Friday, October 30, 2009

Monster Mash vs. Mummy Rap

Mummy wrapping has always been one of my favourite Halloween activities.

I can't really put my finger on an exact reason, although I have some fairly good ideas.

I always loved being the wrapper of course, but being the wrapee was always my favourite.

Whatever way you sliced it, there was always something a little giddy and fun and forbidden about playing with toilet paper. Plus, really, who doesn't enjoy playing with toilet paper? It just comes off the roll so easily. I think it's basic human instinct. Or, animal instinct, as I've heard that household pets also find unrolling a good roll of toilet paper quite enjoyable.

Especially as a small kid, I relished in giving the toilet paper a nice firm tug; watching it spool off the roll. ( Please, don't tell my mother.) This was always quickly followed by a bout of guilt and a fear of being caught. If there was time, I would always try to, flustered and heart beating wildly, put it carefully back on the roll. If this was the case I felt clever for having escaped detection. I am sure my mother always noticed, although she never said anything about it.

If I was pressed for time, or felt that capture was imminent, panic invariably took over and the mass of toilet paper that I had just unfurled would quickly find itself dumped into the toilet, where I would frantically try to flush it all down in one go, pressing flush over and over again, and praying that the flush box would magically fill up, by the grace of God, more quickly than usual on this particular occasion -- solemnly vowing, of course, to never play with the toilet paper ever again.

I was so happy to discover, therefore, that Korean children were as excited about playing with toilet paper on Halloween day -- instead of studying-- as I was.

I think that they did a particularly fabulous job.

We made mummies as we wasted away the afternoon, and laid waste to rainforest somewhere.

Do you think this counts as part of my carbon footprint, or as part of theirs?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Namiseom: The Naminara Republic

Did you know that in Naminara, we are all Naminarians?

Neither did I, neither did I... that is until Amanda, Jen and I packed up our bags and headed out there on Sunday. Forever wanting to catch that early worm, we packed up our bags and started out. A subway ride, a train, a taxi and a ferry later we finally arrived at our destination. We were trying to play "How many forms of public transportation can you use in one trip?" I think we did quite well, don't you?

Leg one: Subway.

There were three possible ferries that you could take to the Naminara Republic. A boring, regular looking ferry that we were on, and that didn't merit a picture. This fancy looking ferry surrounded by flags...

... and this quaint looking ferry, also bedecked with flags. Why didn't our ferry have any flags? That's what I want to know?

As we had our entry visas checked before boarding the ferry -- have I mentioned that Naminara has its own passport, visa requirements and currency? -- it was all smooth sailing once we docked at our destination. Do be careful though, should you ever undertake this journey by yourself, to not fall off the wharf...

Although I cannot read Korean, something tells me that swimming in this water looks nicer than it would be in reality!

The island is quite small, only around 4 km in diameter, and is home to the grave of its namesake General Nami (남이장군) who died at the age of 28 after being falsely accused of treason.

It is a whimsical sort of amusement park with a focus on promoting the arts, and living in harmony with nature. Birch trees line the roads, and it is home to the location of filming of one of the most popular Korean dramas of all time, 'Winter Sonata.' It is for this reason that such a small island is flooded with and estimated 1.5 million visitor a year, many of whom are Japanese.

Schools make projects about environment conservation which are displayed in the park. Amanda, Jen and I took advantage of some of them for an amusing photo shoot. Although you can't tell very well from the angle of the photo, we are in fact sitting on a plane.

There were many parts of the island that were very beautiful. It was a very peaceful afternoon of wandering around and enjoying ourselves.

Although I think it could be fun for groups of people to take advantage of the cabins that are available for rent on the island, or the hotel, for most people I think a day trip is sufficient. Information on the island, and how to get there can be found here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The House of Sharing : Women's Rights = Human Rights

"We must record these things that were forced upon us." -Kim Hak Soon Halmoni

"Comfort Women" is a euphemism used to describe women who were kidnapped or sold by their families to be used as sexual slaves in Japanese brothels during WWII. Although the vast majority were from Korea, women were also used in the brothels from China, Japan and the rest of South East Asia. "Comfort stations" were found all over Japanese occupied Asia, and although the number of women involved in the network of comfort stations is debated by historians, some scholars believe that 410 000 women's lives were ruined by this barbaric system.

"Comfort women" had a very hard life while living in the brothels of Japanese occupied Asia, and life was no cake walk when the war finally ended for those who survived either. Only an estimated 25% of "comfort women" survived, and of those who did the majority were never able to have children. They were often seen as a source of shame for their families, and due to the young age at which many of them had been forced into service many of them spoke neither their mother tongue, nor the language of the country where they were found very well, nor could they say where they had come from.

The House of Sharing is a safe house for former Korean “Comfort Women.” It is located about an hour from Seoul and serves as both a place for the former "comfort women" -- who prefer to be called Halmoni (an affectionate and respectful term for "grandmother")-- to live out there days, and a museum, where people can go to learn about the Halmoni and their lives. As difficult as it is to remember the past, and also to face present day criticism from people who don't believe they are telling the truth, the Halmoni believe that their stories must be shared, to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

When you enter the house of sharing, you are greeted by two images on opposing walls. The first (above) represents the dreams of the Halmoni, many of which were stolen from them during their time in sexual slavery. Congruent with the time in which they were born, their greatest wishes revolved around fertility, health, a husband and a family. One of the greatest regrets of the Halmoni today, is that either through the shame of what they underwent, or barrenness caused by their daily torture and forced abortions, most were unable to have children. Its a regret they will carry with them to their graves.

The second image, which is to your right when you approach the House of Sharing, represents what they actually got, in lieu of fulfilled dreams. You can see how the woman cries and a tear falls as the bayonets of the soldiers' guns pierce her skin, and a bird drops dead from her left hand. The stark contrast between the two images, is a reflection of the loss that each of the Halmoni feel each day as they continue on living their lives, in spite of these atrocities that took away the things that many people live for.

The Halmoni today express themselves through painting. They paint the things that they saw, and they paint their feelings. Here a Japanese soldier has arrived at a house to demand the daughters of this house be handed over.

This picture was painted by one woman, to depict the first time she was raped and her innocence taken.

The surviving Halmoni of Korea, of whom eight currently live at the House of Sharing, demonstrate outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday to petition the Japanese government to accept responsibility for the warm crimes it committed against South Ease Asian women during WWII. They haven't missed a Wednesday since they started, and for them I have the greatest amount of respect. I'm not sure that I could survive what they have, live to tell about and then go on reliving those terrible memories for the benefit of others, but they do. They have that grit and determination, and I hope that they get what their looking for one by one they slip away into a better place, and there is no one left for the Japanese government to apologize to.

Monday, October 12, 2009


On Saturday, still a little bummed from not being able to climb Mount Fuji due to rain and foggy foggy weather, Amanda and I -- apparently becoming avid hikers -- made our way to the west of Seoul to get out of the city, and to hike the beautiful mountain, Seoraksan. It is among the highest mountains in our area, and well beloved by Korean people for beautiful views, especially in the fall when the leaving are changing.

Our day started out as per usual, getting up early, hopping on the new Line 9 to get the express subway and proceeding to escape the concrete city that we call home. It was a beautiful day! The bus to Sokcho was long, of course, but we got to take some nice pictures of the countryside along the way.

Neither of us ever really having lived inland, Amanda and I both practically jumped out of our seats when we got to Sokcho, and saw the ocean. Cameras snapping, we both kind of looked at each other, realised how bemused our families would be that we were taking pictures of water, laughed and then kept taking pictures. Oh! the sea! How I've missed you these past 11 months! I can't wait until we are reunited at last!

Once we finally reached Sokcho station we had to again take another bus as far as the mountain. We were beginning to think the travelling would never end. In all from when we left our apartments until we got off the last bus we were in transit for a good 6 hours! Yikes! Everyone we talked to said it would be around four. I am beginning to be convinced that this type of thing only happens to Amanda and I.

Once we did get on the city bus however, we found it to be crowded with fellow hikers. It was a relief to know that we at least seemed to be headed towards the right place.

When we finally arrived, we knew that it had all been worth it. Mountains certainly have a way of taking your breath away, don't they?

The craggy peaks and shear cliffs...

The stark contrast of the horizon against the sky...

The... wait. Hold up. Are those... cars? I'm trying to wax poetic here...


I thought you said that you were taking me to the mountains?

Are you sure we didn't somehow miss the sign and take a wrong turn?

Apparently in English, Seoraksan, which I had always believed to mean Seorak Mountain, actually roughly translates to "Fall Carnival and Tourist Trap," at least for the first 20 mins of "hiking."

Jokes aside, once you had been hiking for about half and hour or so, although the sheer number of people you were sharing the hiking trails with never abated, the touristy kitschy atmosphere did lessen and we were left surrounded by pristine, relatively untouched beauty on all sides.

As we hiked the views just got more and more spectacular. I thought the colour of the water in the many small pools along the side of the path was just striking in contrast with grey of the rocks surrounding it,

and I was fascinated with the centuries old carving of the stone walls that we passed.

Mother nature sure knew what she was up to when she made Korea, I can tell you that much!

I can only imagine how radiant this same view will be a few weeks from now when the leaves are changing colours. No small wonder that Koreans love hiking as much as they do!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Many Faces of Amanda Eating a Hashbrown

Amanda is practically like a sister to me.

She takes me hiking, and to Japan, and tolerates me when no one else will.

She even lets me take picture of her when she's eating. Mmmm... hash brown.

This is Amanda's second hash brown. Rejected by yours truly, she was a good girl and made sure that hash brown had a loving home.

Ah, I think she's finally noticed that I took more than one picture of her, and her hash brown affair. Is it moral to consume two hash browns?

Don't worry Amanda, you don't have to hide! I'm not going to stone you.

And, I won't tell the first hash brown either.

Your secret is safe with me.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chuseok: Korean Thanksgiving

Chuseok is the traditional Korea harvest festival, similar in many ways to Thanksgiving. It is a three day celebration, celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. This year it is taking place October 2~5 which means that we are lucky enough to have a four day week! As many of you know, Amanda and I are taking advantage of this our three day weekend to pop over to neighbouring Japan. I am so excited, I can barely breathe!

Similar to many other thanksgiving traditions, Chuseok involves the gathering of family to celebrate the fall harvest. Koreans from all over the country flock to their ancestral hometowns to pay their respects to their ancestors, whom they traditionally believe were responsible for the bountiful harvest. They gather together, visit and repair ancestral tombs and eat traditional Korean food.

One of the major foods prepared and eaten during the Chuseok holiday is songpyeon (송편), a crescent-shaped rice cake which is steamed upon pine needles. It is filled inside with a mixture of sugar and nuts. In my opinion, is quite delicious, although I have to admit that when I first arrived in Seoul, rice cake wasn't exactly my cup of tea. Like kimchi, its been an acquired taste since arriving in Korea.

For those of you little familiar with Korea, you might be surprised that the following picture is of the songpyeon that I just described. Rice cake in Korea is quite removed from the dry, hard, crackers that we consider to be rice cakes in the west. In Korea, its soft, chewy, and can have different flavours and textures depending on how its made, and what its made with. You can only find western variety rice cakes at Starbucks.

Like I said, an acquired taste.

Amanda and I are leaving for the airport tomorrow morning at 5:30am! Wish us luck, and a safe flight, and I'll be back to tell you all about our adventures before too long!

Happy Chuseok!
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