I had never been to Korea before, and believe me, I was very excited. If you've ever looked at that part of the world on your map, you've noticed there are two Koreas. Nobody really knows why that is the case, but it's worth noting that they're very different. One of them is famous for its music and culture and the other for making lots of threats to conquer the planet. If anyone ever awards you with an all-expenses-paid trip to Korea, just check the ticket closely. As this was our vacation, we opted to go to the good one. We arrived in Seoul, the capital, at about 9pm and because I still hadn't eaten dinner, we went to get some of that famous Korean BBQ.
On the first morning we were there, we stopped at a little fancy place for breakfast. They were playing Christmas music on the radio for whatever reason. On the way out, we met another interesting person on the street. She was middle aged, and even though it was raining, carried no umbrella. She was going the other direction, but upon seeing us, turned around and walked with us. She said "Good morning! It's such a rainy and cloudy day!". I believe she repeated the bit about it being rainy and cloudy once or twice. She continued, "It's such a romantic day!", noting that Hana and I were likely together. Then she said, "OK? Goodbye!" and then turned around again and was gone. She just wanted to practice her English, I suppose.
The number one reason that I wanted to go on this trip was to get street food. I didn't actually have a second reason, but I'm glad I ended up having an awesome time. Japan isn't notorious for its street food, but Korea definitely is. These markets were far more exciting than I would have ever guessed.
There are a couple things to realize when going to a traditional Korean market. First and foremost, nothing is too crazy to eat. Sea urchin, strange smelling tree roots, live octopus, silk worm larvae, anything. Second, red means spicy. Just like there are different degrees of red, there are different degrees of spicy, no matter what the Koreans tell you. The first market I went to was Mangwon market. Fortunately, Hana spoke enough Asian to translate "He wants to eat whatever that is" at the various booths. Hana is my hero. I'd go around ordering a thing or two at each booth, but I got full extra fast. The shop owners kept giving me extra food for free. They told Hana that it was because I'm handsome (not just the little old ladies, either). Everyone was really nice to me at Mangwon market and I had a fantastic time. Lots of the markets had signs saying they've been on TV. In Korea, nearly everything on television is about food, so it was rarer to find a market that hadn't been on TV.
Everything American is considered fancy in Japan and Korea. A mediocre hamburger will probably cost you as much as the best BBQ. English means fancy, as well. T.G.I. Fridays, fancy. Pizza Hut, fancy. Even the 7-11s here have things that aren't junk. Let's hope they don't consider abhorrent political leadership to be fancy, too. The funny thing is that they don't get a lot of the details right. Here are a few examples.
Like Japan, Korean public transportation is exquisite. You buy a card at the subway station, you ride the train. You can even ride the bus. You can even use it in a taxi. It works anywhere in Seoul. IT WORKS ANWHERE IN THE COUNTRY. When you're done, you can refund the money you haven't spent at nearly any convenience store for cash. If you're a resident, you don't even need to buy a card. You just use your credit card. WHY ISN'T THE REST OF THE WORLD THIS ORGANIZED? What if I told you that I took public transportation nearly every day, several times a day and spent only $25 dollars in the whole time I was there?
Hana took me to a nice shabu shabu place for lunch. It's like soup, but you get to pick the ingredients and throw them in the hot broth yourself. We had beef, mushrooms, pumpkin, and some noodles. After that, we dressed up in traditional Korean clothes called Hanbok and wandered around in the rain. Instead of pointing and laughing at us like you may expect, other people were so envious of our traditional outfits and asked where they could get some. Afterwards, we went to Bukchon Hanok Village, an urban area with traditional housing that has been preserved for nearly 600 years. There were other people dressed in Hanbok there. They were at it again with their iPhones and vanity poles, it was like something out of a B-movie about time travel. We stopped at a nice cafe on an overlook where I ordered tea made from pine needles. The pine needles were a nice flavor, but it was too sweet. By the way, if you're looking at the statue of the boys in the picture below and wondering how to play Malttukbakgi, here's a video.
We went to another market called Gwangjang market. This one was significantly bigger and just as awesome. However, it was slightly more well-traveled so even though I was still handsome, none of the shopkeepers acknowledged that. They were actually quite aggressive. If you make eye contact, you're eating there. The amount of chaos and order at these markets was staggering. Watch out for motorcycles, sometimes they drive through the crowded, narrow hallways. The pictures really speak for themselves here...
There's a thing folks do in Pittsburgh, where they put lawn chairs and trash cans out in the road in front of their house to mark their parking spot. It's totally silly. It looks like they do it in Korea, too.
I thought it would be wise to stop off in Gangnam and see some of the "style" all the kids are on about. It's the busiest part of Korea that I went to and it's mostly young people parading around doing loud young people things. They've got the standard "wrong American food" covered and they've got a bunch of the claw machine stores that we saw in Tokyo, but I just couldn't wrap my head around it. What is this "style" that I'm missing?? Alas, I'm not sure I ever found it.
I got frustrated trying to find the secret "style" so we left Gangnam. The next morning, we took a train down to the southern coast of Korea to adventure around for a few days. It's a nice city and we stayed right on the beach. We went to a seafood market in a warehouse near the pier. The downstairs was crawling with life (yes, actually crawling). Upstairs they cooked fresh seafood and tried to sell me a $160 plate of crab. For reference, Korean food is typically very inexpensive unless you're eating fancy. I got out of there and we found some tasty, cheap fish outside. We went to yet another market where I had perhaps the finest dessert that I have ever tasted. The ssiat hotteok (nearly pronounced, "Seattle hot dog") is a small fried pancake filled with brown sugar. Once cooked, it is cut open and stuffed with almonds, peanuts, and sunflower seeds. Sadly, you can only get it in Busan, so I ate a ton of them while I was there. The ones they make in Seattle aren't nearly the same.
We stopped off at a mall in Busan and saw some fun things. We got cheeseburgers for fun. They actually made a pretty good burger. It's the little things that are strange here. The mall has a place called Kidzania where you can drop your kid off to play. Instead of having a video game, book, or a sock filled with potpurri for the kids, they have an ENTIRE PLAY CITY where you can pick a profession like chef or pilot and actually be that thing! It's a functioning three-story kid city! I wanted so badly to be five again.
Week one in Korea went by in a flash. For the second week, we were staying on an organic chicken farm outside of Seoul. In exchange for collecting eggs twice daily, we get to stay for free at the farm and they cook us a nice lunch. Hana said I was playing in "advanced Korean mode" for me. The meal usually had a really tasty meat dish and lots of different kinds of grass covered in red specks. It's a little different for sure. After work, our hosts even took us to get these interesting corn dogs that had batter made from lotus. It's a nice deal. Here's the thing, though. I really hate large birds. I despise large birds. Some of my readers may be wondering, "Why would you volunteer at a chicken farm if you hate chickens?". For those readers, I ask, "You read my webpage and you're questioning other people's decisions?". Get real. I don't know, Hana likes birds and I didn't want to be difficult.
A chicken farm is a strange thing. When you're a chicken, you spend most of your days strutting around and trying to turn your eggs into more chickens. It's a bit of a gamble cause once or twice a day someone from the farm is going to come around and take them away. The smart ones try and beat the system by burying them in the dirt, but the house always wins in the end. The only way you ever get to keep the eggs is to own the farm--it's kind of like a fertility casino. As a volunteer on the farm, I didn't have to lay any eggs, but I did get to spread my seeds around in a field. Well, someone else's beans to be precise. Beans are good for bringing oxygen and nitrogen into the soil, which you need for growing crops like beans. It's a chicken and an egg scenario, kind of. Having not seen any of the eggs turn into chickens, I guess I just assumed that the chicken ultimately came first. Likewise, I assume the existence of beans predates the first observation of soil.
The kitchen was outdoors and anything you left out got covered in dust really fast. Worse, the dog that was always running around with poo or chicken parts in his mouth who likes to lick just about everything. Leaving food laying around in the kitchen was a hazard, but I remembered the advice my friend April once gave me. "If you like it, then you better put a fridge around it." That day was the last time I ever drank expired milk.
After the farm, we went to Incheon, which is where the airport is. On the way, we had a glorious Korean meal with Hana's parents, who were in town because they accidentally rode the wrong airplane. The meal was super elaborate. It had bulgogi, which is like a thin-cut marinated beef; dried fish, prepared in a special way that involves leaving it to dry near the ocean; kkomak-muchim, a delicious clam dish; glass noodles; and way more. Wow. We walked around Central park before calling it a night.
In the morning, before our plane ride home, we woke to a wonderful surprise. More Pokemon! I had to go check it out.
The plane ride home was mostly uneventful. United gave me a choice between the worst egg mcmuffin I'd ever eaten and being savagely beaten with a nightstick and dragged off of the plane. Since we were 40,000 feet above the Mariana Trench at the time, I opted for the sandwich, but in retrospect, I wish I'd have thought about it longer.
This was the best trip I've ever been on and I can't wait to go back to both Japan and Korea! You should go too if you get the chance. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if you decide never to go again. If they're simply too far for you, I suggest going to your local grocery store and visiting the ethnic aisle. You can hit up Italy and Mexico while you're there.