2015 Travel Diary day 1: Arrivals — an evening in Hongdae

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Myeongdong, Seoul, 29 May. One flight is much like the next, the only differences being the food and in-flight entertainment. Asiana did a very acceptable bibimbap on the way out and, more ambitiously, a ssambap on the way back. Their tinned makgeolli, which I sampled on the return leg, is not to be recommended. Maybe I had been spoiled by too much good makgeolli and dongdongju in Korea, or maybe nothing tastes good at 36,000 feet.

As for the in-flight entertainment, you really can’t complain. As is now traditional, here are some brief review notes:

A Hard Day

  • A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, Dir Kim Seong-hun, 2013) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne – a film which featured in the London Korean film festival last year and which I was sorry to miss. A cop has the mother of all bad days in this fast-paced tense thriller which is highly enjoyable without taxing the brain too much.


Roaring Currents

  • Roaring Currents (명량, Dir Kim Han-min, 2014) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne – a laughable piece of drivel only slightly redeemed by some moderately exciting battle scenes. It is really not worth spending the time writing about how bad it is; Yi Sun-shin in this movie is the strong and very silent type; villainous Japanese generals spend most of their time cursing his name, while bit-part players have to practice their looks of horror or amazement at the various turns of the battle, or simply to shout “Admiral!” with appropriate levels of urgency; some of the characters are given onscreen labels as if to lend historical authenticity to the film, something that is lacking in the implausible speed at which the Japanese ships are propelled by their flimsy oars; and finally its abrupt ending and irrelevant flashback to the battle of Hansando six years prior to the events portrayed in this film.

My love, don't cross that river

  • My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오, Dir Jin Mo-young, 2014) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne – a beautiful documentary about an aged couple living in rural Gangwondo – a film about love, family and death which avoids sentimentality and is wonderfully poetic.

Similarly, you can’t complain about the welcome you get at Incheon either, 10 years running coming at the top of the Airport Service Quality surveys. I zoomed through immigration, and was picking up my SIM card in a book store in Arrivals within ten minutes of getting off the plane. And having been slightly grumpy about the EG SIM card service last time, I can now attest that their service, including app-based top-up, is absolutely fine. If you have used their SIM card on your phone on previous occasions you might need to speak to their English-speaking helpline – despite the fact that their SIM cards are said to expire within 30 days, the number remains registered to your phone, so if you pick up a new SIM card on a subsequent visit it won’t work until they have de-registered your previous number. A bit annoying but the rigmarole only delayed me by around 10 minutes. The trick is not to leave the store where you pick up the card until you’re satisfied everything is working fine.

While waiting for the limo bus I make a few calls to inform people of my new Korean number, and fine-tune some of my arrangements for the coming days. The bus journey to the hotel is as smooth as ever, and after a quick freshen-up in the hotel I head into Hongdae to check out a restaurant recommendation I received last year: 나물 먹는 곰 (roughly translated as Bear Eating Greens) and Bing Bing (the adjoining bingsu place). Although the name of the restaurant implies a vegetarian menu, there is plenty of animal protein available. Both places are well worthy of a visit, and were a great way to start my trip.

After a generous dinner I need walk to help get the digestion going. A perambulation through the lively streets brings an encounter with a marketing campaign for my favourite brand of soju – Good Day – which hitherto I hadn’t been able to find in Seoul. Clearly this Gyeongnam brand is making an effort to break into the capital.

Good day

My walk brings me, intentionally, to the tiny basement bar that is Strange Fruit, where Vidulgi Ooyoo is just setting up. As they wait an audience of no more than twenty souls is drinking bottles of Kloud – a recently invented beer from Lotte which has deservedly gained market share from the incumbent brands.

Strange Fruit
Image credit: Amanda Richards / Gogobot

There follows an amazing set of introverted guitar sound which is strangely uplifting as the music swells around you and envelops you. Deeply into their music-making, the band members lean into their instruments, long hair covering their faces, concentrating on the sound and the ensemble and adjusting their electronics. Only occasionally do they emerge from their intense concentration as if to take a languid breath of air.

The bar is conveniently near Hongdae station, which gives me an easy ride back to the hotel in Myeongdong. I sip at a whisky listening to some laid-back jazz at the hotel bar, hoping that this perfectly relaxing end to the day will help me get a reasonable night of sleep.

Nightcap at the Lotte Hotel

You can sample and buy a couple of Vidulgi Ooyoo albums in the iTunes store.

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