We landed in Incheon, South Korea the day after Christmas. Still high from the festivities from home, we anticipated winter like children about to receive their presents at Christmas morning. It had become my family’s thing, after all, to chase the cold whenever we can. Just the past year we went on a winter trip to Japan and loved every minute of it. In 2015 I also got to see snow for the first time during my visit to Canada. Those trips confirmed my long-standing belief that I preferred the cold over the tropical heat I grew up with.
So when the first gust of sub-zero wind hit me upon exiting the airport, I giggled with girlish joy. We quickly jumped into the warmth of the train, and off we went into the Incheon countryside. By the time we arrived in Myeongdong, where we stayed for the duration of the trip, it was early evening. The sun – the only outdoor source of heat – had been gone for hours. And the breeze was still a constant. After maybe five steps from the station, while tugging my luggage through the sidewalk, I wanted out. I ached for warmth with every fiber of my being. And that was just the beginning.
In the end, the pull of wonder and new discoveries was too strong to ignore, so after settling down at the hotel, we went off to explore the Myeongdong night market. It was pretty spectacular. The streets and alleyways were teeming with people, taking an evening stroll, window shopping, food tripping, and whathaveyou.
The myriad of street food and snacks was awesome! Corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, breaded chunks of chicken smothered in some sweet-sour sauce, corndogs, spirally chips, normal chips, mochi balls, and So. Much. More! There was so much to see and taste and try. The cold made the throng of bodies more bearable. The Christmas lights hanging from trees added an air of festivity. And of course all the glaring neon signs gave everything an extra boost of life. After stuffing ourselves and eyeballing all the stores that would take our money, we called it a night. Seoul had captured my heart.
We also saw Mass at the Myeongdong Cathedral. It was interesting going to church outside my own country and seeing the differences and similarities in how another culture practiced the traditions and rituals I’m so accustomed to. The only other time I’d been to Mass abroad was in Hong Kong, where the liturgy was in Chinese and I barely understood what was going on.
The cathedral itself was also beautiful too, with its vaguely Gothic architecture. The tall windows behind the altar, the high ceilings, the brick walls, and the dim sconces created such a solemn atmosphere that the mass almost felt intimate despite it being held in such a large space.
On one of the days, we explored the Gyeongbokgung Palace (which I’ll elaborate on in another post) and the nearby Bukchon Hanok Village. The village was a nice surprise, nestled in the midst of urban Seoul and ancient structures. It was a quaint network of small alleys and narrow streets, lined with shops and cafes. Each storefront burst with color and character, a great contrast with its stark surrounds.
Eventually we found our way to the heart of Bukchon Hanok, where traditional Korean stone and wood houses lined the narrow pathways that wound through the village. It vaguely reminded me of Higashiyama, in Kyoto, because of the beautifully preserved houses. But it had its own charm and feel as well. I guess because these were privately-owned and currently-occupied houses, the area in general felt more formal and rigid. Or maybe it was the severe and symmetrical architecture of the buildings themselves. Either way, it was an interesting sight.
My favorite part of exploring Bukchon Hanok was getting to the hilltop where you get a view of modern-day Seoul. I always love seeing balance in cityscapes and I’ve always believed that old and new can coexist without taking away from each other’s beauty. And this was a perfect example of that.
That night we ended up in the Jongno District and strolled along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, reveling in the fountains and Christmas Lights. I even got my 15 minutes of South Korean fame when a man filming…something… videoed me admiring the lanterns. I also had to say “Wow! So beautiful!”. It was the most random thing ever.
It was nice though that South Korea kept their Christmas decor even after Christmas, like we do in the Philippines. It was kind of disappointing visiting Japan on December 25 and watching people take down decorations that very evening. I could see from our wanders around Seoul’s streets that South Koreans valued festivities as much as we (Filipinos) did. And where I assumed that they’d be more like the Japanese because of their geography (their history notwithstanding), they were actually nothing alike. The Japanese were unnervingly polite, proper, and formal; on the streets they were quiet loners, who walked with the same purposeful stride. Everything was spotless and seemingly perfect – the way the Japanese seemed to want everything.
On the other hand, South Korea – or at least Seoul – reminded me more of the Philippines. Teenagers were rambunctious. People didn’t care about pushing or shoving. No one apologized profusely, or at all, upon bumping into you. There was even litter on the streets, like in Manila! That said, despite the cold, people were very warm and inviting (I couldn’t even count the excited shrieks or starry eyes when people learned that I was from the Philippines). They also felt more natural and casual, less inhibited. It was interesting for me to see these similarities, especially after growing up with specific notions about people.
In the end, South Korea was filled with surprises and discoveries for me. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t what I expected. But in terms of my enjoyment, well, there were no surprises there.