Tuesday, May 19, 2009
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Pleas enjoy these last photos…four photos that represent four of my fondest memories in Seoul.
-A photo of me eating my last dinner at Dimibap, a great Korean vegetarian restaurant in Insadong.
-A photo of me standing on Insadong-gil, the main street in Insadong.
-A photo of me having fun with a statue in Ttukseom Seoul Park.
-A photo of me at one of my favorite place in Seoul—no, in the world: at the top of Inwangsan, the Buddhist-Shamanist mountain north of Seoul.
Again, thanks for reading my blog.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Well, folks, this is my last post…Tomorrow I am heading back to Inwangsan, my favorite place in Seoul, the Buddhist/Shamanist worship area high in the mountains. I’ll also go to Sanchon, a famous Buddhist vegetarian restaurant in Insadong, and also a tea shop in Insadong. But I don’t plan on bringing my camera, or getting home in time to write on my blog (although I reserve the right to change my mind!).
I wasn’t home last night so I couldn’t write on the blog. And tomorrow I’ll be busy, getting ready to leave. SO this is it…
Last night I spent the night at a jimjilbang. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a Korean spa/bathhouse where you can do everything from take a soak in a hot tub to get a massage, all for around 10 bucks. Jimjilbangs are huge in Korea, and by huge I mean in size and in popularity. Most men and women make regular trips to public baths and jimjilbangs. Basically, you go there and forget about everything else and just relax. I didn’t bring my cell phone or laptop and I had no communication with anyone but myself from 10pm-10am the next morning. Oh, did I mention you can sleep there (at no extra cost)? Yes, after you relax in the sauna or steam room or take advantage of any of the other services, there’s a giant room where you can sleep on a mattress on the floor. Jimjilbangs are so big. The one I went to, called Dragon Hill, is 7 stories tall and includes 2 restaurants, a snack bar, an outdoor pool, and so many other amenities. At around midnight I went down to the Korean restaurant in the basement and had some delicious bibimbap and Hite beer on tap. Then, as mentioned, I headed to the sleeping room and there I stayed for the next 9 hours. I’d love to go into details about this place, but honestly it would take me an hour to cover it all. Luckily, another guy staying in Seoul, writing on his blog, has covered it all right here:
Jimjilbangs are so relaxing and stress-free…Had I been brave enough to try one at the beginning of my trip, I’d have gone 2-3 times a week. But at least I got to go once. It was a very interesting experience and one of the highlights of my trip to Seoul.
What else? Ah, yes…before I went to the jimjilbang yesterday I visited COEX mall, which is a mall so big it would make my mother’s mouth water. It’s an underground mall that has everything from an amusement park to a movie theater, plus every possible Western clothing store you can think of. I’ve never seen a mall this big. Personally, I hate malls, but it was interesting to see, and it’s obviously popular because it was packed.
Across the street from COEX is literally like entering another universe, in the form of Bongeusa, which is one of Seoul’s oldest and most famous Buddhist temples [check out the photo of the temple in the foreground and the highrises near COEX in the background; what a contrast!]. Bongeusa is much like the other Buddhist temples and shrines I’ve been to—serene, lush, and spiritual, a far cry away from the bustling concrete city just a stone’s throw away. It’s hundreds of acres large, set on a hillside, and so beautiful. Thankfully, such places are protected from the development that is sweeping through Seoul.
Back to today: after waking up in the Jimjilbang (and taking another soak in the hot tub), I went back to Sangdo. I ate breakfast and headed to Bangbae where I tutored Dahee and Sunae. Again, like the last two sessions, Sunae took it upon herself to write an essay expressing her ideas about the influence of the media on society. Again, I am posting a photo of her essay on this blog. She is such a good writer and I am so glad that she enjoys writing her ideas in English. Dahee also wrote some great essays about her personal ideas, and she has made a lot of improvement since I started tutoring her just a few weeks ago.
After I tutored them, we all met Bori at the jumac, the traditional Korean bar that I went to with Sunae and Dahee 3 weeks ago. I really love this place, and I especially love the dongdongju, the Korean rice wine that taste so much more delicious than it sounds. We also had seafood ttoekbokki, covered with melted cheese (which I didn’t like), and some kimchibuchimgae (often called Korean pizza, only there’s no cheese or dough), and other battered and fried vegetables (which were delicious). We spent 2.5 hours in the jumac and just kept drinking, eating, and saying “kungbae” (Korean for “cheers”), and eating and drinking some more. We had a great time. Dahee and Sunae gave me some nice presents and waited for me at the bus stop [see photo]. I will miss Dahee and Sunae, but since the former has family in Queens and the latter is considering studying in America, I know I will see them again.
Anyway, thanks for reading my blog. I’m not going to end with any dramatic or philosophical comments. As I said, I may write again tomorrow. There are many people I want to thank for making this trip possible, but I’ll email them individually in the next day or so.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Let me begin with the Royal Toilet, the toilet with all the buttons that I’ve seen in my students’ apartments and here in my own bathroom. So, the way it works is you sit down and do your business. Then you press a button and it sort of becomes a bidet, only it’s warm water and it’s quite, uh, efficient. Then you press another button and it shoots hot air at your nether-region, and…well, I sat there for 5 minutes wondering when the hot air would stop, and then I realized that all I had to do was stand up to get it to stop. All of the other buttons, apparently, are just to help adjust it to your personal, uh, backside.
Okay, enough about the Royal Toilet…
Today I had such a nice tutoring session with the Korean lawyer, and then afterward he and his wife brought me to an excellent traditional Korean restaurant where we had delicious bibimbap. Bibimbap, which is rice and vegetables and some sauce (and sometimes meat), is so simple but so delicious. If you’ve never tried it, please go to a Korean restaurant and have some. It’s NOT spicy! It’s just rice and whatever else you want in it—so simple, so healthy, and so good. The Korean couple were so nice and I feel bad I won’t see them again for a while. But I know for sure that when then move to NYC in a few years, my wife and kids and I will be there to welcome them.
Next I met Bori at Namdaemun Market. It was raining all day here in Seoul so many of the street vendors were not around. Nonetheless, I managed to tell the man in the Korean souvenir shop “kaka joo say you” (give me a discount), and I got some traditional Korean stuff for me and my family. I love Namdaemun and I will miss it a lot.
Next we headed to Yetchajip in Insadong, Bori’s favorite tea shop in Seoul and a place I’ve been meaning to visit since I got here. The teas all cost between $5.00 and $7.00 per cup. In case you are wondering what a six dollar cup of tea looks like, please see the photo above. And you know what? It was worth every penny. This traditional tea shop, which has been around forever, specializes in unique teas that are as dark as rich as any coffee. I tried the “pine needle tea.” As I was drinking it I was thinking, ‘if my mother read the description she’d hate it but if she drank it she’d love it.’ It was so scrumptious, this tea, so sweet—don’t let the word ‘pine’ turn you off. Bori had “date tea” (as in dates, the Middle Eastern fruit), and it was even better. When most Americans think of tea they think of Lipton. But when you drink real tea, brewed from real herbs, you realize how Lipton is garbage. There are so many deep, rich, medicinal teas out there that I’m never going to drink crap like Lipton again. And by the way, another tea I discovered here (actually, it was recommended by my ENT in Greensboro, who has been to Korea) is “bori cha” (barley tea). And in case you’ve never tried barley tea, drop what you’re doing and go out and get some. It is so good! And, if you Google it (as I did), you’ll see it has numerous real health benefits.
Next we headed to a traditional Korean restaurant, the name of which I didn’t catch. This restaurant, like many, offered a “royal banquet” which consists of a wide variety of banchan (side dishes), most of which are vegetarian. [Please see the photo, and remember that everything you see cost less than $25.00). Also, part of the banquet was bulgogi, which is traditional Korean beef served on a sizzling plate with onions and peppers. They way to eat bulgogi is so cool—you take a big piece of romaine lettuce, add some bulgogi and vegetables, and top it off with some sweet-spicy sauce. Yes, I admit, even though I am a vegetarian, I wanted to experience this native dish. And yes, it was delicious. Oh, and one more thing: since this was a traditional Korean restaurant, they offered dongdongju, the traditional fermented rice drink served in a large bowl with a ladle. Let me tell you something—it’s very deceptive. You start drinking it, thinking, “hey, it’s just a rice drink,” and then a few cups later, you’re drunk! It is such good stuff! I will miss it when I return to the States.
Friday, May 15, 2009
Today, after eating some tuna fish sandwiches that Olivia’s mother made (leftovers left for us from the ones she prepared for her morning radio show, so I had to eat them), I tutored Olivia, and then headed to Bangbae to tutor Sunae.
Sunae impressed me by writing a second essay that I did not assign. Indeed, she was thinking about the effects of societal pressure on people in Korea, and she took it upon herself to write an essay about how the media makes people feel like “outsiders,” and even contributes to the increased suicide rate in Korea. [Please see a photo of the essay she wrote; again, remember that you can click the photo to make it larger and legible]. Sunae mentioned to me that she has been rethinking cosmetic surgery. She’s been saving money for it, but now she says she’s started to enjoy expressing herself in English, and she may want to travel to America to improve her writing and speaking. I was so happy to hear that. Whatever she does, it’s the right decision, as long as it’s her decision.
After the tutoring session, we found ourselves with some extra time so we decided to have some ttoekbokki at a street vendor nearby. If you are getting sick and tired of me mentioning ttoekbokki, well, too bad, because I am really starting to like this stuff. Today I got to see the chef (and her elderly mother, who works with her) prepare it from the beginning. I didn’t realize how many ingredients go into the bright red, sweet-spicy sauce that bathes the ttoekbokki. I also didn’t realize that, just like any other culinary pleasure, different chefs prepare it in different ways, so some vendors are known for cooking better ttoekbokki. I was very lucky today. When I tried it today it was not quite as good as the one I had in the vegetarian restaurant last night, but still much better than the street ttoekbokki I had at a vendor a few weeks ago. Actually, it was delicious, even though, yes, as it boils constantly all day, the cook adds ladles of fish water to it to keep it all from drying out. Alongside the ttoekbokki was a big pile of pig intestines stuffed with yapchae noodles. The chef literally takes a length of the intestine, cuts it with scissors, and serves it on a platter. Apparently, it’s supposed to be delicious. And why wouldn’t it be? I mean, I used to love hot dogs and god knows what’s in those things. [Please see the special photo section, a separate post, that features the ttoekbokki, the pig intestines, and some other fried foods at the vendor’s stall].
So I stood there in the rain, beneath the short canopy of the vendor’s stall, eating ttoekbokki, a classic Korea street food. I was speaking English to my Korean student about her plans to travel to America. Behind us was a French bakery and across the street was a Burger King. My friend and I were both sipping Italian cappuccino that we had just bought at Starbucks. Is this scene globalization at its best or worst? Hm. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Afterwards I headed to Sinchon, an area teeming with young people, bars, and restaurants. For whatever reason, Sinchon specializes in restaurants where each table, many of which are outside, has a little hibachi-like grill, where foods is cooked and kept warm before the patrons’ eyes. The ordinarily polluted air of Seoul was replaced with the scent of delicious meats and vegetables being grilled all over the place. Honestly, I’ve never been more tempted to eat meat than I was tonight, it smelled that good. I’m not talking about 1 or 2 of these places…literally, there were 3 or 4 on every block, and like I mentioned, most of them had outdoor seating. So the smell (and sizzle) was alluring. But rather than eat meat I found a quaint jazz bar and had some beers while listening to jazz and looking at all of the memorabilia, much of it jazz- and wine-related, on the walls. Sinchon was a really great place but unfortunately I won’t have time to go back there [see photo of me standing in Sinchon under my umbrella].
After that I went to Hongdae, a student area near Hongik University that I had visited twice before. Like Itaewon a few nights ago, there were many things I discovered and started to love about this neighborhood that I hadn’t noticed the first time. Since Hongik University is an arts university, this neighborhood has a Greenwich Village/Woodstock like feel to it. There were lots of students, of course, but there were also lots of people selling arts and crafts and jewelry and food all over the streets. I managed to find Agio, an Italian restaurant that specializes in wood-fired oven pizza. I was delighted to see that all of the pizza and pasta served there was organic. The pizza was very close to the kind that I had in Italy many years ago, it was that good—very thin crust, fresh mozzarella…oh so good. And I cannot believe that I did this, but since a bottle Tabasco sauce is served along with the pizza, I decided to try it on a slice. You know, I always considered Tabasco sauce too spicy for me. But man, that stuff is so good, and it tastes great on pizza. I kid you not—you should try it.
On the way back to the subway I heard “Hey Jude” being played by an excellent street band at the top of a flight of stairs, in a tree-lined park. These bohemian performers, all of whom had cigarettes dangling from their mouths while beating drums, singing, and playing bass, were so good. It was nice to hear such great music after such a great day.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Today I went to Namsan Mountain, which is a huge mountain in the middle of downtown Seoul. Unlike the other mountains I visited, this one really is in an urban area. It’s hard to explain…the city of Seoul is so big that there is a mountain in the middle of it but when you’re on the mountain you’re still in the city. In fact, Namsan is not as rugged as the others I visited; it is more tourist-oriented, somewhat akin to visiting the Empire State Building in NYC. For example, although you can take a 30-minute walk up a steep trail to get to the top, there’s also a cable car that takes you up there. I’ve done my share of steep climbing these past few weeks, so I took the tram, even though I’m afraid of being in anything mechanical high up in the air [see video of me in cable car, as well as photos of view from the top of the mountain]. The view from Namsan is incredible. Since it is in the city rather than on the outskirts, the buildings of Seoul were that much closer and there was a true panorama since the huge observation area gave a 360 degree view.
At the top of Namsan there was a show with Korean actors putting on a display by doing some ancient fighting. It was interesting--and free. Also at the top I saw Seoul N Tower, which is a huge radio transmission tower built many years ago. For an additional 6 bucks I could have gone to the top of the tower but I decided not to. Instead I headed back to New Start Vegetarian Restaurant, the vegetarian buffet that I fell in love with on Monday. I won’t go on and on about how amazing the foods was. But I did want to mention that I tried tteokbokki again. For those of you who don’t recall, tteokbokki is the number one street food in Seoul. When I say number one, I mean it is sold (along side a few other common items) on every street in Seoul. Basically, it’s just a bunch of chewy rice patties, each the size of your thumb, mixed in a red, sweet-spicy sauce. Everyone here is crazy for it. I tried it a few weeks ago from a street vendor and thought it was okay. Part of the reason I was a bit turned off is that as I was eating it, the street vendor took some water from the vat of boiling fish fillets and dumped it in with the ttoekbokki, so it wasn’t vegetarian (the vendor also gave me, and the other customers, a cup of fish water to wash it all down with). Anyway, at the vegetarian restaurant tonight one of the options was ttoekbokki, only without the fish flavoring, and it was amazingly delicious [please see photo]. I mean, it was so good that I am probably going to try it on the street one more time, even though it is laced with fish juice.
After the restaurant, I went to another baseball game. I won’t go into the details since I already described last week’s game. But last week I saw the Doosan Bears play, on a Friday, and the crowd was about half the size of tonight’s. That’s because tonight the LG Twins played against the SK Knights, and apparently these two teams are involved in a pennant race. And in case you’re wondering what the heck ‘LG’ and ‘SK’ mean, those are two huge cell phone companies here in Korea. All baseball teams are actually clubs, and these clubs are owned by huge corporations. So the official name of the SK Knights, for example, is the SK Knight Baseball Club.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Another nice day in Korea…
Today, before tutoring Olivia, I had “breakfast,” Korean-style. One of the great things about being here is that I’ve gotten out of some of my old eating habits and I am trying new things, especially at different times of the day. For example, today, for breakfast, I ate some cabbage kimchi and rice, as well as some kimchi sesame seed leafs. Just to explain that a bit: “kimchi,” although usually cabbage, is not necessarily made from cabbage. As it turns out, any vegetable that is picked, fermented, and spiced, including cucumbers, radishes, and sesame leaves, is considered “kimchi.” Also, as far as those sesame leaves are concerned, all Americans know what sesame seeds are, but did you know that you can eat the leaves, too? They are really tasty—a little bitter, but tasty, especially when they’ve been ‘kimchi-ized.’ Anyway, it was a hearty and filling breakfast and it proved that you don’t need cold cereal and scrambled eggs to have a good breakfast. In fact, many Koreans eat kimchi and rice for breakfast every day.
Anyway, today was Bori’s first day in Seoul (she flew in last night). And for those of you who don’t know she’s one of my best friends and she is the main reason that I am here in Korea. [Thanks, Bori!!!]. After I tutored Olivia, Bori took me to lunch at a great Korean bibimbap restaurant downtown that actually grows its own vegetables (hydroponically) right in the center of the restaurant. In addition to sprout bibimbap, I had sweet and sour mushroom and tofu. Wow, what a great meal. I also had my first glass of wine in 3 weeks (while wine is available in Korea, it’s not nearly as common as beer and soju), and it was a pleasure.
After lunch we went to Cheonggye stream which is in the heart of downtown Seoul. I’ve been looking forward to visiting Cheonggye since I arrived, because I’d read it was one of the greatest urban developments in Seoul’s recent history. Basically, there’s a miles-long gully that stretches across the center of the city, and in it is a stream about 10 meters wide. It’s a lovely urban stream sidled by walkways and there are also lots of small bridges and stones that go across it [see photo of me standing in the middle of the stream]. Cheonggye stream is very famous in Seoul because the former mayor of the city, Myeong-bak Lee (who is now the President of Korea), had a large highway torn down to uncover the stream running beneath it. Then he had urban landscape architects create what you see in the photos. It’s sort of an oasis in the middle of the city.
After that we took the bus to Itaewon. Some of you may recall that Itaewon was one of the first neighborhoods that I visited when I got to Seoul. However, I went there for a quick dinner with Olivia and her boyfriend, and didn’t get to see it all. Actually, tonight I realized that this is one of the coolest places in Seoul. Because the US military base used to be nearby, this area is very international. It’s the only place in Seoul where it’s common to see non-Koreans on the streets, and there are restaurants representing every cuisine imaginable. I am so used to teaching Arabs back in Greensboro that it was a strange pleasure to see Muslim men and women walking around in this area. In addition, I saw many other internationals reveling in the streets and frequenting the dozens of bars and restaurants here. Indeed, Itaewon has sort of a party atmosphere, and I wonder why I didn’t notice this a few weeks ago. Actually, it might be good that I didn’t notice it, because it forced me to explore true Korean neighborhoods rather than focus on this Queens, NY-style area. Anyway, I grabbed a vegetable burrito at the Mexican take-out place and headed home. But I’m definitely going back to Itaewon before I return to the States.
But before that, we ate at a great restaurant that I had read about in my Lonely Planet guidebook called “Our Place.” It’s a Western-fusion restaurant on the fifth and sixth floors of a building high above the streets of Itaewon. We ate hummus and pita on the terrace overlooking the neighborhood and had a great time [see photo]. Our Place is unique in that it is owned by the only Korean TV start to come out of the closet. He was a famous star a few years back when he announced to the nation that he was gay. Korea is still a relatively closed society when it comes to sex, so they responded to his announcement by canceling his TV show and shunning him. But he came all the way back and now is back on TV, and also owns Our Place in Itaewon. So, considering his story, I was glad to spend my money in his restaurant tonight.
By the way, I am also adding a photo above of a typical hallway in the Seoul subway system. Seoul’s subway is amazingly clean, fast, efficient, and loaded with clothing shops and food joints (they sell everything in subways, from delicious waffles and cream and honey, to broiled mackerel). But most impressive, the Seoul subway system is HUGE and CLEAN. Unlike NYC and Boston subway stations, there is so much room for all the people, and it is kept so clean; it is really like visiting a mall whenever I go into the subway. There are often fresh flowers adorning the hallways of the Seoul subway system [as shown in the photo], and there is no smell of urine, unlike NYC subways…why? Because every station has large, clean, modern public toilets!