‘Just one more shop. I’ll be back in a moment, wait here.’
He wasn’t. I had been waiting for the best part of two hours, trudging round shoe shops in the rain in futile pursuit of the perfect trainers. In fairness, it wasn’t all Vasilyy’s fault. His size wasn’t easy to find, and some of the shop assistants gave the strong impression of being on heavy sedatives. Then there’s the international shoe size system omnishambles. If you were looking for bearish signs about world peace, the fact we can’t agree on a single global standard for measuring fucking foot size would rank high up there. I start with this story not to name and shame V, although that is fun, but to point out that Seoul is the kind of city where one district contains two hours’ worth of shoe shopping options.
It had been a day of overabundance. Earlier in the day, we had been to the National Museum, which promised thousand-year-old gilt Buddhas, crowns from forgotten kingdoms, relics and the rest. And it didn’t fail to deliver. It’s just… well, Vasilyy put it best. ‘Rows and rows of pots and vases. It’s like IKEA.’
I like to think of myself as a pure-as-snow history geek, but I couldn’t honestly disagree. One dragon-peony pot with blue cobalt underglaze is lovely, but after the four-hundredth bamboo-crane pot with blue cobalt underglaze, your eyes do tend to glaze under a bit, if you know what I mean. I had fever visions of generations of Koreans manacled to studio desks, painting bamboo and pretty little flowers on endless vases and dreaming of exile. But the ten-story-pagoda was pretty cool, I guess.
Seeking a flashier modernity, we’d decamped to Gangnam. Yah, don’t even pretend you’re not singing it. K-pop brain viruses aside, Gangnam is an affluent, still somewhat trendy district south of the Han River. I came expecting a jacked-up version of Hongdae, our hostel’s local area in the shadow of Hongik University1.
What we got instead was something like Oxford Street, a gauntlet of skyscrapers and megastores with famous brand names hanging off them. High street glitz to make Mephistopheles weep, but it all felt a bit hollow and certainly less exciting than I’d pictured it. There was a three-story emporium of LINE friends merchandise, the emoji substitutes from a popular Korean chat app. Otherwise, y’know the drill- expensive clothes, handbags, pizza, records. We meandered off into the backstreets and ate some noodles.
After all our exploring together in Tokyo and elsewhere this summer, mine and Vasilyy’s last day together in Seoul wasn’t one for the history books. Maybe that’s inevitable- you build up endings into something special, only to find they insist on being ordinary and life rolls on. But I really enjoyed our sprawling walk across Seoul, which took us across suburbs, a university campus and two parks2, telling the stories of our respective families along the way. V, I’ll miss you, and your dark humor, honesty, remorseless bluntness and surprising sweetness beneath the surface. Peace and love, and make the most of the late warm spell in Moscow.
And then, I was alone again.
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Take to the Streets
After a year in Japan, there were two features of Seoul`s streets that caught me off guard: soldiers and protests. It was the soldiers first, sometimes casually strolling around in uniform, laughing with their mates, sometimes anxious at train stations. Having grown up in the Home Counties, soldiers in the streets aren’t exactly a familiar phenomenon- although give it six more months of Boris and we’ll see what happens. But here, thirty miles from the landmines and armed patrols of the DMZ, the army isn’t some remote ‘other’ but a part of daily life. South Korea has conscription too, 21 months of military service- up there with Israel as one of the longest service periods. I saw a bunch of soldiers who looked like kids playing dress up, and I felt deeply uneasy. It got me thinking about whether I’d fight if I was pushed, or whether I’d find another way. I like to think of myself as a conscientious objector, but would I have the guts?
The protests were less of an abrupt shock and more of a slowburn surprise. The first time I saw a small group of pensioners singing protest songs under a banner that called the Prime Minister a collaborationist Commie traitor, I thought, great, here come the crazies. Well, turns out they were in good company. At Seoul Station, the stairs were blocked by an intense rally led by some suit or other, full of conservatives waving South Korean and USA flags. The combination is surprisingly common, but you generally won’t see a liberal waving the stars and stripes. Elsewhere, a woman shrieked like a Fox News commentator in front of what looked like a billboard of classified documents.
Then again, maybe Koreans have good reason to be angry. The last president was arrested for corruption and allegedly giving state secrets to the charismatic daughter of a cult leader, and the president before that is currently in prison on bribery and corruption charges. The president before that tragically committed suicide while on trial. I don’t know much about Korean politics, but it sounds like quite the cauldron. More than once, I got to thinking about Brexit, which has generated its own kind of permanent protest industry. Just like in South Korea, flags are part of the argument- I heard there was some angst about EU flags at the Last Night of the Proms.
These two strands of society come together at the Korean War Museum, where war is honoured and reviled. It’s a place that can’t work out its tone. It’s part solemn honour for soldiers, part glorification of the country’s noble martyrs- their words, not mine. But then the art exhibition contained some pieces which were ferociously anti-war, and I wondered what compromises went into the making of this place. It’s got to give you a tortured, complex perspective on war, having an unresolved conflict which a country you have so much in common with. There was a protest whose goal I couldn’t discern outside; I descended into the basement and learnt the long and treachery-filled story of Korea’s unification. I love a good bit of treachery, me.
Empty Pleasure Domes
Seoul is full to the brim with the departed. The Joseon Dynasty were loyal Confucians, in outward form if not in inward belief. So, they honoured their ancestors, revered grand simplicity, and built palaces where they filled their days with rituals.
Next to say, the sprawling gold-plated excess of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the palaces at Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung feel almost minimalist in their restraint. Cloister after cloister of red and green painted buildings, with the same repeating patterns on the eaves. There’s a lot of focus on symmetry, on identical rows of wooden panels and vast, empty courtyards. The throne rooms are the one place where a bit of royal excess breaks through, but even at the literal seat of power, it’s kinda mimsy compared to the sheer batshit goldstorm of Versailles.
Poking around the palaces, you can tell that, despite their privilege, the lives of royalty must have been frequently dull, driven by repetition of rites and ceremonies. It’s not a life I’d wish for, despite all the opulence. Changdeokgung does at least show a royal family starting to change, with an 1830s purpose-built debate room for clashing heads over ethics and current affairs. Nonetheless, their world is gone now, wiped away by Japanese occupation, and their ghosts are shuttered inside Jongmyo Shrine. Outside the shrine, elderly men play Go under the midday sun.
Lonely on the Road
It’s been an interesting journey so far. That said, sometimes I feel a bit purposeless, like I’m just breezing into towns to stare at museums and landmarks for a bit before leaving. I’ve found it difficult to get under the skin of anywhere. It’s all part of a learning process, but sometimes I forget my own rules. Certainly I’ve spent too much time exploring by the light of day, and I’ve not seen enough of the flip side of city life, the creatures that only come out at night. At least on my last night in Seoul, I took a detour to a shisha bar in Yeonnam, with a girl from Chile who loves Korean dramas and a dude from Hong Kong on a weekend break from the grind. I did some tipsy midnight clothes shopping, which always ends well and has no negative consequences!3
I want to see a bit more of Japan at night. I’m currently in Nagasaki, drawn by invisible strings to Hiroshima’s atomic bomb twin city, and then I think I might hit up Kobe. It’s possible my blog is gonna go into a holding pattern soon while I figure out my next steps in life, which are… uncertain. I have a couple of old projects to work on too, so watch out for those.
‘Til next time,
From your correspondent at Japan’s outpost.
1– In the toilets of the station at Hongik University, there’s a never-ending sequence of young guys checking their hair for minute imperfections in the mirror.
2– Hanok Park is a particularly well-loved, small urban park with a pop-up art gallery.
3– I impulse-bought a blood-red jumper with Leon and Mathilda from the eponymous film on it. Actually, I wouldn’t even call it an impulse; that suggests active brain chemistry led to the purchase. It just sort of happened.