After twelve hours flying (it was quite something to see the sun rise half an hour after it had set), we finally arrived in this faraway land.
South Korea has 50 million inhabitants (30 of which live in Seoul), and it's very proud of its technological and industrial progress which begun in 1980. They've every reason to when we consider that before 1955 (period of Japanese domination and the Korean War), this country was part of the Third World. For me Korea can be compared to the phoneix which has risen triumphantly from the ashes to become in the matter of thirty or so years the eleventh economic power in the world !
Since October 2007 this is where we've been living, Barbara and I after an express marriage in France.
It's not everybody's idea of an ideal honeymoon destination but it's here where I got an EFL teaching position. Of course we might have preferred going to the Maldives or somewhere else exotic like that but it was here where the work was and we realised that it was also a good base to discover Asia so we jumped at the chance.
Message to our family and friends
We've created this blog to share our emotions, reactions, marvels and deceptions in this remote part of the world.
It's not because we live in this faraway country that we must gape at all we see and take all the indigenous people for the Care Bears.
The streets of the places we've walked along aren't as beautiful as we hoped. In the city like in the countryside towns, concrete, flourescent colours and drab grey constitute the visual stimuli.
The quintessential circumflxed roofed Korean architecture we hoped to see is few and far between especially in the cities. Only in the coutryside towns can you see it but even there the Korean character of these buildings has lost the battle of architectural supremacy giving way to the characterless functionality of high-rise blocks and concrete boxes.
The innner city streets are mostly characterised by uniformed rows of glitzy facades of shops tightly compressed horizontally and vertically. It's only in the residential back streets where you can get an inkling of the beauty of Korean architecture of yesteryear prior to the onslaught of modernity.
Now let's talk a little about Sang ju, the town where we live, happy to be far away from the hellish surburban sprawl of Seoul. It's located in the Gyeongsangbuk-do province in the centre of South Korea.
To say it's calm is an understatement. Culutrally speaking there's next to nothing. For those who seek a city with a pulse, frustration is guaranteed. Apart from an enthralling Buddhist Temple, Gyeoncheondae (a manmade hiking area with a traditional Silla village), Sang Ju Museum (opened last year in 2007) and an extraordinary cafe of which I'll speak about later, there's nothing to see and do in Sang-Ju apart from try the very popular and highly-revered Gimchi and Dried Persimmon both of which are Korean specialities.
The trouble is
one can't eat
Gimchi and Dried
hours a day !
Another aspect of Sang ju and in fact the whole of Korea are the street costermongers who are everywhere, literally everywhere, specialising not only in fruit and veg but also in an eclectic array of other eatables.
Here's an example of a Korean costermonger: (I've blown up the image to give you a better idea)
Here's another. This is one of many ubiquitous sights of old and new trade at work in South Korea's cities.
The famous " Bontegi " : silkworm cocoons boiled with the worm inside.
And then there are the grilled crickets (metddogi). The hardest part is to swallow the antennae without coughing.
Not forgetting the vacuum-packed roasted eggs you can find at your local grocery store.
There's also the 'acorn mud' flan (dotori muk). Indescribable. It has a taste of solidified water.
Then of course there's the fresh octupus (munha).
Also the dried and stretched frogs.
But let me reassure you there's also this :
From left to right : Caramelized pork brochettes, fish cake roll dumplings (odeng) cooked in fish broth, meat brochettes with garlic and soja beans and strawberries cooked toffee apple style.
When the Koreans aren't working (on average 50 hours per week) nor sleeping they love to EAT!!! Contrary to stereotypes , it's unbelievable how much they can consume. On a daily basis they gobble up five of these snacks at least five times per day in between meals.
What defies belief is that despite all they consume they don't put on a milligram of weight!!
What Barbara has noticed is that to wear a sized 34 pair of trousers is as banal as calling yourself Sharon back in the UK. If you wore a size 38 it would constitute a sign of carelessness. Barbara wears a size 36 so here in Korea she's half way between banality and a fatso.
But our first real discovery took place three days after our arrival. Koreans are far more efficient than us. they don't waste a 100 or so years asking themselves what to do. They just do what needs to be done and that's that. It sounds stupid but it changes everything.
Let me illustrate.
We had just moved into our brand spanking new empty flat. The furniture was to arrive later we learnt. We didn't grumble not wanting to be appear ungrateful even though we had to kip on the floor the first night. The following night our furniture arrived. It took the deliverymen 15 mins to unpack, set up our king-size bed, table, two chairs, fridge freezer, microwave, and washing-machine, clear everything up and then leave courteously, bowing about fifteen times ! It was a sight to behold believe me. I wish I'd caught it on camera to send to Jeremy Beadle. It would have made extraordinary viewing - it might even have got into the Guiness Book of Records!
Here's the result :
You just try and get deliverymen in the UK to do the same!
Another aspect of Korea, which astounds us, is how well brought up they are. They appear to have been born with an innate ability to be the most courteous and respectful of people.
Here are some snapshots of Korean prodigies...
Whenever we go to a restaurant or our local grocery store for example we’re greeted with a bow by one of the staff much like a doorman would at a five star hotel. The overall impression is that you feel like royalty being given the red carpet treatment and it doesn't end there. After entering the store they attend to your every need (weighing, choosing food etc.) in fact they almost end up doing the shopping for you! Although it's nice to be fussed over one often wonders how they manage to stand all day like statues at the entrances to these restaurants and supermarkets with a look of such self-fullfillment they give the impression that they've landed the job of a lifetime !? What’s more, they're made to wear garish suits bearing the company's colours one of which consists of brown and red stripes with huge fluffy turquoise bowties! It begs the question if this is some bad practical joke played by the employers? Even a Yorkshire Terrier wouldn’t stoop so low, I mean it would prefer suicide to wearing that garb wouldn’t it?
That’s what I thought until I came across my next door neighbour’s micro-dog, the fortunate race here, that isn’t eaten. It has fluorescent orange ears which give it something of a look reminiscent of the cuddly bears you can win at the local fairground.
Life is too short to dress sadly…
I immeadiately understood how far removed their dress sense is from ours. Apart from the gaudy company dress we’ve just mentioned, female standard dress here is a pastiche of frilly lace and brooches and 1980s hairdos, high-heels and mini skirts! The men also have these old–fashioned touches along with tweed and jacquard which accompany their suits usually dark or shirt and jeans and the hunger for neon is satiated by the fluorescent coloured ties and bowties or for women their shoes. The overall look of Korean people between fourteen and their late thrities often recalls that of a postmodern, colour discordant patchwork quilt - but of course this is what gives Koreans' dress sense its charm and its originality. In fact it prooves that from a fashion point of view there's a lot of creativity at work and it's not only fashion designers who are making innovations, Koreans on an individual level are too particularly the late teens and twenty somethings. Of course there are some who achieve some kind of colour and design harmony (but that doesn't mean their dress sense is better) but more often than not the few that shy from the postmodern experimentation look either resemble a typical American twenty-something in baggy jeans, hoodie, loose shirt, ‘snickers’ and baseball cap or dress anachronistically in the traditional Korean gear of the Silla Dynasty.
All of a sudden you realise with absoulute certainty how very far away you are from home!
According to 2005 statistics compiled by the South Korean government, around 46% of citizens follow no particular religion. Christians make up 29.2% of the population (of which Protestants 18.3% and Catholics 10.9%) and Buddhists 22.8%. In additon there are Shamanists who we've encountered on our travels in South Korea and Taoists.
Bulguksa Buddhist Temple, Gyeongju
Confucianism also plays an important role in Korean society. Although founded by Confucius in the 6th century B.C. it was introduced to Korea via China at around the beginning of Christianity.
Namjansa Buddhist Temple, Sang-Ju
Today Confucian ancestral worship, such as Charye which takes place during Chuseok on the 15th day of the Lunar calendar (around mid September ) and during Seolal which marks the beginning of the New Year according to the lunar calendar (around the beginning of February) and filial piety is highly revered as a virtue in Korean society. Inaddition, obedience to parents and elders, appropriate behaviour toward different members of the family and works of service to family, community and nation are all part of the Confucian ethic.
Namjansa Buddhist Temple, snag-Ju
A good way to get an idea of how firmly rooted confucianism in Korea society would be to read Ida Daussy's book 'Ida au pays du matin calme' -'Ida in the country of the Morning Calm'. She talks about her experience as a young French women studying and living in Korea, marrying a Korean and the trials and tribulations involved in successfully integrating into Korean society.
Namjansa Buddhist Temple, Sang-Ju
Confucianism is referred to on numerous occasions throughout the book prooving how influential it is in the way Korean society works despite its archaic aspects such as strict gender roles (women are confined to the home, men are the breadwinners etc).
Namjansa Temple, Sang-Ju
Of course, women are not confined to the home in contemporary Korea, they are working and carving a niche for themselves but confucianism still has an influence in their lives because it is the parents and grandparents of today's twentyand thirty-somethings who see that the Confucianist doctrine is upheld. In short, they can't get away from it, they're forced to abide by it out of respect and honour for their elders but I'm sure that their children and their children's children will be freer and less constrained by Confucianist tradition.
On Ida Daussy, although she makes some accurate observations about Korean society there are times when her descriptions of some aspects of Korean society are idealised. Take for example, her description of the public baths. What she decribes must be the only one in Korea like it, the vast majority are cheap and no frills. What's more, her accolade of the ever increasing interracial relations in Korea is in my opinion wide of the mark. I've been here a year and a half now and on our travels we haven't once met or come across an interracial couple. So apart from herself and an Australian we'd met married to a Korean, interracial relations are quasi non-existant. If they do exist it must be hidden from my public view, either that or we're blind !
Gumo Temple, Gumi
As far as relations between husband wife among the twenty and thirty somethings today are concerned, equality has won the day but relations with their elders is still governed by Confucianist thought with a few exceptions.
Buddhism can't really be called a religion it is more of a way of thnking, a philosophy based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama also known as 'Buddha' or 'the Awakened One', who taught among other things that if we free ourselves of desire we liberate ourselves of suffering, we find genuine happiness and in turn open the way to Enlightenment or 'bodhi'.
Gumo Buddhist grotto Temple, Gumi
The day of birth of Buddha is April 8th by the lunar calendar. This day is one of the most important Korean national holidays. The lotus shaped lanterns which represent Buddhist philosophy are hung inside temples and in the streets.
What is the symbolism of the lotus flower in Buddhism ? Because it's a flower that is born into a dark habitat usually a pond or lake and which rises during its growth through the murky waters to reach the surface where it finds sunlight and warmth and blooms. It's a metaphor for Buddha's life and ours which according to Buddhism consists of finding the path to Enlightenment.
Another ubiquitous symbol at Buddhist temples in Korea is the fish. It's a metaphor for the life of a Buddhist whose mind, like the eyes of a fish , is always open and awake seeking knowledge and bodhi.
Buddhist monks and nuns (for there are women too) in Korea are not like their counterparts in Tibet or India. Their outfit isn't orange or purple. Here its grey from head to foot and even the bags they carry are grey too!
This is because yesteryear the colours yellow and orange belonged to the Emperors and Empresses and Kings and Queens. To distinguish themselves form these colours symbolising royalty, power and wealth, the Korean Buddhist monks chose grey as their colour of choice which reflects their asceticism.
A day in the life of a Buddhist monk or nun:
3h00am Wake up
3h30am Breakfast: sticky rice and waver thin seaweed
4am First ceremony begins: morning prayers and meditation in the temple. When they start this ceremony like the second at 6pm four instruments are used which are located at the entrance to the centre of a Buddhist temple on a roofed open air platform. First, the monks beat the drum calling for the humans and animals on the earth.Second they strike a big bell gathering the people who are suffering in hell. Third, the monks play a cloud shaped gong for birds in the sky. Fourth they play a wooden fish gong for living things under the water.
After the ceremony gardening until 11am (cultivation of green tea and persimmon leaves among other things)
Lunch : bowl of soja soup, rice and vegtables, lotus roots in a caramelised sauce
After lunch more gardening until 5pm
6pm : Second ceremony of the day like the first.
After the second ceremony dinner.
After dinner domestic chores in the monk's living quarters.
8pm : Lights out.
Below the temple of Gumop Mountain (Gumo San) in Gumi.
To get here you can either walk or take the cable car which is a 1960s antique. Despite feeling a little trepidatious we chose the easy option, the walk is too long and too steep and we only had a few hours to spare!
Once on top the views are spectactular and well worth a visit ! In fact, it's quite surprising to find yourself atop a mountain at a stone's throw away from a major city but this is what you can expect in Korea as 70% of its land surface is mountainous. As it's autumn or Danpyung (beautiful red and yellow leaves) as the Koreans call it, this time of year is perfect for mountain hiking or cable caring as the trees turn into all their colourful autumnal splendour; greens, yellows, golds, reds, purples and varying hues of each abound as far as the eye can see and there being so many untouched mountains you feel like your living in a three dimensional landscape painting !
Our only regret is we weren't allowed to photograph the interior of the temple's main temple neither the extraordinary Budhhas and Bodhisattvas covered in gold leaf.
On the way back we drank some of the Holy Water pouring forth into a turtle sculptured basin (In Buddhism and Taosim the turtle like the crane and deer symbolise good health and longevity), it brings happiness apparently. We also paid a last visit to Buddha to whom we genuflected and prostrated in the Buddhist way which we learnt how to do thanks to my co-teacher, Sunhae at Nagun Middle School. She also taught us that when we prostrate it's not only to Buddha but also to humanity expressing thus that we consider ourselves everybody's equal neither inferior or superior which is another one of Buddha's teachings.
On Mont Sano, we can also visit another temple carved out of the mountain rock face higher up. To get there you have to clim up a narrow and steep rocky path holding on to the iron rope so as not to fall. At the top you enter the grotto. The views are even better from up there and its remote and quiet location conjure up a feeling of peace which invites you to close your eyes and meditate.
At the foot of Mount Sano, we discovered a lake. We decided to stroll around it and as chance would have it we found we could rent a pedalo to sail on it and that we did and for just a couple of thousand won. We were the only ones on it too, just us the water and the mountain tops... oh yes there were the ducks of course!
After Gumi, we visted Bulguksa Temple, one of the ighly-respected temples in Korea in Gyeongju, Korea's counterpart of Italy's Florence.
Like at all Buddhist temples in Korea, there are three gates one has to go through to reach the temple. They are called the Single Pillar Gate, the Four Heavenly King's Gate and the Salvation Gate. Once you enter the grounds of the temple you can see the pagoda (stupa) which is considered the house of Buddha's body because it holds Buddha's sari. The sari is part of the body which doesn't burn in cremation. It is believed that sari that is created inside someone who has devoted himself to Budhha. When renowned monks pass away their funeral processions are held in public, and thier bodies are burnt to ashes. after ceremonies, Buddhists find coloured beads called 'sari' from these ashes.
Once you cross the third gate of Bulguksa, one is awed by the size but because it's so frequently visited the feeling of serenity and unexplained mystery is fleeting and not all-pervading like at other temples that's why I prefer Namjansa Sang-ju's temple (see below) which gives a more genuine feeling of what Buddhist monastic life is like.
Here are some snapshots of Bulguksa temple :
Our first encounter with Shamanism on Bongjil Beach near to Gyeong-hju
Before travelling to Gyeong-ju I'd read about King Munmu's famous underwater tomb near to Gyeong-ju at Bongjill beach and so we decided to travel out there to see it for ourselves.
What struck me at first was unglamourous the beach was. I was expecting sand, bikinis, swimmers, tourists, water jets, boats, hotels, a string of terraced restaurants but instead what we discovered was a relatively small pebbled-beach, no swimmers, no bikinis, no hotels, no tourists, just a small string of makeshift restaurants and nondescript houses. What we did recognise however was the rocky island about 200 metres out at sea covered in seagulls. This was King Mumu's underwater tomb we read about and we saw that it was the focus of shamanist worship taking place on the beach.
In fact I don't know if it was the focus of the Shamanist ritual or the spirit world. Whatever the case may be, to be there, to be a witness to Shamanist ritual made the visit all the more worthwhile.
The beach was peppered here and there with some small some large groups of people. All faced the sea. In the centre of the group, which was lined horizontally about five people wide and seated cross-legged, was a drummer. She had a round drum in front of her which reached the height of her neck and she drummed its two sides with two drum sticks evoking the rhythm of indigenous North Americans one might have heard in George Catlin's time in North America.
It transpired that what we were witnessing was a shamnic rite known as 'Gut' in which the shaman offers a sacrifice to the spirits and begs them to interced the fortunes through singing and dancing. This trait which distinguishes Korean shamanism is is seeks to solve human problems through a meeting between humanity
and the spirits mediated by the shaman.
In front of the groups was a low table covered with friuit, vegatables, sweets and incense. These were the offerings or the 'sacrifice' to the spirits. Behind the group was a small marquee bedecked with long pieces of cloth coloured, red, green, blue, pink and white wafting in the sea breeze. Koreans believe that these colours give good fortune and help keep the bad spirits away. The colour, the music, the chanting, the dancing, the crashing waves, the earnest devotion left us spellbound, entranced almost and the feeling was magical. It made me think of what pre-Christian Britain may have been like during the legendary years of magic, druids and King Arthur.
Then, much to our surprise a Buddhist monk joined them to lead the liturgy adaopting thus the role of the shaman. Apparently it is not uncommon for Buddhist monks to lead Shamanic worship in Korea.
A passerby who spoke a smattering of English came up to us and explained what was happening. He was amused by our wonderment and more than proud to elucidate the mystery of the events before us.
The family who invited the monk to lead the ceremony, had lost one of theirs out at sea, so the ceremony we saw was a funeral. This family wanted to give offerings to the natural spirit world to guarantee safe passage of their lost one to the other world and at the same time acquire Buddha's blessing.
The other groups along the beach were calling upon the spirit world to help their offspring succeed academically.
Then the man urged to us to be discreet with our camera which we were.
He then left congratulating me on Barbara's beauty. This is common in Korea. Korean men and women who meet another couple always congratulate the husband for his wife's beauty.
It's a formality so common that such observations are as banal as asking how you are. Nonetheless the tone is always sincere never dutiful.
Namjansa, Sang-ju's temple.
Far from being the biggest, neither the most touristic, this is our preferred temple.
It's location offers not only the most scenic views out of all the temples we've visited so far except for Heinsa but also that all pervading feeling of peace and well-being. Every time I go there I return feeling refreshed and strengthened in some way. It really is a magical place !
The monks who live there are very affable and if we happen to be there during a lull in their daily schedule they're more than willing to pass the time of day with us. What's more when they're in the throes of their daily activities they're totally unfettered by our presence which gives us a rare insight into what they do everyday. We've seen monks meditating yoga-style for example, tending their garden when they're not in he fields, we've joined them in prayer and we've witnessed the evening ceremony, the musicality of which resonates throughout the mounatain valley.
At this temple like at others there are always pyramid structures like these below made entirely of small pebbles. Each stone represents a prayer made by the monks and nuns or by passers-by visiting the temple.
Seoul, capital of South Korea is extraordinary !
We've heard all the cliches :
- it's big ( That it certainly is ! 30 million inhabitants in all ! )
- it's polluted ( not more than any other mega cities )
- It's ugl;y and there's lots of concrete ( true but there are plenty of other things to see !)
First of all Seoul, despite its haphazard arhcitecture and omnipresent concrete has its parks so it's not just oen concrete slab it has its pockets of greenery interspersing the sky-scrpaeers and high-rise buildings.
The traditonal architecture of Royal palaces intermingle with its modern counterpart making you jump back and forth in time every turn you make !
next, each borough is a a sort of village with its own style and identity very different from its neighbours.
Some are so picturesque that you feel as if you're in an "Asian Covent Garden".
To conclude, the Seoulians are very open and hospitable always ready to lend a hand if need be. Some of them have even come up to us without being asked to see if we needed help translating the tube map or the restaurant menus.
Now let's go sight-seeing ...
Seoul ahs 5 royal palaces. The most beautiful are situated int he city centre.
Gyeongbok Palace was built in 1394 by King Taejo at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty.
Detail of Keunjeong-jeon, the Royal Throne Hall.
The Royal Throne
From 1399-1549, seven of twelve kings were enthroned here: Chogjong, Sejong, Tanjong, Sejo, Seongjong, Chunjong, and Myongjong. It was burned down during the Japanese invasion in 1592 and rebuilt in 1867, during the reign of King Kojong.
Anitique incense holder
In the palace courtyard, we tried on some traditional costumes.
picture perfect don't you think ?
We even posed with some Japanese tourists ...
...and also admired the gardens the famous Hyangwon-jeong, an attractive hexagonal pavilion built by KingKojong in 1867 and surrounded by a lotus pond. This is one of the most painted and photographed places in Korea.
This pavillion called Kyeonghoe-ru is the largest of its kind in South Korea and has been designated National Treasure #224. Supported by 48 stone pillars and set in a lotus pond, the pavilion was a favored place for the King to entertain visiting dignitaries. King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty and builder of Gyeongbok Palace, had the pavilion erected on this man-made lake in the western section of the palace. He named Kyeonghoe for "joyous meeting."
Another superbe building crowning the National folk Museum below...
Behind the palace si the notorious Cheongwadae or the The House of the Blue Roof Tiles or the Blue House Korea's equivalent of the Houses of Parliament, this is where the current South Korean President Lee Myung Bak (elected February 25th, 2008) resides.
"Palace of Prospering Virtue".
The royal appartments here were inhabited by the last of the royal descendants, Yi Bangja, Crown Princess Uimin of Korea up until 1989.
Built between 1405 and 1415, it was the site of the royal court and the seat of government until 1872, when the neighboring Gyeongbok Palace was rebuilt. Korea's last Emperor, Emperor Sunjong lived here until his death in 1926.
What's striking is the absolute calm of the Palace depsite being in the heart of Seoul.
Like in China status is conferred on the building by a line of statuettes on the ridge of the rooves, ten statuettes being the highest status. They also serve to ward off evil spirits.
Centuries-old trees fill the grounds
Everywhere you go be it in the parks or in the private gardens (there are many gardens in Seoul contrary to what many say) you'll find in abundance cherry blossom, camellias, azaleas all of which bloom majesticaly in Spring, we were there on the 5th April, 2008 ! The frangance in the air is wonderful !
After the historic monuments we went to some of the typical neighbourhoods...
Imagine a seemingly neverending pedestrianised street with everything you can dream of in terms of silk, knives and antique swords, parchments, jewellry, decorative objects, fans and earthenware such as celadon which is famous in Korea.
Imagine also lots of round-eyed people ( Tourists from America, Canada, Britain, Sweden, Australia..) who go into raptures over all the treasure here...
Insadong is a saver's enemy number 1 !
While there we came across an ususual confectioner who made before our startled eyes, some sweets which ressemble small white nests. He takes a small piece of caramel which he stretches like a piece of elastic which he twists and turns and folds in flour sixteen times and then several times again. The end result are 16,000 thin strands of caramel produced in seconds and then he wraps these fibre like strands around the candid fruits and crushed nuts.
They melt in the mouth and are really tasty !
A little further away we attended the Changing of the Guard at Daehanmun Gate of Deoksugung Palace which takes place three times a day from 10.30 to 11.00 in the morning, from 14.00 to 14.30 in the afternoon and from 15.30 to 16.00 in the late afternoon.
Royal Transport of the Joseon period
But there's even better than Insadong.
And even more dangerous fro bank accounts.
Guaranteed bankruptcy is called Samcheongdonggil.
Barely pronouncable but absolutely unforgettable once you've set foot there.
We fell in love immeadiately with this neighbourhood !
We don't understand why this area is not mentioned in the guides who seem to have an infatuation with insadong !
Of course Insadong is good but let's be frank it IS a tourist trap that can upset.
While Samcheongdonggil.... Well it's difficult to describe but for you I'll give it a shot.
For those who know London it's a mixture of Camden Town, Covent garden and King's Road, For those who know Paris it's a little like Montmartre. It's arty, trendy, avant-garde , sophisticated, refined and upmarket all at the same time so it has an exciting and original atmosphere and what's more it caters to all tastes.
What's more it has an international feel making you feel somewhere else than in Korea !
There are arty coffee shops and cosy tea rooms, the likes of which you'd find in Montmartre or Covent Garden, which are interspersed with discreet French and looking bistros which in themselves are also little museums.
It's also here where you can find shops selling the latest luxury wear and also original arts and crafts and art galleries and antiques.
Check out these samples :
Isn't this Pink Panther just gorgeous ?
Check out this high heel ! For luxury clodhoppers with gold inside.
The bar transformed into a shelf.
The bar of old stuff
In this borough, there is also a restaurant selling mediterranean cuisine where you can eat on the balcony. The only thing that's missing is the song of the cicadas !
Of course we couldn't resist the temptation. After 6 months in small town Korea the opportunity of tucking into some mediterreanean cusine was right up our street so we heeded the call and copiously feasted ourselves.
We had to splash out of course because the restaurants here are very expensive by Korean standards and for 120 000 wons for 2 ( 76 pounds in total ), we experienced gastronomical heaven !
A sirloin steak in a port wine sauce for me
a platter of cheeses for two
Two glasses of fine imported red wine
2 real expressos
We discovered later that in Korea there are Western supermarkets in Korea such as Home Plus a franchise with Tesco and Costco which are a bonanza for expats in Korea who can find a broad selection of cheeses, French Brie, English cheddar etc. Italian cured meats and other western treats which can satisfy those yearnings for Western food when Korean fare, although some of it good, just isn't enough !
Another area to not miss out on in Seoul is Itaewon.
At first glance, this long avenue is not unlike the Picadilly Circus Area in London, or the Latin Quarter in Paris or Fifth Avenue in New York.
Its atmosphere is unique. It's a buzz of people of all nationalities, fluorescent flashing signs, strings of bars, restaurants and shops.
It's not an American ghetto like some people describe it but in fact an evenly balanced kaleidoscope of Koreans, Europeans, North Americans, Africans and Asians.
It's why on one outing you can eat Turkish kebabs, dine in a refined Italian restaurant as we did selling dishes made from imported ingredients, drink a couple of pints and eat some excellent British food in a British pub which we also did or even eat a Big Mac at McDonald's, enjoy an Egyptian speciality, Thai, tapas...
Whatever time of day it's forever party-time in Itaewon !
It's the place that never sleeps !
Chongdong Theatre :
Another of our Seoulian favourites is the traditional theatre of Chongdong. It's next to Deoksugung Palace and it's well-known in Korea. Everyday (except Monday) one can attend an hour's performance of song, dance, acrobatics and especially the famous Janggu drum performance.
Cost : 20 000 wons per person (10 pounds )
It's magic ! Go !
After the performance you're invited to follow the artists to the courtyard outside. You can even take some superb photographs of you with the exquistely beautiful actresses too !
It's an enthralling performance from beginning to end.
You can also buy yourself a DVD of the performance if your so wish (10 pounds each), an original present.
To give you an idea of the show click on the following :
To conclude, our first visit to Seoul made our mind up that we had to return. On our next visit we got together with Charles a newcomer in Seoul and a trainee engineer there. Barbara was thrilled about the idea of meeting a French expat for the first time in Korea and so we went and we gave him a sightseeing tour and we had a ball.
Korean cuisine is as far removed from the British palate as Korea is geographically ! This doesn't mean however that it's too foreign for Western tastes, well for me it isn't anyway !
The dishes I like most are :
(rice, minced beef, seasame oil, mungbean sprouts, pine nuts, hot peper soybean paste with syrup, bean sprouts, spinach, crown daisy, bracken, roots of Chinese bellflower, watercress and egg)
( top round or tenderloin of beef, sugar, rice wine, chopped green onion, chopped garlic, soy sauce, seasame salt, black pepper, lettuce, seasame leaves, garlic, small green onions
As you can see above in Korean restaurants you have a grill set into the table on which you cook your meat. Your server will start off by putting on the meat for you and turning it and cutting it into thin strips with scissors and then it's up to you to cook the rest. Bulgogi like all other Korean dishes are accompanied with side-dishes known as banchan which include green vegetables, acorn jelly, quail eggs, bean sprouts, small clams, anchovies, tofu, lettuce, seaweed, spinach, garlic that you can eat raw or grill, lettuce and seasame leaf and many others.
Banchan (side dishes)
When Koreans eat Bulgogi or any other barbecue dish they make lettuce and seasame leaf wraps. To do so you take a leaf of lettuce and seasame into one hand and using your chopsticks with your other hand load it with meat, sauces and side-dish ingredients to add flavour. Then roll it up into a small package and eat in one gulp.
Bulgogi lettuce leaf wrap
( clear noodles made from sweet potatoes, stir-fried in seasame oil with strips of egg, meat, mushrooms, carrots and other vegetables )
( Barbequed beef ribs marinated in pear juice with banchan)
There are other types of galbi too such as Dakgalbi which is made of pieces of chicken, cabbage, other vegtables and finger pressed-rice cakes in a very spicy sauce ! Tip : if it's too spicy eat some rice, it cools your mouth down !
( This can be eaten as a banchan or as a tasty snack. Its ingredients consist of spring onions, scallions, clam meat, oysters, mussles, vegtable oil, plain flour, rice flour, egg, water, vinegar, red pepper powder, garlic, and sugar which are dipped in the egg and flour and fried. It's served with soy sauce vinegar and it's delicious ! )
( Samgyeopsal is barbequed pork belly. Although fatty once you discard the fat it's quite tasty but it has to be said it's not one of my favourites !)
( A Chinese dish made of noodles in a sweet dark-brown sauce called chunjang with minced meat and vegetables. Although a child' favourite is good for adults too ! )
Some of Korea's soups are good too :
Miyeok (seaweed soup)
(seaweed, beef brisket, minced garlic, Korean soy sauce, fish sauce, seasame seed oil, water. Women who have just given birth eat seaweed soup with rice but without the beef. "It stregnthens the bones " apparently ! )
(Although spicy it's tasty to eat. It's made of crab, spring onions, red pepper powder, tofu and mushrooms)
(Jjigae are Korean stews. Although spicy they are quite tasty. Below is Dubu Jjigae made with
red pepper powder doenjang jigae (soyabean paste), vegetables and the famous kimchi.
One of the most popular banchan (side dish) in Korea is the national dish and symbol of Korean cusisine the one and only KIMCHI !
(Kimchi is a cabbage that is salted and flavoured with a spicy paste made of radish, peppers garlic and red pepper powder and then pickled for months even as long as a year ! This is the most popular called Baechu Kimchi but there other types of Kimchi too with different ingredients.)
The history of KIMCHI goes back to the 7th century A.D. During the cold winters there was a shortage of vegetables because the fields couldn't be cultivated so the Koreans had to think of a vegetable storage system for the winter months. They came up with the idea of pickling and this was when Kimchi was born.
Etymologoically Kimchi derives from Shimchae (literally salting of vegetable ).
As far as desserts are concerned there are a few but nothing like what we'd expect in the West. In fact desserts there is to my knowledge only one dishe that you can expect to have in a Korean restaurant which represents a dessert in Korea :
( A refreshing cold drink made from cinnamon, pine nuts and ginger)
However if you go to a Korean bakery or supermarket you'll be able to find desserts that you can't find int he restaurants which are eaten as a snack rather than as part of a meal.
Among the sweet snacks you can find are :
Tteok ( rice cakes )
(These are extremely chewy morsels flavoured with nuts, seeds and dried fruit)
These are traditional Korean sweets sometimes chewy sometimes crunchy made of grain flour, honey, sugar , seasame seeds, nuts, puffed rice and fruit.
In addition to the above we've eaten some dishes which we haven't yet been able to put a name to. Take this rice hot pot for example. It's rice mixed with a variety of other cereals usually eaten after the main meal.
Once it's finshed usually there is a layer of rice stuck to the bottom and the Korans relish pouring broth into the hot pot and scraping off the rice and gobbling it all down !
In addition to the desserts mentioned above you can have an instant coffee or green tea which is sometimes served in curious-looking tea pots which doesn't startle anyone here...
Lobster with cheese and cream sauce. Yuck !
You can also find Japanese influenced resturants known as 'fusion' resstaurants where you can eat :
Chobap (Sushis) and California rolls
(A bargain for novices : 2 quid for a plate !)
Saengseonhae (Sashimis) served with seafood banchan
Apart from maekju beers such as the national favourites " hite " and " Cass ", there aren's many alcoholic beverages in Korea.
First and foremost there's soju (20% alcohol)which is a clear spirit made from either rice or sweet potato or barley. It's a little like vodka because of its clearness but it's pretty much flavourless and very cheap, cheaper than water in fact ! Koreans particularly the men love the stuff. In some bars you can drink it flavoured with kiwi fruit, straweberry fruit and other fruits.
Next there's what is known as Makgeolli also known as Dongdong ju which is a traditional beverage made from fermented rice wine. It has a cloudy appearance and a sweetish yoghurty flavour.
I've tried Makgeolli several times and I much prefer it to Soju. I once had it with a side dish of freshly uprooted Insam (ginseng) and red pepper soya bean paste which marry very well.
Afterwards there are the medicinal drinks which are excellent for "women's beauty" and "men's stamina" !
In fact whatever Koreans eat and drink they know down to a tee every single medicinal virtue it offers the body "this is good for blood circulation", "this is good for your skin" etc.
Garlic juice : This looks like coffee but far more bitter and is made from carbonised garlic cloves and water. For a Western palate it's really hard to swallow !
Millipede flavoured alcohol: Very strong but not much flavour
A word of advice: Don't look at the bottle before you drink it .
Insamju. This can be alcoholic or not and is ginseng-flavoured.
If you want my advice nothing beats a fine vintage wine !
Wine can be found in Korea. In the supermarket there are even wine cellars.
What's amusing though is the bizarre yet advantageous pricing ! It's as if the sellers don't now the real value of the wine !
It's easy for example to find table wine ten times more expensive than in the UK.
The icing on the cake is that the same applies the other way too !
So for as little as five pounds you can find an excellent imported wine.
Guess who's happy ?
With regard to non alcoholic drinks there are more than alcoholic ones.
There's the obvious mul (water) sometimes served lukewarm at the beginning of a meal to clean the palate.
Then there's coffee usually instant which is either served in a cup and saucer or in a paper cup from a vending machine. Coffee is heavily consumed in Korea which is surprising considering that traditionally Korea is a tea-drinking country.
Jasmine tea ceremony Gyeongju National Museum.
Nonetheless tea is widely available in Korea and there are many different kinds but little black tea however. In Korea there's Nokcha (green tea) which is grown on Jeju island and around Boseong city in the SW.There's also boricha (barley tea), daechucha (red date tea), omijacha (five-flavour berry tea), yujacha (citron tea) which is delicious and insamcha (ginseng tea).
Bottled and can drinks we're familiar with can be found everywhere along with a wide range of health tonics in small bottles. The most popular brands are Bacchus D (only sold in pharmacies) and Vita 500.
Fist of all upon entering a restaurant (or any building for that matter) you take off your shoes and put them in the shoe rack and then you slip your feet into slippers which are usually provided by the establishment.
Then you choose a table to eat at which can be either in a wide open spaced room or if you preferred some privacy you can choose one of the small rooms around the big main onewhich can accomodate 2 to 12 people.
Next you take one of the thin cushions usually piled up in the room's corner and that's your seat upon which you sit cross legged at the low table. Tip: If you'd like a back rest choose a place next to the wall to rest your back against. If that's not possible you can always ask for a chair without legs to sit on !
Although Koreans always sit cross-legged at a table there are Western areas of restaurants now where you seat on a four legged chair and eat at a regular table. This is handy and more comfortable for tall people.
Raw Seafood platter. We tried it once, never again.
In Korean restaurants there aren't any knives and forks only chopsticks and spoons. On each table is a box filled with the latter and if you're closest to the box when you sit down it's polite to pas around the chopsticks and spoons to those around you.
If you need to cut meat or any other food item all you have to do is ask for are gawi (scissors).
As you eat you have to keep a close eye on the glasses of those around you. If they're empty, it's polite to serve them because rarely do Koreans serve themselves. It's also important to pour and hold your glass for you with both hands.
At the beginning of October 2007, my school (Cheong-ri middle school) invited me out for a welcome dinner at one of the best restaurants in Sang-ju called Hill House. We ate bulgogi and drank soju for the first time ! Delicious !
"Ganbei !" = "Cheers ! "
If you're eating in a formal context it's best not to start or finish before your elders however in an informal context it's permitted and being a foreigner elders usually turn a blind eye to strict obsevance of Korean eating etiquette.
It's advicsed to never touch the food with your fingers unless you're eating lettuce wraps, to us a spoon when eating rice not your chopsticks (it's certinly not practical anyway !), dot' pick up the bowls and plates to eat from them, don't blow your nose at the table and don't tip.
One last important thing neverleave your chopsticks or spoon sticking out of the rice bowl. this is done only in 'food' presented to ancestors !
Close-up of Bulgogi
Korean women are undeniably attractive and alluring !
Their skin is soft, smooth and a fresh white which contrasts beautifully with their jet black long hair. They're sensually svelte and they all belie their age.
Have a look for yourself ...
Is it the cosmetics (ten times cheaper than in Europe) tons of which can be found at the ubqiuitous minimarkets and at every street corner which they use in abundance which makes them so pretty ?
Or is it what they eat ?
As the Korean diet is renowned for it's medicinal virtues and that the maxim 'you are what you eat' stills hold true this may indeed eluciate the mystery of their radiant beauty !
My view is that it's a bit of both !
These women in traditional hanbok costume are all between 55 and 65 !
Hard to believe don't you think ?
The new generation ...
Here are some places in Korea which we've particularly liked. It's very easy to get around in Korea because there is a huge low-budget bus network. Even the back of beyond villages have their own bus station. We certainly haven't deprived ourselves.
Guard statue in a Korean temple
HAHOE TRADITIONAL VILLAGE :
Located in Gyeongsangbuk-Do province, in the centre-east of the country, Hahoe is a village which ahs remained in tact for many centuries. Upon entering it it's as if you go back in time to 500 years to the middle of the Joseon period. To enhance the effect of entering a time warp Hahoe is inhabited and the inhabitants all wear traditional Joseon dress well most of them.
In Hahoe one can go into a traditional tea houseand discover the famous chrysanthemum tea. The tea we drank was grown and made by the owner. She also served us our tea in exactly the same way as it has been served over the last three hundred years in her house!
In Korea, tea is NEVER served with sugar. Chrysanthemum tea, greatly-appreciated by Koreans has a curious taste. Delicate and slightly bitter, it smells of buttercups and daffodils in flower.
Here's the view we had from the window ...
Before leaving Hahoe here are some photo souvenirs:
A very beautiful garden
In Korea there's a lot of interest in cameras
ANDONG TRADITIONAL MASKDANCE FESTIVAL:
Not far from Hahoe in the same gyeongsangbuk-do province, is Andong. It's here where the annual Maskdance Festival is held during the first week of October.
Contrary to Japan's Kabuki theatre, the characters in Korean theatre don't represent spirits but social class. These spectacles belong to the genres of melodrama and comedy of manners which aim to ridicule those who consider themselves superior either because of their wealth or their upbringing. A little like comedia dell'arte in Italy. There is always a happy ending.
The dance-actors wear masks and embody always the same characters: the idiot, the monk, the scholar, the enticing concubine, the old, poor and unhappy woman and the rich landowner.
There's no dialogue only mime and dance to the rhythm of the Janggu drums and brass instruments.
Below is 'Aka Boumé', one of Barbara's favourites. She's the enticing concubine who cast spells on men by waving her white sleeve-scarves around.
Other photographs of actors
Between two shows you can grab a bite to eat at one of the stalls like Barbara here
Barbara striking a pose under a parasol
Barbara captivated by the mystery of Asia...
THE CITY OF GYEONGJU :
This city is situated in the south east region of Gyeongsangbuk-Do province.
It was the capital of the Silla Kingdom which reigned from 57 BC to 935 AD, and was founded by Bak Hyeokgeose.
This dynasty became a state in the 3rd century AD and its power grew after the alliance with the Tang Chinese dynasty in the 7th century (the Golden-Age of culture and Chinese poetry portrayed in the film 'Forbidden City')
One can also find her a multitude of parks, gardens and lakes all accesible by bike. In fact, cycling in Gyeongju appears to be the ideal form of transport. There are cycle paths every where you go and it's certainly the best way to discover all of Gyeongju's nooks and crannies.
But the greatest mystery is this:
Hills, would you say ?
Well in fact they're not, these are tombs.
Buried deep within each hillock is an important dignitary of the Silla Dynasty. And there are dozens of them in Gyeongju. Within each one there is a stone chamber bridged over by a butte. We were allowed to visit the inside of one, (photographs not allowed). and it was fascinating to see the remains of an embalmed defunct wrapped in its strips of cloth.
Also in Gyeongju there is the fabulous Gyeongju National Museum which retraces the very rich history of the different Korean dynasties.
For only 50 pence the museum offers a passionate ride back in time.
Crown made of gold and jade
What's more for only fifty pence you can enjoy tea served in traditional tea ceremony style by ladies dressed in traditional dress known as the 'hanbok'.
Near to Gyeongju, there's Bongill beach facing the East Sea and Japan 200 kilometres away.
And... King Mumu's tomb (the rocks) who wanted to be buried out at sea to continue his fight against invaders in the afterlife.
THE CITY OF BUSAN :
Busan is the second biggest city in South Korea after Seoul which is itself the 6th biggest metropolis in the world. Busan is situated on the extreme SE coast of South Korea.
It's both an industrial port and a sprawling city, It's urban area has more inhabitants than Hong Kong, Chicago or even Paris.
It's port is the third biggest in the world for its traffic and its efficiency.
Busan is famous for its fish markets and its gigantic aquarium.
You can also see a car aquarium there.
Busan is also renowned for its jewellry wholesaler neighbourhood which is a town in itself. One can find there tons and tons of tiger eyes, moon stones, green jade or white jade stretching out as far as the eye can see. There's absolutely no junk here. Only precious stones and metals.
Outside of these rows and rows of jewellry wholsalers there are also jewelry supermarkets. Imagine Sainsbury's with jewels filling all the shelves!
The underground is spotlessly clean (just like in Seoul).
The boat trips out at sea are also very pleasant.
As we were painting the town red we offered ourselves a real Western ice-cream (with yes, yes, yes, Chantilly cream on it) and even a Black Russian for me and a martini with an olive inside for Barbara. Lush !
I teach at four middle schools in Sang-Ju Korea : Nagun middle school, Cheong-ri middle School, Geongeom middle School and Nakdong middle school. They're all located about twenty minutes drive outside of Sang-ju city nestled amongst the rice fields in the mountain valleys.
Nagun middle school and grounds
View of surrounding from Nagun middle school entrance
Because of their remoteness the school population is low. Nagun has only 22 students, Nakdong 32, Geongeom 30 and Cheong-ri having the most 66.
Geongeom middle school staff
Each school has no more than ten teachers. Fortunately there is a good chemistry between all of the teachers; we often play tennis and table tennis together, each teacher has their own allotment in the school garden where they grow chili peppers, aubergines, cabbage, lettuce, sweet potatoes which they share amongst themselves.
Tennis at Jeomcheom middle school, Sangyong
Nakdong school allotment
On countless occasions I've been given not only a vast supply of organically grown vegtables to take home but also eggs freshly laid by the hens in the school coop !
I've been given so much that I've had to share some of it with my neighbours, the other native English teachers, because there wasn't any space left in the fridge !
Cheong-ri winter camp.
I had to organise teach 70 students of different ages and levels altogether for one whole day all by myself. Gulp !
And for my next trick...
The famous "Golden Bell Quiz" that every Korean teenager loves !
I've been teaching the same students in Korea for a year and a half now and the relationship I have with them is a good one. They quickly overcame their initial shyness when they met me for the first time (for most it was the first time they'd met a foreigner !) and now have enough confidence to approach me to exchange a few words and to crack some jokes.
Parisa after 'Paris Hilton' (lol) says her farwell on Graduation Day.
Our relationship is not only a teacher to student one but I also feel like their elder brother in a way. We play table tennis together, we joke and play and they often tease me like any younger brother or sister would their older brother.
Being accepted this way is a nice feeling and certainly makes the whole job of teaching a whole lot easier !
Welcome Party organised by Nagun Middle School. October 2007.
Of course, my TEFL career hasn't always been so rosy ! At the elementary (college) , middle (lycee), high (lycee) schools post A-level high schools and universities where I taught in France (from 1998 to 2007), prior to my arrival in South Korea, there were times when it was difficult connecting with the students, particularly during the first two years; that period of trial and error during which time I learnt the tools of the teaching trade on the job.
By the end of these initial years I'd developed a method combining games-based learning and a traditional approach to teaching which I found and still find successfully stimulates elementary, middle and high school students' interest.
Trio blindfold directions game
Of course my method has at times had to be changed, adapted and perfected over the years since 2000 and still does but despite this, it's a teaching method which has proven to have advantages which far outweigh its disadvantages.
Indeed, I've found that this method not only helps students progress in English but also makes the whole business of learning English an enjoyable experience. The icing on the cake is that it also enables the teacher to earn the students' respect and esteem and thus builds a positive friendly rapport between teacher and student which in turn facilitates teaching and learning.
The Korean education system: From Middle school to University
Middle school lasts for three years. The students start at the age of 12 and then leave when their fourteen. They study from nine o'clock am to four thirty pm monday to Friday and every other Saturday morning. Each year they sit four tests, the first in April, the secnd in June, the third in Spetember and the last in November.
Nagun Middle School Graduation Day February 2008. Good bye third graders!
All the exams and oral tests are prepared by the teachers.As far as English is concerned the test consists of a series of multiple choice questions. The mark for this reading and writing test accounts for around 85 % of the overall mark. There are also four listening tests which account for 10% of the overall mark. In some schools there are also four oral tests but this is rare and even so they only account for 5% of the overall mark.
Barbara taught English and gave cooking lessons at Sang-ju orphanage. Here they're in the throes of making chcolate.
Christy from England joining in the chocolate-making fun at Sang-ju orphanage.
and her boyfriend Jon
According to the Korean education system therefore, we can see that English speaking and listening skills are not considered as important as English reading and writing skills.
Geongeom school Festival. Traditional Korean costume and drum (the jang-gu) performance. November 2007.
SNAP language review card game
After middle school the students go to high school.There are no entrance exams to go to high school. Instead all the mid term exams and end of year exams grades over the three year period at middle school are calculated and determine the final grade of the students. In Sang-ju there are different leveled high schools. The students with the grade go to the best school, but in Seoulit’s more democratic except for a few high schools.
My English camp students at Sang-Ju Girls Middle School. January 2007.
At the beginning of high school students sit a diagnostic test to evaluate student’s level. Each class is evenly made up of high, middle and low level students. In contrast to middle school which is considered by some students I've met as their last taste of 'freedom' , students study incredibly long hours. Their day at high school starts at 8am and finsihes at 6pm. Next they have to go to 'study rooms' inside the high school where they study and do their homework until 11pm. Those who are lucky go home at this time but most are forced to study three more hours until 2am by their parents who see their children's education as of upmost importance even if it's detrimental to their social life.
Geongeom Middle School festival. November 2007.
If this wasn't enough there are also the minimum of eight tests per year the high-school students have to sit. Like at middle school little exmphasis is given to develop the students' speaking and listening skills. In order not to double a year the students have to continuously get good grades. In addition to the minmum of eight tests the students sit at high school during the final year they have to sit an SAT which amounts to a final exam.
Snowball fight !
The grade of the final exam, along with the grades of the exams sat during the final year (not those of the first and second year) contribute to the overall grade they get at the end of high school. Their grade determines which university they’d go to. There are no entrance exams to go to University in Korea’s probably a diagnostic test like at the beginning of high school. Univeristy study lasts for four years minimum. Students facing the prospect of unemployment once out of university go to great lengths to prolong their time at University. Some go on to study a masters and then a phd others deliberately fail their final exam in order to repeat a year. This is because employers don’t like recruiting people who’ve been unemployed for a long duration, they’d prefer to employ a student fresh out of university.
The most popular Jegichagi (Korean shuttlecock kicking)
Before students used to be laid back at university but with so little employment available they study really hard and long hours in order to give them the competitive edge.
A mixture of basbeall and golf !
The top three universities in Seoul are known as SKY universities S for Seoul, K for Korea and Y for Yeonsai university. The top Science and technology schools in Korea are KAIST in Daejeon and another POSTECH in Pohang and the two best in my region (Gyeonbuk-do) are Gyeonbuk National Universityand Andong University.
I don't what this game is supposed to be !
Entrance Day Ceremony.
This is a big day in the school calendar for newcomers fresh from elementary school and their parents.
The day unfolds as follows:
1. Introcudtion to the Entrance ceremony (newcomers and second and third graders their parents and children, and leaders of the parents and alumni asscoiations all attend)
2. all stand hand on breast and sing the Korean anthem facign the Korean flag ussually screened on an OH Beam Projector.
3. The headmaster gives a speech.
4. Next the School alumni chair gives a speech.
5. All the staff line up in front and are presented by the heamaster. Each teacher gives a bow in turn.
6. Sing the school song.
7. Break up. Studetns clear the room of tables and chairs then go to class.
Meanwhile seomeone films and phtogrpahs the whole event which is later filed on to the school web page and put into a graduation phtot album to be given out to each student on Graduation Day...
Jeonjeom English camp. And the sandwich making winners are ...!
Like Entrance Day the Middle School graduation Day is a big event.
Preparations for it start weeks in advance.
In small schools homeroom teachers spend weeks making a photo album a visual diary of the students’ three years at the school.
Bouquets of flowers for each student are also prepared and not forgetting the diplomas which are all handed out in full pomp and ceremony on Graduation Day.
Durign the ceremony all the attendees (students of all grades, their parents and children, the school staff, leaders of parents and student alumni associations ) sing in unison the Korean anthem and the middle school song as is the case in all the elementary and high schools. Graduation Day usually falls on the Thursday before the ‘spring break’ which is at the last two weeks of February.
Occasionally some home made side dishes supplement the school canteen fare made by the teachers.
An impromptu morning snack of octopus and raw sea cucumber from Uleungdo Island
Raw sea cucumber. Tough and chewy and sea salty ! My first time eating it was my last time !
Apparently only men have the privilege of eating it for it gives them 'stamina' ! lol
Boiled octopus served cold
Sea cucumber slime ! Urghuck !
This was really too much to swallow so I didn't
And of course too wash it all down some soju !
The brand on the left is made near Daegu and the one on the right is made in Seoul.
I have a preference for the one from Seoul it has more flavour !
The Timeless Cafe:
In Sang-Ju there is an extraordinary coffee shop. It's owned by a couple passionate about South America, music and Western antiques of the 1930s to the 1960s. As soon as you open the door, you enter a different world, a sort of Aladdin's Cave, an antique-collector's dream. Goodbye state-of-the-art technology, everything here is full of old-fashioned charm.
There's an eclectic array of photographs and records signed by Argentinian musicians of the 1950s along with those by lyrical singers all of which are among an impressive display of antique coffee-grinders and other artifacts all of which are genuine.
Amid this delightful medley, the owner and his wife give you a welcome as warm and frothy as the expressos they serve.
And what expressos they are!!!
How do they do that?
With the help of a paintbrush as fine as a quill the owner designs an intricate pattern on the creamy surface of the coffee. Then, with an even finer paintbrush he dips it into coffee ink and draws a picture.
Now that's what you call ephemeral art! Charming don't you think?
The Fish Doctor coffee shops:
In the cities, one can sometimes find coffee shops or tea salons where the main attraction is to offer clients a foot soak with small fish who are crazy about your dead skin.
It's not painful but the tickling sensation is close to unbearable. The fish open their mouths and voraciously nibble away at your dead skin. Apparently this is good for blood circulation.
This is us at Gumi's Doctor Fish cafe...
The little creatures seem to show an appreciation for English feet.
Korean public baths:
Voyeurists would be disappointed. Taking photogaphs of the inside of the public baths is forbidden because everybody here are totally starkers. Men and women are separated.
Going to the public baths is an ancestral practice as commonplace as going to the swimming pool in the West. it's not limited to a particular age group either. Here, men, women and children of all ages gather on a regular basis.
The bathing procedure is not something you can improvise.
First of all you shower. Then you go to the sauna. There are three saunas with three different temperatures: 37, 48, and 68 degrees celsius!! (yes, believe it or not it is possible). Inside the saunas
there are medicinal bunches of herbal plants like thyme hanging on the wall which perfume the humid interiors. Then you immerse yourself in two huge basins of water. First you gingerly enter the icy cold one (screams are guaranteed) then the other 30 degrees celsius (more screams). Afterwards, you rub yourself down vigourously sitting on a tiny stool under a shower using a slightly abrasive cloth or gloves. This is the procedure in the men's area but in the women's area the custom, Barbara tells me, is to get your neighbour, be she your friend or a total stranger to rub you down and you to do the same back. No better way to break the ice or should I say melt the ice.
To finish off, you brush your teeth under the final shower. This is how you brush your teeth in Korea. In fact Koreans brush their teeth at least five times a day. Not only in the morning and at night before bed but after each meal too. Everyday in the teacher's staff room for example an orchestra of teachers brushing away after lunch can be heard. The schoolchildren are encouraged to do the same.
Inevitably, after such a treatment , your skin is of an unheard of softness.
Naming a child:
Before I get onto the naming a child part it's worthy to point out that Korean children don't have the same age as Western children. When they're born they are already nine months of age.
These are the very active daughters of Young sook a colleague of mine
Now onto the topic of this section. When a child is born in Korea, the parents or the grandparents often take the newly-born to an astrologist. A consultation such as this costs in the region of 100,000 won a stiff bill for your average Korean. The astrologist assesss, with the help of the stars and the planets, the content of the child. Do they contain water or fire or land or air? Once the astologist has determined the elements within the child they think of a befitting name. An appropriate name for someone with a fiery nature would contain water elements and vice-versa for example. This rite is known as Saju which literally means four pillars referring to the year, month, day and hour of one's birth. What's important is to establish a balance. Here are some examples of the significance of Korean names:
Sunhae : Blessed with goodness
Young Shin: Believe forever
Myong sook: Bright and clean
Young hi-: Bathe in glory
Iun ha: Holy water
When Koreans visit fortunetellers, with their four pillars, they perform a variety of services - naming a new-born child or a business, choosing an auspicious date for a ceremony (such as a wedding) , giving advice to job-seekers, matching young couples before they embark on an engagement, and predicting the outcome of college examinations. Fortunetellers say 'through Saju we can understand almost 90 percent of a person's good or bad luck, both past and future'.
Today most peoplethink that this tradition has many irrational aspects and nor real scientific evidence to back it up. Many Koreans especially the younger generation, like univeristy students, refer to them only for fun and conversation. However, some students say that the tradition is very scientific and has great value so they study the tradition and western astrology very hard to better understand it.
The 100 days party:
One of the most important parties in the life of a Korean is that of a 100 days known as Dolsang. It's in honour of the future of a baby aged one years of age in the Korean way of calculating age but three months old if we calcualte the child's age along Western lines. Bear in mind that a child in Korea is born not when a mother gives birth to the child but when the child is conceived.
During the ceremony, a variety of different objects are presented to the child. Paper, pens, wood, rice etc... If it plays with an object, one deduces whether he or she'll become an office worker, a cabinet-maker or an agriculturer etc.
It's also a perfect occasion to have a huge meal with family and friends
The 60th Birthday party:
This is the party which serves to crown a life. Koreans are very attached to this ceremony. The whole family and all the friends who have had a significant impact in their life at sometime have to be present. It's a bit like 'This is Your Life'.
A Korean marriage has two stages.
First the Western version then the Korean traditional verison.
A Korean Western-style wedding:
Koreans have a soft spot for white wedding dresses. There are shops specialising in this wedding gear everywhere you look.
In addition, there are also wedding halls in every town with kitsch reception and ceremonial rooms drenched in golds, ribbons, satin and pastel pink lace.
The wedding ceremonies here are perfect for those with Barbie tastes!
Apart from the wedding itself it's in these wedding halls where the interminable photo session takes place in the presence of all the guests and there are hundreds (family and friends of the bride and groom and also their friends and family ad infinitum).
According to custom, neither the wedding couple nor their family and friends should smile during the whole ceremony otherwise they'd only conceive daughters. It appears that the female sex is considered a second-class citizen even before birth!
After the ceremony lunch takes place upstairs on the first floor. It turns out to be a canteen-style buffet which is consumed in around 20 minutes in true Korean style!
The atmosphere is far from festive. After eating, the guests clear the table and throw away their dirty plates before leaving.
And that's that!
The Korean traditonal wedding ceremony:
During this part of the wedding ceremony there's a complete change of scenery. One even gets the impression of a real party. With its abundance of colour and emotion, the traditional part of the marriage takes place behind closed-doors. The only people present being the wedding couple and their parents.
Here the bride and groom bow before their in-laws
Afterwards, their in-laws throw chestnuts and jujubes which the bride and groom catch in a silk scarf. The amount of chestnuts caught correspond to the quantity of boys they will have and the amount of jujubes they catch to the number of girls they will have. In this particular marriage the forecast is five boys.
The mother-in-law of the bride is deeply moved.
And the husband can at last smile.
The bride offers soju (Korea's national alcoholic bevarage) to her in-laws
And there you are!
" This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness"
The Dalaï Lama
Buddha in gold-leaf, Sangju
Tamyang rice fields
Traditional roof ridge
Buddhist temple Sangju
Chollanamdo at dawn
Traditional pestle and mortar
Insadong Tea room Seoul
Painted temple beams
"mokgum" or dried persimmon. Sweet, soft and juicy when dry
but hard and astingent when raw.
Korean shaman priestess
Gyeongju's Tiger Temple
Buddhist pavilion on Sorak mountain
Namjansa Buddhist Temple, Sangju
Lotus flower lanterns on the ceiling of a Buddhist Temple
The drum and bell pavilion for morning prayer
Painted Temple beams
Anniversary of Buddha's birth, Busan
Door in Sangju
Small dried fish on a market stall
Restaurant fish tank
Traditional Korean singerin Hanbok
Buddhist monks' living quarters Bulguksa Temple
Sexy Christmas in Busan