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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

오 락 실 (Korean arcade)

The harsh glowing lights, the sounds of buttons mashing and aggressive DDR dancing, the sweet musk of body odor. My senses were overwhelmed the first time I walked into a Korean arcade. I think it goes without saying that arcades have always held a soft spot in my heart. They remind of going to the mall with my mom when I was younger and the Jersey shore. At home, arcades are usually found in malls or movie theaters, are a little expensive, and seem to have crappy games that no one wants to pay a dollar to play. As you can probably guess this is not the case here in Korea. Arcades seem to be popular, which was a bit of a surprise to me considering how popular computer games are over here. I suppose it's the culture transcending appeal of getting away from your parents and hanging out with your friends that allows places like arcades to thrive, especially in Korea. The games are very cheap (about 300 won to play until you lose) and the room is always filled with groups of people. You can usually find an arcade with a little bit of searching no matter where you are, but it's best to look around college towns or anywhere younger people hang out. The arcades often have a nice variety of games ranging from old school favorites like Tetris and Galaca (an 80's game where you have to shoot down invading alien space ships) to crazy rhythmic hand games that I've never seen before. So far, the main attraction at every arcade I've been to is Tekken (a fighting game). They usually have about six or more machines lined up back to back where you sit down and fight the person who is on the opposite side from you. It's interesting because the arcades will often have really old versions of late 90's Tekken as well as the newest release and they will usually are all busy. This is why I usually stick to Galaga and the older games. A little known secret of mine is that Galaga is one of my all time favorite games. Nearly two decades of off and on training has enabled me to hone my skills to the point where I feel confident in saying I'm one of the better 1980's star fighters out there. I have science on my side because I've been setting Korea on fire with high scores in nearly every arcade I visit. A man can only achieve so many high scores before he becomes bored and needs to find a new challenge. I've played Tekken a few times before so I figured what better place to start my new high score run than the saving-the-world-from-an-evil-overlord-by-fighting-in-a-hand-to-hand-tournament department. Things went relatively well when I tried my hand at the newest Tekken and almost beat a battle hardened real life Korean person (and no, I'm not talking about Deborah). The people were poking around the side of the machines to see who they were playing and were a bit surprised to see me sitting there. After my near victory I was feeling pretty cocky so I thought I would go for a rematch. I lost three straight fights in a row, the last one without even hitting the other guy once. I stood up a little confused and humbled and decided to go back to playing Galaga. 

 Me almost not getting my ass kicked. 

And these are the young guys who did the ass kicking, the one in green specifically. His friends did the peaking.

This is one of the hand pattern games people play. I don't really know who it works but it looks like DDR but you play with you hands. There are a lot of games like this and the people are always really good, like kind of embarrassing that you're so good good. 

Thanks for reading,
Yip yip yip

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Gunja Kumdo: really just training for zombie apocalypse

As many of my friends and family know, Deborah and I have been taking Kumdo (Korean word for Kendo) classes for a few months now and I think I've found my sport. I really enjoy classes and look forward to going very day. I've played many other sports but I think this is the first sport I can say that I really love. I know a lot of people have questions about Kumdo, so I thought I would write a general blog post to fill everyone in on what this sport is all about and to try and encourage other foreigners in Korea (or anyone anywhere for that matter) to sign up for classes. 

We first joined a Kumdo dojang (dojo) around two months ago after finding an advertisement on a lamp post outside our subway stop. The dojang we joined is Gunja Kumdo ( which is directly out of exit one of the Gunja subway stop. They hold practice everyday on every hour starting at 6:00am until 10:00pm which is nice because it will accommodate anyones schedule. I was nervous as to how they would react to a foreigner in their midst, but they have been nothing but kind, helpful, and patient with me. It is difficult with the language barrier but that seems to be only a minor detail. Thankfully, Deborah speaks Korean so she can translate major things, but we often don't practice together after warming up. I've become quite good at communicating with my limited Korean. Most of what needs to be said is covered with a nod, bow, smile, yes, or a no. I'm amazed how much I can communicate with someone when neither of us really speaks the same language. Honestly though everyone loves me, like man crush loves me… I think I'm everyones little pet project but that's fine with me. 

Let me first explain the basics of how this sport works (I had no idea when I signed up!) Two people spar and try to be the first to score two points. Scoring a point is actually fairly difficult and a bit confusing at first. A point can only be scored if a player cleanly strikes one of three areas of their opponent with the upper quarter blade side of their sword. The three locations are the top of the head, the wrist, or the side of the body. Here's where it gets confusing, at the exact same time as the strike, the person must stomp their right foot and shout out the area or the body part that they are striking. All three things (strike, stomp, and shout) must happen at the exact same time. After this the player must confidently and strongly walk/shuffle away from the player while pointing with their sword and yelling. The player will score one point if all this happens cleanly and quickly. Needless to say, it is harder than it sounds. It takes several weeks of training in the basics to be able to even try to do this properly. 

Anyone starting Kumdo should know that it will take between 1 and 3 months of coming to practice several times a week to learn the basics. The first few weeks of our experience were a little confusing but we quickly began to get hang of the routine. The daily routine consists of:  stretching (15 min.), warming up (15 min.), learning something new (10-20 min.), and then practicing for however long you want. Our learning roughly progressed in the following order: stance, movement, how to hold the sword and swing, foot stomping, and finally hours and hours of target practice. Target practice is where all the pieces begin to come together. Everyday there is something new to learn and even the most advanced student will often practice the basics. Few people would ever dare call themselves a master of any of the many techniques and even experts must continue to practice the basics to stay on the top. Once the master decides it is time, the practitioner must buy their hobok (armor). At this point they are ready for contact training and sparing. 

Things have been moving quickly since we reached this point. The other members are not shy and are always trying to push me to be better. If you take classes you can expect to spar and warm up with senior level people as well as other beginners once you have your armor. The senior level members take it easy on you of course, but by taking it easy I mean they don't kill you; they just beat the crap out of you for several minutes. 

This is point is where I am in our training. Everyday I do the basic warm up, put on my armor and do the advanced warm up, and then spar. Sparing is fun but so tiring. The sticks are made of bamboo which have some give and the armor is of course very hard. Getting hit sometimes hurts a little, especially in the wrist and on the very top of the head where there is no padding, but it's usually not too bad. At the end of the class everyone sits down and waits for the master to give the signal to take of our masks. At this point everyone takes off the armor and bows to the master, the Korean flag, and each other.  Usually the master tells everyone to practice the basics before going home, which we all do. The whole hobok practice lasts about two hours. We've made a lot of friends in our short time which also makes practice so much more enjoyable. I hope we can find a nice place to practice Kumdo when we get back home. In a years time we should be half decent!

Cheesy I know, but….yeah….cheesy

Left: Men from our class who won their bracket in the last inter-dojang tournament. The man on the left won the whole thing.  Right: Deborah and I. Can you guess who is who?

Left: "Papa Smurf" 형님 and I. One of my friends and someone who helps me a lot. Right: Deborah and our friend  기 해 노 나. There are actually a lot of women who are in our Kumdo class. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mr. Yi

Deborah and I had a nice week of vacation due to the Christmas and New Years holiday. We took this time to do nothing mixed in with a little bit of half-assed exploring. One of the places we did manage to venture to was Asan. This is actually the last southern subway stop on the Seoul Metro. It's about an hour or an hour and a half way from central Seoul. 
Asan is famous for its hot springs, and that's what we went to see. We visited Dogo natural hot springs our first day and had a romp in their gigantic swimming pool and their nice spa. It was a little bit expensive but it was nice and a quite different because many of the pools were outside. We slept in an interesting little village and ate at a restaurant that was basically a grandmothers living room. We saw grandma outside feeding the dogs and other animals while we were ambling around town. When she saw us looking at the restaurant she came rushing over to us and forced us in. We ordered some food and she hurried off to the kitchen to cook for us. She prepared a delicious meal for us despite the fact that she never washed her hands…

...not happy about the lack of hand washing

Later that day we headed off to see the shrine of Yi Sun-sin. Admiral Yi is one of the most famous people in all of Korean history because he saved the peninsula by repeatedly destroying the invading navy during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the late 1500's. He also is credited with developing something called a "Turtle ship" which is really interesting. Not only did he do all this, but he is also one of the most celebrated and well respected admiral of all time because he was outnumbered 333 ships to 13, and forced into a last stand with only his minimal fleet standing between the Japanese Army and Seoul, Yi delivered one of the most astonishing defeats in military history (thank you wikipedia). You can check him out more by clicking here. 

Needless to say that his shrine was amazing. It was huge! It was almost like a giant park with beautiful old Confucius structures all about. This was the first time that I have been to a temple site in Korea that was not clearly Buddhist. I'm not totally sure if you could call this a Confucius temple or a Confucius shrine, but I believe that it is because the place is treated as if it is holy and because people were their praying to and essentially worshiping him. A major part of Confucianism is showing a great deal of respect to your ancestors that many would misinterpret as ancestor worship. We saw several people bow (like the full on down on your knees, head to the ground bow) in front of the main shrine. It was very neat to see the beautiful and slightly different architecture of Confucius structures as compared to Buddhist structures. The differences were slight, but many, however I'm not going to bore you with my observations (but you can ask me if your interested!) 

After the temple we walked around the near by town for a bit and headed back to Seoul. It was a beautiful time in Asan and I think we'll be heading back to the Shrine in the spring to see all of the cheery and lotus blossoms. 

Thanks for reading, 
yip yip

Left: Three men in black trenches walking back after paying a lot of respect to Yi Sun-sin. 
Right: This is Admiral Yi's original house. Many generations of
his family lived here after him. No one lives here now, but it is still
kept by his relatives and they hold a memorial to him here once a year.

Deborah offering some incense at the main shrine.

Inside of the main shrine. There is the man himself. Their was a nasty
glare so it was hard to get a decent picture (you're not suppose to take pictures of the 
inside of shines anyway so I hope Admiral Yi forgave me…)