The family had already spent a good chunk of their vacation here without checking out Seoul. This was the day before the wedding, and EJ had planned to spend it relaxing, so the original idea was to send everyone off on the DMZ tour. Yet I procrastinated too much in reserving it, so the tour would happen the next Thursday. Yet everyone was already over their jet lag. They had their T-money transportation cards. Let’s start the tourism thang.
Naturally with my family, the Noryangjin Fish Market was at the top of their list. We walked to Anyang Station (shoulda taken the bus). At the station’s 7-Eleven, we got some breakfast. Most people got some pastries. I wanted my triangle kimbaps. Ben tried one of mine and liked it. Crispy and salty on the outside. Yummy and filling in the middle.
We boarded the train to Seoul and got off at Noryangjin. Brian had trouble with a defective turnstyle. The man’s been having such bad luck on this trip. The solution in Korea when this happens is to just jump the turnstyle. The thing is, Brian’s a tall man and not a hurdle jumper. He was also concerned about getting in trouble with the police for doing so. Yet this is Korea, where laws are merely suggestions. He made it over, though, and wasn’t too happy about that experience. The path from the station to the market isn’t the most intuitive, so I led us first to a dead end. Then I remembered the way there, which is out the exit going the opposite direction, going down and then up a flight of stairs to an overpass bridge turning us back around. This takes you to a parking deck and a flight of stairs leading underneath. It then opens up to a massive wonderland, like entering the Wonka Chocolate Factory.
We were on the ledge overlooking the market. Everyone stood in awe of its massiveness and activity. I didn’t want a repeat of the cat-herding at the Anyang Central Market, so I pointed to a spot at the entrance and said to meet there in thirty minutes. We then split up and explored. I stuck with Ben because this was really his playground, and I knew he wanted to try some stuff. A good many of the creatures here are live and swimming in tanks, so it’s like visiting an aquarium where you eat the exhibits.
I’ve been encouraging any influential ear that I can that Noryangjin should be advertised as a major stop for tourists. People love places like this, but tourists are intimidated by the language barrier. When salespeople are yelling their pitches at you in an alien language, it can be intimidating. It was to me my first time. They should have more established sources to get English guided tours and maybe a little English cheat sheet for interested vendors to help them. Now, we get people yelling, “Sashimi! Fish-ee good! Restaurant!”
We tried to get a picture of Ben holding a giant crab, but it was too spiny to hold with bare hands. Some guys called us over to look at a freshly severed octopus head the size of a basketball. It was gruesome. When ever they tapped it with a stick, it contracted. Ben wanted to try his first abalone, so I got him one.
The saleslady cleaned and cut it up for him, too, with a little spicy dipping sauce. We carried it as we wandered through much of the rest of the market.
In the back is the fermented sea products section used for making kimchi and side dishes. They have toothpicks available for sampling, so we tried a few things. It’s a good way to explore flavors and to test the edge of your tolerance for fermented foods. Andrew Zimmern loved this area. Mom and Brian were using their picture of the grandchildren, the “Flat Grandchildren,” as stand-ins when they took pics of fish. When we were at the fermented fish section, they did the “Flat Grandchildren” picture in a vat of fish fermented so much it was almost liquefied. They asked later if it was really a product or if they had just mistakenly taken a picture of the trash bin while all the Koreans looked on.
We rendezvoused with Dad and Anita. I showed them the restaurant that Andrew Zimmern ate the live octopus in. We went back upstairs, where an English-speaking older gentlemen struck a conversation with Dad and Anita. He stayed with them the whole way to the subway station. At the station, I saw a sign that said “Yongsan,” which was the direction I wanted to go. But the platform was empty. The wrong platform. We went back up the stairs and down to the correct one. I took a vote, and we decided to scrap the visit to Yongsan Electronics Market. We instead went to Gwanghwamun to catch the Seoul City Tour Bus.
I had yet to go to the new Gwanghwamun Plaza. I had seen it from the other side of the street, but I hadn’t been there. It was a great day to go, too, because they had just unveiled the giant bronze statue of King Sejong, sitting on a throne like the Lincoln Memorial. It was Hangeul Day, where we celebrate the creation of the Korean alphabet, and King Sejong is credited with inventing it, among other inventions.
When we started taking pictures of it, I saw the way the statue was framed by the mountains and instantly knew that this will become one of the trademark images of Seoul in the future. Ben took out the flag from his restaurant that had been around the world so he could take a picture of it in Korea. We then got a shot of him holding up a 10,000 won bill with King Sejong’s face on it.
This is the tourist epicenter of Seoul (I think the actual epicenter is a few blocks to the east). Gyeongbukgung, the largest palace, is in the back of the plaza. At the front is the statue of Admiral Yi Sun Shin, which until now was the big symbolic statue of Seoul, which cars zipping around it. Now instead of cars (which zip around the plaza) there are dancing fountains choreographed to piped in orchestral music and running playing children.
I pointed out that our wedding reception was going to be in one of the buildings to the right. Caddy corner to the plaza was the bus stop for the tour bus. We waited for the bus to arrive.
Dad went into KFC to get some chicken nuggets, but he walked back out, thinking that they would be too slow, and he’d miss the bus. The double decker bus we wanted showed up. The girl asked if we had tickets. The web site said that tickets could be purchased at the bus. We went to the kiosk on the other side of a street and bought tickets, which were more expensive than what the web site said. We returned, waited in line, and boarded the bus. We took the Chonggyecheon Stream and palace route.
The way the bus works is that it goes to specific stops. You can stay on the bus and just tour. Headphones give English descriptions. Cheesy English descriptions (“This is the wishing wall. Why don’t you make a wish right now?”). People later said that Seoul had thicker traffic than usual that day, leading to Brian’s summary of the two hours as the “Seoul City Gridlock Tour.”
The Chonggye route was not that good, with or without traffic. You don’t get to see the good parts of the stream. It’s the eastern edge. On stream level, it’s nice in its natural splendor, but it kinda looks like a ditch from up above. We were mostly stuck in Dongdaemun, which although has great fashion deals that young people like, is run down and grungy.
Brian: “These are the types of buildings that should be in the northern half.”
Ben complained that he didn’t want to do the tourist thing anyway. Mom complained that she was hungry. Anita complained that we weren’t seeing any palaces. Dad just listened to his headphones.
I called EJ to see how she was relaxing. She wasn’t. She had just found out that a marathon was scheduled to go near our reception, closing down streets in the area. Her hanbok skirt was too big, so she had to go rent another one. There were other big headaches.
The bus meandered its way around. We eventually made it to Insa-dong, where we left the tour. We all were hungry by then. We were on the north side of the street. I usually go there from the south side, so I was a bit disoriented. To make it worse, they were doing some construction, which took out big swaths in the middle of the street, squeezing the already tight crowds to the sides. Insa-dong usually has crowds, but they are not that bad of a menace. The only restaurant I know of that’s any good was near the southern section. We pressed through the crowds. I was talking to someone and missed my landmark to turn off to the restaurant. I ran back to make sure where we were and directed everyone back.
We entered and sat near the door. They looked at menus, which had the classic amusing awkward English translations that are Insa-dong’s curse and charm. I explained many of the dishes, encouraging everyone to stick to the individual portion lunch dishes. Luckily, we found something to satisfy almost everyone. But first drinks.
This is something I had fallen out of habit with. Back home we tend to have cocktails for a good while before a meal. In Korea, I tend to get my beer and food really close to each other. And even though I’m on vacation like them, I haven’t been craving the booze, so I’ve neglected the alcohol requirements of the family (Ben: “This is the soberest vacation I’ve ever been on”).
Got a round of beers, a bottle of bokbunja (raspberry wine) for Mom, and a bowl of ginseng infused dong dong ju (rice beer) for me. Even though it was a large bowl that got me quite toasty, it cost not much more than a single bottle of beer. Ben tried some and liked it. For food, we ordered Sujebi (think Korean chicken and dumplings) for Mom, DdeokManduGuk (pork dumpling and chewy rice cakes in a white beef stock) for Brian, Ben got a HaemulJeon (seafood pancake), Dad and Anita got a sizzling Bulgogi plate for two, and I got my favorite Mae-un Galbi Jjim (spicy braised pork ribs). I shared them with Ben. Dad and Anita were disappointed that the Bulgogi didn’t have much flavor. Take note Korean food promoters: I was right about Bulgogi being too pedestrian.
We did have a good time, especially as the drinks flowed. We left and headed to the southern corner of Insa-dong, near the little stage area, to set as a rendezvous point. One hour.
Mom wanted to buy little hanboks for the grandchildren. There was one hanbok place EJ and I liked when we visited Insa-dong last month, so I took them there. The lady didn’t speak English, and it truly tested the edges of my Korean capabilities finding dresses in the right sizes. It all turned out well. Brian and I ducked into a Starbucks to use the bathroom. Say what you will about Starbucks–in Korea, they are at least dependable places for clean bathrooms.
The crowds were getting intense. I pulled us into a side street to take a breather from the crowds. I noticed that it was the same street as Sanchon, the Buddhist restaurant that KBS took us to for that TV documentary. Ben had to use the bathroom, and I thought I’d show them the place to look at souvenirs. When inside, I asked where the bathroom was. The lady said that only diners could use the bathroom. I picked up some chopsticks on sale.
“If I buy these, can he use the bathroom?”
The lady smiled as if it wasn’t necessary and pointed to the bathroom. Mom and Brian left to do some souvenir shopping. Ben looked around for some souvenirs. He found a few things. At the front, he saw a Buddhist cookbook. I explained to the lady (in Korean) that he was a chef and asked if there was an English version. A refined gentleman with wispy beard and robes walked up and said in English, “You can find English versions of my recipes on my web site.”
I made the connection that he was the famous monk who started Sanchon and revived Buddhist cuisine in Korea. Ben’s first major chef to meet in Korea. Ben bought a few books, including one on North Korean cuisine, and Mr. Sanchon (Kim Yon Sik) signed them. He’s also an artist known for making paintings with fingernail polish and showed us his artwork–the most significant was the wall behind the counter covered in individually painted matchboxes. He then showed us a recent Korean show that featured him. He relished the publicity and attention. The lady brought over some cinnamon tea, and we had tea together.
Mom called, and we closed our conversation, took pictures and said goodbye.
Ben saw a place where they were doing the spun honey routine and got Mom and Brian to watch it. Mom made a video of it. At the end, they gave Mom a taste. I don’t see them do that too often. She loved it and bought a box. I tried to find the place that sold the pastries shaped like dog poop, but it looked like it had closed shop, so we barged our way through crowds to the rendezvous point. The dragon bread cart was close by, so we bought some pastries for breakfast the next day. I led everyone to the subway station on the southern end, passing some great street food carts. Too bad we were full and tired.
We made it back to Anyang, and the gang took taxis back to their hotels. When I arrived at home, EJ was visibly stressed. Her sister and sister’s boyfriend arrived five minutes after I did. EJ was stressing over food tickets for the wedding. They helped her organize them. After they left, we got ready for bed. I subtly tried to get info from EJ on what she would need if she had to stay overnight somewhere. She was too suspicious, so I had to guess and put stuff in my bag. We went to bed around 12:30.