Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2005
Seoul may not pull in the tourist hordes the way more fashionable Asian cities like Hong Kong or Shanghai do. But with the rising popularity in Japan of all things Korean—from TV drama to music to food—the city is starting to attract the attention it deserves.
Seoul is, unjustly, sometimes described as a scaled-down version of Tokyo. Its population of around 10 million, though, makes it no sleepy village. And yet it wasn’t until I took in the view from Seoul Tower, located downtown and perched on Mount Namsan, that I fully comprehended the city’s scale and neon-lit beauty. Seoul has a setting straight out of a Chinese landscape painting, with the sparkling high-rise sprawl framed to the north by delicate peaks. Its humming energy can, in fact, make even Tokyo seem staid and pedestrian.
Nowhere demonstrates this better than the downtown Namdaemun Market, which offers everything from enormous jars of ginseng to kimchi to military uniforms, all sold by vendors screaming themselves hoarse. Like the Irish and Italians, Koreans are often stereotyped as wild and temperamental, but what struck me about Seoul was the helpfulness and unforced friendliness of the locals.
One man I met on the subway first helped me buy a ticket, and then, on the train, told me an interesting tale from his days as an army tank driver: His commanding officer once tested his obedience by ordering him to eat a snake. Korean society, and especially the army, are very strict, he said. And indeed, walking through Seoul, the frequent sight of young soldiers doing their compulsory military service is an inescapable reminder that North Korea is less than a few hours’ drive away. For both Koreas, the constant threat of an Armageddon-like showdown hangs over the peninsula like a dark cloud.
Apart from the risk of war, one of Seoul’s real terrors is getting lost in one of the cavernous underground shopping complexes that stretch forever like a rat’s maze. Confectionary giant Lotte, for one, has a ludicrously grandiose and kitsch shopping/entertainment complex near Seoul’s Olympic Stadium. The drawing card is Lotte World—Korea’s answer to Disneyland, which includes an ice skating rink and amusement park, housed under an enormous glass roof.
Next door is the Folk Museum, where it’s obvious that old wounds are still healing, despite this being an official year of friendship between Japan and Korea. One display illustrating the brutality of Japan’s 35-year colonial rule of Korea shows a pair of Japanese soldiers torturing a Korean freedom fighter.
In stark contrast with Seoul’s ultramodern façade and tiger economy wealth, evidence of the city’s long history is easy to find. It seems miraculous that anything older than 50 years old is still standing considering the hammering Seoul took in the Korean War, during which the city was fought over four times. Yet Seoul’s most recognizable landmark is Namdaemun, the great 15th-century southern gate of the long-ago vanished city walls. The grandest of the city’s many palaces, meanwhile, is surely Gyeongbokgung, which is like an island of tranquility. The palace’s huge paved courtyard, contemplative ponds and grand wooden halls give it the atmosphere of a downsized, albeit impressive, version of Beijing’s Forbidden City.
By far the most enjoyable part of experiencing Seoul is eating out. By night, arty Insadong is a great place to whet the appetite perusing the street markets selling embroidery, paintings and lacquerware, and then grab a bite. Korean yakiniku, known as pulgoki, is far sweeter, spicier and tastier than the Nipponified version. The best kind is galbi—beef spare ribs—which are cut into small pieces at the table by waiters armed with scissors and tongs. A good accompaniment is a vessel of the slightly sweet and yeasty tasting brew made from rice called makoli. As in Japan, meals are usually served with a bewildering array of small side dishes, including pickled vegetables, nori, fish, and of course kimchi, which comes with every meal.
After a hard day on the Seoul roller coaster, you can understand why this nation of workaholics love to cool their heels over a few vessels of makoli and a steaming plate of galbi.
Asiana Airlines and Korean Airlines offer some of the cheapest and most regular flights from Narita to Seoul’s new airport in Incheon. Buses into downtown are cheap, frequent and take a little over an hour. Seoul has a similar climate to Tokyo, which means the best times to visit are spring and fall; late May and June are best avoided because of the rainy season. If you can, sample the pleasures of a traditional hanuk inn, which have sadly become scarce in the city. Seoul Guesthouse (82-61-745-0057 www.seoul110.com) is rustic but charming, located in a quiet backstreet in Insadong. Double rooms are about ¥5,000. Be sure to get a copy of the address of your accomodation written in Korean to show your taxi driver—because of the non-existence of street names, finding it yourself may be virtually impossible.