May 27 – May 30
We arrived in Seoul with very few plans and expectations. Our visit was one of curiosity and convenience (Seoul being an easy flight from Osaka), and after our whirlwind tour of Japan, we were ready for a little wandering, discovery, and rest. And, after four days, we can confidently say we have very little understanding of this complicated, proud country and its people. They enjoy their fried food, though. Yes, we know that.
Michael had booked us at the casino-attached Hilton Millenium, and after 3 weeks of Airbnb apartments, we were thrilled to discover we had been upgraded to the executive suites in this already swanky hotel! A free happy hour was included, during which we childishly (or masterfully?) took advantage of the hotel’s faith in our executive-like discretion while pouring our own liquor, champagne, beer and wine.
We discovered two immediate surprises: first, that Seoul is incredibly smoggy – a thick haze rests on the city like a blanket. Charming. Second, our trip coincided with the international Rotary club convention held in Seoul, and we thoroughly enjoyed our Hilton happy hours with outgoing boozy western do-gooders alongside American fighter jet salesmen pitching weaponry to the SK government.
Overall, we discovered a proud city with a rich history; a passion for outdoor markets, street food, and pale, androgynous men; and a complicated dream to reunite Korea – government TBD.
On our first day in Seoul, we visited Geongbokgong Palace. Originally built in the 14th century as the central place of government and life for the Joseon Dynasty, the palace and its surrounding gardens had been burnt down in the Imjin War, rebuilt in the 17th century, destroyed by the Japanese in the 20th century, and is now being rebuilt again. Now, it’s more of a shell of a building – there are no rooms to enter, but the facades are intricately painted as painstaking replicas of the original. Korean tourists and teenagers in traditional Korean dress were everywhere, posing for selfies and clustering in the shade. Traditional South Korean guards stand out front for tourists to respectfully pose with…
The palace garden is beautiful, and the grounds are huge. It’s located smack dab in the middle of a seemingly busy and modern business district, and the juxtaposition of old versus new is startling.
This vast, non-functioning and clearly expensive reconstruction in the heart of their city makes a clear statement about South Korea: their history is important to them.
As we left the beautiful palace, we stumbled upon a huge festival full of food, flowers, interactive exhibits, art, and demonstrations. As we wandered through the stalls, we pieced together that this crowded festival was intended to promote the dream of a unified Korea. We were pretty shocked to say the least. I guess by selling North Korean street food and handing out flyers that say “North Koreans love coffee too!” They may be able to create enough common understanding to sidestep the whole communism/nuclear weapons issue. As if to remind us that SK is not alone in its political confusion, directly outside this festival was an anti-Trump demonstrator. *back to reality*
Over the next few days, we visited market after market sampling street foods, battling predominantly Korean crowds, and perusing the both strange and familiar stores. Myeongdong and Insadong markets bleed together in my mind – both busy walking streets with huge signs and kitschy street food – ice cream sandwiches made to look like macarons, cheese filled sweet fish shaped pastries, and absolutely everything imaginable rolled in dough, deep fried, and served on a stick. 20000 steps be damned, there is no way to stay thin and eat like this.
Many stores also sold crafts, tea, or clothes, but what stood out to me was the absurd number of skincare stores – all of them packed with Korean women and men seeking out whitening face masks, pore reducers, SPF moisturizers, colored contacts, and lip stain (present on almost every SK woman’s face). The men and women seem to strive for similar beauty standards here: thinness, delicate bone structure, light eyes, Snow White skin, and incredibly tight and stylish clothing.
Another market that stood out was DDP market, the apparent source of all raw materials. Myeongdong may sell you a pair of jeans, but every component of those jeans – the denim, the string, the rivets, the zippers, even the mannequin, can be purchased from its own individual specialty store in DDP. You want a million lanyards? How about a store that exclusively sells small kitchen fryers – or socks? Or maybe you need to be completely surrounded by every ribbon imaginable. DDP’s your place. I felt somewhat pieced apart – how much, how many small components just went into the simple outfit, backpack, and shoes I was wearing? Someone sold each of those things – probably at DDP.
But the highlight of our trip was the Korean War memorial. I knew an embarrassingly small amount about this war prior to our visit, but the in depth and passionate exhibitions at this museum/memorial thoroughly explained the causes, strategies, outcomes, and costs of the war. The memorial was extremely moving, and included plaques with the number of troops sent, and number of lives lost, for each of the countries that supported the war. Over and over, America was revered as the driving force for SK’s current independence – our sacrifice, leadership, and skill were mentioned in each exhibit. I felt very proud, and in awe of the horrible conditions and tactics that our and their soldiers endured. We happened to go the day before Memorial Day, and I am so appreciative of the reminder of the many lives that were lost in that terrible war.
Our last night in Seoul, we treated ourselves to a proper Korean barbecue. In the center of each table was a small coal grill and an overhead vent, where the patrons are invited to cook raw meat to their liking. Michael showed off his grill master chops while I enjoyed my first and only bottle of Soju (a very sweet and powerful liqueur that I am shocked is not the favorite drink of every American college girl). I happily and drunkenly housed a solid percentage of an adult cow along with the many sides (like kimchi and eggs) and sauces that accompany a traditional Korean BBQ.