A K-pop pilgrimage of sorts



SEOUL, MAY 2017

It’s not hard to fall in love with Seoul. While it is a country continually reinventing itself on a global scale, it is one that also strives to preserve its historical roots. It’s precisely in this harmonious dichotomy where Seoul’s very vibrance and energy resonate.

Worldwide, South Korea is known to be the home of today’s most consumed entertainment content—from television dramas and variety shows to live and recorded music performances. The faces of its stars are not only taking over Asia, but has begun penetrating the West’s mainstream media.

The country is shaping the time’s lifestyle and culture through the television and film, music, art, and fashion that they produce, and with this we can say Hallyu or “Korean Wave” which started in the 90s has reached its peak.



Many travelers who have their eyes set on Seoul are pop culture pilgrims, visiting various shooting locations of high-rated dramas, hopping from one Korean cafe to another, and going around the areas of music agencies hoping for serendipitous idol encounters. And I was among them.

I have been a fan of Korean music for the past decade, and visiting Seoul has permanently contained me in its K-pop bubble.


   I AM AN SM TRASH IN GANGNAM   



The district I stayed in, Gangnam, is home to Cheongdam-dong where fans go Gangnam-Dol hunting at the famous K-Star Road. You’d spot many of these bear sculptures, which is coined after the words “Gangnam,” “Idol,” and “Doll,” donning different colors and symbols representing the most popular K-pop groups—among them Super Junior, SHINee, EXO, CNBlue, Girls’ Generation, and BTS.

The nearby SM Communication Center is also where you could go crazy for hoarding some snacks, merch and CDs of your favorite SM Entertainment artists. You’d find an item from each of their individual musical eras here.





It’s also a must to visit the center’s pastel-themed SUM Cafe, which has a menu dominated by artist-themed drinks like the TVXQ Cold Brew and EXO Milkshake.

One look at their cafe scene and you would come to terms with the reason why the coffee culture in Korea is being replicated all over. They put prime importance on interiors and aesthetics and this dainty coffee house is no different.



SUM Cafe has the faces of idols on its walls and even on its pastries. Pink mugs are lined on their cupboards, each signed by every known idol of the entertainment agency—something you’d wish were on sale.

In this cafe, you’re mostly paying for the ambience—the pleasant marriage of marble and wood, its relaxing and subdued color palette, and your favorite SM tunes blasting from their speakers.



While you find yourself in this posh and green-lined district, one must dine in Nonhyeon Samgyetang. The 24-hour joint serves traditional Samgyetang, or ginseng chicken soup, with a whole boiled chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, garlics, jujubes, and chestnuts.

It’s considered a summer dish in Korea, but the warmth of the Samgyetang’s broth, along with its refreshing and straightforward taste, makes for a good and filling meal for any season. This dish has great medicinal value, and is guaranteed to help you get around the city with some much-needed energy.

As you go around this young and bustling urban zone, one thing you’d find Koreans holding is a cup of iced coffee. The drink is said to have transformed into a status symbol for Seoulites, and the nation is rising among the world’s top consumer and importer of coffee. Keep your eyes peeled for Venti road stalls for an affordable caffeine fix. They serve all kinds of refreshing drinks, and the sweet strawberry yogurt blend is my top choice.


Depending where you are in Gangnam, the famed Garosu-gil lane is just walking distance. This place is the go-to place for bespoke clothing among Seoul celebrities, as well as the raved-about soft-serve shop REMICONE. If you’re wondering where that Instagram-famous Korean ice cream topped with grey cotton candy is from, this is the place you’re looking for.

Korean beauty stores are also found in every block of Garosu-gil, and it’s actually better to shop here than the overcrowded streets of Myeongdong. The lifestyle lane has tons of stores dedicated for your interior needs, too.









Moving further into the heart of the city is where you’ll find Myeongdong. The area is often flocked for its street food scene, but let me tell you this: Street food carts are easily found all around Seoul. You’d find fried soy chicken pops, spicy rice cakes, and fish cakes in every Seoul district without breaking a sweat. Which leaves the ultimate reason for any Myeongdong visit to be the sweet-and-salty perfection of galbi jjim or Korean short ribs served in Gangnammyeonok.



   TREKKING THE NAMSAN TOWER LIKE A FOOL   

Among Seoul’s must-visit landmarks is the Namsan Tower, known to be a couple’s destination. Its best to arrive here right before the sun sets, so you can see the beauty of the tower in daylight and appreciate its light show come nighttime. Most people take the cable car to reach the landmark’s decks. But you can also choose to endure an uphill 30-minute walk, after which you can treat yourself to some ChiMaek (chicken and beer combo) at N Seoul Burger (that's what this idiot did!).




There are tons to do at Namsan Tower than just putting a lock on its metal rails. Just at its foot is the mesmerizingly peaceful view of Seoul’s architecture propped against the shadow of an enormous mountain range. Your view is often cropped by the vibrant leaves of decades-old trees, and here you can watch the horizon mellow into a pink haze, before the skies are engulfed by the hues of a blinding sunset.

Located in its compound is Seoul Tower Plaza, and here you can shop for more Hallyu merch, waste some coins by playing in the arcade, or buy a cup of Gong Cha milk tea just to be graced with the presence of the latest Korean heartthrob (in my case, it was Lee Jong-suk) in such a romantic place. Yes, even if the only reason for his being there is that his face is printed on a cup collar.






   FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE PAST OVER & OVER   






If you’ve ever seen an episode of a periodic drama, then you’ll be plunged into the surreal the moment you step into the Gyeongbokgung Palace—it immediately transports you back to the Joseon era. 

But it’s not just the preservation of culture that amazes you when you see the traditional palaces of Seoul—the city’s towers already being engulfed by the sky-high buildings around it. It’s the people’s pride of having these structures built right in the heart of a beloved city, that even in ruins during the Japanese occupation the Koreans would try, again and again, to rebuild it and making you revel even more in all its grandeur.









There’s much to appreciate about the architecture of the palace grounds, knowing that behind it are teachings of philosophy, astronomy, history, and religion. These are all seen in the symbols that rest on and protect such grand structures and the locations on which they were built on. Every line, stroke, and color on wood and stone simply has its own meaning and purpose in East Asian design.


   HONGDAE IS THE MODERN DISTRICT TO FIND YOURSELF IN   





Contrary to Gyeongbokgung’s vibes, the young people’s top destination is Hongdae, a university area brimming with endless energy from morning to night. Restaurants line every street, and here it’s never hard to find a good place to eat Samgyeupsal or Korean barbecue.





One of the things I learned in Korea is vocally appreciating the work of everyone you meet, which I was often able to do when leaving a restaurant or going down a cab.

As a way of parting, Koreans say “sogahaeseyo” to acknowledge the hard work and effort workers put in, and to encourage them to maintain such exemplary attitude and service. When I said it at a barbecue restaurant in Hongdae, a tired ahjumma was so touched hearing that phrase that she hugged me and wished for me to enjoy the rest of my stay in Seoul.

Hongdae is a dynamic pop culture ground. Busking performances by unheard-of artists are done live on every possible corner. Upcoming DJs are taking control of the popular clubbing scene. Cafes with different themes, concepts, and vibes stand on every block. Artists choose to be inspired by the neighborhood, setting up all kinds of art galleries and inking studios. 


   THE MUSIC OF SPRING   


While Hongdae is at the top of Seoul recommendations list, a trip to this country is nothing without experiencing its park culture. The Nanji Hangang Park is just a 15-minute train ride from Honggik University Station in Hongdae.

One of my trip’s most memorable moments is letting time freely pass as I stare at the quiet serenity of Han river’s ripples. I remember the currents going against the direction of the cars in the far background of Seoul’s towering concrete.


The sun was scorching but the park was swayed by the Spring breeze, while local music unceasingly played. This is the very image of Seoul that is embedded on my mind.

As the month of May nears its end, an all-local music festival takes over a huge stretch of the public park, setting up four main stages and putting over 65 artists on its billing. Greenplugged Seoul is loved by the locals, and it is where you could discover so many talented artists that have not broken through the mainstream yet.





This Spring music festival is an extraordinary experience for those who have Korean music dominating their daily playlists. It’s where you see how massive and diverse Korea’s music scene really is, minus the flashing lights and even flashier idol outfits. The performers here have nothing but their vocals and instruments to command the huge crowd to listen.

And the chords that these indie artists strummed continue to ring in my ears, a mix of melodies that defines how Seoul calls me back to its grasp.

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