Pulling a Moses and Parting the Korean Seas

Parting of the SeasOne of Korea’s many odd festivities is the Parting of the Seas Festival that takes place every spring on Jindo Island.  Once a year the tides go down so low that the seas “part” and Jindo Island connects with another island.  While crossing the tidal flats probably wasn’t as dramatic as parting the Red Sea a la Moses, my trip to Jindo was entertaining nonetheless and gave me a chance to see a part of Korea I know I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Sea life! When we got to the Parting of the Seas Festival the sea was still a few hours from parting and we had just finished a grueling 6-hour bus ride on the world’s least comfortable bus in existence.  To stretch our legs and revel in the joy that comes with having room to move again, we set out and explored all the booths and had a few drinks by the beach.  From the beach we could see countless Koreans filling bags with seaweed.  As someone who detests the taste of seaweed, these giant bags looked about as appetizing as the mud that was slowly emerging as the tide lowered.

Stripper Rain BootsWhen it was about time for the tide to reach its lowest point, we headed to the spot the path to the other island would soon emerge from.  Before we could cross we had to put on thigh-high, neon orange rain boots as part of the crossing involved trudging through seaweed marshes.  Once we had our new, ever-so-sexy footwear on, we pushed our way through the crowd and raced across to the other island before the tide came back in.  As we got further out the ground became rockier and tide pools revealed starfish and octopuses that were bottom dwellers about a half hour prior to me seeing them.

In addition to seeing various forms of aquatic life slithering about the rocks and shells, I was also able to witness even more seaweed harvesters lining up the path from island to island.  Many of them had sailed to a spot they knew the water would be completely receded from and waited for their boats to eventually be lowered to dry land where they could maximize their seaweed scavenging without having to push past the thousands of other festival goers.  In the spirit of the festival, I took a piece of seaweed from the water but lost it somewhere in the crowd.  Somehow, I think I might find a way to live.

The tide was only out for about an hour and a half so we were only at the festival for a few hours.  Once we crossed back to Jindo Island, we had to get back on the Medieval torture device known as my bus back to Seoul.  Despite the short duration of the actual Parting of the Seas, the festival was well worth the long bus ride.  After all, any experience that involves a festival with a biblical name pun as a title is a-okay in my book.

Pulling a Moses

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My Trip to a Park Centered Around a Very Specific Male Reproductive Organ

Penis ParkEver since I got to Korea I have thought of it as America in 20 years technology-wise but America in the 1950s when it comes to social structure.  Gender and family roles are much more visible in Korea, even in the ultra-modern Seoul, than I have ever noticed in the US.  With this in mind, I was shocked when I discovered that in a town a few hours outside of Seoul was a park dedicated to the penis.  Feeling that this was entirely too random of an experience to pass up, I headed to Samcheok with a few friends and went to Haesindang, the penis park of Korea.

The story behind Haesindang is almost as amusing as the park itself.  I’ve run across a few variations of the tale online, but I’m going to give my favorite version of why Haesindang exists.  Long ago, there was a couple engaged to be married who were madly in love.  The man was a fisherman who went out to sea a lot.  The woman loved to eat what he brought home and on the morning of their wedding, the man went to the beach to quickly fish up something to surprise his bride.  Unfortunately there was a storm and freak tidal wave took him out sea, killing him.  Filled with grief, the woman threw herself into the sea as she no longer had anything to live for.

Penis Park BeachIt turns out that not even death could contain her grief.  Apparently losing the love of her life was only part of her devastation.  As this was many years ago, engaging in certain physical aspects of love outside of marriage was a major no-no and she was also more than a little bit disappointed about not having been able to see exactly how her fisherman sailed his ship to shore, metaphorically speaking.  Because of the anger at her situation, the woman haunted the town after her death, blocking the fisherman from catching anything and, as a result, impoverishing the village.

HaesindangOne day a man passing by the beach the ghost woman killed herself at realized he needed to answer nature’s call.  Facing the ocean, the man relieved himself, catching the eye of the ghost woman.  After finally seeing what was going on below the opposite sex’s belt, the woman was able to rest in peace and fish returned to the village, letting it prosper once more.  To stop this from ever happening again, the fishermen built giant phallic statues on the coast.  Why Hollywood has yet to be turn this into a major motion picture is beyond me.

Regardless of whether any of this is based of fact or if it is entirely fictional, the park turned out to be an amusing getaway.  The coastal location was gorgeous and it was pretty close to a few caves we ended up walking through as well.  While it probably won’t be competing with Disneyland to become the next great family vacation spot, Haesindang was well worth the $2.00 admission fee.  Take that, Magic Kingdom.

My Japanese Chinese New Year Vacation

Lunar New Year, more commonly known as Chinese New Year in America, hit Seoul a few weeks after the start of 2012 and the entire country of Korea went on vacation.  While most people use this opportunity to visit family in their home towns, I took advantage of the long break to head off to Japan.  At this point, it had been nearly a month into my school’s intensive winter camp and a break from everything work related was drastically needed before I would have eventually gone crazy and thrown a child out the window.

TokyoI went to Japan with a couple of my co-workers and we decided to split the trip up and do two different cities: Tokyo and Kyoto.  Tokyo, as 99% of the world probably knows, is the largest city in the world and seemingly oozes out neon while Kyoto, as fewer people may be aware of, is the ancient imperial capital that has great examples of classic Japanese architecture around every corner.

The first stop was Tokyo.  Compared to Tokyo, any city in the world looks like a small town out in western Kansas.  The buildings are giant and stretch out farther than the eye can see in every direction.  We stayed in the Shinjuku area, a dense, neon-coated part of the city.  In Shinjuku we walked around the canyons of skyscrapers to a park and took in the sights before heading up to the top of the Municipal Government Building.  From the top of the Municipal Government Building we got our first view of just how massive the city is.  There wasn’t a spot as far as the eye could see that remained undeveloped until Mount Fuji way out in the distance.  Shinjuku is also home to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red light district.  In addition to gawking at the blatantly obvious hookers and naughty nurse billboards the size of buildings we also managed to squeeze in dinner and a karaoke session in our own private karaoke room overlooking the Tokyo skyline.

View from ShinjukuIn Tokyo, there are what feels like millions of 20-somethings wandering around the city dressed like the lovechild of Hello Kitty and Ozzy Osbourne and this group seems to have their headquarters centered in the Harajuku district.  Harajuku is more low-rise and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood than the rest of Tokyo.  In addition to admiring the outrageous fashion, there are also plenty of restaurants and shops for everyone to stay occupied.  After exploring Harajuku we went to Shibuya, Tokyo’s equivalent to Times Square.  Shibuya is probably best known for the intersection in which a football stadium’s worth of people cross the streets every two minutes.  After crossing the street multiple times and getting swept away in the sea of people, we went to a pachinko parlor.  Pachinko is the Japanese version of gambling.  Gambling for money is illegal in Japan so people instead gamble for little metal balls, which are in turn exchanged for cash.  Oh the crazy Japanese and their loopholes.  Pachinko parlors are all over the city and the actual game of pachinko is like an odd, flashy mixture of a slot machine and pinball.  When we finished gambling away our life savings we walked back around Shibuya and admired the neon-center of the city at night.

ShibuyaOn our last day in Tokyo we headed to the river to take a boat cruise to get a view of the skyscrapers from the river.  Our boat took us from Asakusa in the north down to the Tokyo Tower in the south.  The Tokyo Tower is a bright orange full-size reconstruction of the Eiffel Tower.  We went up right before sunset to see the city in the daytime and then gradually turn into the lights Tokyo is known for at night.  Despite some rain, the view was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  After descending the tower we left for Tokyo Station where we got on an overnight bus to Kyoto.  The seats on the bus turned into beds and not once in my life have I ever slept so well on a moving vehicle.

Kinkaku-jiWe got to Kyoto at about 7:00 am.  The first thing we saw was Kinkaku-ji, a temple in the hills made from gold.  The temple itself in addition to the surrounding gardens were absolutely gorgeous.  Apart from the temple, there was nothing man-made in sight, something nearly impossible to come by in Korea.  Up next was the To-ji shrine, the tallest pagoda in Japan and it really was tall.  From To-ji we took a bus to the Fushimi Inari shrine.  The Fushimi Inari shrine is the tunnel of orange pillars that is on the cover of countless Japan guidebooks.  Like Kinkaku-ji, there was plenty of the nature around the shrine that both Tokyo and Seoul lack.  After a day of temples and shrines, we spent the evening in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto.  Gion is a district of Kyoto with blocks and blocks of traditional architecture.  The old buildings and the geishas walking down the sidewalk fully dressed in their kimonos and face paint in a completely non-touristy way was like being a different universe when compared to the modern lights of Tokyo.  After dinner and sake we got back on another night bus to take us back to Tokyo to get on a flight bound for Seoul.

Fushimi Inari ShrineJapan was one of the strangest, coolest places I have had the privilege of visiting.  The amazing food (sushi, udon, tempua, surprise wasabi appearances, and a never-ending supply of sake), the perfect contrast of Tokyo and Kyoto (which were both outstanding on their own), and unique mix of old and new were all reasons that make me want to look into teaching in Japan sometime in the future.  The only downside is that Japan is insanely expensive, but who needs money when sake is (relatively) cheap and plentiful?

Sushi

New Year’s in China for the Non-Chinese New Year

Tiananmen SquareIn Asia, celebrating the new year on January 1 isn’t the biggest of holidays.  It’s not even the biggest of New Year’s celebrations over here.  On this side the Pacific, Lunar New Year, which usually occurs a few weeks after the other New Year, is the more widely celebrated one.  This is the holiday known as Chinese New Year in America, although in actuality this day is celebrated by many Asian countries other than China, including Korea.  Even though Koreans seem to identify more with the Lunar New Year than the one on January 1 my school still had a vacation.  My school never has days off so I decided to do something dramatic and make the most of my time off by going to Beijing, China.

Forbidden CityI went to Beijing with three of my coworkers.  We signed up for a package with an English speaking travel agent in Seoul and got our flight, meals, accommodations, and entrance fees to attractions all for a pretty good deal.  We flew into Beijing and were picked up by Charlie, our guide who looked far more like the reincarnation of Buddha than most people do.  Charlie wasted no time and immediately took us to Tiananmen Square, where we took a few photos and walked over to the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City, former home of the Chinese emperor, was my favorite thing I saw in China.  The entire palace complex seemed like it could have been an actual city in it’s own right, it was that massive.  The regal architecture and intricate details that are found on everything surpassed any palace I saw in Europe, including Versailles.  After walking around the Forbidden City in below freezing temperatures the group headed to a tea tasting where where we tried various kinds of herbal teas.  I ended up buying some and it’s probably the best tea I have had in my entire life.  This trip taught me that if the Chinese know one thing, it’s how to make truly amazing tea.

Great Wall of ChinaThe next day we got up bright and early and headed to the Great Wall.  The wall is actually about an hour and a half outside Beijing, which means it goes through the more rugged mountains and provides a more secluded feeling than anywhere else I visited on the trip.  Climbing the Great Wall was what I looked forward to the most before I got to China and it did not disappoint.  It’s hard to appreciate how huge the wall is until you are standing on it and there is no end in sight.  After a few hours of walking up and down the hills on the wall we headed back to the city and went to the Summer Palace.  The Summer Palace is where the emperor spent the warmer months of the year.  It houses an enormous lake, a giant temple, and, like the Forbidden City, some great examples of classic Chinese architecture.  My visit to the Summer Palace, unfortunately, was in the middle of winter so the lake was iced over and snow covered the ground but I was still blow away by everything about it.

Summer PalaceThe group decided to hit up Beijing’s markets on the third day and get out haggle on.  These markets are packed full of anything you could ever want, from knock-off Gucci to electronics to tacky souvenirs.  Haggling is expected and it was pretty fun going back and forth with the shopkeepers.  I ended up buying a t-shirt with terrible grammar, a Chairman Mao shot glass, a set of chopsticks, a couple of dragon statues, and a watch with Mao waving his hand as the second hand ticks.  When everyone was finished supporting Chinese capitalism we headed over to the Yonghe Lama Temple, an active Buddhist temple right in the middle of the city.  The temple had a few different pavilions, each with their own courtyards and statues of Buddha.  People were burning incense and praying at each statue and I thought it was very interesting seeing local people doing a simple daily activity of theirs away from all the major tourist sights.

That night we went back out to another market, the Wangfujing Snack Street.  This is the famous street where vendors sell anything that was once alive deep fried and served on a stick.  Seahorses, starfish, and scorpions were probably the most popular items available though there was also ostrich, pigeon, and more dumplings than I thought humanly possible available.  I ate a scorpion and a sparrow fetus.  The scorpion tasted a bit like popcorn and the sparrow fetus was like really chewy chicken.  While neither one triggered my gag reflex, I don’t think I will be indulging in them in the near future.

HutongOn the last day of the trip we went to a hutong, an old neighborhood in Beijing.  Hutongs are all over the city.  They are made up mostly of alleyways and densely packed low-rise houses.  We took a rickshaw ride through one of the hutongs, visited a man’s home, and got a pretty good idea as to what living in a hutong was like.  After the hutong we went to the Temple of Heaven.  Like much of what I had seen the past few days, one of the first things I noticed about the Temple of Heaven was its enormousness.  The Temple of Heaven was more like a park than a temple.  People congregated for exercise, games of cards, and just to socialize.  When I was there I saw people dancing with ribbons, playing hacky sack, and listening to singers performing little concerts.

Temple of HeavenAfter exploring the Temple of Heaven, we headed for the airport to catch our flight back to Seoul.  Even though I was only in Beijing for a few days I really enjoyed the city.  Beijing was just as good as, if not better than, cities like London or Paris at a fraction of the price.  The sights were outstanding and the food was among the best I’ve had anywhere.  Panda Express has nothing on the real China.

It’s Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Winter

Winter!With the first snowfall a few days ago, it is safe to say that winter has officially arrived in Seoul.  Temperatures are dropping, days are growing shorter, and I finally caved in and bought a scarf and hat.  As many people in the world are aware of, I am an outspoken critic of nearly everything involving cold weather but this year I think I’ve decided to suck it up and accept the fact that I can’t hide from the icy Siberian winds blowing through Korea.

It’s a good thing I decided to just deal with winter because the next couple of months are going to be pretty busy.  My last three day weekend was at the beginning of October so I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to leave Seoul.  There are, however, a couple of vacations we get from work in December and January so I’m finally getting an opportunity to get out and see some more of this side of the world.  I decided to post my schedule for the next month just because my skype account might end up going MIA for a little while.

December 17 – Seoul – 12 Bars for the 12 Days of Christmas Bar Crawl

December 24-25 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Christmas Ski Trip

December 29-January 1 – Beijing!!!

January 7-8 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Ice Fishing/Ice Festival

January 21-25 – Tokyo!!!

Unfortunately, I also have to go to work in between vacations and work is going to be anything but easy this month.  Starting on December 26 (you know, all of one day after Christmas) my school is starting their winter camps.  Just like the summer camp we did a few months ago, these intensive camps are provided to the students on vacation from their other schools and have parents who feel their children should be in school for approximately 83% of their waking hours.  This means that soon I’ll start my 10-11 hour workdays that will last until after I get back from Japan.  Merry Christmas to me.

Is This Miami? No, It’s Eurwangni Beach!

It’s been over a month since my last three day weekend and it’s going to be another month until the next one.  Needless to say, this isn’t exactly conducive to seeing Asia.  I’ve started developing a sort of cabin fever with regards to Seoul.  I’m seeing lots of the city but I’m really itching to get out of it and see something different.

Eurwangni BeachThis weekend I decided to head over to Incheon and check out the beach.  Incheon is either a completely separate entity from the Seoul metropolitan area or else it’s a gigantic suburb with a few million people.  I haven’t made my mind up about that quite yet.  Either way, it’s home to the international airport and there’s not much reason to go there unless it’s time to catch a flight.  One thing Incheon does have going for it outside the aviation industry is a coastal location.  Seoul is pretty close to the ocean but it’s just far enough to make regular beach trips pretty inconvenient.  I visited the beach in Busan, Donghae, Ulleungdo, and even Taiwan, but I went all summer without ever once visiting Eurwangni Beach, the beach in Incheon.  I hadn’t heard the greatest things about Eurwangni, after all the area is more famous for its enormous tidal mudflats than its white sand.  But my craving to do something outside Seoul coupled with Eurwangni Beach’s semi-convenient location had me all ready for a beach day in November with Paul, a coworker of mine.

To get to Eurwangni, I had to take the train to Incheon International Airport, which takes a little over an hour and a half.  From the airport I got on a bus and rode that about twenty minutes until the bus stopped at Korea’s best attempt at a beach town.  The beach itself was nothing special.  The water was a murky shade of light brown and the ground was more muddy than sandy.  The coast off the sand, however, was actually pretty interesting.  Paths along the shore led through rock formations and cliffs.  The tide pools. crashing waves, and cold air all reminded me a lot of the coasts of places like Scotland or Normandy but since I’ve never been to either of those places this comparison could be completely untrue.

Rocks and Tide PoolsAfter Paul and I had our share of exploring tide pools and rocks we headed back to the airport to catch the train back to Seoul and discovered a pleasant surprise waiting for us by the train entrance:  an ice skating rink!  Where else in the world besides Korea would there be a random ice skating rink in the middle of an airport?  Nowhere, that’s where.  Paul and I laced up our boots, took to the ice, and quickly realized this ice skating rink was made of fake ice.  The ground was some sort of mystery material that we tried our best to slide on but ended up mostly stomping all over.  I’m still not entirely sure why they gave us ice skates and not roller blades, which would have made much more sense, but that’s Korea and sometimes things over here are just a little bit different.

"Ice" Skating!

I Went to the North Korean Border and I Got a T-Shirt

We Love North Korea!This weekend I went north of Seoul to the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone dividing North Korea from the South which is also, ironically, the most heavily militarized place on Earth despite its name.  Ever since the ceasefire agreement between the North and South at the end of the Korean War in 1953, the DMZ has acted as a political and cultural boundary keeping the Soviet-led communists in the North from being influenced by the American-led democracy in the South.  Logistically, it’s next to impossible for me to visit Pyongyang, the major city on the North side, so I did the next best thing and took a trip to the Joint Security Area straddling the border.

I met a couple of friends at the army base in Seoul bright and early for a 7:30 AM bus departure.  We went on a tour with the USO so we were able to go places you can only visit with army escorts.  The drive from the center of Seoul to the Joint Security Area at the DMZ only took about an hour, which is kind of strange to think about considering much of that hour was spent stuck in the chaos that is Seoul traffic.  Our bus was stopped outside the Joint Security Area entrance and an escort hopped inside, instructing us of where we were allowed to take pictures and how we were allowed to interact with the North Korean guards we would be standing only a few feet from.  He also gave us a brief history of the war and told us what life in the villages along the base is like for the Koreans who have lived in the area longer than the DMZ has been around.

The BorderOur first stop was the border.  We went into a small building that looked more like a bright blue trailer than anything else and found out this was the conference room where officials from both sides meet.  The border goes through the building so anyone who walks past the center of the room crosses over into North Korea.  Needless to say, I did this and can now technically say I have been in North Korea.  The room is packed with tables and chairs and is occupied by a couple of guards to make sure we didn’t run over to the North to take on Kim Jong-il.  Outside the conference room, more guards were standing directly across from one another on both sides of the border.  Seeing the guards was the first surprising moment for me, not because they had their fingers wrapped around loaded weapons but because I was seeing a North Korean person for the first time ever.  It was an odd feeling putting faces to the stories always playing on the news.

North Korea!The next stop was a lookout point that offered a view of Kijong-dong, the propaganda village north of the boundary.  The village is the home of the (former) largest flagpole in the world and loudspeakers playing broadcasts about the wonders of North Korea.  Kijong-dong is also, apparently unoccupied for the most part.  Many buildings are just shells that make the area look prosperous.  This part of the tour was the most interesting, in my eyes, because other than the propaganda village there was no development in sight.  Mountains surrounded large fields and it was impossible to tell what was North Korea and what was South Korea.  As different as the two countries are politically they really are the same geographically.  Seeing the mountains rise up in the distance made me realize that North Korea is an actual place, not just an idea or story, and that place is much closer to my apartment than I ever thought about.

North Korean Propaganda VillageAfter the lookout point we got back on our bus and went to the Third Tunnel, a tunnel the North dug under the border.  There were many tunnels discovered but this one happened to be close to the Joint Security Area so it’s the one we saw.  Inside there was nothing special to see, it was a tunnel and that’s about it, but the fact that I was standing in a remnant of the Korean War was pretty neat.

Our last stop was Dorasan Train Station, the end of the line for all South Korean trains.  This station is designed to be the entry into North Korea if and when reunification ever happens and provide a railway connection between Seoul and Pyongyang.  When we got inside we paid 1,000 won (or about $1.00) and bought a “ticket” headed for Pyongyang, allowing us to go out onto the platform and see the actual end of the line.  The station has a giant sign on the wall that says “Not the last station from the South, but the first station towards the North.”  From what I saw this really was the last station from the South.  I’ll believe it truly is the first station towards the North when I can put my ticket to use and hop on a train to Pyongyang.

Dorasan StationFrom Dorasan Station we boarded the bus again and headed back to Seoul.  The trip wasn’t terribly long but it was well worth the visit.  Not visiting the DMZ in Korea would be akin to not seeing the Eiffel Tower in France.  To celebrate our visit to Korea’s equivalent to the Eiffel Tower a group of us went to grab some dinner.  Where?  The only place to eat after spending a day on the border: On the Border.  Nothing goes better with a trip to the Hermit Kingdom than margaritas and chimichangas, after all.

War Related Tourism!

My Trip to Some Islands You Have Never Heard Of

Monday on my side of the world was Chuseok, a holiday in Korea that is sort of a combination of Thanksgiving and Labor Day.  It is a big fall harvest feast people go back to their hometowns for and it marks the end of summer.  Since my family is on another continent right now I decided to leave Seoul and go to Ulleungdo and Dokdo, two islands halfway between Korea and Japan.  Ulleungdo is an island famous for two things: pumpkins and squid.  It’s an odd combination but that’s just Korea for you.  Dokdo is a rock way out in the middle of the ocean that is important for political reasons to both Korea and Japan.

Ulleungdo

The first stop was Ulleungdo.  To get to Ulleungdo my group took an overnight bus to Donghae, a town on the east coast about five hours away from Seoul.  The bus got to Donghae a little bit before 5:00 AM and our boat to Ulleungdo left at 7:00.  While everyone else stayed on the bus catching some sleep before we got to the island I decided to go out and watch the sunrise over the beach.  Donghae is apparently famous for it’s beautiful sunrises but the overcast skies unfortunately meant that all I saw was a black sky gradually turning into a lighter shade of grey.

After a three-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Donghae, we arrived in Ulleungdo, about a hundred miles off the coast of the mainland.  When we got off the boat, we were welcomed by a rainstorm.  The entire time on the island would be interrupted by on-and-off rainstorms.  Because we were all already soaking wet we went right from the hotel to the water.  The coast in Ulleungdo is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s not very beach-y.  Cliffs go straight into the water and there are trails carved right into the cliffs.  To get from the trails to the water there are bridges scattered about to jump from.  Because the water is so clear and blue it would be easy to assume it would be like the tropical water found elsewhere in the Pacific but, sadly, it ended up being freezing.  Thankfully there were plenty of distractions from the beauty of the rock formations and water that kept my mind off how cold I was.

Cliffs in Ulleungdo

The next day was just as rainy but we had a tour around the island scheduled.  The tour took us along the coast and stopped at various rocks that supposedly look like animals, lookout towers, traditional houses, and spots along the coast.  By the time the tour was halfway over I was just as wet as I was when I jumped into the ocean because of all the rain.  When the tour was over I dried off and went hiking up Seonginbong Mountain, the highest point on the island.  The hike started off on a paved road that made the hills of San Francisco look like the plains of Kansas.  The steep slope wasn’t short either.  It lasted for about a kilometer.  When it finally turned into an unpaved path it leveled off for about twenty feet until the seemingly 90 degree angles started up again.  After another four kilometers of torture, we reached the top and were treated to a near-360 view of the island.  As neat as the view from Dobongsan was, with all of Seoul underneath it, the from from Seonginbong was definitely the better of the two.  You could see all the mountains plunge into the sea and many of the trees beginning to turn colors.

Seonginbong View

After a disappointingly short night’s sleep, I woke up early with one of the other people on the trip and went to Dokdo, an island about three hours east of Ulleungdo.  Dokdo is disputed territory with Korea and Japan both laying claim to it.  The island itself is tiny and not much more than a giant rock sticking out of the water but it’s located in rich fishing grounds so both seafood-loving countries see the water around the island as economically important.

The boat to Dokdo is in no way able to handle big waves, and with the heavy rainstorms going on there were lots of waves.  I’m not being remotely sarcastic when I say that about three quarters of the passengers were on the floor clutching their seasickness bags for dear life.  I saw more vomit on this boat ride than I ever care to see again.  People were lying on the floor looking like death was imminent and others were leaning over the side of the boat letting their projectile drift away wherever the wind and water took it.  About an hour into the boat ride I started feeling like an Italian immigrant coming to Ellis Island in the 1800s.  I was on a crowded, rocking boat filled with seasick passengers who were all looking out to sea, hopeful for any trace of land.  Luckily, I was not one of the miserable majority although I did start to feel pretty dizzy towards the end.

Seasick in Dokdo

As luck would have it, land eventually popped up on the horizon and we docked on Dokdo Island.  There really is nothing to do on Dokdo other than admire the scenery.  It’s too small and steep for anyone to live there.  The fact that there is even a ferry that takes people out to the island is really just a symbolic “Screw You” sent out to the Japanese who also think they own the island.  From what I was told, the vast majority of the trips do not dock on the island.  They merely sail around it.  I think the captain realized his boat full of seasick Koreans would have probably organized a mutiny and decided he needed to let them touch solid ground before heading back to Ulleungdo.

Since the island is so tiny the short time we had in port was long enough to see just about everything.  This pretty much consisted of tall rocks, clear water, green moss covering everything, and lots of birds.  I had never seen an island quite like this.  As I said before, this is really more of a big rock than an island so it was just a different experience being on land that remote.  Any other time I’ve seen an “island” of comparable size, it was located right off the shore of a bigger piece of land but this was out at sea with no other land in sight.  It was a very Gilligan-esque feeling.

Dokdo Rocks

The ride back to Ulleungdo was a bit easier as were traveling with the current this time, although I did still see my fair share of people who did not look like they were having the time of their lives.  After we landed in Ulleungdo we went back to the hotel to get our bags and got on another boat to go back to Donghae.  Four hours later we were back on the Korean mainland and in a bus headed for Seoul.  I got back to my apartment around midnight, passed out, and had probably the best sleep of my life.  When I woke up I had rotated 90 degrees in my sleep, my head and arms were hanging off one side of my bed and my legs were dangling off the other side.  All-in-all, it was a successful escape from the crowds of Seoul that had the prettiest geography I’ve seen in Korea; even if the sky was spouting rain as the people around me spouted their breakfasts into the sea.

Dokdo

Korea vs. Prague (or Working Abroad vs. Study Abroad)

Praha

As I’m sure 99% of everyone reading this blog knows, I was able to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic my junior year of college.  When I talk to people back home now one of the questions that keeps getting asked is how Seoul compares to Prague.  The question sounds pretty simple to answer.  I could say “Well, I like Seoul better” or “I like Prague better” but, truth be told, it nearly impossible to look at the two from a similar vantage point.  In addition to comparing two cities, if I were to look at both Korea and Prague I would also have to distinguish between two completely different lifestyles as well.

Old TownGoing to Prague was, and remains to this day, the most fun I have ever had.  As a study abroad student I had next to no responsibilities in the classroom so the study part of study abroad rarely got in my way.  Classes were only three days a week, which meant my weekends were longer than my weekdays.  As a result of that beautifully minimalistic schedule that will likely never be seen again in my lifetime I left Prague most weekends and treated the semester as a tour of Europe.  I had budget airlines, beds in hostels, and a good group of friends to accompany me on any spur of the moment trip I felt like going on.  Want to go to Dublin?  Sure.  How does Barcelona sound?  Perfect.  Paris this weekend?  Definitely.  My semester in Prague was a great way to see a part of the world I had always wanted to see with absolutely no obligations tying me down.

Seoul, on the other hand, has many of those obligations.  From my very first day of work, I was aware that I was employee first and wanderer-of-Asia second.  I understand this, though.  I would not expect someone from Korea who took a job in the US to spend the majority of their time on vacation so it should be no different in my case.  Because of my long working hours and nearly nonexistent vacation time I have only been able to leave Seoul twice in my three months here, once to Taiwan and once to Busan.  In the same span of time during my time in Prague I was able to see probably eight or nine of the 12 total countries I visited in Europe.  This might seem like a let down of sorts but it’s just really just getting me more in touch with Korean culture and teaching me about a completely foreign way of life.

Hongdae

Comparing Seoul and Prague as cities rather than lifestyles isn’t much easier.  Prauge has a metropolitan area of a little over two million.  Seoul’s metro has a population of over 20 million.  The city of Seoul alone has almost as many people as the entire Czech Republic.  I can ride the subway for close to two hours and never leave the city of Seoul whereas in Prague I could walk or take a tram on the street to get virtually anywhere I needed to go.  Seoul’s entire city blocks of nothing but neon and a cultural propensity to make nights out last until daylight truly gives the city that city-that-never-sleeps feeling that Prague did not have.  But if Prague did not have that high-tech, glowing thing going for it, it did have a certain charm that came from the combination of its architectural beauty and a slightly less beautiful attitude found in many Czechs.  If Seoul tends to embrace foreigners, Prague seemed irritated at their presence.

Despite their differences, Seoul and Prague do have a few (vague) similarities.  Both cities are filled, much to my appreciation, with extremely cheap alcohol.  Prague had amazing beer and Seoul has tolerable soju.  They both also have annoying climates, although I would take Prague’s constant clouds and drizzle over Seoul’s monsoon any day.

If I had to answer the question as to which city I like better, I think I would have to give the edge to Prague.  Prague was a world class, yet manageable city, with its own personality that I have yet to see anywhere else in the world.  While many European cities such as London or Paris are so cosmopolitan that they have lost many of the unique things that made them special to begin with, Prague still feels very Czech, even with the hoards of tourists.  Seoul is still an amazing city that I would recommend anyone put on their list of places to visit but it can oftentimes just seem too big for its own good.  As I said before, this is a city where a subway ride can take a couple of hours without leaving city limits.  Although with Korea’s cheap booze and absence of laws dictating where people can and cannot drink those two hours can easily feel like no time.

Prague

Busan is the Korean New Jersey

Haeundae Beach

Busan is the Korean New Jersey.  I don’t mean the Jersey Shore guido kind of New Jersey. I’m talking about the overcrowded stretches of sand that have been completely ravaged by man and no longer resemble their natural selves.  Now, I have never been to New Jersey so what I’m saying might be completely false.  For all I know the beaches of the Garden State might actually have white sand and crystal clear water, but in my imagination I picture brown sand and brownish-green water packed with New Yorkers on summer break.  Something tells me the New Jersey of my imagination might be a little closer to reality.

Haeundae BeachWhether or not the sardine can-esque beaches really are a trademark of New Jersey doesn’t matter because I know for a fact that everything I ever thought of as being quintessentially Jersey is in fact found in South Korea.  A couple of weeks ago I went to Busan, the second largest city in Korea.  It is also a favorite place for the people of Seoul to go on long weekends due to it’s nature as a beach city.  Korea isn’t especially well known for its beaches but all the guidebooks and websites kept saying the beaches in Busan were among the best on the peninsula.  I didn’t go to Busan planning on seeing something as pretty as St. Lucia or the Cayman Islands.  I went expecting something along the lines of Daytona or Cocoa Beach which ended up being a fairly accurate assumption.

The beaches themselves weren’t all that bad, but there absolutely nothing about them that looked in any way like they were a part of nature at one point in time.  Busan’s skyline goes right to the coast and then plummets into the water, a bridge connecting two sides of a bay runs parallel to the water in the horizon, and umbrellas completely cover the shore so there is no trace of sand left.  Not even the water is safe.  Bright yellow inner tubes form a line that closely follows the shore.  That being said, those annoyingly colored tubes were pretty fun to bob around in while drinking a beer and hitting Korean children when the waves rolled in.

Gwangalli Beach

When I wasn’t spending my time on the beach, I was able to visit the Busan Aquarium and a Buddhist temple outside the city.  The aquarium is located right on the beach so the whole area outside was more crowded than Disneyland in the summertime.  The crowds did not let up inside the aquarium either, but the inside was air conditioned and it housed some sharks and penguins so the massive amount of people didn’t bother me too much.  In addition to various sea creatures swimming about, the tanks also feature fake animal statues that just kind of hang out while the real ones swim around them.  So while it may look like an anaconda is about to pounce on you at any moment while you’re innocently looking at the piranhas, you can actually be assured that is in fact a fake snake.

The temple outside of Busan was just as crowded as the beaches but the scenery around the buildings was among the best I’ve seen in Korea so, again, I did not think much about the entire population of Seoul having followed me down to Busan.  The temple is right on the water and built up on the rocks on the coast.  Statues of Buddha are found scattered throughout the complex and the architecture is the stereotypical Asian style I love.  I only got to spend a little bit of time wandering around because I had to catch the bus back to Seoul but visiting this temple made me want to see more of the many scattered throughout this country.

Temple

Even though Busan might not be a Korean equivalent to Miami, it was fun nonetheless.  I actually think that if I did decide to do another year teaching in Korea I would want to spend it living in Korea’s New Jersey instead of Seoul.  That’s what Snookie would do at least and what’s good enough for Snookie is good enough for me.

Gwangalli Evening