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Learning Korean History at Seodaemun Prison

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
     Like those on Virgil’s shore—
A wilderness of faces dim,
     And pale ones gashed and hoar.
-Herman Melville, from In the Prison Pen

During the day in Seoul, I sent my parents on the tourist trail to the places I had already seen–I had little interest in revisiting the palaces and museums, and I was less enthusiastic about waking up early on this vacation. I headed out on my own and caught up with my parents later in the day.Soedaemun Prison

I decided to stroll around on the sunny day to the west of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace, as I had never been in that direction. I expected to find more neighborhoods similar to Bukchon, but I was mistaken–the historic neighborhood ended and Seoul became almost boring for a stretch, but I could still enjoy the unfamiliar streets.

Independence Park

Independence Gate from across the busy street

After a fair distance wandering, I came to Seodaemun Independence Park and the arch to its entrance. At the time I only knew this as a park and nothing more, so I crossed the street to wander through and find what was there. I was attracted by the Independence Gate, which resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in its design (though much smaller).independence gate seoul

While, the main destination in the park, and more or less all I saw, is Seodaemun Prison History Hall, the park also has other monuments such as a statue of journalist and independence activist Soh Jai-pil. As I didn’t know what was in the park, I only took a brief look at everything before finding the large structure that is Seodaemun Prison History Hall.

Seoul indepedence park monument

Monument for those who fought for independence

The prison opened in 1908 just before Japanese occupation and was used to detain independence activists after 1910. Conditions were poor for the prisoners, and there is evidence of torture remaining at the site. The original design of the prison was for 500 people, but at it ended up with nearly 3000.Soedaemun Prison

Unlike the S-21 in Phnom Penh, Soedaemun Prison is more focused on history and the movement toward independence and democracy in South Korea, which makes this museum a bit less depressing and mentally exhausting.

Soedaemun Prison

One form of torture used during Japanese occupation

Of course, there are parts of the museum that showcase the inhumane treatment of those unjustly forced into the prison’s confines. There were some rooms that were too short to stand straight but too narrow to sit.

Soedaemun Prison

The exercise yard

Even the exercise yard was a form of isolation–the fan-shaped brick structure didn’t allow prisoners to communicate during their time outside. It shape also allowed guards to easily observe the inmates when they attempted to communicate.

Soedaemun Prison

There’s a fake guard above the cells

The most disturbing of sights at the museum was probably the corpse removal exit–a tunnel in a corner of the facility hidden from view of the prisoners. There was no indication as to whether it was still used after Japanese occupation.

Soedaemun Prison

Disposing of the executed prisoners

Some visitors, such as myself, would think that a prison for independence activists would have been shuttered after post-World War II independence. However, the South Korean government decided to maintain the prison for its own anti-government activists who protested the US-supported dictatorship. It even continued to be used until democratic reforms arrived in the country in 1987. It didn’t reopen as a museum until 1992.

Soedaemun Prison

Photos of prisoners who were once held there

While conditions at the prison supposedly improved after World War II, they weren’t much better. Prisoners continued to be tortured under a brutal regime, though much of the treatment of prisoners during that time was glossed over at the museum.

Soedaemun Prison

Martyrs Monument to those who died during Japanese occupation

Admission to the museum was only KRW 3,000, which at the time was less than $3. It was certainly a worthwhile find on my wandering journey through Seoul as I was able to learn a bit more about history.

Feeling Poor at Seoul’s Money Museum

“Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash”
Pink Floyd, Money

There are museums you don’t expect to visit on your travels. It’s happened before. I still regret visiting the Icelandic Phallological Museum. But sometimes the unexpected museums are more interesting. Fortunately, the Bank of Korea Money Museum in Seoul was a much better experience than that disturbing museum in Reykjavik.

Namdaemun, the largest gate in Seoul

Namdaemun, the largest gate in Seoul

It was on one of the hotter days in Seoul last summer, when I was wandering a new neighborhood on my day off, that I came across the Money Museum. I headed for the area to visit Namdaemun, the largest of the city gates in Seoul, and then wander around the nearby market (it was too crowded with tourists for my liking). After wandering through the crowds in the heat, I needed relief.Bank of Korea Money Museum

That’s when I saw an interesting building across the street–it was classical Western architecture. I walked over to take a look as well as a few pictures.

I wasn’t all that interested in visiting a money museum, but admission was free and the space was air conditioned–the decision was practically made for me. The decision was even easier when I noticed that the museum wasn’t crowded like the market across the street.

Bank of Korea Money Museum

The opulence inside the Bank of Korea Money Museum

I didn’t expect much from the Money Museum, which is probably why it impressed me. This wasn’t just the Bank of Korea showing off its fortune–it was interesting and educational. (Alright, it was also the bank showing off it’s beautiful building, but there was more to it.) Most of the exhibits were intended to teach children about the banking system and even about the basics of savings and investing.

Recycle that cash and make more

Recycle that cash and make more

There was even some educational information for people like me. I had no idea how money was recycled–they can use it as construction material, or so they claim. And there was history about the bank for those who want to know more about the Bank of Korea.

North Korean currency

Dear Leader’s North Korean money

Of course, there was also the room full of currency. They had one of everything–even money from Kim Jong-un’s most glorious Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that tends to use US dollars more than their own printed currency, which I assume is suitable for toilet paper. But they also had Zimbabwe’s worthless currency–you know, the trillion dollar bill that was worth about one US dollar before Mugabe caved in and revalued the currency (it’s now about 360 Zimbabwean dollars to one US dollar).

For a free museum, it was definitely worth the price of admission (they didn’t even charge an ATM fee).

Walking Through Seoul’s Secret Garden

I had purchased a combo ticket when I visited Gyeongbokgung and I had the month to visit the palaces included on that ticket–I took my time. I could’ve visited the palaces in a weekend had I checked the map and realized just how close some were–combining two in one day would’ve been easy, but I wandered without much of a plan.

The entrance to Changdeokgung

The entrance to Changdeokgung

That lack of a plan almost backfired as I headed to Changdeokgung, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I checked the times for the free tour of the Secret Garden at the palace, but did not make a reservation, which is encouraged as space is limited. I was told to wait and see if there was enough space on the English tour for me (fortunately, there was).changdeokgung

Changdeokgung, which means Prospering Virtue Palace, is not as impressive a palace as Gyeongbokgung, but it is one of the more impressive places to visit in Seoul and well worth visiting. I think it’s a bit more colorful than Gyeongbokgung, mostly because of the natural surroundings. It does, however, have the amazing garden that is only accessible on a tour. It’s an adventure through a quiet forest in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world.

The small pavilion in the secret garden. Also my first successful tilt shift photo

The small pavilion in the secret garden. Also my first successful tilt shift photo

Construction of Changdeokgung began in 1405 during the Joseon Dynasty and was completed in 1412, but it was mostly destroyed during Japanese occupation as were most other historic imperial structures in Korea. It was first burned by the Japanese in 1592, but reconstructed in 1609. It was destroyed again in 1623 by a political revolt. It was a the second palace constructed in Seoul and incorporated the natural surroundings, which culminated in the Huwon, or rear garden, that was used as a retreat within the palace grounds.changdeokgung-seoul

The garden, which for tourist reasons is known as the secret garden in English, is a wooded area covering 78 acres. Part of Huwon includes the Forbidden Garden, which was only to be used by the king and his invited guests. There are a lotus pond, pavilions, and even a small rice patch for the royal family to maintain a connection to the farmers of Korea.

The royal rice field

The royal rice field

On a tour with 20 or so people is never my idea of fun, but it is the only way to wander through the garden at Changdeokgung. With all the people and a guide who didn’t speak loud enough, it was easier to ignore most of the stories told and walk to the fringe of the crowd to take photos of the pavilions and ponds without the other people in the way. I made a point of walking ahead of the crowd to get the first pictures and then waiting around for more.changdeokgung-doorway

I managed to find some angles I liked for the photos that avoided the other people on the tour. It would’ve been easier with fewer people wandering about, but nothing I could do about that. At the end of the tour there was a 750-year-old tree, but I couldn’t get a decent photo between the crowd around me and the tour guide rushing us to the exit.

Seoul at Night

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
-Vincent Van Gogh

Dongdaemun Design Park at night

Dongdaemun Design Park at night

Seoul is an amazing metropolis–the towering buildings and modern architecture make it seem overwhelming at times–with history, culture, and international commerce mingling in the streets. It’s fascinating to watch the people throughout the day among the backdrop of skyscrapers.

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin in Gwanghwamun Square

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin in Gwanghwamun Square

While this busy city is lively enough during the day, it’s the evening that shows the colors and beauty of modern Korean culture. The people roam the streets in search of outdoor food and drink stands–during the summer, they sit outside restaurants and take over the sidewalks. Off in a parking lot lined with street food vendors, plastic tables are set for customers to watch the local baseball game on a projection screen as they order more beer and snacks.

Dongdaemun at night

Dongdaemun at night

Each neighborhood has its own character as the city returns home from work–the noise of expats and locals in the bars and restaurants of Itaewon, the shoppers in Dongdaemun and Hongdae, and the quiet awe in front of Gwanghwamun and Gyeongbokgung Palace with Admiral Yi Sun-sin and King Sejong watching over the center of the city. The character of one neighborhood during the day is not identical after the sun sets–it offers a split personality of sorts.

King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

LED and older neon signs flicker along the streets and alleys, inviting the throngs to join in the activity of Seoul–coffee shops are still bustling into the evening as the salary men and women order more beer and soju from the myriad variety of restaurants and bars that equal the quantity of coffee shops (Seoul boasts more Starbucks outlets than any other city, and there are plenty of other local and international chains).

The aromas from the restaurants fill the streets as patrons filter in–there are more meals after dinner; the public demands sustenance after rounds of beer, soju, and makgeolli. The establishments expect people to eat more throughout the night before the office towers and residences turn off their lights that illuminate the metropolis.

Pillars before King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

Pillars before King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

To gain a real feeling for a city, a traveler needs to embrace the nightlife and the culture that changes with the passing of daylight.

How do you feel about wandering cities like Seoul in the evening?

Walking Hwaseong Fortress, Korea

After a few weekends of sightseeing around Seoul, I began to run out of important historic sites to visit. I had already visited the palaces and royal shrines and even a few interesting museums. As Seoul stretches out into the distance, engulfing towns that were once not part of the metropolis, there are other destinations of interest.hwaseong fortress

That’s when I found Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Suwon, which is almost an hour outside central Seoul. Construction of the fortress began in 1794 under the Joseon Dynasty by King Jeongjo to honor his father, Prince Sado, who was murdered by his own father, King Yeongjo. It was supposedly constructed in two years, which is impressive considering its size. Parts of the fortress have been restored as they suffered significant damage during the Korean War.hwaseong fortress

The walls of Hwaseong stretch about six kilometers and can take about two or more hours to walk around, depending on how often one stops for photos.

Paldalmun Gate

Paldalmun Gate

The bus from Suwon station dropped me off in front of Paldamun Gate in the center of a busy roundabout. From there I walked in the wrong direction through the town and found a market that offered some food to tide me over until after my adventure around the fortress. hwaseong1

I had a beautiful clear day for walking around in late June. I did not, of course, arrive in Suwon early in the morning as I should have to avoid the summer heat. The heat wasn’t as oppressive as it can be in other parts of the world in the summer, but the lack of shade made the walk around the fortress a little more difficult. There were, however, some wooded areas to hide from the sun, but those were mostly at the start of my walk.hwaseong fortress

I stopped at the Suwon Hwaseong Museum for a respite from the heat–air conditioning is worth the price of admission in some cases. The museum wasn’t impressive and only took twenty minutes or so to walk through, but I took my time and enjoyed the cool air. Sometimes you need a break from all that walking and sightseeing.

Hwaseong Haenggung

Overlooking Haenggung

I wanted to stay longer in the air conditioning, but I had one more stop before catching a bus back to the subway station. Within the walls of Hwaseong Fortress is Hwaseong Haenggung, the palace built by King Jeongjo when he supposedly planned to move the capital from Seoul. It’s a small palace and not nearly as impressive as the ones in Seoul, like Gyeongbokgung.Hwaseong Haenggung

There was a corner of the palace that allowed visitors to dress up in traditional costumes, imitation weapons included for those who want to dress as warriors instead of royalty. I arrived too late to have my turn as they were closing up shop for the day. Sorry folks, no embarrassing photos of this traveler today.

Drinking in Korea

Koreans like to drink. They drink a lot. And the prevalence of bars and alcoholic beverage vendors reinforces the fact that Korea is the largest per capita consumer of alcohol in Asia. According to a recent Bussiness Insider article, Koreans consume twice as much alcohol as Russians, but that was only in reference to liquor. From what I saw, Koreans prefer beer (or maybe it was a summer thing considering I was there in June and July).

I figured Korea would be similar to Taiwan in beer quality.

I at least enjoyed a couple beers in Taiwan, but there was very little variety. I wasn’t about to go near the liquor because I remember some painful mornings after drinking baijiu in China.  Anyway, Korea was a pleasant surprise in the alcoholic beverage department.

There are more than enough bars throughout Seoul to keep anyone busy. Some are rundown and dingy, while others are new and trendy. There are even some unusual bars with an eclectic collection of memorabilia. And sometimes if you go alone to a bar they’ll seat you with a companion who doesn’t talk much.

bear bar seoul

An introvert goes to a bar in Seoul

Drinking up the soju

Usually, people think of soju when talking about Korean alcohol–it’s certainly the most widely sold alcohol in the country and it’s cheapest option for drinking in most places. Soju can be a bit harsh–there’s a bit of variety to this spirit distilled from rice, wheat, or barley, which can range from 20-35% ABV. Some of the lower-alcohol soju is more pleasant; it doesn’t have as much of a bite to it. Generally, soju should be drunk with friends, which makes it difficult to drink when traveling alone.

What’s this about makgeolli?

The second option for drinking, which also isn’t expensive in most cases, is the cloudy rice wine called makgeolli. This is more of an acquired taste; I wasn’t sure what to think of it the first time I tried it with my coworker and her friend. Most makgeolli is sweet, though the sweetness can vary considerably, and it has a natural carbonation. The beverage is traditionally drunk from small bowls rather than glasses, which I found rather fun.


Lotus makgeolli

While walking around Daehagno I came across a friendly bar/restaurant called Do You Know Makgeolli? Of course, I had to try it. This little establishment on a quiet street has a fridge full of makgeolli–there were at least 40 varieties. My server tried to help me choose a bottle in our broken communication, and suggested a lotus-flavored makgeolli. It was light and not too sweet–a refreshing beverage for the humid evening. He came back later and offered me a taste of a chestnut makgeolli that was a little too sweet for my liking.

While just about every establishment in Seoul serves beer, soju, and makgeolli, there are also small sidewalk stands that serve cocktails, sometimes in ziplock bags with straws sticking out. I had to try it once. They had no whiskey or rum, and the drinks weren’t strong but tasted much too sweet for my palate–I drank half and threw the rest out.

street cocktails seoul

Sidewalk cocktails

Then there was the beer. A few years ago, The Economist proclaimed that beer in South Korea was boring. The major beers like Cass and Hite are boring, but I’d still choose them over Budweiser and Miller. I drank my share of the cheap Korean macrobrews–it was the thing to drink at most local bars. The major brewers have come out with some more appealing options in the last year as well. Hite-Jinro has its Black Beer Stout, which is actually a black lager that tastes pretty good as the only dark beer that’s widely available. The brewery also makes Queen’s ale in blonde and extra bitter varieties–the blonde has much better flavor than the bitter (it was the beer of choice for my day at the ballgame). Oriental Brewery also has it’s Aleston brown and black ales, which are alright but nothing I’d go out of my way to drink again.

Sunset over Noksapyeong, Seoul

Sunset over Noksapyeong, Seoul

Discovering Korean brewpubs

After a couple weeks in Seoul, I discovered the brewpubs in the city that have opened in recent years. Most are located in Noksapyeong, a trendy neighborhood of bars and restaurants just a short walk from the foreigner-haven of Itaewon.

I was first introduced to CraftWorks Taphouse, which has some pretty good hot wings for half price on the night I sampled their beers that are named after local mountains. The IPA was decent, but nothing special, while the dark ale was lighter on alcohol but had a pleasant malty flavor. My friends who introduced me to the brewery ordered the porter, which was bland and definitely not worth ordering.

beer seoul

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

Just down the street from CraftWorks is Room H, which serves Weizenhaus beer. This is an American brewery that also brews in Korea. Their stout was rich and flavorful with hints of coffee. The industrial interior and open storefront made this brewpub more appealing.

Around the corner from the other brewpubs is Magpie, the original Seoul brewpub. They have a small room on street level that’s only open until 10 pm, when they tell patrons to head to the basement bar to avoid annoying the neighbors with excessive noise. The basement bar can get crowded, but it’s a cool place to hang out if you get a seat. The most impressive beer I tried at Magpie was the lavender ale, which was light for the summer heat and humidity. I was skeptical, but the lavender didn’t overpower the light hops and added a relaxing aroma to a beer to enjoy while hanging around a dim alley in the middle of a metropolis.

platinum oatmeal stout

Platinum Oatmeal Stout

Over in Itaewan, I found my favorite basement bar in the city: Four Seasons Craft Beer Bar. I introduced three local friends to this rather quiet bar that devoid of the annoying expat crowd–it attracts locals and well-behaved expats in the area. The beer menu changes and has a nice balance of Korean and international microbrews. I stuck with the Korean beers like Seoulless Ginger and Noul Red Rye, the latter of which had some sharp hops.

Noul Red Rye

Noul Red Rye at Four Seasons

The last brewpub I sampled was Platinum Brewery. I stumbled upon this one while wandering the crowded streets of Hongdae on a Friday night (a huge mistake with all the university students roaming around after a week of classes). Although I only tried the oatmeal stout and strong pale ale, I found Platinum to be the most consistent brewery–both beers were smooth with enough flavor to keep me interested as I drank. Despite the bar being empty, I was inspired to order my second beer.

platinum strong pale ale

Platinum Strong Pale Ale

Have you tried Korean microbrews or makgeolli? What did you think? Do you have a favorite?

Protests and Police

“And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go”
-Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

On this Monday morning I’m still catching up on the chaos in Hong Kong. The Occupy Central and pro-democracy movements came together on September 28, marching through the business districts in Central. The peaceful protest even attempted to leave at least one lane of traffic open but couldn’t contain so many people who joined the march. Police took action later in the day, demanding that the protesters disperse or risk being fired upon. Then the tear gas was fired, and the police response was harsh. Foreign Policy has a more in depth explanation of what’s going on in Hong Kong.

As I browsed Twitter last night to read the accounts of the police response and view some of the photos, I remembered how many protests I witnessed during my time in Asia. While I was in Cambodia there were worker strikes and political protests in Phnom Penh, but all I saw of it was police in riot gear guarding main streets while I rode in my tuk-tuk on the way to the airport. That particular day was filled with violence in the streets of the capital. The majority of the protests in Cambodia were for an increase in the minimum wage for factory workers–many make less than $100 per month, and fashion retailers recently agreed to raise the minimum pay to about $100 per month.

Guess I won't have that relaxing walk through the park today

Police barricades in Peace Park, Taipei, Taiwan

When I reached Taiwan, the student movement had occupied and effectively shut down the government. I visited the protest site at the Executive Yuan only a couple days before the police “evicted” the students with water canons and batons. A couple weeks later I stumbled on a peaceful march near Peace Park, which was surrounded by temporary barbed-wire barricades. I again found myself in the middle of a protest while walking around at night not far from my apartment–a smaller march converged at a major intersection just a short walk from the government buildings and blocked traffic for about 20 minutes.

Protesters and TV news at the Executive Yuan in Taipei

The protests were quite organized and not too difficult to navigate through the crowds

I arrived in Korea a short time after the Suwol ferry accident, and encountered many small anti-government protests in relation to the accident. The government was blamed for a lack of oversight and enforcement of safety regulations. The ferry accident led to the prime minister’s resignation.

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protests were small and confined to parks, but there was always a large police presence. I lost count of the number of police buses parked along the roads–there were easily a hundred. These protests had a few dozen people, but there were hundreds of police to ensure that the protests didn’t get out of hand.

This seems necessary for a small protest

This seems necessary for a small protest

I have witnessed the protests and even some of the police responses to those protests, but I have no participated in the actions. As I am not a citizen or even long-term resident of any of these places, it was not my place to stand in solidarity with the protesters even though, for the most part, I supported their causes.

Have you ever encountered protests or political unrest while traveling? How did you handle the situation?

Seoul Food

This is long overdue. I ate a lot of food in Korea, but it was mostly at home because eating out in Seoul can get a little expensive. I did eat out every weekend so I could try the wonders that Korean cuisine offers.

korean bbq

Delicious Korean barbecue

You can’t visit Korea and not eat barbecue

One of my favorites was Korean barbecue. I went out twice with friends for this because it’s not a meal you can eat alone. Our orders included a nice helping of thick-cut bacon–I mean about four slices of bacon that weigh close to a pound. There’s a variety of marinated bacon you can order and I have no idea what we ordered either time because I only know a few words of Korean. Along with the bacon, we had mushrooms, kimchi, potato, shrimp, and tofu (which tastes better mixed with the grilled kimchi).

fried rice

We added rice to the mix at one of the Korean barbecues

I found it a little unusual that the bacon was cut with scissors while cooking, as were some of the large pieces of kimchi. One of my friends asked if I’d ever seen scissors used during food service. I’m fairly certain I’ve only seen it used to cut masses of noodles stuck together in Vietnam. Whether or not you cut the bacon with scissors doesn’t change the wonderful taste you get to enjoy. And it goes great with beer, soju, or makgeolli.

ginseng chicken soup

Ginseng chicken soup

Tasting soup in summer

One of my first meals with my former coworker was samgyetang (삼계탕), or ginseng chicken soup, in Itaewon before heading to the craft beer bar. The ginseng flavor is light and mixed with a bit of ginger and sweet rice. It took a while before the clay pot stopped boiling so I could taste the soup–might as well order a beer and wait for that bowl to cool off to avoid burning your mouth. There’s a whole small chicken in that bowl, so it’s quit filling before a nice night out with beer. It’s also considered a summer soup because of the ginseng, but I think it’d taste pretty good in the winter as well.

korean dumplings

Dumpling and rice cake soup

Speaking of soups, before visiting the Joseon Royal Tombs I stopped off for some dumpling and rice cake soup. Tteok manduguk (떡 만두국) is two separate soups in a meat (probably pork) broth mixed together. It’s another filling meal. As someone used to dumplings in China, Taiwan, and Japan, the Korean dumplings were a surprise–there were only three in the bowl, and they were huge. Korean dumplings are also the best I’ve ever had. I’m not sure what’s in them, but they have a lot more flavor than anything I’ve had in other Asian countries. I got desperate and bought some frozen dumplings to make in my tiny apartment and even they were awesome.

flounder korea

Fried flounder

Korean street food and the local market

As I visited the local market often, I began to grow curious about the prepared food being sold. One night after work I decided to try the fried flounder, which came is a dipping sauce akin to light soy sauce. This was the same market at which I tried a whole fried chicken after my hike in Bukhansan National Park. It was the best food decision I could’ve made for about $6, but it created horrible temptation for the rest of my stay in Seoul.


Jokbal at the market

Because I enjoyed drinking makgeolli, one of my friends suggested I try jokbal (족발), pig trotters cooked with soy sauces and some spices. I tried this at the local market, but it was the one meal I can say I didn’t enjoy at all. I was told that it should’ve come with some slices of meat from the legs, but all I got was bone, cartilage, fat, and skin. I was disappointed and just drank my bottle of makgeolli.


Won’t you take me to Toppoki Town?

Another meal I didn’t enjoy too much was toppoki (떡볶이), spicy soft rice cakes, which is really disappointing because I lived just down the street from Toppoki Street. The sauce is a little salty for my taste, but more importantly I didn’t enjoy the consistency of the glutinous rice. I admit that the reason I don’t enjoy certain foods is more because of texture than flavor.

I had a lot more to eat besides that, but I don’t remember exactly what they were; sometimes I had no idea what I was even ordering at the restaurants. I have to admit that Korean food is some of my favorite in Asia.

What are your favorite Korean dishes? What would you like to try?

Lessons from My Korean Temple Stay

Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.
-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

I’ve been trying to remain calm and patient while waiting for responses from employers and publishers with whom I’ve pitched stories lately. I’ve come to realize there isn’t much in Tokyo that I still want to see since the last time I was here (or maybe it’s that I’d rather save my money to get out of Tokyo to visit Kyoto next week).

I find myself looking down at my wrist and the prayer beads I strung together at my temple stay at Woljeongsa in Korea. At the time I just needed a break from the city, and staying at a Buddhist temple in a national park sounded like the most relaxing weekend I could have outside Seoul. One of the first lessons the temple taught the guests was to not rush to the destination and spend more time listening than speaking. Now I see these prayer beads as a reminder to remain patient when I get frustrated.

How could I be unhappy with this?

How could I be unhappy with this?

I’m also reminded of the beautiful sunrise and sunset I witnessed during my stay. I can’t be angry when I think about the experiences I’ve had over the last ten months–I’ve seen more of the world than most people, and I should consider myself fortunate.

Ringing the bell at Woljeongsa

Ringing the bell at Woljeongsa

While I await decisions about my future, wherever that may take me, I have to enjoy what I see for the moment. Usually I have more time to plan my moves, but now I have to enter the chaos that is life–sometimes I forget that this is normal.

I should also mention I have entered a photo in one of National Geographic’s Your Shot assignments. You can check it out here.

Hiking the Highest Peak in Seoul

a trail of climbing stairsteps forks upstream.
Big ranges lurk behind these rugged little outcrops—
these spits of low ground rocky uplifts
layered pinnacles aslant,
flurries of brushy cliffs receding,
far back and high above, vague peaks.
– Gary Snyder, “Endless Streams and Mountains”

I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit a national park that was so close. It still took about an hour to get to Bukhansan National Park from my apartment–the park is on the outskirts of the city and requires taking a 20-minute bus ride from the metro station. Nonetheless, I was determined to get to the park and hike, even if I did wake up a bit later than I should have. It was a good excuse to test out my new hiking shoes–my Columbia shoes were wearing thin and not capable of the occasionally slick rocky trails.


First view of Bukhansan National Park

Getting to the park wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’d be. There was a tourist information booth just outside the station, and they gave me a list of buses I could take and told me where to get off. It helped that the bus announcements were also in English.bukhansan stream

I wasn’t sure where I was going. I hoped that the trail signs in the park would be better than the ones at Yongmasan and Achasan. Fortunately, the signs were much better, though without a trail map it was a little more difficult deciding with trail to take. I was, again, lucky–I chose the trail that I wanted without actually knowing that it was the one (sometimes it pays to follow the crowd).Bukhansan

I figured it wouldn’t take long to follow the trail that claimed to be only 4.5 km (I’m not sure how they measure distance around here, but I’m fairly certain it shouldn’t take over two and a half hours to hike that far). It took a strenuous two and a half hours to hike up Baekundae, which at 2,744 ft is the highest peak in Seoul.


View from atop Baekundae

The more than 30 sq. mi. that encompasses Bukhansan was established as a national park in 1983. Its history dates back almost 2,000 years when the first fortress was built in the mountains. A nearly 6-mile defensive wall was constructed in the mountains, but was partly destroyed during the Korean War. According to some of the historic information posted along the trail, the region was used to discreetly move weaponry through the country–I can only imagine the difficulty of lugging all that equipment up the mountainside.

Bukhansan wall

One of the gates through the fortification at Bukhansan (only about 1km from the summit of Baekundae)

The mountains in Bukhansan National Park are beautiful. Rocky cliffs greet hikers as they wind their way up. On other peaks, I watched more adventurous visitors scale the rocky mountainsides–park rangers ensured that all rock climbers were fully prepared prior to attempting the climbs. I enjoy hiking, but I’m not up for rock climbing.


Those specks on the far mountaintop are people

The main trails are well maintained–I doubt there’s a specific trail for those brave enough to scale the cliffs–and there are even stairs in some places (more worn and natural stairs are in other areas, but they can be a bit slippery).

Baekundae Trail

It’s not THAT steep

The trail leading to Baekundae started out fairly easy for the first hour, but gradually increased in difficulty. Toward the peak, it was a scramble up a near 70-degree slope. The way down is much more difficult, but there are ropes and cables that are firmly implanted in the rock to ensure that hikers don’t fall all the way down the mountainside.


Just roll me down the mountain instead

The peak was crowded. Most hikers stopped there for a long rest and a picnic. I love that the Korean concept of appropriate hiking provisions includes bottles of soju, beer, and makgeolli. I enjoyed a beer from a convenience store when I returned to the town on my way back to the bus.


Nice place to lounge after a hike. Now, how do I get down?

The only downside to the hike was the weather–the haze obscured the views that are still spectacular on such days. If I move back to Korea, I’ll have to take the hike again on a clear day. The air cleared up a bit as I reached the summit, so it turned out alright for the day.bukhansan

My new hiking shoes held up quite well in Bukhansan–the lack of tread on my old pair would have probably meant my demise, or at least a broken bone or two. Had I arrived earlier in the day, I would’ve tacked on a few other short trails, but I was tired and hungry (the humidity didn’t help much). Despite only hiking for about five hours, my legs were quite sore the next day. Even after sitting down on the subway, it was rather difficult to stand up again (I also fell asleep on the train for a bit).

Out of Seoul

Long conversations 
beside blooming irises – 
joys of life on the road 


As the sun sets on Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul

As the sun sets on Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul

Today I depart Seoul after two months of living in a tiny apartment near Toppoki Street (and I’m not really a fan of eating toppoki; it’s not bad, but I just don’t like gluttonous rice cakes much). I’m heading to Italy for a while–I get to see my parents and relatives for the first time since I left the US last October. It’s exciting to continue the journey, but bittersweet to leave what has become somewhat familiar.

Night at Dongdaemun History & Culture Park

Night at Dongdaemun History & Culture Park

I’ve had a great time here, despite a rough start to my stay. I’ve made friends and seen some interesting sights. I’ve enjoyed Korea more than I expected, and I still haven’t visited the popular destinations of Busan and Jeju. There’s enough remaining here to remind me to return.

The food in Korea has been great–I’ve had the best fried chicken here (although I know I shouldn’t eat that). And I’ve even discovered some blossoming microbreweries to counteract all the cheap light beer that is so prevalent throughout Asia. And, of course, there’s always the beautiful mountains to keep me entertained.

What would make you return to a travel destination?

Take Me Out to the Korean Ballgame

I finally got to see a baseball game in Asia.

Mokdong Stadium, Seoul

Mokdong Stadium, Seoul

I could go in Japan because I was there during the playoffs, and good luck getting a ticket for that. I tried again in Taipei, but the ballpark was difficult to get to–about an hour and a half from central Taipei by train and bus. Getting to a ballgame in Korea is just easier.

The pitchers in the home team bullpen look a bit bored

The pitchers in the home team bullpen look a bit bored

My coworker made getting to the game even easier–she lives near Mokdong Stadium, which is only about 40 minutes on the metro from my apartment. I have been talking to her about going to a game since my first week here–I suppose I was finally annoying enough that she agreed to get tickets.

Play ball! I have no idea who's at bat

Play ball! I have no idea who’s at bat

It’s not easy getting into a game when you have no idea who the players are and you don’t have a favorite team. I just went along with the Nexen Heroes because they were the home team. But it was an semi-entertaining game. There were a lot of home runs (hit by the visiting team), and a 9th inning rally by the home team that was just too little, too late.

The Nexen Heroes mascot is no Mr. Met

The Nexen Heroes mascot is no Mr. Met

I learned quite a bit about Korean baseball. Even the visiting team brings cheerleaders to its section–and they were quite loud while their team was at bat. And Korean teams have a lot of chants and songs for fans to sing. I also learned that the Korean pronunciation of Heroes has four syllables (I thought I only heard three, but I was corrected). If I lived here, I’d have to learn Korean to sing along with the team songs.

The programs have quite a few pages of fashion advice

The programs have quite a few pages of fashion advice

Seats in the outfield, from third base outward, are not assigned–you can sit wherever you want with those tickets. And the stadium doesn’t care if you bring your own food and beer into the stadium–we bought a few beers at the grocery store and fried chicken in the parking lot; other spectators brought in pizza. And concessions weren’t nearly as overpriced as Yankee Stadium (or any ballpark in the US for that matter).

Independence Day in Seoul

As I previously noted, I had no real plan for a July 4th celebration in Seoul–I couldn’t seem to find any activities for the holiday. I settled on going out with a friend for a burger and beer in Noksapyeong, a trendy neighborhood near Itaewon filled primarily with non-Korean restaurants and brewpubs.

Spicy burger at Thunder Burger

Spicy burger at Thunder Burger

We settled on dinner at Thunder Burger–a small shop that offers a variety of hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries. It’s a no-frills establishment with only a few tables, but that also explains why the burgers only cost $5-7. While my friend went with the classic cheeseburger, I couldn’t pass up the chance to eat a spicy burger–it had sliced jalapenos and crushed chili peppers (it wasn’t overly spicy, but it had a decent kick to it).

I'm inclined to agree

I’m inclined to agree

After our meal, we headed down the road in search of Magpie, the lone brewpub I haven’t tried in the neighborhood. As we passed Magpie, we ended up at Room H, a rather simple bar that serves beer brewed by Korean brewery Weizenhaus. I’ve been to this place before, and their stout was the best dark beer I’ve had in Korea. This time around, I tried their hefeweizen, which was alright for a humid evening, but nothing special.

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

Weizenhaus Stout at Room H in Noksapyeong

As we were finishing our drinks, we heard some loud noises outside. “Do I hear fireworks?” I said. Sure enough, we could see fireworks off in the distance–presumably from a US military base nearby. We finished our beers and walked up the pedestrian bridge just outside Room H for a better view of the fireworks. It was definitely a better view than I had last year in Boston, and the display was rather impressive.

4th of July fireworks in Seoul

4th of July fireworks in Seoul

The following day, I met up with other friends for some Korean barbecue and managed to introduce them to a quiet bar in Itaewon that serves Korean and imported microbrews (my one friend was a little upset that the visitor was introducing new watering holes to the locals).

Gen. MacArthur in Jayu Park

Gen. MacArthur in Jayu Park

To fill out the weekend, I headed to Incheon on Sunday. The city is of historical importance as the landing point for American forces during the Korean War. As part of my wandering through Incheon, I headed to Jayu (Freedom) Park, which is on a hill above Chinatown. Within the park is a statue to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led US forces into Korea.

It turned out to be a pleasant July 4th weekend away from home.

How do you usually celebrate national holidays while traveling abroad?

July 4th Past

As I logged in for work this morning despite my usual habit of taking off for national holidays, I realized I had no 4th of July-ish plans in Seoul. I’ve been sitting in my apartment reading Walt Whitman’s praises of America in Leaves of Grass, which I’ve mostly read on the Seoul subway and local bars. I also balanced that out today by re-reading Allen Ginsberg’s “America.” Both are worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

Slightly obscured view of the Boston fireworks from the cheap seats

Slightly obscured view of the Boston fireworks from the cheap seats

I had hoped that the US Embassy would have some sort of event, but their website lists nothing and no one responds to questions on their Twitter account. Looks like I’ll end up in an expat/Korean hipster neighborhood for a burger and local microbrews (who needs fireworks anyway?).

Historic air conditioning! Go America!

Historic air conditioning! Go America!

This time last year I spent a long weekend in Boston and had an obscured view of the fireworks. That weekend was full of revolutionary history as I walked the Freedom Trail in some excessive heat and prayed for air conditioning or a pool full of ice.


Gyeongbokgung: First Palace Visit in Seoul

On the second weekend in Seoul (the day before I hiked Yongmasan and Achasan), I headed to Gyeongbokgung and the The National Palace Museum of Korea. I figured I needed a bit of history and culture to get better acquainted with this city–I was feeling a bit overwhelmed after all. This day out, along with the hike the following day, helped make me feel a bit more comfortable in my new surroundings.Gyeongbokgung

I had already seen the main gate of the palace on my first day in Seoul. Gwanghwamun is easily recognizable among the crowds on a main thoroughfare through the city. It also looks more impressive at night.


Gwanghwamun, the main gate to Gyeongbokgung

Gyeongbokgung, which means greatly blessed by heaven palace, is the largest and most centrally located palace in Seoul. Just down the road from the main gate to the palace is Chonggyecheon Stream, which makes for a pleasant walk when there aren’t too many flies about. Gyeongbokgung was first built in 1395, but was destroyed in a fire during the Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century. It was rebuilt during the Joseon Dynasty in 1867. Empress Myeongseong was assissinated here by the Japanese in 1895. It was again mostly destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century when it “annexed” the Korean peninsula. (If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of brutal history involving the Japanese in Korea.)


Quite a crowd visiting Geunjeongjeon, the throne hall, before the rain

Korea is still reconstructing the palace.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Gyeongbokgung is surrounded by more than just the mountains around Seoul

I arrived at the ticket booth just in time–a free English tour of the palace started less than 10 minutes after I bought my ticket. I also found that I could buy a combination ticket to the other palaces and Jongmyo Shrine for only about $10, which ended up saving me about $2 overall. More importantly, having those tickets that were valid for 30 days was a constant reminder that I had to do more sightseeing in Seoul.


Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, used for banquets

Walking in a large group can make getting decent photos a little difficult at times. I had to disengage from the group a few times to get the pictures I wanted, which meant that I missed some of the explanations being given by the guide.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Inside the throne hall, Geunjeongjeon

Having shared culture and Confucian philosophy with China, the design of Gyeongbokgung is similar to quite a few historic structures in China. The palace certainly isn’t as colorful or impressive as China’s Forbidden City, but that may be because of all the reconstruction. As mentioned in the tour, the Joseon emperors practiced Confucianism  and believed that they shouldn’t live in luxury–there was more of a compromise in that their luxury wasn’t that far above the people of the city (or so the history books claim). Assuming the reconstruction of the palace (and other palaces in Seoul) is accurate, then the Joseon emperors were far more modest than their counterparts around Asia.

gyeongbokgung seoul

Mountains surrounding Gyeongbokgung with people flowing into the palace in the rain

The National Palace Museum wasn’t as interesting at Gyeongbokgung, but it was free and it was raining, so walking around inside for an hour or so was worthwhile. The museum houses numerous artifacts from the Joseon Dynasty, most of which were once part of the palace. Having spent so much time in China, a lot of the artifacts weren’t all that interesting to me–I’ve seen plenty of similar items museums around China. There were, however, a few that stood out to attract interest.

The Chinese character for water written with characters for dragon. The water dragon was supposed to ward off fires

The Chinese character for water written with characters for dragon. The water dragon was supposed to ward off fires

I also arrived in Korea at the right time. It seems that the US held a few artifacts (supposedly for protection during the Korean War) and recently returned them to Korea–they were returned home on April 25, 2014.

This statue was in the subway station at the palace

This statue was in the subway station at the palace

Also nearby is the (again, free admission) National Folk Museum of Korea, most of which is geared toward children–and there were a lot of them visiting while I was there. There is quite a bit of cultural history in the museum that doesn’t feature the Joseon Dynasty.