Korea – Seeing it again with new eyes
Recently I returned from my 9th trip to Korea with the World Kido Federation/Hanminjok Hapkido Association. Each one of these trips has been different and special, and my wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. The trips have always been a whirlwind of activity, including Training with Grand Master Seo and his family, the Busan Mayor’s Cup Tournament, Sightseeing, meeting old friends and making new ones, as well as taking quiet time to learn about and take in the beautiful land of Korea and its people. After nine trips, it could be easy to become complacent, to think one has seen and experienced everything the country has to offer. This has never happened; each trip I learn more, see more, meet more people, and in the end come away learning something about myself and the world around me that I did not know before.
This trip, we had the ability and privilege to bring three students with us. Seeing the country and the Korean experience through their eyes was extremely refreshing, humbling, and exciting all at the same time. Watching them compete in the tournament and seeing them be awed by the culture and the architecture, as well as the sights, sounds and food of Korea, was a privilege to be a part of.
One of the first places we visited this trip was Bulguska Temple, and as always, it was an enlightening, educational, and thought provoking experience. Following our students through the temple and watching them as they walked up the Blue Cloud Bridge and made their way up the White Cloud Bridge caused me to stop and appreciate my surroundings. Walking the grounds, looking at the pagodas, and soaking in the richness of this temple once again took me back to 1998 when I saw it for the first time. We stopped and took pictures of the group in their uniforms at the Bell pavilion, and spent time looking at the four guardian gods entrusted to keep this temple safe. We appreciated the piling of rocks for good luck and looking at the three different Buddha’s and learning about what made them different from each other. All in all, our trip to Bulguska was a treat for us old timers and the new visitors seeing it for the first time.
After the tournament, we had the privilege of visiting the Korean Folk Village. In so many ways is it like stepping back into history. The grounds, the rural farming houses, and the Noble Man’s Mansion are just a few of the sights to be seen at the village. We walked around to find the Water Wheel we remembered from trips past, and walked the foot bridges across the stream which cuts the village in half. We were on hand to watch the re-enactment of the harvest ceremony, and we were able to get pictures with the re-enactors once the procession had ended. We watched as a period worker made fans next to a woman who was making knives. This was my 4th visit to the Korean Folk Village, and with each visit I see more, learn more, and am more impressed with the Korean people and their heritage. In our school, students study the history of Korea and its Martial Arts. They learn about the Kingdoms that made up Korea, and about important people and events that were instrumental in helping Korea become the country it is today. The visit to the Korean Folk Village gave these students the chance to see, touch, and experience the history they had only read of in books.
On our final full day in Korea, we decided to go shopping. Our little group went down to Itaewon to take in the shops and the atmosphere. The young ladies with us wanted to stop in every store and see what they could find. If you are a shopper, Itaewon is the place to be. The 1.4 kilometer long street is lined with shops, restaurants, and stalls specializing imported clothes, leather goods, shoes, hand bags, furs, and antique furniture. It also boasts shop after shop of T-shirts, Korean souvenirs, and tailors ready to make custom-fit clothes. Itaewon has changed over the years, and today has turned into a truly internationally-diverse area. One of the things we found so different this trip was the abundance of restaurants and clubs up the hills and off the main street. There is now an area called the International Food District, and it truly lives up to its name. We found restaurants specializing in Korean, New York-style, Indian, English, Thai, Chinese, Pakistani, Italian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Australian, and French cuisines. It would have been great just to spend a month there tasting the different and exotic flavors. We ended up stopping at an English Pub for lunch.
There is a large shopping mall at the base of the Hamilton Hotel. Positioned outside this area is a gentleman that makes scroll drawings and stamps. One of our students asked him to do a dragon drawing for him. I found out after we were home that he had drawings done in this same place two other times over the last 20 years, and that all three of his drawings were completed by the same person. Talk about longevity! Inside this mall there is everything. We made our way through just the first floor and almost everyone in our party walked away with a purchase. In the back of this floor we found a representative for genuine Harley Davidson merchandise. There is a Harley Davidson dealership up the road from Itaewon and we were planning to go there. This was better. I purchased another Korean Harley T-shirt and a couple of poker chips. She tried to sell me a Rolex watch for $200,000 Won ($200.00) and then when I was not interested in that she showed me a Movado watch I could have for a mere $150,000 Won ($150.00). I am now the owner of a genuine Movado watch (just kidding).
After spending a few hours in Itaewon we all went back to the hotel. A small contingent of our group went back out to another shopping area in Seoul called Cheongdam-dong in Gangnam. Known as Fashion (Celebrity) Street, Cheongdam has all of the world’s major luxury brand stores lined up for your shopping pleasure. Shops such as Salvaore Ferragamo, Escada, Loro Piana, Gucci, Cartier, and Giorgio Armani prove the exclusivity found in this area. In addition, this area boasts high-end hair and makeup salons. Alongside the designer boutiques is a street full of design studios and galleries. While unlike the Koreans, who spend hundreds of thousands of Won in these stores every day, I know the young ladies who were with us on the trip loved walking up and down the streets watching the people, the stores, and the goings-on. According to them it was a sight to behold.
That evening, we decided to go out for a walk and find some dinner. We walked up Sapyeong-daero to Banpo-daero and crossed the street. From there we saw a set of steps and went down. We walked along and found we were in the Express Bus Terminal, and everywhere we walked we found shops and restaurants. It was truly an underground city. We also found a Starbucks attached to this underground city, and we decided to go up and take a look. I have to say by far it was the most incredible Starbucks I have ever been in. It was large and in the shape of a circle. There were people sitting and enjoying themselves all around the inside perimeter and looking over the railing to the atrium was gorgeous. We decided to go back down into the mall area and find a place to eat. We ate at an Italian Bistro. The food was amazing, although if they tell you the drink you just bought is like Sprite, do not believe it. Wow, was it full of sugar! J Our adventure into underground Korea was fun. We went back up to the Starbucks store to get a coffee to go, and we then went back to our hotel for the night.
We left the next day to come home. While all of us were looking forward to getting back home, Korea had once again left its indelible mark on all of us. The sights, sounds, tastes, and experiences of Korea will stay with all of us for quite a long time. The students we took with us this time are already saying they want to go back. I truly believe once you have been touched by what is Korea you will look forward to returning whenever you can. The learning never stops, the experiences never lessen. I would like to thank the World Kido Federation/Hanminjok Hapkido Association for another great trip. I would personally like to thank the Seo family for all that they do. We are blessed to be a part of an organization with their skill and integrity, and the willingness to help their members succeed. I especially would like to thank Sara Seo for once again putting together a great trip and for allowing our students to experience Korea in a way very few people get a chance to.