Saturday, April 19, 2014

Markets in Korea

One of the most fascinating parts of my trip to Korea was visiting the various markets.

As I'm (slowly) coming to understand, in Seoul, a market is any place where two streets come together.

Or, as the old joke goes:

Q: When are two sailboats in a race?
A: When they can see each other

At any rate, it seemed as though almost any place we went in Seoul, we were at a market, or maybe it is better to say that the markets are everywhere:

  • On the streets
  • At the bus stops
  • In the subway stations
  • In parks, plazas, parking garages, museums, office buildings

Often, it was hard to tell where the markets began and ended. Our hotel was in a highrise tower, and occupied all the floors beginning with the fifth floor. Below us was a shopping mall ("Times Square"), and you could take the hotel elevator down to the basement and be in the mall. In fact, you could start at one end of the mall (where E-Mart was), walk through the main atrium and mall area, continue through the basement of the hotel, walk through an enormous underground shopping area, continue walking through stores until you found yourself on the subway tracks. And there were even shops right on the subway platform.

The markets in Korea never close. In fact, we heard that the peak time for shopping at some of the more popular malls was at about 1:30 AM on Saturday morning, when people got off work on Friday evening, changed out of their work gear, and headed off to the mall to "shop til you drop." I found myself up and about one Sunday morning at 6:30 AM, and I walked next door from the hotel to see a large produce market with dozens of open-air stands. Even though the temperature was hovering near freezing, the vendors were tending shop, cleaning and preparing produce for display, evaluating the day's goods.

Space is at a premium everywhere in Seoul, and so the markets are packed in every which way. Market stalls tend to look like this:

or this:

Of all the markets we went to, some of them were particularly interesting.

One of the first markets we visited was Yeungdeungpo Traditional Market, one of the great traditional markets of Seoul.

It stretches out for many blocks and is a covered but open air warren of stalls of every sort of vendor. It's interesting to see how the stalls are arranged: a fruit vendor will be next door to a hat seller which is next to a shop with dried herbs, followed by a butcher shop, and then a store selling smartphone cases and headsets. You can find anything in Yeungdeungpo Market, from used power sanders to new rice cookers to bow ties and shoelaces to traditional medicine.

I had read my guidebook and had some idea of what to expect but it was still overwhelming and a few parts just as shocking as the book had warned.

Another absolutely fascinating market (in fact, one of the highlights of my trip) was Noryangjin Fish Market on the banks of the Han River.

Those who know tell me that Tokyo 's fish market is the best on earth, but this was certainly the best fish market I've ever seen.

From the outside it's just a giant concrete warehouse, but when you are inside it is staggering.

You have to understand that each of those overhead lights in the picture above is hanging over an individual seafood store that each look something like this:

There are many types of fish of course (many of which were unfamiliar to me), but also:

  • shellfish
  • urchins
  • rays
  • shrimp
  • octopus
  • cuttlefish
  • cucumbers
  • snails
  • shark
and so much, much more.

And everything could not be more fresh. At one point I watched a man negotiating for the best pufferfish.

When you make your selection you can go upstairs to the restaurant level to have your purchase prepared and served immediately (or take it home if you prefer, in handy clear plastic baggies perfect for carrying on the subway :) ).

I could have stayed for hours but there was so much more to do.

Another market area we visited on our trip was the neighborhood stretching along the newly-restored Cheonggyecheon Stream down to the famous Dongdaemun Market area.

First we visited a strange old electronics market in Cheongyecheon, full of vendors of every sort of electronics gear and componentry, then walked along the restored riverbank to Dongdaemun Gate.

An interesting market in this area is Doota, which occupies the first 10 floors of the Doosan Tower.

Doota is particularly unusual because of how it is arranged. Where most market places in Seoul seem to be arbitrarily arranged, with a vendor selling socks in between one selling plumbing fixtures and another selling toner cartridges, Doota is carefully arranged to give the feeling that it is a single department store, with each floor following the overall pattern:

  • Third floor: handbags, luggage, and shoes
  • Fourth floor: men's wear
  • Fifth floor: jewelry and cosmetics
etc. If you didn't pay close attention, you might think you were in Macy's, or Bloomingdale's, but in fact each individual stall on each floor was a separate and independently operated store, without any walls or doors to divide them.

There are more than a thousand separate stores in Doota alone; the handy guidebook and pamphlet that you pick up at the front entrances outlines it all, and also contains several pages at the back with printed translations of useful shopping phrases:

  • Do you have any other colors?
  • Can you please wrap this for me?
  • Do you have a smaller size?
Each phrase is displayed in English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, perfect for pointing at while you try to make yourself understood to the shopkeeper (including response phrases for the shopkeeper to point at in return with their answer).

One market which we didn't make it to, unfortunately, is the world-famous Gyeongdong Traditional Asian Medicine Market. I was hoping to visit, but we just didn't have time. I'm sure I would have been fascinated, but perhaps it's just as well that I didn't make it here, as this is said to be the most exotic of all the markets in Seoul and it might have been just a bit too much for my companions and I, no matter how prepared I was.

If you ever get a chance to go to Seoul, make sure you set aside some time to visit the markets.

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