Archive for category Korean culture

Fish are Eating My Feet! Nom Nom!

I have always wanted to visit one of those strange cafes that have tanks of fish you put your feet into.  Before coming to Korea, I saw them online and thought it would be fun.  After 11 months, I finally made the trip.

Tiny fish nibble dead skin off your feet.  Sounds weird, but feels even weirder.

These cafe/spas are found throughout Southeast Asia.  Special kinds of fish eat only the dead skin, leaving healthy skin to grow.  Sometimes these fish are called Nibble Fish but commonly are called Doctor Fish. A franchise here in Korea even calls itself the Dr. Fish cafe.

Step 1:

Wash your feet.

Step 2:

Put feet into the tub of fish.

Step 3:

Wait…as fish eat your feet. Nom nom nom. Okay, not actually your feet, just the dead skin on your feet.

The fish tickle your feet as they nibble, but not to the point of actual laughter.  More like a bit of the ‘pins and needles’ sensation.  Sometimes my foot was completely covered in tiny fish; but most time, was more like 6 or 7 fish.  Overall, the experience was pleasant if weird.

Dr. Fish… success.    :smile:

This cafe in Beomgye was super cheap.  For 20 minutes of fish-time we paid a little less than $2.  Plus, they brought us free cokes.  How awesome!

I have heard that Dr. Fish cafes are all over Korea, but I haven’t seen very many.  Sanbon has one of these cafes, but all the fish died (must be dirty foreigner feet). They never replenished their fish supply.  Don’t really understand that one… considering the cafe is called the Dr. Fish Cafe.

Other than nibbling fish, the cafe offered a great selection of coffee and baked goods.

I have never put videos on my blog before… so I hope this works.  The bright red toenails are mine!

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2009 Comes to an End

2009 will always be my “Year in Korea.”  What a ride…

As much as I miss home, leaving will be difficult.  We have less than a month left in Korea. This year has flown by at race car speed,  the world just a blur of light whizzing around me.  So many amazing memories, so many amazing sights, so many amazing people.  I am truly blessed.

This New Year, we’ll miss the the iconic Times Square ball of light and various over-the-top musical performances.

Instead, we’ll ring in the New Year Korean-style and watch (on television) the striking of the Boshingak Bell.  This massive bell is struck 33 times by 16 different people (the # of people changes from year to year).  The bell ringers are members of a diverse, ever-changing group comprised of celebrities, dignitaries and common citizens.  As in New York, the ceremony will include over-the-top performances by today’s “It” K-Pop bands.

The traditional ringing of the bell originated in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). In the early Joseon period, bells at Seoul’s four main entrances and four small entrances were rung every morning and evening to notify the opening and closing of the gates. The bells sounded 33 times in the morning to start the day and 28 times in the evening to announce the curfew.

I put together a slide show of my favorite 2009 memories:

Finally, I’d like to share a few of my New Year’s resolutions with you. Sharing them makes it hard to break them.
  1. Write letters/ post cards more often
  2. Be more patient with myself
  3. Seek out more live music
  4. Teach my dad how to use a computer
  5. Continue painting
  6. ?????  taking suggestions…

I hope everyone has a wonderful new year! Goodbye ’00s, hello ’10s.

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DMZ – Part 3 (last one)

On top of buildings, fences, and lining the river, I’ve never seen soo much barbed wire in my entire life.  Maybe even if I combined all the previous barbed wire I have ever seen, it might equal what I saw during the few hours in and around the DMZ.

This is obviously a fake fence and mannequin, but I couldn’t get close enough to get the real thing.  All along the Joint Security Area (JSA) were these fences with white rocks and red tags.  If someone tampers with the fence, the rocks fall out and one of the South Korean or U.S. soldiers will notice.  It’s the most simple design, but completely effective.

The JSA is closest to the DMZ border.  It’s better known as  Panmunjom, a village destroyed in the war.  Today you have to have a passport and an escort to even enter this area.

Surrounding the JSA are land mines left over from the 1950’s, but still very dangerous.

<– weapons from the war

One last thing that was interesting to see was the underground tunnel.  No photography was allowed.  North Korea has dug 4 tunnels and at least 6 more are suspected.  They all lead towards Seoul and were intended for surprise attack purposes.  It was said that 30,000 North Korean troops could have made it to Seoul in an hour.

We were permitted to go into Tunnel #3, discovered in 1978 and biggest in terms of height.  There was a 300m tunnel leading underground at a 13% incline.  At the bottom was a natural spring.   Helmets were provided in case we bumped our heads, which came in handy.  The actual tunnel is around a mile long but only 265m are open to the public.

When the tunnel was discovered, North Korea said it was being used to excavate coal.  The mountains of Korea do not contain coal, and so this was obviously a lie.  To carry on with their lie, North Korea had painted the tunnel black to make it look like coal.  I found this quite funny.  Those silly North Koreans.

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DMZ – Part 2

Even though the weather was -18C we enjoyed our tour to the DMZ with the USO.  Getting an up-close glimpse of the insanity and weirdness that goes on in North Korea made the cold tolerable.

To actually get to the border, like we did, you have to go with the USO.  None of the other tour groups are permitted this far into the DMZ.  They hold them most Saturdays and some Wednesdays. Tours need to be booked 3-4 weeks in advance.  We tried to come here many times, but they were always booked solid.  Glad it finally worked out.

Blue buildings are South Korean and the grey building is North Korean.  The actual border runs directly through these buildings.  They are used for conference talks between the two sides.  The big grey building in the back is the North Korean ‘Welcome Center’.  Ha, like they actually welcome people or anyone would want to be welcomed.

So this was the only North Korean we saw, he’s way up on the stairs in the back.  I can only imagine what he must think of us.   He kept watching the group through binoculars.  He stood alone and remained at the door to the Welcoming Center the entire time.

We were told that if we communicated with the North Koreans in any way that we would be escorted off premise immediately.   No waving, pointing, shouting or light shining of any kind was permitted.

We were escorted by a US soldier (funny guy) into one of the blue barracks.  The table is on top of the SK/NK border.  24 hours a day microphones record and there is a soldier that stands on the line.  As I took the pictures, I was standing on North Korean soil.  Weird.

The soldiers all wear Ray Bans and stand at Tae Kwon Do-Ready at all times.  This is to intimidate the North Korean soldiers.  Also, to be chosen as a soldier on the DMZ border you have to meet certain height requirements.

They call the South Korean soldiers ROKs (like rocks).

We had to remain behind a big yellow line to take pictures at the observatory.  It was 20+ feet behind the binocular stands.  This is about as good as we could get, especially with the fog.  That’s Propaganda City in the background.  We saw no movement at all.

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DMZ – Part 1

A country divided.

Republic of Korea – South

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – North

Going to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) was an amazing experience.  Making me feel lucky to have been born in the safe mountains of West Virginia and also showing me the insanity that can happen in your own backyard.

Starting our tour with the USO, we were told a story from our tour guide about her parents.  They had escaped North Korea as a young couple in their twenties.   It was winter and the Han river was slushie with ice.  Armed with only the clothes on their back and a make-shift boat that kept teetering back and forth, dunking one of them into the water up to their neck.  All while holding a baby high into the air.

I just about cried.

That’s the really sad part about this nasty battle between North and South.  Families were separated.  Still today people have family they aren’t allowed to see or even have any type of communication.  In the 1970’s there were talks of having family reunions in the DMZ.  But even as talks of peace were taking place above ground, the North was digging tunnels for attack purposes, underground.  The family reunions never took place.

What you see here is North Korea.  Propaganda City is the name because it’s only a show town, not where actual people live.  There used to be a very loud speaker that could be heard even where I stood, but today it is silent.  Quite creepy indeed.  Most of the houses and buildings are empty.  They are mere shells of buildings, with no windows or doors.

The North Korean flag stands a whopping 160 meters high.  When the South Korean flag went up to 100 meters, this is how the North responded.  On days of bad weather, it is lowered to around 120 meters.  The flag itself weighs 600 lbs when it’s dry!

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Kim chi

Korea is known for their spicy kimchi.  It is served with every meal, and if you ask any Korean they will tell you their grandmother makes the best kimchi.

To make kimchi you must have a kimchi pot.  This is a pic of old upside down kimchi pots of different shapes and sizes.  You get the point of what they look like.   That’s my little head in the middle…

The ingredients must soak first.  While walking in the night market of Dongdaemun we ran across this giant tub of cabbage being prepared for kimchi.   I thought it was hilarious they used a crate of soju bottles on top.   Onions will be chopped and added.  In the bowl to the right, you can’t see, there is a huge pile of red pepper powder, salt and some other ingredients I couldn’t recognize.

Once the cabbage is drained and spices are added, it will be placed in a kimchi pot and buried in the ground.

Kimchi can be eaten right after making, but is best when it ferments for at least 2 weeks.  I have heard that some kimchi is left as long as a few months.  Originally, kimchi was made to be consumed in the winter months when the crops weren’t in operation.

There are over 100 different kinds of kimchi.  The most common is made from cabbage.  Other varieties include radishes, cucumbers, bean sprouts or onions.   My favorite kind is cucumber.

That´s A Lotta Kim Chee! Kimchi at Kimbap Chunguk! So Many Kimchis

Kimchi is definitely not for everyone, but you can’t come to Korea without trying it a few times.  Every restaurant has their own special recipe and it tastes different every time I eat some, which is quite often.  A good way to eat kimchi is hot, cooked on a grill.  Soo good.


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Norebangs are Too Much Fun

Picture this:  tiny room, comfy couch, 2 microphones, giant flat screen TV, swirling colored lights, tambourine, fun wigs and your friends.  Oh, and it’s BYOB!  That’s right, you can bring your own food and drink to these places.  It’s great.

My dear friend Stacey came to visit me in crazy Korea!  Of all the fabulous things we did together, I want to share our Norebang experience first.

If you’ve never been to Korea or maybe Los Angeles, then you probably don’t know what I’m talking about when I say ‘Norebang’.  And it’s pronounced more like Nory bahng.  Well, it’s very much like karaoke in the fact that you sing along to music with words on a tv screen.  However, Norebang is soo much more fun than plain old karaoke.


There is a Norebang just about in every building, sometimes even two.  It is a place that people of all ages go to sing and have fun.  All of my students, whether they’re 5 or 17, tell me they go to Norebangs with their family and friends.  I really wish there was one back home.

Something funny to point out is that even though we were singing ‘Under the Boardwalk’ the video was a random Korean video.  It’s a video loop and it rarely ever matches up with the song type.   It’s funny when you’re singing a happy song and the video is of a girl that died and some dude is crying over her dead body, or singing a cheesy love song and some Korean guys are bouncing around dressed like The Beastie Boys.

All of the Norebangs have various themes.  My favorite one is called UFO and oddly it’s not space-themed.

<– hallway in UFO

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Road Signs

I don’t drive in Korea, but I do notice the street signs.

What’s weird is that the signs are situated in strange locations.  Places that, if in America, drivers would be completely lost and constantly miss turns.  There might be a sign that is after the turn, so if you’re not paying attention you miss the turn because the sign is ahead of the traffic and ahead of where you should have turned.  Sometimes the sign is located WAY before the turn with maybe another road in between the sign and where you should actually turn.

This top picture of signs for example is located smack dab in the middle of a 4-way traffic light.   The top sign that says ‘Gunpo Global Education Center’ is not found by turning right at this intersection… it is down a few blocks.  This led me to believe that signs found on top like this one imply not turning at this intersection, but at the next 1 or 2… that was wrong.  Logic fail.   Sometimes it does mean to turn immediately.

Oh and there is only 1 sign at this intersection, only visible to the people driving head on.  What about the other 3 lanes of traffic?  Do they not need signs?

I’m sure it makes perfect sense to Korean drivers.  But how we’re supposed to just KNOW this, I’ll never understand.  Chalk it up with the rest of the weirdness.

This sign is placed in between two streets.

As you can see, it has directions for what appears to be two different left turns up ahead.  But notice the Do not Turn symbol pointing in the same direction as the road says to turn.

Hmmm, which way do I go?

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Post Office

Turn left, walk 3 blocks.  That’s how easy it is, for me, to get to the Gunpo (Sanbon) post office.   Cheap postal services should cause me to mail more things back to the States, but with the ease of email and social networks I send very few correspondences through snail mail.

A buddy of mine requested a post card.  So, why not take a picture of it?

This card was one of 7 cards given to me by a buddhist monk.  This summer when I attended a ceremony, one of the monks gave me and my friend a pack of post cards.  Funny side note; shaved head, wearing traditional Buddhist robes, he handed us the envelopes full of post cards through the window of his SUV.  Some things, I will never understand.

The Gunpo post office.  At least the important part is in English.  :smile:

Walking through the turn style doorway you always see 15 other people, sometimes more.  Koreans usually don’t like to stand in line, they would rather “take a number”.  Just like American delis or DMV visits, you take a number and wait for your turn.

I love this.

People don’t push in line, they don’t cut in front of you, they don’t tell people to hurry up.  They accept their number and wait their turn.

Full of people, situated off to the side, is an area of self-service free packaging.  For public use are scissors, markers and tape, the good kind of tape that is meant to be used for shipping boxes.  Plus, there’s a giant table to lay your items on and organize your box.  It’s great.  This is when I am reminded why I love this country.

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Happy Chuseok

The Fall Harvest is celebrated world-wide.  In Korea, their celebration is called Chuseok (pronounced Chew-sock).  It is the Harvest Moon Festival that always lasts 3 days.

??? (Full Moon)

Many Koreans slave away with 6-day work weeks and rarely ever take vacations.  But on Chuseok, the entire country takes a break.  Businesses shut down and restaurants stop serving kimbap.  Only the subway and occasional foreign food restaurant are open to the public.  Usually this holiday falls in the middle of the week which gives people a nice long, and seriously needed vacation, but this year it fell on a Friday allowing only a 3-day weekend of free time.

People  take this time to visit with family and enjoy the fall harvest.  Chuseok is very similar to American Thanksgiving.  Who doesn’t love a holiday centered around food?

chusok ?? holiday

Traditional foods are prepared from scratch.  Even the youngest of girls are in the kitchen learning how to make the various recipes.  Songpyeon is probablly the most common food prepared.  It is a rice cake stuffed with such things as honey, sesame seeds, dried fruit, chestnuts, and bean paste.  They’re folded into half-moon shapes and arranged on a bed of freshly-picked pine needles to be steamed.  All of my students were very excited about eating these rice cake treats.  I would have loved to try one.

songpyeon ??

Another Chuseok tradition is holding ancestral ceremonies.  Most people visit graveyards, pull weeds and clean up their ancestors’ resting place.  Food is usually left on the graves symbolizing gratitude.

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