My first full day in Seoul was filled with constant reminders that I was no longer in the near-Utopian society just across the East Sea. I was warned last night by Steve as we made our way from the airport to his house in Southern Seoul that traffic lights are basically suggestions. In Japan, you don't cross when the pedestrian light is red because it's the proper thing to do. In Korea, you don't cross when the pedestrian light is red or green because you enjoy being alive.
I hate Korean elders and little Korean girls
Obviously I'm kidding, I just hate the following three individuals I'm going to mention below. Seeking a reprieve from the hot humid weather (thanks for the haze China) I was delighted to take the metro to Wangsimni to meet Jay and Chewy. The feeling was short lived when the guy standing right next to me coughed up a lung without covering his mouth. Where were all the masks that the Japanese are so keen on wearing when they are sick?
A few stops later, a mother and girl boarded the train and proceeded to annoy the hell out of me. While all Japanese children seem calm and well behaved, this little Korean rascal almost made me flip out. Her mother didn't do anything to control her either. When they got on, the girl stood right in front of me and started coughing up a lung without bothering to cover up. Got phlegm all over my hand and arms. She then started climbing all over the hand rails by me. When the seats across from me opened up, she started swinging on the bars annoying the hell out of everyone around her. I guess she doesn't know any better, but someone should really talk to her mother.
Getting off the train, I experienced another nasty surprise. As many of you know, Korean society is very hierarchical. The young always defer to the old no matter what. So while walking slowly on the platform (I was trying to figure out which exit to take) I was shoved out of the way by an old man who had plenty of room to walk around me, but felt that it took less effort to push me in the back than to side step me. Since he was male and older than me, it was his right. I was pretty furious, at times I wish might makes right because I would have killed him. I don't know who I hate more, the young or the old.
Not everything in Korea is bad though. For one thing, the food is much cheaper and there is a wider variety to choose from. In Japan, it's all carbs, here you have your pick of whatever you want at a very affordable price. Getting a sundubu chigae for $3.50? About a third cheaper than the states. A cup full of strawberries blended with ice? $1... way cheaper than Japan.
Cunnin joined us at a hotel in Wangsimni (I think Chewy and Jay were staying at the Best Western, recommended by Thailog and his crew) and led us to the Jongno-gu area. After lunch and a trip to Changdeokgung (didn't go in, missed the English tour) we walked over to the Insadong area which turned out to be one of my favorite areas in Korea.
Walking past "Drawing a Line", a 7 meter tall calligraphy brush by sculptor and professor Yoon Yeong-Seok of Gyungwon University (circle is 7 meters in diameter), you end up on a quaint street lined with antique dealers, accessory shops, galleries and teashops.
Two of the galleries that stood out were Artside which at the time was showing Lee Jongmok and Gana Art (Insa Art Center) which was showing Lee Jung-Woong among many others. Lee Jung-Woong's brush pieces were so impressive, initially I thought he attached real brushes to the canvases. It wasn't until I got closer to the paintings that I realized they were all 2-D. Guess the lighting was that perfect to fool me.
Aside from the art, the buildings themselves were pretty interesting. Many of the buildings in the neighborhood have publicly accessible roof decks which was useful when plotting our next stop (this was how we picked out Ssamziegil and the Insa Art Center). Ssamziegil is sort of a rectangular shopping version of the Guggenheim in NYC. Instead of a spiral, the ramps are lined on the edges of a rectangle, and instead of art, you peek into various small shops lining the ramp. It's success is derived from the fact that rather than being an insular shopping mall, it carries the flow and language of the neighborhood which makes it feels more like a continuation of the street itself, just stacked vertically.
On the other side of the coin, the Insa Art Center utilizes a courtyard in front of the entrance to minimize noise and light that may otherwise disturb the curated galleries within. Two opposite approaches to popular buildings in the are and they both succeed in what they set out to do.
Unfortunately I didn't get to explore further (missed out on all the tea shops) since we had to head to Apgujeong for dinner.
That evening, Sam and Steve joined us at a corner Korean BBQ restaurant in the Rodeo Street subsection of Apgujeong for dinner. Not much to say about Apgujeong except that the food and eye candy was great here. The cafes offer up some of the best green tea-based drinks I've ever had.
Plastic surgery is pretty popular in Korea so while walking around Apgujeong just look up. Plastic surgery clinics line the blocks (usually the upper floors) one after another. Please refer to the photo of Chewy showing everyone what goes on in one of these clinics.
Additional photos of South Korea