Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travel Journal: Republic of South Korea, 2013

South Korea, where old meets new
(Seoul Tower in the background)
It was 4:30am EST when I woke up to depart for the Tampa International Airport. It was dark and I was already tired from poor time management decisions the night before. I left home without observing my usual traditions and sure enough I forgot my passport, dress shirt, and belt. I think that's supposed to be bad luck, so I drove back and picked up a few extra things I didn't need in the hopes of countering the bad luck. I packed light, two computer bags, no computers.

6:03am at the airport
I took the drive to Tampa in the dark and listened to the soundtrack to King's Quest VI while reveling in nostalgia. At the terminal I started reading the book my friend Hex just finished called Alan on Kindle. I found it very enjoyable and because most of the book is dialogue I got half way through before the end of the first flight. It's a bit sad to admit but reading half a book is more literature than I've read in a physical format in the past 12 months.

I'm good at forgetting things
By 10am CT I was in Chicago. A short tram ride to the correct part of the airport, an additional security checkpoint, and a hot chocolate later I was in the terminal waiting for the plane. I'd brought my new Nintendo 3DS with me in the hopes that I could use the "street pass" feature to make friends in foreign countries, so I had it in my pocket with the little wifi thing turned on. Because I think of Asia as being generally more technologically advanced than America and because in my last trip I'd met so many friendly people of all ages who could kick my butt in Starcraft, I assumed that everyone there would certainly have a 3DS and that I'd rack up a bunch of new friends from Asia. Sadly I'd forgotten that Korea had this bitter hatred/death-feud with Japan over the centuries and was even more sad to discover that everyone seemed to play games on their smart phones instead. For a brief moment of hope I noticed an all ages US martial arts team, the Hapkido champions of the world, waiting in the terminal with me. I hoped that perhaps some of the American kids traveling with them might have a 3DS but no such luck. One beef and broccoli dish of sadness later I got on the plane and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the flight would only be 13 hours, as opposed to 23, my original expectation. All in perspective I guess...

The view never got much better
A few remarks about Korean Air. It's the best airline in the world. Period. Even if 1 in every 100 flights crashed I'd still fly with them because their quality of service is just superior. Period. I got 2 seriously amazing meals served with real silver silverware, I got a blanket, a pillow, slippers, an extra wide seat, a headset, a newspaper, and a personal TV with over 30 films, television shows, and specials. This is the norm. Also, the staff (all dressed in super-sharp outfits) have to meet a certain 'physical attractiveness' requirement that the US would frown on, but is totally legit in Korea. They've also been extremely friendly in all my interactions and seem genuinely happy to assist people with their issues. My flight consisted of the above, finishing the book Alan, reading through Brian Johnson's amusingly awesome autobiography about his experiences with cars, beating Metal Slug 7 on the 3DS, playing Castlevania: Mirrors of Fate until the battery of the 3DS died, arranging a medley I want to record for Dwelling of Duels, writing lyrics for a future Random Encounter collaboration song, and watching 3 or 5 movies. I enjoyed the new GI Joe movie the most (It was awesome! Dwayne Johnson delivers!), and a despite how bad The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was I refused to turn it off on the principal that my 3DS died and I'd mathed out how much time all the movies I wanted to see would take. I took a 4 hour nap and arrived in Incheon International Airport in the Republic of South Korea at 4pm 1 full day after I'd left, though only 13 hours had technically passed.

First impressions of Seoul
As I went through another round of customs I had the sudden realization that I'd not made plans to meet with my friends beyond "see you at the airport," had no cell phone plan outside of the US, and didn't have the faintest idea where they lived. Before panicking but after I'd passed the gauntlet of people greeting those who got off our plane I checked to see if my phone could pick up a wifi connection and use the Korean Skype app "Kakao" to reach them. I got lucky and found them in the gauntlet it'd just passed thanks to Kakao. We exchanged greetings, caught up, and took the bus to the great city of Seoul. As I forgot to mention earlier my purpose for visiting was to attend a wedding between two of my good friends, Helios and JY, (both incredible concert pianists who met through their mutual love of the instrument). In addition to myself, two other American friends (Josh and Cara) were visiting and JY informed me that the group did most of their sightseeing and hiking the day before. I was extremely sad to hear that i'd missed paying homage to the original Starcraft master Yi Soon Shin but was told that the weather was awful up until i'd arrived.

View from the bus
We caught up on the hour long drive to Seoul and stopped briefly at the hotel, apparently a sort of "love hotel" that was booked because of the inexpensive rates and proximity to where we wanted to be. I honestly couldn't tell that it was in any way different than a regular hotel except that it had a boday and the saddest air conditioning system I've ever used. It turns out that all of Korea isn't that big into AC as none of the places we visited seemed to use very much of it. Instead people just carry fans. Suddenly the sunny weather that seemed to follow me from Florida was no longer so friendly but the sun thankfully started to sink lower as we walked to meet up with JY's parents and family for the first time. I'd effectively met Josh and Cara on the walk to the dinner for the first time, and while the traditional Korean dinner where we met JY's family started off as a slightly awkward event, things quickly picked up after JY's father told Josh that he had a resemblance to President Nixon... Which those in the room who were Korean genuinely thought was a complement ("being compared to a former president is a good thing, right?"). Once Nixon's presidency and controversies were explained we all had a good laugh and got past trying to be super formal.

Second Dinner
As for the meal itself, we had an extremely diverse 20 plate dinner (each person sharing what's on each plate, each plate delivered one at a time) that started off with things I was used to like beef & noodles, and gradually got to more interesting, with things like fried mushroom with calamari, octopus, and jellyfish. I was most proud of eating the jellyfish, getting revenge for countless bitter stings i'd received as a child. During the opening moments of the meal JY politely asked if I'd like a fork and while I'd declined one was politely given to me by the wait staff shortly after I made a fool of myself with chopsticks.

Later, we followed JY's parents to their home and were given additional food. Between tea, cake, and kiwi JY's father showed us how to do calligraphy, which was pretty awesome. He explained a lot of the meaning behind it i'd never understood or fully appreciated, and even made a piece for myself and Josh/Cara to take home. It was a really pleasant evening spent with people who felt like family, though we'd only just met. Later, our party planned to visit a PC room and try out the game League of Legends (which I'd never played) but I somehow wound up falling asleep in the hotel room. The others had a similar experience of falling asleep on accident.

The Traditional District
The next morning my 3DS was charged and I awoke to find that i'd made a friend on the airplane ride! Practically popcorning with excitement I discovered my new Asian friend from... well, Mexico... That's sort of a foreign country I guess... After a 7 dish breakfast (actually I just downed 7 huge assorted pastries lathered in butter and felt cripplingly full) at Paris Baguette we walked to the bus, took the bus to the train, and took the train to the traditional district of Seoul. It's basically a large shopping area where you can find almost everything you're looking for that isn't electronic. The word "traditional" can be found on just about every shop and we stopped in almost all of them passing calligraphy shops, tea shops (I'll admit, I got a set), art shops, clothing shops (sort of traditional), and antique shops. Unlike in America where anything over 100 years of age is considered extremely old ($), just about everything in the Korean antique shops we visited was at least 120 years old. If it's not over 600 years of age it's not really a premium ($) item. I narrowly avoided getting a super old wind-chime made of swords and a gong on the logic that it would never get through customs and moved on to a small-crafts station where you can warp glass, make mother-of-pearl items, food, or paint various clay objects before glazing them. The streets were fairly crowded, mostly by locals, and the "graffiti" was mostly confined to a specific area that seemed almost intentional. I'll also admit that we went to a "traditional" photo booth and took a bunch of silly pictures while in traditional garb.

Traditional Photo Booth...
Just like the ones in centuries past
The ladies and I stopped by a traditional tea house while the guys, traditioned out, went to a PC room filled with smokers (there's a current events controversy about this I'm told). The tea house was a beaming highlight of the trip. A traditional building, traditionally garbed staff and seating, and lots of super-high quality tea. I got the super-expensive $15 Buddhist Monk, burnt 12 times, uber-exclusive green tea that wound up being the best tea I've ever had. It didn't need sugar. It was perfect just as is. There are some rituals associated with tea that I won't bore you with, but rest assured that those traditions were observed. JY had hibiscus tea (with real hibiscus leaves you could see) and Cara had some other flower-based tea, made with the real flowers. By the time we were done being traditional the sun was setting and we met up with the guys for an early dinner. I was still feeling bloated from breakfast somehow, despite walking over 5600 steps (according to my 3DS) and skipped out on food. Sadly I didn't pass anyone in the traditional district with a 3DS, but when Helios used the bathroom (and got lost trying to find it) he said that in a traditional bathroom (hole in the ground) without any form of lighting or windows (aka a pitch black room), he used his 3DS's screen to find his way and randomly in the darkness it picked up another 3DS in the area and started glowing green. Somewhere in the dark abyss of the traditional bathroom Helios's 3DS made friends with a Japanese man with a creepy looking Mii. Maybe a resident ghost?

The best tea I've ever had
Leaving the district, we checked out a 7 floor department store, a quarter of a square mile sized music store with more instruments than I've ever seen in my entire life (all of them combined) under one roof, and took a taxi to the Seoul tower. Engrish signs informed us that children, disabled people, and "oldsters" get a discount on the zip-line cable car. After waiting in line (with no AC and perhaps 150 people in a small room) we took the line up to the base of the tower and were sad to find out that it costs an extra $30 or $50 to get to the top. Being a bit broke we took pictures from the base of the tower, which reminded me strongly of the pillar in Sector 7 in Final Fantasy 7. Near the tower there was a fantastic scent that we discovered belonged to a Cold Stone Ice Cream. Without lactose pills I sadly sat back and watched as my companions ate and JY asked me about lactose intolerance, which is extremely rare in Korea. Helios got a caricature made with JY while giant projectors brought the tower to life with a fun animated show that played on the tower itself. The effect was really cool and when the show concluded at around 10pm or 11pm we took the cable car back town, took a taxi back to the hotel and slept. We planned to play League of Legends but Helios and JY had to wake up at 6am for their wedding and it seemed like a bad idea. When I got home I was pleasantly surprised that my 3DS glowed green with a new friend! Sadly, it turned out it was only because after 12 hours you can re-friend your previous friends, so it was just Helios from Texas. After this sad revelation I went to sleep.

The Seoul Tower
Building near the Seoul Tower

The next morning I met with Josh and Cara, accidentally skipped breakfast (I arrived late), and traveled by bus and then subway to the wedding site at the Traditional Korean House in Seoul. Because the wedding is a deeply personal moment for my friends they'd probably not appreciate everything being shared on the internet i'm going to skip some details and misadventures.

View just beyond the Traditional Korean House

Turn around and...

The Traditional Korean House...
In the heart of Seoul
The wedding was a traditional Korean wedding (JY is Korean if you haven't caught on yet) and the Traditional Korean House is extremely good at traditional things. The moment we walked through the doors I completely forgot I was in the city. Everything about the property, the buildings, and the staff felt like it was a few hundred years in the past, like we were transported miles and miles away from the nearest city. It was very relaxing and is one of the few times I'd feel comfortable saying the word Zen without a hint of sarcasm. They took very good care of my friends and the wedding party room was the only room in all of Korea we visited that had perfectly functioning air conditioning (that wasn't a PC room). I'm not joking about this and we even took pictures of ourselves next to the AC dial showing the temperature. 

Through the gate...

Past the pond...

Down the path...

with a view...

To the place where the bride and groom are.

All this is in the middle of a city but you'd never know it

I remembered the pants this time
The wedding ceremony observed many customs which I'm entirely unaware of but overheard in passing over the last day and a half. There was a duck passing ceremony for the Korean equivalent of the best man (Josh), who has to be both a husband and father beforehand, spiritually imparting the knowledge of success (the duck?) to the groom. There was tea, there was a small rice-crispy looking cake eaten by the bride and groom, a large meal for all, lots of bowing, a 10 or 15 piece fan-dancing troupe, a 5 piece drum-core acrobatics team with giant streamers attached to their heads, a 7 or 8 piece traditional band, and a few hundred people that came to pay their respects to the couple. It was fantastic, like a period piece kung-fu movie without the kung-fu, and I was very proud to represent myself as a member of Helios's family. It might seem weird that i'd say Helios and I are family, but after what we've been through with Random Encounter, with college, with joining the work force, plotting, planning, being pen pals, D&D games via group email that took weeks, and the fact that we're still talking to each other, we really are kin and I may have shed a few tears during the wedding. 

Helios and JY in the traditional wedding garb

The Acrobat Drum Team

Easily the coolest wedding ever
Again, skipping many details about the wedding ceremony, the bows (no vows were spoken by the bride or groom) and tea were exchanged, pictures were taken during a random cool breeze, and Josh, Cara, and I ate while the happy couple greeted all of their guests before being allowed to sit and eat (which was sort of comical because Helios nearly passed out from lack of food before the half hour-long wedding ceremony started). During the meal we discovered a strange glass bottle on the table that looked like water. Casually we poured it into our respective cups, so to fit in and not be barbaric Americans. As I picked up my cup I noticed a slew of people staring at us like we were doing something wrong. "Oh" I thought, "Wrong hand", and I shifted my cup from my right hand to the left hand, because tea is traditionally held by the left hand and perhaps there's some sort of parallel. I heard someone nearby giggle and took a sip of what I can only describe as something that tastes like hydrogen peroxide smells. It was strong, it was bitter, it was sterile. As wasting food/drink is frowned upon, especially at a wedding, I had to plug my nose to finish off the rest of my cup and downed 2 coke bottles (in cups) to fight off the taste midst laughter from those around us. One person actually fell over with laughter, which led me to believe that my suffering was somehow amusing.

Fun times with my new in-law
A few hours later we found ourselves in a PC room, finally, after the strong desire to play League of Legends as a 5 man team had all but consumed us. To our displeasure we had to install the US client of the game, which took an hour or so but eventually we got to play and had fun. It's worth mentioning that we also got ramen cooked and given to us at the PC room for ~$3. I notoriously don't like spicy things and chose the unlabeled ramen over the ones directly labeled "spicy." Unfortunately for me the unlabeled one turned out to be the most spicy of all but my hunger forced me to finish this meal from hell. A few hours after that we went back to the hotel. I'd still not made any 'new' friends on my 3DS besides Helios at this time (yes, I brought it with me to the wedding, artfully concealed in a suit pocket. In my defense, so did Helios!), so JY said she'd be my friend once Helios set her new 3DS up. Helios did this (to clarify: JY didn't stay in our hotel) as I went to sleep, dreaming of my fail-safe plan of making a 3DS friend from Korea. The next morning I awoke to find that I indeed had made a friend! In addition to Helios, JY had activated her street pass and joined my small band of buddies! It took a few moments, but I realized to my horror that he'd registered her as being from Texas... No chance of meeting anyone from Korea now, I left at 5:45am to take a bus to the airport. I'd said my goodbyes the night before and thanks to a series of perfect events, found my way to the airport in record time. On the airplane ride back I watches a series of gradually more and more new but awful Hollywood action movies (sorry Arnold), enjoyed Snitch (Dwayne Johnson delivers once again!), beat Mirrors of Fate (It wasn't that great of a game but I liked certain things about it), and read Dan Abnett's Pariah, which I didn't fully appreciate until the last 50 pages. It's comical to note that while I left Korea at 11am, I arrived in America at 10am, effectively time traveling, though not in any meaningful capacity. It took another 8 hours to get home and I was unpleasantly greeted with a slew of chores I'd neglected when I'd left, a few rapidly approaching deadlines, and 220 urgent & unread emails. All in all a great trip and I hope to visit the Republic of South Korea again in the future. Hopefully I'll get more time to visit places of historical significance.

Back in America, frustrated with my 3DS


  1. Sounds like you had quite the adventure. Very cool that you immersed yourself in the traditional ways of the culture. I did the same thing the first time I went to Japan and it was awesome. Glad your back home safe.

  2. FANTASTIC!!! I love the photos and the adventure recap!!! kwiddy

  3. This is absolutely amazing journal of the trip! My korean family and us appreciate you so much coming down all the way the way to east asia to Korea! I am so suprised you remeber alllll the details! I am so happy that you are now my borther in law^^! I will send you txt once i get my phine service! Miss you have good days! -JY

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