I go to Korea a lot these days. I figure I spend about two to three months a year there and find it the ideal hub to see the rest of Asia. I’ve been going to Korea for over 32 years, off and on, and have been seen the many changes for good and bad during this period. These changes have also changed what I like to do during my visits. In the following paragraphs I will discuss the change I’ve seen over the years and what I now like to do for fun in the modern Korea.
My first trips to Korea were in the 1970’s. You could see the impact of major industrialization and modernization programs; however, you could still see the old Korea as well. A tailor shop I frequented only had a three digit phone number. The expressway system was still in its infancy. Cars, other than taxi’s, were few and far between, and the streets still crowded with cargo bicycles, buses and truck. North of Seoul and elsewhere in the country side, many of the roads were still dirt and you could see some rice paddy’s being plowed by oxen.
Curfews were still in effect. The Seoul subway had only one line. During this period, the seeds of a supercharge economy were just beginning to take hold. Shopping centers in Namdaemun were big then as now. Myoungdong was the hot spot in Seoul and south of the Han River was mostly rice paddies. Korea was very inexpensive back then. Beer was less than a buck. Tailor made suits were cheaper than off the rack in the U.S. Brass and pottery were a steal. Museums were nice, but relatively small compared to the huge national museums in Seoul these days. Still, it was easy to get around by bus and taxi and everywhere you went you could feel the energy.
By the middle 1980’s the subway had quadrupled, private cars in mass began to clog the roadways, curfews were gone and most important, modern western style public restrooms that were hard to find in the 1970’s were everywhere. The switch to chemical fertilizer in the fields also had a big impact not only on agricultural production but on the general atmosphere of the countryside as well. Prior to the 1988 Olympic Games, restaurants and shopping remained great deals. Seoul was moving south of the Han River in a big way.
Korea now is one of the most modern countries in the world and an enjoyable place to visit. Incheon International Airport is modern, efficient, and a short trip to Seoul and its suburbs by either rail or airport bus (I prefer the airport bus). Once I get to where I’m staying, I use the superb, inexpensive, and easy to use mass transit system to get around. However, the preceding paragraphs were a history lesson. In the old days, shopping, restaurants, and bars were what I use to do in Korea. Nowadays, both Korea and I have mellowed with age. The shopping is still good, but the deals are not as great as they use to be. Great restaurants are plentiful but pricey. So now I focus on three main activities that I do to varying degrees during my visits. I still like to eat, see historical sites, and get some exercise. What follows are my favorites.
Korean food is healthful, great tasting, and readily available. It is also cheaper then going to the proliferation of western style restaurants. My two favorites are Kalbi and chicken. Kalbi is Korean barbeque. You go in and get beef or pork and cook it right at the table. You cut it to small squares with scissors. Once done to perfection, you dip it in sauce, wrap it in some lettuce with veggies and stuff it in your mouth. It is really good. The slang term for kalbi is beef and leaf. If you go to the mom and pop places you can get a great meal for a good price.
My second favorite is the chicken hof. They vary from mom and pop store fronts to modern chains. They basically serve draft and bottled beer along with fried chicken and other bar foods. I personally prefer the chain hof such as Beer Ocean or Beer Cabin to name a few; however, have also had good though mixed results with the mom and pop places. The best thing is the beer is cold, the quality good, and a great deal more variety than the limited Crown or OB that was all that was available in the 1970’s.
I always then try to take in some of the historical sites. I’ve been to the royal tombs of the Shilla dynasty down in Kyongju; the tomb of Sejong the Great near Yoju; and numerous mountain top temples throughout the country. Places like these show the thousands of year of history on the Korean peninsula. If your time is limited, the Korean National Museum in the Yongsan section of Seoul shows the history of the Korean people through the millennia.
It is a huge museum that can take days to go through (a far cry from the small national museum that was located on the grounds of Kyongbuk palace in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In addition to the National Museum is the nearby War Memorial Museum. This is a must for anyone interested in military history.
Of course my favorite historical places have always been castles. Seoul does have the old royal palaces of the Chosen Dynasty. In the old days the city was surrounded by a wall. All that remains of the wall are three of the four main gates (North, South, East, and West). Bukdaemun, Namdaemun, Dongdaemun, and Seodaemun.
To highlight two, Namdaemun is being rebuilt after a recent catastrophic fire; however, it is near a major shopping district and Seoul’s main train station. An interesting side trip is Seodaemun. While the gate is gone, a prison used by the Japanese to imprison Korean patriots is there as a museum that pays tribute to the heroism of the Korean people in resisting the Japanese occupation from 1910-1945. It is an interesting historical stop. If you go to the top of Namsan (South Mountain) were Seoul Tower is locate, you can see the old smoke signal tower used in the old days.
If you want to see a large walled city you can go down to Suwon and walk the old walls. This is a great way to see history and get some exercise. My favorite place to see old forts is Kanghwa Island. Here, the Korean government has restored and rebuild the string of forts that guarded the Kanghwa Straits (called the Salee River in the 19th Century) that was the main water avenue of approach to Seoul. These forts were involved in pitch battles against the French (1866); Americans (1871); and Japanese (1876). They are beautifully restored and are situated with great vistas and they are not far from Seoul.
After eating and touring historical sites gets old, sometimes you just want to walk around. There are three places in Seoul I like to go. The first is in Kangnam. This is the part of Seoul south of the Han River. No much was there in the 1970’s. Now it is the newest part of the city. I like going to Dosandaero (one street south of Apkujeongdong). This are has bars, clubs, Korean and western restaurants and upscale shopping. It also has great movie theaters and if a fun place to walk around. The next place is Insadong. This is the cultural street where you can get Korean crafts. It is also near Sejeongro and Kyongbuk Palace. It is near Myongdong that is still hopping but not as much as in the 1970’s.
It is in the center of Seoul. It is a good walking area with lots to see. The last and probably best area is Cheonggyecheon. Here, in the center of Seoul, the government has peeled back and old expressway built during the headlong rush towards modernization and restored and old stream. The stream has walkways, stepping stones to allow people to cross, and is a great place to just walk and relax. I remember walking down the Cheonggyecheon during the Christmas holiday season and remember being greeted by a wonderful holiday light display at the end of the walk. The restoration of Cheonggyecheon is just one example of how Seoul is become a more pedestrian and people friendly city.
I’m off to Korea again in three weeks from New York. It is the perfect place to adjust to Asian time zones and get you thoughts together before going to other locations in Northeast Asia. My plan is to get off the plane, get some chicken and beer and a hof, sleep, get some Kalbi, see some friends, then discover some new sights.
By Mr. William C. Harlow
The military and economic historian who specializes in U.S
history in Asia during the last half of the 19th century.