Monday, July 1, 2013

Touring the DMZ

After two and a half years here I've finally made it up to the Demilitarized Zone, north of Seoul. Because there's without doubt a thousand other accounts already floating around online about the layout of the tour, I'll suffice to give a fairly brief account here.

We started at the USO in Seoul (USO, as explained by one of my American traveling companions, being the organization for morale boosting/recreational activities for the U.S. military).  There we boarded a bus and met our Korean-American tour guide, Brandon.  Brandon gave us the basic rundown on the DMZ during the hour long ride towards it.

Because our tour, unlike many of them, was going to include the JSA (Joint Security Area/Panmunjom), the dress code was fairly strict.  Even though it was hot there was to be no shoulders shown or shorts higher than the knees, though pants were preferred.

We entered the DMZ and the bus wove between a series of strategically placed barriers of either side of the road, presumably designed to cause traffic to go slow and be rolled back into place if need be.  When we reached the entrance to the JSA, Brandon announced that a U.S. soldier would take over for that portion of the tour and that we should do everything he said.  The man who came to tell us to board a different bus for the ride into the JSA, bringing our cameras but absolutely no bags, had a firearm holstered at his side, reflective sunglasses, and a demeanor that suggested immediate reprimanding should we mess up.  That's when this tour got real.

Our first stop in the JSA was the infamous Panmunjom.  Where small blue buildings flank a concrete line that marks the border between North and South Korea.  Initially, three soldiers stood at the ready, left, right and center, "for our protection," though it was obviously more posturing than anything.  If the opposite side wanted, a sniper could have taken us out from a window of the looming North Korean building at any time.  Our military guide explained that they were only standing at the ready since we were there, but when there was no visitors they relaxed.  None of this is to say the experience wasn't very cool.  Panmunjom is iconic, and it wouldn't have been complete without soldiers standing statue still, hands balled in fists, staring down the North Korean guard on the opposite side, who in turn watched us back through a pair of binoculars.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Shizuoka and Ise

Earlier this month I bought a last-minute plane ticket to Shizuoka for a four-day weekend.  I flew in to the new (and small) Shizuoka Fuji airport, only completed in 2009.  It was the first time I've been back to Shizuoka since moving away almost three years ago.  I got to meet some old friends, and take an fantastic road trip with one of them to Ise (home of Ise Grand Shrine, dedicated to the major deity Amaterasu, goddess of the sun in the Shinto religion). This is considered to be the most sacred shrine in Japan, though it was my first time there. Interestingly, every 20 years the main buildings of this shrine and destroyed and rebuilt nearby to the previous.  When we were there the new ones were currently in construction.

Also on our jaunt to Ise we visited a huge aquarium, or at least the largest one I've been to.  The trip overall was packed to the brim with activity and nostalgia, and could hardly have been better.

Fujisan from the airplane on approach to Shizuoka airport.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sigur Rós in Seoul

Last night (Sunday, May 19th) myself and three friends at long last attended the Sigur Ros concert at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, part of their 2013 world tour.  When I first heard months ago that they were coming to South Korea I almost couldn't believe my luck.  A chance to see Sigur Ros live?  Hadn't seen that one coming.

Here's the thing: Korea is small enough that it is easily possible to get anywhere to see anything in the country within the space of a weekend.  It's a matter of purchasing a bus or train ticket and being on
your way.  I'm located quite centrally, about two and half hours drive from Seoul in the north and three to Busan on the south coast.  Contrast this with my hometown in Canada.  To get to the provincial capital, Halifax, it was a three hour drive.  Halifax is also where the airport is, which you would need in order to get to Toronto and beyond, unless you have a vehicle at your disposal and days to spare for the drive (or there's always buses, may God have mercy on your soul).  As far as flying out to a large city for something like a concert when I was growing up, ha!  Don't make me laugh.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Better to Light a Candle . . .

Paper lanterns are strung throughout Yecheon for a number of weeks leading up to the Buddha's birthday celebrations on May 17th.  They glow throughout the warm spring nights, keeping the dark at bay even around small temples such as this one, tucked away at the back of town, far from the main thoroughfares.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Return: Kyushu Through Fresh Eyes

While I had thought that my first trip back to Japan would be made to Shizuoka, it ended up being Kyushu.  My friend Sean had long wanted us to travel there together, and when we found out that a chunk of our time off for the Korean spring break coincided, we jumped on the opportunity.  Rather than a plane, we instead took the JR Beetle, a jet foil ferry running between Busan and Fukuoka.  The ride was only three hours, port to port.

Sean had never been to Japan, so in a way I felt able to see it all for the first time again, vicariously recapturing some of the experiences and feelings I had back in 2008 when I first set foot there.  I planned for us to go directly from Fukuoka to Nagasaki, from Nagasaki to Saga, and then return to Fukuoka for the last days of our trip.  Though I had been to both Fukuoka and Nagasaki before, it sometimes felt like an entirely new experience and at other times was tinged with nostalgia and stark recollections.

Our short trip was great from start to finish, with many highlights.  Without realising it, I had booked us spots at the same hostel in Nagasaki (International Youth Hostel AKARI) that I had stayed in on my first trip there.  It was impossible not to recall it as we disembarked from one of the city's signature trams and walked into the old part of the city, where stone arched bridges still span the river and the ground rises gently toward a nearby four hundred year-old temple that survived the 1945 atomic bombing.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Winter in the Land of Morning Calm

It's been a fairly quiet time here in Yecheon this winter, post-Taiwan.  I've stuck pretty close to home and had a nice season so far, which has ranged from bitter colds, snow and ice to surprisingly spring-like warms with meltwater running in the streets. 

One recent highlight was speaking at the 2013 Secondary English Teachers Association Workshop in the city of Gyeongju back in early January (my presentation, Global Language, Global Access: Utilising Technology to Facilitate English Acquisition, was a fancily labeled talk putting forth some ideas for incorporating smart phones, the internet and online resources into the EFL classroom).  I also had a visit last month from a great friend of mine, Chris, who I studied with in the Dalhousie Acting program, and who I've managed to reunite with four times in three countries since we graduated in 2008--something neither of could have ever foreseen during our hectic university years in Halifax.

Anyway, I've been out and about with the camera as well, so I'm putting up some select shots from the last few months, mostly from around Yecheon county, starting with woodpeckers in the mountains.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Taiwan, or There and Back Again

And there's a fake part of me
that comes off so you can read
I was made by the Taiwanese in Taiwan
but they don't like that much
because it's called Formosa

-Matthew Good Band, The Workers Sing A Song Of Mass Production

Taiwan is a place that, as far as I can remember for most of my life, if I thought about it at all, I associated with the Made in Taiwan stamps on the bottom of a dish or plastic toy here and there.  Naturally most people with that kind of simple indoctrination to the word "Taiwan" are going to envision it as a place of sprawling factories, maybe interspersed with sweat shops, all wreathed in the heavy clouds of smog synonymous in our collective consciousness with the parts of the world who make all the odds and ends for the parts that don't.  I can't speak for the past, but modern Taiwan, at least, does not fit that picture.

Taiwan was formerly known as Formosa, as a result of Portuguese sailors terming it llha Formosa, or "beautiful island" after first catching sight of it in 1544.  Their ocean-weary eyes clearly didn't betray them, as beautiful it is.  After rapid industrialisation ("Made in Taiwan") and economic growth in the latter half the 20th century, Taiwan has now become an advanced industrial economy.  Unlike its big brother to the east (and southeast and northeast) across the Taiwan straight, Taiwan is a multi-party democracy, though still officially  known at the Republic of China, or ROC (as opposed to the People's Republic of China, or PRC, as the PRC refuses to recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state).

Taiwan was mostly inhabited by the Taiwanese indigenous peoples when the dutch showed up, after which Chinese began immigrating to the island, the descendants of which now form the majority of its populace.

Now that you know the same scant amount about the country's history as I do, let's get down to business on the trip itself.