Seoul isn’t on most travelers’ radar, but it deserves to be. Historic sites aren’t the draw here. What stands out is an energetic population of creative people with great ideas for keeping a big city alive and vibrant.
Retailers (and a certain U.S. president) who blame Amazon.com for the decline of U.S. shopping malls could take a lesson from what the owners of the Starfield COEX mall, Asia’s largest underground mall in the trendy Gangnam district. Above is one of three, two-story, floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves in a free reading room opened last year to provide shoppers with a place to relax and chill out. Computers and desk clerks are on hand to help search specific titles from among 50,000 books and dozens of current magazines. Tables with reading lamps, comfortable chairs and laptop plug-ins surround the library houses in a spacious atrium leading to shops, restaurants, a hotel, and aquarium and a 17-screen theater complex.
Other Korean ideas worth copying:
-Bag dispensers at the entrances to stores and restaurants for wet umbrellas.
-Cute cartoons on bank machine screens
-Subway announcements reminding passengers to give up their seats to pregnant women “at any stage, even if they aren’t showing.”
I found a newspaper so wide I had to read it with outstretched arms. The English Korea Daily comes inserted into the International New York Times each day, and it’s been interesting to see what qualifies as news. There’s usually an opinion piece or two about the upcoming meetings between North and South and the U.S., but for the most part, life goes on as it always has. Most people hope for better relations with the North, but not necessarily reunification. More on the minds of people here is the dust drifting over from the Yellow Sea in China. We were startled to get an alert on our phones “inviting” everyone over the age of 60 to consider wearing a mask.”
Another afternoon we met Choi Jongsoo, a retiree who volunteers as a Seoul culture and tourism volunteer guide. Choi led us on a walking tour of Cheonggye, an 11 kilometer stream that runs through the center of downtown Seoul. Once a sewer where people threw garbage, it was covered with an elevated highway after the Korean War, then restored in 2003 as a waterway, park and arts venue with 22 bridges. The sculpture above symbolizes a spout where the water starts.
Seoul has some excellent coffee houses, but traditional teas popular a century ago are making a comeback as more people seek out ways to relax and stay healthy. Forget banging espresso machines and tapping on laptops. At the Moonbird Thinks Only of the Moon teahouse in Insadong, we shared tea and conversation with Rosemary Kim, who teaches Korean as a second language and is studying for her doctorate at a local university. Antique chests, old clocks, kimchi jars and gourds decorate every inch this cozy shop. The sounds of a gurgling fountain and soft Beatles music playing in the backround set the mood for relaxing over warming cups of tea made from cinnamon bark and set on wooden saucers.