As an undergraduate student at my Belgian university, I took several courses related to the Korean language and Korean history, which in turn made me quite eager to visit the country, given that I’d be living relatively close for the next year and a half. During my first semester studying in Japan, I was fortunate enough to make several good friends from South Korea. One of them had already left Japan by the end of the semester, and two of friends still remaining took the academic break in March as an opportunity to return to Seoul for several weeks, inviting me as well: an excellent way of celebrating the successful completion of my first semester in Japan.
South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea, is an East Asian country east of Japan. Despite being sandwiched in-between China and Japan, the Korean Peninsula historically did well to repel repeated attempts of invasion and form an own distinct culture. With evidence of Korean settlements (confederacies) going back many centuries BC, and after hosting three major kingdoms (Baekje, Silla and Goguryeo) as well as smaller confederacies for seven centuries, the peninsula first reached unification in the 7th century, leading to new peaks in cultural development.
In recent history, Japan’s victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War led to Japanese occupation, with official annexation in 1910; until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. The Korean Peninsula subsequently suffered the effects of the Cold War in an ideological proxy war between the North and the South. Although an armistice has been reached, the conflict remains far from solved.
The topics of Japanese occupation and war crimes remain highly sensitive and are strong political weapons amongst nationalists in both countries. Nevertheless, the steady growth of Republic of Korea’s worldwide soft power (韓流 / 한류, the Hallyu Wave) has warmed the younger Japanese generations to renewed relations with the Republic of Korea. Studying the Korean language is rapidly gaining traction, and many Japanese citizens visit the Republic of Korea for tourism or as exchange students. Likewise, under influence of decades of Japanese soft power (“Cool Japan”), Japan too is an increasingly popular destination for Korean tourists an exchange students.5
When first planning my trip, I intended a fairly active trip covering Seoul, Sokcho and Busan, with a day-trip to Gapyeong. Right before departure however, my friends warned me of a sudden increase in yellow dust (PM2.5) from the Chinese mainland; it would be best to stay indoors as much as possible and make proper use of dust masks. I had never been confronted with air pollution to such an extent before, and on arrival I really was aghast. Without exaggerating at times it was difficult to see the actual color of traffic lights in front of me, and despite sufficient use of masks, I often felt sore in my throat or lungs. Needless to say, I altered my itinerary to reflect these changes and make the best of my time with my friends; centered mostly around Seoul instead, with a brief detour to the north for hiking, and to the DMZ.
I stayed in a hostel in Hongdae, a ridiculously trendy, lively neighborhood centered around the prestigious Hongik art university; in close vicinity to Ehwa Woman’s University and Yonsei University. The growth of k-pop and the idol industry, with many starting idols performing in this region, has made Hongdae famous amongst Koreans and foreign tourists alike. At night, the Hongdae public space transforms into something more suitable for wild nightlife; with many clubs and cheap bars open until early in the morning.
After dropping of my backpack, I met up with Suna, my Korean friend and senpai at my Japanese university, and visited the Songpa district, known for the Olympic Park, the Lotte World department complex and the nightlife district of Sincheon (신천). As far as first impressions go, Seoul felt spacious with careful city-planning centered around accessibility. Due the air quality, the massive Lotte World Tower landmark felt quite ominous however; according to my friends it is often referred to tongue-in-cheek as Sauron’s Tower (사우론의눈).
After we met up with Suna’s childhood friend, we decided to have dinner in Sincheon, with my friends largely in control of the evening. They ordered a bunch of dishes I should try, and although I never actually asked for any alcohol drinks, ordered several pints of beer and a bottle of Korean Soju on top. Apparently it is a common habit to pour Soju into one’s drink, known as Somaek (소맥). What a way to learn new cultural traditions. Like the izakaya culture of drinking and eating at Japanese pubs, it appeared quite common too in South Korea to spent the night hopping around various eateries until early in the morning, which ended up exactly how I spent my first night in South Korea.
Although I’ve enjoyed little sleep, I had a reservation for a tour to the Korean Demilitarized Zone.3 Not a trip one does for sightseeing, a visit to the DMZ and most militarized region in the world is quite confrontational; the trip across the Freedom Road itself, a barren landscape with the occasional military vehicle passing by, a sign for what is to come.
Through the tour our group had the opportunity to walk through The Third Tunnel, one of several tunnels discovered in the ‘70’s and designed by North Korea for an invasion to the south until timely discovery (although North Korea claims the opposite). The proximity of the tunnel to Munsan and Seoul shows the reality of how close both countries were to renewed conflict.
Next, we had a short stop at the Dora Observatory, an observatory on the demilitarized zone and the furthest foreign tourists are allowed to go without entering the Joint Security Area. binoculars offer a view on North Korean’s so-called propaganda village as well as the city of Gaesung, but air pollution levels hindered our view this day.
The final stop was a visit to Dorasan Station, passing the Unification Village. Dorasan Station is the northernmost station of South Korea and will serve as railway connecting the North and South when political relations improve. While the trip conveyed to a certain extent the tragedy of a people, families, being torn apart, I was moved by the message of hope and expectation towards future reunification.
Shortly after noon I met up with Hani, a close friend, classmate and colleague at my Japanese university for a visit around the historical core of the city.
First on the list was Gyeongbokgung, the most famous of five Joseon-era palaces in Seoul and a stellar example of traditional Korean architectural principles and Joseon court life. Of note were both the stories of several young volunteers guiding English-speaking tourists around6 and the many English-language signs around the palace detailing the Japanese assassination of Empress Myeongseong.7
We passed the nearby palaces of Changdeokgung and Changyeonggung, as well as the UNESCO designated Confucianist Jongmyo Shrine, before reaching the beautiful housing area of Bukchon. Still a residential area today, Bukchon is a prime example of traditional Korean houses known as hanok.
We finished our day with a stop as the nearby Insa-dong market street for some shopping and dinner; as well as a brisk walk around the Cheonggyecheon creek flowing through downtown Seoul.
Yellow dust reached peak levels the following day, and thus I was forced to remain indoors for most of the day. The National Museum of Korea was definitely a highlight however, and gave to certain degrees more context to what I had formerly been taught in Korean History and Korean Culture classes. In contrast, I must admit that the actual exhibitions held inside the National War Memorial, specifically the English explanations, were a letdown. That is to say, I felt the narratives the exhibitions were trying to portray lacked nuance and relied heavily on simplified, patriotic good versus evil rhetoric. This of course triggers questions on the actual social function of museums or memorials, let alone one on a war that is technically still on-going. Having just visited the DMZ myself the day beforehand, I experienced strong messages of reconciliation and unification, again exemplified through the statue of two brothers outside of the War Memorial. This contrasted at times with the contradictory narratives of the exhibitions itself.
Anyway. I met up with Hani again in the afternoon, shortly before she would leave to Tokyo again. We spent some time in the massive Lotte complex; which houses one of the largest permanent cinema screens in the world. We were unfortunately not able to fully enjoy said screen to its full potential; having wasted time and money on the abysmal sequel to Del Toro’s Kaiju-homage8 Pacific Rim.
Despite the bad air quality, people were relatively hesitant to wear protective masks. Instead, it was more common to see young people sit outside smoking and drinking all day, without a care in the world. My friend somewhat pessimistically taught me about a popular satirical term on the South Korean Internet: Hell Joseon, a term indicating the reality of South Korea’s current socioeconomic state, with many facing intense pressure to achieve, harsh working conditions and rising unemployment. At this time, a popular meme on Japanese social media portrayed working conditions for millennials in South Korea to be of such drastic levels that one will either end up collapsing of stress (Karōshi 過労死) or end up working in a fried chicken store.4
One of my better Belgian friends, Lieve, planned a two-week trip to Seoul and Japan. After meeting up at the station, we left to Sokcho early in the evening, hoping to spent a day trekking through the famous Seoraksan National Park.
After an initial cable car ride to the Gwongeumseong Fortress; we enjoyed more impressive views hiking to Ulsanbawi Rock (passing the beautiful Sinheungsa Temple on our way), tracing the Cheonbuldong Valley trail and viewing the Daeseung Falls. Evening fell before we fully realized, and the hike back was a bit difficult due the lack of light, and more worryingly, noises serving as stark reminders we were alone in wilderness, surrounded by plenty of wildlife.
Sokcho is a seaside town, so how could we not spent our last hours in Sokcho visiting the local fish market? A tad overwhelming for sure, but after one of the employees saw our clueless foreign faces and helped set us up, I enjoyed by far one of the best fish-based meals I’ve ever had. I was however a bit taken aback by a cute, young Korean couple sitting near us. Reflecting the drinking culture I’ve experienced on my first night in Seoul, the couple must’ve drunken a dozen pints of beer with additional soji shots. A scene which felt rather out of place for a late-morning Wednesday.
We returned early in the afternoon, in time to meet up with Ina, my Japanese language classmate and part of my main friend circle during the first semester. While I brought my Belgian friend (who does not speak Japanese or Korean), she brought one of her friends, who speaks neither Japanese nor English. Nonetheless it was a happy reunion and after a few drinks language barriers were of little importance.
Although it was my last day in South Korea, my Belgian friend would stay a bit longer for sightseeing. We had however, under influence of the Hallyu Wave ourselves, agreed many years ago to one day go clubbing in Seoul together. The perfect occasion to make true on that agreement, I spent my last night in Seoul with my Belgian and Korean friends enjoying Seoul’s nightlife; before heading straight to the airport next day; feeling dead, but satisfied.
While traveling, I’ve made it habit of listening to local radio stations or ask for recommendations on any local music scene, as a form of personal souvenir. One of my Korean friends introduced me to a lot of k-pop idols and due sufficient exposure I’ve to a certain degree started to appreciate some releases. This trip was marked by GAIN’s (가인) Paradise Lost.
Despite the bad timing of my visit (periods between December and March are notorious for declining air quality and a rise in PM2.5; often attributed to mainland China’s relocation of its environmentally worst offending factories west of the Korean Peninsula), I’ve had a wonderful trip. It was a joy staying in Seoul, meeting my friends and experiencing the things I’ve learned about in classrooms in real life for the first time. Furthermore, I fell in love with the Korean kitchen2 and have started cooking various dishes myself afterwards. I definitely look forward to visit again and resume my original itinerary.
Seriously, while known for being rather spicy, the richness of Korean cuisine is amazing. while I definitely enjoy such dishes as Samgyeopsal (삼겹살), Bulgogi (불고기), Gimbap (김밥), Cold Noodles (Mul Naengmyeon 물 냉면), and Gogigui (고기구이), with a side serving of Kimchi (김치) or Buchimgae (부침개), my favorites are by far Dak galbi (닭갈비, quite popular on Japanese social media), Kimchi Jigae (김치찌개), Bibimbap (비빔밥) and Crispy Korean chicken (Yangnyeom tongdak, 양념통닭). For those in the Tokyo neighborhood, I recommend Shinchan (辛ちゃん) for its chicken, Shijan Dakgalbi (市場ダッカルビ) for its Cheese Dak galbi, and Saemaeul Sikdang (セマウル食堂) for Kimchi Jigae. I’ve eaten in those places more than I care to admit. Don’t forget to try the Korean sparkling rice wine makkoli (막걸리)! ↩
Ordering a tour in advance is the only way one can visit the area. I went with VIP Travel and would recommend that one. Due military drills it was not possible to visit the JSA, the Joint Security Area, on the border of South and North Korea. ↩
Loose from an already present Korean diaspora in Japan. ↩
A common way to gain real-life English practice. ↩
A tragic historical event often considered as the start of contemporary anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. Empress Myeongseong’s story has been adapted in a variety of media including an extremely popular 2001 South Korean television series. ↩
A Japanese genre of film featuring large monsters, popularized through the Godzilla series. ↩