June 1st, 1:00 pm: So I finally made my way to Yongsan station. I had a general map of the area that I had printed out from google maps, but I had difficulty orienting myself inside the station, so I just followed the largest group of people, assuming they would heading towards the same destination as me. Well, it turned out that assumption was wrong. It took me a while, but I finally made my way to the big electronics department stores. The biggest surprise? There were hardly any customers. Maybe it’s because it was still early Friday afternoon or something, but there just weren’t a lot of shoppers. Also making things difficult was that although everything was in the same building, it was in actuality a whole bunch of very little shops all lined up together. They were at least grouped by genre though: all the stores selling cameras were together, all the stores selling PC’s were together, etc., so it wasn’t too hard to navigate.
However, I had one and only one goal in mind: the Samsung Galaxy S Wifi, basically Samsung’s direct competitor to the ipod touch. It’s been announced as ‘coming out soon’ for several months on the intarwebs, but no release date has been announced yet. I figured there was a good chance it was already available in Korea. However, I didn’t find it there. All I found was a bunch of Samsung Galaxy S smartphones, Galaxy Tablets, and a whole lot of android phones made by brands that I hadn’t heard of in the US (assumed to be 2nd-tier Korean brands). I went ahead and took a look at a 7″ Galaxy Tab Wifi, but I was disappointed when I asked the price and the salesman told me 675000 won (about 1000 won/1 dollar, so $675). I had done my homework beforehand though, and I knew that the retail price in the U.S. was $350, so I knew immediately he was trying to rip me off. But I wasn’t in the mood for calling his bullsh**, and he hardly spoke any English so it probably would have been futile anyway. So I just said, ‘no sale’ and left, disappointed.
2:30 pm: Went one stop over on the subway to see the National Museum of Korea. It was very impressive, and was completely free! It had a more or less continuous narrative starting from prehistory up through the mid-Joseon period (maybe to about 1500 A.D. or so). Every period had lots of archeological artifacts on display with explanations, with a lot of them in Japanese and English as well. It was a very enjoyable museum, and I highly recommend it to anyone that gets to visit there. One of my Korean friends had kind of warned me that the Korean perspective is different from the Japanese one, but I really didn’t see anywhere that could have been an issue, since the timeline covered by the museum stops before the first invasion of Korea by Japan in 1592. The only thing that seemed like it could be interpreted as nationalistic was a section talking about the burial practices of the Baekje after they were conquered by the Tang in 660 A.D.. Basically it said that archeological evidence shows that burial customs remained as they had when Baekje was an independent state, showing that they retained their identity as Koreans even though they were at the time absorbed by the Chinese empire. The only critical comment I could think of was that they probably thought of themselves as Baekje, not as Koreans.
6:00 pm The museum closes at 6:00 on weekdays, so when it was about to close I left and navigated the subways to try and find my Hotel. When planning this one-day trip I didn’t have a good idea of where I should stay, so I asked people here at the office in Japan if they had any suggestions. One of my coworkers suggested The Plaza Hotel, which he had stayed at before on a short vacation to Seoul. It was close to the subway station and was a nice hotel so they certainly would be able to speak English or Japanese, so it seemed like as good a place as any. I waited until two days before leaving to actually make my reservations though, so none of the business traveler rooms were available, so I had to make to with a room with a double-sized bed.
When I got there though, I was completely unprepared for exactly how nice of a hotel it actually was. I guess it wasn’t the Lotte Hotel, the premier 5-star hotel in Seoul, but it seemed to be trying for a close second. When I walked into the lobby wearing sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt with backpack, and sweaty from being out in humid Seoul all day, I felt totally out of place. I was suddenly reminded of those ‘underwear dreams’ or ‘naked dreams’ that I used to have when I was a kid. I figured there was nothing to do but take it like a boss though, so I went up to the check in counter and gave them my name. ‘Oh yes, Mr. Bassett, you can check in directly on the 18th floor where you’ll be staying,’ the receptionist told me. She then led me to the elevator, placed an RFID card against a reader and then punched the 18th floor for me. When I got to the 18th floor another receptionist was waiting for me. ‘You are Mr. Bassett? They called us from the front desk. Please come this way.’ She led me to a chair, asked if I wanted a cocktail (I asked for a glass of ice water), and checked me in. That’s when I realized there was a separate check-in and two receptionists for every single floor of the hotel. There couldn’t have been more than 20 rooms on the entire floor.
After I checked in, she then showed me to my room. Now I mentioned earlier that since I wasn’t able to get a business traveler’s room I had to make do with a double-size bed room. I didn’t really understand what that meant until she showed me the room though. The room was dominated by a huge bed set in the very center, not against the wall as is usual. Laying in bed you faced the large window, which gave a beautiful view of the Seoul city lights, and if you looked down you could see the large courtyard on the city hall grounds right across the street from the hotel (more on that later). There was an electronic touchpad next to the bed, from which you could do the following: turn on or off every light in the room or adjust brightness as desired, open/close every curtain in the room including two at the window, one separating the bed from the bathroom area, and one making the full glass shower stall visible from the bed!), turn on lounge music, call room service, and set ‘do not disturb’ or ‘please make up room’ status on the outer door. Also, there was no closet or any means/way to hang any clothes. Finally I realized that this room was the 5-star equivalent of a love hotel! It felt really weird staying there all by myself.
7:00 pm: After a shower and change into clean pants and a t-shirt, I went back to the receptionists and asked for a recommendation on dinner. There were several high-class restaurants at the hotel, but they were Italian, French, and Japanese cuisine. Since I was only there for one night, I of course wanted to eat Korean, so she suggested a Korean barbecue place and gave me a map of downtown showing where the restaurant was located. At the restaurant the staff didn’t speak much English, but the menu was in Korean and Japanese so I was able figure out what I wanted and ordered by pointing. Verdict: Authentic Korean barbecue is really, really good. The place was pretty nice though, and I was a little worried about the bill since I hadn’t exchanged a whole lot of money and the portions were much larger than I expected, I couldn’t come close to eating it all. The final bill? 15,000 won ($15).
9:00 pm: I went back to my room to chill out a bit before going to bed, and it turned out there was a concert being held in the courtyard in front of the hotel! I actually had a really good view from my hotel window, and it was so loud I had no problem hearing it even through a closed window on the other side of the square. It was a bunch of K-pop acts, where each act would perform 2 to 3 songs. The verdict on K-pop? Very similar to J-pop: lots of pretty androgynous boys, lots of young, cute girls dancing in annoyingly cute poses. The concert finished at 10:00 and then I went to bed, all alone in my love-hotel room.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about what I did Saturday morning: tour the DMZ!