Friday, 4 July 2008

韓国 Korea

It was time to visit another of Japan's neighbours. After China the choice fell on (South) Korea. I went to South Korea's capital Seoul, advertised with the slogan "Seoul, the Soul of Asia". Let's see what the city has to offer. I did not stay long, but the more I tried to experience in the few days I had.

到着 Arriving

I got a pretty late flight and arrived in Seoul Incheon Airport (there is also a second airport called Gimp Airport, be careful not to confuse them when planning trips; Incheon is the one on the island). According to Wikipedia Incheon Airport is rated the best in the world with 5 stars. Alas arriving late I had no time to explore why it has such a good reputation.
After 11pm there are no more buses and Taxi Drivers tried to get me for a ride. However the ride is quite long, and I recommend you to use the train instead. There is a train station, which's train will bring you as far as Gimpo Airport on the main land for 3000 Wong (300 Yen, 2 Euro).
So I choose the train and changed to subway at Gimpo airport. However what I did not expect is that the subway suddenly stopped at midnight and all passengers had to leave at the current station. I was still only half way to my Youth Hostel and pretty baffled.
I thought about taking a taxi, but I was unsure, since I could not speak Korean (hangul mal moteyo) and I didn't know if they usually trick tourists or not. So I decided to walk. Taking out my compass and only having my Subway Map for orientation I walked through night time Seoul for 2,5 hours until I finally arrived at the Youth Hostel. I was quite exhausted, but it was interested to see a Seoul reigned by drunkards and motorcycle gangsters, because that's how Seoul is after midnight.

Seoul Airport

I forgot to take pictures of all the bikes, that's the only one I got


Seoul's subway is very similar if not identical to Tokyo's. The trains look the same from the outside and inside, they are crowded during rush hours and there is even a green circular line not unlike Yamanote.

However underground between the subway stations you can find a lot of stores and bazaars that are unlike Tokyo. The tunnels are so filled with stores that the actual walkway become quite tiny. And most of the stores sell traditional Korean clothing.

Youth Hostel Golden Pond

I was really lucky with the Youth Hostel I had chosen. The hostel is called Golden Pond and is right in the center of Seoul at Hyehwa subway station. People have usually trouble finding the owner, because he usually sits among the guests, eats and chats with them and is hard to make out ^_^. But simply ask for him, his name is J.K.

The hostel has a really nice atmosphere and the people living in it immediately build a kind of community. If you like video games, you can play with the owner after 11pm every day in a nearby PC House. He challenged me to a game of StarCraft and I won the first night, while he won the second one. PC Houses is one of Korea's favorite past time / night time activity. People will gather and play games there together in a nice room with game ready PCs snacks and drinks. The hourly price is really cheap, we usually payed around 2000 Wong for 3 hours (200 Yen, 1.2 Euro).

E-Sports Stadium

When I got up after the night tour it was already past midday. So I hurried got some Korean breakfast and went to my first goal. One of things recommended by my Korean friend Youngki was the E-Sports Stadium. Computer games are tremendously popular in Korea, especially StarCraft. So I went to the stadium to watch a game of StraCraft live.
It is really a different world. StarCraft in Korea is as popular as Soccer in Europe, has its own 4 national leagues, it's stars and fans. High class StarCraft players earn at least as much as top soccer players in Europe and are at least as popular, especially among girls.
Still I was surprised, when I take my seats, that most of the audience was indeed female. I was one of the only boys watching the game. The players however were all male. StarCraft however is also very popular among girls.
The game is commented just like soccer by a team of three moderators, who also introduce the background of the players. However since their comments might be vital to the gameplay, the players are not allowed to hear them and play in sound proof chambers, where they only can talk to each other.
Left and right from the screen and chambers sit the other team members cheering for their team.
So I watched two teams compete against each other in 2 vs 2, until one team got the overall win. When one of the players made a successful Zergling rush (a quick attack with a certain unit) all the girls screamed the players name and got quite ecstatic. Also after the final goal, the girls screamed and would try to touch the gaming heroes.

Later Youngki told me that this very Game will enter Korea's history books. Only its popularity and success made Korea's internet the fastest in the world. It boosted computer and wired infrastructure and made many internet companies come out and offer services for it. It is incredible how a Game like that can change a whole culture and country.

the stadium is on Yong-san, Seoul's Akihabara

the booths of the players are soundproof
in the middle you can see the three moderators

the audience was manly girls

the winning team

and the losers

there was also a hall of fame


match start

zergling rush


국립중앙박물관 国立中央博物館 National Museum Of Korea

It rained heavily that day, so after the StarCraft match, I decided to go to the national museum. I was especially curious about Korea's history, since I did only know about it from learning Japan's history.
The museum is brand new and really huge. Too huge too see all in one day. The best point: The entrance is free.
However because of my limited time I could only spend one day going there, so I went to the information counter, of which there are four: korean, english, japanese and chinese. After hesitating for one moment I of course went to the Japanese counter and surprised the lady behind with fluent Japanese ^^/
I asked for section dealing about Korea's history and got information about that.


So I went through the history section and found out the Korea's history dates back as far as 700.000 years, because remainders of homo erectus where found at the very peninsula.

Korea's early times show maybe the world's best cavemen art, which was actually really close to the actual animals.

cavemen art

Later Korea's history was influenced by its vicinity to China in Japan. Many techniques and arts would be adopted from China and freely passed on to Japan. Japan at that time got almost all of its culture from Korea.
However the Korean people made a lot of modifications to the arts and techniques they learned and gave them their own unique touch and often even improved them.

stone age weapons

the technique of iron forgery reached Korea from China

but also musical instruments

the kings of Gojoseon were buried in hill graves

the coffin inside such a grave

in the graves small figures were found

Korea's early history as an unified state Gojoseon (Old Joseon) eventually ended and four new powers emerged with Manchuria in the north splitting away from Korea at this time and the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baeckje and Silla (which absorbed the temporary state Gaya) emerged.
Goguryeo was famous for its splendid cavalry and Backje for its navy and relations to north and south China. Silla focused on forgein trade and eventually conquered the others parts and was then known as Unified Silla in the North South Kingdoms Period of Korea.

a typical Korean warrior

the kings of the three kingdoms had might crowns

Korea's architecture developed quickly

the peak of fine craftsman ship

Book Print

One of Korea's most amazing achievements was book printing. As early as the 8th century first books have been printed with wood print techniques and in 1377 the first movable metal printing device was used to print books on Buddhist Sermons (That's almost 200 years before Gutenberg!).


After that I browsed a bit through a section dealing with Buddhism in Korea, which also has its own distinct elements, like the importance of music (as an offer to Buddha).

musical instruments

the beginning of Buddhism in Korea

tools for rites (my friend gave me one like the right most one as present)

I especially liked the statue of the thinking (Pensive) Buddha.

pensive Buddha

창덕궁 Changdeokgung Palace

On the next day I decided to pay a visit to the forbidden palace of Korea. You actually have a choice between more than one, but the one I decided to go is the only one under the Unesco World Heritage protection.
All days except Thursday you can only enter, when you follow a guided tour and the price is 3000 Wong (300 Yen, 2 Euro). However not knowing about this I happened to be there on Thursday. I hesitated to enter, although walking alone pleases me, the entrance for the individual entrance on Thursday is 15.000 (1.500 Yen, 10 Euro) which is incredible for Korean standards.
I entered anyway, after unsuccessfully claiming to be under 18 (she demanded some proof, always keep your old school's student IDs...).

So I entered by myself an followed some way points on the map. The architecture is very similar to Japan, but the colors are distinctively different. One sad thing was that at very building you had to read burned down by Japanese soldiers in the 16th century or burned down by Japanese soldiers during the World Wars. In fact there are very few historic buildings who were not at least burned down once by Japanese soldiers.
What was interesting is, that when I followed a Japanese tour guide for a while, listening to her explanations she at one point said. Because of a big problem in the beginning of the last century all these buildings burned down and had to be rebuilt. She did not mention the cause...

After seeing most of the interesting buildings, I entered the wilderness. Most of the area is covered by the secret forest or garden and you need 1-2 hours to pass through it. There are of course paths you should take through the trees, but being equipped with map and compass and choose the forest and imagined being a spy trying to gather information on the Korea king. Every time I found another construct in the middle of the forest I would sneak close and look for people to listen to. Only bad that I can't understand Korean... ^_^

종묘 Jongmyo Royal Ancestor Shrine

After that I went to the Royal Shrine nearby. According to the museum I visited the day before, all the old Korean kings were buried in impressive hill graves, while the newer ones were enshrined in the Jongmyo Shrine.
What surprised me was its simplicity and lack of ornaments. It was a quite humble and peaceful place and even the building the kings were enshrined was very simple.

바둑 Baduk 囲碁 (Igo) 圍棋 (Wéiqí) Go

After the shrine I went to the nearby public park. The park near the shrine is a gathering point for Seoul's elderly population. And they all come here to play games. Yes generations in Korea are very similar.
However while the Young Generation is playing only one game StarCraft, the Old Generation plays just as well only one game: Baduk (the western name is Go).
I was really surprised to see so many people playing Go at the same time. The number must have been around 1000 people or even more. The whole park was totally dense and full with Go playing old people.

hundreds of old men playing Go

After watching and playing StarCraft the other day, this day of course I had to watch them play Go and eventually challenged an old geezer for a Game. I honestly told him that I am still beginner and he gave me the black stones (the black player starts the game). Despite this small advantage his white armies soon encircled my black formations and eventually imprisoned me to a humble territory in the middle of the game. I lost big time!
But the old Seoul people were still surprised about the young foreigner challenging them in their own game and quite entertained by my futile attacks to his white territory. Although he was surely bored by my low skill, I think he enjoyed the change and we shook hands, wished each other good luck and parted.

you still have a lot to learn young mika

Lee Myung-Bak

There was one more think I wanted to see before I had to leave again. I learned from Youngki, my Korean friend, that the new president of Korea Lee Myung-Bak is almost like a dictator. Before becoming president this year, he was the president of Korea's car company Hyundai, which he governed with iron fist. In this case his strict rule not allowing for different opinions gave the company an enormous economic boost, raising both the companies and his fame. Because of that fame and the promise to do the same for Korea's economy as a whole he was elected president in February this year.
However the people did not think ahead, because now he is ruling Korea just like he ruled over Hyundai, like a dictator. Any different opinion or voice is suffocated and ejected from the government. One event two weeks ago exemplifies his position quite well, he went to visit the United States and was greeted by the Bush Administration: "Welcome President of Korea."
He jokingly replied: "There must me a misconception, I am the CEO of Korea, and Korea is my company. But alas I am not yet able to fire my citizens, hahaha".
Hahaha indeed...

City Hall

So I went to the city hall and asked: Excuse me, I'd like to demonstrate against your president. Can you tell me where the next demonstration will be held? Nobody spoke English so i repeated my request in Japanese, finally got someone on the phone fluent in Japanese who understood me and replied: Anoo, this is not really part of our service to inform about demonstrations against our president.... but if you want to follow a purely personal adivce, go to the Hotel Plaza....

Hihi ^-^. Be careful kids and don't try this in other countries, I heard a reporter was impassioned for 1,5 months for asking this question in an eastern European country.

남대문 시장 Nam-dae-mun Market

The demonstration was 2 hours later, so I used the remaining time to visit a nearby street market Youngki recommended to me. The Nam-Dae-Mun market. The Nam-Dae-Mun (Huge South Gate) was once the symbol of Seoul, but it was recently burned down by a maniac, so know you can only see a picture of it...

the gate that has been burned down

The market was really cool. Dense streets filled with stands and people screaming and selling all kinds of stuff. While bargaining is usually uncommon in Korea, here people will look strange at you if you don't. One time I bought some socks for friends in Japan and since I forgot to bargain, the woman had pity with me and gave me some more socks for free. ^_^

I ate a good dinner (see above) and enjoyed the really cool market and then headed on to the demonstration.

ginseng is very expensive

Candlelight Revolution

The place before the Plaza Hotel know filled with people. This day's demonstration was organized and lead by the Christian Church of Korea, the next day's would be organized by the Buddhist community and on the weekend all would cooperate and demonstrate together.
I found a really wonderful and cute Korean girl, who spoke fluently English and organized a petition against Police Brutality. In the last weeks the demonstrations got really violent, both because of violence from the demonstrators but also because of the unreasonable violence used by the police force.

Korean police

She told me that among the things that enraged Korea's people most are the presidents plan to import low quality beef from the United States (this kind of beef is forbidden all over Europe, and also in Japan and in most countries in the world and is know for causing the Mad Cow Disease).
Also he is planning to abolish Korea's public health care system and replace it with a private one, excluding poor people from medical care.
Because of this and his general behavior to silence and ignore any opposition to his plans, his acceptance rate among Korean citizens has dropped to 7%.
She also explained me that he gave the OK for the police to use more heavier arms like tear gas and tanks using water as ammunition. Because of that the religious communities went from active supporter of the protests to active organizers. The plan for today was to build a white block (how ironic!) of white robed priests in front of the demonstration, so that the police would be unable to use violence and hurt the demonstrators. Using violence against peaceful priests would be Lee Myung-Bak's international out, since pressure from the Vatikan and other countries would lay heavy on him.

the red sign reads: Candle Revolution

it says: even Jesus is angry with the president

everyone could write their message for peace on the flags

So some priest held an crisis mass in front of the people (he called the president to reason and to listen to the people and told the people to fight for their freedom and dignity as human beings). After the mass, everbody was handed candles and we started a candle demonstration through Seoul's streets. It was really wonderful! Apart from slogans probably similar to demonstrations in Europe, they also sang certain revolutionary songs and the priests chanted chorals and prayers.

crisis mass

When the police blocked the road, the priests in the white block would raise their voice to the maximum and sing gospel songs and prayers which were miraculously really strong enough to quickly break the police blockades. The police held to the expectations and did not dare to use violence against peaceful priests.

the white block

Throughout the demonstration people would come to me and tell me in English how touched they are that even foreigners take part in the concerns of the Korean people. Many of them even hugged me, also some priests. It was really a wonderful demonstration!


crisis mass

revolutionary songs

candlelight march

出発 Partings

And then the time came to leave Korea. Some final impressions are that Korea is from the outside really similar to Japan, while the people are very different from the inside. They are not hesitating to speak their own opinion are energetic and do not tolerate injustice both for them and for fellow citizens.
I was surprised by the high level of English of many people here, and every time my English did not help I could speak in Japanese and was understood.

I enjoyed my short time here really much and recommend everyone to go visit Korea, the small country between Japan and China, often forgotten, which is not fair to this wonderful country and people!


Bonus Pictures

Korea and Japan have a lot in common. We already talked about the same subway system and similar architecture and how much of the Japanese culture found its origin in the Korean peninsula. In the bonus pictures I will show you that also food and drinks are the same:


looks so Japanese

omu rice, I bet there is an identical display like this in Japan

but also the drink vending machines look alike

and the arcades

대학로 University Street

The Golden Pond is very close to the 대학로 University Street, where many young people hang out.

Gandalf watches over the street

and Army Of Darkness is turned into a musical


hanayeol said...

invite you to my baduk blog

Vilwarin said...

thx! I bookmarked your Blog, let's see if I can get a little better in Baduk with it :)