Cheap Eats

At my home university in Toronto finding a decently priced meal that is both substantial and healthy on or around campus has always been a bit of a challenge and it seems that this sentiment is felt by other North American students that I’ve met here. I’ve always found this both strange and counterproductive as students are both well known to have little money and also to be constantly working hard at their studies and would likely benefit from a healthy meal. Yet it often ends up that the food on campus is largely made up of fried fast foods that, while tasty, leave much to be desired health wise. What’s worse is these often end up costing more than they would at a restaurant off campus!

 

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This may seem like a fairly meager lunch, but then again it only costs $2.

Well here in Korea they seem to have the right idea as the student cafeteria provides a number of food options from healthy Korean food, to pasta, to less healthy more indulgent choices all for nominal prices that are actually significantly cheaper than they would cost off campus! What a notion! Yonsei boasts 4 cafeterias in the student union building alone, all with varying menus that change daily with prices ranging from around $2.50 – $7.00, with most dishes priced around $4. What’s more is that the servings are often quite generous and one can even get partial refills for free! The cafeterias are also open from morning till night with different foods available throughout the day and beyond the initial 4 in the student union building there are also numerous other student restaurants spread throughout the campus offering even more options at similar prices.

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This Pasta dish complete with mussels and shrimp and side dishes was $3.50 from the Yonsei cafeteria!

As a student in North America I’ve sometimes felt exploited when I would have to drop $10 on a sandwich and beverage because I didn’t have time to make my lunch that day and time constraints kept me from venturing off campus for supplies – but in Korea it’s actually cheaper to eat on campus than it is to buy groceries and make your own food! Now that makes sense to a busy and penniless student like me!

March Showers Bring April Flowers

There is little doubt in my mind that many of you have heard of the “impending war” that North Korea is supposedly preparing to bring to South Korea. On Facebook many of my friends have been sending me well-wishing messages telling me to be careful, to pay attention to the news, or even to get out of the country altogether. Some fellow exchange students from the United States took it upon themselves to do just that and after finally reading some of the news reports that prompted such messages and actions I’ll admit that the situation does seem daunting.

However, here in Seoul it’s pretty hard to be scared as everything seems to be business as usual. Even the Korean friends I’ve talked to seem unfazed and just shrug it off with a sort of “North Korea’s always doing this” attitude. Even from a scholarly standpoint it seems that the odds of North Korea actually trying anything are pretty slim for a number of reasons. Regardless, it’s difficult to get worked up over something that the locals themselves don’t seem too worried by.

But perhaps one of the main reasons why it’s so easy to be dismissive of the situation is the beautiful flowers all around Seoul! Yes my friends, it is spring and thus cherry blossoms are blooming all over Seoul! All one has to do is walk down the street and they can be seen just about anywhere! On top of this there are various flora blooming all over campus making for fantastic photo opportunities! All this mixed with the brisk yet warm spring weather makes for a beautiful and peaceful setting which makes it easy to forget that to the North is a hostile nation supposedly preparing for war (which I’m convinced it isn’t). Anyway check out pictures below!

Clubbing in Yonsei

 

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Getting ready for a parade in the pungmul club room.

The title may be a bit misleading. My first semester in Yonsei felt to me like a 4 month adjustment period and as such I spent much of the time adjusting to my life in Korea and not so much on things like extracurricular activities at school. Well this semester things are different and I currently have an active club life here at Yonsei. Like my home University of Toronto there are a wealth of student clubs available at Yonsei which range from board games to scuba-diving. This semester, the clubs I’ve joined are a mixed martial arts club and traditional “pungmul” club. The clubs differ considerably both in nature and the types of students they attract.

The mixed martial arts club is made up largely of foreigners such as myself and consists of doing a rather strenuous group of exercises and drills, largely related to kick boxing with punches, kicks and lots of cardio. It meets three times a week. We don’t really have a formal training place and therefore we are regulated to working out in the hall-way of one of the school’s auditoriums. Still it’s a lot of fun and works out a lot of stress. The second club however, maybe a bit more interesting to describe.

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Me (centre) with the members of my club.

The other club I have become a dedicated member of is the “pungmul” club. Pungmul is a kind of traditional Korean drumming method in which an ensemble of drummers get together and play any one of four instruments to a rhythm set by the leader of the group. The drumming itself has a long and complicated history and is tied closely with indigenous Korean shamanism, and on top of that it’s a blast.

The music can be played solo, with a band, or in a giant group parade style which I experienced last Friday. Traditionally when spring is just around the corner Koreans pay homage to the “ground god” presumably this was done in order to ensure the seeds sewn by the farmers would yield bountiful harvests. In the city however, it seems to be more centered around bringing good luck to local businesses and that’s what we attempted to do, or so I’m led to believe.

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Our club getting ready to set out for the parade!

The parade worked as such. We exited the school and paraded up and down the streets of Sinchon (the neighbourhood Yonsei is next to) stopping at seemingly random restaurants and playing in front of them for an allotted period of time. After this the boss of the restaurant would come out and give us free food and often drinks in the form of pop, beer, or rice wine! It was great! After visiting a number of businesses we eventually headed back to the school grounds where we joined a massive congregation of other pungmul groups from nearby universities and ran in formations while playing for what felt like an hour at least! The whole parade lasted about 5 hours, but it just flew by because I was having so much fun! After the parade the entire assembly went out for drinks at a massive pub and all manner of debauchery followed. It was the most fun I’ve had since I arrived here – good exercise too!

 

Race in Your Face

 

Here’s an interesting experience I had here in South Korea a few weeks ago. I was turned away from a club in Seoul’s prolific art district, Hongdae, simply for being a foreigner. At the time I sort of shrugged it off, but later on it sort of resonated with me and since then I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind trying to figure out how it is relevant to the question of how many Koreans view foreigners, or more specifically non-Koreans, and how North Americans carry themselves abroad.

The night happened as such. I had met with some local Korean friends in Hongdae for a drink and we ended up “going three rounds” which means we bar hopped to three different places – a common practice around here. After one of my friends went home after having “had enough” another Korean friend and I decided to head to a local club of which there are many in Hongdae. It was at the first club we went to I was barred entrance. I had overheard the bouncers talking to my friend saying something along the lines of “no foreigners in here” and my friend relayed this message to me. I asked why and he said the bouncers explained to him that some foreigners had caused trouble there recently and so they were not letting in foreigners until further notice. “Fair enough” I said and we walked on to another place.

A few days later I started thinking about it though and a few questions popped into my head. These were along the lines of “I wonder how many Korean patrons have caused trouble in that club?” and “If I had been an ethnically East Asian foreigner would they still have barred me?” and finally “This certainly could not have been the first problem they’ve had with (visible) foreigners if they’re banning them from the club, so why are foreigners causing so much trouble?”. However, I’m not writing this to vent about whether Korea is racist or not, but rather to bring to light a number of realities for those intrepid travelers who are thinking about surveying the Land of the Morning Calm.

The first two of my questions are fairly easy to answer and I feel can be boiled down to Korea’s ethnic population. Like a number of other countries in the world, Korea is largely homogenous – meaning that the citizenry of Korea is largely comprised of ethnic Koreans. This naturally has some positive effects, such as an identifiable “culture”, mannerism and society which can be thought of as uniquely Korean and can be explored and analyzed by those who are curious enough to do so. The downside of course is that there are a considerable number of preconceptions Koreans have towards those who do not fall into the majority demographic – also known as stereotypes. In other words if you are visibly non-Korean and happen to find yourself in South Korea don’t be surprised if people treat you a bit differently than they would a local. Most of the time it’s stuff like asking if you need a fork or assuming you don’t like spicy food which is largely benign and mostly well-meaning, but other times it’s stuff like treating you dismissively or straight up not acknowledging you (often for fear of having to speak English which not everyone is capable of doing). In these instances language is often the key, but if you don’t speak the language at all then you’ll just sort of have to deal with it.

As far as me being turned away however, I feel this likely comes from a general lack of North American foreigners from which to draw good examples. First of all even though the amount of North American foreigners in Korea is steadily increasing, they are still vastly outweighed by locals and Asian foreigners. Therefore it’s understandable that if a few act up in a club the management, who likely have somewhat limited experience with foreigners may decide that it may be a good idea to bar would-be trouble makers from his or her establishment. This whole thing isn’t helped either by the fact that foreigners – especially those from North America have established a rather negative reputation in Korea especially in regards to their night-life etiquette. As far as I have experienced we North Americans, especially hetero-sexual males in Korean club land are often thought of as being loud, obnoxious, occasionally violent playboys with entitlement complexes concerning local services and females and this is obviously nothing to be proud of.

So what can we do about it? Blame the locals for their short-sightedness? Well maybe we can to some degree, very so often news reports crop up about foreigners causing trouble in clubs or having drunken altercations with other foreigners or locals on weekend evenings in the busy streets of Seoul. I’ve even noticed a profound difference between drunken locals in any one of the popular Korean night-life areas compared to the drunken foreigners in Itaewon whom come across even to me as much more loud and aggressive than their Korean counterparts even to me. What I’m saying is that when you’re a guest in a foreign land you need to remember that whether you like it or not, you are representing your country and that in a country like Korea that has a long history of collectivism, people can and will group you with other foreigners and look at you as a cohesive group. All I’m saying is be sure to be considerate when your abroad because your actions will reflect on you and your peers. That is all.

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Signs like these are a fairly common sight in Hongdae sadly.

 

The main drag of Hongdae, apologies for the blurriness.

The main drag of Hongdae, apologies for the blurriness.

 

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Two of my friends, Kyle and Santiago whom I met while over here – exiting a bar in Hongdae.

 

Travelling East Asia From Within: Japan (Part 2)

The next morning we awoke at 2 pm, not surprisingly and after showering we went over to Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s oldest districts which is home to a famous temple and myriad stores selling traditional goods. It was there that I was treated to my second geisha sighting of which I took a number of pictures and purchased a souvenir headband with the Chinese character for “sincerity” printed on it (a staple of a certain group of samurai that I’ve studied in detail known as the Shinsengumi). After wandering around Asakusa we next visited the famous fashion and shopping district known as Shibuya where we ate all-you-can-eat sukiyaki which was really delicious. After that we headed back to my friend’s house, picked up a few beers on the way and chatted until we felt like sleeping.

The next morning we woke up and bid farewell to our host and set off for Harajuku, another fashion district in Tokyo mostly noted for being frequented by Tokyo’s much more “eccentric” fashionistas and also the subject of many a Gwen Steffani song. There we saw a number of unique boutiques with rather agreeable prices, but alas being poor students we could not indulge. To my disappointment we were unable to see many of the aforementioned fashionistas, however it was still a neat little place.

After Harajuku it was getting dark and we decided to head back to Shinjuku to see it by night as Shinjuku is home to the infamous Kabuki-cho, the definitive entertainment and red-light district of Tokyo. Not surprisingly upon entering Kabuki-cho we were immediately approached by a number of shady characters offering us. . . let’s say “morally ambiguous” pastimes which we were quick to reject as we were there more as observers than anything else. However we did find a pub that offered a two hour all-you-can-drink service, which we took advantage of and we also found a “robot restaurant” which was brightly coloured and super flamboyant. Upon asking about the robot restaurant we were told it was a spectacular show in which robots and flamboyantly dressed dancers, danced, fought dinosaurs, fought each other, fought panda bears, played instruments, etc., etc. Simply put, we had to see it. The robots were mostly people in robot costumes but the show was none-the-less spectacular – think Medieval Times meets Vegasesque robot cabaret. Sounds enticing, no? The show was about $40 and was both the most fun and insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life – only in Japan.

After the robot show we headed back to the bus terminal to take another overnight bus to Osaka. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo we were eager to head to another small town like Kyoto, but because we weren’t really sure how to get to one, and didn’t have a travel guide, we ended up just heading back to Kyoto. We liked our original hostel so much the we just stayed there again and were given a different but equally pleasant traditional tatami room for a cheaper price.

We were quick to grab bikes again and this time biked to another temple which was situated on a mountain which had tori-gates running up the side of it with family shrines all over the mountain. It was a beautiful, almost magical place – the stuff of legends (and it actually is). After that we biked to another mountain which ended up being much farther then we had expected. After that we headed back to Gion for some dinner and went to bed because we were dead tired.

The next day we headed to Osaka where we booked our next hostel and opted to check out the famous Osaka castle. Though a very interesting museum, we were a little disappointed to find that the interior of Osaka castle was totally modern as the castle had been almost completely rebuilt after it was all but destroyed in the WWII bombings. Still, it’s definitely worth checking out. Next we headed to Dotemburi, Osaka’s main drag and shopping district situated over the Dotemburi river which is a really cool place to be and there we met up with two Japanese friends that I had made in Toronto, another Canadian friend of mine who was working in Japan and two of his friends

That night we ate at a very agreeably priced Izakaya and had some Takoyaki, a local food which is essentially spherical breaded octopus, drank and talked into the night. It was all good fun. After that we strolled around Dotemburi for a bit and then headed back to our hostel. On the way back to the hostel we picked up some Japanese spirits to celebrate our last night in Japan. When we got back to the hostel after we started drinking in the hostel’s common room where we spied a Korean couple. I felt like practicing some Korean and approached them. They turned out to be super friendly and we ended up sharing our spirits with them. After the lounge closed we continued drinking and watching TV in my American friend’s room, all the while speaking Korean! It was totally cool.

The next morning we woke up, checked out, and went to Shinseki Tower which was very close to our hostel, located in famous old area of Osaka and home to a local spirit named “Biliken” of which his statue is everywhere around there. The Tower acted as an observatory and museum of Osaka’s local history. We wandered around there for a bit and ate some Okanomiyaki, a staple Japanese dish famous especially in Osaka. I bought myself a little Biliken statue as well. After that we wanted to check out the famous Aquarium in Osaka which is the 2nd largest in the world, but to our dismay it was closed! So instead we went back to Dotembori where I did a bit more shopping and after that we headed to the Airport to board our flight for Manila!

Travelling East Asia From Within: Japan (Part 1)

As with Europe one of the great things about being in East Asia, especially South Korea is the multitude of other countries that are within just a few hours of travel time away. Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, much of mainland China and even many South East Asian countries will likely take no more than four hours in a plane to reach. This is less time than the average bus ride between Toronto and Ottawa. What’s more is that these flights will likely not deplete your finances either, hence, my American friend, who I met in the international student’s dorm at Yonsei and I took it upon ourselves to head over to visit Japan and then the Philippines. The result? An affordable and exciting trip!

To get to Japan we used a discount airline called Peach Travel which specializes in flights to and from Japan and neighboring countries, South Korea being one of them. The flight from Incheon international airport to Osaka’s Kansai Airport took less than two hours, cost a mere $126 and was very comfortable. We touched down in Osaka at around 11:30pm and were forced to take a limousine bus from the airport because the public transit was closed. Fortunately on the bus with us were a small group of South Korean students whom had been to Osaka before and they were able to provide us with some useful info. From where the bus let us off I was able, albeit with some difficulty due to my very limited Japanese vocabulary, to communicate to a taxi driver where our hotel was.

The hotel we chose was a capsule hotel in which you sleep in tiny enclosures which house a furnished bed, a TV, cellphone charger, radio and alarm, the hotel also had a free bath house. It was like being in science fiction novel and was surprisingly comfortable. The next day we had breakfast and headed to Kyoto. The Korean students we talked to the night before, informed us that you could get from Osaka to Kyoto for under $4 which sounded too good to be true, yet lo’ and behold we hopped on a local train for around $3.50 and rode the 40 minutes to the famous city of Kyoto, famous for all manner of traditional Japanese things, temples, shrines, geishas, etc.

We arrived in Kyoto and haphazardly mapped out the bus route to our hostel, Haruya Aqua, which we eventually found after getting rather disoriented, and found it to be in a beautiful, traditional Japanese house that was over a century old. The room we got was a traditional “tatami” room complete with traditional Japanese futons and a backyard garden. It was beautiful! The hostel also had very reasonable bike rentals (about $5 for the entire day) but because on our arrival we were the only guests the manager let us ride them for free for the first day!

We biked around Kyoto, which it turns out is a perfect size for biking as you can get just about anywhere in the city by bike within an hour or two if you have the energy. We visited Kyoto station to get our overnight bus tickets for Tokyo (which turned out to be a 7 hour ride!) checked out a few restaurants and then in the evening went to Gion, which was the “pleasure district” in times past. I had read that it was still possible to see geisha in Gion (contrary to popular belief, classically trained geisha do still exist but are quite rare, very expensive to hire and are not the same thing as prostitutes) and we did actually get to see one strolling down the street, powdered face and all! It seemed that much of Gion was still a pleasure district in the present day as we soon noticed a number of “red light” establishments and their respective solicitors, however we opted for a more wholesome pub experience which we found in the restaurant area some ways away from the red light district. We found a Karaoke pub, had a few drinks there and went back to our hostel to prepare for the bike trip the next day.

The following morning we woke up early, hopped on our bikes, had breakfast at a famous Ramen shop and then biked to the first of three temples that we were going to visit. This was Kinkaku-ji also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion for quite literally having a golden pavilion (not made out of gold but gold coloured) surrounded by a beautiful pond with ducks, koi and all. It was quite a sight to see. The next was Ryoku-ji which was a famous Zen temple that housed a well-known rock garden which was very tranquil. The last place we visited was a massive temple complex which had a bamboo forest and was nearly in the countryside, also quite spectacular. By then it was getting dark and we proceeded to bike back downtown for some dinner, getting lost on the way but eventually figuring it out. The bike trip to and from these various temples was also very interesting as we essentially started downtown but ended up in the countryside and were thus treated to a number of interesting sights.

That night we checked out of our hostel, the manager of which was kind enough to hold on to our bags while we biked around, and hopped on the bus to Tokyo on which we slept for the night. The next morning we arrived in Tokyo, stored our baggage in a coin locker and proceeded to wander around Tokyo’s famous Shinjuku district. By day Shinjuku is a large shopping area and there we found department stores, street performers and restaurants. It was all very lively. Since we were on a fairly limited budget we didn’t end up doing much shopping and instead headed to Akihabara, Tokyo’s “electric city” which has been referred to as a “geek’s paradise”.

Akihabara was a strange place to say the least and there we found all sorts of shops selling video games, Japanese animation paraphernalia, giant video arcades, people dressed up as animated characters, maid cafes and all manner of oddities, some of which I feel would be inappropriate to name here. My friend and I decided that we had to experience a maid café because, well… we were in Akihabara, the place where maid cafes were born. It turned out to be a fairly bizarre experience and consisted of my friend and I drinking a massive mug of beer each while a young women dressed as a maid tended to us and referred to us as “master” (a tad unnerving). There were other maids too who talked in extremely high voices and energetically danced and sang along with Anime theme songs. It was all fairly harmless but pretty darn weird. Still it makes for a good story.

After Akihabara we went to meet one of my old Japanese friends that I had met in Toronto while she was on a working holiday, whose house we were staying at in Tokyo for two nights. After we met up with her we changed into more formal wear and headed to a club in Ropongi of which we were on the guest list. Ropongi is one of Tokyo’s swanky clubbing and dining districts. There we ate at a Japanese style pub or “izakaya” had some drinks and went to the club. The club was, well… a club! If you’ve been to a club before you know what to expect, clubs are fairly universal it seems. Big, dark, sometimes elegant places with lots of people, booze, base heavy music, lots of fun if you’re in the right mood etc. Despite having only slept about four hours or less on the bus to Tokyo we still managed to have some fun and danced until 5 am in the morning when we headed back to my friend’s house.

 

 

Temple Stay

Last week my American friend Kyle and I went to a temple stay in the northern province of Kangwon-do where we stayed at the Guin Buddhist temple, for 24 hours and took part in the daily rituals and other goings on at the temple. For those of you who don’t know, temple stay is a service where you can reserve a place at one of Korea’s myriad Buddhist temples which you can stay at for up to three days (depending on the temple). During your stay you are expected to take part in a number of activities that range from meditation to manual labour. It sounds pretty tough, but it can be a very interesting experience. Ours went as such. . .

We took the bus from Dong Seoul bus terminal at 6:59am and arrived at the temple gates at 9 after a scenic bus ride through the country. Upon arriving at the temple we walked around the temple grounds, which to our surprise, were huge! It was like a small Buddhist village. As we were walking we saw all kinds of people young and old who were working at the temple or staying there for a retreat. The temple was located on the side of Mount Sorak which is very large and scenic. We made our way to the top of the mountain which was breathtaking and then we went back down to the temple office to sign in with the monks, however, not before eating some of the temple’s vegetarian food which was actually pretty tasty.

After signing in with the monks we were issued our temple clothes which were orange garments resembling a traditional Korean design, shown to our quarters and then given a tour of the temple and made paper lanterns that resembled lotuses which can be seen in many Buddhist temples. The tour concluded with the evening ceremony in which some monks played a drum and wooden fish and rang a bell to signal the end of the day. After that we went into what was called the Dharma Hall to do prostrations in front of a large idol of Buddha himself. After that we had a vegetarian dinner which consisted of rice, various kinds of kimchi and bean paste soup. After that we had some free time to walk around the temple and then we did some additional exercises in the dorm that were led by the two monks who supervised us. These exercises consisted of meditation and 108 prostrations which left us pretty tired. After that we went to bed at 9pm.

We woke up at 2:50am to take part in the morning ritual which consisted of walking around the Dharma hall and doing more prostrations in front of Buddha after which we were given a two hour break. After that we had breakfast and walked up the mountain step by step in what we were told was “walking meditation” in which we had to count our breaths as we ascended the mountain. After getting down the mountain we walked along a grid that had been painted on the temple compound that was also used for walking meditation. We then went to another dharma hall, this one dedicated to the temple’s founder where we performed additional prostrations.

After that we were given tea and various edibles during a tea ceremony where we were able to ask the monks about their temple lives and engage in general conversation. After waking up at 2:50am and climbing a mountain it was a nice break and made very pleasant by our monk hosts. The temple stay period ended after that and finally we changed back into our jeans and coats and hopped on the bus to go back to Seoul.

By this description I’m sure you must have realized that temple stay is not exactly a walk in the park, but it’s certainly an interesting and worthwhile experience, especially if you are interested in East Asian culture. The food was quite tasty and the monks were friendly, patient and informative and the sleeping area was quite comfortable, if not somewhat overheated. It was a lot of fun and I would certainly recommend it. If you ever decide to do it though, it is much more interesting if you book a temple in the countryside. Also, be ready to do a lot of bowing.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Hello friends! Hope everyone had a happy new year and all that great stuff! I am now on the two month winter holiday that is standard in South Korea and am currently trying to brush up on my Korean and go check out some cool spots outside of Seoul.

One of the great things about studying in Seoul is that transportation to other regions in Korea is very convenient and affordable, possibly attributed to the fact that Korea is rather small. As I may have mentioned in my Chuncheon post, if you want to get out of the big city and enjoy the countryside it’s all too easy. My latest excursion out of Seoul was to a small town called Onyang, located about two hours from Seoul via metro and I shall recount it here for your reading pleasure. The town of Onyang is known for the Onyang hot spring hotel which travelers can stay at for around $130 a night, not all that appealing to a penniless student such as myself, however on the lower level of the hotel there lies the Onyang hot springs which can be accessed for a mere $6.

Your enjoyment of the hot springs will depend entirely on how much importance you place on spring water and its alleged healing properties as the baths themselves are fairly basic as far as bath houses go. However, the difference here is that the water is being tapped from an actual hot spring instead of the usual heated tap water wherein lies the payoff.

Before my friend and I checked out of the hot spring we went to a restaurant that specialized in marinated Korean barbeque meat with flavour combinations that I had not before seen. We were a bit sceptical of the price at first which was higher than most barbeque places (about $10-12/serving) but the taste was worth it and with all the side-dishes you get with Korean meals you always have to factor in that you’re getting more than what is says on the menu. The boss was also fluent in English which was pretty helpful as even now I can only use Korean in basic scenarios.

After the hot spring we decided to seek out another bath house/sauna to spend the night, which is something you can do at most bathhouses/sauna or “jjimjilbang” (찜질방) in Korea for around $8 to $12 a night. Very convenient if you’re spending one night somewhere and don’t want to shell out for a hotel. After finding the jjimjilbang my friend and I concluded that it was much too early to turn in and so we decided to seek out a Korean pub or “sooljip” (술집) (lit. Alcohol House) and that’s where the most interesting part of this story takes place.

At first we had a bit of trouble finding a place that was open as Onyang is quite a small city with not a whole lot of night life, but sure enough we eventually found a place. This particular pub we chose at random and it was a small non-descript place that was a bit rundown and looked like it had been there for years. When my American friend and I walked into the place it was like one of those scenes in a western film where the hero walks into a saloon and everyone immediately stops what they were doing and stares as the hero makes his way to the bar.

As soon as we entered the pub, which was full of older local workers from the surrounding neighbourhood everyone immediately started staring at us and did not take their eyes off of us even when we sat down. It felt a bit tense to say the least. Eventually the boss of the pub, a woman in her 50’s, asked us shyly in Korean if we spoke any. I answered back in my basic Korean “Sure, a little bit” and suddenly everyone in the pub relaxed and went back to their various conversations. A table of older men directly behind us even started clapping as I delivered my answer and did so once again after I ordered a bottle of “makkoli” a traditional rice wine indigenous to Korea.

The rest of our time at the pub was very pleasant as even though we only ordered a little bit of food the owner kept giving us, and everyone else in the pub free “service” which included all kinds of kimchee, peanuts and two whopping plates of clams all for free! By the time we were finished we were totally stuffed. After that we headed to our bathhouse where we slept and had a decent sleep at that.

The next day we stopped by at Suwon to check out Hwaseong Fortress, which we could only see for half an hour as we arrived kind of late. However there was a park and a trail nearby which was fairly interesting. After that we hopped back on the subway to Seoul which took about an hour. All in all a fun and inexpensive excursion.

Christmas in South Korea

A Christmas tree in the Shinsaegae department store in Busan.

For a great number of you readers in Toronto the Yule tide is nearly upon you and I’m sure a lot of you are looking for various gifts and trinkets to satisfy your friends and family. Perhaps some of you may also have a traditional Christmas dinner to look forward to. Well sadly, this year I won’t be home for Christmas as my budget cannot facilitate a two way ticket to Toronto. This marks my first missed Christmas which is going to be a bit sad as my family usually goes all traditional with all the trimmings. Tree, turkey, gifts and all! But this year it looks like I’ll be spending my holiday in good ol’ South Korea.

Some of you may be wondering, do Koreans even celebrate Christmas? Well listen well my friends for I shall impart to you the knowledge given to me by my Korean peers. The way the average Korean person celebrates Christmas is somewhat dependant on their family religion. Korean Christians of which there are many and largely come from the ‘sects’ of Catholic and Protestant (often simply referred to as ‘Christian’) tend to do the old-school family thing but this is also dependant on how ‘into’ their religion they are. For everyone else and the less devout more casual Christians, Christmas in South Korea is kind of like another Valentine’s Day.

My friend Alice in with a tree in Lotte World theme park in Seoul.

On this day you celebrate the birthday of good ol’ J.C. by chilling out with your girlfriend or boyfriend, do cute datey stuff and of course exchange gifts. Don’t have a lucky girl or guy? Then you get together with your other single buddies and party on! Seems fairly casual no?

 

 

 

Xmas tree festival in Busan.

Despite the predominantly casual nature of Xmas here I was surprised to see tonnes of decorations lining shops and street corners as well as Xmas music blaring out of store speakers since the end of November. It’s practically the same scene as back in Toronto! This is kind of comforting in a way though because when I was thinking of coming here I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with the absence of Xmas which is one of my favourite times of the year! Thanks South Korea! Also to sweeten the deal the winter break in South Korea is actually two months which is totally awesome! Sadly I’m probably going to have to spend most of it prepping for the next level of Korean class coming next semester! Yikes! Anyway, Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! And to the rest of you Happy (and possibly belated) Hanukah, Ramadan, Tet, Guru Gobind Singh Gurpurab, Lohri, Kwanza and whatever other solstice related festivals I may have missed! My apologies if your respective holiday was not included, but whatever it is, have a good one!

Two Canadian Bloggers

Two Canadian Bloggers

Simon and I mugging for the camera.

These days blogs about South Korea are popping up all over the place and many deal with food, travel and especially K-pop (Korean pop music). Among these blogs, one which covers all previously mentioned facets of the Korean experience stands above all others and is produced by Torontonians! The blog I am referring to is of course Eat Your Kimchi which some of you may know already and some of you may even be avid fans of. The brains behind Eat Your Kimchi are a Torontonian couple named Simon and Martina who are also U of T alumni, and they blog about all sorts of interesting South Korean things. Since they started blogging a few years back as English teachers in South Korea they have since become significant ‘weblebraties’ and fans of their videos can be counted among famous Korean celebs.

Here’s me enjoying some burritos with Eat Your Kimchi’s Simon and Martina, they were pretty darn delicious! …the burritos I mean.

Inspired by their story I once went to a Q&A they held at the University of Toronto to find out the secret to their success, turned out the secrets was blogging consistently… who knew!? Anyway, in a wonderful turn of events, while drinking with a few friends in Itaewon, a part of Seoul which is well known as a hub for foreigners, I ran into Simon and then Martina by pure chance! They were looking for a place to grab dinner with another English-teaching friend of theirs and upon seeing them I began chatting them up. I asked them if we could join them in their search for food and they happily agreed. In the end, we – my two Korean friends, one Taiwanese friend, Simon, Martina, their buddy and I all ate burritos together and talked about what we missed about Toronto.

Suffice it to say, they were super nice and it was a very pleasant experience. I was worried that their recently acquired fame may have rendered them conceited but in actuality they were super cool. It was also really fun to witness scores of foreigners, presumably fans of their blogs and videos, walking up to them and giving them praise, I felt like I was hanging out with genuine celebs. . . which I pretty much was.

Bloggers assemble!