Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A picturesque part of Seoul

There's no doubt about it - Bukchon Hanok Village 
is one of Seoul's top tourist attractions

I did -- at least temporarily -- find some quiet
and solitude though inside a gallery dedicated to
elaborate designs on its outer walls than most others

In the past year, I've visited Kyoto (for the second time in my life), Hanoi, Kanazawa, Seoul and also been back to Penang for a short vacation.  In each of these places, I've taken some time to stroll about an old section of the town or city that's particularly famed for its architecture and cultural heritage.

In Kyoto, it was Gion; in Hanoi, the Old Quarter; in Kanazawa a couple of its small geisha and samurai districts; in Penang, it was its UNESCO World Heritage-listed capital, George Town.  And in Seoul, it was Bukchon Hanok Village.   
Flanked by two royal palaces (Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung), Bukchon used to be an upscale residential area for aristocrats and court officials.  These days, it's still home to many residences but also is where a number of interesting looking cafes and restaurants, art galleries, boutiques and craft shops can be found.

If truth be told, I wish the neighborhood's most picturesque were not so crowded with tourists.  I also wish I could have spent more time strolling about its streets and alleys.  However, I didn't bargain for Bukchon to be as hilly an area as it was and, unfortunately, my mother found some of the streets too steep for her liking.

Should I return to Seoul once more for a visit, Bukchon would top my list of places I'd like to go back to stroll about, leisurely taking in the sights.  For now though, I'll just say that what I saw was often very lovely and also surprisingly expansive.  And it's good to learn that, like with the Cheong Gye Cheong Stream, it's a part of Seoul that after a period of not being appreiated, has latterly come to see its existence treasured by Koreans as well as visitors to the country. :)

Monday, September 15, 2014

By and on the Seoul section of the Han River

A view across the Han River (aka Hangang) 
 from southern section of Seoul

Puppet Ponyo was happy to see swan-shaped 
paddle boats on the Han River! :)
 A more stately sight spotted while on a Han River cruise 
came in the form of South Korea's National Assembly Building

When my mother and I visited South Korea five years ago, the number one attraction for both of us was Seoul's wonderfully rejuvenated Cheong Gye Cheong Stream.  This time around, we set our sights on a cruise along another reuvenated body of water: the Hangang (i.e., Han River).

One of my most distinct memories of my first visit to South Korea back in 1982 involved driving along this very long -- and, to my mind, wide -- river.  Back then, however, I doubt that there were cruises taking place along it -- as, among other things, the Han River had a reputation for being pretty polluted for the first decades of South Korea's existence.

These days, however, the area around the now ecological jewel appears really pleasant -- with parks, bike and walking paths located along it that quite a few people appear to make much use of. And while the river's water wasn't as clear as I thought it should be, the cruise that my mother and I (and Puppet Ponyo too) went on was pretty nice -- with my only complaint being that its one hour length was too short since I'd have been happy to relaxed on deck, catching the breeze and enjoy watching the sights pass by for at least one more hour that sunny afternoon!
On a pop cultural note: I have to admit to thinking of Bong Joon-Ho's The Host while on the cruise, especially whenever we passed under and/or by one of the several bridges over the river. Also, while checking out Psy's Gangnam Style music video once more last week, I was amused to recognize a number of sights in it -- including the swan paddle boats! -- that we had caught sight of "in the flesh" less than two weeks ago now! ;b

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Off the beaten path on Hong Kong Island

across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island

 View from, and of, a trail that apparently doesn't exist
is to be believed! :O

What with the Hong Kong Observatory reporting visibility of up to 40 kilometers today, there was no question that I'd be taking advantage of these uncommon conditions and be out hiking!  Originally, the plan was to go along the Hong Pak Country Trail and after climbing up Mount Parker Road to connect with the western end of this trail, my hike buddy for the day and I did indeed trek along this path that's pleasantly level but also predominantly unpaved for at least a couple of kilometers. 

But shortly after we passed marker C4304, we spied what appeared to be a fairly newly laid out section of trail leading upwards to higher ground.  And despite there being no signs indicating where it'd lead to, it looked too tempting to not go along -- whereby I found myself in interesting parts of Hong Kong Island I previously had never been to. 

Almost needless to say, there were some scenic views to be had along this way. In the hilly area that my hike buddy and I first passed through, we also came across several spots with Chinese characters written on them, including an area that almost looked like a makeshift learning area, complete with a keyboard with both Romanized script as well as Chinese characters drawn on the face of a large rock!  

In addition, we came across at least one spot that looked like it could be a cool swimming hole -- except that I couldn't help but feel that certain wild creatures may like it quite a bit too.  (Years ago, when I was in Sarawak's Gunung Mulu National Park, I went swimming in a part of a river with wonderful clear and cool water.  Shortly after I had got out and was drying myself, my party spotted a snake swimming in the very spot that I had previously been paddling about.  I've been much more wary of going into enticing looking natural watering holes since!)

Shortly after this particular section of trail joined up again with the Hong Pak Country Trail, we spied another path diverting off it -- and decided to venture into the unknown once more.  Although this other less traversed trail also yielded up a number of scenic views, I must admit that if I had known earlier on how overgrown -- and hairy with regards to some of the bits that crossed over and by hill streams -- it was, I may not have been as keen to go along it.

As it was, my friend and I ended up having a more adventurous excursion than had been planned for today -- this not least because we apparently failed to locate what was listed as a dotted (i.e., overgrown and/or difficult) trail on the map that would get us down to where we would be able to catch a bus back home.  On the other hand, thanks to "signage"in the form of ribbons tied on trees and such, and chalked arrows on the ground left by other hikers, we managed to scramble downhill along a path that, according to the same map we'd been relying on, doesn't actually exist!

For the record: this is hardly the first time the person(s) hiking with me and I were unable to spot a trail whose existence had been noted down on a map. Indeed, the first time I ended up at Sha Lo Tung was because the three pairs of eyes (including my own) had been unable to spy not one but three different trails that were supposed to have taken us to the west of the area we had been hiking in rather than south to Sha Lo Tung! 

Put another way: I've learnt from experience that some trails are far less maintained and even visible than others in Hong Kong.  At the same time, I also have learnt that Hong Kong Island in particular has a number of hiking trails that crisscross one another.  So I was confident that at some point, we'd (eventually) find a trail that would connect to a paved road with public transport passing along it -- and there thus was never a serious possibility that we'd have to desperately resort to doing such as calling for a helicopter to come over and rescue us! ;b 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rose and Jug (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

For those who wondered about my absence from last week's Photo Hunt: it's because this time last week, I was in the Land of the Morning Calm!  And South Korea is indeed where all the shots in my entry for both Sandi's and Gattina's photo memes were taken!

More specifically, the photo of the statue of the Virgin Mary (whose floral offerings I'm figuring includes a rose or more!) is located in the space just behind Seoul's Myeongdong Cathedral.  And since the more eagle-eyed among you may have noted that in my recent "what I ate on my vacation" blog post, I did mention that I didn't eat any barbecue on this recent Korea trip, I'll 'fess up and state that the middle photo in this Photo Hunt entry actually was taken on my 2009 -- rather than most recent -- visit to the country!

The funny thing is that since I took so many photos of barbecues on that 2009 trip, I don't think I ever have shared that snap on this blog until now.  But looking back now at it, that was one impressive repast, don't you think?

The thing is, as those who are unfamiliar with Korean food probably will not realize, the only part of that feast that my mother and I specifically ordered was the barbecue dish at the center of the table.  Oh, and her glass of soft drink and my beer.  Everything else (i.e., the banchan (side dishes), bowls of rice and jug of water) was included gratis -- or at least assumed to be part of the order!

More than incidentally, I'd like to record my appreciation for it frequently being the case in Korean restaurants -- and, for that matter, Japan's too -- that water is still provided free with one's meal as a matter of coursel; with Korea trumping Japan in that almost invariably, the water dispensed is refreshingly cold (something I particularly appreciate on hot days like the ones that were the order of the day on my recent visit!).  And considering Psy of Gangnam Style's mega fame, I guess it was inevitable that at least one jug (or container) of water handed out this past week in Seoul would have his face on it! ;b

Impressions of South Korean Christianity gained via movies and my recent visit to the country

Myeongdong Cathedral looks more unusual in this photo 
than in real life, thanks to perspectival distortion!

This interior shot of the cathedral looks like it could have been
taken somewhere in Europe rather than Asia, right?
 A visit to the cathedral after dark the next day yielded
more photographs whose looks I do like :)

On my previous two visits to South Korea, I had not thought to visit any religious building, Buddhist, Christian or otherwise.  This time around though, I figured I should go check out Myeongdong Cathedral at the very least, in large part because I was staying in the area (at the excellent Ibis Ambassador Myeongdong) -- and was so impressed by how the first ever Gothic style building erected in the country looked that I ended up visiting the place not once but twice.

Constructed in 1898 on the site where members of the Catholic faith had congregated as early as 1784, the cathedral was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1984 and Pope Francis last month. The largest building in Seoul at the time of its construction, it remains a popular place to pray in as well as visit as a tourist, to judge from what I saw on my own two visits to it.

Although South Korea may not be a country that most people tend to associate with Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, Catholics actually constitute a significant part of the South Korean population.  So it stands to reason that early into my exploration into South Korean cinema, I'd come across a historical drama in which Christianity featured. 
I have to confess though to having found The Uprising (1999) more puzzling than illuminating. And to judge from the reviews I've seen of this film (such as this one), the general consensus is indeed that it's not a particularly great film despite its subject matter being an intriguing one.  
Ironically, the other South Korean films I've seen that prominently feature Christians -- including former Culture Minister Lee Chang Dong's heartbreaking Secret Sunshine (2007), Park Chan Wook's vampire movie Thirst (2009) and disaster blockbuster The Tower (2012) -- don't tend to depict them in the best of lights. 
At the same time though, it's also notable that Christianity is depicted as very much a part of South Korean society in those films.  And that was indeed my observation too on this recent visit to the country.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A disappointing Incheon day excursion

At Wolmido, the main attraction -- at least on the afternoon that
my mother and I visited -- appeared to be the seagulls!

Visual evidence that there really were a lot of those birds about
-- and that I wasn't the only one taking photos of them! ;b

When the alternatives are dressing like a masked bandit and
dipping one's toes in an area that doesn't look all that safe,
you know there aren't all that many options about the place! :O

When my mother and I visited South Korea in 2009, we had made day trips to Suwon (where, among other things, I had checked out its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hwaseong Fortress and Korean Folk Village) and also the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ)).  This time around, I had planned a couple of trips to the Incheon area but ended up spending just one day there -- in part because much of that day excursion had been rather underwhelming.

Take our visit to Sinpo International Market, a place which had sounded so very interesting in the article in the copy of the Korean Air Lines inflight magazine that was on the plane that took us from Hong Kong to Seoul.  While the fried chicken we had for lunch there was super delicious, the fact of the matter is that the rest of the market had looked pretty unexciting, and even dead -- especially compared to the bustling traditional markets that I take as a matter of fact in Hong Kong and Japan.  (And it in fact was later confirmed to me that traditional markets in South Korea are dying since many Koreans prefer to shop in modern supermarkets.)

Then, when we visited Wolmido, it felt like a sparsely visited seaside space that was trying to take cues from American seaside towns -- what with its having a boardwalk of sorts in place and also a couple of amusement parks: one with several "Viking"/pirate ship rides that I was loath to ride (for fear that they would make me throw up); and the other with a large ferris wheel that my mother feared would be too hot to ride on under the hot afternoon sun.

And while Wolmido's famous for its hwe (Korean-style raw seafood), our large (by our standards, though only medium by Korean ones) fried chicken lunch made it so that we weren't attracted to check out any of the island's many hwe restaurants.  In addition, it turns out that the day of the week that we visited (Thursday, for those who want to know) just happened to be the very day of the week when the ferries we had hoping to ride on weren't running!

So as far as Wolmido was concerned, my mother and I had to pretty much content ourselves at strolling about along its seafront and doing such as gawp at the seagull feeding frenzy instigated by a couple of tourists offering up such as crackers to those birds! And worse was to come as when I tried to salvage the day by asking the woman manning the Wolmido Tourist Information center for alternative suggestions, we ended up going on a wild goose chase all the way to Yongyudo Island in search of a quay whose stop, most unfortunately, was one of those not announced in English on the bus that we directed to take there!

Granted that the over one hour bus ride from Wolmido to Yongyudo was pretty interesting in that it took us from an area whose architecture made it look like small town America through to a built up city and its factory zone to Incheon International Airport and then to a rural space with overgrown foliage and mudflats rather than actual beaches and surrounding water.  And I do get the feeling that it was more interesting than a visit to Incheon's Chinatown would have been for someone who currently lives in what could be described as one big Chinatown!

Still, when the visual highlight of the day involved seagulls, I have to say that I found our Incheon excursion to be on the disappointing side; this no thanks either to the deceptive publicity photos and tendered tourist information that was much less exemplary than in many other places I've been in recent years, notably neighboring -- and so much more helpful -- Japan.  And it's really only thanks to the to-die-for Dak Gangjeong I had at Sinpo Market's Sinpo Cham Dak Gangjeong restaurant that I don't consider Day 3 of this recent Korean trip to be an outright touristic disaster! ;(

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Crazy fun with South Korea's cookin' Nanta! :)

In the land of crazy food (yes, those are sausages and
chip combination concoctions there!)...

...there's also the crazy cooking-themed Nanta comedy show
(that, sorry, doesn't actually star Puppet Ponyo!)!

A few months ago, I went with my mother and a friend to see Jump!, a martial arts-themed physical comedy theater show that had travelled from South Korea to Hong Kong.  Based on my experience of having viewed that show and another similar styled one in Hong Kong's Detention, I figured that my mother and I also would get much out of checking out the granddaddy of these shows, one which has been running since October 1997 -- South Korea's Nanta.

On my 2009 visit to South Korea, I had seen ads for Nanta but had assumed that tickets needed to be booked way in advance for it.  But as I found out on my most recent vacation, if you purchase the tickets directly from the Nanta box office, you can only get tickets for the performances from 1pm of the very day of the show that you want to see!

Upon purchasing our tickets, my mother and I settled ourselves into the seats of the Myeongdong Nanta Theatre and got ready for what turned out to be a super entertaining show that combined elements of physical comedy, skillful acrobatics, magic tricks, audience participation and the distinctive Korean percussion music known as samul nori

South Korea's most popular show has a simple plot involving four chefs (one of whom is parachuted into the kitchen by way of his being the nephew of the restaurant manager) tasked with preparing a large number of dishes for a wedding banquet in the space of just one hour.  From time to time, they have to contend with the demands of the bad-tempered manager but mainly the quartet interact each other -- in ways that emphasize their distinct personae (of occasionally crazy senior chef, cute female chef, goofy younger chef and the new chef who needs to prove his worth to the others) and allow for lots of comic routines and relief.

Even while we laughed at the characters' slapstick antics though, we also couldn't help but marvel at the amazing abilities of the talented actors (and one actress) in this ultra fun show.  Not only are they adept comedians (with fantastic comic timing) but they also are able percussionists and possess knife skills that I think many actual cooks and chefs would be proud to have!  Oh, and the 20-something year old fellow who was the youngest of the performers also had amazing abs and a handsome face in the bargain!!

And for those who're wondering: you really don't need to know any Korean to enjoy a performance of Nanta -- or, for that matter, Jump. (And it's also the case that you don't need any Cantonese knowledge to have fun checking out Detention.)  This is not least because the show's 99% non-verbal... with far more beautifully rhythmic percussion sounds heard -- and physical gestures utilized -- than any actual words. :)