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January 22, 2014

Favorite Foods: Korea

TopFoods47Deciding on just ten of my favorite foods here in this part of the world is almost impossible. What started out at a real challenge  to try new things thirty months ago has turned into a culinary love affair. All I really knew about Korean food was kimchi, of course, and a friend’s recommendation that I try Bibimbap once I arrived. If Korean food choices existed at all back home in Columbus, they were never on my stomach’s low-frequency radar.

Part of what made my first few months so difficult food-wise was my embarrassment at not knowing the language and a picky, yet unrefined palate. My favorite meals growing up were either SpaghettiO’s or grilled cheese and tomato soup. I will still never turn down either comfort food meals, but my tastes have fortunately grown up a bit. As a result, I started out slow and I alternated between my favorite new dishes and regular meals at the Burger King near my school. When you are far from home, a #4 Bacon Whopper Combo is a remarkable, if unhealthy, comfort. Grilled cheese, cereal, and lots of fried egg sandwiches cooked at home filled in the rest of my diet.

Fortunately, something clicked-over once I decided to join a gym, get in shape, and leave all the Western-style junk food behind. I began to branch-out and try new restaurants regularly and I found that Korean food, while very spicy at times, is remarkably diverse, easy to digest, and just as crave-inducing as all the meals I had been missing from back home. Most travelers will rave about eating Korean barbecue, and it is indeed terrific. However, it never seemed very filling or satisfying given all the fuss and work involved, and is best eaten with friends or in a large group instead. As I was a solo diner most of the time, I tended to avoid the fancy BBQ shops in favor of the most plain and boring local dives. These family-owned joints that buck the latest trends and remodels always had the best food. I am now in the final term of my contract and I realized that I will certainly miss the following items the most, as well as the affordable (read: cheap!) prices and lack of a custom for tipping, too.

TopFoods371. Haejangguk (해장국)

The funny thing now looking back is that my current favorite dish, Haejangguk, was also the very first Korean meal I had here way back when I first arrived. My recruiter took me to a restaurant right across from my new apartment and I was not at all impressed. I guess my first Korean culinary experience was a bit of a shock, but it also prepared me right off that things were now going to be different. The dish, translated as “soup to chase a hangover,” consists of usually consists of dried Napa cabbage, congealed ox blood, and vegetables in a hearty beef broth that is served with a side of bap (rice). Although I have never been hungover in Korea, this hearty and spicy dish is perfect anytime of year, especially to warm you up on a cold, rainy, or snowy day.

TopFoods442. Bibimbap (비빔밥)

As identifiable with Korea as kimchi, the name Bibimbap means “mixed rice” and is a available everywhere and in many delicious varieties. My favorite, Dolsot Bibimbap, includes sautéed and seasoned vegetables, plus a raw egg over warm rice served in a hot earthenware (dolsot) pot. After adding gochujang (red chili pepper paste) and mixing thoroughly, this dish is delicious when washed down with a side of hot guk (clear broth). Regional versions also include barley mixed with the rice base, which adds flavor and nutrients as well as a rather undesirable side effect; wicked flatulence. Consequently, I do NOT recommend this dish before a long day of teaching or train ride in close quarters. Otherwise, Bibimbap is terrific anytime, especially when the rice cooks a little and gets crispy on the bottom of the dolsot.

TopFoods103. Mandu (만두)

Hot dumplings of many sizes and with endless terrific fillings are available on just about every street corner and can be either steamed, grilled, or deep fried. Cheap, delicious, and fully portable, Mandu dumplings were a staple in my diet from the very beginning and remain a great treat anytime. A little shop near my school in Neoun serves the best Wong Mandu (king-sized dumplings) I have found on the peninsula. Also served with a side of broth, these beautiful babies can be either a great snack or a meal unto themselves. Soup made with smaller dumplings, Manduguk, is also great way to enjoy this Korean comfort food, especially as the temperature drops (by degrees Celsius).

TopFoods134. Hotteok (호떡)

I have already raved on this blog about my fondness for these little Korean desert pancakes. The quintessential wintertime street food is typically grilled in oil, butter, or margarine and is usually filled with a sweet combination of  brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon. The southern, or Busan variety, adds chopped peanuts for a crunchy twist and both types are served in a paper cup or holder. Cheap, hot, and hopelessly addicting, the hardest part (other than waiting in the long queues) is waiting for the filling to cool off enough so it doesn’t burn a hole right through your tongue. These little treats are so good, though, that waiting is almost impossible. I am considering giving up my teaching gig for good and returning to the states to start my own Hotteok cart. As long as I don’t eat all the profits, I could make a killing.

TopFoods165. Hwedeopbap (회덮밥)

Since sushi and sashimi are technically Japanese, I can’t really include them on this list of Korean delicacies – no matter how much I adore them. In addition to all the wonderful Korean meals I have grown to love, my existing passion for raw fish has only increased here (and on my trip to Tokyo), as it is always fresh, comparatively inexpensive, and readily available in every Dong (neighborhood). The delighful Korean twist that has me hooked, however, is Hwedeopbap. Basically Bibimbap made with raw fish, cabbage, and kim (seaweed) added for saltiness, this beautiful and healthy option is something I hope to find (or make) back home on a regular basis. Topped with a little red pepper paste and served with a side of Miso soup or thick Udon noodles, this is the one dish I have happily introduced to  friends again and again. In the summertime I had this 2 to 3 times a week and still never got tired of it. It could easily be the one thing here I will miss most. When done correctly, it is as delicious as it is photogenic.

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TopFoods496. Kimchi and Sundubu Jjigae (김치찌개)

Unlike guk, which is comparable to a soup or broth, jjigae is a little thicker and its hearty consistency is more like a stew. One of the very best, of course, is the kimchi variety. Made with sliced kimchi of varying ages and either beef, pork or seafood, it can also contain tofu, sliced spring onions and garlic, and myeolchi (anchovy) stock. The stew is best when served boiling hot and eaten communally with a side of white rice and shredded kim (seaweed) and other side dishes (banchan). The fermented properties of the pickled kimchi provide “good,” healthful bacteria, similar to yogurt. I also recently began to enjoy Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개), a similar dish (pictured) in which hand-made uncurdled tofu (dubu) is the primary ingredient.

TopFoods217. Ju Mok Bap (주먹밥)

One of the key reasons Korean culture revolves around kimchi, rice, and seaweed is the ease of preparation and low cost. When combined with and endless variety of combinations and convenient portability, it is hard to argue with the logic, price, or taste. Ju Mok means “fist” in Korean and Bap, as I have mentioned, is rice. Some of my very first friends here opened a small shop in my building called Yummi Yummi and their simple menu revolves around these delicious fist-shaped rice balls. Served slightly warm and covered with grandma’s secret blend of spices, the filling is typically kimchi and/or tuna salad. Served with a side of hot Janchi Guksu (잔치국수), or Korean Party Noodles to wash them down, it is a cheap, quick, and filling meal that I will miss dearly. The Japanese version, onigiri, is wrapped in seaweed and is just as addicting and easy to find.

TopFoods408. Samgyetang (삼계탕)

As I began preparing to live in Korea, one dish, Samgyetang, kept popping up in every travel guide I encountered. Samgyetang means “ginseng chicken soup” and is a guk made with a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and ginseng. Served primarily in the summertime, it is believed that eating it will replace the nutrients you lose while sweating in the hottest days of the year. The broth, similar to chicken soup back home, also contains dried seeded jujube fruits, garlic, and ginger, and depending on the recipe, various other medicinal herbs. Readily available, I found the best Samgyetang served at a very old restaurant in Seoul’s Chebu-dong (in Jongno-gu), called Todokchon. While I understand the logic behind the seasonality of the dish, I preferred to be warmed by its homey comfort in the Fall and Winter, and when I was particularly under the weather.

TopFoods349. Godeungeo gui (고등어구이)

While most Koreans and tourists alike go crazy over the traditional Korean BBQ of either pork, chicken, and beef, my preference leans more toward grilled fish (gui) and the best, Godeungeo Gui, is grilled mackerel. Served sizzling hot with a variety of sides, this simple delicacy is generally a whole filleted fish which is lightly grilled or broiled so that the meat falls right off the bone. The crispy underside is a real treat, too, especially when served with dolsot bap, which (if you have been paying attention) is a hot earthenware pot filled with fresh hot rice.

TopFoods2810. Donkkaseu (돈까스)

This last entry is not really Korean, but is the Korean version of a traditional Japanese meat cutlet, Katsudon. Typically pork loin (or chicken) which is breaded, deep fried, and then served over rice with cooked egg, this hot and filling meal is found everywhere and in so many varieties it became a meal I got hooked on very early. Koreans use a darker soy or Worcestershire-based sauce or thick curry instead and serve it with cabbage. It is a tradition for most Japanese students to eat Katsudon before a big test or exam because “katsu” is a homophone of the verb katsu, meaning “to be victorious“.

All of this fails to mention all the terrific side dishes, or banchan (반찬), served with every meal. Complimentary kimchi and pickled radishes are pretty common everywhere you go, but the rest rotate depending on what the chef has on hand and can sometimes be served in quantities equal to a whole meal. Free refills are also pretty standard. One of my favorites is the small, dried anchovies called myulchi bokkeum (멸치볶음). Stir-fried in either soy sauce or red pepper paste, these tasty little fish are always a welcome surprise before the main meal is served.

A few other brilliant dining innovations here in Korea are ideas that I would love to back home. Cold filtered water is always delivered to the table in a plastic jug prior to placing an order so you don’t have to chase down your server every time you need a refill. Even if you did, Koreans have worked this out, too, by adding a doorbell-like button at each table to call for service or more food and drinks. Once you hit it, your table number registers digitally and help is on the way. Also, most restaurants, businesses, and facilities have a water cooler with hot and cold running filtered water at the entrance. Some even offer complimentary coffee, as well. How convenient and time-consuming is that?

Do I still miss my mom’s fried chicken dinner or a greasy breakfast at Jack & Benny’s? You bet! Will I miss the amazing food here in South Korea? Probably more than I can currently even begin to imagine. The local tastes, smells, and dishes are as identifiable as the people, places, and the experiences here I will never forget.

November 30, 2013

Taco Amigo

TacoAmigo7As I have mentioned in multiple essays and reviews here at The Rock Traveler, I am a huge fan of Vatos Urban Tacos, which now has three locations in Seoul. While Vatos specializes in a unique fusion of Tex-Mex and Korean-Asian fare, it has gotten so big and so popular, it is sadly beginning to feel a bit like a chain restaurant. The signature appetizer, Kimchi Carnitas Fries, are well worth the trip (and long wait) and should not be missed at some point during a stay in the capital city.

However, there are also a lots of terrific smaller (and more intimate) Mexican restaurants worth investigating in Korea as well. My current favorite is Taco Amigo in Itaewon. While Vatos offers an impressive variety and an unbeatable atmosphere and style, there is something to be said for the small, unassuming, hole-in-the-wall type owner-operated joints like Amigo. If you close your eyes and try real hard, you can almost imagine that you are in a small Mexican cantina South of the border and not just a block off the main drag in one of Seoul’s busiest neighborhoods.

Taco Amigo offers most of what you would expect from your favorite Mexican eatery back home in the states and in large portions. On both visits I have opted for the Mole Chicken and Enchilada Special over the ala carte or mix-and-match option. Because I miss refried beans more than any other “Western” food option from North America, I pigged-out and got them on the side with Chips and Salsa, too. With just water to drink, my bill came to about 19,000 KRW.

With seating for around 20, the kitchen here is small and everything seems to be homemade; including  a nice variety of hot sauces which are available upon request. Like most Korean attempts to duplicate Western dishes, the food here is hot, fresh, and delicious, but something is just off a little bit. It is hard to really say what exactly, I guess it is ultimately just not and can never be the same. That is in no way a dig on Taco Amigo or other restaurants like it. After two visits, I still find myself preferring (and recommending) it over the big-name competition for its overall quality and value, as well as the cozy family-style setting. I was completely ignored at the bar on my last visit to Vatos because the place was just a loud and overcrowded madhouse. I walked out in a huff and stumbled upon Taco Amigo instead, so I consider it a blessing.

If you crave a big hot plate of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas with the feel of a small town Mexican dive, Taco Amigo offers more of what you are looking for at a fair price and without the long lines, loud crowds, and corporate feel.

(Please click on each image below to view full-sized or in a slideshow)

Taco Amigo is close to Itaewon Station, Exit #4. At street level, simply turn back toward the main intersection (and Taco Bell) and turn right at the Baskin Robbins, keep walking just a minute or two up the slight hill until you see Taco Amigo on the right. It’s easy to miss but it is just before you get to the bus station.

They are open Weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Weekends from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.


October 13, 2013

When in Korea



When in Korea (WinK) is an adventure group that regularly books trips of all kinds throughout the country. After an amazing weekend in the Southwest corner of the peninsula, I can’t wait to book another trip with this fun and easy-going group.

This particular weekend was a study in contrasts. Saturday was spent in relative peace and calm at two different green tea plantations in the Boseong area of Jeollanam-do. The first stop was a pleasant tour of the multi-tiered green tea mountains followed by a terrific green tea-filled lunch at the on-site cafe. I had a tongkatsu pork cutlet topped with green tea powder and green tea rice on the side. Olivia had the bibimbap (비빔밥) with the same rice and Cheymus had jajangmyeon (짜장면) made with green tea noodles and black beans. Desert was also a refreshing green tea ice cream at the gift shop to wash it all down. The whole thing reminded me of the Looney Tunes cartoon where Yosemite Sam was forced to eat only coconut on a deserted island for 20 years until Bugs arrived. If you don’t like green tea, this place is not for you but a little experimenting will definitely change your mind.

(Click on any image to view full-sized or in a slideshow)

After lunch we packed up and went down the road a bit to another privately owned plantation that was in its fifth generation of family ownership.  As an added treat, our tour group divided up into five teams for a little tea-picking competition. Here we were shown just how to pick the best and most coveted leaves before being turned loose to pick the leaves ourselves. This green tea plantation is world-renowned as the leaves there make some of the best and most expensive tea available. Each cup of tea is sold exclusively  at the most expensive hotels in Korea for upwards of $50-70 a cup.

Once we picked the leaves, we got to enjoy a special tea tasting and the tea master showed us how to drink tea the traditional way. The whole process is all about patience and taking time to slow down and enjoy every aspect of the ritual. It was a great lesson not only in the multiple health benefits of green tea, but the overall advantage of a life lived in slow motion. We then moved to the work area and got to continue the competition as we dried the leaves in pairs on large hot iron pots rolling them dry. The whole experience was truly fascinating and educational as well as being very relaxing. Our team sadly lost in the big competition, but we were all so buzzed from the terrific tea and peaceful afternoon, that we were ready to head out to the pension in and get settled in for the night.

The pension (Korean lodging similar to a guesthouse) was near the mountains of Wolchulsan National Park. After getting our room assignments we enjoyed a picnic-style Korean BBQ (with lots of beer and soju) and got to know the members of our tour group even better. One of the amazing things about living and working overseas is the diversity of the people you meet here. I shared dinner with people from Australia, South Africa, and England, as well as the U.S., and got the lowdown on my desire to get dive certified from a former instructor.

A separate contingency of the WinK tour went to the Grand Prix qualifying heats that day instead of the tea excursion and they arrived late and in good, well-lubed spirits to complete the group. We all had different units of various sizes and most people, like me, slept in surprising comfort on the floor, Korean style. My bunkmates were from Sheffield (home of Def Leppard) as well as Blackpool, England. Both had enjoyed a great day at the track and had me pumped up for my first Formula 1 race the next day. I went to bed well before the partying stopped and slept-in well past the morning call for a sunrise hike on the mountain.

The extra sleep was well worth it. Our busy Sunday began with sprinkling rain as forecasts tracking a typhoon off the southern coast threatened to ruin our race day. As I learned on my trip to Japan, there should always be room in your gear for an emergency raincoat, and today was the perfect excuse to bust mine out. After about a 45 minute trip from the mountains and some dodgy signage and directions we arrived at the Korea International Circuit (a track built on reclaimed marshland) in Yeongam, near the port city of Mokpo. Despite the success of similar F1 events in Singapore, the Korean events have continuously lost money for race promoters, prompting calls to renegotiate the deal with Formula 1. Losing the race would be a shame, because with some time and the proper cross-promotion (like the K-Pop concert the previous night) the high-tech and high-speed sport might be a perfect fit for a country obsessed with cars.

Fortunately for our group, the clouds were somewhat chased away and we were treated to a nice Blue Angels-like air show just prior to the race performed by the the 53rd Air Demonstration Group, coincidently nicknamed “The Black Eagles.” Once the start lights went from red to green, we were treated to an extremely loud and blisteringly fast race. The F1 cars took roughly 90 seconds to finish a lap and completed 55 laps (totaling over 308 km) in just a few hours. While the race saw no big crashes, the second half was mostly completed under caution as the track conditions were brutal on the tires of most cars. The winner proved to be the pole-sitter, Team Red Bull’s  Sebastian Vettel from Germany. Vettel is the current points leader and is closing in on his forth straight Formula 1 title. While he lead from wire-to-wire and was never really challenged, this was the first time in the short 3-yer history of the race that the top qualifier has actually won the race. I was pulling for Brit Lewis Hamilton of Team Mercedes, who finished fourth.

After some creative repositioning from our crack WinK tour guides, we were able to switch busses for a much needed direct drop-off back home in Daejeon. Most travelers in the group were juts as exhausted as I was and slept on the entire 2.5 hour ride back to reality. Overall, I was impressed with the organization of this tour group and thrilled with the new friends I met from all over Korea (and the world). I have already booked my next adventure with them to the DMZ in Novemeber, so stay tuned to my internet journal for updates from the front line as I peek across the border into North Korea for the first time.


When In Korea from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

September 20, 2013

Jagalchi Fish Market



Sometimes the best part about living in Korea and being centrally located in Daejeon is the easy freedom and simplicity of booking a train ticket to quickly take you someplace new or different. It is much like I imagine living in Europe somewhere and having that mythical and romantic-sounding creation, the “Eurail Pass.”

There is not necessarily a danger in having a preconceived notion about how such a thing would work or how it would make you feel to travel by rail throughout Europe, but I am learning that it is positive and healthy to have goals and ambitions. Having expectations, however, with regards to traveling, reading, or just plain living, is the wrong way to experience life.

Having again run out of books and somewhat bored with too many recent trips to Seoul, I decided it had been too long since I had returned to one of my favorite parts of South Korea, the magical port city of Busan. Not only is it home to beautiful beaches and a great second-hand bookstore (Fully Booked), it also has an amazing fish market that I have strangely failed to visit. Cheymus and Olivia agreed to look in on foster kitty, Bean, and I found a terrific guesthouse near (literally on top of) Jagalchi Fish Market, Korea’s largest seafood market.

A rare KTX derailment in Daegu pushed my trip back by a week and it was certainly strange to see delayed arrival times on the big board at Daejeon Station for the first time. Perhaps this was an omen to postpone the trip, which I actually was happy to do. All of Korea was thrown into gridlock by the disruption to the normally punctual and efficient Korail system. Taking a bus was an option, but as I have previously mentioned, flexibility is the traveler’s best friend. It also underlines the expectations versus reality debate.Jagalchi Map

Jagalchi Fish Market, in the neighborhood of Nampo-dong in Jung-gu and Chungmu-dong, turns out to be an amazing feast for the senses, as well as the palate.  What’s even more amazing is that, when viewed on a map, the market seems to be located next to a piece land (Yeongdo-gu) that looks remarkably like a real fish!?  The outdoor vendors selling live, freshly caught, or frozen varieties, are all lined up in stalls that seem to go on forever, as are the adjoining restaurants with fish tanks and friendly “barkers” or “Jagalchi Ajummas,” ‘ajumma’ meaning middle-aged or married women, encouraging you to choose their offerings or step into their shops.

Not only is this a wonderful way to look into the past at a simpler time in Korea, it is essentially a giant free aquarium full of rare, unusual, and apparently edible bounties from the neighboring sea. It was only later that I learned that most of Korea is currently avoiding seafood due to increased fears of radioactive contamination stemming from the Japan tsunami, and subsequent nuclear plant meltdown at Fukushima.

Perhaps it was best that I didn’t know this in advance as it most certainly would have prevented me from enjoying two of the best fried fish meals I have ever had (sorry Cape Cod). It might also explain why some of the vendors were reluctant to appear in my photos or attempts to shoot an Instagram video of the non-stop action. As I have since learned, most are fearful of foreigners reporting negatively on the market (and their livelihood), despite a nationwide ban on seafood from Japan, which has met with repeated requests from Tokyo to lift the embargo.

What made the weekend stay even more enjoyable was a thoroughly wonderful stay at Terra Guest House. Terra, formerly Korea Guest House Jagalchi, is conveniently located directly above the indoor portion of the market in a newer building. Not only is it one of the biggest and most well appointed hostels I have stayed at here in Korea, it boasts one of the most beautiful views of the harbor and neighborhoods surrounding the market district. I booked a stay there the week before which was convenientlyt refunded due to the train accident, so I returned the following week with just a vague idea of its true proximity to the market. Using Google Maps once I arrived in the area, I was amazed to find it in the very same building I was strolling through. It was sort of like that scene in Aliens when Bill Paxton’s character is having trouble reading all the blips on his tracker.

Stunned and amazed at my good fortune, I went up  and checked-in after personally thanking the staff for their understanding about my previous reservation. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my favorite online reservation source,, does not typically offer refunds or reservation alterations, but I have found their customer service extremely helpful and responsive to assist with mix-ups and/or “acts of God,” like the train accident.  Furthermore, the staff at Terra also gave me a room at an even lower price for my troubles and was thoroughly kind and helpful for the duration of my stay.

Terra is also remarkably affordable despite its central location (just a few stops from Busan Station on the #1 Orange line) and premium amenities, including a complimentary breakfast (toast, coffee, juice, and cereal) and the rooftop view from the patio/deck that is a great way to take in the harbor any time of day or night. Someone will have to explain the whole “Continental Breakfast” thing to me sometime. What continent is it exactly that this breakfast originated? There is also a nice bathroom and separate huge shower area. The lounge is also big and comfortable with beer and coffee drinks available throughout the day (as well as a cute house kitty).  The whole place has free Wi-Fi and was not only relaxing, but also spotlessly clean and thoroughly modern. I cannot recommend this guesthouse enough and will look forward to staying there again on my next visit.

Now, about this matter of expectations versus reality…I guess I will save that for a separate post and let your mind wander a bit about it until then.

Busan Harbor from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

September 1, 2013

Summer Break Pt.2: Kyoto

Day4Japan345The nice feature in splitting this trip into two blog entries (aside from claiming to already be halfway done) is that, in visiting two major and historic cities, it was almost like having two uniquely different and separate vacations. One of the most memorable parts was certainly the ride linking the two via the Shinkansen Super Express high-speed train while passing right by Mt. Fuji.

On the 2-hour journey I was able to read a terrific article Kim and Gary printed out from GQ about Kim Jong-Il’s personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto. The article, Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi, describes the bizarre world of the late North Korean ruler from the inside from a rare survivor, and in fascinating detail.

If my time on the Korean peninsula has taught me anything about the behavior of the people who live here, it is that if it is strange, unbelievable, and seemingly defies all logic, it is probably going on somewhere on either side of the 38th parallel at any given time. A new book I recently picked up for a friend called “The Geography of Thought” will hopefully help explain why some of what Westerners call “common sense” is not at all common throughout Asia. The rest of the activity to the North, however, can certainly be attributed to the cult of personality maxim enumerated so well by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The rest of the quote, “Great men are almost always bad men,” is interesting, too, and is perhaps a good topic to address in another post entirely.Day4Japan307a

The train ride to Kyoto, coupled with a hot black coffee and salmon ciabatta breakfast sandwich from the amazing gourmet food market inside Tokyo Station, were the perfect way to relax a bit, take in some of the countryside, and go over the itinerary Gary put together for my two days in the former imperial capital of Japan. Train tickets in Japan are quite expensive compared to Korea and the Shinkansen is (surprisingly) not as fast as the 300 km/h KTX. However, the entire system seems to run nation-wide with a pride and on-time precision that is nothing short of amazing.

The few sites of note on my list for Kyoto included a visit to Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion), a stroll down the nearby Philosopher’sPath, and a stop in the famous Geisha district in Gion along Hanami-koji Street. This advanced scouting from Gary proved to be an invaluable lesson on the value of proper planning and research. I realized on this trip that you can only see so many shrines, temples, and pagodas before they all start to look alike. While at Kyoto Station I also realized that it is sometimes perfectly acceptable to be a tourist and take advantage of help from the experts.  Having an advisor at the tourism information center (inside the Kyoto train station) map out the buses and best routes to take, as well as having her help me find the exact location of my hotel, proved to be well worth it. The 10 minutes I spent there saved me countless hours of searching and embarrassed indecision and really set me off to explore the city with the confidence of a seasoned traveler.

(Please click on each individual image to view full size or as a slideshow)

The rest of my time in Kyoto was amazing and unforgettable. While still a relatively large city, the flow, feel, and history of the area made for a nice contrast to my time in Tokyo. The more touristy first day in Kyoto was filled with a great blend of history, religion, and architecture, yet it provided me with yet another invaluable lesson in traveling abroad; leave blank spaces in your itinerary! It is easy to get caught up in all the things you want (or feel compelled) to see from all the tour books and travel shows. However, it is also important to remember that you are on vacation, and that a quiet afternoon reading a book or writing a postcard over coffee can be far more enjoyable than repeating the same busy routine day after day. In fact, isn’t that why we go on vacations?

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

This quote has popped up a lot in my discussions recently and I didn’t realize that it can actually be attributed to Woody Allen. I am in no way suggesting going on a big trip and having no plans at all. I merely feel that my most recent trips have been far more enjoyable because I was able to blend a bit planning and preparation with a flexible and open-minded attitude that allowed for improvisation, spontaneity, and time spent simply “being.” The few hours I spent at a (Seattle-based) Kyoto coffee shop gave me a great chance to truly relax and reflect of my gratitude and to focus on present moment awareness. The feeling I had watching the local people come and go and just taking it all in has proved to be the lasting memory of the whole trip. Moving to Korea was a huge decision and visiting Japan had always been a lifelong dream. Taking the time to slow down and just enjoy the reality of it all was not only an important step the process, but is in actuality a very simple key to a more fulfilling life.

Another part of the trip that proved to be fun was the decision to stay in a traditional Japanese inn called a “Ryokan.” Having saved quite a bit of money staying with friends in Tokyo for two nights, I decided to spend a little bit extra than I normally would have to stay experience the flip-side to my capsule hotel experience. Again using Agoda, I was able to find a room at a nice inn near Kyoto Station for a little less than $100. The only downside to using this site has been that in order to get the low listed prices, you have to agree to non-refundable reservations. While it can be helpful in determining the overall vacancies of any particular destination and can spare you getting shut out, the trade-off is giving up some of the above-mentioned flexibility for price. The lodging experience ultimately proved to be highly unique, albeit one that put my patience and positive vacation vibe to the test. Day4Japan414

The grounds, room, and other facilities were immaculate in every way  and every detail was thoughtfully considered. Having traditional Japanese tea after another great scrub and soak, on the bedding of the floor of my room, while dressed in the provided Yakata robe, was an immersive cultural experience well worth the extra cost of the room.

However, perhaps beyond the control of the staff, was an emergency, late-night road construction going on until 3 am right outside my window. After a few trips down to the front dest to inquire (complain) about all the noise, I finally turned to my Lonely Planet phrase book and found the Japanese word for refund, which is “haraimodoshi,” (払い戻し). Not only did this clearly outline my frustration and disappointment at the digging activity ruining my otherwise peaceful stay, it quickly got the construction halted once and for all. The following morning at checkout, the entire staff was extremely nervous and apologetic as they read to me a prepared (add sweetly rehearsed) statement in English explaining that my booking would be cancelled through Agoda and the room charges reversed.  Given the fact that my phrase book was purchased (used) in Seoul for less than 5 bucks, it more than paid for itself in just one usage – and for just one word!

The remainder of the trip was pleasant, relaxing, and the perfect compliment to the vibrant energy and overwhelming throngs of humanity everywhere you go in Tokyo. I caught one last train direct from Kyoto Station (which itself could be explored for hours alone) to Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka. In the future I would probably arrange to both arrive and depart from here instead and avoid the customs and immigration lines and congestion at Tokyo Narita (NRT). While I left blistered, sun-roasted, and exhausted, I did come in well under budget and can’t remember a more enjoyable,  fascinating, and transformative vacation.

While the idea for the Rock Traveler goes back to my grad school days at Antioch back in the late 90′s, I feel in many ways my identity as a traveler, writer, and true world citizen was born, fully-formed during five amazing days in the land of the rising sun.  どうもありがとう  - Dōmo arigatō


Summer Break: Japan from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

August 20, 2013

Summer Break Pt.1: Tokyo

Day2Japan208So, my five-day Summer vacation to anywhere was seriously in danger of not happening after I lost my Passport somewhere on Jeju Island. Fortunately, I discovered the embarrassing travel faux pas (or potentially infuriating administrative nightmare) early enough to sort it out with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul before break time. Strangely, it seems that replacing this important piece of overseas identification is relatively smooth and painless compared to the ridiculous bureaucratic hoops I had to jump through to get my Korean work visa. Once I received it, I began using my 3 favorite online travel tools; Kayak, Agoda, and TripAdvisor, to book my next adventure with a bit of a different strategy. While I did book a hotel for the first night make some loose arrangements after doing my research, I decided to leave a lot of the trip open-ended, allowing for  improvisation, spontaneity, and an ultimately more relaxing, free-flowing adventure.

I had been watching airfare prices for six weeks prior to my trip and decided the best use of my time and money would be on the islands of Japan. Not only were flights to Tokyo really cheap compared to Thailand and the Philippines, there are also a variety of other ways to return back to Korea, including the possibility of going home via ferry boat to Busan. Once I reconnected with old friends Gary and Kim Stollar (both currently living and working in Tokyo) my decision was made. Setting up roaming on your phone is very easy for a trip like this, too, as most major Korean carriers have a kiosk inside Incheon airport for international travelers to sort this out before departure. There are also plenty of currency exchange centers, which was a good idea for this trip, as Japan is still primarily cash-based.

The flight to Tokyo from Seoul was really inexpensive and took just a little over two hours on Air Asia. This made the first day of my trip seem like it would be just a quick hop over the East Sea (NO ONE in Korea will call it the “Sea of Japan”) and then on to fresh sushi and adventure. However, including my cheap and convenient airport limo (read: coach bus) ride to Incheon airport (ICN), and ticketing; plus customs and security checks on both ends, the day still turned out to be primarily an exhausting day of travel and standing in queue.

Rock Traveler Tip: Be sure to always fly internationally with a pen handy so you can complete the silly immigration forms in-flight. I had also temporarily photographed my Passport and ID for emergencies and to make this necessary paperwork a little easier.


Once I got settled at Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT) and decided how to best get downtown. Rather than take the cheaper option, a similar airport shuttle bus, I chose instead to purchase tickets on the Narita Express (N’EX train) with departures straight to Tokyo Station. At a little over ¥2940 ($30 U.S.), the N’EX was smooth,fast, clean, and super cool. I spent the entire 90 minute (50 km) rain-soaked ride jamming to Radiohead with a goofy “I am really in Japan!” smile on my face made from a mix of both excitement, disbelief, and a sense of accomplishment. This smile quickly morphed into an astonished glaze of confusion (and amazement) at the size and activity level in and around Tokyo Station. This dizzying hub of multiple floors with dozens of rail lines all converging in one massive hive of activity took a while to fully process.

Once I got my bearings, it was fortunately only one stop to my hotel in Nihonbashi.  I have wanted to stay at a “Capsule Hotel” ever since Kramer joked about them on a hilarious Seinfeld episode (“The Checks” – Season 8). Kramer had his three Japanese visitors sleeping overnight in the “Farbman” chest of drawers with little complaint until the following morning. The hotel I booked in advance, Capsule Value Kanda Tokyo, was the perfect place for me to stay on my first night in Tokyo to simulate the experience. It was clean, inexpensive, and, as I mentioned, very close to Tokyo Station. The small, retro-futuristic capsule room was surprisingly comfortable and in no way claustrophobic. It was equipped with a built-in small (SONY) TV and a radio/alarm clock as well. You were also given a locker for your shoes in the entrance and a bigger locker for your gear. Thankfully, I opted to bring along just one, under-stuffed backpack, but larger suitcases could be stored in the computer lounge if necessary. Many travelers used this option overnight and used simple locks to secure their gear, which I made a mental note of as a fresh tip for next time. Traveling simple and light on this trip turned out to be a refreshing change, as well as a wise travel choice overall. Thanks Rick Steves!

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The bathroom/toilet area on my floor was clean and comfortably-sized and the showers and bath area downstairs were Japanese-style with a stand-up western shower available, too. I learned later on my trip exactly how to use this type of bathing set-up and had a much better experience as a result. Essentially a short rinse to clean off and short soak to warm up first are followed with a longer seated scrub down, shave, shampoo, etc. Then, an even longer and more warming soak in the tub finish off the refreshing cleanse. I highly recommend this type of hotel and bath configuration for the unique experience and overall value for your money. My capsule for the night was at about ¥3400 ($34.00) and was well worth it. The only downfall was the moderate noise levels of guests leaving early in the morning. There is no real way to block out sound, as the capsule only comes with a dark (70′s-style) rolling blind that pulls down once you are “encapsulated.” If you want absolute quiet and privacy or room to spread out, this is not the place for you. I recommend bringing a night mask and earplugs as a general travel rule, just in case, as this would have been the perfect place to use them.

After the tiring travel-filled day, I had very little energy despite my strong desire to see and explore more of Japan. Once I had a quick shower (minus the soak) and got over the nerd-like wow-factor of my hotel choice, I was refreshed and ventured out into the surrounding neighborhood to search for a simple yet filling dinner. I started with a small piece of barbecued eel on rice with a light broth on the side. This traditional Japanese dish (I learned later) is a summertime staple and was just the ticket at ¥500. Day1Japan037Still hungry and curious to try something else new, I found a nice, inexpensive soba noodle restaurant  on the other side of the street to tuck into as the rains returned.

This was my first experience with the common Japanese method of ordering; which is though a large vending-machine style ordering system at the entrance before bellying up to the bar. The terrific, light, and filling noodles were topped with various fresh vegetables and served with a side of cold broth for dipping and happy (loud) slurping. Watching the noodles be cooked in the open-style kitchen was the perfect way to end the day and complete my indoctrination to Asian travel that, after two years in Korea, is vaguely familiar yet altogether distinctively different.

I purchased a cheap umbrella at a 7/11 (Japan amazingly has Lawson’s, too!?) to make it back to the hotel safely and added another mental note about stowing a travel-sized umbrella in my gear for future trips. I guess in my excitement and romantic imaginings of traveling in Japan, planning for rain unfortunately never once entered into the picture. Back safely inside my capsule, I tucked into some Japanese anime and a terrific book I picked up randomly from Alice at Coffee Nori; Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy. Goodnight, Tokyo!

The next day I woke up refreshed and ready to tackle the few touristy items that were on my list. In addition to using online sources, I had purchased a used guidebook on Tokyo and a used Japaense phrasebook in Seoul. Both turned out to be fairly accurate, informative, and highly useful. First up was finding the Hachikō statue for my cousin, Chelli (conveniently located at the Hachikō Exit) at Shibuya Station, the famous bustling crossing that was also on my list. Hachikō is a dog famous for his loyalty and his story has been made into several movies. This led to a nice tour of the area including the huge Yoyogi Park and to visit to Meiji Shrine. Also on my list was to find a gallery in the the Spiral Building which was featuring a photo installation by one of my favorite musicians, David Sylvian. Sylvian was coincidentally the front-man and co-founder of the band Japan before embarking on a varied and impressive solo career, which now also includes photography.


Having these little missions of destinations to find made for an exciting day of hiking and allowed me to see a lot of street life and neighborhoods I might have missed otherwise. All of this was possible without the dreaded stigma of being a “tourist”, despite my lunch at McDonald’s. Having worked at one in High School, I could not fight my curiousity, I guess. Now, I know once and for all that McDonald’s is the same, for better or worse, just about everywhere. I did meet some wonderful Korean ladies living in Japan there, so it was not a total loss.

Once I found the Spiral in the Minato area of Tokyo after lunch, I was glad I did. Not only was I treated to the terrific Sylvian photo exhibition entitled “Abandon/Hope” at no charge, but I was able to shop and explore the terrific cafe there as well as the amazing gift shop on the second floor before meeting Kim and Gary. Since it is not only common courtesy to arrive at a friend’s house with a gift, it is the height of proper Japanese custom. The gift shop at the Spiral proved to be the perfect place to pick up some wonderful tea just in the nick of time.

After meeting Gary and Kim near Tokyo Station we had a chance to catch up on the 20 years since seeing each other last. I attended their wedding in 1993 back at  the Faculty Club on the Ohio State campus, and there was a lot that had happened since then to talk about! They also turned me on to a terrific bookstore in the neighborhood called Maruzen before taking me out to the BEST sushi dinner I have ever had. I am not sure if it was just the excitement of finally having fresh sushi IN JAPAN, the terrific company and conversation, or the fact that it was just really good tuna, but it was a wonderful dinner and will perhaps ruin me for good sushi from now on.

Day three began with high hopes and lots more rain. It was here that I was thankful for the freedom to adjust my schedule a bit, and for the advice and guidance of Gary having already visited my next destination to the southwest, Kyoto. After booking my return flight to Korea from Osaka to Busan online and setting up lodging in a tradional Japanese inn, called a Ryokan, I was up for anything. I also learned at this time that sometimes it is best to book airfare directly from the airline’s website, or better yet, over the phone. This helped me avoid the confusion a third-party site like Kayak can have processing a Korean credit card (in Japan) with an American passport. Keeping things simple, we realized (with the help of lots of coffee) that we missed the early morning frenzy at the Tsukiji Fish Market, and decided on another plan. Keeping things simple, Gary suggested we buy my high-speed train tickets to Kyoto in person and a nice ramen noodle lunch in the same building would follow nicely. Day3Japan244

In the basement of Tokyo Station, the famous noodle street of Sapporo has been recreated with lots of variations of  this dish that actually has its origins in China. The Japanese noodle experience is generally one of three types of noodles; udon, soba, and ramen. Having had the first, soba noodles, already and saving udon for Kyoto, I was curious to see how ramen noodles in Japan differed from my college dietary mainstay. The result (like my sushi dinner) was a culinary epiphany, as what most westerners know (and love) as ramen noodles bear little resemblance to the fresh and hearty dish Gary and I enjoyed. Covered with bean sprouts and soaked in a hearty, spicy, almost gravy-like broth, my memories of fove “Maruchan Ramen” packs for a dollar were quickly put to shame.

Fully stuffed and rather cheaply I might add, we decided to check out the electronics districtcalled Akihabara, which for some reason translates to “Field of Autumn Leaves”. Along with a short tour of some other temples and pagodas in the area, we finished this more casual travel day with a stop at a new restaurant near Gary and Kim’s apartment. Kim’s employer, Boeing, put them up in a sprawling penthouse suite in at Atago Green Hills Forest Tower. This amazingly quiet neighborhood is within walking distance of Onarimon Station on the Toei Mita Line, Kamiyacho Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line, and Toranomon Station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. For dinner we had a terrific combination of Yakitori, or grilled chicken, which was done to perfection at their favorite new spot, a slightly upscale joint right around the corner from their building.

Fully exhausted, sore, and well-prepared for my upcoming stay in Kyoto, I retired early after dinner feeling I had sampled quite a good bit of Tokyo culturally and food-wise and confident that some things would just have to wait for a return trip. Gary had mapped-out a great game plan for my arrival in Kyoto and outlined his “must-sees” there, which proved to be just the right blend of history, sightseeing, and relaxing comfort I needed. The size, cost, and density of Tokyo could be overwhelming for any experienced traveler let alone a first-timer like me, so I was happy to have a good night’s rest ahead of me and thrilled to be booked for an early trip to Kyoto in the morning on the Shinkansen Super Express to let it all sink in.


Please click here to read more about my stay in Kyoto in Pt.2.

July 23, 2013


Eatawon17One of my previous essays (The Daily Kimchi) mentioned the merits of accepting Korean food as a permanent and prominent part of your diet while living abroad and not trying to duplicate your favorite dishes from home. Native and regional cuisine is delicious, cheap, and abundantly available at all hours of the night here. It may just take a while to grow on you.

However, as time has passed, I have also realized that while Mom’s cooking will surely need to wait for the coming home party, even cheap imitations of your favorite foods are necessary from time to time to maintain your culinary sanity. The best place to feed these cravings seems to be in the cultural melting-pot district of Seoul called Itaewon.

This eclectic district is accessible via Seoul Subway Line 6 at the Noksapyeong, Hanganjin, or Itaewon stations. Home to several foreign embassies, Itaewon is a bustling multi-cultural hub and the go-to area for expats to find English-language books, clothing that actually fits, brand-name knock-offs of everything, and a dense variety of food choices from all around the world. When I say cheap imitations, I am perhaps not being completely fair. Not only are the locals attempting to duplicate or pay homage to the popular dishes you are looking for, they sometimes completely re-imagine staple food items, usually with kimchi.  The best example of this is the killer appetizer of “Kimchi Carnitas Fries” at Vatos or the “Kimchi Reuben” at Suji’s Deli.

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Some of my favorite places over the last 2 years (in addition to Vatos Urban Tacos and Suji’s Deli) include The Pizza Peel, Porchettas, Cottage Cafe Borie, Chili King, and Standing Coffee. A few places were worth a shot but will probably not merit a return trip like Tartine, Too, and El Grecos.


My ravings and cravings for Vatos have been well documented on this site previously, (Vatos Urban Tacos), so I will not repeat them here. However, I have found two places for a consistent and reasonably priced western-style brunch if Korean-Mexican fusion is not your thing. Both Suji’s Deli and Borie are easy to find, well-staffed, and easy to order from in English (another reason expats flock to the area). I have been to both several times and have been very happy with both restaurant’s take on breakfast; especially Eggs Benedict, typically served with a side salad. Suji’s adds home fries with onions and also has a nice selection of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls to choose from. They also keep real drip-brewed coffee on hand (no watery Americano’s) to top off your morning cup.

Suji’s also features front-facing bar-style window seating for one or more, but also has a huge family-style table for bigger groups. Borie is more of a NY-style bistro and is much better for couples or groups under 4. Brunch at each is in the range of 16-20,000 Korean Won. Suji’s is just around the corner from the big blue archway near the West end of the district (Noksapyeong Exit 3), or you can find out more about it, including hours and directions, at their website, here. To get to Borie take Itaewon Station Exit #1 going straight and then take the fourth alley on your right.

Eatawon04Right across from Borie and up 3 flights is the new location of Canadian-owned and operated Chili King. Recommended by the Serbian staff at SP Guesthouse and featuring heavy doses of the namesake stuff by the bow or on burgers and fries, the Chili King offers a nice, juicy burger and a soundtrack that had me aching for home. I guess there is something about chowing down to a big burger and chili fries set (with Dr. Pepper) while hearing Rush over the speakers that just made me feel comfortable and just a tad homesick for North America.

The Chili King has quite a following and his reputation is well earned, but he could also easily be called “The Bacon King”, as it is available on just about all the menu items, too. Chili King is on the top floor above My Chi Chi and is worth a visit, especially when you are really hungry.

Another neighborhood favorite, The Pizza Peel, is pretty close to Suji’s and is a terrific joint for a quick, fresh, and delicious pizza that will remind you of New York-style pies from back home. While some places get most of the elements right, most fail at either the cheese or the crust. The Pizza Peel’s secret is their hand-stretched crust and the custom gas-fired oven visible right when you enter. The menu is simple and offers all your favorite combination pizzas (or stromboli) or you can build your own creation.

I tend to stick with a simple pepperoni or the Canadian, which also adds bacon and mushroom. The pizza here is always served quickly and I find that I generally eat the entire thing without feeling bloated or disgusting. There is usually a great movie on in the back of the house, too. Last time I happily watched parts of both “E.T” and “Back to The Future”. To get there just go down the main road out of Exit 4 from Itaewon Station. Then pass the Nike Store and RotiBoy shop and enter the small gateway on your left, under the orange Pizza Peel’s sign. The Peel is on the left near the back of this alley market area.

Another of my favorite places in the area to dine at is called Porchetta. Porchetta is an amazing sandwich joint in the area known as Kyunglidan, just down the hill and around the corner from Itaewon. On my first visit there, I had the strange sensation I had seen this place on Guy Fieri’s “Diner’s, Drive-In’s and Dives.” Sure enough, after chatting with the owner, the entire restaurant was inspired by the same episode I had seen featuring a restaurant called “Meat & Bread” in Vancouver.


The result is a wonderful space with delicious meat sandwiches of pork, chicken or beef served on fresh-baked bread with a terrific view of the street life in the area. I recommend the signature house Porchetta sandwich set (with a side salad and drink) and be sure to save room for the dessert ice cream sandwich version 1.0.

Also, be sure to stop off at Standing Coffee for a great hot drink or a big tasty blue lemonade to keep you cool while exploring the shops and alleyways in the area. The antique district south of Itaewon’s main drag is reminiscent of German Village or the Short North in Columbus, or Soho or Greenwich Village in New York and is perfect for a weekend stroll.

Two places that I would probably avoid the next time around are Ruby Edwards’ Tartine’s, Too, the restaurant/cafe partner to the popular small dessert pie shop, and El Greco’s Greek restaurant. I had a large yet rather bland and tasteless breakfast at Tartine’s and the same goes for the chicken gyro from El Greco’s. Both had big portions that looked appetizing and were each rather steeply priced, but ultimately neither delivered any satisfaction with regards to the taste they were attempting to replicate.

Eatawon11Both misfires may have simply been my menu choices, too. This is the fun part about hunting down your favorites from back home. While you may find it listed or pictured on the menu, what you get may be something completely different than what you are expecting. Such is life…

Next time out, I will continue to help look with Daniel teacher for his current craving: good old-fashioned Mac-N-Cheese. If you know where to find it, drop me a line.

July 9, 2013

Take Two


This essay was written as a contributing article for Don Suh and HiWorld Recruiting for the launch of their their new website. 

While coming up quickly on the end of my second one-year contract teaching English in South Korea I realized this might be the perfect time to recount the whole experience so far and summarize my experiences over the last 24 months not only for posterity, but for anyone else out there considering moving abroad to teach English. My time in Daejeon has really gone by quickly, but in looking back over pictures from when I first arrived, I certainly feel I have come a long way and that, overall, the experience has not only been mostly positive, but also life-altering.

My decision to come to South Korea and teach English began back in the long, cold winter of 2011. Gas prices were outrageous and the economy had completely tanked. So had the employment market. I was working 3 jobs at the time and still could not really make ends meet. After a long heart-to-heart with my mother over dinner, I asked for her advice and guidance. I was 42 with a good education and a wide range of employment experiences. However, I had no savings, no real investments, and had never really been anywhere exciting. I was substitute teaching part-time at two Career and Technical high schools, working as a Specialist at the Apple Retail store at Easton 30 hours a week, and still working as a mobile DJ with a full calender of bookings for the upcoming wedding season. After my mother and I failed to come up with a logical solution that didn’t involve my borrowing money from her, I retreated with my old friend Patrick to the Donley family hunting cabin for some quiet reading, soul searching, and some more good advice.

The idea to move overseas was always simmering on the back burner since Pat himself returned from his two-year stay in Vietnam in the late 90′s. The prospect, however, never really got any serious consideration from me until some fortuitous events occurred to show me a new path. First, Pat introduced me to a terrific book by Rolf Potts called Vagabonding. The book, subtitled “An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” was a huge inspiration for me in the reality (and necessity) of a very different lifestyle than the one I was leading at the time. The toll of having three jobs and still barely surviving was no longer a viable option and, in fact, had never really been a good one to begin with. The writings and ideas of Simon Black and his website,, also helped me to really understand the practical necessity of diversifying my finances, my opportunities, as well as my attitude about how I actually intended to survive in the future.

After over 250 gigs as a DJ in seven years (some 200 of those events were wedding receptions), I decided to look at the possibility of a radically different path and one that did not include “The Electric Slide.” Potts’ book outlines the simplicity and rewards of life abroad, as well as specific practical advice in harnessing my independent spirit and desire to travel to create a completely new lifestyle for myself. After opening up to the idea, I began to float a variety of options around to selected co-workers at the Apple store. I was soon informed that back-of-house guru, Mike, had completed a similar adventure in South Korea with terrific results, and so the scene was set for some vagabonding of my own. With Patrick’s encouragement and the support of my wonderful family and friends, the transformation and exodus into a prospective English teacher and future world traveler took a mere 7 months.

I quickly contacted Mike’s recruiter in Daejeon and began an online job search that became a daily obsession. The rest of my time was spent selling, scrapping, or donating some 75% of my worldly belongings in a cathartic, minimalistic process of having more through owning less. Once I stopped to really evaluate why I had so much “stuff” and why I was seemingly so attached to creating and maintaining a space for all of it, the spring cleaning of a lifetime was on and it just snowballed from there. Each trash run or drop-off at Goodwill also brought me a little closer to realizing my intention to live a life abroad that all fit into just 2 suitcases. After considering a few different offers and one brief false-start, I agreed to take a job in central Korea over the bustling capital of Seoul.

My goals upon arrival on the Korean peninsula were relatively simple. First, I wanted to see if teaching was a career path I wanted to pursue in earnest. Second, I wanted to jump-start my traveling adventures as Ontario, Canada, was the only place I had been outside the United States. Finally, I wanted to pay off any remaining credit cards and finally accumulate some real savings for the first time in my life.

After nearly 2 years in Korea, the experiment/adventure has turned into a way of life. Not only have I found a true passion for teaching, I feel I have been forever liberated from a lifestyle that was killing me not so softly. I have also said goodbye to an imaginary American ethos (“The American Dream”) that was really a pleasure to leave behind. The only real things that I miss are my mom’s cooking, good Mexican food, and sharing a laugh and a smile with my family and friends in person. The flip side here has been an experience that helped mature and refine many of my better attributes, while helping to jettison old and negative attitudes that were not working. All this has happened organically, while at the same time achieving all three of my objectives in a way I could never imagine.

After a long flight, high-speed train, and scary taxi ride to my new school, I was given a tour of the classrooms and of my semi-furnished apartment. My airfare here was paid for initially by me and then reimbursed through direct deposit in full once my Alien Registration Card was processed. The school was very clean, bright, and highly modern with computers, white boards, and nice digital projectors and speakers in each classroom. This was my first huge sigh of relief as the academy turned out to be much nicer than I expected. My apartment was also paid for and was to be the other positive indicator of the condition of my life for the next year. Thankfully, it too was also big, clean, modern, and quite well appointed. Apparently my recruiter and I had done pretty good for ourselves and the stage was set for a great experience.

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Teaching in South Korea can take on many forms, the most popular being in public schools, private academies, or in a university setting. While the requirements are slightly different for each and are changing every year, the basics are a native fluency in English, an undergraduate degree, and a clean background check. Some programs and schools require additional training or certification, but were not really required for my employment contract. My school is a private English academy (called a hagwon) with 2 locations in Daejeon. The main location is in Dunsan-dong near City Hall in the center of the city. The second, slightly smaller branch is in the suburbs 20 minutes away in an newer area called Noeun. My contract requires me to be there 40 hours a week from 1-10 p.m. on weekdays only. Students typically come to hagwons during the week after normal classes at their Korean schools finish. This can make for some long days for the students, but I have really grown to like the later hours and altered schedule. This leaves my mornings free for video calls back home and other activities; including lots of coffee, a gym membership, voracious reading, biking, and volunteering at 2Typically classes start around 3 p.m., so my first 2 hours in the office are for prep time and entering homework or grades. While a few of my classes are one hour in length, most are a quick 35-40 minutes. Students come in waves from younger to older throughout the day, so I start with 3rd and 4th graders and end up with middle school kids in the evening. The classes can be as small as 2-3 students and rarely go above 16-18 kids. Throughout the week I teach about 25 classes with a higher concentration of them being on Mondays and Fridays. This semester, I actually have NO classes on Tuesdays, but have to remain on site for what expats teaching here call “desk-warming”. This free time allows me the opportunity to read extensively, make travel arrangements, and to update my travel journal with articles like this.

As I mentioned, my teaching tenure back home was limited to substitute work with high school students, mostly Juniors and Seniors, so I had no real experience with young kids. Once the excitement of leaving the U.S. wore off and the newness of my surroundings sunk in, I began to really be nervous about how exactly I would handle my new position and how they would, in turn, accept me. My fears were pretty quickly put to rest during my first week teaching as the students were friendly, curious, and for the most part, highly intelligent and polite. Once I got the hang of in-class discipline (an evolving art form), I was much more confident as a teacher and far better off as an actual educator. As I often joke, it can’t be “Dead Poet’s Society” every day, but it is relatively easy and rewarding.

The coursework was all provided, including books and corresponding PowerPoint slides, as was some basic training and lots of terrific administrative support. In my second year, new textbooks were introduced and the native teaching staff came up with a suitable curriculum focusing on speaking for the younger kids and writing for the higher levels. While I do generally share a common office with some of the other teachers, I have had occasionally my own classroom, too, which was terrific. Typically, however, I go from class to class depending on my schedule and give the Korean teachers a break while covering my material with students on a weekly basis. Also, I now split my time between the 2 locations and take the subway to the suburban school 3 times a week.

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As for accomplishing my goals, it has been relatively easy to save money each month and send it back home to the states on the fairly standard terms of my arrangement. My expenses are minimal as health care is provided, food is abundant and cheap, and tipping is not a part of Asian culture. Public transportation is easily accessible, reliable, clean, and cheap, so the thought of owning a car again back in the states is a daunting prospect. I am responsible for my internet, gas, and apartment maintenance fees (including electric and garbage), which add up to about $150.00 per month. During my first year here I bought an older smart phone and paid about $30 per month with no contract. Recently I upgraded to a new Samsung Galaxy 3 (sorry Apple) as a small luxury and love everything about my new phone. It is twice as expensive as what I had but is super-fast, convenient, and fairly essential for translations, directions, and conversions. That being said, I can still send home roughly $1,000 per month. I also contribute $100 per month to my teacher’s pension, which my school matches. I can apply for this money back as a refund once I leave the country for good. My contract also includes one month’s severance at the end of each contract period and a return flight home. Any unused vacation time is also paid in cash. All in all, I have made out pretty well.

With regards to travel, the above mentioned liquidity and the ease of travel within Korea means that most weekends and holidays can be spent out exploring or traveling throughout the country. Seoul to the north and Busan in the south are easy to get to by bus or train for weekend getaways and I also visited Hong Kong for 3 days last Fall. I am planning a Summer break trip to Japan this month and then diving lessons in the Philippines over the winter holiday. I was also able to visit Jeju Island and bike around the entire province on holiday recently, as well. This part of my plan could be further extended if I am able to secure a university teaching position. I have discovered that I do indeed want to pursue a career in academia and that teaching at a higher level here might just be the perfect fit. The pay and benefits are roughly the same, but the vacation time is considerably more. Requirements for these jobs have just been completely overhauled, so be sure to do your homework if you wish to follow a similar path.

All things considered, my last 2 years here have been quite unforgettable and I highly recommend the experience to anyone looking to shake things up, travel a bit, and/or pursue a career in teaching. Korea (over Japan and China) seems to offer a nice balance of all the things ESL teachers are looking for; good working and living conditions, ease of travel, and an affordable lifestyle with the potential to save money or pay off debts. It is an interesting culture that can provide some basic challenges, but overall, most Koreans  have been friendly, gracious, supportive, and highly curious about me and the country I left behind. While I am not ready to return to the U.S. any time soon, I will have quite a few adventures to share when I return and an outlook on life that has been permanently changed for the good.

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