Saturday, May 22, 2010

Korea, part 1: getting on board the Seoul train

As we've said before, public holidays in Japan are plentiful indeed, and during the first week of May, we get a super sweet Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday triple deal, thanks to Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day and Children’s Day. Add another one, Showa Day, the week before, and it’s an obvious chance to take a holiday without killing all your paid leave. So it was off to South Korea for us, tagging along with our Brit-friends Jill and Hannah.

For a start, we changed some cash at the airport, from yen to won. A whole 1000 won is only worth about 100 yen, so here’s a picture of me holding 1,000,000 units of currency. A millionaire at 27 – top of the world, ma!

The trip from Sendai to Seoul consisted of an overnight bus from Sendai to Tokyo, then a wait of about four hours at Narita airport, then a two-and-a-half-hour flight into Seoul, so we were a bit ragged by the time we made our destination. We had booked a backpackers in Hongdae, a kind of trendy university area, and spend the first night taking it pretty easy, wandering around various bars, clubs and pubs. We also ate the first of many delicious barbecue dinners.

The next day we were off to check out a cute market in the area.

We gave some sunscreen to some English teachers from Busan there, and they told us about an all-day music gig with 51 bands playing on a (de?)construction site, something about protesting the plans to knock over a building, gentrification and all that. We made a mental note to check it out in the evening.

Later we headed to Changgyeong Palace.

The multi-colours in the buildings, flags and costumes here were quite different to the more subdued Japanese style we were used to. We got there just in time to see a changing of the guards, and got to snap loads of pictures of said guards’ snazzy beards as they stared straight ahead, doing their best to ignore us and all the other tourists doing the same.

The palace grounds were quite lovely, and we actually intended to visit some of the other palace areas nearby, but then we got distracted and we ran out of time. I guess this is indicative of just how much there is to do in Seoul. It was a pretty happening place.

The distraction in question was our stomachs rumbling, so we diverted our attention to finding jeonbokjuk, a type of Korean porridge. Jill and Hannah tried the pumpkin, I had the vegetable and Mirabel had the azuki bean. M’s was too sweet, mine was too bland, but the pumpkin was pretty delicious. There’s a tip if you ever find yourself in Korea and sweating over a porridge menu.

That evening we headed to the 51 bands thing, and we were amused to see Korean metal, psychedelic nerd-rock, and a guy wailing exceptionally badly on a bongo, amongst other things. Each band played about four songs all up, so it was a good way to get a little taste of the music scene.

The next day we readied ourselves for a big old trek up Dobongsan mountain.

It may have been a mistake to go on a weekend, actually, as the track was packed with hikers from top to bottom. Everyone but us was sporting high-tech tramping gear – jackets, walking poles, backpacks – while we trundled up in our sneakers, jeans and t-shirts and/or dresses. We think lots of people we passed were talking about our shoes in particular. The track wasn’t very difficult though, although it did get a bit steep at the top.

In the end we weren’t allowed to go the last 20 or so metres to the summit, as a beady-eyed ranger spotted our inappropriate footwear. But why place so much importance on getting right to the top anyway? What makes the peak so much more desirable a destination than just below it? We still saw this amazing, slightly hazy view.

In fact, hazy was a common theme to most views we saw in Korea. Stay tuned for more, as we head south to Busan in our next update.


Darlene Brown said...

Is Korea way cooler than Japan or am I just being a dick? I wanna go! And is 1000 won the same equivalent (amount of purchases-wise) to 1000 yen?

Gareth said...

Well, Seoul is definitely way cooler than Sendai at least, but then it is much bigger, the country's capital, and quite the cultural mecca. It's a big, vibrant, fun city. You should definitely go! (Although maybe not right now, what with all the threats of war and whatnot.)

10,000 won is worth about 1000 yen. Actually they have The Daiso (100 yen shop) chain over there, but everything is 1000 won, so yeah, pretty much equivalent.