Korea is my Seoulmate

3.25.10

Five friends, four days, three-hundred feet from North Korea, two galbi dinners and one nude, spread eagle massage later, I am back from South Korea!

Korea is the Promised Land, at least after 8 months in (rural) Japan. It has more foreign food than I’ve seen in the last eight months combined. We left Friday night and came back on Tuesday. It’s a cheap flight from Fukuoka – about $250 roundtrip.

Here’s how it happened:

We step off the hour-long bus ride from Seoul’s International Incheon Airport into the heart of the city and see Dunkin Donuts, The Coffee Bean and Papa John’s Pizza all in the same 360 degree circle. It’s going to be a good, good trip.

…too bad we will eat virtually none of it.

A 10-minute walk later from Hongdae Station, we arrive at Hong Guesthouse, in the Hongik University neighborhood in Seoul. It’s midnight.

Hong Guesthouse in Seoul

The hostel is as young and hip (and clean!) as the Korean man who owns it (we think he owns it). His English is perfect, and he’s kind enough to wait up for us, give us a tour and get us acquainted with the area before leaving to hit a few clubs with other backpackers at the hostel.

Kris, Callie and I drop our stuff on our bunkbeds and convene around the computers in the homey “lobby,” which is more like a living room – with a tv, stacks of board games and cards, couches and two communal computers with free internet. We begin planning our weekend then, at nearly 1am, and by 2:30am, we have to do a DMZ tour.

Because Korea is the Promised Land, the reservation line for the tour company is open 24 hours. What we didn’t bargain on was the agent laughing at our polite request for the 8am tour.

“You do know pick us is in,” pause, “Five hours?” He’s incredulous.

We are pretty sure he thinks we are drunk, which if we were, is the only way booking a tour to the North Korean border at 2:30 in the morning could be any more ridiculous.

“Yes, we do realize… we still want that tour.”

We can sleep when we die, right? Or… after the tour.

The full-day tour we want, which goes to the village of Panmunjom and lets you step foot into North Korea by way of walking around a peace table, is booked. We settle for a half-day one that promises an exhilarating amethyst factory tour! *facepalm*

Five hours later, we are on the bus. We go into the tour with limited expectations and by the end are rewarded with a contented lack of disappointment.

Freedom Bridge - notes for reunification line the end of it

The first stop is at Freedom Bridge, a symbolic structure that will be crossed by both sides if when a peace agreement is reached. The day is drizzly and gray, a perfect backdrop for taking in miles of barbed-wire border fences and slightly terrifying guards.

The second stop, the highlight, is at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, allegedly excavated by North Koreans as an attack route to the South Korea’s capital. My favorite part of the story is that the guilty party (I’m holding out for a giant South Korean government cover-up – “No one will ever suspect us with the crazy North Koreans right there!”) covered the tunnel walls in coal soot, as evidence to their explanation if caught that they were simply searching for coal and oops! did we cross the border?! But turns out there’s not coal anywhere near that part of either country. Good one, Kim!

Walking the length of the tunnel is surreal. I can imagine the blasts, hear the sounds and see the soldiers that could have walked its length. We wear hard hats. We mock them as a fashion statement, but I’m glad I have it considering how many times I’ve banged my head on the low passageways (at least 12). South Korea (allegedly…..) discovered the tunnels (the first, second & others) using water pipes. I’m a little iffy on the “how,” but they’ve shown us the remaining PVC. When North Korea blew shit up, it would have burst the pipes… I think.

The third tunnel is the most notorious because of its proximity to vulnerable South Korean political bases. It’s also the tunnel that came closest to its goal. If a full-scale attack had ever been launched, a full division and its weapons could have traversed it at once (the second tunnel could hold even more – over 30,000 troops per hour!).

The tunnel path for tourists stops somewhere between 300-500 feet from the border. That’s where I am. I’m tempted to “accidentally get lost,” but there are locks and danger signs and maybe that’s one adventure I’d best forego.

Kris, Callie and me doing some inappropriately joyful posing at the DMZ!

We exit the tunnel, through the passageway and up a hill, and come out into the DMZ… gift shop. There’s omiyage (foodstuffs for co-workers) and snacks and souveneirs. To add to the glaringly  inappropriate response to the DMZ, we take awkward, we-shouldn’t-be-smiling-but-we-are pictures and head to the next stop: the observation deck.

I am most excited for this – peering through binoculars into North Korea and having angry guards yell, “BEHIND THE LINE!” I’ve always wanted to be a peeping Tammy on an entire country. But alas – the rain and fog have decreased visibility so much we can’t go. So it’s onwards to the Dorason Train Station.

This is cooler than I anticipated. Like the bridge, it currently exists as a symbol. But it is built to be and is capable of being fully functional. As soon as peace is reached, it will open and become part of the transcontinental railway; it will be the first land access from Russia/China to the Koreas.

After, Callie, Kris and I skip the amethyst tour (we aren’t in the mood to pad tour company pockets) and opt for coffee and a bagel (!!!!) at a cute shop next door.

All in all, we learned a lot about the history and current relationship between the Koreas and found the tunnel fascinating, but if you ever find yourself headed to SK, plan in advance and book the USO Panmunjom Tour. We’ve heard it’s worth the extra money and time.

Bibimbap and delicious, spicy soup

We are dropped off in Incheon, the most foreigner-friendly neighborhood in all of Asia I think. If we thought Hongik was paradise, this is blowing our minds. Coldstone, Quiznos, Subway and Outback and “big sizes” stores are only the first places we spot.

We eat bibimbap (rice with meat, a raw egg, kimichi, bean sprouts, veggies in a hot, hot pot).

Now here’s the difference between Seoul and Japan: Koean food and culture is so good you don’t need the foreign stuff. (And yet it’s the place that has it. 😦 )

My favorite thing about Korean meals is that they come with 800 side dishes – chili paste, tofu, bean sprouts, greens (etc etc) and kimichi – spicy, fermented cabbage. It sounds awful, but it is – well, I could write country songs and poetry for the kimichi. It is poetry.

Can you spot MJ and Whoopi?!

After lunch, it’s nap time and then dinner. My friend Lindsey, a fellow Ms. magazine intern and wilderness adventurer extraordinaire, lives and teaches English in Seoul with her boyfriend Peter. They direct us to Hongik Sutbul Galbi, a galbi restarant – Korea’s famed self-bbqd meat. In Japan, it’s called yakiniku and it couldn’t be more different (it’s clean, galbis not).

Sutbul is a locals joint, complete with plastic tables and chairs, a menu on the wall and a painted mural starring Michael Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg on another. It’s a complete gem and always packed with regulars, it seems.

Lindsey and Peter meet us 30 minutes into the meal, so it’s up to us to order. Fortunately, a couple of British guys are at the table next to us and help (it seems there’s only one dish – galbi – and one drink – soju –somewhere between vodka and sake) us, before we could let the harsh, fast-talking, older Korean owner/waiter scare us away.

"This is how you cut the meat!"

The food comes out approximately 2 minutes after we order and we can’t fit it all on the table. There are dishes in chairs and pans on the floor. The old waiter gets our grill going with a fresh burning pot of coals and places a grill cover on top.

In Korean galbi, you bbq huge slabs of pork, then cut them into small pieces with shears before building lettuce wraps with them. The busy waiter learns we speak Japanese (er, that Kris and Callie speak Japanese) and turns from gruff to grandfatherly in an instant. As he speaks to us in nihongo, he skillfully cuts our meat and changes the grill in nearly a single motion – and shows us how to make the wraps: Lettuce first – make a boat – then meat, grilled onions, chili paste, kimichi, bean sprouts, greens – and then, try to fit it in your mouth. We are covered in meat juice and the smell of the grill and the entire experience is delectable. (It’s so good we bring our friends back the last night of the trip!)

The Yamaguchians + Grace and a new Korean friend, after we left MP2 in Seoul at 3:30am. We are throwing the "Yamaguchi" kanji 'gang sign'. We are nerds.

Linds and Peter arrive, and catching up with her is a highlight. After dinner, the five of us meet up with the rest of our group – Ryan, Hozumi, Christina and Grace, at MP2, one of Seoul’s hippest clubs. Around 3am the packed club quiets to listen to a man sing Brian McKnight’s “Keys to My Heart.” I decide I need to dance with him (I thought it was a good idea?). His bodyguard prevents this, and that’s when we decide he’s a Korean celebrity.

Kris makes best friend’s with our taxi driver on the way back, and I break a man’s heart when I don’t return his love after a few hours on the dance floor. It’s 4am when we get to the hostel, and as the Peas say, we’ve painted the town and shut it down.

Mystery, delicious pork dish

By noon, we are awake enough to meet up with Hozumi for lunch. We stumble into a restaruant that specializes in a dish we’ve never heard of or tried (or since found the name of). As I’m writing this, the dish – simply pork, bean sprouts and chili paste – cooked by servers on our table grill – is like Atlantis: probably the best, most precious thing of all time and now completely lost. I’ve searched for it for at least 20 minutes online, and not even google knows what it is.

Our server, a nice woman with great English, warns us it’s spicy, and that is an understatement. We should have brought a gallon of milk to calm the fires in our mouths. But it’s delicious and worth the pain. If I ever figure out what it was we ate, I will do everything in my power to recreate the magic.

palace

Lindsey meets us after lunch and takes us to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest and most famous in Seoul, dating back to the Jyseon Dynasty (I don’t know what that means either). It was the seat of power for centuries before 1592, when the Japanese (damn Japanese) destroyed it.

Speaking of Japanese-Korean relations, they’re strained (::understatement::). Besides a familiar language bond for some of the Koreans we have met (like the man at the restaurant), it’s a touchy subject. The Japanese have yet to formally acknowledge and apologize for their long occupation of Korea and mistreatment of Koreans, and Koreans understandably don’t take well to that.

Because Korea is the Promised Land, we arrive at the castle right as the ceremonial switching of the guards begins. After 8 months of living in Japan’s fetish world of gray, white and black, I am mesmerized by the bright, vast array of hues and patterns on the outfits and flags. Korean history is colorful, literally and figuratively. The guards march, drummers drum, flags wave, and we hungrily take it all in.

16th century, meet 21st

The Palace is restored but still reminiscent of its former glory. Most notably, a pagoda, unrestored in all its fading, transcendent appeal, rests on the grounds. It’s inaccessible on the tourist paths, making it all the more alluring. Then again, I have a thing for pagodas.

The Palace grounds are framed by rocky mountains to the north and a high-rise dotted skyline to the south. It’s a picture-perfect juxtaposition of past and present, traditionality and modern innovation.

From there, we step out of 16th century Korea and into 21st century, newly opened and highly lauded H&M in Myeong-dong, the premiere shopping district of Seoul. There is a line to get in and a man in a suit, nothing short of a bouncer, granting entrance. I shop like a holic, like it’s my first time in a store with clothes my size (it feels like it). I can’t find jeans – the sizes fit but the trendy, LA backstreets meets Asian fusion doesn’t, but I find enough skirts and tops to (over)compensate.

In the vein of our jam-packed traveling style, Callie and I have to run to meet one of her friend’s dads that lives in the city for dinner. He, along with his Russian, concert violinist friend, innocuously ask, “Is Italian okay?” and I have no idea for what I’m in store.

Antonio on the piano. (used from casAntonio Ristorante Italiano's website)

casAntonio Ristorante Italiano is as authentic as Antonio himself, which is to say – very. He quickly woos me with his thick accent, penchant for fine wine and expressive hands – that touch his lips and reach for the air every time he calls me “bella.”

“Go on…”

I should move to Italy.

Fine wine, a ham and cheese appetizer that would be offended by being called “ham and cheese”, a homemade buffalo mozzerrella pizza appetizer, fresh baked bread and real olive oil later – it is clear that I am Julia Roberts in the scene in Pretty Woman when she goes to the fancy business dinner and feels utterly out of place and enchanted at the same time. (Where’s my Richard Gere?)

Callie’s friend’s dad, the Russian and Antonio know each other well, judging by their banter and Antonio’s chair pulled up at the table. There is a pristine grand piano in the center of the restaurant and Italian music playing softly overhead.

Antonio does not approve of us pouring over the menu – we simply must try the crab linguini and the ribeye wrapped in bacon dipped in expensive something or other. So we do, and it’s as decadent tasting as his pronunciation of their names sounded. He tops it off by sending over a tirimasu for each of us – the single richest, most divine thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I now literally understand the correlation between sex and food.

More of their friends arrive. Jong is a Korean-born, nationalized American who, we have heard, wins over young women at Antonio’s by playing the piano – because he’s a concert pianist. The night is drawing to a close, but before we leave, it seems Callie and I have passed Jong’s test, and he plays for us his favorite Russian classical piece. This inspires the Russian to dance a folk dance. She convinces the friend’s dad to join her and Antonio tops it off with an inspiring Italian vibrato.

It seems I’ve traveled the world in a single, delicious evening.

Kris, Grace, Callie and me outside the spa

Monday is our last full day, and it has been reserved as “girl spa day.” I’m… iffy… about this, but I’m in Korea, so why not? This decision is nothing short of the best I’ve ever made.

Dragon Hill Spa is the best in Seoul, the Russian told us last night. We’re here and struggle five minutes in with where to get naked.

“Maybe we leave all our clothes in these lockers.”

“Maybe we leave our shoes here and take off our clothes upstairs.”

The latter is correct and fortunately we realize it befor we commit to the former and walk through the public area of the spa disrobed.

We get nude upstairs, grab our towels and head to the bath room. There are dozens of different baths – massaging, sea water, hot, cold, long, short, big, small. We bath hop and then head for a massage.

“Full body Korean massage, please,” we point at our choice on the sign.

The masseuse, an older Korean woman who speaks no English, nods and grabs the bottom of her dress with both hands and

We thought these sweet outfits were to walk around the spa. We quickly learned they are for the sports courts.

throws it over her head. The other masseuses are brushing their teeth nude behind her and watching us. They spit, rinse and almost simultaneously pull on sheer bras and panties. They’re ready for us.

They direct us onto massage tables next to each other that heavily resemble pap smear ones – or maybe that’s the de ja vu of the last time I had my legs spread eagle with someone’s hands near my thighs.

First there is a scrub down. It’s exfoliating… and excruciating! I’m “OUCH!”ing at every scrape, and the masseuse is laughing equally loudly. Kris is to my right, Callie my left, and we can’t help but laugh as they spin, twirl, flip and rub us. Soon we are as familiar with each others bodies as we are our own.

The massage begins with the masseuses hoisting themselves onto the tables and walking the length of our bodies while holding the poles in the ceiling for balance. She moves my skin like she wants to remove it, and she doesn’t miss a single spot. She’s very thorough. It’s an oil massage, and I feel lubed from head to toe.

The shampoo is next, and it’s a nice scalp massage, but I fear they use the same body oil as shampoo, and it may be stuck in my pores and follicles as a permanent souvenir. And then there’s the slapping. We are getting spanked. I don’t know what we did wrong, but our asses, thighs, backs and arms are paying for it.

For all the pain, it’s a wild experience that I wouldn’t trade. If you’re ever in Seoul and need a massage – Dragon Spa is the place to go!

Callie and me with our new best friend at the galbi restaurant! I'm not sure why I look so... intense...

As we leave the Spa, entertained if not relaxed, it is snowing. The city is beautiful covered in white. We make our way to Namdaemun, the traditional Korean market and spend the afternoon shopping… and freezing.

After, we retreat back to Hongik for a second dinner of galbi, this time with the whole group, and call it a trip. Of course, Callie, Kris and I make sure to get a picture with our new best friend – the waiter. This time he’s happy to see us.

In the four days we have been in Seoul, the only foreign food we have eaten were bagels for breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. That’s how great Seoul is. Throughout the trip, we played the “how many puns on ‘Seoul’ can you make?” game, and Callie won with the last pun in this entry.

Korea is my Seoulmate and I hope I’ve Seould you on making your next trip there!

Lindsey, Callie and me at the Palace. I went into this trip imagining it was summer already in Korea. When it started snowing and all I had was a hoodie, I regretted that wishful thinking :/

Changing of the guards ceremony at the Palace

Modeling with one of the guards after the ceremony

We are the guards! I'm the smallest and Kris (who is like 3 feet tall) is the biggest.

The unreachable pagoda

Leave it to Kris, Callie and me to restore peace to an unstable region! (In the DMZ)

Getting the hang of galbi! Yummm!

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~ by C on April 27, 2010.

3 Responses to “Korea is my Seoulmate”

  1. Now I’m starving, but it was worth it. That last picture did me in. Well, that and the fact that you love kimchee!!! AHHHH!! I can’t wait to hang out with you in Georgia and eat kimchee and rice together. We’ll try to recreate that mystery pork dish even if I have no idea what it tastes like. Love you!!

  2. i loved every bit of this.

  3. “The other masseuses are brushing their teeth nude behind her and watching us. They spit, rinse and almost simultaneously pull on sheer bras and panties. They’re ready for us.” –love, love, love! It was all so true.

    And I am 4’10.5″ :p

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