January 31, 2013

A Walk with the Stars

The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) arranged a K-pop concert and walking tour for foreigners, suitably entitled "A Walk With the Stars". With 10 million international tourists estimated to make their way to Korea for the first time in a calendar year, there was certainly cause for celebration. The primary draws were two splendidly gifted girl groups - Sistar and 9 Muses.

K-pop is a major cultural export for South Korea, particularly in East Asia. Most of the fans in attendance were excitable young women from this region, possibly with serious self-esteem issues. Promising artists are plucked from their families at a very young age, and undergo a rigorous training and dieting regimen for many years as they are formed into a product with mass market appeal.

The output is as artificial, and as beguilingly addictive, as the women who regale the upscale coffee shops of Seoul. The tunes are catchy and the music videos are slick. The whole K-pop industry is heavily promoted by several large entertainment companies such as JYP and SM, with ample support from the government as it seeks to spread Korea's soft power around the globe.

The day was scheduled to begin with a walk around Seoul's Olympic Park and end with a concert. There was a slight delay as 9 Muses needed a bit longer than anticipated to get ready. As soon as the K-pop stars arrived on the scene, otherworldly shrieks emanated from the audience. A small stampede took place as the fans battled to get near the stars. The idols had a security detail to protect them from their manic devotees.

The walk lasted all of five minutes. The mob was hot on the heels of the stars, following them to the parking lot and then gathering beside the concert stage soon thereafter. Sistar and 9 Muses got back into the van that had transported them to the venue. I could not tell the male stars apart from regular Korean boys, so I had no idea about their whereabouts.

The emcee came out on stage, confused as to why everyone was already back when the concert was only scheduled to start in a couple of hours. He announced that the walking route was much longer - around the park and not just around the parking lot. The crowd made their way around the actual circuit for the next few hours. Sistar and 9 Muses were were worth the wait.

A special treat awaited those who had tolerated the performances of several androgynous boy bands that followed the enchanting audiovisual talents of Sistar and 9 Muses. Little Psy, the child who appears beside adult Psy in the viral hit "Gangnam Style", made his way on stage as a surprise guest. His dance moves wowed the audience. There were howls of delight as he took off his jacket and threw it into the crowd to end the concert.


"Men profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part they give no evidence in their opinions and lives that they have heard it." ~ Henry David Thoreau

January 28, 2013

The Crossing

One of the iconic destinations in Tokyo is not a temple or park, nor a palace or museum, but a street crossing in Shibuya. What makes this intersection such a fascinating sight is that when all the vehicular traffic comes to halt, hordes of pedestrians stream across in all directions at once.

A solid contender for the "World's Busiest Crossing" award, the excitement level at the intersection reaches a crescendo as the traffic signal turns yellow. The anticipation in the air is palpable. When the crosswalk indicator changes to "walk" a thousand bodies step onto the junction. The foot traffic follows a steady flow, as if everyone had years of practice. Collisions are slickly avoided by a slight alteration in each pedestrian's gait.

It is a magical sight that is best experienced while in the fray, but best viewed from one of the many coffee shops located in adjacent buildings. These are usually packed to the brim by crosswalk aficionados from far and wide. I was lucky to get a seat with a decent view at a second floor Starbucks, where two hour waiting times were once the norm.


"Until you reach the end of the road, there is still time to change the path you have chosen." ~ Susan Gale

January 27, 2013

The Emperor and the Harajuku Girls

From austere imperial gardens to vibrant youthful shopping areas, each neighbourhood in Tokyo had intriguing characteristics that set them apart from one another. Seoul, which at times is an endless loop of convenience stores, office buildings, cafes, cosmetics stores, apartment towers, and plastic surgery clinics, seems bland in comparison to the eclectic environs that Tokyo has to offer.

During the Meiji Restoration, the emperor regained control of Japan from the hands of the military generals who ruled the nation in all but name. As the time of shoguns and samurais drew to an end, the Empire of Japan embraced industrialization and modernization. During the Meiji period, the nation transformed into the military powerhouse that would wreak havoc on its Chinese and Korean neighbours in the decades to come.

Amidst a large evergreen forest in the centre of Tokyo lies the Meiji Shrine. The Shinto complex was completed in 1921 to honour the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The architecture is understated, lacking opulence but not grace. A short walk from the Meiji Shrine is youth oriented Harajuku and Omotesando, the premier fashion district in Japan.

In South Korea, the youth dress alike. As barely anyone has developed a taste for individual style, they follow the latest trends without question. The women dress exquisitely well and take care of their appearance. As for the men, it does not really matter what they wear. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that pants as tight as leotards, large purses, and eyeglass frames without lenses are not entirely flattering.

Japan has developed certain subcultures, so everyone is not a carbon copy of each other in the fashion department. Gothic lolita, punk, and visual kei are just some of the styles adapted by Japanese youth. Cosplay, where people dress up as characters from comics books, movies, or video games, is a popular hobby. The famous Harajuku girls gather in the area to show off their fashion sense every Sunday, but I did not notice any eye catching outfits when I was there. The locals, on the other hand, noticed an eye catching Indo-Canadian Temptation.


There are bugs that even eat knotweed. There's no accounting for taste. ~ Japanese proverb

January 22, 2013

Season of the Sakura

According to South Korean government regulations I could only apply for my work visa from another country, so I found myself in Japan. I spent a few days in Tokyo waiting for the South Korean authorities to process my visa application. It was a rather delightful inconvenience to have, providing me the opportunity to explore the world's largest metropolitan area.

The Japanese are extremely well mannered, or at least act the part with great authenticity. At the visa application centre, a Japanese beauty entered the elevator after me on the way up to the office. When we reached our desired floor, she stood to one side and let me exit before her. The tension that would have otherwise existed between us if she had leapfrogged me in the application queue never materialized. She had followed the First In First Out (FIFO) principle with grace and dignity.

With my application submitted, I had several days to see the sights in Tokyo while awaiting official recognition of my expert status in South Korea. Near to my hotel in Shiodome were the historic gardens of Hamarikyu Teien and the Tsukiji Fish Market. As cherry blossom season was winding down, I visited the park first to see the sakura in full bloom.

I walked at a swift, but not strenuous pace, till I reached the shopping hub of Ginza. I passed a capsule hotel on the way. The capsules provide a night's sleep for weary souls in tiny compartments that share more similarities to a washing machine than to a room. As darkness approached, the Tokyo lights began to shimmer. I went up to the top of Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Shinjuku to properly assess the scale of the vast city from its highest viewing platform.

For dinner that night, I feasted upon a raw meal at a superb sushi bar. In Vancouver there are a lot of all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants, but this was Tokyo. The à la carte approach found here was dangerous, as I quickly gobbled up dozens of pieces of sushi and was hit with a bill much larger than my sizable appetite.


Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon. Experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself. ~ Japanese proverb

January 14, 2013

Conversations with K-girls: New Years

Me: How was your new year's? 

K-girl: Same last years. I'll have to new.

January 12, 2013

Angkor Wat

I explored the sprawling grounds of the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia with my parents over three days. The largest collection of religious monuments in one location on Earth, Angkor started of as a Hindu place of worship in the tenth century. It was later augmented with some Buddhist additions, as the religious leanings of Khmer kings who sponsored the construction changed through the centuries.

On Day 1 we focused on the main temples, beginning with the famed Angkor Wat and then moving on to Bayon and Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat is located a little over 5km from Siem Reap, to the north of Tonle Sap. In Ta Prohm the trees have rooted themselves around the temples and become one with them, like tattoos on flesh.

On Day 2, we moved to the outer ring of temples. Drawing two million visitors a year, it is still easy to escape the crowds as there are over a thousand temples scattered around Angkor. It is seventeen times the size of Manhattan, and was the largest city in the world before the Industrial Revolution.

In a swampy forest, trees rose directly out of the murky waters. An elevated wooden path ran through the swamp to a temple. I inadvertently crushed a green object, the loud "Splat!" sound echoing through the forest. Its innards were splattered on the wooden walkway. The force of the impact was so great, the remains were unrecognizable. To this day I do not know if it was an insect or a fruit.

On Day 3, we woke up early to see the sun rise behind the magnificent triple stupas of Angkor Wat that appear on Cambodia's national flag. A heavy contingent of tourist and monks was also present. As has been the case every time I have woken up early to see a sunrise, there was none perceptible to the human eye as the sun was shrouded by a heavy cloud cover.

We visited an area where the temples had some vague resemblance to Roman ruins, with successive floors of the temple supported by pillars rather than the standard walls. A policeman was moonlighting as a tour guide here. He told us to stand at a certain spot to witness something special. Sure enough, from one vantage point the sun shone through the ruins at such an angle that the form of a candle was clearly visible, with the sunlight standing in for the flame.

We drove a lengthy distance to see a small set of temples in Banteay Srei. The miniature structures hold the best preserved wall carvings in Angkor. It was highly underwhelming, although there were a lot of carvings of monkeys. The beauty of Angkor lies not in the details, but in the scale and variety of the temples and its intricate embrace of the nature environment around it.


"It is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of." - António da Madalena

January 08, 2013

Wandering Wando

Around new years time, the temperatures in Seoul hovered around -17 degrees celcius. I tried to escape the cold front by going as far down the peninsula as possible on land. I took a six hour bus ride to Wando, which is an island near Jeju connected to the mainland by a bridge. On the first day the weather was about 10-15 degrees warmer, but by the second day the temperature nosedived and along came the snow. On the way back to Seoul, I saw that the entire country was covered in the white powder.

I sat beside an ajumma on the bus. Ajummas are older married women who have developed a tough skin due to the hardships of life and having to tolerate living with Korean men. They often have frizzy hair. Their hobbies include hiking in colourful clothing and elbowing fellow passengers on the subway. Despite their fearsome reputation, the ajumma on the bus was very friendly. She kept me well fed with corn, oranges, and other food stuffs during the duration of the journey.

After arriving at the bus terminal in Wando, I started walking in the general direction of the seaside. A young man spotted my meandering ways, and asked in English whether I need any assistance. He was a university student, back in his hometown to visit his parents for a couple of weeks. Despite being around my age, he seemed to have no inclination to work. He mentioned after graduation he wanted to spend a year in Japan to study the language.

We walked to the port of Wando where I checked in at a hotel on the main strip. He asked for a room with a view, so I could see the whole coastline from my balcony. Right in front of me was Judo, a famous islet packed densely with evergreen foliage as the Joseon kings had forbidden deforestation on that island through the centuries.

I was in the mood for seafood, so the hotelier suggested a visit to the local fish market and told us the stall number where his relative worked. The waters around Wando are exceptionally clean. 90% of the abalone and 80% of the seaweed in South Korea come from this place. After picking up some fish from the market, I ate some sashimi. The Korean guy had already had lunch, so we enjoyed a beer before he went on his way and I went on mine.

I headed up the hill to Wando tower, from where I could admire panoramic views of the coastline and the many islands dotting the horizon. The outline of Jeju was visible in the distance. After losing my path, I asked a group of girls for directions to the tower. They repeated what I said slowly, blushed, and then giggled uproariously as if I had just said the funniest joke in the world. No directions were provided.

The next day I spent exploring the rest of the island, stopping at a beach and a drama set. I was the only person at Gugyedeung, a pebble covered beach that had formerly been enjoyed by Korean royalty. The tide has left behind nine tiers of rocks over ten thousand years. One of Korea's original drama sets, Changpogo is a recreation of an ancient village that was used as the backdrop for many television and film serials, none of which I have seen.

January 06, 2013

Conversations with K-girls: Handsome Men

K-girl: Why are all American men sooo handsome?

Me: No, no, no. First of all, I am not an American. I am a Canadian and I am out of the ordinary. Not everyone is handsome. 

K-girl: But... all American men are so handsome.

January 04, 2013

The Basque Country

Alain, a friend of mine, hosted me in Bilboa for a couple of days. I had first met Alain in China, while sailing the Li River near Yangshuo. We met again in Beijing to feast on some balls. He met me at the Bilbao train station as I rolled into town from Barcelona. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country, which spans several provinces in Spain and parts of France.

We spent the first day exploring the city proper. Bilboa has buses, trams, a metro system, and even a funicular that transports passengers up a mountainside. Bilboa's most noteworthy landmark is the Guggenheim Museum. The titanium sheathed masterpiece was designed by the Canadian architect Frank Gehry, who is also the man behind the Experience Music Project in Seattle. The museum revitalized Bilbao's riverside, brought in millions of tourist euros, and set a new standard for contemporary architecture.

On the second day we explored the surroundings in Alain's car. Castillo de Butrón is a fine medieval castle tucked away amidst some hills, while Bermeo is a quiet fishing village with a picturesque port. We crossed the oldest operational transporter bridge in the world at Portugalete. My favourite part of the road trip was exploring San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage perched atop an islet.

We dined at some of the finest restaurants in the region. Lunch was at a traditional restaurant that oozed character, housed within a former mill. Dinner was in the exquisite beach town of San Sebastien. The former royal resort is located only 20 kilometers from the French border. Like plastic surgery clinics in Seoul, Michelin starred restaurants can be found on almost any street corner in San Sebastien.


“Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone.” – The Dhammapada

January 03, 2013

Lingua España

Minutes before the clock struck midnight (GMT+1), I landed in Barcelona. I caught a bus to Plaza Catalunya, the epicentre of the city. My hostel was less than fifty meters from where I was standing, but no one had a clue when I asked them for the street on which it was located. The English skills were painfully lacking, mirroring the level found in China and South Korea. 

However, there were some people who spoke English to me that night. Among them were the hostel staff, African guys offering to sell me drugs, and Pakistani guys offering to sell me everything else. All the inhabitants of Spain are not monolingual though, as many languages are in use within the country. 

In Barcelona, Catalan is the language of choice. The majority of the nation speaks Castinal, which is what is commonly referred to as Spanish. Both these Romance languages are easy to understand, or at least to read, for a man of my linguistic capabilities. By combining my vaunted English skills with the rudimentary French I had learnt in school, it was simple enough to make out what was written on the signage.

Bilboa is Basque country. The Basque language, Euskara, is completely unrelated to the Romance languages. It is a language isolate like Korean, as no identifiable ancestor language from which it could have descended from has been pinpointed so far. There are tales of Viking marauders leaving behind traces of their language in the Basque region, but many other theories about its origins are also in circulation. 


"You have the same birthday as me! You must be a good person." - Portuguese beauty staffing the hostel check-in counter