It’s too easy to use the city’s name in a pun. “Looking for the soul of Seoul!” Although if I were to pinpoint the node of this bustling city, I’d have a hard time knowing where to start. Somewhere dispersed in the small city districts, between the respectful vigilance for cultural heritage and the roving youth who prowl the late urban streets with a joie de vivre even the French would envy, the Korean culture has been incredibly warm and inviting.
Our first night, a Thursday, sent us on a stroll through a University district (one of almost three dozen!). A cacophony of neon lights and music at each business’ doorfront compete for the attention of the passersby; older businessmen stumbling home after drinks with coworkers; young and flirty Koreans romping between fried food carts; and the few studious minds burning the midnight oil in coffeeshops. Look up from the street’s buzzing activity and you’ll see jazz clubs and karaoke bars on third and fourth floors touting sultry ambiances and live musicians in the glass windows. Night one and we’re already overstimulated.
Headed out Friday morning for our field trip. Alongside hoards of schoolchildren we roamed the sprawling grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main architectural feat of the Josean Dynasty and one of the city’s top historical attractions. The palace is nearly a small city and required hours of exploration. Each building was coated with fresh turquoise and crimson paint and was open for exploration. Shoes off, of course.
The next few hours we wandered around the city, searching for the Buddhist temple. We meandered through the narrow streets of the Insadong district, known for the tiny shops stuffed to the brim with decorated chopsticks, handmade paper cards, pottery, and more delicious vibrant colors than the eye can behold. This week, turns out, is Golden Week, the blessed mass consumer holiday in which folks from all over Asia travel to Korea to shop on a week’s vacation. The streets were so jammed with meandering shoppers, I thought the roads were pedestrian-only until a Kia or a Hyundai honked its way through the crowd.
We slipped into a beautiful restaurant nestled in an alley off the main drag. With a great view of the cobblestone street, we feasted on… well, I have honestly no idea WHAT we ate. A bed of fresh vegetables on rice. Fresh kimchi. Grilled pork saute. Fresh leaves of lettuce. Plate after plate of vibrant and delicious smelling bites. Confused but hungry we started by nibbling on a little of everything. Finally the waitress came back to check on us, slightly amused by our confusion, she decided to offer some help.
She gestured to dress the rice and veggies with the fire-engine red sauce in the covered dish. Sam gestured to the waitress, trying to ask exactly how to eat the small plates and spices. She nodded, pointed to the lettuce, cupped her hand, then pointed to the spices and vegetables and mimed rolling them into a wrap. Oh. Right. Naturally. With a little help and a few laughs, we can be taught!
After our culinary adventure feast, we meandered through the bustling streets to the Jogyesa temple nestled in the heart of the city near the Gyeongbokgung palace. The city, right in the middle of preparations for the grand celebration of Buddha’s birthday, was busy lining the city streets with colorful paper lanterns, each adorned with a picture of a cute baby Buddha. The lanterns, strung on street lamps and between trees, lead to the temple, now under a rainbow blanket of the festive globes waiting to be illuminated. Despite the bustling activity around the temple, the atmosphere was quiet and serene.
The afternoon quickly turned to evening, and after an exhausting day of walking through Seoul, we headed to the Jongno Tower in the heart of the city’s Jonggak district. At Top Cloud, the glitzy see-and-be-seen restaurant on the 33rd floor, we sipped on a California Syrah, listened to a piano, contrabass and lounge singer trio serenade the Friday night couples and watched the buzzing firefly lights of the megacity below.
Tonight: on to Phnom Penh!