Once again, C-Cube Microsystems decided I needed to take a business trip to do some training. This time the trip would be to our Seoul Korea office, CCK, where one of our new employees was awaiting his H1 immigration status. This particular trip extended itself across a weekend allowing me the opportunity to spend some time being a tourist.
The first thing you notice when arriving in Seoul Korea is the sear size of the city. It currently houses approximately 12 million people. As with any metropolitan city, Seoul is covered in large electronic signs advertising one company or another. In particular, the companies LG and Samsung appear on almost every building or structure. These two companies are true giants in Korea. Because there are so many signs, you immediately notice the difference in their written language. Having grown up with Japanese and Chinese cultures, one becomes accustom to the brush-stroke style. But in Korea, the language is made up of a series of circles, rectangles, and lines. Through I could not understand their language, it none the less gave me the impression of one built with a sense of order and precision.
As I mentioned before Seoul has almost 12 million people, most of whom drive. You think Los Angeles or Silicon Valley has a conjestion problem. Seoul is conjested all day and all night. Imagine that almost all the adult population has a car and they are all driving at the same time. Street lights are geared totally for through-way traffic. Left turns are always OK as long as no on coming traffic is present, in fact, they have special areas along the road for cars to make left and U turns near the middle of blocks. At any moment you can find 5 cars lined up perpendicular to the flow all ready to turn the moment the road clears (or a car can be avoided). It's simply amazing. During the entire time I visited Seoul, the only accident I saw was a car trying to merge into traffic from a side street that bumped a pedestrian (a group of 6) crossing. The driver got out to apologize immediately. But no one was hurt and everyone simply went on along their way. No insults, no screaming, just a simple Ooops! Sorry. No harm, no foul. Most intersections do not have cross walks.
There are special areas along the main roads that allow pedestrians to cross 8 lanes of traffic, but they are few and far between. I figure people walk and eat and work only on one side of the street as it takes too long to get to the other side before the "Do Not Walk" sign flashes. All side streets are barely wide enough for two cars. And this is where everyone parks due to a lack of parking spaces. When all the cars are there, drivers must maneuver between the parked cars, barely wider than a single car by this time. Here pedestrians must also watch for cars as the cars have the right-of-way in the confines of these narrow streets. If you are lucky enough to use a parking garage, the first thing you notice is that the cars are packed in like sardines with only a single car's width access through the parking area. All cars are left in neutral so that if someone needs to leave, the cars blocking can be shoved (literally) out of the way to get out. Getting a car into or out of a garage can be time consuming, but very interesting as the cars are always parked in such a way that they need only be moved forward or back to clear a path. Sort of like a puzzle. It would never happen in America. Too many alarms and chances of getting shot as a suspected car thief.
I found the Korean people to be more formal than any other culture I have met so far, and yet incredibly hospitable. Everyone is smartly dressed for business. There are obviously rules of etiquette for every circumstance or interaction, making them the most well mannered people I have ever met. As a visiting Manager from the parent company, I was treated with the utmost respect and honor. Even the country manager (top position in the Korea office) treated me as if I were a superior which proved to be confusing at times for I viewed myself as a subordinate, trying to treat all of them with the respect and honor due a superior. Thank goodness for my interest into Japanese etiquette many years ago, and my mother's English upbringing (always a gentlemen).
Dining Korean Style
I was in kimchee heaven during my stay in Seoul. Every meal, including breakfast, is served with kimchee. In fact there were more than 5 different styles of kimchee to choose from. Thanks to Mom Sakai, as a child I acquired a graving for cabbage kimchee (Mom Burgess use to make me eat it outside because she disliked the smell).
I have never seen a people who could consume so much food as the Koreans. I was simply amazed at the shear volume of food they eat. Even when they go out to drink, quite a bit of side dishes are also ordered. Within 2 days, I was so filled to capacity with both food and drink that I literally went an entire day and night without any desire to eat. And yet everyone was ready for another meal at any time. What added to this amazement was that almost no one looks overweight. While talking with my hosts, I learned that when you look at the food that is served, a very small proportion of it is meat, or carbohydrates like rice and potatoe. Most of the food is vegetables or grains. Many of the spices used, such as garlic and red chilli, when combined with the various types of vegetables actually aid in the digestive process. Normally, food slowly breaks down, with your body absorbing the nutrients it needs. This process sometimes takes a while and some of unwanted sugars and fats have a chance to get absorbed. By breaking down the food faster, allowing the body to absorb its fill of needed nutrients quickly, then passing the remainder, the unwanted sugars and fats don't have time to be absorbed. The Koreans say, everything they consume is for "Good Health", flavoring was acquired based on the ability for a spice or food to be a heathy contribution to the body.
Drinking Korean Style
Friday night, Tony and Mi-young (Mimi) took me out for dinner and a night of drinking, Korean style. We started with Korean-style Chinese food (a Chinese restaurant with most dishes adapted to a Korean style). The meal was very enjoyable, and I found the panfried chicken with garlic to most delicious. We shared a couple bottles of Korean OB beer and then moved on. Next I was taken to a "local bar". Much like a restaurant, you have two types of seating, semi-private booths that hold 4 to 6 people, or sitting in a large common room at small tables and chairs. Mimi explained that most nights, friends, especially younger people, get together for drink and conversation. Much like young Americans do at college pizza joints or coffee shops. The drinking often starts with a large pot of Korean un-filtered rice wine (similar to sake). It is a thick milky white drink, served cold, smelling and tasting almost exactly like cold Japanese sake. It is served by using a large round clay soup ladle to dip into the pot. The difference from Japanese sake, is that rather than using a small cup, the Koreans serve it in a much larger cup. Though I prefer hot sake, this was a pleasant drink and easy to consume. In addition to the rice wine, a bottle of "Traditional Korean Wine" was served. It is another rice wine, only filtered with a number of Korean herbs added to it. This was served cold, and in a small shot glass. Along with the drink arrived several more side dishes. The most unusual was what they joking called "Korean Pizza." It is basically flour, kimchee and vegetables mixed together and cooked in a deep dish cast iron pan to form a think orange, spicy pancake. Another dish was made of acorn paste, cubed much like tofu and garnished with another type of kimchee sauce. After this, it was on to a Korean karaoke bar. Here all you can pretty much get is scotch, cola, and beer. In a place like this Korean's let their hair down and get totally pissing drunk. Sad to say, so did I. Everyone in the room consumes at the same rate, once someone finishes a drink, everyone else is expected to finish and another round is poured. Of course during the entire time, everyone is taking their turn singing and everyone must participate. Lets just say the alcohol allowed my hosts to be most kind whenever I had to sing. We all had a great time, and even managed to get back to the hotel without problem or incident. The room hadn't started spinning yet, but I knew the next day was going to be a rough one.
Seoul Good Morning Tour
On Saturday, Tony Nam arranged and accompanied me on one of Seoul's Good Morning Tours. The particular tour we went on took us to a number of popular places within Seoul.
The Blue House
Our first stop was a drive-by visit of Korea's equivalent of The White House. It turns out that Korea's national color is blue. Hence their presidential residence is called The Blue House.
Next we stopped at Kyongbok Palace or the Palace of Shining Happiness. This Palace is considered the biggest and most beautiful palace in Seoul. Built in 1394, it was the residence of the first royal family of the Chosen Dynasty. Set amidst the vast walled grounds are lotus ponds, ancient stone pagodas and elegant pavilions. To the north of the palace complex lies Hyangwonjong -- a secluded pavilion nestling in the middle of a man-made pond. It was the favourite retreat of past royal families. This pavilion is still used today to celebrate traditional Korea holidays.
National Folk Museum
Chogyesa Buddhist Temple
This is one of the few Buddhist temples actually within the Seoul city limits. Early Korean religion was primarily buddhist. Later, after many Chinese invasions, Confucianism took hold and most Buddhist temples were moved into the mountains of Korea to escape persecution.
Korean Folk Village
Located 20 miles south of Seoul, near Suwon is a model village, on 243 acres is an open-air folk museum. This is a live illustration of the lifestyles of the past. Designed and devised to preserve the various aspects of Korea's traditional life, sites are assembled over a total of 200 separate buildings including the residence offices of the later Yi Dynasty, the residence of "Yangban" (a famous nobleman), and farmhouses from each local province of Korea. Additionally, you will find an authentic re-creation of traditional village life, featuring a jail, blacksmith's shop, pottery shop and an open-air market selling souvenirs and handicrafts.
Once inside you are able to appreciate the tastes of the traditional foods and wine, and watch the production processes of tools, utensils, and other implements at the various workshops. Korean artisans live in the village as weavers, basket-makers, calligraphers, fortune-tellers and costume-makers. Visitors can also watch traditional performances such as old-style weddings, farmers' dances and kite shows.
One of the arts I found most unique to Korea was their famous Wood Mask Dance Dramas. In fact, I purchased a replica of a Hahoe style Wooden Mask to put up on my wall at home. The particular mask I acquired was Yangban, The Aristocrate.
Shopping In Seoul
One of Korea's most popular precious stones is Ameythst. I ended up purchasing a small earring for myself. Not cheap by any means, but still good quality gems.
A Korean shopping district specializing in leather goods, custom tailoring and shoes, and souviners. Located near an old American military base, this area caters to english speaking tourists. This area use to be the place young Koreans would come to practice their english. In the evenings it becomes a dynamic entertainment district packed with nightclubs and bars of all sizes.
I was able to purchase a number of items here, including the Hahoe Mask display (shown above). Ita'won is basically one long street with shops and stalls up and down it's length. Every few shops you will usually be asked "need a custom tailored suit?" or "need shoes?"
Insa-dong or "Mary's Alley", is an art and antique district comprising over 100 antique shops, old bookstores, and art galleries.This is yet another Korean shopping area catering to antiques, souvenirs. Artwork and writing supplies. Even with its densely crowded shops and traditional teahouses, one is still able to feel korean-ness of the district.
Insa-dong offers a good selection of old paintings; items such as ceramics, wooden chests, and metal art work, earthenware from the Unified Shilla Dynasty; and white porcelain from the Choson Dynasty.