Seoul mates: Korean kindness kick-starts an Asian adventure

Insadong market

Hello from Seoul, South Korea. When you live 30 miles from the border with North Korea, it helps to have a sense of humor. I have no idea why Kim Jong-un’s picture appears next to a stack of cookies and an advertisement for paint brushes, but there’s a reason they call the Koreans the Irish of Asia. It’s silly to stereotype a whole nationality, of course, but one reason I like this country is that people in general are upbeat, friendly, outgoing and always up for a smile or a laugh.

Korean pancakes

It’s true that not as much English is spoken here as in some other parts of Asia, but it seems there’s always someone around to help. We stand out as rare Western faces among the thousands of Koreans in the subways and on the streets. When we pause to recheck directions on our phone, someone assumes we’re lost, and offers to help. One night, we popped into a neighborhood restaurant, and ordered from a simple menu with English translations. Out came a cold bottle of milky-white rice wine, a platter of lightly breaded zucchini (described as a zucchini pancake) and a “rolled omelette,” an egg dish filled with veggies and cut into two dozen bite-sized pieces. Another night it was bibimbap, a steaming bowl of veggies, pork and egg atop sizzling rice. Plates of kimchi come gratis. If you finish them before the main dishes arrive, they bring more. 

Rice wine with dinner

Dessert was a “Korean pancake” made fresh by a street vendor who cooks them them while you wait, and serves them in a paper cup so you can eat them without burning your fingers- delicious on a chilly night!

Reading room in Coex Mall, Gangnam

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 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

ATM screen

-Subway announcements reminding passengers to give up their seats to pregnant women “at any stage, even if they aren’t showing.”

-No guns

-Few coins

-Water-saving toilets in hotel rooms that flush automatically, with heated seats and buttons for “front and rear cleansing.” 

-Heated floors for sitting or walking on without shoes

-Sweet potato lattes and green tea flatcinnos (like a frapiccino only with less calories) 
Billboard above Coex mall, Gangnam

Make no mistake, there are plenty of people on their phones (Samsung more than iPhones), but Korea is still a nation of readers. I can’t remember the last time 

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.”

Tea with a Goodwill Guide

A study out of London reported recently that people who read books are kinder and nicer. This is certainly true of Koreans. When I landed a story on teahouses in Seoul for a travel magazine, I reached out to friends of friends and on Facebook for local contacts. With their help, we were lucky enough to spend time with a local person almost everyday. The delightful woman above is a volunteer Goodwill Guide who signs up with the tourist board to meet foreigners in her spare time. We talked about travel, politics, jobs and family over steamed pumpkin cake and jujube tea at the Cha-Teul teahouse in  Bukchon Hanok Village, a historical area of century-old traditional homes. 

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.

Choi is 68 and keeps in shape by playing ping pong and leading these 2-hour walking tours around various locations in Seoul. Our walk ended with a visit to a local market where vendors were cooking up lunch for Sunday afternoon shoppers.

It’s cherry blossom season, a time when many Koreans use the streets in historical reas as a back drop for pictures of themselves dressed in traditional costumes. Most women own the dresses, called  hanbok, but they are heavy to transport, so shops rent them for the day.

Tea tasting with Neung Hyun, a Buddhist monk

My teahouse research brought us to the Korean Templestay cultural information center a tea-tasting lesson with this Buddhist monk. She is 44 and has been a monk for 19 years. Tea-drinking is as much about meditation as it is about relaxing over a healthy drink, she said, explaining the concept of “three cups of tea.” “Each cup will have a different taste, and if you’re aware, you’ll taste the five tastes - sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy.”

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. 

Tteuran Teahouse and owner Kim Aeran

Traditional teas go beyond just taste; they help prevent common ailments and relax the mind and body in different ways. Kim Aeran, tea chef and owner of Tteuran Teahouse in a century-old hanok that once housed a noodle shop, divides her menu into healthy medicinal herbal blends, healthy fermented teas, wild leaf teas and flower teas. Guests sip while relaxing on a heated floor overlooking her garden. Kim makes all her desserts in-house, specializing in a thick, red bean porridge in cooler weather and Bingsu, a traditional Korean treat made with shaved milk ice in summer. I guess this means we’ll have to plan a return trip soon.

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