We had dinner with family friends last night at Gorilla in the Kitchen, adjacent to Dosan Park in Sinsa-dong. The restaurant is owned by Korean celebrity actor Bae Yong-joon and is based on the fitness regimen designed by his trainer and nutritionist (nutrition facts everywhere). Gorilla in the Kitchen is also famous for not using any butter or cream at all: my tobiko "fettuccine alfredo" had a cauliflower-based sauce that was still surprisingly rich and hearty. Incidentally, there are two portion sizes for most dishes: "human" or "gorilla". I also enjoyed the garlic soup and a yuja smoothie.
More pictures from around town:
Sejong the Great + plasma screen TV) (only in Korea...)
My family and I took the KTX this morning from Seoul Station to Busan. The high-speed rail system has a top speed of over 200 mph, and the entire trip took only three hours.
Busan is South Korea's second largest city and the fifth largest port in the world. It is also home to Shinsegae Centum City, registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest department store in the world. Busan is also famous for its beaches, seafood, and the Pusan International Film Festival (largest in Asia).
Haedong Yonggung Temple
Nurimaru APEC House (location of 2005 APEC Conference)
Lunched today with my mother's high school friends, some of whom I hadn't seen since (my) infancy.
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We spent the rest of the day at COEX in Gangnam. We could probably spend the rest of the week here, too: this place is massive. Located within the Korean World Trade Center complex, COEX holds a 900,000+ square ft. underground COEX shopping center, two food courts, the Seven Luck Casino, an aquarium, two luxury hotels, a movie theater, a convention center, and a kimchi museum. Boom.
Hyundai I-Park Tower across the street (designed by Daniel Libeskind).
Myeong-dong is a popular shopping district and also home to the famous Myeongdong Cathedral (the oldest Catholic church in Korea). It's also the Korean headquarters of many financial corporations, including Citibank, Korea Exchange Bank, AIG Insurance, Hana Bank, and HSBC.
My first stop in Seoul was a long-awaited, much-needed haircut (reservations made via Skype several weeks ago). I sent my bags to Grandma's house separately and went directly from the arrivals hall at Incheon International Airport to Seocho-gu.
On the way from the airport, I caught a glimpse of Songdo, a new, master-planned city being developed on reclaimed land along the Yellow Sea, 40 miles west of Seoul. At an estimated cost of over $40 billion, Songdo is the largest private development project in the world and will include features such as a Jack Nicklaus golf course, global academic complex, city-wide wireless systems, mile-long seawater canal, electric water taxis, and abundant parkland. Pretty awesome.
My family and I then headed to Namsan Valley, home to well-preserved residences and gardens of Joseon-era aristocrats in the heart of downtown Seoul. These traditional structures are surrounded today by skyscrapers and the observation tower on Namsan Mountain.
I'm quickly realizing that Tokyo is not a very walkable city. It's dense, yes, but there aren't many clear natural landmarks or a defined historical core. Tokyo seems more like a vast, sprawling collection of neighborhoods with loosely connected identities (business districts, residential areas, shopping centers, etc). Thanks to the subway system and some carefully planned neighborhood-hopping, however, my family and I have been able to cover a lot of ground during our brief time here.
Incidentally, booking rooms in Ginza was a great choice. This district is home to some hardcore shopping, and its central location is also serving as an excellent, time-saving home base for exploring the rest of the city. Legendary department stores. Did I mention the retail?
Sumimasen (すみません) is possibly the most versatile phrase in the world (or at least in Japan).
It's translated in my guidebook as "excuse me," but its use in Japan seems much broader, kind of like a combination of excuse me/I'm sorry/please/over here. I've heard it more than any other phrase in Japan, in situations ranging from matcha tea refills to catching someone's attention to handing over an object to apologizing for not understanding English.
On the other hand, another phrase I expected to be handy was "ikura desu ka" (how much is it), but the first time I tried asking it, at a small store, I immediately realized how useless it is to me. (The Japanese shopkeeper promptly announced the price in Japanese numbers, which I, of course, did not understand.
Oh well, as the Japanese say, 七転八起, right? Wait, that requires numbers, too...
Our next stop was Shinjuku, home of the busiest train station in the world. Take the wrong exit (of which there are over 200), and you might be half an hour from where you were supposed to leave the station. We walked to Tokyo City Hall, which was the tallest building (by roof height) in Tokyo until 2006. The 45th floor observation deck is open to the public and commands an incredible 270-degree panoramic view of the city. From there, we could see the city's most important skyscrapers and also, to the west, Mount Fuji.
We then headed to Isetan Department Store, originally founded in 1886 as a high-end kimono shop. Today, it reigns as the grandmother of Japanese malls, with branches throughout Japan and in Southeast Asia. I naturally began my exploration in Isetan's famous depachika, or food hall, located on the vast basement floor. I should have taken some pictures, but I was far too busy gazing at and sampling the vast array of beautifully arranged pastries and mochi and noodles and jellies and chocolates and eel and cakes.
I could also rave at length about Japanese service, but here's one brief anecdote that reflects my opinion so far on service in this country. One end of Isetan's food hall is basically a grocery store, and I went there to purchase a few snacks and a bottle of milk. When I arrived at the checkout counter, the sales clerk first bowed lightly and then quickly placed my food in plastic bags, which she sealed with small pieces of Isetan brand tape. She somehow conjured up a small packet of ice and slid it in next to the milk to keep it cold. Also, because the milk was in a glass bottle, she tucked it into a small case of bubble wrap before putting it in a bag with my other cold items. Of course, all this with a smile and a stream of very friendly-sounding, albeit completely incomprehensible (to me) Japanese. Environmentally friendly? No. Unnecessary? Perhaps. But still, dear American service sector employees, please take note. On second though, never mind - if American grocery store sales clerks were all this courteous, I would probably be grotesquely obese.
Keyboards in Japan are a bit wider than in other countries. You have to stretch your right pinky more than usual to reach the "Enter" key. The top row of letters (Q-P) has also been shifted over to the left, which is causing me to press the @ (not Shift+2 in Japan) every time I want a "P". In addition, there are a bunch of confusing keys that I keep pressing accidentally, resulting in spontaneous cascades of hiragana on the screen. (This is far more annoying than the Y/Z position switch on German keyboards, which make me type "reallz" and "zes" and "howdz" when traveling in Germany and also for a week at home afterwards.)
Typing hurdles aside, my family and I are having an awesome time in Tokyo. We woke up at 6:00 a.m. this morning and walked to Tsukiji Shijo, the largest wholesale fish market in the world, where we had sushi for breakfast (definitely an "I must be in Japan" moment) at Daiwa, a restaurant just outside the marketplace. Even at breakfast time, we had to wait for a while in line outside the door before being seated. As soon as the first slice of toro touched my lips, however, I understood the reason.
. . .
One big surprise for me has been the apparent lack of significant historical structures in Tokyo. I was expecting more of the centuries-old-traditional-juxtaposed-against-supermodern that pervades many large cities in Asia and Europe. I suppose this makes sense considering the fact that Tokyo has only been the national capital since 1868, much later than most other Asian capitals. I also learned that half of Tokyo was flattened during World War II air raids.
One historical area that we did visit today was Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine built in 1920 in honor of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shokun. This shrine was also destroyed by WWII bombing but rebuilt in 1958 through public fundraising.
We then headed to Harajuku, the center of Tokyo's anime, cartoon kitsch, cosplay and Lolita fashion subcultures. (Think Victorian England meets Pikachu.) I wasn't sure whether to be fascinated or terrified. Mostly just weirded out. But hey, to each his/her/its/I-don't-know-what's own.
I somehow convinced myself that staying up all night would be a good way to prepare my body for jet lag. I'm regretting that decision at the moment as I nod off in Houston's Terminal E airport lounge, waiting for my flight.
The last couple weeks at school were a blur: reading week, term papers, four final exams, Christmas parties, packing, and the usual shenanigans. Basically, I was wearing my pajamas and carrying around a giant box of Heart to Heart cereal the entire time. And disheveled and sleep-deprived and unshaven. (Extremely attractive, I swear.) Which reminds me of something Professor Scholl mentioned during a lecture on linguistics - why do we only say "disheveled", never "sheveled"?
Like many other universities, Yale provides a reading period at the end of each semester to allow students to prepare for final examinations. I'm using this week without classes to finish term papers and to begin studying for my four finals next week. I'm also sparing some time to catch up on my new favorite TV show Iris. It's like a Korean version of24, except better (and with some Bourne mixed in).
Last paragraph of the Neuroscience paper that I just turned in: (I assure you that the other ten pages were slightly more scientific.)
Eventually, however, the caffeine wears off, and I am powerless against the biological clock forcing my body to sleep. I resignedly climb into bed, and within an instant, I have already entered the first stage of sleep. In approximately an hour, I am in the deep, restful realm of slow-wave deep sleep, and my body is thanking me for the rest that is helping replenish everything from motor function to emotional control. As the night progresses, the periods of slow-wave sleep become shallower and brief, while REM sleep stages gradually increase in both length and frequency. During one of these REM cycles, I have a vivid dream about a brightly painted hippopotamus munching on baked-not-fried potato chips. When my alarm goes off the next morning, I wonder if this might be an auspicious sign.