War Memorial of Korea
One of the most touching rooms of the museum
Seoul, a bustling metropolis housing roughly 10 million inhabitants, is the capital of South Korea, a populous Asian state with over 52 million residents. What prompted me to spend three weeks in this intriguing city?
To be candid, I have always found the Korean people somewhat unsettling, particularly for reasons depicted in the compelling film ‘Parasite,’ which deservedly won numerous awards a few years ago.
Furthermore, their visceral disdain for the Chinese, while perhaps historically justified, betrays a provincial mindset that irks me.
Despite these reservations, I opted to visit Seoul because I find it foolish to dwell solely on prejudices – i.e., judgments based on hearsay and not direct experience. I usually strive to do the opposite, and though I may not always alter my convictions (particularly when people’s civil rights and dignity are at risk), I am confident that immersing myself in the Korean culture for three weeks will enable me to view their reality more objectively and return home with a more favorable impression of their people and way of life.
I took an Etihad flight with a layover in Abu Dhabi, which presented no unwelcome surprises also because I decided to pack only hand luggage, given my prior experience in Sichuan, where my suitcase arrived three days late on both my outbound and return trips. I packed a few T-shirts, two pairs of shorts, underwear, toiletries, and a laptop for work.
Jihun, whom I met when he was residing in Barcelona before the pandemic, (I lived there myself for almost three years), will lend me any heavier clothing I might need, although I doubt I will require much in September, as he is precisely my height.
Jihun will be working late also on the day of my arrival, as is common for many Koreans. Therefore, I will have ample time to unpack and freshen up at the studio apartment I rented near Nakseongdae Park, a hilly area in the southern parts of Seoul’s metropolitan region.
The first surprise of my Korean excursion awaits me in the bathroom.
Similar to other Asian countries, shower stalls are not commonly used in this region.
Instead, a hose is often attached to a pipe that also supplies water to the sink. The hose is equipped with a knob that allows users to control the direction of the water flow.
So, when you take a shower, you flood the whole bathroom, but the point is that, being overwrought from a sleepless night and 19 hours of travel, I don’t notice the pipe and while attempting to freshen up my face to wake up I inadvertently drench myself and my clothing in icy water, because the knob was turned to make water come out from the pipe!
Unlike my experiences in Taiwan and Thailand, I notice the absence of a tool to dry the bathroom floor after showering, which struck me as peculiar, and also the bathroom’s cramped size doesn’t make much sense to me.
Upon his return, Jihun enlightened me about the peculiarities of Korean bathing habits. Many Koreans prefer their baths to be steamy and hot, akin to a sauna. Consequently, bathrooms tend to be small, with copious amounts of hot water on the floor and a tightly sealed door to prevent steam from escaping.
This explains why Koreans often take a scorching shower first thing in the morning and then conduct all other hygiene-related activities, except for applying facial care products, which is done by both men and women outside of the bathroom, before leaving home.
Another unusual aspect of Korean studio apartments becomes apparent when Jihun opens a cabinet next to the kitchen sink and burst out laughing.
What I assumed to be a pantry for storing canned goods and other foodstuffs turns out to be a shoe cabinet!
Fortunately, the snacks I had purchased from the mini-market below the house while waiting for my friend remained unopened, and we don’t have to dispose of them.
After a restful night’s sleep, I’m eager to explore the city and decide to begin my adventure at the War Memorial of Korea, whose admission is free.
Despite the fact that it may seem unconventional to start with a museum dedicated to the brutality of war, I chose it for its convenient location and excellent reputation.
Upon arriving, I’m immediately struck by the museum’s impressive collection of interactive exhibits, which vividly convey the experiences of soldiers who were and are forced to fight in conflicts around the world. For instance, one section of the museum is dedicated to the Vietnam War, complete with recreations of local flora and bunkers.
Another highlight of the museum is its comprehensive displays on the Korean War, which remains an open wound for many Koreans.
Although the museum’s content may not be aesthetically pleasing, it is essential to confront the horrors of history to gain a deeper understanding of our world.
One of the most touching rooms of the museum
Jihun told me to wait for him for dinner at the COEX shopping centre, and when wandering through it I come across the most spectacular library I have ever seen, I understand why.
The Starfield Library, which opened on May 31st, 2017, boasts an impressive collection of over 50,000 books displayed on three towering, 13-meter walls, as well as 600 magazines for enthusiastic readers to peruse. A dedicated section to makeup and facial care books reminded me of my location in Korea.
The library’s construction cost a staggering 6 billion won, and its annual maintenance requires an additional 500 million won.
The Starfield COEX, which houses the library, is a marvel in itself as the largest underground shopping mall in all of Asia.
As you can see in the following video, unlike the traditional bookshop the Starfield Library is a lively space where popularization is encouraged, as evidenced by a professor delivering a lecture on economics in one corner of the library.
Dove la culture and entertainment meet
Before closing this day’s diary, I want to tell you about another Korean peculiarity that I discovered today.
Do you have a clue what the purpose of the LED lights at many major intersections in Korea’s major cities is?
If you answered: “To help pedestrians cross the street”, congratulations, you guessed right!
This innovation is especially important in Korea, where many people walk while looking down at their mobile phones. By keeping their eyes on the ground, these pedestrians can use the glowing lights to determine whether they should continue walking or come to a stop at a traffic light.
This fascinating aspect of Korean culture showcases the country’s impressive technological advancements and commitment to safety.
On 17 September I celebrate my birthday, and Jihun proposes to spend part of it in the largest and most beautiful of the five imperial palaces in the Korean capital.
Actually, I arrived in Seoul with two big wishes: to attend a short track practice (the agonistic season has not yet started) and a taekwondo exhibition.
The first wish will not be fulfilled, as the training sessions are not open to the public, but the second one materialises before my eyes on my birthday, as we walk down the wide avenue leading to the entrance of the imperial palace. Young students from a local school are showcasing their incredible taekwondo skills in front of a sizable and appreciative audience.
If you have yet to witness the breathtaking athleticism and artistry of a taekwondo performance, I wholeheartedly recommend that you view the video below.
These boys sure know what they are doing
My day has already been fulfilling, but the true highlight is yet to come.
The Gyeongbokgung Palace, which dates back to 1395 during the Joseon dynasty, was once destroyed by fire in the 16th century but later restored. While much of the palace has been rebuilt, the adjacent pavilion and pond remain in their original state.
Within the palace walls are the imperial throne room and the Sujeongjeon, or the ‘Palace of Moral Government,’ where the Korean writing system known as hangeul was created. You can learn more about this fascinating history later.
As we explore the palace, I can’t help but notice the many people donning hanbok, a traditional Korean ceremonial dress that can be rented from one of the several shops in the area. It turns out that entry to the palace is free for those wearing this attire.
On our way home, we come across a peculiar cylinder-shaped construction on a pedestrian bridge.
Jihun explains that these structures are scattered throughout the city, serving as a place to cool off and relax on hot summer days, complete with air conditioning, board games, or musical instruments.
At one such rest stop, Jihun delights me with a performance on the piano, a skill he had picked up in addition to his proficiency on the clarinet.
Jihun relaxing with a piano
On the following day, I have the opportunity to visit the Lotte World Tower, a skyscraper that stands as the tallest building in South Korea and the fifth tallest in the world.
The building’s impressive height, which reaches 554 meters over 123 storeys, is a testament to the remarkable feat of engineering and construction that brought it to life.
The tower serves as a multifunctional center, housing both luxury hotels and office spaces and offers several observation points, the highest of which is located on the 123rd floor, at an astonishing height of around 500 meters
The elevator ride to the top is a thrilling experience in its own right, with speeds of up to 10 meters per second, allowing visitors to reach the observation point in less than 50 seconds.
Fast and furious
The view from the top is truly unforgettable, and a must-see for anyone visiting the area.
Don’t come if you suffer dizziness
After finishing our visit in the early afternoon, we stroll around the vicinity of Lotte World Park, a place we plan to explore further in a couple of weeks. As we wander, we hear the distant sound of traditional music and feel drawn to investigate.
This is how I stumbled upon pungmul, a unique blend of music and acrobatic dance that originated from Korean peasant culture. Originally accompanying shamanic rituals, it later became a tool for political protests by pro-democracy groups. Today, it is primarily considered a form of entertainment.
The performances have a comedic tone, provided you understand Korean, of course. The audience is often actively involved aand Jihun, who enjoys these situations and is also the enthusiastic voice that you hear in the video below, quickly volunteered to throw a dish at one of the performers.
It’s amazing that we chanced upon this experience, and even more incredible that it was entirely free.
Music, dance and beautiful costumes
oward sunset, we travel along a small section of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, an approximately 11-kilometer-long canal that flows through downtown Seoul from west to east and is a remarkable example of the coexistence of man and nature in a big city.
At dinnertime, we rush to the Banpo bridge, which boasts the title of being the world’s longest fountain bridge.
As soon as the waterworks come to life, the bridge transforms into a sprawling picnic destination, accommodating scores of youthful individuals who come to unwind and enjoy food and drinks.
Arranged along the 1,140-meter-long bridge over the Han river, the fountain sprays a remarkable 190 tons of water per minute, courtesy of 38 pumps drawing water from the river and expelling it through 760 nozzles.
A bridge like no other
On our way home by subway, we make a stop at Yongsan Station, from whose terrace we get a striking view of the city center.
A pretty view of downtown Seoul
Did I mention the subway? Let me explain how to efficiently navigate the bustling city of Seoul.
To utilize public transportation in any Korean city, a laminated card is required. This card not only pays for rides but can also be used to purchase goods in select supermarkets. While there are options to personalize the card with K-pop artists or Line chat characters, I opted for a simple black design.
With 14 subway lines reaching every corner of the city, it’s impractical to rely on taxis amidst Seoul’s 10 million residents and inevitable traffic Line 2, in particular, never fails to make me smile with its pre-arrival fanfare.
Priority seats, designated by different colored seats, are strictly reserved for the elderly, disabled, and pregnant women. However, determining what constitutes as “elderly” remains unclear.
Unfortunately, the courtesy displayed by Taiwanese and Chengdu’s Chinese residents does not extend to Seoul’s subway. As soon as an unreserved seat opens up, nearby passengers rush to claim it – often teenagers.
Mention should also be made of the velvet-covered seats, for which there is an unwritten rule: in addition to the above categories, I was told that they are also used by those who are not feeling well. I typically choose to sit there, and so far I have not been asked to vacate, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m perceived as an old or sick man, or an ignorant tourist.
During my leisurely walks, I often encounter peculiar circumstances.
For instance, I stumbled upon an unusual white pole with a button, located in different parts of the city.
As you may be aware, smoking is restricted in many areas of Seoul, as signified by the warnings displayed on several pavements. However, the purpose of this “pole” baffled me.
After some research, I discovered its function: in the event of a violator (although I haven’t witnessed any yet), pressing the button on the pole activates a commanding voice reminding the ‘bad guy’ that smoking is forbidden. How intriguing!
Another unusual situation occurs on the day when, as I’m walking alone downtown, an unexpected sight catches my eye: peculiar, airship-shaped structures on my right. Intrigued, I decide to investigate and step inside one of them.
Before I can even inquire about the contents of the building or its accessibility, a staff member directs me towards a counter and requests my passport details to be entered into their system. At first, I assume this is for security purposes, but I soon realize that I have been mistaken for an invitee to a conference on sustainable technology developments taking place within those very walls.
Despite the mix-up, this proved to be a remarkable opportunity. I was able to engage in meaningful discussions with the presidents of both a ketogenic supplement company and a vertical greenhouse, deepening my understanding of these fascinating topics.
The following picture exhibits the inside of yet another one of these remarkable ‘airships’ that form part of the renowned Dongdaemun Design Plaza, also known as DDP.
This neo-futuristic masterpiece, crafted by Zaha Hadid and Samoo, serves as an ideal venue for exhibitions and conventions while also accommodating an array of design and gift shops. Vast seating areas provide a serene space to unwind and rejuvenate.
Convention center and more
The South Korean Parliament’s legislative branch is situated in the National Assembly Building. Although you can explore the interior, a form must be completed and approved before doing so.
My focus, however, lies on the library adjacent to the building, where the entry requirements are simpler. Instead of waiting for approval, only your passport is necessary at the entrance.
I opted for that part of the city to commence my daily discovery as it enables me to revisit one of my most cherished spots in Seoul, namly the park that stretches beside the Han River.
What makes it even more appealing is the presence of cozy outdoor mini-libraries, perfect for a relaxing break in the cool shade, offering a diverse collection of books that one can delve into, including some in English.
After trekking approximately 3.5 kilometers through the picturesque park, I finally arrive at my next stop, the towering 63 Square skyscraper. This structure derives its name from its number of floors.
Built in 1985, it stands tall at 249 meters and was once considered the tallest skyscraper in the world outside the United States.
Presently, it serves as the headquarters for an insurance company, numerous financial institutions, and a shopping mall.
After walking an additional 4 km, I arrive at the colossal Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market.
Although promoted as a popular destination for visitors, I sense that the locals are unaccustomed to encountering Westerners, whom they refer to as “the man with big eyes and long nose.”
The absence of other tourists confirms my suspicion, and most of the vendors greet me with respectful bows.
On the evening of September 21st, I venture out with Ryu, a Korean friend whom I had previously escorted during his visit to Verona in 2019.
He is spending a couple of days with me in Seoul, having relocated to another city, and since he is a notorious “party animal,” Jihun has passed me off to him to explore the lively district of Sillim, renowned for its nightlife.
No chance to get bored here
To my pleasant surprise, Ryu introduced me to soju, a Korean vodka with a unique flavor profile that is best enjoyed when mixed with beer in a 1:3 ratio.
For our dinner, we indulge in chicken nuggets, accompanied by cabbage and sweet potatoes, each bite smothered in the delectable hot sauce and heated to perfection on the stove.
The dish is completed with melted cheese, added right at the end of the cooking process, and each bite is accompanied by whole-grain noodles, complementing the dish perfectly.
As the night progressed, we make our way to a karaoke spot to showcase our singing skills.
Since there is also a Depeche Mode song in the extensive catalog, Sir Joe is having the time of his life.
Any chance to sing Depeche Mode is good for Sir Joe
Allow me to divulge an intriguing aspect of urban planning in this city.
Flowers make this overpass more enjoyable to cross
The photos that follow showcase flowers, statues, parks, and ornamental works of art that were not haphazardly placed. Rather, they were strategically implemented many years ago when Seoul’s new master plan was established.
This plan stipulated that anyone constructing a prestigious skyscraper – one that houses the headquarters of multinational corporations, insurance agencies, banks, etc. – must also create a park, art installation, or any other feature that would benefit all citizens, based on the space available around the building.
From a brilliant concept, we now turn our attention to a troubling aspect of Korean society.
Despite the Mapo Bridge‘s unremarkable appearance, it is also known as the Suicide Bridge.
South Korea’s suicide rate is alarmingly high, largely due to the intense pressure placed on individuals in a competitive society where outward appearance is highly valued. For instance, if a child returns home with a very good grade, it is common for his mother to ask why he didn’t get a perfect score, rather than offer praise. Although this is not seen as a form of excessive severity, but rather as a gesture of love to spur the child to always give his best,
I strongly oppose this type of upbringing. However, in a society that values competition and the pursuit of perfection, my opinion holds little weight. I will delve further into this topic in my final reflections on the trip.
While it remains unclear why the Mapo Bridge is a popular location for suicide attempts, caution should be exercised when crossing it if you are tired. Being nearly 1.5 km long, like all the other 26 bridges spanning the Han River in Seoul, if you stop in the middle of it to rest, a diligent motorist may alert the police.
Several years ago, Samsung’s insurance branch installed sensors, encouraging messages, and photos of happy families along the bridge’s railing to discourage suicides. However, in 2019, this initiative was removed due to its lack of efficacy and the negative impression it conveyed to tourists.
As you can see, even a city that offers numerous opportunities for entertainment, leisure, and aesthetic beauty is powerless when individuals believe they are inadequate.
A bridge with a questionable fame
Shifting gears towards a more delightful topic, I want to share a hilarious experience at the Seoul Museum of Art, situated in the proximity of Sadang Station, through a video which I hope you will find amusing.
This is what happened to me in a museum in Seoul
As the weekend rolls around, I’m grateful for Jihun’s company even during the day, which allows me to venture outside Seoul for the first and only time during my stay in Korea.
While most of us are familiar only with Seoul, South Korea is home to over 20 cities with populations of more than a million people.
Suwon is one such city, located just 30 kilometers from the capital. Its most notable feature is its status as the only remaining fortified city in the country, and its walls have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Interestingly, this designation was granted despite the fact that the walls were not entirely original. They were destroyed during the Korean War some 25 years prior, but thanks to meticulous documentation by the Korean people (including even the daily bathroom habits of the king!), the walls were reconstructed with remarkable accuracy in the late 1970s.
The reconstruction process posed a unique challenge, as the walls had originally been assembled without nails, relying instead on an intricate interlocking system, as you can see in the photo with the protecting mesh.
The final image captures the quintet of smokestacks, serving as an alert system for the inhabitants of Seoul. The leftmost stack was constantly functional, symbolizing a peaceful state. The greater number of activated stacks, the more critical the situation, and if all five released smoke, it indicated a breach in the defenses.
The Haenggung Palace is the second prominent site worth visiting in Suwon.
It served as a tranquil retreat for kings seeking relaxation or a haven during war. When the king was away, it functioned as a government office.
Presently, it showcases cultural festivities and martial arts performances.
The lunch I experience in Suwon will remain etched in my memory for a long time.
The food is, as always, delectable, with tofu and kimchi in a spicy sauce and a dish of battered meat, fish, vegetables, and mushrooms. However, it is not the food that will make the lunch unforgettable but the events that take place during and after the meal.
Even though we have ordered enough food for four people, the gentleman sitting next to us orders ground beef pancakes just to share them with us, a delightful gesture that proves how kind and generous Koreans can be.
During the meal, Jihun, the other diners, and the waitress strike up a conversation that is filled with laughter from time to time.
An example: the waitress, turning to our table, says: “You know, you are really handsome”. Having spoken in Korean, Jihun assumes she is addressing him and thanks her, but she adds: “Not you, I’m talking to Long Nose!”, a compliment in Asian culture.
This kind of behavior is common outside of Seoul, and it highlights the contrasting nature of Koreans: competitive and self-centered on one hand but capable of immense generosity and conviviality on the other.
Upon my return to Seoul, I’m ready to explore some of the city’s other impressive landmarks, including the NamSan Tower.
Unlike other observatory towers I’ve seen throughout Asia, its color does not have a decorative function but rather indicates the level of pollution recorded at any given time. The four-color scale ranges from blue to green, then yellow and red. If the tower is red, locals are advised to only leave their homes when necessary and with a mask for protection against the smog.
Unfortunately, this situation is not uncommon during the winter months, but it’s important to note that Seoul is a metropolis that prioritizes environmental issues. The pollution is mainly caused by factories in Chinese coastal cities, some of which are a mere 300 km away from the South Korean capital.
Interestingly, rumors abound about a massive weapons cache hidden beneath the tower’s base, either for a preemptive strike on North Korea or for defensive purposes in the event of an attack from the neighboring country.
Yet another chance to enjoy Seoul from above
Adjacent to the tower, I come across a stunning edifice that exudes a distinct Korean character, although it bears resemblances to similar structures in other parts of Asia.
It’s the palgakjeong – a mountaintop pavilion that used to offer the wealthy an escape from the din and bustle of urban life to gather, play board games, indulge in drinks and chat – an exclusive picnic, if you will.
However, what sets NamSam’s palgakjeong apart is its unique legacy of romance that has stood the test of time funtil about 40 years ago.
In the days of yore, when smartphones were non-existent, couples who had to part ways owing to unforeseen circumstances such as war, family relocation, and the like, pledged to rendezvous at this place on a specific date and time if conditions favored a reunion. Astonishingly, this promise did come to fruition in several cases.
September 25 starts with ultimate calmness and later entails a magnificent walking experience.
As I have to purchase a scarf of a local soccer team for a friend residing in Italy, Jihun and I relish a pleasant breakfast at the stadium’s cafe. The stadium holds an exceptional significance as it hosted three matches of the 2002 World Cup.
To my delight, the cafe serves an impressive cappuccino.
After crossing the stadium parking lot, a flight of stairs ascends to the Sky Park, offering an awe-inspiring panorama of the metropolis.
Another pretty view, this time of the Han river
Our next destination is the renowned EWHA Womans University, distinguished for its pioneering role as the first polytechnic institution exclusively for women worldwide.
Afterward, we stroll through another section of the Cheonggyecheon Park, which I mentioned earlier.
Could I possibly miss a Hanok village? Absolutely not.
The Namsangol Hanok Village boasts fully restored traditional Korean dwellings, providing visitors with an immersive experience into the rich cultural tapestry of the Joseon dynasty, spanning from 1392 to 1897.
Ultimately, we resolve to fully engage with the bustling energy of downtown Seoul on a Sunday, by exploring a vibrant street food market.
Any time is eating time in Seoul
The weather remains pleasantly mild, allowing me to explore various neighborhoods on September 26 and 27.
I kickstart my adventure by visiting the beautiful Bongeunsa temple, conveniently located near COEX.
Though I am not a devout follower, I find solace in kneeling before the Buddha, with my eyes shut, inhaling the fragrant incense and listening to the gentle chirping of crickets in the distance. The overall experience leaves me feeling spiritually fulfilled.
The following video was shot at another temple, whose name I cannot remember.
Afterwards, I venture towards one of the bustling university districts where I stumble upon an intriguing sight.
Aspiring artists seeking recognition flock to the streets, where they put on captivating performances. The weekends, in particular, are rife with shows by dancers, singers, musicians, actors, and mimes, among others.
Since their objective is to garner attention from impresarios, venue managers, or even just to share their gifts with those in the vicinity, they do not solicit monetary compensation for their exhibitions.
Talent on display for our pleasure
The Aqua Art Bridge, completed in 2004, is unquestionably the most extraordinary pedestrian bridge I have ever traversed.
In addition to the magnificent waterfall, the most astounding feature, in my estimation, is what lies beyond it.
Once you step across, prepare to be amazed by the Seoul trail, about which I will elaborate on shortly.
A very unusual pedestrian bridge
Let’s now explore the vibrant Ikseondong neighborhood, boasting charming, winding streets adorned with an array of clubs and small museums. One of its prime attractions is a magnificent park, though regrettably only accessible on weekends.
To overcome the disappointment of not being able to visit the park, I move to the Children Grand Park.
As you can see, even the entrance to playgrounds here is strikingly impressive!
Visiting South Korea’s most important museum on art and history is going to be undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip.
With over 310,000 artifacts, it’s the sixth largest museum in the world and welcomes more than 4 million visitors each year.
What is truly impressing, however, is the sense of comfort and ease you feel while inside.
Many factors contribute to this feeling, such as the museum’s policy of free admission (which is common among museums in the area), and the fact that every artifact on display has an English description panel.
Additionally, the museum is very easy to navigate, with each room clearly numbered and an itinerary to follow. The digital experiences are also spectacular, and there are even friendly robots available to answer any questions you may have.
Seeing is believing!
A glimpse of the video experience inside the museum
Across from the massive museum lies a smaller, yet equally captivating establishment devoted to hangeul – the Korean writing system. The origins of this writing system are fascinating and are depicted on informational panels.
It was created in 1443 by King Sejong, with the aim of providing all his subjects with a simple and accessible alphabet, replacing the complex Chinese ideograms that were previously in use.
While learning hangeul itself is not overly challenging (I managed to pick it up within a week), mastering the Korean language requires significant dedication and effort.
In a country like South Korea, war and military operations hold significant importance. At present, fighter planes patrol the northern Seoul area bordering North Korea, producing a regular roar, while young men mostly from the Air Force are often seen in uniform on the subway.
The past is commemorated by several notable sites, including the war memorial (see chapter above) and the giant National Cemetery.
The latter is the final resting place of numerous prominent figures associated with the country’s defense, as well as thousands of soldiers who died in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The National Cemetery’s significance also stems from two incidents involving North Korea. In 1970, three North Korean officers planted a bomb that exploded there, while a visit by 182 North Korean officers in 2005 led to nationwide protests over fears that one day South Korea would feel obliged to return the courtesy to its controversial neighbor.
The Museum of Craft Art deserves more recognition from international travel guides. In my opinion, it’s a stunning museum that I found myself wanting to capture every detail of through photography.
Koreans seem to share my appreciation, as the museum welcomed an impressive 40,000 visitors in just its first four months after opening on July 16, 2021.
Afterward, I visit the captivating Korean Folklore Museum, where even children can participate in interactive exhibits that vividly depict daily life in Korea from the 17th to the 20th century.
Another very interesting and interactive free museum
While the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art may not offer a wide range of exhibits, there are certainly some pieces that stand out, such as the Little Ark. I captured a brief video of it, but it’s currently on display for a limited time only, and there’s no telling when, where, or if it will be showcased again.
Another intriguing temporary exhibition showcasing the life’s work of Lee Jungseop, a renowned painter who incorporated tinfoil into his art, is currently on display.
His life story serves as a poignant example of the hardships faced by many Koreans due to the World War II and Korean War, which resulted in the forced separation of families.
The exhibition features a remarkable collection of letters written by Lee to his beloved Japanese wife. These letters are filled with optimism and good intentions until the very end, and one of them is on display, accompanied by an English translation.
Regrettably, Lee passed away alone and destitute, never to be reunited with his wife and son.
If you’ve read my piece on Uzbekistan, you’ll know I’m a figure skating enthusiast. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve included a brief video showcasing an ice rink near the Lotte World Tower.
What sets Korean ice rinks apart is their distinct layout, featuring an outer ring dedicated to short track—the country’s national sport—while the inner ring is reserved for figure skating.
Notice the presence of an inner and an outer ring
Returning to the suburbs, it may seem unbelievable that we are still situated within the Seoul metropolitan area.
Surprisingly, this place is merely 10 minutes away from my residence and 15 minutes from Nakseongdae metro station.
The Seoul Trail is an impressive 157-kilometer route that winds through forests, parks, historical landmarks, rivers, temples, and city streets – all while staying conveniently close to public transportation stops.
The trail is impressively well-kept and features numerous benches. In my area, it even includes the temple you may have spotted in one of my photos.
By the way, did you know that the turtle holds a special place in Korean culture as a symbol of good fortune? You’ll often find depictions of turtles at temples and royal palaces, as they represent the wish for a long and prosperous life.
A trail in the city. Beautiful!
15 minutes after recording the above video, I find myself amidst a busy market. This occurrence serves as a testament to the interplay between city living and natural surroundings in Seoul.
As evident in my earlier post featuring the Aqua Ark Bridge, a similar dichotomy exists. On one end of the bridge, towering skyscrapers and a quintessential urban landscape can be seen, while on the other end, crossing the arch reveals an almost untouched natural landscape along the Seoul trail.
At long last, we’ve arrived at the Lotte World Park – a place where I could happily spend a week without running out of things to do. Divided into both indoor and outdoor areas, you can catch a glimpse of the latter in one of our previous photos of the Lotte World Tower. Even the subway station that leads to the park looks impressive.
Opened in 1989, it welcomes more than 7 million visitors a year, and on the 4 floors of the indoor part you can enjoy 35 different attractions.
No photos or videos can do justice to the sheer enchantment of my visit to a place where even a meal becomes a ‘monstrous’ delight. With Korea’s impressive technological prowess, there’s really no excuse for missing out on spending at least a half-day here, whether you’re five or a hundred years old.
Fun fun fun!
Adjacent to the park lies a captivating museum that can be explored either in conjunction with or independent of the park. Inside, visitors can marvel at a meticulously crafted replica of a 17th-century village.
As Jihun and I are making our way home from Lotte Park, he decides to take me to the stunning Olympic Park.
To my surprise, we stumble upon yet another free show – diverse and captivating – causing us to postpone dinner for a couple of hours.
Especially on weekends, it’s absolutely impossible to be bored in Seoul, unless it’s a deliberate choice, and the best part is that it won’t cost you a single won.
Music, dance and more
Remember when I mentioned that near Gyeongbokgung Palace, you can rent a hanbok and enter the palace for free? Well, most tourists do just that – rent the outfit for a few hours, tour the royal palace, and then return it to the shop.
But not me! Encouraged by my mischievous friend Jihun, I take advantage of the situation and pretend to be the king so that I can stay as long as I want without the pesky limitations of a tourist visa. I roam around the city for 9 hours dressed in this attire.
My trusty servant Jihun assists me with the obligatory functions, especially the challenging task of unfastening and fastening my royal pants when nature calls.
On the metro, some subjects even bow to me (I’m a modern king who loves being amongst his people) – a clear sign that my scheme is working.
After bidding farewell to the king’s attire, it is time for a night cruise on the Han River – a magical experience undeterred by rain or Jihun’s constant Titanic references.
Although the Han River may seem imposing in Seoul with its 1150 meter width, it is only the fourth longest river on the Korean peninsula, not exceeding 500 km.
Originating in North Korea from the confluence of two minor rivers, the Han was once used as an escape route for North Koreans, despite the enormous risks involved. However, with satellites and drones now monitoring the area, reaching South Korea via the Han River is virtually impossible.
Interestingly, unlike in other nations where nationalist propaganda blinds the majority of the population to the atrocities of their leaders, it seems that North Koreans are eager to rid themselves of Kim and his regime, and reunite with their southern brothers.
While these accounts come from those who managed to escape, so we don’t know exactly what the majority of people there think, the desire for reunification is widely shared in the South.
The Han River remains a controversial topic even with the United States, due to their alleged habit of dumping diluted formaldehyde from a nearby military base. Despite admitting to the issue only once, in 2000, many believe it remains unresolved, and is a major reason why locals still refuse to drink tap water.
While officials claim the water is now safe, thanks to pipe replacements, the lingering concern of health risks is enough to make anyone think twice before taking a sip.
Rain and wind didn’t stop us!
Finally, we’ve arrived at the juicy chapter on Korean restaurants! Yes, eating here is a true celebration and the options are endless.
First, let’s dispel two myths: Korean food is too spicy and garlic is in everything.
While some dishes may be too spicy for those accustomed to milder flavors, restaurateurs are aware of Western palates and adjust accordingly. Additionally, Korean garlic is more delicate than what we’re used to, so you can enjoy it without any unpleasant effects.
For my first Korean meal, Jihun took me to a spot serving cold and warm dishes that are the Korean equivalent of Spanish tapas. However, these small dishes are mainly meant to accompany rice-based alcoholic beverages ranging from 5 to 20 degrees – the perfect set up for business meetings or university hangouts.
The 5-degree alcoholic drink, called makgeolli, hits hard due to a chemical reaction during fermentation that affects our bodies. Unfortunately, I only learned about this after drinking it, so I can’t remember the details I was told about this reaction 🙂
As for the food, on the left is tofu with kimchi, followed by pig’s feet, a savory bean jelly, spicy pork, and a zucchini and mushroom omelet.
A restaurant with a heartfelt message at the entrance reading “I love you, nice to see you” and bidding farewell with “Thank you very much, goodbye and good fortune to you” was too intriguing to pass up. Thus, one evening, we decided to dine at MaDangGol.
Jihun ordered a dish inspired by the creative ways in which Korean farmers recycled leftovers: a stew of beef and shrimp, soybean noodles, potatoes, carrots, and peppers, seasoned with soy sauce, garlic, and chili.
The side dishes included soybean sprout salad, dried and powdered fish which is mixed with flour to create a noodle-like texture (reminiscent of surimi), and the ever-present kimchi.
Eating there, I also learned some things that Jihun told me are very common in Korean restaurants and sparked my curiosity:
For my birthday, instead of cake, I requested to celebrate with my favorite Korean dish – bibimbap, which never fails to satisfy my taste buds with its unique blend of flavors and textures.
Korean BBQ is another delight that I discovered over a decade ago in Australia, and I couldn’t wait to experience it in its country of origin.
The proper way to enjoy it is by cooking meat, mushrooms, and vegetables on a sizzling plate (notice the garlic cloves), then taking two or three pieces, dipping them in a spicy sauce and sesame seeds, and placing them on a lettuce leaf, which is then rolled up and savored. Simply irresistible!
One of the things that fascinates me the most about Asia is the culture of street food.
Even in Seoul, there are thousands of food stalls like the one in the photo below, and the quality is absolutely spectacular.
Now let me show you my favorite breakfast: a sandwich filled with cream and red bean paste (the same type the Japanese use to make ice cream, if you know what I mean).
In the next photo, we have at the center the mixture of fish powder and flour that tastes like surimi I already told you about – this time, in a ring shape and served in broth.
Surrounding it clockwise, we have a spicy meat salami, sea snails with cabbage in spicy sauce and noodles, seaweed, tofu with cucumbers in spicy sauce, omelet, and french fries.
Now let’s talk about haemul galguksu pajeon, a seafood dish cooked directly on the table in a fish broth. After a few minutes of cooking, noodles are added to the mix.
Here’s where it gets interesting – a sandglass timer is set and the seafood is removed as the sand trickles down. Once all the sand has reached the bottom, the gas is turned off and it’s time to dig in.
Don’t be too hasty though, the noodles should be taken bite by bite, savoring each and every mouthful. Trust me, this is an experience you don’t want to miss!
I apologize if I can’t recall the names of the next two dishes, but let me tantalize you with their descriptions.
One dish boasts a light color palette, while the other leans towards a fiery red.
Now, we know that red typically signifies spiciness in Korean cuisine, but does that mean the other dish is not spicy? Think again – that green rectangle on the edge of the bowl containing minced pork, caramelized tripe, egg, onion, and scallion is wasabi, and boy, is it potent. I learned this the hard way after almost choking on my first bite.
Once all the ingredients are mixed together, the dish is served with giant dumplings, seaweed leaves, kimchi, horseradish, and soybean sprouts.
As for the “red” dish, it features octopus and the same accompanying sides.
This is what I get for asking if I could still have dessert after a meal! Luckily, the patbingsu is mainly made up of finely shaved ice (an ingredient I had only seen in Malaysia), with added glutinous rice cakes and a red bean paste that you see on top.
When ordering, you can request additional ingredients, and in my case, I added dried fruit, condensed milk, and chocolate. During the hot Korean summers, it’s impossible not to indulge in this delightful afternoon treat.
Now, I’ll show you the strangest dish I’ve eaten in Korea!
Koreans consider mulhue to be incredibly refreshing, and it’s definitely cold – the raw fish and various vegetables in the center of the bowl are immersed in an icy broth (you can’t see the ice cubes, but they’re there).
Once the ingredients are mixed, a portion is put in a bowl and eaten with noodles, sweet potato fritters, and other sides prepared as shown in the third photo: an algae leaf with garlic slices, fish eggs, scallions, and spicy sauce rolled up and devoured.
On the right of the first photo, there are also stunning fried calamari, perfect to dip in the mayo seen below.
From the weirdest dish to the most spectacular, let’s talk about mulgalbi.
In addition to the recognizable side dishes, the other main dish is a whole wheat pasta with a breaded slice and seaweed, all immersed in a cold broth (trust me, it’s much better than it sounds!).
But I know what you’re really curious about – what is that mysterious “ball” in the dish?
Well, the answer is revealed in the following video.
Let’s move on to the next dish.
You might be wondering what bacon, ham and cheese have to do with Korean cuisine. Well, they are actually part of a tragic story behind the birth of 부대찌개 (budaejjigae), which dates back to the Korean War.
At that time, the survival of some of the population depended on canned meat and cheese donated by American soldiers, to which they added whatever they had at home, nameny rice, noodles, turnips, and scallions. That’s why, once it’s ready, it’s eaten together with rice served in a separate bowl.
Interestingly, any Korean dish that includes melted cheese and sausages as ingredients shares the same origin story.
Interesting dish with western contamination
Now I’ll show you a Korean BBQ variant that’s sure to pique your curiosity – the food is cooked over charcoal!
The tube overhead acts as an extractor to prevent the smoke from engulfing diners, and it works wonders. Despite being packed to the brim, the restaurant was free of any overwhelming scents.
As we’ve learned, when lettuce is served on the table, it’s meant to be used as a wrap for the meat and other available toppings. Jihun, as always, ordered enough food to feed an army, claiming “there are too many dishes to try and so little time.”
After this meal, I swear I could repel 2000 vampires with a single breath!
Next One! If Jihun’s goal was to turn me into a whale before sending me back to Italy, I must say he did an excellent job – as always, we cleaned up everything.
What makes Gamnabujib restaurant so unique is that it’s actually an adapted living space transformed into a restaurant, located in a two-story house. It’s a rare sight in Korea, but allowed by law.
Another intriguing aspect of the restaurant is that Jihun ordered only one dish, which probably could be translated as “bring us everything you have in the kitchen.”
It consisted of various types of dried fish, mushrooms, roots, and vegetables that I had never heard of before. I feared the owner might also bring us unrequested dishes, but thankfully she only served us for free an amazing plum and beetroot tea.
By the way, Jihun just introduced me to bokbunjajoo – a raspberry wine that’s an absolute must-try! I can’t help but wonder how many other alcoholic delights he’s been hiding from me and why.
Speaking of drinks, it’s worth noting that in Korean restaurants, still water – even bottled – is free of charge.
During my last meal, I received yet another surprise from Korean cuisine – shiregi gimchichige.
It starts with a typical boiled dish with potatoes, topped with sesame leaves and seeds that are boiled in the broth and accompanied by kimchi, radishes, and green peppers to be dipped in the soybean paste on the right (the combination is truly exquisite).
The surprise comes when there are only a few pieces of meat and broth (spicy, of course) left in the pot. At that point, a bowl of already cooked rice soaked in sesame oil is poured over it, topped with cut sesame leaves and dried seaweed.
It’s all mixed together, flattened as much as possible, and left for the rice to absorb the broth. When it starts to stick to the bottom and a slight burnt smell is detected, the fire is turned off, and the pot is scraped.
Many Koreans order this dish just to enjoy this final stage, while I discovered that I am not a big fan of overcooked and burnt rice.
The following video shows the two phases I described.
Easier to eat than to write its name 🙂
Before the final considerations, a small selection of photos that do not fit into any particular theme but that I would like to share because they showcase things that have caught my eye: skyscrapers, monuments, landscapes, and more.
The ‘shelter’ sign requires an explanation: it can be found at the entrance of every metro station and indicates that it is a safe place to take refuge in case of a hurricane or a nuclear attack from North Korea. All stations are equipped with thousands of special gas masks.
In the event of an earthquake, people usually gather in the courtyards of schools.
The last photos in this article showcase the cute Incheon airport, situated to the west of Seoul.
I am jotting down these thoughts as a talented trio of young men entertain me with some delightful music.
In South Korea, you don’t get bored even at the airport
Let’s start with what didn’t impress me about South Korea:
1) Absurd working hours and excessively high expectations, which can also be understood as an exacerbated pursuit of performance and perfection.
Jihun is a typical example: his job consists of verifying the formatting on the screen and the quality of the English, Chinese, and Japanese translations of the texts in mobile games before they are released on the market.
It may sound cool, but in reality, it is a very stressful job because the deadlines are tight, and the only way to do it well is to simulate the experience of the end customer, i.e., play all the levels. One thing is doing it for fun, another is when you are told that you have to finish by a certain time on a certain day, which is usually… yesterday.
He enters the office at 8:30 am and when he’s lucky, he leaves at 8 or 10 pm, often even at 10 pm. Since he has only been working for that company for a few months, he has only accumulated two days of vacation so far, which he sacrificed to spend with me on a Thursday and Friday. To avoid problems when returning to work, on the last day before the ‘vacation,’ he came home at 3 am on Thursday because delays and errors are poorly tolerated.
We can’t even say that it is a recent phenomenon due to globalization because I remember that when I lived in Connecticut in 1994, my Korean neighbor was allowed by Samsung to return to Seoul for a few days to meet his son only 11 months after his birth (and remember that at the time, there was neither the internet nor video calls).
The price to pay for this lifestyle is very high, as demonstrated by the 13,000 suicides in 2020, which were, among other things, the leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24 and almost all caused by a sense of guilt for not feeling up to it.
2) The strange way they let you know they can’t or don’t want to help you
Usually, when I’m abroad, and the person on the street I approach to ask for information doesn’t speak English, I’m greeted with a smile and some words of apology in their language.
In Korea, however, despite specifically selecting young people who were not in a hurry to have a better chance of successful communication, many times I was completely ignored: people simply looked the other way and continued walking unless I stood in front of them blocking their path.
Jihun is aware of this problem but couldn’t give me an explanation, while Ryu expressed himself bluntly: “The average Korean is too busy looking at himself in the mirror to notice others.”
The same thing happens during occasional street collisions (intended as accidental contacts), where no one apologizes, and everyone resumes walking as if nothing happened. The reason is that apologizing costs a lot to a Korean because it is, in effect, an admission of inadequacy (going back to the discourse on the obsession with perfection).
3) The exorbitant price of fruit and vegetables
Although this is a very controversial topic on the internet, with some people claiming that the prices of these food items in Korea are reasonable, I can only say what I’ve seen this season, namely: Unless you want to eat cabbage, turnips, and soybean sprouts for lunch and dinner, all the other vegetables that we Westerners are used to eating cost four euros per kilo or more. I don’t rule out that there may be cheaper local vegetables in other seasons, or at least I hope so for Koreans.
Fruit is a true luxury here, with prices ranging from six to nine euros per kilo for practically any product. The reason is simple: two-thirds of Korea’s territory is mountainous and unsuitable for cultivation, so almost all the fruit and vegetables sold here are imported. Considering that with nine euros, you can buy 15 pieces of sushi, you can imagine what my dietary preferences were for the last three weeks when I wasn’t eating out.
In other words, for a vegetarian, Korea is not exactly the ideal place to live.
4) The total concentration on mobile phones, even while walking on the street.
Why does it bother me? Because doing so makes it impossible to walk straight, and more than once I’ve had to move out of the way to avoid a collision with someone coming towards me diagonally.
Let’s move on to the happier notes; in this case, I’ll stick to the most important ones for me, although there are many others:
In general, Koreans follow a logical principle that is hardly applied in most parts of the world: just as one would not throw a used tissue on the kitchen floor in their own home, scribble on the walls of their living room, or fail to clean the toilet after use, the same behavior is expected when out and about in public spaces.
Due to my health problem, I had to use many of the numerous public restrooms (all free, because the idea of paying to use a restroom is inconceivable to a Korean), and I must say that in almost all of them, I could have eaten off the floor.
Considering that trash cans are practically non-existent, the cleanliness of the streets is truly surprising, even though it’s worth mentioning that I’ve seen many more street sweepers than we have in our country, in part also due to volunteerism.
Like in China and Taiwan, police officers are sent out to patrol the streets on foot, and there are surveillance cameras everywhere. As a result, it’s normal to see elderly people and women walking or using public transportation even at 1 am.
Furthermore, if you enter a rather crowded café and fear not being able to find an available table once you’ve ordered, whether inside or outside, all you need to do is place your bag or cellphone on a table to occupy it, and then calmly queue up to place your order. When you return to the table, you can be sure that your belongings will still be there, even if ten minutes have passed.
Even though not everyone will agree on this point, I cannot help but notice that in Korea, the food is absolutely amazing!
In conclusion, I believe I have never encountered a people as enigmatic as the Koreans, so focused on themselves due to their obsession with achieving perfection and performance in both work and appearance, yet so loving of conviviality and capable of generous gestures towards strangers, as you have seen from my stories.
Such ambiguity compels me to consider a return there as soon as possible because this enigma cannot remain unsolved, don’t you agree?
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