If memory serves, the bus ride from Goeje to Seoul took about 6 hours. Upon arrival in the big and bustling city of Seoul, we wandered the streets, referred to our maps and eventually made it to our hotel room down a quiet alley. We stayed in a room on the 2nd or 3rd floor, which was outfitted with a ‘descending life line’ kit for use in case we had to evacuate the room from the window… Definitely the first time I had ever encountered a need for such an item, but I guess in case of emergency (during an earthquake perhaps??) it could come in handy. (?) In any event, we settled in for our first night, making plans for things to see and do in the following days.
Our ‘things to do and see’ list initially included visiting the N. Seoul Tower, the Namdaemun market and the darling and very quaint Bukchon Hanok Village. Of course during our street wanders we came across other points of interest, such as the Sungnyemun Gate, Deoksugung Palace and the Gyeongbokgung Palace.
My sister (a shopping enthusiast) was told about the Namdaemun market by a friend of hers, and well, being a shopaholic, we just had to check it out! Indeed, this market is a shoppers dream come true! Absolutely anything you could ever imagine wanting could be found there. Clothes, jewelry, household items, knick-knacks, food, souvenirs, beauty supplies… the list could go on forever! And it wasn’t just street front shops along the main road of the market, but you could go in to many of them and find your way to a second floor where even more shops existed. Seriously I think one could probably spend days alone just exploring the vast number of stores available in that market. Now granted, there were several repetitious stores where similar or same items were sold, but still, it was impressive how many shops were in such a comparatively small space of the city. We ended up visiting the market a couple of times. Once to just check it out, and the second to get our souvenirs.
From the market, we headed over to the N. Seoul Tower, which offered lovely panoramic views of the city. While views were a bit smoggy from a higher perspective, it was certainly the perfect spot to really get a feel for the expanse of Seoul. It of course was a very touristy spot and seemed to be the main location for lovers or friends to add their love locks. Hundreds of thousands of locks were attached to various places in the park surrounding the tower. We hung around for a couple of hours and enjoyed some beers until night came so we could enjoy the lights of the city.
Bukchon village was our adventure destination for the next day. The brochure for the village describes it as “a village frozen in time for ages” though it is right in the middle of modern Seoul. That description could not be more accurate, as once we stepped foot into the village, it was as if we traveled back in time. The homes were no longer modern and the noise from the city seemed to dissipate immediately. The streets were pristinely clean and immaculately paved. Lush greenery spilled from every wall giving the air a cleaner, crisper scent. It was absolutely darling!
We spent several hours wandering the village streets, but once we left, we came upon a tiny local shop with some artwork (my sister purchased a couple pieces) and teeny tiny, itty bitty cactus plants for sale. Literally, these cactus plants with their pot and all were maybe an inch in height at most! They were so darn adorable, we just had to get some! Very smartly, the amount of soil the plants were in, were within the legal limits for Customs, so they could be taken back to the States without any issues. In the two years since I bought my cactus, it has travelled with me to Japan, lived with me in Hawaii, and now resides with me in New Orleans:) And while it has grown quite a bit, it is still under 2 inches tall, lol!
We visited a couple of Palaces during our stay in Seoul as well. What was particularly notable of each Palace at the entrance, was a little kiosk of sorts that rented out clothing designed after original or traditional Korean fashions. For a price, men and women could rent these traditional clothes to wear while roaming the Palace grounds. And let me tell you, those rental shops were always full with customers! While at first it seemed a bit odd, really it added to the ambience of touring the Palaces as everywhere you looked, people in traditional attire roamed about. And again it gave that feeling of being in Seoul hundreds of years ago.
What was particularly interesting about the way homes within the Palace grounds were built was how they had truly modern accessories. Though built hundreds of years ago, they had features that even nowadays you would only find in very fine and upscale homes. For example, homes were built several feet from the ground on top of rock. The gap under the whole house would be mostly hollow and there would be only one “entrance” to the hollow space in one area of the wall. In the winter, the “entrance” would be filled with wood and would be set on fire. The heat from the fire would travel all through the under side of the house and the smoke from the fire would eventually make its way to a chimney on the opposite side of the house. So essentially, during the winter, residents had the luxury of heated floors!! Pretty darn clever engineering if you ask me.
On our way to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, we came across an unexpected detour. In the pedestrian passage between city traffic, Shoes of Hope had several tents set up. We stopped to check it out and participated in their charity event. They gave us a “passport” where each of the 8 stations had something educational about their program. Once you visited each station you would receive a stamp of completion. To be honest, we really had no idea what most of the stations were about, because well, they were all in Korean, however what was clear was the purpose of their mission. While I don’t recall all the details, essentially Shoes of Hope is a charity program whos mission is to ensure every child has shoes, in every country around the world. Their message was about spreading love, compassion, and making sure every child that needed shoes would have them. Pretty cool! One of the stations we visited allowed us to decorate a pair of shoes that would be donated and to add a message to that child that would receive it:)
One last point of interest that we enjoyed while visiting Seoul was to take in a show. Nanta, a non-verbal comedy/musical, originated in South Korea. It started in 1997, making it the longest-running show in Korean history (thanks Wiki!) and has earned worldwide fame. It was indeed a delight to see! Though no words were spoken, they weren’t needed as the highly entertaining actors, through their animation, were able to convey a joyously funny story of three cooks attempting to finish preps for a wedding party while given the challenge of having a clueless new chef added to their mix. It was a delight to be able to see the show, especially in its country of origin:).