Neon Seoul

KakaoTalk_Photo_2016-08-21-19-14-08_43

The first thing that I’m always struck by when I first come back to Korea from the States are the neon signs. Before coming back I always look forward to the food, the public transportation, certain spots in the city, the experience, but I never think about the lights that signal Seoul’s insomnia; that point out, “the days not over yet”. Most of these signs are for suljibs (bars), or hofs (pubs) or noraebangs (Karaoke rooms). In the picture above you can also see illuminated store front signs with vertical scrolls advertising certain soups and foods. In the foreground you can see a Cass beer poster, the Budweiser of Korea, describing the enlivening experience of a sip from it’s can. These are the fuel for Korea’s sleeplessness: alcohol, food and karaoke (not to mention 24-hour PC gaming rooms). Karoake itself comes in many forms, from simply rooms to sing in, to rooms with women to join. Hong Sang Soo’s 1998 film The Power of Gangwon Province includes a memorable scene where the two lonely friends spend a drunken night singing songs together and fooling around with 2 naked women in a karaoke bar in the Northeastern province of Gangwondo. So, the signs symbolise energy, life, insomnia, vice. They’re the light that keep the misadventures, conflicts, and doldrums alive at night . But there’s something also beautiful and magical to these old neon signs. Something I don’t think is only particular to me but to many, as evidenced by Vegas. Not to mention, for Westerners, the lights have become, through popular culture, a symbol of East Asia.

Before I first came to Asia, I remember watching Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and marveling at the images of a multi-colored, multi-faceted Tokyo; the arcades, the fashion, the flashing lights and neon signs, the Karaoke room floating above the busy streets below, the chaotic and loud Pachinko parlors. At the time, all these sights were foreign to me, and Tokyo and Asia still held, in my mind and heart, a place of mystery and fascination. It’s all these images of a futuristic yet retro Asia, symbolized by this pulsing sea of lights, that I’d held in my mind for so long. This picture I took when walking through the streets reminded me of that Asia. The Asia I don’t think about so often anymore. The Asia of Blade Runner and Akira.

I was walking around Myeondong, a cultural and arts area of Seoul during the Japanese occupation, when I took this shot. Myeongdong is now a symbol of consumer culture and one of the largest shopping and tourism districts in Seoul. To my surprise, I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. When I first came to Korea, I hated Myeongdong. It felt, when I first visited, like the Asia I’d seen in the movies, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way I expected I would. I was right in the center of the madness. Hoards of people squeezed together in dense streets, smells from food carts wafting through the air, lights in every direction and music blared from all corners. As I walked through, I remember hearing the young Korean women standing in front of cosmetic stores advertising in loud, high pitched voices for special deals. I remember looking across the sea of faces and bobbing heads and feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. It was too much for me and I was turned off by the lack of any real traditional culture.  So, my surprise comes from the fact that I’ve come to enjoy Myeondong. I enjoy it for the food, the energy, the busyness – all the things at first I couldn’t stand. Maybe that means I’ve gotten used to the frenzy and chaos of Seoul? Or maybe I simply am looking for different things? The practical explanation is I happen to be in this area a lot lately, between attending a private school here for Korean and attending a new gym nearby.

Between the proximity to Myeondong and the heat of the day, I’ve spent a lot of my nights after class and after workouts getting bites in the area and taking strolls. It’s been so incredibly hot that I haven’t wanted to spend too much time outside during the day. In turn, the nights have been my time to get some air and simply enjoy a walk. The other night, as I passed by this street, I was reminded of that feeling of returning to Seoul and feeling at home again, at home in the glow of the neon lights. So, in contrast to my home back in the states, marked by it’s stillness and quiet at night, broken occasionally by the sound of a passing car and punctuated by the creek of crickets in the dark, the neon signs of Seoul are what grab me first to say “you’re back”. Now, rather than being overwhelmed, I find the sight of the signs and their colors, despite whatever type of drama or vices they might be hiding, to be comforting.

Hongje Stream (홍제천)

13662073_10153974122709125_295829633790521705_o

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.

Ah, I can do that…

As I mentioned in my last post, the weather in Seoul lately has been HOT…humid, muggy and damp. I live in an oktapbang (roof top apartment), the top floor of a old concrete building built in the 70s. It’s spacious compared to average one room apartments in Seoul, it’s cheap and the location’s great but getting through the hot summers is one challenge everyone who’s lived in an oktapbang can relate to. After getting back to Korea I found out my air conditioner was broken. So, I had to call up the service center for assistance. Simple enough…Right?

Despite being in Korea for a while and having reached a high level in my Korean, I still get nervous when dealing with things like this. I worry there will be a communication breakdown over the phone while I speak in Korean..or that the assistant will ask me repeatedly, “What did you say??”. For a long time, making this type of call in Korean was something I was unable to do. Even as my listening’s improved along with my conversational abilities, the fear and nervousness around putting myself out there and making calls in Korean has remained. Yet, this time, after much deliberation I said “Fuck it, I got this”. I felt a confidence, a part of me that said “Don’t worry. This is how you learn. You make mistakes”. Before making the call, I prepared notes about all the things I expected to be asked about: air conditioner model name, address, phone number, what happened, etc. I prepared any vocab/sentences I needed on a scrap paper and made the call.

Upon answering, I first said “I’m a foreigner, so please speak slowly”. And then we talked. A few minutes later I was told to wait for a call from a technician who would stop by my house this week. That’s it. Done. I felt a wave of pride and satisfaction, giving myself a invisible pat on the back…and I was reminded again, “I can do this….”. Sure, my pronunciation and intonation sometimes are a bit off and I had to ask the customer service agent to repeat herself once, but that’s not to get hung up on the mistakes. The mistakes are part of the process, and I did something that, at one point, wasn’t possible to me.

The lesson of this whole episode was that it’s easy to under-estimate ourselves…fearing the worst, thinking we can’t do something…That’s natural…but eventually, to move forward, you need to act. I usually will ask a Korean friend for help in these situations…but this time, I felt the desire to prove to myself I can handle this on my own. Half the time when you just say “Screw it, I’m doing this”, you’ll do better than you expected. The key towards success in anything is to re-orient from good/bad, win/lose, black and white thinking to a creative approach where the lines between these distinctions are blurred. Life is not clear cut, and we’re not born perfect. We learn through experience, and that includes pain, embarrassment, uncertainty, etc. This time, I felt a clarity in myself, somewhere deep down in my core the words “I’ll make mistakes, and that’s how I’ll learn, this is the way forward” echo up, passing through my mind. This is the way forward.

Sanmotoongi (산모퉁이)

IMGP8113

Looking across towards the western ridge of Mt. Bugak, Seoul, from Sanmotongi Cafe.

IMGP8070

Winnie trying out the telescope, looking across towards Mt. Ingwan.

IMGP8087

Balcony seating, offering a panorama of Northern Seoul, nestled amongst the hills.

    I’m back in Korea after a little over a month in the states. My trip home was great, affording enough time to reconnect with friends and family and enjoy far too many burgers, yet it’s good to be back in Seoul. Arriving back in Seoul in mid July, I was suddenly reminded of just how hot it can get here…each day since I’ve been back has been humid and damp. Outside, it feels like a sauna and I’m perpetually sweating. So, while I expected I’d be out exploring every day as soon as I got back, in reality I’ve been taking it pretty easy and enjoying air conditioning whenever and wherever it’s available.

     The day after my arrival was date day with Winnie. We spent it wandering around Buamdong, a quiet neighborhood north of Gyeongbokgung palace and saddled between Mt Bugaksan to the East and Mt Inwangsan to the West. We made our way to Sanmongtoongi (meaning, “corner of the mountain”), a small cafe up on the hills offering views of Seoul, particularly the neighborhoods spread amongst the valley below. The cafe’s famous as a location where a famous drama was shot (forget the name), and for it’s unique location, off the well worn path and described as one of the harder cafe’s to find in Seoul by some. Spent most of the time chatting with Winnie while sharing cups of tea, rather than taking shots, but here’s a few I took. The cafe itself is cozy and welcoming, with a rock wall exterior and wooden floor interior, with wide wall sized windows facing south. Outside was a patio space, where Winnie and I tried the binoculars there…surprised to find we could watch people hiking alongside Inwangsan in the distance as well as people sitting inside there offices through the binocular’s view.

    When there, you might feel like you’re far removed from downtown Seoul, but it’s really only a short bus trip away from Gwanghwamun and the city center. Besides this cafe, Buamdong is full of other cafe’s, restuarants and galleries…all warranting more trips back. Definitely worth a trip to see a quieter, yet sophisticated side of Seoul.

Lounge 6 (라운지식스)

KakaoTalk_Photo_2016-06-11-19-23-18_99

The other day, after waking up, I decided to make my way to Myeongdong. I had some time to kill before my afternoon appointments, so I figured I’d look for a nice cafe in Myeongdong as a place to start my day…Somewhat of a challenge in Seoul, if you exclude Starbucks and other 24 hour chains. Seoul, unlike Taipei, Hong Kong and other asian cities, is rather dead in the morning…the city never sleeps, but the city is slow to get started the next day. Since most Koreans eat breakfast at home and quickly run off to work or school, there isn’t a strong culture of breakfast restaurants and cafes. Really, breakfast joints are few and far in between and most cafe’s open their doors at 11.

So it came as a surprise when I found a restaurant in Myeondong selling curry rice and Udon soup meal sets at 9:30 AM. I expected, at most, to find a cafe selling coffee and muffins…but while looking around Lounge 6’s sign caught my eye…faded photos of Japanese/Korean fusion breakfast sets, marked with a “6F” on the side. I looked up and couldn’t tell where the cafe might be, but stepped in the musty, glass panelled elevator and got off at floor 6. The cafe, or lounge, was empty, and a bit dark, so I wasn’t sure if it was open…an older woman came out and I asked her if it was too early for coffee or curry. She said no and to take a seat, ushering me outside. I made my way to an outside seating area, crowded with plants and small buddhist-style statues, overlooking the streets of Myeondong. Shortly after, the curry set and coffee I ordered came out…The curry was nothing special…but good enough, similar to curry I’d make at home..but the coffee was surprisingly good. Rich, smooth and served in a pitcher offering 3-4 full cups.

I was surprised to find such a unique, quiet spot, in the middle of Myeondong…more surprisingly, offering a full meal as early as 9AM. On the way out, I looked around, and saw a mini-stage, with an amp and microphone. Thanking the woman for the meal, I grabbed a business card and noticed the restaurant/cafe’s name: Lounge 6. On second glance, it made sense…the environment was more a lounge environment than anything…with a plethora of liquor bottles behind the counter. It had the atmosphere of an old lounge that might attract middle aged and later aged customers, a bit out of view from hot-spots for the young crowd…I’m curious, so maybe I’ll make a trip back for a late night drink to see what’s going on…If not, it’s a great place in Myeondong for a quiet coffee in the morning…somewhat of a niche in Seoul.

 

 

Gamcheon Cultural Village – Busan (부산 감천문화마을)

IMGP7084IMGP7086

My first visit a few months ago to Busan, the southwestern port city of Korea, was accompanied with great weather. The early spring weather brought with it a slight, refreshing breeze, hinting at warmer weather to come. With the clear air and sky, the conditions were perfect for a visit to Busan’s Gamcheon cultural village, the iconic mountainside slum ever-present in flyers and brochures for the city. While now a colorful smorgasbord of clustered homes, the hillside neighborhood wasn’t always so bright. This breadth of shades and colors is unique to Korean architecture, and more a reflection of youth culture than of traditional Korean design.

This area became a tourist attraction after receiving a makeover by young Korean artists, who, in 2009, were given permission to brighten up the streets/homes and staircases with touches of color, arguably at cost to the peace and quiet of its residents, as can be seen by the numerous signs saying “please be quiet” scattered along the walking courses. I’d seen photos of the village many times before Busan and had really wanted to visit one time myself. I, however, wasn’t expecting how touristy it’s become since its original makeover. The bus stop was crowded with hoards of young couples and women taking selfies at every stop, holding out long selfie sticks, striking cute poses. My friend, somewhat embittered by possibly too much time in Korea surrounded by selfie-frenzied young Koreans, lamented this state of affairs in dramatic tone…mocking this obsession with selfies and social media. The rest of us nodded, amused with his passion on this topic.

Yet, nonetheless, he had a point. The area was beautiful, but having become such a touristy place, lacked some of the feel it might once have had….of being a unique cultural enclave, home to families living real lives. It wasn’t until we descended into the labyrinth of side streets below the major lookouts and main street of shops selling ice cream and churros, amongst other treats, that we could really feel what it might be like living in such a neighborhood. Like other hillside communities in Seoul, the narrow alleyways and winding streets were lined with parked motorcycles, the major form of transportation living there, as cars simply wouldn’t fit. For this reason, we had to keep our eyes wide while walking around. As anyone who’s spent even a short time in Korea knows, the motorcyclists expect you to move out of their way, not the other way…so, unless you want to end up limping back to your hostel, don’t make any strong stands for your “right of way” while sightseeing in Korea.

On the way down the hill to bus stop, we passed a variety of small shops selling gimbap (Korea’s version of sushi rolls…a common snack), small family run convenience stores, fried chicken shops and laundromats, with locals going about their daily lives, few and far in between. Korean flags were waving in the wind, suspended from the sides of houses, a reminder of the beginning of Korea’s independence from Japan, celebrated on that very day…the day when Korea’s independence fighters gathered in Seoul to organise in protest against occupying Japan…What would those freedom fighters have thought having seen Korea now, a major economic power, drawing tourists from all across Asia to places such as this? Would they be happy with what they see? I guess I’ll have to ask the next elderly man I see here…

 

 

싱숭생숭 (Singsungsaengsung)

IMGP7187

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!