3 days in Seoul (and the DMZ)

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Gyeongbokgung palace

I started out my spring holidays with a bang – by travelling to South Korea for a few days.

All these months I’ve been hearing a lot about a cheap airline many people living in Japan use. It’s called Peach and it’s a bit of a sham. Their normal prices are actually quite expensive, and the only way you can get a good deal is by subscribing to the website and waiting for sales. But even with the sale prices I recently found cheaper tickets from other airlines. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this back in December when I booked my tickets to Seoul – oh well. The plane was averagely comfortable at least (unlike the dreadful Air China).

The area of Seoul we stayed in is called Hongdae and is famous as the place for young people to hang out, full of hostels, bars, and quirky shops. I’m glad we chose it, as well as the comfy hostel we stayed in – Able Guesthouse. In the evening, especially on weekends, you can walk down the main road and watch a dozen different wannabe Korean idols sing to groups of squealing girls. It’s surreal and hilarious.

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Creepy view of North Korea

The absolute highlight of the trip for me was also the first proper touristic thing we did: an organised trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) just north of Seoul, which was a 45 minute bus ride. It is the space between North and South Korea, a rather large piece of land, containing over 2 million landmines and more than 20 secret North Korean war tunnels, only 4 of which have been found so far. To this day, South Korean soldiers work in the area to keep looking for the tunnels and be prepared in case of attack. There are several tour companies you can go with; all of them are associated with the military. We used a half-day tour from a company called Koridoor, which was very helpful and cost us 36$ each.

The tour started at 8 am in central Seoul, from where they took us to the DMZ. We got some background information on the decades of war and tension between North and South Korea, and then we got to go down into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which left us only about 100 m from North Korea. It was a claustrophobic and sobering experience. From there we went to the Dora Observatory, to see a panoramic view of the border of North Korea. You can spot the fake villages, abandoned factories, and even some skyscrapers of the nearest city. At certain times of day both Koreas play music of their choice, and we got to hear a haunting melody emanating from behind the wall. After that we went to Dorasan station, which is a symbol of the hope of unification, because it would be the last South Korean station before a train would enter North Korea. We also got lunch which we paid a bit extra for: the traditional, delicious bibimbap (see below for me gushing about food). The tour concluded with a visit to the Imjingak Park, another symbol for peace, built on the place war prisoners were released after the Korean War. This was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, and I’m now a little bit obsessed with gathering information about North Korea, especially as the threat it poses grows with every day.

On a lighter note, the food in Seoul was incredible. It was very cheap compared to Japan, delicious, and most importantly for me – there were many vegetarian options! The only challenge was the spiciness, and on the very first day the three of us managed to thoroughly burn our mouths, but by the next day we were enjoying the food with a renewed enthusiasm. I’m a picky eater, but to my own surprise I ended up liking kimchi a lot! It’s a great snack while you wait for your main meal. My favourite dish is definitely bibimbap, which contains a pot of rice with fried vegetables, with a fried egg on top. Healthy and filling!

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In Bukchon

In terms of cultural tourism, we managed to go to Gyeongbokgung palace, where we got a free tour from an extremely smart 14-year-old Korean boy, which lasted a whole hour, as the place is huge and bursting with history. We also visited Jongmyo Shrine, which is a World Heritage site, that to this day performs ancient imperial rituals. My favourite was the Bukchon village – it’s an area between two palaces, full of ancient houses that people live in to this day, and is simply stunning. Also many Koreans wander around the centre in the traditional clothing called hanbok, which grants them free access to palaces and shrines, and adds a special ambience to the city.

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Myeongdong

In contrast to historical sightseeing, we also did plenty of shopping. Seoul is famous both for cheap and bustling markets, as well as for high streets lined with fashionable shops. The market we popped into is called Insadong, where I got hold of many affordable souvenirs. Then we kind of went crazy about all the Korean beauty shops – which there are more of than any other kind of shop in the main shopping area called Myeongdong. My friend Nick had to buy an extra suitcase to carry all of his new possessions home… Again, stuff in Korea is cheap and great.

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Us, looking so happy and oblivious…

I also have a kind of embarrassing anecdote about the very first day there. In Korea barely anyone speaks English, much fewer people than even in Japan, so sometimes it was a challenge to get by. When Elena and I kept trying to catch a taxi to go to the Gyeongbokgung, the drivers just kept making an “x” hand gesture, but eventually one took us in… and ran into a wall of policemen. There was a protest! I love protests! So of course we joined, without any idea of what it was about. I figured something was suspicious when we only met fairly old Korean people… but they were so delighted to see us, random white girls, there, that they gave us blinding smiles and free flags and wanted to take pictures together. Once I got to the hostel and found wifi, I checked the news and… of course. I, the very liberal, politically engaged Maria, managed to stumble into a protest organised by the Korean Conservative party, in attempt to keep the corrupt President from impeachment. I’m still mortified. I really care about politics, ok? Moral of the story: don’t join random protests. It’s probably about something dodgy.

I mentioned before that we took the taxi around town, and that was another amazing thing about Seoul. The taxis are extremely cheap! Sometimes cheaper than taking the underground,especially if you split between a few people. The underground is also not bad, has station names in Latin letters, pretty easy to navigate. Both Gimpo and Incheon airports have a dedicated underground line which makes it quick and easy to get there.

Well, this more or less sums up the frenzy that my 3 days in Seoul were. I was glad to go back to Japan by the end, it does feel like home after all these months.

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Wrapping up the semester

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Last days with this class, as everyone will disperse around the university for next semester. I’ll miss them all!

Coming from England, the Japanese academic calendar is very confusing. Christmas is not a holiday, the year is divided into semesters and not terms, and it actually ends now – in February. The biggest holidays are about to start: mine are from this week, February 8th, and until April 6th. I get almost 8 weeks!

The longest holidays taking place over spring and not summer makes a lot of sense here in Japan. I only caught the tail end of the summer weather when I arrived in October, but even that was unbearable: hot, humid, rainy. Apparently in the summer the Japanese try to escape the heat by going on holiday to nearby countries, and generally don’t like the season very much. In contrast, spring is famously the time to drink in the park, under blooming cherry trees, with your friends and colleagues.

First I had to survive the end of the academic year though. Technically the year abroad results don’t matter to my final degree outcome as long as I pass. Also, this may be the end of the year for the Japanese students and some international students, but my real final exams for this year are not until July.

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Celebrating surviving the exams at an izakaya

However, I’m used to trying hard in my subjects. I was panicking about kanji as usual, and the disappointed  faces of my Oxford professors haunted me as I barricaded myself in my room to revise. Back in November I only got 38% in my kanji exam, and I was convinced that I was about to do even worse this time. Spoiler alert: it turned out fine. After the November disaster I came to terms with the fact that I’m just gonna have to put extra effort in, and created a huge Anki deck that I used every other day since November. Anki is a program perfect for creating your own flashcards or using other people’s decks, and I really recommend it. It paid off! I got 70% on this exam which I didn’t even dream of. 良かった…

Other than kanji, I had a grammar exam and a reading exam, and they went smoothly. I also have until Friday to write two huge essays, which is not so good. One is in English, about travel and sacred spaces in Saigyo’s and Basho’s writing, and I’m enjoying the research immensely. The other I have to write in Japanese, and it will be about the history of the foundation of Nara – Japan’s first capital. I really missed writing essays, it’s what this year lacks for me compared to the Oxford course, though I wish I had more time for the research.

Finally, our class divided into groups of 3 to each give a 20-minute presentation on any topic. My group spontaneously decided to translate the 1999 Simpsons episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo”, which was actually banned from being shown in Japan, because it involves a scene with Homer throwing the Emperor of Japan into a used sumo thong bin. To an English person, a similar scene with the Queen would not be a big deal, but the Japanese are not used to dark or self-deprecating humour, and the faces of my Japanese teachers as they watched this scene during my presentation were priceless. We tried to explain the controversial Simpsons jokes and turned our little talk into a fun and successful discussion about cultural stereotypes.

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Desperately making memories with those who are about to leave

And that’s that for my first semester in Japan. It’s actually only been 4 months since I’ve arrived, but of course it feels both much longer and much shorter than that. I had to say goodbye to some of the wonderful friends I made who are going back home; I also got to encourage some Japanese and international students who are entering a new academic year or even a new course. There is an atmosphere of relief and exhaustion around the university; even the dorm parties have been quieter lately; it’s not unusual to see people in tears as couples formed here are having to say goodbye.

But… it’s the long-awaited holiday time! Planning what to do with 8 weeks of freedom has been a painstaking process in itself, as there are costs, dates, and travel partners to consider. And at last, I’m off to Seoul in just three days! No kanji for me for a little while.