Showing posts from January, 2008
I am heading off to travel through Japan for a couple of weeks, which means blogging here will be intermittent.

I've never been, so I am looking forward to it. We are flying into Tokyo and out of Fukuoka, traveling to Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Nagasaki, and no doubt other places in between since there is a Japan railpass that makes for unlimited travel by bullet train.

If there were a way to get unlimited funds, that would be nice.
There is a two story Pizza Hut in our neighborhood. A sushi restaurant fills the top floors.

Pizza Huts are actually all over the city (as are so many U.S. fast food places). I haven't been to one but apparently they have Korean style corn pizza. I don't eat at Pizza Hut in the states and, believe it or not, the "corn" in Korean corn pizza has yet to entice me.

The pizza I have had here was an abomination to the pizza gods, as I think Nunal may have made note of (at a place called "Chicago Pizza", though the soggy thin crust bulgolgi pizza was not really Chicago style, let's say). Of course, Korean food is good enough that I don't mind waiting until I return home to eat what I would argue is among the best pizza there is, at Mary Angela's in Richmond (even if their website is lame). (And yes, I have had plenty of pizza in NYC with which to compare it.)

But this specific Yeonhuidong Pizza Hut is special. It has this prominent brass plaque noti…
Commentary isn't going to add much to this story...

INSIDE JoongAng Daily: "One of Korea’s most famous singers nearly dropped his trousers in front of about 500 people and a nationwide television audience at a packed news conference yesterday to refute rumors that he had been the victim of a savage attack.

Na Hoon-a, a 61-year-old singer known to generations of older fans as the “the legend of Korean pop,” made his first public appearance in one year yesterday.

The legend went missing last March when he canceled his annual concert at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts at the last minute. During a 42-year career as a singer of traditional country-tinged pop music, Na’s annual concerts have always sold out quickly.

A series of rumors surrounding his disappearance quickly spread, including one that his penis had been cut off by a jealous Japanese gangster.

At the news conference in the Grand Hilton Hotel in western Seoul, the singer sought to prove that his manhood is intact a…
The soldiers here, as in all overseas deployments for US troops, are governed by Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) which come under often sharp criticism by critics in foreign nations and also by Americans. (One such prominent critic is the always provocative and interesting anti-empire scholar Chalmers Johnson).

The American troop presence here does indeed sometimes generate dispute, especially when there is a mishap, accident, or crime that involves troops and Korean civilians. These protests can be quite large, often violent, and have huge political consequences. The most recent example were the enormous protests and violent incidents against troops which followed after U.S. soldiers accidentally killed two Korean girls. Today there are always riot police guarding the American installations here, walking along the outside walls of the bases, the embassy, and so on, and even though this is a peaceful place, the possiblity for anger bubbling up is always there.

The SOFAs are all ex…

old time music comes to Seoul

Today I was really pleased to get final confirmation that the Cultural Affairs office of the U.S. Embassy here will be supporting a series of old time music concerts in and around Seoul during the first week of March. The band is the Five Points Serenaders (consisting of me on clawhammer banjo with two extraordinary musician friends of mine on fiddle and guitar), and we'll be playing as a string band also doing some instrumental technique showcases. This is sure to be an unbelievable experience. I will post more on it as it evolves, including some sound files once it all happens.
At least we think it its the stomach virus wreaking havoc around here. We did eat a dozen or so kinds of raw shellfish the other day, including some species only recently identified to science. I started to think about that at five in the morning.

Ever look up the dangers of eating raw shellfish? Turns out not to be too advisable.

I read quite a bit about it, yelling helpful tidbits into the other room. But int the light of the day the doctor said there was a stomach virus going around. That is better to consider than something like paralytic shellfish poisoning, PSP, neurologic shellfish poisoning, NSP, diarrheal shellfish poisoning, DSP, or amnestic shellfish poisoning, ASP. Good grief!

An American guy was wheeled into the international clinic waiting room with a sudden inability to speak, some neruologic thing. Sometimes a little reading combined with a vivid imagination is not a good thing. I felt like asking him about paralytic shellfish poisoning but thought better of it…
There is a debilitating stomach virus going around, which forced not just the cancellation of a meeting today but more important has knocked Skye out of commission.

So, it fell to me to take the agi to get yet more immunization shots today. We had fun walking around in the frigid morning, it was like being back in the Midwest...

Lark was of course a big hit in the hospital, even though there were roughly a million other ridiculously cute little babies around. It was the usual, cell phone camera pictures, cheek pinching, much clucking. I guess it was something of a novelty to have me there with her, there were not a whole lot of men with babies in the waiting areas.

Some things are still pretty, um, traditional, even in this incredibly beautiful modern hospital. The doctor said to me that I am a good father. I said "yes, but I don't have to wake up all night to feed her," to which he replied: 'Well, that's not your job. That's a woman's job."
There is a sashimi place directly behind our apartment that always looked a bit off until recently (empty tanks, dingy, and so on). Maybe it is under new management or something, but the vibe of the place has definitely changed. We see it everyday since it is near the bus stop, and so decided to try it out. Good call, as it turns out.

For one, we finally have got a vigorously moving plate of octopus. I've written before about the pleasures of eating moving squid, but given the large size and greater energy of the octopus, eating one is great fun. The suckers definitely stick to your teeth and mouth, and the plate, they are hard to pick up.

Here is some footage. (yes, if the pighead picture from a while back is obligatory, surely the moving octopus platter is at least as obligatory).

This is one of those restaurants that gives you a ridiculous amount of food, most of it raw and unusual. Since we don't know Korean, we never know if we are eating at a "regular" sash…
It is good that we had postponed our trip to Busan, now we can take in Whale Meat City (also known as Ulsan) as well:

After all, Ulsan is known as Whale Meat City.
The heyday of whaling in Ulsan, 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of Busan, came in the 1970s and 1980s. Legend has it that even the local dogs running around town would carry a chunk of whale meat in their mouths.
Times have changed.
It’s an open secret among restaurant owners that environmental activists from Greenpeace send undercover investigators to Ulsan every year.
They come to check the origins of the pricey whale meat served in local diners.
A news report last week revealed that local police had raided two unlicensed warehouses in the city’s main port, Jangsaengpo. The cops found 60 tons of minke whale meat.

The case closed the town’s strip of seafood restaurants selling whale meat for more than 10 days.
To avoid illegal trading in whale meat, the authorities are making a last-ditch effort.
The Whale Research Center at the Na…
Forty years ago today, a North Korean commando death squad infiltrated into Seoul to assassinate the President, Park Chung Hee, and then fought battles through the streets of Seoul to escape. It is one of those stories (like the 'ax murder incident' at the DMZ) that is almost too fantastical to believe.

Today, one of the assassins is a protestant minister living in South Korea.

Forty years ago today, on Jan. 21, 1968, a group of 31 heavily armed North Korean commandos slipped into Seoul in the darkness, planning to assassinate the president at the time, Park Chung Hee.
Rev. Kim Shin-jo, then 26, was one of the commandos.
The group’s mission eventually failed, but not before 30 South Korean civilians, soldiers and police were killed, along with 28 of the North Korean agents. Kim was the only North Korean agent captured alive. Two of his colleagues fled and were never found.
Kim gained notoriety for telling reporters, after his capture here, that “I came down to cut Park Chung Hee’s…

Korean Food, Korean Identity: The Impact of Globalization on Korean Agriculture - KSP

Korean Food, Korean Identity: The Impact of Globalization on Korean Agriculture - KSP

I am getting my syllabus together for my graduate course on globalization this spring and came across this fascinating article about the impact of globalization on the Korean diet and on Korean agriculture more broadly. It is very much worth reading, you can download the pdf at the bottom of the page.

One very interesting factoid--that kimchi is a product of globalization, invented in 1766, a good 150 years after the red pepper of the New World was first brought to Korea, via Japan, via Portuguese sailors.

The discussion of Korean agricultural policy may be a bit more specialized than a causal reader would care for, but the issues are even more important than they were when this was written a few years ago. The arrival of FTA and the looming tsunami of U.S. beef really focus the mind in this regard.

It is interesting to me in this light how often people in markets stress to me, in English, that these a…
It turns out the supermarket we frequent, Sahruga, with the slogan "Quality and Belief", has its own savings card. They also have a webpage and three other cards that we haven't figured out the purpose of in addition to the savings card: the "Want You" card, the "Fresh Weekend" card, and the "Bonus Buy" card. These are named in English, but the information is all in Korean.

I was dismayed to find out that they had a saving card since I hate those things and refuse to use them in the U.S. I tend to avoid things that track my behavior if at all possible (a hopeless task).

I am really astonished to see how much a company like Kroger values gathering information on its customers. They crank prices so high as to make shoppping without a card cost prohibitive and even stupid. I just don't go to Kroger. But people blithely swipe their card and allow their purchases to be tracked.

But Sahruga brings the card application to a whole new level.…
We postponed out journey to Busan since it turns out my sister and brother in law want to go when they come to visit. That, and the fact that we are going to the most expensive country in the world in a couple of weeks and it seemed prudent to conserve precious resources in anticipation of being reminded how weak the dollar is.

As a consolation prize of sorts we spent the day out in Incheon, due west of Seoul. We've been wanting to get out there. The new airport is in Incheon, so we passed through, but there is also a town to see. It takes about an hour on the train to the end of the line. The ride costs only 1600 won-- a buck sixty. Not a bad deal.

Incheon is best known as the site of Douglas MacArthur's famous and dashing amphibious landing during the Korean War, which is a major reason I wanted to see the coast there. It is one of those placenames really seared into my mind.

It turns out Incheon is also something of a seedy party area along the water, though not this …
For some reason I haven't weighed in yet on Korean beer. There isn't much to tell.

Actually, the beer isn't bad, it is all light beer that I think tastes the same or so much the same as to make further consideration kind of useless. There are three major kinds, Hite, Cass, and OB.

It is interesting to me that the beer names, slogan, and labels are exclusively in English. They are never written in Korean. Cass has the great slogan "Sound of Vitality."

I tend toward Hite or Cass but I couldn't really tell you why. Maybe it is the illusion of choice. Or maybe it is because Hite has the technological advantage:

After that terrible, toxic warehouse fire last week in Incheon I started paying attention to firetraps around town. Happily and luckily I am not working in a factory.

This one caught my eye, over at Lotte Mart, which is equivalent to a Super Walmart--over eight exits were all chained and locked shut except for one small door. We were trying to figure out why everyone was streaming in and out through one little door but the chain made it all clear.

At least we had an exit though, in Incheon they were not so lucky.

This story was big news all of last week, and even more interesting was that the paper ran stories saying things like "no deal yet reached in deaths in warehouse fire." Within days people demanded a firm figure. Today they have one. It is impossible to imagine that a huge legal situation like this in the US would be resolved this quickly. It would be tied up in the courts for years. Probably the fact that most of the dead were migrant laborers from China (and m…
I was walking up to Seoul Station and in the plaza in front of the station happened on this elderly duo singing old Southern gospel favorite "Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?" in Korean. I was excited, I like this song.

The footage is terrible because it is on my digital camera, and I was walking and not actually trying to get anything but the sound:

I filmed them as I walked up and then I turned to actually get them clearly only to step into a puddle deep enough to consume my foot and ankle.

There may be "a fountain flowing for the soul unclean," and this may have been a sign, but mostly it was a drag because it was cold out and my foot was wet. And then, cursing my fate in a non demominational sort of way, I forgot to turn the camera back on and missed the rest of the song. In this case, foot washing was not as welcome as soul cleansing might have been.

Directly behind those washed in the blood was this passed out bum:

You don't see this too often in S…
This little Buddhist shrine is tucked next to a busy street across from Naedaemun market, overshadowed but not overpowered by the concrete monolith next to it.

The Buddha is actually quite large, several times life size.
A good friend of mine, a fine and well regarded photographer himself, has brought to my attention a couple of new books of photographs of North Korea which look really interesting.

You can peruse samples of the photographs at the links:

North Korea, Photographs by Philippe Chancel.

Welcome to Pyongyang, Photographs by Charlie Crane

This site Photo-eye is quite a great one, new to me, with some beautiful books. The best feature is the ability to see sizable parts of the books, and to maximize the images to full screen. Some incredible stuff. Be warned though, you can get sucked into that site.
The 80s are alive and well in Korea in pop culture with the fashions and the embrace of break dancing, and, as noted here before, with the move to make florescent cloned cats. At least I am assuming that was done to bring back day-glo style.

But now the always competitive Chinese have closed the florescent cloned animal gap with a florescent green cloned pig. Since pigs are incredibly close to people genetically speaking, that means that green florescent people are potentially soon to come.

Which means that if the Korean and Chinese scientists get together, you will be able to make a red and green cloned mini-me for Christmas next year as a gift, perhaps.

(p.s., while searching around for more on the genetic wonders happening today, I happened on a site called "Genetic Engineering, a Site for Kids from Tiki the Penguin. This is a tad strange, is it not?
One side of the outsourcing of industrial production to China that you don't often hear about is how dynamic that situation really is, and how labor is taking a big role in managing the changes. Or how relatively easy it is to start a business but difficult to get out.

It turns out that Korean companies are finding some of the challenges big enough that they are running away from their operations secretly in the night, in part because their employees are starting to express their feelings about work conditions and pay. Which may support my theory that the warming of relations with North Korea is partly driven by a belief that it is a fertile field for really cheap labor, even closer to home (one reason that South Korea sent secret agents north to reassure them that Lee's victory would not rock the boat too much)

A growing number of Korean companies are dumping their businesses in China literally overnight and fleeing for home.
Once considered a gold mine of cheap labor and la…
Mailing something from the post office here is a real treat. The people who work there have been invariably friendly any time I have been in. And they speak English too, which surprised me and is obviously a big help. It is, all in all, very pleasant, which is not the case back in the US in most cases (except for the good people at Norview station, of course).

The only drag is perhaps the paying-for-it part, since mailing stuff to the US is very expensive. But the boxes are weirdly cheap, 45 cents for a good size box. Maybe you haven't spent much time thinking about the cost of boxes, but back home they ain't cheap. They also provide a worktable with free tape and markers and whatnot.

Today I noticed that they even supply free eyeglasses in case you need them to fill in a form:

People don't always like to wait in line in Korea, and if someone happens to be older than you they have no problem just cutting in front of you. It is kind of amusing. People try to jostle in …
This sounds interesting, until you think about the loss of jobs in construction. (Or about The Terminator, which of course warned about machines being empowered in this way)

Robots to Build High Rises by 2010
By 2010 it looks like robots will take over some of the work of building high-rise towers. This new building technology is expected to bring down the number of injuries at high-rise construction sites and also cut down on the time spent on building them. It may only be a matter of years before robots take over such death-defying work. So says the Construction and Transportation Ministry, which announced that it now has the core technology for building high-rises without human workers.

The ministry says it is going ahead with the process of applying the technology to nuts-and-bolts building projects. It will create a construction process almost totally automated, taking advantage of 12 high-tech patents including so-called "intelligent" cranes and the world's first bolt…
We bought some Buddhist wood drum bells for my nephews call "moktak". Mok means wood and tak means hit. What better gift to send my brother's kids something that they can bang on and make a lot of noise? Maybe something that they can bang on and make a lot of noise and keep rhythm during the 10,000 Eyes and Hands Sutra.

We are heading down to Busan to see life at the south end of Korea and have been looking for a suitable hotel. It turns out to be a lot more difficult than I anticipated.

For one, the hotels are surprisingly expensive. Or, more accurately, they are more than I had fooled myself into thinking they would be. Busan is not just a major port, it is a beach destination. So the prices follow those of important business and recreation places. And on the weekends the prices are 50-75 bucks more a night. Fortunately we can go in the middle of the week.

Once we got beyond price though, it is just hard to find a place that seemed right. I was sorely tempted by this hotel, the melodiously named Load Beach Hotel (starting at only $58 a night from

The outside looked promising:

In the official pictures the rooms looked...interesting. The placement of the couch is what sells me.

But it didn't fly. We will be spending our Monday evening at another fine Busan establishment we fo…

so cute

The Lil Buddha was a big hit today with the denizens of Seoul. It ebbs and flows. Today she had her mojo I guess.

The most common phrase is "so cute". Today, in crowded parts of town, it was like a steady hum of "so cutes," said so often and by so many people in succession that it becomes something like hearing a 17 year cicada chorus. "So cute" is always in English too. I had this theory that there is no word for "cute" in Korean, in keeping with the lack of kitsch. Nope, there is a word, three actually according to Langenscheidt. In this case, I think 'kwiyoun' is the word.

Today we also couldn't go anywhere and not be stopped for pictures. This is invariably amusing. I mean, what the hell?

I only captured one on film, a mom taking a cellphone picture of her daughter with mine.

The other really notable episode was a 20 or so year old man who said, in perfect English, "I can't stop looking at your baby, she is so cute…

dust and smoke

The air was really terrible here today, I am guessing it was more of the "yellow dust' cloud that came through at the end of December, but that is just a guess. It could have been just plain old smog.

Actually, in our neighborhood it was clear and nice so it never occurred to us to think twice about venturing outside. The weather was pretty warm (mid to upper 40s). We went across town toward Konkuk University and the area was thick and definitely yellow and irritating. You couldn't even see across the Han River. The air smell too and it was irritating to breathe. Sounds like a nice day to wander around, eh?

It didn't help that we then wandered lost for awhile through the auto body shop area, where I guess yellow dust storms convince people to repaint cars toward the street all at the same time. The laws about fume capture seem to be a bit looser than in the States.

I had the phrase "known to the State of California to cause cancer" flit through my br…
There are street vendors all over the place, selling food on cardboard laid on the sidewalks. Many sell the usual street junk (hats, gloves and so on) and others sell vegetables, nuts, fruit, or fish.

I always thought that maybe these were farmers come into sell direct, or fisherman selling their own catch. But that was until I saw (as a woman unpacked in Sinchon) that the fish is actually coming frozen in boxes which say, in English, made in China. That surprised me.

There are many street vendors selling hot corn on the cob too. I saw one guy unpacking a box which said, in English, "steamed corn, made in China". I thought that most of the corn looked tired but was surprised to learn it was cooked and shipped that way.

There are an incredible number of street vendors making food. I've been taking pictures of them and will post them sometime soon. I've been reading a lot about the appropriation of "loose space" in cities, and these vendors definitely…
The Ediya Coffee shops in Seoul are apparently trying to compete with the semi-ubiquitous Starbucks (they are very many of them but concentrated in certain areas).

But perhaps they could come up with a better mano-a-mano drink for the frappacino than the flatccino?

We ate today with one of the Fulbrights and his family. He is an expert on Korean Buddhism, so I asked a lot of questions and learned a lot.

We met at a special place that has a menu one (1) item long. But when it was this good, why diversify?

The specialty of this place is a special Korean octopus dish called jjukkumi. This consists of extremely spicy mini octopuses that you cook in the sauce on a metal wok type grill in the middle of the table. There were the usual (incredible) number of side dishes crowding the table as well and some seaweed soup, which is great. The octopus was very hot, and since I have been craving spicy food this certainly met the bill.

The way you eat it is to wrap the octopus in these large leaves that taste something close to mint and look like hydrangea leaves. They are supposed to draw out the spiciness a bit, but I didn't think it was necessary. Once the pan was emptied down the sauce and a few errant octopus, you make a fried rice with the sa…

sing it with me (Erie) Canal is rising

One of the things taught by most United States historians is how the railroad surpassed the canal as a means of transportation way back in antebellum days, with a few other improvements in overland transportation since then. (Perhaps you even just immediately thought of the Erie Canal). There was a Canal Age, but it is usually considered to have had a brief heyday of 1820s-1840s or thereabouts.

Maybe someone should tell the Koreans, who are rather unexpectedly looking to dig a canal from Seoul to Busan and points elsewhere...

Lee Myung-bak’s pledge to build a giant cross-country canal project is turning into action. A spokesman for the president-elect’s transition team announced yesterday that meetings about building the artificial waterway that would stretch 540 kilometers (336 miles) between Seoul and Busan have begun.
“Jang Seok-hyo, the head of the grand canal task force, met with executives from five domestic construction companies last month over breakfast to talk about the pro…

Another holiday, another Buddhist shrine

This one is in our neighborhood as it turns out.

Beautiful clear and cold day, nice new years day for a walk.

Many things are closed today, we were kind of surprised. So, we walked over to the Yonsei Univ campus, which is huge and very nice, running up a big hill, and connecting up to hiking paths and a mountain park. It also links up with a hilly path we often are on, only we just figured out how today by following it through to the end.

Midday way through the day we happened on this Buddhist shrine. The Buddha is a gold and quite striking in the winter woods as we approached it. The statue faces west and the afternoon sun streamed through it. Though it is an unusual looking Buddha in my book, not as placid as some.

the family on new years.

Here was a guy praying very melodiously at a little box to the right of the Buddha

And a spring with plastic dippers in front. The mountain is riddled with springs.

Up the hill, toward the crest of the mountain, is another, larger spring. This …