Heroes of Korea’s Golden Ages – Admiral Yi Sunshin and King Sejong

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

I think Edmund was onto something here – Knowing the past (not worrying about it – that’s different) isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing if you use it to help in the present!

And Koreans love their heroes – and two of the most famous, and most revered are King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sunshin. There are statues of them here and there, just about every museum mentions something about them, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they each rate an entire free exhibit, interestingly enough located in the basement of the Seoul Museum of Art. I’d seen signs for these exhibits when we’d first hit Seoul – but it took us almost our entire visit to get up the energy to go. I’m really sorry we waited. The exhibit on Admiral Yi Sunshin is fabulous, and while King Sejong’s isn’t quite as outstanding – it is remarkably informative.

First King Sejong. He was the fourth King of the Joseon Dynasty, he reigned from 1418 to 1450 (31 years!) and is most famous for having created the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). Just imagine that – until King Sejong – despite having their own language, Korean were using the Chinese pictogram system with its thousands of different images. King Sejong declared that Koreans deserved something better – and he created it with the help of advisers. He even wrote books and music in the new alphabet to help make it popular.

The Koreans went from having to learn tens of thousands of different symbols to learning just 28. Those 28 symbols (only 24 are in use today) were created by King Sejong, based on the way Korean is spoken. They are said to resemble the way your mouth moves when you are speaking Korean.

This I knew from countless other museum exhibits – what I didn’t know about the reign of King Sejong was that it was a golden age of invention. Under his inspiration, uniquely Korean musical instruments were created, uniquely Korean music was born, rain gauges were invented to help farmers, he had a manual written in his new alphabet to help farmers, there were multiple military advances, he inspired people to create astrological instruments, etc., etc.

Comparison note: Queen Elizabeth I reigned from 1533 to 1603 – 100 years later!

King Sejong passed many laws that were – for the time – extremely revolutionary, including one that allowed new mothers, even if they were slaves, time off work to care for their babies.

If you are inspired to learn more about King Sejong – and can’t hop on a plane to fly to Korea and visit this exhibit – at least check out the Wikipedia article about him:
He is amazing. Exhibit was pretty good too.

But it was the exhibit on Admiral Yi Sunshin that I found the most intriguing. Remember – the Intrepid Traveler is a Docent in Montreal – so how museum exhibits are designed is almost as important to us as the information they are trying to convey. This exhibit neatly demonstrated almost all the newest ideas about how to ‘teach history’ – in one relatively tiny space.

Quick history – Admiral Yi Sunshin lived from 1545 to 1598. He created the ‘Turtle Ship’, a completely new warship and was instrumental in defeating the Japanese at sea during the Imjin War (the Japanese Invasions of Korea 1592-1598). In one of his most famous sea battles – he faced 131 Japanese war ships with only 13 of his own – and won. Not only did he win, but he didn’t lose a boat – and his ships destroyed 33 of the Japanese vessels before the Japanese retreated. Clearly an outstanding strategist.

He was demoted several times (not the easiest guy to get along with I’m thinking), he was actually stripped of his rank and imprisoned at one point, and yet he came back again and again to fight for his country. He was killed by a bullet during his last battle.

But it’s not this history, neat as it is, that made this exhibit so impressive – it was how they tried to make it interesting that most impressed me.

There was an interactive electronic picture book that was appeared in the language of your choice, and was read to you – in your language, as you ‘flipped’ the pages electronically. Cool.

There was an interactive game that put you and a friend on the rowing oar of a ‘turtle ship’ – invented by Admiral Yi Sunshin – chasing a fleeing Japanese vessel. There was a wooden model of a turtle ship (50% size) that you could enter to see what if felt like inside (very claustrophobic), there were 2 very realistic guns and 2 slow loading cannons of the period that you could ‘fire’ at attacking ships, there was a movie about one of his famous battles with sound effects on multiple screens with English sub-titles that ended with the screen disappearing and the model of the turtle ship suddenly appearing (remember – it’s huge), in front of you – as if you were being attacked.

There was even a 4D battle movie, about 8 minutes long, that featured puffs of air, water spray and moving chairs while you watched a naval battle unfurl in front of you. Well worth waiting to see.

2 Impressive Exhibits – both free, one opened on October 9, 2009 (Hangeul Day), the other opened on April 28, 2010 in honor of Admiral Yi Sunshin’s date of birth – and both running continuously since then. I’d rate these a must see if you visit Seoul – and I wouldn’t be alone there – they have had at least 230,000 visitors since they opened!

Signing off to go watch a Korean version of Glee (see tomorrows blog) – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Are National Museums a Window into the soul of the Country?

I think that National Museums might be considered one Window into the Soul of a Country, along with school curriculum, and the employment rate. After all, what National Museums say, and what they don’t say, how they look, and how they are maintained, while not the only way to get to know a country, can be imagined by the visitor as one way to find out how the country sees itself and how at least officially it wants ‘foreigners’ to see them.

From this perspective – the National Museum of Korea in Seoul – the 12th most visited museum in the world – offers a unique and intriguing glimpse into how Korean see themselves.


The Museum is huge – and extremely modern. I’ll give the Korean’s credit – they sure know how to do huge public spaces. This is not the first example I’ve seen of this kind of massive public building here in Korea – and if Museums are windows – the first look at this Museum says – I’m a huge house.

The landscaped grounds alone are impressive – acres and acres of lakes, sculptures, pagoda, entrance walkways, ramps, and gathering spaces. So large that I can’t even imagine walking around the entire complex – not if I wanted to see the Museum too.

And it’s clean and it’s all free. Only the special exhibits carry a charge – and the next one is a bit surprisingly entitled – “Art in America”. The good news – it hadn’t opened yet – so we were free to concentrate on seeing the Permanent (Rotating) collections. The museum’s total collection is 330,000 pieces – only 13,000 of which can be displayed at any one time. They have 67 National Treasures, 131 General Treasures, and 4 folklore assets.

There are 3 huge floors – each one large enough to be considered a museum on its own, a gigantic and un-photograpable rotunda paved in marble, a children’s museum which we could not enter (no kids with us), a huge and moderately priced restaurant on the main floor, 2 more restaurants on other floors, a tea room, a gift shop that stretched at least 500 feet, free lockers for back-packs, stroller rental, cell phone charging station (not sure why on that), an information booth, and an audio rental booth with 2 kinds of guides – an audio only one and a fancier Samsung version complete with pictures. The pleasant hostess told us that foreigners tend to like the simpler one better – so we opted for that. Grabbing our maps – we headed into the Museum proper.

Korea is extremely proud of its history – and there is evidence of sophisticated civilizations on the Korean Peninsula since pre-historic times. Clearly this pride rings out thru the museum – and is one of the reasons I felt that I was looking into the soul of the country. School groups, even on Sunday, were present though out the museum, but unlike other groups we’ve seen – these groups were small in numbers (10 to 12 max) – and the instructors focused the kids attention on selected small sections. Discussions were clearly animated and conversational not lectures. Very different from what we’d seen in other Museums on other days.

The first floor of the museum covers the history of Korea – from Paleolithic to what is called on the map – Early Modern – but in fact ended just prior to the invasion by Japan in 1905. This in itself is interesting. Nothing in the museum dates from the last 100 years. Consider the meaning of this – is the modern history of Korea inappropriate for the National Museum? Is it not interesting? Is there nothing worth collecting? To say I was surprised by the abrupt end of the ‘history’ section is an understatement, and left us wondering who and why this happened.

There were several extremely interesting sections in the ‘history’ portion – primarily a copy of a book printed in moveable metal type 71 years before Gutenberg’s bible and an exhaustive explanation (in English) of the events between the end of the Silla era and the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty. We’d been wondering what had happened during those almost 500 years – and we finally got to find out.

The most interesting parts of the exhibits on the 2nd floor were the collections of works donated by individuals to the museum. It is amazing how many beautiful things are saved by the actions of just a few individuals.

The third floor was split into two sections – One half was a series of mini-rooms devoted to the art from other Asian countries – most impressive of which was an animated multi-part Chinese painting. As you watched, the seasons changed, people moved around the landscape, night fell, snow-covered the ground, the moon rose. All very beautiful and very peaceful. The 2nd section was devoted to pottery (see one pot, seen most..) and a fabulous collection of Statues of Buddha rescued from various temples around the country. Easily my favorite part.

Bottom line – this is a huge museum – there are highlights, a lot of things to see – and while nothing outstanding breath-taking, well worth the full day it took us to see all 3 floors. And such a great price point – free!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Mise-en-Scene – a must see exhibit – coming to a museum near you!

While we were in Seoul, the LEEUM Museum was putting on what might be one of the best ‘special’ exhibits I’ve even seen. It’s too late to see it in Seoul – it’s gone as of June 2, 2013 – but something this good will surely be re-appearing at a Museum near you. Keep your eyes peeled!

The theme of ‘Mise-en-Scene’ is theatre – as it applies to moving images, stage sets and the like. Leaving aside the ‘blab blab’ of the curators – the resulting collection of works by assorted artists was both intriguing, unforgettable, and surprising.

The first major piece is a series of 12 video monitors by Adad Hannah – each showing a bit more of a scene. In the first – there is a simple close up of a woman’s face and a man’s hand. In the next monitor – the camera has pulled back just a bit, showing more of the man’s hand. As the camera apparently pulls back further and further, more of the scene is revealed – you gradually realize that the man is turned away from the woman, and is actually looking at another woman who has just entered the room. In the final monitor, you see that in fact the entire scene is a scene within a scene – there is another camera man, a prompter, sound crew, etc. At the end of the installation is the room itself. You are left wondering what you were thinking when you saw the first few monitors – thinking about thinking in the Buddhist vocabulary.


The next several pieces are works by Jung Yeondoo. In all of them – there is a trick – not everything you see in the final ‘photograph’ is real. For example – one image is of a woman apparently sitting in a boat on a lake. But alongside the final image is a photograph of how the first image was created – the lake is a backdrop, the lady is real, but the boat is a flat cut-out prop. In another series – the first photograph is a battle scene – an explosion with dirt flying, 3 men running for cover, a fourth man being blown away. But the reality is that only 2 men are real – the dirt is being spread from above, the rest of the scene – including the tank – are again cut-outs. These are so cool.


We also got to see several of the works from the Feast of Trimalchio by AES+F. Check this out on the internet – these are huge format photographs with 20 or more people taking part. The final photographs are created by taking pictures of small groups of two to 6 people – then pasting the individual pictures together. The theme is also interesting – a decadent roman festival set in modern times. The background is a modern resort with a beach, housekeeping maids, golf pros, chaise lounges, and – true to the theme – decadent looking customers. The final pictures are replete with detail – the construction method intriguing.


There were also 3 video sections.
The first by Eve Susman and the Rufus Corporation is an 89 second video that captures the action just before and just after the scene captured in Velazquez’s las Meninas. Look it up if you do not know the reference, but to help you out – here’s the picture. Now just imagine all those various characters – from the artist to the dwarfs – coming to life.


The original painting shows a members of the Spanish Court – and dates from 1656. The painting shows people looking in different directions, some towards the artist, some away – and even shows the artist himself in front of the easel. What the video does is show all the same people – dressed exactly as they are in the painting – but moving around and interacting with each other. At one precise moment – it all snaps together into the painting – but then the performers continue to move – deconstructing just as the finished constructing the famous painting.

The 2nd video was even more intriguing. Done by Yang Fudong, it is 7 different movie screens – each showing a different view of a specific landscape with a cast of interesting characters. The characters move in and out of the different screens, things behind them change positions and travel also from screen to screen. Filmed in black and white, and completely open to any and all interpretation, it is again a challenge to your thought processes. What did you think was going on – did you expect what happened to happen. Are you predicting what will occur – or do you not see the screens as connected. Consider how interesting – art that makes you think about thinking.


The final piece – by Zin Kijong – is the hardest to describe. The viewer is in a space between 2 parts of the installation. On one side is a series of models – dioramas that capture a single moment in time. In front of them is a track on which 2 cameras are placed, each one slowly moving past the models. On the other side of the space are 2 video monitors – each showing the ‘view’ of one of the cameras. The models have been designed to create a story in the mind of the watcher – again – making you think about what you are thinking.


So – keep your eyes open for exhibits by any or all of these artists. There work is outstanding. I just can’t believe how fortunate the Intrepid Traveler and I were to wander into this Special Exhibit. And how glad we were that we did.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Outstanding – the LEEUM Samsong Museum of Art

Contemporary Art Museums are always a bit of gamble. Sometimes you win – sometimes you lose. This one was a winner. One of the best Museums we’ve seen in Korea – and maybe one of the best I’ve ever seen. World Class in every respect. Like the grading system in Harry Potter – Exceeds Expectations.

The building – actual 3 different interlocking buildings – are worth a look-see just on their own. As you can see from the photograph that Jill is holding – on the left is a rectangular building with windows, in the middle ground is the brown building designed to remind viewers of a fort (on the left) and a pot (on the right). On the extreme right – labeled memories of the future, is the third part – a lopsided jigsaw of black walls. Under the green grass in the middle (behind Jill and the ‘silver’ ball sculpture) is the main lobby of the museum.Plus, inside the first building is a suspended concrete black box (apparently the first of its kind) that holds an entire traveling exhibit.


What you can’t see in the photo Jill is holding – but you can see in my picture is the gigantic Hyatt that got built just behind the Museum, and literally dwarfs it.

Trust me – seeing is much better than trying to describe.

But it’s not about the outside of a museum – it’s about the inside – and this one has insides to die for! We got the digital guide – a Samsung smart tablet that allowed you to see videos of the objects and rotate them at will, link to further information, plus provided an audio guide – and a guide to the artist with a bit of their history. Bottom line – coolest guide I’ve ever used. And it was controlled wireless by the art work – you moved close to a piece – it began to talk to you. Move away – and the next piece started to ‘chat’. Way cool.

Of the 5 distinct exhibits – 3 permanent, 2 temporary – two were completely outstanding – of the do not miss this – variety. The other 3 exhibits were good – just not amazingly awesome great. My plan – I’ll review the Permanent one in this blog – then cover the ‘traveling’ exhibit – which was amazing – in the next blog.

So – Outstanding Exhibit 1 – Permanent – “Modern Art”. This was 3 floors (80 pieces) of outstanding art, extremely well ‘curated’ in the audio guide – but clearly labeled by Artist, Date, and Title in the Museum itself. On the top floor were the works by the Korean contemporary Artists – names that I didn’t recognize of course – but art I won’t soon forget. There was a glorious scene of mountains that combined Korean Classical penmanship with modern sensitivities to create a scene full of movement and drama. I didn’t need the guide to tell me to admire the dramatic curves of the path, the stream with its nude bathers, the rocks, the fog, or the mountains. Stunning. Another favorite on the third floor was called something like ‘The Modern Woman’ in Korean. It featured a drawing of a very typical middle-aged Korean peasant woman showing the traditional effects of the hard life of a farmer (wrinkled skin, chunky body, thick muscular arms and legs) holding up a ‘modern’ dress about 6 sizes too small. East meets West, Expectation meets Reality. Traditional confronts the Future. Very powerful, very simple, unforgettable.

On the 2nd and first floor were a mix of works by international acclaimed artists and internationally known Korean artists. I only have time and space to describe a few of these amazing pieces.

There were 3 works by Mark Rothko, meaningful because I saw the play ‘Red’ (the story of Mark Rothko) in Montreal just before leaving the city. There was a wonderful series by a Korean artist who took clothes racks and decorated them to reflect the current state of Korean confusion – modern vs traditional, appealing junk vs ‘mom’s’ boring conservative tastes. Very interesting.

I also liked a gigantic cyborg woman, hung dramatically from the ceiling, and a simple piece of just a large rock and a sheet of iron. The contrast between natural and man-made – and your ability as the viewer to move around and within the piece made it very captivating – way more interesting than I can easily explain. I also liked a large pentagonal mirrored surface that fractured any image – creating an interesting play on the term – mirror.

The majority of the pieces were well-lit, easy to see and to enjoy. One exception, and I hate to be negative, was an installation called ‘Death’ that was composed of several thousand pills. The problem? To protect the installation, they had used several large sheets of glass. Since they were highly reflective – the result was the piece across was reflected so strongly that it was almost impossible to see the pills.

On the other hand – a pair of life-sized ‘models’, cunningly made by pasting photographs on the appropriate body part were so well position in a corner that it was hard to realize they weren’t alive. On top of these pieces, there was an Easter Egg by Jeff Koons, a statue by Alberto Giacometti and a piece by Andy Warhol.

I always think that if I see 2 or 3 pieces I enjoy – I’ve done well. But in this one part of this museum, at least 2/3rds of the art was if not wonderful, at least approachable. Having the audio guide helped of course.

Come back tomorrow to hear about an even more impressive part of the museum – a traveling exhibit called ‘Mise-en-Scene’.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Korean Attractions Smack-Down – What to see – and what NOT to see!

Ranked from our least favorite to our trip highlight – these are the attractions in Korea that we loved and thought – Boring! Check it out.

10. North of Sokcho – Fisheries Museum – Charge (Getting there – take the #1 or #1-1 Bus from Sokcho – and just keep going and going and going. It’s about an hour ride, plus a 10 minute walk). We wanted an outing – and that’s what we got. Best part were the two 3D movies, otherwise the fish looked sad, and the tanks were too small. But the building is really neat looking, which kinda sucked us in. Go for the Maritime Museum in Busan if price is important, or the Busan Aquarium if you want to see fish. Forget this one.

9. Seoul – Namsangol Hanok Maeul (traditional Village) – Free. Best part – it’s open on Monday when almost everything in Seoul besides shopping is closed – and there’s a ‘costume’ rental on site. Koreans love to rent costumes and walk the village dressed in traditional clothes – and it’s a lot of fun to watch them. Plus – when we stayed in a traditional house in Gyeongiu – these traditional houses made more sense. There are English signs – and some of the rooms are ‘furnished’ – but most are either used for other purposes – like a ‘pay for’ tea ceremony or costume rental. Nice place to visit when everything else is closed – but that’s about it.

8. Seoul – Jongmyo (Royal Shrine) – Charge. We lucked into seeing this during the yearly Confusion ancestor Ceremony. If it hadn’t been for the costumed ceremony going on while we were there – I would rate this even lower. But meeting the ‘re-enactors’ after the performance of the rite was a hoot and a half as you can tell from the pictures.



7. Sokcho – Seoraksan National Park – Charge. (Getting there – Bus 7 from Sokcho goes to the main gate – and costs just 1100 Won ($1.10)). There are apparently 4 entrances to the Park – the bus from Sokcho takes you to just one of them. To get to the others – you’ll need to take a taxi. We decided that the main entrance was fine for us. We rode the Cable Car (Separate Charge) up to the top of Gwongeumseong. The guide book warned of long waits – but it was empty when we were there – no wait at all. At the top there is a lovely little temple down about 200 stair steps, and up from the Cable Car Station is a 20 minute hike to the peak of the Mountain. Marcel (5) and his Dad did that hike, I visited the temple. We then came back down and did 3/4 of the walk to Biryong Falls. Unfortunately, the path which was rated as easy walking, isn’t easy for a stroller – and that meant carrying baby Sophie. No fun. So we turned around and went back. The park is lovely – by Korean standards outstanding, but not up to standards of a Jackson Hole, Telluride, or even Stowe. Never-the-less – it’s a fun outing with kids. I particularly liked the tiny temple I visited, and there’s a huge Buddha near the main gate that hides a wonderful temple underneath. That was also worth a visit. I think the Park would be a lot more fun without a baby in a baby stroller. Maybe in a few years we will get to return.


6. Busam – UN Memorial cemetery, Peace Park, Sculpture Garden – Free. I actually really liked this – the movie is a tear jerker – but it does goes a way towards explaining one version of the history of the Korean War. And since my Dad was a Korean War Vet – that definitely added a sense of drama to the location. The statues are in very good taste, the ‘Peace’ Garden lovely, and I liked the sculptures from artists around the world. We didn’t get to walk in the adjacent ‘park’ – but it had bridges and ponds – and seemed quite the in thing with a much younger (kids) crowd.

5. Seoul – 5 Palaces and the Biwon – the Secret Garden. We visited all 5 palaces, and I can tell you – don’t. Visit just 2 – Start with Deoksu which is right across from City Hall, and do the tour. That will give you a very good grasp of the history of the Joseon Dynasty – and a peek into what was going on right before and during the Japanese occupation starting in 1905. See the changing of the guard. Then walk North to Gyeongbokgung Palace, check out the guards – but don’t bother to tour. It’s huge, crowded, and just a much larger version of Deoksu – then walk East to Changdeok Palace – and my personal highlight – the tour of Biwon – the Secret Garden. It’s stunningly beautiful. You don’t want to miss it. You must take a guided tour – but it is well worth both the money and the time.





4. Busan – Haedong Yonggung Temple – Free (Getting there – Subway to Haeundae Station, then take bus 181. Attached to the temple is the Fisheries Museum – a must see in my book). This was the absolutely most commercial temple we saw. Lining the stone pathway to the temple proper were various Buddha’s with signs – in English and Korean – explaining their benefits. There was a Buddha for traffic problems (including a flat tire), a Buddha for male children, plus many other’s – each with its own collection box. But that didn’t really detract from the absolutely outstanding location of this temple. It is perched on cliffs hanging over the sea – with sub-temples tucked here and there. I particularly liked the gold painted Buddha that sits out on a promontory – all alone. The most fun we had here was people related – of course. Jill got approached by a young student, who explained that her teacher had sent them on a mission to get a picture with a foreigner. Would that be ok with Jill? Once Jill proved that she didn’t bite – the word spread like wildfire – every single one of her classmates come over to get their picture taken too. Bet that teacher is going to be surprised to get 30 pictures of the same pair of little old ladies! Touring hint – To the left along the sea from the temple is the back entry to the Fisheries Museum which we loved.





3. Busan – Beomeosa Temple – Free (Getting there – Subway to Beomeosa Station, taxi costs under $5 to take you up the hill to the temple. Getting back, it might be easier to take a bus – we were very lucky to flag a taxi.) Looks exactly like a temple should look – and feels like a temple should feel. Because we were there just before Buddha’s birthday – there were huge – and I mean giagantic lanterns shaped like animals, dragons, lions, monks, etc. on the grounds – all waiting to be paraded thru the town. The main temple is in 3 halls – each more beautiful than the last. The wooden carvings on the ceilings must be seen to be believed, twisting dragons, flying birds – you name it. I absolutely loved this temple – and I know now that they have a temple stay program. If I ever return to Korea – I definitely would like to stay here.




2. Seoul – Cheonggyecheon Stream (Getting there – you can’t miss it – the stream (river?) runs through the center of Seoul) This is a beautiful bit of city planning – a lot like the new High Line park in New York City – it’s a stunning example of taking a problem, and making it into a positive urban renewal project. The Stream/Park/Walking trail runs most of the length of Seoul, and there are skipping rocks to cross the stream, wide paths for walking, benches for sitting – and at night they float lighted lanterns – some really really big – down the stream. Lovely. (The Insight Guide gives you some of the history of this new – 2005 – renovation – a remarkable story to read in itself.)


1.Busam – Aquarium – Expensive (Getting there – walk from the Haeundae subway stop). An amazing aquarium – and I’ve seen lots. They have shark feedings several times a day – a tank of weedy dragon fish – which I’d never ever ever seen before, the jelly fish section is outstanding on it own, they have a giant walk thru tank that besides the sharks – contains the largest manta rays I’ve ever seen – even scuba diving in the Caymens. They have turtles, they have eels galore, and everything, including all the descriptions, is in English and Korean. Afterwards there’s a free hot springs foot bath to the right along the Haeundae Board Walk. And if you are lucky – Korean bathing beauties to admire. So much fun.



It seems so simple – Church Services in Seoul

As people who follow my blogging regularly know, my friend Jill is Catholic – so we go to services everywhere we travel. I’ve even met the former Pope (not quite a private audience of course – but still).

So we pretty much think we know how it goes – there’s a pattern to services, whether they are in Vietnam, Italy, or Spain that is very similar. We expected the same here in Korea – but we were wrong, wrong, wrong!

We ‘googled’ catholic services in Seoul – and found out that there’s actually a Cathedral – the Myeongdong Cathedral to be exact – and it’s the largest brick gothic building in Korea. You’d think finding it would be easy – but no. We walked right past it – Twice! It is surrounded on all 4 sides by other buildings – including a former hospital. To find the Cathedral, you must turn off the major street onto a side road – and keep your eyes peeled to the left. There’s a relatively narrow main entrance way – a set of stairs and a long long ramp that go from street level to the building itself.

Anyway – to find it – we had to stop people and ask directions. Good thing they were actually heading to mass. We followed them through a garage and up a twisting flight of stairs to the cathedral entrance – this was a short cut!

We entered in – and were not surprised to find ourselves in a cathedral that could have been anywhere in Europe – complete with stain glass windows and the relics of martyrs.

So where did we get confused? Well – part of the normal pattern of service is the collection of alms. Generally a lay person (or 2) takes a long handled basket, and passes it up and down the aisles, and you can put money in as you wish. But not here. We were sitting in the front row of one section, and suddenly this lovely young lady wearing a white drap over her head is gesturing at us to get up. We can’t figure out why. Jill thinks it might be time for communion, so she gets up and exits the row. The gal gestures at Jill to put her hand in a basket – which Jill does thinking it’s communion – and it is at that moment that Jill realizes they are collecting alms – you don’t take out – you put in!

Meanwhile – our entire row is on hold – waiting for Jill and I to move. It turns out that unlike every other church we’ve ever been in – here in Korea, the congregation raises – row by row, files up to the front, deposits their ‘alms’, and then returns to their seats. Highly organized – how Korean! Once you know what to do – you can follow – and had we been anywhere but in the front row – we’d have been ok. Live and learn.

When it finally time for Communion, we aren’t nearly as surprised that it too is highly organized. A priest goes row by row, gesturing people to raise and file out to join the queue. The only problem – I’m not taking communion. So everyone in my row – and both of the rows in the side sections must stumble past me to get in line. How embarrassing.

But the singing is lovely – there is a full choir, over 10 priests, layman and altar boys, a magniciant organ, plus a string section. The music is lovely, the surrounding very peaceful, and altogether a neat experience.

On the way out – one of ladies of the parish comes over to wish us well – and to let us know that there is an English service at 9;00 am on Sunday. We thank her kindly and go on our way. If we’re here next week we’ll do the Korean mass again – only this time – we’ll be better prepared.

More cool stuff about Seoul

We’ve been here almost a week – and I’m still amazed at the stuff I see/hear/do here in Seoul. This is one incredible city. In fact – I’m beginning to think that it rates right up there with Laos for coolest place to visit. There are great museums, wonderful parks, excellent shopping, and friendly people. What’s not to love?

And it’s easy on the tourist. The food is great, the place is clean – there are lots of toilets – and no you don’t have to stay in hostels – there are lots of very fancy hotels if that is what makes you happy. And the shopping is so good – we’ve run into tons of Japanese who come here just for that.

Anyway – enough of the Seoul travel agent – here’s a list of some more cool stuff about Seoul.

1. There’s music on the metro. They use different tunes at each station to announce an incoming train. It’s rather neat.

2. Shop keepers will sometimes give you free tastes – this lady was determined we try 2 each of her cookies – and even gave a bag full to take with. They were great for lunch – and we’ll drop back tomorrow to get some for the ‘road’.

3. I’ve mentioned before and I’ll mention again. It’s amazingly clean. We were even here on garbage day – so yes – there were piles of garbage on the street when we went to bed – but it was neatly stored in bags – and gone by morning. But it’s not the lack of garbage – it’s the lack of trash in general. People don’t drop stuff on the floor – I saw a lady on the metro turn around and dust off her seat when she got up! She was leaving and cleaning up. It’s a bit hard to find garbage cans – but it might be that I don’t recognize the pattern yet. Oh – and they are big on recycling – even in the hostels.

4. There are no sidewalks on lots of streets. The major streets have huge sidewalks that are beautifully paved (and they get snow here – pay attention Montreal) – but off the main drags – the streets are extremely narrow (one parked car, one moving car – max) – and there are no sidewalks.

5. Water filters are everywhere – hot and cold. It’s neat.

6. It’s not super common – but you will see severely bent over elder men and women. Jill thinks it’s the lack of dairy in the diet – and I have to say – I don’t see milk, yoghurt, or even cheese really. Plenty of protein, lots of fruit and veggies for sale – but diary is not that common. That said – the younger Koreans don’t seem to suffer from the problem – so it could also be from the restrictions during the Japanese occupation. Hard to tell, and of course – impossible to ask.

7. Cross walks are not at the corners on the major streets. Instead they are up a bit – about 5 car lengths. This gives cars room to get right up to the intersection – and I think makes it a lot safer for pedestrians. I’m impressed – Good idea there, Korea.

8. I knew that Cherry Blossom time would be done when we got here – but no one warned me about the Azalea Season. The flowers are simply outstanding. I’ve attached on of my favorite shots – Jill in front of a Japanese maple (red leaves) and a flowering Azalea. It doesn’t get close to capturing the size of the azalea bushes – they can be easily house size – but it does capture the wealth of color.

9. Last but not least – no one ever mentioned Rush Hour. The term ‘Moving against the Tide’ so richly describes the impact of attempting to get to a metro car just as the car has arrived at the station. The flood of humanity that leaves the cars has to be seen to be believed. There is literally nothing you can do but put your back to a wall and wait. Once the flood passes – you can continue moving forward. I’ve been in Japan and seen rush hour there – and I’m telling you. This is impressive.

So that’s it for now – after we visit the DMZ tomorrow – we head out of Seoul for the country side. I’m sure there are more surprises in store.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and her side-kick – the Intrepid Traveller.





Getting Flushed in South Korea – More then enough about Seoul Toilets!

Little old ladies pay attention to Toilets – you just never know when you are going to need one – rush. So here’s the down and dirty on the toilet situation in Seoul.

In a word – it’s great. Seriously. We should take a lesson. There are toilets everywhere, even in the metros! I mean who ever designed the Montreal Metros as a toilet free zone should be eternally cursed with diarrhea – it would serve him right.

And there are always western (flushing with seats) toilets available. And at the Lotte Hotel – the public toilets even have bidet’s attached. That’s service.


Sometimes both the stand up kind and the sit down kind are provided – but I’ve never seen just the stand-up kind in Seoul.


And that includes in the metro, in public parks, at the Museums, in the restaurants, even in malls. Toilets are plentiful, Western Style, have Toilet paper, are clean, and are easy to locate. Amazing. And perfect for traveling ladies of a certain age!

Even better – they think about the kids.


I know if you are a parent – you’ve had this problem. Your underage son has to pee – and you (the Mom) definitely don’t want to take him into the boy’s room. What to do? Well the Korean’s have 3 different solutions that I’ve seen so far.

Solution 1: A kids only bathroom in the lady’s room. Is this the cutest thing ever. And don’t worry – Jill wasn’t going to use them!


Solution 2: A completely separate bathroom – labeled for families. I didn’t peak inside, but Im guessing there are miniaturized toilets for both sexes inside.

Solution 3: This cracked me up – a mini kid sized urinal in the lady’s room! The entire thing came just to my knees – prefect for a little boy – and hardly offensive to the ladies.

My discussion wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t discuss the Toilet paper. There is always toilet paper in the stalls and it is soft – a miracle I think. I’ve never been to an Asian country that took their toilets this seriously. But if the dispensers in the ‘chambers’ should run out – there is a dispenser on the wall by the entrance – you just help yourself before you enter – or ask someone to hand some over.

One tiny complaint – they put the dispenser for toilet paper a lot further back toward the rear wall then we are used to. That means you have to twist to get the paper. I don’t know if they notice the difference – but for me it’s just a bit awkward. Maybe they can get away with it because Korean women are more flexible than us. Who knows?

One more curiosity related to toilet paper – they love to use toilet paper for paper napkins on the tables of the hostels. Gross – but there you are. The cute thing – they don’t just set a roll on the table – there are dispensers that look like onions designed just for the purpose of hiding the toilet paper. Too funny. And trust me – a bit of a surprise the first time you ask for a napkin and get pointed to an onion.

Good job Korea! You win the Montreal Madame’s seal of Approval for taking public toiletting seriously!

Bulgogi and Korean BBQ – Yum

I’ve discovered that I love Korean BBQ – in all it’s many flavors and tons of variety. And here in Korea – they really do it right. So far we’ve enjoyed 3 completely different versions of Korean BBQ – each more enjoyable – and I might say delicious – than the last.

Our first Korean BBQ was perhaps the most traditional – we ordered Beef Ribs and Pork Ribs – and while the baby-sitting by the host felt a bit like being in kindergarten and having our food cut up for us – it was fun. They brought out a selection of different side dishes – which we now know to be traditional, and two plates of chopped up small portions of meat for us to cook. Yum.


Our second Korean BBQ experience – last night actually – was very different. We ended up getting (not sure what we ordered, actually) – Bulgogi. Thin slices of marinated beef – and instead of grilling the meat, a ‘sauce’ was poured into a shaped pan. The center of the pan was used to ‘cook’ the meat – then the meat and lemon grass was slid off the ‘roasting’ section into the soup to finish cooking. Oh, it was good. And the kimchi was my favorite so far – not as spice as some versions, and very easy to eat. Yum.



Tonight – we enjoyed our third BBQ – and it was different again. The traditional assortment of sides was presented – the kimchi was good – better than the first version, not as totally yummy as the 2nd, and there were pickles. The meat this time was pork ribs and what can only be called bacon. The slices were very thick, and once cooked had to be cut with scissors to a size suitable for picking up with chopsticks.


And in this restaurant – the grill consisted of a bowl filled with hot charcoal, and the stack you see above the meat is connected to a vent that was below the low table, pulling the smoke downward. And in this restaurant, unlike the first two – the traditional floor seating was provided. (We think that about 1/3 of restaurants use floor seating, and another 1/4 offer both types. Interesting – the prices tend to be lower in the traditional seating types)

In the first restaurant – a smaller, more casual and ‘worker’ oriented place – as far as I could tell the venting was done by leaving the front door open. In the 2nd – Bulgogi – version, no venting was provided – I’m not at all sure why it wasn’t required, but the restaurant wasn’t smoky at all.

Bottom line – all 3 versions were yummy – and I’d go back if there weren’t so many other places to try here in Seoul. And Lex, our host here at the Agit, just showed us pictures of street food that we must try!

Just not completely sure I want to try the raw shell-fish restaurant he suggested – maybe a tad more experimental than I’m really to be right now.

Signing off – the Intrepid traveler and the Soup Lady.

Great Knees and Low Matresses

How Low can you go?

In South Korea – the answer might amaze you. Korean’s have the best knees in the world, at least as far as we can tell. They sit on the floor to eat (which totally sets my knees to flame). Chairs are low to the ground – even sofa’s are inches above the surface. And I haven’t even mentioned the beds yet.

Right now I’m sitting in our guest house kitchen – and in the living area, our host – Lex – is watching TV. He is lying on the floor – propped up on what looks like a beach chair – and the TV is set about my waist height. Low, low, low! There are 5 more ‘chairs’ in the space – all basically flat to the floor. The same thing was true at the Namu – the chairs in the living space were basically on the floor – while the chairs in the dining area were standard western height. Very interesting..

And Jill – who claimed the lower bunk – is basically on the floor – probably at most 3 inches above it. While my bunk – the top bunk – sits at my shoulder level. Easy to make, I’ll tell you.

We’ve eaten out every night so far – and 2 of the 4 restaurants have made us sit on the floor – tonight it was Korean BBQ with pork – and we sat on the floor at low tables that held the grill (Food was yummy) – and the first night in Korea we ate at a tradition soup restaurant – again sitting on the floor. We keep this up and my knees are going to be ‘bump’ ready come January.

So – I figure – to get up from the ground all the time – the Koreans must simply have the best knees in the world.