Thursday, 27 August 2009

The New International Food Lane in My Neighborhood, Hannam-dong

I have lived in Hannam-dong in Yongsan-gu in Seoul, for five years now, and have liked this neighborhood because it's quiet with no flashy neon signs along the main street. It's also very accessible to and from Gangnam, Myeongdong and basically, the rest of Seoul!

But the two best reasons of living in Hannam-dong are: Everyday, I get to enjoy the view of Namsan all year round - especially in the fall with all its colors! And the other reason is that it's close to Itaewon!

I have never considered Hannam-dong as an international food scene. Hannam-dong is simply known as Seoul's version of the Embassy Row, where embassies of different countries and their diplomats live. And most of them reside at the UN Village, which is, perhaps, Hannam-dong's most famous landmark (Dankook University used to be the landmark before it transferred its campus).

Before, restaurants with non-Korean menus were limited. But lately, there seems to be a changing of the food scene in my neighborhood. For the past months, new restaurants have opened business (and their menus) in Hannam-dong, which is a delight to those living in the neighborhood (expats, Koreans and me!), as well as for those living in the nearby areas.

Restaurants like the Banana Grill (sandwiches and hamburgers), Slow Kitchen (rich paired with chicken, etc.), O' Taco (burritos and tacos), Sujus (barbecues, rice, noodles, hummus, etc.), Naked Grill (salads, hamburgers, pasta), and soon, Beluca's table, are giving everybody (including my palate!) lots of choices when it comes to satisfying one's craving for something different.

These restaurants join the 'oldies' in the neighborhood such as Due Cose (Italian), Shaboo-Shaboo, Puffin Cafe (western), Western China (Chinese, of course!), Chakraa (Indian) and New York Steakhouse.

One can now walk around Hannam-dong street with lots of choices to think about. And as for cafes, there is Cafe Appassionato and Paris Croissant, and the sweet shops - Lynn's Cupcakes and Tyche's.

In case you want to visit my neighborhood, Hannam-dong is less than five minutes away from Itaewon. One can also take the Green Bus 0213 and Blue Bus 110 from Itaewon. These buses pass through the Hannam-dong main street. You can also take these buses from Hangangjin Station, Exit 2.

And if you're driving, you can just ask your navigator to lead you to 'UN Village'. Parking will be a slight problem though.

I'll see you soon!


Monday, 24 August 2009

Kim Dae-Jung: The Man Who Introduced Democracy to South Korea

Yesterday, August 23, the funeral of the Nobel Peace Prize laureat and former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung was held at the National Assembly. As this was too far for me to venture to, I opted to join the mourners at the Seoul Plaza.
It was a somber and restrained atmosphere as thousands of Koreans gathered at the Plaza, while those who didn't want to be under the sun, took shade at Deoksogung.
Those who wanted to pay their respects lined up at the altar bearing the late President's portrait, while others sat infront of the stage where songs, poems and speeches were sung and delivered.
As many South Koreans admit, they owe a lot to the late President as "they could have never known democracy without him".

Monday, 17 August 2009


It’s not the Pointer Sisters’ 1980’s dance song with the same title. It’s actually a martial arts show, where there is a lot of, well, jumping!

Although I never had any interest on watching this show, I was finally dragged by my friend Lena to watch it. This one is not your typical Broadway musical-type show, where actors audition for the role based on their acting abilities and on how they can memorize long lines. The actors’ qualifications for this one include expertise in Taekwondo, Wushu, Kung Fu and gymnastics. The acting comes in second. And since this is a comic performance, no acting is actually required. It’s all about slapstick movements done Kung-Fu style.
The show has four episodes, all told by the actors in martial arts movements, with no verbalization. The only sounds you hear from the stage are mostly laughter, screams, grunts, shouts and of course, sounds from the blows, tumblings and somersaults.
Since the show is not your typical Broadway-type, the stage wasn’t typical, too. The stage has a thick carpet lining as flooring, to cushion the players when they land from all the jumping and leaping on air. And can they leap! They even do tumbling runs which you only see at the gymnastics’ floor exercises. I didn’t see any double-twister ala Nadia Comaneci or a double-back flip ala Svetlana Khorkina. But these actors can do their stunts with precision worthy of a perfect 10 just the same!
Well, in case you want to catch it, I don’t want to spill out the plot, but it’s all about an eccentric family who all happens to be martial arts experts – from the grandpa, to the parents, to the daughter and even to the nerd suitor! They all display their dexterity, flexibility and lots of flat abs!

During the show, a couple of audience members will be plucked out from the crowd and join the trouble onstage. And in case they picked you, don’t be shy. Just get up from your seat and join the actors. It will be fun experience up there!

After the show, the actors are available backstage where they can sign autographs and pose with you.
Or if you want a more interesting souvenir photo, you can post in front of their giant poster outside the theater.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Banpo Fountain Bridge -- a photo win

Well, well, well. Another stroll, another photo, another win.

Because the subject did not disappoint.

Late last year, it was touted that it would be the longest fountain bridge ever once it opened. The Banpo Bridge, a once boring bridge where traffic flows between Banpo-dong, south of the Han River, and Itaewon, my favorite side of the river, 'reinvented' itself when 9,380 nozzles were installed on both of its sides. These nozzles, complimented with 200 colored lights, would pump 190 tons of water per minute from the Han River and spray them on the sides of the bridge from about 20meters up. The fountains on each side are distributed over 570 meters.
At night fall, the fountain shows off a spectacular display of water spouts colored with a spectrum of bright lights as they dance to the rhythms of Korean, and weirdly, Chinese, music blasting off from loudspeakers set up at the Banpo Park.

The whole ‘reinvention’ was completed on September 2008. And once the 1,140-meter fountains on both sides of the bridge successfully performed as planned, it was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest bridge fountain in the world.

So, on one summer night in June, together with my friend Jeong-suk, I crossed the Banpo Bridge to see the fountains for myself. Standing on the river bank, Banpo-side, armed with my cameras, we joined the locals sitting on the park, and allowed ourselves, too, to be mesmerized by the dancing fountains while they change colors to the beat of the music.

I moved around the park, getting shots of the fountains from different angles. And after 30 minutes of spectacle and hundreds of camera clicks later, we decided to call it a (summer) night, even as the fountains were still tirelessly boasting of their world record in front of a captive audience.

And as I said, the fountains did not disappoint. Their photos, that is. Reviewing the photos after, I was so delighted to have captured the colors and the asymmetry of the water fountains that I decided to submit one of the photos to a local expat magazine. And voila! A month later, I saw the photo featured as the ‘Pic of the Month’ for August 2009.

Before we crossed the bridge, Jeong-suk and I grabbed a bite at my favorite fastfood in Itaewon, Pita Time. His treat!

Now, it’s my turn. Since my prize is a dinner coupon worth W50,000, I can treat Jeong-suk to a more expensive meal this time.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Guardians of Seoul

Things happen for a reason.

The original form of this piece was written for The Korea Times but wasn't published due to constraints in space. I then offered it to the Seoul webzine, but they advised me to enter it in the Seoul essay competition instead.

So I changed the title, revised it, and turned it into a mushy, corny, sentimental piece, which I thought would tickle the jurors of the Seoul Essay Contest.

Tickled they were, but obviously not enough. They only awarded me an Honorable Mention with a cash prize of about US$200. Not bad for an essay written over a lunch break.

Here's the list of the winning essays.

* * * * *

The Guardians of Seoul

I have always liked Seoul’s character: great shopping, old palaces, cosmopolitan atmosphere, efficient transport system and mountains. Yes! Mountains in the city! I live in Seoul, but I come from another country, where you have to travel hours in order to climb a mountain, but in Seoul, a mountain is just a bus ride or even a subway ride away.

I am a nature lover and it makes me happy that these mountains in the city offer me and my kind a sanctuary to discover and enjoy nature even in the middle of a busy cosmopolitan. There are actually many mountains in Seoul, and I am so enamored by the peaks I already visited that I can identify them from anywhere in the city: An-san, Bukhan-san, Gwanak-san, Pugak-san, and Nam-san. The Korean word ‘san’, by the way, means ‘mountain’. Of the ones I have been to, my favorite is Nam-san.

Nam-san offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the city as it is located right in the heart of Seoul. On its peak is a very tall structure, the NTower, which has restaurants and cafes, while its surroundings include a line of cherry blossoms which is a delight in spring when they bloom; an exciting cable car ride; and a jogging path which traverses from one side of the mountain to the other. This is why Nam-san is very popular among tourists and Seoulites. So having enjoyed the hikes on certain mountains in the city, I was ready to discover one more. And lucky me! My prayers were answered when I stumbled upon an invitation from the Seoul Help Center for Foreigners ( for a free tour of Pugak-san. This center, as its name connotes, is a big help to foreigners, like me, living in Seoul. After reading the invitation, I didn’t waste a moment, I immediately signed up.

So, on a sunny Saturday in early summer, a group of foreigners from the Philippines, Brazil, Bolivia, U. S., India, Italy, Hong Kong, China and Canada, all living in Seoul, met up at the Seoul City Hall for the bus ride to the starting point of the tour, near the mouth of the Samcheong Tunnel in Seongbuk-dong.

Pugak-san, or Pugak Mountain is in northern Seoul and is only 342 meters high, with hiking trails around it. The hike around the mountain is monitored and controlled, requiring hikers to make a reservation and submit proper identification beforehand. Why? Close by is Cheong Wa Dae, or the Presidential Residence.

The trails around the mountain run alongside the ancient fortress walls known as the Pugak Fortress built by King Taejo of the Chosun Dynasty in the 14th century. The original length of the fortress was about 18.2 kilometers, but today, only 10.5 kilometers remain. I learned that most of the fortress walls were destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the country, and of the remaining length, 4.3 kilometers run the trail around Pugak-san. But even with the destruction, King Taejo would still have been proud of his achievement as the fortress walls snaking around the mountain still stand strong and solid like the indomitable Korean spirit. This Fortress has two standing gates, the Sukcheong-mun and Chang-ui-mun, through which hikers pass through.

At the highest point, we were able to enjoy the amazing view of Seoul. And though that day was a bit muggy, we were able to identify the downtown buildings and avenues, Nam-san and NTower, and even the structures south of the Han River. Had the day been clearer, I could have identified my favorite cafes and shopping outlets (kidding!).

Along the trail, one will encounter a pine tree with holes. The holes were caused by bullets during an exchange of gunfire between the authorities and unsuccessful North Korean assassins who made their way through this mountain in 1968 to kill the then sitting president. Until today, this pine tree wears these bullet holes like a badge of honor, still standing firm and loyal like a real sentinel protecting its leader.

While discovering Pugak-san, what struck me was its serenity. I was still in the city, but I could not feel the city: no noisy car engines, no chit-chattering of people on the phone, no loud vendors. In other words, the mountain protects its visitors. And along the fortress trail, you can’t help but admire what King
Taejo and his subjects did centuries ago: the huge, polished blocks of rocks must have required hundreds or maybe thousands of workers who toiled countless days and nights under the heat and coldness of the weather all year round, carrying, shaping and putting all these rocks together to create an astonishing and admirable fortress, a symbol of pride for Koreans then, as it is now. This realization did not only dawn on me, as everybody in our hiking group shared the same feeling of admiration and awe at what the mountain has kept secret for years. Pugak-san was actually closed to the public for about four decades, but was recently opened in April 2007, and we all felt honored to be one of the first lucky foreigners to have been invited into its heart.

My hike at Pugak-san made me realize that all these mountains in Seoul have, in one way or another, touched, protected or even nurtured the people of Seoul. And just like Pugak-san or Nam-san, or which-ever mountain in Seoul, each has its own beauty and unique character, its own kind of serenity and calmness, and its own way of endearing itself to the people, like the parents and their children, couples, and hikers, enjoying a trek along its trails, or tourists who simply like to admire it from afar. All year round, it welcomes those who choose to keep it company: be it in spring when all the colorful flowers bloom; or in summer, where up in the mountain, hikers still enjoy cooler breezes; in autumn when all the leaves turn a mountain into a giant and colorful mural of yellow, red, orange and brown; or even in winter, when a mountain sleeps while it is blanketed by snow.

As these mountains have been here even before the first inhabitant settled in what is now Seoul, they are a witness to Seoul’s rich history, from the day it was founded, to the centuries it flourished, to the years it was ruined by war, and up to the present day, when it has become South Korea’s proud capital, recognized as one of the best cities in the world. And as grateful as we all are, we also owe it to these mountains, to help protect and preserve them as the Korean culture progresses and the human civilization advances.

As throughout history, the mountains of Seoul have stood guard, closely watching over and selflessly protecting Seoul and its people.

These mountains are the real guardians of Seoul.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Touring South Korea: The Muan White Lotus Festival

It’s still summer and everyone wants to go out of the city. So, if you already enjoyed playing with mud at Boryeong, or have tried white water rafting and bungee jumping, you might want to travel down south to the county of Mu-an in Jeolla-namdo (South Jeolla Province), where they are having the Muan White lotus Festival on August 6 to 9, 2009, the time when lotus flowers are in full bloom.

The bus ride from Seoul to Muan will take you about five hours, but it will be worth the trip. Just make sure you have a good book along, or your iPod loaded with your favorite songs. Or better yet, have your best friend as a seatmate.

The festival is held on a huge pond covering 330,000 square meters, purportedly the largest lotus pond in Asia, where white, pink, light green and orange lotus flowers thrive. Built at the center of the pond, a two-storey, lotus-shaped glass dome showcases rare varieties of the lotus flower from all over the world.

A trail of wooden planks built on the pond allows the visitors to meander around. And although you’ll be walking under the sun and feel a little sweaty, the endless rows and rows of the white lotus plants (it’s more than 300 thousand square meters, remember?) will take your mind off the hot weather. Having a fan and bottled water along will help.

The festival offers a lot of things other than the ones that educate you about the varieties of the lotus flowers. Like a typical Korean festival, there are activities where visitors can participate like preparing lotus soup and making lotus-wrapped rice or designing ornaments using the lotus seed. There will be musical and dance performances on the stage built on the pond, and if you are a foreigner (especially if you’re one who stands out among the crowd), the festival organizers may want you to participate in the mixing of the ceremonial bibimbap amidst TV cameras and photographers. Don’t they always love a photo of a foreigner enjoying a Korean festival?

And since it’s a huge pond, visitors can ride on ‘duck’ boats that could seat four people and row around the pond, which is quite fun, even if you are not able to steer the boat back to the starting point. There are arrows along the route which point you in the direction of where you are supposed to end up. To most visitors, this ride is the most enjoyable part of the festival. Although they don’t say how deep exactly the pond is, nobody worries about capsizing. You will be required to wear a life vest if you want to take this ride.

The organizers also promote the many therapeutic uses of the lotus flower, but although the most interesting part of the festival is the display of the rare varieties and colors of the lotus flower.
(TV cameras here just love zooming in on foreigners)

    (Sticky rice wrapped in steamed lotus leaf)

So, in case your interest in lotus flowers drags you to Muan, just don’t forget to bring your camera, bottled water, a fan, a cap, lots of sunscreen and of course, your rowing abilities. An overnight stay in the county is usually suggested since the trip back to Seoul takes more than half your day. There is an information center at the festival which assists tourists.

Transportation info provided by the Korea National Tourism Organization:
By train: From Seoul Station, take a train headed for Mokpo → Get off at Illo Station
→ Take Bus no. 800 to Muan in front of Illo Station
By bus: Gangnam Express Bus Terminal (Subway Line 3, Exit No.1) → Take a bus to Muan (08:30AM - 16:20 PM, twice a day / Time Travel: 4hrs.) → Get off at Muan Bus Terminal

For more information: 
Korea Tourist Information hotline: +82-1330