It was sometime in late April when Jack and I ended our after hours yakatori binge in Japan.
We were now in South Korea.
Taking off from the Tokyo Narita Airport, we flew two hours north to Seoul.
Here’s a quick guide to what we did and saw while in the country:
This is booming mega-city with a rough population of about ten million inhabitants. There are twenty five gu (districts) and twenty seven bridges to connect the north its south-side across the Han River. Seoul is the capital of South Korea and can satiate any kind of traveler.
Thanks to our good friend Jae, we knew where to stay. He’s been living in Seoul for a few years and was an oracle of knowledge. He thought that we’d enjoy either the Itaewon or Hongdae district. In the end, we booked an Airbnb for a handful of nights first in Hongdae then we moved over to Itaewon in order to compare.
Both are booming with bars, restaurants, cafes, and nightlife. Herds of people congregate on the street and at all hours there’s a hive of activity. Hongdae is a university district, so the crowds are strikingly younger and consist primarily of students. Itaewon is perhaps the least Korean neighborhood in the city, as its a hub for expats.
If there’s anything we learned from our time in South Korea, it’s that soju, kimchi, fried chicken, and grilled meat are all delicious. Fried chicken is a national dish and in Seoul hofs (fried chicken joints) can be found on most street corners. The portions are typically generous and the best way to pair a tender chicken thigh is with a chilled glass of cheap Korean beer. We fell for a hole in the wall hof called Eongteoili in Itaweon (thanks Jae).
Near Sinchon we became the token Westerners at a barbecue restaurant called Yeonnam Seo Seo Galbi. With our own personal grill, we stood and poured soju (a typical Korean liquor) into our beer glasses. This is a technique to make soju taste better that we picked up from a night out with Jae and his friends. A waitress greeted us by placing glorious portions of beef short ribs over the table’s flame. Scissors were used to separate the meat into smaller pieces and we used chopsticks to eat. Side dishes included green peppers, chili paste, and a savory garlic dipping sauce. The ceiling was charcoal black and each window was open as smoke was bellowing from each table’s grill.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Seoul. The changing of the guard at the Gyeongbokgung Palace is an essential pitstop. Ordering a steaming bowl of dumpling soup at neighboring Gwangjang Market is also a recommendable experience. The gardens of Deoksugung Palace are great for thinking and the Retro Game Bar is a fun escape from the boisterous streets in Hongdae. In Itaewon, Jack’s Bar offers free arcade games and Casa Corona is a cool rooftop bar with Dj’s spinning until the late. Walking along the Han River was also nice source of fresh air.
Back in February, Jack and I were given advice from some Koreans we met on a bus:
Go to Busan.
Three months and a three-hour train ride from Seoul later, there we were.
This is a major port city (the fifth largest port in the world) that is a juxtaposition between a town with chill beach vibes and a pulsating business mecca with towering skyscrapers. Busan is considered the summer city of South Korea thanks to its vast coastline, numerous boardwalks, national parks and beaches.
We stayed near Gwangalli Beach. This consists of an expanding cove and an esplanade that divides the beach from an expanding row of bars, hotels, and restaurants. Not too far off in the distance is the Diamond Bridge (Gwangandaegyo), the second longest in South Korea.
Our first meal in Busan was at Sisters Gukbap. This is a family-operated joint and the entry was probably once someone’s living room. We were served a simple yet memorable dish: Pork rice soup. Unique to Busan, Dwaeji Gukbap is hearty and delicious. The chef was an exuberant lady who made heart gestures when she discovered that we were from California.
We arrived on a Monday, coincidentally at the end of a three-day weekend for Koreans. The previous day was a public holiday called Children’s Day. Taking this into consideration, we weren’t shocked to see an abundance of businesses with hardly a soul inside.
We did, however, enjoy some beach time and trip to the Gamcheon Culture Village. Touted as the “Santorini of Korea”, Gamcheon is a colorful enclave of neighborhoods that sprawl upward along a mountain. Murals, beautiful views, and a puzzle of narrow streets make this an interesting visit.
Spa Land, located in the Haeundae district, a massive jjimjilbang (Korean spa). Here one can enjoy various steam rooms, saunas, an outdoor rock pool, hot springs, and even a body scrub session. The variety of options combined with its affordability (about $11) made Spa Land an essential visit while in Busan.
Good Night and Good Luck
We landed in Korea knowing that it would probably be our final chapter in Asia.
By the time we reached Busan, we already had a return ticket to San Francisco booked.
An “end” didn’t feel real until one morning at the beach, when I suddenly felt really far away from everything I knew.
I was looking at the tide, thinking that this was as far East that we were meant to go.
Somewhere across the ocean was a different life that we’d put on pause for four months. In that life were people we loved, food we were craving, and future books that we needed to start brainstorming.
Maybe I would have cried but the wind was pretty strong.
Days later, we were on a plane from Seoul and the trip was officially over.
It was one heck of a journey.
From the Buddha shrine expeditions of Bagan to the free kimchi samples in Seoul, Asia’s alright.
It took Jack and I ten years to make this adventure happen and to write this story. Thankfully, the principal characters all made it out alive and more importantly remained good friends. From Europe in 2009 to Asia in 2019, its been a great anthology of experiences.
This trip is finished, but its wonderful memories will remain with me until I become senile (in about fifteen years from now). 😉
I’m deeply thankful that we made this dream happen, and even more so to have an incredible friend. Through thick and thin, thanks for being my friend, Jack.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Thank you, whoever you are who’s reading this, for your time.
Traveling is more fun when you can share with others. I appreciate you!
Also, this blog is meant to continue. Its focus might shift, but more content will arrive soon.
If there’s anything you want to know about our trip and get ideas for places to visit, you can always reach out.
Have a wonderful day and remember that we only live once, so make it count 🙂