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Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

In love with Seoul

Gopchang Jeongol
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I’m pretty sure the FT’s coverage of Korean affairs has increased both in quality and quantity over the past year. For example, they were the only western paper I noticed that covered the publication of the annual profits of the foreign banks operating in Seoul — data only available in Korean on the financial regulator’s website. All this is good news for Koreaphile FT readers such as myself. The only downside is that I’m unable to search the FT archives on their site because I’m too stingy to subscribe.

The FT has not one but two Seoul correspondents, Anna Fifield and Song Jung-a. Here’s what Fifield likes about Seoul, from last weekend’s FT.

Can you share soup on a first date?
By Anna Fifield
Published: June 10 2006 03:00

Seoul is a city of paradoxes. A concrete-block industrial powerhouse encircled by rocky mountains, home to leather-skinned old men dragging newspaper-laden carts between impossibly beautiful girls toting Gucci bags and metrosexual boys watching TV on their mobile phones.

It often seems that you can witness the past, present and future of this rapidly changing country on just one Seoul street.

But I don’t always love Seoul. When I’ve got sore ribs from being elbowed by the fierce ajuma (housewives) who fight their way through the hordes in Lotte department store, or when it takes 45 minutes to drive 2km, it can be hard to dredge up affection for this city.

And I’m not going to pretend Seoul is a cosmopolitan place – good food and wine are not impossible to come by but the exorbitant prices tend to overwhelm any culinary pleasure. Nor would I suggest it is aesthetically pleasing – the functional apartment blocks and the jogging track beside the Han river have all the atmosphere of an industrial estate. My unscientific calculations suggest there is one tree for every 500,000 residents.

Nevertheless, over the 18 months that Seoul has been my adopted home, I feel pleasantly comforted, my heart breathing a happy sigh, when the plane’s wheels hit the runway at Incheon airport after travelling abroad. I can’t wait to return. And when I’m in London or Wellington or Hong Kong I break out in a smile when I see Korean barbecue restaurants or hear the soothing yos at the end of Korean sentences.

Seoul for me is a vibrant city, a place where it is impossible not to feel alive – and on Saturdays in particular. Apart from going to a palm-fringed beach, it seems there is nothing I can’t do within 30 minutes of leaving my apartment.

I can climb Bukhansan, the rocky mountain in the northern part of the city that is seemingly conquered by all 20m residents of greater Seoul each weekend. Or I can wander around one of the beautiful Chosun dynasty era palaces – such as Deoksugung and Kyungbokgung – in the heart of the city. Or go to Insadong, the artsy area populated with galleries and quaint tea houses. Or survey the works by artists including Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Lee Sang-beom at the Samsung-owned Leeum museum.

For some glitz, there is swish Apgujong, where edgy twenty-somethings park their BMWs, then drink martinis in bars that would not be out of place in Manhattan. For cool, there is Hongdae, the university area renowned for its hip music clubs. And for a shopping adventure, there is no beating markets such as Namdaemun, where you can buy everything from writhing eels and whole ginseng roots to reflexology slippers and fake Louis Vuitton bags, all offered with ear-splitting commentary.

But for me, there are two things that make Seoul even more of a fun place to live: the Korean love of eating together and the Korean love of heat.

Food is such an integral part of social interaction that the Korean way of inquiring after someone’s well-being is not to ask “how are you?” but instead to say “have you eaten?”. You can barely walk 50m in Seoul without passing yet another restaurant – often specialising in stews, bulgogi barbecue, ribs, fish or crabs – that at noon and 7pm each day is invariably full.

Walk into any average Korean restaurant and sit on the floor (heated in winter) and the table will automatically fill with panchan, the complimentary side dishes that can include spicy kimchi cabbage, pickled radish, dried fish, sweet potatoes, acorn jelly and vegetable roots that almost make a meal in themselves.

Eating is a communal activity – everyone dips into the bowls with their chopsticks, an activity thattriggered anxieties about hygiene when I first arrived but that I have now embraced. Good friends even slurp soup from the same bowl, a rather intimate form of eating. I sometimes ponder whether it would be OK to share soup on a first date?

After eating panchan, soup and the restaurant’s speciality – often meat cooked in barbecues set into the table – and just at the stage when unwitting foreigners are feeling stuffed, the waiter will ask “And what would you like for your meal?” No Korean eating session is complete without a rice or noodle dish.

There are two stereotypical comparisons made about Koreans. The first – that they are the Italians of Asia – is supported by this love of food and spending time together at the table. The second – the Irish of Asia – is demonstrated through conviviality that is an integral part of socialising.

To shouts of “bottoms up”, you are urged to empty your glass of soju, the Korean rice liquor, then hold it out to be refilled. The drinking inevitably progresses to the consumption of poktanju or bomb drink – a small glass of soju or whisky plopped into a larger glass of beer. By 10 each night, the restaurants and bars of Seoul are filled with the tinkling sound of a small glass rattling within a larger one, the sign that someone has just downed another poktanju.

To me, this kind of typical restaurant experience sums up everything – at the risk of stereotyping – that I love about Koreans: the friendliness, the rowdiness, the tendency to extremes. No Korean goes to a bar for just one drink – it’s all or nothing.

A Korean friend recently explained this tendency to me by reference to the weather – the country’s almost arctic winter, then an unbearably humid summer led Koreans to extremes of emotion, he said.

But to balance out all this drinking and eating, Koreans head to the mountains or to the jimjilbang – a kind of living-room-cum-sauna. In these ubiquitous public resting places, people in unflattering T-shirts and shorts (usually pink for girls, blue for boys) lie around in various hot rooms – charcoal, yellow mud, oxygen – reading, napping or chatting. There are also normal rooms where you can watch DVDs, surf the internet, have massages or eat.

The idea is that you sweat out the stress – and the soju and the kimchi you’ve probably eaten three servings of that day – or let the ions recalibrate your body. Then there is the sauna area where, after washing yourself thoroughly, you sit in the pools or steam room letting the excesses evaporate from your body.

My favourite part of visiting the sauna is the demiri or body scrub, which is not for the faint-hearted (or the modest).

To one side of the sauna, there is usually an area where you can lie naked on a plastic table while a woman (in the women’s sauna, that is) essentially sandpapers your entire body, an experience in which the discomfort is easily trumped by the invigoration.

The first time I had one of these body scrubs I opened my eyes during the sloughing to see what appeared to be long rolls of grey plasticine on the table next to me. It took me a couple of minutes to realise that it was, in fact, rolls of my skin.

These scrubs vary from sauna to sauna but during the process it is not uncommon to have green tea paste or mulched-up cucumber applied to your face, your hair washed, or a person walking along your back.

After being steamed and scrubbed to within an inch of my life, I am almost literally a whole new woman as I walk out, relaxed, on to a cacophonous Seoul street, ready for another round of soju and kimchi.

8 thoughts on “In love with Seoul

  1. Hi have recently moved to London and was wanting to know if there was a Korean Bath House/ Sauna in London. I would love a scrub I use to visit the one in Sydney, Australia all the time.

    Can you help me

    Thanks in advance

  2. So far, the answer is that no-one knows of a Korean sauna in the London area, but I’ll ask a few more people

  3. Here’s something I found recently on Gumtree

    I have no idea what sort of place it is.

    We lovely Korean & Japanese masseuses (Qualified in CMC) will give you great professional massage and excellent service.

    We also have Sauna & Body scrub, which are designed to ease away stress and purify your body and mind.

    We aim to provide all necessary facilities to put you at ease and to make your visit as memorable and enjoyable as possible.

    Sauna & Boday Scrubs £30.00
    Massage: £40.00 for one hour

    We have free parking.

    We open 11-11pm.

    New Malden B:
    Address: 117 Manor Drive North, New Malden,
    Postcode: KT3 5PD
    1 minute walking from Malden Manor train station.
    10 Mins by bus K1 from New Malden.
    We are the last stop of Bus S3, which will reach us directly from SUTTON, CHEAM, WORCESTER PARK within 30 mins.
    TEL: 020 8330 3637 and 020 8330 4369

    Please call for a booking.

    This is not a sexual service.

  4. A reader went to the spa mentioned on Gumtree in the previous comment, and here’s the verdict:

    So I went to the spa in New Malden, so my review is below, hope it helps your readers.

    First of all it took absolutely ages to find the place, it is situated in a small town and is a converted shop.
    This was NOT a spa like experience at all!!! When I got there I was told the sauna had been turned off so I had to have just the scrub.

    I was given black paper shorts that reached my knees (a bit of a cheat if you ask me) and ushered to a back room that wasn’t great.
    It was just a tiled space with a drain. It was damp and smelt mouldy. She proceeded to rinse me down and scrub me with a cloth.
    It was just okay! I was also scrubbed down with normal apricot scrub and asked to shower.

    The whole thing was about 20 mins and I didn’t feel at ease at all. The only thing Korean about it was that the lady was Korean.
    She even attempted to plug a massage while I was in the middle of my scrub – unprofessional.

    I only paid 20 pounds but I still don’t think it was worth it. Rating: 1.5 out of 5

  5. Hi all

    As a knowledgeable group of people, I was hoping you might be able to settle a debate I’ve been having with a friend. It arose out of a discussion about New Malden near London. I suddenly remembered a fact I had been told by another friend about Seoul airport, and eager to display a real breadth of knowledge about New Malden, I couldn’t help but blurt out that Seoul airport had a map of New Malden in one of the terminals. Unsurprisingly, it was met with a degree of skepticism and I was challenged to prove it. 

    Clearly flying to Seoul would be rather expensive way of confirming the point and so to avoid any disappointment and frustration in case I am wrong, could any of you tell me whether there is a map of New Malden in Seoul airport please?

    Many thanks


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