Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Seoul Trip

One of the benefits of being in Japan (if you are originally from a western country) is the proximity of *other* new and interesting places. Considering the flight time from America, most Asian countries require at least a formidable week off to see. But if your base is Japan, suddenly the entire orient opens its arms to the curious traveler. With only a $300 ticket (round-trip, including taxes and fuel surcharges and whatnot) I was able to see my friend in Korea... only 2 hours away by plane.

My itinerary was kind of crazy, because in order to get the cheap (I know, not that cheap) priced ticket, I was to land Saturday night at 10 pm, and leave Monday morning at 8:30. So the airline Asianic was pretty awesome. Maybe it's just that they had all the things you got used to back in the carefree days of air travel- like complementary meals, and metal silverware.

But arriving at 10PM in a foreign country is nothing to sneeze at. Luckily Gimpo is connected to central Seoul via subway. And the subway system is pretty similar to Japan... except of course that everything is written in Korean. One ticket ranges from 1000 to 3000 won, which is cheap! but on the weekends they don't bother to power on the ticket vending machines, you have to buy them from the guy at the booth, so it's best to have a map handy to point at in case you can't pronounce the station names.

Having printed out a subway map before I left, I managed to get to the place where I had to change trains, but just missed the transfer, which happened to be the last train. Thank god I had rented a cell phone. I was able to find a taxi without much trouble, but the taxi driver didn't speak English. I tried speaking to him in Japanese, but no luck. So I called MJ, who came to my rescue and told the driver where to go over the phone. phew!

It was really really cold in Seoul, only a few degrees above freezing. For some reason my geographical sense was a little confused and I thought that since Korea was closer to southern japan, Seoul would be warmer... but of course Seoul is in the northern part of the country, north of Tokyo in fact. Oops. My thin coat was enough, but just barely.

Luckily MJ found me with help of cell phones, and guided me to her and her brother's apartment. Both of them are very sweet people, and fluent in English. In Korea they don't use kotatsu (the Japanese low table covered with a blanket and heated inside)... they have heating in the floors, which kept the entire apartment very warm and made me want to roll around on the floor like a cat. (which is probably not acceptable behavior for a guest).

It was great staying with friends, because we stayed up chatting and gossipping, and watching Korean TV shows and talking about the differences between japan and korea, and the korea-china-japan relationship. MJ: "So Japan hates Korea, right? Koreans don't like japan because of the colonization in WW2." me... "hm... maybe, but mostly they hate China more. whenever China does something bad, it's on the news for weeks." MJ: "oh yeah, Korea doesn't like China either, but we think of Chinese as underneath us." Me: "It seems weird for this kind of squabbling between neighbors. it's like... sibling rivalry or something." North Korea wasn't even mentioned, even though we were both a bit worried about that missile launch test. I mean... "satellite launch test"... right. But at my company, there are plenty of koreans and chinese and japanese working (plus the one american) and we all like each other. So it's not as bad as it sounds. But of course, it's probably like this everywhere, like in Europe where I can't even remember half of my history classes because there's always some war going on somewhere for most of the last millennium. le sigh.

Anyways. We also watched the figure skating championships, and Kim Yu-Na kicked some serious ass, getting 10 points more than any other competitor and making a new world record. We stayed up gabbing and munching on snacks and watching TV and planning my day, which was going to have a very tough schedule.

I ended up waking up at 8, and taking a train into the city. The plan was to go to one part, take a cab, go to another part of the city, take another cab, and so forth, but the downtown area where most of the tourist attractions were was not that big, and I wanted to see everything, so I ended up walking everywhere.

First stop: Geyoungbuk palace. This palace really reminded me of the forbidden city in Beijing. The same barren courtyard filled with cobblestones, the same hundreds of small rooms making up the courtyard walls, the same style of animal statues on the eaves of the roofs. The interesting part was the changing of the guards, where about fifty men wearing silks did an elaborate ritual of salutes, music playing and marching to show that the new guards were not impostors. Next was the folk museum, which was free this year for some reason or the other. It had some nice exhibits on what life in Seoul was like for the past few thousand years. It has always been a big city, and the overall layout hasn't changed that much. but by far the most interesting exhibit was their kimchee one. For those who don't know, kimchee is a name for a style of pickling... any kind of vegetable pickled with hot peppers and garlic falls under this category. And this style of food is a huge staple in Korea... so much so that when I had lunch and dinner, both meals came with four kinds of kimchee as an appetizer, like a bread basket in France.

After the folk museum I studied my map for a good five minutes, scratching my head and trying to figure out where to go. I tried asking for directions, but no one I asked knew English. finally I found an information booth, where the lady there gave me a free map and helped me out. So I walked to *** , which was a very touristy little area lined with small shops selling touristy trinkets. Wedged between the souvenir shops were little art galleries, some stores selling paintings and some selling handmade silk embroidered wall hangings. I wanted to get one, but they were priced like art, so I made do with the cheap trinkets.

After that I was tired and hungry, so I found a restaurant where they served chicken dumpling soup (with Kimchee of course), which is what I was told to try. It also satisfied my other requirements, namely 1) picture menus 2) not too pricey 3) clean interior 4) lots of locals eating there. I made sure to order the *non spicy* chicken dumpling soup, seeing as how my definition of spicy and that of the average korean is vastly different. ;) Sorry, I don't remember the name of the restaurant ... but there were a lot on the alleys around the main street, so you probably can't go too wrong eating around there.

Next stop was the Lotte department store. Lotte, while mainly just a snack manufacturer in Japan, is a huge conglomerate in Korea, selling everything you can imagine. They even have a "Lotte World" amusement park, apparently. But this department store was very expensive even by Japanese standards, and is probably for only the rich in Korea. I spent a long time there trying to find 'cheap brand name goods', but gave up. Plenty of brand name goods were there for the having, but none of them cheap.

While walking further on my self-guided tour, I had to cross many streets that don't have crosswalks. What they do have are underground arcades leading across the street, lined with small stores. A lot of these stores are sad looking affairs selling things like calculators from the '80s and watch-bands.. but a few were chain stores capitalizing on the cheap real estate. One of these chain stores was an amusing outfit called "THE FACE SHOP". (Not in any way affiliated with THE BODY SHOP). It had about a million pictures of the Korean drama star the Japanese middle age ladies reverently call "Yun-sama", who apparently endorses all of the facial cleansers, pore minimizers, mud packs that the chain had to sell. Intrigued by the concept and the inexpensiveness of the goods, I bought a few things, and the lady at the counter threw in at least four free samples. Definitely a recommended stop if you're into facial products.. and/or Yun-sama.

As my day was limited, the next place I went was the cable car up to Seoul tower. (7000 won round trip.) It was a nice view on the way up, but the line for the cable car took easily half an hour each way. I'm not sure if it was the best use of my limited time... if I had to do it over again, I'd probably get a one-way ticket and ride the very cheap bus back down the hill. But definitely don't skip out on the hill of the tower, it has a breathtaking view of the city. I didn't go up the tower because they wanted another 7000 won (rip off!) but was perfectly satisfied with the view from the base, as it's on a tall hill overlooking the city anyway. And surrounding the hill is a chain link fence with thousands of locks, put there by lovers to 'lock in' their love. They were decorated and very cute. After I got down the hill I walked through Myong-dong (a shopping district) and enjoyed the foreign looking signs lighting up as the sun was setting. Somehow, even though korea is so much like japan in many ways, not being able to read the signs made it seem so much more foreign and exciting. Heh. There's something about seeing a pretty lantern at a festival and reading "McDonalds" on it that takes away a lot of the enchantment. ;)

It was time to get back as my friends were going to be back from work/class soon, so I hopped on the subway... and proceeded to get very lost. I scrutinized my map, and the map on the train, and realized I had got on the wrong line. After changing trains three more times, I finally made my way back to the apartment, but this turned out to be rather serendipitous? is that a word? because I found a lot of tiny shops in the subway stations that sold cute clothes/shoes/snacks for much cheaper than any of the stores I had seen in downtown seoul, and was able to supplement my rather meagre shopping.

Dinner was traditional korean BBQ, of course delicious, and of course came with kimchee. ;) It's definitely better to visit a country where you have people to recommend restaurants and take you there!

After dinner I went to the neighborhood public bath, where they had four kinds of saunas and six different kinds of baths. Event bath, jacuzzi, scented, massage... super hot and ice cold. Not too different from japanese sento, but maybe more selection. I have to admit that the japanese sento are a little cleaner.

The next morning I took a taxi to the airport. "Gimpo e-ru-po-ru-to!" I said to the driver, as I had been instructed by my friend. The taxi driver copied it back to me as a question, and when I said mm hmm! he drove a bit. Then stopped. "Gimpo ee-ru-po-ru-to?" he said, just to really confirm that , that was in fact where I wanted to go. This time I said 'yes!'. This seemed to satisfy him, and he got me to the airport in a timely fashion, for a mere 20,000 won (less than $20).

All in all, a great trip. Thanks again so much MJ and Luka! Next time I will come when I have more than one day to hang out. :)


Blogger Fugu Tabetai said...

Sounds like a great trip! I went to Korea once for a friend's wedding, and I had a really tough time of it because it seemed so similar to Japan, but I was utterly unable to communicate with anyone. That was tough for me.

I would really love to get back there, and I want to go to China, and Thailand, and ...

6:38 PM  

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