Monday, June 21, 2010

Heart and Seoul

When Kip heard he was going to Korea for a work conference, I was not particularly excited.

Korean food is ok.

I have been through Korea Town in LA a thousand times, and one of my friends who had recently been to Seoul described it as “Korea Town – just bigger.”

So I thought I would let Kip go alone, save our travel savings for a trip to Europe or South America.

Then we realized the conference Kip was invited to present a poster at was only a few days after my brother’s wedding in LA. If we worked it just right, we might be able to convince Kip’s mom to stay in LA with our kids while we were in Asia. And with a little more research we realized we would be able to work a 24-hour layover in Tokyo.

With Kip’s expenses paid for it became a half-price, international vacation. So in the midst of getting ready for my brother’s wedding and hosting extended family here in LA, we bought our plane tickets and decided to go.

I was thrilled to see Tokyo, but I wasn’t expecting a lot out of Korea.

I was so wrong.

I completely fell in love with Seoul in every way.

 Seoul's history and future at an intersection.  Dongdaemun gate at night.

 I loved the city itself with its new high rises and old palaces, the quirky combination of ancient and trendy, the big-hearted Korean people with their infectious smiles and gentle laughter, the way Korean couples walk hand-in-hand down the lit riverside in the evening. I even liked the food.

We only knew how to say two things in Korean, “hello,” and “thank you,” and we managed to make our way all over the city, pointing, smiling and accepting the help of strangers who seemed to enjoy practicing their English skills.

But it wasn’t just the place. Seoul seems to be enjoying its moment too. The last decade of economic growth has redefined the city. New construction is everywhere. Shopping malls the size of Vegas hotels stay open 19 hours a day to handle the flood of young workers with expendable income. A municipal sewer that was once an ancient stream through the heart of Seoul has been redeemed -- restored into an open river with miles of protected walkways that stay lit for romantic evening strollers.

 Cheonggye Stream -- an inspiring example of urban renewal

Even as we were in Seoul, workers were unveiling a multi-story banner sign welcoming the G20 Summit that will be held there in November. No longer a city devastated by civil war, it is a modern, clean, wealthy city in the heart of the Asian economy and it is ready to host the word.

And yet Seoul blooms precariously under the threat of Kim Jong-il 37 miles to the North. While we were in Seoul, the entire country shut down for a 20 minute military drill. Sirens wailed. Traffic stopped dead in the street. People rushed inside. All over Seoul. Apparently all over Korea.

Kip and I attended a Korean church Sunday afternoon. Years ago I had heard about Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world, and since we were in Korea on a Sunday I wanted to see it myself.

When we arrived by taxi, we were a little overwhelmed by the strange curbside food stands selling stewed silk worm cocoons and the crowd of Koreans filing into the mega church. So when I spotted the only other American walking into the church, a crew-cut soldier in tie-dye, we followed him inside. He and his friendly Korean girlfriend took us to the “foreigner,” section where the church provided translation headsets in several languages.
 Not exactly coffee and doughnuts for worshipers walking out of this 800,000 member Korean mega church.

It was a little difficult to follow at first, but when I got the hang of listening to the Korean and the halting translation, it was really amazing to be immersed into a completely different place with such familiarity. At the end of the service, when the entire congregation prayed out loud, I took my headset off. It sounded wonderful. Asian churches in places like Seoul have a growing reputation within Evangelical Christian communities for being places of prayer. I understood why. This particular church hosts all night prayer meetings six nights a week. They are serious about praying for their world. You can sense the presence of God there.

Sneaking in a picture from the balcony at Yoido Full Gospel Church. Familiar worship choruses lyrics are projected in English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. 

Over the next few days, Kip attended the conference while I took it easy. Both days I made it by myself across Seoul by metro, wandering through neighborhoods in the city center, drinking green tea, taking pictures and scoping out places to go with Kip.

When Kip was done with his conference, the real fun began in exploring. One night we must have walked for 8 hours. After wandering into a traditional Korean restaurant with absolutely no English on the menu, we managed to order something that was not what we were hoping for, but yummy still, and then set out to find Dongdaemun which we had been told was a great shopping area.
Kip is trying to get Korean barbecue. He points to a word in our Lonely Planet Korea guide.
 The Bulgogi that arrived was more like stewed meat and mushrooms, but it came with the obligatory kimchi and we made the best of it.

We rode the metro a few stops and found a few narrow backstreets that felt like a very Asian market corner with traditional restaurants and street vendors. We turned down another road and wound up in a residential neighborhood with crowded narrow streets filled with pedestrians, motorcycles and occasional trucks precariously squeezing through. In stead of high rise condos here there were three-story apartment buildings with street level restaurants, the kind where patrons leave their shoes at the door and sit on the floor at low-level tables. Fish tanks outside the restaurant promised fresh octopus and squid. Tired shopkeepers kept the corner grocery stores open for the many Koreans walking home from work. It was a busy neighborhood street with real people, working, living, laughing, eating. It felt like the real Korea.

When we stopped to discuss what kind of meat was grilling on a giant grill, a flattered storekeeper tore off a piece and handed it to Kip. We were afraid it was dog, so we refused at first, but through a game of charades we realized it was pig feet and ate it. It was pretty darn good, for barbecued pig.

  Getting lost in back street markets at dusk.
She will catch you dinner if you dare.
Kip checking out the freshest of the fresh sea food kept outside these very authentic, off the tourist map Korean restaurants. Does anyone know what the pink squiggly things are? They were alive. We don't know.
Flower store
 We can't decide what the mystery meat is....
 It looks pretty disgusting, but we a very amused Korean woman tore some off the grill and gave it to us to try. She told us it was pig feet. It was actually pretty good.
Neighborhood restaurant
Woman selling kimchi and other traditional Korean foods in her store on this narrow neighborhood alley just blocks fromthe modern high rise shopping centers.
Kip "talking" to a store clerk.

The neighborhood gets crowded as people come home from work. Pedestrians watch out for delivery motorcycles zipping through the crowd. Occasional trucks squeeze through slowly, barely clearing the store fronts that spill into the street.
Just blocks from the crowded neighborhood alley street is the ancient Dongdeumun gate towering over this very modern city street. Rapidly expanding high rise construction in the distance suggest that that Korea's place in the world is certainly not history.

Eventually we wondered out of the neighborhood and found the shopping district we had been told about. But we were not prepared for the size of this new consumerism Mecca. It was overwhelming, like stumbling into the Las Vegas Strip, only to find the hotel sized buildings were shopping malls, many of them filled with high-end designer clothing. I was too exhausted to enjoy much shopping by this point, but I convinced Kip to get a $20 T-shirt designed by a young Korean to represent his country’s war and rebirth of peace.

As we were leaving we asked how long the seven-story mall would be open and discovered it was open until 5 a.m. Like many other businesses catering to the massive 20-something population in Seoul, it was open all night.

One of Seoul's new fashion districts open for all night shopping.

We decided to walk back to the city center by way of the new Cheonggye Stream, the stream that had been covered with concrete 60 years ago after the war and had recently opened. It was past midnight by this time, and we were not alone on the walk. Couples holding hands and chatting were out, so were groups of women and groups of men. There was a profound innocence about the place. No graffiti. No hint of violence. Just people enjoying each other’s company. We later learned that the crime rate in Seoul is incredibly low.
Cheonggye Stream at night.
Refreshing cool water after spending a night walking Seoul.

We walked under an overpass. It was lit in gentle colored lights and with special lights illuminating children’s artwork. I wondered what Los Angeles would be like if we light up the underpasses at night and decorated them with children’s art.

The next day we explored Insadong, a traditional tourist area with plenty of souvenir shops with cheap and expensive artwork, pottery, handmade paper and the best tea I have ever tasted. We found an upstairs tea house and indulged in drinking tea and watching people walk past. It was mostly Korean couples, walking arm in arm. Often the men carried the women’s purses. I thought that was sweet.
Tea time
Artist shop in Insadong

 After a heavy doses of people watching we decided we wanted Korean barbeque, after all, we were in Korea and we had been trying to get it all week. We asked our tea waitress who sent us in one direction and we wondered around trying to match her Korean pictorial writing with the lit signs on the street.

A semi-drunk man in a business suit stopped us and tried to help us. His English was questionable, but he was fun and we were not in a hurry, so we followed through blocks of restaurants with Korean-only signs. Finally, with much excitement he delivered us to a back alley restaurant with several friendly Korean grandma types who immediately made us sit down and began pouring us water.

It would have been an interesting experience, but Kip was really hoping for Korean barbeque, so we found a way to politely slip out. I think they understood.

We wandered around until we found a restaurant that had a curious hearth outside. A young man with tongs was transporting heavy round charcoals through the front door. We followed him inside.

Once again there was no English on the wall, door or menu. But the place was full of young Koreans watching the World Cup on the big screen TV and to Kip’s delight, tables of grilling meat.

Someone motioned for us to sit down and the charcoal guy gingerly dumped the burning coal into a pit in the center of our table. The delighted manager pointed to one of the Korean words and said, “Cow!” We ordered that, plus two beers. Within minutes we were sipping Hite, eating bean sprout kimchi with metal chopsticks and grilling our own meat. We felt completely immersed in Korea.

 Korean barbecue in Korea.
Yes, I am really eating kimchi with metal chopsticks -- clearly not the same girl who moved to LA seven years ago.
Kip posing with the restaurant manager. It was awesome. We have no idea what the name of this restaurant is or where to find it. Many of the streets in Korea actually have no name, so directions get a little confusing unless you have GPS coordinates.

Back at the hotel we fell exhausted into our American beds at the Marriot. It was kind of like cheating, to stay at an American hotel on our Korean adventure, but sleeping well made our daily adventures possible.
In the morning we discovered the hotel’s sauna was actually a Korean bath -- a segregated mens’ and womens’ all-natural spa with hot tubs, cold tubs, sudsy showering areas and dry sauna.

When I got over the awkwardness of being naked in a room full of women who don’t speak my language, it was actually incredibly relaxing. Once again I appreciated the innocence of Korean culture that allows people to enjoy something as basic as public nudity without shame or fear of predators. I wondered how it would change American culture for girls to be exposed to a wide variety of naked female bodies instead of the few they see air brushed in our media.

The last day we were in Korea we made our way to the Changdeok Palace, arrived in time to hear one of the only two daily English tours.

 Kip bows to enter through the small door. Only the king was allowed to walk through the gate upright.

When it ended we piggy backed on a Korean tour of the palace garden and made friends with a few other English speakers on the tour, two Irish kids and a girl from Ohio. We exchanged stories and ended up hanging out for several hours, wandering through another touristy shopping area with them and finding dinner at a very authentic, back-alley, Korean-only restaurant where Kip finally got his authentic bibimbap.  It felt like a chance meeting that was meant to be. We exchanged e-mail addresses and wished them the best in their studies.
 In the secret garden

 Kip with new Irish and American friends.

We made our way to Seoul Tower, a relatively new tourist attraction, an old television tower a top a mountain overlooking Seoul. By this time it was a cloudy night with a disappointing view of the city and once again it was nearing midnight and we were exhausted.
 Seoul Tower at night.
Laser show with fountains and light at Seoul Tower

 A slice of Seoul from the tower ... more than 10 million people out there.
Kip took this picture of the inside of the men's restroom. No reason to let the need to pee interrupt the view.

We saw an artist making sketches for 10,000 Won, about $8, and Kip convinced me to sit for a portrait. The artist, who spoke no English, motioned for me to look in one direction and then studied my face for the next 15 minutes. It was a strange experience for me to be so carefully studied.

Kip loved the portrait and carefully carried it home on the plane the next day, wrapped between two pieces of cardboard. I didn’t think it was an amazing picture. But I have difficulty really liking any pictures of me. I appreciated how much Kip liked it. It made me realize again that he loves me.

Later that night, realizing that it was now after midnight and our last evening in Seoul, we decided to do the last thing on our wish list – visit the Foot Shop so Kip could experience the fabled foot message and nibbling fish that literally eat away the dead skin on your feet.

I was planning to watch and take pictures, but when we arrived at the massage parlor, a fancy little Korean/Japanese place hidden away on the sixth floor of a building two blocks off the main road, I decided to try having a massage too.

I have never had a massage before.

Kip has always wanted to have a couple’s massage. He has suggested it for an anniversary present, but we have never gotten around to trying it. So at 1 a.m. in Seoul, in a massage parlor with an English name but not an employee that spoke more than a handful of words in English, we decided to get a couples’ massage.

Upside down with a masseuse squeezing the tension out of my shoulders I desperately wondered how to say, “OUCH! STOP!” in Korean.

I was a little intimidated and willed myself to relax. I survived, and by the end it was even relaxing. I might try to get a massage after my next marathon.

Kip enjoyed it immensely. He got a 40 minute massage on his back and then another 20 minutes on his feet, before he tried the fish pond. In all it was near 2 a.m. when we caught a taxi back to the hotel.

We got in a quick night’s sleep, enjoyed the hotels luxurious breakfast buffet one last time and reluctantly left our hotel for our 18-hour journey back to Los Angeles. As we left I found myself hoping, even planning how we could come back. Like a new relationship brimming with possibility, I had fallen in love with Korea.


  1. Tree This is such a great telling of your trip. I loved the stores, the pictures and how much fun you guys had!! Thanks so much for sharing so beautifully!

  2. oops - supposed to be "stories" though the art store did catch my eye!