Was This Really Seoul?
I stayed in a 4-star hotel in Myeongdong, near the Cathedral where all the riots and protests against the military government took place in the 1980’s but also very close to the largely middle class shopping district.
The middle-class atmosphere of the shopping avenues hadn’t changed much, except perhaps the district looked even more like an upscale shopping quarter in any country of the world: designer shops, boutiques, Starbucks, international labels, department stores. What seemed to be missing was the feel of the traditional, rather eccentric, do-it-yourself Seoul I knew when I first lived there – and on many subsequent visits.
There was a distinct lack of character in the business lounge or hotel lobby and much less of the rather nutty, barely English speaking character of the Koreans I used to know in my traditional inns (yogwan) of the past with their bedding on the heated floor and their often uproarious maids and tipsy male porters.
To sum up, this area of Seoul had become not so much cutting edge (the Seoul portrayed in many Korean movies and TV dramas) as boring. There was an old-fashioned theatre, yes, offering a Korean ‘entertainment’ show for tourists in English. There were Korean-style barbecue restaurants. But the prices were very high for food that looked, frankly, like barbecued meat anywhere in the world.
Searching For The Authentic Korea
On that first day I wandered around the area looking for something authentically Korean – a real hot springs/spa and massage place, for example, of the kind I used to frequent or perhaps a lively local bar offering soju (potato liquor), makkolli (cloudy rice wine) and leek pancakes (jon), or a Buddhist-type restaurant with vegetarian side dishes (namul) and kimchi.
But I drew a blank. And so I took a deep breath and did what I always do in similar situations. I went on a hunt for the authentic.
And thank goodness it was still there!
Not very far away from the dull hotel and sleek avenues of Myeongdong with its perfectly turned out, white suit wearing shoppers and moisturized young people with their cosmetically enhanced faces, we found the traditional Korea-style street market of Namdaemun (South Gate).
All sorts of useful things for personal health or home use were on sale at Namdaemun. I bought a shopping trolley and a wooden back pounder with spikes from a very friendly, amused woman who showed me how to use it on various parts of my body to increase circulation.
I bought T-shirts and cheap jeans. I ate Korean street snacks sitting on a low stool at a table in the middle of the road. I found a wonderful Korean medicinal shop with reasonably priced Korean red ginseng paste to take home.
Beneath The Surface
Later, I went to one of Seoul’s most famous Buddhist restaurants hidden in a back street near the Insadong arts and crafts center. Here I was served twenty-eight vegetarian dishes in a traditional inn stuffed with historical and artistic Koreana (and a bit of Myanmarana in the shape of Burmese puppets!). The dishes were exquisite and included my favorite spicy todok root – like marinated ginseng - and a sour plum wine that I ordered twice.
Continuing on my Buddhist way, I found the main Chogye temple of Seoul in its dusty courtyard where I went and prostrated myself many times in front of the golden shining face of Buddha – alongside many female supplicants.
They didn’t bat an eyelid at the presence of a white foreigner in their midst. They made smiling room for me on the matted floor as the priest intoned the sutras and the bell rang out in rhythm with Buddha’s teachings.
What a relief! Seoul still existed beneath the veneer of international sophistication and the heavy mantle of being Asia’s most innovative capital for fashion, IT and design.
Yes, it has all these things – as I say in my book – but as I also say in Phoenix Rising that the most extraordinary characteristic of South Koreans is their ability to look both forward and back simultaneously. They do not to forget where they come from.