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