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Rediscovering Seoul

© Anders Overgaard The Myeong-dong shopping district in Seoul.

Photo: Anders Overgaard

The din is perpetual and the commerce flows sharply and ceaselessly against the human tide. Ancient security guards—short from childhood malnutrition—wander through this electronic wonderland with quiet equanimity, while younger, much taller men dressed like Mormon missionaries lug the carcasses of personal computers, as their ancestors might have hoisted a cow or pig just a few short decades ago. Korea is one of the most interesting societies in the world, and Seoul is a megacity with endless incongruities. Past and present, tradition and modernity, have not merely collided here, they have caused a fission reaction. Prosperity, cutting-edge technology, and the unparalleled Christian faith that over a quarter of the citizenry have placed in the one they call “Geejush” have transformed this conservative Confucian land; but Korea’s history and its attendant tragedies are just a generation and a demilitarized zone away. Beneath the electronic bleats and streams of digital code there is a howl of pain—just go to a cemetery and watch an older woman quite literally collapse at her parents’ grave—that is visceral and familial and shockingly, despairingly real.

And then there’s the food. Korean cuisine is one key to its culture, and it is a deep-hearted strum of joy, a celebration of the gochu, the chili pepper that sets fire to most of the cooking, and a thousand ingredients besides. Every Korean is a foodie, and can rhapsodize about dinner the way a French novelist can describe a trip to a swinger’s club. The key is to find yourself a good tour guide. Many Koreans mistakenly believe that the Western visitor is weak of stomach, and will drag you to an Italian restaurant or some kind of deeply compromised fusion place. Resist by all means—the best restaurants in Seoul feature five-dollar rusted chandeliers and lots of Formica.

After an hour-long tour of Electroland, my girlfriend and I walk across the street from Yongsan station to a place called Seobuk, which is the name of the North Korean area from which the owner hails. Note: Seoul’s address system is useless; for best results have your concierge call the number of an establishment and create a plan for getting you there.

At Seobuk, we find a tired-looking but genial man perpetually tending to his clientele of hungover hipsters. The specialty here is gamjatang stew, a mash of pork and potato covered with sesame leaf. Korean cuisine is all about taste, not presentation. A peek into a Korean kitchen will often reveal a lack of measuring cups, just an ajumma—the technically respectful but often derisory term for an older, married woman—tossing myriad ingredients into a boiling pot, going by smell more than anything. The vertebrae of the gamjatang’s pig stick out at you; the chunks of sweet fat around them have soaked up the red-pepper hotness, the green onions, and the ground wild sesame seeds. The dish is remarkably free of grease and sugar, the taste is clear, and the succulence of the pork leaves no doubt about the owner’s claim that he buys the pigs himself. This restaurant has been around for 25 years—a small eternity in this relentless city.

In the evening we meet up with my friend Charlie, a Korean native who works at the country’s edition of Harper’s Bazaar. A tall, bespectacled, American-educated wit who has a typical love-hate relationship with his city, Charlie takes us to Apgujeong. Apgu, as it’s known for short, is a kind of instant, vertical Beverly Hills south of the Han River (one of the main streets is actually named Rodeo Drive). “Romanesque-esque” is how Charlie describes some of the architecture found here. But it’s the people that are the most interesting. Apgu brims with plastic surgery clinics bearing names such as Smallface and Dream. The people in Apgu, and a number of their poodles, are coiffed and carved into something out of a Pixar cartoon. They can dine at the café Plastic or the new hot spot called 50, where that amount of dollars will buy you exactly half a bottle of unremarkable Kendall-Jackson wine and the opportunity to discover just how awful you look. “I was offered a nose job for my twentieth birthday,” Charlie tells me offhandedly.

“By whom?”

“My mother.”

The Korean pursuit of perfection—at the golf course, in the boardroom, at the plastic surgeon’s—is relentless. This is a country that has gone from developing to overdeveloped in one generation. Failure is unthinkable. Listening to talk radio in a taxicab, we hear a man weeping inconsolably, while a team of professional consolers tells him it’s going to be okay, with his job, his wife, his loneliness. Sad music plays in the background as if to say “this can happen to any of us.”

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