Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Japan/SoKor Day 18: Korea! Friends! Food! Dogs with makeup!

December 28, 2009
SoKor Day 18: Korea! Friends! Food! Dogs with makeup!

Off I go to South Korea! Today I got up early at the Capsule Hotel, about 7am. I successfully made it through the complicated system of lockers and keys and managed to get all of my baggage and my shoes back, and deposit my yukata robe and classy 1/2-length pants in a washing bin. In pure Jutan preparedness style, I had already scoped out how to get to the train station the day before when I was walking on the Dotonbori... so I just grabbed my stuff and headed out quickly, and it only took 10 minutes to walk to the station with all my stuff! Awesome.

I got on the train right away, and it was super fast to the airport. I had a couple of extra hours, which was cool. I met some Australians, and hung out for a while. The one dude won the Apple Designer Awards, Student Category! That was very cool - he won a scholarship of some sort which included an internship at Apple, I think. That rocked. He was super interested in my job, and excited to hear my story too. I grabbed some Beef Udon and "Hotteh Cohii" which was great. Then I got onto a plane to Seoul Gimpo airport, one of the two Seoul airports, where I'd stay for a long-ish tranfer, waiting a few hours for a local flight, preparing to head down to Gwangju in the South-West of South Korea to meet Erin, Jon and Lisa.

Arrival in South Korea was super quick. They looked at my paperwork and stamped my passport and then off I went to go explore the airport. The first food I saw: Dunkin' Donuts!??!?!!! That was a huge surprise, and I was a little desperate for something familiar so I finally got to try Dunkin' Donuts for the first time... in Seoul. :) I got money out of the ATM... ₩300,000?! It came out as 30 x ₩10,000 bills, that was insane. The exchange rate to the US$ was roughly 1 more decimal place from Japan, so this was approx $250. I.e. the 10,000 Won bills were about $9. Oh, so complicated.

I changed terminals to the domestic one and checked into my local flight's airline. They were quick to send the baggage on, and I noticed my backpack is now 16.5kg == approx 37 lbs. (It was 25 lbs on leaving the US). That's a lot of souvenirs already! Also, that explains why my knees have been so mad at me for carry so much crap.

Once I had my tasty random American donut and coffee, I sat down to relax for a bit and write my journal, and I just got to sit and "people watch" for a bit. This was incredibly interesting, and since I'd just been in Japan it was especially interesting to try to make a note of my first impressions of Korea, as compared with Japan. I thought it would be interesting to record these impressions so that I could read them after the trip and see if I thought Korea was or wasn't like what I thought it would be at first glance.

Some first impressions:
(*Please note these are just some things I noticed on arrival. I'm not meaning to classify Korea in some way compared to Japan, or make unfair comparisons. These are simply just a few first impressions, that's all. This was purely based on my interest and what I noticed as feeling different than the Japanese culture that I'd been immersed in for the past few weeks. Specifically, I immediately noticed a lot of difference in the fashion choices, as well as general cultural similarities and dissimilarities.)

  • People's dress seems different than Japan.
  • Less like small, cute kids
  • More "adult", "business"
  • Hair styles are not as coloured and crazy and curly
  • Hair is more plain, straight, often up in a bun (business style)
  • It's colder here, weather-wise
  • More people wearing high-heels
  • There were a lot of people in military suits. (This also may just have been because we were at the airport and a lot of people were traveling for the holidays)
  • People were not "impolite" by any means, they still seem to be polite in general, but not to the extreme that I saw in Japan
  • Workers/Cleaners/Janitors at the airport were VERY different, and this uncovered a significant difference between the two cultures. In Japan (if you recall a previous post when I talked about the Shinkansen train cleaning crew), the cleaners in Japan were a Strike Force! They were very fast and extreme, like an elite cleaning force. It was amazingly precise, calculated, and a very focused, planned effort. In Korea, I'd say it looks more like a standard cleaning crew that you'd see in North America. People were cleaning up, at a regular pace, just not in a choreographed effort :)
  • Clothes were darker and less loud, which possibly could be just because of the colder weather
  • Korea already seemed more easy-going, less rushing around and people racing from place to place so far.
  • I saw a 1 1/2 hand offer back of my receipt and my passport, one arm out and the other hand on the bicep. That was awesome!!! In Japan, I pretty much always saw the full 2-hand hand-back whenever you got your change or a receipt or anything, as well as a deep bow of gratitude for your service... even at McDonalds! The 1 1/2 hand offer was very funny and I loved it, similar to Japan but different in it's own right.
  • Prices seem cheaper already than Japan, even in the airport in Seoul.
  • A big burger meal at a restaurant in the airport was only ₩5,000 - about $4.50? In USA that would be like $10.
  • LOTS of Hipster glasses! So many people have them!!
  • Still some vending machines, but not nearly as many as in Japan.
  • I saw my favourite vending machine drink, "Pocari Sweat"
  • Also saw the hot drinks in vending machines, like in Japan.
  • There seemed to be many less of those gift stores that I saw everywhere in Japan - at any place in Japan there would be a store to buy some local rice baked goods or sweets for the people you were going to visit at your destination. There seemed to be WAY less of those already.
  • Less bowing! I miss it already! There does seem to still be some bowing, but not as frequent as in Japan. :)
  • There is a similar "Irashamise" phrase that everyone yells when you enter a store.
  • I saw some similar foods: triangle to-go sushis in convenience stores, and a few bento boxes
  • Then, lots of WAY different food: something I thought could be olives, but on tasting I realized it was probably quail eggs (it was), kimchi (which the lady at the restaurant was cutting with a pair of scissors!), and vegetable porridge (which was HUGE portion - I only ate half of it). There seems to be a lot of extra side dishes that come for free with your meal.
After some food and people-watching, I got onto my flight to Gwangju - it was 35 minutes!! So fast. I arrived in the tiny Gwangju airport, grabbed my bag and went out to find a taxi. I read online that Gwangju was tiny enough that you just needed to say "Baseu Tehrminale" to ANY cab driver and there was only 1 major bus terminal, and they would know where to take you. I got into a cab and said "Baseu Tehrminale"... NOTHING. The taxi cab driver had NO IDEA what I was talking about. Crap. "Bahhhsu"... "Bahhsu Teh-her-mean-aal?" I tried a few different pronunciations and he had no idea what I was saying. He was asking me some questions and I really had no idea what he wanted to know. He made some hand gestures which I thought meant "out of town" or "inter-city" or something, so I said "Yes!" At this point I didn't even know how to say "Yes" or "No" in Korean yet. Oh man. I saw a sign that said "Bus Terminal" and then he DIDN'T take it... and went way around the city another direction... oy. I had no frickin' clue where I was going. He seemed apologetic and said "No Englishee!" I laughed and said "No Korean!" :) We both laughed at our complete lack of understanding of each other, it was funny and crazy. Of course I was so stupidly organized about the trip that there was never any real danger of getting lost or not finding my friends eventually - I had their cell phone numbers in multiple places (iPod, printed document, saved in my Gmail Japan email folder, etc.) So if I REALLY got lost I could borrow a cell phone and call them, of course. Also my Korean/English guide was in my backpack somewhere, so I could always get that out and point to words if I actually needed to. For now I figured I'd just wing it and hopefully it would work out fine. Having the "safety net" was nice, but I didn't want to use it cause that would be like cheating :)

Eventually I saw another sign that said "Bus Terminal" (actually in English) and realized that he must have been asking me earlier which bus terminal I wanted. Damn WikiTravel told me there was only one! I finally arrived at the Bus Terminal and the 20 min cab ride was super cheap. When I got there, Lisa told me to ask someone for "Baskin Robbins-odee" - i.e. Baskin Robbins. :) I found it after some wandering, and Erin and Jon were there!!!!!!!!!! So nice!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It was SOOOOOOOOOOO great to see a familiar face and especially such nice, welcoming familiar faces. :) We were gonna get something weird called an Ice Cream Fondue, but they were sold out so we decided to head out for food when Lisa arrived.

We then taxied to Shinae (downtown) and checked into a... Love Motel. This was an unusual experience already. This is actually really just like a regular motel, ₩35,000 ($30) a night, with TV, Internet, etc. Very cheap! I think some of these places can be really dodgy (and are supposed to be for business people to go "spend the night" with their secretaries and so on) - crazy. I learned that the parking lot had long drapes down so people could have some privacy to park their cars there, so if someone walked by they wouldn't recognize their boss's car or license plate number. How crazy is that?! Anyway, it was an eye-opening experience already, but other than having cool heated floors (very Korean), the "dodgy" love motel was nothing more than a really cheap, convenient motel. Oh yeah, one weird thing. You pay the guy upfront for the room, through a small window, and he gives you the key for your room. When you leave you can just deposit the key without having to talk to anyone directly (so you can hide your shame, I guess?!) Anyway I was pretty interested to stay in one of these motels so I could see what they were like. Lisa and her friends had stayed in this particular one before so they knew it was safe and not actually dodgy, so I was comfortable there (and, more importantly, comfortable to leave my camera and passport there while we were out) :)

We then walked to a big sit-down family-style restaurant for dinner. We got a big platter called "Mae un chim dalk" which consisted of glass noodles, peppers, potatoes, carrots, sesame sweet teriyaki sauce, and chicken. It was SOOOO good!!!!! Very warm and hearty, and LOTS of food. That seems to be the usual so far in Korea: lots of food, and very hearty! We also got some local beer and soju (which I think I found out is NOT the same as "Shochu" from Japan, though maybe similar). Jon suggested we try soju and mecju (beer) together in a combination that people called "Somec". It was good!

After the fantastic dinner place, we left to go to an excellent coffee place that Lisa recommended called "Ethic". The decoration was a combo of different influences: hindu, indian, thai... and the had tons of candles and tea lights. It was glorious! We continued the evening there, catching up on life and chatting about my experiences in Japan and Jon, Erin and Lisa's experiences in Korea and plans for traveling in the future. It was awesome. We tried some more local things there, including a soju and kiwi fruit cocktail, very good! Chillin' there was just perfect, especially after such a long a busy/exciting day of travel. I learned the work "Assah!" which means "Awesome!" - I'll be using that one a lot.

Sadly then Jon and Erin had to leave and head back to their town, which was sad. They were so great to chat with and I think it was the first time I had met Jon. What a perfect couple, they were the greatest and so nice to me, they rocked. :) Lisa and I then headed out and wandered past a place called Coffee Story and people kept staring and waving at us from the windows.. maybe because we were obviously foreigners?! Unusual!!

Lisa and I then walked towards a "Dog and Cat petting cafe" and it was an insane experience. I had really wanted to visit one of these after hearing about them before my trip. This one was especially crazy because all the animals had clothes and makeup on. See pictures below, this one is really better to explain just through the crazy photos. :) The white dog with pink hearts on his cheeks looked like he totally didn't want to be there. It was a cool lounging place and we hung out for a while and got a tea while petting some cute cats and dogs. There was a poodle thing with hair that was done like a real person's hair, that was SO weird. Apparently they offered a dye colouring for your pets and portraits of your pet in a suit. Culture shock, for sure.

On the way back to our moulin-rouge-esqe hotel, we walked by a "sweet potato lady" grilling sweet potatos on the street. We grabbed a bag of them for like $1 and it was super good. I also learned about "Ajumas" - older Korean women. The "sweet potato lady" was an "Ajuma" and had permed hair and very loud floral pants. It sounded like this was a common fashion choice for older ladies in Korea. Very interesting. It was good to see that these people garnered respect. As foreigners, we made very sure to be very thankful and say "Kamsamnida" (thank you) in Korean to her.

What a day!!!!!!!!! Korean is already very, very different from Japan. There is a whole new set of cultural intricacies to learn about. Here I go!

On arrival in Korea, literally the first food place I saw. I was really surprised as American chain stores were not that prominent in Japan (other than the obvious ones like McDonalds)

First meal at the airport in Korea: porridge (terrible!) and what I figured were olives, but were more likely quail eggs (they were) and some kimchi (surprisingly delicious)

Whoaaa!! Snow!!! Much different weather than Japan already.

Erin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I met Erin, Jon and Lisa at "Baskin Robbins-o-dee"

Street vendors, bright lights, and still lots of signs I don't understand :)

Lisa at the dinner place

Awesome Coca Cola logo on a bottle

Random cheap Beer, Soju, and lots of free side-dishes

Using scissors to cut up the kimchi!

Good friends and good company :)

Diggin' into the food, and trying super hard to use the thinner, metal Korean chopsticks

One soju bottle done, and one more to go!

This time, trying the "maple" soju

VERY cool loungey place with candle lights, relaxing and very awesome

Beautiful setting

Learning the "Korean style" of taking photos with your hands covering your chin!

Happy to be hanging out with good friends

Amazing!!!!!!!!! Absolutely perfect relaxing spot after a busy day of travel.

Cat/Dog petting cafe... here we go! This is a pet store, where you can come and buy pet supplies. You can also buy a coffee and just sit and pet the animals and hang out with them. This cafe is particularly unusual because it's also a "beauty parlour" for dogs and cats... so they had all kind of way-too-cutesy clothes and "makeup" on them. It was SO INSANE. This lands firmly in the category of "you'd never see this at home" :)

This poor guy looked soooo sad :( He actually got a little more excited later, I think he was just tired cause it was late at night. The story we made up is that we figured "he" was a boy dog, and was sad because he was so emasculated by having pink heart makeup on his face. Notice the high-heels in the background - those were some girls in clubbing clothes who seemed to be friends with the owner, or possibly worked there.

Uh, this dog has nicer hair than I do. And is wearing a Santa costume. Oy.

Lisa and this little poodely dog

This cat was so fed up that he went to sleep.

The santa dog with the long blond hair, the clubbing girl, and another dog looking longingly at the door, hoping to escape. Not really, of course... they were very well cared for :)

The cat who got tired of all the affection and went to sleep.

One of the clubbing girls and a cat in a dress

Me and a dog with a bow in her hair

Me and our friend the "sad dog"

The owner of the pet store and the "sad dog", who turned out not to be so pouty after all. Once she got some attention from the owner, she was very happy!

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