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Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Gaecheonjeol (National Foundation Day) is an annual National holiday that is celebrated in both North and South Korea. This seems to be one of the quieter holidays in Korea, but each year the whole country has a day off on October 3, so no one seems to complain. This holiday celebrates the mytholical foundation of an ancient Korean kingdom which occured around 4,500 years ago. Since I had the day off I decided to go check out the annual celebration at Dangun's alter on Manisan, which is located on the southern portion of Ganghwa-do.


The first Korean kingdom was said to be created by by Dangun, the ledgendary Demigod who established his divine kingdom in what is now Pyongyang, North Korea. Dangun's father was the son of god and his mother was a former bear who was transformed into a woman through her devotion to god. This is an ancient creation myth that has been gaining popularity in the past several decades due to the rise in Korean nationalism and new found interest and pride in Korean Shamanism. This story implies that Korea and her people decended from the grandson of god, so that would techinally make all Korean's the direct desendents of god himself.

Ceremony at Dangun's Alter

A ceremony is held every year Chamseong-dan, which is an ancient stone alter that is located on the top of the island's tallest mountain (Mani-san). The ceremony starts around 10AM each year, but you must make sure you get there on time because it get crowded and when the ceremony starts they will not let you in. The surprisingly difficult hike takes over an hour, but it offers some amazing views.

Deborah and I were a little late because we didn't expect the hike to be an actual hike. About 75% up the hill I decided that the only way to make it in time was to jog up. Unfortuanetly, the last 25% is the hardest part, and worse yet, when I made it to the top the gates they were already locked. No one was happy about that, but I didn't just run up a mountain for no reason.

I managed to sneak through the gate. I waited until the guard (yes they had guards) wasn't paying attention and then I snunk in. A few people followed my lead, and luckily Deborah was one of them!

This is said to be the actual alter that Dangun performed animal sacrifices to his grandfather and to the other dieties. The alter is quite big and I find it hard to believe that it's acutually 4,500 years old...That would make it the oldest man made thing I've ever personally seen...

The alter was quite packed, so I understand why it was closed…

We managed to see the last several minutes of the ceremony. There were several priests and a nice table full of offerings. Some chanting and Confucius rights were going on, but I didn't see any Shamanistic rites, at least not that I'm aware of.

Several Confucius priests walked up to the top of the alter and continued chanting. Everyone was talking and scrambling to get a picture. It certainly didn't feel very sacred.

Several beautiful women were dancing at the top of the alter. One lit a metal torch by using something that looked like a satellite dish. 

The women walked down and lit the insense burner which was the signal that the ceremony was over. That's when the real craziness started!

After that everyone made a dash for the offering table. People took handfulls of offerings and stuffed them into sacks. Unfortunately, but probably for the better, some of the priests had already removed the money. It was quite chaotic and left me feeling a little confused and somewhat shocked.

 Some people were just taking handfuls of grain and shoving them into their mouths. I did the same after a slight hesitation. I got a few good pieces. 
Deborah decided to go for the flowers. She had to wrestle them away from a greedy middle aged woman who was hoarding them, but Deborah's no push over.

Overall I felt a little disapointed. I was hoping for a genuine Shamanistic ceremony, but I felt like I just watched another show for the newspaper. Since I've been here I've been in search of traditional Korean culture. More often then not I've been left disappointed, which makes me wonder if those days have entirely passed on.

Thanks for reading and,

P.S. Here are some great website for a little more indebth information

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Mugwort Health Center of Ganghwa-do

Mugwort. It's a weed that grows wild in many parts of the world. Here in Korea, people use mugwort for many different reasons and in many different ways. The first time I was exposed to mugwort was in a sauna where they had a mugwort hot tub. There was a sign on the wall that tried to explain the medical benefits of soaking in this tub, but of couse the translation was really terrible and I couldn't get much out of it. The only thing I learned from that tub was that mugwort is good for "gynelogical diseases"...Sometimes the translations aren't the best, but the idea of soaking in a hot tub that people with gynelogical disorders seek out was especially troubling. I jumped in anyway.

A little more reasearch and it turns out that Korean's have been using mugwort since Korean people became Korean. The traditional Korean creation myth invloves the Dangun (more on him in a later post), who's father was the son of god and his mother was a former bear. Dangun's mother was transformed into a human by a lot of prayer and a sacred diet of garlic and mugwort. Dangun is credited with civilizing and culturing the Korean people, and with teaching them how to use traditional medicine medicine, specifically how to use mugwort. As you can see this herb plays a very important part in Korean culture.

Mugwort Health Center

When Deborah and I were visiting Ganghwa-do, we noticed that there was a Mugwort Health Center. We has some time to kill, so we decided to check it out. The first thing we did there was to make mugwort soap. This soap is very popular because it is good for alleviating the many different types of skin disorders that seem to plague Korean people. After the soap making the real fun began.

The pot

I was under the assumption that this place was just a sauna that specialized particular focus on mugwort. While this is true, there are no baths and no showers here, so if you come, come clean. The first thing we did was to strip naked, put on long, cult like skirts. Why a skirt? Well, we needed unobstructed access as we sat on pots of smoking mugwort. Yes...what I'm trying to say is that the first thing we did at this clinic was to literally have mugwort smoke blown up our asses. It wasn't blowing so much as billowing, but it was a rather awkward experience none the less. It was very hot and burning mugwort doesn't smell too great, so it wasn't the most comfortable thirty minutes I've spent on a pot. Afterwards I felt a little silly and smelled like I had spent the night sitting too close to a camp fire.

Ball pit and lounging

Next we put on some shorts and went to go play in a grown up version of a ball pit. This was a hot room filled with little marble sized pellets made of mugwort. We wallowed, burried each other, and slid around until it was time to move on to the next area. The next room was like a napping room filled with more mugwort. I was getting a little tired of this miracle herb and the room was really hot, so we didn't stay too long. The last thing on the menu was sticking your feet in foot warmers filled with the little mugwort balls. This was quite comfortable. After a while we sipped some mugwort tea and headed for the locker rooms. We heard a lot of stories about the wonders of mugwort, but my favorite was the one about a man who couldn't hold his soju. He was only able to drink about a bottle before he was too drunk. If you've been to Korea you know this situation would be a social disaster. The man started drinking mugwort tea during the day and also while he was drinking soju. Thankfully, he is doing much better and reportedly he can drink all night. 

The whole health center experience took a few hours. By the end I was pretty tired of mugwort and tired of smelling the smoke residue left of my body. Did I feel any healthier? Not really I guess, but it was an interesting and funny experince, yet one I'm not sure that I'm in a rush to do again.

How to get there

Once in Ganghwa-do, take local bus number 2 and look for this big pink sign. Everything on the island is in Korean, so if you don't speak Korean it may be a bit confusing. Your best best to to grab a local tourist map, point to the bus driver, and let him know you are going here. He'll probably be kind enough to not let you miss your stop.

The center is rather unassuming, but you should be able to spot it. The whole experience only cost 15,000 won (plus 8,000 for making the soap which is optional).

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The North

Many people know about the famous border area of Panmunjom where the armistice agreement was signed in 1953 and where North and South Korean soldiers to this day stare each other down only meters apart, but most people don't realize that the entire North-South border is not quite like this. In the western most area of South Korea is a large island called Ganghwa which directly shares a border with The North. Here, the border isn't a 2 km strip of heavily minded no man's land. Instead it is a surprisingly narrow and unassuming stretch of the Han river. Deborah and I ventured out here to get away from the city for a few days because we heard it is surprisingly unmodernized and relaxed. As usual, we didn't really know what to expect when we got to this rural island, but we were soon surprised by all the things that can be done here. One of the easiest and strangest things to do is to in the area is to walk along the border and check out the Ganghwa Peace Observation Deck. While we were here we witnessed one of the most touching human moments I have ever seen...

Peering into North Korea

North Korea is not hard to miss when you are on the island. Deborah and I were riding on a local bus heading toward the Observatory and suddenly these brown, barren mountains came into view from around a river bend. After a few seconds of processing I realized that North Korea was a lot closer then I thought it was. As quickly as they appeared, these odd, treeless mountains disappeared as our bus continued to climb the mountain roads. It was a very odd feeling when I first snuck a glance of North Korea. All the mountains in South Korea are heavily forested, so the barren mountains of The North instantly stuck out. Why are the mountains barren? Supposedly, when the 90's famine struck things got so bad that the people either ate all the tree bark and the trees died or they had to cut down all the forests to use as fire wood. Other than glimpsing what looks like a barren waste land in the far off distance, there is not much else to indicate that North Korea is only a few kilometers away.

The last road before North Korea
The only thing that gives it away on the South Korean side is a large but abandoned looking wire fence that runs along the river. This is amazingly different than the border at Panmunjom. Right near the river there are slightly more military things going on, but that's not unusual in Korea. Everyone acts normal, the towns look the same, and fields stretch up nearly to the rivers edge.
The South on the right, The North on the left...

Ganghwa Peace Observation Deck

Located on a hill at the narrowest point in the river is the Peace Observatory. It's a small but modern looking building that has a gift shop where you can buy North Korea liquor (I have some "finely aged" acorn liquor to share when I get home), a little resturaunt, and a few decks with binoculars and Korean propaganda movies and the like. For many the binoculars are the real draw to this place. By using these binoculars I had a personal glimps into North Korea and somewhat amazingly it was rather unamazing! I saw people riding bikes, kids playing volleyball in a school yard, farmers farming, and people passing in the streets. If North Korean's look over at us in South Korea from their binoculars they would see almost exactly the same thing, except there are a lot more cars in South Korea. Other than that I noticed all the buildings where the same color and of traditional Korean style. The only genuninely interesting or unusual thing I saw was a large propaganda painting showing obnoxiously happy farmers harvesting rice.
Deborah peering at her less fortunate Northern neighbors

When Things Got Real

We were solemn but having a fun and interesting time. As we were getting ready to leave we ventured down to a side memorial where some loud opera style music was playing. Having my ear turned in for interesting propaganda I figured this music was a good lead. We got down there and looked at a strangely and obviously distorted map that showed North Korean mountains pointier and redder then they really was a map that was representing your view from from where you were standing, so it was strange that it wasn't the view you were actually seeing...

Right after that is when we saw something that really made this whole experience real to me. At a shrine we saw a family, led by a man in his 90's, holding a Confucian ceremony. The old man was also there with a few other old men. He could barely walk but he got down on his knees and bowed three times while facing North Korea. They offered food and drink, lit incense, and then burned a piece of paper with people's names on it. I can only imagine what a divided Korea has cost this man...

People in America fear and dislike North Korea, but here in South Korea people regard The North with sympathy. South Korean's generally feel bad for their distant family members who were tricked or forced into believing in three generations of megalomaniacs who have led them into a life where, for many, a good day is a day when you eat. This old man and millions of others have had to live with the fadding memories of their suffering family members. Luckily, these are feelings few people will ever know, but unfortunately they are feelings that many Korean's are forgetting. Right after seeing this old man sob and bend to his knees for a lifetime of loss, I heard a Korean woman say "there's nothing to see here..." as she stuffed her fat face with over priced gift shop ice cream. Sadly, that feeling of apathy is a feeling many younger Koreans have toward The North, "there's nothing to see here..."

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Shikanoshima Island

Shikanoshima Island is a small island that is easily accessable from Fukuoka, Japan. There is not a whole lot to do on this island, but that is part of the draw. The island is surprisingly rural and natural, which can be a nice contrast to the busy and modern city of Fukuoka. Walking along the edge of the island is a nice few hour walk where you will find a lot of random things and small towns that should keep you interested and wondering what is around the next corner. 
It's a sleepy kind of island...but that's the main reason why you should go.

Golden Seal

There is a small park on the island where a famous Golden Seal was found. At first, I thought they were talking about some urban legend that had to do with an animal made out of gold. When we go to the park it turns out that an ancient Chinese letter seal made of gold was found here...Not quite as exciting as a golden animal, but the park was nice none the less.

Out of Place Hot Dog Stand

If you do go to the island, try looking for MamDog. It's a strangely random place that sells the best hotdogs I've had in a long time. There was a little girl that worked there that continously spoke Japanese to us, even though neither one of us can speak Japanese. She didn't seem to mind and we had a fun time trying to comunicate with her.

Katsuma Beach

The biggest draw to the island is the beach. It's a beautiful which is very clean and not terribly developed. There are many nearby island which make the view something to yip about. The surrounding ocean is a busy shipping and fishing area and it was interesting to watch all the activity going on out at sea. The most interesting thing was the giant school of fish we saw. At first I thought it was just patches of sea weed or coral, but as I looked longer and harder I noticed all the fish jumping out of the water. These school of fish must've had hundreds of thousands of fish each and probably took up an area of about two acers. There were several fishermen who just threw their lines into the clump and pulled fish out by their tails or sides or faces. It didn't look like much fun considering how easy it was, but they seemed to enjoy it.

Getting There

 There are a few ways to get to the island. One way is by ferry from Hakata Pier, but the easiest way to get there is to go to Hakata station and buy a JR ticket to JR Kashii station. At Kashii you will need to transfere lines and head to the JR Saitozaki staion, which is the last stop. From Saitozaki there are a number of local buses that will take you to the island. This sounds like a lot of work, but the whole trip only takes about 45 minutes.

Thanks for reading,

A nice shot of the end of summer country side.

A dad drawing in the sand with his daughter. You can see a few islands and shipping boats in the background.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Learning Korean with the help of comics

You'll never find the perfect ramen if you can't read Korean...
A few things led me to Korea, but one of the biggest reasons I came here was to learn Korean. When I came to Korea over one year ago, I had this misconception that I would just naturally learn enough Korean to satisfy my scholarly desires. While I definitely learned the alphabet, a little grammar, and a few key phrases, I didn't really learn enough to talk to all the new people I had met. Every foreigner in Korea knows how to ask for directions and can bark orders for more beer, but I hated being one of "those people". That's not to say I don't understand how it happens. Being in an all English environment at work, not having much free time, and every Korean person kind of speaking English helped me and many others to be just lazy enough not learn more Korean than was necessary. Thankfully, that is about to change. I've recently finished a one year teaching contract (more on that in a later yip) and have moved on to taking full time Korean language classes at Konkuk University. A full time, intensive language course in country is the only way for me learn the language properly. I never held this view before, but now I feel that people need some kind of formal language education to learn a language enough to truly be at a conversational level in a second, non-native language. Who's to say how long it takes, but picking up bits and pieces from friends and random books is not the best path to learning a new language, especially one so fundamentally different as Korean.

Takehika Inoue's Vagabond is one of my
favorites…and now I can read it in Korean!
Now, with that being said, I know most people don't have the time or money to take intensive university level classes. I am fortunate enough to be given that opportunity and I am grateful for it every day. Luckily, a lot of people out there want to help us foreigners learn Korean. There are some excellent free classes you can take on the weekends with CLS. This is a semi-formal class with several different levels that meet once a week. These guys have been around for awhile and know what they are doing. You could also take a less formal rout and check out this site to meet some people and have some coffee. These are both great and even necessary ways to actually learn Korean, but one of my mostly highly recommend way to practice our budding language skills is to read comic books. There is an amazing website called talk to me in korean that is a great place for Korean learners of all levels, and while roaming around there I found what I was looking for…a website that uses manhwa (aka manga aka comics) to help you learn Korean. uses comics to help you learn the Korean language. What could be better than that! I sometimes buy Korean comics and try to read them, but they are usually way too hard for me. I get through them by relying heavily google translate (and Deborah), but that becomes tiring and takes the fun out of it. This website uses very simple and common language while providing well drawn and fun scenes. Associating language with an action or scene can help you learn much faster and it's also a lot more interesting then studying as usual. Best of all, an English translation and some cultural knowledge can be found at the bottom of each scene. It's a great little website and definitely deserves a look if you're wanting to learn more about Korea and it's language.

Thanks for reading,

See! Look at this little clip. What's he saying? For only 2000 Won you can get a giant book of manhwa. It's too good of a deal to not buy. Now if I could only understand it...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ttukseom Beautiful Flea Market

It can seem difficult to find second hand things in Korea, but the Ttukseom Beautiful Flea Market is a great place to go if you are looking for some second hand items. It's also perfect if you are looking to get rid of some of your junk! A little end of summer cleaning revealed that we've accumulated more stuff then we thought, so we've been looking for a place to dump our stuff. Luckily, we discovered this charity flea market before we left our bags along the side of the road. All you have to do is sign up online on their English (or Korean if you wish) website, bring your old stuff, find your spot, and get ready for the chaos.

The Flea Market is held right under Ttukseom Resort station on line 7 every Saturday from the end of March to the end of October. It starts at 11:00, but you should get there as early as you can so you get a good spot and start selling your things while everyone is still buzzing and has money. Keep in mind that this market is actually a charity and they suggest that you give them at least 10% of your earnings. Not a bad deal.

This place is no joke. It is packed with people and if you have decent or unique things you can expect to sell a lot. The key is to mark the prices and to keep things cheap. Don't expect to sell your 200 dollar used designer jeans for more than 5,000. There are so many clothes here that most clothing items sell for about W1,000 by the end of the day. Start high in the beginning, but don't be afraid to lower your prices when things stop selling. 

When we first got to our spot people were yelling at us to hurry up and take our stuff out so they could be first to dig through it. Korean people don't mess around when it comes to getting a deal and we couldn't peddle things fast enough. The whole situation reminded me of those old movies where the snake oil man is selling something from a wagon and then, all of a sudden, dozens of people start yelling and begging the salesman to take their money. When we first arrived, I was still a little hung over from the night before and totally unable to comprehend or deal with all the madness. I was kinda just wondering around and getting in everyones way…but luckily Deborah was on point as usual. 

After about an hour we could relax a little bit. The frenzy was over. We sold about half of our things and made W80,000 in that first crazy hour.

At the end we sold almost every single thing we brought! The only things we didn't sell were my beyond worn out shoes and my work pants that I wore every other day and should have tossed about 6 months ago. Those shoes brought in the people though. Apparently, my feet are freakishly big in Korea. Dozens of people commented on how big my shoes were. A little side show to bring the customers is never a bad idea.

Overall, we made about W130,000 and sold everything but those three items that were garbage anyway. I think we may have done the best out of the whole market considering we sold everything we brought. Most people didn't seem to be selling things like we were, but everyone was making at least a little money. Don't be shy if you need to get rid of some junk before you move or before you get ready to go back home. The Beautiful Flea Market at Ttukseom Resort is foreigner friendly and definitely a memorable experience.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

장마 (Korean Rainy Season)

Monsoon season. Every Korean's least favorite time of the year. It usually begins around the beginning of July and lasts until around the end of August. During these two months, Korea receives about half of its annual rainfall. These are also the two hottest months in Korea and temperatures can reach up into the high 90's (mid 30's in Celsius). These two months are probably the least desirable time to visit Korea, but most days are still fine. I've never lived in a country with a true rainy season and I was expecting that it would rain at just about the same time everyday, but usually what happens is that it always just looks like it's about to rain but most days it doesn't rain. I would guess that it's only rained about one third of the days in July and August so far (it actually just started raining as I wrote that sentence…). When it does rain it often rains hard. A few days ago it rained harder then I'd ever seen it rain before, and it fell in constant sheets for about two days straight. 
The heat mixed with the constant high humidity don't seem to go over well with the people. It seems like the one thing every Korean person does around this time of year is complain. I've noticed that Korean people tend to whine about the weather all the time. If it's not too cold, then it's too hot and heaven forbid if the sun is shinning and it's hot! 
To me, the heat and humidity are nothing new and most days it really don't seem that bad. The temperature can get into the 90's, but the average high for August is only 84 (28 C). Most summer days are a bit warm, but the killer part is the constant gray sky, humidity, and random fits of rain. I don't usually say this, but I'm really excited for fall to begin. It's hard to do things in the summer given the weather, but the fall is more beautiful, cooler, and sunnier. 

Thanks for reading, 

The Han river on typical gray day in Seoul.

 A few days of rain almost overflowed the river.