I have just returned from three days of the warm embrace of South Korea, Seoul in particular. This is my third trip there and probably my most memorable. Work has been a little intense in the past few weeks as we are extremely short-staffed. Some people blow off steam by having a drink or massage to relax, for me it is always travel. There is nothing for me like sating my wanderlust. I think I have said it here before, but my restlessness wells up inside me in a palpable way, there is a need to roam.
I chose to go at a rather momentous time for Korea, President Moon Jae In and North Korea’s Leader Kim Jong Un were together at Panmunjom in a historical meeting to discuss ending the Korean War, nuclear disarmament and reunification.
Of course, I was not in Panmunjom, I was there last year, and there were no world leaders in sight. I wanted to be back in the flow of South Korea’s energy. Living in Okinawa and visiting Japan quite frequently is an ongoing thrill. However, there is always that restrained feeling. I feel that I can never really cut loose in Japan. You see, living in a foreign country, there is a freedom that never exists living in your homeland, you are an unknown. And being an American is a blessing and a curse, people have all sorts of ideas about us. So in Okinawa, I keep myself in check and try to fit in. But fitting in in Korea is a a different thing, it is smiling at people, making eye contact and saying hello. You can be a little more exuberant and friendly. It is a wonderful feeling.
I wandered through the night life in Itaewon where even at 1:30 a.m. the streets were filled with people, drinking, eating, laughing and enjoying themselves. I climbed the famous ‘hooker hill’ and got to see a lot of things I’ve never seen before. This is a PG-rated blog, so let me just say, it was a real experience.
I had left the office and flown to Seoul, arriving Friday night. I was a little sleepy when I landed, but I quickly fell into the pace. I had dinner at a wonderful restaurant and heard the happy chatter of people ordering more soju, eating and laughing. I had some incredible cold buckwheat noodles in a soup, and of course all the little side dishes that accompanied the main dish.
I slept in the next day and never got out and about until about 1500. Down to the Han River and park where I spent the day visiting the Hangang Park and watching people relaxing and enjoying each other. There was plenty of green space and tents dotted the grass as people just camped there.
There was a child’s play area that looked fun inside a building because in the winter it gets very cold. Food trucks were circling the night market, there were foods of all kinds. I settled on some Indian curry as I tend to favor that. Nothing beats Nepal Spice Kitchen, a restaurant within walking distance from my house. As night fell, I found a coffee truck and enjoyed a latte and watched the people strolling through the park.
Later, I went downtown and found a field of roses, not your usual roses…these were illuminated and covered what looked to be a football-sized field. So unexpected, I probably shot 100 pictures of these.
The next day was again a late one, this weekend was about chilling out, drinking coffee and just seeing what there was to see. I went to a restaurant that featured North Korean food and helped people from North Korea. There was a picture inside of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama with the owner. It was delicious, lentil cakes and a squash based soup, potato dumplings, just a unique culinary experience.
And then I went on over to the Gwanghwamun Plaza, but to get there, I passed through the Seoul Metropolitan Opera. I had seen the signs that Turandot was being performed. It has one of my favorite arias, Nessun Dorma. As I was walking through I looked over and saw a crowd of people. There were the two stars, so I popped over and was photographed with them. The opera singer asked for a copy of the picture…again, another bonus of being an American in Korea. So many times I think to myself, I am a kid from a small town in upstate NY, what a great adventure life is. I never expected to have these experiences in my life.
I took in the Gwanghwamun Plaza (say that three times fast) with my eyes and my camera. There is statuary of King Sejong the Great who was the creator of Hangul, the Korean alphabet and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a naval commander noted for his victories against the Japanese Navy during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598). Walking up to the statue from behind, he appears to still be looking out over the plaza to protect Korea.
After three delightful days, I hopped back on the express train to Incheon airport and home to my sweet little Ryu Kyu islands. My history professor in college once said Korea is the knife in the heart of Japan. For me it is my second home in Asia, full of warm, happy people who are hopeful for a new future, one of the promise of reunification.