7 things to do this winter in and around Seoul – Do something Korean

Posted on October 25, 2010


6) Do something Korean

Who are the South Koreans?  Mistake them for Japanese or Chinese and they will be deeply offended. After all, the Japanese ruled them forcefully for 50 years, destroyed their palaces and took their women away to be prostitutes for their soldiers, and the Chinese helped North Korea secure its present territory in their divided country. The South Koreans are a people apart, in the same way that Spanish, Italians and French are completely different despite their geographical proximity. Thinking otherwise is insensitive and rude.

South Koreans are traditional at heart, despite the fact that their lives, especially in the capital, seem to be rooted in technology and the need to constantly have the latest gadget and gear. Family comes first, with work as a close second. Parents just cannot be disobeyed and Employers’ and bosses’ whims and wishes need to be accommodated at all costs. Prior to starting work, South Koreans have one of the hardest studying regimes in the world, starting early in the morning with school, college or university, then proceeding to take extra classes or study at the library until as late as 11 pm. Once they start working, it’s not unusual to end their day at a similar hour, if not later.

This may all seem slightly weird to you, but if you do make friends with a young South Korean, you will discover that they are fun, funny, proud of their country and eager to show the real Korea to their foreign friends.  But you need to be a little bit open-minded yourself in order to understand such a different and complex culture, and there is no better way of doing this than by trying to immerse yourself in the Korean lifestyle. From my experience, here’s how you can do something Korean while in Seoul, whether you have a local friend or not.


–          Have at least one Korean barbeque night during your trip

Korean barbeque is not one of those things set up just for tourists – quite the opposite – it’s one of the most quintessential Korean meals, and restaurants specialising in it are plentiful around the city. A barbeque restaurant will have a number of tables set up with a grill – and by this I don’t mean that the grill is on the table, but rather, that it’s installed within it– and an extractor on top to collect smoke.

The procedure goes as follows; you are asked to choose between different kinds of marinated meats or seafood, which are brought to your table and which you have to grill yourself. You will also be given a set of side dishes, including a little basket with lettuce leaves, a sort of mildly hot chilli paste, spring onions in soy and some kimchi and pickles. Rice is usually ordered separately. Should any of these (except the rice and meat) run out during your meal, you can ask for a re-fill free of charge.

Once your meat is cooked, you need to take it off the grill (which will often be replaced by the staff when it gets a little bit too burnt) and cut it into small pieces using the large pair of scissors provided. Finally, take a lettuce leaf, put a piece of meat on it, smear it with the sauce and place a bit of spring onions on top. Roll the whole thing into a bite-sized ball and pop it in your mouth. Repeat until positively bloated.

Tip: In South Korea, all restaurants offer free water, which might be brought directly to your table or which you may have to go fetch yourself from a counter. Given this fact, few Koreans bother with buying drinks, unless they specifically want alcohol.

–          Drink until you can’t walk straight

Don’t get me wrong. I am here by no means saying that you should get that drunk, but the truth is that Korean men do it regularly. A popular pass time is in fact to meet with the guys in some bar or other, and spend hours calmly chatting away and drinking the local alcoholic beverage known as Soju. According to Korean customs, you may not refill your own glass, but have to refill your friends’ and then wait until someone does the same with your glass. It is also very impolite to stop someone when he is about to pour you a drink, meaning that Koreans rarely make it home without being thoroughly wasted. This is also why drink-driving is still a major problem in Korea.

Tip: One of my Korean friends who cannot drink a lot because she gets easily tipsy told me that when her boss invited her and her colleagues out, she adopted the following method in order not to have to drink too much. Each time her shot glass was refilled, she would take it to her mouth while at the same time covering it with her left hand, pretend to drink it, and then discretely dump its contents onto the floor under her table. When I asked her why she didn’t just politely refuse the drink, she told me that that was simply not done because it would be disrespectful towards her boss.

–          Put on your sneakers and hit the trail

One of the things which struck me when I was in Korea (and in Asia for the first time), was the fact that elderly, retired people were everywhere. We just don’t see this in Europe where, unfortunately, people in their old age are tucked away somewhere away where they cannot be seen or heard. In South Korea however, you will find them, every day of the week, scampering around like little pink Duracell battery bunnies, even when most of them are bent double from all the years of work behind them. Go to any green area or stretch of promenade and you’ll find them there. For places where you can go all health-conscious and nature-loving, and check out the local +60 scene, refer to an earlier post here.


–          Shop or just browse

A love of hiking is something mostly associated with the older Korean generation. The younger ones, when they are not racking their brains over their studies until late, can be found swarming the shopping districts and ginormous malls of Seoul. The point does not seem to be that of buying (though if you’re interested, you’ll be surprised just how cheap things are, especially if you come from Western Europe), but more of browsing at random and having a good time with your friends. Group configurations usually feature any number of girlfriends systematically dipping in and out of shops, or couples strolling hand in hand, both man and woman groomed to their very best.

If you leave the country without indulging in some window shopping you’ll have missed a large chunk of what it means to be Korean. While buying is not necessary, taking a look at the variety, type and strangeness of the goods available is part of the experience. If you happen to visit the country during winter, escaping to one of the many malls around the city when bad weather hits outside is also a great option. I personally recommend trying the COEX mall, also featuring a large aquarium and a cinema complex, and Lotte world, with its very own ice skating rink and indoor fun park.

Outdoors, one of the most popular shopping and browsing strips is the district of Insadong, which is filled with beautiful and inexpensive souvenir shops, a few commercial art galleries, ceramic shops with delicate-looking local artefacts and enough restaurants to keep the crowds full and happy. But remember. Just because it’s a ‘souvenir’ area it doesn’t mean that it’s full of tourists. South Koreans still make up most of the crowd and actually shop in this place, and that makes it even more enjoyable.

–          Head to the Bathhouse

Seoul is one of those cities which seem to never sleep. After all, if you’ve finished work or school at 11 pm, you need something to do after as entertainment, right? Right. While some Koreans choose to meet up with friends and enjoy a drink or two, others head to the nearest bathhouse to unwind and soothe their aching bodies. Luckily for them, many such bathhouses are open until late and sometimes 24 hours. You are even allowed to sleep there if you can make yourself comfortable enough to do so.

If you’ve followed all my tips so far – gorged on grilled meat, drunk your brain into a happy stupor, crossed the length and breadth of the city parks and wandered around the seemingly infinite shopping malls for hours – I suspect that an evening or night in the bathhouse won’t do anything but good. Some also offer massages.

–          Take a silly picture which you can later embellish with stars, hearts and glitter, making sure you make the victory sign with your fingers

Ok, this is not really typically Korean, but there was an awfully large number of youths waiting in line to do just that at the many Japanese-invented interactive picture booths. And no, when I took this picture I was not drunk. I had just simply and successfully become a South Korean, at least for the remaining length of my holiday.

– Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @ www.travelwithdenden.wordpress.com

Posted in: Seoul