Sunday, January 19, 2014

what to do when visiting Korea

At some point last week, I wrote the following email to my brother Sean, who is planning to visit Korea and China this coming August with his friend Jeff. Content has been slightly edited for style and privacy.


I was thinking about some of the stuff you can do while in Korea. Here's a list of the conventional things that Koreans think foreigners should do when they're in country:

• try the Korean BBQ (kalbi, samgyeopsal, etc.), and eat some bibimbap ("Because foreigners love bibimbap!" say the Koreans)

• visit castles (Gyeongbok-gung, Changdeok-gung... those are the two biggies)

• visit Namsan (short hike that can be done either the steep-slope way or the shallow-slope way)

• visit and shop in Myeong-dong (actually, if you're looking for an upscale place to stay in Seoul, Myeong-dong might be your best shot)

• visit Jogyae-sa (the head temple for the largest Buddhist denomination in Korea)

• shop at Namdaemun Market (I do recommend this... getting lost in the human swirl of Namdaemun is simply awesome)

• get tickets for "Nanta" (Korean version of "Stomp")

• fly down to Jeju-do and muck around there (I'm curious to see how Jeju has changed... last time I was there was 1986)

• do a DMZ tour

• visit Insa-dong (the art district) in Seoul

• try "royal" or "castle" cuisine (popularized ever since a TV drama called "Dae Jang Geum" focused on this) NB: I actually did this once in 1995 or so, before such food became popular. I went out to this traditional place with a bunch of adult students, and this had to be The Most Serious Restaurant in the World. The food was magnificent—beautifully laid out, absolutely delicious, but the atmosphere was like trying to eat inside a library. I remember feeling a bit tense because the whole thing was so monastic, but now that I think about it, not even Buddhist temples are that strict (except for one iron-clad rule: at the temple, you must eat every single scrap of food, right down to that last grain of rice).

• shop in Gangnam and Apgujeong, the richy-rich districts. Everything is upscale there. Hang in the coffee shops. Watch the beautiful people.

Koreans never mention visiting Itaewon (the foreigner district) as part of the whole "visit Korea!" experience, but Itaewon has been improving of late—or so my Yank friends have been trying to convince me. Back when I was teaching at Sookmyung, I tended to avoid Itaewon except when I was jonesing hard for some Western food, and then I'd just dip into the place, buy my food, and leave right away. I never liked Itaewon back then; it had a scuzzy, disreputable vibe which probably had a lot to do with the often-shady foreigner presence. But as my friends Charles and Tom point out, the past few years have seen some remarkable changes, especially in Itaewon's back alleys, which are now becoming something of a foodie destination. I went to a halfway decent Brazilian restaurant last April or May; David would be delighted to know that Brazilian rodizio has gotten very popular in Korea's big cities.

OK, so the above list gives you a rough idea of what Koreans think you'll enjoy while you're here. The list isn't awful; I actually agree with a lot of it. My feeling, though, after having lived in Seoul for eight years, is that Seoul's big-city virtues aren't those of other metropolises like Tokyo, London, New York, Paris, or Chicago. Seoul's got night life (Gangnam and Myeong-dong for sure), sure, but it lacks spectacular architecture and other bombastic stuff that you'd usually find in a big city. There's no equivalent to MoMA or the Centre Pompidou or the Louvre or the Smithsonian. There's nothing like Tower Bridge or the snazzy Chrysler Building or the Vatican or the Sydney Opera House. Instead, Seoul's virtue is that it's a compacted microcosm of Korea as a whole: Korea is a mountainous country, with hidden delights tucked into all sorts of obscure places, and Seoul is also a huge palace of hidden delights, with something new and unexpected around every corner. Surprisingly, Seoul measures up pretty well to the US Pacific Northwest as a walker-friendly city; you can do some amazing walking tours through many districts of Seoul. (In fact, while you're in Seoul, get ready to walk, anyway!)

My own preference, then, would be to encounter Seoul not as Koreans imagine Western tourists would want to see it, but on the city's own terms. This means avoiding many of the big tourist traps in favor of sitting down at the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, visiting smaller shops selling unconventional curios, and going upscale only every once in a while, just to see how the rich and powerful live (quickest route to expensive decadence: eat a meal at one of the huge hotels; the Lotte Hotel, downtown, has a buffet that's something like $150 per person; they serve horse there!).

So I'd recommend "theming out" your time in Seoul. Each day, pick a theme and stick with it:

• Have a restaurant-tour day. Make it a point to visit several types of restaurants in several distinct districts in Seoul.

• Have a campus-walk day. I'd especially recommend walking the perimeter road around Seoul National University; it's about a 90-minute hike, and it's hilly. Then walk around inside SNU's campus and enjoy the several restaurants there. Take the subway and visit a few more campuses, both inside Seoul and just outside of it. Hanyang University's campus, in Ansan, just south of Seoul, is really nice; it's well-groomed and fairly flat.

• Have a temple-tour day. All Korean Buddhist temples share certain features, but each temple is unique. Terrain determines layout, in many cases. If the monks permit, do a few minutes of zazen in one of the dharma halls or zendos (seon-weon in Korean).

• Have a movie day. Experience what it's like to buy a movie ticket and sit in assigned seating (yes, that's how we roll in Korea) at the cinema. See at least two movies, one of them Korean. Stroll around that cinema's neighborhood afterwards and find something good to eat.

• Have a street-food day! Oh, God, I highly recommend this. Korea has some of the most awesome street food anywhere, in my opinion. Find a region with many food stalls (Namdaemun Market is actually a great place for this), then work your way down the stalls—an item here, an item there.

• Have a hiking day. Or two. Pick a mountain; hike the trail to the top, or as far as you can go. Hike back down. Start early (wake at 5AM, be at trailhead by 6AM); finish in the late afternoon or early evening, before you lose the daylight. Bukhan-san and Gwanak-san are popular, so hike them on weekdays to minimize the crowds. You'll see plenty of old folks on those hikes; lots of retirees have nothing better to do. Hiking is the Korean cultural equivalent of the German Volksmarch. Or if you don't want to tackle the bigger mountains, just hike the different paths on humble little Namsan.

• Have some get-out-of-Seoul time. Visit Yeosu (south coast, gorgeous). Fly to Jeju, which has a ton of new hiking/biking paths, and massive amounts of seafood (alas, not necessarily cheap). Actually, regarding Jeju, I have a friend who lives there; he might be able to show you around or recommend things to do while you're there. Anyway, get out of Seoul and see what uncrowded Korea looks like. Visit Yeongju, where they grow apples and grapes, and smell those magnificent orchards out the window of your taxi.

• Have a museum day. Re-visit that modern-art museum in Gwanak, then go visit some of the large and small museums in Seoul. I thought I'd heard, somewhere, that a huge museum of some sort had opened a year or so ago. I can check on that.

• Have a shopping day (or two, or three). Hit Namdaemun Market and Dongdaemun Market. Avoid department stores, where all the prices are jacked up.

• Have a Yeouido/COEX day. Yeouido is interesting; technically, it's an island that sits close to one bank of the Han River, and it's mainly a business district, but it's also got the famous 63 Building (Yuk-sam, 6-3, tallest building in Seoul), not to mention a huge mall reminiscent of Tysons Corner, as well as plenty of restaurants, not all of which are impossibly upscale in price and style. Once you're done with Yeouido, take the subway to Samsung Station and visit the huge COEX center, which is Seoul's other tall building. Shopping, movies, food court, and an impressive aquarium that, last time I was there, housed an enormous octopus. Samsung-dong abuts another richy-rich area called Cheongdam-dong. That might also be worth looking into.

• Have a foreigner-district day. There's a Yank enclave, an African enclave, a South Asian quarter (mostly Itaewon, but also the city of Ansan, if I heard correctly), a Russian enclave (near Dongdaemun), a Mongolian enclave, a French district (in Banpo, south of the river), and many others. Partake of Koreanized ethnic food. Shop at the ethnic shops. Eat a shawarma made by a Turk.

• Have a Jongno day. This may be my favorite district in Seoul, so if you do this, you'll be doing it for me. Jongno isn't particularly impressive; it's also one of the oldest districts in Seoul, and it shows. Some of the buildings are very run-down, and this is in contrast with many of the newer structures also springing up in the quarter. Jongno, for me, stands in contrast to Gangnam: Gangnam is very fashion-forward, very trendy, very rich, and very full of itself. Jongno, by contrast, just feels friendlier and less pretentious to me. Insa-dong (the art district) is in Jongno. The quarter also has plenty of restaurants and food stalls, not to mention shops (warning: not as cheap as Namdaemun Market). Opposite Insa-dong, way on the other side of Jongno, is the Gwanghwamun area, and it's a short walk (well, 15-20 min) to the Euljiro district, where the big Lotte Hotel (and its expensive buffet) is. Walking toward Euljiro leads you to the Cheonggyaecheon, the reopened stream that was ex-President Lee Myung-bak's pet project when he was mayor of Seoul. It's become a nice place for strolling, as long as you don't mind everyone else in Seoul joining you on your stroll. Also not far from the stream is Dos Tacos, which I wrote about on my blog.

• Have an academic day. Attend a lecture or conference on foreign policy, culture, religion, or international relations. Visit the International Press Club when the journalists are all getting together to get drunk and talk shit about North Korea.

• Visit the Korean War Memorial. The memorial is right next to the 8th Army base, known locally as Yongsan. The memorial is cheap to get into, and once you're in, you can just follow the marked-out path and do a self-guided tour. One of the freakiest aspects of that tour is when you enter a room that's been laid out like a jungle. It may take you a moment (as it did me) to realize you're surrounded by Korean soldiers ready to ambush you. The effect is quite impressive; the soldiers are, at least at first, pretty well-hidden. Trivia: the Korean War Memorial is right by Samgakji Station. Also next to Samgakji Station there is (or there used to be) a very popular restaurant that served the world's best tangsuyuk (crunchy sweet-sour pork). I went there once with my buddy Jang-woong. Portions were huge, and the tangsuyuk really was different and delicious. Unfortunately, the resto keeps short hours, so you'd have to hit it fairly early in the day.

• Have a Day of Randomness. No plan, no map, nothing to guide your decision-making except, maybe, a coin that you'll flip to determine your fate. Just get out at a random subway stop and start walking, or take a train to a random city and do the same.

Obviously, my stomach dictated most of the above. I see that I've written a lot about eating. Heh. But that's one thing Korea is great for—the food.

I don't suppose you'd consent to try boshintang, though, right...?

Anyway, just some thoughts. Hmmm... I might blog these later.





Charles said...

If Sean and Jeff are into hiking, I would highly recommend the Seoul city walls circuit. The entire thing is technically doable in a day, but it would be a long day. It would probably be better to choose part of it; I would recommend the Inwang-san/Bugak-san part, although if you wanted to add the Nak-san part in the east to that you could wind up in Dongdaemun and then head to Jongno for dinner. That would be a fun day.

Depending on how much time they're spending here, they could also break it up into a two-day hike.

More info here:

(That's all in Korean, unfortunately. They do have some info on the English version of the site, but it is not nearly as detailed, and it doesn't have that awesome map you can download.)

That being said... August? I honestly can't think of a worse month to visit Korea. I would rather visit Seoul in the middle of January than in August.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll pass it along.

As for visiting in August: I agree. Summer in Korea sucks. In a different email, I mentioned this to Sean and asked him whether he could change his travel dates, but I think he and Jeff have already bought their tickets, so it may be too late to do anything.

I also suspect that Sean and Jeff, both of whom have jobs that chain them to the rhythm of the calendar (Sean's a musician and Jeff's a lobbyist), couldn't find a different time of year to go on vacation. That said, I do wish Sean could come in late October, when the weather will be more clement and my own personal situation will be less of a transitional turmoil (as I'll likely be changing jobs come August).

The Sanity Inspector said...

This sounds like a fine itinerary. I'd also suggest, for the history minded, a Missionary Day, following the traces that the Protestant missionaries of a century ago left. Something like this photo-tour of such sites in Gwangju, at R. J. Koehler's place.