After wrapping up an event with the Canadian embassy and teaching at a creative writing camp in Korea, I had a couple of days to explore Seoul. Even though it was my nineteenth trip to the city, it is so vast that I’ve long ago learned that you won’t run out of new nooks and crannies to discover!
In addition, I was there with fellow authors Kallie George and Dan Bar-el. It was Dan’s first trip to Asia, so I had the extra fun of seeing things anew. One thing that Dan really struggled with was the heat and intense humidity! He also found the spicy food a bit challenging, which happily filled our hosts’ expectations. (As for me, I love spicy food and so am somewhat of a disappointment in that department—I can usually tolerate the spice level of anything they stick in front of me. Of course, they also serve a lot of eggs in Korea, and that’s where I run into problems. You know. Because eggs are disgusting.)
The first night back from our creative writing camp, Dan, Kallie, and I wandered the streets of Jongno-dong and Insa-dong (dong means “neighborhood”). This area is my home away from home and I know it pretty well, so it was fun to show Dan some of my regular haunts. One of the first places we went was the Story Café for mugs of iced persimmon tea (delicious!). In this café, you can doodle and write in beautifully bound traditional notebooks and leave your message behind. It kind of reminds me of sending a message in a bottle!
Insa-dong itself is a beautiful market street full of artisans, craft stores, and all sorts of shops. Here you find the traditional snuggled in between the modern city bursting up around it.
Insa-dong is also the place to sample all sorts of treats, from the sweet to the savory. My favorite is “Poo-dough”, which is a variation on the traditional “bungeoppang”, which is a fish-shaped pastry filled with bean paste. Poo-dough is shaped like . . . well, poo, and comes in either bean or chocolate flavor.
It may seem like a strange marketing ploy, but I assure you, poo-dough is delicious and there is often a long line-up for the stall!
Afterwards, we sauntered around Jongno-dong and I showed Dan the Bosingak belfry. This is actually a photo I took the following day on my way to the local bookstore—the belfry was particularly beautiful during the quiet morning calm of a Sunday.
The following day, my friend, Joon, met us at our hotel and took us off to eat lunch at Kwang-jang market. We walked there, which meant meandering through some narrow traditional streets in Insa-dong. I found many interesting doors to add to my ever-expanding photo collection:
Kwang-jang market was a feast for the senses. I’ve been on the outskirts of this market before, as it is very close to the famous shopping district of Dongdaemun. On this day, Joon took us deep into the “hive” and we saw all sorts of interesting goods and different types of food.
These dried fish are apparently used as part of a funeral ceremony:
This is just a photo of all sorts of interesting things, including octopus tentacles and a pig’s head (it’s the reddish-brown item in the back).
This, apparently, is a good market to sample live octopus. Which I didn’t. Instead we settled on a lunch of traditional Korean pancake, called “jeon.” My favorite is “pajeon”, which is a green onion type.
That evening, we met up with one of my former creative writing students, Jane. She is currently studying English Lit at Brown University in the States, but was in Seoul for the summer. She took us through a neighborhood that I’ve never visited before: Samcheong-dong.
What a quaint and beautiful place! There are many narrow, winding pedestrian-only streets here (well, you might have to dodge a motorcycle or two) where you can explore artisan jewelry shops, have your “ugly” portrait sketched for a dollar, and get your fortune told.
With Jane at our side, both Kallie and I had our “Saju” fortune told. Saju involves providing the specifics of your birth—year, month, day, and time—and then learning about your personality and future. Apparently, I’m a “gem in winter” and, surprise, surprise, a creative and stubborn person.
After having our fortunes told, we continued exploring the neighborhood. Similar to Insa-dong, you can find many examples of traditional architecture tucked between the modern buildings and stores.
As the sun set and the temperature cooled (slightly), we took dinner on an open-are patio overlooking the elegant buildings of old and then went further up to enjoy tea on a roof-top deck.
Of course, I’m a person who always loves the small details, so I found another door and some beautiful stone reliefs during our explorations.
After this beautiful night, we trekked back to our hotel in Jongno. It was only about a half-hour walk, but the heat caught up to us by the time we reached home and I was glistening with sweat—well, that’s what happens when a gem in winter gets caught in the summer heat!
It was fun to explore some new parts of the city and visit some old favorites. Until next time, Seoul!