Two weeks in Tokyo and Kyoto was great. Afterward myself and Julie changed things around; She stayed an extra week in Japan and I popped over to visit Korea. My time in Korea was less about backpacking and more like living in Korea for a week. It’s a fascinating place that has everything you could imagine in a modern 21st century country mixed in with a very unique and strong cultural identity that’s different from anything I’ve known.
Robbie Brennan, ultimate superstar and all round sound laghd has been working in Korea for the last five months. He was nice enough to host me in his gaff in Seoul for the week and share his expat life with me. Here’s how I got on.
This sentence is becoming a cliché but once again the people I met really made the trip. Through Robbie I got to meet a lot of Koreans. (Way more locals than in Japan for example) and they all spoke English. (Hooray!).
They majority of Robbie’s work mates are Korean, and the frisbee community is big melting pot of other expats and locals. Having chats with a mix of people I met Koreans, Koreans who’ve lived abroad, Americans of Korean decent and expats who’ve lived there for years and got a broad view of life in Seoul and beyond. On top of that everyone was great craic, always up for some grub or a beer or soju.
My best day was the Tuesday which happened to be a bank holiday. A simple idea of a hike in Bukhansan National Park went viral and 14 brave souls signed up. We had enough frisbee kit to open a merchandise stand and enough bottles of soju and magkeoli to get us to the top.
I had no idea what to expect and thought it would be similar to a stroll in the Dublin mountains. What I got was a steep 4 hour hike with parts along ancient fortress walls with beautiful gates and a bare rock climb to the very top. The views were stunning as you see just how large Seoul is as it sprawls out in almost every direction below.
The mountain was full of the older, better equipped Koreans and at the top we all queued patiently for our quick photo shoot. Afterward we settled on a rock just below the summit to eat all the kimbap, take boyband album cover photos and then made our way back down the mountain.
Obviously it was time for the post hike jjimjilbang.
These are public saunas / Bath houses that are common all over Korea. Basically they’re the best thing since sliced bread. You pay about €5 to get in. It’s segregated by sex, so you strip down to your birthday suit with the lads and enter what can only be described as a mini water park filled with old naked Korean dudes. You have quick shower to clean yourself and then you just have to chose where to start. In the one we went to there were two massive jacuzzis, a cold water pool with jets, a green medicinal herb bath (like bathing in green tea), saunas, steam rooms and even these marble beds under heat lamps where you laze around like a lizard. For a little extra cash a chubby naked man would scrub you on a table. What a country!
I alternated between different methods of heating myself with cold plunges, a stool shower and scrub later and I was clean as a whistle and very relaxed and 20 minutes late to meet the girls.
Just to top off the day the whole gang went for Korean barbecue and beers. Not bad.
Most Korean day ever
My last day in Korea I decided to go full Korean. Jisu, one of the gang from the hike the day before offered to show me around while Robbie was in work. We ate lunch at a whopper restaurant. I couldn’t tell you the name but it was a proper local place, with stern but fair staff, where you know you’re going to eat amazing food even if the place is a little bit dingy looking. Having someone who spoke Korean and knew what was going on was amazing. We ate a sesame noodle dish and a tasty sea food & spring onion pancake.
We had planned to visit the Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jisu informed me that if you wear Hanbok (Traditional Korean Clothes), you don’t have to pay to get in. A couple of quick phone calls later with a quick trip to the rental store and we walked through the palace gates like we owned the place. I did my best to look as noble as possible and bow politely to our fellow hanbok wearers. We strolled through the grounds taking more photos than a Chinese tour bus and paused for afternoon tea.
The palace is stunning and well worth a visit and the hanbok was great craic. I got loads of smiles from locals and tourists alike and the pants are extremely comfortable. My only critique is there’s no pockets so you’ll have to keep your massive Samsung in you hand.
The weekend I was in Korea was the league Finals of ROK-U (Republic of Korea Ultimate). There are 16 teams in total and each team plays every other team once throughout the season, leading to a finals weekend when teams are seeded 1-16 in a play-off to decide the champion.
The Irish fanbase was firmly behind the Seoul Hammers. They had pulled a few strings and managed to have three Irish players on their roster and had put in a solid performance all league.
More important than the ultimate, there was a pool you could enter where you predict how the bracket plays out and who will be the eventual champions. You pay about €1.60 to play and the winner takes all. On the train down Robbie handed me a blank sheet and going on seeding and names alone I wrote out my best guess.
Turns out I know more about Korean Ultimate than anyone else, and I won with only one wrong result.
As for the games, Robbie’s team smashed everyone and took home the championship and Robbie won MVP of the league, blah blah blah. I on the other hand won 44,000 Won!
The theme of the party was animals and I went with my newly adopted team as a teenage mutant ninja turtle. The party was at Tilt Bar N Grill which is the Doyles of Korean Ultimate (Sweaty, messy and pure chaos). The hammers were in great form and before we knew it there were shots being thrown around like it was, well, Doyles at a frisbee party.
In the end there was a disco nap at the bar and the party was so good that a bunch of us decided if would be best if we didn’t make the hat tournament and instead lay around on the beach until we felt human again. I ate traditional Korean CU Pizza and later actual Korean clams that you cook yourself.
My time in Pohang was over. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a place to visit but I certainly had a great time.
The food in Korea is worth talking about. First of all, kimchi is served with everything, all the time, so you’d better like it. I’m a fan, despite the occasional spice overload. The cuisine is very tasty, and very heavy on the meat. They’re also big fans of cooking at your table.
The best thing by far was kimbap. Its like a full sushi style roll of rice filled with tasty goodies like meat and veggies. It costs about €1.60 and can be purchased anywhere at anytime. It’s guaranteed to fill you up and is easily transportable. I took two with me to the airport to avoid having to pay Air Asia food prices. I’ll have to start an overpriced kimbap restaurant in Barcelona and spread the kimbap gospel.
One of the recurring themes of conversations was the impact social pressures have on Koreans. In Robbie’s office he told me that people are supposed to go home at 6pm, but no Korean will leave their desk until after their boss leaves meaning they are just there for hours not working but not leaving because they are expected to stay.
The other huge difference is that if someone is older than you in Korea they have more importance than you do. In the working world I was told it’s about putting in the time. The idea of a young high potential employee rising through the ranks quickly base on merit is not common. You’re expected to tow the line and put in the hours yourself.
That’s what’s fascinating about Korea. It’s so modern and futuristic in so many ways compared to the cities I’ve lived in, but at the same time the cultural context that seems a million miles away from where I come from and if anything more like my parents or grandparents generation. It’s an interesting mix and a week is a very short time. Hopefully I’ll be back soon.
- The War Memorial of Korea was very informative. I was very ignorant about what happened with most of my previous knowledge coming from M*A*S*H reruns.
- Koreans measure age differently. You’re 1, when you’re born and every January you get one year older.
- Korean chopsticks are metal and flat. Great for sustainability, tough on inexperienced hands like mine.
- My biggest regret is not playing Starcraft.
- Koreans have won the genetic lottery. They don’t age. Guessing a Koreans age is a game you’re going to lose.
- Spacial awareness is not the best in Korea. People will bump into you, or walk in front of you without realising it.
- Mid-week after work drunkenness is a big thing here.
- Two types of Korean booze: Soju, drink of the Gods, original or flavoured, you can even mix it with your beer. Mokgeolli: milky rice wine, not a fan. Reminded me too much of Pulque from Mexico (Apparently it has a song).
- Big Supermarkets have dozens and dozens of in store free sample stands where you can eat loads but get sold to quite aggressively.
- There’s a big military presence here, you see uniforms on the street all the time. All males have to do 18 months service and there are US Military bases and soldiers all over.
- You’ve heard of the great firewall of China, but did you know the internet is heavily censored in Korea? All pornography, and North Korean websites are blocked and anything criticising the state can be easily removed.
- Korean Ultimate jerseys have a lot going on. They really like their sublimation.
- Korean Ultimate is organised by the Korean Ultimate Players Association (KUPA). However there’s a corporate group called KFDF who have state funding and who teach a bastardised version of ultimate to schools in Korea for profit. They have referees! (Disc Ireland, anyone?)
- I’ve seen plenty of Koreans enjoying a good squat. Having a smoke on the street on their hunkers.