We had checked the train times and prices the day before and looked at our remaining money and made the decision to travel to Seoul in first class on the bullet train, something we could never afford to do in Japan. It was fun and felt like a real treat, especially when we discovered all the free snacks , bottles of water, eye-masks etc. that you could help yourself to.
We arrived at Seoul station and immediately felt that Seoul was different again from Busan. It was smarter and slicker and the people seemed more like city people, but they were still louder, livelier and pushier than Tokyoites.
Our hotel was in an old area of Seoul called Bukchon where there are many traditional houses, some of which have been converted into guesthouses like the one we stayed in. It’s a popular area for tourists (during the day at least; it was pretty quiet at night) and so there were several things to see in the area. After travelling for the first half of the day, we weren’t overly keen on getting on the metro and going anywhere, so we stayed around Bukchon, wandering through the streets and finally heading to Changdeokgung – one of the five palaces in Seoul. I had seen it described as one of the best to visit due to its recent repainting and restoration. None of the palaces are originals because they were all destroyed by the Japanese, so I figured if you’re not going to see an original, you might as well just see the nicest looking one. This palace also had an area called the ‘Secret Garden’ which was the king’s huge private garden which you could visit, but only on a guided tour. So we signed up for a tour as we had arrived just in time for an English one. The tour was quite interesting, but it meant sharing the same space with a lot of other visitors at the same time. The tour leader wasn’t pushy about moving on and didn’t seem to mind if you stayed behind to take some photos and caught up and did it almost at your own pace. The garden was beautiful with attractive pavilions and lakes.
We looked round many of the other areas of the palace after the garden tour and I understood why the guide I’d read had mentioned the repainting because the colours were bold and beautiful and really made it a striking and very photogenic place to visit.
In the evening we planned to try our luck with water and lights again after the disaster with the fountains in Busan as there is a rainbow fountain bridge in Seoul, where the length of one of the bridges over the city’s river spurts out jets of water, lit up in rainbow colours several times a night. Again we checked the tourism website which gave times and some not very clear directions.
We got to the station and tried to find the park that it said you could view the bridge fountain from, but the park seemed small, not very well placed and there were very few people there. We stayed and waited and of course, nothing happened. We finally figured out it couldn’t possibly be that bridge and found a map which had the bridge names on and realised we needed to be about a kilometre along the river. We worked this out less than 10 minutes before the next show was due to start, so we pretty much ran as fast as we could with all the camera gear and made it there about 5 minutes after the show started. Ed had gone on ahead and so I couldn’t find him when we got there (it was really busy) so I sat and watched most of it on my own (again not very romantic) but I spotted him about 5 minutes before the end. The tourism website had said there were shows at 8pm, 8:30pm, 9pm and 9:30pm but it turned out there was only an 8pm and 9pm show. So we hadn’t missed the 8:30pm show as we’d though, but we also didn’t have a change to stay and watch it again at 9:30pm. It was not a disaster like the Busan fountains and it was beautiful to watch, but we were starting to get the feeling that water and lights shows were not lucky events for us!
We took a taxi to Itaewon – renamed by Ed as K-pongi for its similarity to Roppongi in Tokyo as an area where white faces are more common than Asian ones and there are many foreign restaurants, bars and clubs. I was glad to have a break from Korean food (Ed wasn’t though) and really fancied a pizza. We found a nice looking Italian restaurant, b it was quite late by this point and they said we couldn’t order pizza any more. The food we did have was delicious and really high quality Italian food but a lot pricier than the Korean dishes we’d been eating for the last few days. It was a nice change though. We were surprised to find out that metros stop running quite early in Seoul and it was time to head back to the hotel. There was absolutely nothing open when we got back there, so we made a mental note not to go there in the evening expecting any entertainment.
We started the day at a big market called Namdaemun where they sold a little bit of everything and was a bustling, fun place to visit, if a little tiring, especially as it was a hot day. We weren’t really there to buy anything, just to wander, take in the atmosphere and maybe eat a bit of street food. We did pick up some street food but wanted to take it out of the market and somewhere a bit more relaxed to eat it, so we walked to the lower slopes of Namsan park and ate some strangely coloured but rather tasteless corn, various sweet things and some Korean vegetable sushi. The tourist guide we’d picked up recommended the area round Hongik University, which is known for its fine art department as a cool and arty place to hang out, and promised street paintings, a street of uniquely themed cafes and a Saturday art market with stalls held by university students.
We never found the café street or the wall paintings (we did find a street with lots of non-unique, standard Korean coffee shops on it, so stopped for the now regular coffee and snack break) but we did find the market. It was small but quite interesting with some live music and a student doing free 10 second portraits. (The queue for him was really long though so we didn’t have our portraits done.) The streets around Hongik University were extremely busy and we were craving a bit of relaxation so we went to a park by the river which turned out to be immensely popular with thousands of picnicking families and groups of young people covering every cm of grass. It was still a nice park though and there was a ferry pier running scenic cruises of the river. It seemed like a nice relaxing idea, so we hopped on a 60 minute cruise and enjoyed just sitting, watching the world go by on a boat for an hour.
We’d planned to go up Seoul Tower for sunset, so took the metro to the closest stop to the tower after the cruise. The bus to the top of the hill where the tower is located was so busy that we were practically crushed against the sides and it was a huge relief to get off the bus. The tower was a hugely popular destination at that time though and once we got a ticket and queued up we only just made it to the top of the tower in time to see the slightly cloud obscured sun drop below the horizon. The view was fairly nice and Ed spent a lot of time trying to get good night shots, but it was so busy and it had been a long and tiring day so I was keen to get going.
At the bottom of the tower we discovered that the tradition of Korean love locks had come from Seoul and the fences around the tower were swathed in padlocks and were no longer identifiable as fences. I doubt anyone could actually clamp a padlock onto the fence now and could only add them to existing padlocks, making the fence grow fatter and fatter. I still think it’s a sweet idea though.
After another crowded bus ride down the hill we went home, stopping for some tea and a snack at a café that was still open in Bukchon before getting a relatively early night.
WE woke up super early as we had booked a tour to the DMZ or demilitarised zone – the area 2km either side of the border with North Korea. Of course we couldn’t go inside the DMZ, much less go to North Korea, but the area near the border has become a kind of tourist attraction. Our tour guide was chirpy to the point of it seeming she may have breakfasted on amphetamines, but she did also give us enough information to make the tour interesting but not overload us with political details.
We started at an area called Imjingak, which is set up for tourists and has part of a bridge named Freedom Bridge which some South Korean prisoners returned over when they were released after the war, various monuments, a bombed and bullet-hole riddled steam train that had been recovered from inside the DMZ following the war and a huge bell called the Peace Bell, although I can’t entirely remember the significance of this bell now. I think there were also exhibits in the hall there, but being on a package tour we didn’t have time to see it as we had to be back on the bus.
We went on to the “Third Tunnel” after passing an ID checkpoint, passing several kilometres of barbed wire and signs indicating the presence of mines past the barbed wire fence, a reminder that although this was a perfectly safe tourist trail tour, just metres away there were very real remnants of a brutal war which young South Korean soldiers serving their compulsory military service risk their lives to clear every day.
The third tunnel is one of four infiltration tunnels dug from the North to the South but discovered before they could be used for planned attacks or espionage. You could walk down the tunnel until you were just over 100m from the DMZ line as there are several blockades in the tunnel and only the first one is accessible for tourists.
As we sat in the beautiful little garden near the tunnel having some snacks, I watched a butterfly fly over the barbed wire fence and landmine warning signs in the DMZ and maybe off to North Korea, reminding me that these borders are simply a human idea and there are no real borders.
Next stop was Dorasan station. A station built with a rail link to Pyongyang in the North which was used briefly but stopped after North Korea decided to close the border. People still hope that one day when there is peace between the two countries or when Korea is unified they will be able to use this station and railway to travel to the north (and as our chirpy guide told us, all the way to Europe via North Korea’s rail connection to China and therefore the rest of the Asian continent…)
After this we made our final stop at the Dorasan observatory where you could look through high powered binoculars at North Korea and make out statues of their leaders, villages and their flag flying on the other side of the DMZ.
We went back to Seoul, stopping at a ginseng place where they tried to sell you huge boxes of ginseng that you didn’t really want. But that’s what you get for going on an organised tour. (Organised tours are pretty much the only way to visit the DMZ though.)
They dropped us off near City Hall where there was a huge International Friendship Festival going on, with craft and food stalls from countries all over the world. As it was lunchtime we made the most of the stalls and enjoyed some exotic treats as we walked around. The festival led us to Cheonggye Stream – one of the things I liked most about Seoul. It’s a small but pretty stream running through the centre of this huge city making you feel miles away from city life until you look up and see the skyscrpers towering over you. Apparently is was covered over when building a road but later uncovered and turned into a tourist attraction. It seemed to be popular with locals too, especially later in the evening when we saw many young people and especially couples sitting by the stream enjoying the warm spring evening.
There was another festival going on there, with non-verbal performance artists recreating scenes of village life and comedic situations taking various living statue style action poses and wearing costumes made of paper. It was fun to watch and fun for photography too.
In the (early) evening we went to see a show called Bibap – a kind of musical about a cooking competition with breakdancing, beatboxing and singing. It was funny, fresh and original and Ed came out saying he just wished he had someone to recommend it to as he’d enjoyed it so much (he later did recommend it to some Malaysian women staying at the same guesthouse as us.) It made me miss going to the theatre and wished that we had things like that in Tokyo. In many ways I felt that Seoul was a lot of the things I wished Tokyo was (although I’d keep the less pushy people and bang on time trains and buses in Tokyo!)
Ed felt that his trip to Korea would not be complete without a trip to a Korean barbeque restaurant, so we headed to the meat extravaganza and I prepared to sit and just drink a beer and eat a bit of kimchi. Luckily they did a kind of bibimbap as a side order and although they insisted we order two portions of meat, Ed was happy to eat my portion and I filled myself up on bibimbap and all the nice Korean side dishes of pickles, salad and kimchi.
With a satisfied Eddie, we headed back to the stream as we’d seen there were meant to be some evening light shows. The first was projections of digital styled flowers growing up the walls which were nice and appeared to mesmerise passing children. The second was a mist and laser light show which was shown every half hour and lasted 8 minutes. Finally a chance to get the whole water and light show thing right! We found a good spot on a little bridge over the stream and there were loads of other people waiting too. The time came and mist started coming out of the little jets and music started playing. “Where are the lasers?” I asked. “Maybe they just need time to build up the mist first…” No such luck. We watched mist for a full 8 minutes and then the music stopped, the mist stopped and not a laser light was ever seen. Disappointed and defeated we headed to a café for some honey bread. This little snack is a piece of bread roughly 5cm thick with a grid shape cut into it. The bottom of the bread is swimming in honey and on the top is cream, ice cream or whatever other fattening topping a café can cream up. This time I opted for blueberry yoghurt ice cream and blueberry sauce. It was delicious, filling and as fattening as bread can possibly be.
We walked a little further down the stream which was now quite quiet as it got later and there were just a few couples strolling and enjoying the peace of the stream in the city centre. We walked back to the hotel for our final night in Korea.
We left the guesthouse at about 8:30am to take the bus to the airport. It was late but we had left plenty of time to get to the airport so we weren’t worried. We got to the airport and went to check-in and then a miraculous event occurred – they upgraded us to business class!!! Woo-hoo!!!! We were more than just a little excited. Typically it would be on the shortest flight ever but still, business class upgrade!!!!
We did some shopping and I bought some nice sunglasses, we had a very early lunch and then boarded our flight back to Tokyo. We enjoyed the complimentary champagne, the huge amount of legroom, the really nice cheesecake and the smug feeling of being in business class for 2 1/2 hours and then were back to reality and home in Tokyo.