Saturday, January 12, 2008

A holly jolly Korean New Year Part 2

I’ll start off where I left off I guess, New years day saw us sleeping in until noon after all that dancing and stuff. Jake and I went to a temple (as is the Asian custom to do on New Years day) with Moon-Ju’s parents. She had work to do or something, can’t remember what but she didn’t come along. So ya, we went to the famous “T’ongdosa Temple” where Melissa stayed the night back when she came here. It was a beautiful scenic area in the mountains with a fancy stone bridge over a stream, and hundreds of brightly colored lanterns illuminating the walkway to the front gate among other things. There was another type of wishing well; this time you threw money into a pond where a pedestal was erected underwater. If your coin landed on it your wish would come true, great way to get rid of those 10 won coins that are nearly impossible to spend ;) (1 won is 0.1 cents Canadian.) Anyways I got 2 of them all right and it was the same wish as the day before with the rocks so technically I’ll have triple the luck on my wish, right? :D

After the temple we went to the “spa” or public baths you could call them. We indulged in the different saunas and temperature varied waters; I still enjoy sitting in the ice cold bath after getting way too hot in the warm ones. So anyways later on we were getting ready for this “full body massage” that we kept hearing about since arriving. I was in the middle of wondering what kind of cute girl will help me relax with a hearty massage when we turned the corner and met with our reality. Two short, hairless, naked Korean men with steel wool gloves and beach ball bellies awaited our arrival with waist-high beds in front of them.

Haha for some reason I sure wasn’t expecting that, but I guess it WAS the men’s public bath (where everyone is naked anyways). Ah, how strange wandering thoughts can shatter the moment. If you were wondering about the steel wool comment, it was because we weren’t actually “massaged” as one might delicately put it. No, it was much more interesting than that. We were very slowly and meticulously relieved of our top layer of skin. I wish I were making this up; they took their time going over every inch of our naked bodies save for the face or bottoms of our feet with this painful sock-glove. I was grimacing in pain for most of it and was afraid a couple times he might actually rip open my stitches on my hip from the surgery among other fears. I went into a few more details a moment ago but it made even me gag so I deleted them and I will save you from my own discomfort, leaving the rest of that 20 minute long session to your imagination. It ended none too quickly and he made sure to show me the layers he took off that were now strewn about my body and the immediate area.

Well that was an unpleasant experience but Jake didn’t have much of a problem with it, maybe my skin is more sensitive or something. I wasn’t in there much longer and got dressed and waiting in the lounge until it was time to leave. There was news on and it was rather uninteresting so later I somehow snatched the remote and changed it over to channel 71, the star craft channel ☺ Almost immediately the atmosphere around the locker room changed as people got excited and huddled around us watching TV. Boys who heard it from far away shouted “star craft!” and ran over to watch it with us. I said to Jake “maybe this was a bad idea, we are attracting naked boys.” Haha it was so strange and it started a couple cool conversations with people around us about their son who plays or whatever we could scratch out commutatively regarding the game.

Yikes enough on that, we had a great supper and learnt a Korean card game which is similar in Japan. It is a lot like matching but it was still fun, hard to describe without the deck to show you (it had special cards kinda like uno). Anyways the next day (Weds Jan 2) we took a bus to Seoul. The bus took about 4 hours and we didn’t do much other than check into our hostel for the upcoming 3 nights, read a lonely planet on things to do, and explore the immediate area waiting for Star to finish up work so we could all hang out together. The hill we climbed had a great view over the city of Seoul during the sunset and a cool thing about Seoul is there are exercise equipment strung out on these nature trails for the general public to use and enjoy. We found it odd but they were still entertaining, some we would spend time trying to figure out their purpose and digging into the old memory banks of elementary school phys ed class.

On the way back we saw a robot museum! It was closed though and we were sad, me especially. We met up with Star and had a wonderful evening again just chatting and trading stories; she showed us another really cool Korean dish that involved chicken. Korea seems to be big into chicken, another stark contrast with Japan that relies heavily on fish or beef, sometimes pork. She had planned a nature walk for us which coincidentally landed us on the same hill we were a couple hours previously ☺ That was alright though as this time it was a nice night view of the same area. You could see Seoul tower nicely again and it was lit up with fantastic colours. Star had to leave to get ready for a weekend snowboarding trip and we were sad but it was fun while it lasted. We went to a live jazz club (my first time) and relaxed with a beer listening to live jazz music.

Jazz and beer is a strange combination, a fusion that almost forces one to delve into their own souls and search. I spent the next couple hours just reflecting on where I was, where I want to go and the pros and cons to each possibility; or maybe I’m just weird ☺ I just know the Korean trip was a great time for me to simply get away from it all. I shocked myself with how much negativity came up about my current situation and all of it was digested and processed accordingly. Things like my cold house, missing my friends and family back home, how utterly busy I have become and other grievances that have become buried in my sub-conscience and all of a sudden my body was puking it all up at once; tired of being downplayed and demanding my attention.

Who has all the answers? I certainly don’t. I just go out every day and try to be the best person that I can be; or at least the kind of person my conscience has concocted as one who is a good person. I feel many of my actions are of a self-less nature, taking in the welfare of others before my own personal gratification. But are they really? One may argue my very existence in this foreign place is a direct contradiction to all that I believe, that me being here because I want to itself is being selfish.

Anyways I need not trouble you further with that stuff, I contemplate posting even that. Anyway I was definitely rattled leaving the club but was determined to bury it again for another day and enjoy the today for what it was, a vacation in Korea. Thursday came and we went to a town called Suwon, which is about an hour away by subway from Seoul with a rather large fortress in the middle surrounded by and older styled wall. Jake and I spend the next 3 hours traversing the parameter of that wall and seeing the city. I was rather surprised to see a humongous European style cathedral in that city. We didn’t spend much time in the fortress itself as the fresh paint and new buildings didn’t have much of an authentic feel to it. Before we left there were many cool China-styled markets with vendors and goods out on the street for the consumers to haggle over; perhaps it was a flea market? Oh and the train station coming home had a vending machine for books, the bottom row of which were books about your blood type ☺ I found that particularly amusing, apparently blood types have different meanings in Korea than they do Japan. I still find it odd, I mean there are only 4 types really; someone is getting rich off this superstition ☺

We met up with some Australian fellas that were staying at our hostel and made a voyage about ½ hour away for some Mexican food ☺ It was a humorous journey which included the “is this our stop?” along with the door closing behind Jake after he stepped out with the rest of us trapped on the subway and their unforgiving closing doors. He took the next one and all was good, but it was still funny to see him laugh at the 6 of us trapped on the train and helplessly coast away, clawing at the window like puppies in need of their mother (all the while again, Jake violently laughing at the whole thing through the window).

We didn’t stay up late as we figured we were probably doing a DMZ tour the next day. The tour was booked so our plans moved it to Saturday. Friday we met up with another JET who was visiting her friend that was classmates with her when they were learning Japanese. She uses Japanese everyday at her job but she says being with her friend was the “first time” she was “glad to have learnt Japanese.” I was still kind of rattled from the Jazz night so I didn’t need to hear that, my low Japanese level gets me down sometimes and hearing that from people who can practically speak fluently doesn’t help the motivation much.

We all ended up going to an old prison used during the last Japanese invasion for POWs. It was interesting seeing the old cells and reading about the history, even if WWII wasn’t mentioned at all, it kind of eluded to Korea forcing them out near the end of the war. There were different types of torture used but I don’t think it was displayed very well and a lot of it was aimed at getting children to bear a grudge against their Japanese neighbors; at least that was the impression I got. The information pamphlet even mentioned on the first page how important it was to spread their ancestor’s passion (read: racism) on to tomorrow’s youth. Which brings up another story, our friend was on the bus talking with her friend in Japanese when an older man abruptly interrupted and gave her a big long lecture on “Why are you speaking Japanese? Don’t you know what they did?” and all that stuff. Apparently he was so upset he got off at the next stop.

Anyways those are never happy places I guess, I found the one I visited in Europe much more informative; it didn’t have graphic mannequins dripping in blood and voice boxes playing screams in loops while children ran about us doing their homework assignments or a Japanese guard mannequin sitting back smoking a cigar while “watching torture on the monitors” or something like that. Didn’t know they had monitors back then. Apparently it was refitted and used by Korea up to 14 years ago or so before becoming a museum.

We weren’t there very long and like I said I wasn’t too impressed with the place, there wasn’t much English to be read. After many emails and a lot of co-ordination our friend had to leave and we were left to fend for ourselves again. We perused the area where there were markets and cool food shops; the one shop had a guy with a monster mallet making rice cakes. We spent a couple hours procuring our return tickets for Saturday then went out to see Seoul’s nightlife.

Star is a great gal, even though she was busy and she had work, she was still kind enough to send a lot of helpful information on where to go, how to get there and other useful stuff. Having a phone with an email address is really helpful! Anyways, we went to a couple clubs and had an amazing time, dancing until 5 in the morning. One place had tequila shots for $1.50 each and another place called M2 played electronic music that I loved and had a huge dance floor. The bartenders there were similar to ones back home, wearing scandalous outfits. Not that I’m complaining it was just so odd seeing something that provocative in an Asian country. Very nice! :D As Jake said “I swear I’m not staring!” haha

The next day we went to the DMZ. Last time I went I saw the tunnels and the train station and whatever, this time we went to the JSA where the table sits that North and South come together to have talks. This was easily the most interesting part of the trip; we had to sign waivers before we could go in saying we understood that our safety wasn’t guaranteed and what not. It specified specific rules like who you are not allowed to talk to by law and stuff, we got to keep it after the tour as a memento ☺ pretty cool.

We luckily had an American soldier step in and give the tour at the actual JSA as our current guide had rather shabby English. We saw cool things and I took many pictures when it was specifically allowed. Korean guards need to be at least 6 feet tall and a minimum of a black belt in tae kwon do. We saw the propaganda village from a distance where they have the largest flag in the world, 300 pounds or so flying over nice buildings that are uninhabited, trying to lure South Koreans over to defect.

We went inside the building where the talks take place and by going on one side of the table I was actually inside North Korea so I can add another country to my checklist ;) We were specifically told what we could or couldn’t do which included no pointing at anything at anytime. Apparently not long ago someone pointed at something and the North Koreans used the picture as propaganda saying “they are laughing at us” or something and before there used to be a strict dress code, specifically against jeans and propaganda saying “look how poor the Americans are!” or something. There are LARGE jamming towers that you can see in the distance that North Korea uses to keep radio and TV waves out of their country. (pictured: SK soldiers staring down NK. They stand half-way like that in case they are shot at then they aren't full targets)

We heard stories of the struggles over the years, North Korean ambushes, axe murder over trimming of a tree and America’s responding “operation paul bunyan”. We saw the bridge of no return where they filmed the bond movie and where POWs were traded. We saw the old house erected in 48 hours in the distance across the border where the armistice was signed. We saw the high tech surveillance everywhere, the quick time anti-infantry scramble units, the anti tank barrier, rare wild life in the DMZ where no one has been in over 50 years and that is littered with mines…

I could go on and on. Like I said, easily the most interesting thing of the trip to Korea, really cool and well worth the money. On the way back at a gift shop I bought some tea from North Korea for omiyage (presents) for back at the office. It smells good but I don’t really like the taste, some teachers joke with me saying they are afraid it might be poison ☺

We bused back that night and stayed at Moon-Ju’s again. The next day (Sunday Jan 6) she took to Busan to the beach! It was too cold to go swimming so we went to a large aquarium. It was a really nice place with glass tunnels that you could see sharks and large turtles swim around you. There are a couple videos on youtube of it now and lots of pictures posted. There were even cute penguins, so cool! Outside there was a car with an aquarium inside it and we went on a 3D ride that was really fun. Moon-Ju kept screaming and I kept laughing, it was really fun.

We went on a more scenic tour after that, walking around the shoreline seeing buildings and beach in the background, and fishermen in front of us huddled on the large rocks casting into the ocean. There was a large building near there where APEC 2005 was held and had pictures of various world leaders, even Paul Martin.

That night we went out for food and I saw Yuran again for the first time in years. She was surprised that I even remembered her but that’s alright, I think she got cuter since I last saw her. ☺ We all had a good time catching up and reminiscing, apparently I lost a lot of weight since she saw me last so I was beaming at the compliment. This was the meal where we got our whole deep fried chicken as a side dish to accompany our French fries. I poked some questions in her direction like if her company is hiring engineers or not ;) Oh and I’m to tell everyone she misses them! Especially Melissa. Unfortunetly I didn’t get any pictures together with her, it slipped my mind. Sorry everyone. (why did I only take 750 photos?!?! Oh the delicious irony)

Everyone had to work the next day so it wasn’t a very late night. Monday was technically our last day in Korea and it was a relaxing one. After sleeping in and lunch with Moon-Ju’s dad and other workers from the university we went to a large park in Ulsan. We spent a couple hours there enjoying nature trails and exercise machines; one machine flipped you upside down! It was cool but I couldn’t go on it long, too much pressure on the head.

Moon-Ju picked us up after work and took us to a traditional Korean market place to buy supper for the night. We got chicken feet, pig feet, seaweed and other tasty treats ☺ Ok I didn’t like the pig feet much but I guess it’s popular there. I love those style markets, they are so cool and the people were so friendly. I tried to buy a cheap Korean pear but the lady gave me an expensive one for the same price ☺ so nice.

The last night was really relaxing, sitting up late and enjoying each other’s company. We didn’t talk too much though because of the language barrier and because Moon-Ju was working overtime translating and she was getting tired. I slept one more night on that wonderfully heated floor (wish Japan had those) and we headed home on the 8th.

So ya, amazing trip and greatly needed. I was kinda surprised how much bitterness came out but feel somewhat better now because of it. I kind of realized on that trip that maybe I should see less different countries and more of countries I have already been to. A lot of my frustrations about Japan I feel stem largely from my small town and current situation. I need to see more of Japan, get out of my prefecture and go somewhere other than Tokyo. The more I learn about other cultures the more I realize how little I know about my own. I would like to say there is more to Canada than hour long lines in the morning at Tim Hortons, or that during winter we hibernate in our insulated centrally heated houses.

But that’s enough! My computer is telling me I wrote 3400 words already and it’s a long weekend! I’m going to get off the computer finally and play some video games ☺ The next update might be on Wednesday not Monday simply because it is the long weekend and I feel I’ve written enough for a while, you and I need a break ;)

"If you start to think that the problem is 'out there,' stop yourself. That thought is the problem." - Stephen Convey

"Yay video games!"


Unknown said...

hey tony! i love reading your blogs! they are so interesting, it makes my classes go by faster reading your blog! i am so happy that you are hanging out with Moon-Joo and Yu-ran! make sure you tell them i miss them too! Aren't Moon-Joo's parents so nice?! It is cool seeing you go to all the places I've been! Do you think you want to stay a second year with JET? Do you want to go to S.Korea for the 2nd year?
Good luck with everything, we all miss you back home!
take care

Tnoy said...

Hey Melissa! Good to hear you are studying hard ;) but ya, I thought class lectures were the worst part of university; I learnt so much more from the text book where the teacher wasn't trying to bore you with a set of notes made from years past.

But enough about that ya, I probably will stay a second year as I havn't completed a lot of my goals and the 2nd year is always better I keep hearing.

...Maybe I'll go to South Korea for my 3rd year? ;)