Korea, day 5

Our day yesterday started fairly ordinary but ended a bit unusual to say the least.

We left Seoul city early morning and headed for the east coast. Very quickly after leaving the city, you side the rural country emerge quickly before your eyes. We saw rice paddies, farms and then finally the beach along the east coast. Then we headed a bit inland up the mountain to visit the Hwanseon Cave.

The cave is pretty spectacular. Here are two links that describe the facts of the cave site. It is very large and we explored it for over an hour. It was amazing how cool it was inside, probably 10 degrees Celsius. 

Afterwards we drove another 3 hours or so to Andong City. Andong with 500k residents is quite small compared to Seoul. We are told this is one of the most conservative parts of Korea. There is a massive Confucian academy here as well. 

By dinner, we explored the small streets of Andong and found a place that serves the local noodle dish speciality. They only had traditional floor seating and my dad needed a chair. So we left the rest of our family at that traditional place and me and my dad explored Andong .

The two of us found a more modern place nearby. Unfortunately I forgot the name but we met the very kind owner who spoke fluent English. We had a nice meal and left. 

As soon as we left the restaurant I received a text message from my friend Rick asking if were safe and okay. 

I didn’t know what he was referring to so I checked Twitter and discovered that North and South Korea had exchanged fire just an hour prior. Not far from our DMZ location the previous day!

I went back to the restaurant and asked the man about the news to get his reaction. He seemed complete unfazed. I asked two more people on the street. They were uninterested as well. 

We met up with Lauren and the rest of our family as their dinner ended and I showed Lauren the news on my phone. I saw her eyes stare in disbelief at the screen. 

After the kids went to bed I did some more research and it looks like we are quite safe as we far from the border at this time. My relatives in Seoul sent me a Kakao message also saying there is nothing to worry about. 

So at this time our travel plans remained unchanged. But it does feel a bit weird to be here right now if I’m being honest. 

This morning Lauren and I went for a run through the local farm area. It was slightly drizzling and fog was covering the tips of the green trees. It was so calm, peaceful and beautiful. 

Korea, day 4

Yesterday we all slept in and had a relaxed morning. While the kids and grandparents took it easy, Lauren and I went out and explored the older part of Seoul city by foot. We found our way to the Cheonggyecheon which is a cool modern recreational space.

As mid day approached we regrouped and took a kimchi making class which was a lot of fun. The instructor spoke exclusively Korean and we did our best to follow along. We grilled up some tofu and enjoyed our home cooked kimchi.

After the class we made our way to Gwangjang Market. It is a vast covered market comprised of multiple alleys with an incredible assortment of food, fabrics, clothes and accessories. We explored the market over a few hours and had a late lunch there too. Some of the food offered for sale was rather intense which is putting it mildly. Lauren is way more adventuresome than me :)

One highlight for me was the group of Korean teenagers that asked to take a selfie with me. I wonder if it is a running joke to find the dorky American dude of the day or if they liked my Twitter tshirt.

The late afternoon heat was starting wear us out so we bought tickets to K-live. It’s a hologram concert with Korean pop artists. Really fun and kids loved it. I was a little concerned my dad wasn’t going to like it. After the show I asked him what he thought. His reply, “why was it so short?” Phew.

These past few days of Seoul have been most interesting to me. The most striking thing is the lack of historical buildings and as compared to comparable European cities like Rome, Italy for example. Seoul is a city with thousands of years of history but the combination of war, occupation and rapid economic growth has created a rather modern looking city with 20 million people making it happen every day.

Today we leave Seoul and will make our way to the east coast of South Korea

(Please excuse any typos and lack of links. I wrote this post on my phone)

Korea, day 3

Yesterday we made the 90 minute drive from Seoul to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). It is a powerful reminder of the history of war and struggle in this country.

At the DMZ, we took a shuttle bus from the main pavilion to the tunnels. Before we could enter the tunnel entrance area, a Korean solider boarded our bus and inspected each persons passport.

We crossed through a military checkpoint and then got off the bus. The tunnels were built by the North Korean Army and discovered by South Korea in the 1970s. So far three tunnels have been discovered. We explored a portion of one of them known as the Third Infiltration tunnel. South Korea believes up to 7 additional tunnels exist somewhere.

I shared a photo of the tunnel on Twitter yesterday. It was unreal.

After leaving the tunnels we got back on the DMZ shuttle bus and spent some time at an observation tower. There is barbed wire fence along the border and military personal everywhere. At that point the DMZ buffer zone is approx 4km. You could easily see North Korea with your naked eye. I picked up cheap binoculars earlier and the North Korean building and city felt as if you could just touch it. The North Korean mountains were beautiful but bare. We were told it’s because they don’t have money to plant trees.

The entire DMZ area communicates a desire of unification. It feels deeply heartfelt and yet when we asked various people here we heard mixed feedback about unification. You can feel the emotions and tragedy of war everywhere.

Going there with my Mom was particularly powerful. My mom’s family escaped North Korea when she was just a few years old. They settled in South Korea and started life all all over again.

We spent the afternoon relaxing back in Seoul. The kids and grandparents needed time to relax so Lauren and I explored the nearby neighborhood. We grabbed some interesting snacks from various street vendors and took in the sights and sounds of the city.

I also bought some crazy sunglasses to fit in with Korean youth scene :)

For dinner we went to visit my Aunt who still live in Seoul. There were about 20 Korean family members at the dinner party. The food was incredible and my dad tried his first kimchi and claims he liked it. At one point I noticed my kids dancing with my cousins young children (who don’t speak English). Amazing how that happens.

As the evening grew late, they gave us a ride back to our hotel in two cars. Apparently Lauren’s mom and my Korean Uncle sang “Amazing Grace” on the drive in their car. I wish I had heard it. I am sure it was a beautiful thing to experience.

(Please excuse any typos or lack of links. I am writing this post on my phone)

Korea, day 2

Jet lag is brutal.

Yesterday I woke up before 5am local time and couldn’t find my way back to sleep. Fortunately the kids got a good nights sleep and so did Lauren.

After breakfast we made our way to Gyeongbok Palace which was built by King T’aejo of the Choson Dynasty as the primary residence of the then royal family. It was burned during the Japanese invasion of 1592 and left in ruins until 1868 when it was rebuilt.

We watched the morning guard changing ceremony and toured the grounds. It was extremely interesting for the adults. (I think the kids were bored after the initial visit).

The sun was intense so we went inside to the National Folk Museum which is right next door the palace.

After an hour, we left the museum and explored Insa-dong which is also known as “Mary’s Alley”. The alley is filled with galleries, restaurants and various shops. We had lunch at a simple cafe and then explored the alleys. We had some shaved ice which hit the spot.

Our next stop was Bukchon Hanok Village. It is hard to fully describe this neighborhood but essentially it is comprised of a hundred or so historic homes within Seoul city. The contrasts between these traditional small homes and modern Seoul was striking. It was a fun and interesting place to make photographs.

By late afternoon we were wiped out from the heat. We made our way back to the hotel and recharged.

Before dinner we caught a local show called Nanta. It’s a non verbal live show that combines music, comedy, and story telling. At various times James and I could barely breath we were laughing so hard. They also had audience participation and I was brought on stage for one segment. My family had a good laugh watching me embarrass myself. We all loved it.

For dinner we went to a place called Byeokjae Galbi. As some of you know I’m a vegetarian but the rest of my family loves Korean BBQ and judging from the empty plates this was place was a success.

James quite literally passed out at the dinner table after his meal. It pretty much summed up how we all felt. Our aspiration of a late evening walk fell to reality and we jumped in taxi, returned to the hotel and we all crashed by 10pm.

It was a fun, but rather full day for sure.

(Please excuse any typos and lack of links. I wrote this post on my phone)

Korea, day 1

After a 13 hour flight from Los Angeles, we arrived in Incheon International airport which is about an hour drive to Seoul.

It was a long journey and we slept very little. But you could feel the excitement amongst us. On the drive we installed Kakao Talk on our phones. Kakao is the dominant messaging app in South Korea and we wanted to be able to connect with relatives and other people we met locally. And it’s interesting to try something new.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in downtown Seoul it was close to 8pm local time. Fatigue and hunger was setting in. We quickly dropped off our bags, changed and walked a few blocks in the pouring rain to an amazing restaurant called Yoonga-Myung-Ga. It is on the top floor of Lotto Department Store.

Our dinner was delicious. The menu was comprised of traditional and modern dishes. The restaurant had the same mix of traditional and modern characteristics. Apparently they have live traditional music but we had arrived too late. The staff was gracious and beyond kind. They gave us presents on the way out which took me by surprise. I loved listening to my mom explaining what each meal was about and some of the other traditional about the dinner.

After dinner the rain and humidity cleared. We walked back to our hotel by midnight.

We have plans to explore Seoul today. The sun is out right now and I can’t wait to see what today has I store for us.

(Please excuse typos and lack of links. I am writing this post on my phone)

ps: I am not going to tweet out a link to each journal post on this trip.

The long awaited trip to Korea

My mother is from Korea. She moved to New York in the 1960’s for her medical residency. She met my dad and the rest is history.

I have only been to Korea once. I was about 10 years old I think. I remember a few scenes. I remember learning how to bow to my grandfather. I remember how funny I thought it was I could have rice with breakfast. My pillow also had rice inside. I remember meeting a few cousins and walking around an old house which I’m told is no longer there. I don’t speak any Korean except for a few polite words of courtesy and I can still count to ten only because of the countless hours of Tae Kwon Do lessons growing up.

My wife, Lauren, and the kids have never been to Korea. And neither has my father. We all love Korean food. Well, my dad doesn’t truly love it but he acts like he does.

So today we are changing that. In a few hours we all are all catching a flight and heading to Korea for a few weeks. Lauren’s mom is joining us as well. We are starting in Seoul and then exploring the country.

I have two film cameras and a whole lot of film with me. I will try to write about our trip along the way and share an occasional iPhone photograph. Otherwise I’ll share the film scans a few weeks after my return when they are back from the lab.

I have been eagerly awaiting this trip. The chance to spend time with my family in a place where I am from, yet have limited understanding.

Here we go.