Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: Another Sunday, another tub of fish eating your foot’s dead skin

Yes, that’s right. We’ve really been enjoying the bounty of seafood that Korea has to offer, from live octopus to giant clams, fish and squid in various states of dessication and more. So, Alex and I decided to give a little back: We went to Doctor Fish.

These are tiny fish — a little bigger than a minnow, maybe? — that eat the dead skin off your feet. It was originally used to treat eczema and other skin problems, but now it’s mostly used as a spa treatment. I’ve been wanting to try this this I came to Korea (If I’m being honest, since I saw it on the Tyra Show a couple years ago. Full disclosure).

On Sunday, I found  Namu Story, (for Korea peeps: it’s across from the UniQlo in downtown Daegu) and convinced Alex to go with me. Just as interesting as the experience itself is where the Doctor Fish are: in a a big cafe. Yes, a tank of fish sunk into a raised platform at one end of a large, posh, second-story cafe. So while people are drinking their coffee and eating their pastries, Alex and I (okay, mostly me) were giggling in a corner while tickly little fish ate dead skin off our feet. I thought it would take a while to get used to, but in a matter of minutes I was able to stop laughing and enjoy. It’s like a little massage!

The best part is this: there’s a $3 entrance fee to get into the cafe, but it’s all-you-can-eat croissants and coffee, and the Doctor Fish treatment is less than $2. It was a great way to spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

UPDATE (3/8/11): Namu Story, the coffeeshop where we first experienced Dr. Fish, is no longer offering the service. Check back here for updates on other nearby Dr. Fish proprietors.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

The view from up here

One of  cool things about the apartments in Korea is the ability to go onto your roof anytime you want. This is the view from my studio in Chilgok. This is the place I go to get a few minutes to myself. My place of Zen, if you will.

Interesting fact about Korean rooftops: It is prohibited to grill at any of the parks inside city limits. But you can go on the roof of your apartment building and barbecue up a meal.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Andong Mask Festival: The sights, the sounds, the scams (video)

OK, maybe it wasn’t a scam.

Perhaps I should just chalk it up to linguistic miscommunication. It’s my fault for not knowing more of the Korean language, right?

But Chickpea is convinced. We were taken for a ride (forgive the pun).

We stepped out of the Andong Train Station at 8 a.m. and quickly realized we were some of the only people out and about in this city of 185,000. So, with no pack of tourists to follow, we aimlessly wandered the downtown region looking for a hint of the famous Andong Mask Festival. Except for a small stage downtown, we didn’t see anything that resembled the reviews we saw online. So, we wandered back toward the train station.

While looking at map, a taxi driver approached us.

“Hahoe?” he asked us. “Hahoe?”

We responded, “Mask festival.” We did absurd gestures of wearing a mask.

“Oh yes, yes,” he said and motioned for us to follow him to his taxi.

As a preface, most expats will tell you South Korean taxi drivers are truly honest. And although this was the first time a taxi driver solicited us, which was kind of weird, we have had nothing but pleasurable experiences in the taxi cabs here (if you don’t count the hair-raising driving skills).

So, we hopped in his cab and looked out on the city of Andong. That is, until we left the city of Andong.

“Where is he taking us?” Chickpea asked.

“I don’t know, but maybe it’s somewhere cool,” I reasoned.

While stopped at a red light, we talked again with our taxi driver.

“Mask festival,” we said. “Mask festival.”

“Oh yes,” he answered.

After glimpsing a sign on the side of the road announcing the historic Hahoe Village — 20 more kilometers ahead — we realized what was happening. We had the taxi driver pull over and explained we did not want Hahoe Village, we wanted the Andong Mask Festival.

“Oooohhhh,” he said. And proceeded to take us to the front gate, which was about four blocks from the train station.

Twenty-five thousand won poorer, we walked around the festival grounds (which were huge) and decided to head back downtown until the actual performances began. Once we hit the area near the train station, three taxi drivers approached us.

“Hahoe? Hahoe?”

You be the judge.

P.S. Although we never made it, the Hahoe Village is supposed to be another must-see in Korea. But instead of a taxi, take the bus no. 46 that leaves near the tourist information booth a block or two down from the train station. At about 1,000 won, it’s a much cheaper option.

***

The Andong Mask Festival should definitely be on your must-see list if you make it to South Korea in the fall. With a full schedule of traditional Korean plays and dancing from all over the world, you won’t be bored. And even if your butt starts to hurt, the festival grounds are full of craft tents, food stalls and dozens of strange mask-related characters to pose with.

Check out our video!

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Eating live octopi — still wriggling — at Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, South Korea

Anthony Bourdain did it.

Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Foods” did it.

And now you can add Alex and Chickpea to the foodie VIP club.

On our trip to Seoul, we stopped by the Noryangjin Fish Market and perused the hundreds of tanks, bowls and baskets full of every kind of seafood you can imagine (and some you can’t). Noryangjin Fish Market is one of the largest in the world and is a must-see on any Seoul tourist’s list.

After a quick tour of the warehouse, in which the vendors all tried to convince us to purchase all manner of bivalves, crustaceans, sea slugs and fish, we decided on our choice of seafood: two small crabs, two baby octopi and a handful of clams. Unsure of normal prices and seafood etiquette, I think we paid a bit more than the average Korean (30,000 won). But you’re paying for the experience, right?

The vendor stuffed our “catch” in a black plastic bag, which was then grabbed by a woman and hurried upstairs. We followed her to a small restaurant where she cooked our purchase. Well, most of it.

The live octopi, called “sannakji,” is just chopped up and served — still wriggling. You just grab it with your chopsticks, dip it in the sesame oil (for flavor and so the tentacles don’t stick to your throat) and chew … and chew … and chew. Any adventurous food lover — like the Travel Channel stars above — has to try it.

While we waited for our seafood, we ordered some soju to steel our nerves. When the cook first brought out our little octopi, Franki, myself and our two friends just stared at the writhing mass of tentacles. Sensing our uneasiness on how best to tackle this dish, the cook grabbed a particularly large portion of the head in her fingers and stuffed it in our friend Jeff’s mouth.

Korea is not for the food shy.

We all immediately started eating our live catch, lest the cook shove it in for us. The octopus was not bad at all. Mostly flavorless without the sesame oil and, surprisingly, not fishy at all.

By the way, Shannon (pictured here and in the video) has her own blog about life in South Korea: Daegu-ber. I’ve linked to it in the sidebar under “Korea-related Blogs,” but I also link to it here for your viewing pleasure. UPDATE: Turns out, Shannon blogged about Seoul the same day I did! Here is her post.

Check out the video:

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: My first day as a middle school teacher

…..well, sorta. Today I experienced a common trend of teaching English in Korea, the infamous….dun dun dun….desk warming!

I was under the impression that I would come in for a little while in the morning, take a tour of my new digs at Gu-Am Middle School, meet the principal and peace out. But, they like to get their allotted time out of you, even if you’re just sitting around doing nothing, so I had a full day of just that.

I did use my time to plan my first few lessons, though. I was on a roll, until they changed the section of the book that they told me to teach and I had to re-do them all. Basically, it took me the whole day to write four lesson plans. I gotta get faster at that!

I was really early for school today, because I left the house super early. I was sure I’d get lost. Actually, I had no problems finding it — a minor miracle. It’s about a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I was taking in the cool morning air, enjoying the new scenery (mountains, whoa!), and thinking about how much better this is than driving everywhere. Of course,  I nearly forgot that sometimes there will be rain, snow and other inconvenient acts of nature. It will be an adventure!

There’s not a whole lot to report for the “big” first day. The school is nice; I have my own desk in the teacher’s room, where most of the teacher’s just smile sweetly and nod when I say hello. I’ve been trying out my Korean greetings, to mixed reactions. Some people seem surprised and pleased that I can even form words in Korean; others seem to grimace at what I’m sure is my miserable pronunciation.

None of the teachers at my school speak much English (ironically, not even the English teachers) so I am still unclear as to how my classes will be run. First they told me that I wouldn’t have a co-teacher (which is actually illegal, a co-teacher is required to be in class with me at all times). I wouldn’t complain though; I think in a lot of ways running a class would be much easier alone. Then they told me I would have a co-teacher, but I’m not really sure who teaches which grades, which part of the lesson I’m responsible for, how much time I’m allotted in each lesson — you know, minor details. In short, I’ve got bupkis. I planned my first few lessons from start to finish so that I’ll be ready for whatever they throw at me.

One of the English teachers is so sweet and cute (although she did make fun of me for my poor use of chopsticks). She offered to help me with my Korean, so I hope that I won’t be so useless at this language for long.

I am still getting the hang of wearing “inside shoes,” “outside shoes” and “shower shoes.” All the teachers look really funny because even though they’re dressed up for work, they’re all wearing these funny indoor slippers (like the Adidas slip-ons that were popular a decade or more ago) and crazy patterned socks with their trousers and dress shirts or dresses.

I ate lunch with the teachers today, which I was nervous about because …