Category Archives for "Korea"

May 19

Spontaneous travel: On the pleasure of throwing away plans, wandering randomly, and finding an off-the-Google-Maps soju room

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

Before I arrived at my planned destination last night, I said to hell with it. I got off at a random station instead and followed streets my eyes and intuition told me would be interesting. I found a small storefront with the sign Yaho Soju Room (야호 소주방), within which I could see three swivel bar stools, a 50’s-looking man in the middle chair, and a similarly-aged woman standing behind the counter chopping vegetables and serving drinks.

I entered.

I knew I was on the right track when I passed by this karaoke room.

“Soju room.” It’s a kind of phrase that bring to mind the many other kinds of rooms for commercial use in Korea: singing rooms (karaoke), PC rooms, DVD rooms—even cafe rooms can provide you your own private cafe-like studio. The name evoked a very Korean kind of place. A more common name for “bar” in Korean is “drinking house.” Not far off the English “draft house” or even “pub.”

Korean drinking houses today serve beer, whisky, tequila and vodka shots. They have loud pop music playing. You won’t fine good old soju, the traditional Korean drink made by distilling grain wine, on the menu.

At Yaho Soju Room, soju was the main feature—Daesun (대선) soju in particular, Busan’s local brand. Beer (Korean beer) was available in the fridge, too, and a variety of traditional liquors in the cabinet behind the bar, but no whisky or cocktails. The barkeeper was cooking the snacks herself.

Price of the soju and complimentary snacks: 4,000 won (US$3.35).

She gave me a dish of tofu with spicy sauce and plate of carrots and cucumbers, complimentary with my bottle of soju. The ajeossi next to me (Korean older man, “uncle,” or “sir”) also ordered/asked for a plate of a kind of fish. On the stove, a pot simmered.

The handwritten soju appetizers menu.

There were only four customers in there, including me. Besides the ajeossi sitting next to me, a couple were sitting in one of the three booth tables in the place.

It was not a place I could have found on Google Maps. It was not a place I could have found if I planned my destination in advance. When we go traveling, we often pore over guides and itineraries, listings and descriptions. We query Google and Tripadvisor for the “best” restaurants, bars, cafes, and attractions in a city, a city we chose based on conscientious consideration. Often such planning ends up being useful. We find worthwhile destinations to enjoy. But too much planning—Googling every morning before leaving the hostel—takes away the element of serendipity, or fate, that allows special experiences to happen. It leaves a traveler without the excitement of ‘discovering’ someplace new. A little bit of planning is a good thing, but we also have to be willing to throw away the guidebook.

A restaurant serving seafood pancakes.
May 17

A coffee and a view at Huinnyeoul Culture Village, Busan

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea , Travel

Visiting Huinnyeoul Culture Village today, I stopped by a popular young cafe cum bookstore, Book Coffee, or Sonmog Seoga (손목서가) in Korean. The cafe is run by a couple and serves drip coffee in an artsy environment with views of the sea, while selling Korean language versions of progressive publications. After opening in the early summer of 2018, it has amassed 4,000 followers on Instagram.

Sonmog Seoga fits with the vibe local officials were trying to create at Huinnyeoul Culture Village when development began in late 2011, turning the shantytown located high above the ocean into an arts and culture tourist attraction. The coasts of Yeong Island became home to many refugees displaced by the Korean War.

A visitor looks at one of the filming sites of The Attorney.

Eventually, the government sought to redevelop, and some of the homes became run down and abandoned. According to Kim Hye-Ran, then Director of Cultural Tourism Division of the Education and Culture Department of Yeong Island’s district government, they offered some of the dilapidated houses to artists. Soon murals got painted, the area became more famous, and it was used as a filming location for 2013’s The Attorney, about former president Roh Moo-hyun’s championing of a civil liberties case during Chun Doo-hwan’s period of authoritarian rule.

A cairn we built by the ocean.

Although it has become increasingly developed towards tourism, locals insist Huinnyeoul Culture Village is not as crowded or commercialized as the nearby Gamcheon Culture Village. Huinnyeoul also appears to have a clearer view of the sea. It is accessible via steps up from Jeolyoung Marina Trail.

Walking along the marina trail.

Book Cafe succeeded in its goal of creating a charming environment with pleasing aesthetics, quality coffee, and erudite selection of reading material. The magazines were mass market high-brow. Feminist (Womankind, Australian), secular science (Skeptic, U.S.), Korean literature (Littor, Korea), and politics/society (시사in, Korea). Not independent and not entirely local, but not found in the convenience store either.

Crowded as it is, and not huge in terms of space, it charges high prices for its coffee. Most cost 6,000 won (US$5 at present conversion).

One thing you will find a lot of at Huinnyeoul Culture Village.
May 16

I visited “the most beautiful temple in Korea,” where I bought squid, then went on a hike

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

“Is this the #1 temple in Korea?” a foreign visitor with whiting grey hair asked his Korean guide as he walked into the Haedong Yonggungsa temple.

“No,” the Korean man said.

“Why does it say that?”

Over the gate to the temple stood a sign that says “the most beautiful temple in Korea.”

Haedong Yonggungsa temple Summary

Location: The end of Yonggung-gil (용궁길), off Gijanghaean-ro (기장해안로)
Transportation: From Jangsan station (the final subway stop on the green line), a taxi costs about 6000 won, or you can take bus no. 100
Price: Free
Tips: Get there early (before 10 am). When it gets crowded starting in late morning, it is loud and difficult to move around.

It may be the most heavily-self-promoted temple in Korean (and honestly, it is pretty damn beautiful). Many a tourist putting up some quick photos to social media takes the title (“called the…”) and uses it. Now if you Google the phrase, you’ll find a YouTube video, a Lonely Planet tour entry, and multiple TripAdvisor reviews (it is the #7 highest rated attraction in Busan).

The path into the temple takes you past a line of restaurants, shops, and street food stalls; even Ediya Coffee, one of the largest chains in Korea, has a location there! Since long ago, markets have organically developed around temples to provide worshipers with necessities like incense and food, but the way the market street was situated leading into Yonggungsa reminded me more of the placement of a gift shop at a Disneyland ride. Or the market streets leading into AAAAA Chinese tourist attractions. I’m not complaining; I bought a grilled octopus there and some instant coffee from Ediya. But if they had put up a sign calling it “the most commercialized temple in Korea,” I wouldn’t question it.

Buy as a poster, postcard, or other product at RedBubble.

Make no mistake, Haedong Yonggungsa offers numerous feasts for the eyes. A line of zodiac animals greets you when you get past the tempting snack stalls. As you walk down the steps into the main body of the temple, bamboo forests to each side, the finely-painted buildings come into view alongside the cliffs and the sea. (Those steps become single-file when it is too crowded.)

The dancheong-painted (red and blue-green decorative coloring, 단청) eaves of the main building include a dragon’s face carved into the wood. There are two opportunities to toss coins for good luck. From the bridge, you can try to hit the shot into a bucket held by a young girl sitting on a lotus in the water below. Yonggungsa is a real working temple. As I was sitting, watching, and feeling, a family came inside, laid out prayer mats, and offered two bags of rice to the bodhisattvas.

Buy as a postcard or other item from RedBubble.

By the time I had seen all of the buildings, it was past 11 am, and it was getting more and more crowded. The tourist buses had rolled into the parking lot. I bought myself some fried squid from the market and would have headed back if I had not noticed a trail leading into the woods of the hill behind the temple.

Inside the temple complex, there is also a cafe–it’s not a chain.
A visitor from China tosses a coin from the bridge.
Guanyin

So I bought some squid and took it with me in its convenient bag to the trail.

Hiking Along the Coast
The 3.5 kilometer (2.1 mi) trail follows the coastline, next to open views of the sea for the first half, shrouded by pine trees for the second half.

Also available on RedBubble.

When I got out on the other side, I came into an intersection beside the parking lot and a road to a construction site where the DoDo J mobile cafe truck was parked. Enjoying an iced coffee, I chatted with some Korean women on vacation from Seoul.

When they left, a group of men in suits came over from the direction of the construction. Mr. Heo showed me a video of a condo complex that will be going up. “It looks beautiful,” I said.

Dec 28

China Travel Writer 2018 year in review

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Food and Leisure , Korea , Living in China

January: Largest Starbucks in the World

Jan - Starbucks
In December 2017, the 30,000 Starbucks Reserve Roastery opened in Jing’an district of Shanghai (West Nanjing Station). Early in January, I visited. The massive two-story museum-like establishment serves beer and libations, including coffee cocktails, as well as coffee. I enjoyed a Manhattan with Starbucks’ special touch.

February: Spring Festival

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I went to a friend’s hometown for Spring Festival. Off a provincial road, Baichi village (in Henan province) consisted of dirt roads lined with cement-walled courtyard homes. Everyone seemed to know their neighbors and most of the villagers. Few foreigners ever visited, and I was a source of interest. They were passionate and hospitable during the Spring Festival season. Each even began with me eating dinner with my friends and his family, followed by us walking to one of his friends’ homes to drink beer, and invariably, their family would prepare a second dinner for us.
Feb - Spring Festival
One afternoon, friends and family came over for the Chinese New Year feast. Tables were set up in two rooms, and there was little room for any more food to be placed on them. Every adult who came, it seemed, brought a bottle of rice wine. If one’s cup was empty, it wouldn’t be empty for long. Someone would come along to fill it, and then it would be emptied again.
Feb - Spring Fest Liquor
Feb - Spring Fest Drinking
Children played with small gunpowder-filled toys in the courtyard. Popping things that you throw at the ground for the littlest ones. Exploding ones for the older boys.

Midnight on new years eve was a cacophony. Across the village, people launched firework out of their courtyards.

June: Singapore

Mid-June - Singapore Glamour
In June, I visited Singapore for the first time. The city-state is known for its posh, hypermodern central business district. The variety of cheap food at hawker stalls was delicious.

My favorite part was the vibrant street culture of Chinatown. I wrote about the dancing,

But there they were on the corner of New Bridge Street and the lantern-adorned Smith Street at 8 pm shaking their hips, swinging their arms, and doing the twist. I began watching and talking to a local, and soon enough the woman had convinced me to join in singing and dancing.

Mid-June - Singapore Dancing

July 4: Fireworks in DC

July 4 in DC
Sitting on the National Mall with people from all of the United States–and the world–you have the best view of one of the best fireworks shows in the country taking place in front of the Washington Monument.

August: Counterprotesting Unite the Right II

Aug - Alt-Right Rally Counterprotest
When the alt-right racists came to Washington, DC on the anniversary of their 2017 rally in Charlottesville, friend and contributor to my political blog, Bombs + Dollars, Patrick Rincon came from Korea to counterprotest. We’d be joined by thousands of others from nearby and across the country–mostly individuals who detest racism but also radical groups like the Revolutionary Communists and antifa. And also a lot–a lot–of media. Patrick, dressed as Captain America, was mistaken for an alt-rightist twice due to his flag.

I described the scene at B+D:

At around 4:55 pm, a commotion could be heard near the entrance to the subway station. People started shouting, “Fuck you, Nazis!” … Along the protest route, there was less of the chanting often heard at the protest site from members of organized groups and more homemade cursing and insults. Marchers were mocked about how, for example, their status as unemployable losers with no girlfriend is their own damn fault.

“No one wants you,” someone said.

“We are replacing you!” said another.

I did some digging on one of the featured speakers, Charles Edward Lincoln III, and found that he had a criminal conviction and long trail of court cases against him and reported on him for The Daily Beast.

My column that week: The alt-right’s lasting impact

Late August: Eating Hongeo

At the end of August, I went to Korea to meet friends during the final week before the new semester of my masters program at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies began. In Busan, I met up with a classmate from my program in Nanjing, and we ate one of the most infamous dishes in all of Korea: skate (홍어 – hongeo). Here we are featured on the restaurant’s Instagram account:
Aug - Eating Honeo

Why is hongeo so infamous? It is an ugly fish with a bony texture that is fermented in its own piss.

It was the third time I have eaten it–always for kicks. Taking a friend who has never eaten it, going on a quest to find the small restaurant (the only one in the vicinity of Busan Fish Market that served hongeo), and then having enough makgeolli in your bowl to override the taste is a good time every once in a while.
August - Hongeo

November: International Dinner

Nov - Int'l Dinner
At SAIS, I became Social Media Director of the SAIS Korea Club. The Korea Club hosted various events this past semester celebrating Korean culture, and we also participated in the International Dinner, an event where multiple clubs prepare food representing their country or culture. I served food while wearing traditional Korean clothing (hanbok). There’s also a contest for most popular food served. Korea Club placed third. Congratulations to Taiwan Club for winning.

December: Visiting the Old Korean Legation

Dec - Korean Legation Group Pic
This old house in Logan Circle of Washington, DC, the former home of Civil War hero Seth Ledyard Phelps, became the first diplomatic headquarters for Korea in the United States in 1889. It was only 1905 when Japan occupied Korea, however, and denied the country its sovereignty, later forcing Korea to give the property over to Japan. The Korean government finally repurchased the building in 2012, and it opened to the public in 2018, after years of historical restoration.
Dec - Korean Legation

Writing in 2018

In February, I was published in Silkwinds, the inflight magazine of Silk Air, for the first time, offering travel tips for Xiamen in the “Postcards” section. I have also written “Postcards” features on Changsha and Shenzhen for the magazine.

I reported on the criminal history and legal troubles of an alt-right speaker for The Daily Beast.

Can you read Chinese? I had a Chinese-language article published in JiangsuNow about woodblock text engraving. (Can’t read Chinese? There’s an English translation at the end.)

I began working for The National Interest and had multiple articles published on its website.

That’s just a sample of some of my big articles and interesting experiences this past year. Subscribe to my email list (use the form below or menu above) and follow me on Facebook to see even more.

Oct 06

Silkworm pupae, urine fish, and farmer’s wine: A meal to remember in Korea’s culinary capital

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking , Food and Leisure , Korea , Local Politics

Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.

On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?

We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.

The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.

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After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.

Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.

Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.

Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!

The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.

Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.

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Sep 12

The subways smell like waffles — 6 unique (but small) things about Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea

Living in a foreign country for months, you notice a lot of differences from your home country big and small. At first, the smallest things are exciting and worthy of comment. (I even wrote an article Korean convenience stores!) Just walking down the street or going to a market is an adventure. Later, you become accustomed, and it takes a lot more to interest you.

In Korea, there are the obvious cultural differences: taking shoes off inside, suana (jjimjirbang) culture, Kpop, weird karaoke videos, and college drinking parties

There are also so many small things I had been wanting to write about, but which couldn’t fill a whole article, so I will combine some:

Christmas Decorations Up Year-Round at Restaurants

Walk down the street in a leisure district anytime of year and pay attention to the windows of bars, arcades, and other joyous places, and you will find snowflake decals, jingle bells, Christmas trees, and maybe even an image of Santa or two. Korean businesses love Christmas imagery, even though a minority of Koreans are Christian.

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This decorative style isn’t limited to Korea, however. Christmas decorations are also prevalent in China, a country whose government is antagonistic towards religion. Playing pool one evening in August in the southernmost resort town of Sanya, I asked my Chinese compatriot, “Why is Santa on the wall?” She said it was probably because the big, jolly, smiling man gave customers a happy feeling.

Apartment Blocks All Look the Same and are Branded

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Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Food Waste Separated from Trash

My first morning after eating breakfast in a guesthouse, I was taken aback by all the labeled trash bags and the process by which we were supposed to separate food. You can’t (or, rather, aren’t supposed to) throw food waste away in the ordinary trash in Korea. Instead, people should put food in special bags they have to pay for, and food waste is used for composting and biomass.

Many Koreans and residents of Korea find this annoying. A measure of the dissatisfaction is the piles of trash bags and boxes on street corners. Lots of people drop their trash off and then pile trash upon trash. The Korea Times also points to a lack of trash cans as a reason for waste on the street.

trash pile

Smell of Waffles in Subway Station

Walking down the halls of a subway station to make a transfer, a sweet smell wafts in the air. Waffles. Waffles and coffee are often sold together in in Korea, and waffle-coffee shops are frequently located within subway stations.

Batting Machines in Every Consumer Leisure Area

A common image at night is seeing drunk Korean men circled around a punching machine comparing the power of their fists. These games have a bag attached to a lever to be punched, or a soccer ball to be kicked, and they’re often located outside of arcades or batting cages.

Punching Machine

Speaking of batting cages, mini-bating cage games are also easy to find. Called “home run rooms” in Korea (홈런방), the machine shoots 10-15 pitches from 20 or so meters out for 2000 won (US$1.80) or so, and a sensor measures how hard the batter hit it and gives points for “singles”, “doubles”, “triples”, and “home runs.”

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When you sing karaoke, you are being watched

One night I sang karaoke with a Korean guy, and we snuck a bottle of soju into the room, which we were periodically drinking from the bottle. About halfway into our hour-long KTV session, the door opened, and a hand came in and swiped our soju before we knew what was happening. The hand of a karaoke hall “waitress.” Did they have a camera in the room filming us drinking? Why did it take them so long to catch us? They didn’t demand we buy anything or pay a fee. Of course karaoke halls want to keep outside drinks out, but that’s the first time anywhere I had been caught drinking after I successfully smuggled drink in.

Medical and Legal Elitism

There are three elite universities in Korea, and if a doctor or lawyer graduated from one, they really want you to know it. Professionals place the emblem of their prestigious alma matters on their windows and doors with pride in order to attract business. The logos that a traveler to Seoul will notice most often are those of Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Together the top three universities are referred to as SKY.

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Americans might call it “elitist,” but just like the Korean Constitutional Court, the U.S. Supreme Court is made up almost entirely of law graduates from its elite universities—the Ivy League. Americans just don’t wear their school logos on their chest. “Ivy Leaguer” is used as a term of derision in political discourse. Considering the state of American politics, the attacks on successful people and the crisis of anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” maybe there is something to be said for the Korean way.

Bonus: Korean celebrity fan ads

Enter any subway station, and you will notice young Korean heartthrobs plastered on the wall ads. Often the ads wish a happy birthday or congratulations. Kstars are so loved by their Korean and foreign fans that they will actually pool money together to buy ads. At the bottom of an ad, sometimes you can see the names of Chinese fan clubs who paid for it.

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One Chinese fan even paid close to $10,000 to place an ad in the Choson Ilbo congratulating a member of a group on winning an award. Fan groups say they like putting ads on the subways in high-traffic, high end stations like Gangnam, because they think their idols might actually see them there.

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After the ads go up, often fans will place handwritten notes.

Fan Notes

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Jun 30

Staid tourism promotionals leave out the vibrant culture

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Local Politics

I edited and wrote promotional information about the Blue House countless times before I went. Korea’s home and office of the president–its White House–it was listed on almost all of the tours offered by travel agency clients of one of my past jobs. So I already wasn’t expecting much before I went, knowing how these group tours with travel agencies oversell everything. I left even more disappointed with the advertised product than I had expected but happily pleased with what wasn’t advertised.

Blue tiles in front of a beautiful mountain… Garden path… Outside, a museum about the rich history of Korean presidents…

The Blue House is not far from where I’m living–just 10 subway stops, including one transfer–so I decided I might as well see one of the most famous political sites in the country. I hoped I could at least see the famous blue tiles. But it was not to be.

Not quite the famous view.

Not quite the famous view.

The emblematic house is hidden behind a dull grey complex of stone blocks and columns. The main building of the Reception Center isn’t ugly, but it’s not something worth expending much effort to see. Where is the Blue House, I thought? Only from the second floor of the museum can visitors see the part of the roof edging out behind the triangular roof of the front building.

The museum itself could hardly be called a presidential museum. On the first floor, there was a display of 100 of the Korean Tourism Agency’s most favored tourist sites in the country organized by region and mapped. Useful for long-term travelers looking for inspiration, but not very information about the office of the presidency.

secret service game

The top floor had a replica presidential desk for photo-ops and a virtual reality game where visitors could pretend to be secret service agents protecting the president. A camera tracked the movements of participants who had to hit threats like drones and grenades with their hands. The sign said, “Photo Zone of Presidential Security Service.”

Xi Jinping's message in the Blue House guestbook.

Xi Jinping’s message in the Blue House guestbook.

The section containing pages from the Blue House guestbook signed by foreign political and business leaders was interesting. There I learned Barack Obama has good handwriting and is more verbose than most foreign leaders; Larry Page has terrible handwriting; and Xi Jinping supports gender equality: he had his wife Peng Liyuan sign as well.

Larry Page's handwriting

Larry Page’s handwriting

What did capture my interest was the scene outside: Along the road from Gwanghwamun Square to the Blue House, Korean men stood with large signs with fiery slogans. Many of them wore hats, sunglasses, arm sheaves, and workmanlike clothes. They looked blue collar.

big head

Indeed, most of the protesters had grievances with corporations and sprawling family-owned mega-conglomerates with interests in multiple industries, known in Korean as chaebols. Hyundai and Hankook Tires were under attack on separate signs for closing bases of operations. A few blocks away from the central square, a paper mache model of Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo sat next to photos of a Kia worker who had made complaints about working conditions before committing suicide.

The expansive nature of chaebols means they are often under fire for multiple scandals at the same time. No company exemplifies scandal better than Samsung: It’s president, Lee Jae-yong, is in jail, awaiting trial, for alleged involvement in the bribery scandal that brought down South Korea’s last president, Park Geun-hye. Other protesters raised the years-long scandal over Samsung’s treatment of more than 200 workers who contracted leukaemia, lupus, and other diseases while working in a chip factory that exposed them to dangerous chemicals. While Samsung had agreed to pay out 100 billion won (US$85.8 million in 2015), the group Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry accuses the company of denying information about working conditions to this day.

(Chaebols often being family affairs, “Jay Lee” was in a way following in the footsteps of his father Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted on charges of tax evasion in 2009.)

protesters in front of fountain

I talked with one protester who was holding the anti-Hyundai sign. I could tell he probably spoke English because he was young and was wearing an Arizona University hat. He did. He said he was protesting the planned closing of a Hyundai Heavy Industries plant in his hometown, Gunsan, North Jeolla province. Hyundai Heavy Industries is facing pressure from a slump in the global shipbuilding market, but local politicians and labor activists want the government to intervene, offering subsidies or other incentives. President Moon has met with the governor ahead of the planned June 1 closing.

“Jeolla people like to protest,” I said as a complement. He nodded.

South Jeolla province was the birthplace and constituency of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung, whose imprisonment in 1980 inspired the residents of Gwangju to take over the city and form militias, before being suppressed by the military, an event that influenced Korea’s path to democracy. Kim would become Korea’s third-democratically elected president in 1998 and make strides towards national reconciliation.

more bowing

After a few minutes he had to go. Down the street, a group of labor activists slept behind a police line and a banner that called for the repeal of “evil laws.” A kilometer or so down the road, union members marched down one lane of the street and bowed to the pavement in unison every few meters.

marching by police

The impression I came away with from my visit to the Blue House wasn’t that which the guidebooks impress on readers. It was far from what the tourism promoters want you to read. No, it was better than expected. I came away with the impression of a Korea vibrant and free.

bowing

May 16

How Korean students party at “one-day pubs” (일일호프)

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Drinking , Korea

May is the month of college parties in Seoul.

At 5 pm on a Friday night, May 12, students dressed in Hogwarts School of Wizardry cloaks were taping ribbons onto the street in Sinchon district, along with signs and arrows. Others dressed as characters from Hiyao Miyazaki films held signs advertising “one day pub” parties. Some intersections had six different ribbons crisscrossing leading to six different parties.

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May is the month of college parties, and Sinchon is the college party district.

On the northeast of the ring subway line around Seoul, Sinchon is located at the nexus of Yonsei University, Ewha Womens’ University, Seogang University, and Hongin University. Along these narrow streets, where neon lights adorn three-story shophouses, masses of young men and women walk to and from bars, karaokes, barbecue restaurants, burger shacks, Japanese izakayas, arcades, and cheap student guestrooms. Groups gather outside convenience stores drinking beer on the street or challenging each other to see how hard they can hit the Dragon Punch power game.

On any given weekend in the spring, there are always a lot of ribbons on the street. It’s perennially marked with green tape stuck to the pavement. But the parties really get going in May.

“Ewha Nursing,” a sign says. “Performance at 8:30.” One group has a raffle game on cardboard. I pick a post-it note and win a free order of chips with purchase of a drink if I attend their party.

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I don’t end up attending their party. Instead I and Pato Rincon, my classmate from Indiana University who is also in Seoul and is just getting started as a writer (read his debut piece for Bombs + Dollars), go to the event at Barfly held by Ewha University’s foreign studies students featuring their dance team. The pretty girl standing outside in baggy hip hop apparel wearing a bandana couldn’t have influenced my decision.

Inside, after paying a ₩5,000 (US$4.47) cover each, we bought beers for ₩4,000 each. The underground bar was dark with colored lights, red and green streaming lights, and bright Finlandia adverts. Most of the tables were reserved for Ewha students. Pato and I took a seat at the bar. Behind the counter, a bartender was pouring Barton vodka (on whose bottle the word “vodka” is written in larger letters than the brand name) through a funnel into empty Finlandia bottles and adding juice.

“This isn’t what I imagined when you said we were going to a college party,” Pato said.

After all, we had had the experience of drinking together at house parties in Bloomington. Not so in Seoul, where the population is dense and houses are smaller. Instead, students and other groups rent out pubs (known as “hof” (호프)) and have the place to themselves for a day or night. The practice is called “ir ir ho-pe” (일일호프), which means “one-day hof.”

Typically it is the freshmen or underclassmen (underclasswomen, more often, it seems) who host parties to connect with each other, earn money, or meet upperclass friends. The large number of parties hosted by women in Sinchon could be explained partially by the fact that Sinchon is so close to a few women’s universities, and the fact that female students are not surprisingly used to promote mixed parties. One person suggested it was a good way for Ehwa students to meet boys at other universities, such as Yonsei. But Yonsei students have hosted their own parties for particular groups, too, including the Yonsei hockey team.

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Students began lining up in front of a marked dance floor. Anticipating an event, we took places along the edge. Before long, Kpop began playing, and girls in hats and jackets, including the girl who was promoting at the door, came out to dance. Showing their power and precise dance moves, they earned big applause. They took off their jackets and top layers and confidently put their bodies on display for the next song.

With so many one-day hof parties going on at the same time, Pato and I didn’t stay too long. After a few separate dance teams, the dance performance was finished, and we went out for some pajeon and eventually to another student party. The next one was in another underground pub, with no cover, but rather a menu with various Korean comfort foods. We ordered spicy rice cakes.

When we were heading back home just after midnight, the same students who had put down ribbons a few hours before were tearing them off the road and rolling them up. Groups of people were milling around outside 7-11 and GS25, and guys were punching arcade games. Another week, and it will be all the same.

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May 06

Why drunk Korean businessmen don’t make it to the sauna until 3 am

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea

It was Cinco de Mayo, and I and my university classmate who is now in Korea were on our ways home after having shots of tequila a few places in Seoul. Before I could transfer subway lines to complete my journey, the subway lines closed. In America, there would be one option: taxi/Uber. In Korea, you go to the jjimjilbang.

Jjimjilbangs are Korean suanas with hot tubs heated between 33 and 43 degrees Celsius (91-108 F), cold pools, and hot saunas and cold rooms where one can spend the night for 7,000 or 8,000 won (US$6-7). Customers take off their shoes and strip naked and go into sex-segregated bathrooms where they shower then relax in the pools. They are given pajamas to wear when sleeping on the floor.

Like us, there are many businessmen who stay out late drinking and don’t feel like going home. Drinking with bosses after work is a strong custom—and they keep the drinks flowing much later. When we arrived at the jjimjilbang in Mapo, we were the only ones there. The locker room was completely empty but for the manager. We had the hot pools all to ourselves. Two Koreans came in a little bit later. Still, by the time we went to bed a little after 1 pm, there were only two or three other people laying on mats, resting their heads on the hard square things that function as pillows, in the room up the stairs.

Waking up in and out a few times in the night, I noticed the room was completely full. Someone who was sleeping on a mat right up next to me rolled up against me. How did the place become so packed at 2 or 3 am? By the next morning, the locker room was bustling, and the pools were full of people.

There are two main clienteles for jjimjilbangs: Families and friends going for leisure, and people who stay out late. Three if you include the sub-category of people who get so drunk they can’t find their way to the sleeping quarters—let alone their own home—and then pass out on the floor of the locker room.

The clientele at this particular jjimjilbang appeared to be almost entirely people out drinking late. It wasn’t like the other jjimjilbang we had been that had fathers and sons in the pools at 8 pm. On the other hand, there was also no one passed out on the floor at 8 am. It must have attracted the successful businessmen who can hold their drinks.

The author in the cold room.

The author in the cold room.

May 02

The weird and wonderful American karaoke videos of South Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea , Music

Go to the basement of a commercial building in Seoul, down the stairwell with a row of about a dozen signs with images of slender women, microphones, and hearts, and you will find yourself in a world of karaoke establishments. Inside a room with peeling rose-printed wallpaper, sit on the couch and order some old favorites after figuring out how to work the remote control selector. “Sweet Home Alabama” comes on, and a video of a snake charmer displays on the TV set.

“Sweet Home Alabama” in India. “Smoke on the Water” in China. “Empire State of Mind” at a rural train station in Korea. The videos that go with foreign songs in Korean karaokes can be strange.

Korean songs usually well-produced music videos made specially for the song, as do Chinese songs. But for American songs, the videos are just stock footage. As Kristin Hunt lays out in a history of karaoke videos, the American industry cut budgets and stopped producing original KTV videos in the ’90’s. Instead they have random scenes of beaches, underwater life, city life, nature, and many, many places around the world.

For songs about very specific locations or topics, the contrast between the lyrics and imagery can be funny.

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Smells Like Teen Spirit: There’s nothing you associate more with teenage angst and violence than a hot air balloon show.

One difference I can recall with karaoke in China is that most of the songs had real videos. The video for “Empire State of Mind” in China actually used video from the song being performed in concert.

Empire State of Mind: One difference I can recall with karaoke in China is that most of the songs had real videos. The video for “Empire State of Mind” in China actually used video from the song being performed in concert.

The Moon Represents My Heart: “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a Chinese love song that has been one of the most popular since the 1970’s, began with an Indian wedding, which seemed relevant enough.

The Moon Represents My Heart: “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a Chinese love song that has been one of the most popular since the 1970’s, began with an Indian wedding, which seemed relevant enough.

But then it quickly shifted to the Statue of Liberty and New York City.

But then it quickly shifted to the Statue of Liberty and New York City.

Is the stock footage selected at random? Or is there some kind of useless algorithm parsing the lyrics and connecting “Alabama” and homesickness to India?

It’s likely just a strange coincidence, but at two separate karaokes, they showed two separate videos for “Sweet Home Alabama,” both of which began with footage from India.

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Later the first video transitioned to the scene of a tropical beach resort.

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Although branded separately, the basement karaokes at this place appeared to be owned by the same people. Customers went to a different karaoke hall to pay. Each karaoke hall had about 3-5 rooms.  By contrast, in popular youth nightlife districts like Hongdae and Itaewon, there are a lot of flashy karaoke halls with many rooms, including rooms with large windows facing the main streets.

Although branded separately, the basement karaokes at this place appeared to be owned by the same people. Customers went to a different karaoke hall to pay. Each karaoke hall had about 3-5 rooms.

By contrast, in popular youth nightlife districts like Hongdae and Itaewon, there are a lot of flashy karaoke halls with many rooms, including rooms with large windows facing the main streets.

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