An unforgettable Korean experience

My second day in Korea got off to a great start as it was a balmy 25 degrees in the morning which felt like 75 after the single digits we fared walking around the previous day. It was also the day I learned that breakfast isn’t really a thing in Korea after starting the day with an ox-bone soup. Yun told me that there isn’t a huge variety of meals in Korea, mainly soups or grilling meats and that people, for the most part, eat that same types of things for each meal. You could easily have something for dinner one day and the same thing for breakfast the next. The ox-bone soup was tasty, consisting of a delicious broth that helped warm us up in the morning. Yun told me that this soup used to be a delicacy and would only be eaten on special occasions but now there are plenty of restaurants that serve it. The menu consisted of about four items and they were all some variation of the same base soup so I just went with the flow, ate my soup, and we were on our way.

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Prepared to face the cold

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I wondered how they get books from the top shelf

Today’s agenda consisted of heading to a couple different parts of Seoul that we didn’t get to the day before. We hopped on the subway and by now I was a pro and knew how to get on the correct express trains. Our first stop was a huge underground mall that felt as big as a city. The top floor was on the ground level but everything else was just further and further down. One floor was a normal mall with shops, the next was a giant food court, and below that was a huge convention center fit with a hotel. One of the coolest parts of the mall was that it had a giant bookstore/library in the middle of it. There were shelves probably three stories high filled with books and it was a spectacle to look at. There were also sculptures created with books that almost reached the ceiling. We perused for a while and then decided to head out to the Buddhist temple around the corner.

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The temple was unique because there was an open space outside with a big Buddha statue but behind it were thousands on mini statues of the same shape. Yun explained that these were kind of like gravestones and people would pay to have their statue in this particular temple. I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to get a close-up picture but it was interesting to see thousands of little Buddha statues all lined up perfectly in rows behind the bigger, main statue. The other parts of the temple were similar to the wooden structures we saw at the palace and just like those, they had beautiful and detailed intricate colorful designs across their entire ceilings. A lit one of the offering candles, bowed to the big Buddha, and headed off to our next destination.

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If you look closely you can see the mini-Buddhas in the back

Our next stop was called “Seoul Sky” and it is the tallest building in the city. In the tower is an elevator that takes you to 120 floors up and some 1,500 or so feet. The top gives you panoramic views of the city that really give you a sense of how vast Seoul really is. You see buildings for miles and miles and tall, 50-story buildings looked tiny from this view. Seoul seems like 10 cities in one because you can see many little pockets of huge apartments buildings surrounding by parks that make it look like a mini-city among the other surroundings. The Han River divides the city in two and weaves its way as far as you can see on either end. At the very top floor is a lounge where you can order a $15 beer but the price is worth it because it isn’t crowded and you can sit right up against the edge looking out over the city. We had got our beer and Yun began to talk to our waiter in Korean.ย  What I thought were normally pleasantries turned into a 20-minute conversation and the waiter went and got us two more beers “on the house”. I had no idea what was going on but I learned that the waiter’s son just started as a freshman at Oklahoma University so Yun was giving him advice on how to navigate the US and eventually apply for a green card to stay. These kinds of things only happen when traveling with a local but free beer is appreciated in any country.

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The view from the bottom of Seoul Sky

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At the base of the Seoul Sky tower was another mall so we ate lunch there. I got bibimbap, which was a Korean dish I really wanted to try. I guess you could call it a Korean-style burrito bowl because it is a base of rice with marinated beef, pickled daikon, seaweed, mushrooms, onions, cucumber, sesame seeds, a fried egg, and a spicy sauce. It is a unique combination but I enjoyed it and was glad I got to try it. Next, we went to a famous soft serve ice cream place where their specialty is milk-flavored ice cream. It seemed like an interesting, possibly bland, flavor to me but it ended up being one of the best ice cream cones I ever had! It had a creamier consistency than US soft serve and had a delicious and subtle flavor that is hard to describe. Either way, it was gone within two minutes and I was full and happy.

After Seoul Sky, we went to the opposite side of the city to a place called “Common Ground”. It was a bunch of shipping containers fit together to become a complex of shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. We weaved our way through all the shops, tried on some local clothing and I, of course, stumbled upon a craft beer bar so we had to stop for a few. The beer was great and we came across some hats that said “Chuck” on them which reminded me of home in Charleston, sometimes referred to as Chucktown. Around the corner was a Nike store with a basketball court so I got in a few shots before we headed out. Common Ground was a hip place and you can tell it is the future of Seoul. It is the type of place were kids my age want to hang out and it is a great break from the skyscrapers that surround so much of the city. After this, we went home for a quick nap as we had a big night ahead of us.

That night was one of the most memorable food experiences I have ever had and I’ll never forget it. We took the metro to the other side of town to the famous fish market that has been around since 1927. It was around 6pm and we were hungry so we were hoping to find some dinner. I walked through the front doors and was immediately amazed. It was a Wal-mart sized open space with rows upon rows of fish vendors. All of the seafood was alive – from fish to octopus to scallops to many more things I couldn’t decipher. If it lived in the ocean, it was here. It was an overwhelming experience walking through the hundreds of stalls trying to figure out what to get. You could buy whatever you wanted live right there, take it up to the kitchen to be cooked, or eat it raw. After about a half hour of roaming around in bewilderment at all of the tanks and different sea creatures, we decided we had to make our move. There were so many stalls that seemed to have similar things so it was hard to choose but we finally were able to find a couple places we thought we liked. Our first stop was a fish stall and we pointed to 3 or 4 different types of fish and Yun said “sashimi” or the Korean equivalent. The man simply nodded and began fishing out the fish we selected. He immediately struck them in the head to kill them and put them on a cutting board for his assistant to start slicing fresh. Within a few minutes, we had an entire board of fresh, thinly-sliced sashimi of different varieties.ย  Our next stop was the crab shop as I’ve always thought it would be cool to just buy a giant king or snow crab. We walked up and pointed to a crab we thought looked nice and he simply dropped it in a plastic bag fully alive. It was about $50 but so worth it to literally buy a live crab. He even threw in a couple of giant scallops for free.

Yun wanted me to try a local delicacy so we also bought a live octopus that would be cut up into tiny pieces and eaten raw, while it was definitely still moving. It was a seafood feast like I have never imagined and we took the escalator up to go eat. The “dining area” was nothing more than a little corner of the second floor complete with tiny plastic tables and chairs with plastic table cloths to soak up the juices. There was no room for us so one of the guys had to run downstairs to procure a table and chair for us. Here I was in the middle of a Korean fish market, not another tourist around, holding a plastic bag with a live crab in one hand and a live octopus in the other. It was surreal but I was happy to be there so we sat down and handed off our crab and octopus to be prepared. We got a couple beers and Soju and began enjoying our sashimi. This was the freshest sashimi I have ever had and there was so much of it we couldn’t even eat it all. We cracked open our giant scallops and we were in seafood heaven! A little bit after we started digging into that, the waiter brought out the octopus. It just looked like mush but when you would run your chopsticks through it, it would start to wiggle signaling it was still alive. I am normally always good with any food, even raw, but this was a little much for me. The texture was very weird but it also didn’t taste great. It was something I can say I’ve tried but didn’t need to try again.

A few minutes later the main course came out, our beloved snow crab. They steamed the crab for us, made a soup out of the discarded shells, and made a crab fried rice that they packed into the shell of the crab head. Three dishes out of one glorious crab. We each got four long legs and a claw to eat and it was by far the best crab I have ever had. It was buttery even though we didn’t bit it in butter, it was sweet, succulent and had just the right amount of crab flavor. I have had plenty of crab legs in my day but these were on a different level with it being so fresh. It was such a unique experience to pick out just the right crab and enjoy it just a few minutes later. The soup was a great complement to all the seafood and it was similar to the base broths I had had in other soups. It tasted fine but couldn’t compare to the freshness of the seafood we had enjoyed just before. Lastly, the crab fried rice came out in the crab shell and it was a glorious dish that was different than traditional Chinese fried rice. By that point, we couldn’t each much more and we downed the rest of the Soju to complete our seafood feast.

It was an amazing experience visiting the fish market, picking out exactly what we wanted and getting to enjoy it right then and there. There was nothing fancy about this place and I did not see another tourist the entire time. From people our age out on a Saturday night to big families, this seemed like a meeting place that everyone could enjoy. The food was incredible and as I ate I just thought how crazy it was that I was here in the middle of Seoul eating a crab that was alive ten minutes ago. I was very grateful for the experience and it gave me a great sense of the local culture here in Korea. As you can imagine, we didn’t want to do anything after that meal so we rolled out to the metro, headed home, and ended our second day on an extremely high note!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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