Monday, December 11, 2006

A weekend in Korea, November 2006

With mainland South Korea being closer to where I live in Kyushu than much of the rest of Japan, it was inevitable that I'd visit there someday. Well, fate afforded my wife and I a trip in the middle of November, so off we went, bound for Seoul, a city that was nothing short of impressive.

Opting for a very cheap package tour (that is, minibus to and from the airport with a rather flaccid obligatory stop off at an overpriced gift shop and forced lecture on kimchi), we found ourselves slap bang in the middle of one of the emerging cities of Asia. Having been dropped off at the hotel, we went for a wander and soon were tempted by the powerful tang of a street vendor selling spicy snacks... this was my first taste of Korean food, and it was as I expected - orange and spicy...

That evening, we met up with two of Yoko's friends and headed off to a yaki niku restaurant. Now yaki niku is very famous and popular in Japan, but it's a Korean meal really, and it turned out to be very different from what I was used to back in Kurume. First of all, the rice, salad and kimchi is free, and can be refilled as much as you like (within reason I surmise). Secondly, the set up of the hot plate...

It slants down to one side, and as the above photo somewhat shows, the kimchi is placed at the bottom of the slant, and all the meat and garlic and other things above it. The reason for this is that the juices of these other things all run down into the kimchi and make it very tasty. All in all, it was a fantastic feed, and much better than the yaki niku I've experienced in Japan.

When we went to leave the restaurant, I was delighted to find that you could help yourself to a machine coffee free of charge. Alan Partridge would have been so proud. Unfortunately, the evening turned sour, when, with my wife being led by her Korean chums, we marched through the city on the pretense of showing us some good places to buy souvenirs, whereas in fact we were just following the Korean girls around as they shopped for trinkets of their fancy. We walked for what seemed like hours, and, as is the husband's lament the world over, I was entirely forgotten, left to carry bags and stamp my feet outside in the freezing November night as shoes, jackets and baubles were sought. I came to the conclusion that shopping with girls, especially Korean girls, was boring and awful. I came to a few other conclusions during our trip, namely:

- the Koreans are pushier and more aggressive than the Japanese

- overy plastic surgery is quite common amongst young and old

- make up is a religion in Korea

Anyway, we headed back to the hotel, and on the way I managed to find some very cheap Korean beer (which tasted great) so all was not lost.

The next day proved to be a bit of an adventure for us, as we were on our own for the day in a city where neither of us could read anything or speak anything more than a few basic pleasantries. We opted for a typical touristy kind of day, first negotiating the very straight-forward subway system to visit the Royal Palace, and then on to a coffee shop to recharge before having lunch at a pretty famous spot. The speciality was "rice in a chicken's stomach in soup", or something along those lines, and is apparently very healthy and good for gaining stamina.

It was pretty good, and certainly something different, but to be perfectly honest it wasn't anything that special. The yaki niku the night before was far and away the better of the two. All that remained was for a spot of casual shopping (that is, having a gentle meander with a vague desire to buy ginger tea, but not really worrying if we didn't find anywhere suitable). The central part of Seoul reminded me a little of (don't laugh) Norwich city centre, though vastly bigger and better.

I am not a shopper, but even I can appreciate that Seoul is a virtual mecca for the commercially-minded. My mum would have been hard pressed to find enough hours in the day to take in all the handbags, shoes and accessories on display, and with prices markedly lower than those in Japan it's no wonder that Seoul is so popular.

We had to be up and off at 5.30am the next day, but that didn't stop us watching Payback on a cable tv channel in the hotel, nor me partaking in another bottle of fine beer, which was very much like Seoul as a whole - inexpensive, surprising and encouraging you to come back for more.


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