Saturday, June 23, 2012

Where in the world did the Claytor's go...KOREA!

Well here it is folks, a wee summary of our trip to Korea.  Chris is the guest writer on this...Kelly is just the intro writer...So I suggest you get yourself a nip of tea or a shot of whiskey, put on your jammies, and settle in for the novelette.  And if you're still here when you've perused the lot of it, there's a few posts we failed to mention from earlier in the year.  And vote in the lame poll in the panel to the right...cause someone's got to!

Prologue
As many are aware, we received a wonderful gift this past Christmas from my folks, Paul and Gail Claytor.  See…my wayward little brother Jay (not so wayward, and not so little anymore) proposed to his lovely girl Juliet in his adopted home of Seoul, Korea.  She accepted and a June wedding was on the books.  Now…traveling with a full family to East Asia is no mean feat.  We were considering just myself and Kelly, but no way we could afford to have The Girl Monster or The Boy accompany us…until we opened an envelope on Christmas offering our airfare to be covered.   Immediately we informed Jay that we were coming to support him and his love…and it was on like Donkey Kong!  Kelly set about booking flights and finding accommodations in two locations (Seoul and Busan, the wedding site) and the planning began.

Prepping and Packing
A couple months before departure, Kelly wonders aloud,
“Hey husband what are you wearing to Jay’s wedding?” 
“My suit.”
“What suit?”
“My blue suit.  Navy blue.  Actually I have two, so one of my navy blue suits.  I’m golden”
“Really…want to try it on?  Does it fit?  Is it still in style”
“Sure it fits…and suits never go out of style”  (…tries on suit…)
“umm…honey it fits but…umm…pleats?  Pinstripes?  When did you buy that suit?”
(…does rocket science math in head…) “I guess 15 years ago…give or take?”
“Ugh…and what is The Boy wearing?”
“…………….”
“Husband…Get in the car.  Now.”

We proactively change currency at our local back, discovering that Asian countries like a lot of zeroes in their money…so changing out our initial budget of spending cash rounded up to be (say this in your Dr. Evil Voice) one MEEEllion Won!  The Won being the South Korean currency…of course.  That and a few thousand Japanese Yen to cover our layover, but who’s counting?  Well ME counting that fat brick of bills we got from the bank!

Last but not least…Jay takes advantage of our inbound status to order a few jars of his favorite salsa: Pain is Good which we double seal in asbestos to prevent it from burning a hole in the plane’s fuselage.
"Pain is Good" salsa for Jay


Day One (Saturday) And they’re off!

We say a sad goodbye to Sherpa and Otter, leaving them in the care of the Beck Family House Sitting Service; mainly the eldest brother Ryan, but we hear many other family members looked in on the animals during our extended absence…so a huge Thank You!
Japan Air in flight meal of...?

Our initial leg to Narita was delayed at take off, but landed pretty close to the scheduled time.  Not much in the way of sleep as we chased the sun, burning the Saturday and Sunday away to the International Date Line and eating tons of tasty airline food.   Seriously, they fed us like 4 or 5 times trying to put us in a carb-coma.  We land in Narita, Japan to change planes with plenty of time to spend a few Yen on some needed hydration.  Japan Airlines takes us the rest of the way to Inchon Int’l Airport in Seoul.  After an easy pass through immigration and customs, we are met by Jay and our new family member, Juliet.  We smother her with bear hugs which I think maybe surprised her (?) as right away feel she lends a sense of “legit” to the little brother so far away.  Jay’s friend Jin is on hand to film the arrival and interview us with questions about our travels.
Courtyard of the best guest house!

Jay has arranged for a driver and pimp-tastic van complete with colored neon lights and leather “no knockin if it’s rockin” seating to run us into town.  Juliet immediately proves invaluable in helping find the elusive guest house that Kelly has booked for our stay.  No joke, we’d still be looking if it weren’t for her persistence.  Jin and Juliet both comment wide eyed, on our bravery for staying in a traditional Korean home.  We’ll be sleeping on floor mats, eating cooked meals in the courtyard, sitting on the floor around the table.  We smile, knowing (hoping?) it will be OK.

downtown first night
Once we’ve pick our rooms and settled at the Arirang Homestay, we take a couple cabs to the Jongo neighborhood for late night Korean BBQ.  We toast our safe arrival with Soju, and as previously warned, a local marvels at, and touches, The Boy’s blonde hair.  Not at all creeped out, we retire to the house for bed.

buying off the fruit truck



Day Two (Monday because there is no Sunday)
It’s a tough sleep our first night on the floor, but we manage some Z’s and are woken by a startling voice on a bullhorn in the street.  We are in a true residential neighborhood and I get up and check the window…to make sure the commies aren’t coming to eat the children.  I see happy kids rushing off to school and the source of the voice to be a man selling fresh produce from his truck.  I quickly dress and manage to buy about a dozen bananas using hand signals, number signs, and 3000 won.  Breakfast Win!  Colin and I head out into the streets to forage for additional foodstuffs, but clearly we need a proper market.

mid way through the "hike" above Seoul
As planned, Jay pulls up on his scooter and accompanies us to EMart (think if Wal-Mart and Target had triplets…and they were Asian…that gets you halfway there.)  We stock up for the week and return to Arirang House for lunch.  We cab out to Jay’s flat in the Itaewon neighborhood to meet his black and yellow labs, Stringer and Avon.  We all hike (ie Death March) from his place up to the Seoul Tower (fairly strenuous for us flatlanders) and it’s hot enough to see the left half of Kelly’s face turn red (look up Harlequin Syndrome…hilarity ensures…you’re welcome.)  All the locals take pictures of the dogs, they are a big hit.  We return the tired pups home and cab it back to Arirang House for a well earned nap. 
Dinner with part of the family

Jay heads to Inchon to pick up our Mom and Stepdad Van, and deliver them to Juliet who hosts the six of us for dinner (may we say how great she is for braving this on her own?)  Jay is occupied getting our Dad and Gail, plus sister Michelle and niece Morgan from the airport to the Westin Hotel.  He arrives as we are completing dinner, satisfied to have his crew in town for the big event.  We experience a bit of the xenophobia that locals are sometimes prone to have, and can’t flag a cab.  Juliet has to step up and hail one.  Once in, we head back on our own Arirang House as we’re starting to be able to navigate the city.
Palace Gateway

Day Three
(Tuesday)
We wake up from a much better night’s sleep and have scrambled eggs (which the kids eat quite handily with their chopsticks), coffee, etc. in nifty little kitchen.  Jay delivers Mom and Van to us for a day around the neighborhood.  We elect to tour an old palace to our east where we are greeted by a small herd of schoolchildren screaming “HELLO!!” clearly excited to be practicing their English lessons on some Westerners (this happened frequently.)    After a few hours we return to Arirang House where Mom, Van and the kids elect to stay while Kelly and I cast off exploring…and it turns out we’re in the ART DISTRICT!  A few galleries and shops later and we feel we may be able to make a selection for our travel souvenir.  We return home where the kids are jacked into the Matrix (ok, their respective iPods) and Mom and Van are snoozing off the effects of Jet Lag.  Jay shortly retrieves them to return to his place, and our team makes its way to the Fish Markets in southern Seoul, just off the river.

After a bit of wandering (I’m actually becoming comfortable with being slightly lost all the time…a HUGE deal for me) we find our way to where we’re supposed to be.  Actually we could have smelled our way there, about 200 stalls selling live fish, shellfish, anything that swims or crawls or squirms in the sea.  Claytorade is at full strength when we hook up with Dad, Gail, Mom, Van, Michelle, Morgan, Jay and Juliet!  We all take part in haggling for Red Snapper, Alaskan King Crab, Salmon, and Shrimp.  Everyone ponies up the cash while the fishmongers dispatch the doomed creatures with delicate and humane efficiency.  Just kidding, they club the fish to death on the floor with a hook on a broom handle.  Oh well, it’s a good “here’s where your food comes from” lesson for the kids! 
Everything is delivered up to one of the restaurants and prepared to our specifications.  Despite the sketchy nature of the place, the food is fabulous.  My Maryland honed crab dismantling skills are appreciated by all, and satisfied, we all cab back out to our respective habitats.

spongebob guitar

Day Four (Wednesday)
We awake well rested, having adjusted to the floor mats and have another American style breakfast from our kitchen.  After wrestling with the Korean directions on the Laundry Machine we cast off to a music market near our Arirang House.  Similar to the Fish Market it is a massive collection of small independent merchants selling everything from French Horns to microphones.  I select a bamboo flute for my growing collection, while Caitlin succumbs to the magic of pan pipes.

Upon our return we find Dad, Gail, Michelle and Morgan have arrived to check out our digs.  Duly impressed (or simply grateful they managed their own accommodations), they take our kids to another palace while Kelly and I hit the nearby art district in earnest.  Kelly settles on a set of handmade, glass earrings to wear at the wedding and we meet up with the full crew at a Starbucks.

We all walk to the Insadong shopping district, a popular must see for tourists.  Again, Kelly and I split off and get slightly lost, and somehow I’m totally OK with it.  We find everyone and join in for a bulgogi  lunch.  On the way out, a middle aged man and I make eye contact, and he screws up his courage to practice his English:

“Hello…I think you are AWESOME!”
“Thank You, I think I am awesome TOO!”  (I don’t think he caught the joke)

After a brief lesson based conversation, we split from the group with the kids and wind up finding PERFECT souvenirs, gifts, and the elusive art piece for the house at bargain prices.  Walking back to Arirang House is long but pleasant, and we clean up for dinner.
DJ Jay & groupie nieces

We hop in a cab and I simply utter the word “Itaewon” and we’re off in a flash, as this is a popular night spot for westerners, which we CLEARLY are.  We hook up the full crew and tour “District”, the group of venues that comprise MKY inc, for whom Jay works as the music director and resident DJ.  There is a lounge, two nightclubs, and gastropub to walk around before we arrive at our table at Between, an Italian style restaurant.  Toward the end of a wonderful meal, Jay rises to relieve the night’s DJ of his post and shows off his skills.

We depart via a cab ride that smacked of a real live version of a video game, and arrived in our home neighborhood with plenty of time to hit the Baskin Robins for some ice cream before returning to Arirang House for our final night.  Although we are now sleeping soundly on the floor mats, we’re looking forward to Western style beds at our hotels in Busan.

Seoul Station

Day Five (Thursday)
We wake up early to eat a hearty breakfast, pack our freshly washed clothes, and say good bye to the Arirang Homestay.  A very patient cab driver helps t load up our luggage and drive us to Seoul Station, where we will leave by train for Busan on the coast of the East Sea of Korea/Sea of Japan.  We are the first to arrive (go us!) so I leave Kelly with the luggage and go hunting for coffee.  While I’m gone with the kids, Kelly is stalked by a fairly sketchy, perhaps homeless, definitely disturbed man grumbling something about “Yankees” and I don’t think he means the baseball team.  As Kelly nervously guarded our belongings, a good Samaritan woman hovered nearby, and told Kelly that she was “watching out for her from this man.”  He eventually went on his way, as did the woman just as I arrive with Kelly’s beverage.  But all’s well as we see a pack of 6 police officers patrolling the concourse.  Then I wonder, how effective can they be if they have to travel in numbers?  All told, Seoul is incredibly safe for a city of 14 million, and this is the only time we feel mildly uncomfortable.  I can’t say that about many American cities half it’s size!

Seaside temple
Wishing Well Coin Toss
We are joined by everyone in plenty of time to board the high-speed train to Busan.  Jay has arranged first class seating (4 seats facing each other around a table) and we depart for a smooth ride.  The train only has 4 stops and has a top speed of over 300km, so we make the 330km trip in under 3 hours.  Upon arrival, we are joined by Jay’s boss Keith (the K in MKY) and his partner Park, who ride with us on a chauffeured coach bus that Juliet’s parents have arranged for us to use all week.  We make a stop at a beautiful seaside Buddhist temple.  There is a wishing well to throw coins into from a bridge…and The Boy is the only one who gets it in (to thunderous applause.)  Seriously, he drains an 100w coin from this bridge, 40 feet above and 30 feet out into a small birdbath in high winds.  Epic!  On the way out we all determine our Korean zodiac signs, and learn there are an awful lot of pigs in the family, which Juliet says is extremely good luck (whew…!) 

Club Crowd
Poop, Shower, Find Woman, Vomit
Back to the bus and we all ride to the Sunset Hotel to get checked in and settled; the kids have their own room across the hall from ours.  We hit a burger joint for a late lunch and the kids head off to Dad and Gail’s hotel for swimming and dinner, while Kelly and I join Jay, Juliet, Keith, Park, and now Young (the Y in MKY) for a night of bar hopping.  Jay, Keith and Young are on reconnaissance, checking venues, getting ideas, and pointing out flaws while the ladies and I try to take it all in.  Kelly and I don’t last as long as these seasoned night-lifers, and head back to the hotel around 2am while the others head to the beach for a moonlight swim.

Day Six (Friday)
We wake up early and immediately miss the kids being with us…and find out from them that they’re thinking the same thing in their room across the hall.  We had so much fun together at our Arirang Homestay that even across the hall is too far apart.  We grab a quick breakfast at a coffee house before boarding the bus to meet Juliet’s parents.

Lunch with the whole family
It’s a drizzly day and we meet up with Juliet’s parents at a beautiful restaurant that they have booked for our large group.  The other patrons ogle this wave of westerners as we enjoy lunch and the kids impress everyone with the chopstick skills.  The kids speak a few Korean pleasantries, which immediately win over Juliet’s parent’s (they are lobbying to have them spend a summer in Korea sometime!)  There are a number of Soju toasts before we retire to a larger room for the ladies to all try on their Hanboks, a traditional Korean dress for tomorrow’s wedding; a gift to all from Juliet’s parents.  Everyone is beautiful, and it is also decided that the seamstress will obtain a boy’s Hanbok for Colin as well.

Mountain Temple
After lunch we all board the bus to tour a Buddhist temple up in the mountains.  It’s gently raining which adds to the serenity of the prayer rooms and gardens.  We say goodbye to Juliet’s parents and return to downtown Busan.  As we haven’t had much time with Dad and Gail, we arrange to join them for dinner at the Westin.  We all have a great time, but the decidedly western atmosphere is striking, having spent the week immersed in the local flavor.  

Day Seven (Saturday) wasn’t there some reason we came out here…oh yeah !  WEDDING DAY !

We rise early for breakfast at another coffee house, and see the wedding party departing early to wish them well.  I suit up in my new fineries (thanks Kelly…) and we load up the bus.  Every seat is occupied with new friends, including DJ and radio personality Jason, and Korean Pop Star Brian Joo.  We make our way to the wedding hall and are a bit early, so have a chance to get to know everyone.  Jason and I hit it off right away, with the same dry and twisted sense of humor.  Brian is immediately recognized and mobbed for photos and autographs, but Keith and Young do their best to run interference for him so he can enjoy his friend’s wedding.  All the ladies plus Colin change into their Hanboks, and a battery of photos are taken with Jay in his tux and Juliet in her white gown.  The wedding is a quick, western style affair…and Jay surprises Juliet with a serenade.  He (like me) can’t sing, so turns the microphone over to Brian Joo, who wows the crowd with one of his hits.
Ceremony #1
Ceremony #2
After the “western” affair we all retire to a smaller room where older traditions are observed.   The wedded couple now in elaborate Hanboks, the parents meet, exchange gifts, and impart advice.  We all participate and the now officially joined, married couple hosts a buffet luncheon.  Juliet’s brother, a Korean Marine like his father had been, has attended as has many of his father’s old Marine buddies, who manage to ratchet up the crazy.  I think made a new friend, who was slightly inebriated and thought I was Jay, but it’s all good!  We again say goodbye to Juliet’s parents.  They are particularly sad to see the kids go, and cry as we promise to see them again someday.  No idea how, but a promise is a promise.

 On the way back to the hotel, everyone is falling asleep so Caitlin is pressed into singing (it’s Asia…the bus has karaoke gear.)  She treats us all with a couple tunes, and Jason suggests that she come out to a club later that night where he is hosting a band’s performance; maybe she can sit in for a gig?  We change into more comfortable attire and find our way to the Wolfhound, an Irish Pub where the partying begins in earnest.  I didn’t meet any Earnest, but did meet Amanda, Belinda, Eva and Julio, among others…and this crowd can definitely light things up.  The kids feel great joining in the festivities.

Caitlin headlines Busan
At around 11pm, The Boy heads back to the hotel with Mom and Van, while we all accompany Caitlin to Club Billie Jean to meet up with Jason.  After an artist’s exchange with the band’s singer, he and Caitlin decide that she will interrupt their set to sing her show choir’s anthem “Home” to honor Jay and Juliet.  The band’s keyboardist, on point, accompanies her on the spot and the crowd goes wild.  With Caitlin flying high on cloud 9, we all head back to the Sunset Hotel in the wee hours of the morning, and collapse.

Busan market
Day Eight (Sunday)
It’s our last full day in Korea.  Dad, Gail, Michelle and Morgan have all left early for their flights back to the US.  It’s a stunningly beautiful day and we realize that a sufficient application of Claytorade is the antidote for Kelly’s Vacation Rain Curse.  We find an American style breakfast and head out on foot to explore downtown Busan.  We tour the traditional markets, talk to some locals practicing their English, buy some sunscreen and head to the beach.
Don't know these people
It’s bustling with tourists from all over the world, which unfortunately means that the kids see their first man-thong.  I’m sure it was tough, but they should at least be thankful it wasn’t on me.  After some fun in the waves we clean up and meet Mom, Van and the newlyweds for a late lunch of bulgogi.  Honestly, these people eat like crazy but since everyone walks everywhere, they stay thin and healthy.  After lunch we head to the Busan Aquarium which, while small, hosts animals we had never seen.  We also pay extra for a glass bottom boat tour of the shark tank even though they advise “if you fall overboard, just stay still, otherwise the sharks could mistake you for a seal.”  Umm…yeah.  Okay.

We exit through the gift shop for a few souvenirs and head out for an ice cream dinner.  We get back to the Sunset Hotel for our final night to pack up for the next day’s journey home.

Midget Clown Sharks?
 Day Nine (Monday)
We’ve arranged a van at 5am for the ride to Busan’s Gimhea Int’l Airport.  The reported hour long drive takes 20 minutes, and we arrive an hour before the terminal opens.  After the wait, and a convenience store breakfast, we bid farewell to Korea and board the Japan Airlines flight to Narita.  We’re fed tuna sandwiches, which feels pretty strange that early in the morning, land in Narita and exit the terminal.  Kelly has booked our flights to allow for a long enough layover to explore Narita, get our passports stamped, and our feet on Japanese soil.
Old Main street in Narita

We exchange our remaining won for yen, and take train from the airport terminal one stop away to downtown Narita.  There is a main street where we walk in humid heat past souvenir shops and noodle stands until a tiny old woman beckons us to her restaurant.  The town is sleepy on Mondays (sort of like a Sunday in the US) and she is trying to drum up some business.  She’s old and adorable and shuttles us to our seats.  Unlike the bi-lingual signage in Korea, there’s not a lick of English anywhere.  Thankfully there are photos on the menus, and we hear the familiar word “tempura.”  After pointing to the menu and indicating “we’d like 4” she hurriedly goes to the kitchen to get our lunch started.  Shortly we see other patrons arriving (she’s good at her job!) and 4 bento boxes arrive with soup, tempura shrimp, rice, and cold noodles with broth.  The waitress nods approvingly as we pass on the forks, rub the splinters away from our chopsticks and dig in.  As they have the entire trip, the kids try everything, never turning their nose up to anything unfamiliar.

Narita-san Temple
After paying we head to the Shinto Temple and gardens at the end of the road (we’re about a mile from the train) and I realize that we’ve been walking steeply downhill the whole way.  Great, so it will be uphill on the way back!  We tour the Shinto Temple, which is still active and operating.  There are beautiful garden paths, ponds teeming with turtles and coy, and elaborate prayer rooms where services are underway.
 Heat and fatigue moves us to depart, and we make a stop to buy a geisha doll for our neighbor on the way back to the train.  Upon arrival at the airport, we pass through immigration and security, and find some unoccupied massage chairs on our way to the gate.  I spring for all of us to get a mechanical rub down and prepare for the long flight ahead.  After a short nap at the gate, we’re homeward bound. 

Day Ten (it’s Monday again)
We take off at 6pm on Monday.  Heading east, day turns to night, and again to day as we cross the International Date Line.  We sleep for a good portion of the flight and land in Chicago at 4pm on Monday…two hours before we left, having achieved time travel.  Getting through immigration and customs is more of a hassle in the US then in any other place we’ve been.  We retrieve our bags and take a cab home to some VERY grateful dogs.  We unload and start the process of recovering from jet lag, which I am still doing as I write these final words. 
HOME!
Hands down, this is by far the greatest trip we have ever taken as a family.  I’m so happy the kids enjoyed the adventure, that we made so many new friends, gained a SIL and Sookmo, and that I was able to truly decompress and take the experiences as they came.  We definitely need to travel more and when we do…you can all read about it right here!

Congratulations again to Jay and Juliet,

Much Love,
사랑하는 마음으로,
The Claytor Family!

For a full set of photos, see our Picasa Album (just click on the photo):

Korea 2012

This should be a link to other miscellaneous short clips we took:
http://www.youtube.com/user/ChitownPokey?feature=mhee



For Jay & Juliet's crazy beautiful video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9Uf_rmx9OM&feature=player_embedded