What My Trip to South Korea and This Blog Means to Me

Most people are surprised were surprised when they heard that I want to spend over two months in South Korea, and now most people are surprised that I did spend over two months in South Korea.

Of course, I only spent about 70 days in South Korea. This blog has been running for five months, with a new post every day. That’s more than two days/posts per day I spent in South Korea.

Some people wonder how I managed not to get bored during all of that time in South Korea. As I told people over and over again, ‘I would rather spend two months in one country than visit eight countries in two months’. Spending an extended length of time in a single region allows me to get to know that region to a much deeper level – I can learn something meaningful about the culture, and I can makes more connections between the different things I experience. If I only spent a few days in a country, then spent a few days in another country, and do this with, say, 10 countries, I’m afraid that I would only notice surface things, and everywhere would start looking the same. As I’ve said in this blog, I love making connections between different things I see, such as seeing the art of Lee Jung-Seop in very different locations. To me, this is the essence of what learning is, and learning is one of the most wonderful experiences in life, at least to me.

When I was travelling in Japan (I spent almost six months in Japan in 2014), I kept a journal, so I’m not so concerned about forgetting important things about my travel there. If I want to remember, I can read my journals. I did not keep a journal in South Korea, so when I returned to North America, I decided I needed to capture my experience in South Korea in words as soon as possible, before the memories became too faded. If nothing else, it would help me process and crystallize my experiences, so I would get the most long-term value from my experiences.

I was returning to North America after having been away for years, without ever having come back even for a visit. I had only the vaguest notions of what my future in North America would be like. Indeed, South Korea was my last escape from facing certain realities on this side of the Pacific Ocean. While I was busy seeing as much of South Korea as possible, I wasn’t concerned with, say, finding a job.

This blog was, among other things, a way for me to continue looking back to my time in South Korea, and extend the escapism a little longer.

I’ve tried to write this blog in a way so that reader may experience travel the way I do – visiting every region (in this case, province), experiencing a variety of things, trying to learn as much as I can.

I ordered these posts by province to help readers, if they read a significant number of posts, to get a sense of what each province is like, and how they are distinct from each other. I also started with the most sparsely populated provinces and concluded with hyper-dense Seoul to make clear just how important population density is to how different parts of South Korea work. to However, there are other ways these posts can be grouped, and I think it is by grouping them in various different ways that the connections become most apparent. Thus, to conclude this blog, I am going to present six different alternate orders for all of the posts, as well as a final post about my favorite experiences.

Thank you for reading!

Posted in Overview | 2 Comments

A Final Afternoon in South Korea: The Meeting, the Guesthouse, the Airport

I stayed at three different guesthouses in Seoul (including Doo Guesthouse), but I spent most of my nights at My Home, which offers (tiny, windowless, and tiny) single rooms, plus unlimited free cooked rice and kimchi, for only 15,000 won (about 15 USD) per night. It is not near any of the major tourist spots, but it is near Sadang station, and thus well-connected to Seoul’s subway network.

The guesthouse and restaurant described in this post are in Seoul's Dongjak District

The guesthouse and restaurant described in this post are in Seoul’s Dongjak District

The nearest vegetarian restaurant to My Home is Thiendang, a Vietnamese-Vegan restaurant which is co-owned by a Korean women and a Vietnamese woman who has lived in South Korea for fifteen years. Everyone I met who works at the restaurant is a very nice person, and the food is delicious. It was a good place to eat my last meal in South Korea.

When I was in Hong Kong, I shared a bunk bed with a South Korean who was at that time a student at a university in Shanghai. We went to Macau together, and conversed with each other in both English and Mandarin. I told her I was planning to travel in South Korea, and she said she would be in Seoul at the time I was going to visit South Korea.

I admit, I contacted her by email much later than I should have. I gave her my South Korean cellphone number. The very last night I stayed in Seoul, I got a phone call from her. I told her I was flying out the next day.

“You’re serious?” she asked.

It just turns out that I was leaving on a Thursday, and Thursday was the only day of the week she was available. We arranged to eat lunch at Thiendang so after the meal I could quickly return to the guesthouse, pick up my luggage and check out, and take a train to the airport.

Of course, I selfishly crammed as much sightseeing into my last morning as possible, running to Seodaemun Prison Hall, Inwangsan, and Bukaksan, and thus was very, very late to the restaurant. She was a very good sport, and said she didn’t mind waiting for me.

I was really moved that she put the effort to see me again all of those months after we met in Hong Kong. She talked to me about what was going on in her life.

She offered to help me take my luggage from the guesthouse, but I explained that the guesthouse was near Sadang station, not Namseong station, and she said that Sadang was not as convenient for her. I felt she had done more than enough by waiting so long after our pre-arranged time.

Fortunately, even with all of the delay, we were able to enjoy an hour of eating a very late lunch, and I still had plenty of time to reach Gimpo Airport.

Gimpo Airport is in Seoul's Gangseo District

Gimpo Airport is in Seoul’s Gangseo District

Most international flights to/from “Seoul” are actually flights to/from Incheon International Airport, which is in Incheon, not Seoul. Gimpo Airport actually is (barely) within Seoul city limits. Gimpo Aiport is to Incheon Airport what Haneda Aiport is to Narita Airport (Tokyo) or Songshan Airport is to Taoyuan Airport (Taipei).

This was fortunate for me, because Gimpo Airport is much closer to pretty much anywhere in Seoul than Incheon Airport, and that gave me a lot more flexibility that day. If my flight was from Incheon and not Gimpo, I would not have dared fit in so much activity before my departure.

I even managed to arrive at Gimpo Airport with lots of time to spare. Gimpo Airport, unsurprisingly, is attached to a shopping mall, which has a bookstore, where I spent my last won on manhwa (Korean comic books) to bring home as a souvenir. After all, manhwa is part of what made me so interested in South Korea in the first place.

The time came, and I boarded the airplane which carried me out of South Korea.

I will post a series of reflections on my travel in South Korea, and on writing this blog, and then this blog will be complete.

Posted in City, Seoul | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Final Afternoon in South Korea: Bukaksan, the Northern Guardian of Seoul

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From Inwangsan, I walked along the remains/reconstruction of the old Seoul City Wall to Bukaksan, the mountain to the north of Seoul which offered the city some of its good feng shui.

Bukaksan is in Seoul's Jongno district.

Bukaksan is in Seoul’s Jongno district.

I actually had arranged to have lunch with somebody right before I left for the airport, and I knew I was definitely going to be late if I tried to go to Bukaksan. On the other hand, I knew I would probably never get another chance to see Bukaksan. So I called her, told her I was going to be late, and decided to go for it. After all, from Sukjeongmun (one of the old Joseon gates) to Changguimun (another old Joseon gate) was only 2 kilometers, so I could cover that pretty quickly, right?

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What I forgot is that the name of the mountain is Buk-AK-san, and that any mountain with ‘ak’ in the name was steep/difficult to climb, like Woraksan and Seoraksan.

Ha ha ha ha ha.

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Along the way to Sukjeongmun, I saw some good views of Seoul … or at least, they would have been good without all of that haze.

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I also passed by a few vegetable plots along the one. One thing I like about East Asia is, even in the richest Asian countries, people will take advantage of many convenient plots of land to grow vegetables/fruits. You can find some of them in Taipei City if you look in the right spots (hint: near Yangmingshan), and where I lived, Taoyuan city, you could find plenty of vegetable/fruit plots even in downtown. Evidently, even in hyper-dense Seoul, some people have still found some places around the edge for vegetable plots.

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I was a little concerned about getting lost, but sure enough, by following the wall, I got to Sukjeongmun.

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Even though entrance to Bukaksan is free, to enter, you have to register and give you passport number. Suffice to say, I was glad that this could be done quickly, even though a lot of people hike Bukaksan.

On the trail up Bukaksan, looking at Bukhansan (notice that one has an 'h' and 'n' - for a while I thought these were the same mountain because their names are so similar!)

On the trail up Bukaksan, looking at Bukhansan (notice that one has an ‘h’ and ‘n’ – for a while I thought these were the same mountain because their names are so similar!)

The reason security is so tight on Bukaksan is that it is just above the ‘Blue House’ (i.e. the residence of the South Korean president), and in 1968 a team of North Korean assassins descended from Bukaksan in an attempt to kill President Park Chung-hee. More than two dozen South Korean soldiers/police officers died during the assassination attempt. The trail along Bukaksan was not reopened to the public until 2006, and even now, it is heavily monitored.

This tree has paint on the places where North Korean assassins hit it with bullets.

This tree has paint on the places where North Korean assassins hit it with bullets.

In addition to needed to register one’s passport number, there are guard posts all along the route, and there are strict rules about photography. Basically, taking photos looking towards the ‘Blue House’ is forbidden. All of the photos I took along the trail were approved by the nearest guard when I took the picture. It reminds me of Dongyin and Xiyin – the two most heavily fortified islands in Taiwan which are open to civilians, where I also had soldiers watching me to make sure I pointed my camera in certain directions.

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It was steep (it does have ‘ak’ in the name), so my progress was a lot slower than expected. On the other hand, I got good views over Seoul from a very different angle than what I saw at Namsan.

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Eventually, I got to the highest point of the trail, and going downhill was much easier.

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I then got to Changuimun, and then I had to figure out how to get to the meeting I had set up (I was already way late).

Changuimun, the gate where I exited

Changuimun, the gate where I exited

Just as I was trying to figure out what my public transit options were, a taxi just happened to pass by. Since I was leaving South Korea that day, I didn’t have much need for my leftover won anyway, so I didn’t hesitate to get a ride to Anguk subway station. From there, I took a train to Chungmuro Station, and then another train to Isu station, and finally a third train to Namseong station (it was annoying to make two different train transfers even when I wasn’t late for a meeting).

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In the next post I will describe my meeting, and then my departure from South Korea.

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Posted in Fortress, Hike, Joseon, Modern History, North Korea, Seoul | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

A Final Morning in South Korea: Inwangsan

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From Seodaemun Prison, I walked up to Inwangsan, one of the set of mountains which guards the old city of Seoul, and still contains remains of the old city wall.

Inwangsan is mostly in Seoul's Jongno district (shown on this map), though part of the mountain is also in the Seodaemun District.

Inwangsan is mostly in Seoul’s Jongno district (shown on this map), though part of the mountain is also in the Seodaemun District.

I didn’t have time to go to the peak (I had a flight to catch that evening) so I went straight to the highlights. I admit this was not the best spirit for exploration, but what could I do? It was now or never.

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Possibly the most famous and memorable sight on Inwangsan is Seonbawi, shown above. Shamanists regard it as a sacred site, and it has also been a subject of Joseon poetry.

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Speaking of the Joseon era, Inwangsan is the subject of a famous Joseon painting.

A black-and-white painting showing black mountain ridges with a white background and white mist creeping around the base

Inwang-jesaekdo, by Jeon Seon

I first walked through a Buddhist temple on a trail up to Inwangsan.

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I was looking for Guksadang, the most famous Shaman shrine in Seoul. The Joseon dynasty did not like Shamanism and more than they liked Buddhisim, so shamanism was marginalized, particularly in Seoul, during Joseon rule. The Japanese disliked Korean shamanism even more strongly, and destroyed this shrine, which has been rebuilt after independence.

I’m not sure I found the shrine. What I found is this:

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Is that the shrine? After reading the description in the guidebook, I was expecting something grander, but shaman shrines tend to be humbler than Buddhist temples, so maybe this is it after all.

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I then wanted to squeeze just one more tourist attraction into my precious few hours in South Korea, so I walked along the remains/reconstruction of the old wall of Seoul to Bukaksan.

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On the way to my final tourist spot in South Korea, I looked back and saw this view of Inwangsan.

You can see Seonbawi in the lower right corner of this photo of Inwangsan.

You can see Seonbawi in the lower right corner of this photo of Inwangsan.

Posted in Art, Fortress, Geology, Hike, Joseon, Seoul, Shamanism, Temple | Tagged , | 9 Comments

A Final Morning in South Korea: Seodaemun Prison

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On my last morning in South Korea, I visited this set of brick buildings.

Seodaemun Prison is in Seoul's Seodaemun District

Seodaemun Prison is in Seoul’s Seodaemun District

The appearance of these buildings are very charming – they certainly look nicer than 99% of the buildings in Seoul – and there were a number of local people jogging or leisurely strolling around in the morning.

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It’s jarring to realize that these aesthetically pleasing buildings were originally constructed to imprison and torture Korean independence activists.

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While in Japan, I visited the notorious Abashiri Prison (or rather, I visited the ‘historic’ Abashiri Prison, which is now a museum, not the new Abashiri Prison across the river which still serves as a maximum security prison). The original Meiji-era Abashiri prison was built as an architectural replica of a prison in Belgium, at a time when Japan was rapidly importing European ways. I’ve also been to the old Chiayi prison in Taiwan, which was also built by the Japanese in the 1920s. Meiji/Taisho era Japan took great pride in building quality prisons, and since more resources went into building prisons than most other kinds of buildings, they are nowadays held up as fine examples of architecture from that era, which is part of why old Abashiri prison and old Chiayi prison are now tourist attractions. Seodaemun Prison is also a beautiful prison – on the outside.

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The Japanese built it even before they officially annexed Korea, and it was primarily used to break the resistance of the Korean people to Japanese rule – to be more specific, it was a place to lock up Korean independence activists.

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Above is one of the cell halls, which looks very much like the halls of Abashiri. The guard standing up there startled me for a split second before I realized it was a mannequin.

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The cells also … look much like cells from historic Japanese prisons.

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One of the most famous inmates of Seodaemun Prison was Yu Gwansun, who was held in the woman’s section of the prison. She had been a student at Ehwa School when the Japanese colonial government shut down all Korean-language schools. She returned to her hometown in Chungcheongnam Province, and organized a demonstration of about 2000 people calling for Korean independence. She was arrested, and sentenced to 7 years in Seodaemun Prison. In prison, she continued to organize protests against Japanese rule. She was repeatedly beaten – the one photo which remains of her shows her at Seodaemun Prison with swollen cheeks. Eventually, the prison guards tortured her to death. She was only 17 years old when she died.

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There is an exhibit dedicated to the torture methods that Japanese prison guards used on Korean independence activists. The overall presentation of the prison really, really emphasizes how horribly the Japanese imperialists treated the noble Korean independence activists.

The exercise yard, built in such as way that prisoners could not interact with each other as they exercised, yet could still be easily monitored by a strategically placed prison guard.

The exercise yard, built in such as way that prisoners could not interact with each other as they exercised, yet could still be easily monitored by a strategically placed prison guard.

Seodaemun Prison was also used by the South Korean government for decades, and some people criticize this exhibition for focusing too strongly on the early Japanese era, and not enough on how the South Korean government used it until it stopped imprisoning people here in 1987.

I am not qualified to judge. I knew about this criticism in advance, so I was surprised to see so many references to the South Korean use of the prison in the exhibits. At the same time, I know a lot less details about how the South Korean government used the prison than how the Japapnese colonial government used the prison.

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This is the execution room, restored to how it looked in the 1920s.

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Above is the chamber for hanging people.

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The Japanese prison guards used this secret tunnel, right behind the execution room, to quickly remove dead bodies discreetly.

I got in just as Seodaemun opened to the public in the morning. Before I left, many, many schoolchildren had already poured in. There is something incongruous about hearing ordinary Korean teenagers and cheerful little kids in a place like this.

Then again, this wasn’t the best place to go on my very last day in South Korea. However, I felt that I should come here to pay my respects to a painful part of Korean history, and this was my last chance to do it.

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Posted in City, Modern History, Museum, Seoul | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art: The Last Art Gallery I Visited in South Korea (Part 2)

If you want to see what works are in the Modern Art section of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, you can see it on the official website.

Some of the works did nothing for me. Some of the works did impress me. For example, I recall “Green Shades and Fragrant Plants” by Kim Chong Hak leaving a very good impression on me when I saw it in person (I think it loses something when the size is shrunk down to fit a small screen).

I also remember a suspended work of wire depicting an eagle – for some reason I can’t find a picture of it online – which impressed me because, even though the bird itself was symmetrical, the shadow it cast on the wall was asymmetrical. I then figured out that the light was being cast on it at such an angle that the shadow was asymmetrical. I wonder if the original artist chose to have the sculpture illuminated from that angle, or whether a light designer working for the museum made that choice.

The museum contrasts Korean modern art with international modern art, showing, on the one hand, how international modern art trends are mirrored in Korean modern art, and on the other hand, what makes Korean modern art different from the modern art of other countries. The curators don’t point all this out, rather, they invite the viewers to see the works side by side and draw their own conclusions.

I think this theme greatly increases the quality of this gallery.

In Japan, I went to Naoshima, which is famous for being an ‘island of art’. It had been one of the many small islands in Japan which had a shrinking economy and rapid population loss, until the Benesse Corporation decided to turn the island into a giant modern art resort. They started by building the ‘Benesse House’, which is both a modern art gallery and a luxury hotel in a single building.

I didn’t stay on Naoshima overnight, but I did visit the Benesse House gallery, and … it wasn’t even ‘art for art’s sake’, it was ‘art for the sake of letting the Benesse Corporation show off’. For example, they have an Andy Warhol piece, not because of the content of the piece, but simply so they can show off that they have an Andy Warhol piece. Many of the artwork don’t seem to have any meaning beyond showing of how Modernly Artsy they are. That not to say the art was bad – there is good artwork on Naoshima – but I felt the better works of art suffered by being in a context where they were displayed to demonstrate elitism than to examine the world or the human condition.

Now, the Samsung Corporation also wants to show off. Why not? But I do get the sense that the people who run the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art do have a higher purpose beyond demonstrating the glory of Samsung. I do feel that the Korean modern art does examine Korea – I recognized landscapes and themes from my travels around South Korea – I even recognized Lee Jung-seop. And the unifying theme of comparing Korean modern art to international contemporaries elevates the meaning beyond ‘hey look, all of modern art shows how cultured and elite we are’.

I then proceeded to the temporary exhibition section – all contemporary art – which also had some interesting works. In the lobby at the entrance to the museum, they have videos showing artists talking about their works, and I saw a Brazilian artist explaining the giant walk-in tunnel of fabric I had wandered through earlier. He says he wants to take viewers to a different frame of mind, which is why his artwork surrounds you on all sides.

So that’s the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. The next series of posts will describe my final day in South Korea.

Posted in Art, Museum, Seoul | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art: The Last Art Gallery I Visited in South Korea (Part 1)

Apparently, the founder of the Samsung corporation was a devoted collector of art. He founded a few galleries to display his collection, and he asked his successors at Samsung to continue to collect art and present it to the public. Thus the Samsung corporation created and runs this impressive gallery in Itaewon.

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art is in Seoul's Yongsan District

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art is in Seoul’s Yongsan District

This is one of the classiest museums I have ever been to. Everything is super-clean, like the clean room of wherever Samsung makes its semi-conductors. Okay, it’s probably not that clean, so let’s say it’s as clean as a never-used Samsung gadget in a store display. There are staff everywhere through the museum, always ready to help visitors (and make sure they don’t damage the art) dressed in formal attire. Furthermore, it’s clear that the museum has been designed by high-class architects. In short, it’s the kind of museum you get when a private entity with deep pockets decides to pour lots of money into making a museum as impressive as possible (yes, I have also encountered this kind of museum in Japan).

That’s not to say that publicly-owned museums can’t look nice/impressive – many do – but institutions relying on public money generally have to be somewhat conscious of getting the best value for every won spent. Samsung is obviously willing to spend extra money to make this museum even sleeker than the National Museum of Korea (though it no doubt helps that the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art is only a fraction of the size of the National Museum of Korea).

A view from a window in the museum.

A view from a window in the museum.

The first part is dedicated to traditional artwork, starting with a collection of Goryeo celadon ware. It’s not quite as impressive as the collection at the National Museum of Korea, but the presentation is better. It’s in a very dimly lit gallery, with black walls, with only the artwork itself lit up. It’s a much more intimate feeling that the sweeping and airy National Museum. The next floor is buncheong and white porcelain works, and after that is a floor dedicated to traditional painting, and finally a floor dedicated to Buddhist art and metal works. What I particularly remember about the painting floor is the little subsections dedicated to different genres of traditional Korean painting.

You can see photos of all of the works exhibited at the official website.

The white spiral staircase which connects the levels is impressive. It has tiny little vertical windows into the center, and the light passes through those windows in such a way that it creates a spiral shape along the walls of the central chamber. It’s difficult to describe if you’re not there.

I will continue to describe the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in the next post, which will be about the second and third parts of the museum, which are dedicated to modern/contemporary art.

Posted in Art, Museum, Seoul | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments