I just got home from a fantastic quick trip to Seoul, Korea. Seoul has long been on my "bucket list" of places to visit in the world, but I admit I didn't have many preconceptions going into the trip.
Here are the neatest things I experienced in the Korean capital. (Sorry, I have been busy traveling, so this is one long post, instead of a bunch of shorter ones.)
Seoul: the New Capital of Lindy Hop?
Seoul is well-known in the lindy hop world for having developed in just a few years one of the largest and most vibrant swing scenes anywhere. There are literally thousands of swing dancers in Seoul alone, and growing scenes in other parts of Korea. I got to visit three of the "bars" where dancing takes place there. Each one has their own regular members, classes, and dance nights.
I spent the most time at Happy Bar, where my host dances and teaches. But I also got to visit Swing Time and Big Apple. In general, the level of dancing was quite high, dancers executing complicated steps and patterns, dancing musically, and with a good sense of floorcraft. Almost any random person I would ask to dance would be a skilled and fun follower.
Of course, being in Korea, they also have to perform some K-pop line dances every night, which were fun to watch.
And there is even a growing West Coast swing scene in Seoul, so they usually will throw in a pop song or two for the westies to spin.
As a culture with more traditional views of gender roles, I was curious about how that effected the dancing in Seoul. It's true that almost without exception, I had to ask all of the women to dance. But my host tells me that it has more to do with Korean reservedness than gender roles. She said that after I had been out dancing for a few days and the word got out that a "new good lead" was in the scene, i would have to fight off all the follows asking me to dance. Awww!
Foodie Culture: From Bibimbap to Single Pourover
Korean food is one of my favorite cuisines, so I was very much looking forward to eating my way through the country. Pretty much everywhere you go, you encounter affordable, family-style Korean restaurants serving full-set meals, noodle soups, stews, bibimbap, galbi, juk rice porridge, and many other dishes I had never heard of.
In Hapjeong where I was staying, I stopped by this traditional establishment where you take your shoes off and sit on mats on the floor. The server asked me what I wanted in Korean, I shrugged, and she just brought me the set menu everyone was having. It was incredible: a table full of tiny bachan dishes, tender slices of steamed pork, and a giant bowl of kimchee stew. It was a ridiculous amount of food for one person. And then the bill came… $3.50. WHAT?
Another fantastic meal was this food counter down a dark passageway in the middle of the Namdaemun street market. Along the way, the servers at other food counters beckoned me over, but I knew this was the one to stop by because of the packed seats full of people digging into bowls of bibimbap.
I sat down at a stool and the server lady tosses a couple of bowls of yummy kimchee in front of me. I dig in as she assembles my bowl of bibimbap, a giant bowl of noodle soup, and this cold sweet noodle dish. Everything was so fresh and bursting with flavor. And again. it cost about $3.50.
There's a lot more delicious food to encounter everywhere you go in Seoul. Food carts vending snacks and even full meals can be found at all hours of the day and night. The locals love "tteokbokki", these cylinders of rice cake that are cooked in a red spicy sauce. I found them to be gummy and too hot, but filling and warming on a cold night. Other carts sold various greasy snacks on sticks that I mostly avoided, fearing the inevitable stomach ache.
The less adventurous have plenty of Western-style fast food to choose from, including a remarkable number of pastry shops. The Koreans apparently LOVE croissants. You see a whole display full of them at every convenience store you go to.
I was also very happy to find out that Seoul has a well-developed coffee culture. On any given block you will find several coffee shops, sometimes right next to each other. Most are chains like Starbucks, the Coffee Bean, and Angel-in-us. But there are some independent cafes too, like the one across from the place I was crashing in Hapjeong. The proprietor there ground his own custom blend of beans from Africa and Latin America fresh for me, and did a single-pour like a Seattle barista.
Siloam Traditional Sauna
Public saunas and baths are part of traditional Korean life. I read about the Siloam sauna on this blog and decided to check it out on my last day in town. It was a really nice way to end my trip, after the stress of travel, a high-stakes work project, and general wear-and-tear to my middle-aged body. For just $5 you can spend up to 12-hours in the spa, and for a few dollars more you can even sleep there as a traveler. There are multiple baths of varying temperatures and with different healthy-enducing properties. Hot sauna rooms help you purge toxins from your body.
I splurged on the "fomentation" treatment and a full-body massage, which was an additional $35. The "fomentation" treatment seemed to me to be just more steam rooms to sit in, so not really worth it. But the massage was awesome and much needed.
I was a bit nervous about the dress-code, which was no dress at all. The saunas and baths are gender-segregated, and everyone is butt naked. Most of the men were middle aged or older when I was there, so you see bodies of all types and sizes. There were a few minutes of awkwardness on my part. But after realizing that no one really cared or noticed me, I relaxed into the nakedness.
There's a lot more to do in the sauna then just soak. There's a couple of full Korean restaurants, a PC gaming area, a barber, and more. You could spend hours there, and people apparently do.
Gyeongbokgung Palace and the area surrounding it is the first cultural site to see in Seoul. The palace grounds are enormous and grandiose, with seemingly hundreds of court buildings, connected by cobbled paths and lovely gardens. Two huge museums are there as well, a royal and a folk one, commemorating both the high and common history of Korea.
Underneath the Gwanghwamun plaza on the way to the Palace is a very interactive and well-designed museum commemorating two great leaders in Korea, King Sejong the Great who invented the Korean alphabet and advanced the sciences and engineering in Korea, and Admiral Yi Sunshin, a brave warrior and gifted tactician. I loved the "4D" movie that immerses in you in one of Admiral Sunshin's most famous sea battles, using 3d effects, moving seats, and blasts of air and mist.
Cheyeongyechon Creek is a small waterway that in many other cities might just be something you cross on the way to somewhere else. But the Seoul city planners in recent years have transformed Cheyeongyechon Creek into a pleasant greenspace enjoyed by both locals and tourists.
Trees form a green canopy over walkways beside the creek, while the embankments are used to mount art installations. At night, couples stroll hand in hand and groups of young people sit by the banks chatting and flirting. It's really quite enchanting.
There's certainly a wide variety of shopping you can do in Seoul, if that is your thing. Namdaemun is the largest street market, with thousands of shops and tiny stalls crammed into a few square blocks. Myeongdong has the largest concentration of international fashion stores where the tragically trendy go. Insadong is a charming place to find traditional arts and handicrafts, although the crowds can be intense there.
Seoul is definitely a world class city, with a rich culture and history, a vibrant and young energy, and excellent services and infrastructure. For my taste, Seoul has about the right mixture of urban grit and c bureaucratic efficiency. Singapore by contrast is too sterile and controlled, while Manila is too chaotic and dirty for me.
If you are a history-buff, a dance maniac, a major foodie, or a fashionista, you will find a lot to enjoy in this bustling metropolis. I hope return soon!