Seoul Day 10 – 5th palace, Seoul National Museum

As today was my last day in Seoul, I really needed to visit the last of the five Grand palaces of the Joseon dynasty.

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When I got there, the place was deserted. Not a handful of tourists, not one other person was there. I had the entire palace to myself, and was surrounded by the chirping of the birds, the howling of the wind and the creaking of the palace doors and gates.

It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. If you want to see the Joseon palaces, I highly recommend going to see them during the wintertime, because nobody is there and the winter light is beautiful for taking pictures.

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I decided to spend my last couple of hours in Seoul as efficiently as possible, which translated to going the National Museum of Korea. Before entering the museum, I took a walk around the park in front of it. The ponds were all frozen solid, and I had a field day trying to catch some of the sunlight refracting of shards of broken ice on the water’s edge.

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Upon entering I immediately realized just how huge Seoul’s National Museum of Korea actually is. A dome which dwarfs most basilica’s throughout the world acted as an impressive entrance hall. I made my way to the counter to get a ticket, but the people sitting behind it only looked at me as if I was a total weirdo. “There are no tickets, sir. This museum is free.” Again? I love Korea! In Japan, watching the tiniest of collections will make you 1000 JPY poorer, but here even the largest collection of Korean art is freely available to the public. Yet somehow, I got the feeling that most Koreans are not really interested in that heritage. Temples, palaces, museums, all were very scarcely populated, something which would not be true in Japan, even though entrance fees are much higher there.

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The museum’s collection was truly astounding. It had a large collection of ceramics, weaponry and art from paleolithic times, the three kingdoms period, as well as my favourite: the Joseon dynasty. On top of that, there are some excellent examples of calligraphy to be found in these halls. I was surprised to find an ancient go board including stones among some of the cultural relics stored on the second floor.

That’s all folks. Well, for Korea at least. I will board a plane back to Tōkyō tomorrow morning.

Seoul Day 9 – Shopping, Goodbyes, Stubborn food

As this Korea trip is turning into quite the study break, I decided to do some more battery recharging today. I slept in really late and then had breakfast in my coffee shop (it’s mine now, I’ve ordered too many cups of tea for somebody else to have any claims regarding its ownership). As I had some work to do for Netlabelism, I pulled out the netbook and hammered away at the keys for an hour or two, before getting on the subway to do some shopping in downtown Seoul. I stumbled upon Kyobo Books, which is Seoul’s largest bookstore. It was positively huge, comparable in size to Tōō’s Shinjuku branch of Kinokuniya. Inside I noticed another cultural difference. Koreans are apparently not that fond of standing. Littered around the store were Koreans, ranging in age from their early twenties to their late seventies, just sitting on the floor reading a book. When navigating small aisles, that means literally stepping over some old lady looking for a book. Well, at least I hope she was looking for a book, otherwise I just stepped over an old woman with a broken hip. In hindsight, I should have checked if she was still breathing. Yikes.

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After my apparent disgracing of a dead Korean woman in a bookshop, I returned to the youth hostel to spend the evening with Alan, Annie and Justeen, as they would be taking a boat to Shanghai the next morning. We went out for dinner with two of Annie’s friends studying in Seoul, and I knew just the place to go, as I’d been there only 24 hours before with Henry.

About a two minutes’ walk from the youth hostel there’s a seafood place that has outdoor sea food tanks filled with fish, eel, clams and squid. If you choose to go with the squid, after about five minutes a waiter will rush past your table with a bucket. Depending on how feisty the contents are (in our case: very) the entire trajectory gets splashed with water from the squirming squid. When they serve the raw, chopped-up squid at your table just minutes later, the tentacles are still moving, and the suction pads have not yet registered the fact that they are no longer alive. Result: the tentacles suck on to the plate, wriggle while you bring them to your mouth, and even while you’re chewing on them they will try to escape, or suck onto your lips, tongue or whatever part they get a hold of. Annie and Alan were not too amused with the moving snacks, but Justeen and I dug in, just as I had done the night before. Mmm, moving squid. Highly recommended, if only for the stories.

Seoul Day 8 – DMZ, Hankuk Kiwon

Yesterday we all feared today’s DMZ tour would be canceled, but we were assured none of that would happen. And indeed, we forged ahead as planned. Or to be more accurate: we crawled ahead with half-opened eyes at 7:15 in the morning. Henry, one of the people I met at the youth hostel, had the brilliant idea of setting the alarm clock 5 minutes before departure time, which was fine by me. In my ray-of-morning-sunshine mode (Olivier will know that one quite well from last year) I hauled myself onto the bus and snoozed for another hour or so. When I finally gave up trying to sleep, we’d arrived at our destination: the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea.

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Arriving at the DMZ means passport checks. A fresh conscript (military service is compulsory in Korea) clambered aboard the bus and gave our passports a brief look. So brief, in fact, I wonder if he’d noticed at all had my passport photograph been one of an overweight black woman.

Well, I guess we presented no threat, and were allowed in for our first stop: Imjingak park. Here we had the opportunity to watch Freedom Bridge, which had been used to exchange POW’s after the Korean War. It’s really cold up here, and the morning light made love to the ice crystals on the park’s various wooden and concrete surfaces in the most beautiful way. I could have stayed here for hours with the right camera. Unfortunately, lacking focus on my crummy second-hand model soon made me abandon my attempts to catch the spectacle and I shot some very authentic looking barbed wire instead. We scored some breakfast at the convenience store and back on the bus we went.

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Our second stop was one of the famous North Korean infiltration tunnels underneath the DMZ. In the 1970s, a defector from North Korea admitted he alone was responsible for designing at least 20 infiltration tunnels from North Korea. So far, four have been found.

The tunnel itself was nothing special. You’re given a safety helmet and then walk down through a brightly lit South Korean tunnel down to where it intersects the North Korean tunnel. After walking for a good five minutes in a tunnel that is too low to walk up straight (chronic malnutrition creates tiny North Koreans) you come to the first of three concrete checkpoints, beyond where you may go no further. No pictures allowed, though there’s nothing to be seen anyway, apart from some barbed wire and dramatic red lighting.

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Next on the list was the Dora observatory, a large deck mounted with binoculars for spying on the North Korean neighbours. You were allowed to take pictures, but only until a certain yellow line drawn way before the edge of the platform, ensuring only giants could actually take pictures of North Korea.

When looking through the binoculars though, you can see the rivalry amounting to comical proportions in the placement of two gigantic flag poles. North Korea has the larger one, by the way.

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Our last stop was the Dorasan train station, which has train tracks that extend all the way up to Pyeongyang. You can also get stamps of North Korea here. The actual stamp and ink cushion are covered in warnings not to put those on your travel passport, as an American man who did just that a few years ago was detained in an American airport for two whole days before being allowed re-entry. Oh, and I bought DMZ chocolate. Just couldn’t resist.

After returning to Seoul, I made my way to the Hankuk Kiwon, the Korean professional go players’ institute. It’s a lot different from the Nihon Kiin in Tōō, and it was almost impossible to see anything just wandering around. I tried talking to the few people I saw wandering around, but they spoke no English. Pretty disappointed, I went back to the subway station, thinking about how unwelcoming the Hankuk Kiwon is. And then it suddenly dawned on me that those thoughts where just that: thoughts.

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I went back, tried one more time with an old man smoking a cigarette in front of the Hankuk Kiwon. He spoke English, and guided me to the basement floor where a dozen or so professionals where analyzing a game as it was being played. He put me on a chair, reminded me to be respectfully silent among the professionals and even got me a drink. I ended up watching the entire relay of a professional match in the 2011 Korean Baduk League. I didn’t know this, but that seems to be a team league. Today’s match was between a team “Posco Something something LED” and “Hite-Jinro”. Team something something was leading 1-0. The game was An Sungjoon (B) vs Ju Hyeongwuk (W). I enjoyed every second of the game and I’ll treasure this as a reminder of how you are responsible for shaping your own experience.

I found the game record on go4go.net and added it below:

 

Download SGF

 

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On a pretty bizarre note, I asked the man who had guided me into the room full of professionals for his name. He smiled and gave me his card because I wouldn’t believe it otherwise. He was a 7-dan amateur player who had been teaching go in Mongolia for the past few years and recently returned to Seoul. And now a little reminder of his existence travels with me in my backpack. A piece of paper that says Kim Jeong-Il.

Seoul Day 7 – A Cup of Tea

I’ve been away from home for almost 3 months now, and one of the things I really feel is the absence of a private space and time to engage in my training schedule. As I’m mostly rushing from one place to the next, I usually don’t have a lot of time to catch up on things. So today I decided to park my behind in a coffee shop about a five minutes’ walk from my youth hostel, and not budge another inch until it closes.

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I’ve been here for about 6 hours, and have since read up on the international news of the last couple of weeks. Reading about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in a South Korean tea shop is a decidedly different experience from doing so in Belgium. Especially if you have a trip to the DMZ between North and South Korea planned for the next day.

Perhaps it’s the copious amounts of white tea I’ve been consuming here, but I feel pretty relaxed right now. Well, I’m all done with this digital business. I’m trading this screen for a book. “One more cup of white tea, please.”

Seoul Day 6 – Deoksugung, Namdaemun, Seoul Tower, Insadong

Dessi had to catch her flight back to Japan today, so we spent the morning drinking coffee and eating pumpkin pie at Gimpo airport. I think whoever made the pie just translated the words from English directly, and never bothered to look up a recipe. It literally consisted of only boiled pumpkin and sweet, rich cream with extra sugar added for good measure.

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On the way back I got off the train at Deoksugung, where another changing of the guard ceremony was underway. This palace used to be a second residence for the Joseon rulers, and it’s smaller than the Gyeongbokgung, Changyeonggung or Changdeokgung palaces. It also has some western-style buildings, and is surrounded by many embassies. Of all the Joseon palaces I’ve seen so far, this was the least impressive. However, one of the buildings really stood out. This old wooden hall had not been painted in the colourful motifs that cover all other palace buildings. Because it lacked the loud, attention-grabbing appeal of the other buildings, it radiated a serenity more reminiscent of Japanese temples than Korean palaces.

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I walked around the Deoksugung area, and accidentally stumbled upon Namdaemun market. This veritable beehive has people selling everything and anything. There’s tons of clothes of varying quality (though that variation is mostly between nothing special and rather awful) to be found here, so I finally got myself a pair of gloves. After that, I hunted down the food stalls hidden among the loud purse and jacket salesmen, and spent most of my money on munchies.

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From Deoksugung I had seen Seoul Tower in the distance, and I was wandering in that direction in order to catch the sunset from up there. By some extraordinary coincidence, I ran into Alan, Justeen and Annie when buying a ticket. It was definitely an added bonus to be able to share the cable car and elevator ride to the top of the tower with them. Once we made it to the observation deck, the sun was already setting, so we hurried over, snapped some shots and within a single minute the sun had set. Not behind the horizon, mind you, but behind smog so thick even sunlight could not penetrate it. The 360 degrees glass walls of the tower showed the location of most major cities in the world, as well as their distances.

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Upon descending, we decided we were hungry enough to head towards Insadong for dinner and some post-dinner entertainment, as Alan was dying to try out some of the batting cages here. I had a go myself, but as the lowest speed was 90km/h here, and not 80km/h as the one I’d tried in Tōkyō, I ended up missing about a third of the balls shot at my unsuspecting head.

The whack-a-mole machine tucked away in a corner was more to my liking, and it ate many of my 500 won coins. Of course, I started obsessing about getting the high score, but after stranding a few points short three times in a row, I gave up and watched Annie become increasingly adept at swinging a baseball bat around.

Seoul Day 5 – GSL Blizzard Cup Finals

A few nights ago, I met Alan, Justeen and Annie in the bar next to the youth hostel. They are a merry bunch of Australians traveling through Asia. One of their main goals here in Korea was to watch some live StarCraft 2 matches. Needless to say, I was very intrigued by their plans.

Turns out December 17th would be the day of the finals of a large tournament pitting all the champions from previous Global StarCraft Leagues (GSL) against each other. Even though I’ve successfully rid myself of a pretty bad gaming addiction centered around this game, I wouldn’t want to miss this one chance of seeing the GSL live. Still haven’t got a clue what I’ve been saying in the past two paragraphs? Read on.

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South Korea is probably the only country in the world that supports hundreds of professional gamers. Yes, you heard that right. People that make a living out of playing video games. And the top players make a very, very good living out of that too. Basically, a strategy game called StarCraft spawned such a large following in South Korea that eventually professional leagues were formed that had everything to call this competition a regular e-sport: teams, sponsors and a lot of money on the line. 12 years onwards, the madness is larger than ever, and so when I went to watch these finals, I wasn’t the only nerd in the village. A thousand fellow nerds had shown up to join in this delightful outing of gaming pleasure.

On entering the university hall where the finals were held, everybody got a free GSL scarf, inflatable plastic tubes used to cheer the competitors on, and a chemical hotpack to warm your hands. These are used by the players to ensure they can demolish their keyboard at blazing speeds, no small necessity when it’s freezing cold outside.

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I watched a lot of video reports form these matches in Belgium last year, and these were broadcast with the professional commentary by two American long-time StarCraft players: Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski and Nick “Tasteless” Plott. They are even more friendly in real life than I had dared to hope. When they showed up in their tuxedos in the stands among the crowds, just minutes before they would start their cast, they immediately spotted the odd white fellow and gave me a wave and said hello. After gathering my courage, I rushed over for some groupie pictures. I mumbled something along the lines of “my life is complete”, which ensured some genuine laughter from the duo. Aaaah, the games hadn’t even started and this already turned out to be one of the most epic days of my entire trip.

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After a funny award ceremony acknowledging the best players of the year (IM_MVP, IM_NesTea, oGs-MC, Leenock, MMA, etc), we where treated to a horribly cute K-pop concert by IU. Two songs later, the teen idol left, and with her at least a few hundred people in the audience. Turns out that not everybody was a genuine gaming nerd. These imposters were unmasked as K-pop fanboys. Unheard of!

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On to the games themselves. The finals pitched Terran player Slayers_MMA against Zerg player MvP_DongRaeGu. MMA, who had dominated his opponent IM_MVP in the semis got off to a quick 3-0 lead in this best of seven. When everybody feared a shameful 4-0, DongRaeGu turned an almost lost fourth game around, and came back to 3-3. The audience went absolutely bonkers with this spectacular revival, and the final game lasted forever, changing fortunes multiple times. In the end, MMA prevailed, but DongRaeGu deserved the win just as much.

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When walking down to the subway, we met Artosis and Tasteless on the stairs. It was awesome to see that of everybody there, they were still the ones the most pumped about the finals. Happy as a kid with a new toy, Artosis remarked this had been the best final ever. And I couldn’t agree more.

Seoul Day 4 – Changgyeonggung, Changdeokgung, Korean Munchies

We woke up just in time for brunch, which consisted of the Korean version of oden (various things boiled in fish stock) and some innocent looking yet excruciatingly spicy soup. Well, that will wake you up.

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While walking towards Changgyeonggung, Seoul’s refreshing temperature of approximately a thousand degrees below zero made us stop along the way to get some tea at a nearby café. On a funny side note, a dozen or so pictures of SlayerSBoxeR, the legendary StarCraft player adorned the café walls. When I pointed at them and said “Lim Yo-Hwan” (Boxer’s Korean name) to the nearest waiter, he burst out laughing and gave me a nerdy thumbs up. There you go: the only Korean word I know is the name of a professional gamer. Most excellent.

Fully tanked with copious amounts of white tea, we set out to brave the cold once more. It seems like the temperatures did provide some benefit: there were almost no other tourists at Changgyeonggung.

Once you get used to the Joseon dynasty architecture and imagery, one starts discerning more and more differences between the palaces. This palace’s squares were almost entirely made of large slabs of stone, not the gravel that’s used in large parts of Gyeongbokgung. These stone plazas gave Changgyeonggung a distinctly different feel.

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Once we made our tour of the compound, we exited through the back and found ourselves in the third of the five Grand Palaces of the Joseon dynasty: Changdeokgung. This was possibly even more beautiful than the previous one, and we both spent quite some time capturing this place on film. Ok, I’ll admit that’s not the entire truth, but how unromantic does “capturing the magic of the place on an SD card” sound? Very. That is why I shall refrain from uttering such nonsensical phrases. Where were we? Ah, yes, the palace. It’s an absolute stunner.

What happened after this cultural exertion is a collective case of the munchies that will long be remembered as epic. For roughly six hours, we went from café to bar to restaurant.
We kicked of our munchies with more tea at the Korean institute of food, where we spent about an hour and a half, only to cross the road and enter the chocolate museum for a tasting of some of Seoul’s finest pralines. Dark chocolate with rosemary is a new favourite flavour.

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By now the sun had set, and the cold wasn’t getting any better. So we engaged in some enthusiastic Korean barbecueing. The fabled Korean barbecue is indeed worthy of some words of praise. You are shown to a table with a large hole in the middle, somebody rushes over with glowing hot coal rods and deposits them inside your table. After the grill covers the hole you have both a barbecue set and a heater for cold legs and hands. Of course there’s side dishes on the table before you even have time to say “kimchi!”. About an hour and a half later you gulp down your last piece of roasted garlic and will be utterly satisfied. Mmm, Korean barbecue. If only I could take you home with me.

We made some legitimate attempts to walk to Dongdaemun market afterwards, but we’d had about our fill of frostbite for the day. Therefore we returned to the youth hostel, where we watched two episodes of MASH 4077, because that’s the first thing everybody thinks of when they hear “Korea”, isn’t it?

Seoul Day 3 – Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, Sinchon

Dongdaemun is one of the central hubs in northern Seoul. Its centre is made up of the famous midnight market and the History and Culture Park. The latter used to be the site of a major football stadium, but when this was partly demolished for renovation a few years ago, some amazing archaeological finds were made. Seoul’s city government erected a masterpiece of design around the ruins, including a museum for the large amounts of pottery, maps and texts recovered from the site.

The result is out of this world. Dongdaemun History and Culture Park looks as if a concrete skate park made love to a spaceship in a Japanese garden. That might sound a little far-fetched, but allow me to illustrate:

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I spent most of my afternoon walking from Sinchon subway station to Hongik University. This is an interesting neighbourhood, peppered with a lot of little art galleries displaying some very nice illustrations. Graffiti seems to be pretty big around here too, and I spotted some very nice pieces along the way.

On my way back, I saw yet another Belgian waffle place. Yunjoo already told me that was the case on my first day in Seoul, but Koreans really do like their Belgian waffles. As I was cold and hungry, I hurried inside. Expecting to be served with a waffle-like abomination as had been the case in Japan, I was instead surprised with one of the best waffles I’ve had in my life.

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The woman behind the counter was honestly happy when I expressed my reverence for her baking skills. I told her I was from Belgium, and we talked for a bit. Turns out she’s married to Didier, a Belgian from Brussels. Hence the establishment’s name: “Didi’s Gauffres”. When I was about to leave, she asked me to wait for a few more seconds while she baked me a quick cinnamon vanilla flavoured waffle for the road. How friendly is that?

I’m writing this from Gimpo airport. To my surprise and delight, Dessi, with whom I traveled for a few days in Tōkyō, decided join my foodie quest in Seoul, so I’m here to welcome her with a large helping of kimchi and fried chicken.

Seoul Day 2 – Munmyo, Gyeongbokgung, Bong House

My second day in Seoul, and my first time seeing it during the day, meant making good use of the daylight to go see as many sights as possible. Insert sound of abruptly stopped vinyl record. What do I want to go see? I hadn’t got a clue, so my first stop was an internet café and half an hour of wikipedia.

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After doing a little research, I decided my first stop of the day would be Munmyo, a part of the campus of the oldest university of Seoul, originally a place dedicated to Confucian learning. It consisted of several large halls, surrounded by a maze of walls and little gates. Even though the place was undergoing restoration, I still managed to catch quite a lot of sights. In fact, it might even have been better this way, as there were very little tourists to be found here.

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Next on the menu: food. If yesterday was a gentle welcome to Korean food, today the gloves came off. I had some Tteokbokki (a rice cake pasta-ish thing in what I presumed to be tomato sauce, but turned out to be chili), fried squid and soup. If I would have had a bowl of steaming lava instead, the effects on my mouth would probably have been identical.

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The largest portion of my plans for the day were focused on Gyeongbokgung, one of the old palaces originally erected by the Joseon dynasty. Ill-prepared as I was, I didn’t have a clue what was going on, and I landed up in the middle of a patrol of palace guards in their changing of the guards ceremony. I hurried over to a place where there were less pointy objects and stern faces, and took some more pictures of their colourful display.

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The palace itself is huge. I mean, humongous. Every time you think you’ve seen it, you pass through a gate that is even more magnificent than the last, and find yourself looking at yet more halls. It’s like the never-ending palace.

This site was largely razed during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, for use in their “exhibition of Korean cultural products” or whatever it was called. The Japanese even built a huge building right in front of the main gate. Luckily, this monstrosity has been demolished and most of the palace has been restored to its former glory.

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After checking out the palace, I paid the National Palace Museum a visit. It houses some premium examples of the arts that flourished at the Joseon court, including paintings, folding screens, musical instruments, calligraphy and palanquins.

All of that, however, was dwarfed by an exhibition that was of special interest to me: a display of original scrolls containing parts of the Tripitaka Koreana, the complete canon of buddhist sutras. This body of texts was – and still is – instrumental for buddhist studies in both Asia and other parts of the world. It’s written in classical Chinese. Luckily, at least I can make some sense of that. My thoughts on the Korean language so far:

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After a day well spent, I went out hunting for food. I ended up eating gimbap, the Korean variant of the Japanese makizushi. Apparently, it’s a remnant of Japan’s latest occupation of Korea which lasted until 60 years ago. It doesn’t taste like makizushi at all, though, which is not really surprisingly, as I had my gimbap with spicy minced meat instead of fish.

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My Couchsurfing host for today canceled at the last minute, so I had to look for a youth hostel. Actually, Yunjoo found one for me, and what a youth hostel it is. Bong House asks about 10 euro a night, there’s tons of cool people here from all over the world, the staff is super friendly, they organize tours to the DMZ (the bus will pick us up right at the front door of the hostel) and there’s a bar next door with a free beer for every guest, as well as a free pool table. I met some really cool people, and have made some more arrangements to go adventuring in Seoul with my newly acquired henchmen. Aarrr.

Seoul Day 1 – Incheon Airport, Gangnam

Today marks the halfway point of my travels in Asia. Though my 10-day trip to Korea is basically a bit of a visa run, I’m still really eager to check out what things are like on the Asian mainland.

I don’t really remember much about my train ride to Narita airport and subsequent flight to Incheon airport, for I was asleep most of the time. The airplane food was good. I don’t know why these meals have such a bad reputation. Either airplane food has soared to new heights, or my expectations and standards have crashed after cooking my own food for two years, which at times passed for questionable at best.

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Once in Korea, the difference with Japan was immediately noticeable: this place is crawling with Koreans! My thoughts on the difference between Japanese and Koreans after about a few days (I’m writing this a little after the fact) is the following: they’re a completely different species all together. The Japanese are polite to the extreme, there’s etiquette for everything, but most importantly, when somebody dissents, there’s no real repercussions in public. Sit in a priority seat on the subway, and nobody will say anything. Everybody thinks it, but nobody will say anything. In Japan, there’s no talking over cellphones on the subway either, not so in Korea, where the people will chatter away in the loudest of voices. Japanese don’t like being touched, there very protective of their personal space, almost to the point where it feels like autism. Koreans will tug at your clothes, or in extreme cases old Korean ladies will even use you as a means of balancing themselves. Koreans are loud, direct and enjoy a good laugh, much more so than the Japanese. Somebody I met here described it very accurately: “the Koreans are the Italians of Asia.”

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And now I present you with a little side-objective in my coming to Korea: eating tons of Korean food. My CouchSurfing host for the night, Yunjoo, took me to a local gopchang place. “Quoi?” you may ask. See the picture? Look at the bottom. I’m putting on the crazy eyes because I’m about to eat stuffed bowels. A few seconds later I also had grilled heart, something to do with stomach and raw liver. Aah, Korea. I’m in a place where they eat dogs.