That was a fast couple of weeks. I cannot believe my trip to Korea is over already. But at least I was able to travel to a lot of places and see a lot of people that I had long wanted to, but had not. Even was able to take in a couple of concerts in between all the running around.
It was great being able to see Korea with fresh eyes. Having lived there for so long, there was a lot I took for granted and many changes that had happened that I did not notice because I was in the middle of them. It really is amazing how much and fast Korea is constantly changing — from the new subway cars (very nice) to the new high rises and developments, the great Wifi everywhere (whatever happened to DMB?), and so much more. Even Itaewon continues to grow nicer and classier, which just boggles the mind.
I did make it to a few shows during my trip and do some music-related interviews. I talked about Telepathy and an FF show I went to here, if you are interested. Of course, I went to Gopchang Jeongol a couple of times, as well as a very fun oldies bar in Apgujeong that was quite similar (I think it was called Electric Shoes, but I’m not sure). Oh, and at Electric Shoes, I was drinking with the singer of Byul.org, which was terribly good fun. I was also able to meet Brad, the drummer from Busker Busker, along with his girlfriend Dani, both of whom had a whole bunch of fascinating stories. Best of all, I managed to meet Kim Choo-ja, perhaps the best singer of the 1970s — I could hardly believe that meeting.
Sometimes I get embarrassed by the many cool places around Korea that I never visited. Luckily, this trip helped put that right. I was able to visit the Boseong tea fields, down in Jeolla Province, which really is ridiculously beautiful.
I also went to a great traditional makkeolli brewery in North Chungcheong province called Sewang Jujo. I’m not a big makkeolli fan, but this stuff was some of the best I’ve ever had. And the owner took a lot of time out to talk to my friend and I about the building and his brewing methods and the like.
But, dear lord, what a ridiculously huge city. It’s amazing anything gets done, there, as it takes so long to get around. They really need some more high-speed, express train lines (like the No. 9 subway).
Anyhow … overall, a really good trip. Surprisingly free of “micro aggressions“, but filled with micro and macro niceties. Oodles of great food (thanks in no small part to the wife’s mom).
Last week was the MadridFusion gastronomic conference in the Spanish capital. I’m sure it was a foodie heaven, and Spain is well known for its experimental and high-end dining these days.
But what I did not know until reading this article is that this year’s guest country was South Korea. It talks about chef Yim GiHo who has a highly regarded restaurant called Sandang — I have never been there, but it looks quite promising. The website is full of food porn, if you are into that sort of thing. I don’t consider myself a super-foodie, but I bet it would have been lots of fun to have attended MadridFusion. Besides, Europeans are pushovers for any type of Asian “fusion.”
What’s this, the Hammering Man? Does that mean Mark is back in Seoul?
Alas, no. In fact, I was just in Basel, Switzerland, where they have their own Hammering Man — albeit smaller than Seoul’s version. Basel was quite lovely, though, a small Swiss city along the Rhine, with plenty of art galleries and other goodies. But $4.50 espressos? Yikes.
Some random thoughts about my little trip:
- EuroAirport is pretty funky. Located right on the Swiss-France border, you constantly are walking back and forth between countries here. On one side, you pay in Swiss Francs, on the other, in euros.
- Yes, McDonald’s and Starbucks are a terrible form of cultural imperialism that America has inflicted upon the world. But judging by the incredible number of Donner Kebab restaurants and “Sushiland” discount sushi houses everywhere, it appears the world has gotten revenge.
- If you can handle a little chilly weather, tourism off-season in January is so much more relaxing than in summer and high season. Especially at tourism hot-spots like Strasbourg.
- No signs of any K-pop at the Virgin Megastore in Strasbourg. But there were a few Korean comic books (mixed in with the many, many Japanese comics).
Sadly, the great restaurant El Bulli has served its last meal. And, no-so-surprisingly, I never got around to rustling up the 350 euros or so for a meal there. While I have enjoyed a lot of wonderful, and wonderfully odd, food in Spain, nothing quite compares to the original.
On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like being surrounded by a bunch of pretentious foodies to make one never want to eat again.
A very interesting and long article in the New York Times today about sugar, asking whether sugar is essentially a poison. Really interesting stuff, especially as the whole low-carb/paleo/etc. movement seems to be gaining steam … or at least more mainstream coverage recently. As flawed as some of those diets may be, they do seem to agree that the big bad guy in our Western diets is sugar and processed foods.
(Full disclosure: I rather obviously eat a lot of sugar in my diet. But I am trying to eat less).
I find it rather fascinating watching how the common wisdom on something as basic as food can change so much in one’s lifetime. Repeatedly. But even acknowledging that, I am inclined to agree with the anti-sugar folks. I know when I stick to meat, veggies, eggs, dairy, that I feel a lot better, eat a lot less, and just seem healthier in general.
You can check out Robert Lustig’s Youtube lecture on sugar here.
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I’ve been working a lot on Korean music history lately, helping out on a book about the rock scene in the 1960s and 70s. There is just so many interesting stories from that period, and the music was great. I think when the new book comes out, people are really going to enjoy it.
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Over at Yonhap News, Niels Footman has a really interesting story about live music in Korea, and the difficulties promoters face bringing international acts here. Niels has written a lot of good features for Yonhap over the past year, and this one is particularly interesting.
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Oh, this year’s Cannes films have finally been announced. Nothing from Korea in the main section, but three directors in the Un Certain Regard section — the new films by Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, and Na Hong-jin. Congratulations to them.
After a month of absolutely spiceless food, I went to my first Korean restaurant last night since moving to Spain. It was generally agreed upon by my group (of about eight Koreans and Korean-hyphenates) that it was one of just two decent Korean restaurants in Barcelona. Someone claimed there were only around 12 Korean restaurants in all of Spain… I have no idea, but there are not a lot.
Anyhow, the food. We went to a restaurant called Sangil, in the Gracia part of Barcelona. First of all, the food was basic but quite good. I had the yugaejang, and the ingredients were fresh, the broth reasonably spicy. There was not a lot of banchan, but what they had was pretty good. We even split a little soju (which sported a Jeonju International Film Festival label on the back, giving us some idea how old it was). All in all, a nice refresher in Korean food.
But the prices, yikes. Nearly everything on the menu was 12-15 euros — that is well over 20,000 won, for a basic Korean lunch, the kind of thing that is usually around 5,000 won in Seoul Even the Jajangmyeon was over 12 euros. Jajangmyeon? Bizarre. And the galbi dishes were much more. I knew I was going to have to pay a premium for Korean food over here, but that was a little surprising.
Oh well, at least the won is getting a little stronger against the euro at the moment…
For some research I was doing recently, I ran across the most amazing resource online — a huge collection of photos and videos about Korea, dating from the 1950s to the present. Some are old news stories, others are government propaganda videos, and others are, well, I have no idea.
I’m talking about E-History website, run by KTV (Korea Policy Broadcasting?). For the video section especially, you can spend countless hours, just skipping around and browsing. Sadly, the site is only in Korean, but it is pretty easy to navigate, even for beginners.
There are 11 categories running down the left side, for politics, economics, military, society, eduction, culture and more. Below those categories, the site is also organized by decade. And because all the videos have been indexed and described, the search engine works surprising well.
A couple of random restaurant notes. Seems like every time I turn around, new Indian restaurants are popping up all over the place. I talked about Manokamana before (which now seems to be doing very well, as I can never get a seat there).
But if you cannot get a seat at Manokamana, there is another option just down the street — Amma. Amma is just as good as Manokamana, if not better (I think the portions are bigger), and it is dead quiet. The furniture is a little odd (like out of a 1995 Korean dabang, but don’t let that throw you). It is right behind the Hyundai Department Store. Map here. Totally worth checking out.
If you are looking for more of a Western bar experience, a new place just opened up in Shinchon that I also recommend called Beer O’Clock. Beer O’Clock has a good selection of beers (including Alley Cat Pale Ale), your basic bar food (which I have not tried yet, but looks good), and a great ambiance. It is on the second floor, with floor-to-ceiling windows that all open up, making almost every seat in the place a window seat.
I have not been there on a weekend yet, so maybe the vibe changes then. Hopefully not, but I do not know. But for a quite, comfortable mid-week place, Beer O’Clock was really good. Easily the best Western bar in Shinchon. Map.
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UPDATE: Random note. As I write this post, my blog is the 10th most popular in the world under the Google search “distressed bondage.” Sometimes I do not understand the Internet at all.
As you can tell by the map at the Korea Gig Guide, I originally planned on talking about good restaurants and other shops in Hongdae and around Korea on my blog(s). Never really happened though, in part because I am lazy, but also because I am not very happy with how this map looks and want to upgrade it some time before too long. Today, however, I was walking around Hongdae (the area around Hongik University, for the uninitiated) and ran across so many interesting little shops and restaurants, I felt compelled to write a little something.
This is not the most original observation, but I am regularly amazed at how fast the Hongdae neighborhood is changing. A few years ago I was avoiding Hongdae because I thought it was beginning to resemble the unholy spawn of Apgujeong and Itaewon — simultaneously too upscale and too trashy. But lately, I have been more impressed by the neighborhood, enjoying all the new shops it has to offer.
It was not long ago I used to moan about how there were not any Indian restaurants around Hongdae and Shinchon. But today, there are six (that I know of). My favorite is still the original Shanti (close to Hongik Subway Station). And there is Taj (in the Seokyo Building), a spin-off of the original Taj down in Myeongdong. Manokamana is the new place in Shinchon (very similar to Shanti, there is a review of it by Andrew Salmon here). There is the ridiculously expensive place in the white building by the AA Design Museum. And there are two more in the new Calliope Building near the Hongik University main gate, behind the Coffee Bean and the Prugio apartment — Kaka Kumar (a spin-off of the Ganga chain) and a new Shanti (not open yet, but it looks like it will have a really spiffy patio).
Oh, that Calliope Building also is home to some of the best mandu in Korea and a “gourmet burrito” house called Margarita (about to open)(Oops, apparently the burrito shop was closing, not opening). The Calliope Building is marked on this following map (only in Korean, sorry).
(I refuse to include the India Gate in the Hyundai Department Store in this list, but I have been told that it exists, up on the 10th floor). (UPDATE: Hrm… could India Gate actually be decent? From their website description, they could be okay).
In addition to the Indian food, there are endless little “coffee & cake” shops, seemingly in every building, between buildings and any nook that can be converted into a mini-cafe. Some of them are actually nice.
And on the Donggyo-dong road, close to the Sannulim Theater, there is an impressive little goth shop called Beetlejuice. Just down the street from there is a very good sake and shochu shop called Syo Syo. Plenty of places for a good drink or a coffee.
There are simply way too many new places to list them all. But one thing that I am rather impressed by is the rising number of patios and open-windowed shops around the area. It used to be a real pain the butt to find a shop like that, but now they are all over the place. The great weather we have been having this spring has helped a lot, too. Very civilized.
I just received my copy of THE KOREAN WAVE: AS VIEWED THROUGH THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES IN 2006… which was sent to me because I have a story in it. Actually, I have the very first story (my May 28 feature on Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST), which made me all warm and fuzzy inside. Published by the Korean Cultural Service New York, THE KOREAN WAVE is a fairly handsome volume, full of some really good stories (if I do say so myself) by a wide variety of writers. In fact, of the 52 stories in the book, only three are by local correspondent Norimitsu Onishi.
One funny point/criticism about the book, though. It does not contain my other feature that appeared in the NYT last year — the one about North Korea. I wrote a feature on the documentary CROSSING THE LINE (which you can read on my blog here). In fact, in the index in the back of all the Korea-related cultural stories in the NYT over 2006, it did not get mentioned. Was Daniel Gordon’s little documentary about am American defector to North Korea not “Korean” enough? I don’t think so. There were stories on Korean-Americans in America and a whole bunch of things only tangentially related to Korea. My guess is that the subject matter was too sensitive. Oh well.
Whatever happened to the big plans for Seoul City Hall? The City announced this grandiose plan for a giant new building, tore down the old City Hall side building and put up a big, construction-like fence… and now, from the best I can tell, they are installing a parking lot and small park.
Good news — Hongdae is about to get its very own Quiznos sandwich shop in May. I will mention the location as soon as I find out where it will be myself.
Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music and Internet Culture is the only English-language book to examine the whole of Korea's entertainment industry and how it became such a powerhouse over the past 15 years. With profiles of many of Korea's top stars (including Lee Byung-hun and Rain), Pop Goes Korea features chapters on movies, music, television, comic books, the Internet, and more.
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