A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nintendon't in South Korea


Nintendo is the most famous name in gaming and one of the most famous companies world-wide, but here in Korea, even it finds it hard to break through to mass success.

This is probably because like all other console manufacturers, they just don't move a Korean audience.  Koreans are PC gamers.  PC Bongs (Rooms) dot every city and it costs barely anything for teenage boys to go to one and spend a couple hours between class, away from mom and dad's watchful eyes, playing League of Legends with their friends.  In this way, games in Korea are not only things to do, but places to go.  They aren't just a pass time, like television.  They are an event, like arcades and movie theaters.  Games are even broadcast on TV and professional gaming is a legitimate form of competition, especially when it comes to titles like League of Legions, Starcraft, and Sudden Attack.

There's not a lot of room for console developers to move in such a PC-centric environment.  But that doesn't seem to stop a company like Nintendo from trying.  On a recent trip to the COEX Mall in Seoul, I couldn't help but notice all the effort Nintendo had put into a 3DS campaign.  Big signs advertising the 3DS and Nintendogs lined the walls and a station was set up for people to watch and play 3DS games, just in time for Christmas.  And that marketing was trying to catch everyone, adults and children alike.

However, the 3DS is still a hard sell in a country that's not only dominated by PCs but smartphones.  Every kid is walking around with a portable game system that they can easily justify to their parents, and their favorite game at the moment is free physics platformer called Bounce Ball for the Android.  A couple days ago, I had a student walk into my class with both a 3DS and his phone and he spent his break playing Bounce Ball, entirely ignoring the handheld designed specifically to playing big, sweeping action games.

I find myself almost rooting for Nintendo.  "Yeah!" I think, "Introduce kids to the adventures of Mario and Link!  Show them what classically good games are!"  I think that forgetting I haven't bought a Nintendo console or game in years.  I think that forgetting how stagnant the Nintendo production cycle has become and how New Super Mario Bros. titles are becoming as annual as Call of Duty and Madden, and just as interesting.  I think that forgetting Nintendo is not an underdog.

Like Korea has been for a while, the United States is certainly moving away from the console and handheld gaming systems and farther into the realm of PCs, tablets, and smartphones.  Maybe the Koreans have it completely right when it comes to gaming.  Maybe consoles and handhelds are relics.  Most of those independent and experimental, artsy-fartsy games that I love are found on PC and smartphone.  So why should I be rooting for a giant cooperation to conquer yet another nation?  Perhaps I'd rather keep my local PC Bong in business.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Gramophone Museum

After spending a pathetically long time navigating bus schedules, I found myself marching through the parking lot of the Charmsori Gramophone and Edison Science Museums, two structures built in Gangneung to recognize the history of gramophones and one of the world's greatest inventors.  Outside, I was greeted by the jolly bounce of novelty Christmas music pouring from a loud speaker system, but as I crossed the threshold into the Charmsori Museum, I was met with an almost eerie silence.


The first hall of the building is covered wall to wall in gramophones, circus organs, and music boxes, yet the only sounds one could hear were the occasional pattering of feet and hushed conversations.  The place seemed to illicit a kind of reverence one might reserve for temples and memorials.  But what reverence was the gaudy circus organ with the creepy clown on top trying to beckon?

You might have an expectation when you walk inside a museum that in there you are supposed to be quiet, to observe the art with patience and respect.  That makes a lot of sense when you're standing in front of the Mona Lisa, but this was a gramophone museum.  These things weren't art (not conscious art at least)!  They were tools, instruments; notably, one's used to make noise.


From the first hall, one can easily move over to the Edison Museum, which is where I went next.  Now, I'm not a history buff and I don't know anything about Edison aside from the obvious.  He invented light.  Importantly, I probably wasn't going to learn anything academic during my tour.  This was a Korean museum and as such there was a lot of Hangul writing to explain everything, but English was usually limited to the subtitles for each piece.  A little plaque would say what something was in Hangul, then in English, and then discuss it in Hangul.  At one of those fancy Seoul museums they might write an explanation for foreigners, but it's pretty limited anywhere else.

The one advantage I had was that Edison himself was a native English speaker.  Amid the bottomless piles of fans, mimeographs, stock tickers, projectors, creepy talking dolls, and light bulbs were some books and documents stored in glass casing.  These I could read.  And you would think that if you have a book by an important inventor on display, you would open it up to an important page.  Let me read you a passage...
The secretary was instructed to insert in the minute book, for the purpose of reference, the following papers: 1. Copy of notice of the meeting and proof of service thereof.  2. Inspectors' Oath and Report.  There being no further business, the meeting adjourned.

That's right.  They have a copy of the minutes.  I imagine the page this book was open to was not really the most important thing.  The Korean audience would glance at the description of the books on a little plaque and potentially marvel at the exclusive documents.  The series of signatures at the bottom of the page were proof of existence, but it struck me as a bit silly.  I imagine these things happen often with old books in foreign or defunct languages, no matter what the country.

By far, the third floor of the Charmsori Museum was the most fascinating.  Covering every inch of wall space were rows of retro televisions and radios.  The room was unusually shaped and every window was stained glass.  Pipes were lining the the wall tops and ceilings, and the sound of creaking and waning could be heard through the metal ceiling and pipes as a cold winter's wind hit the building.  It was like standing in chapel and a submarine at the same time.  Unlike the first hall, this one was set up with a sound system that was playing a slow rendition of Joy to the World.


It was a bizarrely sacred environment, which is what I felt the entire museum was trying to accomplish.  Here you can visit the history of irrelevant communications media that is far from being in short supply of anything.  There are so many music boxes, televisions, and gramophones lying around that they all seem to blend together.  The sheer number keeps any individual piece from standing out, unless it is exceptionally strange.  It was the common mistake of quantity over quality.  And there was this question at the back of my mind... Do any of these things work?

I don't know.  I was supposed to look at them, observe them, but not actually experience them the way they were meant to be experienced.  Charmsori Museum was feeling like a shine to a long dead god.

Of course, I managed to miss the one area that would allow me to experience the music and life these instruments had possessed.  On the second floor sits the Music Hall, which looks fairly similar to a chapel in its own rights.  There, audiences can experience a hundred year audio history from the gramophone to the CD.  But I had opted to explore independently instead of following a Korean tour group and missed an opportunity to see the presentation.  I found myself at the doors, able to hear a medley of music, but unable to go in and find out what exactly it was.


While I certainly came away from the experience critical, anyone who finds themselves in Gangneung with a lot of free time could do worse than spend an hour wandering the tombs of ancient communications technology.  There is a lack of place for gramophones, old cameras, and televisions in the post-millennial world, and it is better to see them on display in a scared environment than occupying yet another landfill.  And one cannot help the feeling that all these things, once new, can stand as a reminder about our constantly evolving commercial world.

Perhaps, people will erect these kinds of shrines for iPod and Furbies when we are grey (they might already have).  Our proudest toys and electronics that we spent hundreds of dollars on would be better served wasting away on shelves than in garbage dumps, seemingly useless and irrelevant to younger generations.  They would be nothing more than retro and novel, campy and kitsch memories, but memories none-the-less.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

An Unacademic History of Hwaseong Fortress

If there's one, big iconic figure in Korean history, it's King Sejong, the architect of the Korean alphabet, which as legend goes, was designed to give all Koreans, not just educated or wealthy ones, the ability to read.  He has therefore become a beloved, fatherly character in the Korean imagination.  When teaching young, low-English students and asking them things like, "who is a famous Korean?", I've experienced a medley of responses, typically involving singers and boy groups, but with one universal consistent: Sejong.

But he's far from the only king Korea has ever known.  Another visionary ruler from the same dynasty was Jeongjo, who was the leader responsible for the construction of the Hwaseong Fortress that I seem to loath so much.  Though his popularity doesn't quite near the level received by Sejong, he is still an important, well-known, and (most notably) compelling Korean historical figure.


Like many rulers throughout history, from Solomon to Elizabeth I, Jeongjo was destined to live in the shadow of his father.  Unlike the two previous examples though, his father was not a particularly great or beloved leader.  In fact, Jeongjo's father was killed by his own father while he was still a prince.  It was a political assassination. Upon the king's death, Jeongjo was left the throne and instead of following his grandfather's footsteps, he was adamant in honoring his father.  Much of his legacy is about just that.

Hwaseong Fortress was constructed for two major reasons.  The first being the aforementioned honoring of Jeongjo's father.  The other reason was to create a new, secondary capital.  Suwon was a planned city, similar to Washington D.C.  Jeongjo would go to Suwon to visit the grave of his father, but in true royal fashion, bringing a vase with flowers was not enough ceremony to show respect.  The fortress was constructed over two years (1794-1796) and using a variety of techniques that made it an architectural marvel of the day.


Jeongjo used Suwon as a capital away from Seoul whenever he went to visit his father's grave and fully intended to make it a retirement home once he passed along the crown to his kids.  Then he died.  At the ripe, old age of forty-eight, Jeongjo died mysteriously.  This is one of the reasons he became such a compelling character.  His life and death have been explored in various Korean media from books to TV shows.

Afterwards, the back-up capital in Suwon was pretty much forgotten.  It wasn't used for anything of real importance.  No later kings would hold court there.  It just sort of sat.

During the Korean War, the fortress was devastated and some of it was left far beyond repair.  However, the detailed records of its construction were published in 1800 (same year as the king's death), which meant there was an excellent and easily accessible blueprint for restoration in the mid-1970s.

So after reading and paraphrasing all that information from Korean tourism sites, I think I can see what is interesting about Hwaseong Fortress.  Constructed as a memorial and capital, it was largely forgotten, only to appear again in Korean consciousness more than a hundred years later, functioning as a symbol for the restoration of Korea and its people from the low, low point it had fallen to in the aftermath of civil war.  Now the city of Suwon extends far beyond its fortress walls in all directions.


Every city in Korea seems to have a title to go with it, much like they do in the United States.  Cincinnati is the Queen City.  Dayton is the Gem City.  Gangneung is the Pine City.  And Suwon has the delightfully odd title of Human City.  Korea has a real need for roller derby teams.  However strange, maybe the name works well.  Fortress walls do not make a city interesting, but how people interact with them does.  Culture is the human interaction with the world around them.

We build walls with a purpose and then they become pointless relics.  Then one day we wake up and realize just how important they actually are.  We mend the cracked bricks and celebrate them for a new reason.  We celebrate their mending and our ability to mend.  The cycle of loss and restoration goes back to our oldest stories.  The Book of Job, the Exodus of the Hebrews, Homer's Odyssey, and Virgil's Aeneid all contain this simple premise.  It's our favorite human story and that of the Hwaseong Fortress.

I could not see this walking the walls and reading plaques about each outposts construction, but I can appreciate their existence a lot more in retrospect.  For me, that did not make the "walking tour" any more enjoyable.  It just makes the fortress a bit more interesting.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hwaseong Fortress


As I rode the bus from near Haewoojae to Hwaseong Fortress, I was needlessly antsy about whether or not I would miss my stop or get off too early.  Then I saw Janganmun, a breathtakingly large gateway, part of the wall that had been built by King Jeongjo between 1794 and 1796.  It was one of those stunningly old world structures that make a person gawk at the incredible feats man is capable of, even with the limited technologies of the distant past.  It's no surprise then that the fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The bus drove through this entrance and at the next stop I hopped off and wandered until I came to an easily accessible part of the wall.  This was Namsumun, which was a small watergate.  This section sits adjacent to the First Church of Suwon, a looming black cathedral and easy marker for anyone prone to getting lost in a city.


As I began to walk the wall, my first impressions were nostalgic memories of the North Irish city of Derry.  There, a wall divides the inner and outer city as well.  Historically, people on the inside of the wall were very protestant and the outside were largely catholic.  The wall now stands as a grand reminder of religious persecution and the wedge that had been driven through Ireland by external imperial forces.  From the top of those walls you could see huge murals condemning violence.  One particularly stirring mural was of a young girl who had been shot by a British soldier in 1971.  And that division is only one of the significant historical values to the walls of Derry.

The walls of Suwon certainly did separate two parts of the city, but I wasn't sure what two parts.  It didn't strike me that there was any deep rooted cultural divide between the innies and outies.  In fact, I wasn't sure if the wall meant anything at all.  Yes, it was old and very nice looking, but was it built for war or show and was it ever used?  If it was used, did it work or was it a complete failure?  I didn't really know and the information I received along the wall and in the couple pamphlets I had picked up didn't really answer my questions.


At this point, I should have turned towards a museum, but something funny in my brain was telling me that I should spend more than a half-hour on the wall.  I should really experience it and take in the magnificence.  I had also just gotten to Dongjangdae, the eastern command post, where a Korean woman had approached me and in a bouncy voice told me that I needed a 1000 won ticket for the walking tour.  This walking tour was me walking the wall by myself with a cute, little sticker on my coat, so people knew I was on the walking tour.  I wasn't going to buy the walking tour ticket and then not walk the wall and I wasn't going to not buy the ticket and seem like a cheap jerk for sneaking up there.

I noticed there were also a few attractions to visit on along the wall.  Earlier, I had noticed a crochet field being used by a group of ajussi.  At Dongjangdae, there was an archery range and one could buy tickets for a trolley tour that would take you quickly around the fortress walls.  This driver's cab was designed to be a gaudy imitation of an eastern dragon.  It was reminiscent of the spooky train ride my family would annually take during "Boo at the Zoo", only y'know, all you're doing is looking at a wall.


For all the potential "tourist trappism" held by Haewoojae, Mr. Toilet House, the fortress walls were starting to seem a lot more like one than the earnest celebration of "toilet culture" to be found at Mr. Toilet House.  Games and gimmicky park rides seemed beneath the grandeur of a culturally significant World Heritage Site.  It didn't help that every plaque I ran across, discussing each segment of the wall, was about the construction of the wall.  I was quickly becoming convinced that this place was built with a purpose...but never actually used.  It was a vacation destination for the architect, not the poet.  It was big and well crafted, but served no function.  It told no stories.

Eventually, something interesting happened.  I came across a gang of foreigners hiking the walls in animal costumes.  They were a rare splash of color against the grey bricks and winter brown, so I asked about their appearance.  There was an odd medley of replies from "Oh, no reason" to "It's Saturday" and "Well, it gives the ajumma something to talk about."  These all seemed like reasonable answers.  I had come to what I had realized was a pointless place and here were people having a pointless adventure on it.


Then I took a steep climb to SeoNodae, where I could see the entire city laid out before me in all directions. Almost directly beneath me was Hwaseong Palace, and I decided that my adventure with the wall was over. I would head down to check out what the decadence of Korean royalty was all about.  Apparently, it is a lot like that of non-Korean wealth, because I was turned away at the door.  It was four-thirty and the woman at the ticket counter refused to sell me one.  She kept saying something about 5 o'clock.  Initially, I thought this meant she would sell tickets again at 5 o'clock.  In reality, they closed the gates at 5 o'clock.

Dejected, I began a slow, sad walk away from the palace before noticing that place was oddly familiar.  I had been there before... it... it was the bus stop.  I had gotten off the bus right by the palace entrance, and at the time my only concern was finding a hot dog vendor.  I...I couldn't be blamed.  I hadn't eaten all day!  The palace might have been a missed opportunity, but I doubt it would have improved my initial opinions about the fortress as a whole.


Maybe in retrospect I can find some meaning to King Jeongjo's legacy.  Maybe a little research will enlighten me as to the importance of that fortress...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mr. Toilet House


A friend contacted me a few weeks ago, bringing my attention to a toilet theme park that had recently appeared in South Korea.  Delighted by the mere existence of such a place, I began making travel plans immediately.  A couple weeks later, I was on a bus headed for Suwon with the goal of seeing this potentially magical landmark.

I can usually sniff out a tourist trap and wasn't completely sure if "Mr. Toilet House" would live up to my expectations.  But if that failed me, I would also be visiting Hwaseong Fortress, a huge wall built around a palace and internationally recognized as historically relevant architecture.  And there was the First Church of Suwon, a colossal, black building that, according to dubious sources, lit up with neon lights at night.  Sounded creepy.  If the toilet house wasn't enough, at least I'd have some other things to look forward to.


But I was prioritizing and the toilet house was first on my list.  So I leaped off the bus and into a taxi.  "Hae-woo-jae!" I practically shouted.
"Hyeo-woo-jae?" repeated the drivier and then in Korean "Where is that?"
I fumbled in my bag for my notepad.  Opening it, I read off the address, "Jangan-gu, Imok-dong 186-3".  It would have been wise to write out the address in Hangul, because I had to say the address three or four times as he scouted it out on his GPS.  I've been tossed out of taxis for saying the right name of a place over and over.  It helps to know a landmark.  It's better to have an address.  But just having something in Hangul will breach any problems that can arise from accent or misunderstanding.

As we approached my destination, I started to get some really good vibes about the toilet park from my driver.  He suddenly realized exactly where we were going.  "Oh, Hae-woo-jae," he snickered.  "I thought you said 'Hyeo'".  I wasn't sure how the slight mishearing changed anything, but he kept repeating the name and giggling.


I had to wonder what kind of nut he thought I was.  "Welcome to the Historic City of Suwon," they might say to me as I step off the bus.  "And where's the toilet?!" I answer.

Actually, that's exactly the question I had at the moment the cab pulled up to Hae-woo-jae.  I'd been doing a fair bit of travel without bothering to take a pit stop.  I was in need, and true to its name, this toilet park had a wonderful, public restroom just outside the main building.  How could it not?  The toilets were handicapable with an automatic flush, the paper was soft, children's seats were available, and the sink's tap provided hot water without wait (I can't get that at work!).  I was already impressed.

But the looming threat of a tourist trap still hung in the air.  The toilet park seemed very small and was not constructed in a particularly affluent part of town.  The homes surrounding it were ramshackle, low-income housing.  The kind that sit along the freeway and quickly become forgotten, until someone needs space to throw up another apartment complex.  Then they're inconvenient.

Interactive map of the best public restrooms in Suwon.  You could easily make an awesome tour out of this!
Juxtaposed against this low-income housing was the toilet house itself, which stood shaped like a giant, pristine toilet bowl.  I walked by a bronze statue of a boy taking a squat and through the main door of the building.  A man met me at the front desk and when I asked the price, he answered, "Anni-yo, free!" then handed me an English language brochure.  Clearly, this was not a tourist trap.  This was something else, but I still didn't know what.

As I followed the guiding arrows around the building, I encountered an interactive map of all the best public restrooms in Suwon.  There was even a wall dedicated to highlighting a few of them.  I noticed plaques mentioning something called the "Toilet Culture Movement" and even a timeline of its activities.  I assumed it was some sort of mistranslation.  There was no such thing as "toilet culture".  Then I saw a wall covered in public toilet markers from all over the world and squeed with joy.

Pictured: Mr. Toilet
The second floor was devoted to a man named Sim Jae-duck, who was also proudly known by the nickname "Mr. Toilet", and had dedicated his life to his local community and "toilet culture" (there was that phrase again).  Apparently, he was born in an outhouse, showing how toilets would be intertwined with his ultimate destiny.  He later became the mayor of Suwon and used this position to improve public restrooms across Korea and even establish an international organization called the World Toilet Association.

About the time I was standing in a room surrounded by pictures and videos of people and places from undeveloped countries where this group had constructed or rebuilt public toilets, I had a much greater understanding of "toilet culture".  Mr. Toilet grew up in an evolving Korea.  It went from one of the poorest to one of the richest countries in his life time.  Sanitation, like so much, is one of those things the developed world takes for granted.  Sim Jae-duck wanted to provide people everywhere with something that may seems like an obvious human right - sanitary and dignified bathrooms, a.k.a. clean places to poop - and he did just that.  He appears to be a great man, and if you ever visit this place, there's a donation box you can drop a few bills in to help.  Be a toilet angel.


Then I walked the grounds surrounding the toilet house, and saw the bizarre artwork that had initially attracted me to that place.  There were statues of people squatting, old and young (almost exclusively male.  I recall one female statue squatting, but the girl was sticking out from a reed outhouse's doorway, so you couldn't see her bum.  Maybe showing women pooping was inappropriate?).  The rest of the park seemed devoted to historical toilets or the diversity of toilets.  There was a giant bucket, a giant squatting toilet, and an outhouse above a model pig pen.

Hae-woo-jae wasn't a tourist trap.  It was an earnest celebration of a man's life mixed with a little bit of potty humor (sorry) to make it fun.  The only problem I had was finding a quick way back into town and to the Hwaseong Fortress, which would certainly be nothing like a tourist trap...

Oh, of course...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Enjoying What You Do

In the grand scheme of things, I'm certain that being a teacher was not what I was cut out for.  But you can tell when someone really wants to do their job.  Years ago, I went with a friend to a Voodoo Glow Skulls concert in Cincinnati where I met two such people.  Beyond a metal railing between us and the band stood two big, black bouncers, contrasting heavily against the predominantly white audience of lanky rudies and punk rockers.

After the first band closed out their act people began to move to the front of the stage, against this railing.  As a teenage boy, I was there aiming for the front, so I could see one of the bands up close.  The Voodoo Glow Skulls were the hardest and loudest of the ska bands performing that night.  At the time, that meant I wanted to be in a prime shoving and jumping location.  The front would be packed and we would be wild.  My friend and I, while waiting, struck up a conversation with the two bouncers.

They said their job was to stop people from getting on the stage.  This obvious point lead us to ask an obvious question: what they do if someone jumps the fence.  The two became almost gleefully animated, doing a number of semi-joking gestures, they said "We hit them."  It made sense.  That is a bouncer's job.  Sure they jokingly would dance a little while the bands played, but at the end of the night their job was hit people.

They didn't really enjoy standing around, waiting for someone to move.  What we thought was so exciting, watching some ska band I would all but entirely forget the existence of in later life, was exciting to me, but they couldn't care less.  They told us that they wanted someone to jump the railing.  Come across.  Shoot for the stage.  Then they would get to the good part... y'know...where they hit the guy.

That's really what the bouncers were there to do.  Everything else was waiting.  I can relate to this.  My school spends a week testing students every four months, which means I spend the entire day standing at the back of a classroom, watching nothing.  I grade papers and wait for them to finish their work as I pretend to oversee them.  But, that's the moment when I really miss teaching.  Even when it's exhausting, it feels infinitely more rewarding than the dull waiting that can seem eternal.

I think you can tell you like what you do (or at very least appreciate it) if you are bored by not doing it.  When ceaseless periods of "nothing" are happening and you are relieved then you might want to get another job.  However, if you get antsy and long to go back to the grind - whether that grind be teaching or busting heads - then it's certainly worth sticking around.

Truth be told, my friend and I began to feel bad for the poor bouncers.  There was almost a melancholy behind their eyes.  They were genuinely bored and needed someone to hit!  So, we asked if one of us jumping the rail would make them happy.  "Thrilled!" was the reply.  I asked if they would hit me knowing that I was just doing it as a favor.  And in dead seriousness they answered they would definitely hit me.  They would have to hit me.  I considered what was more important, their happiness or my body's well-being.

Eventually, I pulled away from the uncomfortable pressing and shoving that happens toward the front of the stage and was swept into the more intentional and enjoyable shoving that was the mosh pit.  I don't really mosh anymore.  I don't really go to shows, especially the punk rock or ska variety.  I guess I'm just out of the habit.  And I have no idea what songs were played that night or what any of the bands looked like... or honestly, what they sounded like.  I just remember these two guys who wanted to do their job and how I almost let them beat me up to make their night a little better.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How Carrots Got Me in Trouble with the Law


Korea would be a terrible place to quit smoking.  The cost of a pack of cigarettes here is around 2500 won, which in American is about two dollars.  With those prices, it's damn near impossible to make an economic argument to "give up the habit".  If you really want to quit stateside New York will hand you the best reason to stop, with the average cost per pack nearing thirteen dollars.  But there were times when I was living in Ohio that I toyed with the idea of quitting.

For a couple of years, it seemed like I was spending my Summers locked in my apartment by myself biting my nails and avoiding any risk of socializing with other smokers.  The tobacco pipe was a good way to slow the habit, and if I were to quit tomorrow, it would be the route I'd take again.  The trick is to replace all cigarette paraphernalia with pipe.  So you walk out on your back porch and light your pipe.  That might not sound all too different from cigarettes, but there's a problem with pipes.

Pipes take a long time to smoke.  You sit around puffing at them, trying to light and re-light the tobacco.  Then you keep thinking to yourself, "Boy I should be done by now...this is getting dull..."  It's the square-man's mind.  Cigarettes are more addicting than say cigars because (for one) they are quick.  Pull one out, burn it down in several minutes and you can go on with your life.  Bali bali.  A pipe is something you have to take your time with.  So eventually, the only times I smoked were when I was really desperate, which went from daily to never.

Then a new roommate moved in.  I was sitting on the couch playing a game and he went to the back porch right where I could watch him.  Before his bags were in the door, he lit up and I bummed one.

The next Summer, I tried again with a slightly different, slightly stranger tactic.  I'm not sure what drove me to use the method, but I had heard that carrots help subdue nicotine cravings.  So I bought bags of baby carrots.  I ate them everyday as replacements for cigarettes.  I would pace a parking lot or my balcony, holding a carrot between my fore and middle finger, sucking it, chewing it.  Just trying to kill the physical addiction before the mental one, I guess.

Then there was that one bad night.  I couldn't sleep.  Oh, I was nuts for them.  My mind was busy.  There was a lot to think about, and when your mind is running the cravings are at their worst.  So I was out in the parking lot at three or four A.M. on a hot night, barefoot, with a bag of carrots in one hand while stuffing my face with the other.  That's when the cop car slowly came around the corner, drove between me and my building, then pulled up right next to me.

In the front seat sat an infinitely humored police officer with a flashlight.  In the back was a very unhappy dog.  I could practically see myself in this man's eyes.  And I did not look clean.  He asked if everything was alright and what I was doing.  Nothing in me was trying to be funny when I answered that I was eating carrots.  Then I stammered around for a couple minutes trying to explain the ludicrous idea that carrots could help someone quit smoking.  Then he asked about my shoes.

It was about at that moment that I decided to start smoking again.  Dignity has a price, and if it's about a pack a day then I can handle it.  When cops drive by an apartment and see a ratty white boy smoking in the parking lot at 3 A.M. barefoot, they don't take a second glance.  The ratty white boy eating carrots barefoot at 3 A.M. attracts attention.

If there is a lesson to be learned from my experience, it might have something to do with not smoking in the first place.  Don't smoke, kids.  Alternatively, the moral might be eating carrots and self-improvement will only get you hassled by the man.  Don't eat carrots, kids.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

How Breaking Dawn Broke Me


There's an Amsterdam liquor known as Agwa that is essentially a combination of coca leaf and alcohol, and when mixed with red bull forms a lethal concoction called, appropriately enough, an "Agwa Bomb."  You might not feel the alcohol working a few shots in, but that's just because you're taking in copious amounts of stimulants at the same time.  If history has taught us anything about alcoholic energy drinks, it's that the stimulants and depressants, when mixed, do not balance each other out.

So Friday night, a friend soon to be leaving Korea convinced myself and another person that if we split the cost of a bottle of Agwa three ways, it would be remarkably cheap compared to just buying shots.  At first, we entered the bar with a fair number group of people.  Thus we became benevolent with our bottle, spreading it around like the party mad hero of a crunk-rap video.  Eventually, it was gone...and none of us felt drunk.

Some of our party had left the bar early.  This meant our second bottle of Agwa could be shared the right way.  Split among four people instead of seven, one would think that the bottle would last, but it the contents seemed to disappear unusually fast.  At the end of the night, the "soberest" among the group were trying to kill the last drops from the third bottle to protect the lives of our flailing friends, crashing around the room.

The above is explanation for the exhausted, hungover state I was in the next day, when I went to see Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 in theaters.  Twilight is a film franchise that people either adore or loath, and I loath it, especially the extremely offensive second installment.  But by the time Breaking Dawn Part 1 hit theaters, everyone knew the films were god awful and not getting more progressive in their gender relations.  I found Part 1 shockingly scary at points and hilarious at others, so I genuinely wanted to see the last episode.

The movie began as my sleep deprivation really grabbed hold of me.  It started to drag me under as the film's opening score guided us across a vast, wintry landscape.  The first names began to appear in the opening credits, big words in a deep red.  Oh, sleep could not come fast enough.  

Then everything changed.  The red letters in the names were flushed away, replaced by a cleansing white.  This would have been a very simple, elegant use of obvious symbolism.  The blood is washed away, presumably by snow or dawn... but the names' colors were not the only thing changing.  The font was changing too.  It was going from a serifed typeface to a simpler sans-serif form, like Calibri or Arial.

If you've ever used Microsoft Word, you know the frustration of creating a new document and then having to go through the effort of changing the typeface from ugly, little Calibri to the aesthetically pleasing Times New Roman.  You've probably noticed that there is a size difference between the two fonts.  Times New Roman is bigger than Calibri.  The opening credits of Breaking Dawn Part 2 didn't seem to understand the problems with wiping from one font to another, because there is this difference in size, as well as spacing and shape between the two that drove my sleep deprived mind toward madness.

I just sat there repeating "why" over and over and then I noticed the gravest of opening credit sins.  Occasionally, the background would show an image in red that converted to white somehow and the credits were trying to sync with it... and failing... miserably...  The first line of the movie had yet to be uttered, and I was witnessing something that was so terrible it nearly crushed my fragile mind.  I didn't know if I was about to go into a panic attack or laughing spell.  I did neither.  I was just so in awe of it all.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We'll Probably Laugh About This When We're All Dead

Something incredible happened in the year 2010.  Back then, we moved from the present into the incredible future.  You might be thinking that we’re always in the present, but I have reasonable evidence that you’re wrong (and probably crazy).  See, for the longest time futuristic science fiction took place in a post-millennial world.  And as we all know, the most significant and life defining of these works was the Mega Man video game series for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It defined a generation…

For those of you too young to remember the past, Mega Man featured a sleek, high-tech world where nearly everything was a robot, and it also took place in the year 200X.  It was meant to be a vague period in the future, so far away that we probably couldn’t even fathom it with our thick, ape-like skulls of the past.  But now, no matter what digit you would choose to replace the letter X with, we live in a post-Mega Man era.  Hence, we exist in the future.

You should probably start working on replacing your present tense verbs with future ones, but for the sake of sanity, I will continue to write primarily in present tense.

There’s a problem with our utopian future that we probably should address.  What science fiction taught me is that future humanity will embrace science.  And we’ve done a fair job.  Sure the world is a little less Flash Gordon and little too Bladerunner for my tastes, but we have some pretty sweet futuristic tech.  We have boxes you can slip gray junk into and it will come out delicious, steaming food.  We have telecreens that can be used to observe the entire world from a bird’s eye view.  And we have jetpacks!  But for some reason, we also seem to have this endless appetite for hating science.


I remember recently sitting through an uncomfortably long and large Shinchonji cult event with a Mormon, and trying to convince her that science didn’t operate solely on the principle of “faith”.  There’s a lot of stuff in that sentence that should be explained, but we can worry about most of it later.  The important thing (for now) is that I didn’t do a great job arguing that airplanes did not work on faith.  Airplanes do not work on faith.  They use science!

The funny thing is that people who argue science is just another religion tend to ignore how many scientific innovations they use every day.  While I may not be able to tell you how penicillin or a jet engine works, there is a scientist who can with ease.  Science is not just understanding how or why something works, but finding practical uses for it in our lives.  So we probably shouldn’t be embracing the kind of deranged ignorance that…


O _ O

The above would be the greatest parody of the American people ever created, if it were not real.  See, the joke is that people are chanting "USA, USA" to drown out a person demanding action against a well-documented scientific problem that affects the entire world.  Why would you chant USA when someone is yelling about climate change?  You chant USA during a World Cup game or curling at the Olympics.  It shows team spirit, but here it seems to imply that science, or at very least climate science, is anti-American.  And who could argue with a room full of people shouting USA!  Soccer fans from the Ireland or Bolivia could, but a scientist couldn’t.

Science is a pretty apolitical body as a whole.  Sure, politics could deal with ethical questions regarding scientific research, but “believing” in global warming doesn’t actually lean one left or right.  It’s kind of strange to even see someone waving a banner about climate change at a Republican event, but apparently so many people in that group felt science was against their core values as Americans that they chose to drown out his words by repeating the name of their country.  Plus, the man didn't really seem to want to have a political debate.  He just wanted people to "talk" about climate change, or "End Climate Silence."  But they sure shut him up!  It’s all weird and not very "future-y."

So I ask you, people of the twenty-first century, do you really want to spend your future ignoring sc-
USA! USA!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween In: Avoiding the Party

You heard there was a happening Halloween party going on, but for some reason you just don't want to go.  Maybe you didn't buy a costume.  Maybe you hate people.  Either way, it's cool.  Stay at home and enjoy the experience of having droves of children ringing your doorbell, waiting for that candy they didn't work for. If you're in a really good "shut-in" mood, you should definitely give them some!  But while you're waiting, why don't you spend your time doing something constructive... or not, like watch a movie, play a game, or read a book!

Here are some suggestions on ways you can entertain yourself this Halloween while staying in your house and lobbing candy at children, like the ravenous zombies they are...

Movies!!!

Probably the easiest way to spend Halloween is to stare at a screen, jaw hanging slack, drool glistening down your chin.  It'll be like every other night...but spoooookier.  You could even make an event of it.  Invite a couple of equally misanthropic friends over, or a fine lady...or gentleman, whatever's cool.  But, you're going to need some fun, horror-themed movies.

There are always the good generic choices, John Carpenter's The Thing, the Evil Dead trilogy, Shaun of the Dead, or Halloween.  But it might be nice to pick something ain't nobody seen yet.  One that's not a horrible piece of junk that ain't nobody seen yet.  While I'm sure my ideas are far from "underground", maybe you haven't seen Near Dark by the director of the Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker!  It is nothing like The Hurt Locker.  It's a tale of trailer-trash vampires and love.  Alternatively, if you don't mind a little body-horror with some "less-than-subtle" social commentary, try Society.


Now if you're really tied to the whole "hermit" thing, you could stand to watch some classics, ones that a room full of fun-loving jerks wouldn't appreciate.  I'd start with The Innocents, a beautiful adaption of the Henry James novella Turn of the Screw.  It's a ghost story with some fantastic child acting, and it truly is an under-appreciated gem.  You could also watch the original Dracula movie, Nosferatu, if you have the patience for silent film.  If you need something with color, few are creepier or more disturbing than Lars von Trier's Antichrist.  But I should warn you ahead of time, that film has misogyny, nudity, and some of the most uncomfortable gore you could possibly imagine.

There are some ideas, but you don't really want to watch a movie.  You want to get up and do something, like...

Video Games!!!

Sit back down!  You don't actually have to get up to do something in the futuristic 21st century, so open a bag of candy corn and pop in a horror game.  Now you could play something that we all know and love, like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but let's forget those stagnant, old franchises and play something more interesting.

The end all be all of terrifying horror games is Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Now, I haven't played it.  I'm a little, wussy boy and hate walking down dark tunnels alone, especially when I know something at the end of said tunnels is wont to eat me, but we can probably trust hundreds of youtube reaction videos people have made while playing this game.  It's scary.  Let's watch some now...


If you haven't played video games since the SNES and find polygons unnerving then you could play Lone Survivor, a side-scrolling, horror game with an art style reminiscent of the 16-bit era that still manages to be effectively scary.  However if you're low on cash and/or time, you could play a very short, free game called The Staircase.  And if you enjoy abstract, psychedelic horror, you could buy The 4th Wall for an extremely low price.

After recovering from the seizure The 4th Wall more than likely threw you into, you probably want to do something to relax, so why not...

Books!!!

Oh yes, literature.  When I say "book," I use the term loosely.  Not everyone reads a thousand words per second, and we can't all tackle a novel in a night.  We can probably skip classics like Frankenstein or Dracula.  If you have the tolerance to read the literary equivalent of ambien then you could use some H. P. Lovecraft.  Or if you like to enjoy your books, why not open up Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.  

That's not the only mildly-horror-ish work Wilde wrote.  You could also track down a copy of his short story, The Canterville Ghost.  It probably won't "scare" you.  It's romantic-comedy with a ghost.  Now, if you don't like laughing or happiness then you could read The Yellow Wallpaper, which is by far one of the most disturbing short stories you could ever pick up.  It's a good example of how mood and narrative can construct something more unnerving than the typical "scary monster" can alone.

To end on a classy note, I'd like to recommend my favorite poem, My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, the scariest poem ever.

Hopefully now, you'll go on to enjoy Halloween without the tiring alcoholism and skimpy costumes that fetishize this children's holiday.

And if all else fails, there's still the best Halloween special ever...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ulleungdo Part IV: Brunch in the Basin

On my second and final day in Ulleungdo, Mr. K invited me to go with him and his friend to Nari Basin.  It was on the other side of the island and we would have to travel by bus along the coastline to get there.  That sounded like a fairly long trip, and there was no direct route through the middle of the island.  None that a bus could take.  From a ship, as one gets closer and closer to an island, the bigger and bigger it obviously becomes, but that size is an illusion.  Even traveling the long way, an island like Ulleungdo is in fact very small.  And it turned into a very short, enjoyable trip.


Mr. K's friend was a geologist and her English was mostly limited to the language of science.  At one point, I made the terrible mistake of asking her what her college thesis paper had been on, since it was connected to the island and probably what got her her job there.  She asked me if I knew about what X or Y or Z.  Despite them being all English terms, they were outside my realm of knowledge.  She could barely speak English and I could barely speak geology.

When we arrived at Nari Basin, I discovered Mr. K's true, sinister motive for inviting me along.  The basin was a massive crater created by the volcanic activity that had birthed the island.  Now, long after the volcano had gone into a deep sleep, it was a healthy farmland surrounded by wooded mountains.  From the basin one could hike to the highest point on the island and beyond, but that was not our goal.


We went to a local restaurant for brunch.  The woman there welcomed us with delight and brought Mr. K a large notebook and pencil.  With an influx in foreign visitors, this woman of an eighth-grade education and successful small business owner felt she needed help in communicating with them.  So we were going to write some simple English for greeting, ordering, and come up with English names for her dishes.

I was happy to help and because she was going to need to show us certain foods, we would be well fed and for free.  The first dish was a Korean pancake, which is far different from American pancakes and is frequently served as an appetizer.  But it was introduced to me as a Korean pancake, so I couldn't think of a better name to give it, especially since if any foreigners were aware of it, they might be familiar with this name than anything I could invent.


The charm and trouble with this task was coming up with appropriate names for things to make them sound appealing to English-speaking customers, while trying to keep in mind they probably already had English names I was unaware of.  The foods I knew I could tell them.  Others I titled simple descriptions.  So when presented with a liquor made from a local herb found in the mountains, I insisted on calling it an herb wine.  I didn't know the English name for the plant, so it was just an herb, and its usually safe to refer to a drink made from a fermented plant as a wine, so this was a wine.  Each dish was about like that.  They were all terrific and we ate until we were stuffed, everything had been written down in English and Hangul, and we could think of nothing else.  Then we left smiling and bowing.

Before leaving the island entirely, we stopped off at Hyangmok, known as one of the most beautiful places in all of Korea and it was.  But most wonderful to me was spotting a colossal jellyfish floating among the rocks there.  Bright orange and red and so alien to the world of vertebrae, I was fascinated.  I would have climbed down to it if not for my companions.


Oh, I should have.  I love jellyfish.  And I love Ulleungdo.  It is one of those places, so beautiful and precious, that the heart wrestles the mind as you board the boat home.  "Stay," it say.  "This is right."  Oh, I should have.  And that longing makes it all the more lovely.  But as always, we must go, until that day we forget ourselves and stay.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ulleungdo Part III: The Mysterious Mr. K

On Happiness

"You should do what you think will make you happy," Mr. K inelegantly quoted the Dalai Lama.  "So, I think traveling with you will make me happy."

Oh, the pressure.  Of all the horrors in the world, I place responsibility for the happiness of others toward the top.

Mr. K was a balding, middle aged man who had been working in Dodong as a translator for only three weeks at the time of our meeting, and he hadn't explored much of the island (though certainly much more than I had).  He had guided me to a nice motel, thanks to the recommendation of a french couple.  Then we walked to Dodong's Mineral Spring.

Mineral Spring
The water of this spring was supposedly thought to have a medicinal purpose of some kind, at least it was at one time.  Before I had tasted it, Mr. K warned me to not swallow the water.  Obviously by having it in my mouth, I would take in a little, but I should spit out the majority.  I just needed to coat my teeth to experience it.  It was a fair warning.  The taste was somewhere between acidic and metallic and wholly unappealing.

It was after this, while my stomach was empty and my mouth was trying to cope with the terrible flavor of the Mineral Spring's water, he sprung his concept of happiness and drew out a copy of the Dalai Lama's signature book, "The Art of Happiness."

With a little pause for thought, I agreed, partially out of an increasing fear of disappointment.  If I rejected his suggestion, I would cruelly leave Mr. K with a feeling similar to the obnoxious taste experienced by my mouth at the moment and I would be returning his helpfulness with rudeness.  Nothing could be further from my Mid-Western upbringing.  But, I also thought it would be nice to have an English speaking companion on the brief trip around the island.  However, there now lurked the terrible expectation of providing another with happiness.  A challenge that could leave all involved miserable.

On Religion

We walked downhill to a Buddhist monastery, and Mr. K showed me around one of the main buildings.  I asked ignorantly if we could go in and he replied, "Of course!  What is a monastery for?"  And I didn't really know.  Growing up in a predominantly protestant culture, monasteries seemed like a foreign, "European" thing, where nuns and monks paced about, sequestering themselves from the sinful world beyond the walls and living humble lives of self-denial.  That sounded like a monastery...and it didn't seem like a kind of place welcoming to outsiders.

Monastery from above
This building, however, was warmly decorated in red and gold with statues, photographs, and paintings strewn about.  Mr. K tossed a mat on the floor and demonstrated a bow.  Each time his nose touched the ground represented a single prayer.  We then walked around the building as he explained each of the murals that lined its walls.  This one showed the Buddha's miraculous birth.  This one showed his attempt to tame a cow.  This one showed his death and how the imprints of his feet came through the coffin as a symbol of his continuous teachings even after he died.

Mr. K asked if I had a religion and I said no.  He responded, much to my surprise, that neither did he.  But, it was obvious he observed some amount of superstition and spirituality.  Perhaps, he was just interested in history and old customs.  Perhaps, he was lying.

On Progress

Next, we took a bus to Bongnae Waterfall.  During the hike from the bus stop to the falls, Mr. K reflected on the changing terrain of Ulleungdo, and this is when I learned the origin of its title, "The Mysterious Island."  It was a slight error in translation.  The intent was to attract foreign tourists with a promise of an untouched gem, an unexplored island or, more realistically, a well-preserved island.  Of all the names it could have been given, "The Mysterious Island" was probably the best for attracting outsiders, creating a happy accident, though it definitely caused me some confusion to see the word mysterious paired with squid and pumpkin mascots.

But, that desire to bring tourism came with the unfortunate side effect of construction.  Mr. K bemoaned the construction crews who worked endlessly right outside his apartment window, waking him up early in the morning and hampering relaxation on his days off work.  There seemed to be a bit of construction everywhere, slowing strangling the unexplored (and mysterious) nature of the island.  As we reached the waterfall, we were greeted by a crane among rubble, waiting for us with promises of ruining a perfectly gorgeous view.

Bongnae Waterfall, complete with crane
On Japanese Bread

Returning to the bus stop, Dodong and dinner bound, something in our conversation lead to the topic of Japan.  Japan somehow sits in the back of the mind of everyone I meet in Korea just waiting to find a way into discussions.  And again came a bread metaphor, similar but different from what I had heard from the monk on my way to Haesindang.

Hopefully, I can replicate it accurately enough:
Japan, as a nation, is like a hungry man.  Everyone has a piece of bread, and for many, a little bread is enough to satisfy their hunger.  But Japan is not happy with its bread.  It sees other nations' breads and decides that the portion it has is not enough.  It wants theirs too.  So Japan takes it.
This metaphor made more sense than the monk's version, which may have been due to levels of fluency in the speaker.  While both arguments are clearly anti-Japanese in their logic, they come from a long history of conflict with Japan that continues to this day, and aren't particularly aimed at individuals as much as the idea of Japan (a problem within itself).  Ignoring current problems with Japan (to be addressed a little later), a lot of the Koreans' imagined version of Japan comes from World War II era imperialism.

Many Americans hold Germany as the great evil of World War II and their opinions of Germany are still somehow influenced by that today, even though it is obviously a dated perspective.  Those Americans might only see Japan as a lesser, subservient evil or something.  Korean, Chinese, and Filipino people tend to look at Japan as the great evil of that time period.   Germany to them was a far less serious threat, and is not taken as seriously today.

But what really bothered me about the metaphors was the use of bread.  What connection does Korea have to bread?  Bread is not a typical side to any Korean dishes.  It's not a staple food for their culture.  It's a luxury at best, and a disturbing mockery at worst.  Oh, the horrors I've witnessed.  Returning home from Paris Baguette with a loaf of beautiful Italian bread, soft and smelling so sweet, only to find it pumped full of cream filling.  Only monsters would do such a thing! ...anyway...  The metaphor would be better served with an Eastern dietary staple - rice, for example.  Though, it is entirely possible that since the metaphors were being told to a Western audience (me!), that bread was used so that audience could better relate.

And it can be hard to relate the concept of Japan as anywhere near villainous.  Japan?!  That happy-go-lucky curator of Pokemon, anime, and bizarre, borderline-creepy fashion.  Samurai couldn't be bad... Th-Their so cool!  Our version of Japan sits in stark contrast to Koreans', who are still entrenched in conflicts with Japan to this day.

My understanding of Japan... and fear...
In Dodong sits the Dokdo Museum, built to educate people on the islands' (Dokdo's) importance and connection to Korean history.  Both Korea and Japan claim these islands as their own (the Koreans call them Dokdo, the Japanese call them Takeshima, and we call them the Liancourt Rocks!), despite them being almost entirely uninhabited.  To us, what looks like a petty dispute over fishing territory is an important battle to Korea for national identity, freedom, and an end to the dark days where they were forced into subjugation.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ulleungdo Part II: The Seaside Walk

My ferry pulled into Jeodong Harbor and as I climbed out I noticed a funny sign hanging above the ticket office.  It was a picture of two anthropomorphic creatures, one a squid and the other a pumpkin, and they were riding a surf board.  Very few places have actual mascots, but Ulleungdo is one of them.  These two creatures sat on a plethora of signs across the island.  Mascots are notoriously gaudy symbols, and they can be very strange, but not strange in the way I was seeking.  My mind was on the “mysterious,” the strange and beautiful.  So I wanted to see the Haengnam Seaside Walkway.


The Seaside Walkway began at Jeodong Harbor.  All one has to do is walk from the ferry port to the far end of the harbor walls, where giant rocks and cliffs meld with it.  There sits a doorway with no door, carved into the wall.  Looking through from the port side, it looks like a drop off into the sea, but once you pass through you can see the winding road built into the side of the cliffs.  Most of the walk is paths carved into the cliff-face, but what make it appear so beautiful and strange are the arched bridges over gaps and massive spiral staircase leading up into a forest.


At the top of the stairs, I came to what was probably not a fork in the road.  On one side, leading downward was a large trail with our friendly squid mascot pointing the way.  On the other was a thin, dirt path going up into the forest.  This was obviously the right way to go.  I spent a few minutes climbing up the steep, dirty path as it wound through the forest, always up, until I came to a rocky break among the trees.  The trail seemed to lead into to the rocks, so I had no choice but to climb.  There I found a dangerous drop, where if a person took too many brave steps forward, he would go rolling down hill, off the side of the cliff, and into the rocky shores below.  But there was a beautiful view of Jeodong Harbor one could see through the trees.  It would have been a lovely place for a break, if I had remembered to bring water or some food.


The climb back down was much more dangerous than going up.  I’ve heard that it is always easier going down a mountain than coming up one.  All you have to do is jump.  I am terribly good at testing this theory, because I am terribly bad at traveling downhill.  I start walking and before I know it, I am running and leaping like a goat, ricocheting off of every tree to keep from flying off the path.

I continued downward at the fork that probably was not there, and until I came to another split in the trail.  I could either head to Dodong or the Dodong Lighthouse.  I was dying for water at this point and feeling like a complete idiot.  My bag was heavy with useless junk, and I was suffering from simultaneously packing too much and too little.  Water should be the first thing you bring hiking.  I knew there would be water at Dodong, but I didn’t want to skip the Lighthouse, so with sheer stupidity guiding my weakening footfalls, I began to head uphill again.

I walked up the forested cliff, taking pause each time I entered a break in the trees and could see the ocean sprawling endlessly below me.  Then I came to a very different area.  To my left were the usual trees riding up the steep, hilly ground, but to my right was a slowly descending field of tall grass.  For a moment, it was filled with a rustling.  I paused…raptors…  Then there it was again.  The brush moved and I ducked down.  They were all around me.  Along with the water, I had failed to bring my gun or machete.

The noises stopped and I began to walk along the path again, this time slowly, watching the brush.  The rustling returned and I dropped to my stomach.  There was a flash of movement in the tall grass.  Crouching I moved to look where it was going, and in a thin, clear spot a small, brown pheasant fearfully ducked down.  It saw me watching it and slipped back into hiding.  Aside from the rats and magpies, I don’t think I’ve seen many wild animals in Korea.  I was pleasantly surprised to see one, and it was a pheasant.  I’ve adored pheasants ever since a failed attempt to raise them.

At the peak of the cliff was the lighthouse, or rather, a couple large buildings.  I couldn’t see the lighthouse, but I did notice a drinking fountain.  Clear as day, it sat in an open courtyard.  I ran to it and nearly breaking off the handle, flung it on and shoved my face into the glistening, cool liquid.  Content and thoroughly drenched, I looked around and saw a middle-aged Korean couple giving me the stink eye.  With upturned noses, they spun around and went up a wooden staircase.  “Maybe the lighthouse is that way,” I thought and followed after them like an unwelcomed, but relentlessly friendly stray.


They couple had found a bench to sit at beside a bizarre dolphin statue.  Beyond that spot was a dead end where one could go to view Jeodong Harbor.  Turning around at this place I could see the lighthouse perched atop one of the large buildings.  I went in and started up the stairwell.  Before reaching the roof where the lighthouse was hidden I discovered an exhibit hall, which probably told tourists about the history of the island, but nothing was written in English, and I probably wasn’t supposed to be there.  The equipment for a video presentation was off…actually...all the lights were off.  I circled miniatures of the island and left the room.  My next stop was the roof of the build where the surprisingly small lighthouse sat.  I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be allowed inside.  The door to the roof was open, but the door to the lighthouse was closed.  Figuring this would be my only time there, I gave it a good pull, but I guess the lighthouse was off limits.

I got one more drink of water and began the hike to Dodong.  The trip began as a mostly downhill walk, from the lighthouse to a fork where one could either walk through a tunnel carved in the bamboo or go up and around it.  I barely spotted a small, black form moving along the highroad, just passing out of sight, and I didn’t want to bump into any unfriendly dogs (and the low road was aesthetically unique), so I cut through the bamboo.  The little, black creature had circled round to meet me, and turned out to be a goat.


The hills were littered with tiny farms, occupied with sheds and traditional houses where people’s clothes hung across the porches.  The goat obviously belonged to one of these farmers, but it was a slow day, as many Ulleungdo days seemed to be.  The goat roamed free and the people didn’t seem too concerned about it eating straight from the crops.  I would find out later that one of the cultural curiosities of Ulleungdo was their lackadaisical attitude.  It stands as a stark contrast to the majority of Korea’s bali bali lifestyle, but islanders can always afford to be laidback.

When I reached the shore again, I was met with another winding road cut into the cliff edge.  It was often steep goings-up, but the ways down were usually stepped.  The path would sometimes go through the cliffs, where it was probably unsafe or impossible to build around them.  Some areas were marked with falling rock signs, and others parts were not marked with signs, but with railings that had been ripped out of their places.  I imagine the walkway didn't usually look like this.  A typhoon had come through only a week ago, and probably had been responsible for the damage.


Once again, I became painfully thirsty and couldn’t find a reliable source of water.  Then I met a little cave in the cliffs.  There, water poured down through the rocks and someone had set out a large, orange tub to capture it.  A plastic ladle floated inside of it.  After watching a middle-aged, Korean hiker fill her bottle with the water I had no doubts about drinking it myself, and it was a wonderfully refreshing spring water that carried me the rest of the way to Dodong.


Dodong is a port town, slightly larger than Jeodong.  My first course of action was to find a place to throw my excess baggage, that way I could hike more freely.  As I walked up the hilly streets of the city, looking for a good, cheap motel, I noticed another bizarre sign featuring the pumpkin and squid mascots with the words “Welcome to the Mysterious Island” under them.  “How does the name ‘Mysterious Island’ become associated with cartoon characters,” I thought to myself.  As I began to walk again, an unusually friendly man with tiny glasses and a comb-over waved me down.

“Hello!  How are you?” he greeted me.  “Where are you going?”

“Good.  I’m looking for a hotel.”

“Do you mind sleeping on the floor?”

And that is how I was introduced to the mysterious Mr. K…