A Night in Hairtail Alley

One of Seoul’s busiest and most popular tourist destinations is Namdaemun Market. The massive open-air marketplace is filled with street vendors selling the newest shirts for tourists, the newest knockoff electronic devices, and some very interesting street food. The market comes alive in the late afternoon and early evening as tourists and locals descend on the market.

After dark, however, the mood is quite different. Shops close for the night while restaurants keep cooking or prepare for the next day. One of the most interesting parts of Namdaemun market for me was Hairtail Alley, famous for various types of seafood.

I showed up after closing and encountered some interesting scenes. The first person who greeted me was a shopkeeper enjoying an evening cigarette as others passed by his shop. IMG_3220 copy

If you look down Hairtail Alley from one end, you can see that all of the storefronts share similar signs. IMG_3233 copy

A few blocks away, some more stores appeared. Upon closer inspection, these stores were actually second-floor restaurants, but they lacked exterior signage. Instead, they used the stairs to showcase their menu items. I had never seen anything like this.

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I encountered some other pretty cool things as I wrapped up my journey through Hairtail Alley and the surrounding streets in the late hours of the night. A woman had left some pink gloves in a pot alongside some green vegetables. The bright colors and their contrast with the dark floor made for a nice photo subject. IMG_3250 copy

The coolest spot of the night, however, was a family-run fish stand that was closing up shop for the night. A rusted out scale that had to be twenty years old and a dirty cutting board were all that remained outside after a long day’s work. IMG_3260 copyIMG_3265 copy

As the shopkeeper turned in for the night, so did I. Hairtail Alley and Namdaemun Market are certainly different places at night than they are during the busy day. I’m glad I took a short detour here during my trip to Seoul a few weeks ago.

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Visiting the DMZ After a Missile Launch

The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea which hugs the 38th parallel is a place which former President Bill Clinton called the “most dangerous place on Earth.” Created as a part of armistice negotiations in 1953, the two-kilometer wide DMZ is a stern reminder that North and South Korea are still technically at war and that the United States paid a heavy price to protect South Korea during the “Forgotten War” from 1950 until 1953.

In spite of all of this, there is one place where tourists can visit the DMZ and enter North Korea by crossing the Military Demarcation Line between North and South Korea: the UN-controlled Panmunjom complex, set up inside of the Joint Security Area. Straddling the 38th Parallel, this is the only chance most people will ever get to see North Korea from the free world.

I joined a USO-sponsored tour to the JSA five days after North Korea conducted their most recent missile launch (February, 2016) and present you this photo essay about the experience. USO runs the best tours and I highly recommend booking with them several weeks in advance if you are looking for a day trip during your next stay in Seoul. You can click here for more information.

After meeting our tour group a few minutes before 7:00AM at USO HQ, Camp Kim, in downtown Seoul, we hopped on a bus began the 90 minute bus ride to Camp Bonifas, located just inside the South Korean side of the DMZ. We were quickly asked to sign some paperwork that said we were entering an active war zone and were putting our lives at risk by continuing on the tour. After handing in those papers, our tour continued on a long stretch of highway towards the DMZ.

As we approached the checkpoint to enter the United Nations-controlled segment of the border, or bus swerved back and forth to avoid several barricades as raindrops slid down the bus windows. Once the bus came to a stop at a border checkpoint, an American soldier, Private Kennedy, boarded the bus and checked all of our passports before we could proceed to Camp Bonifas and UN Central Command inside of the DMZ. He would be our tour guide for the rest of the trip.

IMG_3491After we arrived at Camp Bonifas inside of the DMZ, Private Kennedy ushered the tour group into an auditorium to deliver a briefing about what we were going to see on today’s tour. Aside from simple instructions about what to do and what not to do on the border (pointing, gesturing, taunting, and yelling were strictly prohibited), we were informed that  because of escalated tensions on the border we would be unable to visit Dorason Observatory, a location which provides one of the best views of North Korea from South Korea.

We boarded our bus and began one of the most interesting rides of my life, down a narrow road towards our next location: Panmunjom, the famous blue buildings which straddle the 38th parallel and are in both North and South Korea. We were prohibited from taking photos on this stretch of the tour, but the wildlife and scenery inside the DMZ were out of this world.

White cranes, massive buzzards, and other rare birds were numerous in the rice paddies and barren hills and parched landscape which set between North and South Korea. The restricted nature of the DMZ has, ironically, turned it into one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Along with the wildlife, barbed wire fences, mine fields, and military outposts sat on top of various hills as clouds and mist obscured the distant landscape. Rice paddies and rusting vehicles were also visible off in the distance.

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After a short briefing, Private Kennedy informed us that the Korean soldiers were real and we were not to touch them or get within six inches of them. He then let us know that anyone who stood to the soldier’s right was in South Korea and anyone who stood to the soldier’s left was in North Korea, just past the 38th parallel. The picture that follows was taken from the North Korean side and shows the 38th parallel in the middle. The sand is North Korea and the gravel is South Korea.

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Inside of the conference room, a soldier stands at the ready with his back to North Korea, preventing any tourists from either being abducted or choosing to defect to the Communist North.

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Outside, things were just as tense but in a more visible way. A North Korean soldier appeared several moments after our group re-emerged from the conference rooms. As we positioned our cameras, he played a game with us, ducking in front of and behind the pillars on the North Korean border facility. He kept a vigilant watch during this act.

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His appearance stood in stark contrast to the South Korean guards on our side of the border. The imposing concrete facade of the North Korean side provided a backdrop which perfectly illustrates the differences which keep Korea divided to this day. IMG_3548 copy

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Our tour then continued to some other spots inside of the JSA. We stopped by JSA tower to take in another stunning view of North Korea from a military observation point very near the location of the famous axe murders and the Bridge of No Return. As the weather began to clear, more of North Korea’s bare hills were visible, but we could not see the famous flagpole bearing a 600 pound North Korean flag. Because the North cleared out all trees to prevent defections several years ago, it is very easy to see where the border lies in the distance. The clouds were eerily representative of the mysterious nature of North Korea to the outside world.

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The Bridge of No Return was a location where POWs chose between the North and South following the armistice and where several prisoner exchanges have taken place since 1953. President Clinton visited the bridge and attempted to walk on it, resulting in its subsequent closure to tourist groups.

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North Korea beckons across the Bridge of No Return. IMG_3608IMG_3599 copy

The Bridge of no return is seen in the last part of the photo, with North Korea in the background. The foreground is part of a footpath to our outlook point. IMG_3588 copy

After a few more minutes on the bus and a stop at the JSA gift shop, our tour with Pvt. Kennedy was over and we were on our way out of the DMZ to stop at one of the famed infiltration tunnels leading from North to South Korea. I could not take any photos there because of the nature of that tour, but some Korean soldiers left their helmets on a table during our lunch break to close out the tour. IMG_3688 copy

As an American with an interest in the Korean War and military history, the DMZ was always one of my top travel goals when I moved to Japan several years ago. I am very happy I got to visit during a time with such high tension and recommend everyone visit before the DMZ is either closed to tourists or ceases to exist. This is truly the last vestige of the Cold War left on earth.

Experience American History Abroad: Incheon, South Korea

As readers of this site know, I love to see Western history and architecture when I travel abroad. In Asia, the strong influence of the British and French Empires cannot be denied. Beautiful buildings in places like Burma, Malaysia, and Vietnam are prominent in many places. Lesser, yet visible vestiges of the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish Empires also remain in various places across the region. However interesting, they lack the personal connection that accompanies American History around the globe for me.
Many Americans know of the breadth of American history in the Philippines. Famous quotes about the Philippines from Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt and their long status as an American commonwealth following the Spanish-American War make the Philippines a particuarly interesting place. it is fascinating to walk around Manila and hear American accents on the radio and on the streets, to see streets named after American icons like Taft, and then to watch the weekend’s NFL games at the local bar. American cultural influence still holds power in Manila.
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General MacArthur is revered here after he returned to the islands to liberate them from the Hhorrendous Japanese occupation. While the Philippines may be the most well known example this, General MacArthur is revered in a more unlikely and unkown place to the casual observer: Incheon, South Korea. There, a park boasts a large statue of the Genral and a park dedicated to freedom and a battle which eventually liberated the South Koreans from the Communist North.
Sadly the Kroean War is the United State’s “Forgotten War”, and Incheon is never truly recognized in textbooks for its importance in turning the tide of this war in 1950.
With American forces surrounded and relegated to the Busan Perimiter in Southeast Korea in September 1950, the tide of the war was in favor of the Communist North Koreans. On September 15, 1950, General MacArthur launched a daring amphibious assault on Incheon (in the northwestern-most corner of present-day South Korea) to turn the tide of the war and eventually retake Seoul.
The massive American-led contingency outumbered and crushed their North Korean opposition in mere days in the begenning of a long and arduous camapign to retake Seoul. Today in Incheon, these events are not forgotten.
The landing is commemorated at Jayu Park (Freedom Park) very near the beaches at Pohang where MacArthur’s forces first landed. A large statue of MacArthur wearing his signature hat overlooks a plaza lined with flowers while plaques adorn the area near the statue. These statues capture iconic MacArthur moments and also tell the general’s story in both English and Korean.
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When I arrived, many Koreans were eager to have their photo taken with General MacArthur and many more wanted to talk to my friend and I once they found out we were Americans. They thanked us for our country’s sacrifice in broken English and said that without us they would not have been there today. People of all ages shared this sentiment  at the base of General MacArthur’s statue. It was an inspiring interaction, to say the least.
From the reception I received there, I got the feeling that many Americans do not take the chance to get out of Seoul for a few hours and visit this beautiful part of American history on foreign soil.
Easily accessible from Seoul on South Korea’s comprehensive metro system, you can get to Jayu Park (and Incheon) in about an hour and spend a few hours there before returning to Seoul. I think it is important for American tourists to see this piece of history, even if it is a brief stop. Many of our soldiers died there and it is a good way to pay our respects.
Next time you are in Seoul, be sure to take a day trip to Incheon to see Jayu Park and the statue of General MacArthur. You will not regret it.

Travel Friends are Forever

Anyone who has read this website before knows how much I extoll the virtues of solo travel and how positive those journeys can be. Those values must not be forgotten but today I am going to focus on something even more important than the solo travel experience: the travel friend everyone needs to have.

Travel is the only expense that makes you richer. Sometimes you get even richer from travel if you can go with your good friends.

My best travel friend in the world also happens to be one of my best friends from my hometown. Our quest for adventure and sightseeing has taken us to many spectacular places where we have seen amazing things and participated in many unforgettable events.

It all started on a rainy Wednesday morning in central Pennsylvania when my friend Andrew and his brother, David, picked me up for what would end up being an eventful day in Lafayette Square at the inaugural Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, D.C. The whole experience set the wheels in motion for a friendship that has led us to more than 15 states, three Canadian provinces, and two (soon to be four) countries in North America (and Asia).

From that moment onward, we began to take weekend trips to see different places in our part of the country. Often times we traveled in his Mazda to the historic triangle between Harper’s Ferry, WV, Antietam, MD, and Washington, D.C., to celebrate Memorial Day. One time we made a wrong turn and decided to stop at a special place on a state road where West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia all converged into one point on the banks of the Potomac. DSC01461

The sights and sounds that day in the Mid Atlantic were amazing.

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As we continued to travel and make long hauls of weekends, we realized that we had something few friends have when it comes to travel: chemistry. Anyone who travels a lot knows how hard it is to find a friend who has the same travel interests and travel style. Pace, interests, and reasons are often irreconcilable differences when it comes to choosing the people with whom you want to travel.

We both love roadside attractions, a very fast pace, history, and taking a ridiculous amount of photos. As a result, we began to plan an unforgettable road trip during the summer of 2012 from Central Pennsylvania to Ft. Ticonderoga and then to St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, by way of Montreal and Quebec City. After that, this 2000-plus mile road trip would meander down the East Coast with stops at Acadia National Park and some other historical landmarks on our way home. With all these stops and all that distance, you would think that we would do it all in about a week or two, right?

Not us. We did it all in a span of only five days. We loaded up his Subaru and were on our way to Canada, for better or worse. DSC08147

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After many scenic stops, some ridiculous encounters with fellow travelers and locals, an interesting cab ride in Montreal, and an all-night drive between Montreal and Quebec City, we made it to New Brunswick where we met our match the following night. After taking in the beautiful cliffs at Fundy National Park, we were on our way back to the United States to hopefully camp for the night at Acadia National Park.

Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.
Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.

Horribly foggy conditions engulfed our vehicle in northern Maine and led us to drive at speeds of 15 miles an hour all night down back roads along the Maine coast to find the nearest hotel to stop for the night. We stopped at a bar to ask for directions and watched a Red Sox game with some locals who let us know that we were decidedly unwelcome. After that, we got back on the road and headed down the road with a brief stop until making it to Acadia National Park in the morning. Even though it was so stressful, we both knew more trips had to be done following an experience like that.

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We just never knew when it could happen.

As luck would have it, my vacation time from my job in Japan allowed us to meet up last summer (2014) for another high octane road trip across America, this time to St. Louis and back (via Chicago and Cincinnati).

Totaling over 1700 miles, this trip would be on more familiar territory (we both had extensive travel experience in the Midwest), but would not be short on energy or excitement. Posing with Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, Indiana, eating White Castle, seeing lightning strike the Sears Tower, meeting Swedes in Chicago, and seeing my aunt in Cincinnati all accented what was another amazing trip to one more of America’s great landmarks.

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The most remarkable thing about it is this: throughout all of our travels, we have never had a bitter dispute or bickered to the point where we were not speaking to each other, even for a few hours. Each time we have hit the road and traveled, it has been enjoyable and memorable no matter where we were in North America.

We were resided to the fact that that journey was probably our last one together as I returned to Japan and he returned to school in the United States.

As we all know, life often takes unexpected twists and Andrew and his brother are about to board a plane to come see me in Japan. During the three weeks they are in Japan, we will traverse Japanese cities and countryside and even take a jaunt to Seoul, South Korea, to get an authentic experience in the city with some of my Korean friends.

Who ever would have thought that two boys from small town USA would end up see so much of the world together in such a short period of time? Some things bring people together and help forge friendships for life.

For me, travel certainly is one of them.

I know as soon as I meet them at the arrivals gate at Kansai International Airport on Wednesday, the good times will roll again in Japan like we never missed a beat.

Travel friends and the memories you make with them will be a topic of conversation between you all until the day you pass. Get out there and travel and bring a seasoned friend with you from time to time.

At Incheon Int’l Airport, Take a Stopover Tour!

Many travelers dread the thought of a layover or stopover on their impending trip. Nothing is worse than five or six hours in a place where you have visa-free entrance but don’t want to risk missing your connecting flight. If you have a long layover in Incheon, South Korea, fear not. Incheon International Airport offers fantastic– AND FREE– stopover tour options which I highly recommend for a layover as short as even three hours.

En route to China in April, my friend and I decided to take the two hour tour option and we had a great time. here is what you can expect on one of these tours.

As soon as we got off of our plane and neared the security checkpoint, a woman speaking perfect English asked us if we were planning on staying in Korea or if we had a transit. Once she heard the word “transit”, she pitched the Incheon Airport’s transit tour to us and we happily took the bait. Our tour would be leaving the airport at 1:00PM and returning around 3:00, so we had time to grab some lunch and meet the rest of the group at the front of the terminal.

As soon as we passed through security, it was obvious as to why Incheon Airport is constantly ranked as the best or one of the best airports in the world. Dazzling light displays, beautiful open terminal buildings, and FREE showers are just a few of the things you will see past security.

A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport's interactive light displays.
A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport’s interactive light displays.

We met our tour guide near one of the airport exits and headed off on our tour with a small group of Americans, Canadians, and Germans. If you have bags, fear not. The tour will store your bags in a secure location while you are in the city, free of charge.

After passing over the bridge connecting Incheon Airport to the rest of the city, we made our way to Heungryunsa Temple, located atop a hill in Incheon. We first noticed the great views of the city skyline and bridge from near where our bus stopped.

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The cherry blossoms near the temple entrance were also in full bloom.

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We walked up over 107 steps at this temple which featured some gold-clad Buddhas, nice elephants, and some small gardens. It was nice to get a feel for some of the local Korean Buddhist culture while only being here for such a short time.

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Next stop on the tour was the Memorial Hall for the Incheon Landing Operation. This place was a fantastic location to learn about the Korean War and the immensity of the Battle of Incheon, a daring tactical maneuver and amphibious landing spearheaded by General Douglas MacArthur. The surprise landing and attack was the beginning of the offensive which eventually pressed MacArthur’s troops far into North Korea.

The park features some great period artillery pieces, statues, monuments, and a nice display of flags from the countries which participated in the Korean War.

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After our brief stop here, we were back to the airport where we thought our tour would finish, but there was one last surprise in store for us.

After passing through immigration, we went towards our gate and passed by one of the Korean cultural exhibitions where staff help explain Korean culture and assist you in creating a piece of Korean artwork (again, for free) to take back with you as a way to remember Korea.

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The two young women working at the store spoke flawless English and we had some great conversations! For about an hour, we talked about travel, Korea, and shared interesting stories about life in Japan and being an expat in Asia. They helped make our experience in Incheon a memorable and unforgettable one. As a matter of fact, they will be my two of my tour guides in Seoul next month with my friends from the United States.

To make a long story short, make sure you go on one of Incheon International Airport’s free stopover tours next time you are in South Korea. Also make sure to stop by one of the cultural workshops before you depart. You never know who you will meet. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to go to Korea for longer than a few hours!