Sorry for the delay on this, guys! Massive amounts of overtime plus unexpectedly moving has mushed my schedule sideways.
It’s our first full day in Seoul! Or, to be more precise, Hongdae, though in our first day of power tourism, we spend precious little time in our home base instead hopping off on the hunt for idols in Gangnam, kpop stores, and mind-bending libraries. We attempt to cram this in before joining a food tour which took us through the winding alleyways of Insadong where we ate, ate, ate some more, drank our overfill, met amazing new friends, all before one of us suffers a loss of epic proportions during a classic kdrama episode.
While it takes me an excessive amount of time to write these posts, (I know, you’re internally shouting, BECAUSE YOU MAKE THEM SO DAMN LONG), I’m really enjoying the process of writing them. Memory is a fickle thing. Even now, a few months out, I can remember almost moment by moment our time in Busan, but Seoul? It’s like a giant blur of food, drinks, shopping, touring — spotlights on moments while others gently fade into the background. During this process here or there I’ve needed to supplement my memory with Google, but usually just for names of places. This episode? As I look back on our collective pictures of the day, there is a giant portion that looks like it happened to a completely different group of ladies. It required some questions to be answered:
So, though I sit here in this chair until my butt is numb, I’m thankful for this experience as not only is it helping me relive the moment, but in years to come, I’ll be able to look back on these (thousands of) words and remember.
Let’s get into it! As you can see, we have a LOT to go over.
First off, an FYI, Seoul beds? Are not any more comfortable than Busan beds. The more you know…
Despite that, our house was lovely, exactly what we needed it to be. The winding streets uphills we had to navigate in order to find our way were punctuated with various convenience stores, coffee shops, and a tiny little restaurant we had a fantastic experience. (Just not today, so hold that in your hats.) We found our way out to the main street and back using these little shops as pin drops on a map. Right at Man Loves Market, Left at the CU, right at the other convenience store. No lie, there were a few times, especially after Alix had to leave us, where we managed to lose ourselves and had to backtrack.
Down the hill from us was a tiny little coffee shop and this morning, Leila and I, feeling adventurous, decided to offer up ourselves to find the morning’s triangle kimbap at the convenience store and tea and coffee for the group. Triangle Kimbap? We’re officially old pros. Not to mention, it’s easy, you walk in, trade your hellos with the attendant, find whatever triangle kimbap is on tap, plop it down on the counter with smiles and a point to the screen for the price. Easy Peasy.
This tiny little coffee shop, run by an ahjussi who, considering the logo of the shop was a caricature of his face, was the owner. He was there all the time. When I say all the time, I mean ALL THE TIME. Morning, afternoon and night, you’d see him standing in his mostly empty coffee shop, or outside, shaking coffee beans in some sort of coffee bean contraption. This man meant business about coffee, as it appeared he also roasted his own, onsite.
He was also probably the slooooowwest man we’ve ever met. We went in, awkwardly placing our order as I think us and our lack of Korean made him nervous. Being we were short the boldest and most Korean speaking of us, it was something I was pretty proud of, being able to make those coffees happen. We placed our order, two milk teas, and two americanos, and he gestured us to sit down. Seemed funny to us, but who were we to say no? Tiredly, we sat on our chairs and waited. And waited. And waited. I’m pretty sure he was roasting to order. I hadn’t thought we’d be gone so long, so I hadn’t brought my phone. We sat there fairly certain Sara and Alix were probably either wondering where we were or assuming we got distracted and were stalking buskers somewhere.
Finally, we got our coffee, bid the man we officially dubbed Coffee Ahjussi goodbye and headed back to the apartment without a moment to lose! We had a crazy busy day planned as we were officially in “Cram in as much stuff as possible before Friday” mode. We got to gussying up (or as gussying as tired travelers could be) as we were headed to the big leagues.
Or to be even more specific, SMTown. Yep, we were officially idol hunting now and if we didn’t find any actual idols there? Alix had tracked down some kpop stores for us to loot. We just needed to hunt them down…
Now pros at the Korean subway system, Alix firmly in control of our direction, we crossed the Han River and into the fancy part of town. (I say that like most of Seoul isn’t fancy AF.) We emerged from tunnels; the air was cold and windy; however, did that deter us? No! We’re east coasters! We’re made of heartier stock than that! Soon we found the CoEx building where the SMTown museum lives, took our obligatory selfies:
And headed in.
Okay. Soo, this is where we cheated a bit. We were short on time. It’s a thing. We looked at the actual museum experience and said, “Are we sure we need to spend 18000 won on the history of SM when they have all of these excellent displays and awesome gift shops right here? For free? Sure, while you might judge us for this… we went with option two.
The graphics are amazing. Seeing all the pictures featuring the history of SM, the history of their artists, seeing what talent came out of there was astonishing. Say what we will about SM as a company, they know how to put a group together, they know how to make good music.
We all took a moment, as I’m sure many do, at the giant image of Shinee, a shrine to Junghyun. It was hard for me as that was a big moment in our kpop history, and, I still cry about his death to this day.
Thinking on it, I’m not sure why all of the management companies don’t do something like this! The trip to the gift shops/cafe alone was worth the time. It’s not like the management companies don’t have a fast rotation of merch or costumes to display. I swear if the companies built them, all of the kpop fans would arrive in droves to buy stuff. It’s a no brainer.
Here’s a display of previous video and stage outfits.
The coffee shop was filled with SM themed snacks and drinks. To this day, I kick myself for not buying one of the drinks with the reusable containers. I’d love to get my hands on an NCT latte jug right now. I guess I’ll have to go back…and maybe that time I’ll go to the museum.
The building actually housed two separate gift shops, with some merch both old and new. There was a print on demand photo room where you could choose an image of your favorite idol and have it printed out right there for you. Oddly, there was a lot of displays, so adorable, but were displays only.
Come on, who wouldn’t want to buy this?
Probably for the best as I’d hate to see how much some of those figurines cost, and I know, without a doubt, I’d need at least three.
Once we were gift shopped out, (turns out, that’s a thing) our hands filled with various gifts and souvenirs, where I, unfortunately, forgot to purchase something for myself, we moved on to the actual CoEx Mall, which was a must-visit to for all of the people in our group. Sounds shallow, right? Ooh, gonna go to Korea, gotta go to the mall! But this mall has a secret surprise in the middle. A library that towers to the sky!
Our friend Lisa who lives in Korea, had posted pics to her Instagram once and it was an immediate WE MUST DO THIS. Not only are we all huge book people, but we had the added bonus of having a real, live librarian in our midst, Ms. Leila.
As we don’t speak Korean, we also can not read it, so we mainly looked, experienced, and moved on.
Cultured up, hanger is a real thing and we needed food. STAT. So off to the food court which held a series of small restaurants. We ate knife cut noodles and kimchi rice balls! How kdrama is that?? Also? Yummy. Even tempers now back firmly in place, it was time for the next stop on our day, no, not mall shopping — we’re travelers, not tourists!
LAUGH. Actually, we were off now to find these rumored Kpop stores. Both Alix and Sara had been to one in the giant outdoor shopping mall that was Myeong-Dong, but they’d heard rumors of one nearby, so off we went! Now reminded we were there, I can say the building was amazing and was filled with all sorts of design studios and shops. We searched high and low for the kpop store; the quiet hallways accentuated with the soft squeaking of my sneakers.
Yeah. That had come back. We were very excited about it.
Up and down floors, through hallways, we searched, pretending we fit in, scouring the walls for a directory that would tell us where we were, or where we could find what we wanted. Finally, tucked around a corner, we stumbled up it! Kpop shop #1! (Spoiler alert: We also go to Kpop shop #2.)
Now, if you haven’t had a chance to purchase kpop in an actual Kpop shop, here are some things you want to plan before going.
- Make a list of the exact CDs you already own. Sounds silly, but with so many different packages for the same album or different albums which have the same design scheme in order to make the listener aware they are made to be part of a series makes it hard at the high pressure moment when you are in the store to know what you own and what you don’t.
- Make a wishlist with plenty of options. Do not go in blind! Trust me; it happens where, faced with all of those options, the excitement of seeing all of these albums in one place, your mind WILL go blank, and you’re only going to come out with the big hitters. You also want a big list as you need to prepare for the idea that one album you went in for? The one you have your heart set on? Could be out of stock, or not stocked, or just a digital release.
All of these things happened to me. In this first shop, I mostly wandered, just aiding the ladies in the hunt for their choices. At this point, I was still firm in my resolve not to come home with any more CDs. It was an idea I was trying. At the time, I didn’t even own anything that would even play a CD, so wasn’t it silly to buy an album for a CD I wasn’t going to listen to and for packaging I was only going to look at a couple of times before putting it onto a shelf?
We all know how well I managed to hold up to this resolve. Not well. Not well at all.
But in this shop I was strong, barely managing by just focusing on some of the other merch around, like these BigBang action figures.
I was about to leave the store unscathed before something caught my eye. The perfect gift for the McFeeleys!
Don’t recognize it? Well, clearly you’re not a Running Man fan and therefore no friend of the McFeeleys. This is the stuffy version of castmember Kwangsoo as a giraffe. Dur. I knew in an instant I had to buy him. There was no way I’d ever be able to face them, the ultimate Running Man fans, the biggest of big Kwangsoo fans, knowing this thing was sitting on a shelf somewhere in Gangnam. It was the PERFECT gift. So, I bought it. And then carted him around for the entire rest of the day and night.
Purchases in hand, a bit of the Kpop store fervor whittled down, we looked at our watches. We had a certain amount of time before we picked up the food tour in Insadong (which, turns out is smack dab between the two palaces) and decided to fill it with a trip to Myeong-Dong, one of the biggest shopping districts in Seoul.
It was AMAZING.
A mix of large corporate stores, so many beauty products it would make my Korean skincare loving friends drop into an instant sort of shopping coma. Coffee shops, restaurants, and food carts lining the streets. It was upscale and chaotic all at once — so much fun.
Leila finally got to eat the treat that had caught her eye, noticing it whenever we passed (and we passed a lot). It was a line of strawberries on a stick, covered in a sticky sugar paste. It tasted exactly liked it looked. Strawberries drenched in sugar.
SaraG and I ate warm egg tarts!
And here is an excellent shot of the Monster Hot Dog, our old buddy Steve, told us about during our trip to Gwangju. While, yes, technically we were eating before we planned to stuff ourselves full on the food tour, we thought the Monster was a bit too much to try at that time.
Don’t worry…we meet the Monster again.
We separated a bit here as I was still on the hunt for a weather-appropriate jacket as I continued to be uncomfortably cold during my times out. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t jacket season, so I was unsuccessful…well, until the last days of our trip. How did I manage? Knowing we were going to be wandering the streets during the coldest of night, my creative brain clicked into place. Going into one of the convenience stores, I bought a couple of hand-hot packs…and stuck them into my bra. Sounds weird? Yeah, it is, but it works! Think about it. Warm your heart, warm your blood.
I’m going to take a moment to tell you how amazing the Korean heat packs are! No lie, they are so much better than their US counterparts. While they don’t get quite as hot (meaning you’re not going to burn your delicate bra skin, which I’ve done before), they usually last 16 hours. One set would last me virtually the whole day! I’m currently trying to figure out how to get these in the US as, now that I know they are a thing? I don’t plan on going the rest of my life without them.
Meeting back up with the girls, we popped in, and out of beauty stores, and clothing shops, managing to find the bigger of the two kpop music stores sitting above a Face Shop. I’m ashamed to say, I almost instantly broke my vow not to buy CDs. Yeah, we all saw that one coming. I picked up a little ATEEZ, some Seventeen, a bit of Ilhoon. Swooon.
We stopped at a coffee shop to hang, looking over our purchases, comparing our boyfriend cards, drooling over our pictures. We drank coffees and teas, warming, and killing time before our treck to Insadong.
LAUGH. When we did leave? I totally missed that there were two steps on the landing and sailed off. No Kpop was harmed during this example of clutzery… just my dignity. Where was my hero???
Bags in hand, we made it to our meetup spot, waiting for our food tour guide, Gloria. This tour was to take us off the beaten path, eating our way through tiny eateries, trying classic food and alcohol pairings.
Gloria? DELIGHTFUL. She completely reminded me of Park Shin Hye and was probably one of the coolest people we’ve ever met. She had one of those personalities where you spent the evening wishing you could be best friends with her. As this was an experience tour on Airbnb tour, the event was something she put together herself. She loves food, she loves drinking and loves new experiences. So why not put them together and get paid for it? Two other Americans from the northwest joined us, also cool ladies who were mainly in Korea to eat. Yep. Our sort of people.
With a smile and laugh, Gloria took us through the maze that was Instadong. So many Kdrama feels here, guys!
Our first stop was a small makkoli house. The walls were covered in the earthen serving bowls, and the tables were long planks and benches. While we weren’t a huge shock, we were definitely given some looks. It was great, when you know you’re headed off the beaten path. Gloria ordered for us and each section of our table had their own bowl of sweet makkoli, seafood pajeon (pancake), and this fantastic noodle soup. She gave us some history, but mostly it was just like a group of new friends hanging out.
As I’d gotten….tipsi the night before, I wasn’t drinking a lot — I didn’t care to tipsi my way through these streets and with these new people. Witnessing Tipsi Stephanie is an honor that not many come by. 😉 I sipped a bit but mostly just ate the delicious food, trying to remind myself that this was only stop #one.
It wasn’t long though before it was time for stop #two, so we packed up all our bags and headed out to the alleyways again, Gloria pointing out random spots of interest. After passing one desert place where she said, if we ever got back we totally needed to try, she changed her plans, popped us inside and ordered us two boxes of tiramisu for the road. The desert place was so cool, with little hide-y places where cool people could hide out on their cool dates being all cool. Alix and I were intrigued by their collection of fancy looking coffee bags, on various arty shelves. They smelled delicious, so we decided to buy…where we were instantly chided for touching the bags. In front of our new friend Gloria! What would she think of us??
We still bought them.
Our second stop was, finally, one of the red food tents! I told you this was shades of Kdrama! We all piled into the tiny tent, circling a plastic table that was….octopus adjacent.
Yes. I made a friend. And then I ate him.
Gloria showed us the limited menu and asked us just how adventurous we were. We instantly knew. This was a coolness test. Bring on the octopus, we said, instantly passing. Where our drink of choice before was makkoli, this tent DEMANDED soju. Continuing our chat we ate the octopus, which, surprisingly, turned out to be my favorite thing of the stop. We ate deboned chicken feet and before breaking into some fried pig skin. I’m not saying the dishes were terrible, they were good, it was more of a texture thing that stopped me from eating a ton of it. Gummy bits of skin, turns out? Not my bag.
Gloria started schooling us on drinking games, winners allowed to chose who was going to drink for them, losers taking love shots. We got loud and rambunctious, fitting in well with our tent mates.
Have I mentioned how much I liked Gloria?
By the end of the night, we all loved Gloria, and luckily, she actually liked us too! Stay tuned, she may or may not make a cameo further along in our trip.
Quite toasty at this point, filled to the gills with creatures from the land and sea, we left, heading along for our final stop, a small restaurant that was popular with salarymen! A couple of the gentlemen in question actually got up so we could have their table! Apparently, it’s a real guy sort of place to go, but Gloria is like, fudge that, they have great drinking snacks! We ate more noodles and some dried fish that I LOVED.
What goes with this sort of snack you ask? Somac! What is somac you ask? Well, it’s a mix of beer and soju! We played more drinking games, including Titanic, where they put a shot glass in the middle of a glass of beer, each taking turns pouring in soju until the shot glass sank to the bottom. Loser chugs the mix! As I genuinely loathe beer, SaraG was kind enough to be my black knight.
Please remember this for later.
While no one took off their tie and tied it around their head (probably because none of us had thought to wear a tie…we would make terrible salarymen) we were pretty much a foreigner version of every workplace drama you’ve ever seen. It was awesome.
But unfortunately, this was our last stop. Waaah. Except…. No night of drinking is complete without a stop at your local convenience store for a bottle of hangover medicine. We packed in, and Gloria bought us each a container for the next day. (I also bought copious amounts of water, knowing that after this amount of drinking and salt intake, we would need it to survive tomorrow’s very big day.) We were quite the spectacle inside this tiny convenience store. It was delightful.
Oh! And some random ahjussi bought Leila a bottle of water! Just came out of the convenience store and offered it to her, boasting where the water was harvested. And who could blame him? Leila is quite fetching.
Outside, we started to say our goodbyes when Gloria realized we hadn’t eaten the deserts she’d picked up from the dessert shop. So we crowded around, devouring boxes of cake in the middle of the sidewalk. I’m sure we were quite the sight. Totally worth it — as she was right — it was delicious.
We couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to leave our new friends. Gloria fetched us all taxis and poured us in, promising she really did mean it when she said we should hang out again before we left.
It was in the taxi we realized just how…tipsi…nah, there was no tipsi about it, SaraG was DRUNK. It seemed fitting, at least one of us needed to be in order to complete the visual, I’m just happy SaraG took one for the team to do this for us. Plus? A good portion of the somacs she consumed at the last stop were mine, so I feel like I should be held partially responsible.
We made it back to the apartment, and while SaraG was in the other room, taking care of drunken business, we all looked at our loot from the day. It was then we heard the sad cry of…. “Where’s my phone?”
Next episode? Where is Sara’s phone? Can it be found? Can a traveler in this day and age exist without a phone? And it’s finally time to address the elephant in the room. The Burning Sun/ Seungri/Chat Scandal that exploded during our time there. All this and Stephanie kicks some bishes.