Welcome to Korea

I cannot believe I’m on my third day in Korea already! I’m going to split my adventures here so far up into two posts, this being the first.

On Wednesday I flew from Tokyo to Seoul. I scheduled my flight for 11 AM, thinking that would give me plenty of time to sleep in meeting some friends in Shinjuku the night before.

We ended up at a tiny little bar in Golden Gai that we called Sauna Bar because we couldn’t read the actual name and the wood paneling made the inside look like a sauna. The place just barely had room for about 12 people to squish in.

Unfortunately Narita International Airport is way out in the boonies, a solid hour and a half from Shinjuku by train, so I was up and out the door far earlier than I would have liked. Oh well.

A bus ride rounded out my day of planes, trains and automobiles, and before I knew it I was checked into my hostel in Seoul’s Insadong neighborhood. I’ll be here for 6 nights total, which is nice – I’m excited to put down some minor roots and really get to know the area, and to not have to lug my gear around for a while.

View from my hostel’s rooftop “garden” (I have yet to see a single plant up here).

I met a fellow named Eyal who is traveling from Israel and we decided to go exploring together. We had just wandered through a beautiful shrine and were starting to think about food when a couple of Korean women stopped us in the street. They said that they were Buddhist monks, and asked us if we were visiting Seoul and if we would like to share a Korean cultural experience. My scam alarm immediately started going off – that sounds like the start to all sorts of traveling horror stories. But Korea is supposed to be one of the safest places on the planet and the two of us were together, so we decided to see where it went.

We hopped on the subway, then changed trains. One of the women received a text and had to go off somewhere. By this point I was on high alert, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. But we got off in a respectable commercial / residential neighborhood, turned a couple corners and entered an older but well maintained office building. If this was a scam it was a really involved one.

Turns out it was completely legit. We were given traditional robes to put on over our clothes, learned how to do various bows, got a rundown of the ceremony and then we started. The ceremony was all about preparing and blessing fruit as a meal for the spirits of our ancestors, and we were asked to keep prayers in our minds for the health of our families and loved ones. Once it was done we sat and ate the fruit, envisioning our ancestors eating with us through our chopsticks. I’m not sure any of my grandparents even knew how to use chopsticks, but I imagine they would have appreciated it anyhow.

Once we were done the monks politely asked us to make a donation to help support their charitable causes – they run a home for elderly people with alzheimer’s, among other things. I, who had been so worried about a scam earlier, was more than happy to contribute.

Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the ceremony, but here is Eyal and me chowing down on some Korean style fried chicken afterward as we explored Hongdae, the endless neon and pouring rain giving the city a fantastic cyberpunk flare.

Korean food is incredible, so expect more food photography.

I am enamored by Seoul so far. It is a city of juxtapositions: a flat river valley surrounded by steep mountains, labyrinths of traditional shops that butt up against glimmering corporate skyscrapers, exclusive nightclubs next to tiny and impossibly cheap soup bars, high tech space toilets in the same room as weirdly minimalist showers. Old and new mix in a way I’ve never seen before. I could easily fall in love with this place.

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