After a few days in Paris revisiting old haunts, we flew to Seoul. South Korea has been on our radar for a while. Would it be a sign of food obsession to admit it had a lot to do with seeing the Netflix food series, Korean Pork Belly Rhapsody?
We arrived in the early evening and our hotel was just five minutes walk from one of Seoul’s most famous street food locations, Gwangjang Market. Its reputation is well deserved. Dumplings, cold spicy noodles, deep fried morsels oozing calories and goodness. All good.
Next day it was drizzling rain so we opted for a visit to the War Memorial of Korea. The name is a bit misleading – it’s a museum too – but there are indeed lots of memorials to the fallen.
This particularly poignant one depicts the true story of two brothers who fought on opposite sides during the Korean War before being reunited by coincidence on the battlefield. It is intended to represent the Korean people’s desire for peace and reunification.
And there’s a sobering portico with huge tablets inscribed with the names of the South Korean soldiers, police and UN soldiers who died in the War.
The three storey museum charts the history of Korea from the ancient kingdoms to the present day through the lens of war. With an entire floor dedicated to the background, conduct and aftermath of the Korean War, it was a really informative way to gain an understanding of the still unresolved conflict which continues to shape the national psyche.
The weather cleared so we headed to one of Seoul’s most visited tourist attractions, Gyeongbokgung Palace. En route we passed the statue of King Sejong, considered one of Korea’s greatest dynastic leaders and the inventor of the Korean alphabet, Hangul.
Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung served as the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty until 1592 when it was burned to the ground in the Imjin War with Japan. In the late 1800s, the 7,700 rooms of the palace and 500 outbuildings were restored under Emperor Gojong, only to be destroyed again during the Japanese occupation in the early 1900s.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the palace is once again being reconstructed to its original form in a project that has been ongoing since the 1990s.
Seoul has five main palaces, and it’s become popular to visit wearing hanbok, Korean traditional clothing. There’s a bunch of places near all the palace sites where hanbok can be hired.
It’s terribly kitsch of course, but great for photo opportunities.
Near the palace, Bukchon Hanok Village encompasses five neighbourhoods which were the residential quarter for nobility and high ranking officials during the Joseon era.
Seoul was devastated during the Korean War so architecturally it is essentially a modern city. A few pockets of original traditional houses (hanoks) still remain, and Bukchon is the largest. Covering five neighbourhoods, it’s where nobility and the wealthy lived in dynastic times. Around 900 hanoks are crammed together here. Some are still shabby, quite a few have been restored and where the old are beyond repair, new houses are being built in the traditional style.
It’s become more and more trendy since being featured in a couple of Asian TV programs, and locals complain that the major uptick in visitor numbers means noise, loss of privacy and the general inconvenience of a constant parade of people past their front doors. It was a bit artificial for our taste, as it’s rapidly turning into an enclave of shops and cafes rather than a ‘real’ neighbourhood.
For a taste of modern Seoul at its wealthiest, or at least, most aspirational, we headed to Gangnam. Apartments here cost twice the price per square metre of those in the rest of Seoul. It’s all gleaming towers, designer labels, global brands and swanky nightclubs. Not our usual scene, but one thing in particular brought us here.
South Korean singer, Psy, brought Gangnam to the world’s attention in his 2012 hit song Gangnam Style which reached No 1 in 30 countries and for a full five years was the most watched video on YouTube. The song and Psy’s outlandish dance moves poke fun at wannabes trying too hard to be stylish. It’s really ‘Gangnam dork with bling’. One Australian music reviewer wrote that the video “makes you wonder if you’ve taken someone else’s medication”.
The tune is incredibly catchy. A certain couple we know but won’t name (you know who you are) have been known to recreate the ‘elevator’ scene from the video after a few drinks. As a tribute to them, we present to readers the statue erected outside the COEX Building in Gangnam where some of the video was shot. The giant hands are arranged in the wrist motion used by Psy while doing the infamous ‘horse dance’ in the video.
A screen beside it is on a continuous loop broadcasting the video. The song was a chart topper more than a decade ago, but people still come to do the horse dance alongside the statue.
Inside the COEX building is Starfield Library, the most physically impressive book store we’ve ever seen. The photo below is just one of the four identical stacks in the 360 degree store.
The designer label boutiques are enormous. Louis Vuitton has a multi-level handbag emporium in a building designed by the great Frank Gehry.
Almost half of Korea’s entertainment companies are headquartered in Gangnam and that means it’s ground zero for K-pop. Being of a certain age, we know almost nothing about this Korean music genre beyond its use of highly choreographed music videos featuring singers ‘created’ by the studios. It’s so popular there’s an entire mall devoted to K-pop merchandise over in Dangdaenum.
And since it’s so much a part of youth culture here, while in Gangnam we thought we should visit K-Star Road.
Along the street, 17 GangnamDols (an amalgam of Gangnam + idol + doll) represent some of the big names in K-pop. Giggling girls, and quite a few lads, come here to take photos of themselves with their favourites. The bands all seem to have three letter acronyms for names, like BTS, AOA and EXO. John thought there should be one called WTF.
We headed to Changdeokgung Palace, reputed to be the most beautiful of Seoul’s palaces, mainly because of its Secret Garden. Sadly, the wild popularity of the garden means these days you have to book, and all slots for the afternoon were full. We had to content ourselves with a view of its imposing gate.
We hope to squeeze in a visit when we are back in Seoul before leaving Korea, so we may have an update soon.
Next up, a temple.
We found those figures in the courtyard of Jogye-sa Temple. But John’s ennui lifted quickly. This turned out to be one of the most fun temples we’ve ever visited. The grounds were filled with cartoon like characters.
As well as groovy renditions of the traditional, like these zodiac figures guarding the path.
Devotees put coins on them for good luck.
This fellow was certainly happy to be here.
The temple itself is small, traditional and quite beautiful.
It’s a working temple and we arrived as a chanting ceremony was in progress.
It takes quite a lot to get John enthusiastic about a temple these days, but by the time we left he was more like this:
So mellow, in fact, that he happily followed along while Julie hit the shopping district of Insadong, where stores run the spectrum from little boutiques with truly local products to more touristy fare.
Remember the last time you felt like drinking from the toilet bowl? What? Never? Yes, well … if you ever do, this cafe is the place. For reasons we do not understand, the Poop Cafe serves coffee in toilet shaped mugs. Julie had read about it but we were not seeking it out. We just happened across it, but once there, well, you have to, don’t you?
You can even buy poop themed cups and toilet shaped dessert bowls. Perhaps they’re that gift you bring back from holidays for the person you don’t really like?
After the retail therapy, we headed to the spa. Japan has onsens and Korea has jjimjilbang – traditional bath houses which typically include a variety of bathing tubs, saunas and relaxation areas. At the one we visited, the womens’ area had four pools ranging from scorching to refreshing. The mens’ had three ranging from boiling to ice cold. Bathing is gender segregated and completely nude. No photos there.
After about half an hour alternating between the pools, we had a massage. Well, next time the US decides to invade a foreign country they don’t need to resort to water boarding. They just need a few Korean masseuses. These diminutive, softly spoken, lovely old ladies attacked our travel-weary bodies with a brutality that would have a terrorist spilling state secrets in under an hour.
Then off to the sauna. There were two. A wood heated one with a temperature gauge reading 76 degrees Celsius, and a cooler salt spa where the rock crystals apparently have medicinal qualities. The idea is to cook in the hot one for three to five minutes, then laze in the cooler one for a while, then repeat.
Like the temezcals in Guatemala, the hot one felt like sitting in a pizza oven.
Whether or not the salt did anything, the overall experience was definitely therapeutic. We left feeling warm to the core and all ironed out.
Ready for one final hit of street food before leaving Seoul.
Love those Korean sweet hotteok (pancake/donut filled with caramelised brown sugar).