Final Four Days in Beautiful Seoul

Returning to Seoul did feel like coming home, and our apartment looked so comfy and familiar—our real Ikea bed beckoned and after a quick bit to eat we fell into it happily.

Wednesday we split boys v girls. David and Gideon headed for the War Memorial and Yoojin and I went shopping for skin care products. David’s report of the War Memorial was “big, full of history, aircraft, exhibits about the Japanese occupation and the Korean War.” They apparently had a great time, as that is all they did while we girls went downtown, shopped, ate street food, and wandered Yoojin’s favorite part of the city.

Best part for me was the river walk, one of those attractions which was even more wonderful than it appeared in the guide books, where it looks fantastic. Parts are highly sculptural, including a block long tile tile mural of a royal procession complete with sound effects of ancient fanfare-type music and clop-clop of horses, a restored ancient bridge, an art exhibit, a few musicians. Best evidence it is a living river was the enormous blue heron standing in the middle watching for food. We saw him again a few days later, poised to grab a fish and completely indifferent to people only a few feet away taking pictures.

As planned we met up with our counterparts mid-day and while they both went off to work and personal chores, we decided to return to Itaewon by walking up and over the hill rather than returning along the busy street we had walked that morning.

While many businesses were closed for the thanksgiving holiday, enough were open to get a feel for this lovely part of the city topped by the enormous park that surrounds Seoul Tower. Quiet winding streets, a few shortcut stairways and quite suddenly we were back in familiar digs. Note in the photo above the 3-story Coffeesmith–yes, the coffee culture is thriving here.  In the photo immediately above, you can see Seoul Tower in the distance.  Though it wasn’t a very warm day we were sweaty enough that a shower and rest at home was perfect. We were hungry for meat, so found a bar and drank beer and ate fried chicken with fries. Delish.

Thursday was palace day. Yoojin had the day free so we went to two adjacent, elaborate palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, and while the general grounds were no charge and super crowded due to the holiday, tickets were needed for the “secret garden” so we picked them up and phew, the people behind us bought theirs and boom, secret garden tours were sold out for the day. How fortunate we were, because this long (2 hour) tour with a charming but drill sargent guide was a high point.

These special grounds behind the main palaces are heavily forested with pavilions, ponds, various out-buildings, womens’ quarters, a little spring that spills down carved rocks, a royal demonstration rice field only about 20 yards square (the rice had just been harvested and piled along the rocks for the birds) that was intended to show support for agriculture (the king grows rice just like you!), and a good bit of climbing up walkways and occasionally stone stairs. Of course David and I were undaunted, but it really was pretty intense as the guide warned several times to consider if any attendees needed to turn back. Due to the holiday many families and especially groups of young girls were in traditional clothing, adding to our enjoyment of the scene.

Hungry and somewhat tired we headed to Insadong, a 20 minute or so walk, whileYoojin scoured her phone for restaurant recommendations. We found a great place that we alone would never have been able to enter, as the drill to get into the queue is to use a kiosk outside the door in which Yoojin entered her cell number and got an immediate text telling us how many parties were ahead of us and estimated wait time. We were free to wander (there were 15+ parties in the queue) because a text would come when we were up next. Very efficient and very mysterious if you don’t read Korean and/or have a Korean cell number.

The wait was not that long and in we went. What a scene—very artsy inside (one wall covered with weather-beaten doors; a sink to wash hands was a plumbed ancient Hitachi sewing machine table), noisy with families, and the food was a renowned acorn something or other soup with choice of meat. David and I had chicken, Yoojin mackerel, and the food was intense and delicious except for inordinately spicy soup. So, so hot I could only eat about half, though the flavor was fantastic, but we ate every other bite. We were so stuffed, but managed to eat egg toast (alas, no picture), a delicious street food of an oval of slightly sweet bread with a small egg in the middle, kind of broiled? Maybe 5 bites, all heaven. My biggest regret of our visit is not eating an egg toast every day.

As David had not seen the river walk we returned for a stroll—and it was like an enormous party, the Seoul Arts Festival. We managed to see one performance, “Su a Feu,” a Basque drumming group that I simply cannot describe. It was amazing and a little scary.  See for a sample. If you ever have a chance to see them, GO! I fear they wouldn’t be welcomed in the US due to their use of fire and fireworks…sadly, because it was darned exciting.

Friday morning we had some personal business to attend to after which David and I decided no matter how long the line we would go to Johnny Dumpling which was right down our street and had a substantial line every time we went by–the place is tiny. We did end up in line for about 30 minutes during which we looked at one of those “top 10 things to see in Seoul” on David’s phone.  We had been to 8 and 1 was of no interest to us which left the Seoul City Wall, something we had missed entirely and which looked well worth it.

First, though, our fun lunch. As we neared the front of the line I saw that the party in front of us was a young single woman, so as we were close to the door where the menu was posted I asked her what to eat. Turned out she spoke English reasonably well and gave us her suggestions—and when they called her in she turned around and invited us to join her table. Hwa is a librarian at the University of Seoul, and she visits the US every year! She had been to SF and even to Chicago so we had a great talk, exchanged numbers and email, and of course we invited her to stay with us if she returns to SF which she likely will do next year. A new friend! (we made sure she likes dogs before inviting her)

Seoul City Wall–a mini adventure

Right after lunch we got on the metro back to Anguk Station, hopped a green bus number 2, up the hill and in 10 minutes we were surrounded by forest. Off we got, and spent a couple of hours walking along the 600 year old wall, going as far as we could before coming to an information center where you needed a Korean drivers’ license or passport to get a pass to continue, as the next area was through a military installation. Alas, we had to turn back, but we were able to walk well past where we had started, winding along the wall, down a gazillion steps, and then were back in the city.  The trail is so gorgeous, and it switches a few times from inside to outside the wall–views down to the city were vast, and we could see Seoul Tower from the information center, seemingly so far away.  We didn’t know we would find another intersection with the wall when we climbed to the tower the next day.

I must explain the cartoon above–at the visitor center where one must register to go further into the military controlled area, the toilets are signed as being dependent on “microbe organisms” and not connected to the sewer system.  Hence, you are not to put any toilet paper into the toilets themselves.  This is illustrated in the stall in perfectly Korean fashion with this illustration of what microbes do and do not like.

What we love about Seoul—you can wander anywhere and never fear you will be too far from a metro station, and indeed we just kept walking downhill until we found ourselves back on the metro within 30 minutes or so. When we got back to Itaewon we were so hungry, and it was our last chance to visit Vatos Tacos so that’s what we did. YUM! We knew just how to walk up to the kiosk (so experienced!) and lacking a Korean cell number we entered my name. People-watched for the 30 or so minutes we waited for a table, then into a cavernous, partying crowd of a restaurant. We raised the average age by several years—we were by far the oldest folks there. Food was fantastic, including kimchi-carnitas fries and yum tacos, hard cider (best I’ve ever had) and margaritas (we weren’t brave enough to try the enormous margarita served with an upside down bottle of Corona draining into the frozen slush), and staggered home to collapse after what David’s watch said was a 10 mile day.

Our Last Big Adventure–Seoul Tower!


Saturday being our last day we knew we had to climb to Seoul Tower, so we met Gideon and Yoojin at 9 at the kimchi pots (see photo below–this is a store that per Gideon has been there forever and is the landmark–“meet at the kimchi pots!”) and the five of us (including Birdie) headed up. It wasn’t terribly hot but super humid—David was literally dripping within 10 minutes. The park is simply gorgeous, flowers and trees and birds, lovely bathrooms, joggers and walkers passed us in both directions as we climbed and climbed. Then you get to the top, where there are tour busloads of people, restaurants, a place to buy skincare products, pizza, bathrooms, a shrine/pavilion, and perhaps 2 million lovers’ locks on all the fences. It was a little mad, but the views are in all directions as the tower is really smack dab in the middle of the sprawling city, hills and mountains all around.

We are so glad we got there…we learned that the City Wall also winds across the mountain, and a sign explains the respective eras of each section, identified by the construction style.  The part near the Tower is one of the oldest.

Gideon had to leave early but we dawdled our way down and headed home to shower and prepare for a trek downtown for a final street food feast with Yoojin.

While we didn’t see any egg toast, we had mandu (dumplings, in paper thin wrappers around leeks or kimchi, so good), noodle soup, fried chicken and rice cakes. Stuffed. We had one more river walk and wander around the wonderful central city, with its monuments, wacky-looking city hall, colorful people out for the last of the holiday, and perfect weather.

Then, home to pack, always a puzzle but always solved in the end.

Sunday we had a last delicious feast of coffee and pastries at Bread Show (a truly superior French bakery) with the kids, who helped us lug our stuff down to the airport bus stop. Fairwell, Korea. What a wonderful place.  On to Kyoto.

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