I went to Seoul during the last weekend of January with one of my coworkers. Having just released new functionality for one of the tools we were building in Tokyo, it was a great opportunity to relax after a stressful month. Looking to travel outside of Japan, Seoul was the closest place that still seemed like an adventure. It was very strange because there were aspects of Seoul that reminded me a lot of America, yet other things reminded me that I was halfway around the world.
We took a Friday afternoon flight from Tokyo (Haneda airport) to Seoul. After having flown through Narita, I was impressed with Tokyo’s smaller and closer airport. It was a breeze. Before leaving Haneda, we mentioned how It was warm and sunny in Tokyo. We were in for a rude awakening once we got to Seoul. As a true Bostonian would say “it was wicked cold”. After making it from the airport to the hotel, we walked around the area and stumbled on a great back alley restaurant. We were the only foreigners, which was exactly what I was hoping for. The octopus tank outside the restaurant is what caught my attention, and I was sold when the owner came out and showed us the English menu.
The simple menu contained genuine Korean food. We got some really spicy kimchi that made me break out sweating, and then was blown away with a red hot spicy pork and potato stew. Throw in a couple of beers, and it was a steal at $10 / person. My mouth was on fire.
We woke up early on Saturday so we get a head start on a day full of activities. After discovering it the night before, we felt obligated to visit the Dunkin Donuts close to our hotel. It was interesting to see how similar it was to stores in the US, but how it had been tailored for Asia. I almost got the green tea chewisty, but ended up getting a glazed donut. It made me feel like I was back in Boston.
The first stop on the tour was Deoksugung palace. We didn’t get a tour guide, and chose to walk around on our own. It was pretty cool as there were traditional style buildings including a museum and a Western style building that had been used for welcoming foreign diplomats. It was nice, but probably my least favorite palace that we visited. I wonder if it would have been different if I had taken a tour.
Next up we walked to Namdaemun gate. This is the symbol of Seoul, and one of their most cherished national sites. It is ranked as National Treasure #1 (so it must be important!). Incredibly, just a week or two after I visited it, it was burned down by an arsonist. It was the oldest structure in all of Seoul, dating back to the 14th century. You can imagine how horrified the entire country was. They estimate it will take 2-3 years and 21 million dollars to rebuild it.
Next up was Namdaemun market, a big marketplace located next to the gate. It was pretty interesting to see this huge market selling food / clothes / furniture, but the best part was a hula-hoop contest that was taking place in front of a couple hundred people. I got roped into doing it, and I embarrassed myself and the entire United States. It was pathetic. I barely made the hula-hoop go around twice. I have vowed to work on my hula-hooping this summer. The only upside is that I was able to entertain a whole bunch of South Koreans.
After the market we visited Seoul tower. We chose to walk up Mt. Namsan, which was a decent walk. Although you can take a cable car to the top of the mountain, I would recommend the walk up the mountain. There is a long staircase that will take you to the top, and I thought the walk made it that much more enjoyable. The view from the tower’s observation deck offered a great view of the gigantic metropolis that is Seoul. I love stuff like this.
The rest of the afternoon we walked around and planned out dinner and Sunday. For dinner we went to a hip neighborhood filled with university students. It was teeming with people – all going out to bars and restaurants. We ended up at a restaurant that served Korean barbecue. Although we did the cooking ourselves at our table, it was really good. I really liked the cheese fondue (I will spare you the photos I took of the beef cooking and the cheese bubbling over. I couldn’t believe how many plates we used. There was a different plate / bowl / serving dish for each element of the meal, in addition to the grill we cooked our food on. It added up by the end. I feel bad for the guy or gal who had to do the dishes.
The next day of the trip was dedicated to visiting palaces. First off, we took an English tour of gyeongbokgung palace. If you go to this palace in Korea, you have to take a tour in English. There’s too much history you’d miss out on. One of the tidbits I will never forget is that the king was miserable. He was expected to be studying and learning constantly, and only got about 4-6 hours of sleep a night. They said he was usually overweight, not very healthy, and had a short life expectancy because he was usually sad and lonely. The king had an extensive team taking care of him at all times – some of his doctors would occassionally taste his feces to see how healthy he was. That’s not a typo or mistake- they actually would eat his feces. This is just me speculating, but it doesn’t sound like there were too many happy people in the palace centuries ago. Another ridiculous and amusing fact is that most of the writing on the buildings was in Chinese. I couldn’t read the titles of the buildings, but back in the good old days neither could anyone else. Most people couldn’t read or didn’t know Chinese, so I think there were a lot of people wandering around centuries ago who ended up walking into the wrong building.
They had guys dressed up as guards in front of the main gate to the palace – you can’t really tell in this photo but it appeared the guy I was imitating was sleeping standing up. I don’t know how he stood outside all day, because it was really really cold.
The next and final stop of our visit was Changdeokgung palace. This palace is a mere mile or two down the road from gyeonbokgung palace, but that didn’t stop them from building two ridiculously large complexes. Miraculously, we caught the final tour of the day by utter luck (you can only see the grounds through a tour). This was probably my favorite palace because of the quality of the tour guide, how recently the royal family stayed in the complex, and the “secret garden”. The palace was used by the royal family up until the 1980s. I really appreciated the fact that you could only see the palace as part of a tour, because it felt like I had the palace to myself if I hung in the back of the tour. I can dream, can’t I? Also, the garden in the back of the palace felt like an oasis. You would never have guessed that you were in the middle of a huge city because it was so quiet and peaceful. Here are two of my photos:
I took a lot of photos, the rest of them are located here.
All in all, it was a great trip. I definitely prefer Tokyo to Seoul, so I don’t think I will go back to visit. But if you’re interested in going or are in the area, I would rank all of the stuff I did in the following order:
- Changdeokgung palace
- Gyeongbokgung palace (there’s a great museum here, definitely worth it. Check out this photo).
- Seoul tower
- Namdaemun gate (even though it burned down)
- Deoksugung palace (I wasn’t that impressed with this palace, but it’s quick and easy to visit).
There’s a bunch more I didn’t mention, so feel free to drop me an email if you’re looking for more info.