Before beginning, I’d like to apologize for the lack of pictures. I wasn’t exactly planning on writing this article, but I just couldn’t help myself. Some pictures included come from fellow MEXT student Marcelo Sarmiento Diaz. Special thanks to him for giving me permission to use them.
I’ve had Seoul on my list of destinations to visit for a few years now. Out of the larger Asian countries, Korea was the only one that I had no knowledge of. Well… not exactly. I’ve had my fair share of the K-Wave. Still, I can probably count the number of times I’ve cried to a K-drama on one hand. Not much but enough to give Korea that mystery every country needs to succeed as a tourist destination.
That magic slowly fell away as I heard time and time again that Seoul was a city made only for shopping rather than sight-seeing. I don’t know where these people got their ideas, but I have good reason to conclude that they’ve never gone to the metropolitan themselves. Mostly, their proposed plans were of buying luxury goods at cheaper rates than in Tokyo. Their craziest ideas were of eating Korean pizza. Sure, I get it. Duty Free is nice. That doesn’t convince me.
A handful of us MEXT students, including myself, had the good fortune to be invited to Korea through the good will of a peer. I have to say, it was the best possible start to our summer vacation that we could have gotten, and I don’t mean that in the “vacation” sense. No doubt it was an exciting trip, but actually being there in person easily debunked my biases. I always expected Seoul to be a city even farther along the modernization spectrum than Tokyo is. Now that I think about it, that view was ridiculous. Taking dramas like Boys Over Flowers and/or Coffee Prince to represent Seoul as a whole is the equivalent of taking Ouran High School Host Club as Tokyo’s standard.
Instead, I now see Seoul in much the same way that I saw Tokyo: a bustling center of its country. I even feel that the individual districts within Seoul have probably more character than its Tokyo neighborhood counterparts. Take for example Hongdae.
Daylight Hongdae with all its department stores and individual shoppes make it look just like Harajuku would. Yet, while Harajuku’s main attraction is the narrow Takeshita Street with narrow apparel stores on either side, Hongdae takes the cake by including what looks like Roppongi’s high end scene just meters away from the more affordable section. I would venture to say that food was a plentiful too. $7 for all you can eat hot pot? Try getting that in Tokyo.
Come night and the district changes into a city of nightclubs, bars, and food stall eateries. The streets are filled with people and cars all the way until daylight (on weekends of course). There was even a upscale hookah lounge. Sadly, I didn’t have the time to spare. Public transit closes to early and taxis were just unneeded expenses.
Like Tokyo (as well as Beijing), Seoul takes pride in its intricate subway system. I came to Japan knowing how to read enough kana to get by, but getting hit with Hangul prompted me to remember what being a foreigner was all about. Anyway, I couldn’t help but be intrigued that practically all (or as all that I’ve seen) subway platforms have large barriers between the people and the subway rails.
Again, knowing that Japan has the major issue of Karoushi (death by overwork) and STILL no home barriers in all its stations becomes even more shocking when you realize Seoul made the effort to include them. I wonder if they’re designed by Samsung.
Back above ground you’ll find some other architectural marvels (this time definitely not be Samsung). I know that many tourists continually praise Tokyo as a city blending old with new. The Imperial Palace, being one, is smack in the middle right next to the skyscrapers in Ginza and Tokyo Station. Or Shinjuku Gyoen where relaxing in a serene park only lasts as long as you don’t glance up. Seoul, on the other hand, simply embraces the anachronism.
I think I saw about four of those gates within a single walking tour. They’re still in wonderful condition too, as is the Gyeongbokgung or Main Royal Palace of Korea.
Now, that’s not the place but what was the Emperor’s view when he was sitting on the throne. Like I said. Embracing the modern. Whereas high walls enclose the Imperial Palace of Tokyo (understandable since people still live there) nothing stops the tourist from entering these grounds… except maybe the entrance fee.
Take a look up Namsan Mountain in central Seoul, though, and you would see something almost futuristic: N Seoul Tower.
Compare that with Tokyo Tower
Although, disregarding the name, Tokyo Skytree would probably be a better parallel.
It ended up being an entire week of cramming every little thing our group could muster into our short but relatively pleasant time. As I’m writing this and remembering, I must say that I’m starting to like Korea more and more.
I’ll leave you guys with a string of photos: