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.