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Friday, February 17, 2012

Skates & Smiles at Shinsegae Ice Rink in Busan

Even though Busan is a few degrees warmer than its sister cities to the north, it's still winter here, and occasionally you need to escape the chill. Well, Shinsegae Department Store offers the perfect solution to the dilemma of whether to venture outside or to stay indoors. Shinsegae, the world's largest department store, is also home to a lovely indoor ice rink, located on the 4th floor. It's open from 10:30 AM until 8:00 PM, seven days a week, and it's a popular activity with locals and tourists alike. A two-hour entry costs 7,000 won for adults and 5,000 for children, and skate rental is an additional 3,000 won. You must wear gloves and the rental helmets when skating. 

I joined two friends on a Thursday morning at 10:30 AM and was surprised to see a line of eager shoppers waiting for the store to open. When I got upstairs only a minute or two later, I was surprised again to find that a gaggle of teenage girls had beaten us to the ticketing booth, and that we actually had to wait a moment or two to get our gear. The entry and rental was quick and painless, although I'd advise that you know your Korean shoe size (measured in centimeters) in advance. Key lockers are available for 500 won.

When you hit the ice, you'll quickly get into the counter-clockwise groove with the sounds of K-Pop ringing in your ears, and videos of teary-eyed figure skaters like Korean hero Kim Yuna twirling their way to gold medals.You'll be on your way to Olympic glory in no time! 

The rink closes every two hours for a 15-minute ice-resurfacing, during which time you may wish to refuel with a treat from the snack bar, or take a moment to pose in the photo zone.

Shark Zamboni!
Schoolchildren + Snacks + Skates
So excited to get back on that fresh ice!
While early weekdays are definitely best as you can enjoy the rink to yourselves, weekends provide some good people watching and a more family-oriented crowd. Weekdays also appear to attract middle-schoolers in droves, so it's an amusing peek into the young dating scene. All in all, a fun experience and good way to pass the time if your friends are more into browsing the shops than you are!

Middle school students skate in their uniforms

Catch you next time, cool dudes!
Busan's Shinsegae Department Store is located at the Centum City subway stop (green line, stop # 206). Exit the subway turnstiles, and use the indoor entrance to store. Elevators are immediately to the right of the main entrance. The ice rink is open year-round.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Red, White, & Black: Special Days Celebrating Love in Korea

As the chilly month of February descends upon us, so too do thoughts of romance (or lack thereof!) as Valentine's Day draws near. For young Korean couples, however, Valentine's Day is just the first of many love-themed days that are approaching. Seeing the commercial success of Valentine's Day, marketers have latched on to the 14th of each month and made a special day that couples can use to celebrate their love, but none are quite as popular as White Day and Black Day.

Love locks on a fence in Busan

Valentine's Day is celebrated differently in Korea than it is in the West, with only women doing the gift-giving. On February 14th, women and girls in Korea present chocolate to the men and boys in their lives, including fathers, brothers, romantic partners or crushes, classmates, teachers and students, and coworkers. These chocolates can be store-bought or handmade, but the more elaborate, labour-intensive, or expensive the chocolates are, the more meaningful the relationship, or the higher the desire to begin a romantic relationship. Stores large and small stock up for the holidays with chocolates, cards, and candy-making or wrapping supplies. Although some women give candy to all the men in their lives, others give only to the ones they have a romantic interest in, and this leads to a competition particularly among students, whereby social status is measured by the amount of chocolate received.  Women also tend to share chocolates with their friends, coworkers and female counterparts on this day.

Valentine's Day display outside a convenience store

White Day takes place one month later, on March 14. On this day, men present the women in their lives with candy or presents. Good etiquette says that a candy favour should be returned to any woman who presented the man with a favour. Again the larger the favour, the more important or romantic the relationship is or hopes to be. Of course, not all Valentine's Day favours are returned with a White Day favour, and again the number of White Day gifts a woman receives can be seen as a measure of her social standing, especially when men are expected to give candy and gifts that are more valuable than the ones they themselves received. This means that men will purchase a White Day gift that is worth up to four times the value of the Valentine's Day offering, and stores will once gain enjoy high mid-month sales. While wallets may be a bit slim after Valentine's Day and White Day, Korean couples do have the advantage of enjoying the love-themed fun twice as long as Western couples do! 

In April, a special day takes place for those not included in the couples-only frenzy of Valentine's Day and White Day. It is somberly known as Black Day, and it is uniquely Korean. On April 14, singles dress in black and gather to eat jjajangmyeon or noodles with black bean sauce. Once gathered, they can choose to celebrate their singledom or to mourn their loveless-ness and commiserate with one another. I suppose it's better fun than the Western way of doing things, which would be crying alone at home with a pint of ice cream!

Feeling blue and lonely?
Try some jjajangmyeon on Black Day!
So whether you're single or you're someone's better half, perhaps you'll consider celebrating love Korean-style with Valentine's Day, White Day, and Black Day. And if it's not your thing, at least you know on which days to avoid the shops!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

13 Ways & 13 Days: Celebrating Love in Korea

With Valentine's Day swiftly approaching, some of you may be scrambling to put together just the right gift for that special someone. If you think that's tough, try being Korean. In Korea, there's not just one day, but thirteen special days designed to celebrate love!

Now before you pity those who aren't so romantically inclined, fret not. Only two of these days are equal to Valentine's Day in popularity, and those are White Day and Black Day, celebrated March 14th and April 14th, respectively. All of the love days fall on the 14th of each month, with the exception of Peppero Day, which falls on the 11th of November and is a cultural phenomenon all its own. Intrigued about Korean couple days? Grab your partner and don your matching couples' attire, read on, and learn how to celebrate (or avoid!) Korea's special days of love.

January 14 - Diary Day
Couples exchange diaries or agendas, and write their anniversaries or wishes for their next year together. If that year will include all of the pricey couple day outings, perhaps they should also schedule a bank appointment.

February 14 - Valentine's Day
Women present the men in their lives with chocolate treats. Women can confess their love or indicate their feelings by giving their chosen beau chocolates, and the more elaborate the treat, the greater the romantic attachment.

March 14 - White Day
Men return the women's affections with candy gifts, or any gift of their choosing. Again, the fancier the gift, the more he fancies you!

April 14 - Black Day
This one's for the singles. Solo guys and gals mourn (or celebrate!) their lack of romantic partner by dressing in black and gathering together to eat jjajangmeyon, or Korean noodles with black bean sauce. Foods blackened with squid ink are also becoming popular, as is black coffee, and I wouldn't be surprised if the coffee shops or squid-sellers soon latch onto this day as an excuse to boost sales.

May 14 - Rose Day and/or Yellow Day
Couples give roses to one another, while hopeful singles gather once again, this time in yellow dress to eat yellow curried rice. Although yellow is a sunny and optimistic colour, I personally think that curry-breath won't help help anyone get a date.

June 14 - Kiss Day
This is the time to shower your beloved with kisses. Finally, a holiday exclusively for making out. Pucker up!

July 14 - Silver Day
Twosomes exchange silver accessories, the most popular of which are couple rings, his and hers rings worn on the left hand as an indication of a couple's commitment to one another. It's also popular for younger couples to ask their friends for "silver" or small change in order to pay for a romantic date! I'm gonna see if I can swing this one...

August 14 - Green Day
Couples clothed in green attire have fun frolicking outdoors, leaving their single companions to drown their sorrows with soju, a cheap and popular Korean alcohol packaged in - what else?- a green bottle.

September 14 - Photo and/or Music Day
On this day, couples take a photo together to display in a special place, and this provides a great excuse to visit the ever-popular instant photo-sticker booths. Couples may also wish to visit a nightclub or a noraebang  (singing room) so that they can serenade one another with the love songs of their choosing. I imagine that broken-heart ballads may also be popular with the singles set on this day.

October 14 - Wine Day
A good excuse to get tipsy on some tipple with your better half. If you're still single and bummed about it, I advise that you forget your troubles and just down a bottle solo.

November 14 - Movie Day
The perfect time to have a movie night with your beloved. With the abundance of smart devices in Korea, this could be done anywhere, but the romantic atmosphere of a cinema or DVD bang (DVD room) is preferred, especially since you can make out in a DVD bang.

December 14  - Hug Day and/or Socks Day
Hug it out with the one you love, or, if you really need an excuse to spend some more money on your honey, go and buy them a pair of socks to keep both their feet and their hearts warm.

Free Hugs in Seoul's shopping hotspot, Myeong-dong.
A fun  idea year-round.

November 11 - Peppero Day and/or Garraetteok Day
And finally, the biggest and the baddest of the holidays and equal to Valentine's Day in terms of revenue earned is the true commercial holiday, Pepero Day. Pepero is a chocolate covered cookie stick manufactured by the Korean conglomerate Lotte. This special day is celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month as the long slender shape of the Pepero cookie resembles the digit 1, and four Pepero cookies will resemble the date 11/11 (or five cookies, if you're counting the slash!). Koreans of all ages exchange boxes of Pepero cookies, and shops sell numerous and impressive gift packs, toys, cards, and accessories. It's also popular to make one's own Pepero-style cookies, or to assemble elaborate gift packs yourself. Some celebrants opt instead to participate in 11/11 in a less commercial fashion with Garraetteok Day, exchanging the traditional white glutinous rice cake that's served in long, thin strips.

Korean shoppers perusing elaborate 
Pepero Day displays and gift packs

So, if you're feeling romantic and your wallet's feeling fat, perhaps you'll consider celebrating some Korean love days this year. Me? I'm holding out for Socks Day.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

An Icy Adventure at the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival

South's Korea's northernmost province Gangwon-do is home to the city of Hwacheon and one of winter's most exciting events: The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival, or Mountain Trout Festival.
I traveled with a our group to reach Hwacheon. Arriving, we saw that the festival "grounds" weren't really on ground at all, rather the festival takes place on a long stretch of the Hwacheoncheon, "cheon" meaning "stream." Exiting the bus, we could see hundreds of people already engaging in the festivities. The most popular activities are traditional ice fishing and barehanded ice fishing. 

Ice fishers, hard at work
My friends and I decided to give ice fishing a try, and after receiving our poles we then sought out a fishing hole in the special foreigners' fishing area and settled in for some good, chilly fun. We let the line out until it touched the bottom and alternated pulling the fishing line at slow or quick speeds, as instructed. We spent more than a few minutes peering into the fishing hole to make sure that there were fish, and indeed there were. We just weren't catching any. Across the way, in the Koreans' fishing area, we could see what successful fishing looked like, as Koreans young and old (and serious!) caught their lunch.

My model for fishing success!
I worked hard, checking for fish, but my line still came up empty  :(

Following our failed attempt at ice-fishing, two of us decided to join the bare-handed fishing competition for foreigners. We suited up in some orange festival shirts and shorts before walking barefoot to the basin. At -15°C, we were feeling frozen before we even jumped in the water! 

Ooooh, it's chilly!

We were given just five minutes in the water, and believe me, you wouldn't want to stay any longer! We could catch a limit of three fish each. For my first minute, I was cold and miserable, but a little boy on the sidelines looked at me and whispered, "Fighting," a Korean expression meaning, "You can do it." I smiled and then, along with his family, they cheered for me, "Fighting!" After that, I managed to trap my three trout, making sure to show my cheerleaders each one.

How to Catch a Trout Barehanded
1) Grab the fish, 2) Wrestle it out of the water,
3) Stuff it it your shirt, and 4) Pose! You've done it!

I caught my trout just in time, and after a hot dip in the tub and a towel-off, we took my catch to the barbecues for the next step: Eating! Nothing washes down victory quite like buttered trout, soju, and beer!

Tasty trout, sun, and soju: A perfect festival day

Refreshed, warmed, and re-energized we dedicated the rest of our day to festival fun. You could choose from a myriad of activities, including ice sledding, go-karts, ATV rides, bumper cars, ice soccer, trampolines, and a snow maze. We opted for sledding and and ATV ride, and both were wild fun!

Fun on ice with an ATV

Tired but happy, my friends are I made one last dash through the snow maze before heading back to our hotel, our heads swimming with our day's icy adventures.

The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival takes places annually for the month of January. Activities range from 3,000 to 15,000 won and include coupons for use at the festival. Hwacheon is accessible by bus from Seoul and Changwon, and the festival is open from 9 AM until 6 PM. Refreshments are available on site, as are fishing outfits and equipment. Its well worth the trip, and it is one of my favourite festivals to date.