Today started bright and early again with delicious congee – mushroom and oyster (me, left) and crab (Hans) – followed by a surprise breakfast street cake (right)! Hans calls it Korean french toast – it’s a slightly sweet cake bread baked with a small egg on top. It’s delicious, and we can’t wait to have another one tomorrow!
After a short spin through the still very sleepy Namdaemun market, we head south to begin our adventures for the day. Our first stop is Deoksugung (far left), one of five grand palaces from the Joseon dynasty, and one which became a palace in 1593 when all the other palaces in Seoul were destroyed during the Japanese invastion. There are colorfully dressed guards here, with crowds of tourists dressed in hanbok waiting to take pictures (second left), and more haechi carvings which have been designated a symbol of Seoul (second right), as well as crowds of young school children on tour. The throne room also had golden dragons carved in the ceiling, each with five toes (right).
The grounds of the palace have beautiful cherry trees next a fountain (left), and it is a striking contrast to the very modern buildings all around it (right).
Next up, our first of many subway rides today, heading across the Han River to the south. The subways in Seoul are clean and well labelled (in both Korean and English), with scattered art on the stairways (left) and even a few funniculars inside (right)!
We arrive at Yeouido Park and find ourselves on sidewalks lined with cherry blossoms and locals out having lunch and taking photos (left). Everyone here seems to be (recreationally) riding bikes in full professional gear or walking with full windbreaker outfits. The park is beautiful and open, with rolling grassy hills. It sits right on the river, and is ringed with an ecological walk, and the recreational bike trails are separated from the walking path. We even see a couple getting their wedding photos taken next to the bike trail!
Hungry, we head across the stream to the Noryangin Fish Market, now in retrospect the most confusing experience of our trip so far. It turns out that the Noryangin Fish Market recently moved from a rather dilapidated wooden strip of buildings into a massive glass and steel structure that is a cross of convention center and cruise ship (upper left). The grand opening was only on March 21, just 1 week ago, and most of the building is actually still under construction and unoccupied. After finally finding the restaurant section, we were cheerfully and enthusiastically waved into a restaurant and asked to sit down. This was great, until we realized all the staff were looking oddly at us, and no one had a menu. Meanwhile, we are surrounded by many very happy Koreans all eating a wide variety of seafood. Finally, someone who spoke English asked us where our fish was. It turns out that all the restaurants in this fish market are bring-your-own-fish, so we head back downstairs to the market (upper right).
Speaking (or reading) Korean would have been exceedingly helpful at this point, but we are waved over immediately by a very friendly smiling man who repeats “Sashimi! Sashimi!” We love sashimi, so why not? 🙂 He has huge tanks of live fish that he cheerfully offers to take out and kill freshly for us. “No thank you…. how about that delicious (and already dead) salmon sashimi fillet over there!” All in pantomime and pointing of course (bottom left).
A few stalls down from the happy fish guy are women with massive crates of crab, sea urchin, octopus, and numerous varieties of shellfish (bottom right). One starts speaking Mandarin to me, and my first thought is ” Oh thank goodness!”. We buy a kilo of small octopus and a handful of sea urchins, and she sends a Mandarin-Korean speaking young man to take us to the restaurants and translate what we want for lunch. So helpful!! We have our salmon and sea urchin sashimi and our octopus cooked in spicy sauce with vegetables. The octopus came out whole though (each one is about the size of your hand), and we are equipped only with chopsticks and a spoon. We are trying to chop up the cooked octopus with the spoon (no, this does not work), when a Korean woman eating at the restaurant takes pity on us. She pantomines getting scissors from the staff and having them cut the octopus into little pieces. (Oh!!) People are so friendly here. 🙂
Next up, Itaewon! This is the very international, but mostly American, district next to the US military base. Everything is in English here, and they even have gourmet cakeries from New York. The main attraction seems to be a long road full of antique stores where we find some cool art (left), as well as lots of restaurants serving American and European foods. Italian food in particular seems to be a big hit around here. We walk around and end up in the embassy district, where many black Mercedes with tinted windows cruise the hilly 2-lane streets. There is a Samsung Modern Art museum right in the middle of the district (right).
Our last stop of the day is Hongdae, near Hongik University – a leading art and design shool. Although there have been frequent coffee shops around the city (almost one Starbucks per block in the rest of the city), we find that this must be where all the independent coffee shops have been the whole time. Each block has 4-5 small boutique themed coffee shops – Nuclear Coffee! Zoo Coffee! Coffee Lab! – and we stop for an Americano (H) and a mocha (me) at Brown Coffee (ka fe se de ka fe!). This district feels cool, hip, and is crowded with students who all seem happy and relaxed. The main pedestrian road is lined with restaurants serving korean barbeque, jokbal (which I learn from google are pig’s feet), seafood, and local rice dishes. The area is clean, well lit, and well maintained, with lots of random friendly art (below).
We find a basement do-it-yourself bibimbap restaurant where you buy your meal ticket from a vending machine (left, second left). It’s an interesting setup, as you can get an unlimited amount of food for 5000 won, but there is a 2000 won fine for not eating everything you get. There are also several craft beer establishments nearby, and Hans tries a local Mingle wheat beer (right). Full and happy, we head back to Myeong-dong for the night.