We arrived in Icheon, the sleekest airport I’ve ever seen, with the prettiest travelers. Black was in, with glossy pale skin, lip tint, and heeled ankle boots. I was dressed all wrong.
We headed to stay with our friends Amy and Jouni in Itaewon, the posher of Seoul’s two main foreigner neighborhoods. It’s a party neighborhood, like a fancy Wrigleyville without the sports.
After we dropped off our luggage, we browsed a few nearby makeup stores. Despite the over-attentive (suspicious?) clerks, I fell in love with Tony Moly and Etude House. The foundations were actually pale enough for me, and never have I seen so many cosmetics shaped like bunnies!
That night we went out for tex-mex food—hard to come by in rural Japan. I almost wept over my delicious pulled-pork tacos.
Day 2: A cozy Christmas
We woke up around 10:30 and had tea and toast. We all opened presents from each other and faraway relatives. Amy and Jouni got us Line Friends mugs (Seoul has an enormous Line Friends store). They also surprised us with tickets to Nanta! Cookin’, one of Korea’s longest-running theater shows!
Jouni made a delicious lunch of salmon, roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes. Amy’s friend Chloe came with pastries. After we ate, we watched The Twelve Dogs of Christmas, one of Amy and Jouni’s long-standing Christmas traditions. Worst. Movie. Ever. I highly recommend it.
Eventually, we roused ourselves into going for a walk, and had drinks and snacks at a pizza place called Jackson Blvd.
We walked to the nearby Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, a mix of traditional Korean and contemporary art. The best parts by far were the architecture and sculptural installations.
After, we did a little shopping in Hongdae. It was cold, and the crowd was pure madness, but we found a scarf and some cute bootleg Lego sets.
We had a sleepy dinner at home before venturing out again with Jouni to see N Seoul Tower. More mad crowds, but the view was beautiful. On the way back down, I loved the silhouettes of tree branches against futuristic city lights.
We wrapped up the night with some yummy craft beers at Pong Dang Craft Beer Co.
We went had a nice brunch at The Frying Pan and took a taxi to Gyeongbok Palace for the 1:00 changing of the guards ceremony. The buildings were embellished with bright, busy patterns and dragon and monkey sculptures. I think I even saw a chicken. Amy pointed out a walkway through the complex. She said its center path, elevated about five inches, was for the emperor only, to make him look taller than everyone else. I wonder if it fooled anyone. Life was confusing and scary back then.
I found the changing of the guards, much like the palace itself (much like Seoulites, themselves, for that matter), beautiful and intimidating. Costumes boasted horns and elaborate dragon shields. The off-kilter tin percussion and conch shells made a gorgeous, bone-chilling tune.
Next, it was time for us to go to “Nanta”. Before the show, an intro screen prepped us for a cross “between Stomp!, Benihana, and the Marx brothers”. This description proved so accurate that I have no further comment. It was very silly, very Korean, and delightful.
We stuck around the hectic Myeongdong district to find omiyage for my coworkers. Asian tourists come to buy Korean cosmetics in bulk, and face masks are a popular pick. Thanks to cutthroat shop competition, I got 81 masks for less than $30. Some of them contain snail mucus, a popular Korean emollient.
When we got back to the apartment, we laid around and watched K-pop videos, the inspiration for and product of (chicken or egg?) the impeccable, airbrushed people we’d encountered throughout our trip.
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Visiting somewhere as materialistic as Seoul over the holidays was quite a treat. Fancy rustic brunches and designer cosmetics are scarce in my Japanese suburb, and in Seoul I found no shortage of ways to indulge. But it was a slippery slope. The longer we stayed, the more aware I became of the fact that my boots were last season and my hips were too fat. While shopping, I ran into a clothing brand called “Let’s Diet.”
Rumor has it Seoul’s image consciousness comes from a deep-seated inferiority complex. When South Korea found some stability after Japanese colonialism and the Korean War, the country frantically embraced capitalism, zooming forward from destitution to consumption too quickly for the culture to keep up. Seoul is flashy—nouveau-riche. Young Seoulites get plastic surgery and venture out to flaunt their bandages, while the aging generation collects the garbage.
I want to visit Seoul again to see if there’s more off the neon-sign-addled beaten path, and if there’s any counter culture (my friends who live there think not). I want to go to smaller Korean towns, to see if there’s a warmer vibe.
It’s funny how homesickness is subjective—I’ve spent the last couple months longing for Chicago, but when I returned from hyper-Westernized Seoul to rural Japan, an odd wave of comfort overtook me. I don’t fit in in Nakatsu either, but at least my slouchy clothes do.