Wednesday, April 18, 2012

South Korea...and a Quick Trip North

At the end of March, the students had a 2-week spring break.  Being that this is my last few months in Japan, I thought that I'd take the opportunity to travel.  That led me to Japan's closest neighbor, South Korea.  I met up with two friends who are teachers in south-central Honshu (a few hours west of Tokyo by the Shinkansen), and we spent just over five days exploring the Seoul area. 

While we were in Korea, so was President Obama! He was there for the Nuclear Security Summit, as were dozens and dozens of other heads of state and important world leaders.  I was so excited! We took one morning to go to a local university where Pres. Obama gave a speech on nuclear security.  We weren't able to get in, but it was still fun.  I just like things like this. 

I also thoroughly enjoyed the food.  Typical meals tended to be served with one main dish to split among those dining together, and several side dishes.  The restaurant where we got the first dish below only had menus completely written in Korean, so I don't really know what we ordered.  The second dish is duck, but for the most part, I really don't know what the names of the different side dishes were either.  Although one or two of the side dishes weren't my favorite, the main dishes were generally excellent. 

We also took some time to visit the palaces of Seoul.  We were able to hit a few of the more famous ones all within one day.  A lot of the old palaces were destroyed or altered during the Japanese occupation for over 40 years, ending only with the defeat of Japan in WWII in 1945. Reconstruction and rebuilding has happened since then so that much of the palace grounds are at least partially restored to what they were before the Japanese occupation.  A lot of the signs and brochures we picked up at these places talked about the damage done to the local culture by the Japanese during the occupation.  They didn't mince their words. 

The gold-ish statue behind me and my friends is King Sejong - the guy who invented the current Korean writing system.  For many centuries, the Koreans used Chinese characters, just like they still do today in China and Japan.  However, to make literacy more accessible to more people, King Sejong sought to create an easily learned alphabet.  Today it's known for being one of the easiest alphabets to learn - even if it looks incredibly foreign to us.  Isn't it refreshing to find a prominent statue like this honoring someone for their academic legacy rather than their skill in war? 

One of the palace grounds we visited connected to a museum, and outside of that museum was a ring of statues representing the symbols of the twelve different years in the Chinese calender.  Naturally, we each found our own, and I found the dragon symbol - the symbol of my year and the current year's symbol.  I like being associated with a strong and fiery year like the dragon.  

One of our more daring day trips was to the North Korean border.  It was strange, and the whole ethics of tourism in a de-militarized zone between two countries that are technically at war was a bit unclear, but there was no way I was going to skip an opportunity like this!

Unfortunately the USO was not doing their tour because of the recent President Obama visit to the DMZ.  We had to go through a slightly sub-par tour organization, but we still visited the same places.  Below is a picture of me, standing on the North Korean side of the demarcation line that separates the two countries. The South Korean guard is straddling the border. I am technically in North Korea! 

The guard in the bottom right is a South Korean.  Can you spot the North Korean in the upper left area of the photo? 

At the DMZ. The blue buildings are the United Nation buildings where talks - if they happen - are held between the two countries. Those buildings are where we entered to cross the border. 

To wrap things up, I'll leave you with a photo that still makes me chuckle.  They're all about the same height, all about the same age, and all walking in basically the same style. Oh Asia.

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