#035: The Soul of Seoul, South KoreaTak's dispatch released on 22 June 2015

Street Art in Seoul

A frigid wind curls around your jacket and through your shirt, slashing across your skin. There is a Styrofoam bin of hacked up fish parts, the cutting instrument wedged into a block of wood and a red plastic bin peppered with leftover bits of coarse salt. Transporting fish in these temperatures certainly assists in the fight against spoilage—one certain upside of the walk-in freezer called Seoul in late January.

Your preconceptions of Seoul are rather scant but the overnight layover in a new city was an attractive option you couldn’t refuse. When some people hear “Korea” they think of the northern half, stifled under the grips of authoritarianism and the predominantly closed curtain to the outside world. “Are you going to North Korea?” or “How far will you be from North Korea?” they ask, maybe realizing the two sides are still technically at war, with the North Korean border only about 35 miles away (56km).

For those that think of the southern half, you think of Samsung, Hyundai, Korean BBQ and perhaps the 2002 World Cup or 1988 Summer Olympics (random side note: the Winter Olympics are coming to Seoul in 2018). But excluding international brands and sporting events, the true city doesn’t really hold an image in your mind. This is what you are eager to change.

You find yourself standing in the Hongdae area, a small section around a university. At one point it was the place for independent music and art, but like most of these places, it seems to have been somewhat over-run by different interests attracted to the artistic goodwill and economic potential.

The clean streets are in great condition and the pedestrian flow is smooth despite the concentration. The train line and stations that you took to get here were modern and efficient. The internet infrastructure is widespread; the internet speeds quick. Yet even though it is so clean and modern, it has a good feeling to it. This isn’t just a mass of metal and glass staring back at you with an empty heart, Seoul has a soul.

Before you left your guesthouse, which has the layout of a hotel but the feel of a guesthouse, you located the warm, kind-hearted girl who checked you in.

“Is there any street art around Hongdae?” you ask.

“Like street performance?” she counters.

You pull up some photos of the type of street art you seek, large murals painted on walls or creative works making use of shadows. “Like this,” you point.

“No, I do not think we have this here,” she notes. You figure maybe it makes some sense. The city is so clean that such things might be heavily frowned upon. Conversely, how is an area that is so heavily known as having (or having had) an art scene lacking street art? You thank her for her time and walk out into the ice box.

The main pedestrian thoroughfares in Hongdae are bustling with people. It is a pleasant neighborhood to walk; this certainly isn’t Abu Dhabi or Los Angeles. There are numerous small independent shops, one of the really nice surprises. Or, at least, if they are chain stores they aren’t the ones that you find cloning themselves about the world while choking out everything different.

Your eyes sweep quickly over the plethora of illegible Korean characters. You realize how much you take signs and menus for granted when printed in your language. It is hard to tell what is what here. Not only does it often take first-hand observation to determine what shops or restaurants are selling (or if they even are shops or restaurants), but the further adventure in curiosity is to also figure out what else is in the building, as many shops in Seoul are located several floors up (or down). And, because, rents are cheaper on the second or third floor, you often find more interesting stores there.

Street Art in Hongdae

You head off from the more popular thoroughfares and instead slink into the nearby narrow alleys and underused streets. You pass a club with rock music reverberating from its basement. It sounds like a CD until the music abruptly stops and you hear a couple drum hits. You stop to await more, pondering a quick walk downstairs (despite reasoning that the bar is probably closed) but there is no such luck.

And then, after a couple more turns, you find yourself stumbling into the ever elusive piece of street art. Of course, once you find one piece, there is bound to be another, and so the hunt is on. Contrary to what the kind girl at the hotel said, there is indeed street art to be found in Seoul. Maybe it was a translation problem. Maybe she doesn’t notice such things. Whatever it may be, frostbit-feeling face and street art: mission accomplished.

Seoul Street Food

It is time for dinner and you find yourself wandering somewhat aimlessly amongst the hordes of people. You are trying to find a place to eat but it is quite difficult understanding where the good restaurants are and, if successful with finding one, what the restaurant even serves. This is back to that problem with the Korean characters.

The ones that are most accessible appear to be chain restaurants and you are looking for something more authentic. Perhaps the good authentic ones just look like chain restaurants in Seoul, a place where grit and grime maybe aren’t so celebrated or accepted.

You come across a street cart. These are the most accessible option because you know what they are selling and you can point to what you want. You also like that most of these are independent operations. But it is so cold outside, and you are so under-dressed, having come from much warmer climes, that easy and convenient is over-ruled.

Korean Hotpot/BBQ

You peer in the window. Everyone seems to be having a great time. Smiles are seated at every table. It appears to be some sort of Korean BBQ. Is it possible to do this without a large crowd? Is it expensive? How does one go about this? What and how do you order? Is there a long wait? Is it closing soon?

You gingerly step in, trying to gather more information without being seen. You find the menu, or at least what you think is a menu, but it’s a bunch of lines and boxes—Korean characters.

The waitstaff notices you and scurries over to assist. You ask a couple questions, you get very few if any answers and then ask to be seated. You are constantly surveying your surroundings. Everyone is so interested in their friends and food that they don’t even notice you staring extra long at their procedure, their foods and their technique.

With limited English, some pointing and some trust, you place the order. Who doesn’t like Samgyeopsal? Huh? Exactly.

Samgyeopsal Pork Belly Seoul

The Samgyeopsal turns out to be marinated pork belly served individually in a serving dish. It comes raw, alongside garlic, mushrooms, kimchi and, amongst other things, a wide assortment of greens. The grill at the table is turned on, and you mirror the people around you as you start to cook the food. It appears you have also ordered a hot pot soup with seafood, which you also begin to cook.

The difficulty rating turns favourably, slowly but surely, as you get the hang of things. You take a leaf of the greens, put a piece of pork belly on top, put some bean paste on, a vegetable or two, and roll it up and eat it. It is a great meal and an even better experience. Sometimes seeking simplicity is a dangerous thing and you are glad the cold steered you into this adventure.

You exit the taxi, saying goodbye to the congenial driver and head up the walkway. The space is lit in warm gold. A festive private party is in progress and you join the fringes of it, making introductions with the more extroverted, or English-savvy, of the bunch.

“Korean woman are the best in the world,” an older gentleman states between sips of an aged whiskey. “They actually truly love you, it is real,” he adds. The conversation winds through various topics, including how the daughter of one of Korea’s richest man is sitting in the corner, until finally ending a suggestion that you visit the nightclubs around Seoul’s Gangnam district. You thank him and wish him well.

The partygoers have all exited and you are sitting in the now empty restaurant with the affable chef and the cook, a gregarious, fun-loving Korean in his twenties. Your friend used to work with the cook, and what better to do than meet up with a local on an overnight whirlwind tour.

Music streamed from a constantly rotating playlist from YouTube flows from the speakers injecting energy. The chef pulls out a hunk of meat from the refrigerator, quickly prepares it with salt and pepper and places it into a hot pan, a delectable and generous after-hours snack.

“What do you want to do,” the cook asks. “We can go party in Gangnam or go to the major fish market which should be getting busier soon.” Unfortunately, it is later realized that it is a Sunday morning meaning the lively fish actions that take place at 3AM will not be happening. Despite this, you are much keener to check out the wholesale fish market with a local cook.

Seoul Noryangjin Fish Market Overhead Seoul Noryangjin Fish Market BW Skate at Noryangjin Fish Market

The cold January winds are lessened by the industrial walls of the Noryangjin Wholesale Market for which you are thankful, but the cold air is certainly more clammy, a side effect of walking through and past puddles and containers of water, respectively. Scents of sea water follow you as you walk. Tanks of monstrous crabs, shellfish, giant shrimp, skate, octopus and docile flounder are amongst the over 800 options offered, and this is just 1 of the 365 days of each year that the market is open.

A prospective buyer inspects various olive flounder. The buyer inspects the options and settles on one. The seller pulls the prospective fish out, weighs it and lays it on the floor. The flounder twitches and flaps about as the negotiation continues five-feet above it. It seems the two men are in agreement.

At lightning speed, the seller spears the fish in the head with a large metal hook killing it instantly. The fish is lifted and placed on the table. He picks up his beloved knife and skillfully cuts the meat from the bone. Another cut is made to detach the skin. No sign of any meat is left on either skin or bone and it is completed in record time, two beautiful fillets and all of the rest of the fish ready for the kitchen.

If you had wanted to buy some fish and have it cooked for you by one of the on-site restaurants, you could have, but the sun is rising and the temperatures have chilled you to the bone. (Thoughts of eating baby octopus live as they use their suction cups on your mouth and throat don’t compel you to override this decision either). You thank the cook for the experience and part ways. A quick sleep at the guesthouse, followed by the efficient train ride to the airport completes your 20-hour whirlwind stint in Seoul, an under-rated gem in Asia.

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New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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