At the end of March Kim and I took a flight to Seoul, South Korea for what was originally intended to revalidate my tourist visa, but turned into a rather pleasant mini break. Japan gives you a 90 day tourist visa so you have to leave the country and come right back in order to reinstate it. Seoul is often the destination of choice for most Gai Jin as the flights are relatively cheap. I use relatively cheap very loosely in that it cost us about $350 per person. Not exactly the bargain we were hoping for, but it beat going to Guam for $550. We talked with a bunch of people from Kim's office about what to see and do and the general response was "uh, you mean besides eating and drinking?" After a comment like that I really wasn't expecting too much out of "The Seoul of Asia." (This is the catchy slogan for tourism, hence the quotes)
The flight over there was disappointing to say the least. We've been spoiled by flying international carriers such as China Air, and on this trip I skimped and booked United Airlines just to save a few bucks. We thought, "its an international flight of course they will serve us a meal." You thought wrong Dave, instead the United experience involved a quarter of a sandwich with cheese, ham, and a yellow gooey substance that appeared to be regurgitated out of yak, and slapped on a piece of processed white bread for our wholesome enjoyment. Ahh the sweet pleasure of flying USA airlines. I'm amazed we didn't have to pay for toilet paper.
We arrived late around 11pm or so and apparently missed the direct buses to downtown, and ended up having to settle for the local. We were confused about how in the world to get to the place we were staying as it was a little off the beaten path. The Korean people were happy to help out and told us a bus to take to get relatively close. One guy, literally right before his bus was about to leave, sprinted to find the bus stop for us. It was pretty cool and I thought "the Korean people are very nice." Then we proceeded to get in line for the bus, and wouldn't you know it this korean couple cut right in front of us. I don't know what it is, but whether you are in Japan, Viet Nam, or South Korea, asian people will purposely cut in front of you. They don't even act like they did anything wrong just stand there with a blank look on their face. This sets Kim off. She turns into a little pitbull and starts mouthing off in english. Kim has this theory that no one in Asia can understand english. I keep telling her that although they may not be able to speak it well they more than likely can understand the gist of what you are saying. We managed to cut off the rude couple before getting on the bus, but any ground we gained was stripped from us by the little old korean ladies. That's right, watch out for the old ladies, they are by far the most vicious. On the bus Kim nearly got knocked over as they pushed past her to get to their seats.
We stayed in a town outside of downtown called Nowon. It was about 30 min by train outside of downtown and is a solid place for cheap shopping relative to the expensive Myeongdong district. We found the real gem of Nowon though, called Wild Bill's NO. 10 Bar. It looked really shady but we decided to go up there for a drink anyhow. I don't know if it was the best or worst decision I ever made. On the weekends they put on this little show. They have this huge space behind the bar and I thought it was very weird that they wasted that much space on a bar back. Around 10:30pm or so the performance began. All of the bartenders would take their turns flipping and tossing bottles. Then the bar manager or the ring leader as I like to think of him whips out this staff and lights both ends on fire and starts to twirl it around Bruce Lee style. He then proceeds to blow fireballs, and display his awesome fire eating abilities. Then if that wasn't cool enough, the ring leader and another bartender lit two bottles on fire and tossed them around to each other like a game of hot potato (I just want to thank Brad for giving me the idea of hyperlinks). Kim and I sat there in awe at the talent of these two as they twirled these homemade fire bombs around copious amounts of alcohol. At the time we didn't seem to mind the grim reality that with one slip the whole place could have turned into a blazing inferno.
To top off the show they built this tower of glasses. After each bar tenders performance they would poor a shot onto the top of the tower to eventually drip down into a pint glass. The ring leader would end the night by pouring Bacardi 151 down the tower of glasses and lighting the entire structure on fire with the final result a pint glass full of high octane booze. They then would give this death drink to some poor unsuspecting white guy in the crowd. Naturally he couldn't turn it down since his manhood was clearly on the line. Down the hatch it goes, and w/n thirty minutes that guy was nowhere to be found. Luckily I befriended the bartenders so they never picked me. Honestly I think they were just afraid of Kim :P.
All around our trip to Korea was spent walking around downtown. We went to a couple palaces, such as Changdeokgung, and Deoksugung. They did an excellent job of recreating the palaces to present them as they once were. I say recreate because literally these palaces were burned down several times by the Japanese, and also by the North Koreans. One thing I love about Seoul is that they did a great job of trying to maintain the cultural heritage of their city. Although Seoul is very modern with heavy western influence, the Koreans go out of their way to demonstrate the desire to preserve the history of their country (and maybe to boost tourism dollar a bit). Within Seoul they have five palaces in downtown so its easy access for you history buffs. At each palace they also do a sort of changing of the guards performance which I included a video below. It was pretty cool and worth seeing.
Besides the endless eating that we did on the trip (Korean beef is the best, so good!), my favorite part was the War Memorial of Korea. I would have to say if there is one thing that you do in Seoul besides eating as much Korean food as possible, go to this museum in between meals. We spent 3 hrs and still we had one more floor to go, but we made it through most of it before they kicked us out. I knew little about Korea history other than that the Japanese occupied them for quite some time and of course the Korean War. After going to the Memorial I found out that the Koreans were in endless war even before it established itself as a country. The memorial walks you through the whole history from the various battle tactics, to the armory. I thought that the memorial would be very one sided, but honestly it really wasn't biased at all. I definitely encourage reading up on Korean history, it is pretty fascinating.
Seoul was a breath of fresh air from the madness that is Tokyo. The city was open, with a lot of green. At any point you could look out and see the mountains that surround the city. In Tokyo you feel so small and detached from nature that it gets to after a while. Seoul you felt like you could finally breath. It also is a heck of a lot cheaper. You can actually buy fruit for a reasonable price. To put things in perspective Kim bought 30 strawberries for 2,000 won ($2). In Tokyo a deal would be 6 strawberries for $10. However according to Kim's GAP index, Seoul is a bit pricer than Tokyo. Kim measures the cost per unit of a foreign good according to GAP department store prices. According to the law of one price a GAP t-shirt should cost the same in one country as it would in another country if the currency traded at one for one. Not so according the GAP index. Tokyo is about $10 cheaper. So remember that ladies when shopping for American goods in Seoul.
Unlike Tokyo if you avoid the western stores you have a chance to bargain. Kim is a born negotiator. Its almost like she is trying to play Jedi mind tricks on the poor victim behind the counter...slowly waving a hand past the face..."you will give me this mask for 8,000 won." Unfortunately the lady was having none of it and only knocked it down a few thousand won, but I like to think we won that battle.
As far as renewing my tourist visa for Japan, lets just say it didn't go as well as expected. The lady at immigration kept questioning my purpose for coming back to Japan after I had only renewed my tourist visa once in the past five months. From what I've read foreigners renew several times for over a year and not had any problems. I however was not so fortunate. She didn't buy my story that I was backpacking Asia and carrying this huge pack for the sanctity of my health. They brought me to a back room where another guy proceeded to take my picture and ask further questions. That's when I decided enough was enough and I laid down my cards to call black jack, a note from PwC explaining why I am here. Viola! I skipped across the border and back into Japan.
A plethora of palaces in the middle of downtown Seoul
Is it me or does Kim look particularly nervous standing next to a guy with a giant sword?
Digging for gold!
Mmmmm...pho, we haven't had good solid vietnamese in a while. Needless to say we were pretty happy when we found vietnamese joint outside our hostile.
War Memorial of Korea
First, you're probably wondering what the heck am I doing....
Second, you're probably wondering why I am bundled up in a jacket, scarf, and gloves. Korea is frickin' cold man, and makes you do crazy things!