Saturday, May 23, 2009

Old Friends

After watching the X Games I went to Gangnam, to meet up with some of my old students, who I first met whilst teaching in England. I was taken aback by the number of people who turned up and it was so nice of everybody to have made such an effort. One of my friends Jeon, had even travelled the length of Korea from the Busan area to come out with us.

It was so great to see everyone, most of whom I hadn't seen for nearly a couple of years. It's funny, but when you get older time just seems to pass so much more quickly.

It so was interesting to find out about where everyone now was in their lives and how things had changed since the last time I had seen them. Everyone was doing well for themselves, whether it was at work or at university. Some like Harry and Jane, had got married after meeting in England and others like Tae-sok and Jinny, had had a lovely baby boy called Min, who they brought along for everyone to see.

We ended going out to about three different places in Gangnam for food and drinks and we all had a great time. 'Gangnam' means south of the river and represents one of the newer areas of Seoul as it has gradually expanded outwards. Most of the area was built during the 1980's after land speculation caused a real estate boom in Korea. Now it's one of the most thriving areas in Seoul with it's high rise skyscrapers, shopping facilities and great nightlife.

We had lots of traditional Korean food plus lots of soju, which is a rice wine and this definitely helped to liven up proceedings for everyone. Soju is served straight from a shot glass and it's alcoholic content is usually between 24% to 34%. One of the most appealing things about it is definitely it's price, you can get a bottle for around 2000 won, which works out about 1 pound.

I also tried bulgogi, which is beef that has been marinated in soy sauce. In the middle of the table sits a grill with hot coals in it and on top of this you place the meat and vegetables to cook them. After the meat is cooked you take it and place it in some lettuce with vegetables and sauces and you then roll it up in your hand and it eat it. It's delicious, although the method of eating it is the perfect way to ruin your clothes if your your not careful, especially if you've had a little bit too much soju.

I had a great time, although we all probably overindulged a bit on the alcohol front. By about roughly 3.00 o'clock in the morning(at least I think it was) the effects of our soju fuelled reunion were beginning to take effect, so I thanked everyone for a terrific night, then we all said our goodbyes and promised to meet up again soon.

For all the photos click here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

X Games

Yesterday, I went to the X Games in Seoul, to see all manner of death defying acrobatics and dangerous stunts, all of course in the name of sport.

The X Games is an extreme sports event that was devised by the TV channel ESPN and was first held in 1995 in Rhode Island. It changed it's name to the X Games the following year and the first ever Asian X Games took place in 1998.

The event was held at the Jamsil Sports Complex, where Ben Johnson infamously tested positive for drugs in the 1988 Olympics after winning the hundred metres in a world record 9.79 seconds.

I still remember it clearly to this day, watching a man pushing the boundaries of what a human was capable of physically achieving. The sheer power and aggression of him running down the track almost seemed like a force of nature. He didn't just break the record at the time, he completely destroyed it.

Then afterwards there was the media frenzy of what was the largest drugs scandal in sporting history at the time. Events which have probably altered how we view future sporting achievements for evermore.

The days events included skateboarding(vert and park), inline skating, BMX(vert and park), wakeboarding and sport climbing.

It was all very exciting to watch, especially the skateboarding as the boarders performed all manner of tricks, as they went back and forth across the half pipe. It almost made me wish I could go back in time to the age of fourteen and learn how to skate.

Most probably my favourite event of the day was the motocross, a demonstration event where riders performed jumps across two ramps, which really got the crowd excited and had them 'oohing' and 'aahing' to each more dangerous stunt.

This is what I think is so appealing about these sports. Not only the skill involved, but the danger of them. The slightest error can result in not only failure but extreme pain for the sportsmen. Watching people do things that mere mortals such as myself could only ever dream about is what definitely made it all so thrilling.

It was all pretty spectacular to watch and has definitely got me in the mood for trying something a little bit more extreme, the next time the opportunity arises.

For all the photos click here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Monday, May 18, 2009

In Korea you get lots of national holidays added to your weekend, so last Monday I went back to Icheon for the World Ceramics Biennial with my friends Kate, Jo and Laura.

Ceramics in Korea have a long and rich history dating back over a thousand years, when techniques for producing them were adopted from China. Korean artisans using these methods adapted them to give them their own distinct flavour and look, to make ceramics one of Korea's great cultural emblems.

Ceramics became prominent in Icheon during the Joseon Dynasty(1392-1910) and production here dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty(918-1392). Today Icheon is the home of ceramics and one of the many places in Korea where it is possible to view them. There are over 80 ceramics factories in the area surrounding the Icheon Ceramics Village and there are around 300 kilns in use.

Walking into the grounds the first thing we saw were rows of tents with people busily engaged in making pottery and carving ornate designs onto them. Other tents provided the opportunity for visitors to make their own pots and create their own designs, all very popular with the children there.

We then made our way to a very interesting exhibition on the history of ceramics in Korea and then it was onward to the Icheon World Ceramic Centre. This huge building houses four galleries containing ceramics entered into competition not only from Korea but from all over world. My favourite piece was definitely an old dilapidated car made entirely from ceramic.

One of the more interesting exhibits entered into the competition was an entry from China with a ceramic McDonald's logo, painted not in gold, but with the design of a dragon on it. The reason for the redesign of a corporate logo which signifies America's global dominance around the world was clear. China, symbolized by the dragon was eventually going to overtake America in it's importance globally in the coming century.

An interesting political statement as I'm sure you'll agree, but as I said, I really liked the car.

After leaving the ceramic exhibition we decided to sample the delights of a traditional Korean tea ceremony. Less formal and ritualized than other tea ceremonies, it proved to be very enjoyable(despite my dead legs from sitting down for so long in one place) and helped to nicely round off another fascinating voyage into the world of Korean culture.

For all the photos click here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Silkworm Larvae

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lotus Lanterns

After arriving in Seoul at around 4 o'clock, I headed to the Jogyesa Temple for the Lotus Lantern Festival. One of the biggest festivals in Korea it is held to celebrate Buddha's Birthday, commonly known in Korea as 'Chopail', which falls on May 15.

Built in 1938, Jogyesa is the largest temple in Seoul and is home to the largest Buddhist sect in Korea. It is here that the main event of the day, a huge procession starting at the Dondaemun Stadium, culminates.

Lotus lanterns are unique to Korea and it is believed that the lighting of them dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period during the 6th century. After this the lighting of lanterns became extremely popular with people at the time of Buddha's Birthday and even when the government tried to suppress Buddhism in the Joseon Dynasty, the lighting of lanterns around Chopail was still allowed, although not officially recognised.

The lotus is a common symbol in Buddhism. As the lotus grows from the darkness of mud and blossoms in the light, it therefore represents the process of shedding ignorance to attain wisdom. The candle inside is also highly important as it signifies the attainment of wisdom. By making lotus lanterns people are therefore aspiring to achieve greater wisdom and spiritual enlightenment.

The streets around the temple were throbbing with activity and it was the first time I'd seen such a large mass of people in Korea. There was plenty of opportunity to indulge in Korean culture, with stalls displaying arts and crafts such as calligraphy, woodcarving and traditional Korean food and drink. There was also lots of traditional music and folk dancing for people to see, which all added to create a great atmosphere. There was even the chance for people to make there own lotus lanterns so that they could join in the parade later.

Lotus Lantern Parade

Just after sunset at 7.00pm, the parade began from the Dondaemun Stadium to the Jogyesa Temple. I made my way to the end of the road leading up to the temple to wait for the visual feast of thousands of lanterns passing before my eyes.

I have to say I wasn't disappointed. Leading the parade were hundreds of Buddhist monks, who were followed by literally thousands of other people and an array of floats with huge lanterns on them.

Many of these lanterns were in a variety of forms including butterflies, elephants and other animals, as well as mythical beasts such as dragons. Most impressive of all was a beautifully lit Buddha and the whole evening provided an amazing kaleidoscope of colour for everyone watching.

So all in all a great weekend, even though things didn't quite work out as I'd planned.

For all the photos click here.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pungnammun Gate(Jeonju)

When travelling things don't always go according to plan. Sometimes coaches break down, guesthouses are booked up, the guidebook is out of date or it just rains constantly. This weekend was one of those times.

On Saturday I decided to go to the Jeong-eup bullfighting festival, a tradition that goes back in Korean culture over a thousand years. Different to Spanish bullfighting it doesn't involve the battle of man versus beast, but two bulls facing off against each other to see who gains the advantage and it basically involves lots of pushing.

Before going to the festival on the Sunday I decided to have an overnight stay in the nearby city of Jeonju, which also gave a chance to check out some of the sights there.

Whilst walking around Jeonju with my guidebook in hand, looking completely bewildered and lost, I met a man called Kwang Suk, who offered to help me find whatever it was I was looking for. It turns out that he'd just been travelling around South East Asia and was visiting places around Korea as he made his way back home in the south. After chatting for a while he suggested that we go out and get something to eat.

We went to a very nice restaurant, where Kwang suggested I try bibimbap, which is a mixture of rice, meat and vegetables served with a hot sauce. Jeonju is famous for being the birthplace of bibimbap and there are lots of restaurants here which serve it. The ingredients for bibimbap are varied with over 20 different ways of combining them. I tried dolsot bibimbap where the food is served in a heated stone pot, which helps to retain the heat and cook the food whilst eating. The meal we had was delicious and as always it's always nice to try some traditional cooking wherever I am.

Then it was off to a hof, which is like Korean version of a Western pub. What makes a hof different to Western style bars or pubs is that when in a hof you have to order side dishes along with your drinks. There also isn't a bar and the layout of them tends to be more like a restaurant, rather than a western bar or pub where you're more likely to meet some random drunk person who isn't in your group. They aren't too expensive and they make a good start for whatever entertainment is planned for the evening.

After a few drinks here we decided to go a Korean style nightclub called Mool Night(this is how it was spelt). The layout was a lot different to the usual western nightclubs that I'm used to with lots of seating in a huge hall and a dance floor at the other end.

The waiter escorted us along to from of the club where everyone was dancing and handed us the drinks menu. It was then that I learnt about how expensive Korean clubs like this one are. There also wasn't a wide range of drinks with only beer and some very expensive whisky on offer.

Every once and a while a slow song would be played and there would be a huge exodus off the dance floor as everyone went back to their seats to sit down, an experience that took me back to my youth, but obviously without the acne, cider and vomiting.

Whilst sitting down one of the waiters brought over a woman to sit next to me, who seemed extremely embarrassed to be talking to me. This happened three times and I later found out that the Korean waiters had been going around to all of the women sitting down and asking them if they could speak English. If they replied yes, the waiters then apparently dragged them over to sit next to me, which helped to explain the embarrassed silences and giggling.

This is known as a 'booking' and in a nightclub such as this one, if you see that special someone you like, you can ask one of the waiters to bring that special someone over. Obviously all for a small tip, which helps to explain the enthusiasm of some of the waiters to see me with someone.

I had a great night. What I love about travelling is meeting new people, especially when it's completely unexpected and seeing new things. It's the exchange of stories and finding out about the experiences and different perspectives on life from people that make the whole travelling experience so worthwhile.

I awoke the next morning and caught the coach to Jeong-eup. When I arrived I got in a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the festival. He then gave me a strange look as if to say, "What are you talking about, you crazy Englishman?" It was then after he made a phone call that I found out the festival had been cancelled for the weekend and postponed until October.

Feeling somewhat dismayed I got on the KTX and headed back to Seoul. Even though I didn't get to go to the festival I could console myself with the fact that I'd had a very enjoyable time and learnt some very interesting new things about Korean culture.

Fortunately I did have a back up plan......

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Here's a short film I made of the rice cake festival I went to in Gyeongju a few weeks back.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Rite

On the first Sunday of May every year, the Jongmyo Daeje, or Royal Ancestral Rite, takes place at the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul. It is here that the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings and queens are enshrined.

Throughout the Joseon Dynasty(1392-1910) the rites featured elaborate music and dance with the intention of appeasing the souls of deceased rulers, so as to bring peace and prosperity to the country. They were also held when there were important matters of state and court and throughout the year as well, to help bring about a bountiful harvest.

Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Rite

The shrine itself was completed in 1395 after King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty moved the capital from Kaeseong to Hanyang(Seoul). Throughout it's history it has been expanded and altered to accommodate the new kings and queens and the main hall, known as Jeongjon, currently has 19 rooms housing a total of 49 tablets.

During the Japanese invasions between 1592-1598, the original structures were burnt down. The present structures were constructed in 1608, and in 1995 the complex was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For all the photos click here.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Admiral Yi Sun-shin Festival

Today I went to Asan, which is just a fifty minute ride by KTX train from Seoul, for a festival celebrating one of Korea's most famous military heroes, Admiral Yi Sun-shin.

Yi Sun-shin was born in 1545, in an area of Seoul now known as Inhyneon-dong. In 1552 his father decided to move to the village of Asan and it is here that here spent much of his youth until he passed his military exams at the age of 32.

Many of his early assignments were confined to army posts and included the command of border garrisons along the northeastern provinces of Korea. In 1591, at the request of the prime minister Yu Seong-yong, he was appointed as Left Admiral of the Naval Fleet in Jeolla.

Foreseeing the threat and imminent invasion of Japan he trained his officers in preparation, providing them with guns, ammunition and other supplies. He was also responsible for the design of the revolutionary iron-roofed ships called Geobukseon, or turtle ships. Geobukseon ships were probably the first warships to use iron plates as defensive armour. They measured about 33 metres in length and 8 metres in width, with roofs made of hexagonal metal plates. This made them impossible to board and also provided substanial protection against attacking gunfire.

In 1592 Japan, led by the armies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, invaded Korea in hope of sweeping through the peninsula and using it as a base to conquer China. Due to Yi Sun-shin's great skill as a military tactician he defeated the invading forces of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, forcing a Japanese retreat.

When the Japanese forces attacked Korea again 1597, they once again failed to gain control of the seas. Thanks to the strategies of Admiral Yi the Japanese were forced to retreat on numerous occasions, cutting off their supply lines which left their armies unable to advance from their base in the Busan area of southern Korea.

On November 19, 1598, attacking the final remnants of the Japanese retreat at Noryang, Admiral Yi Sun-shin was shot. He is said to have then asked his son to cover up his body with a large shield and keep on fighting.

Horseback Spear Throwing

The festival was definitely my best experience in Korea so far. There was so much to do and see I barely managed to fit everything into the whole day.

Arriving at just after twelve o'clock in the afternoon I first got to see a battle recreation with people dressed in tradional military costume and although it was a slightly overacted performance for the crowd with it's seventies kung-fu music and back flips, it was very enjoyable all the same.

Wandering around festival there were lots of traditional crafts on display from pottery to wood carving. I even tried my hand at traditional Korea calligraphy and I also got to sample some free traditional alcohol which was very nice, though it did go straight to my head in the afternoon sun.

Most exciting of all were the demonstrations of martial arts that were part the Joseon period exam for military service. I got to see sword fighting, people throwing spears and archery all on horseback. Definitely something I'd love to try one day, although I doubt if anyone is going to let me on the back of a horse with an instrument that can maim or kill anytime soon.

I also visited Hueonchungsa, a shrine dedicated to Admiral Yi that was erected in 1598 by King Sukjong, a hundred years after he was killed in the battle of Noryang. Here you can also see the Admirals's house and numerous historical military artifacts in the museum, including Admiral Yi's war diaries written during the Hideyoshi invasion and his long sword.

Hueonchungsa is well worth a visit, not just for the sense of history but also for it's tranquility and beauty. After living on the outskirts of Seoul for nearly two months it was nice to get away to a place where I could breathe fresh air and I couldn't hear the constant drone of traffic.

You can see all the photos here.