On Hangul

The Japanese might use Chinese characters to write, but the Koreans use Hangul. It’s actually an extremely clever system. Shapes create characters that may look like a Chinese character, but if you study hard for three hours you could probably learn the alphabet. Each shape corresponds to a sound and you use those to build the Hangul characters. It’s extremely clever and efficient.

It was created in the mid 1400s by one of the most fondly remembered kings in all Korean history. He created it to allow common people to achieve literacy. A powerful, learned elite however, banned its usage eventually. They feared the power that knowledge might give the masses. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later around the end of the late 1800s that it was re-instituted country-wide. Of course the Japanese occupation began in 1910 and lasted until 1945, so it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that the language again, finally, became widespread and learned by the masses.

Despite being an easy enough alphabet, the pronunciations are killing me. Whereas Japanese pronunciations came fairly easy to me, there are more sounds and combinations in Korean. I’d probably be able to read it sooner than speak it, and speak Japanese far sooner than I could read it.

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The K-Rock Show

K-Pop took the world by storm with Psy’s Gangnam Style 5 years ago, and it remains the ubiquitous sound around the nightlife scene of Seoul (that and American top 40 pop). Gangnam Style has given way to other k-pop hits (4 out of 5 stores agree, Knock Knock is the tune to play while you shop), and as fun as it might be to go out and find a massive, bass thumping, k-pop performance or club, I was a lot more interested in hunting down what percolated in the alternative music corners of Seoul.

It ended up being a multi-day search. I had read about a nearby rock club, Club Funky Fresh or Club FF for short, home to some of Seoul’s only weekly rock, punk, indie, metal, and everything in between, performances – or at least from what I could track down. Not every night night, however, so two other nights I checked out a jazz club and an sleepy indie cafe.

Despite playing jazz for years during school, I haven’t sat back and enjoyed a show in a long time. There was no vocal, just pure instrumental music. I’ve never liked jam bands, but Jazz bands are something else, they play with a skill and a controlled chaos that keeps things moving, energetic, exciting, and emotional in a way that runs opposite to jam bands. It was a simple trio onstage: a bassist, guitarist, and drummer, though one song they brought out an accordion. The styles switched now and then (flamenco guitar was featured once, which was impressive, but I don’t know enough about jazz to pinpoint the others).

Cafe Bang! was the name of the indie joint. Quick aside – “Bangs” are a big thing in Korea. Bang means room, and you can go out and enjoy with a friend or group: Noraebang (karaoke), PC Bang (room full of computers), board game bang, DVDbang, and more. So technically speaking, I guess this would be Cafe Room!

I caught a couple low key bands playing to a seated crowd. It’s funny that even in South Korea the indie music felt the same, and the bands looked exactly like you’d imagine: thrift shop or normcore clothes, shaggy hair and/or scruffy look, a mild-mannered voice when addressing the crowd lacking stage presence. Their singing voices were great though. The below ground cafe looked very much like a DIY venue as well. The walls were covered with overlapping art, murals, tapestries, and other odd bits of art, and the drink options were mostly limited to what was in the fridge.

And finally, come Saturday, Club Funky Fresh was open. It was a fantastic show. I caught three bands. There may have been one before, as I arrived late after gorging on a massive Korean BBQ dinner.

The club itself was small. The crowd numbered maybe 40-50, probably ranging in age from 24-40. A couple tables of men in suits with loosened ties, a group of what looked like expat westerners, a few packs of Korean guys and girls out for the night, and a smattering of couples. In America you often get people who look like they’re dressed for a rock show, some scenesters/hipsters, some punks, some torn jeans and old band tee shirts, but I suppose Korean fashions and tastes being what they are, and the rock scene being small, you didn’t get that here. The basement bar however, looked like it’d be right at home in Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, or even Maine for that matter.  

The first band rocked hard. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, but they had great energy. The lead singer wore torn, old jeans, a plain white tee, and sported a short mustache and goatee. He sang like AC/DC and the band played like Two Door Cinema Club. Great sound. I didn’t get their name, but they really got the crowd going.

The second band to come on was led by an acoustic guitarist/vocalist. Lower key, they sounded more like a bluesy, western rock. Still fun, though I preferred the first band,

The final band of the night was called Qu. Awesome energy and stage presence, they’re a talented and powerful group of musicians. Their sound morphed song to song, some slower, some break neck speed. I always appreciate variety from a band. It gives live shows, not to mention albums, an arc of their own. A couple songs almost sounded like Lincoln Park, but other like no one else I’ve listened to before. Even some phrases of English mixed in! The speakers were cranked up and you could feel the noise move right through you. Fantastic night.

After the show a DJ went on and continued the rock music. What was cool is that Qu hung out after the show and partied with the crowd. I professed my love, bought a t-shirt, had a beer, danced around with them, and hopefully one day our paths will cross again. I also met a Korean American in the crowd. A Californian, born in Daegu, she was working for the next two years in Korea. We both agreed it was nice meeting a fellow American with similar tastes for a change. It had actually been a while at that point since I had a conversation with another American, and to be honest, it was definitely more effort to meet and talk to locals in an open social setting than in Japan, so it was a refreshing night that way. Maybe it has something to do with Koreans being very couple and group oriented, but most likely it was simply my narrow experience in the country.

In any case, if you’re ever in Seoul, and not feeling like pop, hunt down the k-rock scene. It’s worth checking out. My ears still hummed the next morning.

Everyone knows k-pop, but what about k-rock?

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Say Kimchiiii

Koreans love photos. They love taking photos and videos of themselves, of their friends, of everything, more than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s something I noticed right away my first few days in Korea – the social media stream is practically a way of life for the younger generation. The phone is always pointing at something. The Japanese like their photos too, but their activity pales in comparison to the constant activity of Koreans.

Korea and Japan are close geographically, but the societies felt much further apart – There is a huge difference between the older and younger generations in Korea. The ajumma or older Korean women, are tough broads who all have chopped their hair off and gotten the exact same perm. They wear a lot of bright colors, mostly active-wear, like they might go hiking. Older Korean men dress like leisure hikers or fishermen, sporting color-blocked, synthetic pants, and a jacket or vest with a large amount of pockets. A cap, dark sunglasses, and grim expression are standard issue – they never come off either.

Everyone seems to be very into fashion, the old have their standard outfits, and the young dress mostly in black, white, and denim, and with some of the girls a vintage style dress, usually in a muted gold, is popular. Unisex clothes are in vogue as well. Korean girls for the most part are thin and incredibly pale. This is because they’ve been using skin-whitening creams, and avoiding sunlight. They also layer on makeup that whitens their complexion, some to nearly a geisha level (not exaggerating), and others look like they have an odd metallic sheen to them. The exact same pink lipstick is used by everyone, and complimented by a little optional rouge on the cheek, and usually some pink eye shadow and dark eye-liner. They’re vigilant about keeping everything put together as well – a mirror is never far, and a hair out of place, or eyebrow that needs darkening will soon be attended.

Plastic surgery has also become very mainstream for both men and women seeking some form of vogue beauty. Shrinking noses, thinning chins, adjusting eyelids are all very popular.

Korea is also the biggest market in the world for men’s makeup. As opposed to America, thin, pale, clean-shaven, and a boyish or more androgynous look is in. They have no qualms putting on a little makeup, or sometimes as much as the women. Most young guys seem to have the exact same haircut too.

Koreans don’t appear to possess the same personal space boundaries either. Greetings might involve physical contact. Couples here wrap arms or hold hands everywhere. It’s extremely popular to dress in the same outfits as well. Whether as a couple, or as a group of friends, they’ll often buy silly trinkets on the street, like flower crowns, or sparkly chickens on a long spring that you pin to your hat or hair, and take photos being goofy on a day out. Lady friends will lock arms down the street, and the men don’t seem to feel as awkward about physical contact that can exist in Japan.

I was talking to a Korean guy at my Seoul hostel, and another girl, and they don’t think the younger generations will ever be like the old – that the young women now will ever be those tough, wrinkled ajumma I saw hocking fish in the market, or pushing past me on the train. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine the men turning into the tan, grim-faced elders that saw so much hardship in their lives. Korea now is very different than it was then.

This is all to say, Korea makes for some excellent people watching, especially as an outsider. It’s great that people put effort into their appearance. Maybe it’s related to how much they love taking photos and video. You never see a sloven person going about their day in sweatpants ten years too old, and two sizes off. However, at times it feels too homogeneous in its taste, to the point of superficiality.

Hanbok selfie time.

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Oppa Gangam Style

For most of the world, an indelible image of Seoul was probably created by Psy when he released his song Gangnam Style. I thought I’d check out the district.

And you know what? It’s a little overrated. Gangnam is basically a big, upscale neighborhood where you can see fancy offices and go shopping at Louis Vuitton. Granted, it’s a huge ward so I didn’t cover it all, but there are local markets as well, a temple (Still tired of temples), and Samsung D’light.

Samsung D’light is where you can go look at and use the latest Samsung technology, some of which isn’t available to the public yet. On a couple floors of their store they have some interactive exhibits, and some VR exhibits you can try. I rode a VR roller coaster, played around with some gadgets, and called it good. They also had an Olympic torch collection.

On my way back I checked out a market. Koreans seem to love socks with fun designs. They might look like cartoon characters, or have some fun design on them, or have some special tailoring done to make it look like a little cat or video game character might be hopping out of your sock. I picked up a few as souvenirs.

The Hongdae area around where I was staying is near Hongik University so it’s got some cool shops and galleries to check out, but one thing I particularly liked, and that wasn’t on the map, was a brand new park they had built where some trolley tracks used to run. The sunken park was a little valley of green and quiet among the surrounding neighborhood, and was dedicated to literature. Little cubes with books you could take out and read on the benches peppered a stretch, as well as what looked like some art studios. Along the edges were small cafes, restaurants, and convenience stores. Just another one of Seoul’s huge amount of urban re-engineering projects it looks like they’ve undertaken recently. It’s crazy how much construction there seems to be happening, or looks like it was completely within the past year.

Strange taxis in this neck of the woods.

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Gazing into The Hermit Kingdom

North Korea is a scary place. The Communist dictatorship, cut from the North of the country post-WWII, and made official post-Korean War, is one of the scariest and most mysterious countries on Earth.

The Demilitarized Zone runs across the entire country, four kilometers wide, and stretches into the sea. There’s only one point along the border where North and South territories touch, and the countries can meet face-to-face. So like good capitalists do, it has been turned into a tourist destination.

The only way you can visit it is with one of the few tour companies that have been granted a permit. You’re then bused about an hour to the border, passing a couple sites along the way. I chose my tour group because a North Korean defector had been invited along and we were allowed to ask her any questions during the bus ride. Our guide acted as interpreter, and oftentimes I’m not sure how perfectly her translations were, but it was a very enlightening experience hearing first hand what life was like behind the walls of North Korea, her escape, and how it compared to life in South Korea.

She was middle aged and had escaped in 2013, but it was a long process. Most of her family had starved to death. She was a teacher, and wasn’t being paid for months and months, so she moved to the border of China and began to try and sell things in the market there to the Chinese tourists. She bargained with some smugglers and had to work for them for 2 years to pay for her passage. They smuggled her to China and from there she went to Laos, Thailand, and finally South Korea. We weren’t allowed to take photos of her because if North Korea ever found out that she had defected, her only family member left, her daughter, would be killed. Had she had any other family, North Korea usually kills 3 generations of immediate bloodline for serious crimes. For now, she’s considered missing. People go missing all the time in North Korea, and are presumed dead. Because information networks are poor, and blackouts frequent, it’s not easy to keep track of things.

We asked a lot of questions. Her life was far happier now that she was in South Korea, and she focused most of her energies on trying to earn money to send back to her daughter so that she may survive, and hopefully also be smuggled out. People date and fall in love there, but there doesn’t appear to be much hope that a revolution could happen. The punishment for betrayal is too great, the people too brainwashed, the spy network too large – there are a lot of factors against it.

The Joint Security Area, or JSA, itself is a surreal place. We arrived at Camp Bonifas first, a South Korean and US military base, which in cooperation with the UN and a small presence from a few neutral nations oversee the South Korean side of the JSA and its operations/diplomacy. There we were greeted by PV2 Latta, a big, barrel chested man from New Jersey who seemed to be in good spirits as a glorified tour guide and military escort for us. He gave us a brief orientation inside the camp, then we were shuttled into a military bus and driven a little further to the actual JSA. Within the JSA there are North Korean buildings painted gray, and UN buildings painted blue. Two large headquarters on each side face each other. We walked out and were given a very brief opportunity to snap some photos. I hadn’t brought my good lens and DSLR because the zoom was slightly longer than they allowed. In hindsight I should’ve tried to bring it, because there wasn’t a thorough check. Crappy mobile phone camera it was!

North Korea looked foreboding, but standing slightly hidden behind the buildings in front of us were some very intimidating South Korean soldiers. I never felt in danger…but there’s an odd sensation being there, a thick tension in the air.

We were then allowed to enter the center blue building, where the line runs right through a table. Two more soldiers were inside: one standing at the head of the Western side of the table, which we couldn’t pass, the other standing in front of the door to North Korea. You don’t want to go through that door. Before entering the JSA you have to sign a waiver basically for everything from death to abduction, and saying if you’re fool enough to go over to North Korea you’re not the UN’s, USA’s, or South Korea’s responsibility anymore.

So in those brief minutes inside that building I technically crossed over the border in the center of the room. At the same time, a Chinese tourist group was forming outside the North Korean building, and more North Korean guards appeared. I snapped a bunch of photos of them. They didn’t look too happy to see me. Unlike the South Koreans who sported large, dark, aviator sunglasses, the North Koreans had no eye-wear, and squinted at you, trying to give you an evil eye maybe.

We were quickly ushered outside, back to where we stood at the start, and we all looked out at the Chinese tourists, and they were looking at us, each other snapping photos of each other, surrounded by soldiers of opposing sides in a war that never ended. A very surreal place. What a strange world we’ve constructed. There’s even a gift shop for it.

Heading back we passed other sites – an empty village across the river that was North Korean propaganda. It had loudspeakers that ran 24/7 and a 600lb flag atop a massive tower. We passed bridges meant for the unification but would never be used. The Kims had mined their end to be sure of that.

There be North Korea.

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Giving me the old North Korean Stink Eye.

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Top of the World, Ma!

I’m going to be in great shape after this trip.

I decided it would be a good idea to do a hike in Bukhansan National Park, which they say is the most visited national park in the world. They also say it’s the most visited national park in the world because not only is it nearby Seoul, but there’s a lack of things to do in Seoul once you’re done with palaces, temples, and clubbing. Not exactly untrue, but it’s feeling like you need to search harder for things that are worthwhile in Seoul than Tokyo. Of course, I had done more research before going to Tokyo than Seoul, so there might be a bias there. Regardless, people who say that probably need to branch out a bit, because there’s a lot to do in Seoul…just maybe it’s more exciting for travelers.

Anyways, the mountain. I thought I’d go to the top of course, 636.5 meters up. It’s not the height that’ll get you, but the angle of elevation. The path I took rose swiftly, and it was a steep step from one rock to the next most of the way. I’m not in bad shape, but I gotta hand it to the older folks I saw up there who must do this often. It’s not a walk in the park. My legs were quite spent by the time I hit the peak.

Near the top as you approach Bugandae (the highest peak) you pass through an old wall that once protected Seoul from invasion. After that wall it gets even steeper and you need to grab some cables that had been anchored into the mountainside to help you with the final 70 meters or so.

The view is worth it. Once you clear the trees and see the rounded boulders of the other peaks, and the horizon line fading into a haze you’re probably gazing out into a 360 degree view of one of the most beautiful views in Korea. And one of the best picnic spots, as made apparent by a couple groups of old folks laying out tarps and chowing down on their lunch.

At the very summit I had passed a Korean guy, who unbeknownst to me, took some photos of me from below. He got my attention at the peak and texted me the photos. I didn’t have service up there, but they don’t appear to have come through, sadly. Maybe when I’m back in the states they’ll magically appear. One can hope. Oh well.

The kilometers down were taxing on some different muscles, but went by quicker, and soon I was back on the bus headed for Seoul. The whole endeavor, hostel and back, had taken about 8 hours, most of my day. When I returned I rested for a while, then decided to walk around Hongdae again, now that it was night.

The neighborhood definitely changes at night. Bars open up, the young crowd is out in droves, eating, drinking, and especially shopping. Tons of stores and carts line various arcades offering almost anything you could want, so long as it’s in vogue. It was a good area to hear some street musicians perform too. I grabbed a beer, hung out a while, listened, watched a couple street comedians doing some physical comedy, and headed back. I was feeling beat from the day so I had a low key night in the lounge with some hostel folk and turned in.

Bukhansan National Park

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On Hanboks & Kimonos

I noticed throughout Japan, but much more so in Korea, people love to don traditional garb and take photos at the historical sites. Nearby there are usually places to rent a kimono if you’re in Japan, or hanbok if you’re in Korea.

It might be mostly a tourist thing, or maybe not, but I think it’s a smart and fun way to invite people to take part in your culture, and you’ll probably end up with some free social media advertising to boot.

Hanbok selfie time.

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