A few people around here know that I live in Japan. I’ve lived here for four years now and in general, life is good. We’ve got a nice place to live, enough money to have fun on occasion, a good job and a great boss.
And I do mean great. As in, we get travel bonuses at the end of every year. Our boss used to work for the tourism industry, so he knows where to find the best deals. Every year he lets us chose a destination in Asia to visit, and he pays for the flight and the hotel for three or four days. Last year we went to Taipei. This year we went to Seoul. I’m going to take this Sunday break from the April A – Z Challenge to write about my experiences. Just so you know, parts of this post will be not safe for work. I’ll label those as such when we get there. Like any city, Seoul has some great points and some not great points–and as anyone who has ever visited a foreign country can understand, some things that are just plain weird.
A little geographical background first: Seoul is the capital city of South Korea, and is located in the north of that country. It is home to some 10 million people and is the largest city proper in the developed world. Its central river is the Han, and it is surrounded mostly by several low mountains. It has been burned to the ground several times, invaded, occupied and destroyed, but that hasn’t stopped it from clinging to its cultural roots with a ferocity I wish more western countries would adopt.
Alex and I entered Seoul through Incheon International Airport, which boasts that it is the world’s best airport for nine years in a row. It might just be national pride talking, but Vancouver International Airport is much, much more attractive, in my opinion. Apparently Incheon has a movie theater and an ice skating rink in it among other things, but we didn’t have time to actually explore. After a flight, who has the energy to wander through an airport looking for entertainment? And the shuttle ride from our hotel back to the airport took so long, we barely made it to check-in on time. Anyway, I’ll say this for truth about Incheon, it does have quick processing speeds. We made it through customs and immigration in record time, so there’s that.
Another nice thing about Incheon, and I guess Seoul in general is that it has cheap transportation to all the major districts and hotels. For 10,000 ₩ (about $10) you can ride one of the frequent airport limousines to wherever you need to go. It took about an hour and a half to drive from the airport to the main metropolis and along the way we were treated to a very peaceful, burgeoning Eco-friendly landscape. Wind turbines dot the road side and billboards encourage green thinking. Even artificial poles have been decked out to look like trees. Leaving Incheon, much of the geography is a muddy delta, with patches of low mountains in the distance. Before long we were on a looping highway, however, speeding toward the main city.
Our hotel was in Myeongdong which is a huge shopping and tourism district in Seoul. Generally speaking, I don’t care much for these sorts of areas as I don’t like crowds and am not really interested in shopping when I travel abroad, but Myeongdong has enough charm and character to it that I enjoyed my time there. Especially since it has an amazing night market located a half block away from our hotel. Alex and I explored this market every night, but more on that a little later on.
There’s something that I want to mention about Seoul that the guide books don’t: it is not a particularly clean city. I don’t mean that you’re going to find human waste strewn across the streets–not that kind of unclean–but walking through the city there are two things you’ll encounter with regularity: nauseating sewer smell and dusty, polluted air.
To be fair, I don’t think much of the air pollution is actually Seoul’s fault. Seasonal spring time storms blow dust naturally from the deserts of China over the sea into Korea and Japan. For this reason, it’s not uncommon to see people in both countries walking around with surgical masks to prevent inhaling small particles during this time. The problem is that China’s notoriously polluted air is also carried over with the dust particles, and it poses a real health risk that is difficult to prevent in other East Asian countries. Being closer to China, Korea is hit with this unhealthy air far worse than Japan is. Every day we were in Seoul, the horizon was a hazy grey brown, and I spent much of my days coughing up some pretty nasty mucus.
Another side effect of this dirty air is that the streets and buildings are all covered in a grimy grey soot. Again, this isn’t exactly easy to deal with when your neighbor is dumping waste in your back yard, but it’s something I feel that tourists should be aware of. It’s easier to enjoy a city when you’re not dealing with the shock of the unexpected.
On the subject of cleanliness and sanitation, I want to mention another oddity in Seoul, which is also something I also observed in Taipei. In many public washrooms, you will see signs requesting that you not flush toilet paper after you wipe. Instead, you are asked to dispose of used toilet paper in the trash bins provided in each stall. I don’t know if this rule also applies for after you drop a number 2, but as a woman I noticed used bloody tissue in the trash bins and was a little put off. Especially considering many of these bins have a swing top cover. I don’t want to push against that!
But I don’t want to dissuade you from visiting Seoul or Korea. Every country has its quirks, especially to those who aren’t used to them, and part of the experience of traveling is discovering the good things and the bad of where you are staying. So onward to the good.
The street market in Myeongdong is amazing. Every day from about 6pm to 10pm the neighbourhood around our hotel became packed with vending stalls selling everything from food to electronics. Even the narrowest of side streets are filled with bright lights and fancy swag. Our first night we spent just looking–as seasoned travelers we knew not to buy the first cool thing we saw. You have to pace yourself, price out the market, find the best deals and all that. So we just looked, took in the atmosphere, the locals, the sights, smells and sounds. It’s a good feeling, superior to the Taipei market in its absence of stinky tofu, but not having as much variety as in Taiwan.
Most people in Seoul can speak at least a little English, which is nice since the only thing I know how to say in Korean is kamsahamnida (thank you) and how to count to 10. People are generally friendly, but venders are notoriously aggressive. If you stop to take a look at something interesting, don’t be surprised if you find the seller on you like a fly on honey, ready to explain every item they have for sale. I’m not sure what the polite way of saying ‘just looking’ is, so I tended to edge away until I was in another vender’s turf, then it started all over again.
When looking for dinner the first night, Alex and I wandered the streets, looking for the best prices. Unfortunately, Korean barbeque is a bit pricy, something we learned the hard way when, as we considered one of the menus outside of a shop, the matron burst out of the doors, crying, “Hi! Hello!” and ushered us in before we could object. She sat us down and brought us a menu which she then tried to explain to us. Unfortunately, it seemed the only other thing she knew how to say in English was “Very good” and “One”. She gave us many recommendations (“This… very good. One?”) which genuinely did look very delicious, but she was very insistent that we order the most expensive things on the menu–two $30 entrees each. She seemed very impatient as we were discussing together what options would suit our tongues and our wallets, but she hadn’t given us any time to look at the menu before she hawked us, so I don’t know what she expected. In any case, we ordered beef ribs, a noodle dish and she gave us a free onion and octopus pancake to round off the meal.
After we’d ordered, the atmosphere relaxed a great deal. She came back with the portable fryer and set the beef on it, cooked and cut it for us and showed us how to eat it (wrap it in a lettuce leaf with a piece of roasted garlic, some sweet chilli sauce and marinated onions–if I never eat anything again, I will be satisfied for having known that one, delicious meal). If it’s possible, the noodle dish was even more amazing than the beef ribs, and featured a nice variety of vegetables and meat, all cooked in a savory oil. As well, the meal came with eight different side dishes including the obligatory kimchi (two varieties!), spinach, sprouts, potatoes, etc. Furthermore, the pancake, which seems to be a specialty in Seoul, was amazing, and filled us up just perfectly. If you can only afford one quality meal on your trip to Seoul, make it Korean barbeque. You won’t be disappointed.
Another wonderful thing about the city are the number of cafes available on every street. You can’t turn your head without seeing a Starbucks or a Holly’s Coffee. On the way back to our hotel we passed a cafe which featured probably one of the most amazing dishes I have ever had the pleasure of sampling: honey bread. Let me explain this perfect piece of heaven. It’s a quarter of a loaf of sweet bread that has been oh so lightly toasted to give it a nice, crispy exterior. It is then given one of a number of toppings from sweet to savory and cut into cubes. If you’ve ordered a sweet topping, it’ll come drowning in more whip cream than bread. I gained three pounds from just one of these treats, but I have no regrets.
But enough gushing about food. What did we see in Seoul? well, lots if things. Alex and I require three things of the places we visit: good food, nature to explore, and something cultural to visit. Seoul has all of these things.
On our second day we planned a hike (walk) up Namsan to Seoul Tower, a trip to Korea House Theater and a trip to the spa afterward. We had to skip the theater due to being OMG so tired, but the mountain and the spa we got to.
Namsan has a very beautiful walking trail that winds its way around the mountain and affords its visitors some great views of Seoul. In the spring, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, along with many other varieties of flower. The guide book said that there are some portions of the old fortress wall remaining, but we can’t say whether or not we saw them.
After a three hour walk (or possibly more, we took lots of rests), we reached North Seoul Tower at the top of the mountain. This is a heavily trafficked area, so watch out for tour buses and crowds while you’re there. We were fortunate that on the day we visited, there was a wonderful cultural performance going on in the square in front of the tower.
It featured musicians, dancers, and a traditional martial arts demonstration. There may have been more, too, but we arrived in the middle of it and so missed the beginning. Still, I think we captured the most exciting bits:
After the demos, the performers took pictures with the audience members, and we went off to explore the tower a bit, but after that show there was nothing there that was particularly exciting to us. We headed back down the mountain on a terrifyingly high cable car and navigated our way through the city to find the spa the guide book recommended.
At this point I just want to address the uselessness of the guidebook. We used the Lonely Planet guide to Seoul which is a great book for finding out what you want to do in Seoul, but not so great for finding where things are. The problem is that the book is entirely in romanized Korean. Guess how much romanized Korean we actually found? All the restaurants and shops that the book recommends are impossible to find because their names are all written in Hangul. You’ll have more luck finding things in Seoul if you know how to read Japanese kanji, than trying to find things with English or romanized Korean. But anyway, guidebook complaints aside, we found our spa.
Here is where things get a bit NSFW or at least TMI. Things happened at this spa. Things that I can’t not talk about, just for how strange the experience was. But since this was a spa trip, these were naked things. You have been warned.
Anyway, as I said, this spa was recommended by the guide book, and that was probably the only thing that kept me from freaking out during the time we were there. For the record, I’m quite used to Japanese onsen. Being naked around strangers in a public bath doesn’t freak me out, so that had nothing to do with my discomfort here.
We were greeted by a nice lady at the front desk, who tried her best to explain things to us in English. Since we’ve lived so long in Japan, we tend to use a lot of Japanese interjections just by habit, and when she heard this, she immediately switched to fluent Japanese (again, if you can speak Japanese, it’ll serve you better than English). She took us to a private room and explained to us all the amenities of the spa, and tried to get us to buy the $300 package, but we told her we could only afford the $200 package, and so that’s what we got. I didn’t understand half of what the woman explained, since my Japanese isn’t as good as Alex’s is, but basically the package included a bath tour, a body scrub, a facial, three massages, and some other stuff that apparently was very popular with Japanese guests.
So we paid, put on the gowns they gave us and were led by a different woman to an elevator to the basement. When we stepped out we were met by a literal cement basement. Pipes hung from the walls, there were storage crates, some random guy walking by (which was seriously disconcerting, since were were only dressed in what amounted to a sheet). But, hey, we were there for an experience, right? So we were led into this other small room with a television which another woman in a heavy plastic tarp was watching. Again, the process was explained to us in Korean with gestures that at this point my brain was just trying not to understand, so as not to get further weirded out. We were dressed in our own tarps and our guide pulled from the stove a pot that had something thick, green and bubbling in it. This she put under a stool with a hole cut in the center of it and told us to lift up all our drapings and sit on it.
Let me make this clearer: we were dressed in a tent and sitting on a stool with all our lady-bits exposed to boiling hot, aromatic steam. For the guys that are having trouble imagining how uncomfortable this was, picture your man-bits dangling unprotected less than a foot over a pot of unidentified, boiling green soup. We were told to sit there for thirty minutes.
When we were finally done steaming, we had our tarps taken away and were given a cup of water to drink in preparation for our next experience. See up in the photos there, that big oven? That’s part of the spa treatment. They gave us a burlap sack to sit on, and another sack to cover ourselves in, opened the oven door and had us crawl inside. Hansel and Gretel have more sense than us, reader.
All in all, the oven, I think was my favorite part of the spa. They burn giant logs in there, and when they are nothing but embers, throw a heavy burlap carpet on them. The whole oven is lit by a single, dim spotlight inside, bathing the whole thing in a dirty orange glow. It’s too hot to look around. Too hot to do anything but sit under your sack. Any part of you that isn’t covered by the sack gets burned very quickly by the radiating heat. We stayed in there for about eight minutes before we escaped, after which we were led to a tatami room, and given a yogurt drink and a boiled egg to recoup.
When we told our hosts that we’d had enough of being steamed and baked, they led us finally to the bath room where we were told to shower and enjoy the first two baths. This was starting to look familiar. Much like a Japanese onsen, we scrubbed ourselves down and stepped into the first, tepid bath. I have to say, I prefer Japanese onsen more but after the first two treatments this was actually quite nice. When we were done, a pair of old women in their underwear came to fetch us to a long white room with several cells. There, we were told to lie down on a bed covered with a plastic sheet, face down. If this is starting to sound like a horror movie situation to you, reader, then just imagine how we felt experiencing it!
What it ended up being was the body scrub portion of the treatment, but that didn’t make it any more comfortable. I think the thing which made it most uncomfortable for me was the fact that the old lady who was charged with scrubbing every last speck of dirt off of me had the scars of a double knee surgery plainly visible, and could hardly bend down to pick up the hose. The only thing I could think of was how horrible it was that people did things like this for a living. There were several times during the scrub when I almost got up and left. The only thing that kept me lying there was the fact that I had no way of explaining why I would be so suddenly leaving. Needless to say it wasn’t a very relaxing portion of the spa.
After we’d had three layers of skin scoured off, we were shown back to the baths and told to enjoy them as much as possible. I couldn’t enjoy much of them though. I was thoroughly, out of my skin creeped out by that point, and just wanted to be some place that felt safe again. We ended up dipping ourselves once in all but one of the baths until we were again summoned for the last treatment of the spa: the massage and facial.
I’m just going to say this right now, I think my masseuse hated me. I have never had a more violent massage in my life. She attacked my back like she was washing a particularity stubborn stain out of a shirt. I was expecting bruises the next day. Twice I had to tell her I was in pain. I don’t know if Alex had the same experience, but I wanted to cry.
The package that we bought had the option of a gold facial (pictured above) or a pearl facial. Nobody bothered to ask us which we wanted; they just covered our faces in goop and swathed us in gauze and continued the massage. Here I was really freaked out. I don’t get facials–ever. So to be lying on my back, naked, unable to see, in a situation I was already uncomfortable in–I was very close to losing my cool right then and there. Fortunately, the treatment didn’t last much longer, and after a final foot and leg massage, the mask was peeled away and we were brought back up to the change rooms to recover. I think I’ve fulfilled my quota of girly spa visits for the rest of my life after that experience. I swear, my first horror novel is going to be based on the events I went through here.
The next day we planned to do all the cultural things around Seoul. This included Gyeongbokgung Palace, The National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum. I know museums aren’t everybody’s bag when visiting a foreign country, but Alex and I both love history, and make a point of visiting all the museums that we can. And the great thing about museums in Seoul? Free admission!
We had to pay 3000₩ (about $3) to walk the grounds of the palace, but the museums were free and allowed photography, which already makes them superior to Japanese museums. Also, the National Palace Museum is very well lit, which makes it preferable to the dark National Museum in Taiwan as well. It has three stories of artifacts from the Joseon era, including an amazingly intricate water clock that took up an entire, giant room.
The palace itself covers a space roughly the size of the old Nara Imperial Palace, or at least it felt like it. We walked for several hours around the buildings taking photos of all the architecture.
The national Folk Museum, however was my favorite. It allows visitors to walk in and around recreations of buildings, had dioramas, life sized dolls and aspects of each piece of ancient Korean daily life. There are simply too many photos to put in a post that is already image heavy. If you’re interesting in seeing more, you can find the full gallery of our adventures in Seoul on Alex’s Flickr page.
In all, we only got two full days in Seoul but it was enough to enjoy all the charms of the city, little and big. I truly did have fun, and I recommend Seoul for anyone who likes the excitement of the big city with sprinkles of cultural wonder as well.
Tomorrow continues the April A – Z Challenge with the letter F. If you’ve been following along and enjoying the tour of my bookshelves, thanks! I look forward to hearing from you again and geeking out over best loved books.