Friday, December 30, 2016

Guryongpo: Looking back at Japanese colonialism in Korea

Monument to the nine dragons

Last April I went out to a little town near Pohang called Guryongpo (구룡포). If you look at a map of South Korea, you can see a little bit on the southeast coast that sticks out, kind of like a little thumb. The very point of that is Homigot, one of the easternmost points of the coastline, where thousands of people gather every year on New Years to watch the sunrise (presumably while trying not to get hypothermia.)

Just south of Homigot is Guryongpo, a little fishing village. There are a few beaches around there that are nice in a rugged way (or at least they seemed rugged on a rainy day in April) and of course plenty of restaurants serving fresh seafood. While I've never been in the summer, Guryongpo is supposed to have some of the nicest beaches in the summer for swimming.

According to an official Korean tourism site, Guryongpo gets its name from a mythical event that occured during the Silla Period, under the reign of King Jin-heung (540-576 CE.) The story says that a large storm brought nine dragons into heaven (where those dragons were prior to the storm is anyone's guess.) Thus the etymology of Guryongpo (gu = 9, ryong = dragon, po = beach.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Busan's Holi Festival

Celebrating Holi in Busan

In early April, a friend of Anna's from the U.K. came to visit us and we went on a little weekend trip to Busan together. It just happened to be the same weekend as the big Holi Hai Festival, hosted by Busan's Indian community.

If you're not familiar with Holi, it's a Hindu holiday held in the spring in India and Nepal and is meant to celebrate the end of winter and the symbolic triumph of good over evil. The festival involves everyone arriving in white clothing and then throwing bags of colorful powder and paint all over each other, dancing, forgiving and forgetting, loving your neighbor and basically just having fun.

How I looked at the beginning...

... And several hours later

Monday, December 26, 2016


With the power of Hapkido, you too can take down two bad guys at once! (photo credit)

I've been practicing martial arts since I was about 14 years old and over the course of those years I've tried many different styles. I'm kind of a Jack of all trades, master of none when it comes to martial arts, since I've moved around so much that I've never been able to stay at one school long enough to reach black belt. But it's been a lot of fun to try out different styles and learn something from each of them.

Last winter I heard about a school in Pohang offering evening Hapkido classes for foreigners. I was really excited about the chance to get back into practicing a martial art again (I had about a 6 month break since I left my Kung Fu school in Santiago.) I was also excited about getting to practice with a teacher that knew a little English and some other foreigners. In the end, it turned out I was the only one willing to travel a little ways out of town to get to the school (it's out by Pohang's KTX station) so in the end I was practicing with one other American guy and a group of about 10-15 Korean middle and high school kids.

The teacher was really funny and talented though, so I enjoyed the classes and started coming as often as I could.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Early Spring Hiking: Gaji-san


Pohang's southern neighbor city, Ulsan, is just about an hour away by bus and is a little more cosmopolitan than Pohang. But thanks to Busan just an additional 30 or so minutes south, I really didn't spend much time in Ulsan last year. One thing it does have going for it is a little foreigner's market, where the local "waygooks" get together to sell hand-crafted things like South African sausage and jerky, curry, vegan cupcakes, American style cheese dips, and even some real cheese made by a guy with his own goat farm. There are cool non-food things, too, like greeting cards, handmade soaps, etc. If you're interested in checking it out, here is their Facebook group.

(PS: they're not the only foreigner's market around; check Facebook to see if there is one in your city in Korea.)

But last April I visited Ulsan not for it's foreign market but for the amazing hiking that's right on its doorstep. From Ulsan, you can catch a local bus out to a temple called Seoknamsa (석남사) which is right at the base of a peak called Gajisan (가지산). The bus ride out to the temple will take you through a really beautiful valley with a river cutting through it, and a few nice local restaurants.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Caving Adventures in Hwanseongul

Entrance to Hwanseongul

I'm not seriously into caving, but having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I definitely have an appreciation for a good cave adventure. I grew up in a town not far from the Ape Caves in southwest Washington, which are pretty great, and also got the chance to crawl through some of the amazing cave systems in southern Oregon near the border with California. But in terms of beauty, Hwanseongul in the Gangwon Province is definitely one of the best I've seen so far.

I went up there on a regular weekend with a friend who'd heard about it from another friend. We caught a bus into the nearby city of Samcheok with the intention of just spending the night in a jjimjilbang, or Korean sauna, something I've done on other trips, which you can read about here. But when we arrived in Samcheok we couldn't find the right kind of jjimjilbang, just small, local bathhouses that had were literally baths and nothing more. No big rooms to sleep in, like we were hoping for. Samcheok is a big enough city that it probably has one somewhere, but as it was getting late and we still couldn't find it, we just decided to rent a room in a hotel and split the costs. In the end this still worked out pretty cheap.

From town you can catch a local bus out to the cave. It will let you off in a parking lot next to a cute bat-shaped gate, where you can either hike up to the cave (I think it takes about 40 minutes?) or take a gondola. I was recovering from a bad cough that had lasted about 2 months, so we opted for the gondola option. As you enter the cave, you'll be warned not to take any photos, but the minute you enter all the Korean tourists will whip out their phones and cameras regardless, so don't worry too much about taking pictures. But for the sake of preserving a beautiful natural place, PLEASE DON'T USE YOUR FLASH.

By the bat gate

Monday, December 19, 2016

10 Tips to Surviving Your First Year Abroad

About 6 months into my first year overseas, loving life in Sendai, Japan

There are a lot of reasons why people temporarily go to live in another country. You might be there for work, for education, for a long journey, or to teach English like me. I'm mostly directing this post to my fellow English teachers living overseas, since there are a lot of unique challenges to doing that and many of the hardest ones you'll encounter in your first year. However, some of this should be relevant no matter why you're living abroad. Hope this advice can help some of you out!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Seollal Travels Part III: Geojedo

Winter sunshine in Geojedo

Before traveling, I didn't do a lot of research about where we were going last Seollal, so I really just booked places to stay in Tongyeong and the large island right next to it called Geojedo simply based on the recommendations of a friend. I still can't believe how lucky we got on that trip - everywhere we went was beautiful, and thanks to Seollal, quiet.

Geojedo is a big island just south of Busan and just east of Tongyeong. You can reach it easily through either of those cities, both of which have bridges linking them to Geojedo. We spent a couple days in Tongyeong and then caught a local bus over to Geojedo (it only took about 20 minutes.) The one mistake I made in not researching the trip as much as I should have, was booking us a room at a guesthouse on Airbnb that was very difficult to find when coming by bus.

We took a local bus to where we thought the guesthouse was located, realized we had gone way too far, and were now the only people left on the bus as it got farther and farther into the countryside. Luckily our driver knew something was up, actually pulled the bus over, and proceeded to give us the best directions he could given my limited Korean abilities.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Seollal Travels Part II: Somaemuldo

The beautiful view of Deungdaeseom from Somaemuldo

Somaemuldo is a small island located off the southern coast near Tongyeong city and it is easily one of the most beautiful places I've visited in Korea. One of the things that made it so special is that when I traveled there last February during Seollal, or the Korean Lunar New Year, there were hardly any other tourists. Many of Korea's most beautiful natural places are so full of crowds that it's difficult to really relax and enjoy them. I can't say how Somaemuldo is during a busier season, but if you go on a quiet day, it is truly spectacular.

There were a few other tourists, but it really felt like we had the island all to ourselves

Monday, December 12, 2016

Seollal Travels Part I: Tongyeong

Celebrating the Lunar New Year down in Tongyeong City

Last February we had a long weekend thanks to Seollal, the traditional Korean New Year. Just like in China, a lot of Asian countries have a tradition of celebrating new years around February, generally on the day of the second new moon following the winter solstice. Seollal, written 설날 in Hangul, is translated as "lunar new year", but there is a really fascinating explanation of the etymology of the word on this blog that I recommend reading if you're curious. 

Totally not a stock photo Korean family celebrating Seollal (photo from here)

It's a big family holiday in Korea, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Most Koreans go to visit their families, especially grandparents, and do traditional things like playing old games like Tuho, in which you have to throw sticks into a pot, or wearing hanbok (traditional Korean clothes). There is also an important tradition called Sebae (세배), which means to worship elders. Sebae involves children going to visit their elders (this could be grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc, basically older relatives), usually dressed in hanbok, and performing a special type of bow to wish their elders a good new year. Children usually receive gifts like money in return.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Looking back at the year

So, 2016 may not have been a very great year for us as the human species, but for me personally, it was a great year.

I spent the first half of it working pretty hard, sometimes feeling stressed out or bleak thanks to the cold Korean winter and the usual work-till-you-collapse-in-exhaustion ppari ppari lifestyle. But I really did love my students and the school I worked at in Pohang. The kids there were so sweet and smart and funny, I always felt like I was learning from them just as much as they were learning from me.

Aren't they the cutest?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Discovering Korean History in Gyeongju

Fall light up at Anapji Pond in Gyeongju

One of the best things about living in Pohang was its proximity to some really interesting places like Busan (just an hour and a half away by bus) or Gyeongju (only ~30 minutes away.) This made it easy to go away for a weekend or just get out on a day trip, especially considering how inexpensive it is to travel by bus in Korea.

Gyeongju is a really fun place to visit, with so much history that it should be on anyone's travel itinerary when traveling or living in Korea. It was the capital city of the Silla Kingdom, one of the three major kingdoms that existed in ancient Korea. The Silla Dynasty was around from 57 BCE to 935 CE, and according to Wikipedia, was "one of the world's longest sustained dynasties." You can read more about Silla here.

Map showing pre-unified Silla at 576 CE (photo from here)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Temples and Waterfalls: Hiking at Bogyeongsa

One of many waterfalls near Bogyeongsa

Not far from Pohang are two famous temples, one to the south called Oeosa, which you can read about here. And another to the north, called Bogyeongsa, which is the more popular of the two. I visited it several times while I was living in Pohang and probably the best times to see it are in the fall around the end of October or in the winter, around late December January.

From downtown Pohang, you can catch a bus or drive to Bogyeongsa. The bus takes about an hour and a half, possibly longer if you have to change buses. There will be more info about the buses at the end of this post. When you arrive, you'll find a big parking lot where the bus drops you off which leads into a small town.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Teaching Abroad: Japan vs. South Korea

Teaching at a private Kindergarten in South Korea

It's become more and more common every year for young graduates from English speaking countries to spend a year or more living overseas and teaching English. Two of the most popular places to do this are Japan and South Korea, both places where I have taught. I've been asked by friends how they compare, so here is some general advice, pros and cons, and my own personal observations. Keep in mind this is not a definitive guide, just a starting point which reflects my experience and the experiences of people I've met. Hopefully this will be helpful to anyone thinking of teaching abroad and trying to decide which country is best for them.

Holiday Week in Seoul!

Wandering the back streets of Insadong

(Note: I wrote this last winter and then didn't get around to finishing it. 2016 was a very busy year for me, so not a lot of blogging happened. I'm getting caught up on it now, starting with finishing and uploading some of these old ones.)

Many foreigners come to teach in Korea because they like the culture, or the food, or the language, or the good salaries and benefits most schools offer... but nobody comes here expecting to get much vacation time. The sad reality of working in places like Japan or Korea is that many jobs only offer at best 2 weeks of holiday a year. 

This year Anna and I have only about 10 days of vacation, not including national holidays, so we have to use them wisely. For our winter vacation, we tried to pack in as much fun and traveling as possible into about 7 days. We spent a weekend exploring Busan, which I described in the last few posts, and then went up to Seoul for 3 days.

Food and nightlife in Itaewon