I TRAVEL A LOT for my dayjob, but typically just to domestic cities. Over the past few months, however, due to a special circumstance, I had the opportunity to go to four international locations, the most recent being a trip to Asia, visiting Seoul, Korea and flying from there to Tokyo, Japan. Due to the logistics, I didn’t get nearly as much time to explore Seoul as Tokyo, but what I did see, definitely left me hungry to go back.
Because… The food was amazing!
I’ve had Korean food once or twice before, and been to Japanese steakhouses a few times…. but my main go-to for Asian food has always been Thai. That will definitely expand thanks to this trip!
After an 18-hour commute that began on Sunday (13 hours to Tokyo + layover + a couple hour flight to Seoul), I arrived at my hotel in Seoul late at night on Monday, January 4th. The time difference (15 hours) made things weird the whole trip — I would be having a beer at the end of the night while texting with my wife Geri as she was having breakfast.
I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel Coex, which is a beautiful, modern facility in a nice shopping district of the city (it’s attached to a ginormous mall). It also gave me my first experience with electronic bidets, which I saw throughout the rest of my trip. There are a lot of clean butts in Asia, apparently. And given the electronic, heated seats, apparently they are clean warm butts!
When I got up on Tuesday, I was able to walk around a large restaurant area adjacent to the hotel and tour a Buddhist Temple that was right across the street, before heading to work for a few hours.
As I’d feared before the trip, the language barrier did make things difficult now and then. While a lot of things had English subtitles, very few people spoke very much English. That made things difficult looking for food — while the air smelled delicious, I didn’t know what or how to order! I looked at restaurant after restaurant, wondering where I should go in.
I finally settled on a decent looking place that had one line of English on the wall outside, so I figured that was a good sign… but it turned out they still didn’t have an English menu. The waitress and I managed to communicate with a lot of hand gestures, and ultimately she brought me a beef rib soup with side dishes of rice, kimchi, freeze dried salted seaweed, onions in garlic sauce, peppers in some kind of white sauce and another spicy vegetable thing which I never was able to identify (wish I could, cuz I finished the bowl). It was an amazing amalgam of tastes, though slightly embarrassing when the waitress had to show me how to eat it — she brought tongs and a pair of table scissors, and demonstrated how to cut the meat off the soup bones (glad she did, because I would have been at a loss of what to do if she’d just dropped scissors on my table and left!) She also brought me a fork, but I left it on the table with disdain – I ate with chopsticks the entire week.
After lunch I walked around a bit more, and ended up stopping into a German place – Oskar Dine & Brew – for a mild IPA since I’d had tea for lunch. Their menu was bizarre – German Spatzle sat right alongside Mongolian chicken! Looked like a good place for Westerners and Europeans to get a little breath of home… sadly I wasn’t there long enough to come back for a meal.
I walked over to the old Buddhist temple after visiting Oskar’s. It was the first time I’d been in a temple (though I would visit a few more in Tokyo in the coming days). I took my shoes off, as is customary, and knelt on a mat to watch part of a Buddhist prayer service. I love the combination of music and meditation, and wish that I could have stayed for the whole thing. And it probably would have helped if I could have understood a word or two. Here’s what it sounded like:
And here are some pix:
I bought Geri a bracelet and a table cloth at the temple gift shop… and then headed to work for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, my workmate and I returned to the restaurant district I’d been wandering earlier, and enjoyed a Korean barbecue dinner of beef and pork — cooked over coals at our table. We were totally out of our element… the waitress cooked the first part of our meal, before it occurred to me after looking around that nobody else had “help”… they were all cooking their meat themselves. And moments later, the hostess directed us to do just that (“you move, every little bit” she said and pointed… or something like that!)
She also showed us how to garnish and “sandwich” the meat using lettuce leaves (warning to fajita eaters — the key with Korean is small… you have to fit the whole lettuce-wrap in your mouth in one bite — no munching it in half or you’ll have slop in your lap!).
It probably would have helped if I’d seen this Zaggat or Korean Barbecue 101 posts on eating Korean barbecue before I’d gone.
In any case, we got with the program, and enjoyed an amazing meal. The meat and sauce they used on it was phenomenal. And the ever-present kimchi was great too.
The next day was an all-day work deal, with a short break before a group dinner. I took the break opportunity to explore the adjoining Coex Mall, which is touted as the largest underground shopping center in Asia. It was large… kind of like wandering around in the subterranean corridors of an airport. There is even an aquarium tucked in down there (though I didn’t go in). I got a kick out of seeing what was familiar… and not familiar… on the bookstore shelves and “bestseller” tables. Apparently there is no bookstore in the world where Stephen King is not on display.
That night we enjoyed a group dinner at a Korean restaurant in a different area of the city, where they cook all sorts of stuff on a communal table. Soju, a rice/wheat-based alcoholic beverage was poured liberally into glasses of light Korean pilsener (a Korean boilermaker!), as one by one, all of the group were called upon to make toasts. Thankfully, no video record exists of mine.
A video record does exist, however, of the chopping and “flaming” of the pork:
And that… pretty much was that! While I wish I could have explored more of Seoul, we left at 6 a.m. the following morning for Tokyo. And that’s a whole other adventure detailed in An Asian Adventure Part 2, Tokyo, Japan.
Here are a few other photos from my brief stay in Seoul.
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