Friday, October 11, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 1: Wandering Seoul

Obligatory flying wing shot

That will let you know I was traveling. Destination: Korea. Why? The endless reruns of Korea tourism promotion programs on City 7 TV, of course.

Okay, not really. It has long been on my list of places of historical interest, and my travel plans are pretty much driven by historical interest. East Asia, in particular, has been my domain of amateur expertise, and Korea is pretty much at the top of that list now that China is sort of done with. And since I could get two weeks off, I tacked on a week of Japan, another place I have long wanted to visit. Oh, I am also a huge fan of Korean film, TV series and music, and can read the Korean script (which came much in handy).

So, I made plans to fit my usual blitz-style, lone wolf, semi-backpacking tour format, and I have to say that this was my most meticulously planned tour yet. I committed most of my free time pre-holiday to research: locating, mapping, and programming in the GPS coordinates of each place (OsmAnd for Android is a brilliant app for this, and free!); prioritizing based on location, accessibility and hours; planning transportation and plotting optimal paths. Of course, rarely does everything go exactly according to a packed plan, but having a detailed and flexible one helped tremendously. I was also aided greatly by the tourism website of Korea,, which was very informative and comprehensive.

I noticed a lot of interesting things the moment I landed. People in general are very polite, but more so if they're in service; the attendants on the train from Incheon airport to the city, for example, bowed each time they entered or left a compartment. Then there were some oddities, like the bar of soap (above left) that screws onto a metal arm in public washrooms. It's a smart idea, really, since it does not rest on any surface. Also, there were these public water fountains with really flimsy, thin paper packets for cups (above right) that don't last past a couple of sips. Makes sense, since you usually don't need them for more than that. Conservation measures are likewise common, and often simple. For example, a simple magnet mounted on a bathroom stall door closes the lighting circuit in the stall when the door is closed, and opens it again when the door is opened. Also, I notice a lot of recyclable material sorting bins, even at the self-disposal points of fast food restaurants.

I headed straight for the National Museum of History. As with many national museums, their permanent exhibitions are free to enter. I also found Korean museums and historical sites to have generally budget-friendly entrance prices, which made the whole trip excellent value (especially considering the aforementioned style of touring that has me hopping from one place to another every couple of hours).

(clockwise from top left) Stone daggers, Star and Moon maces, mandolin daggers of bronze, horse belt

The museum is extensive, and very well-organized. The permanent exhibition covers the entire history and prehistory of the Korean peninsula, and includes many artifacts I have never seen even in pictures, such as the stone daggers, and many I have,such as the mandolin daggers. It was also arranged chronologically, making it east to navigate. Actually, I have always been very impressed by the effort and technology put into East Asian museums, and Korea is exemplary in this regard.

(clockwise from top left) Crowns of Baekje, Goguryeo (including the famous stylized samjokoh, or three-footed crow), Silla, and Gaya

I was also ecstatic to see artifacts from the Sam Guk (Three Kingdoms) era, a period I have studied as a hobby for a long time. I paid special attention to the Goguryeo section, as much of what was then Goguryeo is now in North Korea, and it would not be covered as extensively, if at all, by the regional museums I would visit during the rest of my trip.

(clockwise from top left) A king's cleated shoe soles, ornaments including the comma shaped beads (common in Japan as well), spoon and chopsticks, sam saeg-ui taegeuk motif on a drum (the colors represent the three ceremonial offerings)

I saw a lot of other periods' artifacts, including ones from the later Goryeo and Joseon eras. You could see how a lot of these were culturally both unique and shared with surrounding countries' cultures, and evolved over time.

My big historical destination was Unhyeongung, a relatively minor Joseon-era royal residence that now serves as an historical royal fashion museum. It is a small, densely-built compound that is home to life-like mannequins wearing traditional historical Joseon clothing, sometimes reenacting scenes from royal life in each of the rooms.

My little cultural nightlife activity that day was a staging of Miso -- a Korean musical play -- at Chongdong Theater. It uses the modern musical format to tell a traditional Korean romance tale, Chunhyangjeon, and incorporates traditional performance arts of pansori and samulnori. It's a bit tourist-oriented (there's even a "fan service" parody of Gangnam Style at one point), but a great way to see some of the aforementioned traditional arts of Korea in one go. Excellent show with excellent production value. I found out that they also have a Silla-era musical play called Miso II, which now means I have to go back to Seoul. Because ... Silla.

South great gate Namdaemun (top), and East great gate Dongdaemun (bottom)

Towards the end of the night, I visited the southern and eastern great gates, reconstructed remains of the time when Seoul was a walled city. The southern gate, Namdaemun, was recently almost wholly reconstructed, after an arson attack in 2008 (ironically, it was constructed to incorporate charms that would ward off fires). It reopened just a few months before, after restoration work had been completed. Dongdaemun, the eastern gate, has a very large and active market area nearby. By the way, Seoul's transit system is amazing, and very easy to use.

I usually book my accommodation for the stays immediately preceding or following flights, so I was prepared for my stay at Yellow Brick. I have to say that this is one of the best hostels at which I have ever stayed. Clean and comfortable, well-equipped, and with tons of amenities, not to mention the very helpful staff and central location.

(clockwise from top left) Jumukbap, bulgogi burger, sundae with soju, samgyeopsal with Cass beer

I was only able to fit snacks into my hectic schedule. The Korean rice ball, jumukbap, is vastly superior to any I have tasted elsewhere in Asia; it has amazing savory fillings, and (very importantly) comes with a separately-wrapped seaweed wrapper. McDonalds' also had a bulgogi burger, which I think is one of the better items to come out a McD's. In the night, after most of my visits were done with, I went through a downtown street with food carts, near Namdaemun, mingling with socializing salarypersons in various stages of (still polite) intoxication. There, I had two essential Korean street foods for the carnivorous: samgyeopsal, or pork belly strips, and sundae, or blood sausage. Not for the faint of heart, but very tasty for those who get past the, um, exotic ingredients.

I leave you now with a picture of Jumong promoting some kind of financial product.

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