I had been to Seoul once before many years ago, and I was pleased to see that it was more or less the same. Not quite as neon and eccentric as Tokyo, but still a bustling and bright metropolis brimming with absurd modernity at every corner. We left Busan in the morning, taking the KTX back up when we realized the slow train wouldn’t be leaving for another hour. Making our way back to the hostel we had first arrived at in Seoul, we were amused to find no one about. After waiting a bit, the host came down and reacted with much surprise to find us chilling in the common room. Haha, oops! We wanted to return to Come Inn because not only was Bobby just great as a host, but we knew it , and Hongdae is the place to stay in Seoul. We’ll write a review for it in time, but if you want a place to stay in Seoul, you MUST go to Come Inn!
After unpacking and getting ourselves situated, we hit the ground running. We had taken our rest and respite in Busan, but now it was time to see what Seoul had to offer. And it turned out that meant shopping. Sora and I had lost quite a bit of weight on the rally and our clothes were A) not fitting and B) really… grungy. We hadn’t packed to wander around a nice city, we had packed to camp and be comfortable in a car for five weeks. That needed to change. And so we shopped away, got changed, AND THEN we hit the ground running. To Namdaemun!
Namdaemun Market is a traditional market in Seoul, filled with clothes, food, and whatever you may need. Unfortunately when we wandered over there, it was already closed up more or less for the day. Oops. However, all was not loss as Namdaemun is one of a few places in Seoul that is home to dozens of cheap glasses stores. Glasses are more than a necessity in Korea, they’re a fashion statement. Even if you don’t need glasses, many people wear them as accessories. Yup. Fashion glasses. However, this makes getting new spectacles amazing for those of us who are blind without them. You can get frames and prescription lenses for as cheap as $20 here, & they’re ready in just fifteen minutes! That’s it! I got a pair the last time I was in Korea and wanted to definitely get some this go around… so we may have gone shopping for ridiculous glasses… Afterwards we wandered the area, finding a cute little hole in the wall place covered with photos of Korean pop stars and actors (some of whom we recognized). The food was AMAZING. I had my first taste of kimbap, which is more or less the Korean version of sushi maki rolls, and we ended up sitting next to an aunt and niece duo from the states who had just arrived. They said they chose to eat here because they saw us inside. The waiter was super jolly and enthusiastic that Sora and I weren’t afraid to go spicy. We continued to burn our faces off the entire time in Korea, but did so with a smile.
The next morning it was decided we’d go and get our history fix. Like much of this part of Asia, South Korea has a fascinating royal history, immortalized in the many palaces that are scattered about the capital and the country itself. Perhaps the most important of these is Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) in Seoul, the main palace of the Joseon dynasty and many times burnt down and rebuilt.
When we got there though we were treated to a reenactment of a changing of the guard by the heritage foundation. Big drums and kazoo like trumpets sounded the march as men in colorful hanboks paraded about the palace grounds both inside and out. What I always enjoy here and in other parts of the world who actually preserve their history, is to see the contrast. Historical outfits against a backdrop of glass skyscrapers brings me a sense of joy I’m not sure I can accurately describe. The past meshing with the present, so jarring, yet seemingly fitting perfectly together.
Once the home of kings, Gyeongbokgung long ago boasted over 500 buildings and 7,700 rooms. While it is still beautiful with lush grounds and a lily pond jungle (not actually a jungle, but it does look like one), much of the compound was destroyed by Imperial Japan. However, the Koreans have rebuilt what they can and marked where former buildings were as best they can, preserving the history of this rather magnificent area. It was shocking how quiet it was inside, and once again I was struck by the calmness that could exist in the middle of a city. You could see the skyscrapers around the palace gates, but in here, there was not a sound but that of the overly exuberant middle schoolers who were there on a class trip. And then I became immensely jealous that middle schoolers could come to a PALACE for a school trip.
The palace complex is also home to a folk museum, which we decided to check out. Neither of us are particularly familiar with Korean history, so it was both extremely entertaining and informative. From how Koreans of old lived during the Joseon dynasty and before to crafts to the construction of the beautiful hanboks to how kimchi is made, it was a treat of an afternoon. Sora and I are major Korean drama fans. We marathon them, Whats Apping each other at all hours of the night screaming about what one character was doing or that the girl needed to end up with this one guy but she was going to go with the other one… pure melodrama, pure delight. Checking out the folk museum had inspired both of us to seek out the historical dramas that we’ both come across, but hadn’t watched… probably out of fear of just not knowing anything about the country’s history. We were hardly experts now, but there was a base there, especially with the Joseon Dynasty. Perhaps it was time to take a look.
Korean historical dramas, known as Sageuk , are insanely popular. And not just in Korea. KDrama in general is popular, but I can’t think of another country that produces so much historical media a year like the Koreans do. England may be in a close second, but even just a glimpse at the backlog of sageuks available to watch reveals how much Koreans enjoy exploring and dramatizing their history. Some are meant to be more historically accurate like The King’s Dream, these are called Jeong-tong sageuk, while others are just using a historical setting to tell a story. There’s a great breakdown here, for those interested.
Post palace we rested for quite a bit, debating whether to continue on or head home. We were hungry, but didn’t know what to eat. Should we just wander? Sometimes that works out, other times you end up never finding anything and wasting away in a sewer. But we were going to risk it. Plus, there was something I wanted to show Sora, so we headed out again.
Bukchon Hanok Village is in the northern part of Seoul and is one of the only places in the city not to be modernized. This neighborhood is filled with traditional Korean homes called hanoks, many of which now operate as guesthouses, tea houses, or cultural education centers. It’s forbidden to destroy these homes after the residents petitioned against it many years ago. And that’s wonderful because now it’s a living museum, an ode to how many Koreans lived in the capital before steel took over. Built into the northern hills, it’s not necessarily a leisurely walk about, especially if you head all the way up to the top, but it’s a nice walk. Gated homes with swooping roofs line narrow and winding streets, many people in hanboks walking around to get photos. It’s the only place in Seoul you can get such a traditional feel, so I can’t blame them. Plus we get to look at all the pretty hanboks as a perk! There’s a puppet museum and a few craft places we stop in, but most of these homes are private residences. Even stealing a peek beyond the gates, I was overcome by just how beautiful these homes are with their little courtyards and sliding doors. I love them and the walk was more than delightful.
But we were hungry.
While we had been enjoying our fair share of Korean food, I had found a vegan restaurant not far away. There was the rumor of vegan milkshakes and I couldn’t resist. So we wandered down the streets of Seoul, leaving history behind us as we marched towards the modern lights and glass of the city once more. Sadly it’s now closed, but Mimi and Kelly’s in Insadong was a pure jewel of happiness. We each grabbed the vegan mac & cheese and milkshakes. I opted for strawberry while Sora got an Oreo shake. Least to say, we were both very happy and also relieved to rest our poor feet that had been marching all around Seoul and the palace all day. We rested here for a good while, deciding to call it a day after that. We had KDrama to watch and midnight noodles awaiting us that evening, a tradition we’d come into the past few days. Besides, we still had a few days in Seoul to kill, so there was no rush to get to everything immediately.
And those next few days would be filled with everything from war to Coffee Prince…