South Korea shows it really does have Seoul
Howling with laughter, we dodged the flying lettuce shredded with a Korean sword into a million pieces in what seemed like milliseconds.
The chef, who looked more like a warrior than a cook, was having the time of his life as he majestically dissected the vegetable ready for the royal wedding.
And the audience at the traditional Korean Nanta Theatre were lapping up the fun. Originating in 1997, with its first airing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it now plays three times a day with visitors from across the world keen to see this hilarious non-verbal performance which mixes folk music with Samulnori rhythm.
It is such a fast-moving show that different teams of actors are used for the performance, which tells the tale of chefs preparing a cake for a regal wedding.
Audience participation is a highlight too and, with pans and food flying everywhere, it really gets the adrenaline going.
But then, that is maybe because it is based in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, an equally electric city which is permanently on the go.
Not for the faint-hearted, you need to have plenty of energy to see this incredible city – where historic buildings are dwarfed by modern skyscrapers and where the “selfie’’ was invented. Never have I seen so many people carrying mini tripods and the latest mobile phone, ready for that photo opportunity.
Joined by husband Kenny and our children Ruaridh (12) and Flossie (9), we flew from Scotland, via London Heathrow to Seoul just in time for the annual cherry blossom festival. The event is held in various places around the city, with one of the most popular in the Songpa-gu district round the Seokchon Lake. It is an explosion of pink, purple and white blossom with the elegant Koreans taking every opportunity to take a photo of themselves with the exotic flowers.
In fact there is so much blossom you become blasé after a few days, but it is the perfect backdrop to a city which has plenty of history, even if most of it is dwarfed by those skyscrapers.
From the 15th floor of our apartment, which overlooked Lotte World, Seoul’s Disney, we had a perfect view of the Lotte Tower, the world’s fifth highest building and shaped like a needle, with 123 floors.
The tower has a sky observation deck and overlooks the theme park, which floats in the middle of Seokchon Lake and has all the thrills-and-spills rides a family needs.
Much of old Seoul lies in the Gwanghwamun district and revolves around the once regal palace quarters of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung and the Bukchon area famous for its traditional wooden homes.
Originally built in 1395, Gyeonbokgung, known as the Palace of Shining Happiness, served as the royal residence until it was burned down by the invading Japanese in 1952. It was rebuilt 300 years later and housed 300 buildings, many of which were destroyed in the 20th century – today the buildings are replicas to give tourists a chance to see how life was. The highlight of the palace is the changing of the guard, with the soldiers wearing colourful traditional outfits.
The most beautiful of Seoul’s four palaces is the World Heritage-listed Changdeokgung built in the early 15th century. Its main attraction is the Secret Garden which can only be visited by a special tour. Once entered, you find yourself in an area of tranquillity with beautiful old-fashioned buildings surrounded by a square lily pond.
Buddhism plays an important role in the lives of locals and Jogye-sa is the headquarters and has the largest hall of worship in Seoul with a huge Budda and beautiful art and woodwork. It really comes to life during the Lotus Lantern Festival when the place is transformed with colourful lighting. Next door is the home of the first post office, housed in a traditional temple building and, as with most museums, a free exhibition.
Bukchon is a wonderful place to see the hanok (wooden homes) which meander round the neighbourhoods and give a taste of Seoul’s past. The upmarket Insa-dong neighbourhood is bursting with traditional art and antique shops and some of the city’s oldest dumpling and noodle restaurants and tea houses.
Deoksugung Palace is an architectural gem and the only one to be lit up at night. Built in the Joseon dynasty, it is a fascinating mix of traditional Korean and Western style neo-classical.
Amazingly for a city which is now so modern, Seoul has kept its 18.6km wall, built in 1396 to defend and show the boundaries. Perched on the top of the city, it is a really peaceful spot to visit and you can hike the trail and appreciate the surrounding mountains. A museum giving its history is also a great insight.
Cultural Station Seoul 284 is also a wonderful example of the fine architecture of the past, with the former railway station now home to temporary exhibitions.
Shopping, skyscrapers and K Pop symbolise modern Seoul. The Myeong-dong district comes to life at night when the streets become packed with traders selling everything from mobile phone pop sockets to kebabs and bubble tea.
Namdaemun Market is the largest of its type in South Korea and it’s a maze of stalls selling street food, clothing, handicrafts and accessories and, if you are not careful, you could end up exploring all day there.
In 2012 the Gangnam style song became a worldwide sensation and most ever watched You Tube video with one billion hits. Based on the Gangnam district and its wealthy inhabitants, it really brought K Pop to the world’s attention and now Seoul pays homage to the bands and singers through a museum, where you can dress up and have your photos taken with cardboard cut-outs of the stars. And if you really love them, you can walk down K Star Road where there are human-scale bear dolls bearing famous band names.
Nearby is the COEX shopping centre, the largest in Asia, and the incredible Starfield library, opened in 2017 and which is literally a work of art with book towers created to look like paintings.
Famous for its skyscrapers, one of the best known landmarks is the Seoul Tower in Namsan. It is the second highest point in the city and used as a communications and observation tower and sits on Namsan Mountain. The area around it is natural and peaceful as is Seoul Forest in Dongdaemun which was a hunting ground in Joseon times and has a deer park, butterfly house and a mini farm. The highlight of the forest, though, is some very weird and wonderful statues including a giant picnic table.
One of the best things to do in Seoul is to try out the food and drink. The Koreans like their sweet foods and the packaging always follows their sense of “being happy’’ resulting in some very cute crisp packets containing some challenging flavours such as ice cream and seaweed. Classic drinks include grape soda and milky juice for the young ones and rice wine and of course green tea, which is also a favourite ingredient to put in cakes too.
Dishes to try include kimchi (fermented vegetables), bibimbap (rice with an egg usually on top), bulgogi (marinated barbecue meat) and kimbap rolls (basically sushi, which come in handy packaging, so you can eat on the go).
The happiness of South Korea is in stark contrast to the mystery of North Korea, with families divided by a four kilometre Demilitarized Zone which is strictly guarded on each side. Tourists can get an insight by joining a tour and you are taken to various points which tell the story of how the countries were first divided.
You can go down the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four known tunnels which divides the two countries and gives you a peek over the border. And with the aid of binoculars you can get a glimpse of life in North Korea. Current leader Kim Jong-un has erected a huge flag to mark entry to his country.
Relations between the two parts of the country are said to be improving and a railway track has been built in the hope that one day Korea will unite, something the proud and kind nationals truly deserve.
Need to know
As with most long-haul flights, a transfer is needed through London Heathrow to Seoul and the flight takes around 11 hours through carriers British Airways (www.ba.com), Korean Air (www.koreanair.com) and Asiana Airlines (www.flyasiana.com).
With a population of just under 10 million, there is a wide choice of accommodation to suit all budgets. We chose the Songpa-gu district to stay. It was the centre of the 1988 Olympics and over the last 10 years has become a mecca for travellers and is also home to the Lotte World Tower, Seoul’s highest landmark and where the cherry blossom festival takes place each spring.
Things to do
As you can imagine in a city which is buzzing, there is lots to see and do from culture, shopping to K Pop. Two of the top attractions are the Nanta Show, Korea’s favourite theatre, which first hit the headlines in 1997 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It now plays to packed audiences three times a day and the non-verbal performance which features Korea’s traditional Samulnori rhythm is full of energy and fun. Check out www.nanta.co.kr
North and South Korea is split into two and in the middle is a four-kilometre wide, 240km-long buffer known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Lined on both sides by tank traps, electrified fences, land mines and soldiers ready to attack, there is a scary air about the place. But it is also a tourist hotspot and a fascinating half-day tour run by www.vviptravel.com will see you taking in all the history and getting a glimpse of life in North Korea.
Korean Tourism Organization – www.gokorea.co.uk