Seoul, itself, translates as the capital and a visitor to the pulsing city immediately recognizes its strengths as the cultural, governmental, financial, commercial, political and artistic centre of the nation. Coming from China what I notice most about Korea, however, is its calmness and orderliness. It’s distinctive Korean-ness. Though the city is wildly populous it is less loud, busy, dirty and crowded. Televisions do not blare everywhere, pedestrians jostle each other less, traffic lights unite and guide traffic rather seamlessly, private things are less public. Despite its sewage problems and general congestion, there is a calm and grandeur to Seoul that feels strikingly successful.
Our first few hours in the city are spent contacting the Incheon airport and Canadian embassies in order to track down Dan’s lost passport. When it seems impossible to force any hand to aid us, we give up and decide to go for lunch. We pass on the urge to eat ironically at Born to Be Chicken and opt for a traditional Korean family cookery that assistant-promoter Seu-gi swears by. She shows us how to grill our pork belly and slice it up and roll it into rice cake sheets with raw garlic, bean sprouts, kimchi, and sam jiang sauce for authentic dock sam.
Full-bellied, she then takes us to Insadong pedestrian street where belljars of dried herbs line the shelves and ginseng is brewed into strong teas. Propellered toy pigs spin dizzily and vintage Astro Boys shoot into the air next to dragon-beard candy artists and nylon sock sellers. Tall brushes and cosmetics and coloured rice paper piles and robot museums and knife galleries and cellphone kiosks competitively flank the market alleyways and side streets and despite its current touristic atmosphere it is easy to imagine what the city once was.
Promoter and instant friend Sean meets us in a shopping courtyard before leading us to his favourite mercantile locales of the city. At Boutique Ssamyaze we encounter Korea’s wildly ambitious fashion culture in plastic bow belts and sailor outfits and coloured headphones and Lego shirts. Just as a veritable typhoon overtakes the city suddenly, Sean guides us into the technicolour underground shopping tunnels of Myeon Dong. Dan buys me miniature glass hot chili peppers and I scrounge through porno titles in search of the newest Korean chase movie. Pillowcases featuring K-pop stars crowd shelf space beside fluorescent combs and studded purses. The labyrinthine arcades seem an endless supply of mostly useless goodies. I want one of everything.
We re-enter the world of wind and rain and thunder and run through the wicked weather as street sellers cover their goods with see-through plastic tarps in order to keep the hustle possible by keeping their wares visible to scurrying passers by. Sean buys us cheap umbrellas and popsicles at Family Mart and Dan and I ogle the myriad of surreal snack foods. Squid pretzels and “Radish Peanuts” and seafood gummies. We want to sample everything just to sate our curious palettes.
The weather relents long enough for Sean to take us through the Japanese nightmarket pedestrian streets where vertical signage is layered on every building boasting multi-storied shopping possibilities. Koreans have actually invented a word for “eye-shopping” that precisely suits our awe-struck strolling through the night. Displays of shoes and handbags, custom suits and cosmetics grab the attention of wealthy young Koreans through costumed models displaying the coveted items in choreographed song and dance numbers. I am sold on a pair of underwear made to look like Levis jeans with underwear poking through the top. I start using “Meta” as new slang for what’s radical in Korea.
Exhausted from Seoul’s chic shopping pace, we deliriously eat Momil guksu buckwheat noodles with a sweet radish sauce from a bunsikjip Noodle shop near our Rainbow Hotel quarters. Our feet are dog-tired, our eyes are wincing. No amount of belly-rubbing can quiet our woes. We do the one merciful and humane thing that one can do: we put ourselves to sleep.