Part 2: Seoul
The next day I found myself back at Narita airport at the proverbial "butt-crack" of dawn as they say (or at least my Mom says that). And once again, quite mercifully and without a hitch, I arrived at my gate at one of the discount international terminals. "Eastar Jet" is the name of this "airline" and let me tell you, "east" was the only accurate part of the name...no stars necessary. Eastar makes Allegiant seem like Air Force 1. That may be hyperbole but what I'm trying to say here is Eastar Jet isn't exactly the Cadillac of the skies.
You may be wondering how does Seoul Korea enter into this picture? There's really two sides to this story. Firstly, I was in Japan, and therefore I was in "Asia," and Korea is very close by...just 2 hours by plane. Ordinarily it would've never occurred to me to go but Merrick had turned me onto a few travel sites like "Kayak", "Vayama", and "SkyPicker". These sites filter out the noise of airfare and find the cheapest flights available. I flew to Japan roundtrip for less then 700 dollars. On Air Canada no less! So it got me thinking, maybe this whole international airfare thing doesn't have to be murder, and so on a lark I thought to myself...well maybe I can do Seoul too. Turns out I could, for 250 bucks round trip from Narita. I'm in Japan, you only live once...so I thought to myself, lets go to Korea!
The second part of the story is many many years ago, a girl named Kiyoung Kwon came to LA and had an internship at an office where my good friend Albert Chiang worked, as well as Merrick's then girlfriend Yulree Chun. Albert introduces Kiyoung to his brother Andrew and Yulree to Merrick and by the universal laws of averages, Kiyoung then meets me via a rather improvised camping trip to point Mugu in Malibu, in which myself, Shweta, Yulree, Merrick, Andrew Chiang, and Mr. Trevor Matsudaira himself all convened. From there we became good friends, but soon after she had to return to Korea and since then we've remained in touch.
So with these two scenarios intertwining, my being in Japan, Kiyoung being in Seoul, and a general impulse to go BIG while I was out there, away I went!
Back to Eastar Jet. After acquiring my boarding pass with some difficulty (I only had confirmation, no ticket) I get in the back of an enormous millipede of a line with everyone slowly shuffling towards the gate. As I exited I noticed we were not getting onto a plane, but into shuttle busses. About three of them to accommodate all the passengers.
OOH! But I must interject (myself) here, because I failed to mention that Kiyoung had tasked me with acquiring some Royce chocolates (luxuriously high end Japanese sweets) from, THE DUTY FREE SHOPS! After the circus that I witness in Vancouver BC, I was truly intimidated by the prospect. But, as I was pacing about on the periphery of a random sweet shop, I see rather serendipitously, the Royce chocolate section! Oh happy day...I would simply walk up to the chocolates, pick out what I needed with brevity, and head to the registers. Easy right? I think that fantasy lasted about a few steps before I was pinned on all sides by travelers with voracious appetites for discounted edibles. Oh my god I got pushed, nudged, elbowed, stepped on, ignored...it was everything I thought it would be and more. By the time I got to the actual chocolates I had to sort of bend my arm and contort my upper body to grab these confections in ways I never thought possible. Attempting to politely dodge and edge my way around other people's limbs and grabby hands...I was shocked at the lack of personal space people gave each other. Suffice it to say, no one gave two fucks (that's French for "cares"). I think I've made my point here...I won't bother with the adventure that was getting to the cash register. More of the same really. A mad house...but NO TAXES!!!! WOOHOO!
*Back to the busses* Obviously they took us to our little toy plane, but only after a 30 minute delay sitting in a heated bus filled to capacity. From there we drive for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time to the puddle jumper. I had a window seat, which has its perks, but that also means you're really stuck in there with whomever the fates decide to place next to you. In this case, it was a 20-something Korean boy wearing a bright yellow sweater that even Charlie Brown wouldn't be caught dead in...hard to imagine I know. That in and of itself wasn't a huge problem but combined with the fact that he smelled so potently of cigarettes and barbecue sauce, the next 2 hours didn't seem so appealing anymore.
Fast forward. I'm now in Korea, can't wait to hit the mean streets of Seoul, hustling down to immigration so I can get on with my adventure and OH MY GOD...there's about a million people at customs. Before I could process what was happening I stumbled into the wrong line and waited there for a few minutes before realizing it was only for airport personnel and flight attendants and the like. Looking back on it, some airport employee was trying to tell me so, but was speaking so softly and from such a distance that it didn't connect, and I only realized it a few minutes later. I was embarrassed. Finally I found myself in the correct line and it looked to be miles long. And so it was that my time in Seoul was being slowly eclipsed for the next hour, starting, shuffling, stopping, and more of that on and on. At one point in line, there was a large puddle of what appeared to be vomit. The unpleasantness of this was made tolerable by watching the reactions and expressions of everyone trying to navigate their way around the puddle, and this ranged from sheer terror to severe repulsion, and to my surprise, many people found it absolutely hilarious for reasons I could never hope to understand.
Alright...lets get the hell out of the airport already. Apologies.
At long last I make it through immigration and customs, and as I emerge into the lobby, I scan the faces and find Kiyoung, and there is much slow motion rejoicing. I probably made a scene as people were staring, so out of deference I quieted down, and we hightailed it to the car. At last...my journey into Seoul begins. What follows is one of the most activity packed days of my life!
First was the long but relatively traffic free drive from Incheon international to Kiyoung's apartment. The drive was fascinating in all the ways a ride through a new city ought to be. Everything is simultaneously strange and yet familiar somehow. It felt very akin to Seattle in a variety of ways, although I'm not sure I can describe why necessarily. The cold to begin with, it was never above 35 degrees fahrenheit while I was there. Overcast skies, high winds. It felt very much like my home in the pacific northwest. The Han river appears and reappears frequently on the journey, it is massive in scale, and divides Seoul for miles and miles. Another similarity to Seattle now that I think about it, bodies of whatever interrupting the infrastructure. There were several tunnels through mountainous hills, which was fun for me because I absolutely love tunnels. At one point Kiyoung points out the biggest and most prestigious fish market in all of Korea. She said we could visit there but we never did. Honestly the drive was a blur, and I also did a very bad job photographing Seoul, so your imaginations will have to fill in the blanks I'm leaving.
Soon we are in the heart of the city and darting in and out of little streets through cozy neighborhoods. I see pedestrian bridges and food shacks galore peppering the sidewalks. Christian churches are a dime a dozen. I guess the missionaries had great success in Korea. Finally after 45 minutes we make a left and head up a very steep 1 lane road (for 2 way traffic) into a community of massive apartment structures. I'm very excited to get out of the car for a spell and get a rest in but find as we are turning into Kiyoung's parking lot, that all the spots are full. She very casually parallels in front of some cars in designated spaces and I ask if there is valet? She says no. I then ask how can these poor people possibly hope to leave their parking spaces with her car and many other's in front of them. She then describes to me a very intricate system of trust between complete strangers and their automobiles:
Should you be the person parking someone else in, at least in this particular community, you are to:
A. Leave your car in neutral
B. Wedge a rock large enough to prevent your car from rolling down the incline.
Provided these steps are taken, the owner of a vehicle who is parked in, can remove the rock in front of your tires, and gently nudge your vehicle, (which will be politely left in neutral) and slowly move it out of the way. The most remarkable thing about this seemingly risky practice is that it works! I can only imagine the potentially dangerous if not disastrous situations that could arise under these circumstances but Kiyoung was perfectly at home, and so was everyone else apparently. This would NEVER happen in America. Keep your hands off MY STUFF!
We pop into the elevator, go up four floors, pop back out into the freezing cold, and then promptly pop right into Kiyoung's super cozy apartment right around the corner and down the hallway on the left. Her mother is there to greet us both, a delightful and very sunny woman whose command of English was equivalent to my Korean. She embraces me and ushers me inside. Through her gestures and Kiyoung's translation I came to understand that she had relinquished her own bedroom for my comfort. I tried to refuse but obviously she wouldn't hear of it and Kiyoung tells me that she and her Mom typically sleep in the living room anyways, foregoing both of their beds for the comfort of the living room floor (which was quite cozy). I dropped my things off in the bedroom and then nestled into the kitchen. The apartment was very small and had a warm, welcoming atmosphere. As I was walking on the hardwood floor, I blurted out, "Kiyoung are your floors HEATED?!" And indeed they were. This apparently is the norm in Korea, and like toilets that clean your poo-poo maker for you, is yet another invention that needs to be incorporated into daily American life ASAP.
I sat down at the table and the first thing I noticed, sandwiched between the kitchen sink and the refrigerator is a very large grey box, intersecting the room at a 90 degree angle. In an apartment in which space is so limited if not precious, my mind begins racing as to what this contraption might be. Is it a dish washer of some sort? Or a compact washer/dryer for your clothes? I don't remember if I asked or if the information was volunteered based off the expression on my face but this massive grey box turns out to be (drum roll please)...a KIMCHI FRIDGE!
That's right, a kimchi fridge. Full from the bottom to the top with kimchi. Kiyoung tells me that owning one of these bad boys is somewhat of a neighborly competition similar to who might have the biggest SUV in the states. Apparently all the ladies are trying to out-kimchi-fridge one another, and you know what, that's fine by me, because as Kiyoung popped the top, and the many containers full of pickled and spiced cabbage came into view, a blast of vinegary pickled deliciousness hit me in my olfactory zone so hard I nearly passed out from the pleasure of it all.
Kiyoung asks if I like kimchi...the answer was a resounding yes. She then pulls out some fresh homemade kimchi out of the fridge along with pickled spinach, squid, radish, and spicy hot peppers. We had some of the duty-free chocolate too. A feast for the ages and the perfect pick me up for a day of adventuring. I must add here that this is the best kimchi I've ever eaten, and has forever ruined me, as I will not be able to return to eating the same old generic restaurant kimchi around here at home. Forever changed by a fermented scrap of cabbage...life is strange.
No time for dilly dallying. After a brief spell of watching "Produce 101" - a reality TV show in which 101 girls are all competing for spots in the ultimate girl group:
...we were out the door, back into the cold, and onto the public bus on a quest for lunch! Before I came to this part of the world I bought (instead of a new jacket) some warm under layers, thinking that between them, my pants, and my flimsy (though fashionable) North Face jacket, I would be able to combat the cold. I was wrong. Perhaps the cold was doable but the windchill on the mean streets of Seoul was so bitter, I could feel my will to live begin to freeze over. Brutal.
Before we hopped on the bus Kiyoung gave me a debit card, which doubled as a transportation card. Effectively making your own personal debit card a Suica like in Japan. An improvement on the concept if you asked me. We sit in the back and I watch the city roll by. So many types of buildings. Old grungy buildings betwixt modern monolithic structures with curving gravity defying edges and space age Sci-Fi elements…all jumbled up with literally ancient temples and gates to old Seoul (the headline picture is one such gate). Everywhere you looked there were restaurants and shops galore…it was amazing…but not overwhelming. The city was very welcoming and had with it a sense of “fairness” that I've never really felt before. I don't know much about economic inequalities in Korea but the income disparity wasn't as obvious as it is in LA. The same could be said for Tokyo as well. Everything was priced so ultra fairly it was amazing (not like in Tokyo where everything is expensive). Every cab ride was like 10 bucks or less…every meal felt totally fair. But more on this later.
On the bus, Kiyoung is wracking her brain trying to think of where to go and suddenly, I could even see the light bulb go off in her head, it hit her. Budaejjigae!
Budaejjigae literally translates to "Army Stew" and as it turns out, is extremely delicious. Kiyoung advised we get off at some stop or another, and I blindly follow her into a massive intersection. The wait at the crosswalk nearly turned me into a meat-popsicle (I really should've saved that analogy for later though, as closer to sunset the cold was much worse). The restaurant was only a hop, skip and a jump away, and once inside, it wasn't long until this appeared on our table:
What you are seeing here, is a large "wok-ish" fry pan with veggies, thin slices of beef, chunks of hot dog (yes...hot dog), spices, and what appears to be grocery store style ramen noodles. Perhaps this sounds unappetizing to you, but the sight and smell of this concoction, bubbling away (and on such a cold cold day) made my mouth water in ways Bugs Bunny himself couldn't conjur.
It is called "Army Stew" because towards the end of the Korean war, food was scarce. And the poor, starving, and undoubtedly freezing Koreans had to make the best of what was around, so they would convert the scraps and handouts from various US army bases in the area into delicious and nutritious stews! Thus the american style hot dogs in there. Delicious would be an unjust adjective to use. This felt just like Mom's cooking, it was glorious. I was so happy by the end of this meal I could hardly contain myself, and the flavors lingered on my taste buds long after we had finished. On our way out, as we were paying for lunch, our waitress, who was probably old enough to be my mother, just started putting her hands all over me, rubbing my back and arms and smiling, and saying a bunch of stuff in Korean, which I obviously didn't understand. But something tells me she liked me. I wanted to come back...but alas, no time this trip.
Kiyoung had booked us for a tour of Changdeokgung Palace, and we had to be there at a particular time, 1:30ish I believe. So we hopped in a cab and drove off further into the wilds of Seoul! As I mentioned briefly before, the union between old and new seemed very strong and interconnected. Like when the children have grown up and start taking care of their parents, the modern architecture looming over the old, embracing rather then replacing. It was beautiful. Another item of note which excited me in particular was the cars! Cars in Korea are awesome. Japan as well, but Seoul took the cake in vehicular design. Virtually all the cars were KIAs and Hyundais and their various subsidiaries (in Tokyo Toyota had about 4 different brands under its belt, and in Seoul Hyundai had at least 2). But these were not quite the ones I'm used to seeing in the states. These were amazing. Many of them looked like cars from the future. A majority of the cars on the road had excellent futuristic design more similar to prototype vehicles in the US. An incredible lack of Mercedes and BMW was refreshing…although Audi reigned supreme. Seoul was like Back to the Future 2 for cars...awesome.
Our cabbie dropped us off near Changdeokgung and we walk the rest of the way. By now the sun was high in the sky and was very warming if you happened to be standing in it directly. However, any amount of shade or wind would shatter its fragile warmth like a baseball through the neighbor's window...you'd just want to run away!
On the way to the palace we spotted this handsome guy:
King Sejong the Great - to the best of my limited understanding, is one of, if not the greatest Korean king in history. Kiyoung can correct me if I'm wrong. Found on the 10,000 WON bill, this guy ruled from 1418 to 1450 and in that time, fostered the sciences and arts, attempted to economically stabilize the country, and created Korea's alphabet, Hangul! He also (according to wikipedia) subjugated Japanese raiders in the south, a military success that I'm sure is heralded to this day, as relations between Japan and Korea aren't entirely perfect. Maybe more on that later but perhaps I shouldn't get into politics.
Finally, the gates of Changdeokgung!
There was a lot to see and do in the palace, and I could really divulge at length, but in the interest of time I'll let the photos do most of the talking.
For those of you who are wondering, the app we used to take those ridiculously awesome selfies is called Camera360, and allows you to do a bunch of wacky things. Before I continue on, I must describe the highlight of the palace! It was not architectural or floral, but rather bumping into these two strange girls:
What made these girls strange was not their clothes or demeanor, but their picture poses! Kiyoung and I were ascending the side steps to the main palace or throne room and I noticed these two girls very sheepishly sending a "please take our photo" energy out into the universe. The girl on the left made eye contact with me and then broke it off quite suddenly, and I couldn't tell what the best course of action was. I decided to help them nevertheless, and they very nervously accepted. When I lined up the shot, they each presented themselves in the most peculiar way, the like I had never seen. One girl pressed her hands together and rested her face upon them as if to go to sleep. She then closed her eyes and turned her face away from the camera. The other gave the peace sign so as to obscure most of her face, and similarly turned away from the camera. It was kind of surreal. Kiyoung urged me to get in there for a picture myself, and I did!
We left the palace and walked down the street just off the major road. No sights to behold here that one couldn't see all around the city. Vertical signs ascending and descending and cascading all down the block, menageries of buildings made from all sorts of materials: brick, wood, glass, steel…Seoul is like an old tree. When you cut it in half you can see the age from the rings in the wood.
As we walked we came across a rather unsuspecting bakery/cafe and neither the sight nor the smell of this place would've compelled me inside were it not for Kiyoung's own interest in doing so. I believe it was called Anguk. That said, one step over the threshold and you could tell you were somewhere special. The entrance had an old growth wooden architectural vibe, and breads of all shapes and sizes were poking up from every which way, a veritable feast for the eyes - and tummies. Regarding sights and smells, whatever the case was outside, it certainly was not within. We proceeded to the counter up a small flight of stairs and ordered a ginger lemon milk tea (for myself), a grapefruit lemon tea (for Kiyoung) and a slice of cake that looked positively dreamy (to share). When our drinks arrived, I was utterly shocked at how insanely delicious they were.
My “milk tea” was nothing like the Chinese version I'm so used to having (milk tea with boba is hugely popular in Los Angeles, and it all tastes ubiquitous no matter where you go...though some places make it super delish). It was warm, and thick, and had what I can only describe as a custard like layer on top. The taste was simultaneously sweet, and savory, and nurturing. There were chunks of ginger floating deep within the cup and they were so delicious, I couldn't believe my tastebuds. Kiyoung's tea was on a similar level of deliciousness though for very different reasons. It was amazing. The cake was also wonderful and light and airy and sweet. I'm gushing I know, but super mashita mashita will do that to you. [mashita = delicious]
Hard to believe this day was far from over.
By now the cold was becoming a serious issue, as we huddled and simultaneously hustled on foot through various neighborhoods. After a brief trek we got off the main street into a wide brick-laid alleyway with hundreds and hundreds of people walking to and fro with shops selling all manner of knick-knacks on both sides. Then down the road a waze, off to the left, was a very large out door shopping mall, with floors diagonally ascending around an open air courtyard, up about 4 or 5 stories. The stores were all small crafts and independently manufactured goods, and reminded me of some of Victoria Vu's pop-up shops and craft fairs here in LA, only these were permanent. I bought a few little things from a guy on the first floor and he said I could pay in either WON, or USD as a convenience to me (or so it would seem). However, when I chose USD (on a lark, because why not) he instantly declares that wouldn't give me the best exchange rate, so I should definitely take the WON. Well then why bother with option Jack?!
On the top floor was a bridge to an adjacent building covered in what I can only assume are messages of love. It reminded me of the locks on the fence in Paris, just more adorable.
Lastly, there were cookies for sale in the shape of poo-poo on both the top and bottom floors. As I mentioned before, I did a bad job in Seoul by way of picture taking. I'm very sorry. No poo-poo cookies for you.
After that we careened through Seoul either on foot or via public transpo; the cold at this point was blurring my concept of reality and I just don't remember. Kiyoung wanted to expose me to the glorious flavors of bindaedduk, aka Korean mung bean pancakes. Apparently the best place to get these was at Gwangjang market which was nearby the crafty mall. This place was an absolute assault on the senses. Imagine if the outdoor sets from Blade Runner, had a love child with the cantina on Tattooine from Star Wars, and then that love child had a baby with the food alley from Spirited Away...that is Gwangjang market. The first thing I remember was a shoe store with piles upon piles of hundreds upon hundreds of shoes in no particular order of gender or size. Good luck shopping there! After that I can't remember anything other then food.
This place was for eating.
Most every stand sold or offered the same items. But to use the same word again and again, it was a menagerie. Pig's feet, chicken's feet, live baby octopus, noodles, kimchee, Korean pancakes, meats etc etc all within arms reach. There was nothing preventing anyone from just putting their hands in any of it. We sort of flowed through the market like blood cells through a clotted artery, and upon reaching the other side, promptly turned around and went right back in. Kiyoung wanted me to try the best pancake joint and so we ventured back through the chaos of bodies and smells and sounds. It should be noted that some fucking guy behind me was just touching my butt constantly…not in a harassment sort of way…but in that sort of, "he's Asian and therefore has no territorial understanding of other people's space or comfort" sort of way. To those of you who may be more sensitive to this type of racial profiling, I apologize. I guess it is what it is. Now that I'm thinking about it, the same thing happened in the immigration line as well. GET OUTTA' MY TERRITORIAL BUBBLE BRO!
We get in line and there's about 20 people ahead of us, but through some miracle they were all in parties of 3 or more, and the woman was crying out for a party of 2! THAT'S US! So Kiyoung and I just start walking past all these people feeling like celebrities or something. This is not the last time this happened. In the airport Kiyoung somehow got me past all the lines for check-in! Perhaps she is good luck! Here's some photos from the restaurant:
That bottle I'm holding is rice wine? Very different then sake. At this point things were getting pretty hazy. I was exhausted and freezing, and having too good a time to notice how much alcohol I had consumed. - Note: Kiyoung can hold her liquor...not me - The beauty of this joint was there was no menu! Only bindaedduk. So you just needed to decide on what to drink! So we plowed through a bottle of soju, and finished most of the rice wine, and I'm getting pretty rowdy. I must also point out that I'm not a fan of either of these drinks, as they both tasted like watered down vodka. I'm not sure how that picture of a Korean lady ended up on the bottom of my glass, though I'm certain I put it there at some point. Kiyoung informed me it's very bad luck to have a cracked glass...ohhhhh welllllll. At one point a bunch of young ladies at the table next to us are all trying to get my attention...turns out I dropped not only my gloves on the floor, but my passport too. Super smooth Brendan. I was embarrassed but didn't care. Kiyoung and I stay for quite a while reminiscing and chatting about various things and I realize that Seoul is awesome, I was having a total ball, and what a dummy I've been for not heading east-ways sooner!
And now it was time for dinner!
We team up with Kiyoung's BF and headed to get some dakgalbi...aka super chicken stir fry. Apparently, according to both Kiyoung and Merrick, this can be quite the delicacy, and the place we went had even been featured on TV! But this place left me wanting.
About midway through I started feeling a little queasy if not downright rotten and conferring with Kiyoung afterwards, she felt the same way. I wasn't too terribly upset though, as the track record for tastes coming out of Seoul was just WAY to good. It had to get brought down a notch otherwise I don't think I'd ever want to eat anywhere else. Next time I'm in Seoul I would like to try this dish again...
After dinner Kiyoung wanted to take me to a super cool local brewery, tucked magically into some corner of yet another Hollywood movie set back alleyway. This was called Magpie Brewery, and it was delicious. Walking in, the place was the size of someone's kitchen. Not big at all. The menu was simple: Pale Ale, IPA, Porter #1, Porter #2, a Belgian ale, nuts, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I absolutely love places with small menus because its a sure fire sign of quality (for the most part). We were not displeased. Kiyoung ordered the pale ale and I ordered the porter. They were both thoroughbred examples of what these two types of beer ought to be. The porter was crisp and dark and went down super smooth. Everything you'd want and expect. The other beer was arguably more amazing. It was indeed a pale ale, but lacked that watery flavor and had a robustness to it that I've never tasted in the style, with a consistency of flavor that lasted all the way down the gullet…all whilst never betraying it's pale ale roots. Wonderful. Why stop there? Then we got the IPA and the other Porter! It was all freaking delicious!!!
By then it was getting late, nine or ten for sure, but seeing as how I was leaving Seoul the next day, it was obviously time for KARAOKE!
Karaoke was epic. We went somewhere close by, and got ourselves 30 minutes. This place was pretty cool and had see through floor panels with desert scenes and succulents underneath. I probably sang the first number, probably very poorly as well; but as usual, my karaoke warm-up jam was Kiss From a Rose by Seal. Kiyoung handled the K-Pop with incredible flare, complete with dance moves and everything. Who knew? I sang and sang and I must confess after a few tunes I was really blowing up the joint - this was in fact a warm up for my most epic karaoke performance ever a few days later in Tokyo. I noticed in the corner of the screen the time limit went from 30, down to 20, then up to 40, then down to 30, then up to 50. In my mind this was obviously because our performances were so awesome the guy at the desk couldn't help but give us bonus time. However when I asked Kiyoung she informed me it was customary. Oh well, bonus time is still awesome. Something amazing happened while I was rocking out in there as well, something that has never happened to me before. In many karaoke bars you can get graded on your performance. How this algorithm works I don't know but I have watched drunken frat boy idiots mumble inanities into the mic and score higher then me. So these things are not very accurate. But I scored 100% TWICE! That's right, karaoke master right here. Not only that, but I also scored 98 and 99% on two other songs. I don't remember which but I remember one was a Sam Smith tune, and the other was Friends Will be Friends by Queen.
After that it was easily midnight or later and it was time to turn in. We headed back to the apartment, at which point the heated floors were a true godsend...once again, why these aren't common place in America I will never know. It was so nice to lie down after an entire day of walking I must've passed out immediately because the next thing I knew, it was morning and the sounds and smells of breakfast being prepared buoyed me up from the depths and into consciousness.
I came out of the room and found Kiyoung's mother casting magic spells in the kitchen. Many many dishes had been prepared, and a veritable feast was slowly appearing on the kitchen table. Not the least of which was japchae, a favorite Korean dish of not only myself, but Kiyoung as well. It's essentially glass noodles mixed together with delicious vegetables. This meal was so nurturing and delicious, I will never forget it, nor will I forget Kiyoung's and her mother's hospitality.
The time had come to prepare for my journey back to Japan. I packed up my ginormous travel pack, shlepped it onto my back, gave some very fond farewells to Kiyoung's Mum, and after this awesome photoshoot:
Kiyoung and I headed out for one last adventure in Seoul. First we walked down the street past the numerous christian churches and cathedrals to the neighborhood quickie mart. I found this place very interesting because it was completely unmarked and tucked inside a sort of miniature strip mall for lack of a better description. There was the quickie mart, then some sort of office (perhaps an accountant), an empty space, and then down the hall, was that a Laundromat(?) and then a small bakery; all separated by flimsy glass walls. Our business at the bakery was to get Merrick some of his favorite Korean cookies (which were very tough but extremely satisfying all the same). I noticed the baker had a cot in the back and thought this must be his house AND place of business. He was extremely jovial despite the early hour (8ish?) and sold us his baked goodies with a contented grace I don't often see. He even gave us two cookies for free!
After that we cabbed it back to the neighborhood around Changdeokgung Palace. This was because the express train to Incheon airport was located in the area, but Kiyoung had already gotten tickets on her cell, so we were set, and had some time to kill. First we stopped by one of these ancient gates to the palace and, amidst the bazillions of tourists, saw "the changing of the guard" ceremony.
These unhappy fellows have the solemn duty of standing perfectly still for hours on end, in the bitter bitter cold (and the extreme heat in summer I imagine). Very similar to the classic guards in London, just with more festive garb. The changing of the guard involved a small procession of other similarly dressed men, coming to replace the frozen ones, and several drummers, though they didn't play anything very interesting. Then the captain of the guard barks various orders and one by one, inspects each and every one of these unfortunate souls. The fate of a guard who isn't in pristine condition and form remains unknown to me, as everyone seemed to be fit for duty, but I did wonder what would befall one who wasn't up to snuff. It also occurred to me that this ceremony has probably been going on every four or so hours for centuries and centuries. Incredible.
A cup of coffee later and Kiyoung and I hightailed it down into the subway, classically missing the train by a few seconds. It turns out you can purchase tickets on your phone, but you still need to pick up physical ones at the kiosk before going through. All was not lost, the next one was arriving shortly after that, and it would arrive at Incheon a mere 20 minutes after the last. Kiyoung got new tickets, and away we went. The train ride was pleasant, though pangs of sadness started creeping into my heart and mind from various nooks and crannies. I really enjoyed my roller coaster ride through Seoul, and seeing Kiyoung again after so many years, the food and the culture were delicious, and the whole city was just so cozy and inviting. I will never forget it. In many ways the train ride was a practice run, or to be more narrative, foreshadowing for my final departure from Tokyo a few days later. And that is to say, very sad.
Forty or so minutes later we arrive at Incheon. Entering the airport from the ground, it isn't obvious that you're actually walking into a massive indoor structure. It felt more like Madison Square Garden or a football stadium then an airport. The lobby was almost labyrinthian with escalators shooting off in every direction. Mercifully Kiyoung knew exactly what to do and we found our way to the automated kiosks without much inconvenience. Having said that, my Eastar Jet confirmation number was not working at all and after several tries, Kiyoung ventured off to find help elsewhere. The attendant at the kiosks, with a mild reproach in her tone told me I had to get in line with everybody else. The line was at least four million people long give or take and I was distraught. Right then however, I heard Kiyoung's voice calling out, and I found her gesturing hurriedly at me to forget the kiosks and follow her. She led me to a group of Eastar Jet employees and with a flurry of Korean language exchange between the 3 of them, I was permitted to bypass the line of four million people altogether, and head straight to the counter! Kiyoung FTW! [for the win].
I got checked in and Kiyoung and I exchanged very fond, but melancholy goodbyes. I thought it was remarkable that we stayed such good friends after all this time, and it didn't feel quite right leaving after such a short visit. As it turns out, though we didn't know it then, I would be seeing Kiyoung in Tokyo a few days later. This was due to many auspicious factors, not the least of which was a three day weekend holiday, and a surplus of frequent flyer miles.
The rest of my time in Seoul was spent in queues and lobbies. I was sad but my adventure was still far from over. The next day in Tokyo I would go to visit the Ghibli museum and the work place of one of my greatest heroes...Hayao Miyazaki.
To be continued!
END PART 2