The Gwangalli Eobang Festival in Busan, South Korea

It was the best damn fish I ever had.

I don’t know what kind of fish. Or what all the spices were that the lady cook rubbed in. Frankly, the whole operation looked rather rustic. But for the next several years, the taste of that whole, sizzling fish will follow me. The juicy, flaky white meat falling from my chopsticks in one hand. The cold beer in my left. The heat, tang and salt mixing together in perfect harmony.

Now this was the fresh fish experience I was looking for in Busan, South Korea’s famous port city. Forget Jalgalchi Market. The best fish in Busan was in a small stand on one of Busan’s sandy beaches.

Chickpea and I were at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival — a three-day event celebrating Korea’s fishing heritage. Eobang means spirit of the fishermen in the coastal areas, so along with the normal trappings of a Korean festival — mascots, food tents, arts and crafts — there is also several ritual-like performances about fishing in the old days.

If you’re around Busan in the spring, I highly recommend it: if only for the food.

Here’s a look at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival:

Walking dogs in Daegu with the Korean Animal Protection Society

It would’ve been a bizarre sight anywhere, but watching 50 waygookins walking as many dogs through a park in the middle of a Korean city was downright freakish.

This was a dog walk organized by the Korean Animal Protection Society, or KAPS, one of the few animal advocates in Korea. The 20-year-old organization operates shelters in Daegu, taking in small dogs, big dogs and cats.

When Chickpea and I arrived at the shelter, just off the red line subway stop at Daemyeong station, there was already a crowd of foreigners looking to give these small dogs a much needed walk on a sunny spring day. The shelter itself is not impressive by any means — it’s dirty and reeks of urine — but it shows the nature of animal rights in Korea. The volunteers at KAPS are battling more than a shortage of funding and volunteers; they are up against old attitudes in Korea regarding animals and dogs in particular.

It’s no secret some Koreans still eat dog and the way some merchants butcher dogs is pretty distasteful by Western standards. But there is a general apathy toward animal welfare, too, mostly held by the older generation. One of the KAPS volunteers warned the group to stay away from older Koreans, who in past dog walks, showed verbal and physical aggression toward the dogs.

Happily, there were no issues during our walk around Duryu Park. Children and the elderly alike came up and patted the matted-haired mutts. Women squealed in delight at the site of pint-sized pooches. Men stopped their bicycles and asked questions about the dogs in broken English.

It was a good day to be a dog in Daegu.

For more info on the walks, check out the KAPS Facebook page.

Shilla Memorial Park: Korean version of a Renaissance Fair [video]

In late March, Chickpea and I visited the capital of Korea’s ancient Silla empire, Gyeongju.

Tucked between the Taebaek mountain range and the East Sea, Gyeongju is a small city that has married its ancient past with modern Korea surprisingly well. Unlike Andong, which delegates its historical sites to certain areas of town, Gyeongju has put office buildings next to antiquated tombs, temples near hotels. The whole city is ringed by three national parks and dozens of other historical sites.

It has been called a “museum without walls.” That makes it one of the best tourist spots in Korea. Unlike many other small cities in Korea, you can spend a weekend here and not see everything.

This time, we only had a day so we focused on Shilla Memorial Park. This attraction is basically a theme park based around the history of the Silla empire (57 BC – 935 AD). The park offers recreations of royal Silla villages, crafts, a hot spring spa area (which was closed when we visited) and a grand finale performance of an ancient battle. There’s also puppet shows and an interesting martial arts and horse-riding show.

It all seems interesting, but in reality, the park fell a little flat. Shilla Memorial Park isn’t the worse way to spend a day, but it seems like it would be more entertaining for children and their parents than some young waygooks. When you factor in the entrance fee of 18,000 won, it’s probably best to skip it and explore the actual historic sites in Gyeongju.

If you go: From Dongdaegu station in Daegu, hop on a bus leaving from a terminal directly across the street from the Dongdaegu subway entrance (4,200 won). From the Gyeongju bus terminal, catch a city bus to Shilla Memorial Park. The park fee is 18,000 won.

Teaching English is fun, or How I got my students to sing They Might Be Giants

I’m not always happy about living in Korea.

I’ll admit that on some days I roll out of bed and begin my day like a very grumpy zombie. On my walk to school, I curse the sun and the garbage piles and the construction crews destroying the stream near my apartment. Every time a Korean driver speeds up toward the intersection while I’m walking across, I inch closer to having an all-out conniption fit in the middle of the street. As the days get colder and my patience with winter thins, I wonder why I left my sunny city on the beach.

But as soon as I step foot on the schoolhouse grounds, my melancholy lifts. Little children in bright blues, pinks, greens and reds run around, giggling, hugging their friends and sending some very exuberant “Hello teacher!” words my way.

Of all the things that could make an English teacher in Korea hate their job, it shouldn’t be the students. (At least not elementary school students.)

Just the other day, one of my 5th grade classes did something that gave me that same “I’m-s0-glad-I-decided-to-leave-my-life-behind-and-come-teach-English-to-a-bunch-of-kids-in-a-strange-country” feeling. The previous week, they learned the days of the week and so I downloaded a song that would let them use their new English skills. I was a little worried, because they didn’t know all the vocabulary in the song’s lyrics, but I decided to give it a try anyway.

This is what happened:

Welcome to Korea, again: SHINee, ddukbokki and diary decoration in this edition of Letters from Korean Students

We’re back from our travels — and what travels they were. Southeast Asia was good to us (especially Thailand), but it was oddly comforting to be back in the land of anyeong haseyo, norae bang and Big Bang. That’s why I thought I’d share these sentiments from my students before launching into the tale of our myriad misadventures.

One of my winter camp lessons was on e-mail and letter writing. My kids were thrilled about the prospect of writing to my best friend Kalynn, once I convinced them that yes, she would really be reading their letters all the way in Florida.

So, without further ado, here are the burning questions my middle schoolers had for the world’s best biffle (entirely unedited, except for names):

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A guide to New Year’s Eve in Korea

Since arriving in Korea five months ago, Alex and I have been trying to do things the Korean way. We’ve sacrificed burgers and fries for live octopus and samgyeopsal. We’ve foregone shopping malls for immense, age-old markets. We’ve ignored Gap in lieu of streetside clothes hawkers (um, mostly).

So when it was time to plan our first New Year’s in Korea, we wanted to do it old-school. That means a pilgrimage to Pohang, where a gigantic statue of a hand emerges from the East Sea to cradle the first sunrise of the New Year. Stay up all night, take in a few traditional dance and musical performances, eat rice cakes and shiver on Homi Cape while the symbolic first sun of 2011 comes up. Unfortunately, foot-and-mouth disease had another plan.

So, instead we headed to Korea’s coastal party capital, Busan. Here are a few of the highlights — the must-sees, the can-dos, the be-prepared-fors.

Tip #1: Arrive early. We hopped the 5:50 KTX train from Daegu, and by the time we arrived at 7 p.m., downtown was already in full swing with musical offerings, contests, street food vendors, swarms of people, and, of course, lights, lights, lights.

Tip #2: Stay warm. As a Florida native, I’m new to this concept of cold, so I might be overstating the case when I say that I was freezing my buns off for 14 hours straight. I think the temps were hovering somewhere in the 20s, but try wandering the city and beach for the better part of a windy evening, and you’ll understand why I recommend thermal underwear. Of course, if you do bundle up, you’ll be the only one (especially us ladies). Apparently impervious to little things like below-freezing temps, Korean gals will all be wearing miniskirts, tights and sky-high heels, topped off with a puffy, fur-trimmed jacket. Damn your cuteness, Korean girls. Making me look bad.

Tip #3: Go to Yongdusan Park. Starting around 11 p.m., seemingly half the city congregates in “Dragon’s Head Mountain Park,” just a few steep flights of stairs away from famed PIFF Square and Jagalchi Fish Market. Volunteers hand out free coffee and balloons to be released at midnight. There’s music and merrymaking, and you can rub elbows with Busan’s mayor, who rings the giant Korean Watch-Night bell at midnight. Then there’s the obligatory fireworks show and everyone heads to …

Tip #4: Hit up Haeundae. If you’re willing to drop a few ten thousand won notes on cover, we hear there are some fantabulous parties to ring in the New Year inside the numerous clubs on the strip. From techno to hip-hop (and, honestly, not much in between), if you’re looking to dance, Haeundae is where the party people are at. Being the cheap-os that we are, we took refuge in a warm bar with cheap(ish) beer called 88 in Miami. That way, when we were finally kicked out at 5:30 a.m., we were close enough to…

Tip #5: Watch the first sunrise of the New Year at Haeundae Beach. It’s cold. We’ve have at least five or six cups of coffee apiece. We’ve spent the last few hours prying our eyes open at our last source of refuge, a nearby noraebang.

But it’s finally here. It’s 7 a.m. and everyone in Busan who hasn’t fallen into slumber’s sweet, sweet embrace has trudged their way to Haeundae Beach to watch the indescribably beautiful seaside sunrise. Camera crews, monks tapping out a steady tune asking for alms, bleary-eyed foreigners, kids in pajamas and ajumma in track suits, and the ever-present mascots — they’re all here to start the Year of the Rabbit together. Depending on your frame of mind, it’s an awe-inspiring sight or something straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.

It’s a rough road — we lost a lot of people along the way to the siren song of sleep — but it was worth it. Especially when I passed out in a nearby McDonald’s a few minutes later. (Hey, I deserved hash browns after all that.)

A few quick hits: Eat hodduk in PIFF Square, where the street stand rumored to have originated this salivatingly sweet stuffed pancake fries up hundreds of the tasty treats every night. Play sa-gu in any one of the hundreds of billiard bars (a misleading name, as they often don’t serve alcohol). And eat the tiny, meat-filled, mandu-like packets of noodle goodness at No. 18 Wandang, where you can get a front row seat to watch the artisans rolling and stuffing the noodles for their famous traditional soups.

How-To Korea: How to send mail from a Korea Post Office to the U.S.

I’d avoided it for weeks. For months. I’d been amassing a collection of Korean goodies for my friends and family since I arrived in August. But I just couldn’t make the final leap, the last and most crucial (and painful) step: tackling the Korean Post Office.

I hate post offices. They’re sterile. They beat the DMV for long, slow-moving lines. The employees are generally, to put it kindly, less than helpful. And I can never, ever, get a straight answer about what kind of shipping to use. These issues arise when I try to send mail in the country where I speak the language. I’ve been having nightmares about the Korean post office for weeks.

As Christmas rolled around, I knew I had to bite the bullet. It couldn’t be avoided any longer. Packed and labeled Christmas packages had been sitting in my apartment for weeks, taunting me.

But I had no reason to fear the Korean postal service. It rocks! It was the least painful post office run I’ve ever made (aside from the $150 I dropped on shipping). We just jumped in a cab and asked for the nearest post office.

Tip #1: For anyone looking for a post office in Korea, they’re relatively easy to find. Just ask for the woo che guk, the Korean word for post office. Or, look for their red sign with a bird on it.

Immediately after opening the post office doors, we were greeted by an English-speaking employee who not only showed us which shipping containers to use, but helped us to set up, pack and label them with lightning speed and efficiency. I’ve already written about the outta-this-world customer service in Korea, but it continues to leave me in shock and awe.

Tip #2: Wait to pack your box until you get to the post office. For one, they may not accept your box. There are limits to the types and size of boxes. The second reason is you may end up paying more for an oddly sized box. Third reason? They will help you pack and tape up the box at the post office.

Tip #3: You have to fill out a customs form before sending packages overseas. It doesn’t take that long, but allow for a few extra minutes, especially if you are sending multiple packages.

Tip #4: Post offices in Korea are generally open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, although during the winter months (November to February) they may only be open until 5 p.m. Also, most post offices are closed on the weekends, although some forum posts suggest there may be a few open on Saturday.

After double-checking that each of my five packages were correctly labeled, we lugged our haul to the counter, where they quickly weighed and tallied it. The downside of sending mail from Korea to the US: even the more expensive option, shipping by air, takes two weeks to a month to arrive. Shipping by boat (what the post office calls “surface”) is considerably cheaper, but takes two to three months to reach it’s destination. Still, the shipping experience itself was about as pleasant as could be.

So, a big apology to all of my friends and family, whose Christmas presents are still hurtling across the world to land on your doorsteps (in a week or two). I guess I should start sending birthday gifts now…

New Year Festivals in Korea: Insert foot and mouth

I had planned New Year’s Eve for over a month.

In true Korean tradition, Chickpea and I would take a train to the small city of Pohang on Korea’s east coast and head to Homigot , known for the large, eerie hand reaching out of the ocean. The annual festival would keep us entertained all night long — concerts, soju, fireworks, traditional games, soju, mascots to pose with, free food, more soju — until the sun’s rays peeked up over the East Sea horizon.

With thousands (millions?) of others across the country, we would watch as the first sunlight of the new year cast its glow on the Korean Peninsula.

Then, someone put foot-and-mouth disease in the proverbial punchbowl.

South Korea has suffered from an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since April, but it looks like efforts to contain it have not been entirely successful. And so, many festivals in the eastern provinces have been canceled. Look for a list of cancellations here.

If you don’t care about the festivals, though, you can still head to Homigot or some of the other places to watch the sunrise by your lonesome. The cancellations are not to protect your health: humans very rarely contract foot-and-mouth disease.  Agricultural officials are more worried that thousands of people tromping through these provinces will spread the disease to other areas.  Since FMD-tainted meat cannot be sold, this would have a deep economic impact on Korea’s domestic and export meat sales. That means more expensive galbi for those of you in Korea.

Plan B? Visiting a petting zoo.

Just kidding. We’re heading to Busan and watching the sunrise from a large mountain. You should, too.

One piece of advice: “Go with a very open mind” [video]

Shot in a dim bar over a couple of Maker’s Marks on ice, this is an interview with a friend of mine who has taught English in Japan for two years.

“Go with an very open mind, because you are going to meet people that will confuse you, will baffle you, will try to perplex you,” he begins. Hilarity ensues.

This is part of an ongoing series of short interviews asking for “one piece of advice” for English teachers going abroad to teach.

Welcome to Korea: Toilet paper at the dinner table?

Yes, it’s true: One of the strangest things for a Westerner to see upon arrival in Korea is that TP is no longer relegated to bathroom functions — it’s a multipurpose paper that serves in place of Kleenex, paper towels and even napkins.

I can’t tell you how weird it was for me the first time I sat down for lunch with my co-teachers and someone plunked a roll down in the middle of the table.

And have you ever tried drying your hands with two-ply tissue paper? It’s not super effective. But it sure is efficient. Why use myriad different paper products when all your cleaning needs can really be served with one? Oh, those clever Koreans.

— Chickpea

I find it strange that while there is toilet paper all over the lunch room and restaurant dining areas, there is rarely any in the public bathrooms. Which is not cool when you consider most public bathrooms have these:

— Alex

And the deskwarming begins ….

Today is officially my first day of deskwarming.

For those of you unaware of the great deskwarming debate in Korean public schools, let me elaborate: Deskwarming is coming to school for seemingly no other reason than to warm that desk of yours.

Students are on vacation. Teachers are on vacation. All of your lesson plans are finished and the principal has approved them. You’ve cleaned your office, your classroom, some other random room just because you’re bored.

You. Have. Nothing. (School-related). To. Do.

And yet, you are still required to be at school for the full 8-hour day. There is no lunch served. There may or may not be heat. There’s a good chance you will not see another soul for the entire day. And still, you are sitting at your desk. Warming it.

Some foreign English teachers get really upset about deskwarming. “It’s unfair!” they shout to friends at bars during December and January. “Why do the other teachers get two months and we sit here for no damn reason?” Just the thought of “missing out” on another month of vacation time enrages them more.

I admit, I would love the extra time. But I signed a contract and knew what I was getting into. If I didn’t like it, I should’ve been a Fulbright Grantee or something. Or went to Vietnam.

Deskwarming is not so bad. Why, I just spent 10 minutes of it on this blog post!

In honor of my first deskwarming day, here’s a link to one of the newest blogs to join my blogroll: The Waygook Effect, which is one of the better expat blogs out there. The blogger has a hilarious video — featuring Hitler — all about deskwarming. Check it out!

Korean Magpies: a visit from the good news bird in the midst of North-South Korea tensions

While the world watches and worries as tensions between the Koreas reach a boiling point (I’ve  been a constant visitor to Voice of America’s Twitter feed all day) I figured everyone could use some good news.

Last week, my co-teacher and I shuffled along a crinkly-leaf strewn sidewalk to Africa Coffee Shop in Chilgok to continue my Korean lessons. A bird landed in the withering grass nearby and began its peck-peck-pecking in search of food. I’d seen many of them since landing in Daegu. “What’s it called?” I asked. “Ggachi,” she said. “If you see one, it means you will have a welcome guest.” (I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but my co-teacher did visit my house for the first time later that week.)

I’ve been charmed by the ggachi since we first came to Korea. I’d never seen one before, and although they look pedestrian at first glance — like an outsized raven, maybe — upon inspection they’re beautiful birds. Striking white markings cover their underbellies and their wings are tipped with shimmering blue.

What my co-teacher said intrigued me, and I decided to do a little research of my own. Turns out that these bearers of good news and welcome guests are Korean magpies, or pica pica sericea. Of course, I was surprised to find that the Western symbol of greed, frivolity and vanity is one and the same as a Korean symbol of good.

So, as I sit here glued to my Twitter feed, fretting over North Korean nukes (and my English Winter Camp lesson plans) I’m hoping that Koreans got it right: maybe my magpie friend will bring a bit of good news.

“Are you busy?”: Our brush with Buddha’s Witnesses

Alex and I were in the harried midst of hanging our clothes to dry (yep, no dryers here in the good ol’ ROK) before setting out to downtown Daegu for another Orions basketball game when we heard a knock at the door.

Each time this has happened — a total of only three times in the 10+ weeks we’ve lived in Daegu — we exchange surprised glances before one of us goes to the door. The first time, it was a census lady (there’s no escaping them, trust us. Alex had to fill mine out while I was mid-Skype session with my family). The second time, it was a little lost ajumma who wandered into the wrong apartment. But this time might have been the most surprising of all.

“Could we have something to drink?” said the mid-30s, bespectacled Korean man when I opened the door. I glanced at his companion, a similarly outfitted woman in her late 20s. Both were wearing hiking gear. Maybe they just got of the nearby trail at Hamji Mountain, I mused.  Still, I couldn’t quite figure out how or why they got into my code-secure (or so I thought) apartment building. There’s a convenience store less than 15 yards away.

Nevertheless, I’m not one to turn down a couple of thirsty strangers, so I fumbled through some basic Korean and asked if they’d prefer water or juice. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should invite them in. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, I felt guilty leaving them in the cold hallway. I poured them each a glass of water.

Once they had gulped it down, they asked the questions we get almost daily in Korea. “Foreigners? Where are you from? How do you like Korea?” And then, one unexpected question: “Are you busy?” From our broken conversation, we gleaned that they were going up a nearby mountain. What they now told us is that they were visiting a Buddhist temple … and collecting offerings along the way. Yep, we were hit up by the Buddhist version of Jehovah’s Witnesses (with far less fire and brimstone, and no uncomfortable looking suits).

We politely declined, said we had to get going. They said they’d pray for us at the temple. Praying for my eternal soul in exchange for a glass of water? That’s a hell of a bargain.

Winter in Korea: When will my school turn on the heat?

My foot is shaking. My whole body chilled. But my hands actually hurt. The same kind of pain as when you’ve carried a heavy grocery bag a mile or two and the plastic handles have long dug into your skin. My fingers are visibly red. But not numb. If only, they were numb.

I’m typing this as I sit at my desk inside my office at school. Yes, inside.

Cold weather hit Korea about three weeks ago. Temperatures have hung around 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, dropping to the low 30s once the sun sets. Yes, anything below 55 degrees is cold to this Floridian, but with no respite for 8 hours a day in a school that, on some sunny days, is actually colder inside than outside, I think even my Iowa friends would complain.

My classroom is equally as cold as my office, but at least there I’m moving around equally bundled-up students. If I get them laughing enough, I reason, it may raise the temperature one or two degrees. But the hallways are the worst. Open windows line the hallways creating a wind tunnel effect that reminds me of the Nor’easter storms I used to experience in Connecticut.

But my school isn’t uncommonly cruel. This is just winter in Korea.

My teachers say the finance office controls the heat.

“When will they turn it on?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” they answer.

The other day, they turned it on. It was glorious. In my classroom, where one huge heater stands guard behind the teacher’s desk, I even took off my coat. In my office, I left it on just so I could sweat a little.

Then, the next day, the heat was off again.

Korean hip-hop duo Supreme Team in Daegu

In our ongoing effort to embrace Korean music, Chickpea and I hit up Club G2 in downtown Daegu last night to see Supreme Team, who you might remember from my video of the 2010 Daegu International Bodypainting Festival. We spent nearly six hours in a packed, smoky club to catch of a glimpse of our favorite Korean hip-hop duo, which is also the only Korean hip-hop duo we know of.

Highlights: The graffiti art inside the club, Korean guys comfortable enough to dance with each other and my blurry photo of Supreme Team entering the venue.

Lowlights: The $6 beers, the $7-8 drinks, the late arrival of Supreme Team (2 a.m.? Really?) and their short five song set.

Don’t taze me, hyeong!

It was just another Saturday night in Daegu. Chickpea and I met some of our expat friends at Viniroo, a walk-up liquor-in-a-bag drinking establishment, and we made the rounds of our usual haunts downtown.

But we were restless. Our main bar– JEEEP (actual spelling) — was empty and our group of five wanted to dance somewhere new. We were searching for a suitable club when I looked down an alley and spotted a place with a large (fake) fire engine jutting from the building. This was Club Siren.

“Let’s go here,” Chickpea said and our group headed toward the door.

We were 15 feet away when the club’s bouncer came out from behind his podium and yelled to us: “No foreigners! We don’t speak English here!”

Shocked, one of our friends blurted, “That’s messed up.” (Looking back on it, he probably said, “That’s f***ed up.” I honestly can’t remember.)

At that point, the bouncer reached behind his podium and produced a Tazer. Then, he demonstrated its power. Zap!

We walked away at that point — flabbergasted, disturbed and a little sad.

To be sure, this is not common. Chickpea and I have entered several Korean clubs in which we were the only foreigners. We have many friends who have done the same. I find Korean bouncers, bartenders and patrons to be very professional, even overly nice.

But this kind of discrimination does exist. Dave’s ESL has a year-old message board thread listing the bars that have denied entry to foreigners.

A few points to round out the discussion:

I’ve heard there are foreigner-only bars in Korea near military bases and these are run by other Koreans. Also, while I don’t think this makes it OK, I know some bars have had some real problems with Westerners, especially American military. That might account for why this guy had a Taser. It doesn’t make it right, but bad behavior is the same reason why many U.S. clubs have a dress code. And, obviously, U.S. clubs discriminate, too. Just not so flagrantly.

Plus, as some people have noted on other sites, some clubs have complicated rules on drink limits, ordering food, table prices, etc. and some club owners simply bar foreigners because they don’t want to/ can’t explain this in English.

I don’t think anyone should let this play into any decisions about coming to Korea or enjoying the nightlife — it is rare — but words of wisdom: If a club bouncer says “No foreigners allowed,” it’s best to not argue the matter. They might have a Taser.

Welcome to Korea: Another Sunday, another tub of fish eating your foot’s dead skin

Yes, that’s right. We’ve really been enjoying the bounty of seafood that Korea has to offer, from live octopus to giant clams, fish and squid in various states of dessication and more. So, Alex and I decided to give a little back: We went to Doctor Fish.

These are tiny fish — a little bigger than a minnow, maybe? — that eat the dead skin off your feet. It was originally used to treat eczema and other skin problems, but now it’s mostly used as a spa treatment. I’ve been wanting to try this this I came to Korea (If I’m being honest, since I saw it on the Tyra Show a couple years ago. Full disclosure).

On Sunday, I found  Namu Story, (for Korea peeps: it’s across from the UniQlo in downtown Daegu) and convinced Alex to go with me. Just as interesting as the experience itself is where the Doctor Fish are: in a a big cafe. Yes, a tank of fish sunk into a raised platform at one end of a large, posh, second-story cafe. So while people are drinking their coffee and eating their pastries, Alex and I (okay, mostly me) were giggling in a corner while tickly little fish ate dead skin off our feet. I thought it would take a while to get used to, but in a matter of minutes I was able to stop laughing and enjoy. It’s like a little massage!

The best part is this: there’s a $3 entrance fee to get into the cafe, but it’s all-you-can-eat croissants and coffee, and the Doctor Fish treatment is less than $2. It was a great way to spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

UPDATE (3/8/11): Namu Story, the coffeeshop where we first experienced Dr. Fish, is no longer offering the service. Check back here for updates on other nearby Dr. Fish proprietors.

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The view from up here

One of  cool things about the apartments in Korea is the ability to go onto your roof anytime you want. This is the view from my studio in Chilgok. This is the place I go to get a few minutes to myself. My place of Zen, if you will.

Interesting fact about Korean rooftops: It is prohibited to grill at any of the parks inside city limits. But you can go on the roof of your apartment building and barbecue up a meal.

3 things about Korea that may surprise you

1. You can drink outside of convenience stores.

In fact, they set up tables outside just for that!

My third night in Korea was not the first time I ever drank a 40 oz. outside of a 7-Eleven. But it is the first time I’ve ever drank a 40 oz. outside of a 7-Eleven legally. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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Andong Mask Festival: The sights, the sounds, the scams (video)

OK, maybe it wasn’t a scam.

Perhaps I should just chalk it up to linguistic miscommunication. It’s my fault for not knowing more of the Korean language, right?

But Chickpea is convinced. We were taken for a ride (forgive the pun).

We stepped out of the Andong Train Station at 8 a.m. and quickly realized we were some of the only people out and about in this city of 185,000. So, with no pack of tourists to follow, we aimlessly wandered the downtown region looking for a hint of the famous Andong Mask Festival. Except for a small stage downtown, we didn’t see anything that resembled the reviews we saw online. So, we wandered back toward the train station.

While looking at map, a taxi driver approached us.

“Hahoe?” he asked us. “Hahoe?”

We responded, “Mask festival.” We did absurd gestures of wearing a mask.

“Oh yes, yes,” he said and motioned for us to follow him to his taxi.

As a preface, most expats will tell you South Korean taxi drivers are truly honest. And although this was the first time a taxi driver solicited us, which was kind of weird, we have had nothing but pleasurable experiences in the taxi cabs here (if you don’t count the hair-raising driving skills).

So, we hopped in his cab and looked out on the city of Andong. That is, until we left the city of Andong.

“Where is he taking us?” Chickpea asked.

“I don’t know, but maybe it’s somewhere cool,” I reasoned.

While stopped at a red light, we talked again with our taxi driver.

“Mask festival,” we said. “Mask festival.”

“Oh yes,” he answered.

After glimpsing a sign on the side of the road announcing the historic Hahoe Village — 20 more kilometers ahead — we realized what was happening. We had the taxi driver pull over and explained we did not want Hahoe Village, we wanted the Andong Mask Festival.

“Oooohhhh,” he said. And proceeded to take us to the front gate, which was about four blocks from the train station.

Twenty-five thousand won poorer, we walked around the festival grounds (which were huge) and decided to head back downtown until the actual performances began. Once we hit the area near the train station, three taxi drivers approached us.

“Hahoe? Hahoe?”

You be the judge.

P.S. Although we never made it, the Hahoe Village is supposed to be another must-see in Korea. But instead of a taxi, take the bus no. 46 that leaves near the tourist information booth a block or two down from the train station. At about 1,000 won, it’s a much cheaper option.

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The Andong Mask Festival should definitely be on your must-see list if you make it to South Korea in the fall. With a full schedule of traditional Korean plays and dancing from all over the world, you won’t be bored. And even if your butt starts to hurt, the festival grounds are full of craft tents, food stalls and dozens of strange mask-related characters to pose with.

Check out our video!

Eating live octopi — still wriggling — at Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, South Korea

Anthony Bourdain did it.

Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Foods” did it.

And now you can add Alex and Chickpea to the foodie VIP club.

On our trip to Seoul, we stopped by the Noryangjin Fish Market and perused the hundreds of tanks, bowls and baskets full of every kind of seafood you can imagine (and some you can’t). Noryangjin Fish Market is one of the largest in the world and is a must-see on any Seoul tourist’s list.

After a quick tour of the warehouse, in which the vendors all tried to convince us to purchase all manner of bivalves, crustaceans, sea slugs and fish, we decided on our choice of seafood: two small crabs, two baby octopi and a handful of clams. Unsure of normal prices and seafood etiquette, I think we paid a bit more than the average Korean (30,000 won). But you’re paying for the experience, right?

The vendor stuffed our “catch” in a black plastic bag, which was then grabbed by a woman and hurried upstairs. We followed her to a small restaurant where she cooked our purchase. Well, most of it.

The live octopi, called “sannakji,” is just chopped up and served — still wriggling. You just grab it with your chopsticks, dip it in the sesame oil (for flavor and so the tentacles don’t stick to your throat) and chew … and chew … and chew. Any adventurous food lover — like the Travel Channel stars above — has to try it.

While we waited for our seafood, we ordered some soju to steel our nerves. When the cook first brought out our little octopi, Franki, myself and our two friends just stared at the writhing mass of tentacles. Sensing our uneasiness on how best to tackle this dish, the cook grabbed a particularly large portion of the head in her fingers and stuffed it in our friend Jeff’s mouth.

Korea is not for the food shy.

We all immediately started eating our live catch, lest the cook shove it in for us. The octopus was not bad at all. Mostly flavorless without the sesame oil and, surprisingly, not fishy at all.

By the way, Shannon (pictured here and in the video) has her own blog about life in South Korea: Daegu-ber. I’ve linked to it in the sidebar under “Korea-related Blogs,” but I also link to it here for your viewing pleasure. UPDATE: Turns out, Shannon blogged about Seoul the same day I did! Here is her post.

Check out the video: