Friday, January 30, 2009

Send your mail from a vending machine?


I saw this red guy at a subway station in Seoul. It caught me by surprise I must say – after all I have never seen anything like this in Japan yet. This vending machine type of deal lets you mail letters and even packages by buying postage right then and there. This is different than one of those stamp dispensing machines by the way – you don’t need to get a set of stamps and then lick/stick a stamp yourself. You use this handy touch screen menu to choose what you are sending and the machine tells you how much you need to put in. As you can see below it even has an English menu – convenient? I would like to think so. Of course one can argue that such a contraption is unnecessary in Japan where there is a post office ever few hundred meters (at least it seems that way in Tokyo.)


The English is pretty good too save for the title which seems to be a little… mixed up… Ah, scratch that – it looks like they wanted to keep the acronym “PASS” though it is a bit forced, no?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Catching Superbowl XLIII in Tokyo

steelers For all those expats wanting to catch the big game - NHK BS1 will be showing it live next Monday, starting at 8:10 AM with the kickoff happening at 8:20 AM. Gaora will be showing it Monday night/Tuesday morning at 12:00 AM  and a few times again later in the week. I just thought I should drop a line here so people can find the information seeing that NHK does not seem to offer this information in English and all ;)

p.s. In case it is not obvious the image is not made by me and I am using it with the assumption that it is OK for a not-for-profit blog like this to use it. If you are the copyright owner drop me a line and I will remove it immediately.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Seoul Subway System

P1100028 In many ways Seoul Subway reminds one of the Tokyo's own underground transportation mechanism. The stations are clean, you can use an IC card to get in and out, and it is by far the easiest way to get around in the city. There are just as many differences however: Among other things, all of the subway system seems to belong to a single entity with each line being denoted by a number as well as a color instead of names, all subway lines seem to be local, the IC system works slightly differently, the stations seem to be more poorly lit, the overall grid is much smaller and less complex (but then this is not a surprise, right? Tokyo has one of the most complex subway/train systems in the world.).

P1100035I guess a few words of wisdom for anyone who is going to be navigating Seoul's underground train wonderland: Make sure you get a map beforehand. Most stations have maps but not always in English. The trains themselves and the stations do have station names written in English as well as Korean (and Japanese on board the trains) but the numerical ordering of lines and the whole color system can get a bit frustrating without a map to keep track of which stations to use for transferring to another line. One good map is the one over at the official web site - here. The IC cards are very useful and makes it easier for travelers who don't want to deal with figuring out which ticket to buy. The particular one I bought was called T-Money and it was usable on board the bus from Seoul Tower as well. The IC card is sold at the stations and there are machines for recharging (though not for the initial sale). 

P1100031 Finally I want to mention one weird thing that happened on the trains a few times (which is a lot if you consider the fact that I was there only for 3 days). There seem to be people asking for money who go from car to car. One time it was a blind lady with a cup of sorts, playing music from a little radio type thing and walking slowly so as to allow people to put money in her cup. Another time it was a guy who gave letter type thing to everyone in the car including me (though the content of the letter is completely lost on me since it was completely in Korean) and then came back and collected them, some people giving him money with the letter. It was one of the weirdest experiences I had in Seoul. Come to think of it, I guess there is a law against asking for money directly so people came up with these indirect, creative ways to do so...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Seoul Tower

P1100008 It grabbed my attention the minute I walked into my hotel room, towering on top of a hill, situated right in the middle of the window (how that window never fogged over I have no idea with the temperature outside practically reducing anyone careless or unfortunate enough to stay outside for more than 3 minutes to a block of ice). This tall chunk of steel had its share of history in this city which has seen many wars and it has apparently been around for a relatively long time. After hearing that the view was amazing I knew I had to go check it out for myself. I asked the concierge at the hotel for the easiest way to get there and within the hour I was on the bus there.


The tower is even more impressive from close-up but beware if you are planning on going there - the bus drops you off about a 100 meters or so from the foot of the tower. Now, you might say "100 meters - that's not much"... Well, you would be right in terms of absolute distance but if you take that 100 meters and tilt it at about 50 degrees, then you get a better idea about the challenge of climbing up to the tower.  Add in the cold temperature and you can see how this might present a challenge. Getting into the tower requires a ticket which comes in various flavors - one offering a discount for a restaurant in the tower.  Oh and there are a few of those inside the tower and they seem to be on the expensive side - no clue about the quality of food.

The view from the top is pretty good and I snapped a few pictures but it is a pretty difficult thing to do at night because of reflections and the foggy windows. I still recommend the place if you happen to be in Seoul. The observatory was filled with Japanese and American tourists when I went there so it does seem to be pretty popular even though it was not as crowded as Tokyo Tower.

P1100092 P1100093

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lotte World

Well, of course I could not spend my whole holiday in Seoul engaged in matters of exchanging clothing items for cash now could I? So, I switched gears and decided to indulge myself in a little bit of R&R by the means of an amusement park, aka the biggest indoors amusement park in Asia, aka Lotte World.

 P1110100Now, the place is fun and all but it is no Disneyland so let me get that out of the way before diving in a bit. Not that you don't get that  impression as soon as you get off the train. The station which is connected to Lotte World has no signs as to how one might manage to get to the park. Contrast that with Disneyland directions all the way in Tokyo Station which is more than 30 minutes away by train and you can get a good idea about the difference in approaches. Even when one is literally 2 minutes walking distance in the underground maze of stores leading to the park one does not see directions to the park. I guess they may prefer having some sort of elimination mechanism to weed out the guests who are not resilient enough to get through the maze...

P1110103 OK, I guess that was a bit more than I thought I would mention about, you know, just getting there but I think it was relevant. The place itself is nice with many rides but since the place is covered, even though it is the largest covered theme park, is small compared to the usual fare of theme parks which tend to be huge outdoorsy deals. There are a couple of roller coasters, a stage where they do live shows (which I found pretty strange since the dancing people seemed like with their costumes they would feel much more at home at Las Vegas than at a place like this filled with little kids), bunch of restaurants including a Turkish one , an ice skating rink, and a lot of other relatively small rides.

P1110118 Connected to the "Lotte World - Great Adventure" is the "Folk Museum". This is basically a national history museum for Korea. It starts talking about Korea and cavemen if you can believe it and goes all the way up to the Japanese occupation. It is a pretty interesting place and I think it is a great idea - you take the kids to the amusement park and they also get to visit a museum. Not a bad way to squeeze some education into the  amusement park visit. My favorite here was hands down the miniature cities complete with miniature soldiers, townspeople, and all.

P1110130 The park is also connected to another, more traditional, outside park. In the temperature-wise challenged months of winter this park is still open but it is completely painful to walk around in. There is a castle here which seems so.... Disney... In fact they use the silhouette of the same castle as the logo for Lotte World and I half expected Tinkerbell to come out with her wand. I felt pretty bad for food vendors in this park who had to stick around and work in the cold. There was even a yakitori vendor which I thought was pretty cool.

If you are in Seoul, by all means, go and pay this place a visit. It is not so expensive and you can get a day-pass for less than $30 which lets you visit all three big attractions - two parks and the museum - I mentioned. Now, I doubt you would want to visit the place twice but it is definitely worth it to see it once.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Shopping in Seoul

As the Korean currency, the Wong, has been on a downward spiral of sorts against the Yen recently, shopping in Seoul has become very attractive for the Japanese. Couple that with the generally low prices of Seoul and you get a good explanation for the recent influx of the shoppers, taking the short trip over to Seoul.

P1100079 The biggest shopping center in Seoul, at least the biggest one that is underground - an attribute which is crucial in the frigid Seoul winter, is COEX. COEX is an underground maze of big and little stores selling pretty much anything and everything you can think of, as well as restaurants. The place is so huge it is basically made up of individual malls and streets of shops connected together. It is definitely a good place to check out but unfortunately it is quite a ways far away from central Seoul - about half an hour to forty minutes by the Seoul subway. If  you can brave the travel though, I am sure you can find what you are looking for here (assuming you are not looking for the infamous pirated/fake stuff - those are hard(er) to spot in big shopping centers).

P1100037 The most popular shopping location is much closer to the city center - albeit it is a smaller, more traditional, and outside - Myungdong Shopping Street. What you have here is basically a longish street flanked on the left and right by stylish shops with a decided bias for clothing items. This place is the place to shop if you are even remotely interested in clothing stuff. The prices are, at worst, competitive with Tokyo in higher end stores and at best less than half of what one would pay for similar items here in Japan. I was able to pick up a corduroy jacket, shirt, and sweater for less than $100.

P1110097 Another underground/covered mall is the Lotte Mall connected to Lotte World (which I will talk about in the next post). Lotte Mall is similar to COEX though of course smaller. If you happen to go to Lotte World you can easily step into the the mall.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Traveling to Seoul from Tokyo


Gimpo Airport - Seoul - Panorama

Let's start nice and easy with the travel shall we?

The main international gateway to Tokyo is Narita Airport (成田空港) - the (relatively) new and huge airport which also happens to be quite far from the city and is in general more expensive for the airlines to land at. However, there is a smaller, older alternative that is mainly used for local flights which used to be the only airport in Tokyo - Haneda Airport (羽田空港). Haneda still has a small international section used by a few airlines - one of which is Korean Air. Korean Air flies from Haneda to Seoul's Gimpo Airport.

Now here is another interesting tidbit - Gimpo Airport is similar to Haneda in a lot of ways. Just like Haneda, Gimpo is the smaller of two airports in the city (Incheon being the larger one I believe) which makes the trip cheaper - especially in the winter season when Seoul seems to be in a perpetually frozen state but I am getting ahead of myself... The trip takes about two hours one way and an hour and a half the other way because of tail-wind issues.

Anywho, it is once again getting late so I will end this one here. I made the panorama above at Gimpo. It is a pretty nice airport actually and has a small mall in there selling bags, shoes, electronics, anything you can find in a typical mall. Oh and there is a movie theater in there too which I thought was a brilliant idea. People always have a few hours to spend at the airport and instead of cutting it close why not get to airport a little earlier and catch a movie ?

Seoul impressions soon...

P1100068 After spending 3 days in Seoul I came back to Tokyo yesterday night but it took me all of today to sort through the pictures I took and you know what that means - no post today. I will start writing about my quick impressions on Seoul (and Korea) starting tomorrow hopefully. I promise it will be interesting ;)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Ill Store" in Tokyo

P1020184 Really? Ill store? I mean I have seen lots of stores with English names in Japan but this one easily takes the cake. This gem of a find comes from Harajuku and sells "Extra Dope Wear Select" - basically your typical "rapper style" outwear. It was just too good to pass and not take a picture...


Oh, I will be taking a trip to Korea this weekend. Pictures and impressions next week :)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Visiting the most popular shrine for New Year's

P1020128 Meiji Jingu (明治神宮) is the most popular shrine in Tokyo during New Year's as it sees more than a few million Japanese visitors in a period of three or four days starting with the 31st. The shrine is in Harajuku (原宿) and during this period Yamanote Line (山手線) stops in a different platform in Harajuku which allows easy and direct walking access to the shrine. I think on ordinary days getting to the shrine is a bit more complicated than this. Of course the directness of the route did not do much to improve the walking time because of the huge crowd. See, even though I waited till the 3rd it was evident that it would take a while to get to the shrine the moment I got off the train and found myself in a sea of people.

P1020142 The walk from the station to the shrine itself would probably not take more than 3-5 minutes had it been empty but in the sea, nay the ocean, of people it took a good 15-20 minutes. Don't get me wrong - the walk is through extremely pleasant surrounding. The shrine is practically in the middle of a park. There are trees flanking the unpaved walkway with even a little stream in the middle flowing lazily under a bridge. Of course these things may have been extremely easy to miss if it was not for the stop and go of the crowd so I guess there was a positive side of all that crowd after all ;)









Talking of stop and go - the flow of the crowd is controlled by policemen holding up signs in Japanese and English. Of course since this is Japan there is a cute little manga-style character in the sign they hold up. This character is actually kind of like a police mascot. All of the little police stations have this character as well. I think these pictures should give you an idea about the size of the crowd...

The goal for everyone in the crowd is getting to the building there in the background so that they can drop a coin and prey. Of course since there are so many people this does not happen easily and people get impatient, throwing their coins from far away so that they don't have to wait. This means two things -

  1. The floor, behind the barrier, gets covered with coins of all sizes, and
  2. The poor policemen behind the barrier have to fend for themselves against the potentially raining coins (hence the face protection).


Friday, January 2, 2009

Caught between two cultures: A movie

Yesterday I managed to watch the movie "Big hopes, little Tokyo" which is an independent movie - a light-hearted comedy - about Boyd, a spectacled white guy living in Japan Town somewhere in the US, who speaks perfect Japanese and acts almost more Japanese than your typical Japanese. His live-in student, Jerome, is a big Japanese guy who seems to be born and raised in the US so he is learning Japanese from Boyd and wants to become a Sumo wrestler. He also meets a pretty and sweet nurse at a hospital who is Japanese and decides to take English classes from him. I really enjoyed this movie and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is remotely interested in the Japanese culture.