Monday, February 22, 2021

A Weekend Getaway to Busan

When I heard the COVID-19 case count improved in Korea and domestic travel was an option again, I immediately started looking at places we could safely stay for a weekend in country. Busan was already high on my travel list, but I was sold on the great weather expected for the weekend and the opportunity to do so many things outside. Plus, we picked a weekend in between two longer Korean holiday weekends when other people would be less likely to travel. We asked our friends (also N and M!) to join us, and we were off on our way.

We took the bullet train (known as the KTX) down, and it was great. South Korea has a nationwide mask mandate, social distancing was enforced, and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. We decided to stay at a hotel instead of an Airbnb because we had enough Marriott points to stay at the Westin Josun at no charge and because we were impressed with Marriott's pandemic precautions.

On Friday night, we arrived in Busan and checked into a room with a gorgeous oceanfront view so close we could hear the sound of the gently crashing waves. It was perfect. We did a little exploring that first night, walking along Haeundae Beach and discovering a delightful restaurant/lounge/bar called Cheongdam President's House (청담회장님댁). It had a fantastic ambiance and even better desserts. We had already eaten a fast food meal, so we decided to splurge on a brownie (one of the best if not the best I've ever had) and some croffles (croissant waffles, a staple of Korean street cuisine). My mouth is watering just remembering those desserts!

After that, we walked back along Haeundae Beach and a night market and then turned in and rested up for our jam-packed Saturday.

The next morning our first stop was a cafe called Waveon Coffee for breakfast. We were there right when it opened, and we got to enjoy an excellent breakfast sitting on bean bag chairs outside overlooking the ocean. It was so healing. It was a little chilly given how early it was, but the cafe even had fresh blankets for us to use.

The ample outdoor seating, aesthetically pleasing blue and white decor, and oceanfront vistas made Waveon a standout to me even before I bit into the light, airy strawberry cake slice I ordered. I also loved the little dirt and moss finishing touches on Marwan's hazelnut chocolate mousse, complete with a little meringue mushroom!

With that strong start in our souls and bellies, we made our way to Gamcheon Cultural Village, historical slums that were repainted in a rainbow of colors and revitalized with public art spaces to become a major tourist attraction. We walked around and took in the ample street art and treated ourselves to a Korean street food snack: a block of ice cream surrounded by what I think is Oreo surrounded by a layer of marshmallow that the vendor toasts before your eyes with a handheld flame. It is hard to describe how amazing the texture of this dessert is, but I'll try. The outside is perfectly caramelized and crunchy, with a perfectly thin layer of gooey marshmallow as you bite down into the firm and flavorful ice cream. (Can you tell I was a big fan?)

By that time we were so ravenous we sat down to a hearty meal of Korean barbecued pork. I was so hungry I didn't even take a photo. M was a champ and cooked all our meat, veggies, and garlic for us on our table grill. He's such a great multitasker that he made it look easy. Even though we were stuffed, I was determined to try live octopus (산낙지) and insisted we go find some. The perfect place was Jagalchi Market, the largest fish market in South Korea. I picked out my octopus and the vendor killed it right in front of us, chopped it up, and seasoned it with sesame oil. It's not really alive, but it's so fresh the tentacles are still writhing as you eat them. I read articles that some people have choked on the still-functioning suction cups and died, so you can bet I chewed furiously to make sure that wouldn't be me! It was pretty tasty, with a classic chewy octopus texture and a strong sesame oil flavor.

After that, we made our way to our final stop of the day: the Songdo Cable Car, also marketed as the Busan Air Cruise. We got to look down on beautiful views of the coast from the cable car, and they sanitized every car between passengers with impressive efficiency. On the other side of the cable car line, there was a really cute park with animatronic dinosaurs and other quirky attractions for families.

The next day, we made our way out to Haedong Yonggungsa, a Buddhist Temple some call the most beautiful temple in Korea. The architecture and location overlooking the ocean were stunning, and I was impressed at the sheer number of pagodas and devotional areas for specific categories. After walking our way around the grounds, we grabbed some famous Busan street food: ssiat hotteok (씨앗호떡), a pancake filled with a sugary seed mixture. It was an indulgent comfort food.

The last place on our list was Oryukdo Skywalk. The skywalk itself, a walkway over the ocean with a glass bottom, was closed. But the area around it was beautiful and we still enjoyed a mini-hike up the hill for some picturesque views (including the first photo of this post). Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hotel, grab our bags, and head for the train station.

We did have a brief moment of utter panic on the way to the train station. M looked up the train times on some semi-official website that showed there were no more trains back to Seoul for 7 hours. That website information put us arriving back home around 2am, meaning only a few hours of stressful sleep before I had to leave for work the next day! Thankfully, it turned out to be just a glicth on that site and everything was fine. It was a ridiculous way to end our whirlwind weekend, though.

I am so thankful we could take a few days to get away and experience some rejuvenation through sun, sand, sea, food, and friendship. It's just the boost I needed, and I hope we can come back to Busan when the pandemic is over and see even more.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Visiting Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong

We finally got out of the house again and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon walk through Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong in Seoul. Both are usually popular sites for locals and tourists, but given the pandemic and the winter chill the usual crowds were absent. We still found the neighborhoods a delightful place to walk and soak up some Korean culture even if we couldn't go inside and eat at restaurants or shop.

Bukchon is famous for its traditional Korean houses, called hanok (한옥). These houses were first designed and built in the 14th century (!) during the Joseon Dynasty. Nowadays many Americans are familiar with feng shui, the Chinese geomantic tradition that emphasized the proper position and alignment of one's environment and possessions in harmony with the natural world. Korea also has a rich geomantic tradition called pungsu-jiri (풍수지리), which compared to feng shui places greater emphasis on a macro-level (e.g., the position and alignment of one's house relative to the rest of the village and nature) as opposed to interior design. Some hanok houses today are still maintained in a very traditional style, while others fuse historical and modern features. You can see a range of architectural expression in Bukchon - just check out the fanciest Baskin Robbins I've ever seen, for example!

Although we couldn't poke our heads inside the buildings, as some are shops we're not currently allowed to visit due to COVID-19 and others are still people's homes, we were lucky enough to come across one hanok with an open courtyard for visitors. That hanok used to belong to modern Korean painter Bae Ryeom (배렴). That hanok was built in 1936, and the artist lived there from 1959 until his death in 1968. It was also the meeting place of the Korean Folklore Society.

Today, that space is used as a special venue for art and culture events. Its buildings and courtyard are shaped in accordance with specific letters in the Korean alphabet. We enjoyed getting a peek at what the hanok looked like inside, including the studio where Bae Ryeom created his art.

I was impressed with how much art we saw walking around in general, from stores to street art. The mural of the elderly couple pictured below has a unique story. Originally completed in 2013 by artist Won Yeong-seon, the mural deteriorated over time. Residents loved the art so much that the local government of Jongno-gu partnered with the painter to restore it. Mayor Kim Yeong-jong commemorated the restoration with the following sweet words: "I wish your life to glow every moment with the youthfulness like the beautiful smile of the elderly couple in the mural." Isn't that lovely?

After walking around Bukchon Hanok Village, we made our way to the hip neighborhood of Insadong. There were so many couples going out for strolls like us that afternoon, so we were grateful for the nationwide masking and social distancing mandate. We saw some really neat things there, including the first picture of this post: a station where you could receive 2021 predictions based on your Zodiac sign. You can provide the local equivalent of about one dollar in a machine, get a special traditional-style coin, use it to receive one of the red balls with your fortune, break the tiny ball open with a provided hammer, and then read your fate. I've never seen anything like it! Overall, there was something about the vibe of Insadong that strongly reminded me of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville where I spent many days while studying at the University of Virginia. For those who have been there: would you agree, looking at the photo below?

All that walking made us terribly hungry, so thank goodness we were able to find some street food. We ordered tteokbokki (떡볶이, rice cakes in a spicy sauce), assorted fried foods, and jumeokbap (주먹밥, Korean rice balls similar to Japanese onigiri). Our order came with free sprays (yes, like in a spray bottle) of soy sauce and a cup each of fish soup. M was not the biggest fan of the latter, but he loves tteokbokki. We ate our fill for only about $10 for the two of us!

Our leisurely Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong walk was the perfect way to spend an afternoon. We got plenty of fresh air and exercise while experiencing a new part of our city. I highly recommend it!

Friday, February 5, 2021

Surviving Korean Winter

They warned me about Korean winter, and it is no joke! Especially after spending my first Foreign Service tour in temperate Nairobi, I was bracing myself for winter in Seoul ever since I received my new assignment. Now that I've spent the past few months adjusting to a colder life than I've ever had before, I've learned a few tricks to surviving this brutal season:

  • A peacoat is not going to cut it. I highly recommend what Koreans call a "long padding" (롱패딩), a poofy coat that covers most of your legs. The best ones for winter will also come with a warm hood. If you detest bargaining, you can always do what I did and walk into the first coat shop you find and ask for the longest, warmest coat they possess. I'm so glad I did, too, because it hasn't let me down even as I walked around outside for hours in below-freezing temperatures.
  • Accessories are key. These days I never leave home without a coat, scarf, and earmuffs. I also keep gloves or a hand warmer on me. (Maybe I was behind the times, but I was delighted to discover electric hand warmers! I bought mine at Daiso, and it's so convenient. Before really cold days, I can charge it at night and it's ready to go in the morning.)
  • The snow is unpredictable. I actually expected more heavy snow, but it's been difficult to guess whether snow will stick or turn to black ice or vanish completely in a few hours. You have to be prepared for anything.
  • Warm shoes with full coverage and traction are your best friend. I definitely had a few fails where the weather was fine when I left the house but I had cold snow dampening the tops of my feet by the time I got back home.
  • Enjoy steaming Korean delicacies. I love Korean soups, and a piping hot bowl of galbitang (갈비탕) or samgyetang (삼계탕) or ddeok mandu guk (떡만두국) is the perfect comfort food in winter. My friend A also introduced me to the wonderful world of yuzu tea (유자차), a sweet and tangy herbal tea that always hits the spot.

I know some people love the cold and really look forward to winter, but I'm not sure I'll ever be one of them. At least now I know I can survive in a colder climate than ever before! And until spring comes, I'm not going to let a little cold hold me back from making the most of this precious time we have in Seoul.