Hongje Stream (홍제천)

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Hongje Stream flows through the western side of Seoul, notably past World Cup Park (the site of the 2002 World FIFA World Cup) and Peace Park. Since I first came to Seoul, the stream’s been a regular place I return to to walk and take some time for myself, to breathe and unwind. On a sunny, clear day it’s a gorgeous. Each side of the stream is lined with greens, flowing over into the walking paths and the stream below. Every so often along the trail are stones set in the water allowing you to pass, the classic Korean stream bridge. On the weekends when the weather’s warm, the walking path is full of bikers, kids on scooters, roller bladers, and couples taking strolls. And despite the weather, there’s always older Korean men riding their bikes, classic trot (the oldest form of Korean pop music) from the 60s and 70s blaring from speakers on their side.  It’s a place, like other streams scattered throughout the city, to get a taste of nature and reconnect with the surroundings…A good place for a bottle of makgeolli (korean rice wine) with friends, or a stroll at night for a couple.

I remember distinctly, during a run  there back in Seoul in 2013, running past a group of elderly Koreans..a large group, both men and women, sitting alongside the stream…Trot music was blaring from a boombox while the older women (probably in their 70’s-80’s) danced passionately without shame, as the men sat around watching sharing drinks. I remember being surprised at the time to see people that old behaving just like kids…But that’s something I’ve come to find true of the older generation here…A while back I asked a friend why that is and she said, “I think in Korea, when you’re young, you have no time to just be a kid and have fun like Americans…So, once people get old, they celebrate their wild 20s then”. Whatever the reason, it’s an admirable sight…A reminder to stay active and and to keep having fun. For me, Hongje stream is one of those places…Where I can just unwind, relax, and connect back to the earth. Today was a bit cloudy and muggy, and my best camera was at home charging, but it was a nice walk nonetheless.

Suwon Hwaseong Palace (수원화성해궁)

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I first visited Suwon back in 2014, as a way to kill time during a free afternoon. At the time, I went with the aim to visit Suwon’s famous Hwaseong Fortress wall, stretching a total of 5.52 km and dating back to latter period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The Fortress Wall, demarcated at the four cardinal directions by four gates – Janganmun (nort), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east), Hwaseomun (west) – and the Sumun gates. which flank the point where the stream meets the palace, is a highlight of the remaining Joseon history in Korea, and provides a great day-trip from Seoul. Yet, at the time, I didn’t make it to the palace itself, seated below the iconic Hwahongmun pavillion. The palace was used as a temporary palace, to retreat from war, by the king and royal family during the Joseon era. Aside from this function, the palace had a particular purpose and value as a place for King Jeongjo to worship his father’s tomb, housed in one of the palace’s quarters.

This rich history, however, wasn’t what brought me back to Suwon. Rather, it was Hong Sang Soo (a famous Korean independent film-maker)’s 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), that planted the thought in my mind. While watching the film, one quiet night in my apartment, I recognized the film’s background. The two main characters meet, at the start of the film, inside the palace, followed by an awkward exchange where the male protagonist (Jung Jae-young) asks Kim Min-Hee’s reluctant Yoon Hee-jung for coffee. “Insists” might be a better choice of words than “ask”, typical of the desperate male characters that appear in his films. Later on the two characters meet at a cafe and end up drinking soju, paired with sashimi and sushi at a small sushi bar near the palace.

With only a plan to visit the palace, I unexpectedly stopped by the sushi bar as well. I met my friend Jun-ho one afternoon, and we spent time catching up while walking along the fortress wall, meandering our way towards the main palace, where Jun-ho explained to me both the palace’s history and unique architectural characteristics. We spoke together, mixing English and Korean, helping each other find the words we needed at times, as the language used in describing palaces and Korean history can be uncommon and complex. While a lot of what I learned has since left my mind, one image remains. It was Jun-ho’s description of the chimney’s used in the palace…To the western mind, it’s hard to imagine a chimney without a thick cloud of black smoke ascending from it’s mouth. Yet, these palace chimney’s were designed in a way so that the heat emerged clear. Jun-ho described the interior of the chimney as being composed of a complex tube system which cools/alters the smoke in such a way to reduce it to clear heat. Again, science isn’t my specialty, so I don’t quite remember nor understand how it works..but the image stuck in my mind, as another example of Joseon-era innovation.

After our walk around the palace, we stopped by the sushi bar I previously mentioned, sharing a beer over a mixed sashimi/sushi platter, as the day winded down. Scenes from Hong Sang Soo’s movies repeatedly sprung to mind as I ate, a experience I’ve repeatedly had in Korea, having watched many Korean films prior to first arriving here. The sushi was okay, nothing to rave about, but the quiet atmosphere and the cold beer made the meal a pleasant end to the day.

싱숭생숭 (Singsungsaengsung)

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You might be asking, “what’s that title about?”. To explain it shortly, it’s a Korean mimetic word meant to capture and evoke the feeling of restlessness, particularly around the change from spring to summer. It might be this feeling that brought me back to writing on this blog after such a long hiatus. Whatever it may be, this change of seasons, through spring and the gradual shift into summer has got me thinking of new projects new ambitions…contrasted with the desire to retreat and turning in, so characterised by winter. Short story is, I’ve been in a creative space lately, feeling a renewed sense of energy, as the vegetation around the city, too, wakes up from its long winter slumber.

The picture above was taken in Busan, during a walk in Dongbaek park before sunset. This was my first time down to Busan, a short getaway from Seoul in between school quarters here. Busan wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d heard Seoullites describe Busan as “시골” or “countryside”, and it certainly isn’t that…as Korea’s second largest city, behind Seoul. Nonetheless, while Busan readers might be upset to read this, I understand the joke. Busan’s a beautiful, impressive city, but lacks the energy and intensity of Seoul…It certainly can’t compare in breadth, but struck me as a relaxed place to live, offering more space and quiet than its northern sibling. I like the pace of Seoul..I like the craziness of the city, but the quiet and peace I felt in Busan was a welcome change from the bustle of Seoul. It wasn’t just that there were less people, but the city feels more spread out and the vibe felt more relaxed. While a short trip, it provided a brief respite from Seoul life and a chance to eat some fresh seafood at the same time.

I came back to Seoul feeling rejuvenated, ready to start up a new quarter…and here I am, approaching the end of my final quarter in my school’s language program, entering a new phase of life in Korea and the start of a new, squelching hot Seoul summer, feeling this restless anticipation for new experiences around the corner…More to come!

World Fireworks Festival and Gaecheonjeol (세계 볼꽃 축제와 개천절)

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I took this photo yesterday while on the bus across Han-gang river. I’d met up with a group of the friends and after buying some fried chicken. We were on our way to watch some fireworks in Seoul. Yesterday was Gaecheonjeol, translated as “Opening of Heaven”, marking the day when Hwanung, a mythical deity, was said to descend to Earth to live with humanity. It’s a long fable, but the important piece is he is said to have fathered Dangun, the founder of Korea according to legend of the Gojeon Period. So, in other words, yesterday was “Korean Foundation Day”, marked each year by a fireworks show along the Han River, “international” because teams across the world participate along with a Korean team. This year, America and Philippines started the show with Korea last. The Korean show stood out with the most impressive fireworks, including a section where a major bridge crossing the river was illuminated from underneath with a waterfall of fireworks, creating a golden-yellow stream like, flowing glow. Yet, the Korean segment was also strange for me as an American viewer. It lacked the non-stop flow and momentum of an American show. Rather it proceeded at a plodding pace with gaps in between, at times waiting 30 seconds to a minute before another firework was shot off…At times the fireworks would shoot in one direction of the river, then in another. I was reminded at times of a battlefield, where shots are fired, with intermissions in between. It had somewhat of a theatrical element to me.

All in all, it was a fun night with new friends, eating chicken and sharing beer in the cold evening air. It was cold enough that a cashmere sweater and hoodie didn’t keep me warm and an older Korean man walked amongst the crowd selling blankets. On the way home, we moved slowly across Mapo bridge, packed like sardines in a hoard of Seoullites heading home for the night. As I walked with my friend, we read the Korean phrases printed across the side of the bridge, lit up at night by panels of light. The phrases along the hand rail say things like “People love me”, “How about we eat some noodles?”, “I understand you”, etc, made in an effort by the government to discourage suicides, as the bridge is infamous for. It wasn’t necessarily a somber walk, as we laughed at some of the funny phrases and chatted on our way back to Sinchon, closing the night with a shared coffee and a few beers.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

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For half of the day today it was raining lightly, the sky overcast with grey. After eating some sundubu jjigae with a friend and returning home the sky cleared up and the sun came back out. To get some air and walk around a bit, I headed to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in the cities center. Originally my plan was to catch 1600 Pandas traveling art installation. I caught it as planned, but as it was being removed. The traveling installation is sponsored by the world wildlife foundation and is meant to bring awareness to the threatening of our worlds animal species, pandas included. The installation is a collection of 1600 small, teddy-bear like panda bears, arranged in various places around cities of the world. In the past month the installation arrived in Seoul and the bears have moved around to places such as City Hall, Gangnam Station, Hangang Park and now the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Having arrived too late to see the installation in it’s complete form, I took the opportunity to wander around a bit and take some shots.

IMGP5432IMGP5435(Clearing up the Panda installation)

The center’s famous for looking like a large spaceship, designed by Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-British architect. It’s the one place in the city that really feels futuristic. Seoul’s definitely a progressive city, with the world’s fastest wifi, a convenient subway system and a connected, tech savvy population…but, nevertheless, the city still by and large has an old feel, still transitioning into a more modern city. The Design Plaza stands out as particularly modern in style, but also futuristic, as the interior hallways and design always reminds me of locations out of 2001 A Space Odyssey, with the plain, minimalistic white painted spacious corridors and hallways. Despite my draw to the style of the space I haven’t spent much time there due to being unimpressed with the actual exhibits/spaces inside the plaza. Yet, walking around today got me wanting to revisit, as it’s clearing developed a lot since the doors opened this past year. Absolutely worth the trip if you find yourself in Seoul.

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(Hallway inside the plaza)