I’ve spent a lot of time in South Korea, but the bulk of that was working in Daejeon 12 years ago. However, I’ve made several trips to Seoul as recent as December last year and every time I’ve been I haven’t needed to travel too far out of my way from where we were staying or if I have, I’ve had someone showing me around. This time we would be traveling for another of Anna’s conferences, but we would also be in a position where we had to try to find everyone else we wanted to meet up with by ourselves. My friends, Andy and Hayley, were still living in Seoul and in recent months I’ve had quite a few friends from Singapore move to Seoul for their work with General Motors, namely Tom Cargill and his wife, Leonie Brown, joining him, plus our mate, George Svigos, and his family. Add to this the fact that mutual friends of all of us from Singapore, Peter Gratz, and his girlfriend, Ray, had timed their Korean holiday to coincide with ours, plus an old colleague of mine from Daejeon that I always enjoy catching up with, Christina Eunjoo Kim, would make the trip down as well. It looks like we had a fun couple of days ahead of us.
Thursday, October 17, 2019
We arrived at Incheon International Airport at around 7:00am, got in a taxi, and made our way through the crazy Seoul traffic for about an hour or so to our hotel, Lotte Hotel World in Jamsil-dong. It was too early to check in, but we were able to dump our bags, get changed, and spend the morning and early afternoon trying to navigate the labyrinth that is the adjoining Lotte Department Store and Lotte World Mall. As is always the case when we land at this time in the morning, the first port of call would be anywhere besides Starbucks that sells coffee. Once caffeinated we explored the supermarket and food area of the mall, looking at the live seafood, marvelling at seeing beef being aged underwater for the first time, and weighing up our options for lunch before walking around both the mall and the department store. The department store was pretty much all luxury brands, not really our thing so we stuck to the enormous mall until it was time to check into our room and grab a bite to eat.
A stroll around Lotte World Mall and our hotel:
After lunch we caught a cab down to where we had stayed on our previous trip to Seoul, around Gangnam and Sinsa-dong to do a bit more shopping, but in an area with more of the type of stuff we like. Because of the insane Seoul traffic it took a while to get there and it was quite late, but we finally made it and had a great time just shopping and looking around for a bit until we were hungry again.
Andrew and Hayley weren’t in town, Peter and Ray weren’t arriving until the following day, and Tom and Leonie were both working late so we were left to do our own bidding that evening. First of all there was dinner to think of and one of the things I love in South Korea is all of the fried chicken and beer places that are everywhere. Sure, they sell other stuff too, but the main reasons to go to them are the cheap beer and the Korean fried chicken. The only downside is the condition of the toilets, but that is a small sacrifice when the food is this good and the beers are such a bargain. The chicken is served with all of the side dishes that come in any restaurant here, but we learnt our lesson last time when we clearly over-ordered, the servings are massive, so we just got a plate of chicken, some vegetables, and a 2.7 litre (91.3 fl. oz.) jug of beer to get us started.
Once dinner was done the next step was to find a bar to settle into so we found a shisha bar, grabbed a pipe and some drinks, and kicked back for the night. There were free flow pretzels and I’ve had a habit while eating them that dates back to when I was bored at Christmas as a child — I always try to chew them in a way that they form letters to spell things out. My name is easy to do and when Anna saw the initial result of both of our names, she wanted to get in on the act and add the name of our dog, Kermit.
We got it done, however, it took many attempts to get the photo right, but here’s a look back at our first night in town:
Friday, October 18, 2019
Anna would be spending the entire day at her conference so I would need to occupy myself. That wouldn’t be all that hard, because there were plenty of errands to run, the first being finding an ATM that would accept my Singaporean card. Normally this isn’t too difficult in most countries, but it wasn’t particularly easy in the Lotte maze. I used a credit card to buy some coffee and then spent the next three hours trying to find an ATM or bank that could deliver the cash, all while hopelessly lost again. There weren’t a whole lot of ATMs around and I couldn’t withdraw from the bank either, but five ATMs later I found one that would do the job. Now it was just a matter of finding out where I was and getting a cab back to Sinsa-dong to have an extended look at some stores I had seen the previous day that would have Anna probably quite bored, but no taxis would take me. Instead, I opted for the subway and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, only taking a little over 30 minutes, instead of being caught in traffic jams for an hour or more.
Once there it was interesting walking around this particular neighbourhood. Last time I was here I wrote about how prevalent cosmetic surgery is in Seoul:
Plastic surgery in South Korea is socially accepted. Double-eyelid surgery (also known as blepharoplasty) creates an eyelid crease that makes the eye look bigger and is the most common cosmetic procedure performed in South Korea. Due to the differences in the facial bone structure of Asians, who have a flatter facial bone structure than their Western counterparts, facial bone contouring surgeries are quite popular. V-line surgery (jaw and chin reduction) and cheekbone (zygoma) reduction surgeries are used to change the facial contour. Many celebrities are required to undergo these surgeries to trim their cheekbones, jaw, and chin to create an oval shaped face.
South Korea has also seen an increase in medical tourism from people who seek surgeon expertise in facial bone contouring. Korean surgeons have advanced facial bone contouring with procedures like the osteotomy technique and have published the first book on facial bone contouring surgeries. There was a 17 percent increase in the sales of cosmetic surgery from 1999 to 2000, reaching almost ₩170 billion (Korean won) (US$144 million).
Oh, and vanity isn’t just restricted to women here:
While expectations of female beauty usually outweigh male expectations, South Korea is notable for the standards placed on men. Many of male standards are similar to that of female beauty – the body is slim and the skin is clear. Idols and celebrities especially are expected to not be too traditionally masculine and often adopt androgynous traits, such as a lack of facial hair and use of makeup. In 2012 20 percent of male beauty products were bought by South Koreans.
Sinsa-dong is one of Seoul’s capitals for plastic surgery and I took photographs last time of just a handful of the clinics offering their services in this part of the city, but those were all taken at night and until this trip I had never experienced this area in the middle of the day. I discovered it’s not unusual to walk around Sinsa-dong and see people with swollen, bandaged heads or pairs of friends who had gone for matching nose-jobs and are now shopping with the tape, plasters, and bandages still intact. These people are everywhere here during daylight hours, I even saw one girl out shopping who still had all the lines from a consultation for the procedure she was going to soon undergo drawn on her face with a marker!
Anna had a dinner for her conference at 6:00pm at Lotte World Tower so I got to the station at 5:00pm to give myself plenty of time to shower, put on a suit, and walk over, however, there was a small problem; when I arrived the subway station was packed, but I couldn’t just use my size to bully my way onto the train, like is the standard procedure in some other countries. People line up properly in two lines in Korea and politely wait until they can fit in the carriage so I would just have to wait until enough trains had passed and I had made my way close enough to the front of the line to be able to board. This took some time and when I was finally back at the hotel I had a shower-in-a-can, got changed, and met Anna for the dinner. The first event of the night would be going up to the viewing platform of Lotte World Tower for a look over the city:
Lotte World Tower is a 123-floor, 555-metre (1,821 ft) supertall skyscraper located in Seoul, South Korea. It opened to the public on April 11, 2017 and is currently the tallest building in South Korea, and is the 6th tallest building in the world.
We stood for a while in a queue to get in the elevator, but once inside it took only a minute to make it up to the fully-enclosed viewing deck on the 120th floor, stairways accessing higher floors, all offering a breathtaking view of Seoul:
The dinner was actually quite fun, there was no cringeworthy interactive beatboxing display for a bunch of professors this time, but I get the feeling that the organisers this year believed that not many people attending would eat Korean food. Anna had told me that lunch was all Italian with the main dishes being pasta and it turned out that dinner would be predominantly French.
The dinner finished up at 9:30, Pete and Ray were now in town and neither Tom nor Leonie were working so we went to meet up with them in Hapjeong-dong, but there was just one minor problem — The insane Seoul traffic again, even at that time on a Friday night. We thought our ride would take about 30 minutes, but it was the best part of an hour before we arrived to meet the other four at bar nearby called Cream. We all had a blast catching up while requesting terrible songs at Cream and then we switched things up a bit after a while and went to a small bar that Tom loves called Wolf Bar for a few more at the end of the night.
It wouldn’t be the only time we would visit either place over the course of the weekend, but here’s how the second part of Friday night looked:
Saturday, October 19, 2019
Anna still had to go to her conference for a bit on Saturday, but there were still a few plans for the day; we were going to change hotel so it would be easier to meet up with our friends, but I also had another buddy to meet up with. Just like the last time we came to Seoul, as well as a couple of times when she visited Singapore, I was going to meet up with my old friend from when we both taught at St. Mary’s Elementary School in Daejeon back in 2007, Christina Eunjoo Kim. Christina’s plan was to catch a train to Seoul to spend the day with me and then stay with one of her other friends in a different part of the city that evening so I checked us out of our hotel, stored our luggage, and met her at Jamsil subway station. We always have a great time when we meet up so the first plan was just to grab a coffee, stroll around Lotte Mall for a while, and then have some lunch, bibimbap this time. We were walking around again for a while after lunch when Anna had a gap in her schedule so she met up with us for an hour before heading back to the conference.
After that it was walking around a nearby lake and taking in a weird Korean European dancing display until it was time for Christina to leave and this was another occasion where I got hopelessly lost. I wanted to get back to the hotel and wait for Anna to come back, but I also mentioned earlier that this entire Lotte complex was massive and nigh on impossible to navigate. Most subway stations in Seoul including the nearest one, Jamsil, have eight exits so I thought I’d try and use those as a landmark for getting back to the hotel, all I would need to do is wander around and find the right one. I stumbled upon the nearest one, walked up the stairs and could see the hotel across the rather wide road that, from a distance, appeared to be behind exit number three. I tried to make my way through the mall to that exit, eventually found it, but when I exited I couldn’t even see the hotel, I was now around the side of a completely different building. Back down into the cavernous mall I went to find another exit, locating one that now had me diagonally opposite the hotel. Fortunately for me, the next exit would be a charm and I would be back at the hotel a mere hour after I made what should have been a 10-minute walk to get there.
A look back at a fun afternoon with an old friend:
Anna soon met me at Lotte Hotel World so it was time to get in a cab, check into our new hotel in Jung-gu, and then meet everybody else at Tom and Leonie’s place to watch Australia take on England in the semifinal of the Rugby World Cup before heading to dinner at 7:30pm. We left our hotel at 6:10pm, but even on a Saturday night it took us over an hour to make the 14km (8.7 mile) journey to our new residence for the next couple of nights, L’Escape, leaving us to check in 15 minutes before we were supposed to be at dinner. Luckily for us there was a screen in the cab showing us a terrible K-pop reality show to keep us amused along the way. Once our bags were up in our room that looked as if it were co-designed by Noel Fielding and Jack the Ripper, we were going to take the subway to avoid the horrendous Seoul traffic, but we still knew we were going to be at least half an hour late regardless, because according to Google Maps we had to do the following to get to the restaurant:
- Walk 11 minutes to City Hall Station
- Once the train arrived ride six stops on the subway to Hapjeong Station (12 minutes)
- Walk six minutes from Hapjeong Station to the restaurant
There was one major flaw with this plan, however — Google Maps doesn’t really work that well at the best of times, but it essentially doesn’t work at all in South Korea, because they want you to use their own online map app, KakaoMap, an app we didn’t have. When using Google Maps in South Korea, besides randomly relocating the user and having them floating through buildings as it does anywhere in the world, it has a couple of other problems; A lot of streets in Seoul have the same name, but are numbered, however, Google Maps doesn’t show the number of the street. Also, the directions don’t show you a route using roads and streets, it just draws a direct line through buildings to where you need to be, as if it were designed by Archimedes himself. This meant that not only did we have to figure out the general route by ourselves, but the usual Google Maps errors initially had us facing in the wrong direction, leading us to walk about a further 15 minutes away from the restaurant, crossing over several exceptionally busy roads and back again in the process. It was close to 9:00pm before we made it to 미담왕파족, our barbecue restaurant for the night, and everyone else had finished eating, but were more than happy to stick around for more beers and soju while we cooked a lot of beef (there was no pork due to a recent swine flu outbreak), recalling hilarious tales from the past, mainly about falling through ceilings, and then trying to decide what to do with the rest of the night.
Once dinner was done we headed out, sans Leonie who was suffering a migraine. We went to the same haunts as the previous night, but it took a lot longer than usual, because we kept having to stop and wait for George. George has a wife and kids, his wife is cool and knew his friends were in town so he wanted to make the most of his night out with old mates, but there was one problem; George gets really distracted when he ‘s drunk. He was constantly just stopping and talking to random people, including yelling “You’ve got this!” in encouragement to a girl who was trying to help her absolutely inebriated boyfriend back to his feet. Once we got to Cream we thought we had lost him again, only to turn around and see him taking a photo for a table of girls in the bar. We went to a few other places and finished up at Wolf Bar again, Tom checking out relatively early because he had to catch a flight to China for work the next day. Naturally, Pete thought doing shots several times was a great idea, but it was a hilarious night out.
That day my pedometer said I had walked a grand total of 18km (11 miles) and I guarantee about half of it was spent hopelessly lost, but here’s how the rest of Saturday looked:
Sunday, October 20, 2019
We were now staying in an area that had some great hole-in-the-wall type food places and, although we had had Korean barbecue the previous night, Anna still wanted more proper Korean food. While we were having coffee near Namdaemun Market I noticed a small laneway across the road called Hairtail Alley that could have some potential. It turns out I was right. When we walked in we found several stalls selling galchi jorim, a red, spicy stew with hairtail fish, and it looked damn good so we joined the long queue for a table in one of the tiny stalls and waited our turn. Slowly we progressed to the head of the line where at any given time there were multiple pots of the soup boiling on a stovetop with a giant container of fish fillets nearby to keep the service as fast as possible in the minuscule eatery. Once at the very front of the line we started to get curious as to why, despite the fact that they were aware that there were only going to be the two of us eating there, the staff kept taking Korean couples lined up behind us, generally older people. Were they worried that if people saw foreigners inside it may ruin the credibility of their extremely traditional restaurant? Nope, one of the older men working there tried to explain in his very best, but extremely basic English, accompanied by some hand gestures, that they had to wait for a seat in an area big enough to accommodate me to become available. Once we were seated inside I saw the problem he had faced; there was an upstairs seating area, but I wouldn’t have made it up the stairs or most likely under the ceiling. In the main area a lot of the seats were in front of walls and it wouldn’t be possible for me to pull a seat out far for me to even fit at the table. They also brought in other customers to share larger tables once other patrons had finished eating, yet they wouldn’t be able to get me on a shared table, because I wouldn’t fit between someone and the wall, but if I sat on the aisle side, I would block it. We just had to wait for an entire table to become available and when one did we were glad we had waited. The soup was fantastic once we figured how to eat the fish without having the inside of your mouth pierced by tiny little bones and we also had steamed egg which was great as well. See for yourself:
Once it was time to pass our table on to the next patrons we explored more of Namdaemun Market, first the food section near Sungnyemun Gate, which was still selling plenty of pork products despite the swine flu outbreak, and then on to the massive Dongmyo Flea Market that runs several blocks and is described as:
Dongmyo Flea Market started life in the late 1980s. Every day an array of street stalls open up along the stone walls of Dongmyo Park. The main items bought and sold here are antiques of every type, including items such as wallets, electronics, old books, film posters etc. Recently vintage clothing and shoes have become the main area of interest. Prices are typically around 1,000 won so you can have fun browsing and shopping without worrying about the cost.
There are all kinds of items from everyday miscellaneous goods to antiques. If you get peckish while shopping, boiled duck’s eggs cost just 1,500 won each or bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) make very satisfying snacks. The market is always crowded with people at weekends. The most popular item in Dongmyo Flea Market is used clothing. When new stocks arrive, the market is packed with people looking for bargains. Prices are normally around 1,000 won, but leather items or furs reach around 10,000 won. Designer labels can reach over 100,000 won. The best time for shopping is on weekend afternoons.
That description brings up clothing several times and maybe it was just because winter was rapidly approaching when we visited, but one thing it fails to mention is that an extremely high percentage of the infinite stalls were solely selling secondhand jackets. It honestly seemed like about two thirds of the stalls were selling just jackets and each one of these stalls had a flock of people trying to score a bargain. We also found some other great stuff there besides jackets, but when it comes to clothing and just about any items in general in Dongmyo Flea Market, it’s amazing how many had the Supreme logo on it. That stuff is huge there, whether it is legit of counterfeit! We saw a lot of really cool stuff as well, including a man working in a jacket stall that was wearing a full, powder blue, velour San Diego Clippers tracksuit from the late 1970s, before the team moved to Los Angeles, and a store where I picked up a very rare Korean copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in great condition for next to nothing!
After hours of exploring the market we caught a train back to Hapjeong for dinner and a quiet drink. Leonie’s migraine was gone, Pete and Ray were spending their final night in Seoul before heading down to Busan, but Tom was now in China for work, George had to hang out with the family, and Andy and Hayley were back at their place far out in the suburbs. Ray wasn’t feeling all that spectacular so we opted for ginseng chicken soup, always a good choice and it seemed to help. Once dinner was done we found a cool little bar to have a drink and a chat, but it couldn’t be a late one, we all had important things to do the next day.
A whole bunch of photos from the markets and a bit of our dinner:
Monday, October 21, 2019
We were going to be flying out in the afternoon, but we still had time to have a look around the mall across the road from where we were staying, particularly the supermarket and food court. I love kimchi and all of the other side dishes and we both love the local soups so we wanted to stock up on a heap of those, as well as have one last proper Korean lunch before we returned to Singapore. We checked out of our hotel, stashed our suitcases, crossed the road and went down to the basement where all of the good stuff was. First we bought a toasted cheese lobster tail to snack on and Anna had a craving for cold noodles so I kept our table, one of the only free ones in the extremely crowded foodcourt, but there was one problem; our table was specifically for customers of a nearby stall, but none of the staff were capable of telling me that at first. Eventually an employee was able to so I apologised using one of the very few Korean phrases I know and went to find Anna to tell her we no longer had a place to sit. Our food soon came so we both spread out to hunt down a table in the massive foodcourt and after a couple of minutes a staff member from where Anna had bought lunch was running up to me from another area, trying to convey the message that Anna had found a table. I’m really not used to being served by people in a new place that are genuinely helpful who don’t want anything in return, it’s kind of refreshing. It also helps that I’m easy for them to see in a crowd, but even after we had sat down some girls on the next table showed Anna the best way to eat those noodles and then just went back to chatting to each other. Once we were finished with lunch we went around the supermarket looking for snacks, soups, and sides to bring back to Singapore, but we had to be rational, we had limited space inside our check-in luggage, however, we chose well.
Our last meal for this trip to Seoul:
Our stay in Korea was over, but I’m always proud when I go to Anna’s conference dinners and see the praise that she gets from her peers, as well as seeing her work pinned up around the place. This trip was made even better by getting to meet up with some old friends that I haven’t had the chance to see for quite a while. I always appreciate the effort Christina makes to come see me whenever I’m in Seoul, I’m glad Tom and Leonie have hit it off so well with Andy and Hayley, It was great of George’s wife to look after the kids for the night so he could have a night out with us all, and it was cool of Peter and Ray to make their holiday coincide with our stay.
Until next time, Seoul, geonbae!