Canary Wharf, London, 12 May 2016. In previous years I had always felt stressed in the run up to my departure for my annual Korea trip. Had I packed everything? Would I get everything done before I left? This time I was straining at the leash. I couldn’t wait.
I had planned most of my trip down to the nearest half hour (as it happened, with remarkable accuracy). I had a packing list (so boring, but such a simple and effective way of de-stressing the packing). Rather than leaving it until I got to Heathrow, I had bought gifts in advance (Fortnum’s Smokey Earl Grey, as drunk by the Queen, plus some thick-cut marmalade as requested by BrotherBrother Anthony, who more than anyone else had provided the framework for my visit this year – starting with Buddha’s birthday and ending with the teafields of Jirisan). Hotels had been secured, and a one-way car rental had been booked online with remarkable ease, picking up in Suncheon and dropping off a couple of days later in Gwangju. The three nights I had not booked myself I knew would not be a problem because trusted friends were sorting it out. In all, I couldn’t wait to get on that plane.
As it happens, the flight itself was not as enjoyable as it sometimes is. For a start, the plane had not yet benefited from the comfort-enhancing refit that Asiana had applied to most of its fleet around 5 years ago. And the in-flight movie I chose, Kim Dae-seung’s The Joseon Magician (조선마술사), was a pretty lightweight affair: a costume drama set in the Chinese borderlands and involving a love affair between a young Korean princess being sent to the Chinese court and a troupe of entertainers including a magician / illusionist. Nice-looking, but not a movie that will make much impact on you. Nevertheless the time passed swiftly and before I was really ready for it I landed in Incheon.
As I passed through immigration a cheery passport official told me I looked like Dustin Hoffman. That is a likeness that had never been suggested before and I was wondering whether to take it as a compliment or not. On balance I took it as a positive, and then slipped into my now familiar routine of picking up a SIM card for my phone once I had picked up my bags and passed through customs. And in compensation for the slightly down-at-heel accommodation in the place, Asiana had laid on a car to ferry me to my hotel. Of course, the driver couldn’t find the hotel on the SatNav and wasn’t prepared to listen to my assurances that if he just punched in “Jogyesa” we’d be fine. After 10 minutes struggling with his machine he was satisfied that he could drive me to Jongno, and off we set. The lengthy drive into town (Friday afternoon traffic possibly clogged up by preparations for Buddha’s birthday the following day) was occupied by my making phone calls to various friends to announce my arrival, let people know my temporary phone number and check that my Kakao Talk account (which I only ever use on my Korean phone) still worked. Meanwhile, the driver was swearing under his breath at the traffic.
I arrive at my hotel, a stone’s throw from Jogyesa, at around 6:15, and by the time I emerge from the shower my friend Jeong Gabsik is waiting for me downstairs to take me to supper in Insadong. The rendez-vous is at Dongchon, a makgeolli place in the same side street that I had gone for 2차 the previous year on my last night in Seoul. But the appointmentis not until 7:30, leaving time for a quick bit of retail therapy in Lee Geon Maan’s tie shop on the way.
My companions for the evening are Mr Jeong – a friend from London with a huge knowledge of Korean history and culture; Kim Kabsoo – the former director of the KCC in London; and also Ha Jaekoo – also known as Ssamzisarang – a gentleman heavily involved in the traditional textile arts of jogakpo and maedeup.
It was a pleasant evening of makgeolli and varied side dishes which we rounded off with a visit to the Ssamzisarang workshop and showroom not far away.
We parted company around 9pm, and I walked with Gabsik to Jonggak subway to make sure my T-money fob was fully charged for use on public transport the next day. And then, as the lanterns were lit at Jogyesa in preparation for Buddha’s birthday I wandered around with my camera taking some pictures, before swallowing a sleeping pill and retiring to my bed.