Sunday, May 30, 2010

Weekend 13 of 52.

VIPs Fresh Life Restaurant, Soul Underground, Jeoldusan Martyrs' Shrine, Seonyudo Park

Friday was Dan's and my fifth anniversary. We ate where you eat for those sorts of occasions: VIPs (pronounced, as far as we can tell, not as the acronym, but as a word) Fresh Life Restaurant. It's a steak and salad buffet restaurant, and Dan and I have both been grieving each meal since not spent there. Koreans do salad buffet right. Maybe it's because every meal comes with a mini buffet of banchan. There were dark leafy greens and red cabbage, quails eggs and sesame dressing, all kinds of noodle sides and fried rice, always a tidy miso soup bar, even pizza and pasta. Our favorite part of the buffet was the soft taco station with chopped chicken and guacamole. Such a good idea, everyone, go to VIPs. We accidentally missed the dessert bar, but we will never again make such an error.

After dinner, we went to the Lotte Cinema in Hongdae. We intended to see "Date Night", but this theater was only showing a handful of movies and that wasn't one of them. So I broke my no-cartoons-except-for-Pixar movie theater rule and we saw "How to Train Your Dragon" in 3D, and we enjoyed every bit of it.

Then we headed to Soul Underground for a nightcap, and we caught the end of a show and had a good chat with proprietor Shin about the Koreas and Korean politics. We always leave Soul Underground feeling more purposeful and un-alone here in Seoul.

Saturday we set out for a park at which to play my wooden anniversary gift to Dan: janggi, Korean chess. We walked through the Jeoldusan Martyrs' Shrine, a shrine to honor Catholic martyrs, and I didn't realize until online fact-checking after the fact that there is an entire museum we managed to miss. We settled ourselves under the bridge by the river, and Dan check-mated me, because I have never won a single game of chess (or checkers even) in my whole life.

We decided to check out Seonyudo Park, a domesticated island paradise in the middle of the Han river. We walked the bridge over and enjoyed a cool breeze and one of those "I can't believe that this is where we live" happy feelings. I am officially recommending Seonyudo Park to every person in Seoul. It's free, of course. There's a greenhouse with flowers and bumblebees, lotus ponds, strange industrial looking artifacts, a water play area (where Korean kids wear raincoats but never swimsuits), and lovers' picnics as far as the eye can see. It was such a peaceful, easy Saturday, and it's made this weekend one of our favorites so far.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Weekend 12 of 52.

Jagalchi Fish Market, Haeundae Beach, Busan Aquarium, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Oryuk Islets

Friday was Buddha's Birthday. To celebrate, Dan, Korrine, Dave (Korrine's boyfriend, Canadian), and I spent a long weekend in Busan, south South Korea. To get there, we bought Korail KR Passes, which effectively functioned as a non-guarantee for standby/standing room only. On a holiday weekend during which every Korean is headed to Busan, I would recommend that you bypass the information desk, figure out when a train is leaving and then hop on early and establish your standing room dominance. When we asked for help in Seoul, they basically told us there was no way we'd get to Busan, that even standing room was booked out. But we got there, and it was not even hard. When we asked for help in Busan, they basically told us there was no way we'd get home, that even standing room was booked out. But we got here, and it was not even hard. Maybe it's a fire hazard thing? Each of us ended up with room to sit (on a luggage rack, on a fold down chair, on the floor) the whole way both ways.

When we got to Busan, the first thing we did was head to a bank for Dave to get cash. We had intended to eat lunch in Chinatown, right across from the station, but some suspiciously friendly English-speaking Koreans advised us to head down to Jagalchi Fish Market for more food options (they cited Vietnamese, Korean, and Western style food). Then they handed us some Watchtower Literature, so Jehovah's Witnesses. This would have been fine, but once we got to the Jagalchi Fish Market, we were greeted only by a plethora of fish restaurants. After walking through the market, none of us were in the mood for fish.

Hey, but then we found the tourist center, so we picked up a map and took an incredibly long, expensive taxi ride to Haeundae Beach. Haeundae Beach promised cosmopolitan dining opportunities, and we found a fancy burger place at which to dine outside in the perfect summer weather. Then we walked down to the water. Dave was the first in, but he's Canadian. Korrine went next and froze. It was the coldest water I have ever been in, and I've taken cold-water-only showers at summer camps. So cold that your body couldn't adjust, that your fingers tingled and your legs burned. That explains why only we and a couple kids even messed with it. Even still, one end of the beach was packed with fully dressed Koreans and sun-bathing foreigners.

Busan Aquarium is an underground aquarium right on Haeundae Beach, so we cleaned up and walked over. It was a fine aquarium. What was less fine was how I was unapologetically trampled by a toddler whose mother just laughed and moved on. I know I'm a big white person and there is a distinct language barrier, but I am familiar with the Korean expression of remorse, and giggling is not it. So that put me in a bad mood for the remainder of our aquarium perusal.

At least we got to eat chicken galbi for dinner at Yoogane, fast becoming one of my favorite Korean foods and restaurants. We also successfully haggled down a purse price in an underground shopping center. Dan and I are not haggling people, so it was quite a rush. We sealed the deal by having only so much cash on our person. The shopping center itself was my favorite so far.

Saturday morning, Dan and I tried out Papparoti's for breakfast. Dan had some roti buns, regular and chocolate, and I had an Americano and found some McVitie's Digestive biscuits at a gas station. Excellent. Then began our labored journey to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. It started when we missed the 181 bus because its bus stop had been ground up for construction. Then we watched as every other bus in the universe came ten times before ours even came back once. So, of course everyone at the bus stop was waiting for 181, and, because of Buddha, they were all riding it all the way out to the temple. And thus commenced a miserable forty minute bus ride, followed by a rainy, muddy trek up the hill to the temple, followed by a packed queue across the bridge to the temple. At least it was pretty and decorated with more paper lanterns.

For the commute home, we gave up and took a cab.

So then we thought we'd be smart and buy tickets for our cruise to the Oryuk Islets ahead of time (literally "five or six" islets, because, depending on the water level, they appear to be five, sometimes six rocks) and then get lunch. But when we got there, we couldn't communicate well enough to know if/when there was a cruise later than 3:30, so we bought tickets for 3:30, and amassed a pretty decent collection of convenience store food for our half hour meal time.

The cruise was my favorite activity. It wasn't overcrowded, and it was relaxing like a vacation should be, and the islets were very impressive. It was nice to see Busan from a distance, too, to get a feel for the scope of the city. After the cruise, it started (and probably still hasn't stopped) pouring. That limited our desire to round out our Busan weekend with much more than dinner, which was a hot pot style meat/noodle/vegetable soup in a wok and unlike anything else we've yet had in Korea (I meant to remember the name, but I've forgotten it), and dessert, hot chocolate and pastries.

I forgot to mention our hotel accommodations. We unwittingly stayed in a love motel, which is exactly what you're thinking it is. It was cheap and clean with a circle bed, a huge TV and fast internet, free orange juice and corn water (sick!), and a really, really nice shower.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Weekend 11 of 52.

Soul Underground Session at Cafe Soul Underground, Lotus Lantern Festival

On Friday night, Dan and I (as the Bell & the Hammer) got the chance to play a show at Cafe Soul Underground. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience, and I will blog about it over at our band's site and we'll be posting videos of it there as well. I am going to steal (with permission) some pictures from some of the teachers at school.

The Lotus Lantern Festival is an annual celebration of Buddha's birth. It is a three day street festival culminating in a lantern parade. We attended the closing parade on Sunday evening, and it was very much like Disney's Electric Light Parade, but with lantern floats, and that is now the third time I've described it as such. I guess some people aren't that impressed with it, but we really enjoyed ourselves. The lanterns everywhere were beautiful, and sometimes it's fun to feel the full force of Seoul's population. After the parade, Dan and I sought some quiet down by Cheonggyecheon Stream. We and all the other young couples of Seoul. It is a lover's respite after sunset, it seems. The stream is fast becoming one of our favorite features of this city.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Weekend 10 of 52.

Rugby League Game at Tony's Aussie Bar, Hiking in Gupabal, Namdaemun Market, Lotte World Shopping Center

Fridays, for us, are for foreign foods. Korrine found out that Tony's Aussie Bar in Itaewon was showing the Australia vs. New Zealand Rugby League game, so Dan and I had our first taste of Australian food and football. If America would have rugby, I would watch it. We also ate some pavlova, which is like a meringuey marshmallowy fruit pie thing. It was good.

Marius invited us to go hiking with him on Saturday morning, so we met at the subway at 8 and followed the hiking gear costumed Koreans all the way to Gupabal to find a mountain to climb. Of the two paths, we chose the steeper one that peaked instead of the longer, easier trail. Of our group of six, Dan and I were the only two who didn't go all the way up. We made it to a decent cliff and we sat and enjoyed the quiet view. Also, an especially concerned Korean man told Dan that his shoes were really inappropriate for mountain climbing, that he didn't think it was safe to continue. We didn't put much stock in that admonition, as we'd made it halfway there with no hiking gear at all, but Korrine said that getting to the peak involved rock and rope climbing, so I think that fellow was probably right.

After lunch on the Shinsegae Department Store food floor, Chinese dim sum and various desserts, we walked through Namdaemun Market. I think it is my favorite of the markets so far. It was mostly clothing and street food, and it was really fun for browsing. We found the only jar of dill pickles in all of Seoul, but we had to pass it up for lack of cash.

On Sunday, we were really looking forward to going to a baseball game. We took the green line for almost an hour only to find that the game had been sold out! We were so sad, but we decided we should at least do something in the area, so we walked around the Lotte World Shopping Center for a while, and I bought a jacket decorated with a patch of Florida and the words "Redneck Riviera" emblazoned over top. What? Amazing. It is too small, but I am from that Riviera, so I obviously had to have it for my life.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Children's Day.

It is interesting to celebrate another country's holidays. Today was Children's Day, so we went to Hangang Park for a picnic and some bike riding.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Weekend 9 of 52.

The War Memorial of Korea, The Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall, Admiral Yi Sun-Shin Musuem, Insadong

On Friday night, we were invited to A Passover Celebration put on by Ms. Teresa's class. It was our second Passover this year, and we really enjoyed it. The students had reading parts throughout the Haggadah and we witnessed some fine circle dancing. Dinner was sushi, fried chicken, and pizza. Totally kosher.

Saturday we met up with Korrine to see the War Memorial of Korea. War vehicles of all kinds are set up outdoors and absorbed a lot of our time. Korrine only had the morning free, so we decided to skip a lot of the indoor exhibits instead of rushing through. We aim to return, though, because I really want to see the Korean War room.

After lunch, which is always serendipitously amazing when we three are together (beef porridge), Dan and I went on our own to try and find Insadong. I had read about it in a "24 Hours in Seoul" article I found online, and we keep trying (and failing) to find it based on my hazy recollection of the vague directions given in the article. I knew the directions said something about Gwangwhamun and turning left, so went to the Gwhanghwamun Plaza and found that the statue of King Sejong had a gateway to the underground in it! We walked down and found The Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall and, just beyond it, the Admiral Yi Sun-Shin Musuem. It was really, really cool. Everything was interactive, with puzzles and video games and walk throughs. We even got interviewed for a young man's college project. I hope we passed.

After our brief educational experience, we set out again for Insadong. Dan hijacked some wifi from a coffee shop and found real directions. We made our way through a winding maze to a veritable hub of souvenir and art dealings. It was teeming with Westerners and proved one of those quintessential experiences. I noted to Dan how culture shocked we'd be if we'd tried that earlier on, that our first night in Seoul we were completely stunned by just a grocery/department store. How far we've come.

So then we went to Myeongdong for some chicken galbi, the spiciest dinner of my lifetime. It is nice to have the odd chicken respite in this red meat (or no meat) country.