Location: Kyoto, Japan
Weather: Sunny and 32 F
Hello from beautiful Japan! But don’t expect a bunch of info about Japan, I pretty much got here last night, went to the grocery store, and then crashed for the night. So I am writing this blog to inform you of the last few days I spent in Korea. They were so wonderful and I was able to see the sights with some really fun people. It was a great send off to what has been one of my favorite countries to visit.
So the night after my last blog, I went down to the Nampadong International Market. It was the strangest mix of shops. On one half of the street there were an assortment of every high end store you can imagine – from a Doc Martens to Prada. If there is a blatent observation I can make about South Korea is that many people here seem to be label obsessed. Everything from purses to shoes have whatever brand name they are emblazoned on the side of the product. Seeing as I am trying to be frugal and did not want to be tempted, we decided to go to the other side of the street that was filled with street vendors and fishmongers. Unfortunately we got there around closing time, so we missed a lot of the fishy action, but I grabbed a couple pictures before we were shooed out…
The streets were filled with food vendors and since it was a friday night there were more than a few people running around after drinking too much Soju(a Korean distilled rice drink). I can understand why – it is actually cheaper than water. A bottle of water is about a $1.25 USD, the same size bottle of Soju is about $1.00. I didn’t drink much of it, but it tastes like a sweet vodka and it always consumed neat. I hear people in the US are starting to use it in cocktails…let me know if you come across it!
I should also mention that outside of most restaurants here they have prepared “plastic” food. I am not sure what the stuff is actually made of, but they are supposed to be examples of the food inside. It was pretty funny to see food you don’t recognize in 3D and then try to decide if you wanted to eat it. It did however make the restaurant choices easier and by the time I left I was starting to get good at picking out what each meat looked like.
After a fun night out we had a few beers at a coffee shop (yup, coffee shops are also places to drink beer here, it is not unusual to see a sign saying “Coffee, Waffles, Beer” – more on the waffles later!), and headed home to rest up for our trip to Gyeong-ju for the weekend.
Gyeong-ju is a city literally filled with cultural relics that date back to the 1st century BC. While I didn’t get a full sense of the history there just because of time constraints, I did get a surface level understanding and had a great time!
What really made this trip fun was the fact that I can now say I have been on a Korean road trip! If you know me, then you know how much I love a good road trip! The seven of us (Kathleen, Candice, Taehoon, Kim, Miru, Songmin and I) loaded up in the family minivan and headed out for the drive. About 45 minutes into the drive we stopped at a rest stop for lunch. I should mention that a Korean rest stop is nothing like the stops in Europe or the US. It is a pretty happening place! There are stores, street vendors making food, coffee shops, a mechanic, full restaurants, and various other amenities. When you think of a truck stop in the US, multiply it by 10 in amenities, and picture that in about half the space. It was fun and I wanted to get a picture, but unfortunately my camera was not accessible at the time.
We arrived in Gyeong-ju and went straight to our condo there. It was a one bedroom with a loft. In Korea, beds are not required, you get a floor pad and a blanket. It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds because the floors are the main source of heat in Korea.
After we unloaded the van we headed over to the museum where we were able to see thousand year old relics that were removed a royal tomb locally.
There were crowns, statues, and jewelry. Everything you would expect from a royal tomb, but they were different than what I have seen before. They were all so intricate and beautiful! Again, I found myself at a Korean museum that did not disappoint. Now going to a museum with a five year old in tow is a little different than the hours I spend going through a museum on my own, so I spent most of the time seeing things rather than reading about them. The result is that I can’t tell you a lot about the history there, but came away with an appreciation for the beautiful relics!
The early history of Gyeongju is closely tied to that of the Silla kingdom, of which it was the capital. The city was home to the Silla court, and the great majority of the kingdom’s elite. Its prosperity became legendary, and was reported as far away as Persia. In the early 20th century many archaeological excavations took place, mostly on the many tombs which survived the centuries fairly well. The excavations of this period, largely carried out by Japanese archaeologists, are often accused of recklessness and plunder, although others take a more positive view. Few excavation reports were ever published.
It was starting to get late and we decided to head back to the condo to start working on dinner. I was excited to learn that we were having a cookout/BBQ. Wow – a road trip and a cookout in Korea! I can safely say that I was privileged to experience things that most tourists don’t get to do!
Korean cookouts are similar to American cookouts, but with a few differences. They both involve obsene amounts of food cooked over a flame, just in a different manner!
There were 6-8 BBQs in a long tent structure with a stove in the middle. They pulled charcoal bricks from the stove, put them in a half barrel BBQ, and covered the barrel with a grate. When the flames were about 3-4 feet high, they put a thick cast iron lid on top of the grate. I found out later that this pot lid comes from the huge pots they cook rice in for large families. There were an assortment of veggies on the table and we made lettuce wraps like I mentioned in my last post. I was so happy and full of good food! They cooked pork bacon, pork belly, and pork shoulder in addition to roasting full garlic cloves. So delicious!!
As if that wasn’t enough, Songmin (sorry if I am spelling that wrong…) said that he had some shrimp to cook once we got back to the condo. He cooked them in a salt filled pan over a ceramic lined pot that held a large brick of charcoal. I love shrimp, but have a hard time when they are staring at me right before I eat them. And the whole ripping off the head thing isn’t my favorite either. Luckily, Candice is a shrimp peeling master so she peeled my shrimp for me, but I was so full from dinner that I could only eat two! But the two I had were amazing and I wished I had room for more.
After we decided to head over to the common building to do some authentic Korean karaoke! They had a handful of rooms about the size of a bedroom with one full wall of speakers and a TV. The opposite walls are lined with couches for the observers. No big crowd of strangers, just friends and beer! The nice part about it was that they turn on the echo on the mic, so bad singing isn’t as bad as it could be. Overall it was a really fun night!
We got up the next morning and went to a woman’s house up the road to do some wheel turning pottery. Seriously, how fun!! I have done pottery in the past, but this was more fun because of the fact that I was in a barn in a very rural area of Korea. Everyone made various things from vases to bowls, but I decided that a nice ramen bowl was the best design for me.
We built up the bowls by hand before taking turns going over to the wheel where she helped us turn our lump of clay into a really cool bowl. I asked Kim to write my name in Korean in the bottom of the bowl and then we left them in the potter’s hands to be glazed and fired. Once they are done they are going to be shipped to Kim & Taehoon’s house in Busan. I intend to get back there to get my bowl or have it shipped. What an amazing souvenir!
We thanked her and walked back down to the car for a quick trip over to one of the mound tombs in town. We could not take pictures inside the tomb, but most of the contents were just replicas of what we had seen in the museum the day before. The area around the tombs was what I am sure is a breathtaking park when the trees have leaves. There were a bunch of Magnolia and Cherry trees lining all of the walkways. I just might have to come back to Busan when it’s a little greener!
We were concerned about traffic because this was the end of a holiday weekend so we went back to Busan. If I ever get back here, I would like to spend a few days in Gyeong-ju as it seems there is a lot that I missed, but I had such a great time with my new Korean friends, that I truly didn’t mind!
Kathleen had the next couple days off so we decided to go to a few sights around Busan. Our efforts were somewhat thwarted by the fact that it was the Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year) weekend and just about everything was closed for the holiday on Monday. So we just hung out at the Wolfhound and managed to have a blast down in Haeundae beach. I had one of the most amazing Italian meals in my life – I know it sounds strange – but we split some risotto and a porcini pizza. It was a restaurant called Il Massimo and if you ever find yourself there, I highly recommend you stop in for a bite!
The next morning we figured we had a better chance of seeing some sights, so we met up to take a taxi up to Haedong Yonggungsa which a temple famous for it’s seaside location. It was truly breathtaking!
However, it was incredibly crowded. During the holiday weekends, these temples are popular for two reasons: 1. Tourism and 2. They are active places of worship.
There were entire families there to say a few prayers for a great new year and it was tough to even get around the temple. Each one of the shrines within the temple had dozens of worshipers around them. I felt like an intruder, so we snapped a few pictures and stayed out of the way. It was really beautiful and the people actively using the temple for it’s intended purpose made it that much more special. I grabbed a quick video of a few people at one of the shrines.
With the assistance of an 8 year old who spoke english, we grabbed black bean noodles for lunch and headed back to town. We did some shopping and then went on a mission to find a few last minute foods that Kathleen wanted me to try. I was not dissappointed! The first was a red bean soup. It was more like a stew or chili, but was really quite tasty. That picture is of the black bean noodles, and not the red bean soup because I forgot to take a picture of the soup.
We finished off the trip with one of the most delicious desserts of my life! We split a few waffles, but these weren’t your average waffles, these were super mega Korean waffles! They can be covered in pistacios, berries, chocolate, cream, or just about anything that tastes like heaven! It was a great way to finish off my trip of tasting some of the most amazing foods Korea has to offer!
With a sad goodbye, Kathleen and I went our separate ways at the end of the day. I had to get packed to head to Japan the next day.
So my final take on Korea? Not to be missed! Many people thought it was strange that I decided to come to South Korea, but if you love history, food, art, culture, or shopping, you really can’t miss a trip there. I am by no means a “foodie”, but this country turned me into one. I ate things I would have never touched at home simply because I learned to trust the Korean palate. With one BIG exception: Kimchi. Blech. Kathleen likes it, but it’s not for me. I have never liked anything pickled though, so it’s no big shocker there.
During my stay here I fell in love with the people. While I stuck out like a sore thumb, I can’t think of a single person that was malicious or negative towards me. One guy kicked Kathleen and I out of a bar, but we had no right to go into an upscale bar looking rain drenched and slobby, so I don’t blame him! If you have the chance to go – please do – you will not regret it!
So now I am sitting in Kyoto deciding on what I want to see first. There is more here than I can see in two weeks, so I have to be selective! For those of you that don’t know, I am housesitting for a young couple and their three cats here in Kyoto. They left this morning to head to Barbados and now I am sitting here with one of their cats, Mimu, writing this blog!
I will get you all updated with Kyoto once I venture out. I hope you are all doing good at home! Take care!