For much of this week, I've been having the time of my life travelling around Japan once more, enjoying hikes and a circa 17 kilometer bicycle ride as well as paying visits to such as a castle on a hill, an art museum and a number of old temples, and -- of course -- consuming great food and eminently quaffable drinks. Truly, this most recent Japan vacation (which I do intend to write about at some point in the near future, if only to help me recapture some of that bliss) was one that was super wonderfully destressing.
it or not, on the bus from the airport back to my apartment earlier
today, I didn't see much that looked all that disturbing. In fact, like
I told a couple of friends, I saw more Filipina maids as well as police
out in Central on that bus ride than I saw protestors!
But at Admiralty (particularly in the vicinity of Tamar)
later in the afternoon, it was clear that there was a sizable number of
people - and not just of student age either -- there to show their
disatisfaction with the turn of events that have led many Hong Kongers
to worry that Hong Kong is well on its way to being made into just
another Chinese city. And my sense was that the general mood was
palpably angrier and likely to end in violence, tears and/or worse than
when I've been in the crowd at Victoria Park on June 4 or out on the streets on July 1.
the same time though, there was some strains amidst the turmoil of that
almost festive air that sometimes can be discerned on July 1. And if
that was not weird enough, this was further mixed with a sense of the
surreal and farcical that comes from there seeming to be so many other
people nearby who didn't know what was going on, didn't care, or both --
people doing stuff such as going about shopping at the nearby high end
Pacific Place mall, drinking in a bar located inside it, heading into
the cinema there to catch a movie, etc.!
the strangest -- and definitely the most upsetting -- thing for me is
to see how the Hong Kong police have over-reacted to the assembled
protestors. The force that likes to think it's Asia's finest has
tarnished its reputation and lost a huge amount of goodwill on this
day. Please don't let them follow the example of the PLA in the summer
of 1989 -- because, then, hope as well as innocent people surely will
More specifically, with my mother (and Puppet Ponyo) in tow, I ended up having one more South Korean UNESCO World Heritage-listed site to add to the list of those I previously visited (i.e., Suwon's Hwaseong Fortress, and Seoul's Jongmyo Shrine and Changdeokgung palace) by way of our paying a visit to the Royal Tombs of Kings Seongjong and Jungjong, and Queen Jeyonghyeon that are located in a lovely wooded park-like section the Gangnam area of southern Seoul.
At the Royal Tombs History Centre, we met a man who beamed with pride and pleasure to discover that foreigners had come to visit the royal tombs. While I've met many of his friendly equivalents in Japan, I have to say that he was the first Korean man my mother and I encountered who honestly appeared to be full of enthusiasm about his country's cultural heritage, and the fact that we wanted to know more about it.
In contrast, most of the other people my mother and I saw in the area seemed to treasure this UNESCO World Heritage site more for its being a green oasis in the middle of super built-up Seoul -- with a number of people there looking to be there do some exercise (by way of walking or jogging mixed with stretching) or for romance (with quite a few pairs of lovers seated on benches whispering sweet nothings to each other)!
For my part, I did find the tombs to be interesting -- if less accessible than I would like, with the tomb of King Jungjong, in particular, being only viewable from a distance. Still, it's not just the green mounds and the stone figures that were erected near them that make up the tomb complex but also the surrounding woodland -- and the Worship Roads, with their fascinating division into sections designed for spirits (which humans continue to be discouraged from walking along) and royalty (which now are accessible to commoners)!
From the free pamphlet provided, it was interesting to learn that none of the 42 Joseon royal tombs -- two of which are located in what's now North Korea -- have been damaged or destroyed in the years since they were built -- years that included the Korean War years that saw fierce fighting in much of the Korean Peninsula. Beyond luck, it appears to be a sign of the respect accorded royal members of the Joseon Dynasty, one that ruled over the Korea Peninsula for an impressive 519 years.
For a start, while we saw some interesting food being sold on the streets of Hanoi, we ended up feasting on them only with our eyes. It wasn't that the food didn't look yummy -- but, rather, that the dining conditions didn't come across as all that ideal to us.
Specifically, Vietnamese street food tends to be consumed while seated on low stools (as opposed to chairs) and using other stools like tables; and thereby resulting in both the food and the diner being much closer to the frequently super dusty ground than I'd like. Also, consider this as a quirk of mine but I like to drink (not necessarily something alcoholic but definitely cool and liquid!) when I eat while the Vietnamese seem to look upon eating and drinking as separate affairs!
On the Korean front: for some reason, my mother and I didn't spot as many street food stalls on our previous visit to the country as we did this time around! So whereas I can only recall buying and eating street food on one occasion in 2009, it pretty much became an evening ritual on this recent vacation to wander around the streets near our hotel and sample some of the wide variety of food being hawked on the streets!
As I think the photos at the top of this week's entry forSandi's andGattina'sPhoto Hunts show, Koreans sure do love their fried food, seafood (especially squid and octopus) and Tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) -- and after finding out for myself how yummy these street snacks are, I definitely understand why that's so! Among the offerings I tried from the stall in the top-most photo was that which consisted of a large Western-style sausage with a fish cake and dark green-colored nori (seaweed) wrapping! While I've eaten all three of those things before, I never had them in the same bite before -- and while the taste contrasts in my mouth were initially quite disconcerting, once I got used to it, I decided that this was one yummy savory snack and would not be averse to having it again! ;b
Not that my mother and I did any shopping there, mind! Instead, we headed there after our Bongeunsa visit for lunch -- at a restaurant serving Korean food (my mother had more naengmyun while I had a plate of spicy squid and rice) where we were mistaken for Japanese people and thus had the server speaking Japanese to us, thereby giving me the surreal experience of hearing naengmyun referred to as soba and my dish referred as as ikadon!
After our satisfying lunch, my mother and I decided we might as well check out the mall's aquarium since we were already in the complex. If truth be told, we didn't have particularly high expectations for the COEX Aquarium -- and our first impressions of the facility was that it was on the amateurish side.
The deeper we ventured into the aquarium though, the more we (and Puppet Ponyo, who popped out every once in a while from my backpack, too!) liked it -- finding some of the designs of the displays to be pretty innovative. (I especially liked the part where they made it look like fish were swimming in such as a telephone box and drinks vending machine, and the section where one could have one's hands cleaned by "doctor fish".)
Also of interest was the aquatic life on display -- with some scary creatures, other fascinating ones, and still others that I frankly found super cute! The usual suspects, such as crocodiles, whales and penguins were there -- but so too were such as manatees, a greater variety of eels than I knew existed, and a whole bunch of fish which eyes I found beautiful and also disconcertingly human-like!
And yes, I have to admit it: whereas I used to laugh at those Japanese I heard uttering "oishii!" (delicious) exclamations in aquariums (like those in Osaka and Okinawa), I go to thinking that too about certain of the creatures I caught sight of at this Seoul facility! In particular, I was moved to imagine how tasty the thick lips of certain fish would be and how fantastic a meal certain Japanese crabs' super long legs would have made and, when looking at the eels, wonder how something that was so delicous could look so horrifying! ;D
According to statistics on religion in South Korea that I've seen: close to half the population of the country don't adhere to any religion; there are more Christians than Buddhists in the country; and Seoul is the part of South Korea that has the most people who formally belong to a religious group.
Interestingly, this fits with my impressions of the country in that: a) it wasn't until my third visit to South Korea that I thought to think of visiting a religious establishment there; b) I spotted more Christian churches about than Buddhist temples; and c) when I did finally visit a couple of religious establishments in Seoul, I found them frequented by more devout devotees than I had expected would be the case. And while I found Myeongdeong Cathedral pretty visually impressive, especially inside, I have to say that the Buddhist templex complex of Bongeunsa was far more picturesque to my mind -- with the result that I took far more photos in its grounds that at the Roman Catholic cathedral and it's with the greatest difficulty that I narrowed my choices down to just eight photos to share in this photo-essay:-
Two of the four door Guardians that are part of
the 1,200-year-old temple's Jinyeo-mun (Gate of Suchness)
Within Bongeunsa's halls can be found religious art like this
The Seonbul-dang (Building for Selecting Buddhas)
must be one of the most elaborately decorated buildings
On both of our two most recent vacation trips taken together, my mother and I have gone to see a cool show. When we visited Hanoi, we took in a fun as well as creative show at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre. And on the second evening of our recent Seoul vacation, we took in a performance of the super enjoyable Nanta showat the Myeongdong theater that shared the show's name.
On day three of this most recent vacation, I had been hoping to take in street performances at the Wolmido waterfront but that was not to be. Instead, it wasn't until the next day that my mother and I came across some outdoor entertainment -- but when we did, quite a bit of fun was to be had!
The fellow I've come to think of as the Bubble Man of Insadong did (does) his entertaining on an Insadong street corner -- and while part of me reckons that he deserves a better stage, it's also true that he seemed to be very much in his element, roping in the interest of passers-by like my mother and myself whose plans to stroll about the neighborhood he caused to temporarily put on hold.
Male and female, young and old, were mesmerized by his bubble act. While he went about creating the beautiful -- and at times amazingly big -- bubbles, he also unleashed a patter that many of his fellow Korean speakers found pretty amusing.
For myself, what amused along with the Bubble Man's bubbles was the presence nearby of a group of devout Christians who were alternately singing hymns loudly and stentorianly proclaiming what appeared to be the same message that had been written (in English as well as Korean) on banners they had put up: that people needed to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, or be condemned to a fiery Hell!
There are some who might think that society's in a bad way when a Bubble Man attracts more attention and appreciation than a bunch of people concerned about the afterlives of others. For my part though, I reckon it's a pretty healthy state of affairs -- culturally and otherwise! ;b
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.
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. :)
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
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.
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.
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!
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!)
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
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
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 bothSandi'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
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.
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.
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.)
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 itshwe (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!
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!
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!
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! ;(
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 assamul nori.
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
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. :)
There are many people who think primarily -- and maybe even only -- of barbecue when asked about Korean food. And I have to say that the first two Korean dishes that appealed to me were indeed bulgogiand galbi (AKA kalbi).
But while I had plenty of grilled meats on my 2009 visit to the Land of the Morning Calm, my mother and I didn't have a single meal that centered on barbecue on this most recent South Korean vacation. Instead, we ate a greater variety of Korean foods -- all of which was enjoyably delicious -- with our only non-Korean concessions being Dunkin' Donuts and Krispy Kreme treats for breakfast on three occasions! ;b
As it so happened, my first and last meals in Korea this time around
consisted of naengmyun (i.e., cold noodles) -- specifically,
the spicy dry version on day 1 and the icy soup version on day 6
On day 2 of my vacation, my mother and I shared this dish