04/06/2015 - 04/12/2015
Northern California was great for scenery and wineries, but once we got on our way to Seoul our minds were focused on markets and food. European farmers markets and fine cuisine are all well and good, but nothing can beat the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of an East Asian street market.
One place that we'd decided to spend a little extra money was on business class tickets for Mei Ling and Ian (as her lap child) on the longer flights in the itinerary. She was six months pregnant and sitting upright for ten or twelve hours at a time wasn't an option. The added benefit was that both kids were a lot calmer on the plane when their sibling wasn't nearby to set them off. The flight from San Francisco to Seoul was actually easier for all of us than the flight from Miami to San Francisco despite being twice as long. We crossed the dateline so despite having left on Monday morning we didn't arrive until late Tuesday evening. Neither of us spoke a word of Korean and the taxi drivers didn't speak any English at all, so trying to get from the airport to our Airbnb was quite an ordeal. In fact, our first taxi driver seemed to be unable to find his way out of the airport and eventually dropped us off where we had started. Our second driver did a little better, but still had to pull over a few times to consult his maps as well as call our hostess before eventually dropping us off at about 9 PM. Our Airbnb hostess met us down at the taxi and was amazingly helpful as we struggled to get our bags and the exhausted kids up to the Hello Kitty apartment.
Yes, the Hello Kitty apartment. The only Airbnb we could find in central Seoul large enough to accommodate us was entirely decorated in Hello Kitty accoutrements. Hello Kitty bedding, furniture, wall hangings, you name it. We were staying in the abode of Hello Kitty's number one fan in the universe.
Once we were settled into the Hello Kitty shrine, we were faced with the formidable task of finding dinner at 10 PM in a country neither of us had ever visited before and in which neither of us could communicate. Our hostess had pointed us in a general direction, but all the nearby businesses seemed to be closed up and dark for the night. I was coming to grips with temporary starvation as the last act of our arduous Pacific crossing but fortunately Mei Ling's food-seeking instincts took over and she led us to a multistory building where we found an open restaurant on one of the upper floors. Surprisingly it was fairly crowded and we were able to get a decent dinner. Our first Korean meal in Korea was a success.
One of the best things about our Airbnb location is that it was just a short walk to the Namdaemun market, which my research indicated might be the best street market in all of Seoul. We made a beeline for it the first morning. It was great to be back in an Asian market for the first time in two years. Everywhere we looked there were fruits, vegetables, live things swimming in tanks, and lots and lots of street food. There were lots of small alleys packed with tiny restaurants serving similar foods.
At one point Mei Ling came across some older ladies playing Jegichagi, which involves keeping a small beanbag-like object in the air just using one's feet. Mei Ling used to play it as a little girl, but her technique seems to have gotten a little rusty.
We were determined to try at least one thing we'd never had before, and we eventually settled on some bright red sea squirts which we took to a restaurant to be prepared. They were pretty bitter and I couldn't finish my half, but at least my curiosity was satisfied.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hanging out in the Myeongdong area to the east of the market. Myeongdong is a large pedestrian zone packed with shops and restaurants. We had dinner at a Korean barbecue and then walked back home for a solid night's sleep in Hello Kitty land.
The next day we headed on foot to the east where there were two large markets, Gwangjang and Dongdaemun. On the way we passed through a neighborhood consisting largely of hanok, small traditional Korean houses that date back hundreds of years. Despite a large number of restaurants in the area, everyone in the neighborhood seemed to have chosen to line up for lunch at one particular noodle shop.
We encountered Gwangjang market first and quickly realized it had more and better food options than Nandaemun.
We snacked at a few different stalls and eventually settled down at one of the live food restaurants where the very friendly chef chopped up an octopus and a sea cucumber for us. Just to be technical, this video does not show the consumption of live octopus. It shows us eating a freshly killed raw octopus whose tentacles are still moving because the cut nerves are still firing.
Dongdaemun market wasn't much further to the east but we were stuffed from Gwangjang so we walked a little further to Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The complex contains a Museum of Design as well as various galleries and shops devoted to design.
After killing an hour or so, we doubled back to the Dongdaemun market where we found a long alley with a huge choice of food options, most of which were stews and soups. Eventually we settled on a hotpot restaurant with steaming, spicy bowls of seafood soup.
The next day we took the Metro across the Han River to Yeoeuido-dong, a relatively new business development on the bank of the river. We toured 63 SkyArt, a modern art gallery on an upper level of one of the tallest buildings in Seoul. We happened to be in Seoul during the annual blossoming of the cherry trees, so once we descended to ground level we took a pleasurable walk along the water's edge through the pink-crowned trees.
Just to the southeast of Yeoeuido-dong is Seoul's largest fish market, Noryangjin. We've been to some amazing fish markets including Tsukiji in Tokyo, and this was possibly the best we've ever seen.
After a couple of blissful hours of inspecting everything that's ever been known to swim, crawl, or just remain motionless in Korean waters we bought a couple of delicacies to take to the upper floor and have prepared in one of the many seafood restaurants at the market. Ian wasn't satisfied with our own dishes and decided to sample some food from our neighbors.
After Noryangjin we took the Metro back across the Han to Itaewon-dong, which is known as an international and cosmopolitan area full of restaurants and entertainment venues. Unfortunately, we inadvertently got off at a stop slightly to the west of our desired location. It seemed like a short walk so I decided we would walk instead of taking a cab. This ended up being a rather poor decision as my two dimensional online map did not show me that our route involved climbing along the side of Namsan mountain. Who ever heard of a mountain in the center of a busy city? After much grueling work, we eventually crested and descended the giant hill and found a barbecue where we were able to get a decent meal. Mei Ling wasn't too happy about the climb, but as usual the route to forgiveness went through her stomach.
Up to this point we hadn't visited a single one of Seoul's ancient palaces despite residing a stone's throw away from Gyeongbokgung, the largest. We've never been much for historical sites but I couldn't help wondering if we were missing something, and I didn't expect to be back in Seoul for at least a decade. On our last day there weren't any major markets left in the center so we decided to walk east to Changdeokgung, which seemed like it might be the most visually pleasing of all the palaces.
Changdeokgung was pleasant enough, especially because it had more greenery and water than the other palaces, but there wasn't anything to make me regret not spending more time checking off traditional tourist sites in Seoul. I've seen plenty of pagodas in Japan and China, and I'm definitely not sophisticated enough to pick up on the distinctions between the Korean designs and the others.
A short walk from Changdeokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, a more touristy concentration of hanok with well-preserved houses amid quaint narrow streets. We had lunch in one hanok that had been converted into a restaurant.
We spent the afternoon at the weekly Hongdae Free Market near Hongdik University, where students and other vendors sell artwork and crafts. There were also street acts and a playground full of kids. One girl about Cleo's age but a lot heftier started bullying her for some reason, so I stepped between them right as she was about to push Cleo over. The other girl lost her balance and fell lightly on one knee. She got up and after a pause started crying loudly and ran to her parents who were chatting with a group of people a short distance away. She dragged her mother over and jabbed her finger in my direction and complained loudly in Korean. I ignored them and kept playing with Cleo, but out of the corner of my eye I could see Mom looking back and forth between her daughter and me with a totally confused look on her face. Finally she just patted her daughter in the direction of the slide and went back to her friends. The girl gave me one last dirty look and I stuck my tongue out at her. She briefly started to go back after her mother but then thought better of it. That was about as close as we came to an international incident during the trip.
We eventually had dinner in the same area and then headed home to get some rest before our morning flight to China.