Seoul ~ Julio’s Mexican & a Saturday Walkabout in Jongno

We exited the subway, squinting in the June sun, onto the busy streets of Jongno, with old ladies hustling and old men playing Chinese checkers. Everybody’s shoes seemed to be half on and their hats half off. Also, people are still pissed about Park Geun-hye, except these folks were pissed that she was arrested. Loud and repetitive it was.

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IMG_5550When I crave Mexican food in Seoul, disappointment is sure to follow. Besides Vatos and a few other places, the Korean food from America’s southern neighbor is mostly forgettable. Add Julio’s in Jongno to that list. The food isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. It fills you up but doesn’t satisfy the way a really good taco can. We ate decent shrimp fajitas with runny queso and over sweet guacamole. The salsa needed some more spice and the burrito was very ricey. The saucy enchilada was a belly warming winner.

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IMG_5559After lunch, we hit the road walking. We passed through the Cheongyecheong river, the little creek that was refurbished from a dilapidated raised city highway. On this early summer weekend, the side street was full of identical taco trucks and fried food for sale.

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IMG_5572We bought Jordyn some fancy Sisley face lotion in the posh Shinsegae Department Store while enjoying the A/C then back onto the sticky evening streets under the shadows and cool breezes of Namsan mountain.

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IMG_5584In February 2018, the winter Olympics will come to Pyeongchang, Korea, so the push is on for a big show of Korean pride.

IMG_5580Finally, we ended up on what I could only describe as “puppy mill boulevard”. It was store after store of tiny little puppies in windows looking for a home. The crowded glass cages made you think that Koreans were lining up looking for pet doggies, when in fact only about 12% of the 50 million Koreans have dogs. Millions of dogs are caged and tortured for consumption. It’s a brutal practice that was downplayed before the 1988 Olympics and again facing intense criticism before the next one 30 years later. I eat meat; yet, want to hypocritically condemn Asians eating dog meat. It’s not 1952 anymore Korea. Korea is the 11th largest economy in the world and there are BBQ shops on every corner–meat isn’t hard to find. Dog meat should be off the menu, but the suffering of cows, pigs, chickens and the others we consume shouldn’t be discounted just because they aren’t pets. One day, after lab grown meat, synthetic meat or plant based “meat” becomes the normal, we will look back at this time of savagery and be appalled at our behavior.

Hopefully, these cute little mutts licking and pawing the glass will all find decent homes with loving owners who won’t abandon them after they pee on the carpet, all but assuring their fate to end up in those sad metal cages, bound to be boiled.

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Sokcho ~ Seaside Beauty

Descending the winding roads, ears popping, the blue sea comes into view after a long tunnel through Korea’s highest mountain, Seoraksan. The precipitous Dragon Ridge is visible to your right among the scattered foliage, and beyond the road’s horizon, a small town spreads out before you, Sokcho. It’s 180 km directly east of Seoul, but can take up to eight hours to get there if you’re one of the unfortunate souls to leave during rush hour on a Korean holiday. We had a normal four hour trek behind us now, and the ocean was almost within reach.

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Dragon Ridge

We brought the dogs, and they require stops. It’s nice to check out the scenery and stretch, so they provide the excuse. One of my favorite roadside snacks is fried baby potatoes with a strong coffee.

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Rest stop vista.

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First stop was a dip in the frigid May waters. I was the only one without a shirt, and the only one in the water beyond the brave girls soaking their sandals. Next, we went to eat a big dinner to celebrate.

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We drank some flavored soju, ate squidcakes, (squid circles, crabcake style) a cold, raw fish and turnip appetizer plus a spicy soup of various shells.

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There is a famous (like way overly famous for the quality) fried chicken establishment in Sokcho, called Man Seok. You get a box of breasts, thighs and the strange bits fried and dipped in a savory sauce. It’s okay, but confusing how they bamboozled everyone to think it’s worth carting all the back to Seoul. I’ve never eaten it without getting heartburn. Yet, somehow, I’m always happy to get it. We ate picnic style in the park with the cool breezes of the bay.

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Later, we popped in for a early dinner before leaving. Jordan wanted me to try sea urchin, but didn’t tell me what I was eating, just to “Trust me.” It tasted like the ocean went bad. Perhaps there are good urchins, but I found the Ursula of urchins. It was powerfully funky and overwhelmed the mouth with sea flavor. (The urchin is that brown lump in the middle of the bibimbap bowl.) Luckily, we ordered some cold noodles to balance it out.

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We walked off the sour stomach in the cooling air of evening to let the dogs relieve themselves before jumping back in the car for the quiet dusky drive to Seoul.

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The next weekend, we went back with James and his friend. The weather didn’t cooperate, but that didn’t stop the two teenagers from swimming under the cool clouds until their lips turned purple. We ate ramen noodles and peanuts for lunch, to save up our appetites for the clam bake at night. It was worth it. Fire-roasted abalone, scallops, clams and kimchi made for a great meal.

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James and Sam

We left the next day after a hefty meat BBQ, and stopped a few hours later at a large Korean rest stop. I thought it might be interesting to show some of the food they sell to travel-weary traffic warriors.

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Siloam Sauna ~ A Day at a Korean Jjimjilbang

Sometimes, you need a hot bath. Since there are few bathtubs in Korean apartments, we are given the public sauna–that mutually nude tradition from Roman antiquity. I’ve always liked baths, hot tubs, jacuzzis, any kind of pool. But a Korean jjimjilbang is completely different. Conan went, hilarity ensued. Anthony Bourdain went (in his show: Parts Unknown), contemplation ensued.

It’s a wonderful place for relaxation, if you can get past the shared bathtubs and the nudity coupled with dramatically conspicuous pubic hair. The pure joy of a 44C tub in winter outweighs any dangling encroachment or short & curly incursion. Don’t misunderstand, it’s a public kind of privacy. Yet one needs to be ready for extreme nudity of all sizes and ages, because, of course you don’t look, but you do see. Once past the initial nude shock, you can sit in dry Swedish saunas, wet aromatic steam-rooms, jacuzzi baths, and tubs ranging from icy to scalding. It’s an exercise in temperature toleration. My skin usually resembles a lobster after about an hour of cold to hot body shocking.

I put on the cozy pajamas they give you, and meandered to the common co-ed room. Here is the real deal. You can find beehive caves where temps hover around 100 C, Himalyan rock salt floors, personal cocoons, ice rooms and all manner of sweat chambers. There is usually a restaurant on-site, or a snack bar. Ice cream, water and ramen are the best choices. Once you’ve gotten the perspiration going and achieved perfect ice cream to spicy soup balance, lie on the heated floor and relax.

The Siloam Sauna near City Hall in Seoul was freaking packed when we arrived on New Year’s Day 2016! There were buses of Chinese tourists outside and I felt like the Star Wars quote: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Sure enough, it was a mess inside. Bodies occupying every available shower, very little space in the tubs and just too much everything. I posted up in the salt room, got some salt and gave myself a scrubbing. It was a bad idea to come on the universally most hungover and thus most crowded day of the year, but here we were. The buses left after a while, and the place thinned out.

Siloam is a massive place, with an exercise room, large restaurant, plenty of unique common rooms, and clean for its popularity. Dragon Hill (in Yongsan) might still win on size and presentation, but is also consistently and annoyingly crowded. I think on a normal day (not January 1st), this place might be better for the crowd averse.

Here are some pictures of the common chilling areas, and more information here.

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My sample routine for beginners:

  1. Pay the fee (between 6-12,000won) and get a locker.
  2. Undress, rinse in shower, get in warm tub, then hot, then cold. Move to dry sauna, cold shower…repeat.
  3. Once sufficiently heated, rinse with cool water and change to pajamas.
  4. Visit all the available sweat chambers, starting with hot first, and ice room between.
  5. Drink a bottle of water, eat ramen noodles and ice cream.
  6. Nap, read, chill, people watch.

49 Jungnim-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul

Petite France ~ A Place for Selfies and Romance (if you can ignore the ridiculousness)

“Little France” outside of Seoul, in Gapyeong, could also be called “Gauche France” or “Faux France.” It’s a ridiculous caricature of the world’s most visited country. We saw tiny alleyways made of hollow plaster, fake wooden framed cottages, cute cafes that sell ddeokboki for 7$, lame replicas of Parisian iconography, broken fountains in manicured cobblestoned plazas and generic ideas of France as imagined by someone who believes French culture to be epitomized by puppets, mimes and berets. It’s not wholly without charm, it’s just a smarmy charm. A charm that requires ignorance, the Michael Bay kind of charm. Yes, it’s a movie, but nothing is real. The place is replete with symbolic French roosters, Little Prince statues, and dubiously authentic memorabilia.

Yes, I know. I’m in Korea. What did I expect? You don’t get the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” for hundreds of years and then leap into the modern age with a fully realized vision of globally relevant cultural minutiae. Once I got past the fake, forced cute of the little hillside village asking “you think you’re better than me because you’ve been to France?” routine, and suspended my haughty disbelief, I enjoyed our time there. It’s a beautiful setting, the air is clean, people are happy and holding hands, and if you squint your eyes real tight, only letting in the dimmest glow, maybe you could think yourself among the winding streets of Montmarte or the grand boulevards of the “City of Lights”…until an ajumma pushes you out of the way to take 13 solemn pictures in front of a two meter Eiffel Tower.

Here is a collection of several of the hundreds of pictures we took this cloudy, breezy, late fall afternoon in “Petite France.”

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South South Korea ~ Jeollanamdo Road Trip to Jangheung

For a three day weekend, we loaded up the car and headed south in the brutal Saturday traffic of Korean highways. Weekend traffic in Korea is like Tony Romo in December, Kiss cover bands, or cold McDonald’s fries, i.e. reliably terrible. Nevertheless, hungover and filled with coffee, we put on dark sunglasses and drove.

Hershey was ready to go.

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We left before midday, drove about 400 km and arrived at dusk. Stop and go almost the whole way, until we got onto the coastal highway which was moving. Korean landscapes in early fall are fantastically green, fresh and unpopulated. Besides the four or five big cities in Korea, Korea is still just farms resting against mountains.

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Hungry and tired, we met some of Jordan’s cousins at a fish place in Jangheung (Korea’s warmest city and Asia’s first “slow food city”). We sat on the floor sans mats and tables. The old ladies carried out a completely set table full of raw sea pieces. I’ve been eating more sea things lately, but ammonia doused sting ray was basically inedible, wriggling octopus is never on my menu and the jellyfish was crunchy but not interesting. I tried everything but we’re still far away from me being excited to eat tentacles. (click picture for a close-up)

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Here’s the close-up of jellyfish.

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They gave us the softest and tastiest rice cake I’ve ever eaten. We asked for more when we left and they just gave us a plastic bag with about 50 pieces inside.

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Having done no research, we found every hotel, motel and pension sold out. We stayed at a friends’ mushroom farm in their work office. Somehow they had a floor mat and two couches. We made it work. The guy took us for a tour and gave us some fresh (shiitake) wood mushrooms. Floor to ceiling mushroom logs. This picture is post harvest, I’d like to see the mass of fungus pre-harvest.

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Next day, up early and headed to the little downtown market. We ate some authentic 곰탕 (gomtang) which is oxtail soup. They stew the bones until the broth is white and healthy, then add some fatty beef, scallions and rice and you have magic. The 빈데떡(bindaeddeok) is a Korean pancake full of veggies and sometimes squid. The crunchier the better and this one was crunchtastic.

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After some shopping with the kimchi people, we headed to the ocean.

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We saw a guy catching fish for my favorite soup, 추어탕 (chuahtang) which is made from ground up mudfish. He just dragged his hook slowly across the mud until one of the mud dwellers, in their feeding/sucking motions, accidentally and unluckily grabbed it.

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The Koreans ingeniously use these snail shells to trap young baby octopus looking for a place to hide, then drag them in and eat them alive or in spicy soups. And Jordan loves the beach.

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Before leaving town, we needed some BBQ. There was a place next to the river where you choose the meat at the downstairs butcher and then walk it upstairs and cook. Great stuff.

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It was a quick two days, but we ate well and enjoyed the country air. Seeing stars, a lot of stars, at the mushroom farm was unexpected and completely refreshing.

Creeped Out in the Spider Museum of Namyangju, Korea

During Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, after swimming in the Han River near Gapyeong, we showered off and headed to quite an odd little place. Up a winding mountain road, past elderly hikers and tiny houses, we found it: Spider Museum!

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Yeah, I know. That’s a big dong. But it was in the parking lot and the first thing we saw.

It turned out the man collecting the tickets (7$ per person) was also the doctor, designer, and arachnid loving founder of the place called, Arachnopia. His pictures were all over, prominently displaying his prestigious position in the world of entomology. Hershey dog accompanied us, but had to wait outside as we entered the living spider area. An eager young man immediately placed this beauty upon us.

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We were both scared at first and then his little fuzzy legs started to feel comforting in a way. The man described the spider thusly: “She’s a good girl.” We moved down the line and saw dozens of varieties of tarantulas, bugs, turtles, and assorted weirdlings. He fed the alligator turtle a bit of food and the snap of his mouth sounded like a door caught in a gust of wind. But, check out these caged critters.

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Leaving the poor, sad creatures trapped in the small boxes aside, we moved onto the poor, dead creatures in smaller boxes. It is a training area for budding university students, so expect plenty of formaldehyde.

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It was impressive to see all these skin-crawling nightmares so well contained and preserved. It gave me a perverse pleasure to look upon these eerie symbols of dread. In our early evolution, spider bites could be incapacitating, or at times, a death sentence. We have been “conditioned” to fear them, more than a fly or a needle from mostly a survival instinct. Therefore, if you’re not at least a little scared of them, you’re probably an alien.

We moved outside as a light drizzle began to fall through the dusk. The bugs were hunting us in the warm, humid air. There is a little research bubble to view spider anatomy, a playground park with a haunting abandoned pool and also a cool statue area. We played a little then ran away from the mozzies.

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Dr. Kim Ju-Pil is  immortalized behind this massive spider. We left with goosebumps and a little wiser about our spider “frenemies.”

On the slow drive back to the highway, we caught a glimpse of the golden rice of early autumn, before finishing the day with some grilled eel.

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Swimming in October, Noraebang and Seafood in Boryeong

Scraping the last bits out of summer before the Korean fall arrives with chilly mornings and crunchy leaves underfoot, we dashed down to Boryeong. At Daechon beach, we find (as far as I know) one of the only beaches on the West Sea that isn’t just a large tide-pool. You can actually swim here, albeit with little to no waves. I was in the water and saw some locals with jackets eyeing me suspiciously. It’s only a quick 2-3 hour drive from Seoul. The July Mudfest is held here every year. Also, the pine trees and mountain backdrop is a unique setting.

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We met some friends and ate a massive seafood feast. There was a wide assortment of shelled organisms, noodle soup, crab and kimchi. Unfortunately, soju made its way onto the menu and I got plastered, ended up running around with Hershey dog and singing Bon Jovi on the beach. We found the karaoke room which gave me a nice venue to continue my drunken shenanigans.

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The next day, we took the dog for a hurting hangover walk discussing the forgotten memories and enjoying the early morning sunshine. It’s a wonderful little spot for a getaway.

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Hiking Bukhansan Amid the MERS Scare

A few weeks ago, South Korea accidentally ran headfirst, like a drunken idiot into an unseen post, into MERS. Schools closed, hospitals prepped for the worst, residents freaked out; however, the three people who actually HAD the disease decided to take a flight to Hong Kong, go drinking at a pub or hit the golf course! The safety worries aside, I hopped on a subway and headed to Bukhansan: the world’s “most visited park per unit of area.” I hiked it once before about four years ago, but with 21 different trail heads, like the proverbial river, you can never step on the same rock twice. Due to the clouds, a slightly happy drizzle and the viral outbreak, the mountain was gloriously uncrowded, a treat in such a dense metropolis. I saw birds, chipmunks, a cat and a dog, monks, a giant gold Buddha, as well as the scenic cityscapes from 800m above the city. Sometimes, getting out alone with a heady mix of fresh air and tasty tunes is just the recipe for city ennui.

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15 - 5It’s a great hike, steep yet secure with a scattering of hermitages, sweet views and helpful signposts.

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15 - 18Finally, after about five hours on the mountain, with achy knees and a quaking stomach, I followed some other hikers to this noodle shop. The soup was boring, bland and bleached of color. But, at least it filled the hiker’s hollow hunger.

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New York ~ Museum of Modern Art

Begun in the late 1920’s as an idea from John Rockefeller’s wife, Abby, it is one of the most famous modern art museums in the world. Walking through the museum can be exhilarating and sometimes frustrating. While art is always subjective beauty, some modern art is just confusing. The randomness and varied styles mixed with creative self-expression makes modern art so intriguing. Here were some of my favorites.

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DSC_0207 Here’s one that made me crazy. It was a white canvas followed by this description:

DSC_0175Here’s one of me becoming the art, thus putting myself inside the “the image, the story, the symbolism.”

DSC_0221Modern Art can be very random and confusing:

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But the purpose of art is eliciting emotion, and with seven billion people, that’s a lot of random and confusing emotions to go around!

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2015 Philadelphia Auto Show

Shiny paint, hot girls in tight pants, new car smell, big horsepower, powerful engines and steep price tags are spread out across the carpeted floors of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. I’m not a car guy, but everybody here is a car guy tonight. Brand new cars and wonderful examples of the past give plenty to talk about. I was very impressed by most of the displays. Japanese and German manufacturers dominated my eye, but American companies are making strides forward with better gas mileage and sleek design.

The night started poorly, with a heavy rain falling and Dad and I eating probably the saddest, dryest cheesesteak in Philly.

DSC_0001It got better inside the convention center where the glitz and shine was on full display. Enjoy the pictures.

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DSC_0034The old cars were my favorite as they carried a sense of history with them.

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DSC_0056The crew enjoying some bro time.

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DSC_0065This is an amazing car, sized like a mini mini. No blind spots.

DSC_0071There was also a customized section where the car dudes could show off their creations.

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