As many of you already know, my fourteen months of living in Japan officially ends tomorrow. There’s so much I want to say about this, but because I’m still significantly behind on my posts (ever notice how all the fun seems to pour in at once?) I’m going to continue chronologically and talk about the trip back to the US once I’ve completed Korea and the following business trip to Kyushu.
So, without further adieu, here’s a summary of my one full day in Seoul.
First up: Gyeongbukgung, a palace built by the Joseon Dynasty in 1395, which was spectacular and without a doubt worth a visit. It reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing except that it wasn’t under construction for the 2008 Olympics 🙂 We were even treated to a special bonus: something Yun-Yeong, who lives in Soul, had never herself seen.
It was something like a Korean version of the Changing of the Guards ceremony in London: a number of men clad in armor and traditional clothing performing a short ceremony meant to transfer the responsibility of protecting the palace. Who are they protecting it from, you ask? I don’t know…I guess from the dangerous foreigners bent on invading with their digital cameras and tourist maps.
As an interesting little side-note, once I got back to Busan and showed Chie the pictures of the ceremony she explained to me who those guards actually were. As I mentioned, every male in South Korea is required to serve two years with the army. Upon joining, an overall exam – both physical and mental – determines each person’s “ranking.” The lowest ranking citizens (those poor saps) get to dress up and stand outside Gyeongbukgung for the benefit of the tourists.
Next we cruised over to Insadog, a “traditional area” highly recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. I found it to be a waste of time, your classic tourist trap full of Hollywood set-like buildings and souvenir shops. Personally I like to experience what a country is really like when I visit, not how good of a show they can put on for their tourists.
Still, there was one redeeming sight in this area: a small food stand for making some sort of honey-based dessert. The dessert was made by stretching a doughnut-shaped loop of honey, twisting it (to make two loops), stretch, twist (to make four), and so on until that one doughnut turned into 16,384 tiny threads. The show that the cooks put on – in Korean, English, or Japanese by request – was absolutely hilarious and ended up turning into one of my favorite memories from the trip. We hung out and chatting with them for nearly fifteen minutes while they worked their magic for the other passer-byers (or however you say that).
From here we continued to Namsangol, an area of traditional houses that felt very much like an outdoors museum. Having spent the last year living among Kyoto’s thousands of traditional houses I didn’t find it to be that amazing, but I’d still recommend stopping by if you’re in Seoul – it’s definitely not something that you’ll be able to find anywhere in the Western world.
Then came Namdaemun, which I’d put right below Gyeongbukgung on my “must see” list. It’s your typical open-air Asian market, only about ten times livelier and about six hundred times larger. I found it particularly amusing how all of the shop owners spoke Japanese instead of Korean; apparently an overwhelming number of Japanese tourists like to hit the area up for its wealth in Omiyage (a sort of small gift that is required by Japanese culture to be given to everyone you know whenever you come back from a trip).
Then it was on to Digital Park, the biggest electronics district in all of Asia – bigger even than Tokyo’s Akihabara. But not nearly as impressive.
I love electronics stores, but I have to say that I was underwhelmed by this area – perhaps even moreso than Noz was by the purple polo shirt that Jeff and I got him for his birthday in high school (inside joke). Rather than the super-busy, flashing lights, blasting music, Disneyland-like Tokyo district of Akihabara it was really just a bunch of large shopping malls that happened to consist only of electronics stores. Travelers may skip it without regret.
And last but not least was a brief stop at the nightlife district. Betty and I had plans to wake up painfully early the following morning so we chose to call off our all-night party plans, but I couldn’t very well leave the biggest city in Korea without at least seeing what their nightlife had to offer. I was quite impressed. If you ever find yourself in Seoul and have a Friday or Saturday night to spare…definitely go to this area whose name I don’t remember.
I’m so helpful, aren’t I?
And now it’s finally time for my post on the Demilitarized Zone, a very unique experience and the overall highlight of my vacation. I’ve had a post pre-written and ready to be uploaded for over a week now.
Check back soon.