Bukchons, Yeouido, Food and Booze

photo: at Tapgol Park

a stone wall with a number of sculpted faces and hands

The day started somewhat poorly: I headed to the nearby Jongmyo Shrine by way of the nearby Tapgol Park to find that the shrine was (not mentioned in the guidebook) by guided tour only, and arriving at 1015 I'd just missed the 1000 English tour - and the next was at 1200 and I wasn't even allowed to go on the Korean tour at 1100. So I headed over to the promising-sounding Arario Museum in Space (they do contemporary art), only to find they're closed on Monday - again, not mentioned in the guidebook, although it turns out almost every museum in the city is closed on Monday. So ... one other site nearby: Changdeokgung Palace. Guess what? Closed Monday. And tour only. <sigh>

So finally I decided on something I couldn't be prevented from seeing: I went on the "Neighbourhood Walk: Bukchon Views" outlined in Lonely Planet. Again - and happily - nearby. A "Bukchon" is a classical Korean house as constructed up until around 1900. My first stop was the "Bukchon Traditional Culture Center" - where I think they somewhat inadvertently dropped a rather important detail about Bukchons: they're high maintenance. They use a lot of wood, and I get the impression the roofs tend to decay: as a homeowner, that's a real PITA and you definitely have to commit to a house like that. But it's certainly nice to walk through a neighbourhood that consists mostly of these classic old-style houses. Many houses (and the map from the Center) all emphasized the fact that this is a residential neighbourhood, and please be quiet. At least one place took it a step further: they had a bloody enormous banner (three metres?) that said (in English, mind - I think the other one said it in Korean too) "No tourists allowed thanks for your cooperation. Our village is suffering from tourists!" It's a conundrum, and one that hit me early in my "career" as a tourist: it's a burden to live in a photogenic neighbourhood. This first struck me when I was visiting Venice: population 100,000, takes in 2,000,000 tourists a year (stats from memory, but I believe they're approximately correct). Living in a fishbowl can't be all that great. And yet the tourism - and the tourists - do wonders for the economy. What can you do?

Classic wood frame buildings, wood beam roof with ceramic tiling, grouted all to hell, paper windows, sliding doors, open courtyards, walls surrounding the property. Raised floors, heating is a stove outside the building with the hot air piped under the flooring of the entire building. From the outside it's those tiled roofs that really stand out, but the gates and doors are lovely too.

My afternoon stop was Yeouido Island, where (as recommended by LP) I rented a bike and took a ride. Tomorrow is officially Buddha's Birthday, apparently a national holiday (I had previously thought it was this past weekend but that appears to have just been the warm-up), and I wonder how much effect that had on what I saw. Yeouido is - to my eye, no statistics checked - the largest island in the Han River in Seoul's borders, and a major park in the middle of the city. A large part of the centre of the island seems to be parking lot: the edges are park. But right now the grounds crews are working hard to clean up the huge dump of flotsam left by the river rise after the recent rains, and the Han isn't smelling lovely. The lawns of the island were a veritable sea of tents: I don't think anyone was planning to stay the night, although I really don't know ... it just looked like this was how you picnic. In fact, on the way back to the metro, I noticed a vendor renting the type of tent I'd seen the most: it was a flat pancake less than a metre in diameter that you gave a twist and sproink! you had a tent. And the local 7-11-alike ("GS25?") was lined up out the door. It's a convenience store - they know how to move people through. But they weren't up to today.

The default rental bike was a standard bent-handlebar single speed bike. I can't do the bent-handlebar variety: half an hour on one of those and my wrists are shot. So I paid a bit more for a "premium" bike with straight handlebar, which actually turned out to be nearly as good as the name was meant to imply. It was in very good shape with smooth shifting gears, very good brakes, and 21 gears on good shifters. I rode all around the island, and some of the bike paths off both ends of the island: it was a pleasure to be riding a bike again (my bike has been out of commission for - I'm embarrassed to say - a couple years). Lots and lots of traffic though, both bike and pedestrian.

In conversation on Slack a short while ago a co-worker asked, quite innocently, "Is the food even better there? Did you get into some bulgogi /bibimbap?" I realized that I'd been failing in my duties as a foodie (I'm not exactly that, but occasionally I try) and promptly attempted to catch up all in one night. This is not recommended. First step: what do I love about Korean food? Bibimbap and fish cake. Check the Makers Hotel book of nearby restaurants: look at that, Todam Todam (their translation, the restaurant itself doesn't translate their name at all) serves Bibimbap.

So I walked the four minutes to the very local Todam Todam, where Bibimbap isn't on the menu (which happily does have some English). But the waitress speaks no English at all - she doesn't understand my order, so she drags the English-speaking chef out of the kitchen. Did I pronounce "Bibimbap" so badly? I got my order, and a bottle of Makgeolli (even at a restaurant that's only ₩3000 for a 750ml ...). I assumed the only protein in the bibimbap would be egg so I didn't think to ask ... I sincerely hope that meat I had was pork. It usually is in Asia, but that's not a guarantee.

photo: Bibimbap at Todam Todam

a bowl of bibimbap with a cup and bottle of makgeolli next to it

For those not familiar: there are a couple things I don't eat. They are beef and palm oil, both related to both environmental and health issues. But when I go on vacation, the embargo is relaxed. I was tempted to say that my policy is "don't ask don't tell," but I do ask. So let's call it "best effort." It's just that in a non-English-speaking country it's inevitable that it'll be ... tricky. So I try, but I also relax the rules a bit and don't worry about it too much.

That said - it was delicious. And I realized a couple things: first, that I've never really had Bibimbap. The only place I've EVER had it (many times!) is the tiny café in the mall next to my library, not exactly a gold standard. I mean, they're a decent cheap lunch - but I haven't gone out in my very Korean home neighbourhood to have Bibimbap, and I really, really should. I hope they can compete with this: it was great. And my second realization was that I really like places like Todam Todam: places where the price is moderate and the emphasis is on the food, not the decor. They had boxes of deliveries stacked by the front door, and I really don't care. Sure, sometimes you can get a better meal by paying a lot more at a fancy place, but I love places like this - finding great food regardless of the surroundings.

My next stop was the Tteok Museum. Transliteration is such a hazard ... I couldn't find it on maps.me, and this turns out to be because they'd labelled it as Ddeok Museum. I got there before official closing time, but no rice cake dessert for me: the door was open, but I was gently sent away.

Back into the alleyways, this time searching for "Brew 3.14" - a local beer bar that seated perhaps 12 people (although their popularity has led them to open an annexe across the street, which seems to be a common practise for popular places if the guidebook is any indication. I didn't see the annexe, just dropped into the original. They have "samplers:" four beers for ₩11000 from their menu of twelve local brews. Decent brews, but honestly nothing earthshaking. Although dropping them on top of a 750ml of makgeolli wasn't my brightest idea - I may have been a little tanked stepping back out.

But it fit the spirit of the night: tomorrow is Buddha's Birthday, a national holiday, and the street I'm staying on has never looked so lively. The street vendors are full to capacity, and pressing every table and chair they have into service. I did some drunk photography - we'll see how that works out. Being drunk does have some advantages: I'm more willing to point the camera directly at someone whereas I'd be more circumspect/polite if sober.

There's some question what, if anything, will be open tomorrow. I'll take it in the spirit intended: if everything is closed, I'll go to the temples where the party is.

video: a stroll through the alleys near the hotel