Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Wonderful World of Korean Store Names

You may remember the legendary "Crapino" furniture store featured on this blog a few weeks ago. But Crapino is far from the only funny store name on this island. Here is a list of some of our other favorites, in a number of different categories:

Hair Salon: "Hair Sponge"
Western Bars: The variety here is endless. We have an ongoing debate about which sounds more seedy: "Monkey Business" or "The Business Room." I am also partial to bars that make terrible puns in their names, such as "Western Bar None" and "Bar Code."
Mystery Spot: There is a building at a major intersection in town whose second floor holds a business called "Japanese Style Banana." We have no idea what it is, and we're kind of afraid to investigate.
English School: The award in this category definitely goes to "Butter English."
Snack Bar: "Bob Stick." This stand is clearly defunct, but we eagerly await the day that we can buy our very own Bob Stick snack.
Apartments: "Dream Factory" and "Kisan Nestville"
Food Brands: For health foods, you can take your pick from the nutritious items recommended by "Dr. You" and if you're really hungry, you may even resort to "Mother's Finger" healthy snack foods.

I am counting on my parents to point out other funny titles during their visit, which begins tomorrow!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Trip to Seoul

Because last weekend was filled with saying good-bye to John and Glenda, we decided to celebrate our anniversary this weekend instead.  We have been wanting to take the KTX fast train to Seoul for months, so we grabbed our chance and spent a short weekend there.

On Friday evening, Keegan and I met at the ferry terminal in Gohyeon (where the shipyard is) around 6.  We caught the day's last ferry to Busan and then hopped on a shuttle bus to the train station.  We made our train with five minutes to spare and settled in to our seats, which were roomy and remarkably comfortable.  Of course, it was dark out by the time we left, so we couldn't see much on our journey, and even when the train reached its top speed of about 290 kilometers per hour, we could barely tell.  The tracks were very smooth, and we just glided along through the dark night.  The train trip took about three hours, and once in Seoul we easily navigated the clean and modern subway system two stops to our hotel.  Counting our individual trips to the ferry terminal on Geoje, we took a bus, a scooter, a ferry, another bus, a train, and the subway to make it to our final destination.  If we had just figured out how to add a hot air balloon and a unicycle, I think we'd have covered every possible method of transport!

Since we hadn't had time to do more than snack during the many legs of our journey, we were quite hungry when we got to our hotel room around midnight.  So we decided to order room service.  I've never gotten room service before - I felt like we were in the movies.  The food was  not fantastic, but it tasted that way to our hungry mouths.  Shortly after our midnight meal, we hit the sack.

Our room service feast

On Saturday morning we woke up without a plan and got off to a slow start.  At breakfast, we planned our day, which involved going to Insadong, a neighborhood near that hotel that was recommended by our friend Fred and by our guidebook as a cool place with lots of interesting shops and restaurants.  We strolled there leisurely from the hotel, stopping to take pictures along the way.  

Insadong was indeed full of interesting things.  There are lots of tourist nicknacks for sale, but also a lot of beautiful handcrafts, including paintings, needlework, pottery, and beautiful paper lanterns and lamps.  I found a new dress in this funky secondhand shop, and Keegan and I picked out a table runner with a traditional Korean patchwork design, called "Bojagi."  

Paintbrushes for sale and a cool shopping center in Insadong

We had lunch at a vegetarian Korean place with delicious food.  We tried dim sum, a huge bowl of mushroom soup with noodles (a bit spicy, especially towards the bottom), and a plate of acorn squash with a filling of millet, walnuts, and cinnamon.  Mmmm!  The restaurant was otherwise a bit weird, with all of these books by "The Supreme Master Ching Hai," whose Wikipedia article includes such one-of-a-kind phrases as "Part Buddha, Part Madonna," and "transnational cybersect."  Her television channel was also playing in the background.  We tried to focus on the food.

Keegan meditates over our vegetarian lunch.

After lunch we did more wandering, this time to a temple nearby Insadong.  It was a fairly typical Korean temple, but in celebration of Buddha's birthday, there were colorful lanterns strung high over the entire courtyard.  I was happy that we visited at the right time to see such a festive display.

Buddha's birthday lanterns at Jogyesa Temple

On our way back to the hotel, we strolled along the Cheonggye Stream, where hundreds of Seoulites were wandering, enjoying the sound of the rushing stream and dipping their feet into the cool water during the very warm afternoon.  We also saw some women playing unusual traditional Korean instruments.

We spent the afternoon relaxing a little and then headed out for dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen.  I am somewhat ashamed to admit this, as I firmly believe that one should experience new foods and new restaurants at every opportunity, and as I also scoff at Americans who rave about eating at the Outback Steakhouse or TGI Friday's in Busan.  But apparently California Pizza Kitchen is my Achilles heel.  Actually, only the pizza was tasty, the rest of the meal was pretty lousy, especially dessert, The Worst Tiramisu Ever.  But it was fun to think of all the times we ate at the CPK in Norfolk and enjoyed ourselves.

We didn't do much in the evening either, just relaxed in the hotel and watched the "Sex and the City" movie on TV, which for some reason lasted FOREVER.  We gave up at midnight after a ridiculously long commercial break.  

In the morning, we woke up pretty early and decided to take a walk to a big park not far from our hotel.  The park is on a big hill with the Seoul Tower at the top.  Once we made it into the park, we found an absolutely gorgeous trail for walking, biking, and running, along with tons of people taking advantage of it.  It was nice to be out early and have a chance to see some more of the city.  I wish we had been able to go up to the tower because we both felt like we hadn't had a chance to experience the full size of the city.  Since the Seoul metropolitan area is home to almost a third of South Korea's population, we wanted a chance to be impressed by its vastness.  Maybe next time.

After breakfast, we started our journey back to Geoje, which was pretty much the same as our trip to Seoul, in reverse, with many different modes of transportation.  We were happy to get back to the needy kittens and our cozy apartment after our weekend of adventures.  We'll have to get back to Seoul again and see more of what it has to offer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Korean Shopping Adventures

This Tuesday was Children's Day in Korea, and as a result, Keegan had the day off. We have been talking for a while about getting a new piece of furniture for the "hallway" in our apartment (really the five feet of wall between the guest bathroom and the kitchen), and we knew just the store we wanted to visit. So around noon we headed towards Gohyeon to pick out a new piece of beautiful wooden furniture.

The store we like is a nondescript building along the highway, with a haphazard collection of fountains and outdoor furniture in front of it. On the patio is a huge chair carved out of the root system of a massive tree. It is totally cool. Inside, there are all kinds of chests, shelves, wardrobes, and chairs. There is even a giant handmade wooden bed that looks like it weighs a ton. Towards the back there is another room full of even more furniture.

When we first got to the store, there was no one around, and we felt funny poking around in the dark back room without permission. So Keegan scouted around outside until he saw a woman returning the shop with groceries and food for lunch. Most Korean shops are small, family-owned affairs, and it's not uncommon to see the proprietor eating an elaborate, chili-paste-tinged meal in the shop if you go shopping around noon. The woman turned on the lights for us in the back room and left us to browse, returning after a few minutes with small paper cups full of instant coffee.

We quickly zeroed in on a beautiful dark wood cabinet with thirty-six tiny drawers painted with Chinese characters. I think that the usual use for such a cabinet is to store the herbs and other ingredients for Traditional Chinese Medicine, but we plan to use it for odds and ends. We beckoned the saleswoman, and she quoted a price for us in Korean. It was one of the few chances I've had to listen to a number purely in Korean, without an immediate translation to English or a calculator display. So I was very proud of my language skill. We moved to the front of the store to complete our purchase.

At this point, things got interesting. The salesman who had helped us the last time wasn't there, and clearly the woman needed to find him to help her carry the cabinet and complete the sale. So, she asked us to sit (I recognized the word from my class!) and turned on the television for us, while she whipped out her cell phone. On the TV was a Korean movie about a girl and a pony, and we did our best to figure out what was going on. While we watched, the girl's father sold the horse, angry words were exchanged, and the girl watched with tears in her eyes as the ship containing the horse sailed away from a pier. As we followed this drama, the proprietress brought out a plate full of Korean rice cakes and chopsticks and told us to help ourselves (another word from my lessons!).

Now, at this point, it is necessary to say a word or two about Korean rice cakes. These were not the dried, puffy kind of cakes that you can buy in the health food aisle. Oh no. These were glutinous, heavy, doughy, green concoctions, presumably made by boiling rice until it was nothing more than a gluey mass, rolling it into a dough with some herbs, and then somehow sucking every last shred of moisture from it. We have eaten these before - usually they are filled with a sweet, sticky red bean paste. But these had no filling and were dry, tasteless, and rubbery. Imagine putting one of those aqua-jogging belts into your mouth and trying to chew it up. We are not big fans of this type of food (could you tell?), but of course, it would have been very rude to refuse such kind hospitality at lunchtime on a holiday afternoon. So we slowly chewed our way through a few slices of rice glue. The kind proprietress brought us some tea, which helped.

Eventually, the proprietor arrived and moved the chest out to the front of the shop, where he proceeded to carefully and systematically dust the entire cabinet. Then he loaded it into a truck to drive to our apartment. Meanwhile, his daughter (I assume) told us she would give us a 50,000 won discount, despite the fact that all of my carefully learned vocabulary for bargaining remained completely unused. We followed the delivery truck all the way back home, where the kind proprietor unloaded our new furniture and carried it up to our place. I was happy that I could tell him "You worked hard. Thank you. Good-bye," in what was no doubt heavily accented, mumbled Korean.

The chest looks wonderful in its new spot.

In the evening, I had another shopping adventure. I wanted to make a recipe that called for four eggs, but we only had two. I decided that I would walk down to the corner store and buy a few more. The store close to our apartment is only a convenience store, so I wasn't sure what I would find, but when I went in I immediately saw some large trays of eggs. Eggs aren't usually refrigerated around here, and these were no exception, but I figured since I planned to cook the eggs for 45 minutes in a 375 degree oven, it would be ok. I wasn't sure how to buy only a few eggs from the huge tray, so I was happy to see nearby little net bags, each holding only three eggs. I walked back to the apartment with my little purchase, proud of my resourcefulness in getting what we needed for dinner.

As soon as I pulled out my purchase in the kitchen, though, Keegan asked me if I knew that I had bought hard-boiled eggs. He had seen them packaged that way before at various convenience stores when traveling with Korean co-workers. Sure, enough, cracking one egg revealed hard-boiled innards, slightly brown from sitting out on the shelf for God knows how long. I became incensed, threw the eggs away, and suggested that we order a pizza. And thus ended our day of Korean shopping adventures.