Monday, January 15, 2007

Pictures at long last

At long last, I have some pictures from the trip I took to Korea and Southern Japan.

The first picture is a cool changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeoungbokgung Palace in Seoul. This feudal palace was destroyed not once, but twice by the Japanese, a fact driven home by the Korean guide posts. Like the Atomic Bomb dome, all marks of tragedy and war are gone. But the Koreans are understandably still upset about it.

The iconic Atomic Bomb Dome memorial on a chilly December morning. Now a thriving city, this building and a sleek modern museum are the only reminders of the tragedy. Walking through Hiroshima's busy streets, it is difficult to believe the planet's first nuclear attack ever took place here.

And as we're doing these in reverse chronological order, you can see mountains in Japan's Nagano Prefecture where I went skiing in the town of Hakuba. This was were they held skiing for the Winter Olympics back in the day. Pretty Mountains, but lousy skiing conditions that day.

Eric Hanson's World Race

My friend Eric Hanson has embarked on a "World Race." In this race, he will work for a short term missionary organization and visit 11 countries in 11 months if I am reading things correctly.

A great guy that I've known since he was in diapers, our families have been very close for a long time. He and I later hung out from time to time at Northern Arizona University, where we went to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and did other stuff together. He and I share a passion for the outdoors and rock climbing, somthing he's apparently taken up during my stint here in Japan.

He's a great guy who comes from a great family. Always easy-going and ready for a good time at any moment, he's a fantastic choice for this mission. As long as I don't do something crazy that winds up in Dear Abby, I'm sure I will see him again someday in the future. I'm sure Eric Hanson is having the time of his life sharing his love for the Lord in all sorts of cool places. You can read all about it on his new blog here.

Check in with him from time to time.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Brenda Clark

When I was a young lad of 15 or so, my father introduced me to his longtime business associates and friends Gary and Brenda Clark. I recall meeting them when we stayed at their home for 2 weeks during our tour of Washington D.C. Gary Clark, an avid hunter and fisher, took us out into the Virginia wilderness on a quest for small mouth bass.

I did know, from that trip, and subsequent meetings at Servicemaster conferences that Brenda has spent many years struggling with cancer. I don't know if it started after I met her, as I don't recall that being an issue then. I do remember she was a wonderful host and a good friend to my parents. They lived (still live?) in a lovely home modeled after a famous estate in Colonial Williamsburg.

My father reports that Brenda passed away while I was in Korea. He is attending the funeral. While I didn't know her very well, I do know that she will be dearly missed by my family and others at Servicemaster. Let us all keep her in our thoughts and prayers.

Back in Koriyama

Well, I finally arrived back in Koriyama early this morning, and I'm not feeling 100 percent. So it will be the first lazy day in awhile. I'm currently in the midst of all sorts of things and will be a very busy man for the coming months.

The first order of business is to thank all the people who allowed me to stay with you during my vacation. The Couchsurfing Project has turned out to be fantastic. Cheers to Jiyoung, Nathan, Debbie, and of course Kate. Every one of you were absolutely fantastic! Jiyoung, I don't know how you do it with so many people coming and going all the time. You must be a truly generous soul!

Well I have arrived back in Koriyama and I don't see a winter wonderland anywhere! Instead a really cold and dreary rain greeted me at the station! This doesn't bode well for the ski season!

But, as I am resolved to KEEP THIS BLOG POSITIVE, I should say I am happy to be back and am looking forward to relaxing and getting my health and sanity back. I have lots to say, write, and lots of pictures from Korea to show! Please be patient with the pictures, as they will be up soon.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Back in Osaka

Yesterday, I arrived safe and sound back in Fukuoka Japan on the Southern Coast

While I love it here in Japan, it will never be a major tourist attraction for the simple fact that traveling here is too darn expensive. Before leaving Japan, I stopped at a travel agent to try and pick up bus tickets back to Koriyama, because the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) is simply too expensive, and I don't have any money left. Unfortunately, due to the New Year Holidays, most people are traveling and almost all the buses were booked! So I had to bite the bullet and pay for the shinkansen to Osaka, where I managed to get a bus back to my town this evening.

I wasn't able to secure any hosts on, so I had to stay in the next cheapest option in Osaka, the capsule hotel. While they are fun to stay in once, after that they are just dreary depressing places filled with chainsmoking middle aged alcoholics who missed the last train.

Unfortunately, my train today doesn't leave until 8:30 tonight, and I have about eight hours to kill in Osaka without spending any money. So hear I am in an internet cafe writing up about everything in Korea.

Dog Food for Breakfast?

As my train arrived in Busan at about 11:00, I realized I would have a couple of hours before my ferry to get some breakfast. It was still early, and I was afraid that many places would be closed, and I hoped some shops might be opening for lunch soon, especially around a busy train station.

Turns out I was lucky, and several places were open around the Busan station. I quickly found one with a picture menu and easy to read prices and took off my pack for breakfast. I was perusing the menu, when I noticed a familiar character for which I had halfheartedly searched for since my arrival in Korea. In Seoul, my couchsurfing host Jiyoung Lee had written down what to look for (discreetly she urged, as the Koreans are somewhat sensitive about this subject) to keep in my pocket. I fished through my pockets and the top of my pack to finally find a little piece of paper with the cryptic Hangul characters depicting a curious eccentricity of Korean cuisine. I found the slip of paper and confirmed that this was indeed on the menu. I had at long last found nothing less than dog meat soup.

The middle aged man gave me a bit of a look when I pointed to what I wanted, but promptly left to bring me my dish. I hate to admit it, but the primary reason I wanted to eat dog meat was simply to be able to say truthfully, "I have eaten dog meat before!" So at some point in the future, I will be able to brag about this and gross out any young children I talk to. The organism currently incubating in my sister comes to mind.

While it was pretty good, it was somewhat anti-climactic, and tasted like a couple of other soups I had tried in Korea. The soup was a little bit salty, but delicious, while the surrounding vegetables were very spicy. The meat itself was somewhat tough, and very lean. I can say that it didn't taste like chicken, and tasted more like pork, only slightly leaner and stringier.

The following is a list of all the types of meat I can recall eating in my life. Can you top this?

1. Beef: An American staple

2. Pork: The other white meat.

3. Chicken: The cheapest meat in Japan, and my main staple for three years.

4. Turkey: Great on the American Holiday of Thanksgiving. Makes you sleepy.

5. Lamb: A staple on Easter Sunday, and probably the cutest meat on the list.

6. Buffalo: Another American staple, they were nearly extinct in the early 20th century, but have since made a modest revival on the great plains. Now health nuts bill it as a great alternative to beef.

7. Deer: Venison is great, but kind of pricey unless you hunt.

8. Elk: I suppose this is also technically venison. A friend of David Hanson's gave me a heap of steaks in college once. Not so hard to come by if you live in Northern Arizona. Jerry Driesens in Pagosa Springs always has it around as well.

9. Horse: This is a delicacy in parts of Japan. Basashi, (raw horsemeat) is great and I have had several different cuts, including the underbelly, hind legs, and mane. The mane is the leanest and tastiest.

10. Fish: I have had too many types to recall, so I will only mention the unusual ones in the posts below.

11. Dog: See above description. Koreans are somewhat sensitive about eating dogs, because they love their pet dogs so much, as my couchsurfing host Jiyoung tells me. They have a special breed that is just for eating. It is also kind of a macho food as I am told.

12. Whale Meat: School lunches in Japan are usually quite delicious. While whale meat isn't so bad, but I'm not sure my strong environmental convictions will allow me to eat it ever again (provided I pay attention to what I'm eating).

13. Kangaroo: More of an Australian staple, as we don't have these in America.

14. Crocodile: Another Australian staple. Tastes more like fish than chicken.

15. Rattlesnake: When I was a kid, I recall my dad telling me I was eating rattlesnake. From the beginning of high school, I grew less naive and became more skeptical of his often dubious assertions. But I believed him then, and that's good enough for me. (Mom, can you confirm or deny this?)

16. Shark: Another one of those foods that I probably shouldn't have eaten for environmental reasons, but my curiosity beat out my ecological conscience. Delicious, but just another fish. If you haven't had this, you aren't missing much.

Revisions/ Additions Since this Day:

17. Pidgeon: An Egyptian staple I suppose. Had this for the first time in Luxor. Tastes like dark chicken meat or turkey, although slightly more greasy. The Egyptians stuff it with rice and you have to dig around it and the bones to get at the meat. Tasty, but too greasy and too many bones.(Modified January 5th, 2008, although events took place December 29th, 2007)

18. Ostrich: Eating an ostrich steak was disturbingly like eating a beef steak. It was just a little bit more But not much. If you served it to me and told me it was a cow, I probably wouldn't notice until several bites into it.

19. Rabbit/Hare: Probably even cuter than lamb. Had this at a Moroccan restaurant with my parents in Denver. I never blogged about it though. Pretty good. I only wish I could say the rest of the food at this establishment was more than mediocre.

Dash through the Seoul train station

Yesterday, my schedule dictated that I leave Korea by boat from Pusan at precisely 1:00 PM. As my previous Couchsurfing buddy Nate was unable to host me again (and I couldn't locate anyone else) I decided to stay one more night in Seoul with the woman who hosted me there. The only real downside to this was the early train to Busan.

As the previous train took 3 hours, I was confident I would find a fast enough train to get me from Seoul to Busan if I just showed up at the station. But like most people do at some point in their lives, I slept in just a little too late and took a little too long getting ready. I wasn't out the door until about 7:30 AM in Seoul. This included a 15 minute walk to and through the subway, a 20 minute ride, and a mad dash through a busy train station to catch a train.

My predicament dawned on me as I was taking the subway. What if I couldn't catch a train in time? What if the only trains they have available aren't fast enough? By the time of my arrival at Seoul Station, the stress had sufficiently impressed upon me the need to make extreme haste. With my overloaded expedition pack full of unused ski gear (the blue one with 5500 cubic inches if anyone is interested), I sprinted out the subway door and up the escalator, skipping steps and knocking everyone over with my enormous load.

The best Broncos running backs had nothing on me that day! I seriously didn't realize I had such strength, as I dashed up a stairway that ascended four to five floors from the subway to the surface with 40 pounds on me.

I had been dashing for 2 minutes when I realized I had run in the wrong direction! I gathered my bearings and ran back with more zealous fervor than I had ever mustered before. As I startled slow walking old men from behind, I could hear tons of them cheering me on. Perhaps the old men had not seen such a sight since US marines and the ROK army stormed the beaches at Incheon 50 years ago!

In the end, I managed to get on a train with 4 minutes to spare. Plenty of time to catch my breath and remove 3 sweaty layers. Upon my arrival in Busan, I looked at the schedule of trains arriving from Seoul. The one immediately following from Seoul would arrive at 1:30! Four minutes stood between me and a heap of trouble.

The lesson from all this: a good, disciplined training regimen and proper nutrition pay off in the long run. Get out and work those muscles!

Seoul's Yong-San versus Tokyo's Akihabara

After finishing up with my prison tour, I decided to visit the Yong-San station's electronics Department store in Seoul. After someone recomended it to me on the DMZ tour, I just had to see this place, as this person said it was better than Tokyo's Akihabara. Eager to see if such a claim was true, I had to go see such a wonder of mankind.

For those of you who don't know, Akihabara is a district in Tokyo that consists of almost nothing but electronics boutiques, manga comic books, and retail establishments specializing in little scantily clad plastic figurines (my friend Dan calls them pervy toys). It is in essence, a paradise for nerds.

It is the only place in Japan where I can find American cell phones (or ANY cell phone not made in Japan), any camera and lens ever built, computer CPUs and motherboards on streetcorners, a complete selection of oscilloscopes, and the original Nintendo Entertainment System (not to mention about 19 others built by Atari and Sega that I never know existed) It is an amalgamation of tiny storefronts throughout a whole section of town, chaotic and disorganized. If one has a day or two, you could conceivably find any electrical product.

Seoul's Yong-San, I discovered, is technically the largest electronics store in Asia (apparently meaning the largest store under 1 roof. And I must concede, Yong-San station's department store impressed me. There were about eight different floors with a heap of retail floorspace in a modern spacious high rise building. The first floor sold nothing but MP3 players and digital cameras. The second store sold gigantic flat screen TV and stereo systems. Floors 3 and 4 sold computers, computer accessories, and computer components, floor 5 was entertainment systems and DVDs. Floor 6 and 7 consisted of cell phones.

Like the Japanese, the Korean penchant for ethnocentrism and nationalism dictated that most brands would be of Korean origin, primarily Samsung. This proved to be especially true in the MP3 player, cell phone, and flat screen TV categories. Despite this, Japanese digital cameras dominated and American computer makers HP and Dell as well as Japan's Sony and Panasonic PCs sported a strong presence in the Korean market. Come to think of it, they had just about every computer maker I could think of. Motorola also appears to be quite popular (or just heavily promoting their Razr).

Depsite the great selection, as a tourist I have to say that Tokyo's Akihabara is probably the cooler place to visit as a tourist. While both destinations were rather enormous, the absolute chaos and disorganization of Akihabara was more fun than the clean, quiet, and sanitized setting of Yong-San. The thrill of digging through a box of green plates covered in semiconductors and circuitry to discover an old Atari (insert 1970's model name here) and accompanying games was just too much fun.

However, if I was in the market for a digital camera or other capital intensive electronic contraption, I would probably head to Yong-San given the choice. As a shopping environment, the quiet department store would be much easier to think in (and make wiser, better informed consumer choices).

So the verdict is in, and it is currently a stalemate:
The Place to see: Akihabara in Tokyo
The Place to Shop: Yong-San in Seoul

Insadong and other cool Markets

One of the coolest places to see in Seoul is Insadong Market. Near the center of the city, the place still has the feel of an Asian city not completely paved over with concrete and mortar. And despite brimming with tourists and locals on New Year's Day, was quite lovely.

There are numerous tiny tea shops throughout the area, and one can find all sorts of delicious teas. Not speaking much Korean, I was lucky to stumble into one where the guy spoke a little bit of broken English. He sold me a cup of tea with some traditional sweets. They weren't too dissimilar from several I had eaten in Japan. This particular place was filled with all kinds of old junk.

Several other types of shops that existed, including antique shops. As Japan is often a very forward-looking society and culture, finding antiques there is somewhat difficult at times. It is easy to find old traditional handicrafts in Japan, but they have all been made recently, as nobody sells anything truly old. Korea appears to differ in this respect, as Insadong market had some real antique places, filled with both Asian and European antiques of all sorts.

I also frequently ran across chinese calligraphy stores. Like Japan and China, the Koreans evidently love to write their letters as stylishly and pretentiously as they can. One particular shop I went into had an enormous brush that was about 4 feet tall and looked to weigh about 70 pounds. Hanging on a wall, the part with the bristles was at least 1 foot thick. Two people would be required to use the behemoth, so I had trouble figuring out how it would be useful.

As you can probably guess, I made my way to the coin dealer, to spend my laughably tiny amount of cash reserves on obsolete currency. I found a place and managed to find an old kingdom coin predating the Japanese invasion for less than 5000 won (about 5 USD). I got a couple of others for about the same.

I also visited a number of other markets in Seoul, and noticed stores selling ginseng were everywhere as well. One man caught me taking pictures of a giant spindly root display suspended in liquid and dragged me into his store to sample some ginseng. His English was incomprehensible (if that is indeed what it was) so I said I didn't understand, but he finally strong armed me into sampling some of his ginseng. After putting up some resistance, I finally chewed a piece up and said "Yum!" in a loud voice before bolting for the door. This was the second time this happened during my trip. I did get some cool shots of the creepy spidery roots floating in glass cylinders.

There was one market that had fish and kimchee of all sorts. See pictures to come.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Korean Independence Fighters at Sodaemun Prison

As yesterday happened to be my last day in Seoul, I decided to go to Sodaemun Prison in Seoul. Originally a notorious prison build by the Japanese to hold rebels against the Japanese occupiers, Sodaemun is now a museum that tells the story of the insurgents and other prominent figures of the Korean Independence movement.

As the museum pointed out on several occasions, from 1906 until the end of World War II, Korea suffered under a brutal occupation by the Japanese. And like many places where foreign powers aren't wanted, they promptly rose up to fight their oppressors. The ones who lived and got caught, found themselves in Sodaemun prison and dozens of others built by the Japanese following the war.

The museum had several interesting exhibits. They had one particular torture device something like a standing closet. In the shape of a V, prisoners stood in the closet while guards shut the door. Ergonomically designed to prevent all movement, the prisoner could only stand up straight, and might soon suffer from paralysis (according to the description at least). I got in and had some folks take a picture of me (coming soon).

In the torture chamber the Japanese used is now filled with animatronic dolls covered with blood. Every time you walk by a "torture room" the gory dolls start writhing in mechanical movements. A overdramatic voice recording starts screaming as well.

The Japanese also had an execution chamber where they hung prisoners. With false floorboards, the prisoners sitting on a bench would soon find the floor falling out beneath them, after the rope was already fixed around their neck. Guards could then discreetly dispose of the bodies from the basement. They had a bench where you could sit and "simulate" such a feeling. When you sat down in it, the thing lurched down and forward without warning.

After wandering through the exhibits, I found myself wishing they had added more English to the explanations. Some things were in English, but they often sounded very repetitive. The videos they had were also in Korean only. This time they used The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack. Numerous other descriptions were only in Korean. Odd for such a popular tourist destination. Every other place I went has at least English (and usually Japanese and Chinese as well) Other than that it was great fun. I took some relatively promising pictures as well.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Today I woke up early to take a guided tour of the DMZ. For those of you who don't know, the DMZ is the dividing line between North and South Korea that was agreed upon in the 1953 cease-fire. There are currently two towns in the DMZ, one on the Northern side and one on the South side. I forget their names.

The South Korean town is largely comprised of subsidized farmers and in true Korean fashion, also get free high speed internet access. You can actually buy DMZ rice at the gift stores. The barbed wire seasoning is sold separately. Nobody lives in the North Korean town. All the lights in the entire town go off at precisely 11 PM. They keep having a competition to see who can build a larger flagpole, which simply reaks of masculine insecurity on the part of all Koreans. If I remember correctly, North Korea currently has the bigger one.

Descending into the 3rd tunnel was the coolest part of the whole tour. The third tunnel was discovered and sealed off some time ago. Upon retreating from the tunnel, the North Koreans painted charcoal on the bedrock in an attempt to pass it off as an abandoned coal mine. They did this despite the fact that the paint quickly comes off and the obvious lack of coal deposits in the granite bedrock. When the 4th tunnel was discovered, the North Koreans accused the South Koreans of building it! Kim Jong Il and his dad are pretty silly aren't they? Anyways, the tunnel was cool, and I walked to the end where there was a South Korean made barrier of concrete and barbed wire.

What I can't figure out is this: the tunnel is barely big enough for 2 peole to walk side by side in. The guides say 30,00 troops can move through in an hour, but where are they going without any tanks, trucks or even just a few jeeps? Even the most austere of infantry units in modern armies require all sorts of equipment (and the trucks to haul them all) to fight effectively. A bunch of guys crawling out of a hole somewhere would simply be slaughtered I would guess.

They also took us to a train station where (someday) Koreans hope to go all the way to Pyeongyang on a newly built rail station.

I hate to say it, but this guided tour was kind of weak. There just wasn't very much to see, besides a river, and two tiny towns with gigantic flagpoles. They showed us a video about the history of the war and the current status of efforts for reunification. It showed Kim Jong Il shaking hands with the South Korean president some years ago, but mentioned nothing of the North's latest thermonuclear antics. The video largely consisted of a tanks and mechanized infantry montage with grim looking ROK army dudes peering through binoculars set to the theme of Top Gun). Then it cut to an adorable little girl walking around rice fields crying with a sob-fest choral ensemble. Then back to soldiers with night vision goggles crawling through the bushes (and more bad 80's music). I wasn't sure what to feel.

But while the video was forgivable, the thing that really turned me off was that the tour organizers (for no obvious reason) wouldn't let you take pictures, or the DMZ. You could only take pictures of the front if you stood behind a giant yellow line that pretty much blocked out everything. Certainly the ROK Army routinely takes pictures of the DMZ with far more sophisticated equipment than any of us had. They did the same thing in the tunnel. What's up with that? I hereby challenge any military or safety expert to provide even one mediocre reason (besides selling picture books and postcards) for not allowing people to take pictures in the tunnel!

I have to concede I did learn some interesting things from the video. Several years ago, the 2 Koreas agreed to create a special economic zone in North Korea, funded by South Korean investors in an effort to alleviate some of the economic disparity standing in the way of unification. Judging from the movie, they make pots and pans in North Korea now.