Monday, November 22, 2010

Seoul – Palaces, a Market and Seoul Tower

Our final day in Seoul had two palaces, Insadong Market, and Seoul Tower on our itinerary. We started the day out with another cab ride – this one more sedate thank goodness, where we were delivered curbside to Deoksu Palace to view the changing of the guard ceremony.

The Royal Guards Changing Ceremony at Deoksu Palace
The main reason for our visit to Deoksu Palace was to see the changing of the guards, other palaces in Seoul have these ceremonies but this one is apparently considered the best. We arrived with enough time to make our way inside the grounds but were only a few steps inside before I spied a banner reading “2010 Book Festival.” My fellow traveler’s are aware of my passion for books – they are in one of the two book groups I belong to here in Yokosuka. But what they probably didn’t know was that I can not pass by bookstores, or anything about books without stopping to look. So with festival tents set up we strolled along taking a look at the books on display. One tent had a very cool display set up where you could ink up an early version of movable type and by placing a sheet of rice paper down and rubbing it you could get a sense of how labor intensive this process was. We all gave it a try and then moved along to see what else was there to see. I found a beautiful book on Korean flower arranging that I picked up, knowing I’d have to lug it around the entire day. No sooner had I made my purchase than I got a gentle nudge from my friends that time was running out and we needed to head back to the entrance to see the ceremony. As we started back we could hear the traditional band playing the music along with the sound of a steady drum beat … my pace quickened, I did not want to miss out on this, nor the chance to wiggle my way into position for some photo ops.

The elite Palace Guards who defended the palace and escorted the King were called Geum-gun (Soldiers Guarding the Forbidden Palace) and were responsible for opening and closing the palace gates as well as guarding and patrolling the area around the gate. Deoksu (meaning virtue and long life) Palace served as the king’s residence following the withdrawal of Japanese occupied forces in 1593. The palace was originally called Geum-gung (the Forbidden Palace) because it was off limits to ordinary citizens. In 1907, the Emperor Gojong moved into Deoksu after relinquishing his throne to his son, Emperor Sunjong.

The traditional Korean attire was very colorful – a contrast to the more subdued tones of Japan. The music played by the traditional Korean band was wonderful, the blowing of conch shells, the beating of the drums, the high-pitched wail of the flutes. It really was quite special and I’m so glad I had a chance to see this while in Seoul. For more information on the Royal Guards Ceremony go to:

With the ceremony over we were off to the next palace – Changdeok Palace. Taxi!

Changdeok Palace
This is a huge sprawling complex with many buildings and some lovely garden areas. At the information booth/ticket office you can rent a headset with a guided tour in English. I recommend this, however even for me, one who likes details, I hit information overload at one point and shut it off – TMI. I enjoyed looking at the architecture, Korean style architecture is much more colorful than traditional Japanese architecture. The brightly painted architectural details were beautiful.

Surrounding Geunjeongjeon Hall, in the palace complex, are twelve stone statues – one for each birth year – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, lamb, monkey, rooster, dog and boar (see photo). We moved along to Yeonji pond and the Gyonghoeru pavilion which is a lovely spot to take a break. Further back in this expansive complex is Hyangwonjeong – an octagonal shaped pavilion. This is one of the most photographed areas in Korea and I could see why. It’s lovely.

With two more stops on our itinerary we moved along in search of Insadong Market. For more information on Gyeongbokgung go to:

Insadong Market
This was the market I was waiting for … I love seeing traditional crafts and had read that this market was THE place to go in Seoul to find celadon pottery and all sorts of other Korean crafts. I was not disappointed. The main street is closed to traffic on the weekends and you can wander in and out of shops looking at all the wares. I had read some great reviews on Ssamzie Market and stopped at the information booth to find out where it is located. Armed with my map we made our way down the street – and found the building, which is an architectural treat, along with art cases (see the photo of the zipper bags – sooo cool!) and some great stores with lots of eye candy. This was one of my favorite places we visited while in Seoul.

“But why can’t you take us there?”
I have mentioned the wild taxi rides but have not yet addressed just how difficult it is to get a taxi in the first place. After our trip to the DMZ we were told “just stand here a taxi will come along” after waiting and waiting and waiting some more MJ, our taxi maven, decided to take matters into her own hands and went to the security booth at the USO and asked that they call us a taxi. The next day we didn’t do much better … after leaving the Myeongdong shopping district we asked a policeman if there was a certain place to pick up a taxi as the cars seemed to be whizzing by at breakneck speed. He said “stand here and I’ll flag one down for you.” As we waited, we watched fashionista after fashionista dash down the road about 15 feet ahead to grab the next available taxi. We thanked the policeman and decided to join in the “I’m better than you at getting a taxi” game. Later that night after the Nanta show we tried for an HOUR to get a taxi with no luck, finally gave up and tried to take the subway system back to our hotel. We almost pulled it off, but ended up getting off at the wrong station and in the end still had to get a taxi – MJ out there taking control of “Mission Taxi.” So here we are, it’s our last evening and we’ve planned to go to Seoul Tower, this time we can find a taxi but no one will take us there. Finally, one signals for us to get in and after we all pile into the cab and our “taxi maven” shows him a map and information he motions to us to get out. This is when my friend Monika says with a tone of frustration in her voice “but why can’t you take us there?” and I start to laugh. “Monika, he can’t speak English and you want him to explain why he’s saying no?” She responds with a “but I just want to understand why he won’t take us there.” I get it. It’s one of the frustrating parts of traveling in another country and you cannot speak the language, sometimes you’re just not going to understand something. This is when you hope that the “random acts of kindness” fairy will swoop down and step in. As we all unload from the cab a young man who had just stepped out of the cab, looked back and saw the confusion taking place and came over to see if he could help. In impeccable English he asked where we were trying to go and then in rapid-fire Korean had an exchange with the driver, next thing we knew we were off on another “wild taxi ride” through the streets of Seoul, destination Seoul Tower.

Seoul Tower
I’m not sure I have a lot to say about this stop … we had wanted to grab a cocktail while we viewed the city but it turns out the restaurant at the top only will let you have dinner and we weren’t too interested in this option. We had hoped to get there right at dusk but didn’t quite make it after the long lines for the cable car and then another line for the ropeway. If it’s a pretty day and you have the time you can climb up the hill to the Seoul Tower but we were on a timeframe and decided to take the easier way out. It is what it is, a tourist trap, but it does afford a nice view of Seoul.

I had so many questions from friends about Korea when I returned. The Japanese and the Koreans have not exactly been the best of friends over the centuries. Mostly my Japanese friends were curious, what were the Koreans like? My American friends also wanted to know if the Koreans were rude – they have that unfortunate reputation. Aside from my encounter with the chargin’ grandma I didn’t find the Koreans rude. In fact, I sort of liked the hustle bustle of Seoul. It was much more like being in D.C. or NYC to me than Tokyo. The architecture was very western, there were trashcans (something you rarely find here in Japan and when you do you feel like you just won the lottery), there was chaos and disorder getting on the subway or waiting for a taxi which is soooo much more like the U.S. than here in Japan. Japan is an orderly nation, I’m sure this is a cultural thing, when you have this many people living in such a small area in order to survive the society needs structure – you pass by a bus stop here and everyone is lined up, a taxi stand – the same thing, the train platform – ditto. In Japan if you bump into someone as your walking down a crowded street or in a jam-packed train you’d say “sumimasen” – common courtesy – but there was none of that in Seoul. So for me, Seoul was more like a taste of the U.S. with a markedly Asian flare. I liked it and I’m hoping to return, next time with my family … shopping will not be on the list but there’s so much more to Seoul than that. Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Pali-Pali" – Hurry Hurry we have shopping to do!

Pali, Pali (hurry, hurry)
“We drive fast, eat fast, do everything fast – we are always in a hurry.”

This was what our Korean tour guide from the DMZ tour had told us about Koreans. It’s a good phrase to know before arriving in Seoul. It gives you a bit of insight into the culture here and definitely clues you in on how the taxi drivers get around the city.

“Excuse me, but did you go to the Pali, Pali taxi drivers school?”
As I mentioned in my previous entry, I heard more horn blowing in the first 24 hours of being in Seoul than I have in the entire last year of living in Japan. The cab drivers in Seoul are crazy! Most were quite nice but they drive like a bat out of hell. Red light ahead? That must mean “floor it.” Car stopped in front of you? That translates into – “Speed up and hope they start moving before you hit them.” Which sadly for us on one of our wild taxi rides the car in front of us did not move quickly enough. After rear-ending the car in front of us and checking to make sure we were all o.k. – our driver asks “is it o.k. if I pull over?” While we were waiting in the taxi for our driver to exchange information we all looked at each other and commented how this would never have happened in Japan. The rest of our taxi rides did not result in any collisions but apparently not for lack of trying – we nearly hit a bike rider in one ride, another the driver decided that going up on part of the sidewalk would help him circumvent some traffic, one member of our party had the horn blown at her for not getting out of the way quick enough (this was from the driver who had not even 60 seconds earlier dropped us off!) and after piling into one cab and telling him where we wanted to go he shooed us all out of his cab.

Namdaemun Market
Our second day in Seoul was earmarked for some shopping and a show. The first stop was Namdaemun Market – a huge, sprawling market that covers over 10 acres in the downtown area and has over 1000 shops. Anything and everything is available here – toys, food, clothes, crafts. I wasn’t in the market for anything in particular – but sure did enjoy looking. I did manage to purchase a few sheets of beautiful Korean paper and a very pretty fur scarf but aside from that my load was light – unlike some of my shopping companions. While my friends were shopping I wandered down an alley and found the Korea Snack Company – the shop owner was very friendly and offered me a sample. Some sort of pounded, puffy rice coated with honey on the inside. Quite tasty. Wandering further along I spied a beautiful display of figs. They looked delicious and I was ready to buy some, but first I wanted to take a picture …

“So were the Koreans rude?”
I was asked this a lot upon my return from Seoul. For the most part I did not find them rude – no more so than what I’d encounter in Washington, D.C. I think it’s part of the Pali, Pali mindset. They have someplace to go, are focused on the job at hand and do not have time to be bothered with tourists. But I did encounter one incredibly ornery elderly grandmother type selling her figs in Namdaemun Market. There are tourists everywhere in Namdaemun Market, so perhaps she’s just tired of them, but she does have her wares set up in the middle of a walking street – out for everyone to see and admire – so I really didn’t think too much about pulling out my camera and taking a few shots. But much to my surprise I got off one picture before she charged at me – this older Korean grandmother could move! I could not understand her anger – showed her the picture, that I hadn’t actually taken a photo of her but of the fig display … but she wasn’t about to listen to a westerner, yelling at me, waving her hands and promptly covered her nice display of figs with a cloth. Clearly, she’s done this before. She sat down behind her covered figs with her arms crossed, glaring at me. Well alrighty then, guess I won’t be buying any of her figs for a snack later … as the Scarecrow said to the apple tree in the Wizard of Oz “they probably had little green worms in them anyways.”

Later that evening we went to see the Korean show called Nanta or “Cookin.” This was a funny show, with audience participation, lots of dancing and percussion – sort of like Stomp taking place in a Korean kitchen. I had read the reviews and the warnings … if you are a Westerner you might want to sit in the middle or further back in the audience to avoid being selected to come up on stage. We arrive after another Pali-Pali taxi ride and start to take our seats – thank you my friends who scurried in front of me, leaving me 3 seats in from the aisle. I’m thinking well, we’re halfway back from the front and I’m not on the end … surely I’m safe. Wrong – at one part of the show the “Sexy Guy” selects me from the audience to come up on stage. Happy … I am not. I am petrified to be in front of people and much prefer to always, always be in the back of a group, behind a camera, basically no where near any attention. Somehow Sexy Guy must have some sort of radar and honed right in on me as a victim. Aside from my “15 minutes of fame” I thoroughly enjoyed the show and for a brief moment at least got to have some contact with a guy who is definitely cut and well deserves his show title as “Sexy Guy.” “Cookin” is an international show and if it happens to come to your town it is well worth seeing. For more information go to:

So, two really busy days down, one more to go. Our final day was spent seeing a bit of culture and getting in a little more shopping. Till next time, sayonara.

Korea - "It is o.k? Yeah"

October was a busy month, my English Conversation classes were in full gear, my children were busy with school and extracurricular activities but somehow I managed to squeeze in two trips – sans family. I was due … way overdue. One trip was to Nagoya to my shibori sensei’s studio for a four-day workshop. There is so much to share from that trip that I hardly know where to begin and I can’t say that it was a pleasure trip – it was four days of long hours and hard work. I’ve made notes, started several blog entries and still I have not pulled that one together. I will, but it may still be a while. The other trip I was able to take was to Seoul Korea with three friends from here on base. It was jam-packed and there were many hilarious moments. It was a trip filled with history, shopping, a highly entertaining show, several wild taxi rides, a couple of palaces and more shopping. I had not gone away for a girls weekend for more than 5 years (no Jeff, packing out by myself for an overseas move does not count) and I needed a break, needed some time to myself, needed to have the luxury of stopping to look at something, anything that I fancied and not be questioned about “what are you looking at?” “come on, can we go now?” “how much longer?” I’ve stated this before – but as a reminder, my family is not a family of shoppers – not even window-shoppers. And while I can’t say I’m the biggest shopper in the world I do enjoy looking at things, especially things I know I’ll probably never get to see again. So I was looking forward to this trip … a lot.

We really scored on the weather, arriving in Seoul late on a Thursday evening it was clear, a slight nip in the Fall night air and it stayed that way the entire time we were there. After months and months of humidity in Japan, this was a welcome respite. My friends and I had booked the USO DMZ tour for our first day in Seoul. The taxi ride from the airport should have been my first clue that “I wasn’t in Kansas anymore” – the cab driver barreled down the highway and used his horn freely. After a year of living in Japan this was a bit of a shock – you don’t really think about things that vanish from your environment, like horn blowing, until you’re confronted with them again. Our ride over to the USO was no different, fast paced through the city streets, very reminiscent of riding in a NYC cab. Not sure my companions were digging this too much but I thought it was a crack up – sort of an Asian spin on the west.

The DMZ was a long day and honestly, I was very ambivalent about going. My family on the other hand couldn’t believe I was going there without them, “that’s not fair” was a common refrain. Here are some of my thoughts from the day:

Infiltration Tunnel
Our first stop, the 3rd tunnel tour was interesting only from the perspective of the audacity of North Korea digging infiltration tunnels into South Korea and then painting the inside of the tunnels black and claiming they were mining tunnels for coal. Really? Didn’t they think someone would discover there’s no coal in that area?

Dora Observatory
The stop at the Dora Observatory gives you the chance to look across the Demilitarized Zone and view North Korea’s Propaganda Village. Built by the North Koreans as a “Peace Village,” until 2004 communist propaganda blasted from huge speakers up to 20 hours a day in the hopes of inducing defections to the North. Apparently their propaganda campaign was unsuccessful and in 2004 the speakers were silenced.

Dorasan Station – A train station to nowhere
Dorasan station was educational – I wasn’t aware of the South-North Korea Joint Declaration in 2000 and the importance of connecting the railways. When relations were somewhat better between the two nations the CEO of Hyundai decided to build this train station in the hopes of cutting out nearly 2 weeks of transit time from South Korea to Europe. This was an economic decision – 21 days by ship or hook up a railway spur from South Korea, across North Korea and then onto the TransSiberian Railway. Good idea. Shipments would go from 21 days to 7. Sadly for him and the country, shortly after the train station and railway opened up there was an incident where a South Korean tourist was shot and killed when she veered out of the restricted area her group was confined too. That’s all it took. Now this train station is a stop on the tourist circuit – a symbol of one step forward and two steps back.

JSA/Camp Bonifas
The part the tour that impressed me the most was the stop at Camp Bonifas and JSA. We had to stop here for a briefing at Camp Bonifas – signing of a waiver in case of an “incident” the U.N. would not be held liable – and an interesting short film on the history of the area. We then boarded a bus that would take us directly to the JSA (Joint Security Area). The JSA area was what I’d been waiting for, while I found the other stops somewhat interesting, this area is where history has been made. It was very quiet, and I could feel a certain amount of tension in the air. The South Korean soldiers (ROK – Republic of Korea) are intense, as you would expect at a border with your enemy. They are trained in martial arts – all have at least one black belt in Taekwondo, are college graduates – this is an elite assignment for a ROK soldier. While visitors are in the area they maintain a ROK Ready stance – a modified Taekwondo stance – and they wear sunglasses so that no eye contact is made. At building corners they stand half-covered/half-exposed to show readiness to fight or take cover if a fight breaks out.

No photography was allowed while traveling from Camp Bonifas to JSA. We saw the South Korean village that has the unfortunate claim to fame as being located in the middle of the DMZ – but the silver lining for those born into this village is that they are well compensated, earning on average the equivalent of $80,000 each year. They do have to be inside by midnight every night and they have to spend at least 240 nights a year at their residence. I’m not sure that would be worth it to me … having restricted freedom but I supposed if this is your home and where your ancestors are from it would be hard to leave.

For more information on this area go to:

“It is o.k.? Yeah”
Our Korean tour guide that day was so cute, with each explanation of what we were going to do she would end with “It is o.k.? Yeah” followed by a short little “he, he, he.” My friend Monika and I started to crack up each time this was said …we wondered what she would do if the busload of Westerners had said – “Uhh, no it is not o.k.” This was our first full day in Korea and we were starting to get clued in with a particular mindset – our tour guide mentioned quite a number of times throughout the day about “when we are reunited” like it was going to happen next week. This surprised me, from a westerner’s perspective it sure seems like North Korea has dug in and they aren’t embracing the idea of reunification any time soon, but our guide truly seems to have hope that this will happen soon.

It was a long day but I’m glad my friends wanted to take the DMZ tour. I learned so much and hope that my family can come here to share this experience. Check back in for the rest of the entries on my trip. Till next time, sayonara.

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