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Seoul Redux

Side street in Insadong

The day and a half I spent in Seoul at the end of the Korean leg of my trip were a repeat of those at the beginning, except that I visited Changdeok Palace instead of Gyeongbok. I stayed at the same hotel (the Ibis Ambassador), I met the same friends for dinner the first night (chicken and rice this time), and I ate lunch at the same Insadong restaurant followed by coffee and macarons in the same patisserie. I did try a rose raspberry macaron as well as a brandied pistachio – the pistachio was much better.

Changdeok Palace

Roof detail, Changdeok Palace

Built on hilly terrain, Changdeok doesn’t follow the usual south-north layout, but is more spread out. The architecture is otherwise similar. I was most interested in seeing the “secret garden” behind the buildings, but when I learned that the mandatory tour would last two hours, I bailed at the half-way point. Aside from not wanting to stress my bad foot, I was getting hungry, and the grey day wasn’t the best for photographs. I do think the grounds would be lovely on a sunny day, though, especially after the leaves changed.

The garden at Changdeok Palace

I had no one to blame but myself for the planning that required me to get up at 5:00 am to make my next flight, from Seoul to Taipei. At least I got to eat breakfast twice – in the Cathay Pacific lounge at Incheon, and on the flight itself.

Bridge detail, Changdeok Palace

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Sightseeing Seoul

Since I’m not a big city person, I had allotted just two full days for Seoul, one at the beginning and one at the end of my time in South Korea. The palace that was top of my list was closed on Mondays, so I started at the Gyeongbok Palace. It took me quite a while to get there from my hotel south of the river – did I mention that Seoul is a big city?

Inside Gyeongbok Palace

Interior at Gyeongbok Palace

Ceiling at Gyeongbok Palace

Cultural similarities with China were evident: the south-to-north, public-to-private

Chests at the craft exhibition

layout matched the Forbidden City in Beijing, although fewer buuildings remained. The Japanese colonial era and the 1950-53 war were both devastating to Korea’s historical heritage. Although I initially admired the buildings, whether original or reconstructed, eventually they all started to look the same, and I appreciated a temporary display of contemporary Korean crafts at least as much.

I was about to leave when the hourly changing of the guard ceremony got under way, and I had a prime viewing position – an actual seat, in fact – on the steps in front of the first interior gate. The costumes were, I believe, authentic. The drum and other instruments presumably were too. But the whole affair felt contrived. That didn’t stop me taking plenty of photos, though.

Waiting for the ceremony to start

In full flight

I lunched in the highly touristy Insadong section nearby, in a small restaurant just off the main street. At least at lunchtime, they provided a traditional Korean meal for solo diners, at a very reasonable price, and I recommend their beef and mushroom bulgogi. (It’s on Insadong Gil 12, first place on the left.) After lunch I skipped the souvenir shops and instead visited the nearby Jogye Buddhist temple. A volunteer English-speaking guide explained that the women filling the main hall were praying for their children’s success in upcoming examinations. She also said that the temple practiced Korean Zen Buddhism, which I found surprising, as the temple and the ceremony in process seemed very un-Zen to me.

I finished the afternoon in a French patisserie just north of Insadong, called, I believe, Armandier. The coffee was good, but the brandied pistachio macarons were to die for.

The main hall at Jogye-sa

The drum and bell tower at Jogye-sa

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On To Seoul

Welcome to Seoul: outside Gyeongbok Palace

Staying in Asakusa gave me what should have been easy access to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where I’d catch my flight to Seoul Gimpo. The helpful lady in the T.I. office wrote the route out for me in great detail (very simple, one train change, no platform change), starting out on the Asakusa line. So when I got back the night before, ON the Asakusa line, after I followed the arrows to the exit I wanted and cleared the ticket barrier, I looked back to see the arrows pointing the way to the Asakusa line, and I looked round for a ticket machine for that line. But I was now in the Ginza line station, and even the English language terminal wouldn’t recognize Haneda as a destination. So finally I asked the guy in the ticket office. Guess what? He had a nice big sign, in English, telling you how to buy a ticket to Haneda – HIDDEN IN THE OFFICE!

He could put it up on the wall, and let the foreigners read it at their leisure, but then they’d know what to do, and that would be no fun, right? Then I found another catch. I wanted to buy a ticket that day, when I had no luggage, to use the next day, when I would have luggage. Could I do that? No, I couldn’t. (Good thing I noticed the tickets were date-stamped.) When I expressed quite mild dismay at this news I clearly violated the Japanese code, because the guy went completely blank on me. I ceased to exist and he just stood there. (I know that technique – I’ve used it on persistent Indian salesmen.) Well, I feel the same way about the Tokyo subway non-system.

Aside from having to get up at 5:00 am, I had no trouble getting to Haneda. Since the rain

Live guards at Gyeongbok Palace

hadn’t stopped, and I was flying JAL again, I had taken the precaution of packing everything in plastic. A new International terminal was due to open at Haneda on October 21st, and did they ever need it! I was very grateful to slide past the zoo at economy check-in to the business class area. The JAL lounge turned out to be a bit better than the one in Vancouver, but the food on the flight was much better, featuring a double-layered bento box.

Although JAL managed to keep my bag dry, I had an inordinately long wait for it to arrive. Apparently a soccer team had traveled on the same flight, and ALL their immense quantity of luggage was unloaded before anyone else’s! Then I had a little trouble finding my hotel from the limousine bus stop, as the map I got at the T.I. counter in the airport had positioned it too far west.

My western chain hotel

Shortly before I left on this trip, I had been introduced to a Korean couple, long time friends of friends,¬† about to move back to Seoul after a second sojourn in the U.S., and they had kindly offered to help me with my visit to Korea. They had recommended the Ibis¬† Ambassador in the Gangnam district, south of the river but close to where they lived in the upscale Apgujeong area. While the Ibis was both more western and more upmarket than my usual hotels, after several nights on the floor I appreciated some extra comforts. I started by taking advantage of the guests’ discount for the Japanese style hot bath in the basement.

Statue outside the nearby Starbucks

That evening D and M took me out for a traditional Korean meal, and I had my first adventure with Korean chopsticks. Now I’m no fan of chopsticks – I find it perverse that peoples who love noodles choose to eat them with chopsticks – but I am reasonably competent with the normal round variety. In Korea they aren’t round and they aren’t made from wood or plastic. They’re flat and metal and I had no end of difficulty with them. You also get a metal spoon with a long handle, but don’t imagine this is just for soup. Later a waitress gave me a lesson in how to use the spoon: you pick up some rice, you add pickled vegetables with the chopsticks, and then you dip it in the soup. I felt like I needed an extra hand.

No Korean meal is complete without pickled vegetables – lots of little dishes with different kinds. You’ll also get soup and rice, and whatever you’ve chosen as the main dish. The little dishes may contain other treats – at one meal a whole fish showed up! Some restaurants presented me with additional implements – tongs and shears. These are for kimchi or noodles or both – you lift the long strands with the tongs and cut off a sensible length with the shears.

 

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