from Sandy Needham

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Seoul Dispatch

November 15, 2006

Arriving at night and driving past bridge after bridge lit up along the Han River in the middle of gigantic, lit up Seoul was encouraging. Full disclosure: I am very biased towards Japan. Our Seoul hotel was very nice. I can truly attest to the quality of the toilet paper being superior to that of Japan!

I was determined to get on that river in the pleasant, though hazy weather the next day, so took off to catch the ferry. I noticed on the way that there was literally block after block of high rises, all in the same mid-stage of construction. I later learned that this is typical all over Seoul, it is growing so fast. The ferry ride was fine, if uneventful, save for the rather slick, oily character who tried to flirt with me by taking my picture with his cell phone. I did not have a pleasant expression. My lack of enthusiasm paid off, and he slunk away and didn't come back.

I walked past a neighborhood of side streets, all bursting with an outdoor food market. It was the most vivid I have ever seen, with an amazing variety of seafood (from live to dried), huge baskets of hot red peppers (so that the kimchi cabbage can set you on fire), endless vats of various kimchi, a stunning assortment of grains and beans, bins of neatly bundled greens and scallions, meat shops - mostly pork, and the wondrous cast of characters to go with it all.

I visited Seoul's traditional village, which was just begging comparison since I had just visited the equivalent in Japan. As lovely as it was, it was a rougher version, particularly with details such as the use of linoleum to mimic the patterns of wood in a typical traditional floor (they don't use tatami mats). The sheer care and fine materials that define the Japanese tradition is a hard act to follow for most any culture. It was a warm, sunny day at the village and the school children were there in droves, so I was happy. The children around age 12 liked to approach me and try out their English. I was flummoxed when trying to repeat their names. The Korean language is much more like Chinese than the easy syllabics of Japanese, so I failed to master even "thank you" here.

I'm sure you are asking, "What about decaf?" When I ordered decaf espresso at the Starbucks, they said they were not allowed to import decaffeinated coffee to Korea.

The highlight, as usual, was our dinner out with the distributors, John and Jimmy. We had a typical Korean meal, the burning hot spicy aspect perfect for me and the thin slices of beef and pork barbecued in the middle of the table and folded up in lettuce leaves, perfect for Newton. Beer is necessary with this food.

The best Korean pub name: O'Kim's Brauhaus.

In general, the culture is just rougher around the edges than that of Japan. It appears that the Koreans are also looser about all that conformity, thankfully.

We flew back to Tokyo for our flight to London and stayed near the airport in the town of Narita. Even though we were inundated with Asian food, we had not exhausted our love of gyozas - sautéed dumplings with pork and veggies inside - so we were happy to end our stay with more of those. (You can see that waiting to get hungry again is the only deterrent Newton and I experience in a travel agenda!)

Europe next -


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