Things Korea Does Well

Underappreciated things about an already underappreciated country.

  • Korea is a textiles manufacturing powerhouse.  In most places in Asia, markets will sell a lot of cheap clothing.  But here, the off-price stuff sold for $3 or $5 in the subway stations comes from manufacturers who, on the other side, are making stuff for Patagonia, Zara, Nike, etc.  The Dongdaemun night market (wholesale clothing market, open to everyone) is literally the definition of a fast fashion nerve center, stocking retailers around the country every night (literally, retailers from all over Korea come to shop here starting at midnight to stock inventory for the next day), with production runs and test clothing that run in the single digits.  In common terms, this just means – bring an empty suitcase and load up on quality, off-brand, no brand outerwear – and innerwear.  Every subway station usually has a ‘sock store’ selling nothing more than socks for less than a dollar.
  • A lot of underappreciated and unknown ‘health’ food.  Korean traditional cuisine stems from a philosophy that food is medicine and vice versa.  While meat (Korean BBQ, fried chicken) gets all the attention, herbs, vegetables, and roots, usually served pickled, are staples of every meal.  Things like bean sprouts, Korean thistle, burdock, sesame leaves, pepper leaves, thorny ash, mallow, bellflower roots, not to mention mountain herbs for which there is no proper common translation, like Korean pimpinella, ainsliaea, ragwort, bog rhubarb, Korean angelica, sedum, etc. etc.  The list goes on and on; Koreans pickle anything that can be picked.  Not to say that all food in Korea is healthy, that’s far from the case, but a typical traditional meal is fairly well-balanced.  Some sort of fermented stew, served with a variety of pickled vegetables and herbs, carbs in the form of rice or noodles, and meat in the form of fish or pork.
  • An unbelievable cafe culture.  Koreans binge drink coffee the same way they binge drink alcohol, which if you think about it, might be a yin and yang phenomenon, with one not possible without the other.  The multitude of, and staggering variety of cafes and coffeeshops on every corner is mind-blowing.  Cafes and coffeeshops that serve alcohol alongside their coffee, dessert-specialty coffeeshops, coffeeshops that specialize only in giant portions, coffeeshops and cafes of every imaginable theme and configuration possible.  They say to show, not tell, and to do that, I suggest you just Google “Korean cafes” or “coffeeshops” on Google or Youtube.
  • This one is an element of Korea that I don’t think Koreans realize yet.  If Koreans didn’t spend all their time just studying, and their early to mid 20s in an insane cycle of work & drinking all-nighters, there would be more world-class athletes in every field from here.  I was part of two different gyms here, and having trained extensively in both the US and Asia, I will say that the number of physical specimens and giants in Korea is surprisingly high.  But years of study and atrophying behind a desk means that they don’t know it yet.  Also, the terrible diet and drinking doesn’t help.  This might be the only country I’ve trained where guys regularly smoke before and after workouts, and come in smashed from the night before.  And for the latter, I don’t mean young guys in youthful partying mode.  I mean salarymen in their 30s and 40s.
  • Lastly, Korea is a convenient country.  Things are efficient, quick, available.  Convenience, and a culture of service stems from its homogeneous society.  I’ll just point back to an earlier article I wrote about this.

Neighborhood Guide: Jamsil, Seoul

This is where we’ve been living for the last year and a half.  Jamsil is a great neighborhood, semi-suburban and somewhat under the radar.  If it wasn’t for the tendency of Seoul real estate prices to move in inexplicable step-wise functions, as it did in the past six months, we would have bought a place here, especially next to the amazing Olympic Park.

But we’re saying farewell to it this week, and in commemoration, I’d like to present some of my favorite places.

As some background, Jamsil (蚕室) is, for those who read Chinese characters, derived from the characters meaning mulberry tree + hall.  Silkworms feast exclusively on mulberry trees, which Jamsil used to be filled with, which made the area one of the two main silk farms for the royal court during the Joseon dynasty.

But, because of frequent flooding, the area became disused.  Over the past century, land has been gradually reclaimed but random sinkholes often appear in the district.

There’s even more history to it than that.  The Baekje dynasty (ca. 18 BCE to 660 AD) made this area the seat of their kingdom.

If you look closely at those dates, you’ll note that the Baekje dynasty goes back even further than the Joseon dynasty, whose palaces are in central Seoul, and are far more publicized and famous.  I don’t know if what I’m about to share below even get mentioned in guidebooks.

Now, Baekje was founded by princes from the Goguryeo kingdom, and both are descended from the horseback archers/nomadic tribes of Northeastern Asia, or Manchuria if you will.

What’s relevant here is that the Baekje capital was located right here and you can still see the tops of its walls, in Pungnaptoseong.

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Decades ago, they didn’t realize what this wall really was, and built a village in it.  You can see the tops of its buildings on the right side of the above picture.  After discovering they had literally built the new village on the top of an ancient capital, new development has been restricted, leading to consternation on the part of the residents.

At Olympic Park, not too far away, you can see the reserve palace, where the royal family retreated when Pungnaptoseong was under attack.  This one is called Mongchontoseong, and is directly in the middle of the park.

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These are earthen ramparts, and not natural hills.  It’s hard to grasp exactly how high they appear, but to get an idea of how high these walls were:

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Jamsil is probably most famous among tourists for being the location of Lotte World, the indoor theme park, and the Lotte World Tower, Korea’s tallest building.  Lotte basically owns two city blocks filled with three shopping malls, an office tower, a department store, a few hypermarkets, and an underground shopping center connecting it all.

Lotte World Mall is actually a complex of two different malls; one the mall itself, and the other the super luxe Avenue L.  Right now, along with the Starfield malls by Shinsegae, these are probably among the best malls in Asia.  Best, meaning, largest, with the best tenant mix, best amenities & concierge service, top of the line facilities.

Right next to the Lotte World Mall is an entire city block dedicated to nightlife.  In the picture below, you can see the shaded area in the red circle reading “방이동 먹자골목”: Bangi-dong Tasty Alley.  

In my experience though, the tasty street actually starts closer to the main road, at the right/east edge of the red circle – and is a larger area than the lake, Lotte World Tower, Lotte World Mall, and Avenue L just west of it, combined.

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This is the thing about Korea: all the tasty stuff, all the round-the-clock entertainment, is secluded kind of like the inner courtyard of a riad, a street or two removed from the main street.

This is why some people say Korea is boring.  It’s either because they’re looking in the wrong places or because they don’t have people taking them to these places.

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“Alley” doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of this district.  Restaurants, cafes, arcades, karaoke rooms, bars, saloons, and clubs.  Some of these shops are open for lunch.  Very few though.  The main operating hours are from dusk to dawn.

Lastly, my favorite place, which was next to our apartment, is the Jangmi Shopping Center Underground.  This is an underground market that’s been around for over 40 years, and a treasure that will probably be razed, redeveloped, and erased in the next decade.  That’s just what Korea tends to do.

Part food market, part restaurant hall, the B1 floor is a time capsule into Korea of the 1970s-1980s.  I remember shopping at places like this with my grandmother about 25-30 years ago, until the place like this by my grandma’s house was razed, redeveloped, erased, and turned into something far more shiny.

The food merchants here are a hybrid of retail and wholesale.  They sell in bulk, to restaurants and other merchants, but offer their wares to walk-ins too.  You can pick up enough banchan for a feast for less than $10-20.  The restaurants here are standard Korean fare – lots of typical comfort food in the form of rice rolls, spicy pork-topped rice, hangover stews, fish cakes, chicken ginseng soup, donkatsu, shaved ice, and ubiquitous coffeeshops.

This is where the good stuff is.  Don’t be intimidated, and don’t miss it.  You can get good meals here for $5-7.

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Elements: The Best Theme Park in the World?

DisneySea is the gold standard of theme parks.  Most people in the industry who I ask will nominate it as their favorite, and as the best theme park ever constructed.  Just a few of the examples are here and here.

There are better guides and writeups on DisneySea out there, but this is my personal note of appreciation for it.

DisneySea is my favorite park too, although I think if you’re talking about the best park in the world, it depends on who you’re asking.

You’ll notice that the people declaring this is the best park in the world, are adults.  Most kids would probably not say DisneySea is their favorite theme park.  It has less rides and attractions than Disneyland and is a more subtle experience.

As way of background, Tokyo DisneySea is the second theme park at Tokyo Disney Resort.  It opened in 2001 on land reclaimed by the Oriental Land Company in the 1960s, and while Disneyland got the better, more stable land, DisneySea had to be built with as much attention to the subsurface because it was over a deeper area.

All sorts of fancy engineering was applied to the land to avoid problems of differential settlement, and the inevitable result was cost overruns.

All this is to say that in my opinion, Tokyo DisneySea is the theme park version of the Steve Jobs standard of crafting things to perfection, even the parts unseen.

First, this is perhaps the most beautifully themed amusement park in the world.  Parts of it do not resemble a traditional theme park.  They resemble an art installation, or a museum.

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This is Ariel’s Grotto, a visually spectacular masterpiece.

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This East Coast waterfront area is visually one of the most intricately themed experiences I’ve ever seen anywhere.  They put that much work into this ship floating in the water, and it cannot even be boarded or accessed.  Only appreciated from afar.

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Most things, when they are simulacra of another, suffer in comparison.  They can’t pass the authenticity test.

This is because too many details are missing.  Here, Tokyo DisneySea has the opposite issue.  It has MORE details and more features, I’m sure, than the originals.

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Gorgeous theming.  Not a brick out of place or corner cut.

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The park is filled with areas like this, in areas you can’t even access.  Here’s a dhow in the middle of the water, and it’s full of stuff – cargo, utensils, equipment – and the fact that it has this stuff in it deepens the mystery.  You want to go see it, but you can’t.

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Exquisite rockwork.  Bubbling water.  The water doesn’t have to foam and bubble.  But it does, because this is Disney.

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At DisneySea, they’ve recognized that food is an important part of the experience, and for many people, maybe the primary part of the experience.  Why other theme parks haven’t yet adopted this philosophy is beyond comprehension.

At DisneySea, you get multiple popcorn flavors spread out in different areas of the park.  It is a game to either find/taste them all, or find the one you want.  Here’s blueberry popcorn.

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Here’s milk chocolate popcorn.

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Here’s the line for the caramel popcorn.

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You have a food court that has a line of more than 30 minutes to enter:

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Operationally, it excels.  Every cast member has been impeccably trained.  On the kids’ rides, the cast members wave to you the entire time you’re riding.  Bonus points if you can catch them not smiling.

I can’t tell how much of this part is cultural; i.e., would you get the same frenzy and crowds in say, Orlando?  But in DisneySea, there are queues everywhere.  When I mean everywhere, I mean – at food kiosks.

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To take pictures next to a themed stall.

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And ride-equivalent wait times to take pictures with the characters.  Some of this is undoubtedly Instagram culture, which is worldwide, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not sure you would get a neat, impromptu lines like the above at Disney World.

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Then you get the Easter Eggs and minute details that are completely extraneous, but are the differentiator between a Disney park, and everyone else.

Plaque reads: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, 1623-1912”.  This is taken from the Gloucester’s Fisherman’s Memorial; the original has the dates 1623-1923, but I will bet that the difference of the latter year has some meaning to it and is not an error.

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There are theme parks developed for a fraction of a Disney park.  You can have great theming, good hardware (roller coasters) that rival the best in the world, you can have rockwork and incredible landscapes, but there’ll always be something missing.

That something is internal consistency, but internal consistency wrought with a level of attention to details that would confound a rocket scientist.

Part of this internal consistency that most theme parks ignore is music.  Music in a Disney or Universal park is central to the experience.  Hidden speakers take you on a cinematic journey and evoke emotions appropriate to that land.  The audio quality is superb and makes it seem like you’re in a theater the whole way.  The transitions between the lands are seamless.

Instead, in most parks, what do you get?  Non-immersive, dim audio, sometimes tinny, and lots of areas that are just completely silent.  Soundtracks that are nonexistent, and instead, playing pop music unrelated to the park.

Here are some speakers hidden in a bamboo grove.

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And some others disguised into a building facade, all designed to create that seamless experience.

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Paying attention to the parts unseen, indeed.

If you decide to do something, to do it all the way, and to completely commit to the conceit that you’ve set up. 

This is DisneySea’s major accomplishment.  This is something worth considering and learning from.

Elements – Bali Edition

This is what you would call an architecture of reverence.

Everywhere in Bali, from big to small, you’ll see little totems of reverence, from shrines, statues, to temples.  And this being an island, often the object of that reverence is water.

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I don’t know if you can call this ‘worship of a god’ as some people would label it.  That term sounds too much like it stems from a monotheistic, jealous-god-type religion.  Here, the shrines are subtle.  Women wake up early in the morning to fill it with offerings, in a natural, respectful way, not in a cowering, bow-before-my-wrath-type god.

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Townspeople come out and conduct a ceremony before the water to ask it for its blessing.

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Temples are placed on rocks in the middle of the ocean, accessible only during low tide.

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Small shrines are everywhere.

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There’s something in the Hindu faith that appeals to me, in these kinds of gestures and rituals as a way to express your respect for something.

And there’s something doubly more appealing about these gestures of respect for the ocean.

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As surfers, we enter and exit the waves only by the grace of the ocean, which is indifferent to our wishes, desires, hopes.  Sometimes the ocean feels like a wild vengeful spirit, sometimes it feels playful.  Stay out in the water long enough, bobbing on the waves, and the ocean will make you feel part of it, the undulations returning you and your mind to something fundamental, grounded, and of the world.

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To me these shrines are appropriate, whatever your faith.  This is the right way to regard the ocean, which has the power to take away your life at any time.  Reverence, and gratitude.

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What You Get in a Homogeneous Society

Culture, not ethnicity, is the determining factor of a society’s outcomes.  Korea has a homogeneous culture.  Policymakers in the US will often cite Scandinavian countries or East Asian countries to rationalize their opinions, but usually these statements have miniscule merit, as what you get in a homogeneous society is not what can be gotten in a free-for-all like the US.

Here are some notes from being in Korea for over a year now.  In a homogeneous society, you get:

  • Lower crime, and kids under the age of 10 riding the subway or bus by themselves, and walking home after leaving their tutoring academies at midnight.
  • A social problem with people inflicting physical violence on police officers, ambulance workers, firefighters, and medics.
  • Informal credit systems where neighborhood grocers will tell you to pay them for groceries later, with no mention of when or even of a deadline.  This extends to modern restaurants when the POS system is down, and they tell you to come back later to pay them back.
  • Less of a litigious society, with personal lawsuits over bodily injuries, medical malpractice, etc., not very common or pursued – mostly, these types of things are settled out of the courts or person-to-person over the phone.  Correspondingly, a lower cost of social services like child daycares ($100/mo.) or medical care.
  • A society/major city with a higher average level of service for most things.  A city that is so prosperous, that sometimes it gives out bus and subway rides for free.
  • The culinary custom of serving an entire table-full of side dishes for free, which can be refilled to your stomach’s content.  This has been going on for decades, if not centuries, and abuse has not caused it to stop.
  • An inherent-not-explicitly stated business oligarchic class that has implicit societal objectives such as high employment at the expense of productivity and margins and ROE, although none of the Korean conglomerates would ever admit to this.
  • Rampant double-parking on the street, with cars put in neutral and their owners’ cell phone numbers either printed or otherwise left on the dashboard.  If a car is blocking another driver, then the other driver is expected to push the car (which is in neutral) out of the way – and if it doesn’t work, then to call the owner, whether at 6 am or 6 pm.
  • The laxest public transportation security measures and ticket checks in the world, in my opinion.  For domestic flights, you can show up 10 minutes before the actual flight to check in and get waved through.  On trains, you can book a ticket and waltz onto the train and pass zero security checks and zero ticket attendants.  Your relatives can get on the train with you to say their goodbyes, until a message over the intercom helpfully announces that any well-wishers should deboard or risk being taken halfway across the country.
  • Older men who often communicate in a series of grunts or gestures at restaurants.
  • In playrooms (note: not schools), the moms come by with kids as young as 3 and just drop them off for a few hours.  Just drop them off.  If the kids need to go to the bathroom, one of the frontline staff, regardless of gender, takes them to the bathroom.
  • Kids who come out to the public parks on the weekend, alone, to play.  As it should be, probably.

But what you also get is:

  • An invisible pressure to conform to social norms and mores, including that of physical beauty, and a huge plastic surgery and aesthetic care industry.
  • Rampant copying and gauntlet-style jousting as the prevailing method of competition in every facet of life, from education, to restaurants, to business in general.
  • Highest average spending on education in the OECD, with high average test scores on math and science to match, but limited innovation and creativity, a lot of which is directly related to the oligarchic business complex that stifles / crushes SME’s and mom and pop stores.
  • An entertainment-industrial complex that churns out pop stars as if on an assembly line, with artists at the mercy and whim of their producers, who create, produce, prettify, write the songs, house, feed, and choreograph the dances for them.
  • High rates of suicide as people who don’t feel they have succeeded along the narrow metrics of defined success, feel they have failed in life.
  • Barriers to immigration that are causing the society to age, and die – with deaths outnumbering births, the population will soon plummet.
  • Insane FOMO, as evidenced during the cryptocurrency boom and bust within a span of a few months last year (2017), that drives speculative bubbles.  See 1997, 2007 as well for eerie rhyming.
  • Binge drinking at a societal level, and despite repeated regulations telling employers not to force employees to go on forced outings where some people die from an excessive amount of alcohol consumption, the highest in the world on a per-capita basis.  Resultant lack of productivity in the mornings after is socially accepted, as is workers showing up at 10am, red-faced and smelling like alcohol, and wasting the entire morning.
  • Liver failure and stomach cancer common from the excess amount of drinking that is required for such social situations, in combination with the spicy paste that pervades everything.

Elements – Philippines Edition

1. This rooftop garden in the foreground, at bottom, hovering above Makati.  So lush and alluring.  I’ve decided that my company’s future office will be located in such a setting.

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2.  In most developed countries, furniture has become disposable.  Of course there’s a role for disposable furniture, but there’s a role for solid, permanent furniture too.  I present this picture of a table setting in El Nido to introduce a single thing – the sheer mass of the table and chairs.  These chairs were at least 40 pounds each and were difficult to move just with an arm.  And no, I didn’t even try moving the table.  This is the kind of furniture that will stock the office in our rooftop garden.

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3.  Bedside tables/reading desks built right into the bedframe.  Why is this not more of a thing?  And as expected, solid.  Could probably have supported by weight as a chair.

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4.  This is where I stayed in El Nido, and I moved the desk from the corner to here.  I tried for many years to work out of minimalist virtual offices where my desk was nothing but an empty surface surrounded by nothing but blank walls.  And while that might work for some people, I couldn’t work more than an hour before needing refreshment or a walk outside.  Eventually I moved out of the private offices to cheaper hotdesks where I was surrounded by ambient conversation, open space, and windows.  This, is a natural extension of the ‘office’ setting that works for me, and will serve as inspiration for my eventual rooftop garden office.

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Elements – Korea Edition

1.  This is a ‘study library’ in Jamsil, near where I’m staying.

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This is a study hall+library+coffeeshop, where you pay a little over $3 to read or work for two hours, and drinks like tea and coffee are free.

I especially like the lighting and the colors.  The windows actually face an elevated train platform and a mess of wires, but the dark wood shelves do a good job in covering it up – while still letting the light in in abundance.

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The warm lighting is especially nice against the dark wood motif.  Elements will be taken from this for my future library.

2.  The National Museum of Korea.  The overhang creates a nice shaded canopy that reminded me of La Defense, in Paris.  La Defense made an impression on me when I visited it in high school almost half a lifetime ago.  I remember that because of the large open plaza and the shape of the arch, it created this nice breeze all around it, especially at the top of the stairs.  Like you were under a tent.

It was the same here.

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Inside, the building is like a cathedral.  Love the color, I love the materials.  Elements will be taken from this building for my future Museum of Chocolate.

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Not sure if these trees in the courtyard were intentionally placed like this, or were in transit to a planting, but noted as elements for my future avocado or cocoa tree groves.

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3.  This restaurant in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Incheon had an element I’ve never seen before.  Carved like a cave into a sinuous wall, it supported an extra layer of lighting  – and was very inviting, also inviting of a certain mystery.

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4.  The courtyard behind the Lotte World Mall – this picture does not do it justice.  Just to the left of this photo is an aerial walkway between two wings of the mall.  Standing under it, you have the same kind of tent-like effect as in the museum above, but it also feels like a gate.

You enter the gate, and see this wide, sprawling courtyard and greenery – and the fact that the building curves around the grassy area made the whole area seem much less expansive, and more intimate.  That latter part struck me.

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