The escape valve for most is food and drink. After 50, Charlie takes us off Apgu’s main drags to a nearby fried-chicken place called Hanjanui Chueok, which roughly translates to “Memory of One Glass.” Enormous pitchers of Hite beer land on tables and are consumed instantly by the eclectic, raucous, smoky clientele. The bar food here would find few peers anywhere in the world. We start with the excellent gochu twigim, a hot stuffed pepper, lightly coated with flour and egg and deep-fried, then move to the fried chicken, which could stand up to the famous Polo Fried Chicken in Bangkok, immortalized by the late R. W. Apple Jr. There is so much juice and spice in each tender piece, the overall result crisp and soft in equal measure, crying out for beer and the cool radish cubes that round out the meal.
Later in the week, we leave Apgu to the beautiful and the damned, and head for the youthful Hongdae district, in the shadows of Seoul’s premier art school. We take a quick meal at one of the bustling places selling galmaegisal, a chewy, lusty pork skirt steak served by waiters in red wifebeaters, who spray you with Febreze on the way out, leaving you smelling like some kind of wild pork flower, and head to the candy-colored basement Stereo Bar, where a slogan written on an ashtray could pretty much sum up the national mood: Don’t work too hard. is it really worth to you? There are also exposed colored pipes, à la downtown Manhattan a little while ago, a girl in a birthday hat, and lots of bicultural Korean-American noise. The next stop is the exquisite Bar Da nearby, truly a hole in a concrete wall, full of glamorous nerds munching on dried anchovies while “Hotel California” plays on the stereo. Unlike amid the provincial flurry of Apgu, no one here knows or cares who you are.
The next day, a workday, I don’t feel so good. Neither do many Koreans. And so I head to that amazing invention—the jjimjilbang, or Korean sauna—where my spirit will be restored and detoxified. The Hurest Well Being Club sits between the 15th and 17th floors of a skyscraper, and offers great views of the surrounding office towers and the teenybopper shopping area of Myeong-dong. I am forced to change into a strange blue uniform, something out of a socialist Jewish summer camp, and set loose upon the “hot dock,” which is an excruciating sauna, followed by pools of cold water. All around me men on their lunch breaks are soaping off, some asleep in the tub, others practicing phantom golf swings in the water. Toothbrushes, haircuts, everything you will ever desire, is sold nearby.
I retire to an oxygen room designed to relieve hangovers, and pass out on a remarkable wooden pillow that perfectly slots my weary head. Then it’s off to the yellow-mud room. Yellow mud, the wall text tells me, can be considered a living creature and mitigates fatigue and strengthens ladies skin. I pass out in the heat-swept room, yellow mud stalagmites hanging from the ceilings, and wake up refreshed and happy. My polluted hide doesn’t feel bad either. Next door, in the PC room, an old woman with a towel wrapped around her head plays impressive games of skill on the computer, while boys and girls curl up on those oddly comfortable wooden pillows reading manga cartoons. This is Korean society in deep, communal rest. At least for half a day, I feel like I’m a part of the family.
The new Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, up on Mount Namsan and overlooking the seedy Itaewon district, has been spearheading Seoul’s reputation as an arts destination. Funded by the family that controls the Samsung conglomerate, the vast Leeum museum campus consists of a fortress-like homage to terra-cotta designed by Mario Botta, a stainless-steel box by Jean Nouvel, and a slender, light-filled structure by Rem Koolhaas. What these three buildings are doing next to one another I cannot begin to fathom, but clearly somebody at Samsung has gone on a shopping spree. The museum’s traditional offerings include masterworks in celadon, like a water dropper shaped like a peach, eerily beautiful in its functionality. Willows, cranes, and peonies hover ghostly over some of the designs, while several examples of 15th-century work nearly flirt with abstraction. The exhibit is quiet and the lighting low; the objects glow within the darkness—unmistakably, they are this nation’s treasures.
On the modern side, the Leeum’s collection ranges from Rothko to Damien Hirst, but most interesting are Korean artworks such as Ik-Joong Kang’s I Have to Learn English, a bittersweet series of tiles painted with random comments picked up while riding the New York subway. Then there’s Lee Bul’s Cyborg W6, a futuristic female body missing many parts, ready for assembly or further disassembly—a brilliant nod to technology, femininity, and perhaps the dystopian manga comics that have made such a dent in the young Asian psyche.
Later we walk through the pleasantly artsy and leafy Samcheong-dong area, which is filled with restaurants, galleries, and many of Seoul’s remaining hanok, traditional wooden houses clustered around small courtyards in which a lone apricot tree may grow. We stop for lunch at Solmoemaeul, an airy place where the emphasis is on royal cuisine, which stretches back to a time before Korea’s fateful encounter with the chili pepper some 250 years ago, and may thus be gentler on some Western palates. We order pumpkin soup, silky acorn jelly, and beef of heavenly provenance, all to be wrapped in tiny radish crêpes that are presented with nine toppings, such as mushrooms, seaweed, and carrot strips. Korean food’s emphasis on banchan, a wide assortment of side dishes that must always include kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage, is strongly in evidence here. I take the banchan concept as a bold challenge to design my own meal—for example, wrapping a little radish pancake with bulgogi, a thinly sliced sirloin, and then crowning the fatty little number with a touch of acorn jelly to smooth it out. Baby fiddlehead ferns and fresh squid add layers of complexity to other creations. Per my girlfriend’s mother’s instruction I drink wine stewed with sweet rice, and now my thirst and hunger are finally sated.