One Saturday morning I found myself wandering aimlessly around Children’s Grand Park, looking for a “drinking club with a running problem.” I had come looking for a “hash.”
“You missed the marks,” explained a Yongsan Kimchi Hash House member named Too Good to Swallow. “Don’t worry, I think most people are going to miss them this morning.” As she led me towards a wooden enclosure, away from public eyes, I noticed the small half-arrow chalk mark I had missed. And there it was, just a few short meters from the common sights and sounds of unsuspecting Korean families at play; the hashers were ready to play some games of their own.
I had assumed that hashers were a bunch of foreigners dressed up in goofy clothes, drinking beer, and running through the streets of Seoul like a pack of hounds, yelling cult-like gibberish, all while giving expats a bad name. I was mostly right. But despite myself, I learned why hashing appeals to so many people around the world: the friendship, gamesmanship, humor, and sense of community.
Surprisingly, the hash is an old and very international club. Based on the tradition of chasing hares with packs of hounds, an all-human version of the game called The Paper Chase was invented in England in the 19th century, where the human “hare” would leave scraps of paper for the human “hounds” to follow. Based on this tradition, the Hash House Harriers club was founded by a British ex-pat in Kuala Lumpur in 1938 as a way to cure hangovers on Monday mornings. But hashing as we know it today didn’t really spread until the 1980’s. Today there’s a hash house in almost every country of the world.
The beginning of the hash is called “chalk talk” and includes small talk, a quick drink, some snacks, and then the hazing of the hash newcomers, or “virgins.” This hazing separates the hashers from the pretenders. Nothing too embarrassing happens, but you certainly need a roast-style sense of humor. Newcomers are also educated on the complex nomenclature of hash marks and code words.
Even the names of hash members are encoded. Members must endure a naming ceremony at their sixth meeting, the details of which are not appropriate for print. Relative noobs like myself simply go by the handle “No Name.” There’s a complex list of words and gestures one cannot use, under punishment of drink. Hashing struck me as part cult, fraternity, church, and boot camp. But really, the group I ran with didn’t take themselves too seriously. Lots of people just run or just drink, without combining the two.
With the initiations over, the run began. The object of the run is to follow a marked trail left by the “hare.” I’m slightly athletic, but I do not run. I was tired immediately.
The pack of just under two dozen quickly came to their first “check point,” an area demarcated by a circle where the trail can venture in any direction. This checkpoint was at a crowded intersection with at least five possible directions, most of them requiring us to cross several lanes of traffic. Some trails can even have false marks, leading one down a fake trail until all the hash marks suddenly disappear. Decoding the trail feels as much like the Seoul Escape Room as a jog, and a mild panic overtook me when it happened to me. Not panic about running into traffic or anything, but that I’d have to run in the wrong direction several times before I found the trail and might die of exhaustion. That’s when I came to understand the value of the pack and their gibberish. Runners immediately set off in each of the five directions and, when one group finds another hash mark, they yell the magic words: “On one!”
I stuck close to my friend, codenamed Between a Rock and a Hard-on, who has attended over 100 hashes. He believes that hashing is a great way to make friends. “Running together and solving the puzzle the hares laid for us is a great way to form friendships. [Or something] as simple as sharing water on an extremely hot day or helping each other climb walls and other obstacles.”
At one point, Rock and I decided to try a shortcut: a dicey gambit when you don’t know exactly where the trail is going. We climbed a hill, through bushes and hedges, only to wind up at a dead end. Shortly thereafter, several Koreans witnessed us frantically emerge from the bush with branches clinging to our clothes and hair, sweating, panting, swearing, and me wearing a toy T-Rex around my chest. Don’t ask.
This was the part I was afraid of—us foreigners (mostly) acting like loons in the middle of the day, in public. Yet, Korea may be the perfect place for hashing because, let’s face it, people here have been conditioned to ignore each other. Sure, people stared; but their stone, public facades never revealed a hint of surprise or curiosity. Not even when we rejoined the pack in an outdoor zoo crowded with young children.
At this point, it’s hard to remember concrete details as tunnel vision came upon me as I was in danger of passing out. Luckily, the “hares” whom we were metaphorically chasing always leave more checkpoints, these being “photo checkpoints” at picturesque locations. Hashing lets you see a side of Seoul that you normally would not, which is one of the most popular reasons people come back each week. We even saw an elephant at a checkpoint! Best of all, I got the chance to catch enough of my breath to finish the trail.
Back at the “circle,” more drinks and snacks were passed around, more chanting, singing, mocking, joking, sexual innuendo, and ceremony was to be had. Some members take the drinking and revelling part quite seriously, but some others politely excuse themselves from most of that. A hasher, nicknamed Chinese Fingercuffs, confided that she originally felt a little estranged by the bawdiness. “I was a little overwhelmed at the circle, but a lot of the more experienced hashers were so friendly, I decided to come back the following week… I still wasn’t sure about the rowdy drinking and offensive songs, but by my third week I had gotten to know enough people… to decide I would keep going back.”
Both Rock and Fingercuffs said that the best part of hashing is the extended community. With hashes all over the globe, travellers can easily plug into hashing communities wherever they go. Need a bit of fun in Europe, a couch to crash on in South America, or some travel advice in Africa? Just go to a local hashing website or Facebook page and tell ‘em you’re one of them!
With the final festivities over, everyone packed up and returned to their normal lives. Some would commute south for another hash that day, others would go home for a nap, but most would just dissolve back into polite society. The lawyers, teachers, students, artists, military leaders, or whoever they happen to be; temporarily hanging up their racy code-names and transforming back into productive members of society, until the next hash.
The Yongsan Kimchi Hash is a mixed-gender hash and meets on Saturdays at 10am at various locations.
Tips, rules, and run locations are posted on https://koreahash.wordpress.com/
You can connect with Korean hashers at their Facebook page: Korea Hash House Harriers.
Most hashes usually require donations of $5 for drinks and snacks.