Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Neighborhoods in Seoul

We went to a number of different parts of Seoul, but a few neighborhoods stand out.

Insa-Dong is probably the most approachable part of Seoul. It is a peaceful neighborhood full of interesting buildings, restaurants, shops, art galleries, tea houses, souvenir stores, food vendors, interesting public artworks, and more.

It is a place where tourists come to browse, where families bring their children, where couples come on dates, and where grandparents come to be together. When we tired of browsing, we sat happily in a tea house, enjoying light snacks and herbal tea, watching across the street as child after child emerged from a speciality soft-serve ice cream vendor, clutching their treat in hand, beaming from ear to ear.

In many ways, walking around Insa-Dong reminds me of strolling around the inner harbor in Victoria, British Columbia: it's a completely civilized and yet immersive way for a newcomer to get a feel for the city in just a few hours.

The well-known Gangnam neighborhood is an entirely different experience.

We went to Gangnam twice, both times in the late afternoon and evening. Gangnam, of course, was made famous to westerners by the viral music video, but it was on the charts to the rest of the world quite some time before that.

Gangnam is sort of like Sunset Boulevard meets Times Square meets Michigan Avenue, full of restaurants and nightclubs and and office buildings and stores.

Every building is covered in advertising. Seventy foot tall outdoor video screens play k-pop music videos and ads with the latest Korean celebrities.

The area has also become the plastic surgery capital of Asia. Gleaming skyscrapers full of cosmetic surgeons fill the needs of Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and more. We learn that plastic surgery nowadays is less about repairing damage and increasingly more about image alteration just for effect and distinctiveness. Be the only one in your circle with a permanently raised left eyebrow.!

Our first evening in Gangnam was a business entertainment experience, as we were visiting our business partner there. They first took us to a very nice Korean restaurant, where we sat and enjoyed a wonderful barbecue. Unlike several of the other Korean barbecue restaurants we visited, the barbecue grills in the center of each table of this restaurant were heated by actual charcoal! A wiry waiter used a long metal handle to carefully bring white-hot dishes of charcoal out to the table and maneuver them into the grill areas, then later returned to (equally carefully) extract the still molten charcoal and return it back to the kitchen area once we were done.

After dinner, our hosts walked us nearby to a local noraebang, or Korean Karaoke room, where we belted out hits old and new, danced like crazy fools, and generally had a great time.

Karaoke in Korea is nothing like it is in America. It's much more popular, for one thing, and for another it has evolved a set of customs and etiquette that are all part of the fun.

I was particularly good with the tambourine, by the way!

Yet a third sort of Seoul neighborhood can be found in Dongdaemun. Where Insa-Dong is full of art, antiques, and tradition, and Gangnam is all about entertainment, celebrities, and nightlife, Dongdaemun is about shopping.

People come to Dongaemun to get things done: go shopping, run errands, grab some street food, and then move one.

It's fun to visit the touristy areas and the glamourous nightspots, but it's also fascinating to see how the city runs, and the part of the city that keeps it running is Dongdaemun.

So when we got there, we found a nice cafe next to the Dongdaemun Gate, got ourselves a drink, and sat for an hour while we watched all the various people go about their business.

There are many neighborhoods in a city, and many many neighborhoods in Seoul; I was pleased that I got to visit neighborhoods of different sorts.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My trip to Korea: Bukchon and Namsangol

One of the highlights of my visit to Seoul was seeing Bukchon and Namsangol.

On my first full day in Seoul, we went to Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a neighborhood in the Gwanghwamun area between the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Changdeokgung Palace. Specifically, we visited the cluster of Hanoks that lies along Bukchon-ro 11-gil, which is reached by walking up Bukchon-ro from the Anguk subway station.

A Hanok is a traditional Korean wooden house.

The Hanoks in Bukchon are still actively occupied by residents, so what's really happening here is that you find yourself walking down quiet residential streets, admiring the beautiful houses on either side.

There is at least one museum and at least one cultural center in Bukchon. We briefly poked our heads inside the museum, which was nice, but we were in a hurry, sadly.

There are also a few Hanoks in Bukchon which are now guest houses, cafes, wine bars, and the like. They seemed tasteful enough to me, but I guess this increasing commercialism is controversial.

Bukchon is near some very nice areas, including Insa-Dong and Gwanghwamun Square, and generally is a really delightful place for an afternoon stroll. If you get up near the heights, the views are very good, too.

Later in my visit, near the end of it in fact, we stopped by another Hanok village, Namsangol.

Namsangol is different than Bukchon, as it is a collection of existing Hanoks from elsewhere in Seoul that were all moved to this one location, and were carefully restored within a park-like setting that is intended to be historically representative.

That is, Namsangol is a museum, not a place where people are actually living.

But, that being said, Namsangol is gorgeous! The park is very nicely landscaped, with a peaceful (man-made) creek running through it, and the buildings are all arranged elegantly, with nice sight lines to set them off and emphasize their architectural qualities.

There are lots of informative placques which explain what you are seeing, and for the most part you can wander all about and really get a good look at the buildings.

If time is short, and you can only pick one of the two villages, you can't really go wrong. Bukchon is more authentic, but Namsangol is prettier and more educational.

Instead of worrying about which village to pick, I'd suggest visiting whichever one you happen to be near:

  • If you happen to be visiting one of the palaces of Gyeongbokgung or Changdeokgung, then combine that with a visit to Bukchon, which is right next to either palace.
  • If you happen to be visiting Mt Namsan, or N Seoul Tower, or the Myeong-dong or Chungmuro areas, then combine that with a visit to Namsangol, which is close nearby.

Either way, you'll much enjoy your visit.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Gyeonbokgung Palace

During my visit to Korea, I was lucky enough to have a bit of time to sight-see. One of the places we went to was the world-famous Gyeongokgung Palace, one of Korea's famous royal palaces.

We boarded the subway and rode to Anguk station, which lets us out onto Gwanghwamun Square, on Sejong-ro, named for Korea's greatest King, Sejong the Great.

Here, a street festival was under way, and we paused to talk briefly with a group of young women very concerned about the comfort women memorial issue, then shared a bowl of (I think) Mul Naengmyun from one of the vendors at the festival.

From here, we walked across the street through Gwanghwamun Gate past the perfectly stoic guards in their brilliantly colored outfits into Gyeongbokgung Palace.

The guidebooks compare this to Beijing's forbidden city. I've never been there but this was certainly a bucket list site to visit. This is the third incarnation of the palace. It was first built in 1395, then destroyed 200 years later, then rebuilt in 1867, then destroyed again in the 1900's. Civic groups have been working hard to restore the palace since the devastation of the early 1900's and it really shows.

In addition to just admiring the beautiful buildings, there is much interesting history here, as well as great illustrations of details, such as the clever system used for central heating of the buildings by building charcoal fires in alcoves in the stone foundations and blowing the heated air under the main building floors.

My favorite section was the throne hall and its great adjoining courtyard (Geunjeongjeon), with the intriguing "rank stones" (pumgyeseoks), indicating how the officials are to assemble by rank during important ceremonies.

As with all the places we visited in Seoul, we had far too little time for this beautiful palace and its grounds. You could easily spend an entire day here, walking through the gardens, visiting the museums, admiring the buildings and learning about their history.

Even though we sort of raced through it, I really enjoyed visiting Gyeonbokgung Palace and would strongly recommend it to anyone visiting Seoul.

Back online

I'm back, after a lapse in posting.

I was away on a business trip, my first ever trip to Asia.

Because of the travel time, a one-week business trip to Asia actually takes more like 10 days:

  • I left my house early on Friday morning
  • It's a 13 hour airplane flight to South Korea from California.
  • It's a 16 hour time difference between South Korea and California, so if you leave on Friday morning, you arrive in Seoul on Saturday afternoon.
  • Forget about Saturday; you're wiped out. Spend Sunday trying to get back on your feet.
  • Then there's 5 days of work.
  • Then on the next Saturday, you can check out and make your way to the airport and head home. It's only (!) a 10 hour flight back to California, because the winds will blow you home.
  • And you get to buy back the time that you spent a week ago, so this time you leave Seoul on Saturday evening and arrive back home in California on Saturday morning.
  • But forget about Saturday; you're wiped out. Spend Sunday trying to get back on your feet.

So you end up spending 5 days traveling to and from Seoul, which means you should only do this if you're able to spend at least a week there (though one of my colleagues traveled to Seoul and only spent 2.5 days at the office; you are a better man than I am :) ).

Anyway, I'm home and unpacked, and will try to post a few pictures and thoughts as time permits.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

I suppose I like my sports journalism flowery

And you can't get any more ornate than the prose in Suarez Strikes Again: The nasty, greedy goals of the Liverpool FC attacker.

It takes a huge bounce; Suarez bears down; Stoke defender Marc Wilson rises like a startled pheasant and tries to head it back to his goalkeeper, Jack Butland. The header is too weak; the ball drifts; Suarez scuttles past Wilson, his eyes raised and goal-drool already shining on his chin. Stoke leg-breaker Ryan Shawcross lurches across, droning with imminent damage, but his attempt to sweep the ball away from the Suarez of the present turns out to be a neat pass to the Suarez who lives two seconds into the future—who jinks, gathers, fends off a half-hearted embrace from Shawcross, and with his first touch slides the ball under Butland’s out-flung left leg. The back of the net receives it with a sigh. Butland tastes grass and ashes, Shawcross looks blackly at Wilson, Wilson’s face is a potato of disbelief. And Suarez arcs away, rejoicing.

A "potato of disbelief"? I don't know.

But I do like "droning with imminent damage," and "the Suarez who lives two seconds into the future." Nearly perfect.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sea Ranch in the rain

It was a beautiful, though stormy, weekend, so we headed north.

We spent two delightful days in Gualala and Sea Ranch, with long walks along the ocean cliffs, drives along peaceful country roads, visits to lighthouses and quiet pastures, and lots of good food.

There were seals, osprey, dolphins, and whales.

Saturday evening, around 7:30 PM, we were seated at the beautiful bench on the lawn at Whale Watch Inn, binoculars in hand, relaxing at the end of a perfect day, when we were treated to a most amazing display by a pod of migrating whales.

One after another, whale after whale lifted up, high out of the water, then twisted and fell back into the water with a resounding splash, visible and even audible from more than half a mile away, a behavior I believe they call "breaching".

I've seen this on TV and in the movies many a time, but this was the first time ever to see it with my own eyes, and to see it a dozen times in just five minutes was truly glorious.

It even distracted us from the osprey we were following as it hunted for fish in the waves.

It was a most wonderful weekend.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

How dry is it?

It rained the last two days, after 12 days without rain before that.

How dry is it?

As they say, "a picture is worth 1,000 words": California's Historic Drought.

The year 2013 was the driest in California's recorded history, and predictions for 2014 aren't much better.

Meanwhile, I talked to my in-laws in Ann Arbor, Michigan, today. There's still almost 3 feet of snow on the ground, temperatures remain below freezing, and the Winter Snow Season ended (on the first day of Spring) just 1 inch short of the all-time record for heaviest snowfall ever.

The world is changing.