Again in Seoul

Gwanghwamun

My favorite time to write is while on public transportation, be it on an airplane or a train. Here I am, sitting on a plane from Detroit to Salt Lake City on my way home from a quick getaway to Seoul, South Korea. And a quick getaway it sure was. I left Montana on Tuesday morning and returning today, which is Friday. That gave me a full day in Seoul. Sure, that’s not much to see the city but the whole purpose of this trip was a chance to fly the upper cabin of the Delta Boeing 747 one more time before it retires at the end of the year (United will be retiring theirs as well soon). And I also had been to Seoul before (see my previous blog post: A Stroll in Seoul), so one could say this is a continuation of my previous trip as I focused on sights that were new to me. Seoul is a fascinating and vibrant city where people are quick to smile and a dollar goes  long way (it’s still only about $4 for a one way train ticket from Incheon airport to the city and a 2 liter bottle of water will cost you less than a dollar). I confess that I didn’t go out seeking photograph opportunity on this trip, I was just happy to be there. Well, it’s not that photographic opportunities do not abound, it’s more like the light was just not the best. A sunny day will give you strong light with harsh shadows and a sunny day is what I go (but who am I to complain), so perhaps once home, as I start cataloging these new photos, I will work on some black and whites as that gives more justice to harsh lighting conditions.

I like to walk and this trip was no different than many others where I consumed the bottom of my shoes. I arrived on Wednesday night after a 13 hours flight from Detroit (and 2 other flights before that) and after dropping my small backpack at the hostel I booked by Hongik University for a whopping $16/night (breakfast included), on a direct train line from the airport, I went to explore the neighborhood and find something to eat. I really like that area, Hongik University has a fun, multicultural, night life and it’s brim with cheap restaurants, coffee shops and beer houses. I will most likely stay there again.

Namdaemun Market

The next morning I took the subway to Namdaemun Market. One could find all sort of things here, it reminded me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. There’s an above ground section, that spans across a large area and multiple small alleys, as well an underground claustrophobic as well as rich of all sort of merchandise section. I truly enjoyed both as I walked around taking pictures and GoPro video while being greeted by the smiles of many merchants.
I wasn’t there to buy stuff (although there’s so much I would buy) but I love this city, and I think they could tell.

Library and City Hall

In one of the small alleys I found several restaurants displaying a variety of locals dishes and tantalizing smells. Letting a gracious lady lure me inside one of them I try a typical Korean dish which was still new to me:  Bibimbap (literally: Mixed rice. It’s served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables chili pepper paste and soy sauce). I loved every bite, as it contained several flavors that perfectly married each other. I liked it so much that on my flight from Incheon to Detroit I had it again as it was one of the meal options.

Satisfied with my lunch choice I, once again, took the road to walk toward the City Hall. This is a gorgeous modern glass building that sits just across the Deoksugung temple area which I had visited on my previous trip (see past blog post: A Stroll in Seoul). I would recommend spending time in this area to anyone interested in travel and architectural photography. The harmony of the lines in those buildings just make for some great shots. Walking down this large avenue I arrived at my destination, the Gwanghwamun Gate and temple complex. I shared some of the sights with a young woman from Holland (originally from Syria) whose name is Arua, if memory serves me correctly. As we took each other’s pictures we talked a bit about world events. Of course we touched a bit on the topic of Syria, and she made me realize how hard it is for people who only have the Syrian passport to travel anywhere as most countries will not accept that passport for entry. It is sad that a whole people can be discriminated based on their nationality. I have not met a whole lot of Syrians but those I met where beautiful people with a quick smile, a sense of humor and a will to share what they have with other cultures. I hope they will find peace soon.

Hongik University area at night

After another walk to the subway station I took a train to the National Museum of Korea. Those who are museum lovers will find thousands of artifacts to entertain them for the whole day; those who are not will still rejoice from the gorgeous setting and building, the many collections inside that are worth at least a quick browsing, and the fact that admission is free.

After this I went back to Hongik University area to relax and grab some dinner. The next morning I had a 6am alarm clock to get me to the airport in time for my 10am flight.

Seoul has so much more to offer, but I’m truly intrigued by the beautiful sights advertised in posters around the subway stations. With mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes, as well as gorgeous foliage colors, it seems that South Korea will be calling my name sooner rather than later.

City view from the National Museum of Korea
Bibimbap

 

 

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South East Asia Part 1: Vietnam

hkg1
Hong Kong by night

If there is one place capable of capturing the collective imagination with visions of fabled treasures, unexplored jungle, ancient rituals and mysterious cultures the Angkor temple complex is certainly it. It is the lifetime dream of the traveling photographer, on par with Easter Island and Machu Picchu.

Flying over the jungle for a while with views of lakes and river and lush landscape, I stretch my neck left and right trying to catch a glimpse of Angkor Wat but our route does not take us in its proximity. The landing at Siem Reap airport is smooth and right on time. While our Cambodia Angkor Air Airbus taxis to the terminal my excitement grows, as images of stone faces and jungle covered ruins plays in my mind.
I have been traveling with my friend Michelle for a while now, and we have recently met some other friends from Wyoming down in Sihanoukville (where we just flew from). Together we hop on the Tuk Tuk that is waiting outside of the terminal to take us to our guesthouse: the Seven Candles.
I want to spend a few words on this place in case you, dear reader, end up in Siem Reap a day or another. Seven Candles (http://www.sevencandlesguesthouse.com/) is more than a guesthouse, it’s a school for rural children and part of the profits go to the education of these children. Please take a moment to read about the foundation: http://www.sevencandlesguesthouse.com/#!our-foundation.
Lori Carlson, a transplant from Austin, Texas manages the guesthouse. She has a quick smile and many helpful tips, which contributed to making our stay more enjoyable,

Way up to the Big BuddhaOur trip began in Tokyo, with a 26 hours stopover to show my friend Michelle around the city since this was her first time, and continued to Hong Kong were three days were just enough for a visit to the Po Lin monastery, a few museums, catch up with old friends and have dinner at my favorite Nepalese restaurant. From there we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (the old Saigon) in Vietnam for a quick tour of the city. We arrived at midnight and a short taxi ride took us to the hotel in the city center. Asian hospitality never ceases to amaze me: not only was the location of our hotel convenient, but our room was large, modern, had a huge bathroom window overlooking the city and the hotel had a beautiful rooftop restaurant/bar where we could enjoy a delightful meal and drinks for just a few dollars. The staff was, of course, very friendly and helpful too.
The following morning’s rain did not stop us from enjoying the city. We took a rickshaw to visit the local market (similar to a bazaar) which was overfilled with trinkets and souvenirs that made me wish I had any room in my small backpack, the only luggage I dragged. When the rain finally stopped and a bit of sun came out, we walked to the War Remnants Museum. The visit was somber, the museum was full of people but hardly any word was spoken, as the many photographs on the wall grabbed everyone’s attention. I had a sense of déjà vu, projecting myself in the Atom bomb museum I had visited in Hiroshima years before. It’s incredible to see the kind of atrocity people are willing to commit in the name of some temporary political ideology, but it’s good that we have places like this that can remind us of the past and push us to be better people to ourselves and those around us. Taking photographs is allowed in most parts of the museum, but I limited myself to a few shots of machinery in the front yard.hkg3

The good mood returned in the evening with a walk in the business district, watching and avoiding the movement of thousands of scooters, which was quite an adventure in itself. If I were asked what are the three most difficult things I have done in my life, I would say that crossing a street in Vietnam was definitely one of them. We concluded the evening with a visit of the Saigon Skydeck. Located on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, at a height of 178 meters, we enjoyed a night view of the city and its myriad of lights from above. A lengthy walk home and a pleasant dinner on the roof was all that was left for the day, the following morning was going to be spent for the most part on a bus to the capital of Cambodia: Phnom Penh.

Ho Chi Minh City from the rooftop restaurant

Japan Day 8 – Osaka

Canon EOS 30D + Canon 24-105 IS L f/4 1/6" ISO800

Our Shinkansen arrived in Shin-Osaka, the major train station, perfectly on time perfectly on time at 12:05pm. At the gates my friend Chakie was waiting for us and regardless of not having seen each other for eight years she spotted me from afar and threw herself in a warm embrace of Japanese exuberance which is typically reserved to very close friends. Chakie had worked at the Japan Pavilion in EPCOT at Walt Disney World while I worked at the Italy Pavilion, we were friends and neighbors for over a year. She is an excellent cook and often cooked at my place, and she gave me Japanese grammar and culture lessons. Our previous reunion had been in  Hawaii, while I lived in Honolulu. It always feels so good to see old friends, and with this kind of life true friendships are not measured on how often you see each other in a week. I often go many years without seeing some of my closest friends, and Chakie is one of them, but when we see each other it feels as if time had stopped and waited for us to get together again. But time doesn’t really stop, does it? One day you’re 25, you blink and 13 years have gone by, and here we are, old friends hugging each other again with a river of memories and emotions that flows between us without the need to say a word. Chakie took 3 days off work in order to show us around, there’s nothing like having a personal local guide.

Ginsekai
Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower

Osaka is the third largest city in Japan and, like Tokyo, it shows a strong urban development although differences between the two cities are quite obvious. Many people say night life in Osaka has nothing to envy to the one in the capital and it even surpasses it. I like both cities, there’s enough variety, and the city geographical placement makes it a perfect base for day trips. This fact was so striking that we made our mind to spend several nights here, instead of just one as originally planned. As our usual we didn’t have reservations and after running out of ideas from our Lonely Planet guide we stopped at the station’s visitors center and they made several phone calls until we found one with available rooms and affordable for our budget. Neither Lindsey and I care for luxury or amenities when it comes to lodging; our priorities are the location and the chance to meet other travelers, so we keep our budget pretty low (if I have to chose between one week in a nice hotel for $1500 and one week in a hostel for $300 + a $1,700 lens for my camera I’ll always choose the second option).

Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower

We walked the short distance to the Shin-Osaka International Youth Hostel and took the elevator to the 10th floor of a modern and aesthetically pleasing hammer-shaped building. The wide reception area combines a library corner and a smaller computer area with free Wi-Fi available; it looked clean, friendly and comfortable. Definitely the nicest looking hostel I had seen to date. The library offers books of narrative, manga and a wide section of travel books and brochures to help plan other destinations and is furnished with tables and chairs as well as couches and a large screen TV. Free coffee and tea service is offered in the evening. Most of the bedrooms (private with tatami and dorm style with western style beds) are located on the ninth floor and the hostel, other than regular showers, also offers two Onsen (common hot bath): one for men and one for women.

We liked this place so much that adding one night at a time we ended up using it for four nights. Finished with the check-in papers and dropped our luggage Chakie took us for a tour of the city. We visited a pretty garden adorned with waterfalls and statues (and Mr. Kawamura’s statue, a personal hero of mine, to Chakie’s amusement) and from there walked to the area known as Shinsekai, located in Naniwa-ku. I usually describe parts of towns as beautiful, clean, noisy, etc. but for Shinsekai all I could think of was “comical.” It’s a district unlike any other I’ve seen, be it for its shops, restaurants and people which have something amusing going for themselves. It’s hard to explain, it has to be seen. Shinsekai is an amusement district dating from prewar days and many compare it to Asakusa in Tokyo. Having stayed in Asakusa I failed to see the similarities. The major attractions here are the Tenoji Zoo and Park, which we briefly visited; a huge hot spring water park called “SPA World” (I promisedmyself on the next visit to Osaka I will spend a day there); the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, and the Tsutenkaku Tower. This structure was built in 1956 in lieu of the original Tsutenkaku Tower, built in 1912 and dismantled in 1943 to provide iron for the war. The original tower looked part Eiffel Tower, part Arc de Triomphe.

Preparing Taco Yaki

After our visit to Shinsekai Chakie took us to a different part of the city for dinner. The advantage of going out with a local person (particularly in a country with different culture and language) is that one experiences things that normally tourists don’t experience, and so Chakie took us to eat at a Taco Yaki, literally a “octopus bake.” In this type of restaurant every table has four griddles where, once decided what to order, waiters will drop the ingredients (we ordered octopus, shrimps, shallots, cheese, and other things and used all four griddles) mixed in a semi-liquid flour based batter. Once the griddles are hot we scraped the food off and pushed it in the rows of “semi-spheres” and once the food is cooked the half-balls obtained are turned around so that the other side is cooked and the result is a ball of food with octopus or whatever ingredients were used. Taco Yaki was as good as entertaining… and hot. In the photos you can see the preparation as well as Chakie and Lindsey burning their tongues.

Atsui desu-ne

The dinner was so good and filling that a digestive walk became necessary and we strolled around the streets of Osaka lit up like Christmas with a million neon lights.  Chakie took us on a Ferris Wheel built on top of a building from which we could get a majestic view of the city by night. The view was truly breathless and here I could finally test my new lens, the Canon EF 24-105 L IS. Regardless of not being a bright lens with a continuous f/4 stop, the advanced Image Stabilizer built in this lens allowed me to take some pretty sharp night shots with the EOS 30D in available light only while the Ferris Wheel moved. I am sure of the fact that had not been for this lens I would have lost at least half of the photos taken during this trip. Plus, it’s the perfect companion for the photographer seeking to travel light.

Canon EOS 30D + Canon 24-105 IS L f/4 1/5" ISO800

We made plans for the next day: Chakie said she wanted us to see a place called Koya-San, an ancient cemetery. I wasn’t really thinking about visiting a cemetery on this trip, but this is the kind of unplanned things that we like to experience. It’s a bit out of the way, with a train + cable car + bus ride but Chakie is adamant that we must see it. We trust the locals.
Back at the hostel Lindsey went to bed and I was up in the library until around 1am typing on my laptop when, suddenly, I felt a vibration and saw the tower next to ours flexing left and right. I felt three brief earthquake jolts. An old lady, watching TV next to me, seemed alarmed for a second but the feeling was quickly replaced by curiosity as she switched channels to see if there were any reports. The next morning I learned the epicenter was right under Osaka and it measure 1 degree on the Richter scale. Lindsey never noticed. To me, it felt as if Japan was saying welcome.