Are you familiar with the Korean Wave? Are you among the more than one billion(!) people who tune in to watch the Korean drama Descendants of the Sun? Do you swoon whenever Lee Byung-hun appears on the big screen? Do you follow, with perhaps a slightly unhealthy interest, the tangled love lives of K-Pop’s megastars? Are you aware that LeBron James really does drive a Kia? Have you ever found yourself, late at night, on YouTube, watching PSY’s 2012 totally bonkers live performance of “Gangnam Style”? The one in Seoul, outdoors, with 80,000 delirious fans singing and dancing in unison? Did you experience the shivers? Did you become a little emotional? Did you feel the Great Happiness wash over you like a summer rain?
If you answered no to these questions, well, I’m afraid you are behind the times, my friend. Your attachment to iPhones, Game of Thrones, and Taylor Swift is, I’m sad to say, a little parochial. The world has moved on. But it’s not hopeless. You too can ride the zeitgeist. All you need to do is turn your gaze to Seoul.
Today, South Korea is cool. How cool? Well, on the day I arrived at Incheon International Airport—a sleek new Asian hub where one can find a golf course, a skating rink, a casino, a spa and sauna, a museum, a cinema, an arts and crafts studio, and the kind of dining options that will make you weep in despair the next time you encounter an airport Cinnabon—North Korea was busy playing with its nukes. My phone was aflame with news of hydrogen bombs, ICBMs, and American F-22 Raptors patrolling the DMZ while North Korea stood ready to launch 500,000 artillery shells into the heart of Seoul, just 35 miles from the border.
This, I thought, is not good. I had flown in from my home in Washington, D.C. I tried to imagine what it might be like if some heavily armed, psychotic dictator with provocative hair threatened our nation’s capital with Armageddon from his sanctum in Baltimore. I think I can state with some certainty that there would be pandemonium. We do not do sangfroid in Washington. We are, as you have long suspected, mostly weenies. Not so in Seoul.
“I don’t think about North Korea when I’m stirring my pasta,” said my friend, who wanted to remain anonymous because she works in PR for a large Korean firm. She said this a little wistfully, not because she was especially moved by the current troubles, but because she had just given up carbs. “It’s just another foreign country. And so we ignore it and get on with our lives.”
I had met her in a coffee shop in Gangnam, the flashy section of Seoul south of the Han River, which acts as a kind of border of its own, neatly bisecting the city, dividing the old Seoul of palaces, markets, and government ministries from the new Seoul of cloud-scraping high-rises, cutting edge restaurants, and tottering fashionistas. Gangnam is where many of Seoul’s movers and shakers live, work, and play. They are fueled by caffeine, as evidenced by the approximately 30 coffee shops that seem to inhabit each and every block of downtown Seoul. Not a single one offers decaf. I checked. “The energy is addictive here,” she noted, as we mainlined a couple of espressos. “Koreans have a continuous need for change. We have a saying here: Change everything except your wife and kids.”
This was the exhortation Lee Kun-hee, the son of the founder of Samsung, gave to his employees back in 1993 (before his recent sex scandal), urging his company to forego conformity and embrace risk and innovation. It worked, of course. Today, despite some embarrassing setbacks, Samsung is a tech behemoth, and is one of the reasons why South Korea leapfrogged dozens of nations to become the world’s sixth largest exporter. More importantly, Lee’s maxim seemed to be a spark that helped fuel the great transformation of South Korea. China may be the world’s factory, but increasingly it is South Korea that determines what people the world over consume, from pop music to television dramas to smartphones to biopharmaceuticals.
And yet, it sometimes seems as if South Koreans haven’t quite internalized just how revolutionary their recent history has been. One of the great curiosities of Seoul is the locals’ insistence that they are the Italians of Asia. It is something I would hear often and, frankly, I found it inexplicable. Yes, Koreans are expressive, emotional, impulsive—all attributes typically associated with Italians—as well as Brazilians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Tahitians, and my kids. But are the office lights still on at 11 p.m. in downtown Naples? Do little boys and girls in Milan spend their weekends at cram schools? Does anyone tune in to Italian television shows? No. I think what Koreans mean—and they are quite proud of it—is that they no longer feel tethered to the old Confucian ideals of duty, fealty, and hierarchy. And this has led to the thrum of energy one can feel crackling through modern Seoul.
This can be a little intimidating for the first-time visitor. I consider myself a city boy, but greater Seoul, with its population of 25 million people, each and every one of them hypercaffeinated and determined to seize the day, can make even the most hardened urbanite feel like a country bumpkin. I was familiar with the long work day (well, not personally, but I know people) but I did not realize that in South Korea this extends to infants. Korean babies are the most sleep deprived little people in the world. And, having spent some time in the megacities of China, I thought I understood the kind of scale that boggles the mind. But did you know that Seoul has the highest concentration of restaurants per capita in the world?
The South Korean capital is full of such brain-melting factoids. Somehow, without anyone noticing—and by anyone, I mean me—Seoul has become one of the great cities of the world, a giant pulsating star, radiating its energy to the far corners of the world, too busy with the here and now to worry about the apocalyptic shenanigans of its northern neighbor. Where, I wondered, does one even begin to explore a city like Seoul?
“You should begin in the very center of Seoul,” my friend told me.
As it turns out, the center of this city is found on Mount Namsan, an idyllic 859-foot promontory capped by the N Seoul Tower, which looms over the city like a watchful sentry. I like to begin the day with a little serenity, and the undulating four-mile footpath that encircles the hill is about the only place you’ll find it in this dense urban wonderland. It was late winter when I wandered up its slopes—the streams that tumbled down the hillside remained frozen and the trees barren—but the ever present clamor of birdsong suggested spring was imminent.
Here and there, I came across remnants of the old city walls, constructed during the early Joseon Dynasty, when Mount Namsan marked the southern border of Seoul. Interspersed throughout were the exercise yards typical of East Asia, which seemed to be the exclusive domain of elderly gentlemen, each with an old-timey transistor radio emitting the warbling love songs of a bygone Korea. There is a cable car to the peak, but I chose to follow an enchanting stone stairway, and after 45 minutes of clambering I emerged at the top, where I was greeted by the sight of tens of thousands of “love locks” hung on fences, gates, railings, and even officially sanctioned, specially designed metal “trees of love” that line the paths like immortal Christmas trees.
Love is a serious business in Seoul. One of the first things that comes up in a budding relationship is determining whether or not a couple is blood compatible. Many Koreans believe that one’s blood type determines one’s personality. Type As, for instance, are understood to be kind though prone to being introverted and perfectionists. I, as a Type O, am apparently a confident, expressive, egotistical risk-taker, which does not sound good, but which helps explain some questionable life decisions. Once a couple resolves that they are blood-compatible, they invariably make the pilgrimage to the peak of Mount Namsan, where they profess their deep and abiding smittenness and mark the moment with the ceremonial placement of a padlock.
But I had not come here for romance. I bought a ticket to the observatory deck of N Seoul Tower and rocketed up in a swift elevator with a lift attendant who saw me off with giggling bows. At the top, the first thing one encounters is a Weeny-Beeny Candy Shop, and while tempted, I had not come to the mountain for sugar either. No, I had come to behold Seoul.
Its immensity is staggering. Tower after tower stretching off as far as the eye could see, filling every nook and valley of the rugged landscape, from the Lotte World Tower, which ascends to 1,821 feet, to the hundreds of apartment blocks.
And for the visitor, there is everything here, as I would discover in the days ahead. Do you desire some old-school imperial Korea? Well then, head on down—via cable car, regally—to Changdeokgung, the Palace of Illustrious Virtue (the home of Korea’s last emperor) and wander the grounds, making sure to visit the secret garden, and accept your insignificance.
Restore your humanity with a walk through the alleyways of Bukchon Hanok Village, where more than 900 traditional Korean homes and guesthouses have been carefully preserved. Absorb the lilting, angular roofs, the heavy wooden doors, and the decorative brick walls, and remember that once upon a time Seoul was but a small town. Then make your way to nearby Hyoja-dong, long a home for craftsmen, but increasingly known for its avant-garde art galleries. Not as well known as Samcheong-dong, Seoul’s venerable art mecca, Hyoja-dong is notable for its commitment to preserving the historic ambience of this district of hanoks and maze-like passageways while welcoming the hot glare of the contemporary art world.
And now you’re hungry, of course. And because you are a first time visitor to Seoul, you have no idea where to go. That’s okay! Because what Seoul does really well is street food. There are dozens of markets spread throughout the city. Some, like Dongdaemun, are known for fashion. Others, like Namdaemun, are known for, well, everything. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Namdaemun, it’s probably not available anywhere on Earth. Spicy rice cakes and Korean fried chicken (so much tastier than its American version—sorry, Southerners!) are ubiquitous, but keep your eyes open for silkworms (beondegi) and poo bread. Trust me.
Nearly every Korean, it seems, is passionate about food. And you soon understand why. Korean cuisine is not subtle. Every bite is a carnival of tastes, from the fiery chicken feet (dakbal), to the bitter dandelion salad (mindeulle muchim) and sweet Korean pancakes (hotteok). Me? I like the traditional galbi restaurants, where you grill marinated beef short ribs at your table while your dining companions get marinated on soju, the local firewater. And perhaps no place does it better than Mapo Sutbul Galbi in trendy Apgujeong-dong, where the stars of K-Pop and film come to dine. People are beautiful here, but now so are you. You have arrived. You are in the center of the universe here. You are in Seoul.