Monday, March 29, 2010

Peck Visted!

Hey everyone. As some of you may know, a Duxbury reunion of epic proportions took place on the Korean peninsula a few weeks ago. The illustrious Brian "I hate Japan, but I'm staying there for another year" Peckrill visited me here in Daegu. To chronicle our shared experiences, I proposed we do a joint blog post that will appear both on "Hailing Hakodate" and "SK Here I am." The format will take on something of a dialogue, a team-telling if you will, that may inform you, or it may mislead you. Most likely it will misleadingly inform you. To warn you, it's lengthy, but hopefully worth your attention. Enjoy!

I: The Voyage to Daegu, Bus-Terminal Blunder, Fried-Chicken & Beer, Korean Style

Brian: Since you began looking for positions in Korea, it became inevitable that I would make the trip.

Keith: I would hope so, I mean I threw down to visit you in Copenhagen and you never made it to Sevilla. You're always good for slandering Southern Europe, jerk. But really, thanks for coming.

Brian: Well it really emerged out of coincidence. Having a couple weeks off between school years -- the school year ends in March, rather than June -- and traveling to Korea from Hakodate is basically as cheap and easy as getting to Tokyo, I decided just to do it. With two round-trip flights a week, it was pretty effortless to put this trip together. Similarly, getting to Daegu -- booking a bus at the airport, ect. -- was pretty effortless, as well.

Upon arriving at Dongdaegu station, I said goodbye to an Irish guy whom I befriended and called you. You had just got out of work 10 minutes before and said it would take 30 minutes to get over there. Hang tight. Always a fan of somewhat sketchy environments, I took a seat on the stoop to which I presumed was the bus terminal and looked to relax after a not so strenuous day of travels.

Keith: Woah, woah, woah, I never said 30 minutes. It takes at least 45, you were on the complete opposite side of Daegu. Chalk that one up to traveler's exaggeration/blog suspense... I really got there as quickly as I could. There was some unnecessary zigzagging because there are no fewer than three bus stations around Dongdaegu and I had some bunk directions.

Brian: Yea, defensive. Back to the story: 30 minutes came, 30 minutes went. No sign of any Americans. 40 Minutes...45 minutes. Deciding it was a good idea to check in, I gave you another call:

Me: 'yo dude, what's up?'

Keith: 'I'm at Dongdaegu station, where are you?'

Me: 'Where the bus dropped me off. You know where that is?'

Keith: 'Not really. I haven't been back there since I got lost my first night. What's around you?'

Me: 'I don't know. It's really dark. Theres some neon lights.'

Keith: 'Way to be descriptive, Peck'

Keith: Seriously. It's like being in Duxbury and offering "oh, well there are some pine trees around" and expecting to be located.

Brian: Well, it worked. After about 15 minutes, I saw a man with long hair and a big head in the distance. This had potential -- I knew that you had both of these features. Yet, as he approached, the legs where way too thin to be of Western decent. Still, he was bouncing right along as Keith is known to do. I threw up my hands just as a test; certainly if it was Keith, he would begin acting all crazy and whatnot. Sure enough, the big-headed man reciprocated the action and the Western men were finally united.

Keith: Fine description sir. I saw your hulking figure with your giant knockoff NorthFace backpack from a mile out. Like a gentleman, you promptly handed me a nicely package bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label from duty free and by golly, I'll love you forever.

Brian: In my defense, that knock-off cost only $17 and looks really authentic (in the defense of a very happy Cambodian, the NorthFace has proven to be worth in the $5 range).

Keith: Defense for all. The best offense.

Brian: You had been working all day, and I had been traveling, so, naturally, we both had built up an appetite for something unhealthy. It had been agreed that Friday night, we were going to get Korean Barbecue -- basically, all Japanese people want to know about Korea is how 'real' Korean barbecue tastes-- so, that Thursday night, we settled for a Fried Chicken joint.

I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed this meal. After a heated discussion, we settled with the Potato medley and a mixed platter of honey and barbecue chicken. Of course, we got a few Hite's to go with it (what's chicken without beer?).

I'm not really sure what the deal is, but Koreans haven't heard of chicken that isn't fried. I've learned "chicken" means deep fried in all contexts. Out of this, loads of restaurants known as chicken & hof (beer) joints emerged with a force, carving out their out niche in modern Korean cuisine. They're hip - new and flashy decor with the obligatory electronic dart boards and K-Pop. The young adults of the ROK need all these things.

II: Temple Complex:

Peck: The next morning we woke up at the early hour of 10:30, made some eggs and bacon, and headed up to check-out the largest temple complex in the area,

Keith: Unlike your average European city (which are generally not all that average), in Korea, you can't just take a stroll on a major street downtown or explore a square in the heart of the city and expect a grand cultural and historical exhibit. The rapid and recent development of urban areas doesn't lend to that experience. For beauty, history, and culture, you have to trek up the mountain to the local Buddhist temple. So that's where I took you pal.

Brian: To be honest, I haven't a clue at what we were looking at, I'll leave that to Keith to explain.

Keith: I can't profess much expertise in the matter. Donghwasa is the name of the main temple complex, but the larger area its situated in is known as Palgongsan. It includes other structures, statues and extends up the gondola to the summit of Palgong mountain.

Peck's quick notes:

1. Monks like temples in beautiful, well-elevated places:

As you can see, Donghwasa was built into the mountains. While the gondola was not necessary to get to most of the temples, it just involved a significant uphill walk. In fact, between all the hills in Seoul, the 3rd tunnel at the DMZ, and this, I don't think I got such a good leg workout since high school.

The money shot for the parents. What a handsome little boy! (caption by Brian Travers Peckrill)

Brian: Yea, to put it directly, Palgongsan was beautiful. Even ravaged by the winter, the place had spectacular views and was a "spirtual" place, whatever that means. One of Keith's co-workers told him that Palgongsan was not worth our time and I think both of us respectfully disagree, right Keith?

Keith: Respectfully disagreeing sounds good, but I really don't think she knows what she's talking about. I understood it's not the largest in Korea, but hey, it's a day-trip. Relax-ah. Per usual, the mountain landscape views from the top were excellent. Korea's definitely got that going for it.

Because I know Peck's gotta have it, the nitty gritty:

The original temple was constructed by monk named Geuk-Dal in 493AD. The original name of the temple was Yugasa, but it was rebuilt nearly 400 years later by King Heung Deok who named it Donghwasa. The temple as it now stands was last rebuilt in 1732. It's undergone numerous renovations since then.
The temple complex.

A more square picture of the far-right structure from the above picture.
Note the swastika. Actually the second place I've been with Keith littered with that symbol (the Carlsberg Brewery has them all over the place from Pre-World War II memorabilia. In the defense of Carlsberg, the Elephant is it's distinctive symbol, and the swastika has its origins in Hinduism. They were going for this exotic Indian look). You sporadically see swastikas throughout both Korea and Japan, as it still remains a Buddhist symbol representing something.

Were growing up...

Us with the huge Buddhist structure.

Keith: If the Buddha in the background looks small, its not. The "Tongil Daegu" is a massive 33 meters in height, and an even greater force in zen presence. Constructed in 1992, its not a historic part of Palgongsan, but its impressive nonetheless.

Unlike some of the more touristy temples in Korea, (like Bulgoksa that I went to) Donghwasa is still a very active compound that houses Buddhist monks. It's a holy place and dwelling space, so not all areas are open to the public. On one path, we missed the sign that read "
들어오지 마세요," because though I could have sounded it out: "deul-eo-ngo-ji-ma-se-yo," I didn't have a clue what it meant (it translates to DO NOT ENTER of course). We strolled right into their "yard" and got chased away by a dude that was only about as upset as you would expect a zen master to be. What was strange was that we walked past an old woman weeding a garden that didn't offer the least of warning.

Yea, that women was content to see us get a yelling. I appreciate the history lesson (no sarcasm intended). To be honest, I can't offer a lot about the temple complex besides:

1. It did not remind me a whole lot of traditional Japanese architecture (but, I do live in Hokkaido, where the architecture is a mixture of Ainu, the native people to Hokkaido, and Japanese.)

2. Everything was so steep.

Keith: Yeah, there's gotta be some sort of correlation between altitude and enlightenment.

Brian: 3. As a result, I have no desire to be a monk

Keith: I have my own reasons...

However, if Monks have feasts like this, for only $10, count me in.

Keith: The thing about eating Korean food that still strikes me is the side dish. We ordered an individual bi-bim-bap (a rice and vegetable medley with pepper sauce and an egg on top) and we still got an small army of sides. They're often pickled things or the same few vegetables dressed up with different spices and sauces; nothing extravagant, but you're certainly never bored.

III: Meeting the Boss Man -- An Impromptu Dinner with Mr. Lee and his Entourage

Brian: As promised, on Friday night, we went for authentic Korean barbecue. Before going, Keith thought it was necessary to undergo an extensive series of soju testings. Soju -- an alcohol indigenous to Korea -- is cheap, colorless and flavorless, similar to vodka. At around 20% ABV, it is a bit stronger than wine, but quite weak when compared to liquors. It is drank in Japan, however, usually with ice and water or as part of a mixed drink. In Korea, it is drank cold and downed in shot fashion in regular announced intervals (cheers sessions). I saw this in Vietnam and I also know that the Chinese enjoy drinking in this fashion; personally, I enjoying having the freedom to drink when I want, rather than having the shot & cheers overlord decided militantly when everyone must collectively drink.

Keith was excited for me to experience different soju, and it didn't disappoint. The higher-end soju was much smoother and the sting and noxious flavor of the cheaper brand. Thanks Keith.

Keith: Soju literally translates to "made of something burning." It really captures the essence.

I originally thought soju was derived from rice, but that's not true. I spent my first few months asking every Korean I could corner what its really made from. The consensus was "chemicals." At 80 cents a bottle, I wasn't expecting it to be USDA certified organic or anything, but jeez. Should I have been more troubled by the fact that Koreans don't really seem to care?

Looking into it further, it turns out that soju can, and is distilled from whatever is cheap as hell. Sweet potato is latest lucky candidate.

For the record, the "classy" soju I had was made purely from rice, but before we reserve space on the top shelf, it only costs $2.50 a bottle, soundly trumping Somerville Massachusett's Caldwell's Vodka in affordability.

I thought our tasting would be Peckrill's last experience with soju, but fate had it otherwise. On to the barbecue!

Brian: To get to the Korean barbecue place, we had to pass by Keith's work place, COOLish English Academy. While passing under the building, Keith spotted one of his Boss's friends.

Keith: The illustrious Mr. Kim! He, Mr. Lee and I have dinner together often, and I just call him "hyung" now, which means older brother. As a side note, he knows more about NBA basketball than Kenny Smith.

I should also mention that our school is called COOLish because it combines "cool" and "English." I once tried to explain to Mr. Lee that adding -ish to words changes the meaning to kinda, so our school would therefore be kinda cool. I don't think it fully registered.

Brian: Mr. Kim was waiting for Keith's boss, Mr. Lee, and shortly afterwards, the man, himself, emerged. With four friends, all sporting crisp and pristine-looking suits, theese guys just looked important, successful and were enjoying their youth in a way late-thirty year-old Western men often miss. Their friendship went back all the way to Junior High School and I was struck by how important camaraderie was to these individuals. Just class acts if I must say. While they were heading to an Oyster restaurant, their plans immediately changed when they saw us and we enjoyed Korean barbecue together.

Keith: Convenient as it was, I honestly didn't plan for this. We went by COOLish well after 9, so I was surprised to run into them. It worked out wonderfully, though, because you got a sense for what it's like for me hanging out with Mr. Lee and all his pals. I too admire the way he has stayed close with old friends. I really hope our crew can do the same.

Genghis Khan, at the Kiren Beer Garden...about every five minutes there was a loud cheers between the Japanese patrons and our group of English teachers.

Brian: In Japan, Korean barbecue goes by yakiniku, translating roughly to fried meat. While I have gone to yakiniku joints on many occasions, I most fondly remember Genghis Khan dining at the Kiren Beer Hall. Filled with Japanese Salarymen, Genghis Khan dining is all-you-can-eat lamb meat and cabbage, along with all-you-can-drink beer for 90 minutes. All this costs 5,000¥(~$60) and a terrible stench of greasy lamb meat smell deeply entrenched into any clothing you wear. However, the yakiniku can be more diverse, and one can often order side dishes, such as intestine, cow tongue, liver, ect., as well as vegetables. On the other hand, this authentic Korean barbecue featured significantly more side-dishes. Many of what was covered in the previous entry on Seoul was also thrown onto the barbecue. Also, in Japan, the patron places all meat (except tongue, which is immediately eaten) in a small bowl filled with a soy/garlic sauce. Over time, this bowl becomes a tantalizing mix of grease and soy sauce, which certainly wouldn't induce an immediate heart attack. In Korea, leafy greens were supplied and meat, with additional sides , were wrapped within the greens before consumption. While small and insignificant in the larger picture, it did just felt and tasted a whole lot healthier, which is a great thing.

Keith: It's all about the sides. Amen.

Real Korean Barbecue. Note all the sides mixed in with the meat. We don't believe in separate, but equal.

Keith: What's more gripping than one foreigner in Korea? Two foreigners in Korea, more so if the new one is a giant amongst dwarfs. I have to hand it to you Peck, they loved to hear your stories, especially ones that laid into Japan. There's a long history tied to the hard feelings, and these days they play out over arbitrary things like control of obscure islands and women's figure skating (see Dokdo Island and Asada Mao vs. Yu Na Kim). I just found that there's a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to why Korea and Japan f'in hate each other. Awesome.

You mentioned your dislike of group cheer sessions before, but you could not have done more to fan the flames than trashing Japan. Well done.

IV: Korean Beef

Brian: As was the original plan, we were to eat with Mr. Lee on Saturday night. Perhaps this wasn't given much thought, as by Saturday evening, both Keith and I had been run-ragged with the less-than-superlative behavior of the previous night. As 6:30 approached, Keith and I were trying our best to look 100%, and I think we succeeded.

Keith: A very generous assessment Mr. Peckrill.

Brian: Around 7, we left the apartment;

Keith: We entered when there was daylight and we emerged to darkness. Just saying.

Brian: Mr. Lee was waiting in his large, black sedan at the adjacent corner. I think, in Asia, sedans represent wealth in a way that they don't back home. I see myself desiring a sedan and also thinking those who drive one must be wealthy (a side note: I had to edit the word drive, from drink. Bizarre). As we navigate the winding streets of Keith's neighborhood, Keith asked where we will be going. 'The Korean Beef Place,' Mr. Lee responds. Keith does his best to let me know that this is a big deal, without explicitly telling me ('But Mr. Lee, the Korean Beef place is so expensive. Is this a special occasion?'), I got the picture. The first thing I noticed about the Beef place was a Jeep Grand Cherokee in the parking lot, a definite sign of high-scale dining.

The place was, indeed, quite nice. What may have even nicer was the beef. We all know what a nice piece of beef looks like: the marbled combination of fat and meat, the color, and finally, the texture. This meat was a slam-dunk across the board, as it should be -- Mr. Lee said one of the cows used to supply Korean beef is worth $10,000. Yikes. I haven't had the opportunity to have Kobe beef, yet, but I can say I've had Korean beef, and I bet they are actually quite similar (and that's the upmost compliment I can assign to any beef).

Keith: Mr. Lee said he only goes to this restaurant twice a year. I wasn't actually trying to tip you off as to the importance of the invitation, I was genuinely surprised, because I've already been once with him. This only begins to shed light on his generosity towards me.

We were all out of sorts going there, but some delicious grilled beef and soup fixed us up in ways I didn't think possible. We also still managed to put away a bottle of soju. When we finished the meal, Mr. Lee asked if we would be going out. I thought maybe a visit to the spa would be in order, and he called to make sure they were open. Open indeed, 24 hours. Boosh.

V: Jimjjilbang (Korean Spa)

Brian: While its been kept relatively civil to this point, we may begin to have a few disagreements here. To be honest, I was not a huge fan of the Jimjjilbang. I'm not going to bring the Japanese equilvant into this -- it's call the onsen, and there alright -- but, I have many objections with this dogmatic believe that same-sex comraderie at the public bath is both: relaxing and clean. To begin, the Jimjjilbang was a complex. A several story building with multiple conviences for each sex -- public bath, massage, ect. I think many families saw this as a perfect Saturday night. I, on the other hand, cannot relax when dirty, obnoxious, naked five year-olds are sprinting on by when I'm trying to unwind. Sorry for my limitations. Additionally, I'm not sure where this attitude that large public bodies of water are healthy. At face value, the body is most vulnerable to infections when huge communal tank of hot water.

Keith: You were stressing a bit, not at all my intention by bringing you there. I enjoy getting practically boiled alive when I'm not feeling great; I think it really gets the bad out. I won't dispute your annoyance with the kids or the risk of disease, but those things aside, it rounded out a therapeutic evening. By the time we left, I was ready to get downtown. You, on the other hand did not feel the same.

We made it downtown and you got to meet my good friend Yuriy, a Russian guy from Siberia that is a member of the US forces stationed in Daegu. Once, during a late night of drinking, I admitted to him that I thought he looked like a villain from a Bond film. You decide.
Bond villain.
Yuriy, ballin' out.

He's an interesting dude and a very kind soul, so I'm glad you got to meet him.

VI. Conclusion

Keith: I have little else to say. I did my best to give you a good sense for life in Daegu and Korea. We saw some cultural stuff and drank too much. I wasn't recovered until about Thursday, so I think we can tally our weekend as a resounding success. If I don't see you before Christmas, I'm glad we had some quality time together even if the dirty little Korean children ultimately got the best of you. You close it Peck.

Brian: I can't agree more with your description of Yuriy. Just a great guy. Obviously, Daegu is not the center of Korean culture and activity, but I hadn't that expectation. I think, in my limited time there, I got a good feel for your life in Korea. That was my goal and I couldn't ask for more. It needn't be said, but I have absolutely no regrets about this somewhat impromptu trip. I got a sample platter of Korean temples, nightlife and even got to meet some Korean guys. I had a blast because I had a great, and accommodating host. See you in December, 2010, buddy.

As a last note, I hope the joint entry is an enjoyable read and informative, as well.