I ♥ K-Pop

K-Pop is the term used for Korea’s home grown genre of pop music, and I’m not ashamed to say that I am rather a big fan. Sugary sweet bubblegum pop with infuriatingly catchy beats, it is vaguely reminiscent of 90’s pop bands like Steps and S Club 7 that I adored as a kid.

K-Pop dominates the Korean music scene and the phenomenon is now spreading to the rest of East and South-East Asia, and even America.

What may have started as merely a music genre is now as much a part of Korean daily life as kimchi. It’s in your head, it’s in the classroom, it’s in the street; there’s almost no escaping it. Even if you were to don earplugs and manage to escape the music, there’s still the copious amounts of merchandise to cope with (they even have K-Pop biscuits!). Oh, and the dancing! Almost every music video features a highly choreographed dance routine, memorised and performed by kids up and down the country.

With it’s unique blend of cuteness, kitsch and synthesizers I really can’t see it being long before K-Pop makes an appearance in the charts at home.

Personal favourites so far include…

                        

       T-ara – Roly Poly                     Wondergirls – Nobody                          Kara – Step

                           

Girls’ Generation – The Boys                  2NE1 – Hate You                        BigBang – Tonight

(Click the links to see their music videos!)

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Gyeongbukgung Palace, Seoul

Last weekend we braved the cold (-10°C!) and visited Gyeongbukgung Palace, the ‘Palace of Shining Happiness‘, in Seoul.

It is the largest of the ‘Five Grand Palaces‘ in Seoul, built in 1394 by King Taejo of the Joseon dynasty. It was burnt down during the Japanese invasions in 1592 and lay in ruins until it was reconstructed almost 300 years later. Having been almost completely destroyed again by the Japanese in the early 20th century parts of it are still being restored today.

It is a huge, sprawling complex of banquet halls, throne halls, shrines and royal residential quarters set against an unusual backdrop of mountains on one side and high-rise office blocks on another. My personal highlight was Gyeonghoeru, a large pavilion in the middle of an artificial, snow covered, lake which was used for state banquets. Whilst the buildings were undeniably beautiful, the grounds seemed somewhat sparse, and it was hard to see past the reconstruction and imagine it’s history.

Temples, toilets, and towers – Tokyo 2011

Tokyo. Oh, Tokyo. How can I even begin to do justice to this city. The vending machines, the television, the toilets! Just 700 miles and a 2 hour flight from Incheon, but it felt like we had just landed on a another planet.

After getting the train from Narita airport into Tokyo, we inevitably got lost trying to find the hotel. Armed with our two words of Japanese, but three months experience of gesturing what we wanted to mystified Koreans on our side, we thought we’d try asking for directions in a shop. Wow. The shopkeeper didn’t know where the hotel was but got straight onto Google Maps, gave us a print out (with a translation!), walked us down the street to show us where we needed to go and wished us a pleasant trip. Having grown up in England, and having lived in Paris and Incheon (not exactly renowned for their manners), I was stunned by this level of helpfulness. The hotel receptionist was almost too helpful, in a creepy Uncle Fester kind of way that made us wonder whether we’d ever be able to leave the hotel again.

We did manage to leave the hotel, and we headed off to Asakusa, just a couple of subway stops away from where we were staying. Even the subway is more helpful than the maze that is the Seoul subway system. Each station has a name and a number, and each line has a name and a colour, making it very easy to work out where you’re going and avoiding confusion between places like Asakusa and Akasaka.

So we went to Asakusa to see the Senso-Ji temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Guanyin, the bodhisattva associated with compassion and the Goddess of Mercy. It is the oldest temple in Tokyo and one of the most important. While we were there I got my Buddhist fortune, a ‘regular’ fortune telling me ‘though you always desire to make up your request immediately, even if it takes too long, don’t worry about that. Just like step over many mountains, after so many hard work, your request will make out to fine. Treasures and wealth will be in your hand without any trouble.’ Make of that what you will…

The next day one of my lifelong dreams finally came true. I saw a panda. Two pandas actually, at Ueno Zoo. I don’t know where my obsession about pandas came from really, but this made me a very happy girl! Later that day we tried to go to the Imperial Palace, the main residence of the Emperor and his family, but unfortunately it was closed for the New Year. In the evening we visited Tokyo Tower, kind of like an tango-ed Eiffel Tower! We got there just in time for it to go dark, and from the second observatory, 250 metres high, you could really appreciate the sheer scale of Tokyo. It stretches as far as the eye can see. We also had our first experience of a Tokyo banana. Yum yum. It’s a surprisingly soft, light sponge filled with banana cream.

  That night we found the most amazing sushi restaurant, at first just an unassuming hole in the wall, right around the corner from the Tsukiji fish market. Even for a Wednesday night it was packed out with locals with not a tourist in sight, and we had a full on feast. Followed by another Tokyo banana.

The following morning we went to Maruyama Park, so quiet and so peaceful that you’d never know you were in the heart of such a bustling city. It is home to the Hokkaido Shrine, where the kami (souls) of the Emperor Meiji and his Empress are enshrined. Then, in complete contrast, we went to the Harajuku shopping area. It was a major technicolour attack on the senses! Absolutely insane and exactly what I had expected from Tokyo! Next on the list was the Shibuya crossing, the Japanese equivalent of Times Square. The traffic lights change and for 30 seconds the road becomes a sea of people, each going in their own direction. As soon as the lights go back on red, the crowds evaporate and cars take their place once again.

On our last day we paid a visit to the Mecca of all things geeky; Akihabara. So unashamedly geeky it’s actually cool. Huge, glaring superstores selling a plethora of almost futuristic electronics. And this wasn’t just a place for teenagers. From the geeky teens, to the business suits, men of all walks of life were poring over the latest manga and anime. Then the last place on our whistle-stop tour of Tokyo was Yasakuni Shrine. The moment we walked through the gates the atmosphere seemed to change. It is a Shinto Shrine, dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the Emperor of Japan. There are currently over two million souls enshrined there, and it is believed that all evil acts committed in life are absolved through enshrinement. The controversy however, comes from the kami of 14 Class-A war criminals, and 1068 Class-B and -C war criminals which are also enshrined there. A stark reminder of Japan’s brutal military history and their unwavering nationalistic pride.

Onto a lighter subject now, I think the Japanese toilet merits a section of its own. They’re incredible, yet terrifying. You’re almost too scared to sit on it in case something unexpected happens. They spray, wash, dry, deodorise, they even have heated seats; I half expected it to wish me a good day when I got off! How has something so simple turned into something that requires ‘operating instructions’? It felt quite mundane to get back to ‘normal’ toilets in Korea.

It is a city of real contrasts; old and new, Shinto and Buddhist, east and west, hi-tech toilets and squatters. Nothing will prepare you for Tokyo, it will blow your mind, but you can’t help but fall under it’s spell.

Seollal – The Year of the Black Water Dragon

  Seollal is the Korean name for the Lunar New Year festival (do not call it Chinese New Year!).   Along with Chuseok (the harvest festival in September) it is the biggest event in the Korean calendar.  2012 is the Year of the Dragon, which is meant to be especially lucky because it is the only mythical creature in the zodiac.

But don’t expect big parades and fireworks, the Korean celebrations are very low key.  Seollal is a time to spend with family, and the cities become ghost towns as people disappear en masse to their hometowns to pay respect to their ancestors and visit their relatives.

This, of course, meant another activity day at Wonderland!  The kids all came into school wearing their traditional hanbok, elaborate and beautifully coloured outfits worn only for these special occasions.  We spent the morning singing traditional songs and playing traditional games, and the children all performed sebae, paying their respects to the school principal by bowing to him. On the day itself they would bow to their grandparents and receive blessings and often a small pouch of money. Then, for lunch we had a special Seollal meal, consisting of tteokguk (a broth with thinly sliced rice cakes in), rice, meat, tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy red sauce), and of course, because no Korean meal would be complete without it, kimchi!

Food is a big part of the New Year celebrations, and it is believed that people’s ancestors return to enjoy the holiday food with their families.  Meat, fish, rice, wild vegetables and tteokguk are all served. The Lunar New Year is similar to a birthday for Koreans and according to tradition after you have eaten this soup you are one year older.

Over the weekend we went to Namsangol Hanok Village in Seoul as they were putting on some special events for Seollal. We watched a performance of a traditional harvest dance, played yut nori (throwing wooden sticks to see your fortune for the coming year), tuho (throwing arrows into a large vase), and gongi (a game similar to jacks). We also made Korean masks with clay (my lack of creative talent became very apparent here!) and had a wander around the village. Here’s to a prosperous and happy 2012, and fingers crossed my fortune comes true…!

새해 복 많이 받으세요! – Happy New Year!

The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim.

At 22 I haven’t had many “where were you when…?” moments, but I think December 19th 2011 will be one of them. It was just a normal morning at school when one of my Korean co-workers came running into the teachers room and shouted ‘have you heard? Kim Jong-Il is dead!’. A quick glance at BBC News confirmed that it was in fact true. But there was something about the way she shared the news that felt slightly uncomfortable. She was happy about it. It’s easy to forget that this is a country still at war with it’s northern neighbour, but this certainly served as a sharp reminder.

Conversation quickly turned to the possibility of reunification, and since the successor had yet to be announced, speculation was rife. The kids all wanted to talk about it, they were clapping and singing, it was really quite eery seeing their reactions. Outside in the streets the tension was palpable and everyone was watching the news on their phones (which also made me realise I haven’t seen anyone read a newspaper yet!).

Then the news came that, as suspected, Kim Jong Eun was the successor, and the atmosphere changed again. We were advised to register with the British Embassy here, there was talk of stockpiling food and water, there were helicopters overhead, and a noticeable increase in military presence on the street.

We kept an eye on the news all evening, but it was difficult to know what to believe, with some articles making grim predictions and others saying it would be a smooth, trouble-free transition. Getting any real information about such a secretive state seems impossible; the very fact that he had been dead for two days before the rest of the world found out surely proves this. Whilst I initially, and naively, thought that if anything was to happen it would be in the following days, it soon became clear that this would be a lingering concern for the South Korean people for the next 12-18 months.

It never rains but it pours

I can’t quite believe I’m even thinking this, let alone putting it in black and white, but here goes – I miss the English weather. In all the time spent trying to prepare myself for things I might miss from home, not once did I expect this to be one of them. And I’m sure that given a week in England I’d probably be complaining about it again (but then that’s what the English do isn’t it?).

The temperature here is hovering several degrees below freezing, but it’s not the cold that bothers me, it’s how dry the air is. I miss being able to turn a corner and not have the breath taken out of me by the bitterness of the wind. I miss being able to pop to the shops and not come back looking like Rudolph. I miss being able to open a door without getting a static shock every time.

I can’t even remember the last time it rained, certainly not within the last couple of months. In fact, I’ve been here for just over three months and it has only rained twice. However, when it does rain, it isn’t a piddly little “let’s just wait for it to pass over” shower like we have in England, it’s an almighty 15 hour downpour. Better go get practising my rain dance…