We take a break from our regularly-scheduled programming to bring you some thoughts, feelings and impressions taken from a short break in South Korea’s grand metropolis)
The first thing I notice about Seoul is how much lighter everything feels. In Japan, everyone is in a rush and they are keeping up appearances at all times, which means that hardly any of them look happy. They are also resigned to working or studying until they collapse. Ergo, a lot of towns and cities don’t feel terribly fluffy or cheerful. This is not the case in the South Korean capital. I’d only been here a few hours but I instinctively felt that the atmosphere and demeanour of both the city and its inhabitants seemed to lend itself towards happiness, something I didn’t realise Japan was lacking until I saw the abundance of it in another major Asian city.
I’m here with my co-worker because we have a few days off during Silver Week, an extended bank holiday which gives us four whole days to play with as we please. I’ve come to Seoul because it’s only 90 minutes away by airplane and I’ve been curious about the place for years. As soon as we’re downtown, Anna-Lisa and I drop our bags off at the guesthouse and head out to explore.
There are young attractive couples everywhere, and they are playful and affectionate. They all smile and hold hands and take selfies together. This is another yet thing which exists in stark contrast to Japan, where public displays of affection are about as warmly received as a typhoon. Almost all of the men here are handsome and athletic-looking. The businessmen are sharply-dressed and look like they get at least eight hours sleep a night. Nearly all the women look stunning and have perfect skin and hair. I’m fully aware that South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world, but the procession of beautiful people out here is never-ending.
We find a street market lined with food stalls. I buy some homemade lemonade and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in my life. Anna-Lisa and I share some deep-fried spicy chicken wings. They are a crisp, savoury joy and taste fantastic. As I navigate the dense, scruffy streets I catch the wafting aroma of something that smells amazing every ten seconds or so.
On our second day we go to one restaurant whose speciality is a whole chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and ginseng, served in its own broth. The chicken itself is dyed black, even the bones, and it is the best fowl I have ever eaten. It is served with a shot of ginseng liquor, which has the sort restorative effect that you would normally associate with finding health packs in a video game. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this place? Who’s keeping it a secret?
South Korea is a curiosity; an ascendant, prosperous nation with a tragic history, a vibrant culture and bleeding-edge technology. It is a country bordered by tyrants and bullies but seems determined to enjoy itself regardless. Seoul always has its happy face on, but I see regular reminders that the party could be over at any second; the subways contain glass cabinets filled with emergency survival kits (gas masks and so on) in the event of military or biological attack. The country has military service so young men in army fatigues are a regular sight. South Korea is ever-vigilant.
At night, the streets come alive as restaurants and cafes set up chairs and tables for everyone to sit, eat and talk outside. Shops play K-pop from mounted speakers. The Korean language has an earthy, passionate twang and the customer’s high-speed night-time chatter sounds musical. Also: people here really love drinking coffee. Every third or fourth business here is a coffee shop. People buy comically-oversized drinks, even at 11pm, slip their shoes off and merrily guzzle their caffeine bombs while talking animatedly long into the night.
Seoul has a charm and an energy I wasn’t anticipating, and as a result the place has swept me off my feet. It isn’t utopian by any means; the streets are grubby and there are crazy drunk people on the subway. More people stare into their smartphones than they do in Japan. Like Japan, there are hardly any bins anywhere, but Koreans seem to give a lot less fucks about cleaning up after themselves. Every night I walked back to my guesthouse the pavements were heaving under mountainous piles of garbage and filth. I saw at least one young woman with huge bandages on her face, the telltale signs of recent plastic surgery. She looked about 21.
Seoul feels like lots of things; futuristic, venerable, imperfect, alive. This is a gritty, authentic place, somewhere that feels like it’s one of a kind. It seems to have a pulse that Japan is lacking. It’s hard to nail down exactly how this pulse manifests itself. This is ostensibly a big city in Asia with great food and a fascinating culture. You can say the exact same thing about Tokyo, Bangkok, Taipei or Shanghai (I’ve been to the first two but not the latter). But it has left me with something. It’s planted an inspirational seed that’s still inside me as I write this.
I didn’t do anything especially profound while I was there. I went sightseeing and ate a lot of food. I didn’t even have time to meditate, but I feel like in a few short days, I’ve had a dramatic change of perspective. Not too long ago, Japan was it for me. It was the only game in town, and that particular game turned out to be slightly less fulfilling than I’d expected. But now I am seeing a much broader picture. I don’t know if I’ll be heading back to the UK when my contract is up in April, but now, crucially, I’m not sure if I’ll be staying in Japan either. I don’t know where I’ll end up. Seoul has provided me with a twist I didn’t see coming.
I wonder what other twists are ahead?
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