Thursday, December 25, 2008


Us during a walk through a Japanese garden.

A statue of an Akita Inu scandalizing a local boy.

Pachinko is a form of gambling that mixes conventional slot machines with the din of pin ball and arcade games. Most Pachinko parlors feature female attendants wearing teeny-bopper gear. At this parlor, the girls wore revealing Santa Claus skirts. The basic idea is that you pay 1,000 yen (about $11) and start out with a handful of metal balls. Using a dial you shoot the balls into the field of play where they bounce off of pegs and hopefully fall into a central slot. Each well-placed ball gains a credit on the slot machine - and then loud computer graphics, usually of an aquatic (and slightly erotic) nature, sound off. When you hit a jackpot (1:303 attempts), you start to rack up balls. With enough luck, by the time you're finished you may have several trays filled. We got lucky and hit the jackpot once, which would have netted around 5,000 yen had we cashed out. But at that time we were still learning the basic principles of Pachinko and, not knowing when to quit, pressed our luck until we busted. Back outside, it took several minutes before the Pachinko sounds and smells wore off - the sound was literally deafening.

Paintings above the front entrance to the Minamiza theater in Gion, Kyoto. This theater is famous for its kabuki performances, which now take place only during the month of December. We showed up at the box office and unsuccessfully tried to get tickets to a performance - the only seats left were the most expensive, about $300 each.

On our way to a huge outdoor market at To-ji temple, we saw this woman making Japanese omelets, called tamago, outside of a store. She had five tamago pans roasting over a grill in front of her. One by one, she spread thin layers of the egg mixture over the pans and then rolled the egg using a spatula as it cooked. People were lined up around the block to buy them. We were surprised to find out that she had attended the University of Washington in Seattle and spoke excellent English. And the tamago was pretty good too.

Adrienne posing with some delicious sake we drank with our meal in a small traditional Japanese restaurant near Kyoto station. The food came out slowly, one dish at a time, and everything was delicious. We had a dish of various cold pickles as an appetizer followed by tofu hot-pot and salmon over rice soaked in hot green tea. Then we had chawanmushi, a slow-cooked egg custard, and a plate of assorted sushi for dessert - delicious!

Stephen resting in a Japanese cemetery. While at another cemetery, we observed a Buddhist ritual - wooden slats with Chinese writing were replaced, along with chanting and a food offering. See the next picture to compare the Japanese cluttered style with Korean minimalism.

The regularity of plots in the picture is somewhat unusual, but the grassy hillock is the same in all Korean cemeteries.

This picture is from a nearby city, Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 (Kyoto then became the capital until 1868). The ancient Naran monks domesticated deer in a park outside of a famous temple complex, and currently there are around 1,200 tame deer. Seen above is a cartoon sign demonstrating inappropriate contact between humans and deer - don't feed them cigarettes, don't allow your dog to hunt them, don't have your toddler son beat them with a switch. An unusual feature of these deer is that some "bow" - drop their heads between their outstretched front legs - to more effectively beg for food. Stephen, always one to befriend animals, used an orange peel to lure several beasts to him. At one point, two deer were flanking him on each side, and aggressively rubbing their stubby antlers against his legs. One almost ripped his cargo pocket right off of his pants!

They are cute.

An amazing tree branch in the Nara deer park.

During our day trip to Arashiyama, a neighborhood in western Kyoto, we - especially Stephen - fell victim to advertisements for the Arashiyama monkey park. After paying admissions at the gate, Adrienne thought it was just a few minutes' walk away. But instead it was a half-hour walk straight uphill! Above is a sign we encountered along the grueling path, sadly indicating our lack of progress. It was worth it though: as we approached the monkey park at the top of the hill, two monkeys came screeching and bounding straight at us. Stephen shielded Adrienne as one monkey grabbed the other by the rear with his teeth and flung him down the mountain. Neither monkey seemed to be harmed by this violent display. Key instructions for person-to-monkey interaction included not making direct eye contact as this is viewed as a sign of aggression. Not only did Stephen ignore this rule, he also amused himself by making his best monkey sounds and faces, as well as discovering that scuffing his feet along the ground near a monkey creates a high level of excitement.

A monkey in a rare moment of calm, posed atop a fence-post overlooking Kyoto.

Sunset over a Buddhist temple in northwestern Kyoto.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Life in Poch'un

At breakfast with the family we're living with in Poch'un. We live in a house with our bosses, Dr. Park and Mrs. Myun (husband and wife), plus their daughter, two male boarding students, and another teacher. On this morning we ate kimchi, seaweed soup, rice and fish patties covered in egg.

Every autumn Mrs Myun makes a cherry wine and stores it inside this vessel. The cherries are hand-picked from the cherry trees that grow on the mountainside. We drank some when a visitor came to the house.

Our home and the adjacent school sit atop a small mountain, reached by driving up a perilous, cracked cement road.

Stephen and his special friend JeDu which means "wise brains" in Korean. Yesterday Stephen witnessed an epic battle between JeDu and an as-yet-unidentified creature that has been referred to as everything from a "tree lemur" to a "super raccoon." It was at least as big as JeDu according to some accounts.

Adrienne and Hello Kitty laboring over her MFA application. When Adie finished, we celebrated by eating noodles at a nearby restaurant and going into Poch'un city to go bauble shopping. At the restaurant, we ordered "Kimchi water noodles" - but instead of a steaming bowl of noodles, we got a frosty bowl of ice noodles.

Stephen, Mrs. Myun, and Karam outside enjoying some snow last week. The family had to walk up the steep mountain road after their car got stuck at the bottom but everyone was in great spirits and enjoying the weather when we came out to greet them.

Us after decorating the Christmas tree. It was a festive occassion, only I hope that the indoor socket that is dangling off the tree doesn't cause an electrical fire. If the school is still standing in January, consider it a Festivus miracle!

Adrienne with Mrs. Myun, Karam, the two boarding students, the other teacher, and Ung-E, the golden retriever.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Goodbye Pusan, Hello Poch'un

LG metro city, the largest apartment complex in Korea and our home for six weeks. LG stands for Life's Good. Just like an American stadium can take the name of its corporate sponsor, a Korean apartment may be named after, say, a consumer electronics and home applicances conglomerate. We found that LG metro didn't live up to it's corporate slogan.

Bookworms love to read; bibliophiles love the materials and formats of books; bibliomaniacs love to hoard books of no intrinsic value and occasionally eat them. Our boss suffered from bibliomania, an obsessive-compulsive disorder "involving the collecting or hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged." We estimated that in his apartment were at least 20,000 books. The perimeter of every room was lined with locked bookshelves. Over the course of the six weeks that we stayed with him, he added a few more bookshelves, only there was no space for them - one went in the kitchen, between the dining room table and the kimchi freezer, another went behind a bedroom door and significantly blocked the entrance.

Our workspace. As you can see, the line of bookshelves extends onto the porch.

Unfortunately, bibliomaniacs don't actually read their books. If only our boss would have read that one.

After leaving dr jun's, we stayed in a goshitel, a kind of student boarding house infamous for its economical arrangement of space. Our room was 5ft x 7ft. In the picture you can see three walls; the room was the length of a table, and we slept partially under it. Even still, it was our cube, and we came to rather like it.

For a hilarious 3 minute tour through a goshitel:

Our goshitel was near a university, and the area was full of restaurants which specialized in carnivorous treats. Nearly every establishment had a cartoon animal on their sign to advertise which meat was most prevalent on their menu. It might be a chicken with an imperious facial expression being boiled in a black metal cauldron, or a pig with a bandaid on its arse, or, in this case, the two meats are in a death struggle, and clearly the beef shank is tastier than the craven chicken breast.

Our business relationship with Dr Jun ended at 10 pm on a train from Pusan to Seoul. Here we are, relieved.

Monastic-ware being sold at the train station.

And now we're back in poch'un, where Stephen began four months ago. The people here are kind and welcoming, and you can't put a price on our peace-of-mind. Stephen has two dogs to romp with, there are two Buddhist temples within walking distance, and there is nothing but trees and crisp air.