My first two days in Korea were filled with adventures around Seoul as we saw historical sites, modern marvels, and sampled the best of Korean food fare. For the third day, Yun and I decided to head west to the city of Incheon and explore a new area a bit. Incheon is the city where the airport is, about an hour west of Seoul and on the coast. It is a big industrial and shipping port and also home to China and Japan town, where we were headed.
For breakfast that morning, we stopped at a local, small 24/7 shop cooking up dumplings, soup, and sushi. While only a few people were in the restaurant there were both some still up from the night before and others about to begin their early work day. An older woman cooked all the food right near the front door and you could smell it a block away through a small ordering window in front. We sat down and Yun ordered a traditional soup but I was a little sick of soup so I decided to get something that looked familiar to me – dumplings and sushi. The dumplings were steamed to perfection and came with a generous ten per order. The sushi looked like any sushi you would have here in the states but the filling was very different. It was filled with pork, pickled vegetables, egg, and wilted spinach. It still tasted good and I couldn’t have been happier with dumplings and sushi for breakfast.
After breakfast, we headed to the metro and our stop was the last stop on the line before the airport, Incheon. It took over an hour to get there but we had gotten up early so we still arrived before most things were open. It was around 9am and on Sunday so it was very dead in the area. It looked like a normal little town until we turned a corner and saw a big hill sloping upwards. At the base of the hill was a traditional red gate that typically signifies the beginning of China-town in most parts of the world. As we walked up the hill, the facades and shops began to look a bit different and although I couldn’t read it, the writing was all in Chinese. We walked around for a bit through the empty streets and finally at the top was a little stand selling sweets. We got a traditional breakfast pastry type thing that was kind of link a donut but filled with bean paste. It was fine but not my favorite thing in the world. We had hoped the town was a little more lively but then again it was Sunday in the middle of winter. We walked around a bit more and popped into all the shops that were open just to take a look around.
After walking around for a while, we stumbled upon a brewery. It wasn’t open but they were doing construction so we took a look inside. Nothing else was open and we really wanted a beer so somehow Yun convinced the bar manager to sell us a pack of 3 bottles of the beer they brewed. It took a while and lots of convincing but we finally had three Korean craft beers and I was happy about that. We climbed up some stairs for a better view of the town and cracked them open one by one over the motionless city. It was like we were the only ones there. It was chilly but the sun was out and the beers were really good so it was a way to salvage our otherwise boring morning.
After the beers, we looked for anything that was open and stumbled upon a coffee shop in an old house. We soon found out the shop used to be a brothel in the past and each room had a different theme. It was three stories high with about ten unique rooms so we explored it a bit as we sipped our Americanos. Once we left the coffee shop, we walked past the dividing line into Japan town. The two “cities” are divided in two by a walkway and stairs. To the left, China town and to the right, Japan town. Even the lanterns that lined the stairs were different on either side. Japan town ended up being a bit more lively and we soon found a market. We walked around the market and soon saw a huge line outside one of the food stands.
The food stand was selling Korean fried chicken and I was excited as it was another Korean food item I had been dying to try. Yun said Korean’s love their fried chicken and have perfected a sweet and spicy glaze that is drizzled over it. The line was 20-30 people long but we found out if you “dined-in” you could get your food quicker. We sat down in the tiny room with 6-7 tables and ordered some Soju and a beer. The chicken finally came and it was a glorious golden brown with a glistening glaze over it. A hot green pepper sat on top of this mountain of chicken to remind you it was a bit spicy. The chicken was incredible! The glaze was addicting and made you want to eat more and more but then the heat would hit you all at once and I had to drink several cups of water before beginning to eat again. It was a messy affair but we quickly devoured the entire mountain of chicken and were very happy indeed. I couldn’t really compare the glaze to anything we have here but I think I’d take this chicken preparation over most I’ve had in the states. After eating lunch, we decided there wasn’t much else to do in this part of town so he hopped back on the metro and headed back east.
We arrived at a different city across the river from Seoul and began to walk around. Again, it wasn’t too busy being a Sunday but we found a couple of bars to have a drink and enjoy the day. I wanted to try a couple more Korean activities so we went to a massage chair parlor where you could rent a massage chair for 30-60 min. We sat down in the chairs, they dimmed the lights, and we closed our eyes. It was super relaxing and these chairs were comfortable and very high-tech. The 30 minutes went by in a flash and we both felt recharged and relaxed. I guess businessmen come to these cafes during their lunch break to relieve some stress in the middle of the workday.
We soon found a spot for dinner and cooked up some Wagyu beef on the Korean BBQ grill. Dinner was great and we ended the might by going to a Makgeolli bar. Makgeolli is a milky, rice wine. It is sweeter than Sake and has an off-white milk color to it. We decided to try it out and intended to try all four of their flavors – winter, spring, summer, and autumn. We soon found out this would be a tough task because you could only order the wine in pitchers and they wouldn’t give you another one until you completed the one in front of you. I tried my best to act like a tourist and get the manager to let us try the others but he wouldn’t budge. We also were required to order food so we got some egg things filled with meat and began to drink the first pitcher. The first pitcher went down just fine as the milky wine was very tasty. Unfortunately, as we began to eat and with the wine having a milky element to it, the second one was exceedingly hard and we couldn’t even finish the entire thing. After eating a bunch and drinking way too much of this wine we both felt a little off and decided to call it a night and go home.
The next day was my fourth and final full day in Korea. Since it was a Monday, Yun had to work so I was on my own for the morning. I quickly realized how much of a luxury it was to have Yun as my guide for the last few days because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself in the morning. I went out to get breakfast and wasn’t in the mood for anything fancy so I found a coffee shop and that was that. I tried to look up a few things on my phone to check out but it was all in Korean and I had no idea if what I was searching for was the right thing. I decided to just walk around and pop into a few spots here and there. I did end up finding a burger shop and happily had lunch there as waited for Yun to get off work.
Yun got off work in the early afternoon and we headed to the final area of Seoul we would visit, Hongdae. It was still early and a Monday so there wasn’t a ton going on but we walked around and took in the tall buildings and popped into a few shops. We continued to walk around and stumbled upon another indoor archery range and decided to try it. We made a bet that the loser would buy dinner and began to fire our arrows at the target. The worker at the range only spoke Korean so Yun had a pretty big advantage as she would talk for what seemed like minutes and Yun’s “translation” to me was basically aim at the target and fire. He took a more technical approach since he was getting tips from the worker and I just had to figure it out myself. The match came down to the last arrow and he ended up winning so dinner was on me. It was a fun thing to do and like many of these Asian trends I would partake in, I wondered if these types of indoor games would ever become popular in the US.
As we were walking around, Yun noticed a famous chef’s name outside a restaurant so we decided this would be where we would have our last dinner. It was another Korean BBQ restaurant which was just fine with me. We ordered some pork and they brought out the usual side dishes and bottles of beer and Soju. I’m not exactly sure what type of cut we got on the pork but it was the best pork I’ve had in my life. We cut it up into smaller pieces and grilled each one and it just had incredible flavor. I wish I paid more attention to what exactly we got but it was one of the most delicious meals we had, even though it was so simple. After dinner, we hopped into a few bars for a beer then took the long metro ride back to our place. Yun had a meeting at the embassy the next day to talk about his US visa so we didn’t stay out too late.
The next morning I woke up and made the long journey to the airport, which was a much easier experience this time, and boarded my flight to Hong Kong. When I arrived in Hong Kong, Yun sent me the good news that his Visa was accepted and he was officially moving back to the US after two years of traveling. It was the perfect ending to my perfect Korea trip and I’m very grateful to have been able to have my first Asian country experience with such a close friend. Korea is an often overlooked destination but I loved every minute of it and would recommend it to anyone traveling to Asia, just maybe go when it’s a bit warmer!