From Fukuoka to Incheon International Airport is about a one hour, twenty minute flight; long enough to mentally practice basic Korean words and phrases and do some reading but short enough that flying on a cheap, no frills airline like I did isn’t an issue. I almost forgot to get my immigration and customs forms as the flight attendants were walking through the cabin and handing them out, which would have been both embarrassing and held me up at the airport. After landing I cleared the immigration and customs check fairly quickly and then I made my way to the big arrivals area to pick up my Korean pocket wifi device and withdraw some money from an ATM. My experience at Narita International Airport had given me a bit more confidence in working my way through the process of getting everything in order at the airport and I was definitely moving faster than I had been at Narita. As I walked through the arrivals area I passed by a performance that was being put on by a group of four Korean women. Three were playing stringed instruments while the fourth was creating a digital painting that was projected onto a large screen behind them. It was an impressive show and I stopped for a few minutes to watch them complete the song and painting they were in the middle of. Once they finished I applauded along with everyone else and then found my way to Incheon’s train station.
Like Narita, Incheon is located quite a few miles away from the city it is associated with. To reach my hostel in Seoul I first took a train into the city and then caught a subway to Itaewon, the neighborhood I would be staying in. Itaewon used to be a seedy part of town but in the past few decades has been steadily transformed. A large chunk of the city’s foreign population lives in Itaewon and you can find people and businesses from all over the world there. Interestingly, I was told while I was there that more and more Koreans have been moving into Itaewon over the preceding years, drawn by the area’s comparatively cheaper rent prices. I guess gentrification isn’t limited to Western cities. Anyways, I got off the subway and found my way to my hostel. There was a mosque not too far down the street from where I was staying and a lot of Turkish and Middle Eastern people and businesses were in the area, so I started referring to the street as Little Istanbul. When I got to the door of my hostel I was surprised to find it locked. I emailed the owner of the hostel to ask about this and stood around outside for about an hour as I waited for a response. As it turned out, I was at the wrong door and had somehow missed the sign that would have pointed me to the correct door. Classic Ricardo idiocy. Thankfully one of the staff found me and brought me to the right door. With everything fixed, I unloaded my backpack and got a little food from a nearby convenience store. Later that night I spent a few hours chatting with a French girl who worked at the hostel and a Belgian guy who was a model looking for work in Seoul. From what he told me, a lot of Western models come out to Asia to find work because modeling jobs in their home countries are really competitive. Sometime after midnight we wrapped up our conversation and I went to bed.
Despite being up late the preceding night I was somehow the first person to get up the following morning and consequently was able to complete my morning routine uninterrupted. I guess in Seoul people tend to stay up late and wake up late. After leaving the hostel my first order of business was to walk over to the War Memorial of Korea, a large museum dedicated to the history of the Korean War as well as Korean military history in general. Before arriving there I passed by a small memorial to Korean women who were abducted during the Japanese occupation of Korea. You can read about that little memorial here. Not long after this I arrived at my destination. The outside of the War Memorial of Korea has a lot of tanks, boats, planes, and other vehicles from the Korean War era and the Cold War, along with a number of statues. One of the statues you can find there is dedicated to the story of a pair of brothers who were separated when Korea was split between North and South but somehow found each other on the battlefield during the Korean War. Inside the memorial are three floors. The top two floors tell the history of the Korean War and its aftermath while the bottom floor details Korean military history from ancient times up to the 1950s. While looking around the memorial I kept an eye out for any plaques or other monuments to my grandfather’s unit, the Wolfhounds, but sadly didn’t see one. I spent about two and a half hours at the memorial and as I was leaving there was some sort of ceremony going on in the big foyer area at the entrance. The ceremony was in Korean, so I had no idea what anyone was saying, but everyone participating in it was in formal military uniforms so it must have been a Korean military ceremony.
After leaving the War Memorial of Korea I walked to Camp Kim to locate the meeting area for my upcoming DMZ tour. The tour wouldn’t be another couple of days, but I wanted to locate it now so that I’d not have any issues finding it the morning of the tour. Once I found the spot I took note of it on my phone and as I was doing so a passing Korean woman asked if I needed help finding something. I told her I was fine and thanked her for her generosity, though this would not be the last time something like that happened to me in Korea. Seriously, it’s like a portion of the Korean population is on patrol for tourists and other people in need of assistance and I gotta say the Korean people just might be the friendliest I’ve ever met. Apparently there’s an old line of thinking in Korea that when a person helps a foreigner or a guest they are also helping Korea by extension and this is part of the reason Koreans will go out of their way to aid people in need.
It was after 2:00pm when I left the Camp Kim area and I decided to grab a late lunch back in Itaewon at a place called Vatos Tacos. A friend of mine who had lived in Korea for a year had recommended it to me and I found it had friendly, English speaking staff and good food. My particular meal was the Longhorn burger. From what I’m told, Vatos Tacos sells legit Mexican food, something that can be hard to come by outside of North America, but unfortunately for me I have a strong aversion to most Mexican food, much to the shame of my own heritage. When I finished my meal I found a nearby convenience store and finally got around to acquiring a T Money card. Like the Suica card I had bought in Tokyo, the T Money card can be loaded with funds and then used on the city’s mass transit network, though I found that card readers in Seoul’s metro system couldn’t read the card while it was inside my wallet, so I had to take the card each time to enter and exit a bus or the city’s metro stations. This of course was at most a minor inconvenience, but it was a little disappointing since the card readers in Tokyo were able to read my Suica card from inside my wallet and I had gotten used to just tapping my wallet on them while traveling around Tokyo.
I then took the metro up the area around Seoul Plaza. A concert venue was being set up in the plaza and a few members of an orchestra were practicing and testing their audio equipment. On the other side of the street was Deoksugung Palace, which I ventured into next. The palace used to be a residence for the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty but during the Japanese occupation of Korea much of the palace was lost. Most of what you see today in the palace is a reconstruction based on the palace’s old designs. I found Deoksugung Palace to be kind of small and sparse compared to some other palaces and castles in Korea and Japan, but the entry fee was only 1,000 won (about USD $0.90) and I got some decent photos so it felt like a good value for the money paid. Had I arrived earlier in the afternoon I could have also watched the changing of the guard ceremony that happens daily at the palace.
The sun was now going down and it was getting colder and breezy. I decided to walk from Deoksugung Palace down to Seoul Station to see more of the city rather than just get on the metro at Seoul Plaza. Along the way I passed by Sungnyemun Gate—one of the old gates that used to be part of the wall that surrounded Seoul but now stands in the middle of a major traffic intersection. When I got to Seoul Station I noticed a pedestrian bridge above the busy streets and figured I’d check it out. Up there everything was illuminated with these artsy blue lights and I could look down the long streets of Seoul at the thousands of cars that were passing through the city. It was also up there that I noticed that my pocket wifi’s battery had died on me. My Korean pocket wifi worked as well as the one I had in Japan, but it seemed to have a shorter battery life than the Japanese wifi device, so I took note to be more careful about keeping it charged.
When I got back to the hostel in Itaewon I charged up the pocket wifi device while eating dinner and then went back out again on a spur of the moment decision to visit the Gangnam District. Being on the south side of the Han River (the name Gangnam literally translates to “south of the river”) it took about 30 minutes to get to the Gangnam District from Itaewon and once there I spent my time just walking around among all the city lights. Gangnam, like the other districts on the south side of the river, is a newer part of Seoul and became famous internationally when K-pop artist Psy released the absurdly popular music video Gangnam Style in 2012. I checked recently and the video has about 3.2 billion views on Youtube. While in Gangnam I found the stage where people could do the horse dance made famous by Psy but was disappointed to find that it was closed. I walked around a little more after that but then decided to return to Itaewon because my knees were starting to bother me. Apparently I wasn’t done paying for my little bicycle adventure in Itoshima a few days earlier.
Before going to bed I talked some more with the French girl at the hostel. She told me she about how bad things were getting in France with the migrant crisis and her concerns about how the established political parties continued to fumble the situation and thus were helping fuel the rise of far-right political parties. France was changing, and not for the better in her opinion. A bit after midnight we wrapped things up and sometime around 1:30am I finally got some sleep.
The next morning I spent a few minutes on the roof of the hostel taking in the view before heading out for the day. Unfortunately I would end up losing quite a bit of time to mistakes that morning. My intention was to take a bus to the Namsan Seoul Tower, a tower with an observation deck on the mountain in the middle of Seoul, however Google Maps deceived me and put me on a bus that didn’t quite get me there. As it turns out, Google Maps is not entirely reliable in Korea because the government didn’t give them the full rights to map the country and thus Google Maps can have a hard time plotting routes to places, particularly if you’re driving or on foot. Searching for public transit routes works much of the time, but beware any route that only takes you part way to a location and then shows you walking in a straight line to the destination. Rather than get off the bus and attempt to hike straight up the mountain, I stayed on the bus and got off at Seoul Station. There was a bus line there that actually went to Namsan Seoul Tower but for the life of me I couldn’t find the proper platform for it. With a bit more research on my phone I found that the correct bus route did indeed stop in Itaewon, so I decided to go back there, though not before quickly checking out some sort of peace festa that was going on at Seoul Station. Nearly all the signs at the festa were in Korean so I couldn’t tell much about what was going on. When I got back to Itaewon I found the correct bus stop almost immediately and within a few minutes the bus showed up. Korean bus drivers are fairly aggressive, so it didn’t take long for the bus to reach the tower.
A short walk and elevator ride from the bus roundabout brought me to the tower’s observation deck. Haze was covering much of Seoul south of the river but the northern half of the city was in clear view. I got photos looking each direction, sending some to my friend who had lived in Korea for a year. Though a lot of Seoul is flat, the city also has a number of hills and small mountains scattered throughout it, and there’s a mountain range directly north of the city. Whereas Tokyo is one giant sea of buildings, Seoul is a metropolis with islands of natural terrain rising out of the ground.
After finishing up at Namsan Seoul Tower I caught a bus down to Seoul Station and then transferred to another bus that took me north to Gyeongbukgung Palace. If you only visit one old palace in Seoul this is the one to see. Though the palace was mostly destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the reconstruction work on the palace is still far from complete, what you see today has returned Gyeongbukgung to much of the former glory it had when it was the main residence of the Joseon Dynasty monarchs. While walking the palace grounds you’ll also see people in traditional Korean attire, as doing so gets you free entry into the palace. I got plenty of photos all around the palace and four separate times I had other people asking me to take their photos. The most memorable of those instances was when four Korean girls (actually, I’m not sure about their nationality) in traditional attire asked me to take their photo and it turned into a mini photoshoot session. The whole thing lasted about fifteen minutes and I even posed myself in a few of their shots. I really should have taken a selfie or something with them when it was over. Aside from that unexpected diversion, I spent about two hours exploring Gyeongbukgung Palace. Like at Deoksugung Palace, I again missed the changing of the guard ceremony, but if I’m ever back in Seoul I’ll definitely be revisiting Gyeongbukgung and will make sure I’m there on time.
I exited Gyeongbukgung Palace on the east side when I had finished there and proceeded to walk over to the Bukchon Hanok Village. Once again, Google Maps got it wrong and took me to the Bukchon info center rather than the actual village, but thankfully the info center was only a few minutes from where I was trying to go. While most of Seoul is a modern metropolis, the Bukchon Hanok Village is a small section of the city where you can see what traditional Korean houses (hanok) used to look like in pre-industrial times. The village is on a hill, so be prepared for some hiking if you visit, but it’s a nice atmospheric part of Seoul to explore, though if you want to experience Bukchon Hanok without any crowds you probably need to show up in the early morning. As the sun was getting lower the clouds were moving in and it started getting chilly, which was my signal to start wrapping things up. A few dozen other people were also walking around Bukchon Hanok that evening but with a little patience I got some final photos of the area and then started walking towards the nearest metro station to head back to Itaewon.
For dinner that night I opted to continue my “research” of American fast food while overseas and visited the Itaewon branch of McDonalds. As with McDonalds outlets in Europe and Japan, McDonalds in Korea has automated kiosks where you can place your order and this allows foreigners like me to avoid any language barriers, though I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the staff there spoke English, seeing as how it’s a common second language for children to learn in Korea. For my order I got a bulgogi burger, which has a marinated pork patty instead of beef and is unique to McDonalds in Korea. It was actually quite tasty, though I found the McDonalds waffle fries to be a bit small and crispy for my taste. After leaving McDonalds I got a small dessert on the way to the hostel and didn’t go out again for the rest of the night. I had to be up early the next morning for my DMZ tour, so no nighttime escapades were to be had that day. Unfortunately, even though I got to bed on time I ended up not sleeping all that much because it turns out that the Belgian guy who’s trying to become a model is also a sleep talker.
Despite that problem, I was still able to get up early in the morning and make my way over to the USO office at Camp Kim for my DMZ tour. Earlier this year I publish an extensive retelling of my DMZ tour, which can be read here, so in this post I’ll be giving you a shorter version of what happened. I arrived at the USO office just after the designated meeting time of 7:00am and about ten minutes later my tour group got on our bus and departed for the DMZ. A fifty minute bus ride brought us to Camp Bonifas and then we proceeded to the Joint Security Area (JSA). There we got a brief overview of the history of the Korean War and the JSA before going out to see the area where North and South Korea meet. A concrete slab marks the line between the two countries while six meetinghouses link the two nations. I only saw a single North Korean guard about fifty yards away, but we were told that there were many more North Koreans watching us at that moment. We were given a minute to take photos, though we weren’t allowed to move around, and then we got a few minutes inside one of the meetinghouses. Seeing as how one side of the room is technically on North Korean soil, I was inside North Korea for a brief moment. Once our time was up we were escorted back to our bus and we departed for the next part of the tour.
Soon we arrived at Dorasan Station, the final train station on the rail line that runs between the two Koreas. Even though Dorasan hasn’t seen regular train service in over five years the station is kept clean and tidy as a symbol of hope that one day it will be in use again. Out on the train platforms is a rail car that previously was used during the Cold War to promote peace between East and West Germany and for a few years did the same for North and South Korea. With the trains currently not running through Dorasan it now is a mini peace museum.
After we finished at Dorasan it was time for lunch and the bus took us to a cafeteria where we could either buy lunch or eat anything we had brought ourselves. At first I hesitated to buy lunch, but then I decided to just do it and this was a good call. The cafeteria was all you can eat, so I went all-out and stuffed my face. There would be no need for dinner that night. When our guide told us it was almost time to leave I took my plate over to the kitchen area to be cleaned. I only had a very small amount of food scraps that went in the trash, but as I scraped off my plate it occurred to me that many North Koreans would readily commit murder just for the opportunity to eat out of that trashcan.
Our tour then continued and we went to an observation area where we could look out over North Korea. It was a little tricky to see exactly where the border was, but our guide told us that the North Koreans cut down all the trees on their side of the border—partly to burn for fuel and partly to create an open killzone where they can easily shoot both invaders and people trying to escape North Korea—so where the trees suddenly end is roughly the border line. In the distance we could see North Korea’s third largest city, which had a few tall buildings but we were told that none of them have elevators because North Korea can’t generate enough electricity for them. I got some photos and spent a few minutes staring out at the landscape. Right there, just a short distance away, was the brutal regime on the planet.
The final part of our DMZ tour brought us to the Third Tunnel museum. After the Korean War ended, the North Koreans dug multiple tunnels under the border to create potential new invasion routes and this tunnel was the third to be discovered, hence the name. No photos are allowed inside the tunnel, so I unfortunately have nothing to show you from it. We watched a short video that was pretty close to what I’d call propaganda and then descended down to the tunnel. The North Koreans dug the tunnel quite deep and it took a few minutes of walking down the ramp of an access tunnel to reach it. Once we entered the Third Tunnel we walked all the way to where South Korea sealed the tunnel with concrete. The space inside the tunnel isn’t very tall—which I guess makes sense given that North Koreans tend to be on the shorter side due to malnourishment—and we all had to wear hardhats to avoid bumping our heads. It was quite the hike to get out of the tunnel and all the way up the access ramp to reach the visitor center again.
With the Third Tunnel tour now over it was time to return to Seoul. As the bus steady drew nearer to the city it felt like I was transitioning out of the past and into the present. Officially the Cold War is over, but at the DMZ it was as if we were back in the 1980s with East and West staring each other down. Upon reaching the outskirts of Seoul, however, we were snapped back to the modern day. At about 3:00pm we reached Camp Kim and we all went our separate ways.
As for me, I was pretty tired, but I wanted to keep going and do at least one or two more things that day, so I first took the metro to the Korean National Museum. The museum holds a ton of Korean artifacts and other things from ancient times up through the early 1900s. When I finished at the museum I then took the metro to the Namdaemun flea market. Most of the stalls there were selling clothes and accessories, and a few others had street food. I looked around the market for a while and bought a pair of earrings as a gift for my mother. I also ended up getting interviewed by a man who was conducting a survey for the city government. Hopefully my answers to his questions were useful.
I then returned to Itaewon and as I came up from the metro station I was surprised to find that the neighborhood’s main street had been turned into a large festival while I had been gone that day. Food stalls and booths were all over the place and a DJ was playing music up on a large stage. I walked from one end of the festival to the other to check everything out, but because I was still mostly full from my giant meal at the DMZ I only bought a little bit of ice cream. As I was walking around I also couldn’t help but notice one way that South Korean society differs from American society. There were large banners over different sections of the festival that indicated what part of the world the food there was from, and let me say that some of them, including the America banner, were not what we would call politically correct. Personally they didn’t bother me, however I can only imagine the social media outrage if some of those banners were hung in America. Although I would have liked to stick around the festival a little longer, I was very tired and decided it was best to return to the hostel to clean up and get some rest. I did some social media uploads before going to bed but otherwise the day was over at that point.
On my last day in Seoul I left my backpack at the hostel after eating breakfast and set out for one last activity in the city. The main street of Itaewon was still occupied by all the stalls and booths from the previous night’s festival and it looked like people were gearing up for a second day of festivities. A few of the food stalls were open and serving customers but most were closed. One of the places that were open was a Japanese sushi booth and a chef was giving a demonstration on how he cuts and prepares the fish he uses. At the far west end of the festival area a second stage was being set up. I couldn’t stick around, however, because I was going to church. Up in northern Itaewon is a church called Seoul International Baptist Church (SIBC) that has English services and I arrived there five minutes late but didn’t miss anything because the service had been slightly delayed due to technical issues. The sermon was out of the first chapter of Joshua and from talking to the congregants there I learned that the church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. I unfortunately couldn’t stick around for long after the service ended and went back to the hostel to grab my stuff.
With my backpack again fully loaded I left Itaewon behind and rode the metro to Seoul Station for my train down to Busan. I purchased a ticket for the 2:00pm high-speed KTX train and then went over to the train platform to await departure. Seoul had been quite an introduction to Korea and I knew I’d have to come back at some point in the future, especially because I had missed out on one of the city’s biggest highlights: esports. For the time being, however, I had to keep my head in the here and now and focus on the next leg of the journey. The coastal city of Busan was waiting for me.