After a twelve-hour flight from San Francisco to Inchon, Korea, I had a full 72 hours to see Seoul in all its glory before getting back on another twelve-hour flight home (yeah, well, it made more sense at the time).
Upon arrival in Seoul, I met up with my wife (who was there on business) and hailed a cab to our hotel in the city’s south-eastern Gangnam District. The word Gangnam means “South of the (Han) River” and, yes, it was the inspiration for the music video by PSY that people have watched 2.5 billion times.
Seoul is in South Korea (aka, the good Korea).
For those of you who haven’t already seen “Team America: World Police” or “The Interview,” Korea is a country in Asia that is politically and physically divided into two halves along the 38th parallel line. The Northern half is controlled by Kim Jong Un and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea while the Southern half is controlled by sane people.
Between these two countries is the world-famous “DMZ” (or demilitarized zone), a remnant leftover from the Korean War (1950–1953). At 160 miles long and about 2.5 miles wide, this Demilitarized Zone is, ironically, the most militarized border in the world. That’s because no actual peace treaty was ever signed between the North and South, so the two halves are technically still at war.
So, basically, we had flown into a war-zone on a whim that was only 120 miles from a power-mad and unpredictable dictator possessing ballistic missiles — as well as a freakin’ hydrogen bomb — each capable of decimating Seoul at a moments’ notice. Now, I’m not saying that I’m a genuine hero for dancing on the edge of the Axis Of Evil, but I can see how someone might extrapolate that.
Seoul is the largest city in South Korea.
I didn’t get a good idea of how big the city was because I arrived in Seoul late at night. During my daylight cab ride back to the airport, however, I witnessed a veritable mountain range of residential skyscrapers in Seoul that never seemed to end. That’s probably because real estate developers needed to house almost 12 million South Koreans (25 million, if you include the surrounding metropolitan area). And that level of population density puts Seoul right up there with Cairo on the human sardine-can scale.
South Koreans like mobile devices more than fermented cabbage.
Companies often stress-test automobiles in Death Valley, outerwear in the Yukon, and smartphones in Seoul…or at least, they should. Because I’ve never been anywhere where people use their smartphones more (and I live in Silicon Valley). For South Koreans, mobile phones aren’t devices, they’re arm-extensions (it may help that Korea has some of the world’s fastest Internet speeds).
Koreans build popular mobile devices for companies like LG and Samsung, and they use these over-sized devices so much they never even bother putting them away. And I mean, ever. Citizens of Seoul never put their smartphones in pockets or purses — they’re always out, and always on. South Koreans are forever on Kakao Talk, playing StarCraft, or sending insane slang texts. Once, I even saw a guy talking into his device like it was a phone or something.
Go to Seoul to get your zen on.
At some point, we’d heard that there was a Buddhist temple near the InterContinental Seoul COEX hotel and asked our concierge where to find it. Without moving his gaze or anything other than his arm, he slowly pointed to a group of decorative trees behind him. We followed the arc of his condescending digit past the trees surrounding the hotel to a multi-acre temple complex we had somehow neglected to notice directly across the street.
Known as Bongeunsa, this Buddhist temple was founded in 794 AD (presumably before construction of the InterContinental). We strolled around and marveled at its immaculately manicured grounds. The complex contained the obligatory pagoda-style buildings and more than a few statues of Buddha depicted in his traditional “just chillin’ out” pose.
In the shadow of one of the larger Buddha statues, there was a wide, marble-tiled flat surface for mediating (well, we hope). Because we then sat crossed-legged on the tile quietly contemplating the Oneness of the Universe until our legs cramped up and then headed back to the hotel for a spa massage.
South Koreans do consumerism, Gangnam-style.
As the largest underground shopping mall in Asia, the COEX Mall puts most American malls to shame. It’s so massive inside that our country’s elderly mall-walkers wouldn’t survive even one lap of the place without an oxygen tank and a few bumps of meth. Not surprisingly, the COEX Mall has everything in its hundreds of stores carrying domestic, international, designer, and luxury brands — that’s right, America, I said hundreds of stores. (Our malls are a disgrace to Capitalism.)
Once you’re done racking up unmanageable credit card debt, you can try to forget about it by visiting popular attractions like the Megabit Cineplex, the Kimchi Museum (WTF?), the COEX Aquarium, the ASEM Plaza, and the Event Court where I expect all manner of Asian cultural weirdness happens.
South Koreans eat some weird stuff.
After melting your credit card numbers off, you can sublimate any debt-induced anxiety by eating your body weight at the COEX food court. We had a burger at a place called “Burger B” which sells a nice selection of craft beers. We also ate at “Mad For Garlic,” a middling Italian chain nearby, not because it was good, but because we got tired of eating spicy stir-fried octopus on a stick. (That’s real, too.)
Black pork is the best #seoulfood.
We’d heard about Korea’s mystical black pork and set out to find us some. We asked our hotel’s concierge where we could find this rare and delicious-sounding treat. We expected him to pull us aside, hand us a well-worn papyrus treasure map, and whisper cryptic instructions involving arcane rituals — or tests of physical strength, at least — only to be told we could find a purveyor of black pork, as he put it, “across the street.” Apparently, everything good in Seoul is across the street from the InterContinental.
Across Teheran-ro 87-gil street, near Samseong-dong in Gangnam-gu was the restaurant our concierge mentioned. I can’t type the restaurant’s name here because the sign’s in Korean (see photo) — though, part of the restaurant name includes a pig snout graphic, so look for that (I think it might be called “Black Pork Ga,” but I won’t swear to it).
Anyway, we walked over from the InterContinental and quickly realized that we were the only English-speaking westerners in the place. The maître d’, who clearly didn’t understand English, gave us a quizzical look when we asked for a table. After we made some eating motions with our hands like a couple of drunk mimes, he somehow got the message and led us over to the waiting area.
We loitered uncomfortably among a bunch of other waiting patrons for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only 10 minutes. Eventually, the maître d’appeared and showed us to our table. Okay, maybe calling it a “table” is overstating it — it was a low flat surface that required us to sit cross-legged on the floor like hippie toddlers. The flat surface had a grill in the center and a metal exhaust tube running from about 18 inches above the table up to the ceiling (and, hopefully, out some kind of vent in the roof).
Our waitress arrived shortly and gave us menus without saying a word in English. We looked at the inscrutable inventory briefly, then gave up on comprehension and just pointed to things that looked like black pork and beer. She soon returned with beers which helped us relax and feel less like foreign interlopers. Our waitress then showed up with way too many condiments and spices in tiny dishes that took over most of our table’s available surface area. Finally, she threw down some uncooked, fatty pork on our grill, a pair of scissors (for some reason), and then left.
My wife and I stared at each other for a time, quietly sipped our beers, and watched the uncooked pork expectantly. A fair amount of time passed until one of us finally said, “Are we supposed to cook the pork ourselves, or do they do it?” When I tried to poke the pork with a fork, the question was swiftly and violently answered.
Out of nowhere, our waitress appeared to roll her eyes in obvious dismay at our incredible black pork-eating ignorance. She then snatched up the scissors and proceeded to cut the pork up into strips and place them on the grill. Once smoke began spiraling up into the exhaust tube, our waitress reappeared again to flip the pork and then disappeared just as abruptly.
Finally, she came back to pull the black pork off the grill and show us how to use lettuce wraps with all the sauces like we were brain damaged morons. Despite the pork’s very fatty appearance, it tasted anything but — we then commenced gorging ourselves on what was the best pork either of us had ever experienced anywhere on the planet.
Do you like shopping? So do South Koreans.
Like all good democratic, first-world countries, the people of Korea are obsessed with consumerism and superficiality. In fact, twenty percent of South Korean women have had cosmetic surgery. By comparison, only 5% of women in the United States — which includes the undisputed capital of breast augmentation — have had cosmetic surgery. Maybe somebody should reboot the TV series “Nip/Tuck” in South Korea.
Seoul also has more than its fair share of shopping districts and malls. We drove past — but didn’t try to park anywhere near — Seoul’s ridiculous I’Park mall because we didn’t like the look of the place. Apparently, you can’t get a fair deal there unless you speak Korean. Instead, we chose to risk dying, lost and alone, inside Asia’s largest electronics market. The insanely huge Yongsan Electronics Mart is made up of 5,000 stores spread across 22 buildings (not a typo). We only saw a tiny portion of its countless floors of camera gear, computer equipment, and other electronically gadgetry before our brains locked up from overexposure to tech (that’s a real thing, too — Google it).
Want to feel fat, tall, or unfashionable? Visit Seoul!
Disappointingly, there’s no Diet Coke® in Seoul, but then again, there aren’t many people who need it — most of the South Koreans we saw walking around Seoul were annoyingly slim and fit. This, despite the ubiquitous presence of ice cream shops all over town (almost more than coffee shops, and South Koreans freaking love their coffee).
People living in Seoul are a sharp-dressed bunch, too — businessmen all wore the same pale blue dress shirts and suits while most women all wore the same questionably short skirts. Nearsighted men all wore the exact same style of eyeglasses, too, making it hard to determine if they were Asian hipsters or just Buddy Holly fans. But neither sex wore similar footwear — both men and women wore colorful, wacky shoes to demonstrate the unique personality and individuality that they didn’t otherwise seem to have.
Resistance (to K-Pop) is futile.
K-Pop — which is short for “Korean Pop” — is the catchiest, most infectious music ever invented. Certainly, British Pop is more sophisticated and complex, but K-Pop has a youthful exuberance you can seemingly only get from performers who live locked away in dorms and are forbidden to have sex. We got to see a local TV show that showcased several K-Pop girl- and boy-groups. We were truly mesmerized by their tight choreography and amphetamine-fueled enthusiasm. The fact that we didn’t understand a single word they sang didn’t really matter because who really cares what a real-life anime cosplay character has to say?
Getting around Seoul is easy but time-consuming.
Other than cab rides to and from the airport, we didn’t drive the entire time we were in Seoul, and that’s probably for the best. The locals were overly tolerant of their fellow drivers doing stupid maneuvers or trying to park in stupid places. Had I been behind the wheel, I’m not sure I would’ve been as zen about that sort of activity. Yet, to the South Koreans’ credit, drivers didn’t beep, extend middle digits, or scream profanity for 20 minutes (like I would’ve) — and that’s pretty much why we took the subway everywhere.
Seoul’s subway is a model of efficiency that did a fine job of getting us around the huge city without costing us much of anything other than time. Each ride only cost a few bucks, but because we were staying on the south side of the city, downtown was a 30-45 minute subway ride away. And thirty minutes is a long time to remain standing so it’s important to get a seat. Unfortunately, getting one isn’t easy.
In Seoul, you gotta bring your Musical Chairs A-game. When someone vacates a subway seat, you can’t be further than four feet away or you won’t get it. Some 80-year old Korean lady will snag the seat and be chopping cabbage for kimchi before you even get close — they’re like damn subway ninjas.
Otherwise, Seoul’s subway is just like every other modern mass transit system in other major cities. Nonetheless, we still had trouble navigating it a few times. Twice, we ended up going in the wrong direction because we didn’t know the name of the subway’s final stop in our direction — be sure to note the final destination as well as the name of the stop you want.
The Korean language is crazy hard to understand.
Also, it didn’t help that the Korean names were essentially gibberish to our English-only brains. Seoul’s subway has an English-speaker reading off the approaching stops for tourists, but hearing a Korean word pronounced in English is little help since the letters only approximate the sounds you expect. The announcer frequently seemed to be saying an entirely different word — it’s like Korean is a different language altogether.
After we got off the subway, our way-finding woes didn’t end because the street signs — like those in most Asian countries — are all but inscrutable to people who can’t read Korean. The names of tourist sights contain virtually no recognizable root-words and/or letter patterns. I frequently wondered if I was looking at the word upside-down. Be sure to write down the name of where you’re going, and refer to it often.
Did South Koreans start the Tiny House movement?
Today’s tiny house movement isn’t strictly a modern phenomenon. Six hundred years ago, high-ranking Korean officials and nobility lived in Seoul’s adorable Bukchon Hanok Village. It’s a charming area of winding alleys and traditional small houses. While immaculately preserved and landscaped, the small Bukchon houses make modern homes seem like mansions for giants. Each year, over 600,000 tourists jam the narrow streets (not all at once, thankfully) looking for photo-ops with the local inhabitants who I’m guessing are either hobbits or Keebler elves.
Not all Korean homes are tiny ones.
Back during the Joseon dynasty, Korea’s kings lived in the slightly more spacious Gyeongbokgung Palace. Built in 1395, this 40-hectare compound was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in the late 1500s. The palace was later restored — all 500 buildings and 7,500 rooms — in the 1800s only to be destroyed once again by Japan in the early 1900s.
Thankfully, the Gyeongbokgung complex is currently being returned to its original majestic splendor by Korea’s current administration. And that’s great because it’s arguably one of the most serene and peaceful spots in Seoul. When the restoration is finally completed, it will be open to everyone (with the possible exception of the Japanese).
Seventy-two hours later in Seoul, Korea.
I was only in Seoul for the weekend, so I didn’t get to see all that much of the city (or any of the country). But what I did see, I really liked. Sure, the place has some weird culinary traditions that are both vile and disgusting. But at the same time, Seoul has a modern and tech-savvy vibe that makes it feel like a city of the future — a glorious future where people use a smartphone delivery app to order fried squid on a stick.