Heading out for the great indoorsIf you haven’t noticed already, businesses in Korea like to give their name a bang suffix, which simply means “room.”
Karaoke lovers go to a noraebang (singing room), computer addicts spend all night curled up in a PC-bang, while a DVD-bang is where couples can sit on a couch, watch a movie and ― typically ― engage in adult situations.
Now two more activities have been given the “bang” treatment: ice climbing and fishing.
Being activities that are almost by definition done out of doors, it’s hard to imagine how Koreans could compartmentalize them. Yet there are real reasons for doing so. Ice climbers, for instance, are unlikely to find a place to practice in the summer unless they have access to a massive freezer. Fishing fanatics, on the other hand, are unlikely to enjoy their sport during winter or the monsoon season, when being outdoors is synonymous with being drenched.
The air inside the dark room smelled a bit fishy and a bit musty, as if you were standing near a cold, foggy lake.
Welcome to the fishing-bang, where a room holds a giant tank filled with lots and lots of slow-moving carp just waiting to be caught.
Inside the room, a 5-by-10-meter (16- to 32-foot) tank encircled by a rubber guardrail lords over visitors. About six men were sitting around the tank, each holding their fishing rods. One man leaned toward the guardrail, squinting at the dark water. trying to determine where the school of fish was heading, while another man sat back, waiting patiently for the fish to take the bait as he sucked on a cigarette.
Suddenly, a man yanked hard on his rod and a carp appeared briefly on the surface. But he had yanked too late ― the fish had taken the pasty bait and swam off. The man was left with an empty hook.
“Don’t expect indoor fishing to be easy,” said Hong Sun-tae, the owner of Daemul Naksibang (literally, “big fish fishing room”). “It seems like there are so many crammed into that tank, but they’re used to human hands trying to catch them. They got smart.”
He said there are about 600 carp swimming inside the tank, which was filled with eight tons of groundwater. Then suddenly, there was a yelp from the back.
“I caught one!” said Park Sang-jin, grabbing the rod with both hands. Mr. Park was still wearing his necktie, which turned out to be a bad idea once it got wet with fish run-off. He didn’t seem to mind, though. Mr. Hong ran to him with a casting net and helped the excited man pull the hook out of the carp. There was a white tag fixed on the fin. On the tag was written “weighing machine,” his prize for the good catch, because he couldn’t take the fish home. Anything you catch here has to be tossed back.
“I caught 20 fish in the past hour, but this is the first time I caught one with the prize tag,” said Mr. Park, who had apparently dropped by after work. During the weekends, he said he visits here with his wife and their 10-year-old son. They’re hoping that one day they’ll win a bigger prize, such as a refrigerator or a television set.
“Fish don’t have nerves in their lips, so it doesn’t hurt them if the hook goes through in the right place,” Mr. Hong said. “But when beginners come and they’re really rough with the rod, that could hurt the fish.”
The injured ones are thrown into a separate tank and are allowed to heal, while new fish are added to the tank, he explained.
The idea of indoor fishing itself is not new: The first fishing arena appeared in the early 1990s, when visitors could catch saltwater fish and ask the house chef to prepare a sushi meal on the spot. But that had a few sanitary problems, and was an expensive arrangement for the owner, so indoor fishing arenas have become more family-oriented.
“For 10,000 won, I can teach my wife how to fish safely and easily,” said Lee Hyeong-geun, a regular visitor here. “It has become a new hobby for us.”
Some indoor fishing arenas around Seoul:
1) Daemul Indoor Fishing (02) 2603-1915
2) Gwanak Indoor Fishing (02) 883-5619
3) Yangcheon Indoor Fishing (02) 2692-3558
4) Yeongdong Indoor Fishing (02) 2677-1463
5) Soyangho Indoor Fishing (02) 2238-2147
Bundled up in a thick flannel shirt and a parka, Han Yeong-min, 37, huffed and puffed as she took a careful step up the ice. She thrust her ice axe deep into the sheet and pulled herself up once more with a grunt. She was finally on top.
“I’m clear!” she yelled as she reached up to ring the bell hanging from the top of the cliff, sounding out a message that she had completed her mission. “Pull me down, guys.”
In few seconds, she was back on the ground. She unstrapped her climbing harness and took off her helmet. Although sweat was dripping off her forehead, she suggesting going outside, where it’s “much warmer.”
Ms. Han had been inside a giant freezer for the past hour. Kept at five degrees below zero centigrade (23 degrees Fahrenheit) at all times, the freezer houses a 20-meter-tall (66-foot) wall of ice for climbers to practice on.
When she pushed the heavy metal door open, hot air gushed inside. She quickly closed the door behind her and plopped down on a chair. “I used to wait nine months to go ice climbing, but whoever thought I would be doing it during the hottest days of the year?” she said, grinning and rubbing her ears with her hands.
Ms. Han comes here every night after work. For 10,000 won an hour ($10.50), a climber can “enjoy Mount Seorak’s winter” at any time, she said.
“You’d be surprised to find out that about 80 percent of the climbers here are between the ages of 30 and 50,” said Kim Woo-sun, director of O2 Korea Mountaineering Culture Center, which houses the ice walls. “It’s become their way of getting rid of stress after work.”
In a few more minutes, more people with frozen cheeks pushed the metal doors open and stepped outside.
Choi Mi-suk, 43, boasted that she could easily reach the 20-meter point now that she had been practicing everyday.
“And I am getting my figure back,” she said, beaming.
Hong Myeong-pyo, 60, one of the oldest members in the ice climbing group, said he tried many sports but he found indoor ice climbing the most exciting.
“It’s not as dangerous as you would think if you have the right equipment and the right trainer,” Mr. Hong said. “I am doing it. This means anyone else can.”
O2 Korea Mountaineering Culture Center opened last November in Ui-dong, near Mount Bukhan in northern Seoul. It is so far the only indoor ice climbing facility in Seoul and is currently the largest indoor ice wall in the world, setting the Guinness world record at 13 by 20 meters. The record is expected to go on the book’s 2007 edition.
“A lot of people think it is fascinating to climb ice indoors,” said Ko Cheol-jun, the head instructor at O2, “but professionals still find the real ice glaciers more exciting, but this place is good enough for those who want to practice before they go out to challenge the real thing.”
O2 Korea Mountaineering Culture Center is located near Ssangmun subway station line no. 4. From there, take a cab or a bus bound for Doseon Temple, near the entrance of Mt. Bukhan’s hiking route. The gym is inside the Kolon sports building. (02) 990-0202
by Lee Min-a