Winter was clinging to the breezy and cold Korean peninsula, so it was our parkas we donned for this sightseeing day. Compared to the attention-to-detail-to-a-fault of young Korean women (some might call it vanity) we felt woefully underdressed and certainly under K-cosmeticked; however, we were warm.
As neither of us had traveled to Seoul previously we kept the itinerary fairly predictable, starting with Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon Kings who ruled Korea for more than 500 years. Our arrival at the palace was with perfect timing, too, just in time for the Changing of the Guards! Color, and pomp and circumstance (along with lots and lots of women in rented Hanbok) added festivity to the history.
The palace complex excited me with its gracious and minimal structures sitting calmly amidst a background of skyscrapers and mountains; and the sun and sky made ideal light combinations for photos. Though the palace’s Royal Throne Room and Pavilion were but among the few spared from destruction during the time of Japanese occupation, the (€3,80 equivalent) informative booklet from the ticket booth was helpful in imagining the rest of the large complex, now recreated. At one point during our wandering I could not help but think of an ex-pat whose blog I had unearthed in my research, who described their six-day visit to the Seoul as, “culturally dull” and wondered if we were in the city s/he had described. Such an ungrateful person.
Leaving the palace we were lured by the aromas wafting out of a tiny, tiny restaurant of three tables and run by a mom and her son that looked as if it had just opened that day. We were not shown a menu but instead informed that the “best” dish was the Bibimbap. Two orders of Bibimbap were thus placed. Mom smiled. They were a great duo: Mom clearly loved to cook and Son clearly loved to engage with the diners; he chatted with us throughout the meal, peppering us with questions about America. In between answers we savored some top-rate Bibimbap alongside what I have declared my favorite Kimchi of the Seoul visit, though this ranking would be tested the following evening. (On an aside, why were my greens much tastier in Asia than at home in Central Europe? The humble Bibb lettuce in Mr. Ng’s noodle bowls in Singapore was an awakening of crispy and crunchy and flavor; and the steamed spinach in my Bibimbap tasted as if it had only been plucked from the earth moments before. A great food mystery, I suppose.)
Warmed, and entirely happy with our lunch decision we walked over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a representative Korean village retaining design from the Joseon Dynasty and tucked within big and modern Seoul, with scant tourists (at least on our visit); signs urging tourists (likelier in the busy season) to respect the privacy of the homeowners; visitors in rented Hanbok posing here and there; and odd photoshoots with American models in sequined “Frosted Flakes” dresses.
Perhaps it was the timing of our visit, but we found Bukchon much to our liking. Though flowers and trees were not quite in bloom, the streets were quiet and the setting made for beautiful filtered-light photos; the little galleries were not crowded; and we were encouraged to linger when we stopped at a tea house for a pause. We imagined we might have felt differently at another time of the year.
Leaving Bukchon we both agreed on the need for retail time in Insa-dong before dinner but quickly became distracted by the color and music coming from the Joygesa Temple. This primary temple of Buddhism in Seoul was celebrating something that we could not quite discern, but with the music and the colorful lanterns and the happy people all around us we decided that we all the invitation we needed! The temple itself is worth visiting, even if you should find yourself in the near and there is no merriment.
Eventually we did find our way into Insa-dong. The busy streets of Seoul may be filled with over-the-top cute (for our daughters), but Insa-dong was filled with traditional artisans and items that would long outlive “cute.” Once again we were privileged to not be amongst crowds; the shops in Ssamziegil were empty and welcoming (perhaps not so to my pocketbook); and the owner of the calligraphy brush store at which the Queen herself once paid a visit was delighted to talk to us about brushes. Really, for Seoul being a cosmopolitan big city, Insa-dong was altogether its own village.
A brief stop at the hotel to drop packages was just the time needed for our frozen noses and toeses to warm, and for we to decide that wandering far for dinner was not an option. Thankfully around the corner from the hotel was a KFC; that is, a Korean Fried Chickenplace, so we settled into a table and ordered a platter to share. The chicken was quite good, with paper-thin crispy skin and tender chicken, or so we pronounced it, though we would later relegate the meal to “Tourist Fare” status after the kindly, 87-year old Pek guided us to, “The Best” KFC the following day.
That story, though, is to be continued…