This is the second article in a 3-part series. Check out part 1 to understand why this trip happened, and check out part 3 to see the comparison between the two countries.
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Okay, I’m back in Japan. I was in South Korea between 10 and 18 August, so just about a week.
Summary of thoughts? South Korea was absolutely incredible and it’s shot up to one of my favorite countries to visit.
But the story isn’t as simple as that. Soon after we arrived in Busan on the night of August 10th, I was super unimpressed. Even less so on August 11th, after our first full day there.
The only two times we paid for something – a taxi ride and a restaurant – we were short-changed a couple thousand won with a big smile from our taxi driver and waiter. We Googled away to find an excuse for it – to see if it wasn’t a tipping custom (keeping the change?) or something of the sort, but we came up with no results.
It wasn’t a very welcoming feeling upon arrival…Especially when traveling with a comparison to Japan in mind, where that would almost certainly never happen. You might be quick to say that that’s my first mistake – comparing Japan and Korea. And, uh, I guess you’re right. I shouldn’t. But that’s what this post series is about, so compare we shall! Let’s get into it.
I came to Korea with one mission in mind
Everyone I know who had visited before highly recommended going to Korea, but other than “the food is great”, they seemed unable to put their finger on what exactly was so exciting and energizing about the country. After my terrible start, I made it my mission to figure out what was so special. I wanted to “get it”, to experience the things that create such strong advocates for traveling to Korea.
After the first day and night, I literally said, “South Korea is going to have to pull off something big to fix this impression”…And that it did, in abundance. I didn’t think it would be able to do it, but it didn’t take long before the tides started changing, and it all started with a single conversation in a craft beer bar…
Enter Vince, with the travel advice that changed everything
“Yeah, I love Korea”, said Vince, as he took a big swig of beer.
“But this area sucks, I can’t wait to go back to Haeundae. I was just visiting here for the day to check it out, but this part of town is really crap. It’s just run down and dead.”
That’s exactly what I wanted, and needed, to hear. The worst thing I could’ve heard was, “this is the best area I’ve been to”, because that’d keep the bar really low.
I checked out of my hostel first thing the next morning and shot off to Haeundae Beach, and as soon as I exited the train station area, I knew that things were about to start looking up. Restaurants galore, good vibes, wide clean streets, tall buildings and a bustling street food stalls. Woo. I’m sweating just thinking about it.
What ensued were three nights of pure hedonism and self-indulgence.
Kidding. It was a lot of beach time, restaurant hopping, meeting loads of new people, enjoying the night-time beach festivities, and experiencing a lot of contemporary Korean culture. So yeah, lots of self-indulgence.
The area of Busan that we moved to had little in the way of historic culture, but it provided loads of opportunities to meet people. We made a handful of Korean friends who taught us about life as Korean youth, a Korean game or two (such as the Korean frying pan game), a useful amount of local words and phrases, and some food to try (since we were struggling to remember the names of anything that wasn’t bulgogi, kimchi, bibimbap or ‘Korean BBQ’). Oh, and we never got ripped off. That was a nice bonus.
One of my favorite memories of Busan is watching a fish monger clean and prepare a bunch of hagfish on the street. We were watching for about ten minutes before we noticed that the people in the cafe above us were fascinated by our fascination with this fish cleaning process. When we looked up at them, they burst out laughing and just waved at us. Practically the whole cafe. It was hilarious.
What made it even funnier was when the fish monger shouted “Oi!” at us. He had paused his process, and motioned to us to watch him and not the people above him. Unbeknownst to us, he was well-aware that we were observing and wanted us to see all parts of the process. Once he had our attention again, he continued with great showmanship. He expected nothing in return from us – he was simply enjoying sharing his craft with us. It was a beautiful moment.
It was hard to leave, but we had to see what else was out there…Seoul.
We took a late train out of Busan, unsure if we should even leave the region. We hadn’t booked any accommodation for our trip, so we were really flexible with where to go (or not to go) next. Busan was treating us so well and we weren’t sure if we really wanted to leave.
Nonetheless, we decided Seoul is non-negotiable on this trip – if not for our own experiences, but for this article and review of the country – so we headed off to the train station.
For some reason we opted to take a regular city bus from Haeundae Beach to Busan Station, which took us nearly two hours. We could’ve used the metro and it’d have been about an hour. No complaints – we got some much needed sleep in.
Arriving at Busan Station, we learned that booking a train ticket in advance is highly recommended, so there were no free seats for the next 3 hours. We booked a train departing at 21:00 and went to Starbucks to kill some time.
Inside the Starbucks, a young Korean lady confidently approached us and started a conversation, which kept us entertained for a good while. By the end of the conversation, we had made a good friend that we have since kept in touch with. It was quite interesting to reflect on whether that sort of experience would ever happen in Japan, and we concluded…almost certainly not.
Once again on the train, the man I was sitting next to struck up a conversation with me that went far deeper than the usual, “where are you from? Why did you come to (insert city/country name)?” that you so often engage in as a traveler. He told me about the history of sports stadiums in Seoul, what it was like living in Seoul during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the rich history of Incheon and how it’s incorrectly categorized as part of Seoul by many visitors.
It was at this stage that I became very firmly sold on Korea. Read the first paragraph of this section again. Notice how long it is, and it’s just about the commute between two cities. The people of Korea were winning my heart, and the best part is that this was just the tip of the iceberg. What came to follow in Seoul pushed our experiences far deeper than we ever expected or imagined.
And so came Seoul, providing one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had…
I got lost while looking for the Hambok Village, which resulted in me accidentally climbing the nearby mountains and seeing the most phenonenal aerial views of Seoul and walking along the old city wall.
I saw the large-scale demonstrations by Korean people against the Japanese government, based on the recent political strain that the countries are currently experiencing.
I learned about Korea’s folklore, agricultural roots, and pagan history.
I’m not usually a club person, but I went out in Itaewon, a party district, every night. The slopes of Itaewon are dotted full of hip hop clubs (among others), which is exactly my vibe, so I really enjoyed the late nights in the district.
The best part of Itaewon, and arguably the whole trip, was the friends that we made on one of our nights out, Scarlett and Stella. We ended up having pizza for breakfast with them and trying a bunch of new snacks with them at the convenience store.
In just 6 or so hours, we all ended up becoming close friends and Scarlett offered us to dress up in traditional Korean clothing and visit Gyeongbokgun Palace together later that day. We took her up on the offer and it was one of the best days in Korea.
Not only did she dress us up and take us around the palace, but she also took us to a quaint restaurant run by a little old lady to try the more niche Korean food that we hadn’t heard of before.
Later that night, we all went out again together in Hongdae, another district of Seoul – not without eating first. We enjoyed plates of deep fried dumplings, and best of all, naengmyeon noodles. The first time I learned about this dish was when it ended up in front of me. Buckwheat noodles, vegetables and red spice, soaking in a bowl of ice. We were provided with a massive pair of scissors, which are for cutting up the noodles before mixing.
Had locals, Stella and Scarlett, not been with us at the time, we’d have been clueless. After cutting and mixing, we started eating the chilled broth which tasted, in my opinion, quite similar to gazpacho. It was cooling and refreshing.
We were also fortunate enough to meet up with another friend that we made down in Busan, Jeongmin. She lives in Incheon, about a 45-minute ride away from Seoul. After already hearing a bit about Incheon on the train, and learning about it at the National Museum of Korea, we headed over to the neighboring city for one final dinner together with her before flying back to Japan the next day.
She took us out to one of her favorite restaurants for an amazing BBQ, where we ate one of the dishes that the man from the train had actually recommended to me before. I was happy that I had the chance to eat it! Thereafter she took us to a bar, where she taught us how to mix soju and beer. Placing a single metal chopstick into the cup and clanging it hard with the other creates a strong fizz, which is a fun way to blend the drinks together, and creates a nice foam on top.
So what is it that makes Korea such a special place?
Korea won my heart not just because of the varied and tasty foods, or because of the beautiful scenery, or the most enjoyable nightlife I’ve found in Asia so far, but because of the people. The fish monger and those watching us from the cafe above, the friendly girl in Starbucks, the man on the train, and the people we met late at night on the beach.
Because of good people like Scarlett and Stella, and Jeongmin, and the old ladies that took care of us in the many restaurants we visited. The number of strong and genuine connections I made in just one week had me coming back to Japan with a strong desire to return to Korea soon.
I’m back in Japan, and I love it here too. But you’ll definitely find me in Seoul in the near future – and hey, maybe for an extended period of time? Who knows. All I can say is this: you absolutely, must definitely, without a doubt, visit South Korea. And go there with an open mind, but most of all, an open heart. It’ll serve you well.