Korean Coffee and Tea in the 90’s…

Lemon tea, or ‘Yujacha’ is popular and has citrus rinds and sweet, thickened lemon juice in each big jar to spoon into your cup of hot water.

Instant coffee…

The coffee situation in Korea was not very advanced in the 1990’s. Koreans seemed to like coffee but I never saw or heard of there being any percolators in apartments and never noticed any ground coffee in stores. I only ever saw instant coffee there in most of my travels back then. There were many vending machines placed outside on a lot of streets. Most of these machines were selling little paper cups with around a third of a cup of hot instant coffee in them. It cost 350 won for each cup and you could choose coffee having milk and sugar or choose black. To me that was just around 35 Canadian cents a cup. These machines seemed to be everywhere I went, in tourist areas and on sidewalks, and sometimes I did get a cup, although I found the cups tiny and wasn’t crazy about it being instant.

Sometimes an office had little paper pouches of powdered ready-made coffee mix to pour into your hot water in your cup. That was your coffee break. The hot water always came from a water machine that had hot water or cold water to drink – you dispensed it yourself from a spout into your cup and the ‘spouts’ always were a blue colour for cold or a red one signifying hot water. The package of mix had instant coffee mixed with sugar and powdered whitener and you stirred it around and that was as generally good as it got for having a cup of coffee in Korea in 1997. I never did see a coffee mug once!

In the top right-hand corner are 2 packets of instant coffee mix that are just like what I had! Sugar and whitener are in the mix. The red Maxim brand was featured on most of the vending machines selling the little cups of coffee and most of the machines were mainly a red colour because of it. I remember always thinking Maxim was copying the Maxwell House name.

Coffee shops, which were new, expensive places to me, as my area of Canada didn’t have any such places, sold a cup of coffee that was in a western-style teacup, for ₩4000 to ₩5000, which was atrocious in my mind because that was like over 4 dollars or over 5 dollars. Over 20 years ago! The coffee served to me in these cafes tasted like instant coffee, and I thought it was a small amount too. But not as small as the 35 won cups from the vending machines! The ‘coffee shops’ or ‘cafes’ may have been serving ground coffee and it may have been brewed, but it certainly didn’t seem to be. It was slightly gritty and there seemed to almost be some kind of filmy residue in it. They almost always gave you your coffee already mixed with sugar and whitener whereas in Canada, many times the customer puts his own in himself.

When I talked one time to Sail Lee, a salesman at LG Cellphones in my Karibong teaching job, about these coffee shops he said the prices were so high because you were paying for the atmosphere in them. One we both went to near my institute, or ‘hogwan’, had an all-wooden interior as the shop’s theme. We have a lot of wood in Canada but Sail explained that in Korea wood had to be imported from Southeast Asia, like Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. He told me wood in Korea was almost non-existent and was very expensive to import, so it was rare to see it there. This was actually true. Houses and office buildings were made of brick, cement, granite and steel. Parts of temples or palace buildings were so special in part because they were made of wood.

The vending machines selling little cups of coffee in the late ’90s looked similar to these recent ones above but the machines were usually red. There were no machines selling sodapop back then like in this picture. Other common machines at the time sold little cups of hot tea, as I will explain about below.

Back to coffee and tea…When you were given white sugar to mix into your powdered coffee it was in cubes and wasn’t as sweet as the sugar I was accustomed to in Canada. Sometimes the cubes were light brown in colour. And you were given a sort of coffee whitener you had to put in your coffee, not milk or cream, as dairy products were not common over there. The whitener could be a thick liquid if it was a fancier set-up or usually it was a powder in little packets. On the subject of their sugar, I saw some Effem chocolate bars in convenience stores, like Mars and Snickers but when I bit into them, the chocolate was not very sweet! I looked at the packages and they came from Australia. I think the food not being as sweet as North American foods is wonderful, as what Canadians have is made from ‘high fructose syrup’ and is unnatural, ‘fake’ sugar. Like I have written before, everything was different there, even the coffee, sugar and cream that we took for granted any day in Canada and the USA.

A number of Korean ways and names copied the west over there, but they had ‘opposite’ policies. For example, there was Maxim for Maxwell House and highway signs said, “dial 119” for an emergency instead of 911 that we had in North America. Funny how somebody in government years ago who organised progressive policies must have deliberately chosen opposite-to-the-West terms and businessmen must have chosen product names that were similar to western products back then.

I remember wanting coffee to drink when my husband and I were travelling in Busan and Gyeongju in late 1999 and there wasn’t much chance of finding any at all as we were not in Seoul. Coffee was lacking in Seoul but at least there were vending machines and cafes selling a bit. I have a few memories of looking at the streets in these cities outside of Seoul and thinking wistfully about a cup of coffee. I know a large number of trendy cafes have spread to many places around Korea by now and that franchises like Starbucks are plentiful. Many things have changed very quickly throughout the whole country, I’ve noticed. I wish for some of these things to have remained the same, to be honest…. Korea and especially Seoul had more character back in the 90’s.

Korean tea….

In grocery stores I saw containers of loose green Korean tea leaves and they were expensive – these containers cost $15 to $40, usually. Their teas are special and they have rituals for drinking them and also, their teas have varied uses. Common teas, which were to be added to hot water, were barley, corn, “nut”, lemon, plum and there were many others as well. I remember the Korean secretaries at my institute calling a certain kind of hot drink “nut” tea. This “nut” tea was really Job’s tears tea, I discovered years later. In Canada Job’s tears is sold as a homeopathic supplement for depression in capsules, I know, but in Korea it’s a highly popular tea. If you bought a box of this “nut” tea the powder turned your hot water milky white or off-white and the taste was slightly nutty and creamy like milk at the same time. Many times you were supposed to feel good about drinking their teas because they had health benefits besides having a good taste. Job’s tears tea was called yulmucha. Tea is “cha”.

You can see the ‘milky’ drink the Job’s tears tea turns into in this picture.

One of the most common hot drinks was their lemon tea. It was so nice, rich and sweet with the citrus rinds in it but I prefered my Canadian tea bags of British-style brewed tea more. I add milk and sugar to my kind of tea. Korean people call western tea “black tea”. I didn’t know when I was there at first and had to learn. This was difficult to get used to because I never thought of my family’s tea as being black. Back home here I ordered tea once from a lady from Shanghai and got Asian green tea because I didn’t order “black tea” from her. Green tea from Northeast Asia and even lemon tea and the other kinds of teas you do not put milk and (sometimes) sugar in are called herbal teas in Canada. I prefer black tea to any herbal teas. I could only find boxes of Lipton brand black tea and a few boxes of Tetley tea to try to have my “black” tea when I lived in Seoul. It was very frustrating and disappointing because these brands are not like King Cole or Red Rose, which were for fussy black tea drinkers in Canada and England. My parents and grandmother would have cried missing their special British-like, black tea and they would have been upset at the lack of ‘proper’ tea in Korea, actually. My father, mother and grandmother drank their tea multiple times every day at home and were very particular about it. My mother had always said that Lipton and Tetley tea were “not real tea” and that Lipton tea is ghastly, so I don’t know what they’d ever have done over there.

This gives you a sense of the consistency of their lemon tea. The quality of yujacha when it’s sold in a jar is evident here.

I bought some corn tea while I lived in Seoul. Some teas were sold in teabags and that is how I got my corn tea. Dried kernels of corn were crushed up in gauze-like bags and you’d set a bag in hot water that had been boiling and leave it in the pot to steep for a while. I had bought a little portable stove and a pot after I’d been living in Korea for 5 months and I made some corn tea before I left Korea. I liked a little sugar mixed in with my corn tea. It was rich-tasting and had a deep, sweet, corn taste when I sipped it. We had nothing like that in Canada. You can buy Korean tea that consists of dried corn kernels to boil and the kernels are huge and dark brown. Their fresh corn over there is not sweet or soft to bite into like it is in Canada. We have North American corn niblets in cans called ‘peaches and cream’ variety and use canned ‘creamed corn’ in dinners and we eat wonderful ‘bread and butter’ corn on the cob and it’s lovely but in Korea their corn on the cob is on the dry side with big kernels. They love it but it’s not very nice to eat. I tried it once and was surprised. In Canada and the US we have many recipes made using corn. We make soups and chowders and casseroles with it, etc. I saw corn tea and sometimes saw corn on what was supposed to be a Korean version of pizza while I was there. Besides eating roasted corn on the cob, drinking corn tea and putting a bit on fake pizza that’s all I saw corn used for.

This shows how Korean corn on the cob has huge kernels and is not enjoyable to eat, in my opinion, like it is in North America.
Here is what big dried kernels for boiling in a pot of water to make tea look like. The tea is a pale, clear, gold colour.

There were vending machines everywhere in Seoul back then selling several kinds of tea. They were lemon, Job’s tears and another few kinds I can’t recall. The machines were everywhere, like the hot instant coffee machines were, and it cost 350 won or 500 won to get a little cup of your chosen hot tea. You could tell it was a powder though that was mixed into hot water. Just the same, I had gotten sick over there and had a few bad sinus infections and these little cups of hot tea helped me a lot.

Different Food…”Culture Shock”

These are examples of pickled vegetables and other similar side dishes found in Korea. I do not know what many of these are and never had many of the ones pictures here. I do see lotus root slices – they are brown with holes in them, pictured on the left, and I see quails’ eggs on the right. We do not have these foods in Canada, but I had lotus root slices and quails’ eggs a few times while I lived in Seoul.

I remember hearing about the term “culture shock” soon after I arrived in Korea. Well, I thought about this as I was so very much in shock from the vast difference between my remote little province in Atlantic Canada and the highly populated, busy place I found myself in. It was too hot and it smelled bad. Everyone looked ‘different’. No one, even the other Canadians, understood me and I mean the Koreans didn’t understand much of my language and no one there at all understood my specific culture or background. This is because Canada is very diversified across 3000 miles. Canada’s people are not homogenous like they mostly are in Korea. It’s funny because many times the businessmen I spoke to were confused when I’d try to say that Canada was different from area to area. My home province had higher unemployment for example, than some other provinces, I had said. One man could not understand that Canada was not homogenous(the same people, culture and economy throughout the country) and I remember he said in a confused way, “…No jobs in Canada…??…” I could not make him understand.

The main thing that gave me culture shock was their food. I had been expecting to eat meals consisting of Canadian-Chinese food, which is sweet, in spite of being salty, and tasty. I thought I’d find all kinds of variations of pieces of chicken or pork in batter, deep-fried with thick, sweet sauces and accompanied by seasoned fried rice. After all, it was near China, right?

The only book I could find before I went overseas to Seoul was an old, out-dated one at the public library. It would have been so wonderful if there had been internet back then, or even someone around my city who knew and could have prepared me for what was in store for me. In that library book it said Korean meals consist of food in many little bowls. This was true but there were no little bowls of sweet and sour chicken balls or fried rice. Or deep-fried egg rolls with plum sauce. The bowls there had fermented cabbage or Korean turnip or cucumber all rubbed with hot red pepper flakes. So strong and sour. The sticky, short-grain rice was always plain and white. Many times there would be a hot bowl of soup with little fish in it, even for breakfast.

I would eat at a big, long table in the basement of my building and teachers ate for free, which was good. My boss must have been making money from getting the cleaning and cooking woman to feed many others in the area as well. There were a number of long tables for people to sit and eat down there. I can remember being down there at first 23 years ago, in total culture-shock and I remember the smell of garlic and kimchi and the heat that hung in the air at first. I recall my anxiety and fear that I couldn’t help but feel at the time. All those Korean strangers. And none of them spoke English. What was remarkable to me was that when it was a soup that was served to all those Korean men sitting eating at the long tables, there would be about 25 of them all slurping the soup very loudly all at once! They all had their heads down looking at those bowls, intent on slurping their soup, but using spoons, mind you. I thought it was so funny, because in my experience, slurping was always frowned upon, and it was so loud, ha ha!

Of course, I was not at my building for long every day because most of my teaching jobs were outside in a far-away place in Seoul. Some were across the entire city. I travelled many hours almost every day on the subway and buses and sometimes taxis to get to all of these jobs. Therefore I wasn’t at my building most of the time in order to be able to eat for free in the basement. So I had to eat at workplace cafeterias, which was all very different to me, as I’d have a tray-full of authentic Korean food there each time which was complimentary. That cafeteria food could be actual raw squid in spicy sauce and all the accompaniments like rice, soup and kimchi or it could be another whole authentic meal. This happened if I was at Anam Semiconductors or LG Cellphones because there were so many employees there all day and they ate lunch and supper together every day at work. Most times, though, I had to grab a snack at a convenience store or buy a snack from a street cart or a bakery. I didn’t mind and crunchy rice snacks or waffle-fish with red bean filling were lovely to eat. The public transportation and outside food had to be all paid for out of my own pocket, as my contract stated this and I had agreed to it and signed it back in Canada before I flew over there. The travelling to teach mainly adults was better to me than staying at my institute and teaching little Korean kids all day, which is what all the other teachers in Korea like me were stuck doing. I was lucky to have travelled so much while teaching and I had invaluable conversations with the Korean businessmen, diplomats, civil servants, office workers, engineers and housewives. It was very enjoyable for me but still was difficult in ways at the same time. Some foreigners would have preferred staying at their institute every day teaching children instead of what I did.

The bean sprouts were bigger than ones back home. They are soybean sprouts – that’s why! Many bowls of soup were piled with them and other loads of different vegetables, meat and /or fish. The sprouts were cooked to perfection each time, meaning they were still crunchy. (KongNaMeul)

One huge new stressful wrinkle that added to my shock was that there was no fork available anywhere to eat with. I was not prepared for having no utensil to eat with. I would have to get used to chopsticks. Just using the chopsticks alone was so novel to me, but there were also so many other new stresses to face at the same time all at once. I ate with chopsticks every day and concentrated very hard. I had never used them in my life. It took a whole month for me to be able to use them comfortably, even with daily practice and no other alternative. I do remember that. After a month I could pick up a targetted, single grain of rice, which to me was quite a feat.

During the first few times in that basement kitchen, another Canadian taught me to say, “It’s delicious!” by saying, “Mashiseyo!” I always remembered how to compliment the Korean cook or host that way. That was very important to me, along with thanking them, of course, which I learned as soon as I could too. One time at first, the cook was serving cold, cucumber soup, which was customarily served in the heat to help cool people off. It tasted sweet and vinegary at the same time. It was very nice and so different to me. It was very muggy and there was a heavy, humid, relentless heat in September when I tried the cold soup.

As time went on, after a few months there were no men sitting at the tables very much anymore and the variety of foods given to me had dwindled because the whole country was in big economical trouble due to the 1997 Financial Crisis. My boss must have not been buying much for his kitchen down there other than rice, eggs and kimchi during the ‘crash’, because by January of 1998 that’s all I was served when I went downstairs to have a meal. I found a plastic bottle of ketchup to put on my bowl of rice that had a barely-cooked fried egg plopped on top of it and I mixed it around with kimchi. This is not a fancy meal but even today if I eat a bowl of this same meal it is a great comfort food to me. I have even greatly missed eating that meager meal and I am happy when I have something like it to eat today.

I added ‘barely-cooked’ before ‘fried egg’ because they only fried eggs partly sunny-side up and there was a lot of raw white and yolk to every fried egg they cooked so it could be mixed around with the hot rice. Sometimes the runny uncooked part of the egg will still cook a little more while it’s mixed with hot food, depending on what type of dish is served that way. Even the fried eggs were so different than what I was accustomed to and I found that alone to be so strange.

You can see how every single thing was so different for me when I was in Korea. The main thing that stood out to me while I lived there was the loneliness. I was so very lonely. Mostly everything I did was while I was alone. This is why I cherish the fact that a neighbour in Karak-dong, Sang Hyun, wanted to be my friend and gave me great company on some days. I started to realize after I was back in Canada for a while that, yes, I had succeeded against great odds over there. I always think of that stark, almost constant loneliness and of having no fork, for example, and having to try not to get lost and I think of the severe language and culture barrier I had to constantly struggle to overcome. This may very well be the reason why my memories of Seoul are so very important to me now.

I Want to Remember…

Traditional, decorative wall

There are many things from my experience in Korea that I can’t forget. For instance, I took the picture below of some people playing a traditional game during the Seolnal holiday, or Lunar New Year, in January of 1998. I was with my husband and ‘Sail’ Lee at Kyeongbokkung Palace during my husband’s visit to Korea while I was teaching. My roommate back then, Ji Yeong, told me the game is called ‘Hwal’. It’s nice that it looks like families were doing something wholesome on their holiday, which is around 4 days long. I was lucky to experience both of their big holidays while I was there.

You can see here they are holding sticks in between rounds of throwing them into receptacles. The decorative, tall pagoda-style museum on the grounds of KyeongbokGung is on the right. I love the quaint look of the trees.

When I searched online for the game called Hwal, a bunch of sites came up calling this game TuHo, and no information called it Hwal. Royalty used to play TuHo and in English it’s called ‘Pitch Pot’. The only game in Canada I can think of that’s comparable to TuHo is ‘lawn darts’!

A few times in the past, I’ve heard of bathrooms and tubs being different somehow in Japan. In some kind of an old documentary I remember seeing Japanese parents in funny, small bathtubs with young children. A few times throughout my life, I would hear that in Japan, they all have naps in the middle of the afternoon in office buildings and they shut down everything to have their naps. I heard about these things such a long time ago it’s hard to remember details. We never heard anything about Korea; it was always Japan that I heard about, whether any of it was true at all. However, while I lived in Seoul, I could understand that bathrooms, bathtubs and naps were very different from those in western countries. When I lived there, no one had bathtubs at all. There would have been some in certain hotels. When I was in the communal ladies’ bathroom in Garak-dong, I had to stand naked in front of the sink and hold a metal hose that sprayed water on me to have a shower. When my husband and I stayed with SoJoung in her apartment in Gangnam-gu in 1999, Robert was not used to taking a shower that way and got too much water all over the bathroom. I felt so terrible because SoJoung was not easygoing most of the time and was quite scandalised at the mess. It was just something we’d never have to do in Canada. The bathroom floors had a drain in the middle of them so the water from your shower went down it.

Everywhere you went, if it wasn’t a restaurant or retail store or highly public place, you had to take off your footwear and grab one of the pairs of “slippers” that were always sitting there in the entryway to put on and wear while you were inside. Many times, these “slippers” were made of rubber and had open backs. Each apartment had a tray with a number of these rubber sandals inside the door. I could see it made sense to have rubber ones because the bathroom floors were often wet from someone taking a shower when you went in them. This alone was very, very different to me and made my experience in Korea seem so unfamiliar, yet it was so sensible at the same time. Everyone had to live the same way, so everyone did this with the rubber slippers and handheld showers.

This is what the “slippers” looked like that you had to put on. This one looks like it has some fabric on it but most were all rubber and many did have stripes. The most common ones were navy and white. I can never forget them.

I had mentioned the napping when I wrote above about Japan. In Korea, the whole society worked or studied constantly. The hours worked were longer than developed countries had in the west. Most people worked Monday to Friday for more than 8 hours a day if they had an “office job”. Even now, the government is slow to regulate this and has reduced the hours in the work week over time but today it’s still not like it is in the west. They do not get 8 hours of sleep because they eat late and get to bed late. This is why many people slept on the subway. I had to live this way too with long hours, so even though I wasn’t the type to sleep on public transportation in Canada, I slept on the subway too while I lived in Seoul. It took a lot of getting used to. Like I wrote in a former part of this blog, it took 3 months for me to become accustomed to life there, physically and mentally. On the subway, you’d look around and see many people sleeping.

The children hardly had leisure time. After school and most times in the evenings they were required to study, study, study and have paid lessons, even on Saturdays and Sundays. Every week. Sometimes the parents arranged for a private “English lesson” from a foreigner like me, or they made the kids take piano lessons, for example. Even now, Korean children must obey their parents and must conform to society and constantly study. This is why I had such a hard time getting most of the students to listen or open their books at the Aju Middle School. They had had enough and had to slack off in English class, to keep their sanity. Many times when I had young Koreans to “teach” I gave them a break and just played the hangman games with them, because I understood how they had to live.

There is fierce competition and honour among parents to tell one another that their children made the highest marks on special entrance exams, so they are/were able to go to the best universities. All the parents compete with eachother in this regard. The children must follow this and keep studying for these special exams so they can enter one of Korea’s “top” universities. Now, as Korea becomes more like the west over time, there is more unemployment, however. All of the women are still expected to study for years and after a woman completes a university degree and gets her “office job”, she is expected to leave the job when she gets married. This expectation is quite rigid and she should marry around the age of 25 years and quit that job that she worked so hard and long to get so she can take care of the one or two children that society and the government says a Korean couple is allowed to have. Many women go back to work once their children have grown up. This is the way it goes and they are ostracized if they do not do this.

I did have a private job when I lived there, which was illegal. I made some extra pocket money and found it interesting. Someone had quit and left the company I worked for and I accepted her private teaching job. I can’t remember who helped me to acquire it. I had to go in the evening one night a week across the nine-lane road out front to a large apartment complex and find the right apartment building and go up in the elevator to a certain apartment. Good thing I could remember things well, because everything looked the same and it was dark. There were many apartment buildings in this “Family Apat” complex and they all looked the same. Once I found the right apartment, I had to greet the mother of a teenaged girl and go in the girl’s bedroom and “teach”. A friend of the girl was there for me to teach too. The lack of English was such that I couldn’t tell if the 2 girls were friends or sisters. I had the impression they were friends. The mother wasn’t listening to us, thank goodness, because I was just mostly playing word games or asking a few questions for them to get some practice. They giggled a lot and were very nice, but the late time of day hindered learning. When I think of it now, I tell myself I helped them by just being maybe the only native English speaker they’d ever spent time with. I have to hope they picked up on something useful. I did tell the girls to write a paragraph about their week and looked at those each time I was there. I did not feel very effective as those 2 girls and I were running out of steam in the evening and we all had long work hours, although we all did what we could. Before I left each time the mother passed me ₩40000 which was like maybe $40 for an hour and a half, but this was 23 years ago, so it would be more money now, so the money was good. English instruction was a coveted, lucrative business over there. I felt a little nervous when I went to my “private” though, because my boss, Mr. Kim would have hit the roof if he knew I was giving my time to someone other than his “Hanbo” business. I was there for his use and I was there for him to make a profit off. It was called illegal by everyone there to give private lessons, like I wrote above. I never did ask what the consequences would have been….

This reminds me of the large group of apartments called Olympic Family Apartments where I gave private lessons in Songpa-gu at the end of 1997 and early 1998.
There were so many lights and signs at night when I made my way home to my building.

I mentioned Olympic Family Apat(Korean way of saying ‘”apartments”) because my whole neighborhood, Songpa-gu, was made at the time of the Seoul 1998 Olympics and was a new neighborhood in 1997 when I was there. Currently, over 20 years later, it is one of the most expensive places in Korea to live. I know its subway line was very new when I lived there. South Korea’s exponential growth in the past 67 years is considered to be a miracle, as Seoul, especially, was built up after being decimated during the Korean War. I hear or read “The Miracle on the Han River” a lot because of this. The Han River runs through Seoul.

I have no photograph of them, but when I’d look at the city and the many buildings and streets from a window up high, I’d often see huge high green fences taking up large areas. They looked like vastly big high green cages. These green cages stuck up and stood out among buildings in views of many neighborhoods. I asked someone what they were, as there were many, and I was told they were places to practice hitting golf balls! A lot of Korean men were absolutely fascinated with golf, and unfortunately, space for anything there was hard to find. They told me if someone wanted to join an actual golf club and play golf on a real golf course, the person had to be rich to afford the monthly fee. Sports are/were important to them and they are good at them. They loved soccer the most and told me they were going to host the World Soccer Cup in 2002 and they were preparing a stadium and souvenirs already in 1997! It was a sensational thing. They also had their own baseball leagues and the main companies there owned their own national teams.

Koreans are stringent about healthy eating and physical fitness. No one can be fat. One nice businessman told me in a class that he felt very badly because he was thought of as “fat” by his society. He was trying to say he was just built that way. I am the same way and have a big build so I understood. I told him in Canada he would not be considered fat at all. And he wasn’t! I’ve looked at news articles from Korea through the years to see how things might have changed socially and I think ideas have changed somewhat concerning women or weight or homosexuality since I lived there, but not enough. They still have enormous pressure on them to be perfect and they do not have enough leisure time or a variety of stress-relievers like people in the western world have.

It was common to see a guard or a (very young) policeman, although the uniforms had no yellow on them back then.

Guards are everywhere at entrances of most office and apartment buildings. That was new to me. On the main streets, groups of policemen walked there, patrolling. I thought it was a little amusing that the policemen looked so very young, like teenagers. Once I threw my cigarette butt on the sidewalk and the Korean man (the recruiter who taught me about using the subway) I was with told me the policemen who looked at what I had done did not stop me and fine me $75 because I was a foreigner, but I “must be careful…!!!” Someone gave me a small plastic case with Korean writing on it and it was actually used to store cigarette butts! I kept it as a souvenir.

How Seoul has changed…

Recent scene in the Old Downtown of Seoul. I have an explanation of this photo below.

For a number of years, I looked on Google Maps, after it existed, for my institute and residence in Seoul. I could never see anything up close. I found out eventually, only less than a year ago, that Koreans had their own unique version of Google Maps called Naver Maps. Websites I found said that English-speaking people were frustrated because Google Maps could not show Korea up close but the alternate, Naver Maps, was completely in Korean and difficult to use. I looked up Naver Maps and they must have been diligently working on the English because there was lots of English and it was so much better than Google Maps. You can go down many streets in the 3D view area anywhere you want and it’s just like you’re there. You can travel far in all the scenes in this 3D virtual reality, and you can go much, much further than you can in Google maps. When I realised this it was very exciting to me.

I looked at my neighbourhood in Songpa Gu and I had to stare a long time and compare it with my old photographs until I could see that, yes, this was really it. Things do not change that much so quickly in Canada. They have redone most buildings, changing the colours and windows on them. In many residential areas of Seoul, and Karak-dong is no exception, they have taken away the bottom floors of short dwellings and put open ‘garages’ there instead, for parking their vehicles. So in most neighbourhoods now they drive into a spot in the bottom of their building, where the first floor used to be, to park. Also, these new windows and garages are very ugly.

The side street right behind my institute in Karak-dong in 1997. Sang Hyun lived in the brick building closest to the camera, on the right.

In my photograph above, you can see the dwellings are a nice brick colour with some ceramic tiles in spots for decoration. Now, all the residential buildings in the whole area are mostly painted white with unattractive ‘new’ black windows and the ground floors have been gutted and replaced with open ‘garages’ for parking cars. The decorative tiles are gone.

Of course, more elaborate, taller, glass office buildings have been built throughout Seoul everywhere and countless nicer, taller apartment complexes have been made. There are many ‘green’ spaces fit in and along roads and highways and there are more parks in general. Even the pavement on the streets looks ‘newer’ and is actually coloured in some areas. Most of Seoul is now too different for me and doesn’t have the same personality. The Korean government does not believe in preserving what has been there for just 25 years and wants everything modernised and even sensationalized all the time. This idea has been worked right into the society’s consciousness since the 1970’s. I think the Korean War traumatized them so much that they think and feel differently than any other society would. They only opened up their borders to let eachother out or let foreigners in, in 1970, so this alone made them insular and even behind in ways.

This is a photo I took in 1998 of a hotel adjacent to Olympic Park in my old Songpa district. Now, the hotel is still there, but it has a huge new apartment complex behind it, with the apartment buildings sticking up taller than this hotel. You can see the area was quite built up already back then.

So the picture at the start of this blog of part of the Old Downtown still has older, shorter buildings in it. These shorter dwellings have probably been newly painted, but the new, very tall structures in the photograph weren’t there before. I wonder all the time if they tore down the existing tall buildings to put these newer, taller, elaborate ones everywhere? Because when I was in Seoul, it already had what I thought were special, tall establishments in all these spots…. All newer edifices have those funny round pieces sticking up on the tops of them too, I’ve noticed, and I can’t figure out what these round roof protusions are for.

There are currently more architecturally unique, distinctive buildings like the one below. They had special, distinct buildings that had striking, interesting designs when I was there in the late 90’s also.

New Central or Main Post Office. My husband and I had gone to the former Central Post Office building to look at stamps in 1999 and there had been nothing wrong with it and it wasn’t very old, as most ‘old’ buildings were constructed in the 70’s or 80’s.

When my husband visited in January 1998, he couldn’t believe, like me, how there could be so, so many tall building cranes everywhere. They had just gotten a huge bailout from the IMF, and their ecomomy was, we thought, in severe peril. I remember him asking Sail about it, and Sail said it was fine. And it was! They paid back the IMF a year or 2 after the bailout. I remember when the government asked the Korean people to turn in their gold from home to help with the ‘crash’ and foreign economists said that was a bad idea…

This is my ticket from when Sang Hyun and I went on the river cruise in late 1997. The scene is showing Yeouido as it was back then, with the gold 63 Building and the LG Twin Towers they were so very proud of. Now the many new buildings there overtake these ‘old’ landmarks.
This amazing display is on one of the 20 bridges crossing the Han River now.

The 2 pictures above involving the Han River show the differences between Seoul in 1997 and Seoul in 2020. People could go on a river cruise years ago and see some of Seoul, which was fantastic enough, I thought. But today, people can look at ‘coloured’ water spraying out of the sides of one of the bridges crossing the Han River at night. There is a ‘green’ walkway in side parks all along this river now and many people sail boats or waterski on the water. No boats were on the river when I was there, and now the people are thrilled with boat recreation, it seems. Some things have been new to them only recently and they are incorporating them into their culture, like recreational boating and even eating cheese!

A 103-storey skycpscraper called Lotte Tower that was built in 2016. It’s around 3km north of where I lived . The taller buildings next to the tower here were not there when I was living in Seoul but there were many buildings in their place just the same. You can see cranes developping other buildings here.
Huge modern structure called Dongdaemun Plaza just east of central Seoul that is new to me. This is near the East Gate and there was a large, famous market near it when I lived there. Seoul was/is so big that I never explored that area. However, I did go there to take a picture of the special Eastern Gate while vacationing in Seoul in October of 1999.
This is a giant modern residential and business complex on the western coast of South Korea, in Incheon, next to Seoul. There was traditionally nothing here but marsh and they built these structures recently, creating a miracle. It’s called SongDo.
I never visited DeoksuGung Palace while I was there (we always thought of it as Toksugung), but I inserted this picture here because it hasn’t changed much.

DeoksuGung Palace(above) has 2 imperial, western-style buildings on its grounds. During one of the times when the Japanese ruled after one of their takeovers, the Japanese Army built them. These European-style buildings house museums now. Most of the tall edifices surrounding the palace are new and have replaced the office buildings that were already there in 1997. The fascinating mountain, InWangSan, was always there. Most of my days in Seoul were spent marvelling at the clear blue sky like it is shown in this photo, and I understand why an old saying or greeting in Korea is “The sky is high today!”. Everything seemed so much bigger and grander in Korea than I had experienced in Canada.

Musings about Korean markets in the 1990s…

So very different from Canada….

Fresh food was for sale in a lot of areas. On the sidewalks sometimes, and at huge, sprawling vendors’ markets, and at stands outside of corner stores. Prepared ‘street food’ was for sale on the roads in certain areas. Small, blue-coloured Daewoo trucks drove slowly through residential neighborhoods, with a man’s voice on a loudspeaker announcing seafood or Asian pears or even eggs for sale. These were all affordable, or they were even great deals. Like I’ve mentioned in former blogs here, you could see a man selling roasted chestnuts outside of a venue, or come across a truck selling bags of rice snacks next to a subway station or you could go to a stand selling freshly cooked ‘boongobbang’ (waffle-like cake filled with red bean paste shaped like fish) beside a factory.

There were underground malls adjacent to subway tracks and above-ground markets that had hundreds of stores in clusters of buildings, covering a lot of city blocks, that sold just electronics, for example. Many times the buildings that housed these ‘markets’ were a number of stories tall, and there would always be vendors at these same markets who had their wares on the street too. Food courts were large and in malls and big box stores.

Malls were huge, but were in 6, 7 or 8-storey buildings to save precious space and they sold high-end clothes and jewellery. Prices of food and necessities were good at most places but clothing was always high-priced everywhere, no matter what. There were no sizes for tall, big-boned women like me. And when I wanted gloves or a hat, for instance, there were only fancy, expensive choices. In Canada, by contrast, there were elite stores but also there were always more affordable ones that were usually cheap department stores. I could have bought cheap, affordable gloves or scarves or winter hats in a North American department store for a few dollars each, but in Seoul each of these items was over 8 dollars and nowadays the price would be much higher 22 years later. In November of 1997, I needed sneakers or boots and saw some spread out on the pavement, outside, below some apartment buildings, but they were too expensive and the sizes were small. I looked at the men’s ones, since I knew I couldn’t fit into women’s sizes, and they weren’t much bigger than the women’s sizes and also, these men’s boots were not at all rugged or practical. Everything was made to wear while going from a car or subway into an office building – even the men’s winter boots! They reminded me of men’s dress shoes I would see in Canada. I wanted something made for walking long distances or even hiking or at least going through some snow. So I never bought any footwear while I was there and had to make do with one pair of sneakers from home.

An example of street food, which is popular.

One thing that was so interesting was that one time in Seoul, I was at a very large place where people could buy vegetables, and not only did they have carrots for sale, but they were in a space the size of my city block at home. That city block was full of carrots piled there right on the pavement. You walked and walked a long way to pass the mountains of carrots. Then you had an area the size of another city block piled with onions, just piled there for a long way, like the carrots were. A large area the size of my neighbourhood in Canada had all the common types of vegetables on the ground for sale. You walked a very long distance to get your vegetables at this place. I thought that was something I certainly would never have seen in my country and I marvelled at such a set-up. The population was so high they needed to do it that way.

There were grocery stores all around, and I would find them with difficulty, as they were usually in basements of buildings that had other businesses in them, and the signs were all in Korean. I was always struck by how there were no potatoes or milk or bread made with wheat like they’d have in my area of Canada. There were no fridges full of cartons of cow’s milk. Just some little plastic bottles of ‘flavoured’ milk, perhaps strawberry or coffee flavour, and the banana one is very popular with foreigners today. The tea sections had expensive green Korean ‘loose’ teas, and big glass jars of lemon or plum to mix with hot water. Some kinds of tea in bags were ground barley ‘tea’ in bags or ground corn in tea bags. ‘Job’s tears’ tea was popular and was usually a powder mixed in hot water, called ‘nut’ tea. I found some Lipton ‘black’ tea in bags like at home but Canadians in the Atlantic region think Lipton tea is not very good, and we have better brands of ‘black’ tea – my older relatives all would have perished without their King Cole or Red Rose tea! I had no idea that the tea we use in the west is called ‘black’ tea. Now, if I order tea in an Asian establishment I must remember to call it ‘black’ tea or the server won’t know what I’m asking for.

Packaged spicy ramyeon ‘noodle soup’, seafood made into street food, what looks like raw blood sausage, Korean pancakes and fish and vegetables.

In Kyeongju we walked through a sprawling market of mostly produce, where you passed items set out on a the street by many vendors. The picture above with the vegetables for sale reminds me of what I saw there. In the picture above, the prices show how items, some in packages, cost a dollar or two or three each. The prices are in Korean won and I always estimate if something costs 1000 won, it would be around one American dollar. The stock market fluctuates, but that’s how I figure it. Also, I figure ₩1000 is around a Canadian dollar too sometimes, to make it simple.

In Pusan, we were in a gigantic fish market downtown where we came upon anchovies for sale. I never knew what anchovies were because we do not eat them or sell or buy them in my area of Canada. They are little silver-coloured, dried fish. This indoor market had a few large boxes of big anchovies (still small, dried fish) in a section. In that same section beside the big ones, were a few boxes of a size a little smaller, then another few boxes of the slightly smaller next size, and so on, until you saw a few boxes of tiny, tiny anchovies. Maybe there were 8 different sizes. I thought it was amazing to see the sheer amount that was needed, as there were so many of those little, dried fish for sale in that one area of the market.

Speaking of these anchovies, I had soup with different sizes of the tiny fish in it while I lived in Korea. I like fish in general, but I didn’t want to have soup with little fish in it in the morning. One morning I was finishing my nice bowl of Korean soup in the basement of my institute and there had been a bunch of these anchovies in it – they were all in the bottom of my bowl!

I should mention that in one area of the old downtown there were many little jewellery stores, and it was thought of as a ‘jewellery market’. I went in a few of these stores, and it was amazing to me to see many display counters showing pieces with only one particular coloured gem, like a yellow one. Then after looking at many counters of yellow, I saw many counters where all pink gems were showcased, and then blue gems, and so on. Counter upon counter and row upon row of just one colour! Then more! I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of one kind of coloured gem in one spot and there were many other stores with the same set-up in this famous ‘jewellery market’ as well. At home we’d have smaller stores with smaller displays and only a few stores in my city at that.

I Remember Grapes….September 1997 in Seoul

It was September 2nd in Korea, and it was over 22 years ago, but I remember it all. It was my first morning in Korea. I had to walk for a few blocks to the ‘bus stop’ in SongPa-Gu, where the giant Garak Mall stands today. No mall was there then. Miss Park was taking me by bus to the first place I would be teaching at in the next district. When we got close to the ‘Karak Market’ subway area, as it was called then, many older women were sitting on the sidewalks, and they had bunches of Korean grapes on the sidewalk, next to them, for sale. I was told later that grapes were in season in September. It was always cool weather in September in Canada and I didn’t expect the temperature to be a high of 28 degrees Celcius every day. The sun was so bright and was bearing down on everything, even though it was only 8 in the morning.

We were on the 9-lane road called SongPaDae-ro that my building was situated on, so the traffic was overwhelming. Miss Park and other Koreans would never have been able to imagine the difference between Seoul and my province in Canada. No one could have mentally prepared me for the sights and sounds I saw and heard. I was in a constant state of awe while in Korea because of this vast difference. I didn’t resent the differences like the other Canadians at my institute did; I embraced them.

This is where I walked to get the bus to Gangnam-Gu for the Votra class. The ‘Karak Market’ subway stop was under one of these tall buildings on SongPaDae-ro. The grassy area on the right is still there today, where the guard I always waved to sat in his booth.

The grapes were dark purple and the heat of the sun made them smell as I walked past all of them. Even though it is winter in Canada as I’m writing this, I’m remembering the smell of the grapes from that first time I walked, with nervousness, with Miss Park showing me the way, to that busy bus stop. Not only the heat was different and striking to me. The fact that many people were selling and displaying vegetables and fruit on the sidewalks was new to me. I had never seen that before and it struck me as so strange and interesting. I could smell the richness of the Korean grapes in the heat. I heard the sound of the city with such traffic, and many places had the radio playing. Korea had beautiful singers and quality music. I loved the melodies of the songs but never knew what the lyrics were. As I had to travel through Seoul much of the week, I heard the radio being played everywhere and got to know the melodies. K-Pop was just beginning then. I saw Koreans hurrying, dressed in nice, neat clothing and looking like they all just got out of the shower. Every single one looked like this, and I would see hundreds of people a day.

This is a view of the ‘old downtown’ which was around 15km northeast of where I lived, but you can get a sense of the mountains and buildings I looked at every day.

It was hard for me to imagine Canada then, as I hurried and tried not to stare at everyone, but in the back of my mind I knew it would be so much quieter in my hometown. I would need a sweater in the morning back home. I looked at the mountains that surrounded my district in Seoul. We had no mountains like that to see in Eastern Canada. I always loved looking at the mountains in Korea. I had always wanted to see mountains and could never see any at home.

Miss Park said I had to get bus #78-3. Some buses said #78, but I had to wait for #78 dash 3. I would be doing this alone afterward every weekday morning. She gave me a note to give the bus driver when I’d be taking the bus alone. It said in Korean, “I want to get off at the ????? Building near ????….” I had to try to not be shy and pass the note to the driver, and I also had to force myself to go into those crowds of foreign strangers every day. After this first day, I decided to be happy walking to the tall buildings in Karak-dong to get the subway, and proudly pass the guard sitting in the government(?) booth on the way, and wave to him. He always waved back. We would smile at eachother. Foreigners like me were not often seen around there.

Busan in Oct. 1999…..Part 14

This is one of the best pictures I took. It’s at Beomosa Temple north of Pusan. I have this framed on a wall in my living room. One of the monks is walking here in his grey suit and cosmos flowers are in the picture too.

While lost outside of Pusan…

While we were lost in what Koreans call ‘the countryside’ north of Busan, we had to walk back towards the city once we realised we would never see the fortress we wanted to go to. In the area, after we saw the goats, I left Robert on the road and walked up a path through some trees to see what was up there. It was so amazing! It was a small Buddhist temple. No one was there, or at least I never saw anyone. There was a nice vegetable garden on the grounds. It was so peaceful. Beside the wooded path that I followed, there was a pond full of lillypads with a granite pagoda in the middle.

When I stood at the temple and faced where I had just come from, this was my view. (Oct. 1999)
A vegetable garden was beside here.

I remember looking at the huge tree in the picture above and thinking the trees in Asia really do look a bit different than in Canada. The huge trees above looked kind of squashed, but are still so big. I was so happy to be seeing trees like that and knew I couldn’t see them at home. I still remember standing there thinking about how the trees really do look like they do in the Chinese paintings and ink drawings.

The granite pagoda in the pond.
The small temple in northern Pusan.

A very special thing was there. It was a small stone building with a thatched roof, or a grass roof. This is what houses were made like through the years and in the 1970’s the government under famous revolutionary President Park made everyone take these roofs away and put tiles on roofs instead. I do not agree with all buildings having to change and look modern constantly, as many times they are ugly when they are changed. They do this restructuring all the time. I wish Korea would leave many areas alone, for tourism purposes and aesthetic reasons too. The government should realise they are taking away the character of most areas and that the flavour of alleys and old buildings are lost forever from what they’re needlessly doing. Not everything has to be shiny and repainted. Unfortunately the government thinks that everything does have to be.

Special old structure with cosmos flowers and vines. (Oct. 1999)

Back to Busan….

Once I had gone back to the road and met up with Robert, I noticed a young guy waiting for the bus at a stop. I couldn’t believe a bus stop was out there, and wondered where the bus would be going if we got on? I tried to find out what the bus cost, or anything about it from the young Korean guy but he wasn’t helpful or friendly. I scaped up some change and we got on the bus that came and got off close to the downtown. I must have had to ask the bus driver ‘OlMaYo?’ to find out how much to pay when we got on and I must have had the right amount on hand. I was so relieved. It had been scary to me to be that lost. Funny you can do things in Korea quite easily without knowing their language. It is very safe since they are very well-behaved and they must obey all the social rules and the country’s laws all the time. I realise it was a great honour and privilege to be allowed to live there and to visit in 1999 later.

We were hungry for lunch and went in a ‘chicken house’. Korean ‘smoke chicken’ was very well-done and delicious. You ordered a plate of smoked chicken pieces and have a huge glass of draught with it. They serve a bunch of pickled radish with it, called ‘dan mu gi’, which means sweet radish. The Japanese version of this has yellow-coloured pickled radish but the Korean version is a much lighter colour and is crispy and fresher. We really would have loved something like rice or preferably french fries with our chicken but when we tried to ask, they looked at us like we were from outer space! Nowadays these places have mostly been replaced by ‘spicy chicken’ and fried chicken restaurants which are very good too, but those chicken houses were very unique at the time.

BeoMoSa in October 1999…

I am so glad I chose to go to the temple in the mountains North of Busan that was called Pomosa at the time and now called/spelled Beomosa. I had to follow instructions in my Lonely Planet guide and get us to take the subway to very near the temple. It would have been a dollar or a few dollars to get in. It was thrilling and I loved the statues and looking up at the mountains while we were there. Trees and wooded mountains were surrounding us instead of the city, which was different from the 2 temples I had been to in Seoul.

I found this was the most interesting part of the temple. I made Robert return here with me before we left because there were statues of human Asian men around this pagoda, and the mountains stood around us. When I look at videos of Beomosa now this section is gone as far as I know.

Sometimes people go in the woods beside the buildings of BeoMoSa now and it is a tourist attraction to be in these trees because of many little piles of stones scattered on the ground throughout one section. Old Buddhist tradition says to make a piles of stones to represent a pagoda in areas around temples. We went in these trees back then but it wasn’t thought of as a sensation at the time. There was shade from branches above and there were a few streams trickling down the mountainside. The woods in Korea are not wild like in North America, as people have been all through them for hundreds of years, I figure. They had tigers in these forests years ago and there is talk sometimes of reintroducing them to the forests in Korea. I always imagined soldiers being in the mountains during the Korean war when I was in any woods while in Korea. I never saw any underbrush ever.

One of the statues of a figure surrounding the large pagoda. There was a figure at each corner.

While we were near here an older Korean lady handed me a small treat. She had given one to a Korean girl too. They must do this at temples, I think. I can’t remember what it was, but it fit in my hand.

I loved this and we didn’t even have time to go in this courtyard.
It’s very hard to recognise these places within the temple when I look at recent videos.
Another statue guarding the pagoda.
Cosmos flowers in the temple.

This will be the end of my description of our October 1999 vacation in Korea. When I look up information about Busan now I see that the population is not higher now than it was 20 years ago. I think it’s because the population of Seoul and surrounding area has increased so much, meaning many people move to the Seoul area now from other places in Korea. Many changes have occurred in Pusan, also, and there are many new buildings and bridges; some are elaborate. One day when we were looking for a meal near the Royal Hotel in the downtown core we found a Pizza Hut and ate there but it was small and cramped and crowded because there was a noticeable lack of restaurants in general, especially western ones. And there was a lack of space. In Pusan, there were and still are many mountains, and they keep mountains unpopulated, so this meant the buildings in the small valleys were more dense. We were very suited to have gone there and seen what it was like.

A final picture of Pusan harbour. A huge new Lotte Mall is now plunked here but to me the mall is ugly, as it is a too-large, non-descript silver box that ruins the view around the harbour.

Busan in 1999…Part 13

One of my favourite side dishes, KkarTuGe, pronounced ‘cartoogay’. I asked them what it was in the fall of 1997 while I was downstairs where we ate and they said it’s pickled radish with spices similar to kimchi and it’s always cut into cubes. The radish is very delicious when pickled and spiced, like ChongGak kimchi.

Pusan in Oct 1999….

The city of Pusan was the second largest city in South Korea at the time of our vacation, with a population of around 3.6 million people. It was a huge port city because there were many ‘containers’ of merchandise landing in and leaving Korea there then. Nowadays there are many more trades being done daily. I mostly chose to go there because it’s close to Kyeongju, although my husband thought it would be interesting to be in such a large Asian port. Pusan is found on the Southeastern coast of South Korea, on that corner, diagonally opposite of Seoul’s location on the peninsula. Kyeongju, where the Sokkuram Grotto is found, is just north of here and somewhat inland.

I am calling the city Pusan, as that’s what everybody called it back then. In recent years the way you are supposed to spell certain Korean names and words in English has changed. Places like Pusan are called Busan and spelled Busan if you’re searching for it anywhere. My old neighborhood, Karak Market is spelled Garak Market. (Actually, it’s now called Garak Bon 1, having to do with the subway stop). If I am talking I still try to pronounce those ‘B’s like part ‘B’ and part ‘P’ and I try to pronounce my ‘K’s like part ‘K’ and part ‘G’ the way they said I should. It’s so difficult I can hardly ever do it even now. What I mean is it doesn’t matter that they want us to spell the words differently because the pronounciation is the same as it always was. We spelled Kyeongju as Kyongju. Now it’s really Gyeongju instead. I find it’s all hard to get used to.

We took a bus from Kyeongju to Pusan one morning and arrived downtown. I found an ‘inn’ that had a large room upstairs in a building in the main busy streets. It was cheap, like $23, for the night. But during daytime and early evening hours there was a jackhammer in the area making a loud racket and I didn’t like that. It was more crowded and dusty here than in Seoul. Recently while searching online, I found out that Korea is much more densely populated than Japan is and I was surprised. For our second night in Pusan, we tried to go and stay at a hotel I thought would be nicer. It was called the Royal Hotel and it was beside the main park associated with Pusan Tower, in the heart of downtown.

Pusan Tower at dusk in Oct. 1999. We never visited up inside it but were near it for a few days.
Robert is ahead of me here carrying our bags. We were on our way to the Royal Hotel in the main part of downtown Busan. This is a famous fashion area where there were expensive foreign clothing stores.

We had to wait outside on the pavement on the street in front of the hotel for a while before they let us check in, which is hard to do when you’re weary. However, it was great to be staying there because there were places to go outside at the end of the hallways of the hotel that were like shared balconies.

Here I am at one of the outdoor areas of the Royal Hotel. It was a good way to see panoramic views of the city. The trees on the right are part of the park with the tower – it’s a small mountain, YongDuSan.

While on this small balcony area outside at the hotel, I took pictures of the downtown and the harbour. People always marvel at my pictures of Pusan, saying the buildings and houses “are on top of eachother!” It looked like they squeezed what they could in an area that was too small but left the mountains uninhabited. A lot has changed now and there are new huge bridges to islands, an astoundingly large yachting complex, more museums, bigger shopping centres and taller elaborate condominiums to live in. I found it difficult because normal amenities were lacking like buying a cup of coffee or even getting a meal easily somewhere. I think there were less public restaurants there at the time and I looked for vending machines to buy a little cup of coffee like I found everywhere in Seoul and there weren’t any. At that time in Seoul, many places had vending machines outdoors where you’d put in 35 cents and get a small hot drink in a little cup. These drinks were a prepared instant coffee or lemon tea or job’s tears tea (‘nut’ tea) drink. These little hot drinks helped my sinuses a lot when I lived there, as I was sick some of the time with an infection. The pollution and lack of heat in my building didn’t help.

It was interesting to see these crowded buildings downtown near the harbour.
This and the picture above are views from the Royal Hotel outside balcony. The Pacific Ocean is beyond the island in this picture. There is a bright orange bridge in the middle of this picture that goes to the island and you can see the water on the right.

We went to the park that had the tower in it that was beside the hotel and we walked up a long, winding tree-covered road for pedestrians-only to get there. The trees hung over this road so you couldn’t see anything but branches above you. Everything was dark and shaded while you went up the hill. I loved it because there were big birds that seemed to be similar to mockingbirds calling out and flying in these trees while we walked up the winding road to get to the park. And we had to wave to many people and say “Hello!” here. On the main street leading up to the road to the park, outside of the park, the mood of the people was lively and so happy. There were families and children everywhere. A group was cooking outside and asked us to try the treats they were making. They told us they were making ‘pumpkin treats’ that seemed to be like frothy, sweet-tasting blobs. It was nice and good of them to be so friendly. I had never heard of Koreans doing this or making such food.

Many parks have traditional structures holding large, iron bells, and this park was no exception.
The park was called Yongdusan if I remember correctly, and there were a lot of pigeons the people seemed to really like.

Perhaps things are not the same today, but we found that the people in Pusan looked a little different on the whole than the people in Seoul. Many had darker skin. We thought it was remarkable that the distance from Seoul and warmer climate made a noticeable difference in people’s looks.

While we were in Busan I wanted to see the Fortress from years ago that was in the area. It was similar to the NamHanSanSeong wall. We got in a taxi and asked to go there but the taxi driver brought us to the wrong place. We were dropped off way outside of Busan on a rural road surrounded by mountains. We met an old couple that was hiking to the fortress. I realised we were let out where Koreans would make a long, long hike for many hours to get there.

This was a town in the valley where we were let off by that taxi-driver.

While we walked along the road when we were basically lost outside of Pusan, Robert asked me, “Is that a rooster crowing?” I said “No, it wouldn’t be a rooster out here….!” and as I watched the edge of the property beside us, a goat appeared. Another goat appeared beside him. They were looking at us curiously. I could not believe how lost we were and thought it must have been a rooster that Robert heard after all.

These are the goats!

While we were trying to sleep that one night at the Royal Hotel, I heard horrible loud music. There was a nightclub in there somewhere underneath us! And the booming racket went until 3 in the morning! We had trouble getting any sleep or rest that night. When I looked down at the street at the many signs from our window I saw we were in a kind of entertainment area. I saw signs for “no rae bang”, which is common to see in Korea. It’s karaoke. The ‘no rae’ is a ‘song’ and like I mentioned in a former blog post, ‘bang’ means ‘room’.

There were many karaoke places all over Korea and there still are. I went to one in Karak-dong with Sang Hyun in the fall of 1997 and it was nice to see what it’s like. We got a few beers and no one else was there that evening. You could choose songs from the list of songs available. Most were Korean pop songs but a few English songs were available at that time – these were the few old Elvis songs approved by their government, a few Anne Murray songs and a few John Denver songs, ha ha! I asked Sang Hyun to sing a popular Korean song by a kind of a Korean rap singer. I didn’t sing. What was different was that while all the songs played (just tacky music) you had to look at your own screen to read the lyrics, and the screens showed half-naked women the whole time! Women, Korean and caucasian, in bikinis making suggestive poses, changing to another picture and another one on and on. Over and over and over. I was kind of angry and it ruined things for me. I don’t think Sang Hyun understood my feelings and I did not mean to take out my anger on him but I kind of did. I wonder if they still do that nowadays there? For a while around the millenium karaoke became popular in the U.S. and Canada and many businesses sold karaoke machines so people could do karaoke at home, but it’s gone out of fashion. I see many NoRaeBang signs in videos of Korea now when I look. Karaoke was a big part of Korean culture back then and it still is.

(I’ll finish my Pusan story in my next blog. Thanks for reading!)

Korea in 1999….Part 12

View of Old Downtown Seoul at night from Namsan Tower.

Kyeongju…..

Kyeongju is a special city full of cultural relics that is a must-see for tourists in Korea. I planned for us to take an inter-city bus to get there from Seoul and to spend 2 nights. Thank goodness I could find a lot of information in that Lonely Planet guide, as internet wasn’t available much then. One morning we took the bus to Kyeongju and travelled through most of Korea and could see forested mountains and colourful valleys the whole way. I loved that virtually nothing, usually not a dwelling or a building, was on the mountains but trees. Most valleys had cities or at least greenhouse farms in them. The highways there were very modern and efficient. We had to go several hundred kilometers to the south on the eastern side of the country to get there. On the way we loved seeing white egrets in the streams and marshes. Since Canada is further north than Korea and colder, there are no egrets ever to see.

Some people would not be bothered to look at egrets, but we both were thrilled to see so many in waterways along our route.

Travel within Korea was very affordable and downright cheap to me. Whether it was the subway, a bus, a plane or a taxi, prices were much lower than in Canada, in spite of the gas being much more expensive in Korea. So a bus ticket to Kyeongju was only around $16 per person and the distance was around 300km. The bus was nice and we only made a few stops.

Entry fees for everything there were low so all children could easily learn about their history and be proud of it. Income tax for the people was very low and there was no such thing as sales tax. There were so many great, better differences between Korea and Canada I saw and liked.

In Kyeongju, when we got out at the bus station, my guidebook said to go closeby and I would find several choices of affordable inns with rooms to stay in overnight. I followed the map in the book and found a place on a side-street. I asked the middle-aged woman running a restaurant with simple rooms upstairs if she had a room for us. It was only $23 for one night! Acquiring the room had to be done with a few Korean words like “bang issoyo???” (Do you have a room here?) and shoving Korean money at her. I had to say, “DooGae” and put two fingers up, meaning 2 nights. We had some sights to see while we were in Kyeongju so the room could be simple, as we weren’t going to spend much time in it. There was no elevator but the room was quiet and had a bathroom and we never did see anyone around for the whole time we were there. It was very different from Seoul. They were trying to keep Kyeongju traditional-looking and not advanced with no huge shiny office buildings like in Seoul. I remember missing the amenities you could get in Seoul like a cup of coffee here or there, a western chain restaurant or even seeing an English word on a sign somewhere.

A typical photograph of Kyeongju has these royal burial mounds in it. The mounds are huge because of the importance of royalty buried there. Regular people have smaller burial mounds. Famous treasures have been found in the area, like old crowns and old Buddhist artifacts. You can see the many mountains around the city.

It’s awful to not exactly remember our schedule from 20 years ago now, but I certainly remember seeing the sights I had wanted to see and some other surprise things also. I know I got us to take a bus or taxi to the most-visited Buddhist temple by tourists in Korea, Pulguksa. However, it was a special day at the temple when we went, and the famous front of it, where there were several distinctive stone-bridge staircases, was covered up by a huge banner. It seemed to be an important event with a high-level monk speaking to the crowd the whole time. We walked through the grounds behind him just the same.

I do remember it was too hot for me, even though it was October, and soon after our arrival in Kyeongju I had to get a taxi to take us to a place where I could buy a hat as a sheild from the strong sun. The sale stand was just an outdoor area with items on the pavement like unattractive hats you could buy. I thought my hat was really a man’s hat but it’s all I could find and I was desperate. It was so ugly I never kept it, but I was thankful to have it at the time.

This is not my picture but it’s what the stone-bridge stairs at PulGukSa look like. It’s what we didn’t get to see.
This is a good picture from a book about Pulguksa of what the pond and stone bridge look like in spring.

When you enter Pulguksa, the first thing you come upon is the beautiful pond and stone bridge above. My picture was not as good as it should be because of the bright sun. I had seen and heard so much about this temple that I was thrilled to be there. Robert wasn’t very thrilled, and said all Korean traditional-style buildings were the same. I wholeheartedly disagreed.

Here’s my picture of the pond and bridge at PulGukSa. ‘Sa’ means ‘temple’.
I was looking up at one of the main buildings. It was very crowded that day. (Oct. 1999)
This is from a book about visiting PulGukSa. It shows some of the gold-coloured statues in a main hall there.

All Korean temples have statues of Buddha in them. They’re usually gold-coloured. At Korean temples, the monks’ dress was different from other countries’ dress, and the design of the statues and buildings were unique to Korea too. I never did see the inside of any main temple buildings, as people were trying to seriously meditate and worship at all of them. At PulGukSa, even the stone walls outside were distinctive from other sites and there were special artifacts to see also.

This is my souvenir from Korea I bought at ChogyeSa Temple in Seoul in 1998. It’s about 8 inches high and is in the style of what’s inside the temple buildings on alters. He’s heavy and cost around $20 twenty years ago.
These stone walls remind me of The Flintstones.
There were 2 stone pagodas in the main courtyard. This one was hundreds of years old and almost 4 stories high.

When we were finished seeing the temple, we came out near a large tourist village with traditional buildings peppered on the hill below PulGukSa where you could stay overnight or get a special meal. I had read in my guidebook that women came to get customers to go to their dwellings to eat a meal or have a homestay overnight. This is what happened. A Korean woman hailed us and wanted us to come to her house to have a Korean lunch. We did need to eat after viewing such a large place and it was lunchtime, so we followed her to one of the tile-roofed buildings. I ordered soy-bean paste stew for us. She made it in front of us and served us each a huge stone bowl that was hot and the stew sizzled. It was perfect. We could look at the scenery and mountains while we ate. I kept looking up at one extremely beautiful mountain and the woman said, “Sokkuram…” It was where we were going next – a Buddhist statue in a grotto in that very mountain!

For me, seeing Sokkuram Grotto was the main attraction to visit on my vacation. Whenever I saw a picture of the statue I thought it would be so exciting to see.

There are many mountains like this to see throughout Korea.

I only realised years later that we had made a pilgrimmage to the grotto when we went to see the special buddha that day. It’s considered to be the most beautiful statue of Buddha in all of Asia. The grotto, with the granite Buddha and carved Buddhist figures surrounding him in Sokkuram mountain, was rediscovered after having been forgotten for years when a postman had to find shelter from a storm in the 1950’s by going in the cave. It’s astounding that people could create such carvings in a cave hundreds of years ago and its mysterious as to how they were completely forgotten for years. Many Korean people were making the pilgrimmage that day as well as many students in their school uniforms. We had to wave numerous times and say hello, as they kept hollering, “Hello!!!” happily when they saw us. It’s a unique experience all around.

We took a special bus to the top of Sokkuram Mountain first of all. The bus went extremely fast up a winding road at the edge of cliffs all the way up. At the top, there was a nice view of all of the mountains surrounding this area. There was a huge traditional building also. Everyone had to take a long hike through a wooded path from there to get to the grotto. I knew from reading my Lonely Planet book that there were no pictures allowed and that the buddha was behind glass. The whole experience was wonderful in spite of those things. It was probably a dollar for the bus and I don’t think there was a fee to see the buddha.

This is the huge traditional building where the bus lets you out. I thought perhaps there was one of their large metal bells inside of it.
Below the traditional structure was this other carving and there was a water fountain for drinking attached to it. A chipmunk was scurrying around there too.
This is me below the building at Sokkuram and there’s a turtle statue beside me. (Oct 1999)
Here is my own picture of the view from the area where you had to start your hike to the grotto. The haze or ‘pollution’ always made everything look faded more in pictures. I loved such a view, however, and the view was 360 degrees.

At the end of the more than one-hour trek through the forest, was a little building where you lined up and waited to pass through the inside or front of the grotto where the beautiful pinkish-gold granite Buddha sat. You had seconds to admire the statue behind the glass and many people would line up to do it over again. We only did it once. A Korean man who was near us in the line-up exclaimed to us after we had gone through, “…That’s it!!… It’s all finished!!!… All that way and it’s done in a minute!!!…That is all…!!!..” I think he and his wife went in the line-up again. We just smiled and chuckled. One remarkable thing was that the granite walls surrounding the Buddha were all carved with other Buddhist figures also. Sokkuram Grotto is studied as geometrically and mathematically designed so it’s interesting on many levels.

I looked back after passing through to see the grotto and took this picture. You can see the students in school uniforms and if you look closely you can see people lined up to go through the larger building to see the Buddha in its grotto. We didn’t go to the other little building at the top of everything on the left.
Finally, I inserted a picture of what you see when you pass by to look inside the grotto. It’s from a tourist book. The statue is 12 feet tall!

The fact that we saw Kyeongju, and had the strange fast, winding bus ride and saw others making the pilgrimmage certainly made the trip worthwhile. The view of the mountains and the chipmunk and egrets made it worthwhile too.

On our next day in Kyeongju we went to see some historical artifacts. We went through one of the parks that had “tumulis”, or mounds where royalty or their precious belongings were buried near them hundreds of years ago. While we were there, I fed a small box of crackers to the koi in a pond. It was thrilling. The koi were huge and one was peach-coloured, one was orange, one was yellow, one was gold and on and on. They loved the crackers! We also sat outside of the park, near it, and spoke to an old Korean man who was sitting there. Funny, you can communicate a lot with just a few words and gestures. He wanted to know what country we were from and we also said we were married, I remember. I knew how to say I was an English teacher (yong-o kyosa) and now I say “IMF Time…” instead of learning how to say 1997. I can say where I lived and and I know “sorry”, “wait”, and “excuse me”. I like to say “Han guk”, meaning South Korea and “saram” is people. So when I speak to a Korean person I can mention Korean people or Canadian people.

This is in the Tumuli Park we toured. Those 2 hills are burial mounds and the trees are flowering fruit trees. Men were trying to mow the sprawling lawn and security guards were blowing whistles at people who stepped off the path and trod on the grass.
One of my pictures of the koi that day. Many were black. Koi are bigger than you’d think: many are close to a foot long.
Stock photo of koi that are similar to the koi I saw in ponds in Korea.
This was a special observatory found in Kyeongju that was constructed for the queen 600 years ago.

We came across the old observatory and I was happy to imagine the royalty studying the stars many years ago by looking out of this stone structure.

On our second night at the inn, we went up to the rooftop patio and had a relaxing, enjoyable time looking at the area in the dark. I found a bottle of delicious milky-looking rice wine at a store nearby and had some of that while we were up there. This is a particular type of rice wine called makkeoli that is from old times. It’s sweet and pleasant, not strong-tasting and clear like their most commonly bought rice wine that to me is like vodka(soju). We looked at all the mountains surrounding Kyeongju in the dark and I tried to study the few mysterious lights on them which showed where perhaps houses or temples must have been – I wondered what was where those lights were. The time up on that roof was unexpected and unplanned but added to the experience of the trip.

I bought a vase from a souvenir shop that mimics a famous style of pottery from Korea. This type of pottery often had these cranes on its vases. I like that even though it’s a cheap replica it depicts the cracked glaze as well as the birds. These vases are usually light green. It’s about 12 inches high and cost around $20.

Korea in 1999…..Part 11

This is Eastern Seoul. The Olympic Bridge from 1988, with the middle sticking up distinctively, is crossing the Han River. I lived about 4 km from here (if you go to the bottom and to the right).

Seodaemun…..

Seodaemun is the area just to the west of Kyeongbokkung Palace. It was important for me to go because the West Gate of Seoul was here and that long, beautiful mountain with all the granite on it, InWangSan, was here as well. The day we decided to go to the area, we found ourselves near the west gate, and a few young Korean people came out of nowhere to say we should really come and see a museum that was right there. They worked at the museum, apparently. I got the impression they had been told it was better to recruit foreign tourists to see this museum. No wonder. This was the most interesting museum I’ve ever heard of. We followed those Korean people to the entrance as we did have time to go and it only cost around a dollar each to get in!

Seodaemun Prison Museum…

It was the Seodaemun Japanese Prison Hall. This was a testimony to the last time that Japan had taken over Korea. And it was like we had the whole complex to ourselves, as we seemed to be a few of the only people there. A young Korean staff-member showed us parts of the place and gave us a lot of explanations.

These are the actual old buildings the Japanese built in the early twentieth century to house Korean dissidents during the last Japanese take-over. We went through these.

For around 30 years from something like 1915 to 1945, Japan had ruled Korea and they kept Koreans who were freedom-fighters or who refused to submit in this prison. One thing I was surprised about was that one of the main prisoners was a woman. There was a mannequin in a tiny dark cell that was supposed to be her and we could look into this cell to see how she was forced to live. The most amazing thing to us was a display room with a mannequin who was supposed to be a Japanese guard watching a prisoner being tortured. The guard was moving in his chair, rocking with enjoyment, and holding a lit cigarette. He was relaxing and had his legs and feet up on the table in front of him. It was very lifelike and also was another way that showed how the Korean people created their elaborate museums.

On the right where the person is walking there’s a white brick facade that remains of the Japanese-built entrance to the prison. We entered there.

When we came out of the exit, the huge, looming InWangSan mountain greeted us, and I was so thrilled to be so close to it that I took a picture of it showing the granite design it had that looked like an ink painting.

Here is InWangSan. It was beyond remarkable in real-life.

Tongnimmun….

I found the West Gate, also called Tongnimmun, near the Japanese Museum. It wasn’t like the other tiled-roofed gates, and was the first western-style structure built in Korea, modelled after the Arc de Triumphe in Paris. There is a picture in existence of the original gate that was destroyed before this one was built and the gate is not like this one. It looks more traditional. The old west gate was used by Chinese royalty when they came to visit Korea from the west and its 2 pillars that were left standing are in this picure behind the Tongnimmun Gate towards the overpass. This current west gate, the one I took the picture of below, called Tongnimmun, is called Independence Gate, signifying independence from China as well as Japan. People weren’t allowed to walk through Tongnimmun when I was there and you can see the iron fence around it in my photo. Nowadays people can walk under and through it and the area has been made into an Independence Park.

Dongnimmun, or the West gate of Seoul.
(I called it Dongnimmun because their ‘d’s are like ‘t’s in their language) It is made of cement and many pieces of granite.

Environmentally Conscious…

Even in 1997, Korea did things sensibly like save the environment in a more effective way than people do in North America. When I was living there, someone in Korea could order a delivery from a restaurant and it would come with real dishes that looked like melamine. No matter where the customer lived, after the food was eaten, the customer would put the tray with the now-dirty dishes out in the hallway on the floor outside of the door for the driver to pick up later. The dishes would go back to the restaurant and be cleaned and reused. The government there is not like people and companies in Canada where disposable dishes, usually not recyclable, are constantly used and thrown away. In Canada, one problem is that most people are not honourable enough to not steal the real dishes. Also, companies in Canada would be unwilling to pay delivery drivers to pick up the used dishes and return with them to the restaurant. Too bad they can’t do that environmentally responsible use of dishes in the west though.

Chinese Exhibit…

JiYoung, my roomate from Karak-dong, took Robert and I to a museum in the southeast of Seoul in January of 1998 when he had visited me. It was an exhibit about China and it was huge. I remember everything was in Korean or there was no proper information to read at all, so when there was a Xian warrior on a horse in a glassed-in case, I wanted to know if it was a real clay warrior or a replica, but I couldn’t find out. I did learn that China has around 20 separate cultures and has other languages than Cantonese and Mandarian and there are many different dialects of each language as well. We don’t learn in Canada about their diverse groups within their country. At one point we saw a section which seemed to show Europeans first arriving there and the information must have said some awful things about them because after that part we were getting dirty looks from people in the crowd as we passed them on the stairs.

Many, many times I had to take the subway and the system was similar to this. This is an Express Train though, which didn’t really exist when I was there, as it says KoRail on the side and the station is outside.

My favourite room was the one where an antique, giant, silk-embroidered banner went the whole way around the edges of a room. It was in a number of long wooden cases under glass. I looked at the intricate embroidery and it was an old scene showing peasants going about their business. The scene showed royalty too. There were animals they raised to eat and ‘ox carts’ in the streets. People having a meal in their traditional homes were depicted. One part seemed to be the emporor in palacial buildings with his servants incorporated into the scene, along with many rich Chinese ladies at a large party in another continuing section. There were trees and flowers and many details everywhere. I love Chinese art, especially very old art, so I looked at this embroidery for a long time. It was lifelike yet had that quaint look that Chinese artists used to create in their work. The fact that it was so old and all embroidered made it even more beautiful.

Outside of the large museum we saw an older Korean man cooking chestnuts at a barbecue-type stand to sell to people. Chestnuts were commonly eaten and most times they were raw. I had never eaten chestnuts in Canada, although we have chestnut trees, and I had some raw ones while I lived in Seoul. They’re very good and must be healthy too. Raw chestnuts are peeled and cut in neat geometrical designs and arranged in organised piles on ceremonial plates to have at fancy food tables during their Chuseok or Solnal meals.

Namhansanseong….

I remember being told about the NamHanSanSeong fortress wall south of Karak-dong by a few Korean students in the fall of 1997. When I planned my trip I wanted to go there. I did it the hard way, as my Lonely Planet book only explained to go by subway to a certain stop in Seongnam and then hike up the mountain there to get in the park. This was lovely but very difficult to do. It was quite steep and many Koreans were climbing as well. There was a temple on the way up but I didn’t explore as I wanted to make it to the top. After an hour and a half of climbing we came to the huge South Gate in the picture below. We went under and through it and then we walked along stone wall, which was like a mini-Great-Wall-of-China running along the top of the mountain range there.

South Gate at Namhansanseong
NamHanSanSeong is one of UNESCO’s protected cultural world sites.

When you walked along the wide path, you walked along the fortress, which was 500 years old. The wall was built because one of the kings had to be protected from Chinese invaders at the time, I believe, but Korea had Japanese and Mongolian invasions and threats through the years as well. You can view Seoul from the southeast at one point on this trail but we couldn’t see it well when we came upon this spot. A great thing was that a Korean man started talking to us on the walk, and stayed with us talking and walking. He was a nuclear physicist! He said he liked Celine Dion when we said we were Canadian.

The nice Korean man took this picture of us on the trail. The wall is around 15 feet long/tall on the other side of the path, which gave protection to whoever was inside the walls 500 years ago.
This is a shrine to one of the kings along the trail in the western part of the park.
I find this is my most beautiful picture of all and it’s the shrine in the western part of NamHanSanSeong. There was a group of soldiers doing exercises there while I took the picture. You can see their shadows on the right on the steps. I didn’t dare get them in the picture, as you had to always ask permission to take photos, even at sporting events.
Another picture at the shrine. There are a few shrines there and at another one the Koreans do an annual reenactment of the history of it to honour a dead king. Like at Jogmyo Shrine downtown, they dress as king’s attendants in satiny robes with large black hats and beat a ceremonial drum in a procession.

We wanted to leave the park after hiking there for a while, and the Korean man didn’t know where to go or how to get out either. I remember him saying that to us. He suggested going down another trail through the forest that headed downhill further into the park. It worked! After a time we came upon a “tourist village” where people, especially foreigners, at the park could eat a special meal or get a bus home. I wish I had known about the buses.

Here is the man who helped us and talked to us that day walking with Robert in the tourist village after we emerged from the long forest trail.
This was one of the restaurants in the village that tried to entice foreigners with its tiled roof and real kimchi pots under the burgundy banner. The banner says special tofu from the area is on the menu, as well as Korean pancakes.
Another picture at the tourist village.

Finally, and I don’t know how he knew, but we followed the Korean man to a bus stop and he got on the bus too and told us where to get out to get the subway to get to where we were going. The people there are extremely helpful and everso curious about foreigners.