This past weekend Beth and I went to South Korea. I flew in to Seoul on Thursday via Asiana Airlines, while she came the next day. The flight from Tokyo to Seoul is only around two hours, but if I calculate all the time I spent in preparation and transit, it was a twelve-hour process. I woke up before 6am, which is a time I really didn’t believe existed. I guess I just always assumed when I go to bed, usually around midnight, my clocks enter into hibernation mode along with me and start working again when the sun is well into its ascent into the sky. But the legends are true, and there really is a time between late-night senseless eBay shopping and 8am.
Anyway, it was raining in the morning, so I grabbed an umbrella and raced to the train station, where I intended to grab a taxi to take me to the bus station. From there I could take a bus straight to Narita Airport. But there were no taxis. I suppose that they too don’t believe in the mythological hours before “I want a bowl of cereal but I’m going to be late to work.” There was no way I could get to the bus station in time to catch the bus, so I stood there in the rain cursing under my breath. Then I moved under the awning at the station entrance because it made no sense to stand in the rain. I mustered a resigned and theatrical sigh and walked into the station to take the train, swiping my transit card without breaking pace. You’re probably thinking, “Mars, dude, what’s wrong with taking the train?” There’s nothing wrong with taking the train, but I wanted to avoid all the transfers and confusing train schedule signs. Plus, I didn’t map out ahead of time the train route since I thought I’d be taking the bus. I got most of the way through the trip to the airport before Beth helped me out by looking up the information and texting it to me. (I’m still true to my nonsensical archaic ways and so my mobile device, even here in Japan, is an old school flip phone) Once I got to the airport I breezed through check-in and immigration. There were no useless body scanners, no shoes to remove, no arbitrary pulling aside this character or that dude with the suspicious walk or crazy eyes or fanatical shouting “Death to the West,” just the usual precision and Japanese work ethic.
I landed in Seoul before 4pm and was greeted by snow flurries. Indeed, it was much colder in Korea than it has been in Japan. My first night’s stay was arranged through Couchsurfing, a website I like to use when I want to meet locals and stay on a budget. My hosts were a Korean couple about my parents’ age. (and in fact they have a daughter my age and a son a little younger than my brother) Hana, the lady who I contacted to stay with, informed me she had to be at a university and would not be able to spend time with me that evening. Her husband would instead entertain me. I was instructed to grab a specific bus line on the fleet of Airport Limousine Buses. When I got through Immigration and Customs at Incheon Airport in Seoul, I easily found the bus terminal and bought a ticket to Olympic Park, where my hosts’ apartment is located. Public transit in Korea is amazing. It’s clean, accurate, simple to navigate, and provides information in three, sometimes four, languages: Korean, Japanese, English, and Chinese. Phenomenal.
Each stop was announced as we approached it, however I didn’t realize that there was a buzzer to press if I wanted to get off at a certain stop. I thought the bus just stopped at each place, but that was not the case. And so, my stop came and went, and after twenty minutes or so I asked the girl next to me if Olympic Park would indeed be soon. She said we passed it, but someone called the driver and was following the bus in a car looking for an American. So the driver whipped to the side of the road and let me out. He stood to wait with me but looked anxious, so I encouraged him to continue on his route since he had a schedule. There was no good reason for him to wait with me.
In a few minutes a car pulled up driven by Hana and her husband, whose name I never got. They both got out of the car and she hastily said hello and apologized that she had to leave, which I already knew. Her husband waved his hand for me to follow him and we descended into the subway without him saying a word. We hopped on and off three or four trains before exiting the subway and surfacing to the stop where I should have been in the first place. We walked around the corner and down a quiet yet well-lit street and entered an apartment building. My host finally spoke, pointing to the building number as he recited it.
I was shown around the apartment, which I found to be nicer than most any other place I’ve ever stayed. It could be that I’ve just always lived in or visited dumps, but really it’s just that this was a really awesome apartment. I had the whole upstairs to myself, which was more space than I needed and much too kind of my hosts. Hana’s husband then turned on the bathroom light and we both acknowledged its existence. He then turned on a light to a bedroom, and then turned on the light in the next room, and proceeded to show me how to work the television. “Internet,” he said, followed by “television.” He plugged in some strange device on the floor. It looked sort of like a humidifier and rice cooker combined, and it had tubes extending from its base to a mat on the floor.
We sat on the floor and used the television stand as a desk, and he helped me review my tentative itinerary, making suggestions and liberally crossing off items on my list of ideas. After we planned out two and a half days’ worth of sightseeing, shopping and dining, he got up and announced bedtime. I moved myself to the bedroom, and he gave me a look that kind of looked like confusion wearing a cloak of death. He pointed to my backpack which was on the floor, and then nodded towards the other room. Saving the details of the rest of this awkward exchange, basically I misunderstood and was not supposed to be in that bedroom, but instead I was to sleep in the room with the television on the mat with wires coming out of it leading to the space machine. That little machine, by the way, seemed to be a heating device that heated the mattress based on wherever I was laying. The floor also was heated. Heated floors are heavenly.
As I was getting myself together in the morning Hana came to the door to greet me. She had prepared a breakfast consisting of vegetable gimbap, a sushi-like food that evolved from the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early part of the 1900s. (look it up if you don’t believe me) She also served miso soup, pickled vegetables, and bread. Her husband left for work and we sat and chatted for a while. We ate fresh persimmon and apple slices while we talked about the differences of the north and south of the Korean Peninsula, various countries and cultures, social welfare, careers, personal interests, and food. I asked her what she did before becoming a college professor and she said with a hint of shyness and coyness, “I worked for the government in social welfare.” I come to find out that she was a top dog in the Korean Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. She showed me her office which was decorated with several photos of her with the Korean president, his wife, cabinet members, and so on. She proudly showed me two awards she had received during her tenure, explaining that they are the highest honors one can receive for the service for which they were given. You’d better believe I’d have those awards enlarged and displayed on the side of my house. And as you might imagine, by this point I was feeling humble, impressed, and wishing I had at least worn a collared shirt or had my hair cut prior to my arrival.
On with my day. Hana is an extremely busy woman, and this weekend was no exception. She said she is like my mother in Korea, and packed my backpack with fruit, bread, and gimbap. After she showed me her garden and her collection of miniature treasures from various business trips and vacations around the world, she walked me out and wished me well. We had one of those long goodbye exchanges where each party keeps coming up with things to say to prolong the conversation just a little longer.
Using Korea’s fabulous subway system as my mode of transport, I first ventured to just outside Seoul’s downtown area, where I wandered around just soaking up the intensity of this massive city. The sun was shining but the chill in the air made my lungs burn a little as I hiked along the pavement. I made my way toward the North Seoul Tower, stopping along the way to check out an animation museum and stopping at a small tea house for a cup of chamomile. The tower is accessed by cable car and offers a 360-degree view of Seoul and the surrounding mountains. The elevator ride was quick, but on the way up I was instructed by the attendant to look at the ceiling to watch an absurd promotional video featuring an elevator launching from the tower to outer space. It was a slightly hazy day, and the glare on the windows of the tower’s sunny side was no help. But the view was impressive, and it gave me a better idea as to how big the city really is. I met and chatted with a couple from Switzerland, but otherwise spent the time quiet and solo.
After the tower I walked down the hill and made my way to the subway. From there I rode to Namdaemun Market, a dizzying cluster of street vendors and shops and more people than I care to be around at any given moment. If there was something you’d want to buy, and that thing happened to be a knock-off a real thing you might want to buy but don’t want to pay for, Namdaemun Market is the place to go. Shoes, handbags, clothing, electronics, health and beauty products, trinkets, brick-a-brack, souvenirs, cookware, you name it. It’s there. To be honest, the market was too intense for me, and really I just preferred the people watching over actually buying anything, so I didn’t stay too long.
I made my way over to Itaewon, a neighborhood of Seoul that caters to, and is home to, many expats and foreigners. In general, I found no need in Korea to speak anything other than English, with the exception of an occasional Japanese expression. The level of English knowledge and ability seems to far surpass that of Japan, although Seoul is a major city and the same could be said about Tokyo.
I found my way to a small vegan café called Plant, which I had read about online. Unfortunately everything on the menu board had garlic in it, and I wasn’t interested in feeling sick for the night. There I met a friendly girl from South Africa and we chatted while I slurped on a smoothie and devoured a huge slice of pumpkin cake. From there, I bought a few magazines at an English bookstore (I got them to read the articles, I swear) and walked up and down the busy main street before heading to a hostel we had reserved.
Beth’s flight would come in this evening, and I was to meet her at the bus stop near the hostel. I stayed nearby, walking a few kilometers around the area and again soaking up the atmosphere. There was on one section of town with four Starbucks within a five-minute walk, all on the same side of the street. People were out in force, shopping and eating and laughing and freezing in miniskirts. I went to wait for Beth at the bus stop, and I waited for nearly half an hour. No Beth. I decided to race back to the hostel to get a map to make sure I was where I should be and there she was, already at the hostel. I guess I wasn’t where I should be. But at least she was safe.
The next day we wandered the nearby streets before making our way to Gyeongbok Palace, a massive complex of beautiful buildings and structures originally built in the 1300s. As with most stories in Asian history, much of the palace was destroyed some 200 years later, but it has been under reconstruction since the 1800s. (I think, anyway.) While we were there we caught a glimpse of the Changing of the Guard, which happens daily. Later, Beth would have her picture taken next to a straight-faced and fierce-looking bearded guard. He looked like he could take down a rabid bear, so I just stood back and operated the camera. While we were there we met a young Scottish fellow and spent some time chatting with him. We ate at a restaurant near the palace and we talked a lot about economics and technology.
We parted ways and headed for Bukchon, a traditional Korean village with lots of charm and just as much souvenir shopping. It really was a cute and somewhat peaceful place to visit, juxtaposed to the hyperactive buzzing city all around us. And we bought some socks.
We made our way to a vegan restaurant for dinner (I had a tofu burger) that was attached to an animal rescue shelter. Unfortunately the shelter was closed when we were there, but we did get a glimpse of a cute pup that a man had in the café. (they have a section where patrons may bring their pets to dine with them)
After this we went to Itaewon, where I had gone the day before, and we perused the streets and shops for a few hours, visiting an English bookstore, a vegan café, and multiple souvenir shops. We also bought some more socks. Once the cold and fatigue sank in we decided to call it a night and head back to the hostel. On our walk from the station we stopped at a sidewalk shop – most were closing down for the evening – and bought some more socks.
The next day we ventured to a whole other side of the city to seek out a vegan restaurant we had heard about. Taking no chances, we grabbed a taxi as we came out of the station. The rain and distance to the restaurant would have been a perfect recipe for misery and frustration. The restaurant itself was an unassuming little hole in the wall on a narrow side street away from the noise of traffic and people. A short older woman greeted us and said a bunch of stuff in Korean, pointing at the menu board and at the kitchen and at some stuff hanging on the walls or something. Shortly thereafter a woman came in and greeted us in English. I believe she was the owner. We gave our orders (I had the hot pot) and soon we had steaming bowls of vegetable-y, noodle-y, rice-e goodness. The hot pot was not a misnomer, and came out to me bubbling and humming and gurgling. Even after waiting an eternal few minutes for it to cool, it was still almost too hot to eat. But I persevered, blowing and fanning each spoonful so that I could devour it as quickly as my appestat requested.
The owner lady chatted with us for a while before having to leave. We paid the little Korean chef lady and left, destination Incheon Airport.
We arrived at the airport with about an hour to spare, and we needed all of it. The lines to get through immigration were long enough to take the wind out of Galileo’s sails. Moving like molasses, we trudged along and scoped out the most promising-looking security checkpoints so that we could expedite our passage. I was pulled aside for something in my bag: face wash that did not meet the 100ml limit. I’m just happy they didn’t confiscate my socks.