My Travel Map

My Travel Map

30 November 2014

Seoul, Part II

Now to get to the real soul of Seoul.  This post will be focused on my take on Seoul's modern culture and marketplaces.  The city is a bustling hive of activity at almost all hours of the day and night.  At its core, the lives of the majority of Seoul's citizens revolve around group interactions, which are most often oriented around eating.  There are a lot of restaurants in Seoul... almost an incomprehensible density of places to eat.   There are also a healthy smattering of cafes, coffee shops, tearooms, and teahouses.   And, of course, being that people spend so much time socializing and being seen out in public, fashion and vanity also play an important role in most people's lives.  These are the central themes of this post, since they were all things that were obviously important to the culture of Seoul.

I found Seoul to be just all around cool and fun.  It's a great city to explore.  However, I was traveling there alone, and Seoul is most definitely a place for groups of friends, families, and couples, not really openly catering much to the lone individual.  This goes hand-in-hand with Korean culture, which has a strong emphasis on the central importance of the family unit.  Regardless, I had a great time exploring and only really had any awkward situations when eating alone (menus and setups at restaurants really cater to group eating).   Like I said, the city is fun and full of energy.  There are a lot of places like the cafe seen here, with huge windows looking down on the street below.  Seoul is a great place for people watching or, conversely, to get out and be seen.

Seoul also boasts just as much neon as (or even more than?) Tokyo.  The artificial glow renders the night impotent, completely disempowered.  I'm not really a big fan of that, but there is no doubt that it adds to the seemingly endless energy of the city.  The lights are an important part of the adrenaline that fuels the city's more nocturnally active citizens through the long hours of the night.

I got into Seoul late on a Friday night, and I took to the streets as soon as I dropped my bag off at the guesthouse I was staying at.  I always have a rush of adrenaline when I get into a new place, so that combined with the number of people out on the streets and all that bright neon light made it very easy for me to go explore.  

In the subway, this is one of the first things I noticed.  What the hell is going on here?  Apparently, this is Korea's latest version of N'Sync or the Backstreet Boys.  I can only imagine the hoards of teeny-boppers that swoon at the sight of any one of these primped up pretty boys, let alone the whole group combined.  I love how each one has obviously been assigned (or more likely selected to fit to) a highly stereotyped personality and style too... all of which is just sticking to the now decades old boy-band formula for optimizing profit by getting a representative band member to appeal to just about any heterosexual teenage girl's taste and newly found hyper-hormone-fueled sex drive.  At least they also seem to have a good sense of humor about it.  But seriously, this is boy-band K-Pop... and this stuff is big, not just super popular in Korea, but internationally too.  K-Pop spans the full range of sub-genres of pop music (not just boy bands ladies and gentlemen), but all with a unique Korean style.  And this is very big business too... I mean, who around the world hasn't made a fool of themselves horse riding like Psy in the Gangnam Style video?  Gangnam Style is the epitome of K-Pop's potential to take the world by storm and make an incredible amount of money in the process.  As in the United States music industry, Japan and Korea have also employed corporate practices to most effectively capitalize on the willingness of teens to develop a fanatical obsession with their music idols and spend huge monetary sums supporting those idols.

 Out of the subway and wandering around a popular market district.  You'll notice lots and lots of couples walking the streets in Seoul.  I was surprised by the public displays of affection too.  These are nothing that a westerner would find obscene or rude but probably just over-cuddly and excessively affectionate to be putting on display in public, especially considering the combined effect from such a huge amount of couples there all doing it.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why there are so few lone individuals wandering the streets of Seoul.  Being alone is kind of depressing in a place that emphasizes affectionate interpersonal interactions so much.

My goal for exploring the Dongdaemun market district was to find this place: the Kwang Jang Market, truly one of the worlds great marketplaces.

After quite some time wandering the maze of mostly closed market stalls, I came upon this place.  I was looking for a reputedly epic food market.  Surely this wasn't it... this couldn't be the food mecca that I had been reading and hearing so much about.  So I had a quick bite at an old woman's spot, which turned out to be a truly offal experience (see the post on Korean food), and then kept wandering.  Just a little ways down around the corner, I found this:

Ah, this must be it.  This place is amazing and very easily any adventurous foodie's form of nirvana.  The Kwang Jang food market is a huge covered area lined with stall after stall of fast, street-style food joints that stay open very late.  It was easily my favorite place that I visited in Seoul.

These places were probably the most common, with their tall stacks of what looked like thick potato or egg pancakes.   These are jeon, flour or egg based pancakes made with a variety of primary ingredients.  One of the most common I found was pajeon, or green onions pancakes.  These are served as side dishes or as food to accompany drinks, as was definitely the case for most of these places judging by the impressive quantities of soju, maekgeolli, and beer being tossed back by the local customers.  I followed their example and sat down to a very tasty pajeon, served with fresh white onions and a sweet soy sauce, and a small bottle of maekgeolli.

In addition to all the food stalls, there were also several ingredient vendors selling all sorts of fermented and preserved goodies (banchan).

Then there were these centers of enlightenment, stalls serving all sorts of dishes derived from that most delicious of domesticated animals, the pig.  Few of the normal cuts were there, replaced instead by the cheaper and tastier bits like trotters, offal, blood sausage, blood cake, and even entire pigs faces (as you can see in the picture above).  The ingredients were all sitting there fresh, available for take away to be cooked at home or to be cooked up right in front of you and enjoyed on the spot.

This place was kind of an overload on the senses...  there are so many things to look at taste and smell, all amongst this loud hive of happy diners.  There is such a variety of options available, it's hard to decide what exactly you want to go for!  The place is crazy busy though... I was unable to get a spot at several of the stalls I wanted to eat at.

Notice that everyone not working is with somebody, a close friend, a group of buddies, or a tender sweetheart.  Dining (or doing much of anything in public for that matter) alone is basically taboo in Korea.  It isn't so much that it is looked down on, but more that people just find it sad or awkward to be doing something alone.  Family and friends are the backbone and beating heart of Korean society.  

This picture seemingly goes against what I was just saying... however, this lady was waiting for a friend to join her, who showed up shortly after I took the picture.  Notice too that all of the people running the stalls are women; I didn't see any men cooking the food in there.

Back out on the street and on to explore more of the market district.

Just across the small canal from the Kwang Jang Market was this place, the Pyoung Hwa Clothing Market.  This place was a free-for-all for outlets selling just about every type of clothing or accessory you could want in a huge variety of styles.  It is a shoppers dream come true, especially considering the prices are all at rock-bottom, essentially wholesale levels. 

One example of the stalls inside the clothing market... where there are shops for seemingly every article of clothing one can think of.  This hat shop had some amazing options... wardrobe coordinators and hipsters would go nuts in this place.  This actually explains so much of the creative styles I saw on the streets of Seoul.  Even I ended up succumbing to the great options and deals, buying several ties and shirts, plus a sweater and a scarf.  Koreans take their style pretty seriously, and thanks to markets like this one, they are really able to personalize it.  Hipster style is huge.  People also go to all lengths to personalize their cell phones, with cases ornaments being widely available and commonly seen.  Unfortunately, it seems like many Koreans, particularly Korean women, suffer from some pretty severe narcissism and vanity too.  I was shocked by just how often you see women (and many men too!) using the live video features and face-side lenses on their phones to show live images of themselves and ensure that their makeup is applied just right and that every single piece of hair is right where they want it.  It was kind of sad seeing how many Korean youths are outright obsessed with their own image.  

Back down in the subway, which is possibly the friendliest metro system in the world.  The maps are clear to read and follow and are written in multiple languages.  On the immaculately clean trains, stops are announced in Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese.  The stations are also super clean and easy to navigate thanks to clear signage and station maps.  The system is efficient and up-to-date from what I could tell too.  Then, to add icing to the cake, there is plenty of artwork around the stations, like the tiles featuring children's drawings seen here, and even some anti-depression installments, including these happy cartoon animal statues with signs telling people to stay happy and remember someone is always there for them!

Out on the street for some more exploring by foot.  One of the things you'll notice in central Seoul is the fun, creative, and abnormal architecture.  Like many modern Asian cities, Seoul seems to be a playground for architects, where they can get away with a lot more freedom of style than is possible in Europe or the Americas.

Nope, this bus doesn't have a giant unicorn horn; the street does.  It is a huge statue in the middle of the street.  It's really worthwhile wandering around a bit on foot if you like public art and architecture... there are some great examples around Seoul.

Another example of the art in subway stations... this mural was huge and featured some more traditional examples of Korean art.

Now onto another of my favorite spots in Seoul: Insadong-gil.  This street, really more like a network of streets or small district, is just awesome.  There are a bunch of cool and boutique shops, art galleries, tearooms and teahouses, cafes, and restaurants.  You can easily fill up a day or more just exploring places along this main thoroughfare.

One of my first stops was a good teahouse with a view.  I ended up in this place, which was just perfect.  The tearoom/teahouse prices are expensive along Insadong-gil, but they are worth the price, especially if you can get a spot with a view down on the street to enjoy the people watching.  The teas are excellent too.  In addition to your more traditional green, red, and black teas, there are also a lot of herbal infusions, with one of my favorites being chrysanthemum tea.   

Of the many very cool shops to explore along Insadong-gil, there are plenty of antique and bric-a-brac shops, which are just perfect for souvenir hunting.  I spent a while at this little brass shop, where I ended up buying some small brass frogs, which are often placed by decorative pools or fountains for a little touch of personality.

There were some big bronze statues there too, including different versions of this 3-footed toad.  This is another piece of Chinese culture that has developed a place for itself in Korea.  The three footed Jin Chan or "money toad" (note the Chinese style coins threaded on the strands of hair or yarn coming from the corners of its mouth) is a Feng Shui symbol of prosperity and is a popular token appearing outside of local businesses. 

There are also plenty of traditional and custom, locally produced clothing shops around Insadong-gil too.  I really liked some of the traditional stuff... they are very classically simple styles that will probably maintain their elegance regardless of what era they are being worn in.

I was surprised by how much traditional clothing was on sale, but these are apparently worn several times throughout the year for family events and ceremonies.  It makes for stark contrast to the hipster style that is so popular there now.

There wasn't as much street art as I would prefer around Insadong-gil, but you can always find your own street art, whether it was put there intentionally or not.

Here is a good tasteful mural though.  Artwork featuring scenes of traditional Korean music, drumming, and dance are very popular.

Did I mention that Insadong-gil is good for souvenir hunting?  There are plenty of shops selling Korean handicrafts and multiple touristy souvenir shops.

As I found to be true all over Kore, there are plenty of options for eating too.  Some Korean restaurants specialize in only one thing, a dish that the chef has mastered and that has made the restaurant successful.  Others have a big menu with plenty of excellent options.  No matter what you go for, you shouldn't go hungry in Korea; food options are plentiful and delicious, plus it is relatively inexpensive to eat out too.

You'll see masks all over the place in Korea.  These have an important place in various parts of Korean history and culture.  Masks were used in warfare, by shamans, in burial ceremonies, and during some dance performances and plays.

As I mentioned in the first post, I was in Korea during Autumn, and the fall foliage added a beautiful touch to the city.  Insadong-gil was no exception.  You have to be careful walking along Insadong-gil since surprisingly, it is still open to car traffic, except for Sundays, when it is restricted to everything but pedestrians.

The activity along Insadong-gil lasts well after sunset too; though many of the shops might be closed, the cafes and teahouses remain open.  

Back in the subway... and on to the last segment here... nightlife.

Thank goodness for those that devote their lives to making a living by preparing delicious food for others.  These folks sacrifice a lot to make so many people happy.  They work long, odd hours on their feet and often in hot and stressful conditions.  But life wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable without their services.  Some of the greatest of these culinary heroes are those that stay open, or even open up especially, to cater to the late-night crowd.  Going out at night would be so much less exciting or gratifying without late-night food options.

This place specialized in Chinese style steamed buns.  As with every great food city, Seoul has plenty of options for international food styles too.

I ended up staying over by the university district of Hongdae, which I found later to be a popular and bustling nightlife hotspot.  There were hordes of young people out on the streets at night and plenty of clubs, bars, and "bangs" (like personal movie, karaoke, or computer rooms rented at an hourly rate; more on these in the Cheongju post) to lower their inhibitions and keep them amused.

In true Korean form, Hongdae also has the full range of options for eating, in addition to all those drinking and dancing establishments.

I mentioned the hordes of people out in Hongdae, right?  Koreans love to go out to shop and eat and just hang out... it seems almost like no one ever stays in for an evening at home!  The atmosphere from so many people out and about is contagiously energizing and promotes staying out longer to see and do more.

I even lucked out and caught some impromptu live music... they literally pulled up that truck and played out of it for just a little while before moving on to the next random spot.  They were a rock band with a strong ska influence, and they played hard for about 20 minutes or so.  Just as the first of the police started showing up to investigate, they were already packing up and getting ready to roll on.  I wonder how many spots they performed at like this?  It was a brilliant tactic, especially with the truck containing all their gear, power, and details.  It was truly awesome.

With many Koreans being pretty heavy drinkers and partiers, bar food and beer are both very popular in Seoul.  There are plenty of places like this one that serve large glasses of cold draft beer alongside fried chicken or other pub-style fare.  I ended up in the chicken style places a few times, and was very happy to find such a variety of delicious sauces to go with the perfectly battered and cooked crispy nibbles of chicken.  It all went really well with the cold beer.

Hongdae also offers up plenty of street food options... and you really can't go wrong with it there.  All in all, Seoul is a great city for a variety of reasons.  However, I think the best way to enjoy it is as the locals do: get a group of friends or a significant other, go out with them, and explore the endless variety of cafes, restaurants, bars, bangs, and clubs available around the city.  Take in the culture all around you; see and be seen.  Feast your senses on all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Seoul.  As the locals all know, there are some excellent and exciting options on offer; more than enough to keep you and your friends busy exploring for an entire lifetime.

29 November 2014

Seoul, Part I

Welcome to Seoul; welcome to Korea.
Based on what I already knew about Korea, I expected to visit and find a place I'd like.  I found a place I loved.  The best part about it though is that it wasn't the scenery, history, architecture, or even food that actually won me over (though those all added of course); it was the people and their immensely strong and wonderful character and national ideals.  Over the next few posts, I hope I can convey the reasons why Korea has been added to the short list of my favorite countries.

By Korea here, I'm referring to the Republic of Korea, or South Korea as it is also - and more commonly - known.  I started my journey in the capital, Seoul.  Seoul is a big, big city, with a lot of history and some (not so hidden) gems of peace and tranquility.  It is a hive of activity and like any other great city has more little nooks and crannies of awesomeness hidden all around the metropolitan area than any one person could ever find on their own.  This post is about exactly that though... exploring on one's own, getting out and looking at a place closer to better appreciate the finer details and find exactly what it is that makes you happy.  And Seoul is a great place to look closer.

How many statues do you wander by in a foreign city and not even notice?  If you do notice them, how many do you just leave it at "huh, wonder who that person did?"  Well, I do that a lot... but it was hard to do with this statue.  It was prominently located, and it was huge.  The first chance I got, I looked it up.  Turns out this is a statue of King Sejong the Great.  As an indicator of where the nation's priorities lie, Sejong was a huge promoter of education and he was the one who pushed for the creation of Hangeul, the modern Korean alphabet, and then decreed it be used as the official alphabet for the Korean language.  His acts opened up a new world of literacy and education to common people.

Hangeul (or Hangul) is a beautiful, versatile, and powerful alphabet system.  To the uninitiated, it might look like just another complex set of characters, as are used in China or Japan, but look closer and there is a method to the apparent memorization madness that accompanies character systems.  As an example, let's start with the word Hangeul, which is written 한글.  First of all, you need to know that each block is really a syllable, formed by a combination of vowel and consonant letters.  So, lets look at the first syllable: 한,  which has three letters forming the "h" (ㅎ), "a" (ㅏ), and "n" (ㄴ) sounds.  Next, the second syllable, 글, consists of the "g" (ㄱ), "eu" (ㅡ), and "l" (ㄹ) sounds.  Next, there are some relatively simple rules about how to block the syllables into roughly square shapes, which supposedly originated from the creators of the language using square window panes to limit each syllable as they developed and tested the language.  Letters, and letter combinations within an individual syllable, can stretch or shrink in both directions to suit this purpose.  For example, note how the "l" letter changes shape and position in these two sounds: "lu" is 루, while "la" is 라; or how the "g" changes in these two: "go" is 고, while "ga" is 가.  There are other conveniences of learning such as the distinct types of simple horizontal or vertical lines used for vowels and the more complex shapes used for consonants.  With that all in mind, Hangeul is really quite approachable for anyone to learn... I was able to memorize the alphabet and simple rules and was reading Hangeul about mid-way through my week-long stay in the country.  A great website I found to study is this one, which really makes learning Hangeul quite approachable and fun too.  Of course, I couldn't understand anything I was reading for the most part (though there were a surprising amount of signs that had English words written in Hangeul), but still, I was at least able to make the sounds that were represented.  That is a very strong start and more than I ever expect to be able to do with either of the written Chinese or Japanese languages.  More fun still is the ability to transliterate your own language using Hangeul... allowing you to write some simply coded messages (for example, "banjo" : 반조, "chimney" : 침니, "Canada" : 카나다, or even "meaning" : 미닝).  Basically, Hangeul is a very powerful, versatile, and most importantly, sensible alphabet that allows people to quickly learn how to read and write.  No wonder Sejong the Great has such a prominent statue in the middle of Seoul.

Next up, the Taegeukgi, or the national flag of South Korea.  Looking a little deeper at a truly interesting and seemingly simple yet beautifully complex national flag.  So, the white background is pretty easily understood for purity and peace... that translates well pretty much worldwide.  Now, the four "trigams" in black around the centerpiece yin/yang symbol add a touch of complexity... they arent just simple blocks of sticks.  The four trigams are half of those used in the ancient Chinese book of divination, the I Ching.  They can be used to represent a number of different concepts, from the seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter), to celestial objects (heaven, earth, sun, and moon), to the base family units (father, mother, daughter, and son) with the corresponding symbols represent each of those four concepts in the same order, respectively.  The philosophical complexity and beauty of just those four symbols needs little more explaining, but deserves plenty of extra contemplation.  Finally, the red and blue yin/yang symbol in the middle represent opposite forces, such as light and dark, male and female, day and night.  Of course, this is even more interesting considering the current state of the greater Korean nation: with its two countries, the communist dictatorship North and the open democracy of the South, facing off across a seemingly unbridgeably divided border.  Pretty crazy and interesting stuff... all in one national flag.

Now, onto some history and architecture.  Welcome to the Gyeongbokgung Palace.  Located at the center of Northern Seoul, this relic, resurrected from the ruin of war, is a beautiful tribute to Korea's style and heritage.  The palace complex was first constructed in 1394, but since then it has been damaged and rebuilt twice.  The first ruin came during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, when most of the complex burned.  The second came during the Japanese occupation of WWII, when the Japanese used the palace complex as their administrative and gestapo headquarters.  During that occupation, many of the buildings were altered or destroyed.  However, since then, the Koreans are in the process of restoring Gyeongbokgung to its original form.

Traditional Korean monumental architecture seems simple from afar but with complex detail as you get closer and relies a lot on symmetric form.  Not surprisingly, due to a long history of invasions from its larger neighbors, Korean architecture has many similarities to Chinese and Japanese architecture.

I particularly love the gargoyles and statues.

So, why is symmetry so important?  It might have something to do with Confucianism and Chinese influences during the Joseon dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1897 and saw the construction of the 5 great palace complexes around Seoul.  Of the 5, Gyeongbokgung is the oldest.

The symmetry strikes you from afar, but up close, it's the detail that really hypnotizes you...

With the architecture at Gyeongbokgung (and other palaces and temples around the country), it is pretty much impossible not to look closer and get pulled in to all the color and detail.  The underside of the roofs are ornately decorated using bright paints, plenty of geometric design, and almost totem or Aztec-like wooden features.

Did I mention the architecture can be slightly hypnotic?

Another unplanned, serendipitous situation occurred when I was at the entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace: I happened to be there right on time to see the bright and grandiose changing of the guard ceremony.

The bright silks of the guards uniforms and colors in the flags were somewhat hypnotic.  The guards went through a series of drills, with some at a stand-still and others in motion, but all well choreographed.

The backdrop of the palace and the mountains in behind made this a particularly enjoyable show.

I hit the jack pot with this guy.  He placed himself perfectly for where I was standing in the crowd.  I loved the detail in his silk and the shade and light on his face through his hat.

Check out those shields... bright colors everywhere.  And how about those shoes too?  I can't imagine being kicked by those guys, especially considering most of them are probably trained in taekwondo, one of Korea's home-grown martial arts and the national sport, which has an emphasis on kicking.

Bright colors are used a lot in Korean decoration too, both old and new.

This dragon drum was amazing.  Drums are important in traditional Korean music, though this one (if this replica is even functional) would probably have been used for ceremonial purposes.

The dragons on the drum were simple in some respect, but quite complex considering how much they wound around the barrel.

This huge pagoda is the most prominent building at Gyeongbokgung Palace.  It houses the National Folk Museum.  The museum is packed with information on the traditional ways of life in Korea, but I'm told (I didn't get to see the show myself) that the folk performances done outside of the museum periodically throughout the day are well worth catching.

The palace grounds are quite pleasant, but the place definitely still feels like it is new.  The paint is too fresh, the concrete too modern and consistent, the stones too square, and there aren't enough missing roof tiles for it to actually feel like an old place.  Also, I found it odd that you can't enter or even see into so many of the buildings... it makes me wonder what is inside, or if there is anything inside at all.  As with any historical restoration or reconstruction, I hope that the greatest care and effort were put into the authenticity of the details with respect to the original and the quality of construction, so that eventually, these buildings actually will be old and visitors hundreds of years in the future can still enjoy them.

These telephone booths seemed glaringly out of place... but I kind of really liked that!  It was so random.  I also really appreciated the modern architecture behind the ancient.

This is a good representation of the colors used on the facades of most of the buildings around the palace: green, rusty red, and hot pink.

And again, the details up close are quite nice too.

There were several ponds around the complex too.  I stopped and sat by this one for several minutes, transfixed by the mountain and that red door.  The mountain is to the north of Seoul and is actually part of Bukhansan National Park.  Bukhansan forms the northern backdrop for Seoul and is actually reachable by public transport, which is pretty unique as most national parks go.  Koreans are big on getting out into nature for hikes and to enjoy the peace of beautiful natural settings, and there are many great parks and natural areas around the country.

I was lucky to be in Seoul in November, so there was the added bonus of fall foliage.

I really enjoyed the fact that it wasn't too difficult to find yourself alone in some of the palaces large courtyards... the place wasn't nearly as packed as I expected it to be on such a nice Fall afternoon.  Maybe the most other people had gone to the national park for some hiking.

I loved the details on the roof tiles...

And there are those gargoyles again too, notice how each one is different.  Also, check out the detailed artwork on the roof tiles.  They were different on each building.

This staircase reminded me a lot of the ones on the pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico.  I loved how the animal figures were worked into the architecture like that.

This pond and pagoda were truly spectacular, and I lucked out with the natural lighting when I got there too...

Gyeongbokgung Palace is definitely worth a visit.  It is a beautiful and peaceful place and makes for a pleasant escape from the turmoil and turbulence of the huge city that envelops it.

Back into the city, into the structured chaos.  The area around Gyeongbokgung Palace is great for exploring by foot and taking in some of Seoul's highlights.

On my way over to the hanok village (see below), I stumbled upon this group of people outside a restaurant making kimchi.  I stopped to watch and ended up getting invited to sample the fresh ingredients used to make the fermented staple of Korean cuisine.

I cover more details of kimchi in my post on Korean food, but here I'll focus on the sharing and friendly nature of Korean people.  First of all, let me reiterate how these pictures were taken: I was walking along a crowded sidewalk, when I stumbled upon these folks outside a restaurant, who were obviously preparing a batch of kimchi for fermentation.  I stopped to watch and asked to take some pictures.  The guy in the fleece vest and flannel here, signed to me (he didn't speak English) that pictures were OK and then waved me over to the tray of ingredients seen here in the foreground.  He gave me a bowl and some chopsticks and signed that I should try some ingredients.  He even grabbed the first piece of cabbage and chili paste for me and put it in my bowl.  Another older gentleman was already there eating away.  When I took my first bite, the man in flannel then poured me a bowl of the milky maekgeolli, which is like a rice beer and very tasty.  When I felt I'd had enough (after he graciously poured me another couple bowlfuls of maekgeolli, I thanked him profusely, signed that I had to go, and reached for my wallet to pay.  He refused any cash and just smiled at me.  Apparently, they were offering this for free to any passerby that wanted to come taste their kimchi ingredients and share their alcohol (they were drinking with the visitors)!  I was blown away by the generosity of it all, but I came to find that this generosity is commonplace in Korea.  In fact, it is a cornerstone of their culture.  It was explained to me that family values, friendliness, sharing, and generosity have become ingrained in Korean culture as somewhat of a necessity after thousands of years of invasions from foreign powers.  You can imagine how being able to rely on the kindness and support of people in a neighboring village or town could be critical if your own town was just destroyed by an invading army.   Furthermore, one's family is the most important thing in Korea, and good friends are quickly taken in as members of a family, with titles like brother, sister, cousin, aunt, or uncle being appointed to the unrelated new addition depending on their age and sex (age and sex are also critical aspects of Korean culture... more to come on this below).  I was floored by all of this, especially since so much of it resonated with a lot with me and my own ideals.

As I just mentioned, age is immensely important in Korea.  Elders are respected, and verbs are conjugated differently depending on the age (or position in society or at work) of the person you're talking to.  For this reason, asking someone their age is a not at all rude in Korea, and in fact, it is probably one of the first few questions a stranger will ask when first meeting you.  I was told that age also dictates most relationships, with an unwritten rule that the male should be older than the female in traditional practice; I was told it was very, very taboo for a wife to be older than her husband.  The older members of a family are sources of wisdom and highly revered.  Eldest brothers, husbands, and fathers are expected to take leadership roles and offer support and protection in the family unit.  This goes right down to friendships too, where the eldest in a group of friends is regarded as the wisest and responsible for sharing their wisdom with their peers (and even dishing out little extras at meals to make sure everyone is well fed).  At an Insadong teahouse, I met a sociologist from Canada who was studying in Seoul and introduced me to an interesting new dynamic that is forming out of our modern "connected" world.  The Internet has apparently really confused this reverence of age, since you often have no idea how old someone is that you are chatting to in an online forum.  Because of this ambiguity, the younger, tech-savvy generation has actually created a new verb ending (conjugation): until they establish the age of someone they are chatting with, online chatters will use "ya" as a verb ending, which is not recognized in textbook Korean and is a combination of the official "yo" (general polite; for older/higher status people) and "a" (informal/familiar; for younger/lower status people) endings!

Just a short walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace is a small, pleasant district with a high concentration of traditional Korean hanok houses.  The Bukchon Hanok Village in central Seoul is jam packed with these beautiful wooden buildings.  The unique feature of hanok buildings is the wooden ground floor inside, which is heated from small fires below the floorboards.  The combination of wood and open flame seems quite ludicrously dangerous, but these buildings were once the dominant style around the city (and around the country) and have only recently been largely replaced by modern structures with central heating.   The large building seen in the background here is a Buddhist temple.

There are also entire hanok villages elsewhere in the country, which are supposed to be quite lovely.  Hanok buildings haven't gone out of style either, I mean, what's not to like about the invitingly comfortable and cosy ambiance of a warmed wooden room?  The warm interior environment remains a perfect way to comfortably deal with Korea's cold and snowy winters.  While I was there, I ate in several restaurants in both old and new hanok structures and enjoyed some herbal teas in hanok teahouses.  Supposedly, building a new hanok is an immensely expensive endeavor nowadays though.

This little pocket of traditional structures in Seoul was spared destruction, and now it is a very popular place for tourists to stay in a traditional Korean guesthouse.

There were a ton of great small details around the hanok village too.  I just love these little touches of personality that are added to a place.

My first interior hanok experience was in a teahouse along Insadong gil, a lively shopping and dining street in central Seoul packed with great souvenir and antique shops, book stores, niche art stores, and lots of teahouses and restaurants.  This hanok teahouse caught my eye immediately and drew me in for a drink.  If you are comfortable sitting cross-legged on a wooden floor with only thin pillows to pad your bottom, the teahouse was a very inviting place.  The warm floor is glorious and the atmosphere is the definition of cozy, especially once the tea is served.  Korean teas are an inventive blend of natural ingredients, making for some truly unique and potent potables.  Some of the popular ones include chrysanthemum, cinnamon, honey ginseng, wild herb, plum, ginger, and medicinal herb.  I didn't really know what most of the ingredients were in the teas I tried, but they were all really good.  They were beautifully and artfully presented too, in these oversized earthenware cups and always with a sprinkling of the raw flavoring ingredients too.  Most also had a small amount of fresh pine nuts thrown in too, which was an extra seasonal bonus.

Back into the damp chill of the Autumn air to check out another of the five Confucian palaces.

Jongmyo Royal Shrine, the final resting place for over 600 years of Korea's deceased monarchy.  Sticking to Confucian practices and style, ancestral ceremonies were performed here multiple times per year.

The flagstoned courtyard in front of the shrine is huge and disturbingly empty.

I have no idea what exactly this animal is... kind of like a fox and a raccoon had a baby.  It was calmly watching the small group of shrine visitors from the inner corner of the complex, and it was a relief to see that not all relatively large wildlife has been pushed out by Seoul's urban expanse.

The grounds surrounding Jongmyo are a beautiful and pretty large park, which is supposedly very popular during the warmer months.  It is a pleasant and quiet place, offering another nice escape from the chaos and noise of the city all around it.   I would like to get back to Korea in summer, as I heard again and again how beautiful and warm it is then, but it was nice to see Korea in autumn too.   Korea is most definitely a country with four distinct seasons, and from what I can tell, it should bear each with dignity and style, making no part of the year a bad time to visit.