Day 4: Part 2, Noodles and LanternsNovember 11, 2019 in South Korea ⋅ 🌙 -5 °C
Alice’s mom was excited about our day; not because we were going up Namsan, but because we were heading Downton to very near the place of her first employment at the main bank in central Seoul. We were walking through the crowds when Mrs. Ha grabbed my arm and excitedly said, “There! There is where we went to the movies!” This is why I had tagged along on this trip. I could see the palaces of the Joseon Dynasty all on my own. I could find all of the main museums and see them too. I might even find a few restaurants that were typical of Seoul. But I never would have known that in the 1960s that beautiful building was where friends gathered to watch movies. I never would have known that the famous noodle place we were about to go to, the noodle place in the Michelin guide and in all the tourist blogs, was a little hole in the wall noodle shop opened in the same years that those same friends started working in downtown Seoul.
We ate lunch at Myeongdong Kyoja, the noodle place that Mrs. Ha and her friends ate all those years ago. It opened in 1966 and offers hand cut noodle soup and dumplings. That’s it, and that’s what we ate. It’s cheap, the flavors are amazing, and the kimchi is the best. Like really the best. I dream of that kimchi. I now eat kimchi and think, “ugh, I miss Myeongdong Kyoja’s kimchi.” It’s the kimchi that now inspires me to not bother trying to buy good kimchi…I just make my own. You know it’s a good restaurant in Seoul if it has: 1) trash cans by the table (to discard the tiny napkins common in restaurants), 2) metal chopsticks (I joke that Koreans are German-Asians…they take sanitation seriously…bless them!), and 3) a lady with a bucket of kimchi to refill your kimchi bowl as needed. Myeongdong Kyoja had them all. Alice’s mom wanted to eat every meal here. She was not misguided.
After lunch, we went to Namsan (see Day 4, pt 1), and then we headed down to Namdaemun Market, the south gate market. The south gate (Sungnyemun Gate) was constructed from 1395 to 1398 and reconstructed many times throughout the centuries, including in 2009 when it was burned down. The south gate is one of three original gates leading into Seoul, only two of which survive. According to the Seoul guide, Sungnyemun Gate was used “to greet important foreign visitors, allow people into and out of the city, and to keep out invaders and dangerous animals such as Siberian Tigers.” Tigers? Yipes. Well, those clearly were kept out by the growing population into the 20th century, and in 1907 the wall around Seoul was taken down and only the gates remained. South gate was damaged during the Korean War and restored afterwards earning it the designation of the first National Treasure of Korea in 1962.
Namdaemun Market dates from 1961, though people have been selling goods in this area since 1414. It is the largest traditional Korean market, and so I thought…THIS is where I find chopsticks to take home. In theory that was great. In reality, we all know I’m a big snob, so I ended up buying a set at Shinsegae, the fancy department store next to our hotel. I mean, it’s not just me. Alice had to go through dozens of sets to approve the size of spoon that accompanied the chopstick. In classic, Korea 2019 style…I only bought a set of 8 and live in constant regret of my under-purchase…especially as I have been using them often since my return home. Oh, yeah, and we eat every single dingle meal at home thanks to Covid-19 and the resulting stay at home orders. I could use some extra utensils.
After leaving the market, we finally made it to the lantern festival! That was the lantern festival of which apparently no actual Korean had heard. We learned about from an American tourist. Every Korean we asked would look at us and say something similar to, “Lantern festival? Isn’t that in the summer?” No. Apparently there is a light festival south of Seoul in the summer, and there is a famous lantern festival in Jeju on the southern coast of Korea in October, but this is the Seoul Lantern festival. It takes place every year for the first two weeks of November in Cheonggyecheon…we planned this perfectly. The Seoul Lantern festival dates from 2012 when it was supposed to be a one time festival to celebrate “Visit Korea year 2010 to 2012” (I bet they are very happy that they didn’t choose 2020…oy.) The city decided to make it an every year event and boy oh boy was Jeju mad…apparently…though again, nobody in Seoul knew anything about this festival anyway, but I digress…
The Seoul Lantern Festival takes place in Cheonggyecheon, the Stream, in central Seoul. The stream was a drainage system through central Seoul to take water to the Han River and out to sea. In the early days of the Joseon dynasty it was used for laundry and a water source. Under Japanese rule of Korea it was neglected, though they never were able to cover it over as they had planned. After the war, the stream became covered with temporary dwellings from people streaming into Seoul to find work and some economic stability. The structures were shabby, there was trash everywhere, and the stream became essentially an open sewer. Slowly, from 1958 until 1976, the stream was covered with concrete and an elevated highway was built on top.
In 2005 the stream was uncovered, the elevated highway torn down, and now the stream is a vibrant and attractive landscape in the heart of Seoul. We strolled along the stream, and enjoyed the 2019 Seoul Lantern Festival. The theme this year was “Folktales.” There were representations from Korean, Chinese, and western folktales. Disney even made an appearance at this year’s festival.
Next up: We do need some education: A visit to the first women’s university and to Mrs. Ha’s alma mater.Read more