddhist temple, the modern building sited on the former site of the first temple, from the early 19th century, which burnt down.  The gate however seems to be original, and Kokubunji was the lodging for the Korean late Joseon delegation.  Behind the temple, stretching back into the hills, are countless more graves, presided over by stone stupas.  By this point my feet were well-blistered, and though the temple presently had some sort of activity going on, I decided to take my shoes off to instead sit on the steps to one of the graves and nurse my feet.  Though I might have enjoyed seeing the inside of a Buddhist temple, the language barrier frequently means I skip things where the practical difficulties outweigh the cultural or historical value to be gained.

Having re-taped my feet, my next and last sight to see was Seizanji Temple, another active Buddhist site much more in the Zen stamp.  This temple was much less visible from the street, but once inside, had rock gardens, raked sand, delicately pruned shrubbery, and all the rest.  Again, there was something going on inside--there were shoes piled up under a split curtain emblazed with a tsuru mon, or crane emblem, but even if I wasn't ridiculously tired and suffering in the feet, it would have been too much to have tried to join in on whatever was going on.  Out back of the temple was again another hillside graveyard, disappearing up into the hillside forest, much further than I dared climb, given my feet.  I surveyed the whole town and port of Izuhara from here, made my peace, and proceeded down from the graves, through the temple grounds, back down to the main road.  At length I returned to the terminal and waited the couple hours until the ferry would begin boarding again.  I caught a wifi signal, gave my wife an update, and tried to doze a bit on an out-of-the-way bench.

We got back on the ferry without any kind of departing customs or immigration control.  My seat this time was a single both window and aisle seat on the port bow.  On the way out, I counted more than 30 trawlers, all within a thousand metres of each other, setting to their evening task of squid fishing.  I tried to sleep a bit, but my neighbors in the two seats behind me were two Spanish women lisping to each other at a great clip, as they had been that morning, and every time I'd seen them out during the day.  I could not imagine what they had left to say to one another, but they kept at it, and loudly.  Back at Busan, they seemed to have some difficulty, after we were X-rayed again, with the immigration officer, who did not speak Spanish, and was having trouble with whatever heavily accented scraps of English the women could muster.  I handed my declaration to the customs officer--nothing to declare, except a belly full of Hotto Motto--and headed out the door to find a taxi.  The fellow I enlisted would only take me to Busan Station (rail) for a flat fee of 10,000W (almost three times the rate by distance), but I was tired enough that I didn't care.  Understandably, I don't think a 3,400W fare at rush hour has much profit in it, but my ferry ticket had been unexpectedly discounted 30,000W (I never understood why), so I thought I could afford it.  What I couldn't afford was to try cab after cab trying to get a better rate.  

The ferry had arrived at Busan at 18:30; at Busan Station, I bought my KTX ticket, got a bulgogi burger at the Lotteria, and boarded the train at 20:00, arriving at Cheonan-Asan station at 22:10.  I didn't sleep at all on the train, instead watching a Korean nun in the seat across from me repeatedly nod off into the Lives of the Saints that prefaced her Bible.  I caught a cab to the hotel, got up to the room--Laura was already at work for the night--stripped, showered (I felt like a prune stewed in its juices), and then crawled into bed, only to find I wasn't as tired as I should be.  My blisters certainly didn't help.

As incredibly tiring, painful, and occasionally scary (Busan Station overnight) as it was, I'm glad I made the trip.  I have always wanted to visit Japan.  My parents were Marines in Okinawa in the '70s, I was conceived there, almost born there, and was raised by my parents on stories of their time living in Japan.  And compared to the hustle and bustle of Korea, and the occasional brusque manners of its inhabitants, I found Tsushima quiet and easy, and the Japanese there to be gentle and retiring.  I don't know if I felt any womb-bred sense of belonging to the soil there, but Tsushima itself was a satisfying experience.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grocery store, part II, Laura's quest

So, Ian already wrote about the grocery store we went to in town.

As many of you know, I like to visit grocery stores abroad (heck, I like to visit grocery stores in the US too), and usually, I've been very impressed by what I've seen.  The sterling produce of Japan, the condiments sold in drinking glasses in France, and the fruit markets of Australia all seemed wondrous.  In Korea, there was little variety to the products offered on the shelves, and the overall look of the store was of an Aldi or a price club.  There was a lot of bulk packaging, and displays often included packing cardboard.

Mostly, people around here must buy food from the large open air markets, full of vegetables, fruits and grains.  That's probably a great thing, but I don't have any cooking facilities beyond a tea kettle, so supermarket fare is more what I was looking for.  I heard from a coworker that there was another grocery store in an opposite direction that was larger and more impressive.  Ian and I tried to find it a few times, but couldn't quite understand the directions we had been given.  Based on previous directions given by this coworker, I figured that we just hadn't accounted for his understanding of a "short" walk, so yesterday, when Ian had called it quits on wandering around due to the high heat and humidity, I decided to try my luck again.  After about 3/4 of a mile down a main thoroughfare, I saw a store that seemed a prime candidate.  Most of the stores here don't have any English characters in their names, and no descriptive logos.  So, the only way to identify the store type is by peaking through the window.  I crossed a street, and found it was indeed a grocery store!  I did a quick once over of the store, and saw a bit of the same bulk packaging, but on the whole, the store had more variety and life to it.  I took a few pictures of things I wouldn't be purchasing.  The dried tiny fish available in bulk, ranging from an inch long to 2.5 inches, the army green sack labeled combat rations, and huge sacks of enoki mushrooms that cost about 80 cents all didn't make it into my cart.

I was able to find a variety of instant noodle options.  As a rule, I've been staying away from any packaging that has fire on it, or a happy animated sea creature, and that's served us well.  I also found some chips, and a variety of 50mL glass bottles of juices including black raspberry and goji, along with others.  Wandering down the drink aisle I found a plum wine that contained three whole plums (of the small green variety) and crumbled gold leaf.  I picked up some large crystal (I mean up to 1/4 inch) sugar for coffee to bring home, and some sunkist hard candies to carry around.  Finally, I ended up with a variety pack of 8 yoplait yogurts for quick breakfasts on the go.  I'm happy to report that Korea does have more than 3 breakfast cereals, as I previously stated mistakenly.  They even have Oreo cereal.

So I was happy to find a grocery store with more options, and to keep our room stocked with things.  In general, prepared food here is very inexpensive.  Ian and I went out to a good dinner here and each had an entree, and split a steamed basket of dumplings for under $18.  Restaurants that have pictures and English words usually run between $5 and $7 a plate, and places with only Korean words usually sell items for $2-$3.  So we're perfectly fine eating most meals out.  I've also got a more than adequate per diem from the company that I expect will cover all our out-of-pocket costs.

Pretty good things.  Up next, I'm going to try to find this hiking trail that leads to a beautiful lake that I've heard much about from work colleagues.  This weekend, we'll try to take a trip into Seoul to sightsee and visit the markets.

Also, if anyone wants an ear spoon, do drop me a line.  They're everywhere, and I know they can be hard to find in the US, due to the (probably correct) general guidance that even a q-tip in the ear is dangerous.

Ferry tsu Tsushima, part I: Escape from Busan

I almost bit off more than I could chew on this side-trip.

I started out Sunday night at 9:30, taking a taxi to the Cheonan-Asan train station.  Here I collected my ticket, which we'd bought online that morning.  Now, as 10:30 was the latest train I could take, I had planned to take the slow train to Busan, since the ferry wasn't leaving until 8 a.m., and the slow train only pulled in at 4 a.m.  Which would be great, because it gave me someplace to be in relative comfort and I could maybe catch a few winks.  The slow train, however, was sold out, leaving me with the KTX, which would arrive at a quarter of 1, and even that we were afraid would sell out.  So I got off the train at 12:45 and set about to trying to waste six hours in a railway station.

I did a lap of the station and found a lot of people stretched out on the floor under newspapers, some on mats, some on cardboard.  Koreans don't seem to mind hard surfaces, and the rail stations are pretty clean.  First thing to do was get something to eat.  I was already tired, harried, and bored.  I wandered into the StoryWay, a convenience store found in rail stations, and bought a fairly bland, squishy sandwich made with mayonnaise, crab meat, and a slice of pressed ham.  I sat down on a bench and wolfed it down without pausing to object.  Shortly thereafter a 30-something woman sat down near me and tried to strike up a conversation in English.  I don't know why, but it made me instantly wary, like she was going to steal my money and take my kidneys.  So I pretended to only speak German.  I'd already seen Germans in Korea, and I was pretty sure her chances of speaking German were low.  I subsequently felt a little bad, she might have been trying to be friendly, but if she were working a scam, it required her to engage me in English.  We sat in silence for a while before she got up and wandered off.

I wandered a bit too, looking for a wifi signal and a generally secluded spot.  Every time I found a quiet spot, that section of the terminal would shut down, lights off, gates down, and a railway policeman would shoo me back to the area where all the people were.  Shortly after, some old lady began screaming and shoving a younger man.  The woman with her tried calming her down, and the man looked truly baffled at the outburst.  Of course, the railway police officer was nowhere to be seen.  It was about this time that I started to notice that a lot of the people camped out in the station were in fact itinerants, some fishing in the trash for cans, some bearing signs of emotional disability.  At this point I thought it might be worthwhile to go outside for a bit of air and see what the taxi situation was.  At the bottom of the escalator a cab driver nearly grabbed me to put me in his cab, which I resisted, and met his insistence with the insistence that I didn't want a cab.  He then tried to ply me with coffee from a nearby vending machine, and again, I felt bad, like maybe he was just trying to be friendly, but I wasn't having it.  I went back into the terminal.

Over by the ticketing counter there were steel benches which during normal hours are for the elderly to sit while waiting in line.  They weren't a whole lot harder than the wooden benches, and they had the added benefit of having only one approach, with a rolldown gate behind me.  I settled in to do a puzzle book.  At this point a big guy I'd seen sleeping on the floor elsewhere, built like me only six feet tall, in his 50s and with a long beard, shuffled up to me and said in this basso profundo voice I didn't even know Koreans had, "I'm hun-gurry."  I just stared.  He repeated himself, "I'm hun-gurry.  Hun-gurry."  I maintained my startled look, and shook my head a little.  At this point he made the sign of eating from a bowl with chopsticks, and repeated more emphatically, "I'm hun-gurry!"  At this point I managed to force my hand down into my pocket to withdraw a 5,000W note.  He took it with a grunt and wandered away, to my relief.  It wasn't that I didn't want to give him money, so much as I'd already had enough local flavor for the night.

To my relief, a good-looking, well-dressed mother and college-age daughter then sat down next to me, which somehow I assumed made me safer.  Maybe class loyalties are stronger than national loyalties?  Yeah, he's a foreigner, they'd say, but he smells like soap, so let's protect him from the crazy people?  That's ridiculous, but my nerves were frayed and I was grasping at whatever soothing thoughts and impressions I could.  It was not too much longer after this, around 4, that the station began to light up again, the steel gates rolled up, and normal people began to trickle back into the station.  I waited another hour and then caught a taxi to the ferry terminal, this time sneaking out the side to get to the taxi shelter with a queue of taxis patiently waiting for fares, and avoiding the press gang at the bottom of the escalator at the main entrance.

The taxi I got had an older washed-up hippie for a driver.  I didn't even know Koreans had hippies, but here was a guy who had long hair, obviously lived through the '60s, and killed a few brain cells along the way.  It was then that I realized Busan is like the Florida of Korea.  It's where the crazies and eccentrics go to kill each other.  At one point he nearly managed to kill us (taxis here run on compressed natural gas, with the tank between the trunk and the back seat), but at length he got me to a ferry terminal, though I was not at all positive it was the ferry terminal.  At any rate, it wasn't open yet.  I paid the guy, stamped my feet a bit, saying "Shit-shit-shit!", and strategized.  I would have to look around before I could get my bearings.  Finally I slipped in the back door, and found that the terminal had a counter for the Beetle ferry, and that it serviced Tsushima from this terminal, so I relaxed a bit.

They opened the terminal up around 5:30, and vendors began to show up around 6.  I got myself a latte, and then the ticketing window finally opened up around 7.  The let us go through security and immigration starting around 7:15, which consists of a metal detector for your person and a X-ray for your bags.  Then an immigration officer franks your passport with a "Departed" stamp.  It's at this point you really hope they let you back in which you come back at the end of the day.  Then it's more waiting, only in slightly more comfortable chairs, with a duty free neaby.  I've never seen the attraction of a duty free, they just sell Marlboros and Jack Daniels, American brands I can get back home, and not for a whole lot cheaper I don't think.  At 7:45 they let us board.

The Beetle is a two-deck ferry with a capacity of maybe 100 passengers and a dozen crew.  Once in open water, great jets push the hull out of the water, and the ship then skims over the water on skis, which provides a fairly smooth ride over even choppy waters.  Inside, the seating is arranged like a large airliner, but the chairs are of the more comfortable railway variety.  All the upholstery and carpeting looked fairly new.  I found my seat and buckled in; a few minutes later, a fashionable but snooty young lady walked up, harrumphed, and then proceeded to go forward.  I thought maybe she was my seat mate but was disgusted at the idea of sitting next to the fat, hairy American, then thought I was just making things up, then noticed she'd dropped her ticket and lo, she did in fact have the seat next to mine.

Finally they tossed off the lines and the ship began to back away from the dock.  A couple of the ticketing agents, in their matching turquoise skirts and neckerchiefs, had come out to wave and bow and wave some more to us.  It was probably the first time in twelve hours that I'd smiled.

Part II tomorrow.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Tshikken part II, the grocery store, and finding cash

On July 4th, I returned to the Chicken999 and her coworker Miki, a former naval engingeering officer.  Maybe the two of them had some sentimental American reason for wanting fried chicken ("tshikken") and beer ("beer-u") on the Fourth, but my reasons were purely the chicken and beer.  We ordered two plates of chicken this time, which amounts to two birds, and Laura and Miki both agreed the chicken had not been over-hyped and was as great as I'd said it was.  They also wondered aloud at several points how I'd managed to eat a whole chicken myself on the previous visit.  In the first place, the chicken is so good, you just make room for it, or die in the attempt.  But second, it was easier to just eat the whole thing than either try to explain the need for a takeout box, or leave some of it behind and risk insulting the cook.  In a place like Korea, where everyone speaks a little English but few are conversational, and you yourself have no facility in the local language, you sometimes do things the difficult way because trying to ask or explain would be even more difficult or wasted effort anyway.  I suppose I could carry around a notebook and play Pictionary, since I'm accounted a decent artist, but usually it's just easier to do for oneself or not at all.

The next day, yesterday, Laura and I set out to find the Lotte Super, a supermarket (owned by the same mega-corporation or chaebol that owns Lotteria, the burger joint), rumored to be half a kilometre down Simin-ro (the hotel sits at the corner of Simin-ro and Oncheon-daero).  I had actually walked past this place on my first walkabout, but I didn't know how to walk back to the hotel along Simin-ro, just back along the convoluted back streets and alleys by which I'd come.  So this was a good find, practically and in terms of learning the geography.  I was also able to show Laura where the local post office is, across the street from the Lotte Super.

The Lotte Super was kind of depressing.  It looked a bit like a cross between an '80s supermarket back home and some government-run outfit like GUM in Moscow.  Harsh fluorescent lighting, sterile colors, and little variety.  It was laid out intuitively however, with produce to the one side, butcher's counter in the back, dairy and refrigerator cases on the other side, and dry goods and processed foods in the center.  The smell of the place was that of raw seafood.  Koreans are omnivores, and they particularly like to eat anything from the sea, fresh, dried, or pickled.  This tends to lace the air with a fishy odor anywhere there's food being prepared or sold.  Even dishes that are mostly terrestrial animal or vegetarian are likely to have some small amount of seafood added, even if it's just oyster juice or a dusting of flaked dry fish.

Processed foods were what we were after, since we have only a tiny bit of space in the mini-bar fridge to store refrigerated things, and no cooking facilities apart from an electric kettle.  Still, we often get hungry between meals, or are tired and don't want to go out, so we needed snacks for the room.  We particularly wanted granola bars.  These we couldn't get; the closest thing we could find was a protein bar gussied up as a candy bar, and there were four of them in a box for 5,400W, so we didn't buy more than the box.  Packaged food is usually labeled in English as well as Korean, though I have my doubts as to whether this is to be actually helpful or just to make a product look sophisticated.  These are "Dr. You's Energy Bar--That's Great!" We found more of those Kikiriki chicken drumstick crisps Laura likes, as well as a box of insta-noodles, which are viewed much more as a staple here than as the junk food we think of them as back home, and very convenient given our limitated capabilities for food preparation.  We found some other snack things that are peanuts rolled in slightly sweetened crispy rice, and we also picked up some mango juice boxes and a 300ml bottle of blackberry wine, which turned out to be horrid.  The Koreans are famous drinkers, and dainty girls will drink strapping GIs under the table with a tiny burp and giggle, but their alcohol is indifferent at best.  The alcohol of choice, soju, is odorless and flavorless and serves the practical purpose of making you drunk without any illusion of your enjoying getting there.  They have succeeded in replicating American-style commercial lager (Cass brand is served everywhere on tap, and compares favorably to Miller or Molson), but their wine is atrocious, and even the soju and makgeolli is often doctored with aspartame to make it sweet (hiding what?) without adding additional fermentable sugars.  So the Koreans drink incredible amounts of alcohol, but a lot of it is not very good.  (And this, mind you, from a guy who occasionally ferments prune juice under his sink.)

A note about the limited selection.  After 35 years of Japanese occupation, World War II, and then the Korean War, South Korea was dead last in world economies, human development, and so forth.  Today, 60 years later, it's among the best economies in the world, with a high standard of living.  This is considered the "second Asian miracle" (the first miracle being the rebuilding of Japan into a similarly world-class economy).  Part of how this was done is that Koreans were mercilessly drilled to buy only Korean-made goods, and even then, imports were tariffed beyond affordability.  So they only had a choice of Korean goods, and often this was limited to one or two brands of any item.  And even now, with Western brands flowing in without the choking tariffs (and the Koreans do love Western brands and the sense of luxury and wealth they convey), there is no expectation that they should have anything near the choices we Americans are given in our supermarkets.  In fact, given how often I am occasionally frustrated by how many choices I have to sift through at Wegmans, I think they would find it overwhelming and unpleasant.  Koreans are rarely faced with indecision in the cereal aisle.

One thing that is excellent at the Lotte Super was the produce, for its quality and price (a dollar for half a kilo of scallions? three dollars for a daikon the size of a melon?), but alas, we have no use for it in our hotel room.

Later, I put Laura down for a nap and went back out in search of an ATM that takes international cards, as we were running low on cash and Korea is still very much cash-based for small purchases and fares.  Most machines here only accept domestic cards and don't interface with Western networks like Cirrus or Plus), so you have to find an ATM that is specifically labeled a "global" ATM.  I first started out at the hotel desk, and the clerk (a cute mousy thing that nevertheless has never once told me anything helpful or accurate) told me to try the Sun-mart next door, despite Laura having already looked.  So I went back in, on the off-chance it was hiding in a corner, and no, there still wasn't an ATM, local or global.  Then I crossed Oncheon-daero to go under the railroad tracks and walk 300- or 400m to the terminal, where it was rumored there was an ATM that accepted Western cards.  I spotted there at Citibank ATM, and rumor also held that all Citibank terminals took Western cards.  No such luck.  So my next plan of attack was to inquire at the tourist center marked on my map as somewhere attached to the rail station.  When I found it, it was a pretty much a booth, and the girl inside required me to write my request on a slip of paper, as Koreans are often better at understanding written English than spoken.  Ah, she said, just head right on Oncheon-daero and there's a KB bank.  So this I did, and after three or four blocks I didn't see a bank of any kind, anywhere.  Rather, there were no longer crosswalks and fewer and fewer storefronts.  So I headed back, and on one corner of Oncheon-daero and Chungmu-ro (the intersection near where the information booth was), there was a Wooribank.  Now, I was already dimly aware it there, but woori meaning "ours," I assumed it was a strictly Korean outfit.  Not so.  Also, in contrast to the usual habit of Korean ATMs to stop working late at night, these--a whole bank of five or six ATMs) purported to be operational 24/7, 365.  So I successfully fed it our Corning FCU card, and it asked me how many 50,000W notes I wanted.  Since I wanted 300,000 overall, I asked for five and rest in 10,000W notes (South Korea doesn't have a 20,000W note).  Instead, it gave me one 50,000W note and the rest in tens.  To give you some idea of what that's like, think of a $50 bundle of one dollar bills, and cramming that in your wallet.  Still, I was happy to finally have had success at all, so I shuffled home.

Today we switched rooms, as our former room was close to the banqueting hall, which tended to be noisy when Laura was trying to sleep.  It is a much nicer room, with actual functioning A/C, of which I'm sure Laura will post photos to Facebook, as she already posted photos of our lunch today at the Starbucks-esque cafe across the street.  In a scant couple hours, as Laura heads off to the plant again, I will be catching a cab to the rail station in Cheonan, and from there taking the bullet train to Busan.  After a bit of a wait around the train station there, I'll take a cab over to the ferry terminal and hop on a boat for the island of Tsushima, near Nagasaki, in the land of my near-birth, Japan.  Stay tuned.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Laura's week in Korea

Whew.  I thought I'd stop in here for a guest spot, since it's been about a week.  I'be been pretty busy with work, but things have settled into a regular 8 hour (ish) shift again for the near future, so maybe I'll sightsee a bit more soon.

I've taken a lot of taxis, eaten a lot of meals at the work cafeteria, and um.  Mostly slept.  When I have been out, I've had a few really cool meals.  One day, I had dalkkaseu, which is a flattened chicken cutlet, breaded in panko and fried.  In this case I ordered the one that came stuffed with sweet potato.  Unfortunately, that's not "sweet potato", that's sweetened potato.  So that was a little unexpected, but it was still very tasty.  I've had a snack food called Kikiriki Drumstix Original Fried Chicken Flavored snacks (or so the internet tells me-- all the packaging is written in Hangul).  It consists of hollow drumstick shaped pieces about an inch to an inch and a half long that appear to be something like the coating that goes on fried chicken.  The best part, right?!  The package helpfully recommends that in addition to being a delightful snack, one could also crunch them up and use them to coat home-made fried chicken as well.  The cafeteria at work serves 4 meals a day, breakfast from 5:50 - 7:30, lunch from 11-1, dinner from 5-7, and second dinner from 11:30 to 2.  So regardless of my work hours, I can always find a hot meal.  On the off hours, when other options might be scarce, meals come with packaged side items as well, for later snacking.  At breakfast yesterday, I had a hot dog, wrapped in a croissant type dough, with a light glaze of ketchup on top, but mostly, it's been rice and soups and sauced pieces of meat.  I have noticed a lot of sparkling juice beverages, and grape seems to be a particularly popular option. 

My favorite dessert so far (and maybe the only one I've had I guess) is patbingsu.  Patbingsu is a delightful lightly flavored ice, with a heap of fresh fruit on top, and small scoop of tart yogurt above that.  They're enormous, so best shared in a group.  The one I had was slightly vanilla ice, with cubed mango on top.  

I've been out for drinks with some folks from work, and there's certainly a drinking culture here.  One of my coworkers explained that there were many of social obligations.  His boss was there, and was orchestrating a lot of the drinking games, so it was hard for him to refuse (although I noticed that he did step out of the action while talking to me for a while, so there many be many ways around it).  I played the foreigner and jet-lagged cards pretty hard and avoided most rounds, after I'd had enough. 

At the start of this project, we had a Kosa ceremony at work, for good fortune and profit in the endeavor.  So, there's no easy way to put this.  This is a different culture, with different business practices.  There's a low table set with excellent quality food and drink, and in the center, the head of a pig.  Incense is lit.  Groups of managers bring envelopes full of personally donated money and put them in the mouth of the pig.  They kowtow before and after placing the money in the pig's mouth.  With each round, the highest level manager pours an offering of wine (I'm assuming), which was then hidden behind a screen (not sure, I think this was to reset the stage for the next offering.  I looked and the wine wasn't poured on anything).  There was a speaker during the ceremony, but since it was in Korean, I didn't catch anything that might have explained things more clearly.  Then there was a party with lots of food and drink.  I later learned that all the pig's money is divided between departments to fund small parties for everyone.

I'm getting a significant amount of walking in, topping five miles per day. Fitbit tells me that my daily mileage has increased by 69% this week, from last week.  To really drive home the point, the in-app leader board of my friends has me beating Rachel's 7-day rolling total.  Although I guess she hurt her toe or something so maybe that's a factor.  

Work is interesting and going well, and I'm making new friends. Although my schedule has been pretty hectic, I've been adjusting well, and I'm looking forward to the next few weeks.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A church, a shrine to an admiral, and a lot of walking

Yesterday I set out to find the local Catholic church, just to see how it's done here in Korea.  City blocks here are roughly square, so on my map it was four blocks east and six blocks north.  I apparently walked right past it, and only after another several blocks decided to go another block east and back down again, in case I'd miscounted.  I did find the local Korean United Methodist Church, but this holds low interest for me, just as it is low church.  I walked into another church, but only saw what looked like a cafeteria with the addition of a pulpit, which I assumed couldn't be Catholic.  Only when I reemerged onto the street I'd already walked did I see a sign, high up, saying, more or less graphically, Catholic church thataways.  Turns out it was hidden off the road behind some buildings that doubled as a wall.  Nothing particularly special: the same sort of blocky brutalist take on Gothic architecture that all the churches here seem to have--that is, those that aren't buildings converted from some other purpose.  In case I'd misread the sign, the giant vinyl banner attached to the steeple with a waving Pope Francis cleared any doubts.  Inside, the church had an almost Calvinist dearth of ornament.  But there were fonts at the rear of the church, and kneeling rails, and an altar at the front, complete with a tabernacle, sanctuary light, an altar bell that looked like it was looted from a Zhou dynasty tomb.  I took a kneeler for a spell, gave thanks, and walked back outside.  Nearby was a statue of the Virgin Mary, attended by votives in a glass case, to protect the flames from wind.

Feeling accomplished, I figured I'd press my luck.  I'd seen a taxi stand down the street, and lots of signs pointing me to the Hyeonchungsa Shrine, the ancestral shrine and former house of Korean admiral Yi Sun-shin, so I hopped in a cab and took the 5,900W ride to the north of the city.  The thought occurred to me that it might not be as easy to catch a cab back, but there was a taxi stand there, too, so I put the thought out of my mind for the present.

Admiral Yi Sun-shin is the Korean Horatio Nelson you've never heard of before, but he's probably the biggest national hero here after King Sejong the Great.  In the late 16th century, he rallied the naval forces of the nation to repel a Japanese attempt to conquer the peninsula, with a combination of brilliant tactics, derring-do, and innovations in technology, chiefly the Turtle Ship, a stout little warship with a deck clad in iron plates and spikes, both to protect the ship from fire and repel boarders.  In fact, this was the world's first iron-clad ship, more that 250 years ahead of its invention in the West.  Like Nelson at Trafalgar, Yi Sun-shin was shot at the climax of his greatest victory, and bade his commanders to continue to keep his death a secret and complete the rout of the Japanese by pursuing the fleeing ships.

Theoretically there is a 500W entrance fee, but I could find no one to take it, so I walked in anyway and continued on to the museum.  This was a very nice break, as it was well air conditioned and the weather had been particularly sultry.  I saw cannonry, sails, incendiary arrows hung and arranged from the ceiling as in flight, muskets, and various models of contemporary ships, including the famous ironclad turtle ships.  There was an alcove with a tape of a naval battle playing, but the real interest was a diorama in front of the screen with waves and ships' sailed that were made to look as though they were moving by the application of various blacklights on dimmers.  Moving on, there was a giant portrait of the admiral such as is in his shrine, various antique books and scrolls (not intelligible to me and not labeled in English) and a collection of melee weapons, including some improbably long samurai swords, one bearing a marker that claimed it to be 197cm, taller in fact than anyone I know.  Seems like that would be a team-lift sword.

I then exited the building back out into the steam and sweat, and entered the shrine grounds proper through a large painted gate.  I saw a largish pond with a sculptural bridge over it, full of large, dark, sleek carp.  These were very gregarious and certain I would feed them, and gamboled a bit to increase the likelihood I would.  Alas, I had nothing meet to mete for meat.  Overhead and throughout the park were great squadrons of dragonflies, on silent patrol for mosquitoes and whatever other winged pests that dare to disturb the harmony of the place.  I followed the windy paved path along past one ornamental tree after another, each twist of the path revealing a new triumphal tableau of Asian lanscaping.  Finally I came to the grave of Yi Myeon, third and favorite son of the admiral, killed in battle at the age of 21, though to see it, I had to climb several flights of steep stone steps.  It was, once I'd gotten to the top, a surprisingly simple grassy mound, with a memorial stele nearby.  Of to the side, a little further down the slope and inaccessible to foot traffic were the the graves of others of the admiral's descendants.

Moving right along, I next encountered two giant 500-year-old gingko trees, as identified by botanical markers, which solved the question of what species these trees are, of which we saw several in Seoul and of which Laura is very fond.  The trees are surrounded by a raised stone platform with a stone rail, from which the admiral liked to practice his archery.  It is said he practiced from a distance of 145m, and to illustrate, the park has set out two archery targets at that distance.  It seemed implausible to me, but then I'm not the Horatio Nelson of the East.

The next thing was his family house, of a traditional design called a hanok, which is built around an open square, with sliding rice-paper screens, sheltered porches, rooms opening onto the square and neighboring chambers, and so forth.  Particular care is given to the planning of the site, so that it takes advantage of the local scenery and it situated in propitious relationship to local bodies of water.  Underneath the floor is an ondol system, in which hot smoke is forced under the floor (and subsequently out a chimney), thus heating the house.  Having spent half this last winter back in New York, under-floor heating is one thing I miss about the house in Indiana.

Finally I approached the actual shrine of Yi Sun-shin.  The whole thing is up a hill, and you have to pass successive gates and staircases to get to it.  First gate one passes is a giant torii-like structure, painted red, which I gather is the color of memorialization (deceased persons' names are written in red ink; it's a taboo in Asian cultures, therefore, to write a living person's name in red), with a samtaegeuk, or three-lobed yin-yang symbol, mounted over it.  Huffing and puffing further up the hill in 90/90 weather (90 degrees and 90 percent humidity), one at last comes to a large painted gate with a glazed tile roof.  Here the doors are also painted with a samtaegeuk symbol, and it is guarded left and right by great three-legged braziers, one with the head of a boar, the other with the head of a gryphon.  I passed beyond this into the inner courtyard and final approach to the shine, only to be accosted by some Korean women who had arrived around the time I did, and had been variously walking in front of behind me the whole time.  "Anyong haseyo!" one of them shouted at me.  This is a violation of Korean manners when out walking, as one doesn't doesn't look at passersby, much less talk to them, and her tone was in contravention of the literal meaning of the greeting, "Peace be with you."  My peace having been disturbed, I regretted these pests were too large to be carried off by the dragonflies, but then I reflected that in some places in the U.S., they would receive similar asinine shouts, too.

The shrine is a rectangular building with no other purpose than to house the admiral's memorial portrait, mounted on the back wall under a sculptural canopy.  On the walls around are historical illustrations of various battles and scenes from Yi Sun-shin's life.  In front of the door, which actually bars visitors from entering, leaving them to peer in from outside, is a low table with burning incense that visitors can add to, attended by a bored young lady engrossed in a smartphone.  As I approached she got up out of her chair to shuffle off and play with her phone in peace, but came back when she saw me staring at the low table, perhaps thinking I was confused about the incense.  When she saw me staring at the carvings, of a hibiscus and two turtle ships, she pointed to the hibiscus several times, saying "Mugunghwa.  Mugunghwa.  Korean national flower," apparently very keen that I should know what it is.  I already knew that is was a hibiscus and that that was the national flower, but now I knew the Korean word for it.  She was not impressed that I knew the flanking figures to be turtle ships.

I hoofed back down the hill, taking a side path away from the red quasi-torii gate and through a wisteria tunnel.  The prospect of which, being warned by directional signs, was an exciting one to me, but alas, the vines were not in bloom.  I got a few whiffs of grapey wisteria smell, however, when the breeze stirred.  I took this path down to the original shrine, which formerly sat where the present shrine stood, but was deemed insufficiently grand for the man being memorialized, and replaced with the current shrine and dragged down the hill and off to the side, where it presently sits.  Though smaller and plainer, true, it is nevertheless still a handsome building.  At this point I made to leave the park, glutted on history and visual gorgeousness, but passing a tree I made another botanical discovery, thanks to the species markers.  The tree with the yellow stone fruits Laura and I had seen on Saturday are in fact golden plums, smaller, but edible.

Upon quitting the shrine and exiting to the parking lot, I found the taxi stand deserted.  I waited 20 minutes, occasionally wandering close by to photograph various monuments, one given in the admiral's memory by the American Taekwondo Association--was he also a martial arts master, in addition to naval hero and champion archer?  There were various buses lined up, but they were being swept out, with the drivers napping on benched under a wisteria-covered pavilion.  I looked at the bus schedule and map, but it was entirely in Korean.  After a few minutes more at the taxi stand, I decided to walk.  Though I had probably already walked several kilometres that day, and my feet were already hurting, it turned out to be the right decision, as I wouldn't see another taxi until I was well into the city again.

The walk in total turned out to be 5.5km, the first third of which was along a rural highway without sidewalk, a narrow shoulder, and a guardrail the whole length, with a precipitous drop to the rice fields below beyond it.  Now, while the posted speed limit was 70km/h, only the most overburdened trucks were doing anything close to that, with most cars probably doing 100, and a few devils, I suspect, doing 120.  In South Korea, which has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the world, speed limits (and most traffic regulations it seems) are taken more as suggestions than firm rules.  I hugged the guard rail as tight as I could.

As my feet were in a murderous way, I picked some of the larger leaves off the gingko trees lining the road, and when I was finally safely off the road, I took off my shoes, lined the afflicted parts of feet with the leaves, and then put my shoes on again, taking care to lace them up tight.  Back on the same road as the Catholic church, the sidewalks were still irregular, but at least the traffic was somewhat snarled and therefore slow.  After crossing the river, I was back into the city proper, and stopped at the first Sun-mart I saw for a bottle of Pocari Sweat, which I downed in the space of a block with three or four chugs.  At least now I was back in familiar territory (I had walked back on memory, having neither a map nor wireless access).  Only a couple blocks away from the hotel I saw an older couple walking in hanbok, the traditional costume, the husband sporting a magnificent beard.  Beards are not modern or businesslike, and so are rare as tshikken's teeth in Korea.  And though Korean practice forbids it, I gave him a bow in passing and he immediately returned it, with a smile.  Two beard-wearers in a beardless land, acknowledging their fellow travelers in beardedness.  It was magical, and almost enough to redeem the sweaty, dangerous walk back from the countryside.

Laura being already in bed from her weird late-night until noon shifts, I wolfed down some insta-noodles, took a bath to get the sweat and grime off and soak my blistered feet, and decided on an early night myself.

Today when Laura came home at noon, she was ravenously hungry, and I'd wanted to get back to the Sinpo Woori Mandoo myself, so we walked the two blocks for another filling and very cheap meal. I had the same order as before, and Laura got the fried tofu in chicken broth with scallions and rough-cut noodles.  Afterward, we stopped at the Sun-mart next to the hotel to get a knife.  The day before, before I'd set out to look for the Catholic church, I had went exploring on the hotel grounds and found a hidden area, surrounded by bamboo, disguising some functional structures.  I'd also found a cat, with kittens, and a humane trap nearby.  The cat was not at all interested in being petted, and fairly certain I'd come to eat her kittens, but on backing away I also made sure to upset the trap in case anyone else had the idea of eating kittens.  But this had given me the idea of how to replace my pipe tool, which the maids had accidentally thrown out.  Now armed with a cheap knife, I selected a cane of the right diameter and cut it down, trimmed off the leaves, and took it back upstairs to the room with us.  I cut one end at the knuckle, sure to trim it to a flat surface, and the other I carved into a pick/spoon shape.  I then hardened the cut surfaces over a match flame.  And you know what?  It works.  Now I just have to hope the maids don't throw it out, too.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In Search Of...Dinner

After our early day, all-day adventure in the DMZ, I've been taking it easy on account of my feet.  My everyday shoes fit well, but they're new and I didn't get a chance to break them in until we left for Korea.  So I've been hoofing around the very immediate neighborhood in flipflops, mostly on the mission of feeding myself at some place other than the hotel breakfast and convenience stores.

When I set out on Tuesday afternoon, I had a restaurant in mind, the Chicken999, across the street from hotel.  I went down a flight of stairs, found a surprised middle-aged couple, her on the floor shucking beans, him watching a soccer match on TV.  I grabbed a seat and the confused man asked in Korean, I think, "What do you want?"  "Chicken!" I said merrily.  "Tshikken?"  The husband and wife exchanged looks and between pidgeon English and gestures indicated the "tshikken" was upstairs, and I was too early for it, anyway.  So I thanked them and climbed back out to the street.  Indeed, there was a separate door in the same alcove that was shuttered, and the sign for the door I had entered actually said it was a hair dresser.  This made me wonder if what was clearly a restaurant was in fact a covert gaegogi (dog's meat) restaurant.  Though officially banned, older Koreans especially like to eat dog in the summers, both as a way to beat the heat and to increase male virility.

A lap around the block through a cobblestoned merchant's alley found me a fairly tidy place with a menu subtitled in English, named Sinpo Woori Mandoo (roughy, "Serving our (Korean) dumplings"), which, as it turns out, is a chain of restaurants.  I sat down, and a neighbor helpfully showed me the menu tucked behind the condiments.  I settled on teriyaki chicken with mung beans and scallions over knife-cut noodles.  The banchan that came with it was kimchi, pickled daikon, and pickled lemon radish, and it was additionally accompanied by a small bowl of chicken-ginseng broth, garnished with scallions.  This very filling meal cost only 6,500W (roughly $6).

On the stroll back I had a look at some amusing signs.  In Korea, English is very fashionable, and is peppered into conversation and advertisements the same way it is in India, with occasional amusing malapropisms, misapplications, and misspellings called "Konglish" (the Indian equivalent is "Hinglish").  One of these was a shop called "Soup" (sells dresses, not soup), and another shop called "Style by The The," an homage to the much-used, entirely functional definite article, which otherwise has little meaning of its own.  But to Koreans, it's the English language spice their business needs.

Later in the day, I returned to my usual Sun-mart for a cauldron of insta-noodles and bottle of makgeolli, since finding one restaurant already was enough adventure for one day.  The clerk (I don't think he ever leaves) had cut his hair, which I complimented him on, much to his embarrassed delight.  On the way out I was accosted by a good-looking, very eager woman with a business card, going by the name Hanna (spelled "Han na"), offering "Room fully body massage" for 50,000W and "Chinese medicine body massage" for 65,000W.  "If you have free time call, any time day and night."  I hurriedly thanked her and scampered off, my wa having been disturbed by the street proposition.  At least, like a proper Korean, it came with a business card.  Koreans love business cards.

Yesterday I used to find a ferry ride from Busan to Tsushima, a Japanese island between the mainland proper and Korea.  This was enormously frustrating, as many of the ferry websites have an English edition of their front page, but then the ticketing is either Japanese or Korean, and Chrome's page translation tool doesn't always give clear results.  As none of these companies give out their e-mail, which I find to be a good alternative to phoning, I found one with a fax number for ticketing for "inconvenient persons" (the deaf), so I Internet faxed them, asking them to e-mail me, as I was hard of hearing (not a total lie, at least on the telephone).  So now I have a reservation for Monday at 8 a.m., returning at 4:30 p.m.  Each way is about two hours, so this will give me a good six hours to hoof about the island, seeing whatever can be seen.  Izuhara, which incidentally is the port we'll arrive at, apparently is a nice historical town, full of temples, shrines, and ruined castles, so I may be able to get around without worrying about (and paying for) cabs.

Having given the whole afternoon over to that, and having saved my appetite since breakfast, I decided upon a second attempt at the Chicken999.  Why it's called that I have no idea; my imagination suggests it's the place to go if you have an emergency need for chicken, but the local emergency number is something else.  In any case, I had the place to myself.  Though the signs outside have English on them, the menu itself was entirely in Korean, with few pictures.  So I pointed at a picture, said "Chicken!", pointed at another and said "Beer-u!"  "Tshikken? Beeru? Okay!"  What the hell, I thought, it's an adventure.  First she brought out what looked to be the local equivalent of beer nuts, but looked and felt suspiciously like breakfast cereal.  This was followed the beer and some banchans of cabbage slaw and pickled daikon.  While ajussi worked on the chicken, ajumma was being plagued with cell phone calls from her daughter.  After her third interruption, she looked at me and made an exasperated crazy face and we both laughed, which was a nice human touch in a land where everyone is generally prim and reserved, at least in view of foreigners.  Just before the tshikken came, her daughter came in, dressed for work and clearly a moody youth, and mother fussed over her for a bit.  The chicken when it came was an entire bird, cut 30 ways, steaming with a golden breading, and was delivered by ajussi and ajumma both, with great flourish and pride, and after putting down a saucer of mustard sauce, ajumma was keen that I take a picture for posterity.  So then I tucked in to the mountain of tshikken, and found not only was it the best fried chicken I had ever had, but the bird itself was a magnificent specimen.  If the Koreans have discovered factory farming and GMOs, I wouldn't know it from this chicken.  With difficulty, but greater gusto, I succeeded in finishing the whole thing, to the surprise and delight of ajumma.  The cost was a bit steep at 17,000W (was it meant as a two-person dish?), but I happily paid and waddled back to the hotel, heavy with golden fried Korean tshikken.

If I had hoped to come back to the U.S. a little thinner, these Korean moms aren't going to let it happen if they can help it.

I ate breakfast this morning alone, as Laura has started working odd hours.  I took a complimentary newspaper with me to page through while I ate, and unsurprisingly, very little of it made sense.  I wondered whether this was obvious to the hostess, hovering nearby to clear plates, or whether she was surprised to see an outlander reading a Korean paper.  Later, I caused a bit of a stir when I told the housekeeping manager that my pipe tamper had gone missing, and that I thought the maid might have tossed it out when she replaced the ashtray.  I was only hoping to get a fat bit of dowel, if they had any laying around in the workshop.  Instead I think they're tearing apart the linen room stem-to-stern looking for it.  I don't think they'll find it, but they need to be seen as doing something about it.  I do know of a lumber store nearby (lumber is apparently sold in storefronts, not yards), perhaps I can get them to sell me a piece of dowel to use as a tamper.  I don't mind the loss of the pipe tool, as they're only $1 when you can find them, but for the moment I'm using a bit of rolled up cardboard to tamp my pipe.  The manager suggested I try e-cigarettes, and gave me an address, but like most non-pipesmokers, I suspect he misses the point of smoking a pipe.

I figure I may cram my feet into sneakers and go for a walk later, depending on whether Laura comes home for lunch or not, and apart from the lumber store, maybe attempt to find the local Catholic parish church.  It's always interesting to see the little the local touches on a global, centrally administered activity that set the national churches slightly apart.  I might be more interested in checking out an Anglican parish, but the closest one is about 35km away, so not within walking or taxi distance.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Visit to a Buddhist nunnery Saturday, and the DMZ Sunday

Laura had off from work Saturday and Sunday, so Saturday we decided to explore the area a bit and head right out of the hotel.  As with my walkabout before, this was not the best direction to go for sightseeing, as after a few block, we realized it was a light industrial area, with all the shops either selling hardware, machining parts, machine repair, and so on.  I still hadn't quite figured out the map, so I was sure a major intersection was coming up, so we pressed on.

Before long we realized we were headed in an unintended, so we turned a corner in hopes of finding something else on the map.  What we found instead was a bike and pedestrian path along a road headed to the local lake, with a gardened margin between us and the apartment buildings nearby.  This filled me with a bit of nostalgia, as despite the humidity and somewhat less zealous mowing, the landscaping reminded me a lot of my childhood in California, particularly some of the interesting Asian plants you see as ornamental species in California that you never see back East.  We also came across some outdoor exercise equipment, which was something a lot of parks had when I was a kid, albeit much simpler than the ones the Koreans have now.

Laura had forgotten her sunscreen and was worried about sunburn, so we decided to turn back, but I saw some interesting rooves up a side street and prevailed upon her to briefly investigate.  What we discovered in fact was a Buddhist abbey, which near as we can figure using Google Translate is called the Hundred Fuzzy Rocks.  There were in fact quite a collection of rocks, artfully arranged to look careless, and pavement that consisted of flat rocks embedded in grass, perhaps the meaning of the "fuzzy rocks" name of the place.  The buildings had traditional tile rooves, glazed black, with many sculptural details featuring dragons.  The under-beams had a lot of the same sea-green paint we saw on the pavilions here at the hotel, with additional painted floral details.  The walls had sliding doors, ornamental grids over semi-opaque windows, and other surfaces featured vivid painted iconography in the Zen and Mahayana styles.  The only clue as to the life inside the buildings was several clogs left on the stoop outside the doors.

At one point, we were surrounded by a flight of dragonflies.  Uncharacteristically for her, Laura didn't squeak or flinch.  They zipped around quite fast, but not aggressively.  It seemed like we'd stumbled across the dragonflies coming to do a happy homage to the monastery.

We made our way around to the back of the monastery, where we discovered a sacred well, presided over by a statue of some famous bonze.  There were ladles for collecting water, and a pile of won coins as offerings for the privilege.  I had no need for sacred Buddhist water, but I left some coins anyhow.  It was then that an elderly nun, in a grey work habit with shaved head, came out from one of the building to greet us, saying Anyeong haseo (the Korean greeting, roughly "Peace be with you"), repeatedly bowing with clasped hands.  We returned the greeting, with bows, complementing her in English on her lovely abbey and thanking her for the visit.  We figured this was a good time to gracefully exit, so we started back down the hill.  I left a business card in their mailbox, again with complements and thanks written on the back.

We returned by a slightly different route, following the recreational trail along the elevated railway, which afforded Laura some shade from the sun.  We passed an elderly lady sitting on a park bench, whom I greeted with an Anyeong, but she turned her head in a gesture of mild contempt.  Whether she dislikes Westerners or we were simply disturbing her wa, it was in clear contrast to the happy reception the Buddhist nun had given us at the abbey.

We stopped at a CVS, got some food and metal chopsticks set for use in our room, and headed back to the hotel to rest up.  We later reemerged at dark and walked in a third direction, this time finding much more in the way of consumer goods and services.  We even discovered a little alley mall, in which some of the shops were beginning to close, but remained quite busy.  In Korea, business hours can stretch well into the wee hours of the night.  No restaurants appealed to Laura, and we were both still shy about wandering to places without English signage or picture menus, but it was still a vibrant place to visit and a nice find.  We got more noodles at the Sun-mart and headed back to the room for a late dinner.

After a short sleep, we were up at five in the morning to catch a cab to the train station.  Along with Laura's coworker Miki, we were headed on the KTX to Seoul Station in Seoul (we had breakfast here--Laura accidentally ordered me a ground shrimp burger, mistaking it for a breaded chicken patty) to meet our tour group for a tour of the DMZ at Paju, the site of the infamous Third Infiltration Tunnel ("The Third Tunnel of Aggression", as the Koreans call it), which is also near Panmunjeom.  We were picked up along with a Vietnamese family and delivered to the tour bus.  Our guide, Grace, was probably a Christian and really happy to have a priest along for the trip, though for the first part of the tour she thought Laura and I were siblings, not married.

We drove up the Han River, the shores of which are stretched across with barbed wire and studded with guard towers, this despite the fact that South Korea controls both sides of the Han.  This was done in response to a 1968 assassination plot by North Korean commandos, who swam up the Han, climbed ashore, donned ROK uniforms, and then attempted to kill President Park in the presidential mansion.  As we drove further north and left the Han River for the Imjin River, the barbed wire and guard towers remained, but now the far shore was in fact North Korea, mostly obscured by a humid haze, but whose hills have been garishly clearcut for fuel.

Our first stop was Imjingak, the site of the "Freedom Bridge" and an exchange of POWs in 1953.  Of interest there was also an armored locomotive destroyed in the war, the bulletholes and ripped metal of which testify to the violence of the conflict.  Nearby is a peace bell, the tolling of which, to the Korean mind, will help speed unification.  For 10,000W, one can toll the bell seven times.  Despite the area being crowded with tourists, no one thought it was a good use of their won.  Being right on the DMZ (a four-kilometre no-man's-land where military presence is forbidden), there is a tall barbed wire fence, one section of which hung with hundreds and thousands of lengths of ribbon, on which were written prayers for the deceased, peace, and unification.

There was also a gift shop selling, among other things, North Korean soju, for around 20,000W.  These bottles looked a bit rough, with their labels a bit peeled and faded, suggesting their route to South Korean gift shops was a long and interesting one.  Unlike soju in South Korea, which is about 20 percent ABV, this stuff is 40 percent (80 proof), the same as most liquors in the U.S.  We decided to pass for the moment, for though it would be a unique souvenir--very few of anything make it out of North Korea--we weren't sure it would make it past U.S. customs when we returned home.  A good call, in fact, as there is a U.S. embargo on any North Korean goods and it would have been confiscated on reentry.

Next we went to the Third Tunnel, dug by the KPA ostensibly to invade the South, or at least to rattle South Koreans' nerves.  Four tunnels have been discovered so far (as many as 21 may exist), this one in 1978.  Almost a kilometre on the Southern side, it extends more than 1.5km on the Northern side.  Before we could go into the tunnel, we were made to watch a short film detailing the violence of the war and the continual provocations of the north.  The tone then abruptly changes to speak about progress towards unification (an increasingly tiresome word) and hope for the future, shows wildlife enjoying the DMZ in the absence of people, and then ends on a note about the eternal vigilance of the DMZ.  The indignation and stridency, though understandable, was nevertheless obnoxious.

In the tunnel itself, it's forbidden to take photos, so on Facebook I used a photo I found on Google that is pretty representative of the original, Northern excavation.  To go down into it, one first dons a hard hat and shuffles down the 500-meter gallery the ROK dug to meet the Northern tunnel, at a roughly 11 degree slope.  Here it's humid, but relatively cool.  At the bottom of the Southern tunnel, there is a spring, again with ladles, which Koreans are very keen to drink from, though what magical powers the water conveys is not clear to me.  The Southern tunnel is fairly spacious, but when it terminates with the Northern tunnel, things get considerably more cramped.  Rarely taller than 165cm, with scarcely enough room for people to pass side by side.  At this point, the tunnel is dripping wet, the air much more stale, and warmer.  Finally, at roughly ten stories below the surface of the earth, you come to a concrete barricade, which has a hole allowing you to see the second of three concrete barricades the South erected to neutralize the North's use of the tunnel.  At this point one is well under the DMZ and a mere hundred metres or so from official DPRK territory.

The climb back out, needless to say, was physically rather challenging, leaving Laura and I both red and drenched in sweat.  Our recent workout regimen is probably the only thing that saved us.  Back outside, beyond the low walls and landscaping, one sees dozens of upside-down red triangles, each marking the location of a land mine.  UNCOM, the U.S., and the ROK planted about 30,000 of these mines as they withdrew from the DMZ, though they have since removed about a third of these.  Designed to be "humane," these "ankle mines" are relatively low-power and will only blow off a foot, maiming instead of killing a hapless soldier.  At one point, I saw a park bench located maybe 10 feet from a mine marker.

The next stop on the tour was the observation post up the hill, where one could hire a pair of binoculars for 500W for two minutes to peer into the North.  It was a very humid, hazy day, and apart from some road traffic and unremarkable buildings, not much could be seen.  We did see the DPRK flagpole, the 160m-tall response to a similar 100m flagpole the ROK erected, though the air was entirely still so the flag just hung limply.  (So far, we have experienced almost nothing in the way of wind or breezes since we got here last week.)  An interesting feature of the observation tower is a yellow line painted on the pavement.  Visitors may take photos behind the line, but past it, any clicks will result in one or several ROK soldiers seizing your camera and phone and minimally erasing all the data on it, something our tour guide Grace observed happening to a Chinese woman the week before, which sadly robbed her of all her vacation photos and was met with disconsolate sobbing.  The exact reason for this rule wasn't explained, but I imagine a spy could report back to the North what activities can be observed from the tower if allowed to use focusing optics.  The South Koreans are very worried about spies.

Next was Dorsan Station, the last station on the Gyeongui Line headed to North Korea.  Built in 2006-07 during the 1998-2008 Kim-Roh thaw with the North, it was meant to carry raw materials to the North to be manufactured at ROK-owned factories there, which would then be sent South again for sale, as well as carry managers and experts to the factories.  After only a few trips back and forth, the North then closed off the line in response to the election of Lee Myung-bak, whose hawkish, conservative posture the DPRK found antagonizing.  While Lee has left office (to be replaced by another conservative, but less strident, president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former strongman president Park Chung-hee), and the North has agreed the line should be reopened, for the moment it sits more or less empty, only delivering sightseers from Seoul and immediately returning them.  Not only is Dorsan Station an expression of Southern hopes for reunification and rail links to Russia and Europe, we were also told it had the cleanest restrooms in Korea.  Were this proved to be true, this would only be from disuse, and though fairly clean, the reputation turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration.

Finally, after trundling back down the Imjin and Han Rivers to Seoul, one last stop was the Ginseng Centre.  Traveling up the elevator to the fourth floor, we saw the Korean equivalent of the Western missing 13th floor: since the word for four is similar to the word for death, the fourth floor is instead labeled the "F" floor.  Huh.  Now, exactly why all these tours pass through the Ginseng Centre is never stated, but it is a mildly pressured "educational" opportunity to by Korean ginseng, superior to all other forms of ginseng, miraculous in its applications, and would obviate the General Resurrection if everyone would just use it.  Few if any of the tourists, up from before dawn, tired, and hungry, took the bait.  Our only guess is the tour companies are all paid by the Ginseng Centre to make them their tours' final stops.  After what must have been a disappointing visit for the ginseng peddlers, we were dropped off at Seoul's city hall, where we caught the metro and then the KTX back to Cheonan and Asan.  And not too soon: I had developed some awful blisters on my left foot, and one on my right, and was visibly hobbling.  I have perhaps been pushing myself a bit hard every day since we got here, in new, unbroken-in shoes.

After a nap in the room, we went to dinner with three of Laura's coworkers at the Korean barbecue place around the corner, which previously I had walked past, wistfully observing young, jolly patrons enjoying soju and roast bits of meat.  This was exciting to me, as I had yet to have a dinner out since we got here, and apart from hotel breakfasts, all my meals have been coming from convenience stores.  The fare of a Korean barbecue is galbi, slices of marinated meat cooked (bought in 150g or 300g increments) over a charcoal brazier set right into the table.  The hostess, or the guests themselves, cook the meat, which is beef, pork, or chicken, which they then pick off the grate with their chopsticks, place them in a lettuce or sesame leaf, and then pile on any number of toppings and accompaniments (banchan), roll it up into a parcel, and then consume in one or two bites.  Some of these banchan included old kimchi (a bit strong for our table's taste--we novices before the newer stuff), jeom (a kind of pancake made with egg and scallions), a cabbage and miso-dressing slaw, peppers pickled in a red bean paste, pickled onion, crumbled seaweed and sesames, garlic cloves (for roasting on the grate), a couple varieties of gochujang (an aged, sweet chili-garlic paste), and herbed sesame oil.  To wash it down, and cut the heat from some of the accompaniments, we had Cass beer, a commercial brand of lager which we might sniff at back home, but here it was welcome refreshment. 

Full up to our eyes in galbi and banchan, we headed back to the room for an early night.