Seoul Food (and sightseeing)

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Oliver & Owen in Myeong-dong with the Seoul Tower in the background. 

On our way to the USA for summer vacation, we stopped in Seoul, South Korea to soak up the atmosphere and some of the sights of the largest city in Korea and fourth largest metro area in the world.

I was really curious how Korea compares to Japan and found that they are different. Japan is unique in Asia in that it is singularly refined, quiet, orderly compared to the other cultures I experienced in my two years in the region. Korea had lots of street vendors, some litter, people were louder and more direct, etc. They are neighbors and hosted a World Cup together and there are many similarities, but I was surprised at how more “in your face” our interactions were with locals. I guess every time we leave Japan we will experience a bit of a shock at cultures that are more expressive and places that are not as neat and orderly.

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We stayed at Days Inn near Myeong-dong station, one of the big shopping areas in the center of Seoul. Immediately we noticed the hustle and bustle of street vendors. We had a pretty good BBQ and some traditional Korean dishes. I especially liked the roasted octopus sticks. Nadia and Ocean enjoyed a day of shopping. Ocean was especially happy with her hand sanitizer holders and bracelets. She was acting so grown up.

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The boys and I hiked up the hills of Namsan Park to the Seoul Tower, one of the iconic buildings of the capital. The views, as you can see above, were worth the effort. There was a pretty extensive outdoor weight/exercise area about halfway up to the summit, where we had a good workout. The hill was always a fortress to protect the city from attack and we walked along the protective wall (a mini-Great Wall of China) down to the Sungnyeum Gate. I had to bribe them with $6 drinks from Starbucks to get them to take a longer loop back to the hotel. As readers of my blog know, I gravitate to green areas when I am visiting big cities. I highly recommend Namsan Park if you are in the city center.

It was a beautiful summer evening and good people watching. We noticed many US military personnel and were reminded that crazy, nuclear weapon-capable North Korea was only a couple hours drive away. I hope on my next visit to see the DMZ (de-militarized zone) and learn a bit more about World War II/Korean War. It is amazing the economic and infrastructure growth the country underwent after being heavily destroyed and very poor in the mid-1950s.

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Oliver standing along the Seoul City Wall

Koreans are obsessed with their skin! We saw hundreds of stores dedicated to creams, moisturizers, whiteners, etc. for both men and women. Korean women spend more on cosmetics per capita than any other country in the world. We bought many of the famous face masks and other products as gifts. This BBC article was right, they are world leaders in skin products. I was surprised that men also are into both cosmetics and fashion and with their slight builds and the tendency to dress in the same patterns as their girlfriends, they are a bit androgynous. Many women do have nice skin and like Japanese women, they dress well and are well kempt. I bought a nice night cream to help my aging skin. I have spent way too many hours in the great outdoors unprotected to have silky smooth skin. I was looking for a special cream for the sunspots on the top of my head, but not many Koreans are bald.

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Another satisfied customer and an uncomfortable salesperson!

 I am looking forward to exploring more of this interesting country. As with many places in Asia, my only complaint is there are too many people and Seoul has one of the highest population densities, 14x greater than New York. There are plenty of inexpensive and convenient flights between Osaka and various destinations in Korea, so I am sure I’ll be back. I’ll finish this post with a video from the Myeong-dong shopping street.

Latest Reading: “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future”

I just completed reading Viktor Cha’s book on North Korea. He is an expert on the country and used to work on the National Security Council and is now a professor at Georgetown University. I hear much about the country in the news and wanted to learn a bit more about it. It was an excellent read and below are the salient points I am taking away from the book.

My first knowledge of Korea came from watching re-runs of the 1970s television sitcom, M*A*S*H, which was set in the Korean War. The war thankfully ended before my father was drafted into the US Army (1956), but not after over 33,00 Americans were killed.

North Korea was formed in the aftermath of World War II. The Japanese had occupied the country for a long time and after their defeat, the USSR controlled the northern part of the country and the US the southern part. The Soviets installed Kim Il-Sung as a puppet leader. Il-Sung had fought the Japanese on the side of the Russians in a foreign delegation in China. He was really young and not a politician and someone the Russians thought they could control. He soon led North Korea into a war with the south and over 50 years later, his family dynasty is still leading the country. North Korea at the end of World War II was much better off than the south. They had the Japanese infrastructure and throughout the Cold War, like Yugoslavia, played China and the USSR off each other, gaining the maximum support from both. This all fell apart with the break up of the Soviet Union.

Today South Korea is 35 times richer than North Korea. North Korea is basically a province of China, with the Chinese supporting them because of mining interests and their port. It is hard to understand how the Kim family can keep such an iron grip on the population. Part of it must be Korean culture which is submissive to authority. The Kim’s also control the population tightly through blocking information from the outside, put dissent down violently, and keep most people in utter poverty. I watched a documentary years ago about a North Korean family secretly living in China in the woods, having to give up their 5 year old son to live with relatives because they couldn’t feed him. Absolutely heart-wrenching! I was disgusted and saddened to read about the atrocities. I can’t believe there are countries like this in 2012!

Cha predicts the regime will go down soon, and I hope so. Like him, I see eventually the countries becoming unified. It makes sense that they all live on a peninsula and it is a homogeneous ethnic population. It will be difficult however because of the vast difference in wealth, knowledge and culture of the two countries, being kept apart for so long. It was also interesting to read about the nuclear weapons North Korea owns and the long history of negotiations. The US is planning for the regime’s downfall. It will be a serious change for China, which shares a border and nearby Japan, as well.

I will be following the news from the country more closely. I hope to see the day that the North Korean people are freed from tyranny. I highly recommend the book to people who want to learn more about this secretive nation.