It’s entirely possible that you may not have heard of hallyu, that surge of interest in Korean entertainment that’s been sweeping the world for the past 15 years or so. (You might have been living under a rock all this time, what do I know?)
But if you’ve been living anywhere above ground for the past decade, chances are you’d have heard of this “wave” that has sparked a global fascination for all things Korean.
The thing about this preoccupation for South Korea—and that includes not just its celebrities, but the country and culture as well—is that it doesn’t matter whether your interest is longstanding or newly-acquired, when you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life.
If you’re like me, who first got hooked on this infectious craze a decade ago, it can take on the quality of a guilty pleasure, like a secret love affair that waxes and wanes but never really fades. Just when you think you’re done with it, something happens to reel you back in.
It could be a drama series, like Playful Kiss or Missing You, or a Kpop band, like 2pm. It could even be that unquenched urge to join the drinkers at random pochang machas (soju tents) on the streets of Seoul that does it. Once infected, the fascination never grows old.
Something old, something new, always ‘sparkling’
In much the same way, visitors to Seoul always find something new (or old, it depends on your perspective really) to pique their interest and entice them to discover (and rediscover) the city.
On a recent trip organized by Cebu Pacific and the Korean Tourism Organization for example, we were surprised to see the transformation of Insadong, from a tranquil neighborhood known for its collection of traditional antique shops and art galleries to a bustling emporium of souvenir shops.
But such changes are par for the course in a country whose catch phrase “Korea Sparkling” embodies the lively energy and dynamic quality of its people and culture. After all, it is the leading purveyor of Asian pop culture.
The trip is part of KTO’s campaign to open its doors and showcase its culture to the world—a leap of faith from a country once known for its mystery and penchant for privacy.
The thing to remember when on a visit to Seoul is that the city holds so many interesting attractions, they sometimes turn into distractions when you have a schedule to follow. Fortunately, Seoul denizens are masters at multitasking and can combine many things into one.
For instance, our visit, which got off to a late start because of a slight diversion to Busan, began with lunch and a promise by our tour guide Eun Hee Choi (whom we fondly call Joey, “the best English-speaking tour guide in Seoul”) to “fill us up with energy.” Lunch, at a restaurant called Hwang Hu turned out to be a sumptuous meal of samgyetang (an energizing broth of rice-filled ginseng chicken) and a lively discussion on the merits of ginseng and the dish’s similarity to arroz caldo. Interestingly enough, we WERE filled with energy after that and felt better able to tackle the long hike through Changdeokgung Palace.
If you like palace-hopping, you’ll find plenty of opportunities in the city. Seoul is home to no less than five grand palaces constructed during the Joseon era—Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, and Gyeonghuigung. But if you think one day is enough to cover all the palaces, you have another think coming. While the palaces are pretty similar in construction and design, the inside stories of each are interesting enough to keep you preoccupied for the better part of the day.
Having covered Gyeongbokgung—the biggest and main palace— in a previous visit, we opted for Changdeokgung Palace this time. Changdeokgung, or East Palace, was built during a period of bloody political strife, and was considered the secondary (and more favored) palace, after Gyeongbokgung. It’s set within a park, and is known for its beautiful gardens. A Unesco World Heritage site, Changdeokgung Palace is cited as an exceptional “example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design.”
The most interesting parts for us, however, are the Huijeongdang and Daejojeon areas, which were the king’s and queen’s quarters, respectively. According to our guide, the king would pass through a “secret” covered walkway to cross to the other side whenever he “visited” the queen’s chambers (read: matrimonial bed) in order to keep their nocturnal activities away from prying eyes.
Interestingly, this passageway was the site of the last cabinet meeting which decided the annexation of the Joseon Kingdom to Japan.
After the visit to Changdeokgung Palace, which I have to say was relatively short and less tiring than I expected, we decided to check out the shopping.
Kwang Jang Market, in nearby Yeji dong, is the city’s oldest covered market. A massive collection of stalls that offer everything from mosquito nets to wedding foodstuff, Kwang Jang market calls to mind one of those Middle Eastern souks that stretch far as the eye can see—colorful, noisy and full of aromatic possibilities. The merchandise is as colorful and varied as it is, erm, debatable in terms of value. But if you’re willing to take the time to sort through them, you might be able to find something you like. T-shirts go from 5,000 to 10,000 won (roughly P140 to P370), while blankets and quilts can go for 25,000 won (less than P1,000).
As earlier mentioned, Insadong, which is closer to our hotel, Center Mark Hotel, is no longer just the treasure trove of antiques, hanboks and traditional artwork it once was. Nowadays, visitors can find kitschy tourist souvenirs like hand carved wooden doorbells (10,000 krw), half-sized wooden fans (8,000 krw), and delicate metal bookmarks (100 krw). You’ll have to be prepared to walk further into the sidestreets, however, to get really good art finds.
Queen Elizabeth reportedly paid the place a visit way back when. I just don’t know if this was in search of a hanbok.
101 flavors and spices
For dinner, the Korean Tourism Organization, represented by Doo Jo Kim, director for Asia and Middle East and Moonjoon Kim, assistant director for Asia and Middle East, treated the group to a “feast fit for a king” at the Hanmiri restaurant. Located in the Gangnam area, Hanmiri, whose name means “one dragon” prides itself on serving “royal court food” that hearken back to the Joseon era.
Its claim to serve a hundred and one flavors is no idle boast. Various edibles from leafy green vegetables to tasty minced meat and various herbs in between are served in small bowls and little trays. Customers can then mix and match, wrap and unwrap these ingredients according to the palate’s desire and season them with the restaurant’s homegrown concoctions.
Think Jewel in the Palace set to modern times and you might be able to wrap your mind around it. At one point, there were so many bowls and plates on the table, our eyes bugged out just looking at the amount of food. It was almost too overwhelming to take in. Almost. Somehow we managed to cope.
A whole lotta hair-flicking going on
After dinner, we walked to nearby Myungbo Art Hall to watch Drumcat, an all-female percussion group (translated: Hot Chicks on Drums), do all manner of hair-flicking and drum thumping while throwing sexy, come-hither glances at the audience. Needless to say, the audience loved it.
One thing beauty mavens can marvel at is that no matter how much sweat dripped down their faces, the makeup stayed intact. How’s that for beauty that lasts, huh?
The performance, though, is probably better told through video (check them out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSkbjqHc-58). Suffice to say, it was hot enough to keep us warm in the middle of 10-degree weather.
(Next week: Animal kingdom meets drama fever in Seoul Searching Part Two)
*The Philippines’ largest carrier, Cebu Pacific Air offers up to 29 weekly flights from Manila and Cebu to Incheon (Seoul) and Pusan, for the lowest year-round fare of PHP3,999. For the latest seat sales and bookings, go to www.cebupacificair.com, call the reservation hotlines (02)7020-888 or (032)230-8888 or follow us on Cebu Pacific Air’s official Facebook and Twitter pages.
**For more information on traveling to Korea, visit the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) website http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/ or like KTO Manila’s official Facebook and Twitter pages. The KTO Manila Office is located at the 26F Tower 2 Enterprise Center, Makati City.