Tuesday, 31 March 2009


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The Budding Chef: Makizushi 巻き寿司

It's my honour to announce that I was featured on Kim's blog! But seriously, being dubbed "the chef of the day" was an overstatement. Now I feel the pressure to live up to the fame.

The day after the party at Kim's new home, I made myself more makizushi, not because of any hangover, not to brush up my sushi-rolling skill. I just wanted to take this shot!

With two cups of rice, I ended up with four rolls of sushi, which was just enough to feed me for two meals. No nigirizushi this time. Can't afford having shrimps everyday!

Monday, 30 March 2009

"Wednesday" Evening

| 3 persons flung their shoes
Ready to Spring
The sakura's are all ready for spring. It won't be long before they all spring to full blossom.

Pardon me for being clichéd , but there's only one way of saying this: time flies! Come spring, it'll be my fourth year in Japan. Which means at least two more years here. Chances are, I'll be here for many years to come but by the time I finish my undergraduate studies, I'd be 25. Presuming 75 is the average lifespan, I'll have spent one third of my life.

50 years is a long way to go, you say, eh? Well, think again.

Have you ever felt how time speeds up after Wednesday? Monday always seems like a long way till the weekend. Having five consecutive days of work or school ahead of you isn't much of a welcoming thought. But the least you can do is to indulge yourself in making the weekend plans, the sole source where motivation can be derived from.

But once you make it through Wednesday, it'd be the weekend before long.

Now, using that as an analogy, by the time you reach 25, it's "Wednesday" evening. And thereof, it takes only a blink before the weekend comes.

Weekends are cool, of course. Late Friday night, lazy Saturday morning, and the much-anticipated Sunday outing...

Well, you can always look forward to your Sunday outing, but you can never tell whether if it's going to rain just to screw up your plans.

This is really no pessimism. It's just a realistic view on life.

Oh well, I guess this is what they call midlife crisis.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Three's Company

| 4 persons flung their shoes
I told them we couldn't all fit into the bathroom but they just wouldn't listen!

Three's Company: Me, Me, and Me
Lately, I've been wondering how far a photographer should go in post-processing. While a purist would wag his finger at edited photos, I think the photographer ought to be given the freedom to decide his way of conveying the message. Photography is all about creativity of expression after all, so why follow the conventional rules?

Having convinced myself of that, I hastily set off to make the first composite photo of my own.

The theme: Me, me and me.

The conventional strict-purist approach to achieving the effect is to take a shot of multiple exposures. But, being deprived of the necessary props, I had to settle for a simpler technique. I took three separate shots and merged them into one using mask layer in Photoshop. Then the colours were tweaked to achieve a dreamy effect.

It would have turned out better if I filled up the bathtub, shampoo-ed the hair, and got a rubber ducky. But it was just so chilly in the bathroom that it didn't cross my mind. Besides, I was too impatient to process the shots and see the result. I'm glad to say it turn out well!

Now, it's time to make some space in the room and try another theme!

Original Sin

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Being a superhero is not only about fighting super villains and saving the world. Me, for instance, pose for the camera in my free time.

This is not a composite; it's telekinesis. All you need is patience, patience. It works if you stare at the apple long enough. After all, "Rules are meant to be broken," they say. So does the law of gravity.

No, I'm not joking... Well, at least not about the photo not being a composite. Now, this is what I really did. Prep the camera, toss the apple and press the remote. Simple as that. All it takes is timing and practice. This technique was inspired by Rebekka's ingenious shot of the floating apple,

I had a tough time deciding whether to make this into a biblical them or a Deathnote theme, but went for the former since it's more widely known than the latter. A friend, though, suggested that I should have gone naked to better fit the theme...


Also: See non-captioned version

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

South Korea - Land of the Morning Calm

| 1 persons flung their shoes
I have no idea what I've been doing these past few days. It's the holidays for goodness sake but I haven't done anything meaningful. I promised myself I'd write one post a day about my trip to Seoul but it's a promise I can't keep to myself. I intended to write this one after I finished till Day 6 of the trip but I guess I'll do it now instead.

I've edited four photos I took in South Korea into wallpapers (1200 x 800 pixels). My personal favourite is the fourth one, taken in Suwon. Taking the photo from a guard outpost opposite the north gate, the roof and the wall provided a perfect framing for the shot.

South Korea Wallpaper #1
Jangseung 장승; 長承
This is a Korean totem pole, usually placed at the edges of villages to ward off evil spirits. In the olden days, Koreans used to practise shamanism that was influenced by Buddhism and Taoism from China. (Taken on Day #2, at Namiseom.)

South Korea Wallpaper #2
Namsangol Hanok Village 남산골한옥마을
The interior of a traditional Korean house. (Taken on Day #4, at Namsangol)

South Korea Wallpaper #3
Red and Green 단청; 丹靑
This pavilion is located at a busy junction in downtown Seoul. The contrasting colours of green and red were especially vibrant under the light up.

The word 단청 literally means "red and green". For a list of the names of different shades of red, please refer to Korean Language Notes. (Taken on Day #5, in downtown Seoul)

South Korea Wallpaper #4
Hwaseong, Suwon 수원화성; 水原華城
When I checked the map in front of the Suwon station, I thought Hwaseong was close enough for me to go on foot without getting lost. But I took one wrong turn and it took me 30 minutes before I realized I was heading towards the wrong direction. Tracing my steps back, I finally found my way though; it took me one hour.

Suwon is about one hour from central Seoul. The fortress, Hwaseong is definitely a must-see spot. Built by King Jeongjo to guard his father's tomb, the walls surrounded the city of Suwon. The place is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This gate (Janganmun), located in the north, and the other one (Paldalmun ) in the south are the largest of the four gates. They resemble Namdaemun in Seoul, which unfortunately has been wrapped under vinyl sheet since the arson incident. (Taken on Day #6, at Hwaseong)

Friday, 6 March 2009

Day #4 - A Cultural Evening

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

23 February 2009, Monday
Every year on the third Thursday of November, Korean high school graduates sit for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). This is probably the most important national event. Work starts later than usual so that office workers going to work don't cause any traffic jams. Policemen are mobilized to control the traffic, and sometimes, even to send candidates to school on time. To a foreigner who is not well-informed, it might easily be mistaken as a state of emergency. It was hard for me to imagine it until I saw it on the TV. (Yes, it's always reported on the Japanese news as well.)

I can never understand why the Koreans put so much emphasis on academic results. They treat CSAT almost like the civil exam in ancient China. It's aptly called "examination hell". Children as young as primary school students are sent to cram schools to prepare for the university entrance exam. It's a pity Korean children don't get to enjoy their childhood. When I commented to Cholong about that, she replied in a nonchalant way, "True, but you can always enjoy later in your life."


The ultimate goal is to enter a high-ranking university, especially the Seoul National University.

This is the gate to the Seoul National University. Its entrance is adorned with a triangular gate and a peculiar tower in the shape of a key.

The place isn't exactly a sightseeing spot. I just went there so that I can say this, "I've been to the Seoul University!" Oh, and also, this was where I had the cheapest meal in Seoul, 2500 Won. Now that's merely just enough to buy a bottle of water in Japan.

Other than that, there's seriously nothing to boast about. Now, moving on.

My next stop was Yeouido (여의도; 汝矣島), a large island at the Han River. The island got its name from "useless land", and true enough, there wasn't much to see either. There's the National Assembly Building, but there was some construction work going on nearby so the area was in a mess. I headed towards the river bank, hoping to take a good snap on the cityscape on the opposite side but the weather wasn't good enough for taking photographs. Besides, the place was in a forlorn state, thanks to (more) construction work.

Maybe I went on a wrong day but I have to say that Yeouido is no match for Odaiba back in Tokyo.

I left the island, disappointed; not at all pleased with the unfruitful morning excursion. But fortunately, my next destination was a more satisfactory one.

Five minutes' walk from exit 4 of Chungmuro station is the Namsangol Hanok Village (남산골한옥마을; 南山골韓屋마을). Hanok, means "traditional Korean house". Visitors get to see the living conditions of people from different statuses. Some of these houses were moved from their original locations; some meticulously restored. It's interesting how you could tell the house of a commoner from that of a rich family, just by looking at the number and the size of the kimchi urns kept in the yard.

Korean Lanterns 청사초롱
One of the houses belonged to Empress Sunjeong. Being a follower of Confucianism, she lived a modest life. Her rooms have windows smaller than the usual ones, so that less firewood would be needed to warm the room during winter.

Empress Sunjeong was the last empress of the Joseon Dynasty. She was demoted in 1910 during the Japan-Korea annexation. Then, when Emperor Yunghui died without issue in 1926, the Korean monarch came to an end.

Tracing my steps back to the station, I found my way to Korea House, a famous place for traditional arts performance. I'm not usually a patron of arts, but I thought no trip to a foreign country would be complete without learning about its people and culture. Besides, I had extra cash to spend! That morning, I exchanged another 12,000 Yen for 190,000 Won. No commission charged. Now, compare that to the 13,000 Yen I spent for 150,000 Won when I bought the currency in Tokyo a month back. You've got to love the exchange rate! Anyway, 30,000 Won for the ticket was reasonable.

The program consisted of eight performances. My personal favourite being the Nongak Nori (farmer's music), where the performers wearing long-ribboned hats swing their heads as if they were high on drugs. Also, there was the lively drum performance called Samgo-mu, whose improvised version I saw in the Nanta performance two days ago. Buchaechum (fan dance) was another interesting performance, with beautiful girls and vibrant colours. The creepiest one was the Salpuri Dance, which originated from a shaman dance for exorcism.

Before calling it a day that night, I made a last stop at Namdaemun (남대문; 南大門). Remember the incident where an old man set fire to the historical structure? This is it. Too bad restoration was yet to be done. The burnt structure was still wrapped under vinyl sheet as if to cover the forlorn sight from the public.

There is, however, another attraction in the vicinity, the 24-hour Namdaemun Market. It is somewhat similar to Lorong Kulit in Penang, or Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, where cheap goods can be found, provided that you know how to bargain.

Earlier this year, tourist information booths were set up in the market. The effort of the government to woo tourists should indeed be lauded but perhaps they should start by cleaning up the mess in front of the booth!

Day #3 - A Sip of Soju

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

22 February 2009, Sunday
Artie has got loads of HDR photos on the cathedrals in Australia. Whether or not spending obscene amounts of money building monstrous relics is justified, I'm awed by their magnificence nevertheless. Which is why, I've always wanted to visit one myself.

The first brick church to be built in Korea in 1898 is situated in Myeong-dong. Since it was a Sunday, I thought it would be befitting to visit the Myeong-dong Cathedral and check out the Gothic architecture.

But before that, I dropped by at Deoksugung, since it would be Monday the next day and most palaces and museums are closed. It wasn't difficult to find my way to the palace because during the stroll with Cholong on Friday, we dropped by at the gates of the palace. But it was past opening hours then.

There are five palaces in Seoul, with Deoksugung being one of the smaller ones. Actually, it wasn't until the Japanese invasion in 1592, when all palaces in Seoul (then Hanyang) were burned down, that Deoksugung was used as a temporary palace.

Just like Gyeongbukgung, royal guards took their posts in front of the gate. I almost could not hold back my laughter when I saw this big guy here with his comical angry look.

"Bad boy, Daddy's gonna give you a good spank!"

The palace is very much smaller than Gyeongbukgung. After all, before the place was converted into a palace, it was but the residence of King Seongjong's elder brother.

This building here, named Junghwajeon, is the main hall of the palace, where Emperor Gojong conducted official meetings and state affairs. The stone slabs indicate the spots where the officers stood.

I tried looking for a tour guide to tag along with, but there weren't many tourists around. Perhaps due to its relatively small scale, Deoksugung is not as popular as the other four palaces in Seoul. But I did meet a Japanese woman in her thirties. She was looking around for someone to help her take a photo.

"Excuse me, are you a Japanese?" she came up to me.

"Uh, not really." I'm sure she caught a glimpse at the Japanese guidebook I stuffed into the pocket of my backpack, because I don't remember wearing a "Nippon Ichiban" T-shirt that day.

It took me less than two hours to walk around the place, including a quick stop at the art gallery in the palace. I had lunch at a random restaurant I could find in the vicinity, and headed towards Myeong-dong.

According to the guidebook, Myeong-dong is "the most popular shopping area in the country". For those who've been to Tokyo, it's suffice to say that the place is akin to Shibuya or Harajuku, the kind of place where teenagers like to hang out at. Fashion stores, noraebang (karaoke box), restaurants, cinemas...

Heaven or Hell
One thing's different, though. Here, you get preachers on the streets. This lady, for instance, was holding a Bible and singing some hymns in Korean, Japanese, English and Chinese. Next to her, was a signboard which openly bore, "Lord Jesus heaven, no Jesus hell".

Oh, I wish she's wrong. Because otherwise, I'll be going to hell...

Squeezing my way through the crowd, I eventually came to the Myeong-dong Cathedral but gosh there were plenty of people. It turned out that they were having a mass for late Kim Sou-hwan, the South Korean cardinal who just passed away.

Oh well, that totally foiled my plan to take a peep inside the cathedral. Besides, the weather was bad so I couldn't take a decent shot at the building either. Just check out their official website if you're interested.

At three, I headed south from Myeong-dong to Coex Mall in Samseung, where I was supposed to meet Mirye an hour later. She's one of the two Korean girls I met during the trip to Hiroshima last summer. The other one lives in Ulsan, far on the southern tip of the peninsula, so I didn't have the chance to meet her this time.

I don't understand why they included this place in the guidebook but there wasn't much to see at Coex Mall. It was, well, just a mall. But, despite the disappointment, at least I got to meet my friend.

With her was a senior from her university. He scribbled his name in hangul for me. But when he was about to write his surname "Chwi" in hanja (Chinese character), he squinted his eyes and tilted his head, trying to recall the strokes. In the end, he wrote it as a "?" instead.

"Ahh!" he sighed in frustration.

Chwi spoke little English. "Short-short, okay," he said with an apologetic look. Meaning, he understood only short sentences. That being said, he indiscriminatingly doubled the words in a desperate attempt to lengthen his sentences. "Very-very good"... "Okay-okay"... Most of the time, Mirye acted as our interpretor, busily translating between Korean and Japanese with the occasional help from her electronic dictionary.

"So, anything in particular that you want to see?" Mirye asked after dinner.

"Hmm, I'd like to try some soju," I said.

And so, off we went to Yeungdeungpo (영등포, 永登浦) in search for some soju.

Korean Wine 소주; 燒酒
Soju is as cheap as 1 liter of Coca Cola in Japan. It is after all a popular beverage in Korea. Surprisingly, Korean wine did not taste as strong as Japanese sake. In fact, it tasted slightly sweet; sugar is added during the wine-making process.

Being a weak drinker, I took care not to over-drink. Despite that, Adrian was quick to notice the soju smell when I got home that night.

"You smell like those Korean salary men on late trains. Soju?"

I grinned.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Day #2 - Korean Wave

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

21 February 2009, Saturday
I'm not a big fan of Korean drama. The only one I've ever watched is a 2005 drama with a peculiar title, "I'm Sorry I Love You (미안하다 사랑한다)". Surprisingly, I haven't watched Winter Sonata (겨울연가), which I believe is the most popular Korean drama. When the Korean wave hit the shores of Malaysia about six years back, every one was talking about it. Since then, there has been an onslaught of Korea dramas.

Like all its neighbouring countries, Japan, too, wasn't spared from the wave. In fact, Bae Yong Joon, the actor who starred in Winter Sonata immediately became so popular that he has his own cult of followers among the Japanese obasan's. He's elevated to the honorific status of "Yong-sama", and the filming location of the drama, Namiseom (남이섬; 南怡섬), became a pilgrimage site for Yong-sama's fans who visit Seoul.

Since my stay in Seoul was considerably long, Xiang Xing suggested that I made a day trip to the "holy land". Trusting my travel adviser's judgment, I set off to the island.

Seoul Metro
It's easier to get to the island by tour bus than by train. But since I only planned my trip the night before, it was too late to make any arrangements for that. So, train it was. Once you've gotten used to the complicated transportation system in Japan, travelling in Seoul wouldn't be much of a problem.

Here's some interesting facts about the Korean train system.
  1. Never sit down on the priority seat, whether there're old people around or not. You'll get angry stares from the other passengers, or even possibly, be reprimanded by someone.
  2. You can often see peddlers and preachers in the train, even though it is illegal. I met an old man who talked for five minutes in the train, trying to sell some book on Korean proverbs for 1000 Won.
  3. Station masters only appear on the platforms in rush hours. The rest of the time, they stay in the office. That explains why lost passengers have to ask for directions from strangers.
  4. Unlike in Japan, it is okay to talk on the phone during a train ride.
  5. Using a rechargeable card called T-money, you can transit for free between buses and trains.
While on a one-hour ride to Gapyeong (가평) from Cheongnyangni (쳥량리), I befriended a group of rowdy secondary school kids. The seats were all sold out so we had to cram at the part of the train by the doors. I was sitting on the stairs, shivering as the chilly wind sneaked in from the gaps at the doors.

"You like chicken or pizza?" one of them asked.

"He's a chicken house owner," another one pointed at his friend.

"He's my uncle."

I had no idea what they were talking about but I just entertained myself by talking cock too, in broken English.

Soon, the train came to a brief stop at Gapyeong, where I got off, while the gang continued their ride to Chuncheon.

"Sayounara!" they waved goodbye.

Gapyeong was short of road signs so I had problem finding the bus stop. Instead, I had to take a taxi to get to the ferry wharf. Though relatively cheap compared to Japan, it almost cost me a whopping 4000 Won.

Now, this may sound funny but Namiseom (나미섬, 'seom' by the way, means 'island') is an imaginary republic. They call it Naminara Republic (나미나라공화국). Normally, the "visa" for entering the island would cost 8000 Won, but for a limited period, it's 6000 Won. Still, my timing was a little bad because had I gone there a week later, it would be free for foreign visitors.

At the entrance of the island right after getting off the ferry was a curious chunk of ice, in front of which visitors snapped photos. I never found out about the significance of that artifact.

As expected, there wasn't much to see here in winter. Only bare trees and dried grass.

It was a surprise to see more Koreans than foreign tourists on the island. I expected throngs of Yong-sama's obasan fans. But no, most of them were Korean couples taking a romantic weekend escapade.

Namiseom (나미섬)
This lane lined up by red wood trees is one of the main film spots for Winter Sonata. Somehow, the atmosphere tugs on the heart strings. Strolling around the place aimlessly, I fantasized about stumbling upon my "fateful person". Damn, I knew Korean dramas poison the mind! After circling the island twice, I eventually gave up on the naive thought and decided to head back to central Seoul to spend the rest of the evening.

I had no particular plan in mind, so on the way back, I flipped through my guidebook, searching for somewhere to visit. Then I read about this performance which started in 1997 called Nanta (Cookin').

Nanta: Making Music with Pots and Pans
Nanta is a lively performance in which the performers creatively turn their kitchen items - pots, cooking pans, knives, chopping boards, brooms - into percussions. The story revolves around four cooks and a bad-tempered restaurant manager. One day, the restaurant receives an order to prepare a wedding banquet. The cooks are required to prepare ten dishes for the banquet in one hour, alongside the manager's nephew, who is basically just an annoying brat. Soon, the kitchen is thrown into a turmoil as the cooks rush to meet the deadline.

The group has gone to 27 countries in their world tour and I remember seeing them in Penang years ago. Not only was the performance energetic and comical, the way the performers cleverly involved the audience in the play made it even more entertaining. The 50,000 Won ticket was slightly pricey but the fun experience was totally worth the money.

Hmph, if only my mom hadn't forbidden me to play with my forks and spoons...