I arrived in Seoul on a direct flight from San Francisco with my cranky pants on due to lack of sleep. I breezed through immigration and the only curiosity was the infrared cameras screening for ill passengers. Train travel from Incheon to Hongdae works well except you cannot buy a T-money transit card inside the airport. I arrived at the Time Travelers Party Hostel dazed and confused and one of the hosts directed me towards the main drag Eoulmadang-ro for dinner.
I wandered for an hour seeking a vegetarian meal until two homely students intercepted me and asked about an English bookstore. Based on previous Asia travels I assumed that this was an excuse to practice English so I indulged them for half and hour with questions and answers about our respective homes. They invited me to join a traditional ritual honoring ancestors. I demurred and offered to meet tomorrow — more on this later. After more searching, I finally found something that looked vegetarian based on the photos. After a confusing exchange with the waitress, two friendly businessmen helped me order a delicious kimchi soup with tofu and egg. Korean meals sadistically provide thin metal chopsticks but thankfully include a spoon. We chatted about our respective careers, travels, and, curiously, salsa dancing, which they both enjoyed. The businessmen invited me to join for dancing and I declined due to jet lag which disturbed one of them. He assured me that he was not gay and that he would show me the tons of straight porn on his phone. Thanks for the offer but perhaps another time!
I crashed at my hostel and fitfully slept until late morning. I met Clark, one of my fellow hostelers, and he expressed interest in joining me for the traditional Korean ritual. I shared my suspicion about the culty feeling but he assured me that he was in for a penny and in for a pound. We met the girls who were chatterboxes and proceeded to their so-called study hall where several Koreans, usually female, were interviewing other non-Koreans, usually male. Our hosts offered me some suspicious-smelling tea which turned out to be only buckwheat and then interrogated us about unexpected deaths in our families. They explained that Korean culture honors their ancestors and they would like to perform this ritual for us. Others could only observe but they let us participate instead since we were first-borns which involved bowing, kneeling, covering belly buttons, and burning scrolls. We shared the ritual food which consisted of fruits, sweets, meats, and soju. Clark acted like a real trooper through this although his patience wore thin by the third hour! Our hosts asked for a donation and I gave ₩20,000 to their nursing home work, or perhaps towards studies for gullible foreigners. I believe they performed a jesa although Clark suspects they performed identity theft. Our hosts behaved graciously and indulged me in a long question-and-answer session about their lives and country. The ritual itself fascinated me and I guess one could call it a cult-ural experience.
Having bonded through our tribulation, Clark and I headed to Namsan Park to catch a view of the city before sunset. The journey consists of two stages but I only recommend the first which takes you up the hill via ropeway. You can see tens of thousands of love locks and an imitation Eiffel tower. We also did the second stage which takes you up the tower via elevator. While I appreciated the hilarious ceiling animation, the view was not much improved from the top and it doubles the cost. We returned to Hongdae for bibimbap which Clark had not previously tried. Unfortunately, I took him to an all-you-can-eat and do-it-yourself restaurant which used mass-produced ingredients but only cost ₩5,000. We had a few drinks at a nearby hof and repaired to the hostel since I still had jet lag. The gaggle of hostelers hung off our every word about our cult-ural experience and two of them reported a similar experience regarding an English language bookstore.
The next day I hit up the National Museum of Contemporary History which covers the last hundred years. American education gave me little background on Korea besides the war and I did not realize the long occupation by Japan before 1945 or the breakneck growth after 1953. All of the primary sources are in Korean and some lack English translations which frustrated me. I bumped around city hall area for a while and spied a platoon of traditionally-dressed Korean warriors which delighted other tourists.
I stumbled into Kakao Friends store which is a popular messaging/payment/taxi app as well as insanely cute characters. Customers queue outside due to the shop’s popularity and many people take selfies with the larger than life-sized characters. Next, I went to the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum and cannot recommend it enough. The issue of institutionalized sexual abuse horrifies me and Japan should take full responsibility for its actions. The activists have done a good job keeping the pressure up with weekly protests for 26 years. The museum also discusses more recent abuses, including some committed by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam war. In the evening, I explored Itaewon, the Western area, but the place did not resonate with me. I returned early to the hostel to chat up fellow travelers and prepare for an early-morning DMZ tour.
I booked a full-day DMZ tour via Cosmojin although several other vendors offer the same thing. An older man with a wry humor guided us and called himself S.P., short for sexy person. The highlight was JSA/Panmunjom where the US military takes you a few feet past the absolute border of North Korea. I saw the lone, affectionately-named “Bob” North Korean soldier, several intimidating ROK soldiers holding taekwondo poses, and signed a waiver that I might die. During a decade of reunification optimism, South Korea built a train station intending to link to the North Korean train network. Passions cooled in the 2000s and the station only schedules one train per day for the tourism workers. The rest of the tour disappointed, including the third tunnel, observatory, a bombed locomotive, and a ginseng factory. I did supplementary research about North Korea and it pained me to learn about their plight compared to the prosperous South. Comparisons with a divided Germany do not ring true and the suffering in the North seems immense.
I returned home to sleep for a few hours and prepare for dancing at Club Octagon in the famed Gangnam district. Robina, a stereotypically blunt German hostel host, remarked that I did not look like someone who goes clubbing — thanks for the vote of confidence! I fancy myself a pro and took the last train to the club at 1 AM and returned on the first train back at 6 AM. EDM is not really my bag but I danced on the main floor for two sets of DJs, including the headliner Vinai. Koreans have an annoying habit of making it rain with paper napkins which collect on the floor with drink residue, creating a disgusting mess on your shoes. The main dance floor itself was a farce with so many people that one could do little other than raising your hands and pogoing in place. I retreated to the smaller rear floor which had non-EDM and less congestion. The mood changed dramatically over the night with hangers-on like me becoming sloppy near the end. Other observations: Cass Light should be classified as near-beer, Korean lockers are high-tech and convenient, and you can buy ice cream!
Saturday blurred recovering from the night before. I had my favorite meal of the trip at 나물 먹는 곰, or The Veggie Eating Bear, which locally sourced ingredients and had a thicker, more flavorful bibimbap sauce than I have previously tasted. I set out for the Korea Modern Design Museum which the language barrier made largely inaccessible. I was the only westerner to sign the guest book all year! The collection originated from the personal artifacts of a now-deceased professor, detailing Korea design from the last 100 years. Some of the modern logos and electronics interested me but I could not relate to the earlier flag pins, glasswork, and toys. I made two attempts at the museum separated by an hour at a PC Bang, or internet cafe. I thought it might be fun to catch up on the games that I have not played from the last 15 years but I could not navigate the Korean-language interfaces.
Next, I went to the Park Geun-hye protests which were massive! Reports differ but several hundred thousand people attended. I could not follow the speeches but there was music and a variety of vendors hawking snacks, beer, candles, and improvised seats. It felt totally different than Western protests like Occupy or BLM, with most protesters quietly sitting with their candles and amplifying phrases from the speakers. I do not have any particular insight into this issue other than to say, #NotMyPresident!
After all day on my feet I relaxed at Anthracite in Hongdae, a refurbished shoe factory turned into a coffee house, which holds its own against San Francisco third-wave crazy. The couch area attracted a number of young couples necking and napping, perhaps due to lack of privacy at home. Gathering a second wind, I went to Club FF, reputedly the best indie live house in Seoul for over a decade. The opening acts sounded OK but the headliner, Asian Chairshot, performed some solid noodley jazzy solos. FF venue seemed popular with westerners, perhaps one-third of the audience, the greatest concentration during my entire trip.
The previously-skeptical Robina invited me to join her for drinks and dancing where I met Patricia from France. After a brief and disappointing visit to Thursday Party Draft House, we headed to Icon Cocktail Lounge for all-you-can-drink cocktails for ₩15,000. Conversation exceeded the drinks, which were watered-down and overly-sugared, and we had a long discussion about kanchō. Both women expressed yellow fever uncommon in the States — my Asian male friends should be happy to hear this! We next headed to Zen Bar for dancing which was a lot of fun! I hold a stereotype of Asians dancing in circles of 5–10 people which finally makes sense to me — it keeps handsy guys at bay makes for a more light-hearted and less sexually suggestive situation. I mostly danced with younger Asian women although a few guys showed me some ambition, surprising for a culture with such repressed homosexuality. Before the evening wound down the DJ put on Gangnam style and the crowd went nuts! The venue thinned out around 5 AM and I photographed a sleepy Asian. My single-serving friend Patricia was enjoying a moment with another woman until a drunk Spaniard took offense and tried to separate them. After some back-and-forth, I intervened then the guy took offense to me as well, pushing me a few times. Truthfully this scared me since the guy was huge but stood my ground, maintained eye contact, and kept repeating, “you’re cool, I’m cool, let’s be cool together”. After a hot minute we hugged it out and he went back to his drink. I later discovered that Zen Bar has a history of violence against women — this sickens me and I have never encountered these situations in the States.
Another slow start on Sunday with only a few hours of fitful sleep. I visited the National Museum of Korea, which houses cultural artifacts, and the place impressed me with its scale and scope. Most of the collection exhibits weapons, pots, and calligraphy spanning 2,000 years. I really dragged from the previous night so I hit the highlights, visited the pagoda garden, and repaired to my hostel for a long nap.
Awoken I went to Itaewon for another walk-through but I still do not understand the appeal. I closed my Seoul set with jazz at Club Evans where 주혜정 Trio performed a surprisingly good show. I miss The Elephant Room in Austin — San Francisco lacks a decent jazz venue. I returned early to the hostel and the next morning I had one more bibimbap for the road then set off for Shanghai!