Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Chuseok Visit to the Coex Mall and Aquarium



(Note:  For reasons that are not clear, I decided to leave my camera at home during this outing, which means that all photographs were taken with my mobile phone and therefore are of worse quality than usual.)

Here in Korea right now, it is Chuseok, a huge annual lunar holiday celebrating the harvest and family, somewhat similar to American Thanksgiving.  During Chuseok, people travel to their hometowns to pay their respects to their ancestors, spend time with their families, exchange gifts, and eat sumptuous meals. It's also the time to wear traditional clothing - the hanbok - and many stores have hanbok on display right now.


In the last week or so, I've seen many people wearing hanbok, especially little children, who look adorable in them, although the best part is that they all seem to be wearing Hello Kitty or Pokemon velcro-strap sandals with them, in the best possible combination of old and new.

People traditionally exchange gifts, and every store has been displaying Chuseok gift sets, which are typically quite practical, such as this popular Spam gift set:


Personally, I would never have associated Spam with Korea, but apparently it was introduced by American G.I.s during the Korean Conflict and was adopted into the culture.  You see it everywhere.

Chuseok is also similar to American Thanksgiving in that is it a traffic nightmare.  Highways come to a standstill, airlines are booked solid, train tickets are sold out weeks before the actual holiday, and - the nicest part for us - Seoul empties out a bit.  In fact, we'd been told by a number of people that Chuseok is one of the best times to go sightseeing in Seoul, because the ubiquitous crowds are somewhat more manageable (notice I didn't say 'nonexistent,' just 'more managaeable.')

Accordingly, Mr. Logical and I (the boys declined to accompany us, mostly because we left before they felt like getting out of bed - the sluggards) decided that we'd take advantage of this unusual opportunity and visit a few places in Seoul that we'd not yet seen.  Since it was (of course) mostly raining, we decided on something indoors, so (knowing better than to go to a palace in the rain) we headed for the super-ginormous and legendary Coex Mall and the ever-popular Coex Aquarium which had both been frequently mentioned to us as 'places to see while in Seoul.'  Thus is came to pass that we hopped on to the strangely uncrowded subway and made our way to Gangnam.

The Coex Mall is - according to its website - the 'largest underground mall in Asia,' but is otherwise pretty much like any other mall, containing all the typical shops and eateries (note:  I hate the word 'eatery') that you would expect to find, except there were huger numbers of them.  My favorite shop was, hands-down, the enormous Bandi & Luni's bookstore, which boasts over 2 million titles and an extensive selection of English-language books.  I had not had such a delightful browse in a bookstore since moving to Seoul; the selection (including bestsellers and the more obscure) was nearly as good as anything I would have expected back home, and I could have stayed for hours. MrLogical finally lured me out by buying me a book, but only after I had noted about a million more titles to look for later on my Kindle.  We headed then for the aquarium, but first I had to dart into a Hello Kitty! store (that provided so much Hello-Kittiness per square inch that it was probably illegal) and photograph everything that amused me while taking vast mental notes of things that I would love to buy for my nieces.



Eventually, I reached critical HelloKitty! mass and we headed resolutely back out into the mall, past the open air gaming station in front of the Megabox/IMAX movie theater, and arrived at the aquarium, which is entered directly from the mall:



A note about this aquarium:  This is not a particularly large or extensive facility and probably won't make any top-ten lists for its extensive holdings.  However, it does have a nice section showcasing species that are specific to Korea, is extremely kid-friendly, and definitely worth a visit if you have younger kids.  In fact, most of the time I was there, I was wishing I'd come with small children, because it had so many fun, quirky, kid-centric displays that I know my own kids would have enjoyed when they were small.  As it was, there were about a bajillion little kids there, so if you are the type who likes to gaze quietly at aquarium displays in hushed and scholarly silence, this is not the place for you.  On the other hand, the Coex also displays a number of fauna that one does not usually expect to find in an aquarium, so I think it strikes a nice balance.  Needless to say, there were also a few displays (and a few signs) that provided the kind of quirky and unexpected touch that we, as Westerners in Korea, have come to know and love.

The first room contained what looked like dentist-office fish tanks with brightly painted bases and charming themes, like this 'Finding Nemo' one, which featured (besides 'Nemo' and 'Dory' fish) a number of fish specimens from the movie:


At first, Mr. Logical and I thought that this might be the way the whole aquarium was going to look - lots of small tanks with cartoon themes - and we were both a bit nonplussed - especially since we had shelled out KW17,500 each - but as we moved on, the displays got larger and more interesting, like the room we figured must have been called, "wacky places you really wouldn't find a fish" diplays, like this one:

Fish-in-a-toilet display, complete with actual fish poo.
and this one:
Fish-in-a-washing-machine.


We also enjoyed the section of the aquarium that displayed typical fish and reptiles native to Korea, complete with exhibits designed to look like rice paddies and mountain streams.  There were also occasionally other wildlife included in exhibits that one doesn't usually expect to find in an aquarium, such as this chipmunk exhibit (yes, they are real):


And - inexplicably - this rabbit, whose job it was to perch miserably on a small replica bridge over the replica stream featuring Korean trout:



He was so still that he did an excellent job of fading into the background unless you looked closely:

Mr. Logical and I cannot prove that he was wishing for a quick death, but it seemed highly likely.  Later on, we would come across a dollhouse-type display full of hedgehogs, which I would have loved to photograph, but the hedgehogs, sensibly, were asleep - or pretending to be - in their hedgehog kitchens and bathrooms and dining rooms, so there was not much worth photographing. I have no idea what hedgehogs were doing in an aquarium, but they were definitely a crowd-pleaser, so I guess the feeling was, 'why not'?


The rest of the aquarium was fairly typical, aquariumwise, with assorted displays of typical aquarium inhabitants,  and included: a scary and exciting shark tank which got you thisclose to the sharks and rays;




  also, a small seal tank with several acrobatic and cheerful seals, some somnolent otters, a couple of manatees who munched obligingly on cabbage while gazing interestedly at all of us gazing interestedly at them; and - my personal favorite  - the penguin exhibit.   This was very small but vastly entertaining .  The only problem I had with it was that the exhibit was glassed-in and that the swimming penguins could directly approach the glass, where I saw a number of adult humans (who really should have known better) tapping the glass, waving their hands, and otherwise fooling the increasingly-agitated penguins into snapping at and trying to catch what they seemed to think were fish.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that there was a really clever 'Amazon Jungle' exhibit which included giant resin trees and vines with Amazonian-type background noises, rope bridges, and some resin Amazonian natives.  All of this provided an authentic background for some enormous fish, turtles, eels, and a requisite container of piranha, who always look to me like they need the services of a good orthodontist.

As you would expect,  I was just as amused by the signage as by the displays, which included the following (which I would have killed for when my boys were small.)  Hats off to the Koreans for great practicality!



Of course, like all facilities containing live animals, there had to be some warning signs.  What I love about this sign is the angry eyes on the fish.  I have no idea what this says;  probably something along the lines of, "These fish are ill-tempered and will bite your limbs off" -  but words really just aren't necessary.  This sign very sensibly appeared near any exhibit that was not completely enclosed:



Then there were the moon jellies, who were quite beautiful.


  However, I knew what evil lurked beneath their suspiciously beautiful exteriors:



Mr. L and I liked the 'only slightly' part.

After the penguin house, we were herded to an exit, courteously bowed to and bid farewell to by a pert, uniformed aquarium employee, and then funneled via escalator directly into the gift shop (which, by the way is an excellent marketing strategy:  I really felt for the many hapless parents who found themselves and their overtired, overstimulated offspring deposited into a seething mass of brightly colored, aquarium-related merchandise.)


Since we had no children with us, we were able to escape without incident, and headed back out into the mall, where we decided to choose from one of the previously-mentioned eateries to sit down and drink beer  refresh ourselves before heading back home. After dithering for a while, we decided to amuse ourselves and head to Bennigans, a pub-style American chain restaurant, where we ordered Korean beer and - feeling a tad homesick - what was billed as the 'Southwest Sampler.'

Now, having lived in Korea for three months, we were not expecting a completely authentic representation of Southwestern cuisine.  This turned out to be wise, since the Bennigans-in-Seoul version of a 'Southwest Sampler' included deep-fried octupus, seafood quesadillas, and deep-fried egg rolls.  It says something for how quickly we've adapted that a) this did not surprise us and b) we ate the whole thing.

As we're finding out about so many things in Korea, it wasn't exactly like home - but it was good.


To Get To The Coex Mall:  Take the subway line 2 to the Samseong station, exit 5 or 6;  which will funnel you directly into the Mall

To Get To The Coex Aquarium:  The aquarium is inside the Coex Mall, right near the Megabox and IMAX theater;  signs all over the mall will point you in the right direction.  The aquarium is open 365 days a year, from 10am-8pm.  Cost is KW17,500 for Adults, KW14,500 for Teenagers, and KW11,000 for children.


4 comments:

Trish @ Mum's Gone To ... said...

You've started to get a thing about fish at the moment, haven't you? ;-)

As always, a very entertaining piece with some fabulous bits of signage which appeal to me too, though only slightly.

MsCaroline said...

Trish, you're right. And I have a whole post about going to the Fish Market still waiting to be edited...maybe I'd better wait on that, otherwise I'll have to change the title of my blog.
Aren't the signs (slightly) fabulous? One could have an entire blog about them...actually, somewhere there is a blog dedicated to 'Engrish' that is seen all over Korea. Maybe I should send them a few submissions.

Iota said...

Love that sign of the hand-eating fish! Though as Trish says, it only slightly made me laugh.

MsCaroline said...

Iota, that fish sign was the best one of the day! I do always wonder what people are thinking as I'm standing there taking photos of the signs instead of the wildlife...just another crazy foreigner, I guess.