Saturday, 28 February 2009

Day #1 - Acquainting Seoul

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Day #0 - Arrival
»Day #1 - Acquainting Seoul
Day #2 - Korean Wave
Day #3 - A Sip of Soju
Day #4 - A Cultural Evening

20 February 2009, Friday
"Okay, there's one thing you might want to know," Adrian said on the way to Shindorim station. "Here in Seoul, you always get old ladies coming to you for road directions."

True enough, without suspecting me as a foreigner, I bumped into quite a number of lost aunties at the subway. Had I not been informed by Adrian, I would have even believed I had a considerable following of fans. As much as I would like to help them, I myself was equally at loss, since it was my first day in Seoul and I was travelling alone. In fact, I was practically checking the subway map every time the train made a stop, lest I should have boarded the wrong train and end up in Pyongyang.

Okay, before I digress any further, here's a summary of what I did on the first day.

Visibility was very poor that morning. The strong wind from northern China brought along with it yellow sand from the Gobi Desert. It reminded me of the haze that shrouds Malaysia every year during the dry season. (Thanks to the burning of forests in Indonesia!)

War Museum
My first stop was the War Memorial Museum (전쟁기념관; 戰爭紀念館) at Samgakji station (삼각지). For those who are interested in knowing the history that divided the nation into the North and the South, this might be a good place to start.

Long before the period of the Three Kingdoms (of Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla), the country had been constantly at war. It was Silla that eventually unified the nation. But unfortunately, just to quote from the movie Red Cliff: From division comes unity, and from unity, division. Hence, it wasn't long before the unified Silla separated into three kingdoms again and wars broke out between them. The period was known as the Later Three Kingdoms. It was after the this period that the nation reached its peak during the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties.

I know all this history scares most people away but just bear with me a little more. The development that occurred next marked a turning point in Korea's history - the Japanese occupation. Although Korea had been relentlessly invaded by Japan throughout its history, it was not until 1910 that Japan forcibly annexed Korea and ruled the nation for 35 years until 1945. That three and a half decades under the Japanese rule dealt a big blow to the people's pride. (More about that later in Day #5.)

After the Japanese occupation came to an end, the nation was split into two at the 38-th parallel. The Northern part was controlled by Russia; the South by America. But soon after America pulled out from South Korea, the Korean War (1950-53) broke out. Seoul at the center of the peninsula yo-yo-ed back and forth, changing powers four times during the brief period. It was with the help of the UN troops that South Korea managed to wrest back half of the peninsula.

No treaty was signed though; the North and the South are merely under ceasefire. In fact, South Korea still constantly faces threats from the North. That being said, I wasn't very much surprised to find leaflets about "Emergency procedures for chemical, biological, nuclear and radiation attack" in the museum. So, Cholong wasn't joking after all when she commented that South Korea is a very dangerous place.

Palace Guards
My next stop after the War Memorial Museum was Gyeongbokgung (경복궁; 景福宮) the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty, constructed by King Taejo. There're five palaces around Seoul, this being the largest one.

Standing sentinel at the gate were the palace guards armed with broad swords, bows and arrows. Whether it was Korean pride about their culture, or the effort of promoting tourism that kept this tradition going, I do not know. But you've got to salute these guards for their spirit. It was a windy day and the temperature dropped to around 0゜C. Despite the freezing cold, they remained at their posts for an hour till the guards-changing ceremony. They didn't even get to walk around, mind you. All they could do was standing still. Curious foreigners - me included - would then come to them and have their photos taken so that they could later boast, "Hey dude, look! I took a photo with the Korean palace guard! Cool, eh?"

Entering the palace, I immediately found a Chinese tour guide and simply tagged along. Nearby, there was a Japanese guide too. Heheh, that's one of the biggest merits of knowing more than one language.

Obviously, the palace was very much influenced by Chinese architecture. The twelve animals from the Chinese Zodiac could be seen on the walls of the main hall that housed the throne. This perfectly symbolizes the idea that the King was the central of the universe.

Looking up at the roofs of the buildings, you could also see five curious figures. These, I later found out from the Gyeongbokgung Museum, are the characters from the Journey to the West: the monk, the monkey, the pig, the river monster and the horse. Finally, tagging along behind this troop of legendary characters is a dragon. But until now, I've no idea what the Journey to the West has to do with Korean culture.

Also, remember the floor heating system I talked about? You know what? The palace had it too! The buildings were built slightly higher than the ground. Then firewood would be burnt during winter to warm up the floor.

Now I'm not going to post anymore of those clichéd photos. It has been photographed to death by tourists who throng the place. You can easily check out the photos from the Internet.

I didn't really get the chance to explore the whole place because the wind was too strong. Instead, I eventually had to seek shelter at the museum while waiting for my friend, Cholong to show up and go for dinner. Oops, come to think of it, I skipped lunch that day.

We headed towards Insa-dong nearby, indisputably another tourist scene where most people stop by for souvenirs. Here's where you can find the most special Starbucks in South Korea, one whose signboard is written in hangul: 스타벅스, thanks to the protests from traditionalists concerning the opening of a Western shop in the traditional area.

Cheonggyecheon 청계천
After dinner and a brief stroll in the area, we braced ourselves against the freezing wind and walked all the way to Cheonggyecheong (청계천; 淸溪川).

Anyone who goes to Seoul has to visit this (whoa!) $900 million river. Spanning 6km across central Seoul, it has become a famous recreational spot since 2005. But when you spend such an astronomical amount of money on an urban renewal project without being able to justify the benefits it brings to the city, you'll certainly draw criticism from all quarters.

Despite that, though, the then-Seoul mayor who proposed the controversial project gained popularity and soon became the current president of South Korea. That's dear President Lee Myung-bak.

Roads in Seoul are way wider than those in Japan, I observed. I suppose it's because, unlike Japan, Seoul has plenty of land to spare; Japan overcomes this problem by building elevated highways. It's normal to see up to three or four level tall highways in Central Tokyo.

Samsung Building
The city has also a considerable amount of skyscrapers. It's impressive how Seoul developed into its current state after being completely devastated during the Korean War. No wonder the South Korea's economic boom is often said to be a miracle. Unfortunately, being a nation that depends mainly on its exports, South Korea is suffering terribly from the recent global recession. Whether the country can realize another miracle or not, is of great interest to its neighbouring countries.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Day #0 - Arrival

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»Day #0 - Arrival
Day #1 - Acquainting Seoul
Day #2 - Korean Wave
Day #3 - A Sip of Soju
Day #4 - A Cultural Evening

19 February 2009, Thursday
Come April, it will be my fourth year in Japan. Yet, there're still so many places I intend to visit. The only time I can travel, though, is the holidays. That's merely three or four times a year. Besides, let's not forget about the most important thing when it comes to travelling - money.

However, the Japanese Yen has risen like never before so I reckoned it was the perfect time to travel overseas rather than staying in Japan. South Korea was a good choice, since I know a number of people there. And more than that, as opposed to the strengthening Japanese currency, Korean Won dropped like never before. So, South Korea it was. I booked my tickets three months ago for a mere 35,000 Yen.

The most popular option is to travel by tour but considering that there were Samaritans who were willing to "adopt" me during my stay, and that I never like tours, off I went all by myself.
adventure noun
1. an exciting or very unusual experience, normally one where things are very likely to go wrong.
Of course I was very well aware that the language barrier might possibly get me screwed but that's the fun of it, isn't it? I'm glad that I can at least remember the Hangul though. Otherwise, things would be so much worse.

Seoul in 6 Days
The flight from Narita Airport took no more than two hours. At Incheon Airport, while still recovering from the ass cramp after the short ride, I was greeted by a sober immigration officer who scrutinized my passport like a archaeologist examining a piece of artifact. Outside, the weather was even more sober - thick mist and freezing temperature. At as low as -10゜C at this time of the year, Seoul's winter is harsher than Tokyo's. But when you're talking about sub-zero temperatures, you don't feel much difference anyway.

I was supposed to take a limousine bus to Gaebong Station - bus 6004 - where I would meet Adrian. But for some reason, the lady at the ticket booth directed me to the wrong bus. I guess when your workplace is a crampy ticket booth, screwing up stupid tourists can be an entertaining pastime. Luckily, I was cautious enough to confirm with the bus driver before hopping on, so no harm done.

Peeking out of the window during the one-hour bus ride, I couldn't believe the number of churches out there. At one corner of the block, I saw one. Then there was one more at the other corner. And there were plenty more in between. On the other side of the street, you get even more. Each and everyone of them extravagant and was almost swollen to the obscene size of the most modest cathedral. I've always heard that the majority of South Koreans are Christians but I've never expected to see such a sight. I bet there're more churches than hospitals in Seoul. And yes, if you didn't catch it, that was intended to be a sarcasm. Also, you'll surely be surprised to meet those fanatics who openly preach on the trains and by the roads too but I'll come back to that later.

On the bus, the TV was tuned in to the news. The first South Korean cardinal of the Roman Catholic church, Stephen Kim Sou-hwan passed away three days ago on 16 February. Obviously, he was a great man whom the South Korean loved. But I'd better keep to myself my opinions regarding spiritual leaders, however "great" they are claimed to be.

An hour's bus ride - by the end of which gave me another ass cramp - took me to the rendezvous point. I was still feeling dazzled as a stranger in a foreign land. The new environment overwhelmed the senses. People spoke in this foreign language that I couldn't catch; the signboards were written in peculiar combinations of circles and squares. It reminded me of my first days in Japan. And yes indeed, it was that experience which gave me the courage to venture to Seoul alone in the first place.

Adrian showed up ten minutes later and we headed towards his place, a dorm mainly inhabited by Malaysian JPA scholars, which they fondly call "Kampung Malaysia". The room was considerably big for two persons. And here, I discovered perhaps the coolest invention in Korea, the floor-heating system! Every house in South Korea is equipped with one, I was told. Boy, it really kept the room as warm and cozy as an incubator! Compare that to the cryogenic temperatures of my room in winter, thanks to the crappy antique heater.

We had dinner at a nearby restaurant, some dish with boiled kimchi and pork. Needless to say, it lived up to the reputation of spicy Korean food, but compared to Malaysian standard, it still had a long way to go. Then after taking a short break at home, believe it or not, we headed off again to another restaurant, this time for a birthday party. It was a hoff (beer parlor), actually. Something similar to a Japanese izakaya. Here, I met Ruben the birthday boy, an Indian guy from Butterworth.

"So, what brings you here to Seoul?" Ruben greeted me with a firm handshake.

"I thought that's obvious. For your birthday party of course!"

I didn't stay at the party long, though. But instead, left early so that I could make an early start the next day.

Seoul in 6 Days

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안녕하세요! I'm back from Seoul in one piece. No straying beyond the borders as I promised. (In fact, I didn't get to go to the DMZ because of the troublesome red tape for people from commonwealth countries.)

Six full days for Seoul was a tad too much. I thought about heading south towards Gyeongju but that would take more than a few days. So I kept that for another trip and stayed in Seoul throughout the trip. Believe it or not, by the sixth day, I started getting homesick already!

More than a vacation, the trip was a cultural experience that overwhelmed the senses. True, I had no worries about accommodation since Adrian and Wei Guang were kind enough to shelter me during my stay; Xiang Xin was helpful enough to offer me with travel advices; my Korean friends were nice enough to allocate their time to accompany me to several places; and I even got invited to a Korean home for lunch!

But despite that, I basically travelled alone. For a traveller whose Korean vocabulary is limited to words that would get his balls kicked by offended natives, it is a frustration getting yourself understood. It reminds me of my first days in Japan.

There're plenty of things I'd like to share but I just don't know where to start! Guess I'll just do it the lame way - logging my trip from Day 1 to Day 6. But before that, I've got to organize my photos. Be back soon!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Be Back Soon!

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Be back soon!
Done packing my luggage and have learned enough Korean to get myself into a fistfight in the back alleys. So, I'm ready to set off tomorrow morning!

I'd like to write more but I just came home an hour ago and it's 1am now. I'm supposed to wake up 5 hours later and catch the 8.30 train! Oh well, it's my stay there which I'm more concerned about. Things may go wrong, you know, like I could board the wrong train and end up in Pyongyang.

Rest assured though, for I have my helpful guidebook with me, which lists out emergency phrases that could be life-saving. "죽이지 마!" for instance, (which means, "please don't kill me!") may come in handy when you're pointed at with a Swiss knife, or a bayonet, or a gun, or whatever. I'm sure I haven't amassed that much karma to end up in such a bizarre situation, but you can never be sure. The world is full of crazy people nowadays.

And of course, I'll try not to stray beyond the DMZ!

Be back in a week! 行ってきまぁ~す!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

14th of February

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Woohoot, Valentine's Chocolate. One... Two... And three... Muahahaha! Okay, okay, I know that they're giri-choco (義理チョコ, obligatory-gift chocolate) but come on, don't be a wet blanket! It's these little things that brighten up this pathetic guy's day. After all, this year it's another uneventful V-day.

A rather disappointing development unfolded yesterday. But, ah, after what I've gone through two years ago, I have a surprisingly high threshold for disappointments. So, meh! I'm cool.

Slowing down
If there's any lesson that I ought to learn from the failed relationship, it is to take things slowly, one step at a time. Sometimes, you just have to stop and look, instead of rushing ahead blindly.

Unfortunately, that is a lesson I am yet to learn.

Gears of Change

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Our relationship didn't work out. The brakes failed for the second time - both the front and the rear ones. Obviously, she was bent on getting me killed! That happens when sweet love turns sour...

During our short one-and-a-half-year relationship, we went through thick and thin - a punctured tire, a possibly-sabotaged rear brake, a broken front reflector, misaligned gears and a broken mudguard... But finally, this was the last straw.

So, I picked up my broken pieces, and got myself a new bike! A cheap one that cost almost as much as the previous junk, but nevertheless the sexiest lass I've ever set my eyes upon!

Gears of Change
Look at her pretty gears. This was perfect for some macro shots. Sexy, no?

Boy, I'm going to ride her six days a week. What's that grin? You dirty-minded brat!

Switching Gears
While I was ogling her sexy parts, my neighbour walked by. Oops, I hope she didn't mistake me as a bike-0-philic!

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Bluff

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This is a continuation from a post last week, The Three Towers. Picking up from where I left, here's one more photo from Kannai (関内) before I move on to Yamate (山手).

Yokohama: Museum of Cultural History

This is the Yokohama Museum of Cultural History, facing Bashamichi (馬車路). The building was at first Yokohama Specie Bank (now Mitsubishi UFJ). Like most of the buildings in the area, it was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake. In 1967, restoration work was carried out and the place was converted into a museum.

The photo was merged from two shots. If anyone is kind enough to be considering of buying me an early birthday present, I have a suggestion. Get me a full-frame DSLR. Or if you have a tight budget, an ultra-wide lens will do. (Grin)

From Kannai, it was a 20-minute walk in the sea breeze down Yamashita Park (山下公園), and all the way to the hilly Yamate area (山手), which is also known as "the Bluff". It is a genteel residential area mostly for expatriates, and includes the famous Foreigners' Cemetery. Over 4500 people from more than 40 countries are buried here, many among them famous persons who were involved in writing the history of Yokohama, and even that of Japan.

The vicinity is an ideal escapade from the suffocating city life in Tokyo and Yokohama. Instead of skyscrapers and monolithic ferris wheels, it's all about European-styled houses and church spires. I'm sure it's a scene you don't get elsewhere in Japan.

Sunday Excursion
It was a lovely Sunday so, where to, if not the church? This photo above is the Catholic Yamate Church. It's the third reconstruction of the first Catholic church in Japan that opened in Yamashita.

Yamate: Church
This one is the Yokohama Christ Church, with an English-speaking Anglican congregation in Yokohama. Equally magnificent. Rebuilt a couple of times (thanks to a fire and the Kanto earthquake), it is one of the earliest church in the area.

Just in case you're wondering, I'm not converted, for goodness sake. Still an atheist, will be an atheist. (If there's anything, it's rather my growing aggressiveness against blind faith that's unbecoming.) It's simply the beauty of the architecture that I admire. After all, only blind faith alone can drive men into building breathtaking cathedrals of lavish proportions.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Red for Prosperity

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While people were celebrating Chinese New Year, I was buried under an avalanche of reports. I've long finished my reports but it's far from over yet. Exams, gah!

Alright, maybe I can't really say I'm busy because I can still find time for Flickr-ing! Voila, look what I dug out from my pile of rejected Yokohama photos!

Red for Prosperity

This photo was taken at Yokohama's Chinatown (横浜中華街) on Chinese New Year Eve. I still have a couple of photos from Motomachi which are yet to be posted. But this one has to come first. Technically speaking, Chinese New Year isn't over yet so I still made it in time. It's now or never: Happy Chinese New Year!

Photography isn't only about taking photos. Sometimes, some post-processing can save those crappy photos from the recycle bin. This was my first attempt on texturing, so I might have gone overboard with the grungy effects. But I'm quite satisfied with the final results. Have got to get more fresh photos to try this on!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The Hero and the Damsel

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Handsome Guy. Pretty Girl. Guy loves Girl. And Girl loves Guy too. They swear that they're destined to be together. No one will tear them apart.

Oh well, with an exception, though - the neighbourhood gangster boss. Big Boss wants to make Girl his mistress. Pays her family money and snatches Girl away from Guy. Guy tries to stop Big Boss but is beaten into pulp by the minions. Girl watches Guy with a sad forlorn-puppy look as she is taken away. Guy swears to get her back.

Guy sells his underwear. No, not enough. He sells his fowls too. With the money, he gets a Colt .44 magnum and confronted Big Boss.

Curses. Fist fights. Yells. Testosterones. Bang! Bang! More curses, more gun shots. Angry Guy kills Big Boss. Minions scatter, tail between legs. Guy reunites with Girl. Girl cries, hugs Guy.

Love talk. Singing. Dancing. The scene suddenly changes into a garden. More singing. More dancing among the flowers. Fantastic. They are really destined to be together. To sing and dance in the fields and live a happy life ever after.

Sounds like your familiar Hindustani films, no? Gritty bandits, lavish romantic musicals, good-looking actors and actresses bad for your blood pressure. That's the staple of every Hidustani films, it seems.

When I was a little kid, I was looked after by a babysitter. Every Friday after doing the chores in the afternoon, she would switch on the TV and voila, a Bollywood movie would be on air. That would be around three in the afternoon, when almost no one watched the TV. Those who were working were working, those who were not working were probably taking an afternoon nap.

Now, the Chinese lady who babysat me doesn't speak Hindhi. It was the singing and dancing that she enjoyed. I, too, don't understand Hindhi. But unlike her, I wasn't into the musicals. And as a kid, I didn't bother about the sexy actresses either. I'd just sit there and wait patiently...

Watching a movie that you don't understand is like listening to a lecture that you don't comprehend - eventually, you doze off. That was the moment I'd wait for. Then I'd switch channels, to the cartoons! (Grin)

So, you see, a large part of my childhood involved Hindustani movies, although I never learned enough Hindhi to swoop Aishwarya off her feet, or to curse an angry Indian bandit. As a kid, I was led to believe that everyone in India was either a handsome chum, or a pretty lass; was either an impoverished peasant who survived on dhal day and night, or a trigger-happy bandit with adrenaline leaking out from his ears.

When I watched Slumdog Millionaire last night, it brought me back to my childhood days, those Friday evenings of Hindustani movies. No spoilers here, but suffice to say, it fit all the criteria for a Bollywood movie. Except that the actor was a nerd. But all in all, the British producer did a good job in giving the movie a Bollywood touch.

The movie ended with a kissing scene between Jamal and Latika, no dancing throughout the movie! I was cursing the British producer for being so careless, when the movie came to the closing credits, and guess what, dancing!

Ah, now that left me with a sense of satisfaction!

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Narcissism Strikes

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Narcissism strikes - again. I can't believe I'm posting this on Flickr, and now, on my blog as well...

This morning before setting off for the library to study, I suddenly felt like taking a shot of myself. My previous self-portrait was kind of crappy so I needed something more, erm, decent. Besides, I haven't got many chances to try out my Canon EF 50mm F1.4. What could be a better subject, if not, me?

I managed to hastily make out some space in my crammed room, set up the camera and shot away. I have no idea how much time I spent on this; I don't want to know. But anyways, this is the final result, after some post-processing on Photoshop CS3.

Narcissism Strikes!
Even at an aperture of F2.8, the lens did a good job of blurring out the background. It was just a white wallpaper anyway. Still, I had to remove a partial shadow cast by the bookshelf nearby. Things would be so much better if I could dedicate part of the room for photo shooting. But unfortunately, that is not the case - I'm a poor ryuugakusei, mind you.

  • Duplicated the background layer and added 'gaussian blur'
  • Removed the partial shadow cast by the bookshelf
  • Increased 'brightness' level
  • Increased 'saturation' (reds) to slightly make the photo look warmer
  • Applied 'vignetting' to brighten the background