Summer Heat

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It’s been a really hot summer in Seoul so far. I’ve experienced this type of heat during summer each year since first coming to Korea, but this year’s been especially rough. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he was saying how lately the weather forecasters in Korea can’t get anything right. As we talked over a cup of coffee he told me that people are starting to ignore anything the forecasters say. This week’s been no exception. The weather agency kept saying this week would be the beginning of a drop in the heat and humidity. A few days in and it’s been just as hot if not hotter than the prior weeks. One article I saw on a news stand here said something along the lines of, “In contrast to predictions, Seoul this week is a sauna”. It’s not just the heat itself but the humidity that can make Seoul summers so hard to endure. So it’s spaces like the subway and buses that offer some respite. It wasn’t always this way though. A few students of mine were telling me about growing up in the 80s and 90s when air conditioning wasn’t so common in Korea. They were saying how people would flock to the banks during hot days to cool down. During that time, banks were one of the few public spaces where air conditioning was used. So people would go without any particular motive other than to escape the heat.

Seoul’s changed a lot in a short amount of time, as an older man working at a tteokbokki shop reminded me last night. There’s no lack of air conditioned spaces now…as most cafes and restaurants are kept chilled, or at least have many fans on. Understanding how expensive electric bills can be for apartments in Korea I was curious why so many small businesses kept their cafe’s so cool. My friend described to me, while sharing some patbingsu (a summertime dessert food, made from ice cream, condensed milk and red beans on top of shredded ice), that in Korea businesses are charged very cheaply for electric costs relative to residents of apartments. So, the people get the short end of the stick. Meanwhile a lot of the old generation slog and sweat through the summers in old-style apartments without AC. I’m living in a rooftop apartment now. Anyone whose lived in a Korean rooftop apartment during the summer will say the same thing, “mot salgessoyo” (“can’t live”). Without AC, it’s like living in a sauna. Fortunately, I have a fan and AC to get me through, but without it I’d be looking for a way out soon.

Everyone handles it differently, but the sentiment is shared. This has been a long, hot summer. It’s clearly not just Korea…according to a recent study, it seems that this month was the hottest month in recorded history of the Earth. Couldn’t be global warming? Right? Anyway, the philosophy of many older Korean’s is fight heat with heat. So, certain body warming foods like samgyetang or yukgaejang (ginseng/chicken soup/spicy beef soup) are enjoyed to get a sweat going, with the idea the sweat will cool you down while releasing heat. I can see this, and I’ve enjoyed eating these foods and sweating profusely but this summer I’ve taken the opposite approach, eating lots of cold buckwheat noodles and fruits and iced drinks. Yet, I’ve also chosen to try and embrace the heat as best as I can. I usually moan and groan my way through humid summers. I won’t lie and say I didn’t do the same this year, but I’ve had many times too where I’m walking the streets at night, sweating and just enjoying the experience of moving and taking on the heat….Until it’s time for bed…Then on goes the fan and cross my fingers I’ll wake up alive (Kidding…but “fan death” is a superstition here).

Neon Seoul

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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.

Hoe in Sindang Jungang Market (신당중앙 시장, 회)

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(Flounder sashimi)

When most people think of Sindang, a neighborhood located in central Seoul, they think of tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes the area’s famous for. Yet, there’s more to Sindang. I’d argue even that tteokbokki isn’t the true highlight of the neighborhood, history aside. Jungang Market, right next to Sindang Station Line 2, is home to many small restaurants offering foods ranging from jokbal (pigs feet), to kalguksu (literally “knife noodle soup”, made with wheat flour noodles), to dried fish. However, just exploring the upper level of the market it’d be easy to miss what’s underneath: a large seafood market in the shape of one long hallway, extending the underground length of the market, shops stretching into the distance across from each other.

Walking down the walkway towards the lower level I had to duck my head to avoid hitting the low hanging ceiling. After turning the corner into the lower floor, the dark, low lit atmosphere of the upper/ground level market floor was replaced with stark white light (reminiscent of lighting in large supermarkets). The walls and floor, too, were all white, as is traditional in many Korean fish/seafood markets, and older Korean women and men were sitting around in each restaurant sharing drinks, eating fish, laughing, yelling, all the above. A typical scene at a Korean market.

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(Banchan, including: sea snails, quail eggs, squash, shrimp, tofu, corn and grilled mackerel..)

We went for Hoe (or “sashimi”), cuts of raw fish served with banchan (small side dishes with assorted meats/vegetables). I’ve never really been a huge fan of seafood, particularly fish, but I’ve been wanting to expand my horizons and try a larger variety of Korean food so when Winnie suggested we try Sindang’s raw fish market I was all game. A smiling middle aged woman ushered us into her restaurant where we sat and looked over the menu, deciding on the 40,000 won (around $35 USD) set, which included a platter of raw fish with a variety of banchan, 8 sushi rolls and followed by maeuntang (a spicy seafood stew). I ordered a soju (the ubiquitous (and notorious) green bottled 1 dollar sweet potato vodka Korean’s are known to drink like beer) as I thought it’d complement the meal well. Winnie doesn’t drink so I poured her an empty shot glass of water and we cheered to our meal.

Shortly after it came out, first with the banchan then followed by the large platter of sliced, raw flounder (광어회, gwangeo hoe) served with a soysauce dipping sauce and wasabi (or in this case, died horseradish). After talking and eating our way through the main course, the maeuntang came out (literally “spicy soup”), consisting of a wide variety of vegetables, mostly strong and pungent in flavor, such as hot peppers, chilli peppers, onions, garlic, ginger and mushrooms along with red snapper fish, clams, and shrimp over a pepper sauce based broth. Everything was good, but I wouldn’t call it great. Being someone who’s never been inclined towards seafood, I wasn’t expecting to love it, so I wasn’t surprised. Yet, nonetheless, we both ate well and the experience itself was worth the trip. When going to Sindang, I’d recommend not simply limiting yourself to the famous “Tteokbokki Town”…For two reasons. One, I think there’s much better tteokbokki all across Seoul than what you can find in that area. Two, the market itself and surrounding restaurants have a lot of great food to offer. While I’m not a huge seafood guy, this market’s definitely worth a visit as well as the ground level where you can find lots of tasty street snacks and soup restaurants.

Lounge 6 (라운지식스)

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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.

 

 

Dalmaji Park (달맞이 공원)

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Dalmaji Park, located near Oksu Station on Line 3, offers a beautiful expansive view of Seoul’s Han River and a panoramic of Gangnam and Southern Seoul. It’s also a rewarding trek for those not so keen on hiking, being less of a mountain and more of a hill. The hike up took me just around 10 minutes, granted I was scurrying up, more in fashion of a run than a brisk walk. I visited the park this last weekend after parting with a friend, in search of somewhere new in the city to check out. I went during Chuseok weekend, Korea’s thanksgiving…a time of honoring the shift in seasons during the Fall Equinox. The Korean traditional holidays are all based around the Lunar Calendar, and Chuseok lines up with the full moon, symbolic of a completion of the growth cycle during summer and a time of harvest.

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I hadn’t considered the name of the park until I met an older Korean man at the top of the hill. The man saw me and began speaking to me in Korean, asking me where I’m from, what I do, the standard questions. But to my surprise I was really able to follow along with him as he started telling me the history of the park. The Korean name for the park is “Dal” (Moon) and “Maji” (Greeting/meeting)..So when translating, the park’s name is something like “Meeting the moon/connecting with the moon Park”. The man gestured to the sky, making a sign of connection between the sky and himself while explaining this to me. During a time where the moon’s symbolic of a completion cycle and new beginning, was a nice surprise to hear the story behind the park. After the older man complimented my Korean he launched into a description of the history of a lot of the holiday’s in Korea, talking for a good 5 minutes straight. At this point I realized I was struggling to grasp a lot of what he said as I nodded and smiled. We walked down a ways together and parted ways. I continued taking shots, breaking up my time reading a book and taking in the crisp evening breeze.

For a easy hike and slice of quiet in Seoul, Dalmaji Parks a great getaway. Fortunately the sky’s been clear for the past few weeks…providing great views of the city, uncovered from the coming and going hazy veil the city often wears.

Stroll in Chungmuro

11227975_10153301204564125_634471438042286328_o        I’ve been back here in Seoul for 3 weeks now, after a month-long trip back in the states. A friend recently asked me whether I noticed a difference in the air after my return. My hometown in the states, Vermont, is a small state with little industry and no large metropolitan city. The air is on an average day very crisp and the sky clear. Anyone who knows Seoul knows that’s not often the case here. When I first arrived in Seoul in 2013 the air bothered me. This time around, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t notice a thing. Maybe I’ve lived here long enough I’ve adjusted. Whether this is true or not, it’s also true the air’s been unusually clear for the past few weeks, during this change in seasons from summer to fall. The temperature too has cooled down and walking to and from school and around the city, I look up to a deep blue sky. For anyone whose seen Seoul in it’s rough stretches of pollution, these periods are something you really appreciate.

The weather was so nice I decided to meet my friend in Chungmuro, central Seoul, an area just north of Mount Namsan for a mid-day lunch. It’s a surprisingly quiet area of the city, considering it’s central location, squeezed right between Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, two of Seoul’s largest shopping districts, and near to City hall and Seoul’s main train station. Being located near Dongguk University, there’s plenty of suljib’s (bars), fried chicken and barbecue meat restaurants. Yet, there’s also a lot of history in this area, as evident by the historic apartments, shops and homes that are still standing. In Seoul, day by day, old neighborhoods and homes are being demolished and transformed into modern spaces at an incredible rate. An area like Chungmuro, where you can really see and feel the older Korea is a special thing in 2015. Walking around with my friend, we strolled through a printing street, past warehouses and shops full of workers printing papers in lines of old-style print-presses. Next we wandered through the back street twisting, narrow allies, packed with small restaurants selling soups, meat and traditional korean foods, dodging motorcyclist’s along the way as they sped through these tight “alternate streets”. Finally, we settled down at a restaurant in an area nearing Myeongdong. The area’s interesting because it feels caught between the old and new Seoul, showing signs of gentrification but not there yet. This image really is microcosm of Seoul, sitting right in between the old and new. We talked over kimchi soup and sweet/spicy pork before making our way back to the train station to continue on our ways.

Quick Bite

This evening I ate at a little restaurant near my apartment. It was an old little restaurant, maybe the size of my room…cramped, with a tight kitchen space in the back. The name was “Gimbap Town”, gimbap being a sushi-roll like “korean sandwich”…It’s quick bite food. There are “Gimbap” restaurants all across Seoul..little holes in the wall offering quick, cheap bites…my personal favorite being the most popular Gimbab Jeonguk (meaning Gimbap Heaven, oddly enough started by the head of a large church in Korea). This was similar to a lot of cheap Korean fast food joints I’ve been to, but lower quality. I couldn’t eat the banchan (side dishes) and the kimchi soup was plain. I felt uncomfortable eating because it was such an intimate space and I really didn’t want to finish my meal. The restaurant ajumma (middle aged woman) kept looking at me and I’d pretend to enjoy my food, fake half smiling. In reality I was counting down the bites while trying to stay present. Nonetheless, the environment was fun..A huge woman sat a few seats away from me, a stern look on her face, with what appeared to be her son or nephew…They ordered 4 large dishes: fried pork cutlet, spicy rice cakes, gimbap and kimchi soup…The table next to me a couple, talked and joked over shared gimbal rolls. The boss was an outspoken older Korean woman, barking orders across the restaurant, despite the cook and waitress not being able to hear. “What?” they’d repeat, until finally getting her message.

Outside was a typical night in my neighborhood, people lining the streets drinking soju at street food stands selling meat and seafood. Most of the food stalls you find in Seoul are selling variations on rice-cakes, fried veggies/meats, fish soup, and a popular dish called sundae, made of intestine…The street food stalls outside my new apartment are a little more unique, selling cheap cuts of barbecued meats and grilled seafood along with alcohol. Large groups of students and businessmen as well as other locals gather there most nights of the week, talking over drinks in the lively night. Even though it’s 8 o’clock the shops are all still open, an older couple still selling ddeok (rice cakes) late into the night and an old woman sitting atop a pile of vegetables, earlier for sale, smoking a cigarette to herself. A few stray cats wander around picking up scraps of food where they can.

I walked pass the scene, nothing out of the usual for me now but once a really unique sight. I now have to remind myself to take photos. It’s funny feeling at home in a place that’s still in so many ways obviously not my home.