It's good to be back in Japan. Despite all my excitement about my trip, I'm lukewarm about its success.
Today, I spent my entire morning at Gyeongbokchung, the most famous and most important of Seoul's five palaces. It was from here that the Joseon Dynasty ruled over Korea, though that didn't happen the entire time.
The complex is huge. It was destroyed in 1592 by the Japanese and later rebuilt, only to be destroyed by the Japanese again after annexation in 1910. Recent rebuilding efforts are still underway.
The most impressive part is seen soon after entering, where the king would see important guests. The rest of the complex is pretty nice too, with a couple beautiful ponds and a maze of buildings.
One thing came to mind though, while touring this palace: the artwork o the buildings may be beautiful and colorful, but its the same at every palace. On every building. And every building has the same style. So I give you this hint: when it comes to palaces, in Korea, if you've seen one you've seen them all. That said, three of the four I visited had something special and unique: here was two nice ponds and a great mountain backdrop, yesterday I saw the library and beautiful garden, and earlier I I saw a mountain landscape begging to be explored.
Gyeongbokchung also has two nice free museums. The Korean Folk Museum is "on-site" though you can access it without a ticket. Here you'll see more everyday items - shoes, tools, examples of normal housing. Next door is the National Palace Museum. This museum has royal items, including musical instruments and paintings. Both are great and worth your time, but the Folk Museum is built like a pagoda and it contains an outdoor museum street showcasing Korean life in the 1950s and 1960s. Plus there's a children's museum inside that seemed promising for youngsters (but I believe charges admission).
As I mentioned yesterday, I scooted across town to get my tissues (discovered a small olympic museum and checked it out quickly), picked up my luggage from the locker in Itaewon, and hurried to the airport.
Okay, let's talk airlines. I flew Air Asia, a budget airline that seems to be out of Japan. On the way there I was really happy with service, though I noticed they charged for drink service. I'm glad I had bought my own before boarding.
The return flight was different. The check-in service guy in Korea was rude. They had and enforced a 7kg weight limit on carry-on baggage - mine didn't make the cut and I had to pay ₩30,400 to check it. Lame. Then I asked him if I could buy food in the concourse, and he told me I can't bring food on the plane. What?!?! I hadn't eaten all day so I bought food And drinks anyway and "snuck" them on the plane. One of the ladies scanning tickets at the gate saw a woman with a Starbucks cup and made her throw it away, but I later saw another Starbucks cup on the flight.
Now what gets me is that the policy is not the same in both directions. And not letting people on with food when you sell it on board is just ethically wrong. So fuck your policy, Air Asia. And to the check-in guy, who was rude and uncaring, and told (not asked or reminded) me to be at the gate on time - when the flight didn't start boarding until after the doors were supposed to close - fuck you too.
Okay, now that one rant is off my chest, lets talk about Korea.
If you're visiting for museums, palaces, and normal sightseeing, you will have a blast. Other than the colder-than-an-icebox temperatures, I had a great time. Not all museums have English signage but most had pamphlets at least. Travel and admissions are pretty inexpensive, though food and lodging isn't. Language is only a small issue and usually someone will step in to help if they can.
My struggles on this trip dealt with interesting niche markets that I didn't expect to be so challenging to meet. Amusement parks and baseball are best left to the spring, summer, and fall seasons.
However, Korean people are disgusting and rude in general. They spit everywhere, smoke everywhere, and I'll never forget all the trash I saw on the streets my first night there. They push and shove. They cut in line horribly. They talk loudly on their cell phones and play music out loud on the trains. Children often hit each other, seemingly at random. Boys seriously misbehaved all the time. It was like I was back in America, but even worse! There is no respect for others here.
While shopping for souvenirs, sales women (usually old ladies - I'm not talking department stores here) would constantly try to push their products on me. It was irritating! Give me some space and time to think. Pushy salespeople make me leave.
In Itaewon, one lady kept trying to get me to buy something - anything. I looked at a box for a second, she started telling me how great it was for my girlfriend. I glanced at a bell, and she told me how wonderful this one was because it was made in Korea. I faced masks, and she told me they're perfect for my loved one. And those hats are great as a souvenir for me!
She even told me at some point how she'll give me a discount because its so cold outside, and nobody is buying anything. And how because of this she is very poor. And she has no money for her children. Who were apparently about to die of starvation. I almost laughed out loud. I couldn't believe I heard someone actually try that!
Salespeople in normal stores either followed me around (maybe thinking I was going to steal something) or gave me lackluster service. In tourist-oriented places (not tourist shops) the service was notably better. Maybe they had training in how to serve customers from other cultures properly.
I'm not knocking Korea totally. I am happy to have gone (I wish I had traveled at a different time of year) and I want to I back during the spring sometime. But I wouldn't want to live there, and it reminds me how much I enjoy living in Japan.
If you have questions about Korea/Seoul (such as how to get around, how the metro works, etc) leave a comment. I'll be glad to share any of my thoughts with you. I might put together a guide post at some time but until then please ask away!