by Paul Rubio
Twenty-four stories above Seoul, I drape my arms over the the vertical ledge of a swimming pool like no other. Enclosed by glass walls, blinded by city lights and foreign symbols, I descend into the latest feat of Korean modern design and slowly resurface, savoring my last moments at the Park Hyatt Seoul. It is the final consummation of my mad love affair with Seoul, a fiery metropolis that has ambushed my senses and captured my psyche in just ten short days.
After exploring Japan the summer prior, extreme wanderlust and relentless curiosity prompted me to venture across the small stretch of sea separating the "Land of the Rising Sun" from the lesser-known "Land of the Morning Calm"—Korea. The irony of Korea's epithet resides in its tumultuous and violent history, namely during 35 years of Japanese occupation, followed by a national separation between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea, post-World War II. Nowadays, tourists can freely roam the serene mountains and bustling cities of South Korea while North Korea remains off limits beyond the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries.
Since the armistice separating North and South in 1953, South Korea has evolved as a world economic power, while holding steadfast to a strong cultural heritage yet embracing futuristic research and development.
It took less than ten minutes after I landed at Seoul-Incheon Airport to recognize Korea's familiar brands and products such as Samsung, LG Electronics, Hyundai, and Ginseng. My 90-minute bus ride to the city ended in the heart of Gangnam-Gu, Seoul's bustling commercial epicenter. The iconic neon lights, the flash of foreign calligraphy, the vertically stacked venues, and the higher-than-high technologies stood reminiscent of Tokyo, quickly waking me from my jetlagged state and quelling my plans for a long night of sleep. Two hours after landing, I had already begun an unforgettable journey of unexpected discovery and exploration.
I was staying "left of the river" for my first week, at The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul. Much like the Seine separates Paris as Right and Left Bank, the Hangang River divides Seoul, with the city's bourgeoisie concentrated in the left's Gangnam-Gu district and historic sights centralized in the right's Jung-gu and Jongno-gu districts.
The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul resides in the thick of Gangnam-Gu where upscale residences, fine dining, international shopping franchises, and countless cafés abound. Located on the outskirts of the couture-clad Apgujeong neighborhood, affectionately referred to as "the Beverly Hills of Seoul," and the shopper's paradise, Cheongdam-dong, the Ritz is a mainstay in Korean high society. It's likely you'll see the "Real Housewives of Seoul" socializing over international wines at the outdoor Garden Restaurant or exchanging catty remarks over dim sum at the fabulous Chee Hong. It's even more probable you'll see their sons and daughters exchanging vows in an elaborate Opera wedding. The Ritz is booked years in advance for these exalted white wedding galas, a storybook setting of sprawling white curtains draped between five-story pillars and a gargantuan crystal chandelier, illuminating a meticulous seating and dance area decked out in haute white minutia.
Contrary to heftier Ritz price tags elsewhere, the Ritz-Carlton, Seoul begins at US$220 per night. Likewise, the immaculate Ritz-Carlton, Seoul Club Level is more accessible and arguably the best spot in town for a spoon-fed introduction to Korea. The club level serves four full meals per day, a mix of familiar favorites and authentic, native delicacies. A harem of fabulous interns and associates makes the rounds, offering concierge services, delighting guests in conversation, and gleefully explaining the local cuisine. After check in, I dragged my hunger pangs up to the club level. I could only guess what I had put in my mouth when a cherubic and curious intern, Tuong, informed me I was gnawing on hongeohoe, slices of fermented skate, and had just swallowed a mix of fermented cabbage and cucumber called kimchi. My mouth in flavor overload, Tuong fixed me a plate of two-dozen bizarre looking items and laughed at my facial contortions as I dared try each and every one.
Taking a year off from university in the US, Tuong's English fluency and resolute work ethic landed her a job at the prestigious Ritz a few months prior. Lucky for me, her vivacious "Party in the USA" flair made her an immediate gay magnet, and we spoke for hours about homosexuality in Seoul, Korea's role in the world, and the US college experience. I was so engrossed in our conversation that I ditched my plans for hitting the town and took the golden opportunity to learn all about Tuong's homeland. Like most, I knew little about the South Korean capital. What I did know stemmed from high school history books, CNN headlines, and homophobic tales in the GLBT blogosphere, none of which placed the destination high on my bucket list. From Tuong's descriptions, Seoul sounded like a highly closeted society, with plenty of opportunities for "gay play" but little room for coming out. Back in 2001, one of Korea's most famous television actors, Hong Suk-chun, outed himself, becoming the first openly-gay public figure in the country's history. Within hours his contracts were cancelled, and his face disappeared from TVs nationwide. Though Korea slowly warmed up to his sexual orientation, and Hong returned to the small screen by 2004, the arts and homosexuality clashed again in 2008, when three renowned actors took their own lives, suffocated by societal homophobia.
"Don't worry. You're not Korean," Tuong reminded me, as my face reflected a sense of horror and shock. "Koreans don't care if Westerners are gay. It's just within their families they're concerned. Everyone will respect you and treat you kindly. You will love it here." It was a lot to take in my first night, but I recognized this social mentality from my trip to Japan; that sure as hell didn't stop the Japanese from having a grand old, gay time. Tuong told me I had serendipitously arrived during Seoul's ten-day gay pride, the Korea Queer Culturel Festival, entailing a film festival, wild parties, and a pride parade. She had to work all week, but she'd guide me on a path to paint the landscape pink later that monumental week.
PALACES AND RICE CAKES BY DAY
While I had come to Seoul eager to discover gay life, it was only a small part of my semi-planned itinerary, which focused principally on exploring historic royal palaces, spiritual shrines, renowned art museums, and frenetic markets. Map in hand, I set my daily goals for sight-seeing, people watching, nighttime partying, and foodie fantasia, allowing ample time for aimless ambles through random back alleys and unfamiliar streets. I didn't understand a lick of Korean, but subway names and landmarks were noted in both Hangul and the Latin alphabet, making city jaunts fairly simple. To make things even easier, the Ritz concierge had inundated me with English descriptions and walking directions to every possible sight in the city.
I dedicated my first two days to visiting the five grand palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Though these palaces suffered horrendous attacks and destruction from centuries of Japanese invasion and imperialism, their Confucian spirit and aesthetic splendor have been largely restored through renovations and reconstruction. I began with Gyeongbokgung, the largest and most important palace, originally comprising 500 buildings and spread out over more than one hundred verdant acres guarded by six stunning gates. Today, only ten structures survive, but the archetypal architecture enchants and mystifies. In most instances, wooden structures stand erected on stone platforms, painted in olive greens and rusty reds, topped with curved multi-tiered roofs. The wooden roof beams end in colorful patterns, painted brightly with uniform symmetric designs. Roaming through Geunjeongjeon Hall, where the king once formally granted audiences to his officials, young Korean students eagerly practiced their English on me and asked for my photo. I gladly obliged but soon found this common theme a testament to the few foreign visitors Koreans see in their homeland.
Gyeongbokgung took longer than anticipated. I could not stop photographing the labyrinth of pagodas and pavilions and crossing petite bridges that led to perfectly manicured gardens. I was also fascinated with the Korean visitors, watching them interact, comparing their reactions to these sacred sites with mine, and enjoying the mock wedding taking place in period costumes. I later breezed through two smaller palaces, Deoksugung and Changgyeonggung, and headed toward the most exalted palace in of all Seoul: Changdeokgung.
By the time I arrived at Changdeokgung, I was "palaced out" for the day and splendidly curious about the food stalls near the subway station. So, I ditched my Harvard learning halo and lived out my wildest fat kid moments, ordering anything and everything that looked or smelled interesting. I began with a bowl of tteokbokki, pasta-like rice cakes pan-friend in a spicy red pepper sauce. Heaven! Then I moved on to Gimbap, which looks like a sushi roll but is filled with cucumbers, spinach, carrots, danmuji (pickled radish), and a choice of protein (in my case fish cakes). Yum! Next, cheonggukjang, similar to Miso soup but much chunkier and a helluva lot stinkier. Finally, I ordered two scrumptious hotteok, a sort of sweet and crunchy Korean pancake with brown sugar inside, served once the sugar caramelizes. Epic!
The next day, I returned to Changdeokgung with Tuong by my side for an extended day of Korean historical rapture. We were lucky enough to land tickets for the palace's "Secret Garden (Biwon)" tour, which often sells out days in advance. These UNESCO World Heritage gardens showcase the pinnacle of Korean garden and landscaping techniques across acres of ponds, pagodas, and lush hills. We later ventured to Bukchon Village, a neighborhood of traditional Korean-style homes (hanocks) that nearly double as living museums. Up and down Bukchon's über-steep alleyways, the homes maintain the structures and façades they have for centuries. Lower streets of this timeless enclave boast hundreds of art galleries and cafés, while further up cultural museums, residences, and even a handful of guesthouses, like the Seoul Hanok Guesthouse, offer a first-hand experience of traditional culture.
The rest of the week reigned as a time of cultural frivolity and inspiration. Each afternoon, I sipped tea in Insadong, sampling the hot or frozen rainbow assortments while feasting on an array of yakgwa and hangwa, traditional Korean snacks. Enjoying these delicacies in quaint, personality-driven, multi-story teahouses was half the fun; people watching to the sweet sounds of a gayageum (a Korean string instrument) was the other half. I dabbled in a bit more culture and Joseon history, exploring the Jongmyo Royal Shrine, where royal monarchs have been worshipped for centuries. I practiced my new Korean phrases at the country's largest outdoor market, Namdaemun, haggling to save a few won and trying to order some of my new favorite street foods. I ventured through the vast shopping crowds in Myeongdong after more exploratory and experiential meals at the Ritz, and tried to capture photos of Seoul's nightly light show with random shutter speeds.