The first stop of the day was Namsan, one of the four "guardian mountains" that surround the old core of Seoul. It's now a huge park, and - as one of the guardian mountains - has a large chunk of the very sturdy old city wall running through it. The wall was part of the city's military defence from 1396 through to 1910 - so much of the wall was still there in the 1980s when the city decided to try for UNESCO World Heritage status for it (they're working on reconstructing some of the missing parts). I had a long walk up the hill - my two choices of path were the "Northern Namsan Circuit" or the "Southern Namsan Circuit." The Northern is more like a traditional hiking trail, but on this weekend day after a couple days of rain, it also looked like the gym post-New Years resolutions: there were a lot of people on that track. The Southern isn't so much a hiking trail as a pedestrian path beside a road. Happily, the road is officially (although not entirely effectively) closed to all vehicles except the circuit buses and bicyclists. It was a fairly nice climb up (in absolutely marvelous weather) with beautiful views over the city. Another reason to take the Southern was that it hits the N Seoul Tower, one of my other destinations for the day. N Seoul Tower isn't of a record-breaking height, but it's perfectly placed on a very high hill almost in the geographic centre of the city: the views are outstanding.
Now normally I don't talk about bathrooms - Japanese toilets being an obvious exception. But I feel I have to mention the men's bathroom up top of N Seoul Tower. There are three free-standing urinals facing the glass - you have one HELL of a view. Most towers provide toilets - you've got to for the hordes of tourists - but the toilets are always in the centre of the tower, in an anonymous, windowless room. I applaud them: just a bizarre and wonderful way to set up a bathroom, and not an experience I'm likely to A) have again, or B) forget. I have pictures (they weren't in use at the time, and I wasn't the only one taking photos!).
photo: a urinal with a view at N Seoul Tower
From there back to Namdaemun market: I felt I needed to see it in full flow. And what a madhouse it is mid-afternoon on Saturday. A lot of fun too. I followed some of its smaller alleyways, and found myself looking into hundreds of minuscule restaurants ... I even thought I was walking into the kitchen, but it turned out that this was still the alleyway, but the restaurants cook in the alleyway ...
I was exhausted and hungry, so I stopped in a coffee place. Sadly they didn't speak English, so I passed on the sandwich because I couldn't find out what was in it. As I've mentioned, standard brewed coffee really doesn't seem to be a thing: I'm getting used to drinking Americanos. On the way out of Namdaemun, I bought a "crab stick," essentially fake crab on a stick wrapped in some concoction that's probably mostly egg and possibly batter and then deep fried. A little bland, but nice enough.
I wanted to be at Jogye-sa in the late afternoon (it's a major Buddhist temple) but I had some time to kill, so I filled it with another place I'd really wanted to see: Ewha Womans University (sic - you can look up the logic of the singular if you're interested). The main building is extraordinary. As Lonely Planet puts it, "walking through here feels like going through the parting of the Red Sea." They're not kidding: the main entrance(s) is in a cleft of stainless steel and glass that cuts six storeys into the earth. It's an absolutely magnificent piece of architecture, the more so because the top of that cleft is landscaped gardens. I took lots of pictures.
Back on the subway and off to Jogye-sa, where paper lanterns hang by the thousands. I admired and took some pictures, then left to find dinner so I could come back when it got darker and the lanterns were lit. After all my time in Buddhist temples (mostly in southeast Asia when I was touring there), I have to admit that Buddhist chanting (atonal and occasionally nasal as it is) has really grown on me: I'm happy to sit around and listen to it these days.
On the way to Jogye-sa I'd found Insa-dong gil, a mostly pedestrianized street that utterly seethes with shoppers and tourists (highest proportion of obvious tourists I've seen in the city so far, beating out even N Seoul Tower). Insa-dong gil has jewelry, pottery, food (desserts, tourist, full meals), tourist tat shops - it's a blast. And because it's a fairly wide street, it spawns its own alleyways - mostly restaurants there, but just like the area around my hotel, the alleys multiply as you try to follow them. It's really great walking those alleys - they never go straight, they're quiet (no way in hell you're getting a car down them, and scooters are rare), there's always a surprise around the corner ...
I had dinner at Koong, recommended by Lonely Planet (just off Insa-dong gil). I've been eating cheap, and on the way into Koong I noticed a sign in the window about "Michelin" and thought "whatever," except it meant it might cost a bit more. And it did, but oh, so worth it (I admit, Michelin was right - and I believe they care about my opinion on the subject). I ordered the seafood and green onion pancake - or so I thought. But in a couple minutes the waitress was back to explain with sign language that I couldn't have that, but would I like the combo - a smaller seafood and green onion pancake with a side of "meat" (pork) dumplings? Looked like a better plan anyway, so sure. The meat dumplings were very good (better than those at Namdaemun yesterday - which sounds like an easy mark given it was essentially street food, but they were surprisingly decent), but the pancake ... Dear lord, it was perfection of the form. There are times when a meal is so good that I can forget everything and just concentrate solely and entirely on the food: that happened tonight.
Back to Jogye-sa, with dusk setting in. Lots and lots of people, a choir singing with lots of seating mostly occupied and many TV cameras trained on the choir singing under the thousands of glowing paper lanterns. The music wasn't really my thing, but the lanterns - many photos were taken. I thought about walking back to the hotel via Cheong-gye-cheon, as I figure it's well lit with paper lanterns as well - but it was a good ways off the fastest path back to the hotel and I was pretty wiped out by a long day, so I'll have to hope I have the time tomorrow - and that the lanterns are still up.
photo: paper lanterns at Jogye-sa for Buddha's Birthday
Tonight's email is brought to you by tonight's alcohol. Last night's alcohol was black raspberry wine - I never did figure out what percentage it was (the labels being written in Korean and all that) but I was pretty tanked by the time I sent that email. Tonight's alcohol is cheap-ass Makgeolli from the 7-11-equivalent across the street: 750ml, 6%, ₩1700. Slightly carbonated, made with rice and milky white in colour, needs to be sloshed (gently) to get the sediment mixed back in. As a kid, I grew up eating the dessert Baak Tong Gou from the Chinese bakeries in Toronto: makgeolli's flavour is surprisingly similar. I'm enjoying it, but like the grapefruit sochu I'm not sure it's something I'll rush to get more of.
Should you not be able to tell, I LIKE this city ...