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Seoul searching in s. Korea (Part One)

Its entirely possible that you may not have heard of hallyu, that surge of interest in Korean entertainment thats 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?)
Doing the Joseon Jump. Taking a leap of faith in front of Changdeokgungs Donhwamun gate.
But if youve been living anywhere above ground for the past decade, chances are youd have heard of this wave that has sparked a global fascination for all things Korean. The thing about this preoccupation for South Koreaand that includes not just its celebrities, but the country and culture as wellis that it doesnt matter whether your interest is longstanding or newly-acquired, when youre hooked, youre hooked for life. If youre 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 youre 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

The secret passageway that  the Joseon King  goes through when he visits the Queen.
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 KTOs campaign to open its doors and showcase its culture to the worlda leap of faith from a country once known for its mystery and penchant for privacy.

Attractions, distractions

 Were all hungry for samgyetang (right)
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 dishs 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.
The Seoul searchers, from left: (standing) Michelle de Guzman, Cebu Pacific Air; Belle Bondoc, Philippine Daily Inquirer; Felix Suerte, Philippine Star; Aida delos Reyes, Malaya; Mark Parlade, Stratworks; Viveca Singson, JG Summit Holdings; Gerard Ramos, Business Mirror; Deni Rose Afinidad, Daily Tribune; Tessa Mauricio-Arriola, Manila Times; (seated) Isabel De Leon, Manila Bulletin; Doo Jo Kim, Korean Tourism Organization director for Asia and Middle East; Moonjoon Kim, KTO assistant director for Asia and Middle East; and the author.
If you like palace-hopping, youll find plenty of opportunities in the city. Seoul is home to no less than five grand palaces constructed during the Joseon eraGyeongbokgung, 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 Gyeongbokgungthe 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. Its 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 kings and queens 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 queens 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.

Souk city

Traditional hanboks are a staple at Insadong
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 citys 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 seecolorful, noisy and full of aromatic possibilities. The merchandise is as colorful and varied as it is, erm, debatable in terms of value. But if youre 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). Youll 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 dont 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 palates desire and season them with the restaurants 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

Sweetmeats fit for a wedding can be had for a song at Kwang Jang Market.
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. Hows 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 Airs 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 Manilas official Facebook and Twitter pages. The KTO Manila Office is located at the 26F Tower 2 Enterprise Center, Makati City.  
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