Tag Archives: history

Busan to Fukuoka

Three weekends ago, during the Lunar New Year holiday, I took a trip across the East Sea to Japan. It’s been on my list of places to visit for a long time, so I was excited to finally go.

Instead of flying, I took the Beetle speed ferry from Busan to Fukuoka. A round trip ticket cost about 200,000 won ($185) and took just under three hours. The port worked much like an airport. Passengers go through security, show their passport, and present their ticket at the gate before boarding.

Port of Busan Security

Busan to Fukuoka Speed Ferry

The boat also felt like an airplane on the inside. It was a jet-ferry, so it even sounded like an airplane.

I naively expected Japan to be similar to Korea, but the two countries are quite different. The most obvious differences are cultural and not aesthetic. Japanese people seem to be more aware of the people around them, which makes public places in Japan much more pleasant than in Korea. There was a noticeable absence of pushing, spitting, and loud cell phone conversations. When I made an effort to be polite, like holding the door for people, they didn’t look at me like they caught me fingering a cat.

Escalator in Japan

People even follow the rules on escalators, keeping right so others can pass on the left.

I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see any of the weird sexual stuff for which the Japanese are so famous. With the exception of a few women in costumes and a baby-themed liquor bottle at the hotel bar, I didn’t see any weird stuff.

Weird baby bottle liquor in Japanese bar

The liquor bottle shaped like a baby’s milk bottle openly was the only hint that there might be some weird fetishes that don’t carry the same social stigma as in the west.

I stayed at the Crowne Plaza ANA hotel in downtown Fukuoka. Ordinarily out of my price range, I was able to stay at an upscale hotel by using credit card points. After checking in, I went out and explored the city. I tend to travel with a loose itinerary, so most of my time was spent wandering. I managed to incorporate a few of the heavily advertised local tourist attractions into the trip.

My favorite place was Maizuru Castle. This 400 year-old defensive structure was built on a hill in the center of town. It offers stunning views of the surrounding city. The original wooden buildings are gone, but the stone walls remain intact and some replicas wooden buildings have been constructed.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan Entrance

This is the castle’s main gate. The Naka river acts as a natural moat.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan Stairs

The castle is built in levels. To get from one level to the next, you must pass through a narrow stairway. This allowed for easier defense.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan house on wall

All along the walls are guard towers from which defenders could shoot arrows and drop stones.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan Panorama from top

The top level of the castle offers beautiful panoramic views of the city.

Not far from the castle was an indoor street market. I never learned the name of the market, but I spent over an hour walking around and checking out the shops. It stretched the length of six city blocks and included several hundred businesses. The shops ranged from fresh produce to traditional clothing to touristy trinkets.

Fukuoka Japan indoor street market

At the far end of the market was a Buddhist temple complex. I walked inside to look around and realized that I had seen the golden steeple of the temple’s shrine several times before. It is visible from several other places around town, including my hotel room.

Fukuoka Japan Buddhist Temple Entrance

The entrance appeared to be decorated for some celebration, but I have no idea what it might have been.

Woman worshiping Fukuoka Japan Buddhist Temple Entrance

The golden column atop the shrine is visible from miles away.

The most surprising thing I found while walking around Fukuoka was a familiar face.

James Brown statue in Fukuoka Japan

That face is pure nightmare fuel.

My only regret was that I didn’t have more time to spend exploring the city – especially the nightlife. I was so tired from walking that I wound up in bed early both nights. Next time, I”ll budget more time for relaxing during the day and hitting the town at night.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Road Trip to Andong

Two weekends ago, I took a road trip with a Korean friend. I had a job interview at a university north of Daegu, which is near the historical city of Andong, so we decided to check out the city after my interview. I have some great pictures, and they’re much more interesting than my writing, so I’ll share a few.

We started out by visiting a place called Hahoe Village (하회마을). Pronounced “ha-hway”, this is a traditional Korean village is located about a 30-minute drive from Andong. Many of the buildings appear as they did over 100 years ago. It became one of the country’s premier tourist sites after 1999, when the Queen of England visited.

The views were amazing, but I wasn’t particularly impressed overall because it has become a classic tourist trap. The village is littered with dirty gift shops selling cheap plastic Chinese crap that has nothing to do with the village or Korean history.

Queen Elizabeth visited Hahoe Village

The folks at Hahoe Village were so proud that the Queen of England visited that they built a small museum to commemorate the occasion.

Andong Hahoe Village wooden statues

This dirt road, lined with statues, connected to the main road leading up to the village gate. Notice anything strange?

Andong Hahoe Village wooden penis statues

Yep…them’s peckers.

Andong Hahoe Village 하회마을

This is the main street near the entrance of Hahoe Village.

Andong Hahoe Village 하회마을

This side street in Hahoe had an amazing view of the nearby mountains.

Once we finished the obligatory touristy stuff, we headed to Andong and checked in at our pension. A pension is an old-style guesthouse that is still popular in Korea. Ours was owned an operated by a man whose family can be traced back centuries in Andong.

Andong pension owner

Before we left, the owner came and spoke to us. He showed me his calligraphy skills by writing my name on Chinese on a gift box containing postcards with famous Andong sights. He even agreed to take a picture with me.

Pension building in Andong

This is the building in which we stayed.

Pension room in Andong - Exterior

The room was tiny…

Pension room in Andong - Interior

But it was surprisingly comfortable inside.

On the way out of town, we passed a sign for the longest wooden bridge in Korea – Weolyeong Bridge (월영교). It wasn’t nearly as long as I expected – it only took about three minutes to walk across – but it was beautiful. The mountains in the background made it all the more impressive.

Wolyeonggyo Longest Wooden Bridge in Korea

Wolyeonggyo Longest Wooden Bridge in Korea

If you ever get a chance to visit Andong, I suggest you check out these places. It’s a beautiful city and a nice change of pace after spending time in the big cities.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Daegu’s ARC Project

Korea is the greatest culture in the world. Don’t believe me? Just ask a Korean.

A few weeks ago, I made an astonishing discovery that put to rest any lingering doubt I may have had about Korea’s cultural supremacy. One of humanity’s greatest architectural achievements was erected less than two miles from my apartment.

The ARC, Daegu, Four Rivers, Nakdong

The ARC – Daegu, South Korea.

The ARC is a building/monument designed by Korean Egyptian-American architect Hani Rashid and built by Korean German structural engineer Knippers Stuttgart in June, 2012. This Korean project was so spectacular that a single name wasn’t enough. ARC stands for both Architecture of River Culture and Artistry of River Culture.

The ARC was also too marvelous to symbolize just one thing. According to the Daegu city website, The ARC represents: “a skipping stone flying across the surface of the river, a fish jumping out of the water, and the traditional beauty of Korean pottery.

The first floor of the building has three sections. A main lobby with an information center and a large room on either side. Both of the rooms are currently being used as art galleries.

The ARC, Daegu, Blue Statues

This striking display encircles the main lobby of The ARC.

Near the stairway to the second floor is an electronic information kiosk. The large, touch-screen computer offers information about The ARC. Apparently The ARC’s organizers elected to save a bit of money by using Google Translate instead of hiring an English speaker to translate two paragraphs about the project.

Their decision to save $50 by not paying an English-speaker resulted in some classic Engerish!

Their decision to save $50 by not paying an English-speaker resulted in some spectacular Engerish! Click to enlarge.

The second floor is essentially a large, circular hallway that overlooks a huge projection screen stretching all the way around the building. The projectors were not working when I visited, but it was easy to imagine that the images displayed on the screen are amazing when the projectors are operational.

The third floor of The ARC is the roof and viewing deck. There are great views of the Nakdong river and surrounding wetlands. I particularly enjoyed the view of Daegu go the east – I was even able to see my neighborhood.

The ARC, Daegu, roof

The top of The ARC has a reflective pool and a viewing area on both sides.

Daegu, The ARC, Coffee Shop on roof

Connected to the viewing area at the top of The ARC is a coffee shop – a prerequisite for any great cultural center.

As I left the viewing area and headed downstairs, I noticed a large-screen TV beside the stairway on the second floor. The TV was playing a video on loop, so I stopped to watch. The purpose of the video was apparently to drive home the point that The ARC is a cultural and architectural achievement of epic proportions.

The video shows time-lapse images of the world’s greatest buildings being constructed (mostly CGI). ARC visitors can watch the construction of such wonders as the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, and even the Manhattan skyline. The video culminates in a series of images showing the construction of The ARC. This is, of course, done for the sake of those who might not have recognized The ARC as one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

Time lapse video building Taj MahalTime lapse video building NYC SkylineTime lapse video building London Bridge

The mix of pomposity and lack of attention to detail is charming in a strange way. It reminded me of a child beauty pageant contestant – no amount of makeup can fool you into believing that she is anything other than a clumsy kid…but it’s kinda cute to watch them try.

It felt like the reason for building The ARC had little to do with celebrating Korea’s rivers and everything to do with creating the image of a modern sophisticated culture – as if the theme was an afterthought. When quality takes a back seat to image, everything feels a bit hollow.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Nerd Alert!

I returned from Tongyeong late yesterday afternoon. We had an excellent time. Instead of telling you all about it in one huge post, I’ll break it down into a few posts. Let’s start from the beginning (that’s usually a good place to start).

About a week ago, I jokingly told my Korean friend Miju (미주) that she was boring. She asked me how she could prove me wrong. I challenged her to plan a fun trip, hence the sudden surprise on Friday afternoon: “meet me at Seobu Bus Terminal tomorrow at 2pm.

I realized just how seriously Miju took my challenge when she pulled out a piece of paper on which she wrote all of her ideas and travel plans. She had apparently spent a lot of time researching Tongyeong, our destination.

Nerd Alert!

Nerd Alert!

Tongyeong (통영) is a small coastal town near the southern tip of South Korea. The bus ride from Daegu takes about two and a half hours. The beautiful landscape is characterized by mountains that fall straight into the ocean. There is little flat space, and all of it is occupied by farms or small towns.

Map - Daegu to Tongyoung

By the time we arrived and found a place to stay, it was too late to do any of the touristy activities, so we decided to wander around and check out the town. From the bus terminal, we headed straight for a traditional market in the center of town called Jungang Market (중앙활어시장). The market’s narrow alleys were packed with people (my nightmare), so we called an audible and checked out a historical exhibit across the street.

Tongyeong’s claim to fame is The Great Battle of Hansan Island, which took place just off the coast of Tongyeong. Credit for Korea’s naval victory against the Japanese (1592) is given to the Admiral Yi Sun-Sin. Admiral Yi is Korea’s most famous military leader. His naval headquarters were located in Tongyeong for many years.

The historical exhibit consisted of four turtle ships, which were the warships that Admiral Yi commanded when he defeated a much larger Japanese force at Hansan Island.

Turtle ships at Tongyeong

Of course, this exhibit wouldn’t be truly Korean if they didn’t incorporate something weird and out of place. Inside each of the four ships was a themed exhibit. For example, one ship’s exhibit showed how the sailors lived while at sea. Another exhibit highlighted the ships’ weapons and defenses.

Turtle ship - weapon exhibit

 The people who planned these exhibits apparently ran out of ideas by the time they reached the fourth boat. In lieu of an educational exhibit, there was a large touch-screen computer display located at the back of the ship. The computer was equipped with a camera and placed a few feet away from a large green screen. You choose a background, start the camera’s timer, pose and wait for the computer to snap your photo.

The photo area set up in the ship was not unlike this. Picture found here.

The photo area inside the ship was not unlike this one. Picture was taken from here.

This would have been only marginally weird if the background images had anything to do with Admiral Yi, turtle ships, Tongyeong or Korea. Instead, they were random stock images of beautiful scenery from around the world.

After we finished touring the ships, we decided to get a better view of the town by hiking up a small mountain above the traditional market. I’ll tell you all about it and share some great pictures in my next post.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Gyungbok Palace

I recently took a trip to Seoul, where I visited one of the most important historical sites in Korea. Gyungbok-gung (경복궁) is an enormous royal palace complex that was built in the late 14th century. It now sits near the center of modern-day Seoul.

Gyungbok Map

I visited Gyungbok Palace with a Korean friend. We traveled by subway to the Kyungbok Palace subway station. I was surprised to find that the station literally sits beneath the palace. The subway station exit takes you directly to the main gate and ticketing area.

20130518_131843

The first thing I noticed after we purchased tickets and went inside was how crowded the palace was. Although the complex covered hundreds of acres and included several different areas, it seemed like every doorway just led to a bigger crowd.

Throne Room - Gyungbok Palace

We spent over three hours wandering the palace grounds, and I took over 70 pictures, so it’s not possible to explain everything. Instead, I’ll show you my favorite place and then include a slideshow at the end.

The palace was not what I expected. When people told me about Gyungbok Palace, it conjured an image of a European-style castle with high walls and a few tall buildings. This expectation didn’t take into account the fact that Korea was, prior to the 1980’s, a poor agrarian society. Koreans may enjoy a spot near the top of the food chain today, but they spent 99% of their history scraping by. So, although the palace was beautiful and steeped in history, it was nothing like I expected.

As we wandered through the palace complex, we saw every type of building. Temples, royal houses, ceremonial rooms and more. Once the tour finished, I realized that my favorite place was the very first building – the throne room near the main gate.

Throne Room - Gyungbok Palace

The building and its surrounding stone courtyard were the most important ceremonial places in the palace. This is where kings first greeted guests and where the military leadership gathered to be addressed by royals.

As we stood in the courtyard I was struck by two distinct feelings. The first was that the courtyard was not as big as I expected. Pictures and movies made the courtyard seem gigantic. But I’m confident that it couldn’t accommodate more than a couple thousand people. Secondly, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. Other parts of the palace, most of which were rebuilt recently, didn’t feel as authentic as this place. I could actually picture men in colorful uniforms standing in their respective places, waiting for the king to emerge.

The center of the courtyard, directly in front of the throne room, was lined with small stone pylons. Each stood about two feet tall and they were all engraved with Chinese characters.

Ranking Stones - Gyungbok Palace

The engravings on the stones indicated the rank of the people who should stand in that area. On the left side were military rankings and on the right side were civilian rankings (jobs were ranked by importance). The higher ranks stood closer to the throne and lower ranks father away. The stone pictured above marks the area in which low ranking military officers stood (people equivalent to modern-day Lieutenants).

There were plenty of other beautiful spots along the way as we wandered through the palace. Enjoy the slideshow!

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Until next time.

-Taft

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