I’ve been to Seoul three times now. You would think something that big of a deal would merit one blogpost per subway station and you would be right. But here you get just the one.
Seoul features in almost every drama I’ve seen and it’s been so long that I almost forgot all my excitement over seeing the names and scenes that showed up in all my favorites. (I still get a tickle out of zipping through Noryangjin Station from Flower Boy Ramyun Shop.) Here at the end of my year in Korea, Seoul feels old hat, it’s joyous sprawl of subway lines now navigable and familiar (though my ability to estimate how much time it takes to get from one end to the other is still out of whack). I quite enjoy Seoul and while I would not rush back (the way I want to rush back to Tokyo), I wouldn’t say no to visiting again.
A Note on traveling Ulsan – Seoul (울산 – 서울)
With Ulsan (my current city) and Seoul (the vaunted capital) being essentially at opposite ends of the country, the first question to answer on any trip is how you will make it: bus or KTX?
The KTX or express rail is about USD$50 for a 2-3 hour ride. The catch for me is that Ulsan’s KTX station is on the other side of the city, upping the travel time another hour on a really nasty bus.
This makes the inter-city bus option much more attractive. At $20-$30 for 4.5 hours, it works for me. Depending on the time of the day, you can choose the general bus which fits 4 across or the deluxe sleeper which fits 3. A perk of being a small person is that the extra leg room doesn’t really do anything for me so cheaper tickets it is!
Every trip I’ve made to Seoul has featured a visit to the neighborhood of Itaewon, the foreigner district. This can be broken down to three reasons:
#1 Family Hair Shop Itaewon. As a curly haired Asian, few things scare me more than getting a haircut meant for the straight-haired Asian. It doesn’t work and few people seem to understand that. I’ve gone to Toni & Guy’s in downtown Ulsan. There were tears. Never again.
So I go get my hair done by this lady with a funky haircut. I never know what I want when I go in, and she always seems to judge me for it, but I walk out looking fabulous every single time so I don’t complain. Compared to Toni & Guy’s, she’s a better price too, though the tax of hobbling up to Seoul is quite enough to make my visits rare.
#2 What the Book? Korea’s premier English bookstore. ‘Nuff said.
#3 Foreign food, like whoa. I thrive on variety. I used to eat at a new ethnic restaurant once a week in Seattle (or so it seemed) and the fact that in most places in Korea, you can only really get Korean food leaves me cold. You can get the bastardized pizza or burger here and there, but those don’t scratch the itch like I want them to. I’m lucky that Ulsan does have options, but I’ve run through most of them by now. Thankfully, Itaewon is a rich basket of foreign food opportunities from real tacos to Turkish kebabs, I will never be able to eat through them all.
Insadong is approximately the neighborhood of cultural Seoul, with all its palaces and old crafts. The subway takes you right INTO the palace known as Gyeongbokgung, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. (There are tons of train stations in this area, actually. You’ll find them as long as you keep walking.) My friends and I went there a long time ago, in May during Golden Week. I bought a ticket to see three palaces and Jongmyo Shrine but was only able to visit one the first day we went.
On the next day (a Monday) I woke up hoping to visit the other sights on my ticket. The ticket said they were closed on Mondays, but it was also Children’s Day and I thought, surely they would be open? Somewhere in Korea, there are parents who think the best way to spend a day that celebrates kids is to expose them to three palaces and a shrine. Plenty of time to spoil them with candy later too, no worries.
I tried Jongmyo first because my ticket said they were open on Mondays and funnily enough, it was the one place I couldn’t get into that day. Everyone who visits Jongmyo must do so on a tour and I arrived in time for a Korean language tour but far too early for the English one. I planned on coming back for it, but eventually ran out of time.
My gamble about the parents was right and I got to see the two other palaces I missed. It was tons of fun imagining my favorite Korean actors shooting their sageuks in the places I walked through. Yep, that’s the frame of reference I’ve got.
(Changing the guards at one of the many palaces in the area)
(Posing next to one of the haechis)
The most affluent neighborhood in Seoul is spilling over with commerce. There’s some excellent shopping in Gangnam Station and the food is enjoyable. I spent some good times eating meals with friends out there.
Yeah, that’s all about all you can say about Gangnam.
I would say skip Yongdeungpo except that on my last trip to Seoul, we made the fortuitous decision to try a hostel near Mullae Station (문래역) in the area. Mullae turned out to have a background in art and the funky art installations to prove it. Booking a hostel out there let us see a slice of Seoul we would have otherwise never seen.
Otherwise, there’s nothing in Yongdeungpo that really distinguishes it from any other particular area in Seoul.
The name translates directly as “dragon mountain.” Yongsan is famous for its electronics market, but what got it on our itineraries was the Ghibli Studio exhibition.
(Cooking with Calcifer from Howl’s Moving Castle)
I imagine the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo would be something like this… though hopefully a bit different. You’ll get to see a ton of the original cells in Tokyo, right? In any case, this exhibition is beautiful, with artistic, well thought-out set pieces from Miyazaki’s most famous movies. They’re well lit and perfectly suited for any camera.
This was the one part of Seoul I had heard of but didn’t get to until my last visit. This is the subway station near Hongik University which makes it confusing to find if you’re just looking at the English names on the subway map.
Hongdae has great shopping for its young, college age population and live music. Tons of live music that I missed out on. Perhaps someday when I’ve sorted my career as a busker I will be back to perform and watch.
(Cat street art in Hongdae!)
Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t choose Seoul when applying to EPIK. It’s a great place to visit once in awhile, but it’s too cold and they speak too much English. (They also speak a healthy smattering of Chinese, which I enjoyed.)
Until next time, Seoul! 서울 다음에 봐요!
[This post was originally published on February 8, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]