Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Korean Folk Village, Seoul, Korea: The Village People

I don't live in downtown Seoul. While some may view this as disappointing, I'd say it's advantageous for a number of reasons. Firstly, I'm removed from the chaos of Seoul, which can be overwhelming at times. Secondly, I'll certainly end up saving more money in the end. While Seoul isn't particularly expensive, it still tends to be a city where it's easy to spend a lot of money. That is to say that the goods aren't pricey, but there are plenty of opportunities to lighten your wallet. Most importantly, it opens up the possibilities to visit the satellite cities and attractions in close proximity to the capital. For example, Everland Resort, Korea's biggest theme park, happens to be a short cab ride from my doorstep in Jukjeon. Another international tourist beacon also happens to be more or less in our backyard. That attraction is Yongin City's Korean Folk Village. Bri and I took a rather eventful cab ride over. Within the parameters of the short cab ride, the cabbie was able to A) show us a physical picture of his whole family B) display a picture on his phone of his son in San Francisco at a Taekwondo tournament C) make at least a dozen rather uncomfortable remarks about how attractive Bri and I were, being sure to make displeasing and regrettable eye contact during said comments D) use his arms to make a circle around his body while disapprovingly shaking his head back and forth,  pointing to his youngest son in the picture and shamefully blurting out, "piiiiiigggggg." I gave an awkward thumbs up to him while departing the cab, then tried to focus my mind on the Korean Folk Village. It turns out, it was quite easy to forget about cars and cab drivers altogether in the confines of this famed tourist hub.

The Korean Folk Village isn't a traditional village left untouched, but more like a living museum of sorts. It attempts to paint a picture of what traditional Korean life would have been like towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty. From what I understand, features have been relocated to this site and refurbished so it is indeed authentic, and not just sheer gimmicks. It reminded me quite a bit of what Black Creek Pioneer Village would have looked had it been representing Korean history. However, "historic" Black Creek Pioneer Village outside Toronto goes back about 150 years while this is representative of a time quite a bit further back than that. The complex houses around 260 buildings while sitting on an impressive, and surprisingly natural, 243 acres of land. They were careful to show examples of buildings all over Korea from all different wealth brackets. Personally, I appreciated the assortment of performances the most. The performances included farmers' music and dance, acrobatics on a tightrope, break-dancing to traditional music, and equestrian feats. The old man on the tightrope was legendary, and I strive to posses half of his mobility and agility at his age. Realistically, I can barely cross my legs comfortably, so maybe I'll strive to have half his mobility and agility at my current age. One can only talk about a living museum for so long before it becomes as boring as Stephen Harper's speeches, so I'll move on and show a few photos from the unique performances.

Aside from the performances, I also appreciated the individuals who were practicing talents that have long ago gone into disuse. As the Official Site of Korean Tourism notes, "About twenty workshops, various handicrafts such as pottery, baskets, winnows, bamboo wares, wooden wares, paper, brass wares, knots, fans, musical instruments, iron wares and embroidery are practiced. In the Korean Folk Village, where the customs and lifestyles of the past generations have been carefully preserved, various lifestyles prevalent during the Joseon Dynasty can be seen." I believe that about sums it up. It really added to the overall feel of everything. Some of their talents were really quite impressive, such as the woman who was making silk by hand. It beats the hell out of watching "pioneers" churn butter at Black Creek Pioneer Village. On a serious note, while the world lunges forward into the technological age, we lose the need for some of these skills, so it's refreshing to see some of them in action. To watch a man skillfully slice bamboo with the blade of his knife. To see a man farm without a machine alongside him that weighs as much as an elephant. To realize that silk doesn't have to be made in a factory, but can be made by hand with a loom.

The fact that I actually appreciated this aspect is quite telling. This is largely because I hate gimmicky tourism with a passion. There is nothing that bothers me more than old mannequins filling out ancient scenes. I remember being deeply disappointed, and terrified, by the model portrayal of "old miners" deep in Poland's Wieliczka Salt Mine. As far as I'm concerned, it's either impressive or not, and a bizarre mannequin won't change that. The salt mines were already breathtaking and, if anything, those models took away from the authenticity. I think I'm secretly afraid of the mannequins, too, but there's no need to talk about that now. I'll share it with my therapist in twenty years if I start to get recurring nightmares. But I digress, Bri and I inevitably got hungry and decided to enjoy some more traditional Korean food. After around seven months here, Bri and I knew we could stomach, and likely enjoy, any dish that we chose. I even found us our own little private dining quarters for the occasion.

 As the general greasiness of my face suggests, it was a warm, beautiful day outside of these eating quarters. A day that lovingly accented the arrival of spring in Korea. After a dreary winter, it was a much appreciated sight. Mother Nature finally decided to roll over and show us her other side. Well, seeing as it is spring, perhaps she was more in the process of rolling over. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful day to be outside, and it was early enough in the season that my allergies didn't even flinch. You know, I'm quite fond of the whole "living museum" experience. I truly believe that it provides some perspective. I always have a moment where I envision a "folk village" a thousand years in the future in which tourists cackle and guffaw at the times which boasted the advent of iPods and blogs. Human beings of all eras suppose they are at the pinnacle of human achievement. I've always really appreciated American author and historian David McCullogh's assertion that, "the past after all is only another name for someone else's present." I read that quote earlier this year in his book Brave Companions, which focuses on a handful of influential characters in history. As I'm learning more each day, he also contends that "history is a spacious realm." It's true, and the only way I know how to face that head on is to make each day count in some manner. On this day, Bri and I chose to stroll through the folk village, looking for nothing in particular, basking in spring's timely arrival.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ten Poetic Postcards

There aren't many things in this vast world that exceed the importance of creativity. While I'm not a regular Da Vinci, I'd like to think that I have some spare creativity for a rainy day or two. I used to be able to play for hours on end when I was child with nothing more than an open backyard. The truth is that I probably still could, but now I'd probably attract some negative attention from the neighbours. Luckily, I have an outlet for all this pent up creative energy. The outlet is of course none other than this blog. I usually gleefully remark about an event or specific place, but today I'll be remarking about many. It is occasionally a blessing that I can write, rewrite, and even enforce the rules of this blog, as it happens to be mine. Enforcing the rules on myself would perhaps be redundant, but I do indeed create them and we all know that creation and creativity are delightfully intermingled. Thus, today I'm going to try a little something different.

Alright, calm down. There's no need to be so surprised. I just woke up on the right side of the bed this morning and I'm looking to exploit that. I've decided today that I'm going to post ten photos that I've never put on my blog before in an act of rebellion against all those times that I never posted anything from a trip at all. In fact, I had actually forgotten that some of these photos even existed until browsing my computer earlier tonight. Now, as with anything relatively enticing, there's a catch. Since it's an utter impossibility for me to give an adequate description of each photo and it's context, I've decided that I'm merely going create a few rhyming lines to accomplish that. You've heard me correctly, or at least read (and re-read) that correctly. In sum, that's 10 photos accompanied by 10  separate verses of poetry, and 1 smiling blog writer. Blame it on the creativity.

Giant's Causeway, Portsmouth, Northern Ireland (2011)

I'll start with a photo in the land of the Giants,
'Twas like being awake in one of your happiest dreams.
No thought of the real world's money and clients,
Only mythical creatures and storybook streams.

Gardens of the Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France (2010)

Surely you've heard of Louis's extravagant palace,
Train there from Paris if you've got a spare day.
At the time people thought he was utterly callous, 
But tourists today seem blown away.

Queen's Day, Amsterdam, Netherlands (2010)
Queen's Day was mayhem in this famous city,
I was decked out in orange in this wonderful nation.
This woman fell in the water, but I couldn't feel pity, 
She was redefining the word "celebration" .

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (2010)

Ancient sites of power and devotion,
Enjoying the sights with a wonderful girl.
They say there's plenty of fish in the ocean,
Feeling quite lucky that I found a pearl.

Pulpit Rock, Stavanger, Norway (2010)

 Up on a mountain in a country I love,
Norway was a home that could never annoy,
But the water was freezing in this pond high above.
Something was shrinking and it wasn't my joy.

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia ("Chromeo" @ Exit Festival 2011)
 Canadian artists in a Serbian castle,
My first solo festival and one of the best.
It was truly worth all the travel and hassel, 
It left me in awe and downright impressed.

Tower of London, London, England, United Kingdom (2011)
Not many people can travel as brothers,
I'm happy to say we're in that minority.
We work together and respect each other,
 And on drinking a beer, we're both an authority.

Dormant Russian KGB Bunker, Riga, Latvia (2010)
Money goes a long way in the European East,
You'll have some experiences that will open your eyes.
The Russians left, the oppression has ceased, 
Head that direction, you'll be nicely surprised.

Danube River, Novi Sad, Serbia (2010)
A famous river that the Romans were fond of,
It wasn't the cleanest, but was an escape from the heat.
Serbia's a country that fits like a glove,
Just don't go there looking for the likes of Wall Street.

The Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany (2010)

It's my final verse on a sight full of meaning,
Was once divided but now represents unity,
On the day of the fall a crowd was convening,
In an instant they forged a brand new community.


I usually end with a long moment of reflection,
Today I'll stick to my poetic themes, 
The wind has taken me in many directions,
Travel will change your life, so it seems.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Upside Down, Inside Out

You get one point if you recognize that this is a theme park. You get two points if you happen to notice that this a different Korean theme park than Everland, which I wrote about previously. You get three points if you understand that I do indeed have a Monday to Friday job in this country, and don't just gleefully skip from one adventure to the next. Rather, I make every moment away from work count to ensure continual merriment, and don't spend too much time counting my money to avoid melancholy. Now, if you can go ahead and forget about this imagined point system I've just created, then we can go ahead get focused on the blog at hand. You'll get five points if you can successfully do that.

Today I'll be chatting about a little place called "Lotte World." I've colloquially referred to it as "little", but it is in fact a rather monstrous complex. The above picture should suggest that by the very notion that it was taken indoors. In fact, Lotte World's adventure themed interior is deemed the biggest of its kind by the fine folks at Guinness World Records. It was actually quite astounding to take a moment and realize just how much they managed to fit inside this place. I am thoroughly convinced that only Korea, the masters of effortless spacial efficiency, could have pulled off this feat. This would be enough to give you pleasant dreams for a few nights, but there also happens to be an equally impressive outdoor area known as "Magic Island." This was of course built to ensure that you have pleasant dreams and fond, jovial memories for upwards of a month afterwards. I can only speak for myself when I speak of their dashing success in these efforts, and I'm sure Bri, Grant, and Neil would concur. We arrived around noon on that specific Saturday, which gave us just enough time to effectively let go of our perceived maturity, and frolic around the confines like children who'd had too much sugar. There's nothing like elevation to provide elation, so we headed for the large artificial hot-air balloon ride first to get a better idea of what we were dealing with.
 What is strikingly evident here, and not necessarily in the first photo, is the enormous ice skating rink in the middle. Against my Canadian instincts, I didn't end up skating on that particular afternoon. Instead, we chose to make use of the abundance of rides in our immediate vicinity. The first ride we selected was called "French Revolution," which I guess on some distant level is also somewhat Canadian. It would be Korean blasphemy not to buy an over-sized bow or colourful animal ears at a theme park, so we went ahead and did that as well. They showed up beautifully in pictures outside, which is evidenced in the pictures posted below. I've spoiled the surprise, but we moved our operations outdoors in an attempt to get some sun. Of course Neil arrived from Australia looking as tanned as leather, so we were all looking to darken our complexions. Needless to say, my Irish ancestry ensured that I obtained a nice pinkish hue before anything resembling a tan could occur.

Exhibit A: The aforementioned frolicking and vibrant bows.
Exhibit B: "Manpanionship" at its finest.
The exterior is what I imagine Disney World would have looked like had they been forced to fit everything onto a small island. On that note, I'm actually going to go ahead and say that Lotte World's castle suspiciously resembles the famed Disney World castle. Not surprisingly, they did an excellent job with the knock off, as they do with knock off items and clothes in general (ie. Seoul's Itaewon District). Let's have a little fun and do a quick comparison:

Disney's Castle (Source)
Lotte World's Castle
If you can't recognize that resemblance, then this blog must really have gotten you in the fairy tale mood, as you clearly belong in the company of the three blind mice. To be fair, almost every major theme park has Disney World as their competitive standard, so it's not as if other theme parks haven't done the same. However, it would be interesting to see if they'd done it this ruthlessly. On the other hand, one striking difference between the two theme parks is the stunning presence of Cherry Blossoms around "Magic Island." We chose to arrive at the perfect time to capture the majesty of some of Seoul's most sought after blossoms. I truly believe the ephemeral, fleeting nature of these blossoms is part of what makes them so magical. Ultimately quite fitting for "Magic Island."

There's a reason that Lotte World manages to attract some six to eight million tourists a year. Actually, there are plenty of reasons why. Not only is the outdoor portion gorgeous, but it all boasts an excellent selection of rides. My favourite ride has to go hands down to a coaster known as the "Atlantis Adventure." It incorporated speed and water in a unique and extraordinarily exciting manner. There's actually a great video of the whole coaster ride on YouTube if you're interested in finding out what I'm referring to. Although I was most impressed by this coaster, it was the "Gyro Drop" that stole my heart away. The over 70m drop beckoned Neil and to ride it around six times on that glorious day. I can't imagine the whole experience was very favourable on my heart, but it was utterly worth it. Let's just say that I certainly wouldn't need coffee in the morning if I had one those in my backyard. On one special occasion, Bri even snapped a photo of Neil and I suspended in a glorious moment of terror with her impressive zoom lens.

If you're having trouble spotting us, we're the tall white guys in the middle; feet splayed and wearing bright colours.
You will have noticed by this point that the blog has been relatively picture heavy. Firstly, I can say that it's due to the fact that we're discussing a theme park. If you haven't noticed, theme parks tend to be quite a sensory experience, so I felt that was important to share with you. Moreover, I've slowly developed a passion for photography as well. I've always been interested in taking photos, but now I have a better camera, which seems more adequately equipped to capture great moments. The truth is that words nor photos can ever truly capture the moment. You can see me on the "Gyro Drop", but you won't feel the bottom of your stomach turn in anticipation as you gaze past your dangling legs to the ground below. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to experience so much, and write about it along the way with welcomed support. I keep wondering when someone is going to come along and pinch me and tell me to "wake up," but until then I'll keep trying to appreciate my dreams.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Korea Professional Baseball: Koreans in the Outfield

Just try to tell Korea that their baseball league isn't as good as it gets. I'll tell you one thing, Korean baseball fans put Major League Baseball fans to absolute shame. In Korea they have found the secret to making a baseball game constantly entertaining. The secret, which has eluded the MLB for so long, can be revealed in two delightful words - coordinated dance. By the end of the game my voice was hoarse, and I felt like I had participated in a full fledged (yet surprisingly enjoyable) workout. The only workout I have ever gotten from going to an MLB game is by walking to go and get an overpriced beer, and then lifting my right arm to my mouth several dozen times. Do they serve overpriced beer in Korea, you ask? A resounding "No" is the appropriate response. Not only that, but you can bring your own beer (or any alcohol or food, for that matter) into the stadium with no problem. Yes, you read that correctly, and it's nothing short of mind blowing for a North American sports fan. I seem to recall that they won't even let you bring in a sealed water bottle to a Toronto Blue Jays, Raptors, or Maple Leafs game. Korean baseball is a show, and a show not to miss if you're within a few thousand kilometres of Korea. Think Disney World, add in synchronized cheering and dancing, and perhaps a whisper of friendship and camaraderie, and you've got Korean baseball. Oh, and the players aren't bad either. In fact, they're pretty darn tootin' good.
It may not come as a surprise now that we were in the Kia Tigers cheering section.

"Korea Baseball Championship" (also known as "Korea Professional Baseball") all began in the year 1982, right around the time Olivia Newton-John's track "Physical" was riding high on the American charts only 10,000 or so kilometres away. Yes, those are completely irrelevant events, but it helps paint a picture of what a bad time it was for music, and what a good time it was for baseball. The league was initially founded to much fanfare around 6 principal teams, but today there are 8 teams in all. Without further adieu, here they are:
  1. Doosan Bears - Seoul (1982) 
  2. Hanwha Eagles - Daejeon (1986)
  3. Kia Tigers - Gwangju (1982)
  4. Lotte Giants - Busan (1975) - According to their website, they were founded seven years before the formation of the league. Hmmmm.
  5. LG Twins - Seoul (1982)
  6. Nexen Heroes (2008) 
  7. Samsung Lions - Daegu (1982) 
  8. SK Wyverns - Incheon (2000) - I didn't know what a Wyvern was either, but upon further research I discovered it was a mythical sea creature of sorts, so not to worry.
  9. NC Dinos - Changwon (2011) - Entering the league in 2013 
What you may or may not notice almost immediately is the fact that these teams are actually named after corporations, as opposed to cities. It's really quite peculiar to me, as I haven't personally ever seen this done in any other league, in any sport. I have to say that it's a brilliant marketing strategy. It would have been interesting to count the amount of times I heard "Kia" whilst in their cheering section. Not to mention the brand loyalty you would inevitably develop for your preferred squad. Think about it - imagine if the Detroit Tigers were really the Ford Tigers, and the Toronto Blue Jays were really the Rogers Blue Jays, and so on. Personally, I can't imagine this ever occurring in the world of North American sports because of potential fan backlash. There was (and still is) enough backlash and controversy around changing the name of Toronto's "Skydome" to the "Rogers Centre." However, corporate marketing has continually played a larger role in professional sport, so who knows how our beloved leagues will progress. The Korean league actually began with this format, and I can't imagine there was any uproar at all considering the reverence Koreans show to their successful homegrown companies. Honestly, I'm sure that Korea was just happy to have a healthy, competitive league of their own in the face of Japan's competitive "Nippon Professional Baseball" league which officially began 30 or so years prior. Unfortunately, it's not a rarity for a player excelling in the Korean league to move to the Japanese league and play for one of their franchises.

There were five of us in all that encompassed our own little cheering section. There was, of course, Bri and my myself, who tend to be prominent players in almost every blog. Ian, our incredibly helpful and wonderful friend from Seoul, also took part and played a rather vital part in getting tickets for us online in the first place. The fourth and fifth individuals hailed not from the Korean capital, but rather American and Australian capitals, respectively. It's not the first time that Grant or Neil have made an appearance in my blog, but certainly the first time on the Asian continent. They arrived in Korea only days before the game, but were ready and rearing to go when the first pitch was thrown. Grant was one of my seven housemates when I lived in Oslo, and Neil lived only minutes away in Oslo's Sogn Studenby. Both Bri and sincerely appreciated their visit, and it's something I'm sure we'll always cherish and remember. Kudos to both of those fine gentlemen.

Enough about my mushy social life, let's talk about the exhilarating match between the LG Twins and the Kia Tigers. Actually, firstly we should talk about the fans, which were in essence what made the game so exhilarating. The excitement and intensity in the air was nothing short of palpable. We walked up the ramp and up to our assigned seats and were astonished. The noise was enough to make you squint from sensation overload, and we soon realized that the entire stadium was essentially two cheering sections. Fortunately, it was quickly apparent that we were in the better cheering section of the two sides, as Kia quickly went broke out into a commanding lead. Even when there was a single, or a casual play on the field, the crowd went berserk. If you factor in the fact that you are allowed to bring in your own alcohol, then you can imagine that the winning team's cheering section is a giant party. In terms of videos on my blog, I essentially vowed that I would only post what readers wouldn't be able to adequately visualize themselves. It was such an exhilarating and unique experience that I'm just going to have to go ahead and show you a momentous clip. Keep in mind that this is a baseball game, and also that this wasn't nearly the most intense moment of the match. However, it should give you a good idea of just what I've been chattering about so far.

This video alone gives you enough reason to head to a game if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity. As you may be able to tell from the video, the crowd is wildly passionate, and, not surprisingly, quite homogenous. We were the rare foreign fans who stuck out like sore thumbs, but cheered in delightful unison with the crowd. We may not have known the exact words, but by the end we were humming along and mouthing words with a fiery fervor (this may or may not have had to do with the spirits we had consumed between innings 1 and 9). It turns out that the players themselves are also predominately Korean, which I think is quite commendable. Two foreign players are allowed to play for each team and that's the bottom line. Well, at least I still have a chance. All jokes aside, it was simply impossible to lose enthusiasm during the game. There was an emphatic man on top of the dugout revving us up, and if he didn't work, then they brought out the tiger mascot, and if he/she/it didn't work, then they brought out the female K-Pop-look-a-like dance squad. Needless to say, it always worked and the crowd always remained at the top of their cheering game. At times, it was easy to forget there was a baseball game going on in the background.

 Jamsil Baseball Stadium is the ideal place to view a game in Korea. It holds a respectable 30,000 or so fans, and overlooks the impressive Seoul Olympic Stadium. However, I can't communicate enough how it was the experience of the game that made it so fantastic, not even necessarily the game on the field or the stadium. The setting, crowd, weather, entertainers and baseball game all form together to make an enticing way to spend an evening. So, if it's possible (and anything is possible), head down to Jamsil Stadium, buy a sleek jersey, blow up some of those yellow inflatable clappers, and join the cheering crowd.