One of the benefits of working as a contract employee in Japan (as opposed to a salary position) is that you get all sorts of random time off. In the past year of contract Assistant Language Teacher work I've probably had about 15 weeks with no scheduled work.
Holy shit, that's cushy! But keep in mind that when I don't work, I don't get paid. Take March for example. It's the end of the school year, and due to some budgeting issues, I only work 3 days at the Junior High. That earns me about half my rent for the month. I won't wax on about this, it's not that big an issue. I have private lessons and a part time job at a conversation school to make ends meet. Anyways... what I'm getting at is that I had a week off. And took the time to go to South Korea.
I think this photo sums up a lot of things.
Korea is full of churches, and full of villages. A village is basically a gigantic apartment complex, often 4 or 5 skyscraper apartments. You'll be in the countryside, among rice fields and... more rice fields, and suddenly there is a cluster of 30 story buildings. The winner for best village is hands down:
Ghostface lives here. But seriously, these ominous, dreary apartments are everywhere. And where they aren't, there ain't much.
2 days in Masan, 2 days in Seoul, 2 days in Masan. 0 days on Dokdo.
Starting in Masan, about an hour outside of Pusan, we did some hiking. Korea is covered in what seemed like the same mountain again and again. Despite the monotone environment, hiking is still hiking.
Hiking is big in Korea. Outdoor clothing shops in the land of the morning calm are as plentiful as ramen in the land of the rising sun.
You know what else is plentiful in Korea? Hella weird fish for you to eat!
This pulsating blob of flesh eventually broke free, onto the cement floor of the Pusan fish market.
Driving around Masan, I was shown one of the (best?) red light streets I've ever seen. About a kilometer of windows. There was nothing secretive about this, each window was the size of the whole building it was part of. Bathed in pink light, the girls sat on pedestals, while the old brothel mothers shouted for us to come on in. After the initial stun, I quickly reached for my camera before taking a couple blurry shots.
According to wikipedia, prositution is illegal.
That sums up Masan. Oh, there was a cool jazz bar where the owner played from his collection of thousands of classic LPs, but then on Friday night hangs his head low and puts on Linkin Park and Jay Z for all the foreigners who congregate there.
Fun fact #1, I was the only one at the bar who knew how to to the Soulja Boy dance!
Fun fact #2, Korea beer is really really horrible.
Next it was off to Seoul.
The sprawling capital of Korea is all kinds of cool. Luckily I stayed with a Korean host family, and had all the guesswork of a 2 day trip removed. I was shown:
Nanta, it's like Iron Chef meets Stomp.
Super hip design cafe: The aA design Museum
Old palace, Changdeok, for some cultural goodness.
Some old river.
I love this stuff, but it's boring to write about, so just click the wikipedia links if you want to know more.
One thing some people notice when they come to Japan is the lack of college areas. Any big name university in America is paired with a lively downtown full of young people. Not in Japan. I have a theory. Student life requires cheap food (lack of funds) and late night venues (studying until 3am is normal). Enter the salaryman, who requires cheap food (his wife spent it all on English lessons and Louis Vuitton) and late night venues (the boss wants to drink... again). With no distinction between a college student and an everyday working stiff, college neighborhoods just don't happen.
But in Korea, things are different. You get these spots. Just look for a subway stop that ends in "... University."
And you may find yourself drinking in a 1980's k-pop bar.
Everything was peachy, and we decided to spend a night at a jjimjilbang. More on that in a minute. First I went to Itaewon.
My travel buddy wanted nothing to do with the "Roppongi" of Seoul. The foreigner district had mixed reviews, but I figured I'd give it a look. Stroll around, have a drink at some bar, nothing fancy. On the subway a nice British girl told me to have fun on "Hooker Hill". She also told me that her stop on the outskirts of the city had a dog market. For eating. Hooker hill you say? Well that sounds promising. Nothing like the sheer madness of the brothel street in Masan, hooker hill was kind of a let down. The logistics is interesting if anything. You walk along a street lined with bars. These bars have names like "The Nympho" or "Peach Fuzz". No windows, just a closed door. Through the magic of technology, namely hidden video cameras, the doors will swing open when a lone man approaches. Being a lone man, I was privy to a bevy of door swinging. I quickly left. Itaewon is kind of stupid.
Off to spend the night at a Korean bathhouse. They are called jjimjilbang, and you can read all about them here. I picked the first from this list to stay at. For about $6 you get unlimited use of the baths and saunas. There were about 10 different sauna rooms. I don't read Korean, but I'm guessing one was called burn your skin off with hot salt room, or maybe watch your flesh melt room. Fortunately, there was also a zero degrees ice room. Unlike a Japanese bathhouse, the saunas were all communal. So you can sweat it out with mom and dad, then go play some arcade games with their 7 year old kids.
This also means that a lot of couples go there. I can't count how many times I walked into the searing hot pain in your eyeballs room to accidentally see some young dude trying to secretly do his girlfriend in the corner.
If you can sleep on a heated hardwood floor, enjoy your stay.
Back on the subway, to the train, to the bus, to the other bus, to the plane, to the train, to my bicycle.