Before coming to Seoul, everything I knew about Korea was based on my lil Sis’s love of BTS and the Tofu House in Palo Alto. To me, Seoul was squarely in lil Sis’s domain; it was her place, and I would feel a weird sense of betrayal for coming here before her. For that reason, Seoul wasn’t originally on our travel itinerary. But since Seoul is a major Asian technology hub with a consumer base obsessed with blockchain, AR/VR and mobile technologies, and since it’s only a 2 hour flight from Tokyo, we decided that lil Sis would have to stew in her envy for just a little longer until she can make the trip out. In the meantime, I am trying to memorize the faces of the Korean boy bands so I can immediately alert her of any sightings.
Unlike arriving in Tokyo from London, which felt like a physical and mental brain warp, arriving in Seoul from Tokyo was weirdly easy. For one, immigration took us less than a minute without a line while still having a fully staffed immigration service. We were treated well, as if we belonged there, and then shuffled across after getting a photo taken. Then, our luggage came immediately, which never happens. The only hiccup from landing to arriving at our Airbnb in fancy Sinsa-dong, Gangnam, in the dead of night on roads through a city that looked eerily like Los Angeles, was that our taxi driver had no idea where the location was. Google maps don’t really work perfectly here, and the image I had shown him of the address was pretty blurry. Even then, we only overpaid by 10,000 won (~$8) on a ~$40 cab ride because we were confused after being in incredibly polite Tokyo which took away any edge we had. Only after some mild hustling by our taxi driver did we finally remember we were in Asia.
This pattern of confusion about whether we were in America or Korea would continue for the next 48 hours: from the large 8 lane streets to the food ranging from silkworm pupae soup to pizza, from the global brandname shops to the flurry of plastic surgery offices, from stepping into traditional, sit-on-floor restaurants where no English is spoken to eating in a taco and burger joint like we would in California. One minute, I’d be on a large road with the same layout and same cars driving in the same direction as in America, walking by an Apple Store and a Dunkin Donuts and hearing more English than Korean; In the next, I’d turn off into a small alleyway with traditional houses, no English at all (written or spoken), and I’d be politely moved or stepped on by someone trying to get me out of their way Asia-style.
Here’s a list of the things that felt distinctly Korean to me within the first 48 hours:
- Hair. Fabulous, well-kept, perfect hair. For both men and women. The pressure has definitely been on. Even my Company is now self-conscious, and I find him preening in front of the mirror before heading out the door. I also can’t tell if someone is a Kpop star, or if they just look that good always.
- Bright red lipstick, light powder, pink eye shadow is the cool way to do your make-up.
- Coffee shops are everywhere, especially artisanal coffee shops. You can’t walk down a street in Seoul without smelling some freshly roasted coffee. Even on our block, we have counted about 4 fancy coffee places selling $5 Americanos. I have no idea how they stay in business, but they sure do make the streets smell good. **Friday update: How is it that the hundred coffee shops in Sinsa-dong are PACKED at 10pm at night, while I’ve wandered around for 1 hour looking for a single bingsu (glorious shaved ice dessert) cafe to be open? Not a single bingsu joint is open past 9:30pm yet all of Seoul seems to be throwing down lattes like it’s 7am on a Monday.
- Everyone in this city must be getting married because the second most popular type of store I’ve noticed are wedding stores. I’ve counted at least a dozen within a half mile radius to me in Gangnam.
- People can throw back some drinks. My Company and I decided to check out a hip brewery, Craft Hans Brewery, near our neighborhood. Until Seoul, I have never seen so many small, Asian women throw back so many bitter, hoppy IPAs all while taking about 40 Instagram shots of their drinks.
- Seoul is a beautifully hilly and active city. On a nice day, you can see the Bukhansan National Park with its Asian Yosemite like rocks glowering all around the city. Even around the neighborhoods, there’s quite a few SF or Seattle like hills.
- VC bikes are everywhere. Back during my poor but faster cycling days, I used to snobbishly refer to people who rode on expensive, over-geared bikes slowly in Menlo Park, Palo Alto area as “Venture Capital riders”. Of course 6 years later, I karmically became one of those slow people riding on a bike far too fast for me, mainly to go to the cafe for cake to chat with other slow but formally fast friends. In Korea, there seem to only be posh looking road bikes with decked out gear all along the cycling trail on the Han river.
- Get your stomach ready for Korean spice. In Japan, spicy food was really hard to find unless you went to a fusion Sichuan restaurant or think wasabi or mustard is spicy. In Korea, the red chili flakes are in everything. Spicy wings are a favorite fast food. Given how cold it gets during the winter, I can see why some extra spice to keep you warm would be nice.
- Every once in a while, I’m reminded suddenly that South Korea is still technically at war with the North. Every morning, we hear a car drive around with a speakerphone saying words we don’t understand. Every morning, we have the same small panic that it’s an invasion, until we realize it’s just the used furniture or electronics truck driving around. But beyond the required military service for all Korean men, the fact that the U.S. military base in Itaewon* is up and active, is still a sobering reminder that a crazy man lives just 100 miles across the border.
Of course, Seoul has shown equal refinement in culture, food and drink, public transit and fun activities as many of our other favorite destinations. I can’t wait to dig into more of them over the next few weeks and share the best stories of all here.
*Itaewon is also a really fun place to go out for nightlife and to hear a LOT of English – all the bar tenders and restaurant owners seem to be American.