Travels and flavors of South Korea

Like Amsterdam’s large, iconic sign, Seoul too greeted me with sprawled letters that read, I-Seoul-U (what “I Seoul U” means is up for interpretation). Unlike Amsterdam’s sign, however, the sign in Seoul had few tourists queued for photo-ops. This became characteristic of my week in South Korea: sundry sights and flavors to see and sample, all devoid of the usual, symptomatic crowds to frequent them.

September isn’t necessarily high-season to visit Korea, but the lack of tourists to populate the tourism surprised me, leaving me to assume that Korea has yet to cross the popularity threshold of Bali or Phuket.

I began my week in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I went about my days unrushed. I read the local newspapers and walked slow. The metropolitan sprawl pulsed at a mellow clip that complimented the impeccable manners of the Koreans I met. With each cash exchange I received a conspicuous bow and a two-handed transfer of my change.

Passersby and drivers alike gave right-of-way instinctively, with the same customary bow of the head. No one expressed exasperation when I slowed my stride or stooped to tie my shoe, unlike the denizens I’ve encountered rushing through other concrete jungles.

The perfect manners I observed were often without an accompanying smile, giving the politeness a cold and mechanized air as if executing courtesy was done only as a cultural consequence rather than out of a desire to extend warmth. Or, possibly, the combination of my Western aspect and my ineptitude in the Korean language barred me from connecting with locals in any capacity beyond perfunctory.

Either way, everyone was polite, orderly, and held doors open for each other.

Seoul is as clean as any city I’ve visited. The streets are spotless, graffiti absent. Everywhere looks well-kept and neat without appearing antiseptic or scrubbed.

On my first day, when I finished my first of many Korean avocado smoothies (these green drinks are pervasive) I recognized the paradox of Seoul’s cleanliness: there are inexplicably few public trash cans. I carried my empty smoothie cup for more than half the day.

How did somewhere without trash cans stay this pristine? I imagine it has something to do with the fantastic manners or pride of the locals — they respect their home too much to pollute it with senseless litter.

When I finally threw out that cup in a dumpster that I’d found in an obscure side street, I felt as if I had lost an integral part of my traveler accoutrements. I had carried it for so long that it felt comfortable. My hand remained sticky with smoothie remnants for another hour as I scoured the city for a public restroom.

The language barrier in Korea was steep. It was startling and hit heavy like a falling cinder block.

I ordered meals by pointing at pictures in Korean-only menus and engaged in futile exchanges with local taxi drivers. Only in upscale hotels or museums did I hear English. Though the Korean alphabet is known for its concision and simplicity (Korean is constituted of a 24-letter alphabet), seeing those squiggles and shapes on street signs disoriented my unlearned eyes.

As much as I tried to meet and speak with locals, I was usually met with raised eyebrows and a slightly agape mouth that resembled something between “I don’t understand anything you’re saying” and “Why are you speaking to me.”

With my communication abilities nullified, more than once I thought of the quip: “What do you call someone who can only speak one language? An American.”

It took three full days before I met someone that could have a conversation in unbroken English. Only in that full-English interaction did I realize just how much I missed talking with other people — I guess we can only hangout so long in our own reveries before insanity starts knocking.

I stayed in the Myeongdong district in Northern Seoul within walking distance of the exceedingly difficult to pronounce Gyeongbokgung Palace.

A short walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace is the slightly easier to pronounce Changdeokgung Palace, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Of the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul, all from the early Joseon Dynasty, I saw only these two.

My memory of both palaces has blurred together into a single, amorphous sightseeing experience. They are similar in architecture, color, and grandeur. The biggest distinction between the two remains Gyeongbokgung’s daily changing of the guards ceremony. The gardens of each palace were beautiful and serene but comparable, as were the concrete steps at the foot of each palace that crumbled like stale oatmeal cookies.

Strolling through Changdeokgung immediately after seeing Gyeongbokgung marked the first time I experienced déjà vu of a place I had seen just an hour prior.

Huge expanses of empty space between the buildings within the palaces — notable for their bread-colored, coarse dirt floors — convinced me I would have been okay seeing just one of the grand structures. Visiting two felt redundant. Seeing all five would have felt like Groundhog Day.

Call me thankless, but after seeing over 50 in the past year, palaces and temples in Asia have admittedly grown stale. Pedestrian views like the ceiling and fan above my bed.

In close proximity stands the National Folk Museum and Bukchon Hanok Village — popular sites of Seoul triangulated around those hard-to-say royal palaces.

Hanok denotes traditional Korean houses, which the Bukchon Village is brimming with. The low height of the hanok structures allow visitors to observe the classic Korean rooftops which, together with the narrow alleyways and chalky brick walls contribute to a medieval milieu.

I spent the better part of an afternoon getting lost in this old stone labyrinth, proudly embracing the solitude reserved for travelers imprisoned within their own language barrier.

It was near the Bukchon Village that I first picked up on the absurd number of coffee shops in South Korea.

Every other storefront is a café — I say this without hyperbole — and few are familiar, name-brand companies like Starbucks. Imagine the most pleasant ambience of your favorite café, paired with the best-tasting coffee you’ve sampled — this is what every single coffee shop felt (and tasted) like in Seoul.

According to Wikipedia, there are over 17,000 coffee shops in Seoul, making it the city with the highest number of coffee shops per capita in the world — surpassing even Seattle, Washington, the birthplace of Starbucks where coffee is king.

The astronomical number of coffee shops does nothing to impair the quality of each shop; each one had a distinct character. Some were hole-in-the-wall affairs that served only espresso shots, others capacious with sizable communal tables.

Seoul has several cat- and dog-themed cafés and even a raccoon cafe, where coffee can be consumed in the company of furry companions. Over-caffeination quickly became my baseline, which I resigned to without reservation.

Specialty sock shops dot the streets of Seoul, where eager cold-toed patrons can select a size and color to drape their feet in. At first, I didn’t blink twice when I saw my first sock shop. But after seeing a dozen on day one I began to wonder.

When I checked into my hostel that first night, I was given a room key, towel, and sandals — sandals! Slip on sandals to be worn with socks. With some digging, I discovered that sandals indoors was commonplace in Korea, as were socks with sandals. Hence: the ubiquity of sock shops in Seoul.

This groundbreaking discovery in footwear paled in comparison to the restaurant etiquette I was duly educated upon with my first Korean BBQ dinner.

I sat alone at my table, markedly unattended for 20 minutes during my first meal. Waiters and waitresses walked by my table as if all seats were vacated, not conceding even a cursory glance.

Finally and with exasperation, I raised my hand to hail a server. Surprised but smiling, a waitress walked over and wordlessly pointed to a discrete button on the side of the table. It said, “Call server,” written in plain English and bright red as if to highlight my unfamiliarity with Korean bistros.

(To note: eating Korean BBQ in Korea is like toeing the asymptote next to perfection. It redefined my grasp of the term “BBQ,” likely ruining all future cooked meats for me).

Originally published with original photos on my travel blog, Phil’s Next Stop.

Phil is a travel writer, columnist, and editor. If you liked this article, you can see more of his ideas on his travel blog and Instagram.

Bestselling travel writer. Columnist. Author. USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

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