In general, Korea is an extremely easy country to navigate, but there were a few times when we were awfully lucky to have kids living there to help. In particular, when you are using airbnb there is no concierge or English-adept staff to clarify those details which can make life miserable when you are not in the know.
Getting in and out of your apartment
We had paid for 2 weeks of an efficiency apartment, meaning we were completely on our own. In advance, the host was to send us the lock code which theoretically is all one needs to enter. Ha. We would have been stranded because the system of house locks is completely different from the US but consistent everywhere we went in the country.
Getting into your apartment: A small box about the size of a cigarette pack is mounted on the door. To use your key code first slide up the cover, enter the code on the numeric pad, slide the cover down, wait for the musical tone, and then open the door.
Getting out of your apartment: In order to leave your apartment, which will lock automatically again when the door is closed, you push the button on the inside of the lock mechanism, watch the little dial turn, and then the door can be opened. If for some reason the dial doesn’t turn you can turn it manually. But for both ingress and egress, take your time and wait for the lock to do its thing. Trying to open the door from the inside before it’s ready screws things up and you must take a breath, wait for tones and automatic things to happen, and start over if necessary. DO NOT PANIC!
Without our kids showing us, we would have been locked out, and then locked in! It’s a great system once you know how it works and though there are different versions in different apartments (and the exterior door of our guest house in Jeonju worked the same way) they all look and work the same.
Communicating With Your Airbnb Host
I had booked our Seoul apartment on my desktop. Emailing back and forth via the host’s airbnb address worked great in the US. In Korea, when I tried to email from my phone airbnb responded that I had to authenticate myself via the airbnb app because I was using an unknown device. I downloaded the app, entered all the info, but it never linked up to my original account. USE THE APP while in the US. Our kids came to our rescue, as they had gotten his phone number when I sent them the airbnb booking, but I was never able to get in touch with him on my own. It didn’t occur to me that the way I had communicated from the US would not work when all I had was a smartphone in Korea.
Use the “Egg”
Wifi is all over the place in Korea, and with few exceptions we were able to use various free services all over the city. Sometimes when it appeared no service was on where we happened to be, walking a half block usually revealed another we could use. However, most Koreans carry an “egg” which is the small personal hotspot and super handy. While the egg does lose connection depending on where you are, it almost always comes back. However, our phones always appeared from the wifi icons to be connected even when they were not, so you might not realize you aren’t connected until you try and do something other than GPS.
Many of the accommodations I looked at said “free egg” but ours didn’t so I didn’t know there was such a thing pretty much universally. Hence I hadn’t gotten the password, but again kids came to the rescue, called the host and got the “egg” password.
GPS-enabled Maps Are a LifeSaver
I am a fan of Maplets, even more so now. This little app downloads digitized maps (tourist maps, subway maps, trail maps, etc.) worldwide and more and more of them are GPS enabled. When no wifi was available we were able to figure out where we were by using these–and they worked even when Google and Apple maps seemed baffled (e.g., the blue spot would appear, but no map behind it). Get Maplets and download subway and other maps (you can search by location)–they are also great because you can zoom in to details.
In general, Apple and Google maps were useless for routes and distances. We could never get a walking route, for example, even when the map seemed accurate and visible.
Electronic Kiosks at Restaurants
If you walk up to a restaurant and see an iPad-sized thing mounted in front, this is how you register that you’re there and want a table. While you won’t have a Korean phone number, you can enter your name, in which case do find a human and tell them what you have done. Otherwise you will never get a table.
Spoken English is Rare
It seems strange that with every street sign, subway stop and most informational signs having an English translation so few Koreans speak English. They are extremely friendly, will try to help, and of course as in many countries people will strike a conversation when they hear you talking and they want to practice English. Hand gestures, pointing, and all the other things one does in a foreign country work just fine–but do not assume because the menu is translated that anyone in the place can read or explain it.
Use a Native or Foreign-Enabled Texting and Calling App
We use KakaoTalk to communicate with our kids living in Korea. It is highly functional–probably similar to WhatsApp which we also use. These work with wifi and enable crystal clear phone calls as well as texting. While they only work with other people who have the same app, we had told friends and family to download and use KakaoTalk and that was our primary communication mode.
We did not get a SIM card, and we turned off data services for our phones (which seems to annoy Verizon no end as we were bombarded with offers and warnings when we sent data via KakaoTalk or WhatsApp) by making sure airplane mode was always on. We used texting and KakaoTalk phone calls on wifi and it was entirely free.
If in Seoul and Hungry for Home Food, Head to Itaewon
Itaewon is for foreigners, and so there is a wonderfully mixed population and an incredible array of restaurants. American style food, halal restaurants, Mexican restaurants (a current fad so it might be something different in a few years) abound, mixed with every kind of Korean food you can imagine. There is also a reasonable choice of American food in the grocery stores–we bought a box of cornflakes so we could eat breakfast before setting out, both to save money and to have something familiar. Itaewon also has several of the best bakeries I’ve been to anywhere.
However, with a few exceptions the coffee places open later in the morning than we would have liked–we finally found one that opened at 8am (Bread Show–excellent!) but many do not open until 10. If you must have a caffeine fix before heading out there is ample instant (comes in little paper tubes that have both sugar and creamer, ugh) and the convenience stores (7-11, CU, etc.) all sell about 20 kinds of cold canned and cartoned coffee.
As we get ready to leave Japan I realize I’ve accumulated a few items that don’t deserve a full blog entry, so I’ll run through them here. Then a post or two about our last excursions.
Elevators in Korea and Japan Unlike the US, every elevator bank we used required you to push the button per elevator. Not realizing this, we had a few undue delays thinking that a single up or down request would apply across all the elevators in a bank. So remember—push every “up” or “down” to speed the arrival of what you want.
Japanese Tourist Maps We had forgotten this little quirk from our last visit–one of the oddest things about using the little billboard maps that are posted in many neighborhoods, train stations, and in other tourist-heavy areas. You know, these are the ones that have the red You Are Here circles to show you how to get to the next place or out of where you are. There are many of these around Kyoto and the often appear just when you need them.
However, first check is which way the North arrow is pointing. For some, to us, unfathomable reason, N is not always up as it is in the US. It can be to the left, to the right, or pointing to the bottom of the map, requiring you to completely reorient yourself. It is surprisingly difficult to figure out what’s what when N is pointing to the right, so there you are twisting your guidebook and your head around to make sure you are not heading in the exact wrong direction. As many times as we looked at these maps, and knew about the N issue, we repeatedly started to read the map incorrectly.
Disability Access and Using Escalators Accommodations for disabled or simply tired (or old!) folks are spotty, and there are places where there is escalator service but no elevator when an elevator seems called for. Getting to the JR train platform at Kyoto Station, where many folks are going long distance or to the airport, there is an escalator and no elevator. Other places have signs forbidding using the escalator if you have a suitcase (similar to the US), and in one department store signs stated no walking on escalators. We also found elevators quite slow and/or tucked into corners. Plan accordingly.
Since we were last in Japan about five years ago we did see many, many more disabled people out and about. It was great to see that people who obviously were always there were now in public without incident, even several severely disabled in fully motorized chairs. On the subway we saw a man in a motorized chair, and the moment the train stopped a train employee (there are many around who give directions or, more often instructions) put a small ramp in the doorway so this fellow could drive off easily across the gap. Twice I saw a train employee accompanying a blind person across the station, chatting away. (I say train employee, but I am not sure who they work for—perhaps these are public employees. They wear uniforms and they are in transit stations.)
We saw no wheelchairs or other disabled people in Korea which could have been chance or an indication they are still kept out of the public spaces. There isn’t much sign of accommodations there.
Rules and Worries and a Few Inconveniences It is cliché that the Japanese have traded conformity and safety for some kinds of American-style freedom as we like to think of it. It is true that people are expected to follow rules and instructions, and our first taste was when we landed in Osaka and proceeded to the train platform. Two uniformed men were checking each ticket and then telling us exactly how to line up for the train. This line, not that one. Put your baggage here, not there. Line up in an orderly queue. Do not step on the yellow barrier. It was quite lovely for us tired travelers because we knew for certain we were in precisely the right place and would end up in the correct car (the queuing lines were by car number for trains, bus number for buses) and subsequently in Kyoto Station. Even when the “instructors” seemed a little bit severe and unsmiling, we were continually grateful that we weren’t allowed to make an unfortunate mistake.
There are also a lot of signs in Japan, both official and handwritten, which even when a little alarming (“Bears have been sighted in this region.”) were helpful. My favorites were warnings were combined with seemingly unnecessary instructions. A cute example was at a neighborhood Shinto shrine, a rather raggedy and charming set of very small shrines and statues and figurines of animals, with a few flowers and teacups set out in honor of woodsy fauna. At the small entry there was blue tape and sign: “This barrier is to keep wild boars out. Please step over the barrier to enter.”
Both countries are seemingly free of petty crime. Bicycles are everywhere, and lots of bicycle parking lots in Japan. While there were bike locks, we saw many bikes leaned up or on kickstands outside of stores and houses as in the picture below taken from our hotel room of the alley behind the building.
We never for a second worried about making sure a bag was zipped up, or walking around with a phone in hand, or putting down a package for a minute to get organized. It was common to see bags left along the paths in shrines and temples while the owners took photos or walked around.
Both Japan and Korea seem bereft of trash cans. In Korea we finally asked—where do you throw anything away? A few times we traded a small purchase for an excuse to ask a shopkeeper to let us throw away a bag or beverage container. It seems the custom is to use the public restrooms (they are everywhere) to find a trash container, but even many of those had none, as they have either air dryers or nothing. Carry something to dry off with if you prefer not to shake off the drops or (as we did) use your jeans. In both countries every sit-down food place starts with a plastic-wrapped damp hand towel; we accumulated them when we didn’t need them right then, so we had them ready when we were sweaty or just a little greasy. In Korea, street food is usually served in a paper sleeve of some kind, sometimes even a sliced paper cup. While this is convenient for immediate eating it is messy and those extra hand towels were great.
In Korea, all the public restrooms I used were western style. In Japan, women beware that there are still many toilets which require very strong knees and sense of balance—they are porcelain troughs (in private stalls) which I could neither get down to or, I am sure, get up from. Some public restrooms had both, but a few only the troughs. One of the last I used had western toilets (this was in Arashiyama) complete with instructions. See photo below and note Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. In general, in both countries there are many more public restrooms than you see in the US or Europe (where in some places I have learned to march into large hotels like I know where I am going, because there is always a restroom near the lobby).
Re public smoking, it’s pretty much gone though the isakaya we went to did have a couple smoking in a corner. We may have seen one or two incidences of smoking in public in Korea, but this scourge of international travel is clearly on the wane, thank goodness.
Traditional Clothing Both countries have many, many traditional clothing rental places, mostly around hanok neighborhoods (Korea) or clusters of shrines and temples (Japan). In Japan we also saw many younger men and women in kimonos in shopping areas. As we had noticed last time, it seems to be rather hip to dress traditionally. In Japan we occasionally saw older women in what seemed to be their normal go-to-work kimonos compared with the very colorful styles worn by younger women. Two or three times we saw westerners dressed in hanbok or kiminos. They looked very odd and were clearly enjoying themselves.
Both countries have gazillions of drink vending machines, and in both countries cold coffee in various versions and brands are ubiquitous. When you order coffee at a stand or in a bakery or cafe (cafe=coffee) you must state whether hot or cold, unlike in the US where coffee is hot, and iced coffee is iced coffee. In both places you find drink vending machines in out of the way corners, at public parks or shrines and temples, and in Japan we started noticing that prices varied quite a bit with the same drink, same size, sometimes as cheap as a dollar and sometimes as expensive as two dollars or more. Occasionally there was also a place to put an empty drink container near the machine. At the top of Inari there is a vending machine and next to it in the little wooden shop (where you can buy shrine-related tokens and offerings) there is a sliding glass door and a wooden table inside on which to put your empty. This is where I discovered Pokari Sweat, a sports drink that was perfect for a sweaty American on a hot and humid day, and was especially grateful a woman showed me where to stow the empty can.
In Japan we started noticing that in the row of machines there is often one with beer and perhaps other liquor. We didn’t see any note regarding age restrictions, not that they could be enforced anyway. Nor did we ever see public drinking or rowdiness.
Convenience Stores Go to Youtube if you want an education about convenience/7-11 type stores in both countries. These stores have everything and then some, especially food of all kinds including hot soup, croquettes, and in Japan fish cakes in various forms in tubs of broth or hot water (not sure—didn’t want to try). They are fun and inexpensive—and we found that if you go away from the main street a few blocks prices drop. They also all have ATMs, not just 7-11’s as in the past. We use a bank that reverses the service charges so we used them regardless. Just check for the Visa/MC/Cirrus stickers—not all ATMs have them but those that did worked for us 90% of the time and at about that same rate we were able to find the “English” button.
Public Transit We like BART. Multiply BART by 100, or even the NY subway/bus system by 2 or 3 in convenience and reach, and you have something approaching the public transit options in Korea and Japan. Korea wins by a mile for English guidance—almost all subway cars and buses have full English stop information—but even in Japan it’s not at all hard to figure out where to go, how to get a ticket, and so forth.
In both cities, Seoul and Kyoto, the subway seems at first much easier, but because the subway maps are schematics that do not conform to actual geography you never get much of a sense where you are going or how one place relates to another compared with taking the bus. Also, most of the subway trains are almost entirely underground, so no scenery. With just a little practice the buses are more convenient and better educationally for finding your way around.
In Kyoto a few bus routes (e.g., #100) are oriented to tourists, and announce all imminent and upcoming stops displayed on the big monitor up front as well as by announcement, in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese, with advisories as to what sights or major destinations are nearby. It was comforting to know the stop we wanted was the third one after this, and great to see and hear confirmation in English.
The one-day and other passes are a fantastic deal if you plan just a little bit. In Kyoto a one way bus fare was $2.40 or so, but the one-day bus pass was $5.00 so you are ahead with just 3 trips. There are several information counters at Kyoto Station and we got 100% accurate advice even if the English was incomplete. Also, the buses depart from numbered queues which also have (as in Korea) full “next bus” information at the stops. At Kyoto Station there are uniformed men who tell you where to go, or when a bus coming into an adjoining queue will get us there faster. And, of course, they tell you exactly how to line up, with individual bus numbers on marked queue lines in case you are a complete idiot. Do not fear—Japanese people were asking as many questions about which line/which bus as we were!
In Seoul public transit, including taxis (which we never used), is extremely cheap, too. We hopped on and off without a care to the cost.
If you thought American youth are obsessed with taking selfies The selfie craze, with sticks 95% of the time, is overwhelming and funny and annoying. Just be prepared to get out of the way!
Coffee and Food in Kyoto Yes, Japan is expensive but with a little care you can eat for less. First, breakfast and coffee—if you go to a good coffee place (there are many, but our fave by far is Ogawa Coffee in Kyoto Station) you can pay $5 for a latte. Look for a place with a “breakfast set” which is coffee and what was for us plenty of food to start the day. At Ogawa the breakfast set was $5.80, which includes coffee, a fantastic croissant, and a small dish of unflavored yogurt (yeah!!) with a drizzle of honey and a few frozen berries, usually a mix of currants and a black- or raspberry. It was quick, delicious, and perfect fuel to start the day.
Eat sushi! We found the conveyer belt sushi, Musashi, in Kyoto Station was incredibly inexpensive and very high quality. Inexpensive—most plates with 2 pieces of nigiri, most as in almost all, were $1.46. The fancy stuff was 1 piece for that price, or $3.46 for 1 or 2, depending. We ate there 3 times in one week, and with beers the total bill was about $44…and we ate, each time, 22 plates’ worth.
Eat noodles! And shop for price/quality. We had several quick lunches of udon or somen for about $7. The ramen at Karako, which is on a busy street a few blocks from the museum neighborhood, was about $7 and the best I’ve ever had. Get the kotteri. The ramen at Ippudo, which is right next to Nishiki Market was very good, not quite as exciting but a fancy as opposed to old (OLD) lunch counter style ambiance, and was about twice that. In Arashiyama, right on the tourist trail (an exquisite walk that I write about on this blog) were two noodle places with very similar appearing menus where in one the price was $12 and the other $7. Directly across from each other—point being, do not assume the prices are generally the same regardless of where you are.
Isakaya! For very reasonable prices (about what we spent for sushi) we got nice and high on sake and ate more than we should have. Plus it was comfy and fun and super casual.
Takeout! See the lower floors of any big department store—if you are smart and are staying near Kyoto Station, go to Isetan. There is an unbelievable array of takeout food, putting Harrod’s to shame in variety and price. Wander around for 10 minutes before you make a choice, and if you are hungry for good bread go up one floor to the sweets department and visit the Danish bakery. Grab a basket and tongs and get everything from unidentified bread-like concoctions to good old fashioned baguettes and hard rolls.
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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VC1yov1hlN0 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.
En route out of town Yoojin and Gideon dropped us at the Express Bus Terminal in Busan from which we headed to Jeonju, a small (650,000) city in west central Korea. Jeonju has about a dozen special designations (World Heritage, Slow City, others) and enormous, justified pride in their food, natural beauty, history and culture.
We stayed in a guesthouse in their hanok village, which is, like Seoul’s, a collection of traditional houses and picturesque streets. Unlike Seoul, it is flat and almost entirely commercialized with few private homes scattered about though many guesthouses are tucked into little alleyways or down narrow paths off the main streets. While cars are allowed there were very few, though the traffic was astounding as explained below. Our accommodation was, fortunately for our backs and hips, only one night. Fortunately because sleeping was tough—futon on the floor. This means a 2” thick or so pad, a large feather pillow, and heavy, cozy down cover. The room, typical of a guesthouse, is only a little larger than the bedding, with a private bathroom like every other here, a tiled room with toilet, sink, and showerhead in the corner. As Gideon says, you take a shower and hose down the room in one process. Ample water, plenty hot, makes it all work just fine and it sure saves space. A small, clean, lovely common room had refrigerator, toaster, microwave, dishes, a little counter, and off this room were the 3 doors to private bedrooms including ours. If we had had a real bed this would be a heavenly option to a hotel. Ours was run by a young man whose full time job was managing the guesthouse, formerly his grandma’s home. Heavily laden persimmon trees overhung the fence, the path to the door was stepping stones in soft grass, very picturesque and sweet.
Hanok village was bursting with families, electric vehicles of various kinds (Segways, little cars with trailers, scooters and motorbikes), with perhaps 50% of the visitors in hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing that was rented from the many shops around the village. Little girls spun around in their sparkling skirts, entire families from grandpa to grandchildren walked together, couples in matching clothes, girlfriends walking and taking pictures, even several young men in hanbok drag, giggling under elaborate hats…everyone having a fantastic time. There were very few westerners, maybe .01% of the crowds. Sites we will remember always:
A young boy on a Segway talking on his phone with one hand and balancing a tray of food in the other
Dad with baby driving the car, with mom and toddler in the trailer
Very elderly couple being clothed in elaborate traditional clothing for a portrait
Girls arm-in-arm, strolling while watching themselves via a selfie stick a few feet long waving in front of them
Entire families in hanbok carrying tripods
Also, everyone is eating almost all the time. There are many sit down restaurants but even more street food stands. Fried squid, little custard pies, croquettes filled with potato, or noodles, or kimchi, or sweet cream cheese, ice cream, shrimp dumplings, and lots of things on sticks including fried cheese, chicken, meatballs, more squid—endless choices. Jeonju is known for its variety of bibimbop and in 24 hours we had it twice. The first version was in a restaurant where we noted almost everyone was ordering the version covered with melted cheese so we did too. It was odd and very good (of course, there was corn in it, too—they put corn in and on all kinds of things including pizza).
In the center of the village is a large palace, important in Korean history for its founding emperor and its royal portrait gallery. We took the English language tour with a delightful young woman with horrid English, so bad I told the French family that was with us on the tour that we couldn’t understand her either. No matter. The tour was great and the site impressive.
Across a main street from the village is Nambu Market, a sprawling inside/outside typical market selling basically everything and in a scrambled arrangement. Seafood, clothing, herbal medicine, “flour-based food” (no idea), furniture, dry goods, bedding, shoes. A few examples as written in the market guide:
Mango Love (ice water)
JeonJu TwBap (popped rices)
PungNyeon JuDan (mending clothes)
JeonJuNamMun GamJaTang (pork back bone stew)
IJin SangHoe (fermented soy paste)
We wandered the market, bough some melons (we asked the vendor “Sweet?” “Yes.” “Melon?” “Similar.” Very good, small, sort of a cross between melon and cucumber. A river borders the market, and we walked along and across it, complete with a crane walking in the water.
We took the city bus back to the terminal. Typical experience was the driver asking David as we boarded where we were going, assuring us “I will tell you when we are there” which he did, and it was back on the bus through Chuseok freeway traffic, akin to Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving in the states, and back to Seoul. Boy, were we ever happy to be back in our apartment with a real bed!
We woke this morning, our fourth in Seoul, to cool temperatures and marveled at the happy change in the weather that had started the day before. When we arrived and for the first few days the city was humid and hot, but yesterday steady breezes blew away the humidity and while it was warm it was much more comfortable and there was a tiny hint of fall as leaves fluttered around. Seoul, this side of the river at least, is quite green, and many of the shopping streets are tree lined. As well, there are public spaces with flower gardens and occasionally even narrow older streets, mostly pedestrian (where cars are allowed but there aren’t many and they drive slowly—ah, I remember the opposite in India), have a slight arboreal feel.
Our first evening here was exciting as it always is when you are in a new place, but the heat was heavy and I was sorry I was wearing jeans which quickly became sticky. The airport was enormous and modern (not nearly like Dubai, rather similar to SFO) and after a 12 hour flight we sort of staggered around to find the ATM (third floor) and then the airport bus desk (first floor) and out into the bus queue where we had a lovely chat with an American from Brooklyn who is an analyst in the natural gas industry on her way to a conference in middle-of-nowhere (to us) eastern Russia. We waited maybe 45 minutes for the airport bus and the ride into Seoul was interesting/weird. The bus is the touring kind, and like the long distance buses in Mexico came with TV, with both Chinese and Korean subtitles. First program, a restaurant show, patrons with various animated reactions to the food, with either cartoon steam coming out of their ears (too spicy!) or little stars of happiness bursting around their heads. One of the specialty dishes highlighted was a kabocha squash, steamed in the microwave, hollowed out, filled with apparently a VERY spicy seafood stew, covered with cheese, back into the microwave until the cheese is molten, then the squash cut as a pie so each slice falls away, covered with stew and cheese. Sorry, that looks awful! Next program was a travelogue, with each segment replayed several times in slow-mo, with animated additions (question marks, etc.). Then a soap opera. Yes, the bus trip was long, and when we were the only passengers remaining the driver pulled over, told us “TEN MINUTES BATHROOM” and we sat in the empty bus seething. We were so tired and only one stop away from Itaewon! Not fair. Gideon explained when we arrived that this was common and inexplicable in his various bus travels around the city.
We finally arrived at our stop, having texted steadily to no avail to Gideon and Yoojin, who were to meet us and walk us to our apartment (airbnb). The street was bustling, we were hot and tired, and no Gideon and no wifi connection. ACK! We realized we were totally dependent on their help. We walked a little way (like, two storefronts), got a signal, called Gideon on Kakaotalk, and turns out they were only a few blocks away where they had thought the bus would stop. They appeared in a few minutes, all smiles and hugs. Saved! We trudged, hungry and hot and tired, to our apartment, which turned out to be on a sketchy looking (more so when we saw it in the daylight) street one level up from the main Itaewon drag.
Gideon had our key code, had connected with the landlord, and in we went. The apartment is great—perfect. Just big enough (an efficiency with a roomy bathroom) and so close to the action yet dead quiet inside. Hurrah. We are very happy with the accommodation ($53/night) and super glad we booked it for the two full weeks we’re here. It is 100% Ikea, so even the bed and furniture are familiar. It’s ideal and only two blocks from the metro, but honestly given the scope and reach of the metro I don’t know what odd corner of the city wouldn’t be.
walking to Leeum
entrance to Leeum
Tuesday Gideon and Yoojin were working so we headed out to Leeum, the ultra beautiful art museum (Samsung, of course). The 20 minute walk was through an increasingly upscale and modern neighborhood, then up a short hill through lovely and varied modern architecture to the museum. We wanted to learn a little about traditional pottery and Leeum has two wings, one with a highly specifically curated collection of historically important pottery and paintings, the other much smaller and which, sadly for us, did not concentrate on Korean artists but was like a mini MOMA (though I was delighted to see a Conrad Richter I didn’t know, as well as an artist new to me, Wesselman, whose single example of “steel painting” they had was thrilling).
The historical pottery was primarily celadon, and wow. We learned a ton, and the audio tour, which was high tech so as you approached a piece the description launched, with additional detail on the (Samsung, natch) device screen. So you can learn as much or as little as you choose. They have also placed modern Korean pieces here and there which are related to the traditional work. One memorable piece is a very large (6’ across) sphere made of broken black glaze pots, seamed with gold so the entire globe was confusing at first artistically, but as you looked closely and read the intention of the artist to celebrate a type of glaze no longer “desireable” it was compelling. On another floor the modern piece among the old paintings was a huge map of Korea, made entirely of tiny (1 ½”?) metal figures packed together, to represent the entirety and individuality of the population that comprise the country. Cool and beautiful.
Our neighborhood having a concentration of Muslims, there was a Halal Guys (NYC!!) where we had falafel sandwiches. Yum. Inspired by the Leeum collection I wanted to test the pottery market options, and found one single mention on the web of a store Eden Pottery with a notation “my favorite place to shop for ceramics in the world” and it is just a few blocks from our apartment. No web site, no information whatsoever on the web, so we headed over to get educated and see if it would be a good place to look for tea bowls and other items. One of my missions on this trip is to find high end (i.e., out of my personal price range) tea bowls for Cousin Harumi—she had shown me the few pieces she already had and explained how Japanese revere Korean pottery. With this meager knowledge I entered Eden, and what a happy choice. Mison Kim, the proprietor, speaks English and represents four important potters, well known here, as well as carrying more commonly available pieces. I showed her my photos from Harumi, and we pulled several wood fired (more valuable than gas fired) bowls which might suit and I sent photos to Harumi for her thoughts, as well as a tea box shaped like a persimmon, celadon glaze, and a few other random items. I had high confidence in Ms Kim, but afterward we headed to the recommended Arts shopping area, Insadong (20 minutes by metro) to see what else we might find. Turned off by the propensity for Insadong shopkeepers to start lowering prices when I showed interest in something, we decided to wait and return to Eden.
We did in fact return Thursday, and as it was morning here/evening in Oakland Harumi and Mison and I were able to connect by KakaoTalk with video, so I could pull and show things to her for her to choose from. What fun! Harumi selected 3 tea bowls, all by well known potters, and a tea box in apple shape (celadon). So we had a fantastic time—but as we left David reminded me that we have to take all these to Japan, back and forth to airports here and there, and due to their value each bowl is packed in its own wooden box. Ah, well, what is international travel for anyway? It will all work out.
Wednesday, after a lovely breakfast with Gideon and “tour” of his gym, we headed to Namdaemun Market. This is the Seoul version of every crazy, jammed market from Mexico to India. A mix of stores and stalls, we were instantly lost and stopped at an information booth where we were given a map that showed the ‘zones’ such as the Chopped Noodle Street, the Food Materials Street, where to buy socks or candy or housewares, the Fish and Stew Street, the sock area, housewares, candy, Camera Street, Stationery and Toy Street, on and on. Plus underground shops with opticians (a huge business here), underwear, vitamins, other clothing, you name it. I volunteered to be a rice pounder for the crowd, getting an “OOH” when I managed to slug the glutinous mass with some force.
We shared an enormous fried kimchi-filled fritter and ate kimchi-filled dumplings, so delicate and flavorful I will eschew the frozen version we can get at Koreana Plaza in Oakland forever.
We were hot and sticky and tired, but headed 5 long blocks or so to one of the palaces which sits right in the center of downtown, a shady complex of pavilions and other royal buildings, all painted in vivid designs along the rafters, and inside several were contemporary art installations that represented the mix of past and present day Korea. One was an entire wall showing overlays of a multi-story pagoda and modern office buildings, with the ghost of a train moving across the bottom. Stunning and evocative.
We thought we were so exhausted and over full of sights and sounds of Seoul, but David was determined that we trudge on and thank goodness, for we headed to Bukchon Hanok Village, a living neighborhood of traditional homes, some of which were moved there for preservation, which sits along a steep hillside with winding narrow stone streets and many signs warning tourists (mostly Korean but some foreigners) to be silent because people live there.
Every now and then we came across a charming little store, and as we came out of the neighborhood we saw were in a delightfully artsy commercial area with beautiful boutique clothing, other crafts, contemporary murals, and suddenly we were surrounded by a true gaggle of school girls, all in uniforms and heading down the hill. The streets are tree lined, and the traffic very light.
Again, cars seem to be allowed everywhere but they are blessedly quite and move slowly, as pedestrians wander in the roadway where sidewalks are marked but not raised. We wandered too, soooo tired and hot but soooo happy at what we had seen. When we got home David checked his phone and we had walked 9 miles.
Thursday after our Eden Pottery purchases we went back to Insadong for more souvenir and present shopping, and finally ventured into a Korean restaurant for lunch. What a bargain—we ate 5 huge mandu (meat and vegetable filled dumplings) and shared a bowl of savory beef soup, with rice and kimchi on the side. Fifteen bucks and we were completely satisfied.
Shopped out, we walked along side streets looking for a particular Buddhist shrine, which we found and managed to join the congregation for the end of an afternoon service (99% women, who were clearly enjoying themselves, much laughter at what the monk was saying), and at last returned home exhausted and hungry. Familiar food sounded good when I found a listing for Burger Itaewon about 5 blocks’ walk from our apartment. We had medium high hopes—but wow. Five minutes after ordering we had hot, crisp French fries and honestly delicious hamburgers that were also piping hot. What a find. We staggered up the hill to our apartment and collapsed into bed, so happy with our day (walked “only” 6 miles).
Middle of the night David’s phone rings—we startle awake, confused and groggy, and David literally rolled off the bed trying to answer his phone (the bed is low, thank goodness). Wrong number from Berkeley. Last time we will leave a phone on overnight!
Today we made the most of the cool and breezy and clear weather, hopping on the metro for a morning at the National (Samsung) Museum, a massive building with incredible views of the city, which sits in a huge landscaped park adjacent to the US military base. A gorgeous, spacious museum of which we managed to cover about 60% before we looked at each other and said “ENOUGH!”
Headed home, grabbed Turkish kebab sandwiches and drinks from the grocery, staggered once again up the hill and after inhaling our lunch took a nap. An hour later we were back on the metro to head downtown to the Sejong Art Musem, downtown, to see an Escher exhibit which had over 100 drawings and lithographs and several videos (I have to find “Inspiration Animation Edit 4” somewhere) and a movie narrated by his son, now an older gentleman, who noted his father’s work ethic (“we were not allowed to even walk by a window when he was working on something new so he would not be disturbed or distracted”).
Emerging hungry and ready for an adventure we hopped on the metro to the Gwangjang market, where there are something like 120 food stalls, specializing in savory pancakes according to the guidebook but in fact with not only pancakes but all kinds of scary looking seafood, noodles, pancakes (including whole fried flounders, sand dabs, sea squirts, as well as vegetable versions). We were completely intimidated initially, so David went looking for a new neck pillow as there were also long “alleys” of bedding stores, fabric stores, clothing, etc. He found just what he was looking for! Triumphantly and full of confidence we went back on a food quest and finally settled on a bibimbop stand. Delicious! A huge metal bowl heaped with vegetables, rice, chili sauce, sesame oil—we shared it and a small bowl of hot, delicious vegetable soup with greens that I cannot identify. So good. Several western young women came up and were greeted by the cooks (all women) with lots of laughing and smiles. Turns out they are from Poland, and two of them have been to Korea many times and were remembered. We talked with them—commiserated about our respective political leadership, laughed about how we were all warned not to come to Korea due to tensions with the north and how our native contacts all told us to come, it wasn’t anything new.
We had a jolly time eating and laughing, and then David and I headed off to find pancakes because they smelled SO good. We sat at one of the less intimidating stalls and ordered “assorted savory pancakes” and a bottle of soju. Directly in front of us was the griddle on which more and more and more pancakes of various types were piled on by the warm, smiling cook, and when we started on the soju she immediately gave us pieces of pancake to go with it while the rest finished crisping up. We ate a heap of cut up pancakes, served with a side dish of marinated, raw onion and very hot peppers which she warned us off of. We drank the bottle, ate the pancakes, and waved to our Polish friends as then walked by, a little stunned we were eating again. Ha. Do not underestimate Americans!
Tomorrow we head to Busan with Gideon, Yoojin, and their whippet Birdie. More Korea!