Korea is full of cute things. Every folder, backpack, and notebook has smiling animals on it. Restaurant-goers are greeted with a grinning pig or cow beckoning to come in and enjoy some barbecue. Hoodies may have animal ears and I’ve seen several people, of all ages, wearing winter hats shaped like wolf-heads with paw-shaped gloves attached.
One cute thing in Korea is the character sock. What is a character sock, you ask? Well, they are socks. And they have characters on them. You can find them in department stores, gift stores and stationery stores. Positively everywhere.
They often come in a sort of one size fits all…possibly because they are small and thin but made of something stretchier than your average sock.
Unlike some socks in the US with cute (girly) pictures in the pattern, these socks tend to have a single, large image on the top of the foot. And boys can wear them too. The character socks I might be caught wearing include M&Ms, bears, an exercising cow, and mice. Socks range from animals to cartoon characters and K-Pop stars. Some have sayings or jokes on them. Some are vulgar, poking fun at bodily functions or saying things like “작은 고추 맵다.”-(little peppers are spicy. don’t understand? take a stab at it.)
If you find the right store, you can get a pair of socks for around $1 and a higher quality pair for around $1.50. Not bad, huh?
Korean word of the post: 캐릭터 양말 (kae-rik-teo yang-mal) character socks
Korea has two major religions-Buddhism and Christianity. You might have guessed that they would be Buddhist, but you probably didn’t know that South Korea is the most Christian country in Asia after the Philippines.
In South Korea, Christianity is broken down into two main sections-Catholics and Protestants. Even though they are two sects in the same religion, in Korea they are completely different groups. In fact, Korea has a pretty interesting religious breakdown.
The first, and oldest, group is the Buddhists. Sometimes it’s almost as if Buddhism is no longer truly a religion but an integral part of cultural life. Temples are everywhere, representing a few different Buddhist sects. Seollal, the Lunar New Year, is a major holiday. Children and grandchildren bow to their elders on certain special occasions or after not seeing them for a long time. On the anniversary of an ancestor’s death the family prepares a special shrine in remembrance.
The second group, and the newest, is Protestants. There are Presbyterians and other more evangelical groups. Sometimes you might be walking down the street and run into a bevy of little old ladies handing out flyers. They’ll stop you and invite you to their church, and try to convince you to come, even if you don’t speak Korean and they don’t speak English. Most Protestants have made a clean break with Korea’s Buddhist roots. Their religious culture is a lot like that in the US. It seems that a large percentage of the Koreans who have moved to America are part of this religious group.
The third group is the Catholics. Although they are Christians they sometimes have tensions with the Protestants. Why? Catholics sort of bridge the gap between the other two religious groups. Although they believe in God and Jesus, they also maintain Buddhist traditions. They celebrate Lunar New Year, bow to their elders, and prepare shrines for their ancestors. Something about the Pope decreeing that their traditions were not contrary to Catholicism.
So, Catholics and Buddhists actually form a more cohesive group. They have different views on spirituality, but maintain the same basic set of traditions. These two groups sometimes get annoyed at the Protestants for forsaking tradition and trying so hard to convert them. Meanwhile, many Protestants worry about their Buddhist and Catholic friends and family because they maintain forms of idolatry.
Of course, during a normal day everyone gets along and none of these divisions arise. Still, though, it’s an interesting mix.
Korean word of the post: 종교 (jong-gyo) religion
Traveling by bus in Korea and in the US are very different experiences.
In Korea there are bus terminals in every city and town. Potentially several terminals if the city is big enough. In the USA, you can be lucky to have one terminal in a big city. Philadelphia has one main bus terminal for Greyhound buses. If you want to take Megabus or Boltbus of the Chinatown buses you have to go elsewhere, but there’s not a terminal. You have to wait by the side of the road. In Washington DC there’s a parking lot. Not a terminal.
In Korea bus terminals are usually pretty big. Huge, in fact. The main terminal in Ulsan has enough seats for a few dozen people and standing room for scores more. Inside the terminal they also have a convenience store, a fast-food restaurant, and a few Korean-style restaurants that are more of a kiosk variety. Spacious. In the US, however, every bus terminal I know of is small. In Philadelphia you get the bus across from a major train station, but I wouldn’t wait inside since you have to cross a major road and a parking lot. In DC the buses stop in Union Station’s parking garage, but it’s far away from the amenities. I wouldn’t want to hang around inside and then miss my bus. In the only actual terminals where I’ve spent time, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore’s Greyhound terminals, there was not a lot of space. Very little seating. Not a lot to eat or do unless you brought it with you.
In Korea, the buses run on a very regular schedule. They might be late or they might be delayed a bit, but you know that the buses run every hour, or half hour, or even more frequently. In the US, it seems that intercity buses run on a whim. Sometimes it’s once an hour and it’s predictable. But usually not so much.
In Korea buses are a cheap way to travel. It might be only 10-20 dollars for a trip that takes several hours. Comparing bus prices in the US can be depressing, since it seems that a lot of lines are expensive. Cheaper than driving, yes, but you have to ask if it’s worth the hassle.
While Korea’s bus terminals and schedules are great, the actually bus’s amenities are not perfect. A lot of American buses have free WiFi and power outlets. I can’t recall that in Korea. Also, every bus I’ve been on in the US had a bathroom. Not in Korea. How can that be, you ask, when you’re on a 6 hour trip? Korean buses stop at the rest areas for bathroom breaks. That makes for a nervous trip if you’re not sure how long til the next stop…
Korea has pretty nice rest areas. Unlike a lot of the ones in the US that have a gas station and a McDonald’s, in Korea you’re more likely to see a whole group of convenience stores, Korean restaurants, vendors of different kinds, and maybe some fast food. They usually also have some maps, relatively clearly posted, telling you where you are and distances to the next city. Plus, a lot of them have bilingual signs, which makes for some fun when they are wrong…
Korean word of the post: 버스 터미널 (beo-seu teo-mi-neol) bus terminal
My last night in Korea. A full year had come and gone since I first arrived in Ulsan and it was time to go home.
I spent a week bumming around, finishing last minute business. I went downtown and signed my papers to make sure I got my pension money. I bought grapes and took them to the school as a thank you to all the great people I worked with. I mailed things home and gave things away.
On the final night, just like on my first nights in Ulsan, there were the celebrations of the Ulsan World Music Festival. So, that’s where we headed.
First stop was a nice Korean restaurant across the street from the train station. Full of meat, rice, soup, and pajeon, we walked toward our second stop, the Art and Culture Center and the World Music Fesitval. We listened to the artists and danced around. Last stop was a noraebang. You can’t finish a night out without stopping there. We sang our hearts out, some of my friends danced on tables, and the room got covered in papertowel streamers.
All too soon it was time to get a little bit of sleep before leaving in the morning. I went back to Ann’s place and made a bed on the floor. I slept off and on, got up and hopped into a taxi to the bus stand. My friends Dave and Ann came to see me off as I got onto the bus and left Korea. It was sad to leave, but it was great to know that I was going home to see my family!
Korean word of the post: 가족 (ga-jok) family
When you want to find something ‘traditional’ in Korea you should go to Insadong.
Think of a museum gift shop. Now, turn that shop into tons of shops, all lining one long street. Some of them sell your typical souvenir-mugs and t-shirts with maps and flags on them. Others sell something specific, like pottery, stationary, Buddhist items, or clothes.
I was on a search for some tea. It’s popular to give presents to the principal and vice-principal in Korea when you arrive, or during the holidays. My principal retired just before I finished, so I didn’t get a good-bye present for the new guy. Alcohol is popular as a gift, but the vice-principal rarely drinks. So, I chose tea. I went to Insadong to get some tea.
There are many, many tea shops in Insadong. I searched numerous shops, looking for just the right one. Finally, almost at the end of the road, down an alley, there was a purported tea museum. Inside they had examples of tea-drinking utensiles and many, many kinds of tea.
Insadong is good for walking around. One area is like a four-story mall. Alleys wind away, crowded with more shops and restaurants. In every nook and cranny you can find an interesting place to relax. One shop has birds that fly around while you drink your tea. Another has sketchpads on every table so you can draw while you snack.
Spreading out further, there are temples, palaces, and old buildings. If you want to spend some time wandering around Seoul, head for Insadong, walk anywhere, and you’ll find something to see.
Korea word of the post: 인사동 (in-sa-dong) Insadong
Seoul if chock full of places to go and things to see. One important place is N Seoul Tower. Or, as more people seem to know it, Namsan Tower.
The tower, which is actually a communication tower, is at the top of Namsan. Go figure. At the botton of the mountain is a cable car that you can use to scale the side. But, it’s Korea. Every popular mountain has a staircase leading up. Across the street from the cable car there is a tall set of stairs that will lead you straight to the top. That’s how I got there for the first time in 2009. Your legs will burn and you will sweat, but it’s a good climb. You’ll pass some playground equipment and, once you are closer to the top, some old brick fortifications from when a castle of sorts stood on the hillside. From the opposite side of the mountain you can climb up a more gentle slope, through the forest park and have a pretty nice view of the city as you loop around.
At the top is the tower and its grounds. A few vendors are out and about selling food and drinks. This last time I saw a martial arts show in the forum-like area in front of the tower. Inside the tower you can hit up the restaurant or the gift shop and you can pay to take the elevator to the top, up to the art-filled observation decks and a rotating restaurant. Like Seattle. Or, you can go to the underground part and take a walk through the Teddy Bear Museum. I have not checked that out yet.
On the ground level, off to the right side of the tower is an observation platform crusted over with padlocks. Old ones and new ones all mingling, fighting for space. Some of the newer ones are actually locked onto the older ones. It is said that a couple who comes to Namsan Tower and places their padlock is making a vow of eternal love. I guess all the couples who break up after should come and remove their locks…
The view is great, and it’s great to get that taste of nature in the middle of the city. Next time, I’ll have to bring a lock. And a girlfriend.
Korean word of the post: N 서울타워 (n seo-ul-ta-weo) N Seoul Tower