DMZ (part 1)

When I was on my way to the DMZ, I couldn’t believe how close the North Korean border was to Seoul. It was about an hour away – that’s like me driving from Los Angeles to Orange County. As you drive north, the scenery begins to change – less cars, less people, less buildings, and presence of barbed wire and watchtowers. I began to realize that the Korean peninsula is in a constant state of vigilance. It’s like someone pushed the pause button on war for the last 60 years.

When I heard I was going to Panmunjom, where the Joint Security Area (JSA) is located and where DMZ runs through,  it all seemed so surreal. I’ve been fascinated about North and South Korean relations since I was a child. I never understood how the hermit country of North Korea could function and how the people endured the regime – and how it still continues.

When we reached the JSA, I noticed how quiet it was. It was eerie. The JSA is the only place on the demilitarized zone where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face. This is not peace – it is a temporary standstill. I arrived at the Freedom House and before we left the building to see the North, we were told by the military officers to stay together as a group, not make any sudden moves, not gesture or point because we would be watched as soon as we stepped outside. When an armed officer tells you this – you listen.

When we stepped outside I saw the scene that has been published numerous times in books, magazines, and newspapers but to see it for myself was remarkable. This is what I saw…

The blue buildings belong to South Korea and the gray buildings belong to North Korea. The building in full view to the left with the doorway is the conference room where negotiations with North Korea are held. The two solders to the right of it are South Korean soldiers facing the North… basically, they are looking at this…

It looks like there is one North Korean soldier outside but it’s speculated there are more people inside the building watching what’s outside. Also, note the two video cameras on the building facing the south.

I couldn’t believe how clear this photo came out. I took it really quickly because we were being ushered into the conference room. When I got back to the hotel and uploaded my pictures I couldn’t stop looking at this photo because it was so clear. I couldn’t help wonder what he was thinking when he saw a group of multi-ethnic journalists documenting what they were seeing and experiencing. I hope he wasn’t thinking this.

(To be continued…)


Seoul (street) food! (part 3)

One of the highlights of my trip to Korea was the street food. The smell, the taste, and the sounds that went with the food was an experience in itself. There’s no way to replicate something like that… but let me tease you with what I could capture in this entry.

When I walked around at night looking for some street food eats, I noticed how the city came alive. The lights livened up the concrete architecture. The outdoor markets were overflowing with people at all hours. And the street vendors had some clever ways of selling their tchochkes.

But OK, you’re wondering – where’s the food? Well, I ate plenty of street food and here’s the evidence! Bon appétit.

Above, you’ll see this yummy bread that is baked in a walnut shape with a dollop of red bean called hodu gwaja. They say it’s a type of cookie but to me it seemed more cakey/bready. On a cold day, the smell of the hodu gwaja is very comforting. The best is when you bite into it and it’s slightly crispy on the outside and it’s soft and warm on the inside. Note: I’m salivating while writing this.

In the Namdaemun area is this steamed bun place. So good! I remember seeing the steam before I could see the food. They served pork steamed bun and also red bean steamed bun – I ate one of each on my trip. Delish!

Walking around the street markets is great because how you use all your senses. On this one path there were food stalls right next to each other and the scents of savory dishes would morph into sweet. Below, you’ll see the common dukbokki stand.

Who doesn’t love food on a stick?

Waffle stand in the underground subway station. I didn’t know waffles were so popular in Korea.

Dried seafood street stand in Myeongdong.

The one street food item that I couldn’t eat is the silkworms below called beondegi. I hear the taste isn’t that bad but I couldn’t get over the scent because it was so unfamiliar to me and didn’t quite smell sweet or savory. Perhaps I’ll give it a try next time I visit Korea. However, I did eat the Korean style hot dog on a stick in the background.

Below was my favorite street food called hotteok. You can see it looks like a mini-pancake and it tastes sweet. There are several types of fillings you can choose from buts to squash… I chose the honey. Mmm… so good!

This guy has a stand in Insadong and serves up a Japanese/Korean style chicken shish kabob. The chicken had furikake sprinkled on top and you could choose to have the a brush of the Korean style spicy/sweet paste. The best part of eating  the chicken off the stick is that you can come back and hand the skewer over to the guy and he’ll cut it shorter so it’s easier for you to eat it. Brilliant!

I learned that Koreans love delivery. Even McDonald’s delivers! A resident told me that in the springtime you can call for delivery and have them deliver just about anywhere – like the college campus or even the park. I wish we had that in the US!

And I know you’re wondering why I’m still stuck on McDonald’s… well, I was told by my cousin that I should eat the bulgogi burger in Korea. How could I refuse? I don’t go to McDonald’s often in the US but I find it interesting how the chain has tried to localize itself in different countries – hence the bulgogi burger. My review? It was sweeter than what I expected but it worked out well next to the salty french fries. I’d do it again!

Hungry for more? Alas, this is it for my Korea food posts but stay tuned for other highlights from Korea like my trip to the DMZ and other cultural highlights.

Seoul food! (part 2)

I love eating out at restaurants because I usually eat with people who love to eat. You would think everyone loves to eat if they are going to pay for it but that’s not always the case. I’ve had meals with people who don’t really care where or what they are eating because they just need food to function. But to eat with people who taste ingredients and appreciate the production of the meal and the company – these are my people.

On my trip to Korea I went with complete strangers. I was not friends with any of the fellows – but that didn’t last long. As you saw in part 1 of my Korea food series, there’s a lot of family style eating. It’s common to reach over to grab some kimchi with your chopsticks or to ask someone to pass the soup. The eating experience is communal – you share flavors, conversation, and laughs. And when you’re sitting on the floor with limited table space, you get to know each other fast.

Here are some photos from the group meals we had. These are the seafood dishes from Gyeongju and Busan – cities outside of Seoul. I suppose this entry should be called” (not) Seoul food” but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Dishes galore! This was at the end of our meal. So glad I don’t have to do all these dishes.

This is the Korean style sashimi – it’s chewier than Japanese sashimi and you usually dip it in a spicy sauce instead of soy. I was impressed with the simple yet precise presentation.

Hand rolls!

Seoul food! (part 1)

In 21 days, I took over 1,300 photos. Granted, not all were gems but I did have some photographs that I was quite proud of. One of the subjects that I love to photograph is food – as you can see from my previous posts – and there was plenty of food porn inspiration in Korea.

I should have known this when I had the best airplane food of my life when I flew Korean Air. They served bibimbap! And yes, it was good.

And they even served it with the traditional gochujang (spicy paste) and a small pouch of sesame oil to mix in with the bibimbap.

The food I ate during my fellowship was a lot more decadent than what I usually at home. When I eat with my family, I’m used to eating just rice, soup, a few sidedishes, and main course (usually a protein). Not in Korea. Course after course, food just kept coming out to our table! The other fellows and I were there to learn the culture and we definitely got a chance to eat our way into learning the food culture.

There was an endless amount of food that would come our way. Sometimes, I’d put down my chopsticks but the server would tell me more food would be coming out. Is it a surprise I ended up gaining weight in the motherland? But in all honesty, it was all worth it.

Here’s one of the traditional sit-down meals we had. Yes, there are plenty of restaurants like this here in Los Angeles but I don’t go to them. I usually go out for a bowl of jajangmyun, soon tofu, or Korean BBQ… etc. I felt so spoiled in Korea gorging during the multi-course meals.

The great thing about Korean cuisine is that it’s healthy – no preservatives or unhealthy oils in the meal. However, there is lots of garlic and sesame oil which I love. For those who don’t know why sesame oil has a special place in my heart, have to listen to this.

I loved looking across the table and seeing all the vibrant colors. The tastes were bold. In Korean cooking there’s a lot of pickled vegetables and spicy food so be open to new flavors. There’s also a mix of fish and meat for protein at the table. The vegetarians in our group did have a bit of a hard time with some of the prix fixe meals. My advice to vegetarians and vegans, plan ahead and be sure to check menus before you decide where you’re going to eat when you’re in Korea.

I think I feel myself getting full just by reliving my meals. Our food journey is just beginning so be sure to come back with an empty stomach next time for some more bites and reads.

On the road…

Checked-out of Seoul on Sunday morning and took the train south to Daegu and a bus to Gyeongju – the old capital of Korea during the Silla dynasty. A lot of the traditional architecture is still around here which I’m loving. When I was in Seoul, I was surprised by the amount of modern steel, cement, and glass structures.

I have to get going and be on my way to Busan so I’m going to keep this post short.

Here are some Gyeongju highlights – Buddhist temples, Silla grave site (the mounds!)! I admit though that I’m having a hard time with my photography – I don’t feel like I’m capturing the right shot. I’ve been getting a bit frustrated. But I’m going to keep on trying.

Until next time…

Is it possible to fall in love with a hotel room?

I think I’m in love with my hotel room. I walk in and the lights turn on one by one as I enter the room. The first time we met, I was welcomed by fresh fruit on the table and a view of the city. Yes, I think the room was trying to woo me and it worked.

Add the large flat screen TV, the touchscreen monitor that controls the curtains, lights, music (that you can pipe into the bathroom) and well… perfection.

Oh wait, did I tell you about the seat warmer on the toilet, the marble bathroom with a huge tub and separate shower, and all the toiletries by L’Occitane?

In other words, I feel spoiled in this luxurious place. Seems too nice for someone like me. But I admit after a long day of meetings, it’s a nice place to lay my head and get ready for the next day. For the last couple days I’ve been running around with the other fellows… like to the Blue House (home of the Korean President).


The group of journalists I’m traveling with are really awesome – definitely a smart group with great personalities. (Note: that photo above are not the journalists but it’s a group of random tourists taking a photo — I couldn’t help but take a photo of someone taking a photo. I think it’s my new theme on this trip.)

Last night (and tonight) I had a chance to walk around Myeongdong and meander through the pedestrian streets.


Looks like I’m in Seoul for another night after tonight – then I’m off to the south with the other fellows. So I suppose this means I can’t get too attached to my hotel room.  But first, I’m going to enjoy this view as I organize the thoughts in my head and my notes from my meetings.

I’m so stuffed but I want more!

It’s been getting cold in Seoul. Yesterday night I was freezing – I think it was about 30 degrees. And it looks like the chill has decided to stay another day because it’s equally cold right now.

Yesterday, I had my final meal with my aunt and cousin before I left to embark on the rest of my adventure in Korea. We had some traditional Korean food at this restaurant – seafood jigae, steamed egg, lots of sidedishes.

Afterwards, my aunt wanted to stop by the Paris Baguette bakery (they have one in LA too) to pick up some stuff. I don’t know why but I thought there were more selections in the Seoul location. FYI, there’s a Paris Baguette every few blocks – makes me want to eat cake every time I see this place. The bread is soft, light, and moist. The frosting is light and fluffy – nothing like typical heavy butter-cream frosting back in the States.

As we were driving, I yelped when I saw the Seoul Cartoon Museum and Animation Center. My cousin took a sharp u-turn so I could check it out. I think the museum was closed but we went in anyway — no one said anything so we walked around. Saw these guys setting up a new installation.

In the evening, I met up with new friends. By the way, I’m so grateful for friends and friends of friends who have been great at connecting me with some locals. We went to the Hongdae area to eat… eat… and eat!

Along the walk we saw a lot of the food tents. I love food tents. I think it’s because of the Korea dramas my mom watched while I was growing up. I’d always see scenes that took place in a tent or right outside of it. Often the scene would depict people who were drunk and something unexpected would happen… awkward glances, someone professing their love, rage… but some sort of truthful moment seemed to show itself at the food tent (mixed with some soju). Anyhow, didn’t see anything like that when I was walking around but I still got excited seeing these tents.

What would Korea be without the noraebangs (karaoke). Raina, I know if you were here you’d make me go in and sing. Alas, since you’re not here… I didn’t. But I did snap this shot for you.

And finally, to end the night we went out for some tea and hot chocolate. Here’s my chrysanthemum tea. So pretty!

Well, that’s my day so far.

From here on out my posts will be more spread out since my program starts this evening when I check into the hotel. Right now, I’m going to take a walk in Itaewon.

(at least) 50 photos a day

My friend Patrick said I should take 50 pictures a day while I’m in S. Korea. With one full day under my belt, I think the 50 photo challenge won’t be too hard – especially in a place like Seoul. I sometimes forget how many photos can fit on an 8gb card – apparently at 9 mega-pixels, mine can fit around 1900! Yesterday I took 74 pictures – warning: not all are stellar. There are probably a handful that I’m super happy about. Here’s one…

This stand had amazing fried foods – can you almost smell it through the photos? Right after I took this picture, a rush of people stood in line. That was taken in Nomdaemun area in Seoul. There are tons of food stands, stores, and carts in the alleyways – and of course, there are the occasional motorbikes that drive through with deliveries.

I think so far on this trip I regret one thing – I regret not visiting when I was younger. But I guess better late than never, right?

Can’t wait for the 50+ photos I’ll be taking today!

I’m in Seoul! Where are you?

After a 13-hour flight, I arrived last night to Seoul. I still can’t believe I’m here. I woke up this morning to find the city wrapped in haze and drizzle. I don’t quite know where I am on a map but it’s somewhere north of the Han River.

The adventure has begun. But first… breakfast.