Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Seoul*ful Experience

*Don't worry, I won't make any more puns on the name

Seoul! I don't know about you, but Seoul was the place I'd heard about as being amazing and thought of how much I'd like to go, but never actually made the plans. Well, this second time around the JET block means I'm finally having the time to go to these places I only ever thought of in passing. I'm really grateful for this chance since now some of these 'wish-list' places have become my favorite travels.

Seoul is a city full of vibrant people who are unfazed by the foreigners who visit. It is international while retaining it's culture. It is fashionable, yet gritty. If it were a person, it would be like talking with the most fascinating person you just met, but while you are absorbed by their every word, they aloofly glance at their phone. It was such a fresh breath of air for me compared to Japan. As great as Japan is in many regards, I feel stifled me from time to time and constantly like an outsider by the all the homogeneity. Thus, it is through these glasses that I give you insight into my Seoulful experience...and that pun doesn't count since I already used it.

While Japan was still sweltering away in mid-September, my friends and I found a good flight deal via Peach Airlines and bounded off to the land of kimchi. The weather while we there was beyond agreeable with only the slightest chill at night. Our hostel was excellent too; It had a great complimentary breakfast in the morning, was nicely decorated, conveniently located, and had cheery helpful staff. It was located near a university so it had a great night life. Each night, we'd return from sightseeing with every intention of turning in, but the buzz of young people coming in and out of bars, restaurants, shops, and clubs kept us out exploring. Our feet did not thank us for the extra work!

Traveling in groups can be tricky. Everyone has priorities when they travel whether they realize it or not. Their focus can be on relaxing, shopping, sightseeing, eating, or some other quirky thing (I don't know, maybe you have an affinity for hanging out with the locals). Seoul can satisfy all these aspects and more, but with only a long weekend to work with, we merely dabbled a bit in each. Some notable places we skipped were the Korean War Museum and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). No loss on my part there, but instead we walked along some of the famous areas eating street food and laughing at odd findings, did some awesomely cheap shopping in Asia's largest underground mall, and saw sights old and new, namely, two of the famous palaces (Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung), North Seoul Tower and even went to fake Disney aka Lotte World!

Foodie or not, you gotta eat so we had the famed Korean BBQ a few times. One night, we went in search of a place where you supposedly eat on top of barrel drums. If this sounds strange it's because I can't accurately describe it since we never found the place. The foodies on our trip were quite sad and still talk about it to this day (they really have to let it go..), but I was happy with any meat and kimchi place. I will say though as a big fan of yakiniku places in Japan that I found the wait staff at Korean BBQ places to be... too involved in your dining experience (for my preference). They'd bring plates of raw meat and then rearrange our grill to fit the new pieces, flip some over, and even cut up the big slices for us. It was just kind of awkward to keep a conversation going with the waitress leaning over my friend, so we just sat there and watched before resuming. At Japanese places, they bring the goods and let you do the rest, coming only when called. Small gripe, but in any case, the food was excellent. Interesting observation on my part - I didn't find the kimchi to be any better than anywhere else in the world I've had it. Maybe my palette isn't sophisticated enough to tell the difference? Or maybe the dish isn't hard to mess up? I don't know. I'm curious though so let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts.
Overall we had as much Korean food as we could pronounce save for the time we got excited and detoured to eat at Quiznos and Jamba Juice. Well, honestly I think I was the only one who was excited since back home in the States I could live on subs and smoothies - both of which I am sadly deprived of in Japan.

As a graduate of Asian Studies, seeing my studies come to life in my travels, via something like the unique style of temples and palaces in different countries, has been immensely interesting. But like it is said of churches in Europe, eventually they do all start to look alike. I think for that reason, the North Seoul Tower was my favorite sight this trip. Probably a combination of the things actually. We arrived at the tower in the evening just as the city was transitioning from twilight, to dusk, to nighttime. The popular 'love locks'  gimmick (where a couple combines two locks on a fence thus sealing their love) lined the periphery which made for an interesting stroll along an otherwise boring fence as people often leave notes and messages as well. The gift shops had the cutest souvenirs of the tower and other Korean items (I'm a sucker for nicknack shopping). And then as we were just about to start heading back, we heard an announcement come on and announce that a light show on the tower would start. We hadn't known there would be one, so from exactly where we were standing, ready to leave, we had the perfect place to sit and watch the show. Instead of a typical light show, they used the side of the tower to get creative with cylindrical objects. For example, filling a glass of water, as an aquarium, pulsating with music, and so on. Oh, and did I mention that this was after we had the subs and smoothies? That probably also had something to do with my elevated mood and this being my favorite sight

If you get the chance to go to Seoul, be open to interesting sights and tastes in a bustling atmosphere and you'll enjoy it immensely! I'd love to go back to this wonderful city, but alas, I find myself filling up my limited time here with even more points of interest. I guess this might've been my Seoul opportunity to see one of Asia's best cities. (oh, shh! that one was too good to pass up!)

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