Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Korea trip Part I

Hisashiburi! Long time! Boy, have these past two weeks been crazy! I went to South Korea, had a business trip and writers meeting, cooked dinner for nine people, visited 48 waterfall (yes, I actually managed to hike to all 48 this time) hosted a Thanksgiving/dance party, saw my first student baptized, and of course, worked my full-time job and wrote, wrote wrote! November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and the goal is to write a 60,000 word novel (2,000 words a day) in that time. But I have yet to complete that challenge, as I`m always right in the middle of a project in November and I don`t like to stop and start something new for something arbitrary like that. I did, however, meet my own writing goal, 150 solidly good pages in the middle of An Honest Assassin that set up and partly resolve the religious conflict and complicate the central internal/external battle for the protagonist.

But you don`t want to hear about that boring stuff, do you? (Come on, tell us about Korea!) Ok, Ok, it was great, but not at all what I expected. I`ve been told that South Korea is a lot like America, or what people expected Japan to be like. Some went so far as to say “South Korea is exactly like America, except the people speak Korean.” Are there two countries named Korea? (Well, technically there are, North and South, but we`ll get into that later.) Either way, that`s not what I saw! A better recipe for South Korea might be this: take one part ancient China, one part 1950s America, and one part modern Japan and a whole lot of spice, smash it all together, stir, toss, nook it (a reference to the bombs North Korea just dropped on a South Korean civilian island a mere two hours after I came back to Japan), and viola! South Korea.

Perhaps that is an unfair assessment, as I only spent two and a half days there (totally not enough time), but it makes sense in a way. On the train to the airport I read up on Korean history and culture and learned that for a long time it was a territory of China, then was taken over by Japan several times (mostly recently in WWII), and was then occupied by the United States for a period just after the war and during the Korean Revolution. The result is a stable economy based heavily on high-quality advanced electronics (Samsung, for example), one of the world`s top education systems, and a per capita income of around $28,000 a year. (That`s about $5,000/7,000 less than the US/Japan respectively, though they can buy a lot more for less due to close proximity to Tailand/Taiwan, plus supply and demand. Exact numbers vary depending on currency exchange and what group is doing the assessment.) It also makes for an interesting mix of religion, with about 30% Christian, 50% non-religious, and the rest Buddhist. Again: America, Japanese, and Chinese influence. We`ll get more into the negative effects later.

I stayed with my friend Casey, an old friend from University. She decided to teach in Korea, me in Japan, and we agreed we would have to visit each other sometime. She was really nice to put me up and show me around; I think I would have been totally lost at first without her. I left Saturday morning at 5:15 for my train, got to the airport at 8:30, and caught my 10:30 flight. Here`s a picture from the plane. The black rafts are Ise bay`s oyster beds, where they harvest pearls:



Normally I fly out of KIX airport in Osaka, which only takes me two hours to get to, but the only flights available this time within a regular train`s day trip were from Nagoya (Chubu International Airport). Tokyo takes me about eight hours and two hundred dollars to get to. No thanks. Many people were traveling because of the national holiday on Tuesday (the reason I chose it too; a free day off), but a word to the wise: if traveling on a national holiday in Japan, book at least four months in advance. I booked three months and got really lousy tickets. It was actually completely full, and I asked the travel agent to call me the instant there was an opening. Two weeks before departure, someone canceled and I grabbed it, but paid a heavy price for it.

I arrived in Seoul, the capital, around noon. I had so many plans for that first day, including a folk village and a gondola ride up a mountain to Seoul tower to see the sunset over Seoul and the fall colors, but that was way unrealistic. My friend who was picking me up was about two hours late. So I sat and watched Korean TV in the lobby. It was exactly like Japanese TV. Anime, dumb talk shows, and ridiculous sports like ping pong. Then, by the time we got to her apartment to drop off my stuff, it was 4:00, and we had tickets to see a show called Nanta at 8:00. Since it takes an hour to get anywhere in Seoul via the subway (and an hour to get back), we just had dinner and walked around downtown Seoul. I`d had Korean BBQ in Japan, but this was quite different. Here`s a picture:



Rather than cooking it yourself, (in many Japanese restaurants, you cook your own food in the middle of the table which is actually a giant griddle), they cook it for you on the table griddle, along with a dozen other small side dishes which are “bottomless,” (you can ask for as much as you want). These included a long and skinny (but very tasty) omelet with cheese, onion and ketchup, mixed corn (not so good), vanilla ice cream, rice, lettuce, pickles, barbequed vegetables, chijimi (Korean pancakes with kimchi inside), and the all-famous Korean staple, kimchi, fermented cabbage with chili pepper. It sounds disgusting, but it`s really amazing, and the Koreans don’t feel that they`ve eaten without it. Casey informed me that most of her students eat rice and kimchi for every meal, with very little else. Turns out one could survive quite healthy on that diet, as it contains most of the essential nutrients. (My brother doesn’t believe me, but truly, some things do become healthier once they are fermented. The fermentation process actually releases extra vitamins and minerals. Soy beans, cabbage, and grapes are the best examples. However, beer and most alcoholic drinks, with the exception of wine, are not.) So, when there was a cabbage shortage, the Koreans couldn`t make kimchi, and the whole country went into a panic and the Korean president had to make a public address about how families would have to “do without,” and promised to subsidize import costs from China. Something similar happened in Japan when there was a shortage of rice and seaweed. Every country`s got it`s fix. Just wait until America runs out of peanut butter.

Anyway, it was a lot of food. Japan is skimpy on the amount they give you. One could easily pay $10 at a regular family restaurant and still walk away hungry. All you can eat buffets, (extremely rare to begin with) usually price at around $25 and often exclude meat and dessert and are extremely lacking in the variety of American buffets (they only serve Japanese and “Italian”; if you`re wondering why that`s in quotes, please see my earlier post on foreign cousin in Japan). Likewise, while Japanese meat is the sweetest and most savory I`ve ever had, (due to the unhealthy fat content), Korean meat is not so good, but there`s a lot more of it! It was nice to be in a land of people who love food…and yes, if you want to know the major difference in appearance between Japanese and Koreans, it would definitely be their size. Not that most Koreans are grotesquely fat, rather than Japanese are often ridiculously skinny. (They have the highest anorexia rate in the world. Just to give you an idea, there was one lady at the Thanksgiving party who was as skinny as my brother Benjamin and about half as tall who asked how many calories were in each dish I brought. When I told her I didn`t know, she refused to eat them.) Accordingly, Japanese are also the shortest race I have ever encountered on a large scale. Koreans appear to be about average.

After dinner, we went for a walk around downtown Seoul to see all the fancy lights. Due to a lack of the Thanksgiving holiday, most of Asia starts getting into the Christmas hype right after Halloween, basically involving lots of pretty lights, poorly sung Christmas tunes blasting over radios, and cake. Lots of cake. One building was entirely covered in LCDs (the building itself was a giant screen) that projected commercials of smiling blonds in Christmas ware chasing after Santa`s sleigh. (Most of the advertisements I saw were of Caucasian blonds, unlike Japan which features almost entirely domestic models. Much to it`s own detriment, Korea has a definite Westernophile outlook; more on that later.) Here`s another fancy department store all flashing:



Finally, time for the Nanta show. Wow! It was about three famous chefs who loved to drum while they cooked. If you`ve ever heard of the American show Stomp, it was kind of like that, a giant percussion show, only entirely with kitchen ware. The story was that they had one hour to cook a huge wedding banquet for a very important client, and to make matters worse, the maƮtre d` of the restaurant gets mad at one of the chefs and tries to kick him out, substituting his nephew who dreams of being a chef, but can`t cook to save his life. But he can drum! It was really funny. Most of it was mimed, with some English and simple Korean thrown in (which Casey understood), so I could follow everything. They started with an ancient drumming number, then antic followed by antic, and finally ended with a modern Japanese taiko (giant drum) performance. (Of course, they would probably tell you it was Korea to the core, but they were even wearing the traditional Japanese costumes worn in taiko, so, sorry. Everybody knows human-sized drums were invented by the Chinese anyway.) There was one number in which two guys were fighting over the girl chef, and they took brooms, popped off the brushes, and started fighting taekwondo (Korean martial art) style, simultaneously creating intricate beat patterns with their sticks. I want to know who invented that number, it was pure genius! If you`re in Korea and you got the time, I definitely recommend it.

After that, we headed back to Casey`s apartment and crashed around midnight. The next day we saw the palaces, secret garden, National Folk museum, 63 building, and the world`s largest church! But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

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