South Korea – Extreme Sport Sushi

THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “This is mine”, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” 

Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

FROM SHANGHAI, I took a train back to Hong Kong to prepare for my final trip; this time to South Korea. That train journey is one I’ll never forget. It was an overnight service. I was on one of the top bunks again in a compartment of six. Opposite was a mad-looking woman with few teeth. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand each other. Anyway, the lights went out for the night. I had my trusty earplugs in and I was drifting off. In the residual light, I could see something moving in the luggage storage area by my feet. I took out my earplugs and heard some rustling. I switched on my headlamp and saw what looked to be giant spiders or tarantulas crawling all over the bunks. I’m not ashamed to admit that I screamed like a girl. Everyone turned their lights on to see what all the fuss was about: there were hairy crabs crawling around! They’d escaped out of this crazy woman’s luggage! What the fuck was she doing? You can buy almost anything in Hong Kong; there’s no need to import the things in your holdall!

Seoul

For the final trip of my travels, I went to South Korea with my Aunt Deborah, my cousin Jerry and his girlfriend, Jasmine. We flew into Incheon International airport, about 70km outside of the capital, Seoul. Geographically, South Korea is on the southern end of the Korean Peninsula sharing a land border with its one-party, totalitarian brother-state, North Korea. To its west over the sea lies China and to its east is Japan. Demographically, South Korea is a homogenous place, with a population of around 50m, of which around just 2% are non-Korean.

We stayed in a hanok, a superb traditional Korean house, in central Seoul. The owners of the hanok were lovely people; one was a septuagenarian Korean woman who was incredibly strong and lively for her age and keen to impart Korean culture and traditions. Typically, hanoks are single-story buildings with an internal courtyard out to which all the rooms in the house face. The doors are super-cool sliding panels and inside are immaculately maintained polished wooden or linoleum covered floors. The bare, polished floors are, it seems, an important aspect of life here. People sit and sleep on the floor. Everyone wears just socks inside and these have the added benefit of helping to keep the floors meticulously clean. At night, you sleep directly on the hard floors with just a thick blanket to lie on. Despite there being no mattress, this is surprisingly comfortable and there I had the best night’s sleep that I’d had in a long while; I’m not sure why exactly; perhaps it’s because the hardness of the floor discourages excessive movement during the night. Whatever the reason, it’s a habit I might bring back to the UK.

In our hanok, (l-r) Jerry, Jasmine, me, Auntie Deborah and our host

Seoul is a pretty busy place, but I think I was expecting a faster city. Hong Kong and Shanghai are far busier than Seoul; here tradition is intertwined with modern skyscrapers. Tradition is charmingly preserved and even revered. For instance, when visiting the main palace of Seoul, the magnificent Gyeongbokgung, despite its low-rise nature, you have a clear, unobstructed view of the surrounding mountains, giving the visitor a view that he or she would have enjoyed centuries ago. This is possibly deliberate because, even though the palace is in the centre of the city, there are none of the skyscrapers in view that dominate the rest of Seoul.

The glorious Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul

Furthermore, there’s always an interesting alleyway to have a look down with old-world Korean architecture.

In the back streets of Seoul

Particularly memorable was a centuries-old tea house in the district of Insadong that was tucked away at the end of a tiny lane off a busy thoroughfare. Inside, it was like being transported into a bamboo tree-house in the middle of a jungle. You sit on massive cushions, sip fragrant, fruity tea and gently fall asleep.

One of the teahouses of Seoul

Seoul is very famous (particularly in Asia) for its eating and its shopping. For me though, it was always going to be mainly about the eating. Korean food is distinct from other countries in Asia. Whilst influenced by Japan and China, Korean food has many elements all to itself. Of course, we ate the ubiquitous kimchi, and I mean ubiquitous! The pickled vegetable dish accompanies almost every meal, even breakfast! It’s a spicy and sour pickle generally made from cabbage and radishes and is delicious eaten cold. It often comes as a side dish. The impression I get is that kimchi is like a cassoulet or a ragu or a feijoada where people get very passionate about the correct recipe and, with kimchi, this probably differs from town to town. It is, without doubt, the national dish of Korea and it’s almost absurdly healthy. It’s rich in vitamins and minerals; one publication even listed it as one of the world’s top five healthiest foods. Some even believed that it offered those eating it protection during the infamous SARS outbreak of 2003. Kimchi is perhaps best enjoyed with another superb dish: bibimbap – (which means ‘mixed meal’) a sticky dish of rice, various meats and stir-fried vegetables, such as cucumber and soybean sprouts, with some serious spice on it; it’s all stirred through the rice thoroughly before eating.

Other great meals we enjoyed included another great Korean national pastime: the Korean barbeque. We found a beautiful barbeque house in the district of Sinchon with stripped blond wood walls and floors with large, low-hanging metal lights over tables which had barbeques in the middle. These are fired up and trays of raw meats are brought to your table. We had piles of thinly sliced beef and pork which we gently cooked ourselves. This is washed down with lashings of chilli and is absolutely delicious. No barbeque is complete, however, without big glugs of the national drink, soju, a vodka-like drink (about 20% ABV), enjoyed cold, and with highly civilised protocols of its own, in that you’re not allowed to refill your own glass, fostering consideration and attentiveness amongst the diners – such a convivial practice! It’s very potent; you drink it neat and not being able to fill your own glass makes mealtimes seem almost like a drinking game. We finished that evening off in Sinchon on a bar crawl puffing on hookah pipes and playing genuinely Korean drinking games. The barman gives you a glass of lager and a shot glass of soju. The shot glass of soju is lowered gently into the glass of lager and you have to drink it in one go catching the shot glass in your teeth!

Korean BBQ, (Not sure why I’m wearing a sheer cardigan!)

On another evening, we ate at a superb seafood stall overflowing with giant whelks, huge clams, massive mussels and mountains of noodles. Another time, we had another classic Korean dish (at the most famous eatery for it in the district of Myeongdong) ginseng chicken, a delicious broth with a small, whole chicken (a bit like a poussin) stuffed with sticky rice and huge roots of ginseng; again absolutely superb – restorative and energising.

Some interesting Seoul street food – this was spicy and very chewy!

Perhaps, though, the most memorable meal came on our last night in Seoul, in a seafood restaurant. I absolutely love sushi, and that night was the first time I’d tried extreme sushi. I’d been apprehensive over this for a few days now; we ordered, amongst other things, a couple of baby octopi, prepared Korean style. The lady, with slight world-weariness, fished them out of a tank and took them into the kitchen. A couple of minutes later, out came a large plate of translucent, totally raw octopi all cut up into tiny pieces, all of which were still moving and wriggling despite being dead! Even picking up the pieces was tricky and, once accomplished, the squirming piece of still-raw octopi was still performing after-death gymnastics on the end of my chopsticks. It took me a long time to put it into my mouth but eventually I did it, chewing really hard and really fast to just get it down. It’s a crazy feeling; the tentacles still have tiny ‘suckers’ on them and, I swear to God, you can feel the things gripping the insides of your cheeks and on your tongue; it’s completely freaky and totally memorable!

Wriggling baby octopus, still wriggling

There’s also some excellent street food to be enjoyed in Seoul, including some unbelievably spicy chicken skewers; they blew my head off! There’re also foot-high ice-creams, delicious deep-fried thinly sliced potato dipped in a cheesy sauce, and tasty pastries. Definitely go to Korea for the food – it’s well worth it.

Spicy as hell chicken on a stick

For all my avowed dislike of shopping, I must admit that I did get quite into it here in Seoul. Shopping is one of the main Korean passions. We explored the famed Dongdaemun Market, an enormous complex, both indoors and out. Here, you’ll find knock-offs of every brand you can think of, from boxer shorts to jeans to the latest trainers. Don’t miss Insadong, with its innovative Ssamji street; literally a street that winds up like a helter-skelter to maximize space, and full of great little stationary shops, tea-houses, and art galleries. Myeongdong is the major brand name and boutique shopping district and here, you can take a break from merciless card punishment to replenish your flagging energy levels at a tasty barbeque restaurant. My favourite shopping area though has to be the Sinchon district offering slightly quirkier clothes and interesting fashions designed by local creatives.

Awesome shopping arcade in Seoul

Public baths are a popular pastime in Korea and we visited one of the biggest in Seoul. The baths are split into three areas: the general unisex areas, an area for men only and an area just for women. Everyone starts off in the unisex area packed full of water-based features and attractions designed to promote well-being; so there’s a range of saunas, powerful jet pools, hot spas, cold spas, spas outside and a stream with tiny little fish that eat, I shit you not, the dead skin off your feet! Absolutely on the very edge of excruciating! After you’re shrivelled like an old teabag, it’s time for men and women to go their separate ways and enter the private baths. Everyone takes off their clothes and goes to the vast sauna and plunge pool area. After freezing and scalding yourself several times, you pick up a fresh bar of soap and a toothbrush and sit on a tiny stool at one of the many low showers set in row upon row. Cubicles seem to be a no-no! Then you give yourself a thorough clean. After this, you rinse yourself off and go to the drying area. Public, washing and social nudity, it’s all completely natural here and it’s all very convivial!

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