Here are the photos from Seoul.
Walking from the palace to Cheoung-gye, a stream in the heart of the city:
The second day: Cheangdeok Palace and traditional Korean houses (hanok):
Flexibility being an important part of travel, I had decided to extend my stay at the Ritz by one night so I could enjoy the luxury of a comfy bed before my multi-day train journey. I also didn’t want to deal with figuring out how to catch the airport bus at 6am from a spa when it stopped right outside the hotel. I felt a little guilty on missing out on the great spa adventure, but it turned out to be a good thing as I came down with a cold my last night in Seoul. (I’m trying to remember: there is no guilt on this trip. Nothing is a “have to do”. Why is it so difficult to remember that?)
However, I felt bright and chipper during the day, able to walk around another palace (Changdeokgung), its secret garden, and two neighborhoods nearby (Bukchon, full of traditional Korean houses called hanok that are actually still lived in, and Insadong, a souvenir shopping neighborhood).
Changdeokgung was better preserved than the other palace, and so it and the secret garden behind it have been named UNESCO sites, the garden specifically because of how it stays in balance with nature. I spent 2-3 hours in the complex taking a palace tour and then a garden tour as well, as you can only enter the garden via a tour. I found the palace to be lovelier than Gyeongbokgung, with lots of little nooks with amazing old trees next to curling tile roofs. The garden and its pagodas were lovely, but I suspect they are much lovelier in a few weeks or months with spring, summer, or even fall foliage. I think I was also getting ready for lunch by the end! Armies and tourists march on their stomachs…
I then ventured into Bukchon, where the hanok houses are clustered on a hill (Seoul is a very hilly city). I toured one called Simsimheon, which was a little awkward since I was the only person touring this private vacation home at the time. I got to sip a cup of delightful plum tea (again, very sweet) while overlooking the hanok garden. I also tried some street food: “spicy rice cakes”, which were chewy puffed rice sausages liberally painted with a hot sauce that thankfully was not too hot. I then made my way to a restaurant that I had seen offering bibimbap. I tried snail bibimbap, and I must admit that the snail was not great, though the rest was tasty. The snail basically tasted like chewy.
Next came the quest for a western style toilet. I found a public toilet, but it was Korean style (over which you squat) and I wasn’t feeling adventurous enough for that. The subway station had a mix, and I was fortunate enough to get a western one so I wouldn’t have to wave a Korean girl forward while pantomiming that I was waiting for a western toilet. (How would you even begin to pantomime that? Takes better charades skills than mine, that’s for sure.)
I then walked down to Insadong, where I had more sweet, yummy tea, bought some magnets, and searched fruitlessly for individual postcards to no avail. (All they had were books of postcards containing lots of sites I hadn’t seen and only a couple I had, so I didn’t buy them.) I tried some more street food, a pancake-shaped piece of fried dough filled with honey and sesame seeds. Delicious! Also burning hot.
I headed home relatively early, knowing I had an early morning ahead of me.
I left Tokyo for Narita Airport without any problems. My flight on Korean Airways was uneventful – a meal of fish, Skyfall on their movie selection, the newspaper to make sure that North Korea wasn’t going to do anything war-like while I was so close to the border.
Arriving in Seoul, I tried to figure out which bus to take, as the hotel’s website said bus number 3. Turned out that the 3 was a suffix so that wasn’t very helpful, but I got directed to someone who could and did help and I managed to get onto the bus in short order.
With my hotel points, I had planned to spend two nights at the Ritz Carlton in Gangnam for free and then spend my last night in a Korean spa. The bus dropped me off at the hotel, and once checked in, I was shown to my room by the concierge, who was dressed in traditional Korean dress. This is very different from Japanese clothing to which I had become accustomed, consisting instead of a long bell skirt (almost like a hoop skirt) and a short waisted jacket.
The hotel provided a Korean cell phone for use during my stay – with very reasonable rates for texting in Korea. I had arranged to meet up with a friend’s Korean sister-in-law, so we met at the hotel. She and several of her friends whom I had met that night had gone to school at UW Madison. They took me out to a Japanese restaurant in Gangnam they usually hang out in, and I got to try soju (“Korean whiskey”). Then we went clubbing at a place called Eden. I got to party Gangnam-style! The club was fun, not too different from many American clubs except for the smoking, and my hosts showed me a great time.
I naturally slept in the next day, and awoke dragging a little. Nevertheless, I made the most of my afternoon, heading over to Gyeonbokgung, one of the city’s primary palaces. I caught the end of the changing of the guard ceremony, then joined an English language tour of the palace. It’s an impressive palace, but sadly much of what is there is not original due to it being largely rebuilt and restored. Part of what came alive the most for me in Korea was the history of their interactions with Japan, both the Japanese invasion in the 16th century and their rocky history in the 20th, when Japan occupied Korea for over 30 years.
I left the palace complex to ogle at the Blue House (their White House, blue tiles having historically symbolized the ruler), then circled around to check out the palace museum. I decided first to have some lunch, preferably more Korean in flavor than my breakfast of a bagel and cream cheese. (Seoul has lots of coffee shops with American style pastries, not just in Gangnam.) I ate at the museum restaurant, where the food was based largely on historical dishes. I enjoyed my dumplings in lotus leaves and their sauce, and gamely tried the kimchi. I’m still not a huge fan, I must admit. I had a lovely fruit tea (quince, I think), which turned out to be very sweet. Then I walked through the museum, admiring the clothing and other exhibits that one could enjoy without English language signage.
I then decided to walk to Cheoung-gye, a stream in the middle of the city that essentially was build over prior to the 90s but was uncovered and turned into a city park as part of a revitalization campaign. On my way there, I walked through the giant square outside Gyeongbokgung, passing the US consulate or embassy and stopping by an underground exhibit. There were actually two exhibits: one on the king who created the Korean phonetic alphabet and the other on the navy captain who developed “turtle ships” and defeated the Japanese in a number of 16th or 17th century battles. It was a great exhibit, with lots of hands-on things that made me wish I were enjoying it with a small child.
And then I resurfaced and walked to the stream, which is indeed lovely. Since it’s below street level, yet open to the sky, you’re able to forget that you’re in the city for a while.
Dinner was another budget-conscious convenience store delight, with fresh fruit and rice in seaweed triangles (like in Japan). I thought I’d also try something I’d seen on some menus called banana milk. It was with great trepidation that I tried it, thinking I might have a repeat of the melon drink, but it was actually very good!