Let’s see. I left Tokyo at 5PM. The trip to the airport and the airport itself was just the same as every other trip I take through Narita. I had my ‘last meal’ at the same restaurant as every other trip, except this time instead of noodles I had curry rice. Yummm… curry rice. :)
I got a fair amount of work done ahead of the flight, boarded and watched a movie – ‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’ with Steve Carroll. Nice movie. Landed in Seoul around 7:30. I managed to pack really well, getting everything I needed into my only laptop backpack. As such, I had nothing to wait on at the baggage claim! I got through immigration and customs quickly, moved to the currency exchange (picked up a few hundred thousand Won) and walked to the train station. I was supposed to find a movie theater on the far end of the airport. It was… odd.
The express train ride was just like every other express train ride except this time I was excited to hear Japanese because I have not a lick of Korean in my brain. I arrived at Seoul station and made the loooooonnnggggg trek from the airport train to the metro. Apparently the airport train is somewhere on the outer edges of the Earth’s core so it was a long climb out.
When I made it to the metro, I fought a bit with the ticket machine, but got it eventually. I headed downstairs and used the my Tokyo Metro experience to guide me. I made it to my transfer, switched lines and got off at the right station. I made the walk (~8 minutes) to the hotel and checked in. I was barely in my room when my co-workers from the local office showed up in the lobby. I met them and we went for Korean barbecue! We enjoyed a fantastic meal of grilled meats and Korean rice wine. We discussed work history, work future, Seoul tourism, families, etc. It was a blast, I’m so happy to finally get to meet these guys!
One funny thing that came up over dinner was a discussion about our work ‘anniversaries’ – one guy is Oct 16, the next guy is Nov 17, and I’m Dec 18! Now they have 3 years more than I do, but it’s still a very amusing situation! Of course I can always remember my anniversary date because it’s exactly 1 year before Olivia was born!
Friday morning I got up around 9, took my time getting ready and moved out around 10. I had sort of dreamed of finding a ‘traditional’ Korean breakfast, but since I have no clue what that might be or where to find it I settled for McDonald’s… which, I guess, could be a traditional Korean breakfast. Approaching the counter I could see the young lady brace – she wasn’t comfortable with an English speaker. I used my standard Tokyo methods, though, and we proceeded very smoothly. I was surprised by two things – one, the muffin on my egg McMuffin was the freshest I have ever experienced and two, the kitchen was apparently upstairs so there was a continuous dumb waiter / conveyor type device bringing food down!
Oh – I almost forgot. When I was leaving the hotel I got in the elevator and a woman got off… but I was pretty confident that she didn’t want my floor. I called to her, she returned and she spoke to me in Japanese. Without even thinking, I responded in Japanese! Now, it wasn’t anything significant – just telling her it wasn’t the 7th floor, it was the 3rd – but it was really funny how smooth it shifted for me. In fact I’ve really been wanting to use Japanese in places… but maybe that’s just because I’m very clearly in an East Asian place…
I went to Gyeonbuk Palace and arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard. I’ve got videos and I need to upload, but also photos. I did a self tour with the audio guide and loved it. The palace grounds are enormous. One thing that strikes me about Korean architecture is the vivid color. It has plenty of similarities to the palaces or temples in Japan, but the color is vastly different. I hope that stands out in the photos…
The audio guide didn’t pull many punches about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Apparently there were a number of palace building razed during the occupation for the purpose of putting in provincial government buildings. On one description they actually said “[destruction of this building] clearly showed their intent to ruin the palace.” Oh. Yeah. Ok.
It was also extremely proud of the creation of the alphabet, indicating that without it they would not have formed their own culture and would have remained a province of different foreign powers. It mentioned the damages to the grounds made during Korea’s multiple historical wars, as well. All in all it was a very informative audio guide and I’m really glad I got it!
After the palace I walked to the Bukchon village where a vast neighborhood of old, traditional houses have been preserved by private owners thanks to subsidies from the government. Unfortunately it’s a huge area and I just didn’t have the time to explore much. I might visit on Saturday, but I think there is a different area that provides more access / view into the houses because of a lack of private ownership. From the village area I headed to the train station, stopping off for a lunch of bibimbap – delicious!
I got a bit lost walking to the office, but was retrieved and redirected. We spoke for a while, I met another person, then after an hour or so I headed out. I was thinking I’d go to the traditional street market Insadong, but instead went to the modern one Myeong-dong. It’s a large area crammed with lots of chain stores, etc. I wandered completely randomly through the streets. The narrow streets are filled with vendors as well, but nothing really struck my fancy. I couldn’t get into socks, phone cases or glasses.
OH! Glasses. Oh man this place has a such a serious habit with glasses. I found an shopping area underground where there were at least 6 established stores with hundreds of pairs of glasses. It was absolutely nuts. Plenty of ironic chunky frames in addition to all the big name brands.
I eventually went to the Lotte department store and, similar to Tokyo, found the food basement on B1. I wandered around for a long time and finally settled on noodles. Udong… or udon as they call it everywhere else. It was nothing special, but it filled my stomach. I moved on to more random walking in the shopping district. There are a number of food vendors but none of them really drew me in. There is one type of street food that comes up regularly that I can’t figure out nor does it look too appetizing. Maybe tomorrow…
Anyway, let’s do a quick Seoul / Tokyo comparison:
- Driving – Right side Seoul, Left side Tokyo. Messes with me when I cross the street.
- Smoking – Seems to be ok most public places in Seoul; Tokyo it’s a no-no except in certain spots.
- Cleanliness – Tokyo is cleaner, but Seoul isn’t dirty
- Trains – Very similar, but Seoul’s trains are wider and the crowd is a good bit noisier. Of course almost anything is noisier than a Tokyo train! Stations are almost identical – yellow exit signs included! I will say that I find Seoul’s payment system a little harder – getting a PASSMO type device isn’t done from a machine. You can get a flat-rate ticket (actually a touch-card) from the machine. I had trouble getting out of a station, however, and since they aren’t over-staffing every corner of the city I had trouble getting someone to come help!
- Language – Korean pronunciation confuses me, but everyone seems to go straight for English with me and it is commonly good. In Tokyo service staff barrel through Japanese most of the time.
- Service Staff – Tokyo has more sincere service staff in my opinion. Seoul isn’t rude, but it’s not got the same fervor.
- General – I’m shocked at the amount of plastic surgery ads and shops. There are at least 8 street-front plastic surgery shops between my hotel and the station. In the station there are perhaps a dozen advertisements for plastic surgery, complete with before and after photos. I saw two middle / high school girls standing in front of a pair of 5 foot by 8 foot ads… how discouraging in terms of body image could this be!?
Ok. Its time to sleep. Tomorrow will be the market for sure, as I need to get a nice souvenir for Miss Olivia!