Category Archives: Food

Noodle soup, trains

Monday we had to check out of Elena’s place in a torrential downpour. We splurged on a taxi to Seoul station so that our bags would not be soaked. At Seoul station we put our bags in lockers so we could be free of them for the day.

We met three of the quartet members at their hotel and headed through the arcade to a place they said specialized in hand cut noodle soup as well as a special vegetarian soup that Jessica loved. The two story restaurant had a line out the door. Mostly older ladies out for lunch with their girlfriends. But the line moved fast. The dumplings were mouthwatering. I had the vegetarian soup with Jess. It was cold, a kind of soy milk vichyssoise with what looked like spinach noodles, sliced cucumber and sesame seeds. It was delicious. Dan had the more traditional chicken broth and dumpling noodle soup – also totally delicious. Their kimchi was also very good – a very spicy and vinegary variety. We would go back to this place. We were out of there within 45 minutes and the bill for five of us was ₩56,000 (about $56). Myeongdong Kyo Ja (명동교자).

After we spent the afternoon with them we headed back to Seoul station to get the train to Gyeongju. We would arrive late evening and were hoping to just crash when we finally got to our place there. One thing we were starting to realize is that South Korea is mountainous and green everywhere except the urban centers. The view from both windows of the train was industrial for a few miles, then agricultural plots and rice fields, then tree covered hills.

The city of Gyeongju is not much to look at frankly. It looks old and run down and lacks an energy we had seen elsewhere. We took the bus into town and turned off in the alleyway Ryung had told us to look for. There was the stone wall entry to her home. At this point you step into another world. Ryung’s house is a traditional Korean home. I don’t know how old it is but the house, surrounded by her simple, meandering garden is a sanctuary. We were given our own little 10×10′ room with rice paper walls and sliding screens. Two traditional yo (오) were set out for us to sleep on. We had a little attached shower/toilet room of our own and in the morning she would set out traditional tea service for us. This was yet another awesome AirBNB find. We stayed with Ryung for two nights.

PQ Concert, green porcelain, donuts?

On Sunday we got started at the National Museum. If you skip the special exhibitions the museum is free and they have a wonderful collection of Korean artifacts and pieces from the time of Silla (57BC-935AD). Most of my favorite things in the collection were Celadon vases and small vessels. We had lunch in the museum cafe which was surprisingly good. On the way into the museum from the subway we had noticed while checking into Foursquare that there was a Doughnut Plant NYC in the area. I thought that this was surely a joke. Even in New York the 2nd outpost of the original lower east side establishment isn’t that old. Did they actually have a franchise in SK? Well, yes ma’am, they do. And, they had a Mascarpone donut… hello? NYC branch… please make this, ASAP. And also, by the way, they are better here than in Korea.

We took the subway then to the Seoul Arts Center. This was the only time that we actually went south of the river while in Seoul. I need to take a minute here to say that the only reason we got the idea to travel to South Korea for vacation is because one of the artists I am honored to work with was performing throughout the country as part of the DITTO Festival. I have worked with the Parker Quartet for nearly seven years and the experiences I have had with them have truly been a highlight of my career. It is because of them that we decided to go to South Korea – bookending the holiday with their concerts. My only regret from the trip is that we didn’t spend MORE time with them.

The concert at SAC was a revelation… it was packed and we were almost the oldest patrons. For anyone that regularly attends classical music concerts in America you can appreciate my surprise at being surrounded by young people (mostly women). Not only was it packed but this audience was so exceedingly quiet and polite during the concert and then literally screaming for an encore at the end. Crazy lines for merchandise, etc. It was wonderful to hear the quartet, as well as all of the other musicians in Ensemble DITTO. Afterwards we were hosted for dinner by the concert promoter at a fantastic traditional barbecue place called Arirang. We had beef barbecue (갈비 again!) and their 반찬 (banchan) were delicious and unusual (especially the spicy marinated cold clams). Dan Chong introduced us to a cold noodle soup that I don’t recall the name of that I loved. The company was the best part.

After the dinner we walked around that area with Kee a little bit and headed over to the huge Shinsegae department store to explore their famed food court. As is always the case in Asia, the food court and market at the Shinseage was awesome. We got a look at what the high end shoppers are buying in Seoul and grabbed the first (and only) unsweetened yogurt we would find in Korea.

By the time we got back to Mapo-gu we were hungry again so we chilled out at a local pub and had their specialty fried chicken which was huge and really tasty.

Celedon at the National Museum

Celedon at the National Museum

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Doughnut Plant Seoul

Doughnut Plant Seoul

Mascarpone Cream

Mascarpone Cream

Dumplings, painting, kimchi

Saturday was our second full day in Korea and we got started late. This is the issue with jetlag. You can try to get on the local time but that third day is always a killer. I don’t think that we left the apartment until 10:30 or 11:00 and we knew we wanted to squeeze in both the Changdeokgung Palace and Gwangjang Market.

The subway system in Seoul is really easy to navigate and Dan had downloaded an offline system app for subway routes and timing that turned out to be totally incredible. Not only did it tell you the route when you put in your departure and arrival stations with timings for upcoming trains but it also told you which car and door to be at in order to be right at the transfer stairs when switching lines. I really don’t understand why nobody has figured out how to create a fully comprehensive app for the NYC metro like this but if you are visiting South Korea this app is invaluable (also works in Busan).

Because we were staying in Mapo-gu we used the metro a lot. And we figured an hour to get to most locales. When we got to the Palace we purchased tickets for both the English tour of the Palace (not worth it, we should have done it on our own) and for the Secret Garden tour. The Palace is beautiful and has been restored so that the painting is absolutely gorgeous but the real highlight of visiting Changdeokgung is the Secret Garden. Right in central Seoul it is a sanctuary. The tour takes an hour and a half and it is worth every minute. It is also quite hilly – great for people watching since many of the Korean women on the tour were not wearing appropriate shoes for walking. Our tour guide spoke excellent English (which is actually rare – a lot of Koreans have good English language comprehension but terrible speaking skills – accent and intonation mostly). She was also exceedingly tall and looked like she was out of another time – like a fairy tale – dressed in the traditional dress (한복). She reminded me of my aunt louise. She had a commanding way about her and a fiery personality.

I forgot to mention that after we purchased our tour tickets I told Dan that I would not be able to do the tours if we didn’t eat lunch first. One of my biggest issues with jet lag is that I get really hungry all of a sudden and before I know it I am hangry and a total raging bitch. I had found this app that was suppose to be the Yelp of Korea called Mango Plate. It is NOT the Yelp of Korea. In fact, its developers could really learn something from Yelp. Koreans, for all of the time they spend with their heads in their mobile phones, are not yet hip to the rating of restaurants. Mango Plate ended up have very limited value to us and it really ONLY works in Seoul. But, on this particular day we were able to find a nearby dumpling house that I would highly recommend if you should find yourself at Changdeokgung Palace and totally starving: Cheonjin Poja – 천진포자. Make sure to get the grilled pancake dumpling. That was the best.

After the palace tour we tried to walk around the old Bukchon Hanok village but got stuck in a torrential downpour. We took shelter at a cute coffee shop and discovered the korean version of Affogato (we will come back around to this again)… fantastic.

In the evening we went to Gwangjang Market. This is a must if you are in Seoul. Go at dinner time. I only wished that I could have brought home a sampling of all the homemade varieties of kimchi that were for sale in the market. We sat at a counter for dinner and had sashimi – including a new experience for us… Sea Squirt. The best part of eating raw fish in Korea is that they tend to serve it with a dipping dish that includes chili paste, sesame oil, garlic and jalepeno. Delicious.

Dumplings for lunch!

Dumplings for lunch!

Kimchi at Gwangjang Market

Kimchi at Gwangjang Market

Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Palace

Secret Garden

Secret Garden

Sashimi at Gwangjang Market

Sashimi at Gwangjang Market

Eat Fish!

Eat Fish!

DMZ, friend from long ago

We had decided to book our trip to the Demilitarized Zone on our first full day in Seoul because it was the only reservation time the USO still had at the beginning of our trip and we figured it would be less busy off-weekend. We had been told by several people that the USO tour was the best one and watching other tours that day I felt that we had been given the right advice. It was certainly worth every penny of the $86 we paid (each). You arrive quite early in the morning to the USO offices in central Seoul and from there you are with the tour staff all day – we got back to the USO offices around 3:00pm.

The bus takes you about 1 hour from the downtown of Seoul and as you take the highway you drive along the boarder of the DMZ and you can see the checkpoints and barbed wire fence on the SK side. For miles and miles. They show a video on the bus and a guide explains what the first part of the day will be like. We were told that a US solider would escort our group, there was to be no gesturing or comments aimed at North Korea, no pointing even, nothing that could in any way cause alarm. Photographs could only be taken at certain times and only pointing towards the North. Our bus passed through two highly guarded check points on the way into Camp Bonifas. We signed a waiver that said we were signing away our rights to sue in the event of injury or death and that we were entering a hostile area (the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom) – signing off on this document followed very serious instructions from our US military escort and by this time I was already feeling sick to my stomach. I was starting to feel anxious even with the knowledge that hundreds of people pass into the DMZ on these tours every week.

Standing on the SK side of the DMZ staring at the North Korean side – armed soldiers from both sides guarding their posts was probably one of the most bizarre feelings I have ever had. I am not certain that I can even describe it. But at the 2nd stop, at one of the guard posts overlooking the NK “propaganda village” we were told by our US military escort that North Korea had enough artillery aimed at SK to level all of the city of Seoul in 8 minutes. I think that was the moment that I realized I really wanted to get the hell out of there.

The other stops along the tour (the underground tunnel that South Korea discovered in 1978 and the train station where the KTX ends) were less chilling – only since they were more removed from heightened reality of the situation at Camp Bonifas.

The South Korean campaign (their own “variety” of propaganda) to make the DMZ into a symbol for peace and a push towards what the future could be post-unification is really interesting and being that close to the two opposing sides really put all of the complicated relationships between Japan, Korea, China and the rest of Asia into perspective for me in a way that I had not fully comprehended.

In the afternoon we checked out of the Hilton, picked up a basket of delicious plums at the mini-stop, and took a taxi with all of our crap over to the Mapo-gu neighborhood in Seoul. Our AirBNB apartment was a short 15 minute walk from the Hongik Univ subway stop and in a cute neighborhood. Elena, our host, met us for check in and her apartment where we would stay for 4 nights was totally cute.

After we got settled in we went to the University area to battle crowds and crowds of coeds out on the street for Friday night. We were meeting up with a woman that I was close friends with in high school. It had been over 20 years since we saw each other last and she had been teaching in Seoul for years. She picked a hopping joint known for their pork barbecue – 갈비. It was delicious and great to catch up with Jema but we smelled like we had been barbecued ourselves by the time we got home!

Straddling the line.

Straddling the line.

South Korea=pebbles; North Korea=concrete.

South Korea=pebbles; North Korea=concrete.

An aside: this was fascinating in the Hilton parking lot in Seoul:

Yep ladies…here you go.

Yep ladies…here you go.

Watch out dudes.

Watch out dudes.

Sweet & sour, soaking pools, airports

Our AM hike along the northwestern coast of Oahu was amazing. Let’s just say that it was TOO short. We got going really early but we should have been up at sunrise. If you are ever in Oahu I would highly recommend this hike. It is not at all strenuous but you walk the edge of the coastline and in morning you are in the shade with the ocean breeze in your face. Can’t think of a better way to spend a morning.  Well, if we had brought our bathing suits we would have really enjoyed soaking in this lovely pool (below).

If you are on Oahu driving to the airport and running late and Yelp most helpfully recommends that Mike’s Drive In is a) right on the way and b) highly rated for great Chinese food… just remember that you are on Oahu and you have probably already had way better Chinese in New York City. Keep your expectations low. In fact, I would take all of Yelp’s highly rated ideas for Oahu with a healthy grain of salt. Dan’s, while very salty, was better than mine… he went for the oyster sauce chicken. I got the “famous” sweet & sour – kung pao which was as you would expect: typical, greasy Chinese food.

Observation of the day: there is no greater contrast that I can think of than the international departures terminal at the Honolulu Airport and the international departures terminal at JFK. Since we had stopped for lunch at Mike’s we were running very late for our flight to South Korea pushing right up to the limit for getting through security. However, if you are in an airport where everyone is on “island time” that is small and friendly, you are the only white people going to South Korea and the airport staff realizes how dumb you are getting there late they don’t yell at you and roll their eyes and make you wait like they would at JFK… nope, they take you by the hand, walk you to the front of the security line and tell you nicely that you will need to run after security since the gate is the last one at the end of the terminal in order to make your flight. Very. Helpful.

When we got to Seoul we took the train into Seoul Station and walked to the Hilton. I had booked it with points because I knew we would be arriving late and would want to be at a hotel that was easy to find and close to the station. The Hilton was “right across the street” from Seoul station but we didn’t realize that South Korea is topographically extremely mountainous. Our entire trip we would be constantly amazed how often we were hiking up hills. So getting to the Hilton was a trek with our packs on and after the time change and no sleep. The fellow checking us in was very excited to hear that we were visiting Korea for a full two weeks and wanted to know where we would be going. When we mentioned Ulleung-do he asked again to be sure that we were serious that we were going to the remote island. He seemed VERY surprised about this fact likely for reasons that would become more clear to us later on.

Morning hike on Oahu.

Morning hike on Oahu.

Soaking hole.

Soaking pool.

Chickens, ocean, mental state

I don’t have a lot to say about the 17th. I wasn’t really ready to go on vacation. I didn’t think that we had done enough to prepare for Korea, I was stressed about work and I was nervous about two 10-hour flights. Hawaiian Airlines check in at JFK was tragic… computers for self check in were down so even though we had only carry on luggage we had to wait in line. I am certain that I was driving Dan mad with my impatience. Once we boarded the plane things got worse. Hawaiian Airlines has this video trailer they put on screen that you cannot shut off when you first broard. I think that it is suppose to make you feel relaxed. On the video you see ladies dancing in traditional Hawaiian grass skirts and views of the ocean… but the audio track makes me want to kill myself. Imagine if Kenny G had a baby with polynesian smooth jazz and ocean sounds meditation record. I will say no more.

It wasn’t really until we were sitting in the totally adorable backyard garden of the Kahumana farm restaurant that I started to relax. The garden was simple, chickens and roosters digging around for bugs, a cool breeze, the smell of dirt and the ocean, the mangoes hanging in the trees. The meal wasn’t anything to write home about – just a simple chicken and vegetable curry – but the ingredients were super fresh and the hibiscus/lemongrass ice tea was refreshing.

Evening stroll on the beach. Oahu.

Evening stroll on the beach. Oahu.

Kahumana garden.

Kahumana garden.

Japan 2013: Fri August 16

Check out of hotel
Breakfast (including muscat yogurt from Hokkaido)
Train to Higashi Zushi
Grocery store
Japanese lunch at Taku & Maki’s
Bye for now to Taku & Maki & Tsumugi!
Train to Tokyo Eki
Walk to & check in Hotel Kazusaya
Metro and Keio line to Shimo-kitazawa
Record shopping at Otonomad
Dinner at Rainbow Kitchen
Keio line to Shibuya
Walkabout in Shibuya
Metro to Mitsukoshimae, return to hotel

Pictures: Watermelons, Higashi Zushi grocery store; Japanese lunch made by T&M (pork rolls; miso soup; rice with yukari; oshitashi; Kamakura pickles); Otonomad

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