Seoul

I recently booked a trip to Korea in October, to go back and visit my friend Christabel who lives in Seoul. So I thought I should write up about my first trip back in May. I was surprised at how different it felt, considering how superficially similar it is to Japan, but I think it was mainly due to the language. I kept almost speaking in Japanese, I didn’t understand anything and I was confused by the money, because there’s an extra zero added compared to the yen ($1 = ¥100 = ₩1000). Seoul was different to Tokyo too – the streets seemed wider but it wasn’t as clean.

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There are five palaces in Seoul and I went to Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s mostly a reconstruction, but it was interesting to see what it would have looked like. I didn’t see any interiors but it reminded me more of a temple complex than a palace. The wooden soffits were strikingly painted, and while I’m not sure if they seemed so garish because they were painted relatively recently, I do think that traditionally Koreans like bright colours. Their traditional clothes and accessories tend to be shockingly colourful.

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Flaming azaleas were everywhere during my trip, adding to the colour scheme. Christabel told me of a famous Korean poem by the early-twentieth-century poet Kim So-Wol.

When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
I’ll send you off without a word, no fuss.

Yongbyon’s mount Yaksan’s
azaleas
by the armful I’ll scatter in your path.

With parting steps
on those strewn flowers
treading lightly, go on, leave.

When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
why, I’d rather die than weep one tear.

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A different architectural feature of the metropolis were the tall, thin towers topped with neon-lit crosses, advertising their churches below. They were everywhere, looking quite sinister. Christianity is a significant religious minority in Korea at about 30% of the population. Catholicism was introduced in the early 17th century and, despite persecution, has thrived. I think a great-aunt of mine was a nun in Korea. Protestantism surpassed Catholicism as the main Christian branch after 1945, and in recent decades evangelical churches have proliferated. It’s quite common to be approached by unassuming-looking people who inquire after your religion and then wonder if you would be interested in coming to one of their church’s meetings. It happened to me at the subway station.

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One of the nights we went out in Itaewon, which is like the Temple Bar of Seoul. But whereas Temple Bar is where tourists come to try and find Irish culture, Itaewon is where Seoulites go to find foreign cultures, as there are lots of international restaurants. And it’s the main hotspot for nights out in Seoul.

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