Dan Hough

Tokyo and Seoul

Published 2 August 2015 in Seoul, South Korea

At the beginning of a long trip, one of the things I find hardest is figuring out when to slow down and take it all in, instead of packing in more activities and looking at old things. When is it a good time to just stop, make no plans for a day and take a break? Furthermore, when is it a good time – if you’re the type of person who enjoys it – to start getting into a routine?

After all, one of the benefits of a holiday is that it reminds us of the comforts of day-to-day life. Since my trip started with a “holiday” and has now morphed into “my life in other countries” one obvious way to maintain my sanity is to seek the comfort I left behind in Britain.

A routine has started to take shape here in Seoul, and it’s only taken a month of mild chaos to get to this point.

It began in Tokyo, where I landed with three friends, all of us jetlagged from a roughly 12-hour flight across 8 timezones.

A series of meals

When you first set foot in a strange land, everything is exciting. The different styles of interior decorating and the crazy writing on billboards throughout the terminal, the different shops they have and the public transport maps. It’s all different!

But our first real “Japanese” experience in Tokyo was a cliché, for a good reason. Desperate for food, we stepped into an automated restaurant. Although we had the option to use the ordering machine entirely in English, the photos helped us out here, not knowing yet what we were looking for.

Head of the waiting staff
Head of the waiting staff

Somehow, the food we ordered arrived immediately, and it was delicious. Then again, most food is delicious after a 12-hour flight.

Thus began what I can only describe as a series of meals, padded by things Japanese and Korean activities. Usually, because of the heat, with a smattering of ice coffee at one of the ubiquitous air-conditioned cafés. So much ice coffee.

Not normal

To me, Japan is somewhat absurd. There exists a stage show which in most other countries would be considered extremely naff, but in Japan it’s a must-see. At times it seems low-budget, but is actually very ambitious and unexpected.

Me, waiting for the Robot Restaurant show to start. This isn't even the main event.
Me, waiting for the Robot Restaurant show to start. This isn't even the main event.

I don’t want to ruin it for anybody, so I’ll just say that the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is really something else. Whatever your idea of what it might be, it’s not as good as what you’ll get. Just make sure you’re alright with loud noises, flashing lights or confusing English translations. Oh, and it’s not a restaurant: it’s a show.

That’s one famous example of something typically unusual to Brits like me. There are so many more. Maid Cafes, automated conveyor belt sushi restaurants, robots everywhere and the super-techno toilets. It’s enough of a shock to the system that when one stops to reflect on how different it all is, it can be a little overwhelming. One answer to this is to keep doing things.

A not-so-rare glimpse into the secretive North Korea; the DMZ's Joint Security Area at Panmunjom
A not-so-rare glimpse into the secretive North Korea; the DMZ's Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

Once we arrived in Korea, it was still weird, but in different ways. Strange live shows, chicken-obsessed restaurants, music and dancing everywhere you look and and overly-enthusiastic nightlife. Not to mention the Demilitarized Zone, where we were surprised at how much access we were given.

Honestly, it’s kinda exhausting, but it’s fun and par for the course with any holiday. Food, thankfully, was always available for keeping us energised.

Out every morning, afternoon and night

As anybody who likes to holiday will know, it’s far easier to go out to eat than it is to try and cook, in most accommodation situations, anyway.

Japan and Korea are both countries where eating out frequently is normal for travellers and locals alike. Not only are both countries set up well to deal with city workers staying out late, eating with colleagues, having a big night and stumbling into some last-minute accommodation somewhere, but restaurants are comparatively a lot cheaper and less busy than restaurants back home.

It isn’t uncommon here in Korea to walk into a restaurant at about 7 or 8pm and find the place near-empty, or staff just sitting around watching TV, waiting for someone to come in. There are restaurants everywhere, and both countries utilise every floor of every building for multiple purposes. Whereas in the UK, usually the bottom floor of a typical city building is for shops and restaurants and everything above is for office or residental use, here the case appears to be that a building is either for residental use or commercial use - simple as that. The options are seemingly endless.

Holiday fatigue

All of this eventually comes to a head when you realise that your feet are permanently sore, your diet is affecting your mood and all the temples and palaces start to blur into a single, amorphous blob of stone, peaked roofs and Buddha statues.

Possibly the last moment before holiday fatigue set in with (from left to right) Jon, Rich and Alun
Possibly the last moment before holiday fatigue set in with (from left to right) Jon, Rich and Alun

There’s no shame to this feeling after a while, and I think it’s a natural progression from zealous sightseeing and over-eating to sitting in a coffee shop for 50% of your day to check up on what’s going on back home. However, for those of us staying on the trail, there are better solutions. It starts with finding less-temporary accommodation.

Home cooking

Eating out starts to seem like a waste of money, and sometimes it’s nice to have a meal back in the comfort of your own home.

Once I found a more permanent, private room to stay in here in Korea, I went shopping for groceries. Now instead of popping to the local convenience store for a Kimbap I have porridge or eggs in the morning. It’s just like at home, but with a Korean twist.

Hobbies, old and new

As I had intended originally, I’ve managed to find time and places for two existing hobbies - climbing and running. Korea is really, really into hiking, climbing, or really any mountain-centric outdoor activities. In fact, Seoul is surrounded by and contains several mountains. So far I’ve found both Astroman (in Hongdae, Seoul) and The Ja’s Gym (in Gangnam, Seoul) to be really great gyms to go for some decent, challenging bouldering. As well as that, I’ve found the Yongsan Kimchi branch of the Hash House Harriers to be a fun and challenging trail running group to join up with.

But apart from that, I’ve discovered some new hobbies. With all this indoor space both high and low, Korea usually has some kind of service available for whatever it is you wish to do. I decided to learn to drum, after a slightly embarassing but hugely entertaining night playing the drums at a Jazz Bar in Tokyo. Luckily, for only ~£2.50 for an hour, I can go into a sound-proofed room, stick on a YouTube tutorial and start playing the drums at my leisure, without being disturbed.

My new creative outlet
My new creative outlet

Korea’s obsession with hiking makes it a very easy activity to take part in, too. There are great guides online and outdoor shops a-plenty if you don’t have the gear, and everybody from teenagers to octagenarians can be spotted hiking up 850m of mountain, pretty much every day. This isn’t something I do a lot in the UK, but I forsee myself doing it a lot here.

A satisfied, sweaty selfie after reaching the 836m peak of baegundae in Bukhansan park. (My friend Rich in the background)
A satisfied, sweaty selfie after reaching the 836m peak of baegundae in Bukhansan park. (My friend Rich in the background)

Finally, cinemas in Seoul are everywhere, and show films in Korean and English, so it’s not so hard to keep up with the latest blockbusters. So far I’ve seen both Inside Out (best film of 2015?!) and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (most inexplicable near-death experiences of 2015!). Maybe next time I’ll go and see the new Korean drama, 암살 (Assassination) and test my listening skills.

Meeting other foreigners

One of the bigger fears I had about this trip, after the holiday was over was about whether or not I’d find people to hang out with and do stuff with who could speak my language. I’ve found the Internet to be an invaluable resource in this regard. I met some nice people through the national subreddit, /r/korea. Thankfully, they have a regular meetup group which uses the omnipresent Kakaotalk to communicate and organise events, and if you’re just looking for someone to do something with, there’s usually someone up for it.

For rock climbing, I used a great website called Korea on the Rocks (KOTR) and posted in the forum.

For board games, I found a meetup group on meetup.com and went along. Meetup.com is a great resource for finding people with similar interests to you.

And quite simply, I’ve just met people out and about in the evenings, whether at bars or in the park. So far, other interlopers in Seoul have been very outgoing, friendly and open to hanging out.

The key thing I’ve come to realise that most foreigners over here are probably only here temporarily, and many won’t have well-established social groups yet. And even if they do, they probably remember what it was like to be new and confused. Because of these factors, I believe that relationships with other foreigners tend to be easier to establish, and by the simple fact that they too have left their home country to do something different, they already share something in common with you.

Settled, and keeping it weird

I’m finally now starting to feel like I’m no longer on holiday. I feel far from bored, far from the quite restrictive and regimented routine I tend to get into with full-time work, but it’s somewhere in between the two feelings. Korea still has an unlimited amount of wonder and surprise to offer me, but some things are starting to feel comfortable and familiar, conversations are starting to feel more realistic and casual acquaintances are becoming friends.

Tomorrow I’m starting a one-month Korean language course at the Ganada Korean Language Institute, with 12 hours a week of immersive Korean speaking, reading and writing in classroom environments. No doubt this will further solidify some routines, but I’m looking forward to that, and I’m looking forward to being able to have more meaningful conversations with Korean people.

Despite this apparent comfort, I’m determined to keep things weird and do things I couldn’t do back home. This is why I’m still looking for interesting meetup groups, going to common tourist sites and popping into random restaurants. This is why I’m often just saying yes to whatever suggestion a stranger will offer.

Now that I’m really here there should be a good couple of months of adventuring to look forward to. I wonder what form it’ll take.

Thanks for reading! I hope it’s as interesting to read about as it is to experience. As I’ve said before, I’m interested in meeting people along my travels, so if you’re in Seoul at the moment or any time before October, let me know and let’s hang out. I am, of course, on Kakaotalk as basicallydan.

Also, huge thank yous to Rich, Alun and Jon not only for having a read before I published this, but for an absolutely unforgettable holiday. You’re all wonderful and amazing people.

Heckle me on Twitter @basicallydan.