This July I added another notch to my world-traveller belt by visiting Seoul, South Korea. Now, I have to admit something: since I’ve come to Japan I’ve pretty much had zero interest in visiting South Korea. One reason is, and this is putting it mildly, there is some bad blood between Japan and Korea, and I’m
ashamed to say I bought into the bias against Koreans. Another reason was the Bubble Sisters–a Korean pop group who were told they weren’t pretty enough and needed a gimmick. Since they couldn’t be pretty, their gimmick was to make themselves look as ugly as possible. They decided to accomplish this by performing in blackface.
But if there’s one thing I find hard to resist, it’s the chance to visit a new country. Plus, flights from Japan to Korea are cheaper than the price of snow in Antarctica. So with four days of vacation spread out before me I decided it was time to grab a friend and head to the land of kimchi and see what was up for myself. And I’m glad I did.
I. Love. Hongdae. It’s just the place for the artsy type like me. The playground of indie entertainers, Hongdae is colorful, musical and fun. The main streets are loud with the sound of traffic and glittering with lights and signs from big commercial stores, but make your way into the side streets and it becomes more intimate. The atmosphere that of a perpetual festival. You can hardly turn a street corner without running into a crowd surrounding a crooner and his guitar, or a breaker and his funky fresh beats. There are also a lot of independent boutiques selling clothes and accessories, and about about 20 shops selling smart phone cases for some reason. And prices are low. I got a pretty swanky case for about $7 CDN. Plus there are vendors selling Korean food on every street corner.
And don’t get me started on the cafes. If you have a sweet tooth, welcome to your heaven. Hongdae is where I had what I’ve dubbed the best French toast of my life. It was fluffy and sugary and had slivered almonds on top. I think the secret ingredient was love. That or MSG. Anyway, the cafes are chic and beautiful. It was so hard to choose just one to stop into, which resulted in me eating about once an hour. Walking along the street it was all, “Oh! Look at that one it’s got big glass windows. No wait let’s go there look at the lamps outside I want to sit on the patio. Woah! That one looks like it was transplanted from Paris!” I wanted to grab a laptop, sit and eat French toast and write for hours. Best of all, there’s always space. One of the downsides of living in Tokyo is that although there are a lot of interesting bars, cafes and restaurants to visit, they’re often crowded or even full. Not so in Hongdae.
Walking back to our hotel one night, my friend and I ran into some young Koreans all dressed up like they had somewhere to go. One girl topped off her perfect blond bob with a black cap with leather studs. Another guy was in skinny jeans and red high-tops. They were the perfect example of Korean fashion. They actually called out to us in English! My friend is a schmoozer, and he asked where they were going. The answer? Ho Bar, a popular bar/club chain. I saw at least 10 of them sprinkled around the city. Long story short we stayed out with them until 3am dancing and doing shots. This branch was about five minutes from our hotel. Hongdae is the place to stay if you want to be in the centre of the club scene. Later on, as we were stumbling home through the deserted streets, who should we encounter but the two most dedicated street performers in Asia, singing and playing guitar into the early hours of the morning. And they were really good! It was like a private street concert.
The first thing I ate in Korea was their famous ginseng chicken. This is a bowl of soup, and sitting in the middle is a whole chicken, stuffed with rice, and there are big pieces of ginseng root in there. The flavour is pretty mild. I liked it because of the sense of accomplishment I got from eating a whole chicken. It was a small chicken, but still. Really makes me feel like I’ve become a success in life, that I’m able to do that.
Speaking of chicken, Korean fried chicken (KFC– that acronym’s up for grabs right?) is just as addictive as everyone said it would be. My friend and I found this place down within one of Hongdae’s side streets that had about twenty different kinds: spicy, saucy, seasoned, honey garlic you name it, I wanted to eat it. But remember, we had been eating all day so we could only manage one order. We got some chicken covered in red sauce number 5. It was a spicy taste sensation. It was so delicious that even though we couldn’t finish it all, and we took it back to the hotel and ate it the next morning, cold, it was still good.
But the highlight for me was Korean BBQ. We ended up going to two different places in one night. The first place was so-so, but the second place was really great. At a Korean BBQ place, first you grill up the meat, and then wrap it up in lettuce like some kind of healthy-alternative fajita, but it’s sooo delicious. At the second place the man who worked there was flirting with me and I got some extra lettuce out of him, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it Bubble Sisters. I’d recommend the beef and pork belly.
Even though I’ve always had some apprehension about visiting Korea, I was pleasantly surprised by Hongdae, a place full of art and fashion, friendly people and fantastic food. I would visit again in a heartbeat.