Monday, May 6, 2013

Golden Week Day 4-5: A Deeper Shade of Seoul

Traveling with a baby imposes a different kind of schedule than we have followed in the past -- you leave the hotel at around 10am, come back for a mid-afternoon break, then turn in for the night at around 8pm (which is late by our new standards). That leaves lots of time, however, for Gus's favorite vacation activity: climbing around on Mom and Dad.

Once we managed to peel ourselves out of bed, we decided to climb another mountain and check out Guksadang, which our guidebook refers to as a "shamanist village" located on Inwangsan, a small mountain at the western end of Seoul.
This is the entry gate to Guksadang -- we thought we'd done a fair amount of climbing at this point, but it was only the beginning.

 Lots of cranes painted and carved on things.

Guksadang sort of messed with my (naive) mental categorization of East Asian religions -- there were paintings depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, and also a pig being prepared as an offering -- something I never would have thought to associate with Buddhism. When we came back to this same spot on the way down there were a couple of guys butchering the pig; we didn't photograph that because we thought we might be interfering with some serious ritual stuff.

This rock formation is called Seonamsa, and there's a couple of stories behind it. One of them is that the two rocks are shaped like Taejo, the founding king of the Joseon dynasty, and his friend and adviser, Master Monk Muhak. Another of the king's advisers, Jeong Dojeon, told him that if Seonamsa was included within the city wall, then Buddhism would flourish in the kingdom, and if it was outside then Confucianism would flourish. The king arranged the wall so that Seonamsa was just outside, to which Muhak responded, "from now on, monks will have to follow scholars around carrying their books."

Behind us you can get a sense of the (awesome) view from Ingwansan -- a line of highrise buildings in downtown Seoul. Right next to my ear is Namsan; the mountain with Seoul Tower on the top of it. We could see it, but it didn't really come out in the photos.
As we got a little further up the mountain, these rock paintings were everywhere. I have no idea what they said. We made a point of being quiet while hiking around because we would often round a corner and come across people (usually middle-aged women) sitting and practicing meditation.
Near the foot of the mountain is the Seodaemun Prison History Hall, which is a museum/memorial set up on the site of a prison that was built during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1908-1945). After liberation, it served as a handy place to keep pro-democracy activists and was in active use until 1987.
If I hadn't known it was a former prison, I'd think the building looked sort of like a high school.
This was a memorial room where the walls were covered completely with pictures of Koreans who'd been imprisoned here for working with the resistance during the Japanese occupation. They attacked infrastructure, assassinated Japanese officials, targeted collaborators, and generally just made occupying Korea as unpleasant as they could. In return, lots of them were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
Some of the rooms had been turned into life-sized dioramas with mannequins exhibiting the various torture techniques used to extract information from prisoners and illustrating the general horribleness of life in Seodaemun. We forgot to get pictures of those, so you'll just have to use your imagination. (Spoiler alert: K-pop is not the only thing that was popular in Asia before Americans jumped on the bandwagon.)
Gus is handling prison life much better than Quinn is.
I'd always thought the panopticon was just a disturbing metaphor for the modern surveillance state, but they actually built one in the prison's exercise yard. There's a platform for the watchman to stand on (I used it to take the picture) and the prisoners were in walled-in enclosures that spread out like a fan, allowing the watchman to see everyone without having to move at all.

After a morning of sacred mountains, pig butchering, violent insurgency and torture, our thoughts naturally turned to lunch. Quinn really wanted to visit Gangnam to see whether it's anything like the video. It was raining, so it was sort of hard to tell. We did find a place near the Sinsa subway station where we got some awesome galbi. It was a spicy beef stew that was kept warm by a little propane burner on the table. We opted for the version with octopus in it; there were others. It also had mushrooms, noodles, and other vegetables in it. When it became clear that we were galbi rookies, the waiter came by and used the (ubiquitous) tongs and scissors to remove the beef from the bone and get the vegetables and octopus into more manageable pieces. They offered spiciness levels from 1 to 5; we opted for a 2 and found it to be toward the upper end of the pleasant range. Anything more than a 3 probably would have been inedible.

After lunch we proceeded to the National Museum of Korea. This was probably Gus's least favorite stop, and I can think of two possible explanations. Either we've raised a boy who already dislikes Joseon-era pottery or (more probably) it was the quietest place he's ever been in his entire life and he found it really distressing. The grounds around the museum were also really impressive; Quinn liked these flowers.
After the museum we went back to Myeongdong and the Namdaemun market, which was noisy enough that Gus fell right to sleep. This is the Namdaemun gate, now located in a traffic circle.
Why did we go back to the market? On Day 3, we'd had a delicious pancake thing -- it was stuffed with a sweet, sort of cinnamon-like filling and had black sesame seeds in the batter. They fry them up in little booths and serve them to you folded and stuffed into a paper cup, so hot that they're barely edible and you burn yourself because you can't wait to start eating it. I wanted to have it one more time before leaving the country, but we arrived at the market a little later than before and both of the places that we knew of had closed down for the night. We wandered around for a while and then eventually gave up and started heading back toward Myeongdong to get some real food to bring back to the hotel. Just as I was assuring Quinn that I wasn't all that disappointed, I caught it out of the corner of my eye -- a booth that had stayed open later than the others. It was just as good as I'd hoped.
This was our "real food" -- spicy fried chicken with a really absurd (but wonderful) amount of garlic. The perfect thing to eat the night before a plane flight.

Day 5 wasn't quite so exciting; we basically spent the day getting back to Kobe. Gus, however, makes new friends everywhere we go -- this was in a shuttle bus at Kansai International Airport.

 Enjoying the ferry ride from KIX back to Kobe.
Finally, Gus is back at home enjoying his souvenir. When we went out for meals we would always get a stainless steel cup (empty, of course) for him to play with and keep himself busy while we ate. He seemed to enjoy them so much that we got him one of his own.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Golden Week Day 3: Rubber Seoul

Our destination on day 3 was Chonggyecheon, where we continued our theme of doing a lot of walking (hence the title). Chonggyecheon is a stream that cuts through northern Seoul that used to be covered by a highway but was turned into a giant walking area as part of an urban renewal project.

This is apparently a re-creation of an old painting of a royal entourage that went along with a king to visit his father's tomb. There's a lot of it. One nice touch is that they had speakers (tastefully hidden in the bushes) that were playing the sounds of horse hooves and medieval-sounding trumpets.

We stopped for lunch in the food court of a high-rise shopping mall that had a view of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. It appears to still be under construction, but is already giving the neighborhood sort of a sci-fi feel.
 Quinn ordered a spicy squid dish.
 I tried the bibimbap -- a rice bowl topped with vegetables and an egg.

Right in the same neighborhood is the Seoul Heunginjimun, a big ancient-looking gate. Unfortunately we couldn't get too close to it.

 We stopped by the hotel room for our mid-afternoon stretchout, then went out to take a look at Namdaemun market, which isn't far from Myeongdong. Quinn and I aren't really big shoppers, so the endless booths of cheap jewelry and luggage didn't appeal so much. We do like food, however.
These are tteokbokki, cigar-sized rice noodles served in a sweet/spicy chili sauce. Yum.
I'm not sure what these are called, but they're awesome. Big skewers with tteokbokki, sausage, and crab (probably imitation crab) meat, wrapped in something. We're not sure what they were wrapped in; I thought it was some kind of processed fish product similar to chikuwa; Quinn thought it was thin fried tofu like one would use for inarizushi.

Golden Week Day 2: Dark Night of the Seoul

On our first full day in Seoul, we ventured out to have a look at Changdeokgung, which came most highly-recommended out of Seoul's major palace complexes. We showed up in the neighborhood a little early for the English-language tour, so we stopped first at Bukchon, a neighborhood with lots of hanok, or traditional-style Korean houses.

The tour at Changdeokgung was of the "Secret Garden" -- a wooded area behind the main palace complex where (I suspect) the king had exclusive drinking (and poetry) parties. We didn't stick with the tour group for very long. I'm sure the tour guide was saying lots of witty and informative things, but her loudspeaker was so quiet that we couldn't hear her over the crowd, and the whole tour moved a little faster than people with a nine-month-old can do comfortably. We did discover, however, that the secret garden has a really nice diaper-changing room.

 It wouldn't really be a vacation if we didn't take lots of self-portrait pictures.

 Gus enjoyed this part of the day koala-style.
This was kind of a neat touch; a lot of the purpose of the secret garden was for the education of the crown prince. To drive the point home, most of the buildings had a bookshelf in them; if you took your shoes off you could go in and make use of the royal reading room. Some of them might have been Confucian classics, but I did spot at least one of the Twilight books.
After a morning of secret gardening, we were ready for some lunch. We found a place near Bukchon that looked good. It was.
Nobody puts Baby in the corner. Except his parents, that is.
It totally felt like we were having lunch at somebody's house; we took our shoes off when we came in, walked past the kitchen area where they were making dumplings, and sat down near a TV that was playing the news in Korean. We'd expected to only find tourist-trap restaurants in the neighborhood, but it seems we got lucky.
We ordered a (giant) seafood and green onion pancake, as well as a red bean soup with rice noodles in it.
And of course there was kimchi. Wonderful, wonderful kimchi; both the standard bok choy variety and some made from daikon. Since a single bok choy leaf is too big to handle with chopsticks, they gave us tongs and scissors so we could cut them into more manageable pieces.

After lunch, we returned to Chandeokgung to check out the actual palace buildings.

 I'm not sure what these were all about; we saw them on a lot of the roofs.

Quinn is born to direct and I'm (apparently) good at taking direction.
Case in point.

We headed back to the hotel so we could rest our feet a little and and Gus could stretch out and get a break from the carrier. Then we headed back out to visit Namsan Park and the Seoul Tower.
This is what the tower looked like before our climb. It didn't look that far away, so we opted to walk it rather than taking the cable car. Lots and lots of stairs.
 Here's the tower at the end of our climb, with Quinn posing triumphantly in front of it.
Apparently, Namsan park is a big date place. Couples (Seoul mates?) will climb up and leave a lock on one of the fences to symbolize their love. Ours is the greed combination lock in the middle.
 Lots of locks.
 Even the benches are romantic.
Seoul Tower included a teddy bear museum (why? why not?) and when we spotted a bear doing the "Gangnam Style" dance Quinn (and Gus) couldn't help but get in on it.

We took the cable car down, and paused to get a shot of just how far away the tower looks when you're not on the mountain.