The soul of Seoul

The Insa Dong neighborhood in the heart of Seoul was vibrant with activity: tiny shops with gifts in vivid primary colors, goods in bins on the sidewalk, the smell of food from street stalls around every corner, textured handmade paper hanging on racks, tea shops, young couples, tourists, and just life. I was traveling with a Japanese friend, and our little hotel was right in the middle of it all.

Shops, Insa Dong, Seoul
fans
Traditional dress for dolls
Print blocks
Shoe alley

In preparation for this trip, I studied Korean arts and history, while my companion researched Korean food. A local helped us find our first restaurant, down a little alley. We asked the young man for directions, but he said weโ€™d never find it and just took off walking, motioning us to follow him. We ordered three dishes. And always, kimchee is served, of course. Makgeolli, a cloudy rice wine, came in a large bowl like soup, to be ladled into smaller bowls to drink. We expected small portions like in Japan, but there was way too much food! A ssambap restaurant served thirty small dishes, some red and spicy, some tart and vinegary.

Dinner with makgeolli wine
Shrimp dumplings

At a tea shop up a precipitous flights of stairs, we stopped for a break and to sample the local teas.

My friend Yoshiko at the tea shop

We ate Korean barbecue with a young woman my friend knew who lived in Seoul. She picked us up in her car. As in Japan, there were no knives on the table, but scissors were available to cut the meat. My friend knew that I didnโ€™t eat meat, but this woman took us here as a gift, to show off what she considered the best Korean cuisine, so I did join in sparingly, so as not to insult. My friend was amazed that she drank with us; there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving in Japan.

Korean bbq

Changdeokgung Palace had elaborately painted wooden beams in pinks and greens under curved tile roofs. I could envision the royalty milling about in their boldly colored gowns adorned with fine embroidery. We weren’t allowed to enter the Secret Garden without a guide and missed the Japanese and English tours, so we opted for the next available, Chinese. It was a nature hike through dense forests with small, humble yet gracefully roofed and painted buildings. In the city center, a popular path along the Cheonggye Stream led to night-lit waterfalls.

Changdeokgung  Palace
The Secret Garden
Modern Seoul, Cheonggye Stream

The markets were endless – blocks after blocks of shops, in covered buildings, out on the streets, in carts or on blankets. Dongdaemon market branched off into dark alleys, barely enough room to walk, and difficult to negotiate around passing carts being pushed or dragged. At Namdaemon market, clothes were piled high on tables. Often the seller perched in the middle, on top of the table, throwing items to the women who were rummaging through the pile.

Namdaemon market

On our last night in Seoul, we went to a spa. I’m sure the masseuse scrubbed off a layer of my suntan. I sweated in a charcoal sauna, was smothered in a cucumber facial, coated with mud, had a rough massage in oils, and soaked in a ginseng hot pool. At the airport, one could paint their own fan, roughed in with traditional shapes. I still have mine.

Following posts in South Korea: Icheon pottery, busy Busan, ancient GyeongJu.

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

55 thoughts on “The soul of Seoul

  1. Thank you Ruth for another lovely trip! I can only imagine what it was like to experience but you did a great job with the pictures and your post. I love the vibrant colors of the pictures and the food, especially those shrimp dumplings, looked yummy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, all of those colors at the shops! They look like something out of a painting. Seoul (and South Korea, in general) is one place I’ve yet to visit, and I hope to someday when I can return to Asia. You look like you had a wonderful time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t imagine I will ever get back there again. It’s hard to revisit places when there are so many new places to explore, and of course current limitations and concerns. I went when I was living in Japan, and it was just a hop.

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    1. Thank you, Virginia! I bought a few different kinds of papers for my artist friend (previous post). They were so beautiful, some patterned, some with soft leaf impressions, etc. I always tried to bring her something interesting from travels, since I was often staying at her house.

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  3. So colorful, and an interesting peek into a wholly different culture, Ruth. My longtime barber is from Seoul, so I get monthly tidbits of his years growing up in the city and around South Korea. I’m sure he’d speak in detail about the places and activities you experienced.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it fascinating to see how many things seem similar to North Korea, such as the food and the historic architecture, although the North has far fewer old buildings as most were lost during the war. But then other things are so very different such as shops and the whole experience of shopping!

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    1. Of course they were once one country, and still one people, and, who knows?, perhaps they will be again at some time. But the priorities of the culture have moved in such different directions. South Korea is so big on tiny entrepreneur business; everyone has something to sell you.

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      1. The North say they want nothing more than reunification with the South but I can’t see how they would begin to make that work at present, given the huge scale of the differences between the two cultures and systems. And while the South pay lip-service to the idea, I don’t feel they have enough of a real incentive to pursue it, and plenty to lose by it in terms of the hit their economy would take were it ever to happen.

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      1. The most likely end could come if there’s no clear successor at any point and the regime dies out through in-fighting. At the moment they have a firm grip on power, I think, and on the hearts and minds of most of the people. The latter could change over time as more information about the world outside filters through, as inevitably it must. Combined with instability within the regime and a possible power struggle, maybe they would fall – but to what/whom?

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      2. That’s the question. The year my son and I planned to visit Egypt was when the Arab Spring took hold in so many countries, protests, etc. (We didn’t go.) The long term didn’t result in significant change in those places.

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    1. If it was a traditional wedding, it must have been beautiful. A friend’s son married a Korean woman (here in the states) and she and her family were dressed in wonderfully colored gowns. Thanks for reading and your comment, Paul!

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  5. Marvelous post, Ruth. Great storytelling with your images which made me long for travel to new places like Seoul. Your food images made me hungry and your attention to detail in the architectural images make for some interesting and vibrant images.

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  6. This was such a lovely and interesting intro to Seoul. I’ve wanted to get to Korea for a long time. It’s pretty close to the top of the list at the moment.
    I love how palace architecture in China, Japan and Korea is so similar, and the three cultures are similar in other ways, and yet all have their own unique traditions/food/clothing.
    Alison

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    1. Thank you, Alison! Those cultures have influenced each other in many ways although they have often been at odds politically. When I lived in Japan, it was a great opportunity to travel Asia in small hops.

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  7. I’ve never been to Seoul, but your photos and those wonderful temples captured my imagination. Looks like Seoul is doing a fabulous job in keeping Korean culture and traditions alive, and I can only presume that there are many reasons why anyone should visit one of Asiaโ€™s great cities at least once in their lifetime. Thanks for sharing and taking me along ๐Ÿ™‚ Aiva xx

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    1. Thank you, Aiva, for your comment and for visiting many of my posts! I can only imagine the time spent in maintaining the colors on the palace grounds and other sites. It does keep the history alive.

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  8. What a wonderful look at Seoul. The food looks amazing! It was a little bit of torture laying over there with no chance to explore anything, but it also brought home the idea that Seoul is only 13 hours away by plane, and (pre- and hopefully post-COVID), a direct flight. I really hope to make that my destination one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent write up! I havenโ€™t been to Korea yet, itโ€™s on the list, but I enjoyed reading this.

    I didnโ€™t know about the zero tolerance with drinking and driving in Japan. Is this a cultural thing or a law issue?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment, Kyle! I believe the taboo against driving and alcohol consumption is both cultural and law. The allowable percentage of blood alcohol is very small. It’s really not a problem because a web of mass transit is available, especially in urban areas.

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