Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Neighborhoods in Seoul

We went to a number of different parts of Seoul, but a few neighborhoods stand out.

Insa-Dong is probably the most approachable part of Seoul. It is a peaceful neighborhood full of interesting buildings, restaurants, shops, art galleries, tea houses, souvenir stores, food vendors, interesting public artworks, and more.

It is a place where tourists come to browse, where families bring their children, where couples come on dates, and where grandparents come to be together. When we tired of browsing, we sat happily in a tea house, enjoying light snacks and herbal tea, watching across the street as child after child emerged from a speciality soft-serve ice cream vendor, clutching their treat in hand, beaming from ear to ear.

In many ways, walking around Insa-Dong reminds me of strolling around the inner harbor in Victoria, British Columbia: it's a completely civilized and yet immersive way for a newcomer to get a feel for the city in just a few hours.

The well-known Gangnam neighborhood is an entirely different experience.

We went to Gangnam twice, both times in the late afternoon and evening. Gangnam, of course, was made famous to westerners by the viral music video, but it was on the charts to the rest of the world quite some time before that.

Gangnam is sort of like Sunset Boulevard meets Times Square meets Michigan Avenue, full of restaurants and nightclubs and and office buildings and stores.

Every building is covered in advertising. Seventy foot tall outdoor video screens play k-pop music videos and ads with the latest Korean celebrities.

The area has also become the plastic surgery capital of Asia. Gleaming skyscrapers full of cosmetic surgeons fill the needs of Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and more. We learn that plastic surgery nowadays is less about repairing damage and increasingly more about image alteration just for effect and distinctiveness. Be the only one in your circle with a permanently raised left eyebrow.!

Our first evening in Gangnam was a business entertainment experience, as we were visiting our business partner there. They first took us to a very nice Korean restaurant, where we sat and enjoyed a wonderful barbecue. Unlike several of the other Korean barbecue restaurants we visited, the barbecue grills in the center of each table of this restaurant were heated by actual charcoal! A wiry waiter used a long metal handle to carefully bring white-hot dishes of charcoal out to the table and maneuver them into the grill areas, then later returned to (equally carefully) extract the still molten charcoal and return it back to the kitchen area once we were done.

After dinner, our hosts walked us nearby to a local noraebang, or Korean Karaoke room, where we belted out hits old and new, danced like crazy fools, and generally had a great time.

Karaoke in Korea is nothing like it is in America. It's much more popular, for one thing, and for another it has evolved a set of customs and etiquette that are all part of the fun.

I was particularly good with the tambourine, by the way!

Yet a third sort of Seoul neighborhood can be found in Dongdaemun. Where Insa-Dong is full of art, antiques, and tradition, and Gangnam is all about entertainment, celebrities, and nightlife, Dongdaemun is about shopping.

People come to Dongaemun to get things done: go shopping, run errands, grab some street food, and then move one.

It's fun to visit the touristy areas and the glamourous nightspots, but it's also fascinating to see how the city runs, and the part of the city that keeps it running is Dongdaemun.

So when we got there, we found a nice cafe next to the Dongdaemun Gate, got ourselves a drink, and sat for an hour while we watched all the various people go about their business.

There are many neighborhoods in a city, and many many neighborhoods in Seoul; I was pleased that I got to visit neighborhoods of different sorts.

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