Tuesday, June 8, 2010
My wife used to be a world traveler, and I was always amazed that she used to take quite a few vacations a year to travel the globe. I, on the other hand, have never been one to like travel. Don't get me wrong, once I'm at my destination I love being there and really have a great time, but I'm truly more of a homebody. I love just being in my quiet, comfortable little world. As a couple we used to talk about travel quite frequently, but never made concrete plans. With both of us working while living in the US, our vacation time was spent visiting Japan, and likewise while in Japan vacations were spent going back home.
A month ago we decided to bit the bullet and make reservations for Seoul. There is a direct flight from Komatsu International Airport to Incheon a couple times a week, so we just purchased a travel package from a local agent. If we had done things ourselves, we probably could have spent less money, but frankly it was just easier to get a four day, three night package.
Given that I've never really had any interest in countries outside of Japan, I am quite ignorant when it comes to Korea. The districts, sights, and food are all foreign to me, which makes me feel a little guilty considering my part-Korean heritage. After returning to Japan, I came back refreshed and inspired to learn about my heritage.
We started the journey with a short afternoon hop to Incheon from Komatsu, the flight was only about two hours. Immigrations was interesting, because they didn't even talk to me. It's a huge difference from the US. Happily, everything went smoothly and I was able to pass through with a new stamp in my passport.
After getting our bags, I went to get some money. The first place I went to inside the customs area didn't take traveler's checks, to my surprise. Luckily, the exchange counter outside of customs did, so I exchanged about $300. Given our past experiences traveling around Japan and the US, we expected to burn through this cash really quickly, but fortunately the over 300,000 won was more than enough for the entire trip. As an added bonus, I was concentrating so hard on the thick wad of cash, I completely forgot to get my passport back! Luckily I remembered while we waited for our tour guide. Phew, what a close call!
After meeting up with our guide, we set out on the hour plus drive to Seoul. The ride was quite scenic, and what I didn't expect to see where all the bridges and waterways. The tide was out, so all you could see was huge areas of sea bottom. Apparently, when the tide comes in the sea is about 8 meters deep. Once in Seoul, the travel companies have contracts with the duty-free shops and so we spent about an hour there. There were a lot shoppers there, but since I don't wear make-up and electronics were seemed expensive, nothing was of interest to me. After the obligatory duty-free stop, we headed to our hotel, which was to our surprise, right across the street!
We stayed at the New Kukje (International) Hotel, close to the financial district. Looking at online pricing, it's not that expensive and while not luxurious, it is comfortable and in a great location. Most of the front desk staff speak Japanese, so if you only speak English you'll have fun trying to communicate. After check-in, it was the perfect time for dinner so we headed out on the town around Insa-dong.
One of the reasons I've never really traveled outside of Japan, is because I like to be able to communicate where I am. My first dose of culture shock occurred that first night. Looking for a place to eat some dinner, we happened to find a fairly popular looking place. The photos on the outside looked quite delicious, so we popped in for a bite to eat. Opening up the menu, I was surprised to see all Korean text with no pictures. Our server was equally confused and probably frustrated when she pointed to the text trying to take our orders. Having taken reading a Japanese menu for granted, I really have a new found respect for everyone that comes to Japan that ventures into the local restaurants. I mean, what the hell do you do, when you can't even pronounce the character? Anyway, she brought out the two dishes they served: slices of pork belly or pork feet (I think). I pointed to the pork belly, and she plopped the slabs of thick bacon on the hot plate and we dug in.
My proud moment was when I blurted out, "mecchu cho-se yo" and was rewarded with a refreshing bottle of Max beer. After that experience we decided we'd stick to the places that have photo menus or have English or Japanese. The kicker was that after we went through all the trouble of ordering, the dude that sat us down was able to speak excellent Japanese. WTF!!!!
After that adventure, we wandered around the district taking in the sights. Being a warm Sunday night, everyone was down my the small river that runs through the city. Young Korean couples are quite different from their Japanese counterparts in that they're very affectionate in public. It was interesting to see all the couples sitting down by the river "all over each other" more or less... made me feel old.
With all the day's excitement we were beat, and decided to end the night fairly early. We really wanted to get an early start on the next day.