Seoul is a city of the future. The streets are alive with flashing signs, colored lights, and all kinds of oddities. On the way to the hostel I spotted a large, hexagonal cocoon, about the size of a camper or a small bus, in the median between two streets. Lights flashed from inside, and as I got closer, I could see computers inside. I never figured out what that oddly shaped building was, but I’m assuming it was a miniature gaming lounge, for five or six people at a time.
Two days wasn’t nearly enough time to experience Seoul, but it was enough for a taste. Becca lived in South Korea for a year and a half, so seeing the city with her was like having a guide. She navigated the train, ordered the food, and basically set the agenda. I was a passenger, along for the ride. Sometimes, letting go of control, and sitting in the backseat can be an incredible feeling.
We stayed at the Mama & Papa guesthouse in Hongdae. It was awesome for the money—heated floors, laundry machines, a kitchen with food and amenities like coffee and tea. Friendly staff and so on. The only issue was the paper-thin walls, and shared common area, which can be a little cramped if too many people are using it. All in all though, I’d say Mama & Papa get our stamp of approval.
While in Seoul, one must experience “Chi-maek.” It’s a common phrase, a mixture of “Chicken” and the Korean word for Beer, “Maekju”. The combination is enough to trigger an automatic nap time, and while they don’t currently provide a sleeping area, I think it’s a feature Chi-maek restaurants ought to implement.
Hongdae is positively bursting with attitude and style. I hesitate to use the word, but hipster is how I describe the vibe. I use that term in the most endearing spirit possible. The cafés that dot either side of the road each have a distinct style and flavor, daring to sport themes as outlandish as “nuclear waste.”
The clothing stands and shops are also intriguing as hell. You can get lost in the clothing racks, picking out jackets, and shirts, and socks, with styles you’d never find in the US. This is coming from a guy who gets anxious after fifteen minutes in kohls. We spent a solid day working Korean clothing into our wardrobe.
For dinner, we met up with Jun Yong, a longtime Korean friend of Becca’s, from her days at the Korean University. He took us out to have Korean BBQ. A heated metal plate cooked slices of raw chicken on the table. When it was all cooked and delicious, we wrapped the chicken in lettuce and sprinkled on spices like Kimchi. When in Seoul, Korean BBQ is another must.
We also had a chance to meet Becca’s old roommate from her dorm days. She took us to Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, and taught us the secret art of getting the perfect Instagram picture.
After the palace, and a short visit to an exhibit on Korean history, we popped into the most peculiar place I’ve ever been: a raccoon café. I once visited a cat café, and thought that was a little strange. This experience blew that out of the water. When we first walked in, the place had a log cabin feel to it, dimly lit, with a distinctly rank odor wafting in the air. At first, we couldn’t find the raccoons. I was a bit anxious about the rope netting, and plywood board network hanging from the ceiling. It suggested that the raccoons were climbing around just above our heads—and in fact, they were.
Racoon cafes are a place where people gather to rub the fat tummies of the sleepy creatures. Little knots of customers follow the rotund raccoons around as they climb to one bridge or another. There are rules about avoiding the raccoon’s mouths, and warnings about trying to manipulate the raccoons. But, these rules are quickly forgotten as people get more comfortable around them. I saw the raccoons snap at people a couple of times, and after one snapped at me, we decided it might be best to quit while we were ahead.
At the end of day two, we said our fond farewells, and headed back to the hostel to pack. The trip was here and gone in a flash. It was a tiny, minuscule taste of a city that begs to be explored. As I leave Seoul, I know I’ll be back. This place deserves so much more than a simple taste.