Friday Day 1 – Getting There/Accommodations/First Night Out In Seoul
Getting there was the first adventure. The plan was to meet at the station at 10:15 to catch the shuttle to the ferry pier. We had a boat to catch at 10:30am, though poor research skills had us miss a bus that came 15 minutes earlier. OK, plan B, we take the bus to Osaka, where out flight was. No worries, though it was about 12 dollars more expensive. When on the bus, we start talking about Visas and such, and one of the guys realized he forgot his Passport. Well Done… He hops off at the next stop and we wished him the best. He ended up getting to Osaka the same time as us, though he had to take the bullet train. Pretty nice. Had we been on the boat as planned, he would have been out of luck. In Osaka we just walked around, rode a large ferris wheel on top of a building giving a great view of the city, then off to the airport. Time was rushed and we were cutting it close at security. But, travel always works out for the better so of course everything was fine.
We made the ferris wheel a good ride, there were speakers and an MP3 player jack in every car. Nice.
Abbey Roading our way out of Japan
When we got there, we immediately made our way to where we would be staying. We were staying with another English teacher from Wisconsin, living just outside of our target city of Seoul. When we showed up, it was clear that he was a cool guy. He threw us some beers and we left around 11:00pm for a night on the town. We went to a place called Hongdae, which was basically a happening spot filled with the areas foreigners and university students. It was a cool area to be. There were many street vendors selling various things. Kebabs and egg sandwiches were amazing, and were about a dollar each. So we ate as we pleased. There were a number of clubs that we checked out. Several were a bit one the lame side, but we kept trying. As we were entering the different places, it was interesting to see the rules for entry. “No one under 19, no drunk people, and no G.I.s” The American army base nearby spawns a bad reputation in that area of town I guess. We eventually found a club worth staying at, though it was super busy. I’m sure there was no limitation to capacity by fire code, so they just let in anyone who could pay. As a result, something as simple as moving around was basically impossible. After a while of some dancing, Thomas and I decided it was time to take off. We get back to Peter’s apartment (the Wisconsin guy) and realize we can’t get in. I wore only a polo in anticipation of the hot dance environment, so I was very cold. Fortunately, I was also very tired, so I was able to turtle up and seek shelter in an elevator. Here is a picture of that below. After an hour, they returned and we all passed out, about 4:00am. A great first night, soaking in the Seoul nightlife.
Saturday Day 2 – Seoul/Starcraft/Homo&Hooker Hills/[Gay] Clubbing
After a long and much needed sleep, we slowly arose and eventually left the place around 11:00am. The first place we set off for was a Starcraft match. For those having no idea what this is, it’s a computer game released in 1997 that is still something of a national sport in Korea. Kids will drop out of school to practice 10 hours a day, are paid through corporate sponsorship, and is broadcast on two channels on national TV. When we showed up, it was really crazy to see. I had played the game as a kid, but to see it played on this scale was great. We stayed for a few matches, enjoying the sounds of the crowd shouting out for their player of choice, and getting vocal about the match and what was happening. At the end, one of the players was surrounded by his female fans, some of whom had gifts for him. I suppose it’s only a computer game, but if it plays on live TV, pays the players, and has girls swooning over the players, I dare say it’s truly a sport…
Here is the arena, between matches
After this, we head over to another side of town to see if we can go to the palace before it closes. We missed it, though we had a great view of the castle walls. Right near there though was a shopping area with street stalls, bootleg goods, and overall cheapness. There I was able to buy what was arguably the best sweater in the history of sweaters. We also met up with a few people that some of our party knew from college so we met up to continue the rest of the night. We grabbed some dinner, the famous Korean BBQ. Great in theory, but they gave us a table far away and in a closet or something and completely ignored us, even if we were yelling in Korean for assistance. Lame, so we left and got more street food. From there we met a few more acquaintances, some girls that Thomas had gone to school with. One was a native Korean who had returned after school and the other was a friend of hers. They were pretty cool too. We started by heading to a German beir place where they make their own beer, a microbrew. Though they didn’t have my first choice, the other options were good as well, and anything was warmly welcomed over the garbage-tier beer that South Korea has to offer… There I had the chance to talk to a guy who had been there for 7 years, going on 40, who has just been living the the life an a English teacher. He was a cool guy.
The Sweater of Champions. Main street of Seoul behind me
After a few brews, it was time to head to the more interesting side of town. Te take a cab and hop out in a place called Itaewan. Here there is a place fondly known as “Hooker Hill”. If you tried to imagine this literally, you are correct. Basically it was a steep hill with a number of shady looking shops with lewdly dressed women poking out of the doors, eying you. At the base of the hill I was asked by a stranger “You going to the bad sweater party?” I laughed really hard. Ryan and I decided to experience the hill by hanging back from the group about 10 feet. Immediately, a couple of the women rushed from the door and clung to us, trying to bring us back into their ‘stores’. They were strong, and drove a hard bargain, but were managed to defect from their siren song. At the ZENITH of the hill, we turned a corner and walked the next street over. Now it was time for “Homo Hill”, bearing the same hill with different residents. This time it was lined with the niche bars, mostly gay, though there were also some transgender and drag bars. We went into a bar called “Why Not?”, adjacent to “Queens”. The atmosphere was pretty gay, people were very flamboyant, though it was fun. Me and a friend each bought a Cosmo, and started chatting. Also, do keep in mind what sweater I was wearing… Me and another guy decided to compete to see who could get a drink bought for us first, but knew we weren’t on proper levels to do so. We ran to the nearby store to counter fears and hesitations, then return to the action. Sadly, everyone decided to leave before that could happen, so we never had our chance.
Picture of the club dance floor…not a lot of women for some reason…
We then took a walk to another club were we would spend the rest of the night. On the way we passed a table that some college students had set up on the side of the road. It was like a lemonade stand, expect it was a bar. I went with a White Russian, and we then talked with them and got some pictures, it was something pretty amusing to me, especially knowing how it would not nearly fly in America. The club was pretty packed, but was still great. We stayed a long time at the club, till about 6am, during which time we danced and chatted with the locals. It was another great night. We took the cab back to our apartment and then crashed there again.
Sunday Day 3 – Seoul/Museum/Tower
We woke up, again sleeping late and decided it was time for something a bit more cultural. We went to the Korean War Memorial/Museum. This was a neat place that had a great collection of war machinery parked outside the place; planes, tanks, artillery, missiles, and even a boat made it to the party. We went in the museum after that, though there wasn’t much to see, just some horrendous English voice acting for some of the exhibits. After this, we went to meet those same two girls from the night before and do dinner. This was fun, and the Korean native went on to pay, which was really appreciated. Once full, we walked around a bit, looking at shops and such. Our eventual target was the main tower of the city. There is a mountain that is basically in the center of the city that has this tower built on top of it. The view was spectacular, you could see everything of Seoul and it’s 10+ million people. It was getting late, and since were were breaking out of the realm of weekend and into vacation territory, we needed to head back so as not to disturb our host needing to sleep for work the next day. On the way, we stopped with the girls for coffee and chatted. Cab ride home and sleep at a reasonable time of 1am. This concluded our Seoul experience, which had been absolutely amazing.
Here was the Museum
Monday Day 4 – Boseong Tea and Gwangju Nightlife
We wake up early with Peter, with plans to head to the far south of the country. We were craving some foreign food, so we hit a McDonald’s on the way to the bus terminal, which was great. Once there , we bought our tickets and right away were ushered towards a bus going to Gwangju. This was good. It was a 4 hour ride where we just reminisced and chatted about life and whatever. We also made an effort so soak in all the world outside, in rural Korea. The terrain was overall very mountainous and quite beautiful, with a lot of farms wherever it was flat. On the bus was a TV that played the news and sports. It was really interesting to see what they were interested in. First of all, all the news was paired with someone translating into sign language. Also, the sports were all things that would barely be found on ESPN3. Archery, fencing, and normal style wrestling were all on for a long time. Pretty cool to watch, especially my strong history in fencing. When we got to our terminal, we got on the next bus to get to Boseong, a small town, a little over an hour away from the city of Gwangju. The bus was equally beautiful, though the driver was pretty crazy, powering through corners and such. When we got there, we then took a cab to the largest Green Tea Plantation in Korea. In wasn’t exciting per se, but the scenery was beautiful as it was just rows and rows of bushes on the side of mountains. We were also able to climb to the ZENITH of one of the mountains and get a fantastic view of the surrounding area. Pictures abound. After a short hike down on the backside, we got back to the gift shop where we met some Koreans who spoke decent English. When talking about out plans, they said they would give is a lift the the next stop on the itinerary. This was fantastic, since we had no idea how to get there and time was becoming important. We jammed 4 big men in the back of their car and set out for a bath house I had researched. It was located right on the beach of the southern shore of Korea and was very nice. The main bath used sea water heated to about 110 degrees, and had also been mixed with local green tea for a nice aroma and health benefits. After steeping for a while, we hit the 208 degree sauna and got ready to leave. This was extremely relaxing, and felt so good on our already travel weary bodies.
Tea Time (L->R Jon, Ryan, Justin, Thomas)
We grabbed the same bus back to the main city where we worked on finding out host. Before departure we grabbed some food and drinks for the ride. The ride back was somehow even crazier than the one there! Driving in the other lane to get good angles going around corners, driving well over the speed limit, and extreme yaw that felt like the bus was on 1 set of wheels at times. We made it safely and then worked to get to where we were staying. We followed our directions, and got where we needed to be. It was quickly apparent that this was going to be another great places since we were directly adjacent to a large university and the apartment we were staying was right in the college town. Awesome, good time guaranteed. We couldn’t find the place, so we had a stranger call the number I had been given and our host, Alice, came and met us. We went up to her place, quaint, met her roommates, and then decided we were starving. They took us to restaurant to try out some of the signature cuisine. We had some bebimbop, which is a rice dish that has some sauce, meat and veggies too. Snacks included some insect larvae that were cooked, and had some sauce. These were not a popular option amongst the others, though I had no qualms. To drink, we had the rice wine that looked like milk. It came by the urn and was ladled onto bowls for consumption. Had an interesting but good taste, though I wouldn’t want to be drinking it all night. After this, we went to a karaoke joint which was also a great time. The three girls were a lot of fun, and quite bold with singing, in a way not typically seen of the Japanese. Once done, we went back to sleep, right around 3:30am.
Here is the damage at karaoke…
Tuesday Day 5 – Gwangju Bamboo Forest and Nightlife Continued
On this day, we woke up a little late, which has seemingly been the trend, though the accomplishment during the nights makes up for it. Alice and her roommates, as students had to get to some classes, though she pointed un in the direction of some interesting places. We set out and then decided on a bamboo forest. This was a really nice place and was simply a large forest of bamboo with trails through it. It was a bit commercialized, as a theme park, but it was still great to walk around in. We snapped some pictures, and basically acted like foreigners as we tried to climb the shoots and such. We managed to spend almost 2 hours here before finally heading home. We met back with Alice, starving, so she took us to another Korean BBQ restaurant. This one was notoriously cheap and great the owner loved meeting foreigners, she even gave us a free bottle of Pepsi. This place was infinitely better because it offered all sorts of meat, buffet style. You would go up to a freezer chest with a plate, grab anything you wanted in any quantity, and then bring it back to you table where it would be grilled on the burner each party had. We had round after round of food, and then complimentary ice cream cones at the end. Finally, we it was time to pay, a mere 7 dollars for something that was absolutely amazing. We then met her roommates at a bar and the night really got going. We tried more food, played a series of games, and had more of the regional drink. This time, it was basically a smoothie that could be strengthened with something called Soju. It was really delicious, a woman’s drink of choice. After some good times here and many laughs, we headed to another establishment where the laughs continued. It was a school night, so it wasn’t packed or anything so we grabbed our own table and then just sat down played more games and chatted. Things got a little silly, that is all that can be said, however we made some amazing memories. In an unrelated note, there was a crew playing darts nearby and they were amazing. I watched one guy throw 3 bulls-eyes in a row! Finally we were tired, so we called it a night and went back home to sleep.
This should surprise no one
Here is the crew together
One side note, this was also the day that South Korea was bombed by North Korea. I asked a few people if they were scared, if they wanted the North and South to merge back into a unified Korea, or if disliked their northern counterparts. Interestingly, the answer to all of these was no, they would rather see things stay as they are now. Also, there the threat of war isn’t something that anyone really even thinks or cares about, this has been going since before they were all born, so it’s just another aspect of what they would call normal.
Wednesday Day 6 – Return to Japan
Well, somehow the time had come to go home to life in Japan. Our hearts in sunder, we said our goodbyes to another great set of new friends and made our way to the bus terminal. We we able to bus directly to the airport, and then depart, without a stitch. I got some Burger King at the airport, since I can’t get it at all in Japan, so that was a nice taste of home. Flight went well, and then back on home turf we bought our bus tickets and then it was all over. We concluded with a ZENITH, and called it a great trip. All in all, very little was planned for this trip, other than me finding and arranging places for us all to stay. We had an amazing time and everything worked out great. Group travel is a riot and memories are easy to make.
Thoughts, Observations, Bonus Points
As if you wanted to read any more, here are just a few things I took note of that were interesting to me.
-The Japanese and Korean culture were noticeably different. People in Korea are a bit more brash than the Japanese. They plow through a crowd to get where they are going, I observed spitting in public a fair bit, and there was more of an outgoing nature as seen during karaoke, than their Japanese neighbors.
-Christianity had a presence in this country. Churches were generally marked with a neon cross on top, and Seoul is home to the church with the world’s largest congregation. Again interesting when you consider that there is about a .5% rate of Christianity in Japan
-The bus network was extremely convenient. You could catch a bus to anywhere, with them leaving to each place every 20 minutes. Cross country fare was usually about 15 dollars.
-The culture in general is more open to new ideas than the Japanese. The transformation of Korea from completely lambasted post war scene to Asia’s #4 economy. I also give this trait credit for why Christianity has picked up here.
-Cab fare was very reasonable. Split 4 ways, it would never cost more than about 4 dollar to travel across the city. A short ride about 1 dollar each.
-I was completely helpless with the language, it was the first time I had ever been somewhere where I could say nothing, and having to deal with people who knew no English. Makes me really realize how much better I am than zero here in Japan. It was usually the cab drivers and older populations who spoke no English, though the younger students weren’t too bad. A few times we had cab drivers and shop people who spoke Japanese and that was great.
-I talked with a Japanese woman on the bus who lived about 5 minutes from where I lived with my host family. That was a small world situation.
-While the Japanese hold on to all their trash, the Koreans just throw it to the ground. But the city hires teams of old people in uniforms to clean everything everywhere, so it gets taken care of all the same. I played along with the style, it was really convenient.