Seoul is a city that I have been curious about for some time now, but one which has always been somewhat over-shadowed in my travel plans due to its proximity with Japan. My general feeling has been that if I am going fly all that way, then I would probably rather dedicate more time to exploring Tokyo – one of my favourite cities in the world.
However, I am in the fortunate position of working at a company where (global pandemics aside), we often meet up in different locations across the world, and this year our team’s especially distributed nature meant that South Korea was one of the best options for us to get together. I decided that I simply had to head out a week early, to make the most of the opportunity.
Our base for the work portion was going to be Myeongdong, so I booked an AirbnB in a different area called Hongdae for my solo exploits (‘dae’ as in day, rather than ‘dae’ as in die – learn from my mistakes!). This is somewhere built up around Hongik University, which has a particular reputation for arts – something which as you would expect – is reflected in its style and atmosphere. There are fancy cafes and bars, trendy shopping centres, and a warren of streets with stalls dedicated to vintage fashion. The main portion was vibrant and colourful, and in many ways reminded me of a less cutesy, less touristy cousin of Harajuku in Tokyo.
I am no stranger to solo travel, and I rather naively assumed that this would hold me in good stead for rocking up to Seoul alone. However, whether it was the long flights, the culture shock, or simply how uncool I felt walking past all of the nightclubs that were dripping with fashionable young Koreans, I have to admit that wandering around Hongdae on that first night caught me off guard. I didn’t feel unsafe in the slightest, but it definitely took me a couple of days to adjust.
One of the frustrations I had was that going in to sit down and eat at a restaurant seemed like an impossible hurdle. The language barrier; unfamiliarity with a lot of Korean food; feeling weird about eating alone; my appetite being all over the place due to the jet lag; my intolerance to wheat… all of that combined to put up a significant mental block that was a rather unfamiliar feeling. For the first day I grazed off of purchases from the infamous convenience stores, and bought street food like tteokbokki from stalls that I recognised from videos my wife watches… before seeking out some places online. I tend to prefer to stumble across things myself, but at some point I realised that there was no shame in doing a wee bit of preparation to ease myself into a very new and distant situation.
The culinary seal was broken with a spicy chicken bibimbap, before I moved onto pork ramen. I tried to get into a few quirky looking Korean ramen shops, but they were rammed every time, so I ‘settled’ for some more traditional Japanese place – which was still infinitely better than any attempts I’ve had in the UK or Europe. At least with ramen I know how everything works, and it is often eaten alone!
One of the favourite places I ended up eating at was called ‘Hidden Alley’ – a wee bar off of one of the main streets in Yeonnam-dong which specialises in carrying a variety of makgeolli – traditional Korean rice wine. This stuff has a milky texture, and varies in sweetness depending on the type. I naturally tried a few of the bottles, accompanied by a kimchi pancake… and headed out into the city afterwards a bit wobblier than when I had gone in.
Makgeolli definitely won’t be for everybody, but I loved it. To completely bastardise its history, at its best it tasted kind of like a weaker, more complex distillation of a sake white russian, or panther milk. Delicious.
As an internationally recognisable character, I had some connections in Seoul, and met up with a mutual friend who had been living in South Korea for a year or so. She introduced me to some cool bars, including one called ‘vinyl’ which sold cheap cocktails out of plastic bags, and also a nightclub called FF where people were setting off flares, and topless men poured vodka into my mouth. That was an interesting night.
We met up a few days later and went to see Say Sue Me – a band from the Korean city of Busan who were playing in Seoul. I really appreciated Alison taking the time to show me about, as I wouldn’t have had the courage or inclination to do any of this on my own, and it really helped me feel more comfortable. Funny how nothing really helps you settle into a city like a good hangover. However, the following day I ordered what turned out to be a huge portion of fried chicken at a restaurant and could barely stomach it so had to pay then run out as quickly as possible to avoid my shame.
One of the things I wanted to make time for was exploring the city’s vinyl shops, and in particular those at the Dongmyo flea market. The plan was to discover cheap old Asian records that I’d never be able to find at home, to use for sampling, and in all honesty, going on a quest to find vinyl gave me an excuse to walk around for miles, exploring different parts of the city. If you’re curious, I’ve put together a whole video on that day here:
The market area was pretty interesting, with everything from dried fish, to piles of clothes, to err, weird statues. Spot the wee dog in the below pictures…
One thing that struck me was the number of places that were repairing things. Tiny, specialist shops which would fix and sell old radios, or fridges, or… anything you can think of. It made me pause and consider how that is such a dead art in much of the Western world. If something breaks, you chuck it away. That, in combination with the huge variety of different parts of the market which specialised in very particular things… I’ve never really seen anything quite like it.
One of the things that a lot of folks have asked me about is how Seoul compares to Tokyo, and that’s something that I will pontificate on over the course of the coming blogs, but one thing that I did notice fairly quickly was that there seemed to be less obvious weirdness on display. However, that didn’t mean that there weren’t signs. The occasional vending machine, giant bear, odd-looking dog, or girls miming to K-Pop surrounded by about fifty photographers were all present and correct.
I began to settle in to Seoul after a few days, and while it was still to early to figure on how I felt about it in any meaningful way, I spent hours wandering around, soaking it all up. My main frustration was that it felt like I wasn’t immediately doing it justice in the photographs I was taking, though to be fair… having been out of practice for so long… it was always going to take a bit to warm up.
As it stands, I’ve actually taken so many pictures on this trip that I’m not sure how I will realistically share them on the blog – possibly more than I’ve ever taken. Ironically I spent a fair chunk of time ruminating on how terrible they were at the time, and they’re not at all.
Keep your eyes peeled for the other posts… as I have a bunch more to come.