Thursday, 29 November 2012

Looking for Jimi Hendrix In Myeongdong?

I just had to swing by Myeongdong tonight in search for some costumes in the coming weeks (although Halloween is over! Ha-ha-ha!).  That's the fun part of our parties in Seoul. Not being satisfied with just coming to parties in your pajamas (Ha-ha-ha!), everyone had to dress up depending on the theme.
We will have our Christmas party next month, but soon, a friend, who is a big fan of the late Jimi Hendrix, is celebrating his birthday, and we all have to be in a Jimi Hendrix look! Big afro hair and all! But where to find these things?
                      (Chestnuts roasting on an open...)

So, I wandered through the shops in Myeong-dong tonight wishing that somewhere Jimi Hendrix would show up on the display window with his 1960's get-up, complete with his electric guitar. But he wasn't there. All I saw was winter clothes! Ha-ha-ha!
So, while hundreds of tourists were lucky to find what they wanted to shop for under the bright lights of Myeong-dong even in this chilly weather, I left the place with no Jimi Hendrix.

Where can I find you, Jimi

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Big Burgers In Haebangchon, Coffee In Itaewon!

The last time I was in the Haebangchon area, near Itaewon, was when I stumbled upon Burger Mine, a restaurant which offers a burger buffet. So, when my friend Woosung was in the Yongsan neighborhood for a seminar, another excuse to visit Haebangchon came up!
                  (The kimchi pots reflecting headlights on the road 
                           leading into Haebangchon)

Woosung told me he wanted to visit Itaewon as he hasn't been back to this area in years. So, I suggested we grab dinner first in Haebangchon, then walk and burp our way to Itaewon. From Noksapyeong Station's Exit 2, we made our way to Haebangchon, passing by the kimchi pots on the road, and ended up at Jacoby's Burger, a restaurant which lets you 'style' your own burger from the choice of bread, how your burger is cooked, and to the garnishes you want on it.
                             (You write down your choices on a slip and 
                              turn it over to the kichen)
                        (Fries  bathed in cheese and then some)

I told him to brace himself himself for a huge meal. This wasn't exactly a McDonald's value meal. 

We ordered fries first, and it came in hot, cheesy and on a big platter. Then came our 'tailored' burgers, complete with all our choices: veggies, how our patty was cooked, what type of bread and everything else to make this dinner worth the trip!
                               (Woosung's choice)
           (My choice with mushroom topping and fried egg!)

This dinner was as interesting as walking back to this area. Haebangchon is home to a lot of foreigners in Seoul. I know a few friends who live here, actually. Some of them like this area as it's close to their workplace and the rent is reasonable. Some like to live here because most of their friends live here, too. It's close to Itaewon and this area has western-style restaurants and bars. There are quite a number of Pinoys living here.
                (The Seoul Tower as seen from Haebangchon)       

After dinner and chatting, it was time to walk it off! We headed down to Itaewon on foot, passing through more restaurants, bars and cafes patronized by the foreign community in Seoul. Yes, other foreigners living far from Haebangchon actually travel to this area for this.

     (The gingko trees turning yellow along the highway) 

It wasn't a long walk to Itaewon. We strolled our way back, went down the underpass and came out at the other side, and walked pass a few yellow gingko trees along the way. 

And when our path was going downhill from the overpass section overlooking the Noksapyeong Station junction, I told Woosung we were finally in Itaewon! I am not sure if he still remembered which part of Itaewon he visited years ago. I am sure this placed has changed a lot since his last visit.
                                                   (Itaewon night life!)

And before we ended up at the cafe overlooking the main intersection across the Hamilton Hotel, we walked at the back alleys full of more restaurants, bars and people. Even though this was a week night, Itaewon never fails to attract.
We were still burping from our huge burger dinner while sipping down our coffee. But at least we're settled and contented with the view from our seat, watching the crowd below also trying to enjoy a night out in Itaewon.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Today In Myeong-dong: Hot, Spicy Chicken On A Cold Day!

I had a sudden urge to visit Myeong-dong. Although it was very cold outside, it was sunny which helped temperatures rise in a thermometer's mercuric scale. So, I texted my fiend JK, who happened to work just in the area to join me on a Myeong-dong lunchee!
I got off at the Myeong-dong Station and headed towards the area where his office building was. And as I expected, even on a weekday, at noon time, Myeong-dong was still full of tourists and locals, who filled every alley in the area.
I originally wanted to go back to the soondae restaurant we visited the last time, but he said it was closed. So, we wandered around the alleys of Myeong-dong and ended up at Andong Chimdak, a restaurant which serves spicy chicken in soy sauce with glass noodles, sliced potatoes and carrots. This was actually a better idea than soondae! This dish reminds me of a Filipino dish, adobo, but this one's spicy and saucy!
        (This big dish is only good for two hungry people)

Over lunch, we chatted and kept each other up to date about our torturous lives in Seoul (ha-ha-ha!) and how we are able to cope with such difficulties in surviving this existence (ha-ha-ha!). And while we were munching, this good friend surprised me with a gift! A new cellphone case for my Samsung Galaxy S2! No wonder he asked me what my phone model was before we met up. And not only that, this yummy lunch was his treat! Kamsa-hamnida, JK!
       (The yummy chimdak and my new cellphone case)

And after cleaning up with big chimdak dish, we headed out in the cold to look for the nearest Starbucks coffee shop. This time, it's my treat! And since it was holding its 2013 Starbucks diary sticker promo, we decided on the Christmas coffee menu to get those red stickers.
Using my Starbucks prepaid card, we got a Peppermint Mocha and Toffee Nut Latte, and instead of getting just two stickers, I got four! Why? Let's just say I always charm my way through something. Ha-ha-ha!
          (Two coffees, a cellphone case and stickers)

Thanks again, JK (and Myeong-dong!). Though it was wintry cold, it was still an enjoyable time outdoors!

Friday, 16 November 2012

For K-Pop Fans in Seoul: A Must-See Korean Musicale, HWARANG

At the Korea In Motion (KOINMO) opening ceremony last September 1, 2012, my friend Sharise and I were seated right in front of the stage eager to see for the first time these performances which make up Korea In Motion's showcase. There were non-verbal performances complete with drums and other percussion instruments, but what really caught our attention was the only featured Korea musicale, Hwarang, performed by five male actors. 

Even on the first bars of the opening song sung by one of the five actors, one could already tell that these guys can really sing. It was obvious they had vocal training. And even after just one song, whose lyrics we didn't even understand, we were totally impressed! I asked myself, how come I didn't know about this show?  I have heard about JUMP or Nanta or B-boy Who Loves a Ballerina, but not this musicale?

But that night's excerpts from Hwarang were just a preview for the KOINMO audience. This was after all the opening ceremony to launch the campaign to promote performances available to tourists and locals in Seoul. And that campaign lasted the whole month of September 2012, where excerpts from these performances were featured at the Korea In Motion open stage right outside the Korea Tourism Organization main offices near Cheonggye-cheon

         (The Hwarang billboard in front of the Star City building)

So, when another friend, Cielo, who came to visit last month from Manila, asked me which performance to watch, I recommended this musicale. But I warned her though that this was entirely in Korean. 

And off we visited the Star City building in Hyewha-dong, where Hwarang was staged. We got our tickets, our seats and just resigned to the idea that, even though we may not understand the lyrics and the dialogues, we may actually enjoy the show. 
     (We caught the Super Team's performance that night)

And we were impressed!  We didn't understand the Korean lyrics and dialogues, but we tried to decipher from the acting, the expressions, the dancing on stage and of course, the songs and the voices of these actors. Their voices had range, were firm and technically good, which brought out the melodies of songs throughout the performance. And how well they all blended! It was very obvious that they had hours and hours of practicing the songs together.

There are two teams who alternate during the week: the Super Team and the Star Team. And that night, it was the Super Team's turn.

The whole show lasted almost two hours with no intermission, but we were never bored. It was the melody, the showmanship and the voices that actually made it interesting for us, two of the non-Korean speaking audience. There were a few foreigners in the crowd, but I could not say if they understood the language.

                       (The Super Team taking a bow)

And one thing we also clear: most of the audience members were female, which must explain the draw of the all-male cast. These guys were picked to play the roles, not only because they have very good singing voices, but also they are good-looking! The handbill of the musicale says that the story is set in the old Korean times, but is presented in the K-pop style: from songs to dancing to the looks. And I guess the formula has succeeded in drawing the giggles in the crowd!

The title, Hwarang, represented a group of young elite soldiers during the Silla dynasty. And this story of how these five young Hwarang aspirants struggled attain that status in their society was written by a young writer, Lee Ojin and the songs were composed by Cha Gyeongchan. Lee Ojin also wrote the lyrics. This is being directed by Mr. Seong Cheon-mo.

This musicale has been staged at more than four theaters for a couple of years now, and there have been eight to nine teams who have played these roles, with some former cast members, I was told, going on to play bigger roles in other shows. 

If a new team is being groomed to replace an old one, it takes about three months of training and rehearsals to perfect the songs, the dialogue, the stunts and of course, to get into the character of each of the five Hwarangs, which, by the way, has its own fan club. It's not a surprise that these actors have a following. 

                     (The Super Team cast that night)

So, if you're a K-pop fan and have a free time to watch a Korean musicale...
  • just take a quick subway ride to Hyehwa Station, Line 4.
  •  And from Exit 3, make a U-turn until you reach an alley marked by Coffine Gurunaru, a purple-colored coffee shop. 
  • Follow that alley for about 50 meters until you see the tall building, Star City
  • The front of the Star City building displays the Hwarang billboard. 
  • The theater is on the 7th floor, where you can get tickets.
As of this writing, the performance schedule is:

Tuesdays to Fridays: 8PM
Saturdays: 3PM and 7PM
Sundays: 5PM
Mondays: no performance

Ticket prices:
Regular price: KRW 40,000
Students:        KRW 20,000 (student I.D. required)
Employees:     KRW30,000 (business card 
                           or employment I.D.)
Fans:              KRW26,000 (must show the old Hwarang
                               ticket or Hwarang point card)
Handicapped: KRW 20,000 (must show a certificate 
                               of disability)

Or you can call these numbers for inquiries in English:

Their Korean website:

And in case you want to know more about the musicale and the actors, a few behind-the-scene videos are on their Youtube channel.

P.S. Thanks to Miss Esther of the MJ Company, the producer, for a few tidbits and some of the photos above.

And they also have music CDs of the musical which contains a few selected songs.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

An Evening With Flightless Birds: From White Swans To Fried Chicken!

                                (The Swan Lake poster)

I was just passing by the Sejong Arts Center in the Gwanghwamun area one weekend when I spotted this poster of what looked like a familiar pose: the dance of the four swans in Swan Lake! That sequence which is almost comedic, rather than balletic, is a favorite. I had to watch this again! And when I took a closer look, the word Mariinsky Theater stood out!  Formerly known in its Soviet name as Kirov Ballet, it is definitely one of the best in the world. And watching them dance is a chance of a lifetime. I don't have to go to St. Petersburg!
             (The Sejong Arts Center from my bus window)

So, a few days before the performance, I decided to go for it. I went there and ran up the huge, giant steps of the Sejong Arts Center complex, up to the ticket box. While most seats in front were very pricey at KRW270,000, I got a seat at the higher level where most seats were almost sold out; the ones selling at KRW50,000, the cheapest! I guess I wasn't the only one in Seoul who was grabbing the chance of a lifetime! We didn't have to fly to St. Petersburg to watch the best classical ballet dancers in the world! Yehey!

The ballet dancers from Mariinsky Theater were only going to dance for three nights, and I went ahead with the Sunday performance at 6PM. Monday and Tuesday were work nights, and I wasn't sure if I would have the time. So, on the rainy and windy Sunday afternoon, I took the Blue Bus 402 from Hannam-dong to Gwanghwamun. The ride only took about 25 minutes, and I got off right in front of the Sejong Arts Center! I didn't have to use my umbrella! (This is what I like about Seoul. Its transport system is so convenient and efficient.)
          (The crowd in the lobby before the doors opened)
And when the doors opened, and I tracked down my seat. 

When the lights dimmed at 6PM, the first flute played opening a few bars of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. But after a minute of music, the lights were turned on again and the music stopped! And a Korean lady announcer stood in front of the audience (not on the stage) and introduced the ballet and the sponsor. Waat-dah-eff! Then another guy talked for a minute, perhaps representing the sponsor. I didn't understand what they were saying, but to do this when everyone thought that this was it?!  They could have made those introductions and their blah-blah-blahs right before any music. Hmm... 
                  (The ensemble being showered with applause 
                             after the performance.)

Unfortunately, that was NOT the only interruption. In the middle of Act 1, in our level, the usher let in latecomers! Maybe about 20 people who filed in one by one right in front of us, blocking our view! Shouldn't the doors have been closed when the show started, and any latecomer should not be let in? Is it only Sejong Arts Center who does this? Or perhaps, they only did this to our level as we had the cheapest seats. Any explanation, Sejong Arts Center?
The last time I watched ballet was in CGV, the movie theater, where Natalie Portman danced to an Oscar award for her role in the Black Swan, the movie. My ticket then was only KRW9,000, and not KRW50,000. Ha-ha-ha! 

But tonight, this was the real thing. This is THE Swan Lake, an actual performance and not a film, where Natalie could do another take if she slipped. Here, at the stage of the Sejong Arts Center, where everyone seated paid to watch, no dancer can afford to make any mistake or slip or, God forbid(!), fall! 

More than a thousand pairs of eyes (or pairs of rented opera glasses, too!) scrutinized every detail, every movement, every leap, turn, twist and landing of the dancers. Each movement seemed to move to every note of Tchaikovsky's music being played by the symphony orchestra a few feet below the stage.

There were three acts: Act 1 lasted 70 minutes, Act 2 was 35 minutes, and Act 3 was 20 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission in between acts. But with all the dancing and energy on stage, one would hardly notice the passing of time. 

My attention was only distracted when those latecomers came in, and when one Asian-looking expat girl drew out her cellphone and read her Facebook messages. The light coming from her phone distracted the people seated behind her. I guess some people have no idea as to the etiquette they need to observe with regard to this kind of performances, and to think there was an instruction to turn off all cellphones during the performance.
(Oxana Skorik and Vladimir Shklyarov lead the Jester, and the white and black swans in acknowledging the ovation) 

Seated next to me was a couple who were originally from Ukraine, and they told me it was impossible to get tickets when watching performances at St. Petersburg in Russia, where the Mariinsky Theater is based. They said they felt very lucky that they were able to watch it here in Seoul while on a trip to Korea. Tanya, the Ukrainian lady, told me she had goosebumps while watching. I wasn't surprise she had, as the execution of the dancing, the emotions of the movements plus the extravagant, colorful costumes were all able to tell the story of a prince, who had a crossbow as a present from his doting mom, and just went out to test his shooting skills on some flightless birds on the lake. Well, he wasn't really able to test his skills in shooting. Instead, he was tested on his love for the woman, who became a swan because of a sorcerer's spell. I am not exactly sure which one he was going for - the woman or the swan? But I'd guess it depended on his appetite. Or his crossbow. Or his skills. 

And speaking of skills, these dancers really brought their A-game to Seoul. Even an untrained pair of eyes (with or without opera glasses) can tell their years and years of training in perfecting their skills and their art. Gosh, watching Oxana Skorik, the lead dancer playing Odette and Odile, turn 30-plus times on her toes just made me dizzy. And watching Vladimir Shklyarov leap, spin on air and land on his left knee made me imagine how many hours he spends trying to perfect those techniques! And with a few Russian phrases Tanya taught me: "Ektra bula petravska! Postravyayo!"  If I got it right, it should mean, "It was very good! Congratulations!"
  (The audience couldn't get enough of Vladimir and Oxana)

And when the whole ensemble curtsied, bowed and acknowledged the ovation and applause, Tanya turned to me and summed it up: "This is what they worked hard for." I agreed with her.

I may not know all their names and faces, nor their language, but tonight, watching the dancers of the Mariinsky Theater just made me imagine the sacrifices, the injuries and the years of merciless training each of them had to go through in order to present their kind of artistry this Sunday night in Seoul. 
                      (Fans posing in front of the Swan Lake 
                                   poster at the lobby)

When the performance ended at about 8:45PM, my senses were overwhelmingly full, but my tummy was empty. I had to grab dinner nearby before I headed home, and luckily, there was a familiar fast food restaurant nearby. 

And while munching down two pieces of chicken, I summed up my evening, which began with Swan Lake with all those white and black swans in tutus daintily dancing on their toes to Tchaikovsky's immortal compositions and culturally educating me  in the process with an art form I could only watch and listen with awe; and ending up in a fast food restaurant table presented with another flightless bird, fried this time and clothed with bread crumbs, ready to be enjoyed to mark the end of a memorable Sunday evening.
(The dance of four swans must be the most difficult sequence. If one makes a tiny mistake, all of them fall down.)