Thursday, February 19, 2009

Welcome to Lotte World, home to the world's largest indoor amusement park. If the brand Lotte sounds familiar, then you probably have heard of them before. They're a gigantic conglomerate with ties to a number of diverse industries such as hotels, department stores, beverages, and are perhaps most famous for their candy. (I just can't get enough of those adorable/delicious Koala's March cookies!)

Anyway, Lotte World was one of the things that I just had to do while I was in Seoul. (Just because I'm 22 doesn't mean I can't still have fun at a children's amusement park.) I know that I just said it was an amusement park, but it's much more than that. The building is like a huge recreational complex that also includes an ice skating ring, shopping mall, movie theatres, and hotel built on the floors beneath the park.

Here's a picture to give you an idea of what the place looks like:

The place is deceptively big. You may not realize it from just looking at the picture, but there are actually four floors worth of rides and attractions. I had fun there, but it was a little strange to be at an indoor amusement park. You look up expecting to see the sky and all you can see is a giant glass panel ceiling. (I did enjoy the nice even, smooth lighting as a photographer though.)

This next picture was from the line for the Flume Ride. It's like the generic log ride you find at every amusement park. Looking up, you can see the monorail and "hot air balloon" ride that take you on a trip around the park:

And thank goodness they were using clean water for the log ride. I was worried there but a bit, but I feel at rest now:

Next up is The Adventures of Sinbad ride. I guess you could think of it like a Pirates of the Caribbean type of ride. Imagine sitting in a boat and watching animatronic robot characters playing out the story of Sinbad. Now imagine that the robots all speak Korean, haha. I had no idea what was going on. Something about Sinbad and a genie and his Sinbad's girlfriend:

Oh and then he had to fight a skeleton. It's probably better not to question why:

My favorite ride had to be the Outlaw in the Wilds ride. It's this awesome ride that incorporates the video game elements of a shooter game. Everyone sits together in this room in the style of an old Western saloon with a big screen on the wall. Your chair is a mechanical horse that jostles around as you aim your gun at the screen. The best part is that at the end of the ride they show pictures of the top 3 high scorers and the lowest scorer on the screen. They must have cameras mounted somewhere to take your picture and display it on the screen next to your score. (I missed 3rd place by 2 points :(, but at least I wasn't the lowest scorer):

As for the food, they had a diverse selection of restaurants: Korea, Chinese, Mediterranean, Spanish, etc. The Mexican restaurant is called La Paloma, and according to the website, it's one the few "authentic" Mexican restaurants in Korea. Check out the dish on the bottom left: mmm, tacos with fried rice. It's like having the best of both worlds!:

Now when I said Lotte World was the world's largest indoor amusement park, I was only telling you half of the story. Lotte World is actually two amusement parks! There's the indoor Lotte World Adventure and the outdoor Lotte World Magic Island. And unlike Disneyland and California Adventure, you can get into both places at Lotte World with one ticket.

Now as for the outdoor Lotte World park, I can't say that much about it because I hardly spent any time there. Unfortunately, I picked the coldest day of my trip to go to Lotte World. (Don't believe me? Take a look at the picture from my previous blog.) It was seriously the most snow I'd seen while in Seoul.

The good news was that the lines were incredibly short. I got to go on my favorite outdoor ride, the Atlantic Adventure roller coaster like 3 times! The bad news is that I had to take off my earmuffs during the ride. Imagine speeding along on a roller coaster at 80 km/hr in a snow storm without earmuffs. Now that's cold. In fact, the ride is supposed to be combined roller coaster/log ride, but the water was frozen over:

My favorite thing about the ride is that it begins to accelerates from the very start. I wish someone would have told me this because I almost injured my neck. As the ride started I was looking down, adjusting my gloves and then WHAM. Next thing I knew, the g-forces were pulling my head down. I guess I should have listened to that sign that said "Keep your head up during the ride." Haha. I've been feeling good since then. That means I don't need to find a Chinese acupuncturist, right?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Yesterday was all about eating Korean is all about cooking Korean Food.

Take a cooking lesson had to be one of the most worthwhile things I did in Korea. As soon as I found out there were Korean cooking lessons for foreigners, I knew I had to do it. I mean I love cooking and I love Korean food; why not put them together?

Here's a pictures of my teacher and the teaching kitchen. She didn't speak a whole lot of English, but she was really nice. We stood there at the counter facing each other as we prepared the food. I would follow her along as we went step by step through the recipes. (Ugh, a little too much distortion with that ultra-wide.):

First up on the menu was the bulgogi. I was actually surprised by just how easy it was to prepare. I know it's easier to just buy the pre-marinated stuff, but I still want to try doing it myself when I get back. This picture was from after we had seasoned the beef:

And this picture is after grilling. Interestingly enough, rather than grilling the meat over an open flame, we just pan-fried it. Nonetheless it was still delicious:

Next on the menu was the Korean cucumber and fried fish. For the fish, we used pollock. This picture was after we had sliced the ingredients and sprinkled some sea salt over it. (The salt helps season the fish and dehydrate the cucumbers):

After a dip in a beaten egg/flour, the pieces were pan-fried. I'm not a fan of fish, but the fried cucumbers were really good:

And finally, there's the kimchi of course.  Here are some of the raw ingredients (watercress daikon, leeks, and celery cabbage):

After preparing the chopped vegetables (minus the cabbage), we got ready to combine them with the spices/seasoning. Then we would mix them all together and stuff them inbetween the layers of the cabbage: 

And here's the finished product. Honestly, I can't ever see myself actually making kimchi. There's just too many steps involved and it seems like way too much work. It would take me a good number of test batches to get it right:

Anyway, I had a lot of fun cooking Korea food. In fact, I was inspired to go out and buy some Korean cookbooks and ingredients. That's why I'll be lugging a big bag of dried Korean chili pepper powder with me back to the US. Haha.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gotta keep moving along with these entries...I took way too many photographs...

I want to dedicate today's entry to Korean food. Like I said before, the food in Korea was amazing. It was definitely went above and beyond my expectations. Honestly though, I had pretty low expectations based on my experiences with the food in China. I figured the food in Korea would be more of the same. Anyway, let's take a closer look the kinds of meals I was enjoying:

First of all, note that every meal comes with a full spread of these small side dishes called banchan:

And there are all kinds of banchan. Just in this picture there's spinach with sesame oil, garlic, and soy sauce; stir-fried squid seasoned with chili pepper paste and garlic; seaweed kelp with sweet vinegar and salt; and obviously a couple of varieties of kimchi.

Speaking of which, I don't think I'd ever really enjoyed kimchi until I'd had it in Korea. I'd mean I'd had it before in the US, but I'd never been the biggest fan. And then I came to Korea. I still remember sitting there at my first meal, feeling obligated to give it a try. It went down easy and I thought, "WOW, this is good. Good thing they left me with the entire tub!"

As for dishes, first there's the kimchi stew. It's always been one of my favorites and it was probably the dish that I most often ordered. It's a basic stew made with kimchi, scallions, onions, diced tofu, and pork. It goes perfect with a bowl of rice:

And speak of which, Korea might be the only East Asian country that uses a spoon in addition to chopsticks. As per proper etiquette, you're not supposed to pick up the bowl of rice off the table; you should use your spoon to eat the rice rice. There's no need to "shovel" rice into your mouth.

Next up is the kimchi fried rice. It's exactly what it sounds like: rice + kimchi + egg (sunny side up) = deliciousness:

And as for this next one, I'm not sure if it's a common Korean dish. One night I found this restaurant serving chicken bulgogi fried rice. They start out by cooking the marinated meat along with some onions, scallions, leeks, and butter. As the meat begins to cook, they add the rice, paste/seasonings, and seaweed.  Mix it all together and voila!:

And of course, how could I go to Korea and not have Korean BBQ? I must have had some the first or second day I arrived. Actually, during my first experience, I walked into a Korean BBQ restaurant and ordered bulgogi, a type of marinated beef. I'm sitting there at the table, drooling as I watch everyone around me eating. And then the waitress brings me my order. It looked like a bowl of beef soup. Turns out there are two types of bulgogi: the grilled type and the soup/broth type. Nonetheless, it was still one of the best meals I had in Korea:

(On a separately related note, you might have noticed that the chopsticks look different. Korea chopsticks are flat and made of metal. And they're like that at every restaurant. I was there for about a week but I could never really get the hang of it. The chopsticks are just too thin and heavy for my big hands.)

Now as for the grilled Korea BBQ, they also bring you a tray of lettuce and some Korean peppers. You're supposed to make lettuce wraps with the meat!:

Inside the wrap you add chili paste and a clove of garlic. Now I love garlic, so I was all for it, but it's not for the faint of heart. The good news was that I didn't have to worry about vampires for a few days. But seriously though, the fusion of all those strong flavors was a good way:

And of course, there's the actual meat. Korean BBQ was surprisingly expensive compared to the other dishes:

And here's a finished product on the grill. (The type of meat from the last picture is different than the type of meat in the picture below.) This is the grilled kalbi from my last dinner in Korea:

Monday, February 16, 2009

As I mentioned before, it was numbingly cold in Korea. But then again, I've pretty much spent my entire life basking in the California sunshine. And then there's the fact that I had become accustomed to the hot, humid Chinese summer. In any case, I was in for quite a shock.

I still remember looking out the window as the airplane descended into Incheon International Airport.  As the runway came into view, I began to wonder, "What the heck is that white stuff on the ground." And then it hit me: "NO WAY...that's snow..." I was in such shock; right after I got off the plane, I took this picture:

I couldn't help it; I was just mesmerized by the snow. It's not like I've never seen real snow. I mean I've been skiiing/snowboarding before. But somehow, this was different. I was going to be living here with the snow for the next week. I just had to take more touristy pictures in the airport:

I was panicked because I didn't bring the right type of clothes for this kind of weather. For some reason, I figured jeans and a polar fleece sweatshirt would be enough.  After arriving at my hostel, the first thing I did was buy some earmuffs.  Thank goodness I had the foresight to bring gloves.

I remember one particular night when I almost broke down and bought a down feather jacket. It got so bad that I walked into The North Face store, determined to buy a jacket. Price was no object; I was just tired of freezing my ass off. I'd had enough of the cold, I just wanted to be warm and cozy. Finally, I found the jacket, but then I looked at the price tag: ~$250.

"Hmm....I guess I can just be cold for just a couple more days.  I'm only here for a week anyway," I thought to myself.   So I sucked it up for that week and just dealt with the cold. (Heck, $250 can go towards a lot of other things, like camera equipment.)

Speaking of cameras, it sucks to take pictures in freezing cold weather for two reasons:

1) Photographers often like to stop and take pictures.  And at least for me, it's usually not a quick snapshot.  It's more of a, "Let me set up the picture. I gotta find the right composition. Maybe take a few images of the same subject from different angles and vantage points. And of course, get the correct exposure." And that's fine if you've got all the time in the world.  It's a problem when you're freezing your ass off.  I don't even want to think about how long it took me to get this picture with the blurred streaks of snow:

2) And secondly, have you ever tried to operate a DSLR with a pair of leather gloves? I might as well have been wearing mittens. I had such a hard time pressing buttons, rotating dials, and switching levers. I had no choice but to take the gloves off and deal with frozen hands. It's doubly bad because not only are you freezing, but you're freezing without gloves to keep your hands warm.

Anyway, maybe I'm making it out to be worse that it actually was. I'm sure it's pretty comparable to weather on the East Coast. During the day it was about 30°F and during the night it was about 15°F. (For comparison, it's about 80°F where I am currently in Shenzhen, China. Talk about a change in temperature.)

And acutally it only snowed for the first few days. The other days, it was just cold period. No snow, just cold.  The worst flurry of snow came at Lotte World amusement park:

I just remember thinking, "Wow, this is real snow. And not like 'I'm at a high altitude in the mountains' snow. This is like a 'I'm walking around the city and it's snowing' type of snow."

Again, I couldn't help but try to once again capture the snowfall:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

After an incredibly long haiatus, I’m back to blogging. I spent two weeks traveling around South Korea and Japan during my Lunar New Year vacation. With everything going on, I just got too lazy to blog. You see, I’m one of those carpe diem types of tourists: I'm all about trying to make the most of my travels and see/do as much as humanly possible. That means waking up at the crack o' dawn and hitting the hay well after midnight. I know it’s not good to burn the candle at both ends, but traveling to a foreign country is such a rare and unique opportunity. Might as well take advantage of it while you're there. You never when (or if) you'll be back.

So how was it? Let me give you the summary and in the coming weeks I‘ll starting writing up entries, editing photos, and uploading video. (Yeah that’s right, I started taking some video!):

South Korea:

  • Coldest Winter: Korea was COLD. That’s what happens when you spend your entire life in the California sunshine. Seriously though, I’ve never known winter could be so cold. After landing I looked out the the window of the airplane, and thought to myself, “What the HELL is that white stuff on the ground!?"  The first thing I did was buy some earmuffs.
  • Korean Food: I knew that the Korean food in Korea would be good, but I never, ever imagined that it would be that good. And I‘m not just talking about the barbeque. (By the way, I'd take Korean BBQ over Hot Pot any day of the week.) I also have a new found love for Korean food and cooking. I even took a cooking lesson at the Seoul Culinary College and bought some Korean cook books/ingredients.
  • Palaces, Palaces, Palaces: Within Seoul, there are Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty. I guess that when you're the King, you can never have enough palaces. I only got to see 3 of 5 palaces, but I got the basic idea. Honestly, the buildings begin to look the same after awhile since they've all the same design and paint job.  I made sure to see the more destinctive/pretty ones.
  • Ice Fishing: I spent a day in Hwacheon at the Sancheoneo (mountain trout) Ice Festival. Along the Hwacheongang River, people gather to come for ice fishing, lure fishing, and bare-handed fishing. Yeah that's right, fishing with your bare hands while wearing just a t-shirt and shorts. (And of course, I did it.) But they also have sledding, a giant ice castle, ice sculptures, and ATV riding on ice.
  • DMZ: The DMZ is the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. As part of a tour group, I went to check out some of the super touristy sites in the DMZ.  This included the northmost point in South Korea, a train station that links to Pyongyang, and a massive underground tunnel intended for launching a surprise attack in South Korea.
  • Sumo Retirement: One of the major highlights was seeing real sumo wrestling. I attended a retirement ceremony for two of the professional wrestlers. During the retirement cermony a wrestler gets his top-knot cut off and it's supposedly a big deal. Trust me though, it sounds way more exciting that it actually was. In any case, I was just happy to see people actually wrestling, although I expected they'd be bigger.
  • Ghibli Museum: The Ghibli Museum is a commercial fine arts museum featuring the anime work of Studio Ghibli. You may remember them from such movies as Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, etc. It was a really cool museum with this sprawling, maze-like behavior. Too bad they didn't allow pictures inside :(
  • Photography Heaven: If I died and went to heaven (*knock on wood*), I'd imagine it would look something like a Japanese electonics store. Imagine an entire floor or building devoted to photography equipment: camera bodies, lenses, 35mm/medium format, monopods/tripods, lighting equipment, etc. And you could test all the camera bodies and lenses. I think I almost drooled on that D3X. It's really too bad the pricing was more expensive than in the States. (But that didn't stop me from picking up some cheap old manual focus lenses.)
  • Akihabara/Shibuya/Harajuku: And then there were the some funky districts of Tokyo. Akihabara is like nerd paradise: maid cafes, endless electronics stores, adult videos and sex toys, video game arcades, and 24 hour private rooms for watching TV and playing video games. Shibuya is for the hipsters. It's one of the fashion centers of Tokyo and it's a major nightlife area.  And Harajuku is where you'll find the extreme youth subcultures.  You've got the Gothic (not vamp) style, Cosplay (costume-based) style, Punk style, and hip-hop/skater style. I swear I saw two women walking around dressed-up as princesses.
  • Lost Wallet: The worst part was that I lost my wallet. (Some of you are shaking your head thinking, "Alan lost his wallet again!? First it was in Spain, and now this?") The crime rate is so low in Japan that I probably didn't get pick-pocketed; it probably me being careless and stupid. The worst part is I'll never see it again; I'd have to pick it up in person in Japan if they ever find it.
Now that I'm back in mainland China, I've got nothing but time to write and edit pictures. So look forward to entries again!