Nightlife in Sendai – Kokubuncho

Sendai is Tohoku’s largest city.

What does it have to offer in the way of evening distractions?

Kokubuncho at night, in the snow

Just like any other large city there is a host of expensive bars and night clubs where you can light money on fire and throw it into the air (metaphorically speaking of course). The price of admission into just about any nightlife excursion is usually high but if you have a good time it was worth it right?

Karaoke, Sendai, Clis RdIn Japan drinking establishments sometimes offer what is called, “nomihodai” (飲み放題). This literally means bottomless cup. For a nominal fee of $15 to $20 you will get all you can drink for about 90 to 120 minutes depending on the place. However, many places particularly in very popular areas will charge a seat fee just to sit in their restaurant. On top of that it is likely that while you are drinking you will order food. Your special price for all that alcohol just got really expensive.

However, there are some hidden gems. For instance there is a karaoke place on Clis Road (Clis Rd is a covered shopping arcade) that offers one of the cheapest nomihodais in Sendai, free snacks and you get to karaoke. Not to mention you get to make your own drinks. Hello Mr. Hangover, how are you today? Not well, indeed. There is a gyoza shop that offers a $20 nomihodai set that comes with 12 gyoza, pickles, and cabbage salad. The gyoza is fantastic but it tastes even better with reasonably priced booze.

Kokubuncho signIf squirreling yourself away in a small karaoke booth with 5 close friends is not your idea of a night on the town the place to be in Sendai is called Kokubuncho. Kokubuncho is several blocks of densely packed bars, clubs, restaurants, shopping, and Japanese people dressed to the nines for a night on the town. About every ten feet there will be a Japanese person shouting and handing out coupons for their establishment. There is even a miniature Arc-de-Triomphe hidden away in Kokubuncho. Let me know if you find it.

Kokubuncho’s restaurant selection is likely the most diverse in the city. There are several Spanish style tapas places, sandwich shops, all of the traditional Japanese fare, the odd British pub or two, Phô and Thai food. There is even a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge called Middle Mix, which I was told by the owner, is the only one in all of Tohoku. There is no lack of drinking establishments either. The entire place is one giant drinking establishment. I couldn’t even begin trying to do a pub crawl there.

Rainbow Building, KokubunchoOstensibly going to Kokubuncho is for drinking or a drinking party (nomikai, bonenkai, other kinds of kai). Japanese society is relatively repressed and places like Kokubuncho are where stifled salary men, demure females and gai-jin of all kinds of come together in a beer and alcohol soaked good time. This is where the Japanese really cut loose. It’s fair to say that they are not particularly shy about taking it to extreme limits.

Kokubuncho is basically broken in three separate areas. There is the college area that is filled with cheap dining establishments and some of the more tame forms of entertainment like gaming centers and pachinkos. The next area is for the salary men (and women, although its mostly men in dark suits). The restaurants and bars here are little nicer and a little pricier, and usually a little more on the traditional Japanese side. Lastly there is the “Pink area” which requires a bit more explanation.

The pink area of Kokubuncho “features” Sendai’s largest collection of “host and hostess clubs, strip clubs and other slightly less reputable engagements. It’s not a true red light district in the traditional Amsterdam-ian sense but there is clearly enough “entertainment” in that fashion to give Kokubuncho a seedy feel in certain parts. It’s by no means dangerous but a little on the unctuous side.

Funny advert for a horny guy, KokubunchoThese clubs aren’t exactly hidden away. If anything, they are probably the main attraction to the area outside of drinking heavily. The advertisements rarely leave anything to the imagination. The funniest one is this guy to the right, a common manga trope is to signal arousal via a massive nosebleed. As a foreigner there is very little I can offer in the way of experiential anecdotes about hostess clubs. They don’t cater to non Japanese speakers and even if you are fluent in Japanese you might get a brief Japanese grammar test at the door. Hostess and host clubs are looking for long term customers so they don’t really want crazy drunk tourists mucking up their vibe. Apart from the mostly nude women on bill boards there are also many flower shops in the area. Presumably you can buy flowers to curry favor with whatever hostess or host you are meeting that evening.

However, sandwiching Kokubuncho is Jozen-ji dori and Clis Road which are two major thoroughfares in Sendai filled with shopping, restaurants, bars and 100 yen stores. One of the best things about Sendai is most everything is very close together and centrally located around Sendai station. It’s only about a 20 minute walk down Aoba-dori from Sendai Station to Kokubuncho or you can take the subway 2 stops and get off at Kotodai-koen and exit through the Mitsukoshi Department store.

During the winter Jozen-ji dori is a absolutely stunning. It is covered in white holiday lights and they have a park light exposition called, “The Pageant of Starlight,” as well. In the snow it is really quite a romantic place (minus the crowds). There are also temporary structures that sell warm drinks and adult beverages.

Most of the buildings around Sendai station are just like any other shopping arcade in Japan or the rest of the world for that matter. Name brands stores, colorful signs and groovy techno music to help you shop – but Kokubuncho is just a little different.Kokubuncho at night

I happen to quite like Kokubuncho despite its outward appearance. I like the variety, the people watching, the shouting, the confusing mass of tangled power lines. Everything about Kokubuncho looks as if it was delivered straight from a movie set about post-modern Japan. I can hear Kaneda revving his red motorcycle some where around the corner and somewhere above me cybernetic human in stealth mode is planning an assassination. Walking around Kokubuncho on a Saturday night is like stepping in a manga comic. You can’t help but be fascinated by everyone’s costumes, by the colors and the lights.

Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.

A Day in SendaiYamaderaMatsushimaZao OkamaMinamisanrikuMt. Izumi

Love and Travel – Express Yourself

New to Love and Travel? Start here!!

There is nothing quite akin to the sensation you get when, while traveling in a foreign country and you realize that you just got on the wrong train.

We weren’t on the wrong train. Just on the wrong version of the right train.

1385710_10153328273420593_107071201_nThere are a lot of transportation mistakes you will make when you go traveling, and all of them include risk and at least a little nervousness, but the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you speed forward into the unknown is a special feeling for me. It’s funny to think of our hearts and stomachs “sinking,” since we know they don’t really move, but in that moment the expression makes perfect sense. I once had an acting partner who couldn’t comprehend that emotions could be felt in one’s stomach. Trying to explain it to her was like trying to make a blind person experience déjà vu.

Tokyo’s subway system is vast, complex and not the most English friendly place on Earth. It is also very efficient. If you need to get from one side of Tokyo to the other, very fast, there is  a train for that. It’s called a “Rapid.” A rapid line runs along the same line as the “local” but doesn’t make all the stops.

The up-side of working with this actress is how keenly aware I became of all the emotions I can feel in my stomach. If something’s wrong with your body or your mind, your stomach is almost guaranteed to let you know about it. If you are a disbeliever like my acting buddy, just spend a little time in a Thai tuk-tuk and you will understand.

I thought the tuk-tuks were a blast. Tuk-tuks are the only way to make traffic congestion interesting.

Tokyo's train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains...

Tokyo’s train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains…

Transportation is stressful, and often times the initial response is to over-react, expecting the worst. Don’t do this. You will really, really want to, it takes a lot of effort to remain stoic in the face of possible disaster, but if you want your partner to respect and continue to travel with you, this is the tao you must cultivate.

Which brings me to our first day in Tokyo and using the excellent subway system there. Andrew and I have used metros and subways all around Europe and the States. From Athens, to Vienna, to the Tube, and even the Venetian water-taxis, we thought we had mastered it all.

The Tokyo subway and train system has to be looked at in a non-linear way to really make sense of it. Getting from point A to point B might involve actually back tracking a few stops rather than going forward to the next connection because the transfer is closer to the final destination from there. Maybe the transfer subway station is exceptionally large making a transfer there unpalatable. When you are a tourist, most of this knowledge is unavailable to you.


The equation required to navigate from Ikebukuro to Ebisu

As long as you find the right line going the right direction, all you have to do is listen for your stop, or count if you can’t understand the language. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Or so we thought…dun dun dun. That ominous sound is to set the mood for the day we met our nemesis, the Tokyo express.

There are very few subway and train systems that are so easy as just knowing the direction and listening for your stop.

We’d been using the Tokyo subway all afternoon to visit different neighborhoods, no problems. So we hopped on the pink line to head north for a couple of stations where we could transfer to the green.IMG_0603

The Tokyo system map looks like someone drew it while looking at the paper through a prism.

I should probably mention that it was our first week in Japan and we had absolutely no language skills whatsoever. Even if you learn to speak Japanese, reading it is a whole other matter. Some Japanese trains have English read-outs and some don’t, it just depends on how new that particular train car is. We hopped on the next pink line train, intending to count two stops.

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time....

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time….

It requires constant vigilance when using a new subway or train system to not get thoroughly lost. You might call it OCD but I check the train maps in every car and platform against my map and my planned travel route. Still there are somethings that one cannot account for.

After a couple minutes of high-speed travel with no indication of slowing, my stomach began to alert me to the growing panic bubbling there. My acting lessons had also taught me the art of maintaining a straight face, but as I made eye contact with Andrew I knew he could see the fear in my eyes as they slowly widened in confusion.

Our eyes momentarily locked in an “Oh shit!” moment as we realized that we still weren’t stopping. We watched out the windows of the train as we passed at least five stations with no hint of slowing.

My reaction was more of a, “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The letters are red… red is different. Why didn’t I notice that at first?”

I was suddenly living out the boat scene from “Willy Wonka,” waiting for the walls to become a light show of crawling insects. It was the uncertainty that was truly terrifying. It became clear we were on an express train of some sort, but how long was it going to last? Had we unknowingly stepped on a train bound for the suburbs, an hour outside of Tokyo city? How much would it cost to get back?

We could have ended up some where out there...

We could have ended up some where out there…

While neither of us is prone to over reaction, a Charles Marlow vis a vis Heart of Darkness comparison isn’t far off if you end up in the wrong manga shop… We obviously had to get off at the next station and then take the next train the other direction.

The human brain is wonderful, a million negative thoughts can occur in a matter of seconds. The important thing to do when this happens is first to ask, what can I do about it? If the answer is nothing, short of pulling the train’s emergency levers (which I wouldn’t recommend) then all those thoughts can wait. They are irrelevant. As the adage goes, you have to cross the bridge when you get there, or get off the train when you get there…

I hate metaphorical bridges. Jeff Bridges though… He’s awesome. Same with suspension bridges. I like those.

Luckily, the train stopped after another couple stations, forcing us to backtrack only about five stops. Also lucky, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, so finger pointing wasn’t even an option. Just another lesson learned the harder way, but you can bet we haven’t ended up on an express train since then!

It was definitely Shana’s fault.

Bought and Seoul’d

After our full day of pretending to be in the midst of an international incident at the DMZ we felt like had earned a day of doing simple tourism. Shopping.

Our first order of business was to head to Insa-dong which Insa-dentally was very close to our guest house. We had wanted to try ginseng chicken soup but at 15000won a bowl it just didn’t seem like it was worth it. We ended up people watching from an up stairs restaurant where Shana was able to get her iced noodles and I got a spicy kimchi and pork bimbap dish.

After lunch we made our way through the souvenir shops. Just like most places, everything was essentially over priced but we picked up some magnets (obviously) and Shana bought a necklace that looked like a companion to one she bought in Thailand. There were some beautiful inlaid boxes with traditional Korean designs and some really neat sets of metal chopsticks. We decided that we had given Korea enough of our money for the time being.

With our time in Korea coming to a close on a Tuesday most of the major palaces and museums were not open (that we hadn’t already seen) and it was still stupid hot outside. We elected to take it easy at the guesthouse until early evening.

Around 6:00PM we headed down in to the Seoul subway for a train to Myeong-dong again. Although this time we weren’t going shopping. We were heading to North Seoul Tower or Namsan Tower. Constructed from 1969 to 1980 it stands 237 meters tall, but it was built on top of a massive hill. The construction site places the top floor of the Seoul Tower roughly equivalent to the height of the observation deck of the Willis (read: Sears) Tower in Chicago. In other words, the observation lounge is really high up.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There is only one option to get to the base of North Seoul Tower and that is to take a cable car to the base. Well, that is partially true. There is a path that goes up the “hill” to the base of the tower. No thanks, it’s really steep. The ropeway is rather expensive though so if you’re on a tight budget go ahead and hoof it. Once you get to the base of the tower though you will have to get in line for another set of tickets to actually go up the observation level.

This is stupid.

Tickets for both should be available at the cable car booth at the bottom but they are not. Anyways, the entrance to the elevator is below the main platform to the left if you’re standing at the ticket booth and it isn’t at all obvious. The arrows point to the observation “deck” which is where you would already be standing if you are buying tickets.

At the top of the tower we hung around for about an hour getting sunset/dusk shots and then waiting till the city really lit up to get some great night shots. While hanging out we met a fellow traveler named Lauren. Lauren walked around the tower with us and after we had mentioned that we were heading to the Hongik University area for dinner and drinks. Being an awesome person she said that her hostel was near there and that she would show us around.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Upon our departure we came outside to see the tower lit up in a brilliant blue light. This is only done on days when the air quality in Seoul is 45㎍/㎥ or less. Much like our experience with the fountain in the Lotte Department store in Pusan, we were leaving slowly enjoying the view when suddenly the blue light went out and a movie projection started on the side of the tower. The three of us hung around for the 15 minute movie that included giant break dancers, the tower being disassembled and then reassembled, being filled up with water and fish, then flushed, and some traditional Korean drumming. It was pretty damn extravagant and cool. Not sure why we hadn’t read about that anywhere but it was awesome.

With Lauren we headed to Hongik University and got a nice slice of the Seoul nightlife as we popped into a couple bars, chatted about Japan vs Korea and generally just had a good time being amused by people walking by on the street. We were so engrossed in conversation that I looked down at my watch and realized we had five minutes to make the last train back to our guesthouse. We said a quick goodbye and rushed down into the Seoul subway for the last time.

Well, isnt that uplifting

Well, isnt that uplifting

The following morning we caught an airport bus, slightly more expensive than trains but you don’t have to change because it’s a direct route to the terminal. And back to Osaka we went.

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2 days in P/Busan –

Haeundae in the afternoon

Haeundae in the afternoon

Since we were out unitl around 3am the night before, we got a late start on our day in Busan. Excited that we could actually find brunch (there are no restaurants that we know of in our town Iwanuma that are open for breakfast), we made our way to the Wolfhound, an Irish pub near our love motel that had a decent “full English” breakfast and good Bloody Marys. After brunch, we took a quick stroll around Haeundae in the sunlight, surprising clean considering how trashed it was the night before. Haeundae beach in the afternoon becomes a sea of umbrellas and inner tubes. Still sunburnt, we didn’t relish the idea of another beach day just yet, so we headed over to the Metropolitan Art Museum.

On display were local Korean artists in a mixture of styles. One room was contemporary, with large oil on canvas and watercolor works. Some four or five rooms were lined with scrolls of calligraphy text in Korean and Japanese. Another five rooms consisted of hundreds of scrolls done in sumi, Japanese ink brush painting. While the calligraphy was certainly beautiful, it was a little redundant after two or three examples, but the sumi paintings were so simple yet gorgeous. Each time I thought I had found my favorite, the next scroll would be even more stunning. I have a particular fondness for Japanese art and I wanted to take every piece home with me. The contemporary work was excellent as well, minus the bratty Korean children whose parents insisted on taking their photos in front of every picture! One child was too young to speak yet, but he knew how to make the “peace” sign for the camera. Ugh, I read about how Korean mothers simply worship their children when they are young, and after having it confirmed by Amy and Michael, it’s a little overwhelming to see how little discipline OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgoes on at that age.

After a little over an hour at the museum, we made our way to the subway to check out the Jagalchi Fish Market. While we had already seen quite a few markets like this in Korea, the Jagalchi is lauded as the most famous, so we had to see for ourselves. It is definitely the most massive fresh seafood market I have ever seen, composed of an outdoor area along the street and a five-story indoor market with hundreds of individual booths for the fishmongers. Each fishmonger also has his own area to prepare food for hungry customers. I really wished I was with a local who would know what and how to order some ridiculously fresh seafood, because I had no idea what to ask for. We contented ourselves with watching all the live octopus trying to escape from their tubs, which is highly entertaining. One made it out and partially down the street before his owner caught up with him. There is something so oddly hilarious about watching an octopus slither along the concrete. As you walk through the market, it is also not unusual to be sprayed with water by the various creatures in the tanks. If you have any interest, you can check out this video of the Jagalchi Fish Market experience for the highlights.

The market is right next to Nampo, a massive shopping district of Busan, so we wandered through this on our way to the Sky Park in the massive Lotte department store. Korea has more outdoor gear stores than I have ever seen in one place. They love to hike, so every corner has a North Face-type outlet filled with backpacks and moisture-wick shirts. There is also an extremely expensive Jeep retail store in Nampo, and apparently everyone in Korea has paid for a $50 Jeep logo t-shirt, because we must have seen a hundred of them being worn. We kept looking for a “knock-off” tent selling rip-off Jeep shirts for super cheap, but we only saw the actual Jeep store. What an odd thing to be trendy.

We headed for the Lotte department store because the rooftop viewing area boasts a “Sky Park” where you can catch views of Busan from on high. There is a tower in Busan, like that of Kyoto and Kobe, but the department store is almost as tall, and free! The rooftop also has a small petting zoo and aquatic activities for children, if you’re into that kind of thing. My uncle Michael had warned us that there is never a “clear” day in Korea. Even when the clouds are gone, a general atmosphere of haze tinges the sky. We got what pictures we could, and headed downstairs.

On our way out of the department store, we passed through the lobby where I noticed a large crowd of people sitting on benches, all facing a large fountain in the center of the room. The lights began to dim and an announcement came on in Korean. Andrew was in front of me, heading for the exit, so I got his attention and whispered “Something’s about to happen…” Not creepy or anything. We headed back to the fountain and in a few moments we were treated to an epic fountain show surpassing all other fountain shows… Okay the only one I can think of is the Bellagio, but it was definitely way  better than Vegas! Water jets sprayed from the top and bottom, creating a cylindrical water column onto which projectors shined images of flowers and dancing ballerinas, set to classical music. The water being dropped from the ceiling was manipulated into single droplets, so it fell as a sheer curtain of suspended orbs. Sometimes the droplets fell altogether in rings, like a chandelier. Other times, gaps were created to spell out letters and words. Not being able to read these, we joked that they were probably subliminal messages to encourage more shopping. Whatever it was, it was magnificent and a completely unexpected fifteen minute treat.

Next we made a brief stop at the hotel to cool off, and then off to Jangsan, where the puppy cafe is! For those of you who don’t know

"Puppies" everywhere

“Puppies” everywhere

about this brilliant idea from Asia, a dog or cat cafe is somewhere you can go after work to hang out with animals, drink a smoothie and relax before you go home to your tiny, sterile apartment that doesn’t allow pets. I thought this sounded awesome, and was formulating a plan to do some research and bring this concept back home with me to the states. First thing, the word puppy was just wishful thinking. Perhaps this cafe should have been called “lovable mutts we found in the shelter” because no where did I see a puppy. There were a few small dogs of the same breed, and a few larger guys who were kept separate from the cafe area because they were too energetic and badly trained to be played with. After we got the dogs to settle down, they finally seemed to enjoy sitting in our laps, and if we stopped petting them they strongly protested. While not the puppy utopian society I had embellished in my mind, the little buggers do tend to grow on you none the less. I probably wouldn’t return, and I definitely won’t be opening my own cafe anytime soon, but I’m not sure wether to recommend this activity or to tell you save your money. If you’re okay with rescue dogs that pee on the floor and bark a lot, you might enjoy it…

Mmmm bibimbap

Mmmm bibimbap

We headed back on the subway to the Kyungsung University area, which is just about the coolest little neighborhood you could ever wish to attend college in. Every inch of it is crammed full with cheap restaurants and enticing bars, glowing from the neon and electric with the hum of vibrant youths. As we searched for a spot to eat (my ravenous desire for more baby octopus still strong), we came across a board game establishment, with open tables and various card and board games on a shelf, waiting to be played. More interested in food, we finally settled on a Japanese restaurant serving Korean bibimbap, which is almost as addicting as baby octopus. After dinner, we meandered to an ex-pat bar next door called Eva’s. Eva’s had a huge venue, with a stage for live music, darts, billards, and a beer pong table. They even offered hookah. Unfortunately it was Sunday night, so it was totally empty, but I’m sure the night before would have been a fantastic time. We sat at the bar, tried some Korean IPA and watched a little pre-season football. That’s American football to you. The IPA was okay but a little expensive, so we headed home to catch up on some zzzs.

Our next day was mostly spent in travel back to Seoul, so I’ll just sum it up quickly. We dropped our luggage off at the KTX station, bought our tickets to Seoul for the evening and headed off to check out one more beach before we left the coast. Gwangalli was close by, so we braved the heat and walked along the beach. It was too early in the afternoon for any of the restaurants with nice beach-facing patios to be open, so we did the next best thing. Bought big cans of beer and hung out on the surprisingly nice wooden deck of a convenience store and let life go by for a bit.

Gwangalli Beach

Gwangalli Beach

A couple hours later, we headed back to the station and picked up some spicy fried chicken and bibimbap for the road. The area across from Busan Station is called Chinatown, but this neighborhood includes lots of Filipino and Russian establishments as well. It is certainly an odd mix. The KTX ride north to Seoul is close to three hours, but comfortable and scenic. This time we had decided to stay in Insadong, my aunt Rebecca’s favorite area, in a nice little guesthouse called Lavinia. I double checked our reservations for tomorrow’s trip to the DMZ. We were good to go.

Shoulders on flame with bags of clothes – Seongsan Ichulbong

We had a full day to kill before our Korean Air flight to B/Pusan in the evening. We left our bags at the guesthouse and caught the first bus to Seongsan Ichulbong, also known as, “Sunrise Peak,” due to its easterly position on Jeju island.

the crater

the crater

Shana’s obsession with volcanic phenomena usually involves descending into things. I on the other hand have a peculiar interest in climbing stairs. Well, not the stairs so much as just seeing what’s at the top, or also seeing what can be seen from the top. My desire to see whats up that next set of steps has been with me since I climbed the Statue of Liberty in the fifth grade. Since then I have dominated stair wells and flights such as: Yamadera (1,000 steps), Le Tour Eiffel (710 steps – that are open to the public), Sacré Cœur (534 steps-including the hill), St. Peter’s Basilica (491 steps),  The Statue of Liberty (354 steps), St. Stephen’s of Vienna (343 steps), and (but not limited to) The Acropolis (156 m, not strictly speaking stairs but it’s a good hike). Seongsan’s website sadly does not list the number of steps to the top but it’s roughly as tall as the Seattle Space Needle.Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 1.05.36 PM

Seongsan is a “tuff cone” and a very good example of one at that. Standing at roughly 180 meters (600 ft.) Seongsan was a great pile of ash that hardened with the reaction of ascending magma and sea water. Seongsan had a wet eruption which caused the interior to become a smooth bowl unfilled with lava and ripe for vegetation. The eruption’s proximity to the ocean allowed a great wave or waves to form steep cliffs on all sides save the north western portion of the volcano. Even more unique than the well preserved tuff cone is that there are plants on the volcano that are only found on Jeju island and one plant that is only found in the crater of the volcano.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bus ride to Seongsan is about one and a half hours depending on your bus driver’s mental state. Upon arrival at Sunrise Peak a fifteen minute walk is required to get to the ticket office. From there it takes about an hour round trip to the top and back if you’re moving fast. That means if you want to do anything else that day plan on at least 5 hours to really spend time there at make it worth your while. There is a complex at the bottom where you can get slushies and over priced food.

The hike to the top is not that unreasonable, well it wouldn’t be unreasonable if it the temperature and humidity outside are not record breaking. It’s more than reasonable if you’re not suffering from unreasonably bad sunburns from being UNDERNEATH an umbrella the previous day. Despite our cautious sun exposure and appropriate chemical protection we had both acquired awful sunburns from our day at the beach. Mine was on the shoulders and Shana’s was her shoulders and strangely just her right thigh. Sunburns that were bad enough where the sun can be felt through a shirt. At the top of Seongsan there is no respite from the sun. A massive view deck awaits with no shade.

panorama including the viewing deck at the top

panorama including the viewing deck at the top


This picture also shows how terribly sunburnt Shana got

Someone asked me at the top, “Was it worth it?” Maybe. I was going to tell myself that it was regardless of my actual feelings. On the way down to the north of the peak is a small cove where tours of a local island, free diving elderly women and fresh sea food are available. We decided not to spend time there but we did stop on our way back to the bus to get a massive hamburger. Massive in the sense that it could be cut into pizza slices. We managed to have some excellent luck as we arrived at the bus stop right as the bus was pulling up.

Back at the Jeju bus terminal we hopped on local city bus to the Jungang Underground shopping mall. We didn’t have anything to shop for but felt like it would a good place to enjoy some air conditioning while we killed time before heading to the airport. The Jungang mall is comprised of small shops that sell almost exclusively clothes. There were a few shops that sold cell phone accessories or food. During our tour we noticed several stores selling matching sets of his and hers; polo shirts, horizontally striped t-shirts, bathing suits, underwear, and full outfits including sandals. One of the few souvenirs we bought in Korea was a matching set of Pud & Lix (I have no idea what it means) t-shirts.

We then headed above ground to walk around the “famous” traditional Dongmun market which is above the Jungang underground mall. The Dongmun market is several city blocks at odd angles to each other featuring numerous elements of Korean cuisine, knick-knacks, seafood… so much… sea food, and an occasional clothing store. Just wandering among the stalls, avoiding delivery boys hot shotting around on mopeds, and occasionally stopping to gawk at their food preparation is cool in and of itself. Many of the fish and meat stalls have tables behind them where they pull the (you name it) out of the tank/freezer and cook it for you right there. Some things do not appear to be edible like skinned but still alive eel (true story). Some things look amazing like the vats of different types of kim-chi.

Nevertheless we wandered for a while and decided it was time to head to the airport. The bus for Jeju airport is not particularly frequent so we opted for a taxi and arrived at an incredibly busy airport terminal. In terms of passengers Seoul to Jeju is the busiest route in the world. In 2012 there were over ten million passengers that came through Jeju terminal. Unlike the island airports of Crete and Santorini, Jeju’s airport was big with many lounge areas and lots of overpriced food. However, in the actual boarding area there were not a great quantity of seats.

Our short flight to Pusan was uneventful. I had booked us a hotel near Haeundae beach earlier that day on a deal through and it was about an hour from Pusan airport to Haeundae via the Pusan subway. We arrived at our hotel and checked in around 11pm, dropped our bags and spruced up a little because Saturday in Haeundae during the summer is a 24 hour party. Haeundae is chock full of Korean love hotels and they are all essentially pretty nice with loads of neon on the outside and hidden entrances. We stayed at Hotel The Sun about a 10 minute walk from Haeundae Beach proper.IMG_6099

The main street, Gunam-ro, was absolutely electric around midnight. We had donned our matching t-shirts and khaki shorts to disguise ourselves as locals. Down at the beach no one is allowed to swim after dark but the beach is open 24 hours. The Korean laws are also not squeamish about drinking in public. Just about ever 10 steps on the beach was a group Koreans with guitars or a jam box playing their favorite tunes, drinking and dancing. They were packed in so close that we wondering how they heard themselves play. Most of the bars and clubs along Gunam-ro are way way overpriced. Especially for a place like Korea where most everywhere else the drinks are pretty cheap. The best way to solve this problem is convenience stores. A tall beer at a convenience store is $2.50 or a bottle soju is about $1.50 and then people watch from the numerous benches or sit on the beach with your cheap beer.

Haeundae at night

Haeundae at night

Around 2AM we figured it was time for dinner so we found an outdoor patio that served the famous Korean fried chicken and finally wrapped up our night around 3AM.

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Mokpo and the fam

Massive apartment complexes

Massive apartment complexes

After our incredibly busy day one in Korea, we took the next morning a little easier. We planned to take the KTX (Korean high-speed train) south to Mokpo, a well-developed harbor town on the southwestern coast of Korea. Why Mokpo? Besides being the town where my aunt Rebecca taught English and fell in love with Korea, it is also the town where my uncle Michael currently resides with his Korean wife, and where they own their own English hagwon (private school). Having plans to meet up with them in the afternoon, we headed down to Seoul station to buy our tickets and relax a bit. While enjoying some breakfast in the station’s large mall, it began to pour rain, further increasing our desire to do nothing all morning except enjoy some down time. Around 1:00 we grabbed a couple bento boxes for the ride, and took our seats for the very comfortable three and a half hour trip.

Crossing a majority of the Korean peninsula, we were able to admire the lush landscape of impossibly green hills that make up the Korean country-side. Apart from the occasional massive apartment complex (and we are talking ten thirty-story buildings built side by side, bigger than even Vegas can boast of), the Korean landscape is simply gorgeous and even more green than the rolling plains of England.

View of Mokpo from the sculpture park

View of Mokpo from the sculpture park

Eventually we reached our destination and met up with uncle Mike and his wife “Amy.” Her real name is Eun-sook, but she told us to call her Amy. They drove us around Mokpo for a quick tour of the town, stopping at a large sculpture park (the largest in Korea, apparently) and an old building originally built by the Japanese but now used as a cultural history museum of Mokpo. Ready for dinner, we mentioned that we hadn’t tried bibimbap, a famous Korean rice dish. Michael and Amy promptly took us to a their favorite local spot where you sit on the floor with low tables which, for a ridiculously low price, the staff completely covers the table with more dishes of food than I have ever seen in one place. The amount of food provided to us was simply stunning; all of it was beautifully presented as well as delicious.  We definitely needed some locals to explain to us what to do with all these spectacular condiments, soups, and the bowl of makgeolli which you must ladle into small drinking saucers (make sure you always pour for others first, and never your own drink!). Being the expert, Amy offered to make our bibimbap bowls, which consisted of fresh brown rice, sprouts, fresh vegetables and lots of special Korean chili sauce. Other wonderful side dishes included rose colored pickled daikon, egg custard soup, whole small crabs drenched in chili sauce, local cooked fish filet, and of course kimchi. Amy introduced us to the local “summer kimchi” of Mokpo, which was more delicate and slightly sweeter than the spicy thick cut cabbage variety.

Uncle Michael lookin' good

Uncle Michael lookin’ good

Even with four people, we were unable to eat all of the amazing food laid before us. As an after-dinner refreshment, the restaurant offered us chilled homemade cinnamon tea, powerful and delicious. Next, we headed over to Amy and Michael’s apartment to meet Amy’s children and chat about our experiences so far teaching English. In the evening, we headed down to the harbor where Mokpo had just finished up their summer water festival, and stopped in at Bar Texas for some beers. The cold beer hit the spot, and since I hadn’t seen my uncle in over twelve years, we proceeded to catch up over a nice long chat and more beers. And more beers. And more. Eventually we grabbed a taxi back home and passed out in the guest room with plans to possibly tour a nearby island the next day.

Next day came and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Andrew and Michael headed down to the docks in the morning to make reservations for the ferry to Jeju, while I proceeded to sleep in. Eventually I managed to get up and shower, and we hopped in the car with Michael and Amy, who had decided to show us a traditional Korean village about two hours outside of Mokpo.

About twenty minutes into the drive, I knew all was not right with my stomach. I could feel the last night’s beers mocking my stomach as we jerked along in the chaotic traffic that defines the Korea roadways. Luckily we had stopped for lunch before leaving, so I availed myself of the empty plastic bag and proceeded to re-live my bibimbap meal backwards. On a side note, rice is not the most enjoyable food to regurgitate, definitely a bit scratchy on the throat.

Somewhat dilapidated tea hills

Somewhat dilapidated tea hills

Once my body decides to go into “purge the poison” mode, I have very few options other than to keep drinking water so I at least have something to throw up for next time. I continued to be disgustingly ill, the entire drive up to the village, although we did stop at a once-famous tea farm where the hills where supposed to be lined with beautifully manicured rows of tea leaves. Michael had seen this once before ten years ago, but since then it must have fallen into disuse. Still hailed as a major tourist destination with pictures on the wall from the original garden, we were all amazed at how different the landscape had become.

With everyone a little disappointed and myself still majorly sick, we piled back into the car (now armed with a fresh plastic bag!) and headed to the Naganeupseong Folk Village in Suncheon.

While my enjoyment of the village was a little tainted due to the fact that I continued to throw up and worst of all, had to carry around my hot bag of vomit in the blazing sun just in case the urge struck me far from the nearest bathroom. I do remember that the village is a well-preserved fortress town originally built in 1397, surrounded by tall stone walls that you walk on for a look over the area. About 100 people still reside in this town, maintaining a more simple, traditional style of Korean life. You can walk along the streets and observe people in their huts, as well as a lovely lotus pond, and obligatory ancient torture demonstration area. All in all, it was a fascinating little slice of preserved Korean history.

Village panorama

Village panorama

Also, thank God, the last place I threw up! I had a short nap in the car and felt almost one hundred percent better when we stopped for some iced coffee. I even got my appetite back, so I devoured some delicious kimbap I had been too sick to eat earlier on the way to the Suncheon Bay Garden Expo.

Suncheon Garden Expo

Suncheon Garden Expo

I’m not sure Expo is the right word to describe the massiveness of this place but it was definitely a garden! Over 375 acres of land are covered by multiple “international” gardens, so you can visit an English garden, Thai garden and of course a traditional Korean garden. The gardens each featured flowers and plants native to that area. We enjoyed the Korean garden as the sun set, and heard music coming from a brightly lit staging area. Curious, we made our way to the stage and watched a hip-hop/dub step dance troupe perform an awesome routine in zombie makeup and bright red elbow-high gloves, which they used to great effect as a group.

Now being dark and not able to enjoy any more gardens, we made our drive back to Mokpo and stopped at a local restaurant for special galbi barbeque. A million condiments and lettuced-wrapped beef rolls later, my stomach felt totally normal and totally satiated. We headed off to bed, ready to greet one of the world’s new seven wonders of nature: Jeju Island!

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A Seoul disposition

Editors note: This post will cause you great suffering, it may effect you to your very Seoul. You may even be inconSeoulable after reading this. Here at Easy Distance, we take zero responsibility for blog induced pun and suffering. You’re welcome.

A late night flight out of Osaka can cure you of many things. Paying too much for beer for instance can be cured easily with the short flight from Osaka to Seoul. That is exactly what we did.

Just like Osaka, Incheon airport is a significant distance from the city center. At least an hour train ride depending on if you have to change stations in the city center and connect to the subway, which we did. The train ride was long and fatigue had set in enough that I had begun to rehearse my rendition of, “Seoul Man.” I tried to get Shana to sing it with me but she would not. My performance remained Seoulo. There is also very elaborate system of limo busses from Incheon. Don’t let the name fool you, they are just regular busses. A little more expensive that the train but no transfers.

By the time we had got to our stop in the Myeong-dong area of Seoul it was well past 11pm and we had lost an hour from JST.

I had read that our guest house was up quite a steep hill and the owner recommended taking a taxi from the station exit to the house. We didn’t do this. How steep could it be?

About 5 minutes in, when the street started to get San Francisco-esque with an added dollop of insufferable late night heat and humidity, I realized a taxi would have been prudent. The amount of sweat we were producing was enough to make me feel Seouluable, but we Seouldiered on to the top.

I was told that our room would be unlocked and we could basically check ourselves in. I went to open the door to the room that was reserved for us and lo – there were two Seouls already in that room! After much texting, emailing, checking other doors, standing around in Waiting for Guffman like awkwardness, we settled into 403. The couple in 404 were either illiterate, or have a very laissez-faire attitude towards the order of numbers. Regardless, we had a room and we could change out of our sopping clothes.

Being the Seoulert travelers  we are (solert: So”lert\, a. [L. solers, sollers, -ertis,clever, skillful]. – You may need a thesaurus after this, I sure did) we had a quick change and immediately left to explore the local environs in the hunt for fried chicken.

Two kinds, Sauce & No Sauce

Two kinds, Sauce & No Sauce

You maybe asking your self in a rather Seoulopsist manner, “Fried chicken?! Why on Earth would you be going out for fried chicken in Seoul at 12:30AM?” To which I would indignantly reply, “South Korea has the best fried chicken in the world. The Koreans are Seouly at the top in this regard.” We found a restaurant near our guest house called, “Two Two.” The beer was cold, the chicken was spicy and crisp (literally a whole fried chicken that is just hacked to bits after they fry it, sometimes you get bonus stuff like liver still attached) and quite fulfilling. A total Seoulution for the weary traveller.

With the Seouls of our shoes all worn down we headed back up the hill (on foot again) to catch some shut eye.

Other uses of Seoul rejected for this post:
Seolon – of or pertaining to the Athenian statesman and dictator or minor league baseball team from turn of the century Sacramento.

SeouLP – Standards of Laboratory Practice

Seoulstice – either of the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator

Seoulenoid – converting fried chicken energy into linear motion via bipedal conveyance.

Dover Seoul – a delicacy to be sure.

Seoulent Green – It’s people.

Seould Out – that’s why we left. I mean we were into before Seoul was cool.