After a work week in Singapore, my coworker L and I take an extended layover in Seoul. We arrived early on a Saturday morning and grab a cab to our downtown hotel. Turns out that Seoul is HUGE and the airport is MILES away-it takes basically an hour (without traffic!) and $100. But we had great views-there is a beautiful river and tons of housing. We didn't know it at the time, but Seoul is the 4th largest city in the world. No wonder! The cheaper way to get downtown is to take one of the 'limousine' services...which is actually a bus :)
I had a hard time picking a hotel for this trip because there are so many different areas that have different feels to them. I ended up in the Jongno-gu district to be close to the City Hall subway station and some interesting shopping and cultural sites. There are quite a few popular hotels in this area and I ended up at The Plaza because a few other places were sold out-quite a feat during an economic downturn! It worked out great though because they had a room ready for us even though we arrived at 9am-yeah! And the rooms were nicer than I expected. Extremely modern, automatic curtains and lights, toilet seat warmers, and you can look out the windows while taking a shower-um, great?! The main lights fun. Imagine a swing-arm desk lamp but 10 feet tall and put one on each side of the bed! The wall paper is textured pink waves, the carpet is a dense, thick, deep purple, and there are two opposing mirrors causing an infinite reflection. Plus we can see 4 jumbotron screens just by looking out the window :)
A good walk outdoors is in order, luckily we are just down the street from the Gwanghmadun gate/palace complex-a perfect way to get in some culture! We head down the main street and quickly realize that this is where all the groups of school children come for their cultural experiences too. And we are pretty much the only Westerners around, creating quite a stir in a couple kids. A 14 year-old boy runs up to us and wants to know where we are from, but runs away before we can answer. He runs up a few more times-"I am from China, where are you from." "Happy Birthday" "You are pretty" before his school group goes off in a different direction. But a couple minutes later a group of girls approach us and ask for directions...a ploy to talk to us, then ask to have their picture taken with us and chat. I have to say I've never traveled somewhere where I have caused quite this much of a stir-it changes your perspective a bit!
On the walk we also pass a plaza with statues of a king and an admiral. But what is interesting here is the translated sign which specifically states that the statues are here for visitors to be impressed with the glory of the people of Korea-there is some honesty for you! At the gate we learn that these aren't the originals, they were remade in like the 90s. So we decide that we don't need the full tour, just a quick look at the gates and the guards-more colorful and fancy patterns than I would have guessed.
We walk over to the area of Insadong where there is handicraft shopping...but along the way we stop at a public restroom, and it is lovely-clean, modern, safe...and we wonder why can't we have this in New York and San Francisco! Sigh. Anyway, shopping! There is a lovely pedestrian street with all sorts of shopping available. Low end trinkets out on the street, handmade items, and high end art all mixed together. And we purchase some of everything-a handmade tie for my husband, handmade buttons and trinkets for gifts, artwork for the family, and tea. And of course do not forget the street food. We see someone deep-frying some dough and even though we have no idea what is inside we buy one each. Turns out that the inside is filled with sugary, peanut-y goodness. It is fantastic, but molten-hot on the inside-be careful not to burn yourself like I did! My favorite though is my new wallet from the Gallery AM, by artist Youk, Shim Won. Check out other images online-they are way too cute, I wanted to buy about 5 different items, but limited myself to the one item....but I found that you can buy blank books online, so maybe I'll buy those!
We finally see where all the westerners are-they are celebrating St. Patrick's Day in a public square even though that was days ago. Seems really weird, why would you travel all the way to Seoul and then spend time celebrating something as non-local as St. Patrick's Day, not even on the right day? Maybe they are mainly from the Army base? We have no clue and pass them by. A quick stop at the local department store-Lotte. OMG. Packed with people even though everything is fancy and expensive. It turns out that shopping is very popular-there is a hotel associated with the store, no joke!
We drop our purchases off in the hotel room and freshen up before heading out to our food tour with O'ngo tours. This was awesome-rather than try and figure out where to eat on our own, we are letting a local help us. This turns out to be a great choice, Daniel takes us to spots we would not have been able to find on our own, orders the best food in the restaurants and is a fount of information.
Our first stop is a tiny little shop at the end of narrow alley that we will never be able to find again on our own. We eat extremely fresh tofu and a lovely kimchi. We drink makegeolli, a lightly fermented wheat/rice mixture, both plain and with mulberry leaves and it is so refreshing. I can't imagine figuring out how to order or even that I wanted to try it without the tour. This music is English movie soundtracks. No real theme, we hear Edelwise from the Sound of Music, Evita, Chariots of Fire, and the Star Wars theme song-delightful!
The next stop is for the chicken and seafood course. A number of folks in the tour had seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain eating freshly killed octopus and this restaurant serves the dish. We see the live octopi and then they arrive at our table. It is a dish filled with squirming tentacles. You have to chew completely otherwise they can stick in your esophagus and you can die. Seriously, 5 people per year. But we eat them and everyone is fine-I don't feel I need to do it again though, it is more texture than flavor. What I would eat again is the main dish they serve. Stir fried chicken and veggies in a spicy red sauce that they keep hot at your table and when you have finished they take the left overs and fry the rice in the left over sauce-yum! But my most favorite here was the watery kimchi. Apparently it really is just kimchi that has been soaking in water so the cabbage has expanded and the water is spicy and can be drunk as is.
Onto the main meal-Korean BBQ! Pork belly or marinated pork that you cook at your table and eat wrapped in lettuce leaves with spicy sauce. And kimchi on the side. This of course is fantastic, but the drink was even more fun. Take a good size glass and nestle a shot glass with Coca-Cola in the bottom. Add a shot glass with soju on top. Fill the main glass with Korean beer. Now drink the whole thing in one go. Don't slam it, but drink it continuously so that the taste changes, ending with the sweetness of the Coke. This was fantastic at the time, but I'm guessing the atmosphere helped. I wouldn't make this my first drink of a party, but in the middle? Absolutely!
On the way to our final stop we get dessert. We've seen these guys on the street a couple times and didn't really know what it was all about, but now we stop and get it all explained. Behind a street stand there are 2 guys making something out of honey with a standard patter that they do in unison, in either English or Korean. They start with a thick rope of honey covered in cornstarch. Then stretch it to double the length and fold it over itself. Repeat until the strands are hair-fine and there are 16,000 of them. At this point the patter is highly entertaining, they literally say "Oh My God, O.M.G." Finally they wrap the strands around a nut mixture-voila!
And for the final stop we work our way to a giant half indoors market. About 1/3 of the stalls sell clothes, 1/3 sell fresh food (including recognizable squid), and 1/3 sell prepared food. We go to the top floor of a three-story restaurant that sells the best fried sprouted bean pancakes. We get sides of blood sausages and vinegar/soy sauce onions (these are surprisingly yummy and simple). And kimchi. And we drink some more soju and beers to end the meal.
It was the official end of the evening, but a smaller group of us decided to go check out one of the night markets and look for those fried dough with molten-lava peanuty goodness. We picked the Myeong-dong area and started up and down the streets. Lots of great stuff for sale, and some savory street food, but we could NOT find dessert! We finally ended up at Red Mango-this is branch of the frozen yogurt store that started in California-there haven't been a lot of western chains, so this is a little odd. But we'll take it because we know we can find sugary goodness. And indeed we do-chocolate with raspberries and tiny pastries with frozen centers.
The set up for a lot of these stores is that you have to go up a flight or two of stairs that are completely deserted before you get to the front door. We went up a couple thinking, oh, this will be closed, but then they aren't. I guess it is an efficient way of putting two stores on street level instead of one. They do have great windows for people watching.
And now we want to end the night with a drink at a bar, but it turns out that there is an area of the city for bars, and this is not it. You can get alcohol for sure...but it is all in restaurants and none of them have bars. So we wander the streets and finally see a big neon sign for the beer barrel. It is at the end of a deserted alley, but we go check it out...and its closed...Saturday night at 10! This is not what we are used to. We keep wandering and are about to give up and have a drink at the hotel bar when we find it! the one bar in all of Myeong-dong, and it is called G-nox. Down a half flight and into a dimly lit bar. It is trying very hard to be upscale-dark wood and leather and it works. We have the bartender mix a couple different drinks...how will a margarita turn out in Seoul? Turns out to be quite nice! A really nice end to the day.
Breakfast is not popular in Korea, but all of the coffee places do seem to sell waffles. But all all those places seem to not be open this morning, or are in the midst of a power outage, or no longer have waffles. How did that happen?! We finally find Angel-In-Us coffee which serves us waffles with blueberry topping. The insides are super-dense, almost like a cheese center, these will keep us going for awhile!
We notice that beauty supplies are big around here so of course we have to check out a pharmacy. They have great names like Baby Phatz and Olive Young. One whole shelf is devoted to facial masks-the type that are thick paper infused with liquids. There are a huge variety including some that are maybe not legal in the states-epidermal growth factor and hyalurinic acid seem a little scary so we purchase some tame collagen and cucumber ones!
Sunday morning is a quest for puffy winter vest-it is the most fashionable item in town and apparently it is from Uniqlo, and there is a store just down the street from our hotel! Even better it is through the underground mall-perfect for the cold rainy winter day. We go inside just after opening and have to go up 7 escalators to get to the Uniqlo store. On the way up, the English language music stops and something unfamiliar comes on-I think it is the national anthem-all the employees are standing very straight and organized as we go past them. On the top, the employees burst into a chant-it is specific to the Uniqlo floor and I have to guess it is the employee motivational start to the day. On to our quest! We are looking for the vest and it is not here! Floor by floor we search our way down to the basement-darn! We are too late in the season and the puffy winter vest does not exist. We will have to go home a little less fashionable than the average Korean :(