Thursday, March 31, 2011

Seoul Zoo

Like most people, we have a love/hate relationship with zoos. No one wants to see animals caged up, but everyone likes to see animals. We're big dorks for exotic animals though so we tend to fall on the love side. The Seoul Zoo is hardly in the city - it's a very long subway ride out there. The day we went was cold and gray and there was hardly anyone there. That didn't stop us. We had high hopes - pandas?! Alas, there are no pandas at the Seoul Zoo. Not surprising, perhaps since the entry fee was less than $3. We did see chimpanzees playing with college students who were studying them and zookeepers feeding hunks of meat to lions. There were also plenty of spry Korean seniors walking with their friends around the grounds. Here's what else we saw.

Axolotls - It was our first time to see this animal live and there were an inordinate amount of them. All the way from Mexico!

This turtle cracked us up. It was as if the animals were lonely since they were all eager to make eye contact with us, from the lions and monkeys to this guy.

The greenhouse was full of elderly Korean folks painting and photographing flowers like these.

Finally, our apologies if you're sick of hearing about giraffes, but the Seoul Zoo has 6 of them! A 1/2 dozen! Have you ever seen 6 giraffes together, nuzzling necks and everything? We sure hadn't.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Korean food for vegetarians

We really wanted to try Korean food, but we don't eat meat and Josie doesn't love seafood. We found that if we ignored that kimchi has shrimp or anchovies and were willing to pick out some ham, we could indeed eat Korean food. We were surprised that we liked basically everything we tried. It helps that we like kimchi.

This is gim-bahp - essentially Korean sushi. We picked the ham (spam?) out of it and it was pretty good.

The famed bibimbap (rice, egg, vegetables in a hot pot):

A spicy soft tofu stew:

This is one of the Korean beers. It's not delicious but the label reminded us of toothpaste.

Greasy street food - really hit the spot, actually.

We did not eat these bugs but they were a very popular snack.

Kimchi at the market.

They had some good sweet street food like a hard candy, waffles, roasted chestnuts, etc. Twice in Busan we ate at The Loving Hut. We're pretty sure it's owned by a cult whose leader is called The Supreme Master. Aside from that, they had lovely vegan Korean food for really affordable prices. Korean food is spicy, which was a welcome change from Japanese food which is meant for much more subtle palates than ours. It's not our favorite cuisine, by any means, but we were surprised by how much we liked it, especially given that we couldn't eat Korean barbecue or some of the other more famous meat/seafood dishes.

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul

One of the things we really wanted to do in Seoul was see some art and this museum got rave reviews. It was just what we were looking for too. It had traditional Korean pottery, metalwork, scrolls, etc. It had modern Korean art. Finally it had international modern art. Each of the 3 buildings were architectural stunners themselves.

This is the staircase from the Jean Nouvel building.

Here are some of Louise Bourgeouis' famous spider sculptures.

We highly recommend this museum. They have a Takashi Murakami, an Yves Klein, a Donald Judd and other gems.

Day trip: DMZ

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a 4 km strip of land that acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea along the 38th parallel. It's the most heavily militarized border in the world. Probably because of that, it's also a really peaceful place, at least for now.

We did a half day tour which took us to a park where we saw this Freedom Bridge that the South Korean POWs crossed after the war.

Here's a closer look at the end of it.

Details on this temple:

You can see the South Korean village and the fake North Korean village from the Dora Observatory. Also, the largest flag pole in the world is visible from here (obviously on the North Korea side).

For some reason we ended up on a tour that didn't get us as close as we would've liked. We saw plenty of South Korean soldiers who were basically on the same tour as us, but didn't get to see any from North Korea. We did get to go into the 3rd tunnel that North Korea built and South Korea found (and is now profiting from). We also stopped by a ginseng store and an amethyst store on the way back, as tours are wont to do. We bought North Korean soju and a few other souvenirs. Mostly the tour was made by the company we kept - a hilarious Colombian girl getting her masters in Tokyo, a thoughtful Spaniard who works for Facebook in Ireland and an interesting Vietnamese-American Seattle based professor. Strangely enough, we spoke a lot of Spanish at the DMZ. We learned a lot about the Korean war and the ongoing conflict between the North and South.

Fun things that happened in Seoul

We had so much fun just being out and about in the city and interacting with Korean people. Here are just a few examples.
  • We saw a movie where a Kim Jong-il joke was made and everyone in the theater laughed.
  • A young woman asked us to write a message for her parents' 20th anniversary on a wipe board and then took a picture of us with it.
  • A young man asked us to vote (with a sticker) on which color we thought of when we thought of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone - border with North Korea).
  • An older gentleman on the subway struck up a conversation with John and told him his fortune based on his answer to this question: If you were walking home, which would you hope to find, a flower, snow or water.
  • The tour driver who took us to the DMZ was also a fashion designer.
  • We went to a live jazz club (incidentally, it was called Live Jazz Club) and heard a jazz quintet with an amazing female vocalist. We could understand the song lyrics but not her banter while the opposite might have been true for everyone else there.
  • At a restaurant they gave us a free soda because there was meat in our food - we picked a lot of ham out of things in Korea.
  • Our hostel messed up our room (2 single beds put together instead of a double bed) and bought us a nice bottle of soju to make up for it. Also, the hostel guy always said "okey dokey", which cracked us up.
  • We saw a "same same couple" - 20 something couple wearing head to toe matching outfits (it's the Korean equivalent of a GothLoli sighting).

Loving Seoul

We knew Seoul was going to be cool, but we had no idea it would be this cool. First of all, Seoul is living in the future. Everyone is watching TV on their phones. They have electronic advertisements projected that you can see from out the subway windows. Also, there are interactive google maps when you get off the subway so you can look where you're going before you get up to the street.

Korean people speak TONS of English. Between our well honed gestures and simple English from dealing with Japanese folks combined with their stellar English skills and lack of fear of foreigners, it was a breeze to get around, order food, etc., especially when compared to Japan (including the big Japanese cities).

We can't help but compare the two. Japan is definitely cleaner, you can drink the water and you don't get jostled as much. But Korea was still a refreshing break from Japan for us. Korean employees are perfectly nice and all, but they're not over the top saccharine sweet like their Japanese counterparts. We realized how we've already gotten used to the exceptional service in Japan the first time we went to a convenience store and they didn't bag up our items for us.

Korea has coffees and smoothies everywhere as well as bagels, pretzels and other yummy breads. Plus we could afford to eat out and do more because it's so much cheaper than Japan. We stayed in a student area and everyone was dressed in that quirky geek chic style with those black-rimmed glasses. That's still kind of a marginal fad in Japan. Anyways, we loved the food, the sites, the shopping, all of it.

Vegetarian kaiseki

I'm so happy I got this picture of me and my English teachers even though my favorite teacher is missing. They're all great teachers, really lovely people, so sweet to me and...aren't they just the cutest? And yes, I'm heads taller than all of them. Asi es mi vida en Japon.

The end of the year teachers' party is a fancy affair where we sit on the floor (women don't sit cross-legged in Japan - ouch!) and eat at little trays. Everything goes according to a schedule which mostly involves speeches that get haltingly translated to me by one of my patient English teachers. The ladies keep bringing us tons of food and I feel terrible for them because Japanese kaiseki cuisine uses about a million differently shaped and sized dishes. Here was the spread when we first sat down.

The party cost 7,000 yen each (about $86 right now) for food and drink. Luckily they ordered me vegetarian food so here's my veggie sashimi. Almost too pretty to eat! The gelatinous shiny stuff on the bottom is konnyaku. Unfortunately for me vegetarian kaiseki usually means they employ all the textures I don't love. I really enjoy the flavors but have a hard time with jelly like substances, egg custards and slimy mushrooms. I really had to "gambatte" (do my best). Then, some things I always love - miso soup, tempura, rice, the sauces, etc.

It's all you can eat and drink, but I never get too full from the food because it's all really healthy. I never drink very much because you can't fill your own glass; you have to wait until some one else comes over and tops you up (or you get a buddy system going with the person next to you). I do some pouring for other teachers but I tend to get a little shy in these situations since my Japanese isn't awesome. It takes a while for my teachers to get drunk enough to come over and talk to me - mostly about the basketball or volleyball tournaments.

It's really emotional to see these teachers who spend so much time together and grow so close but never show it say goodbye to each other and tell what they meant to each other. I was already a hot mess from a roller coaster week so I was crying right along with them. Luckily, Japanese culture has this reset button where no one will discuss the party ever again and will act like anything that happened there never did.

Oh but the food! I'm still thinking about the dessert - delicious sesame mousse with sweet sake drizzled over it.

Here's the lovely picture John got as a parting gift from his teachers.
His other school gave him a really cool plant too, lucky us.


The last two days of school (closing ceremony and graduation followed by the teachers' drinking party) are a LOT of Japan concentrated in 2 days. Frankly, I find this culture exhausting when I have to participate so fully in it. All the dressing up, straight rows, excessive bowing, formalities and pent up emotion. Whew. In Japan there is always a right way to do everything so outsiders have to be hyper vigilant to pick up on the cues of what to do like when to stand up, sit down, bow, how to sit, etc.

The kids have been practicing for years already so they're pros.
Here's a shot from graduation.

Here are the third graders (like 9th graders) singing their last song together. Can you see the awesome bonsai on the stage? Even after all this time here it's still kind of weird to see over 300 kids with the exact same shade of hair.

This is the most cruel part. The kids don't know which teachers won't be there next year. (About 1/3 leave every year.) They surprise them on the last day of school at an assembly where all of the teachers who are leaving come out on stage and give farewell speeches. Meanwhile, the kids cry and later tug at the them and say their goodbyes as we shoo them out the door.

I'm bummed because some of my favorite teachers are leaving.
Hopefully I'll like the new ones just as much.

Josie's office

At my school there's a big teachers' room and I have a desk there but it doesn't even have drawers. It's not a workable space. It's pretty clear they want to keep me in the "International Room" (English teachers' room) in the basement because that's where I have a desk with drawers, nice chair and internet access. I don't mind. Here are a few pictures of my space.

Natural light! And a door out of which I can run in the event of earthquakes!

I asked my kids what this was in my first week or so. They mimed that it was for keeping intruders at a few feet distance. This struck me as hilarious. It seems it could just as easily be used against you. You'd have to be a real samurai to actually pin the guy against the wall with this thing. My kids thought it was pretty funny too.

John's Guide to Japanese gestures

Here's John explaining all of the Japanese gestures we've adopted in the last 14 months.

This is how you point to yourself - you point to your nose, not your chest.

This is how you indicate that you're kidding - wave hand back and forth in front of yourself.

This is how you beckon some one to come. Josie remembers her kyoto-sensei (vice principal) motioning to her like this in her first week. For a second she couldn't figure out why he was shooing her away until she remembered that's "come" in Japanese gestures. It's reminiscent of the Bulgarians who reverse the head nodding and shaking gestures. Confusing! To think, now we use this with each other even.

This is how you say "no" or "none". Do we even have a gesture for this in the US? Maybe just 2 fingers crossed? This one is the vegetarians' best friend. We use it to order food without meat a LOT.

This is how you indicate where you're going, like if you're going to pass in between people and you want them to move. You move your hand forwards. Old guys use this one a lot.

It's funny because we took these pictures back in March but haven't gotten around to this post until now. John's had a MAJOR haircut since this.