Thursday, December 15, 2011

Korea's got Seoul

On my exit from Japan I swung through South Korea for four days. I stayed at Sunshine Guesthouse near the center of Seoul. Seoul is massive. It's the second largest metro area in the world (behind Tokyo), so it has all of the things that come along with big cities. It's a little strange that half of South Korea's population lives in this one city.  I was immediately impressed with Seoul's subway system. It's quick, efficient, cheap, and super expansive. It's less than a dollar to ride anywhere in the city and it goes everywhere you need to go. Subway stations even have screens shielding people from trains. As I wandered around I was struck by how new everything is. It seems like everything has been built in the last 15 years. They have also done a lot of redevelopment where they basically mow down an entire area and start from scratch.

Jongmyo Shrine Entrance

Jongmyo Shrine (Korean Kings are enshrined here)

I like Korean food, but they eat some weird stuff. I ate some street food and I had no idea what I was getting. Some sort of fried organs, but it was good. I had a lot of really spicy stuff too and of course lots of kimchi. Weather wise, Seoul was cold! Living in SF for the past four years has built up my tolerance for year round cool weather, but I don't think I'm built to survive really cold temperatures.

Changdeokgung Palace

I noticed a few things that you would never see in Japan. Koreans don't cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Also, there's street spitting. However, you still have to take off your shoes before entering a house. In general, there seemed to be more white people than in Osaka and I seemed to get less “looks” from people. One evening I met up with Hany and went to an area known as Itaewon. Itaewon is located near the US Army Garrison and has become a major foreign area of Seoul. When we were walking around it felt like I was in America. It was surprising to walk into a bar and sometimes see less Asians than a typical San Francisco bar.

Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Palace

After only a short time in Seoul I realized that I learned some Japanese after all. In Japan I felt comfortable interacting with people in daily activities like shopping and buying food. I could ask basic questions and understand basic answers. In Korea I don't know anything and it makes me uncomfortable. I tried to learn some basic words, but it seems extremely difficult. Maybe it's because of familiarity, but when I hear Japanese I hear distinct word boundaries. Korean sounds like a flowing stream of sounds, none of which make any sense to me.

Gyeongbokgung Palace Gate

Gyeongbokgung Palace Gate

I think I hit all the main tourist sights. I saw a bunch of different palaces. I overheard one of the tour guides saying that over half the visitors are Japanese and I wondered why all the placards were only in Korean and English. Then I started reading the placards to find that most of them reference how the Japanese kept burning down the palaces. Oh, that's why there's no Japanese subtitles.

I visited a couple of market places. Namdaemun Market was the most thriving packed market place I've ever seen. Stuff was just piled in the middle of the street. The market predates cars and is car inaccessible so shopkeepers have to hall everything in by hand or by scooter. It's basically a bunch of twisting alleys. There's multiple levels and you can even go underground. Namdaemun Market isn't for souvenirs, it's mainly retail goods. Just down the street is Myeong-dong which is entirely different. Myeong-dong is a trendy commercial shopping area lined with all kinds shops from around the world. Apparently in terms of floorspace rent, Myeong-dong is the most expensive place in the world.

Namdaemun Market

Hany and I visited Bukchon Village village which is a recently renovated area of traditional Korean housing. While strolling through we came across a couple film shoots. We got to see a couple of takes from a gang confrontation from a Thai movie.

Thai gang fight film shoot

Near Bukchon Village

Bukchon Village

It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, but I'm really glad I got to see a bit of Seoul. It was fun hanging out with Hany on her home turf.

Gyeongbokgung Palace garden

Seoul's Main Street with Gyeongbokgung Palace in the background

Toy Museum

Chongyecheon Riverwalk


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