Thursday, May 9
I had a chance to go ahead of Steve that morning, while he stayed behind to “blog” at the coffee shop. I proceeded to Seoul Selection, the English language bookstore that advertises in KQ and often sends books to us. They are a resource for us for literature, dvds and cds in Seoul. The owner Hank Kim was not in the office; we had talked to him the last time we were at the store two years ago. It is a cute coffee shop, with chairs and tables, and books up to the ceiling.
A Korean dude’s perspective
I amused myself by reading a book entitled “Ask a Korean Dude” by Hyeung-geun Kim, who wrote a book answering questions posed by poor foreigners who are mystified by many things about living in Korea. It’s funny, and cleverly written, going into topics that only people living in Korea would ever think of (“Why are Korean women terrified of pigeons?”) to more general issues, such as why Korean people think it’s OK to make personal remarks. One of the questions had to do with “why do Koreans tell me I ‘have to’ do something.” Korean dude’s explanation had to do with the differences in use of language, and the idea that in English we use the conditional tense (could you?) and the word “please” which is imbedded in the verbal form of address in Korean. Because the “please” part comes automatically in Korean, Koreans speaking English tend to forget about it (I remember well trying to teach our Korean exchange student to say “could you please,” particularly to her teachers). The conditional tense is likewise not considered to be important, when actually, it is important in order to be polite.
Up the wall
Seoul Selection was a pretty close jumping-off point for the Seoul Fortress walk, a serious hike that goes up and down the mountains along the ancient wall that used to surround the city. There are a few ways to get on and off the long and ancient trail; we took a short taxi ride from Anguk station through the Bukchon neighborhood to Waryong Park a high public park with a trail into the Fortress Wall area at the Malbawi Information Center. After about three hours of hard hiking and gorgeous vistas, we exited at a gate called Changuimun, basically the route that traverses Bugaksan mountain, the tallest of the three peaks of Seoul (the others are Ingwansan and Namsan). Hikers have to check into the office, get a number and a tag to wear around the neck, and at the end, check out. The trail is patrolled by the military, since part of it overlooks the residence of the president (the Blue House), and therefore, there are only certain hours the walk is open. Because of the trail’s military/strategic importance, it is marked with annoying signs that tell you not to take photos in the most picturesque places. I still don’t understand the importance of not taking photos in what is already a well-known area, in this age of satellite photos and all the rest. Craning my neck, climb after exhausting climb, I couldn’t believe how the trail kept going up, seemingly steeper as we went on. The walk consisted of trails in some places, and stairs in others. The views were spectacular, and it was interesting going along the ancient wall. The wall and the steep, rugged approach to it would be daunting for any army, even today. It was an achievement to walk it once, but I barely made it. Not sure I would try it again.
After many hundreds of steps and many fabulous lookouts, we reached the end, and checked out on rubbery legs. The whole walk was only recently opened, Steve said, and the place of our exit, at Changuimun, he remembered that it was recently a small overgrown park. Finally, we were over the mountain on the other side of Bugaksan from Kyungbokkung Palace and downtown. At that point we flagged a taxi (wonderful inventions, taxis) and beat it over to nearby Kuggidong, location of one of our favorite folksy restaurants, Kuttakae Minsuk Jip which serves soy products like homemade tofu, and our particular favorite, biji chigae.
A culinary mystery – biji chigae
I made biji chigae for Christmas last year. You have to take some organic Minnesota-grown soybeans, and soak them overnight. Next day, make a wicked rich broth with kimchi, dry mushrooms, some clams or other seafood, and some seaweed, strain it all out, add more chopped up kimchi, and set aside. Meanwhile rub the soaked beans together and get off as many shells as possible, discard shells. Process soaked, cleaned beans to a fine paste in the food processor, add to broth, and simmer.
That’s how I made it, checking it against my favorite online Korean cook, Maangchi, who has zillions of how-to videos on Korean food, made in her tiny homey kitchen. Maangchi didn’t do it much different than I did (I think she used some pork), but I was pretty sure I was hitting all the important items of the recipe. But the flavor of the biji chigae at the Kuttakae Minsuk Jip beats mine to heck. Literally, maybe there’s something in the water. Or in the soybeans of Korea, or its kimchi. In any event, it’s something I can’t duplicate. I just have to go to the Kuggidong place whenever possible and appreciate what they do.
They also serve pretty great makkoli (a milky-white rice liquor) there. It’s kept in a special makkoli cooler, has a tangy taste and is on the edge of frozen, filled with little ice chips. I drank a lot of water and rubbed my calves, took Naproxen and drank makkoli, and pretty soon, started feeling like a human again. Having my favorite soy comfort food was also reviving, as well as filling. We started giggling about the boring headlines in the newspaper, and soon, decided to stop the makkoli doses. Our legs were rubbery enough.
We felt good enough to attend a student performance recommended by our friend Hendrikje Lange at Korean Institute of the Arts (K-Arts), where famous drummer (and our hero) Kim Duk Soo teaches. Hendrikje has been in Korea almost three years, learning Korean drumming; she is informally a student of Kim Duk Soo. We spent a long time looking for the place; we found out (almost too late) that we had to name the place in Korean, although the subway has the school name in English. As soon as we did that, the driver knew where to go.
We arrived late, and the live performance was already taking place inside. We saw Mr. Kim as soon as we entered; he was gazing sternly at the closed circuit TV monitor of the live performance. He is a professor of traditional music there, and it looked like he was grading them. Mr. Kim is a person we seem destined to run into. It happened the last time in 2011 when we were there looking at the school with Emma — no professors were in residence and the place was apparently deserted, yet we ran into him in his office.The traditional arts music students showed off their knowledge of Korean east coast shamanistic music. We learned later from a couple of people in the know that the east coast music has a particular style, higher in pitch, with more tunes in major keys compared to the far south and west areas, where the music is sung in minor keys, with lower, more gravelly voices.
It was fascinating and skillfully done, with drumming and singing throughout. There were some fun, traditional activities going on throughout. People seemed to treat the stage like their own personal village green, striding up to tuck money into the waistband of the mudang soloist of the moment.At one point, the participants brought a strange-looking cut-off sapling into the audience, hung with long white ribbons. This was a money-collecting device. People came forward and tied their own won notes up in the ribbons.
It was repetitious, haunting, melodic, and sometimes shrill – there was definitely something magical about it. Interestingly, they showed the lyrics of the songs on a screen above the heads of the performers. Later, Hendrikje told us she had seen them practicing day and night for weeks – it showed.
We were fortunate that night to meet up with a professor, Bohi Kim, who is studying the development of traditional folk songs, particularly, the Arirang song. I told her about how we went to the Arirang museum – she does not accept the premise that the famous folk song was originated in Mungyeong, as the museum we visited in Mungyeong maintains. It is interesting there’s disagreement about the origination of such ancient things. Such songs seem to come up out of the ground – how can their birthplaces be traced? Yet, that is what musicologists try to do.
She offered to drive us back – blessedly, since we were close to exhaustion from the day’s activities – and entertained us on the way to boot. Great things – cars. They really come in handy.