Mixing It Up In Seoul: 5 Unique Ways To Experience South Korea
Travelers often feel a certain pressure to see everything of historical and cultural significance when they visit a new city or country. They frantically rush from museum, to monument, to palace as if they are writing a guidebook, and before they know it, the trip is over. They return home exhausted, armed with an overabundance of stock postcard pictures hastily snapped in front of [insert appropriate tourist attraction here] to show to their family and friends. Not only does this method of travel limit their understanding of the contemporary culture, but what’s even worse, it doesn’t seem to be much fun.
I spent the last six months living and teaching in Seoul, South Korea. During this time it was not the guided tours or visits to significant sites that ultimately shaped my understanding of the country, but rather the common everyday happenings that were both revelatory and enjoyable. My best moments came when I stopped viewing Korean culture from afar and instead participated in it.
With this in mind I have created a list of things to do in Seoul. While the obvious attractions — Namsung Tower, the DMZ, the palaces, Myeong Dong, Insadong — are all places I recommend you visit if you have time, my list is intended for people in pursuit of a more unique and participatory experience. It includes some things your average Korean might do in a weekend and other things that are a bit more creative. But for me, all of them share two characteristics: they are uniquely Korean, and they are potentially a lot of fun.
1) Go to a Sporting Event
During my time in Korea I went to two sporting events, a Korean Basketball League (KBL) game, and a professional Korean baseball game. Although the level of play varies between the sports the excitement and energy of the crowd does not. Since Koreans love baseball, this tends to manifest on the field with high-caliber players and teams. A more indifferent attitude towards basketball also shows. But don’t let the fact that Duke might beat a KBL team by 40 get you down. What’s fun about these events is the atmosphere.
The prices are affordable ($6-$14), and Koreans haven’t yet realized that once you get fans inside a stadium you can shut the doors and pinch ‘em for every penny. As a result, it’s perfectly normal to bring your own food and drink to the game. In fact, if you don’t they might think you’re a foreigner! It’s a picnic, so pack your favorite snacks or buy something from the street vendors outside Jamsil Stadium and enjoy. And if you so happen to run out during the course of the game, you can leave the stadium and return with another armful of whatever your stomach desires.
Koreans are also very participatory at sporting events. Each team brings their own MC and dancing girls to pump up the crowd, and the crowd chants motivational songs throughout the game. A lot of these songs have taken the liberty to borrow (or steal) the rhythms from popular American sports songs. So when you think you are hearing “Take me out to the ball game,” except it’s in Korean, there’s a good chance you are.
Note: They don’t have hot dogs at Jamsil baseball stadium but they do have fried octopus. It’s salty, chewy, and delicious. Give it a try!
The jimjil (heated bath) bong (room) is Korea’s version of the spa. It includes Jacuzzis, cold water baths, showers, massage tables, steam and ice rooms, and usually a common room for watching TV, drinking ginseng shakes or iced sikhye and eating cold noodles. And unlike many western spas, it is very affordable (usually around $6-$10).
If you’re shy about walking around in your birthday suit as curious Koreans take platonic sneak peeks, don’t worry. Head to the common room where both sexes mingle fully clothed and enjoy the steam rooms and relaxed atmosphere. This is about as laid-back as Korea gets, and if you leave without spotting at least one old man comfortably asleep on the wooden floor, write me a letter of complaint.
Note: At night Jimjilbong’s transform into a sort of hostel. Mats are provided and men and women stretch out along the floor as though it’s made of feathers. It only costs about $6 and is a common thing for Koreans to do, especially those living outside of the city. While in the States this sort of thing might become dangerous, in Korea it’s as calm and peaceful as a night under the stars. If you’re strapped for cash and need a place to crash, avoid seedy Love Motels and try a night alongside the community.
3) Nori Bong
This Korean take on karaoke is a must-do. Nori (sing) Bong (room) is as ingrained in the Korean lifestyle as studying and working hard. A Nori Bong generally consists of many small private rooms, each containing a full karaoke setup and a book filled with popular Korean and Western songs. Don’t worry, half of the book is in English and you’ll find the song that makes you sing like a hummingbird.
You can usually purchase beer or soju there and if not, they’ll let you bring it in, all in the spirit of enhancing your voice or disillusioning the ears of your company. If you walk in and hear a woman belting “I’m so lonely” by Akon in less-than-perfect English, you’re in the right place.
Note: Nori Bongs are as common as plastic surgery in Seoul, and if you have any trouble finding one you must not be in Korea.
4) Soju Tents
To escape from Korea without at least one shot of soju, even for the most sober of travelers, isn’t easy. At times it seems that in every bar, bowling alley, club, kimbap, seafood, or galbi restaurant, there is a group of well-dressed men drinking soju and smoking cigarettes. But whether you fancy wetting your lips or not it is worth your time to dine in one of the many brightly-colored (usually orange) tents that appear all over Seoul and that foreigners tend to call “soju tents.”
“Soju tents” are usually run by an old Ajumma and someone in the family, and are cheap and full of delicious Korean food. Try pachun, a Korean omelet style dish that can be had with an array of vegetables or seafood. Also, drinks are cheap here and the environment authentically Korean. Some tent owners will give you special attention and care because you are foreign, and others may be rude or shy for the same reason. Either way, you will get a sense of what it’s like for foreigners living in Seoul.
5) Eat Nakji
Eating nakji is not for the weak-of-stomach or overly sensitive, and during my first three months in Korea I didn’t even consider it. Nakji is a type of small octopus that are kept in large tanks outside of many Korean restaurants and street tents. When served the nakji is removed from the water and quickly chopped up, usually by an Ajumma (older married woman) with a very large knife. But what makes the nakji so appealing (or appalling) is that when it is brought out on a plate, soaked in sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seed, the tentacles are still moving. Some are doing a final slow dance and others appear as though they might break free and squirm violently across the table, pick up a chop stick and stab you in the neck in a mad fury of revenge.
So why do I recommend this? Well, after trying it not only did I realize the squirmy devils are surprisingly tasty once you adjust to your food moving around in your mouth, but because most importantly, it’s fun. Whether you go to a small street tent that specializes in seafood, or an actual nakji restaurant, there will undoubtedly be locals throwing back shots of suju, smoking cigarettes, laughing and eating all sorts of sea critters you’ve never seen before. If you get lucky you might even see someone eat a full octopus, Old Boy style.
Note: If you’re traveling alone and aren’t willing to try a full plate of nakji yourself, order something you’re more comfortable with: oysters, clams or fish. When you see a plate of wiggling nakji being brought to a table of inebriated Samsung executives, express your curiosity. Hard-drinking Koreans are famously (or notoriously) friendly to foreigners after a hard day’s work, and you might find yourself with a complimentary soju shot in hand and a slimy octopus tentacle coming right at you. Enjoy! And be sure to chew fast and hard!
No matter your length of stay in Seoul, if you make an effort to participate in the culture you will be rewarded. The more Koreans observe you putting forth the effort, the more receptive they will become towards you. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. To surprise yourself in a challenging situation can be one of the most rewarding experiences traveling has to offer.
By Nathaniel Kostar
About the Author
Nathaniel Kostar is a freelance writer and student currently pursuing his MFA in creative writing with The University of New Orleans. He is working on his first non-fiction book, which details his journey as he attempts to learn poetry, art, fighting, music, dance and philosophy (all skills expected of Italian Renaissance men) in various countries around the world. More of his writing can be found on his blog at WeSproutWings.com.