Spring break in Seoul


Before the new academic year began in April, I grabbed a last minute flight and spent my spring break in Korea, quickly catching up with my homestay families and enjoying some good old-fashioned tourist traps and tasty food.

I took off from Haneda airport and arrived in Gimpo in the late morning, leaving me an afternoon to spend sightseeing in Seoul. Despite meticulous planning, I still ended up on the front steps of the Seoul Museum of Art on a (in my defense, unadvertised) closed day. But thankfully, Deoksugung Palace is just around the corner, so it was easy to adjust my itinerary. As I did so, I noticed a group of men in brightly colored traditional clothes gathering by the outer wall. It turned out that I was just in time to watch the Royal Palace Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Deoksugung.

Past the palace gates, I headed to the exhibition “The Arrival of New Women” at MMCA (the national Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) Deoksugung. I found myself lingering for a long time looking at the women’s magazine covers from the 1920s to 40s on display, intrigued by both the wide range of styles and by the glimpses into contemporary life these pieces of art for mass consumption provide. There were also audio and video installments, making it quite a well-rounded exhibit for just 3,000 won (which the woman at the ticket desk tried to waive for me by asking my age, but unfortunately I was too old to qualify for the free ticket. Usually it’s taboo, but if you are going to peg me as younger and are trying to give me free stuff, feel free to ask how old I am).

With plenty of daylight still left, I then walked back past Gwanghwamun’s huge statue of King Sejong to the iconic Gyeongbokgung Palace and its throngs of tourists in rented hanbok. Since the first museum I had tried wasn’t open, I decided to go to one I had on standby (as I said, I did my research), the nearby Daelim Museum to view “Paper, Present.” Here the works of 10 international artists, including Zim & ZouTord Boontje, and Tahiti Pehrson, transformed paper in breathtaking ways, all beginning with the same humble material to create awe-inspiring art as diverse as the roster itself, from clothing and housewares to dream-like installations (well, as long as your dreams feature Korean couples posing for photos in the periphery. But still.).

It’s on exhibit through May 27th, so if you are in the area you may want to hurry over and catch it while you still can. But be forewarned that it’s a popular date destination and you will most likely find yourself suffocated by selfie-stick wielding couples at every turn (even if you go on a random Thursday afternoon, like I did).

After all that walking, I was ready for some food. I weaved through a suburban area and somehow managed to make my way to Hillside Table just by looking at a screenshot of a map on my phone as I had no service or GPS. After that feat, I think I can declare myself  competent with maps. Even if that’s an increasingly obsolete skill, I’m a little proud of it since I don’t consider myself someone naturally good with directions. I had discovered this restaurant on MangoPlate, and although my salad was Instagram-worthy and tasty as promised, it was, after all, just a salad. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I did feel like I should have opted for something more local (and something from my list). But, oh well. I could just indulge the next day instead and recall this meal as my good deed to cancel it out–because that’s how it works, right?

After dinner, I returned to Hongdae to stay, as always. I scored a mermaid knee-length skirt, a piece I’d been looking for since my last trip to Korea, at the trendy clothes shop Tomato Library before calling it a night. Overall, a successful day solo in Seoul and a pleasant start to my spring break.


Seoul food


Before I visit Korea, I always take a few key steps in preparation. I book my flight, exchange currency, and write myself a “to eat” list.

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I usually manage to cross off the majority of it bit by bit during my stay, but sometimes the last day becomes a dash for those final must-have eats en route to the airport. I am not above eating spicy rice cakes for a conspicuously early breakfast or hitting up the bubble tea shop the minute the doors open, suitcase in tow.

On my list, obviously, bimbimbap comes in at number 1. I have to have it. Preferably dolsot (served in a hot stone pot), and ideally more than once over the course of the trip. But I’m not picky, I’ll take it however I can get it; I adore “Korean fast food” joints like Kimbap Nara or Kimbap Cheonguk–cheonguk means “heaven,” and they picked that name with good reason. Hit me with your best ‘bap. Rice substituted with barley; topped with cheese; drowned in sesame oil; even served at the finish line of a marathon… I appreciate all iterations of my beloved #1 food.

If anything could unseat the dish that I so esteem that I named this very blog for it, it would be my host grandma’s homemade banchan, but the only problem there is I never know if or when I’ll have opportunity to eat it. Depending on my host family’s schedule, I may or may not have the chance to have some of grandma’s kimchi during my trip, so I just bask in my good fortune and stuff my face with it whenever I do. Likewise, should I have the chance to eat the vegetarian food at a Buddhist temple, then I truly consider myself blessed.

Kimbap is another staple, and I’ll go out of my way for my bubble tea fix from Gong Cha. Bingsu at Sulbing and my favorite Gwangju bakeries (yes, plural) always make an appearance on the list, but lately there is a new contender working its way to the top.


Cheese ddeokkbokki

I’m in a ddeokbokki phase, with no foreseeable end in sight. I could eat it every day, so I guess it’s lucky for me that that isn’t an option. (It is upsetting how hard good Korean cuisine is  to come by in Japan. They’re our neighbors; can’t we just knock on their door and ask for some recipes?) Admittedly, it wasn’t love at first bite; it took a few encounters with the gooey rice cakes before sparks flew, but the passion is now as red hot as the sauce they’re smothered in. Don’t skimp on the cheese, please.

I spent my last day in Seoul chasing my food fantasies to the extent the space in my stomach made possible until all too soon, it was time to go. Back to Gimpo, back to Japan, back to work. But what a fulfilling little visit. Thanks again and see you later, Korea… but hopefully sooner.




On my last night in town, we visited the Gwangju Design Biennale 2017. In 2013 we breezed through on a field trip, and since then I have always wanted to return and give the exhibition the thorough viewing such a sweeping display demands.

While I was at the wedding that afternoon, my other host family saw a movie (Baby Driver, on my recommendation. They eat up action-packed blockbusters, so I knew it’d be their speed). When we finished our respective activities, we met at E-mart, the same one where Tae and I had fun wasting time before a different movie outing (of which there were many). Their mom kindly dropped us off at the Biennale hall across town so we would be able to spend more time checking out the gallery than just taking public transportation to it.

1505651845067At first, we couldn’t find the way in and walked all around the building looking for the correct entrance. Our first attempt took us not to the ticket window but to a stage where we saw the final five seconds of a traditional dance performance it seemed we only just missed. Some of the troupe, a group of older ladies, asked Yujin to take their photo, and they posed and giggled like teenagers when she obliged, 60 going on 16. Too bad we missed their dance, but their giddiness warmed the cockles of my heart. Ajummas are my spirit animals.

Tae forgot his ID, so to prove he was a student and thus eligible for the discounted rate, his sister showed the person behind the ticket window a picture on her phone; a picture she took of one of Tae’s school pictures that had some kind of Snow (Asia’s version of Snapchat) bunny-ear filter on it. In most cases probably not an acceptable form of identification, but I think the worker could tell my host siblings were not going to give up in their quest to save $5, so, albeit with a moment’s hesitation, she accepted it. We took the obligatory selfie with our tickets and headed in.

1505651810742The biennale theme was “futures,” and many exhibits featured virtual reality components. One was a simulated car chase. In the simulation, we were riding shotgun and supposed to deploy some kind of missile at the escaping vehicle by making a throwing motion, but none of us did it successfully. Oh well. Failing to be violent is probably success in disguise.

I rode a segway-type vehicle, which I admit was a lot harder than I expected. The guy running the thing seemed to think I was going to joyride it out of there and kept scolding me to slow down as I made me way around the short course, but in reality I was only going so fast because I barely had control over it. I will never make fun of those groups of helmet-wearing segway-riding tourists again–well, I probably will, but from a place of knowing.

We went through the hall, per our modus operandi, joking around and taking a lot of photos. After we saw all the exhibits, we went home by bus and hung out until going out for dinner. Unfortunately I don’t know the name of the restaurant, or what their specialty food was… but there is one thing about it that I won’t forget. I had never seen this before: When our food was ready, they rolled out a whole tabletop of food on a cart, and instead of placing the items onto our table, they slid the whole thing over and deposited the tabletop itself onto ours. At first when the waitress started moving it, I didn’t realize what was going on and was thinking oh my god, all this food is falling over and about to crash into my lap? But then all of a sudden it was our table?! A pretty ingenuous delivery method for a cuisine featuring so many small dishes, plus an expedient way of cleaning the surfaces. I remain impressed. (Not knowing what it’s called, this is the most similar thing I can find, but ours was the whole length of the table, as you can see.)

While we ate, my host mother passed out pieces of fish she’d used her chopsticks to separate into manageable pieces to my host siblings and I. It may seem like a small gesture, but to me it is far from insignificant. I am always humbled to be treated like part of the family. Months later, my eyes well up writing about this little piece of fish deposited on top of my rice bowl. While I lived with them, I know my host mother was not always 100% happy with me, and for my part I sometimes felt like a burden. A homestay is a tricky thing, as you try to understand your place as a guest, a roommate, and quasi-member of the family, and as on the other side your host attempts to fit you into their home without completely dismantling their established way of living. As in all families, there are bound to be some missteps and hurt feelings along the way, but if you let them, the good times and feelings of fondness win out. For my part, I am so grateful. Every homestay experience I have had has been so worth it. I could never fully express to my hosts what they mean to me, but with one little piece of fish, my host mother said it all.

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