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Christmas in Gwangju, South Korea

I expected when I first came to Korea that Christmas would be nonexistent here, or at the very least, a much smaller affair. However, Korea embraces Christmas wholeheartedly, see Korean Santa. There are a few twists on the classic Western Christmas though. In Korea, Christmas is more of a couple’s holiday, like Pepero Day, only bigger. People who are single celebrate Solomas, that is “solo” + “Christmas”. My students laughed at the idea of spending Christmas Eve with their parents. Apparently parents go out and kids stay home and do their own thing.

Their Own Thing

home alone in koreaKids stay home alone during Christmas and watch Home Alone. That’s right, the 1990 Macaulay Culkin masterpiece about home invasion, is Korea’s Christmas Story. It even plays around the clock on Korean TV. However, Koreans don’t call it Home Alone. Here it’s called “Kevin”, after the protagonists first name. There’s a joke in Korea that if you are single during Christmas, you’re going “on a date with Kevin”. I don’t know what would be worse, going on a date with Culkin on Christmas or staying home and watching him as a child star.

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Christmas in Korea

merry christmas in korea from halloween

Many of the great Western Korean traditions survived the voyage over the Korea, but a few were lost to the sea. For example, there are no candy canes in Korea, that I’ve found. I’m sure they’re available at Costco somewhere.

 

Many places in Korea decorate with lights, wreaths, and Christmas trees. They’re mostly coffee shops, but in my opinion they still count. [divider_flat]

Nicole and I held a holiday party of our own for a few of Nicole’s close friends. It was a cookie potluck, the best kind of potluck in my opinion. We held a Secret Santa as well. I “won” a Wack-A-Mole key chain that’s both as awesome and as annoying as it sounds.

We also celebrated with my friends and coworkers on Christmas day with delicious Turkey stew and another secret santa and a Christmas Story.

Matching Pajamas

matching christmas pajamas in koreaNicole and I couldn’t just celebrate Christmas the way the West does, that would be culturally ignorant of us, and I already feel guilty occasionally eating Taco Bell in Itaewon. We decided to celebrate Couple’s Christmas, the Korean way, with same-same pajamas. I picked out the most Italian tablecloth-like pajamas I could find, which were surprisingly easy to find in downtown Gwangju.

Nicole and I also exchanged presents of our own, aside from the adorable pajamas. I got her some awesome sparkly gold Vans and some really cool bearmuffs as well as several delicious stocking stuffers. Nicole got me some delicious Rogue beers like we had in Seoul, a sweet grey cap, and Flax Snax from iHerb.

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While Christmas is different here in Korea, it was an incredibly fun experience. I’m really enjoying my time here and all of the new, often bizarre, experiences I get to have each day.

Birthday Weekend in Seoul: Lotte World

This is the second of my two part Birthday Weekend in Seoul. If you missed the first part, read about it here!

Nicole and I woke up early in Sinsa-dong and grabbed some smoothies at Smoothie King. It’s crazy the franchises that make it over to Korea. There was one in St. Pete, and that was the only place I’d ever seen them, but I hear they’re popular elsewhere, apparently in Korea. After our smoothie breakfast, Nicole bought a sweater with a sheep on it at a little boutique around the corner. Korea is filled with odd little boutiques selling unusual clothes. We boarded the subway to Lotte World and in minutes we were deep below the Earth ready to check out the Disney clone that is Lotte World.[divider_flat]

Birthday Weekend at Lotte World

 

 

 

Lotte World is connected to Lotte Mart, a mall, and a large subway station, all underground. Its a labyrinth of treats, shops, restaurants, an ice rink and of course, Lotte World.

Before we went into Lotte World, Nicole and I picked up some delicious cupcakes in the subway. Christmas cupcakes to be specific. They were adorable and Nicole is a sucker for cupcakes so we had to stop.

After our cupcake break we stored our bags in a locker and went into Lotte World. Lotte World is the world’s largest indoor theme park and one of the best theme parks in Asia, along with Tokyo Disney. Lotte World is also home to Korea’s largest indoor ice skating rink.

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Lotte World Scalpers and Two-handed Waves

When you walk into the lobby, if you can call it that, of Lotte World, you’re hit by just how unassuming it is. Despite the world’s largest indoor theme park being just behind it, the lobby is a simple room. Aside from the vibrantly decorated fiberglass characters the room is just a desk with a few employees behind it. Nicole and I walked toward the counter but before we could reach it, a man tapped me on the shoulder and spoke to me in Korean. I was confused at the time and just told him, “no thank you” before turning around, but Nicole and I later surmised that he was probably scalping Lotte World tickets. It was a bold move considering he was standing right in front of the counter to the theme park. It was a doubly bold move because tickets are only $41, half the price of most theme parks back home. Tickets are even cheaper if you’re a teenager, kid, or baby. Discounted tickets are available if you want to enter the park but not ride any of the rides, which seems like a great idea for grandparents or people who suffer motion sickness.

[box type=”info”]Oddly enough everyone at Lotte World greets you with some sort of corporate-mandated two-handed wave…not sure why.[/box]

ice skating rink lotteworld seoulAs you enter the park it hits you just how big the place is. You walk into the second level of the building which looks down on the largest ice skating rink in Korea and looks up to 3 more floors of theme park above you. Despite the breathtaking view, there’s not much to do on this floor. The theme park is pretty much the 3 floors above you.

The main floor is two floors above the skating rink and one floor up from the entrance. From this main floor you can see all of the indoor portion of the park. There’s a monorail, a hot air balloon ride, a roller coaster, viking ship pendulum ride and massive “outdoor” theater with American dancers lip syncing to Kpop.

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Sunday Bumper Car Driversbumpercars at lotteworld

Nicole and I started with the bumper cars. Bumper cars in Korea is a bizarre experience. Everyone here is so polite. Most people just drove around in a confined space or gently bumped their friends but avoided strangers. Nicole and I were like bulls in china shops. We bumped our cars from one side of the rink, I think that word applies, to the other. At one point a Korean accidentally bumped into me and apologized. It was an interesting experience.

After bumper cars, and definitely not before it, we got a pizza. It was nothing to write home about, accept for the fact that I am doing just that as we speak.

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EAAAAAGLE CRYYYYY!

3d rollercoaster movieNicole and I were overwhelmed with the numerous possibilities and opportunities that Lotte World held before us. We decided to do as the Koreans do and follow the nearest crowd which led us into a tunnel-like hallway, a la Bug’s Life at Animal Kingdom. Inside was a 4D theater, like bug’s life, but this one played a movie of an insane roller coaster chasing an eagle through a canyon. Every few minutes the eagle would cry out and I would turn to Nicole and loudly whisper, “EAAAAAGLE CRYYYYY!!!”[divider_flat]

Monotonous Monorail

I made Nicole go on the monorail with me, because just like the People Mover at Epcot, I love slow moving pointless transportation at theme parks and its my birthday weekend. It was great in that it was both slow moving and pointless transportation that ended where it began. In short, it was everything I could have possibly hoped for.

magic island lotteworld

After the monorail, Nicole and I left the inside of Lotte World and ventured out to Magic Island, the outside half of the park. Magic Island is Korea’s imitation of Magic Kingdom, complete with a giant castle. The only difference being, aside from everyone is Korean, is that the rides surrounding it are closer to carnival rides than Disney theatrical rides.

Gyro Drop

gyro drop magic island lotteworldIn addition to slow moving theme park transportation, I really love those rides that shoot you up into the air and then drop you suddenly. Coincidentally, Nicole hates these rides, but it was my birthday weekend so we did it anyways.

[box type=”alert”]Nicole may or may not have cried on the Gyro Drop.[/box]

We hopped into our seats and the harnesses lowered. At this point Nicole began to reconsider her decision to go on the Gyro Drop. She was halfway into convincing me to let her get off when the ride started up. Her hand was crushing mine as we lifted up into the air high above Seoul. From our vantage point we could see pretty far, or at least I could. I’m certain Nicole had her eyes closed.

There’s a strange calm that comes over you when you’re about to suddenly drop 100 feet. Bam! That’s when it happened. Nicole and I plunged back down to the Earth. Knees shaking, Nicole hopped off the ride and joined me for our next adventure. [divider_flat]

Waiting in line for Santa or a haunted house, or something…

How do you come down from the rush of the Gyro Drop? Easy! One word, two syllables, one delicious pretzel! Unfortunately Lotte World only had mediocre pretzels so Nicole and I opted for that instead.

We snacked on our pretzel as we waited in line for a haunted house, or haunted movie, or ride. We weren’t quite sure. All we knew was we were waiting in line for a scary mansion, when all of a sudden out of nowhere Korean Santa appears! I kid you not, Korean Santa was at Lotte World the same day as us. Now you might be wondering…

Is Korean Santa different than Western Santa?santa magician

You bet your sweet bottom he is.  Western Santa is fat, has a beard, judges people on their merit, and loves milk and cookies. Korean Santa is thin, clean-shaven, performs magic, and probably loves Soju. In typical kpop fashion he wears a microphone as well. Nicole even got to perform some close up card magic with Korean Santa as we waited in line for what turned out to be a haunted 3D movie. [divider_flat]

Spooky House

scary movie theater lotteworldInside the haunted house was a 3D movie playing a neat mashup of every possible scary scenario. The movie follows a cat in first-person perspective, into a haunted house filled with bats, rats, toys that come to life, and demonic plants. The neat part about all of these rides so far was that they were all language neutral. The fact that Nicole and I knew very little Korea didn’t hinder our experience in the park at all.[divider_flat]

Wrong Line Cool Ride

indiana jones ride line lotteworld

When Nicole and I finished up the haunted house show, we went back into the inside half of Lotte

World to check out a roller coaster we’d seen earlier in the day, that didn’t open until 3pm. Nicole and I hopped in line and queued in front of the ride until we made it into the ride’s inside line. The line inside was really cool, it was very Egyptian and resembled a Pharaoh’s antechamber. It was bizarre that we waited outside of the ride in a bland line only to make it inside and run through the interesting part of the line.

It turned out that we were waiting in line for a different ride. The roller coaster we saw out front was part of a different ride that happened to pass by the line we were waiting in. The line we were in led to a neat Egyptian themed ride where you board a Jeep and drive through haunted tombs and caverns. It was eerily similar to Indiana Jones. Note the picture to the right, complete with Indy’s asian companion, Shortstop.

French Revolution

french revolution at lotteworldAfter our Jeep adventure ride, Nicole and I found the roller coaster we’d been searching for…the French Revolution. Lotte World’s best ride, in my opinion, is the French Revolution. Its a roller coaster that snakes, spins, and loops all over the park and through several other rides. Its awesome, and its really wacky. The ride is called the French Revolution, but the roller coaster cars look like spaceships. It makes no sense, but it was so much fun.[divider_flat]

A few other rides of noteviking ride lotteworld

After the French Revolution ride, Nicole and I went on one of those viking ship rides where you swing back and forth like a pendulum. It was a lot of fun, but nothing new if you’ve been on one before.

We went on a ride similar to the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disney where you shoot at different animatronic creatures and collect points. There was a fun river rapids ride where you ride over rapids in an octagonal float similar to Busch Gardens or Animal Kingdom.[divider_flat]

Ice Skating

iceskating lotteworldIt was getting late at this point and Nicole and I had done everything we wanted to do at Lotte World. We decided to call it a day at the park and left the theme park. On our way out Nicole and I stopped at the ice skating rink below the theme park to skate for a half hour or so. Skating in Korea requires, in addition to skates, cool bright colored gloves, I’m not sure why, other than ice is cold. We skated around the edge of the oval rink while Korean children practiced speed skating and figure skating in the inside of the oval.

After ice skating we were both pretty beat. It had been a heck of a day and we were both exhausted. This weekend was everything I could have hoped for in a birthday weekend with my lady. I got to drink delicious beers and eat foreign food in Itaewon and ride roller coasters and gyro drops at Lotte World.

Birthday Weekend in Seoul: Good Beers

Bus to Seoul for my birthday weekend

The month is November. Nicole and I are running ragged from too much work and not enough fun. Our bodies are ravaged by illness and runny noses, but hark! What is that in the distance? It’s December! The last month of the year and an oasis of vacations in an otherwise bleak desert of work weeks. Nicole and I eagerly look forward to Christmas and New Year’s, but first…

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December 1st, My Birthday in Seoul

December 1st, first day of the last month, and also my birthday. To celebrate, Nicole and I headed North to Seoul for a much needed vacation. Neither of us had visited Seoul since the Color Me Rad Weekend months before. Nicole and I left Gwangju Saturday morning via the bus terminal. We arrived in Seoul early in the afternoon and made our way to Itaewon, for some delicious sandwiches, Sam Adams, and Dr. Pepper. This might sound like an odd combination, but it comes with the territory. Korea only imports certain things and the selection seems pretty random. For example, Dunkin’ Donuts and Popeyes Chicken are everywhere, yet, there aren’t any McDonald’s in Gwangju.

[box type=”alert”]Disclaimer: I make a habit of eating mostly Korean food, with my trips to Seoul being the rare exception[/box]

Aloha from Itaewon

After sandwiches, Nicole took me to a bar called Praha in Itaewon. The bar serves a fantastic selection of beer including several of their own home-brews. Nicole and I enjoyed our beers and watched a selection of ironically, or possibly seriously, terrible music videos, including this gem…

Mail, Cookies, and Chili

After lunch, Nicole and I wandered around Itaewon in search of stamps. I had a lot of postcards from Japan that I had never got around to actually mailing. My quarter-century anniversary of being alive seemed an appropriate time as any to use the Korean Postal System.

Nicole and I managed to track down a little shop selling stamps and purchased 14 stamps to send postcards home to family and friends. On the way to the mail box, we also found a delicious cookie place called Ben’s Cookies and picked up some awesome cookies.

[box type=”info”]Ben’s Cookies was Nicole’s favorite cookie place in London.[/box]

After cookies and stamps we went to this shop called High Street Market that specializes in foreign food. They ship in foreign beer, cheese, meats, Kraft macaroni & cheese, and a plethora of other hard to come by foods. I bought some vegetarian chili and Nicole and I bought two Rogue beers to share.

Looking for Lodging

Nicole and I tried to find a place to stay in Itaewon that night, we wandered up and down the main street and stopped in a few hotels. Itaewon has a few western-style hotels, but, as Nicole and  I found out, they also come with western-style prices. We decided to return to the hostel we stay at every time we visit Seoul, but to our dismay the hostel was booked. Many foreigners visit Seoul (and specifically Itaewon) on their weekends to indulge in their western guilty pleasures of good beer and delicious tacos.

Richard’s Copycat Diner

Richard's Copy Cat DinerDejectedly, Nicole and I decided we would get a hotel in a different part of Seoul, but not before satisfying Nicole’s appetite for western diner food. There’s a place in Itwaewon called Richard’s Copycat Diner. It was created by a Korean chef who visited New York and fell in love with a particular diner. When he moved back to Korea, he opened up a restaurant with an identical menu and called it Richard’s Copycat Diner. We walked over to the restaurant and stopped in for a bite to eat only to realize that it was closed for the next two weeks for remodeling. The entire restaurant was under construction and the door was left unlocked. Nicole and I took a peek inside and walked around. It looked like a nice place. I unfortunately slipped in some wet cement and may have left a footprint in the cement. If you visit Richard’s Copycat Diner and find a mysterious footprint, it probably belongs to me.

[box type=”alert”]Disclaimer: If you are in fact Richard or his Copycat Diner, I did not slip in the cement and that must be some other handsome foreigner’s footprint.[/box]

Indian Food and Insa-Dong

One would think that being without a place to stay AND finding out that your potentially favorite restaurant was closed would leave us crushed, however, we persevered. I remembered Mary and Joseph were turned down by every Inn in Bethlehem and they ended up giving birth to a baby Jesus. Since Nicole and I were turned down by every hotel in Itaewon, perhaps something miraculous would happen to us. As long as it didn’t involve giving birth to a savior, I was on board.

Nicole and I had a nice little Indian meal instead, consisting of curry and delicious Naan bread. After dinner, we caught a subway over to Sinsa-dong. Sinsa-dong is known for its trendy shops and restaurants as well as its overabundant selection of love motels. It’s a popular destination for young Korean couples. Our subway car only had couples in it aside from one girl with a cake, about which I told Nicole, “Oh, that girl has a lover and his name is Cake.”

love motel in seoul with pool

In Sinsa-dong, Nicole and I stopped at a few love motels and were turned away at each one. With all this hotel rejection, I was certain we were going to give birth to a baby Jesus at any moment. Bizarrely enough, the hotels kept telling us that they were full and that we should come back in two hours. Apparently people rent out their hotel rooms to guests for a few hours for parties…or other things. Some of the rooms even come with private pools and bowling alleys. Although we couldn’t find one on this particular trip, I know what we’ll be doing on our next trip to a love motel in Seoul…bowling!

Ninjas, Beer, and Shooting

Nicole and I bided our time in the park nearby enjoying our Rogue beers like homeless people until out of nowhere a dozen ninjas ran into the park… or maybe they were just Korean teens, dressed in black, practicing parkour…. either way it was the perfect way to enjoy a park at night.

poop keychain birthday weekendAfter we checked in, the two of us headed out to Hongdae to enjoy fine beers. For my birthday, Nicole found the best bars in Seoul and luckily they were nearby. Before we made it to our first stop, we found an old-school shooting gallery off a side street. Nicole and I got pretty good at that shooting game, like, potential assassins good. Nicole even won a free poop keychain. That’s right, a keychain stuffed animal of poop.

After the shooting range we stopped into Oktoberfest, a neat little German beer hall in the basement of a nondescript building. It reminded me of the Hofbrau Haus in Germany and my Europe trip. While the place wasn’t an exact reproduction of the famed Hofbrau Haus, because there were no pretzels and everyone was Korean, it was pretty close. Nicole and I each got a beer. I got the Dunkel and she got the Hefeweizen in classic Austin and Nicole fashion.

At the front of the beer hall was a waiting area where Nicole and I noticed a man passed out sitting on the couch. We’d become used to seeing sights like this in Korea. It’s not unusual to see people stumbling down the road at odd hours of the night or day, clearly drunk. I don’t see it as much in my neighborhood, but it’s more common in Nicole’s neighborhood.

praha castle in seoul

After Oktoberfest, we checked out Castle Praha, the sister bar to Praha in Itaewon. The entire building inside and out looks like a medieval castle. Walking inside feels like being transported into Europe. The beer was delicious, the atmosphere was enchanting, and there were no drunks passed out in the lobby.

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Guilty Pleasures

delicious crunchwrap supremeAfter Castle Praha, we stopped to get my favorite guilty pleasure in Korea. Please don’t judge me too harshly for this, but there are certain stupidly silly things that living in Korea causes me to miss. One such thing is the Crunchwrap Supreme from Taco Bell. I’m told there are only 3 Taco Bells in Korea, and all of them are in Seoul. Every time we have traveled to Seoul, I have eaten a Crunchwrap Supreme, and I plan to uphold that tradition well into the future.

This was a great first day of my birthday weekend. Nicole did an awesome job planning a great weekend and it was only halfway over. The next day we visited…Lotte World!!