Incheon International Airport’s new Terminal 2 opened in January of this year, in time for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is sleek and pretty and calm and soothing. What it is not, is near to Terminal 1, from where the express train to Seoul Station departs.
Meeting me in Terminal 1 was my friend from Japan, who accepted the invitation to join me in Seoul and had arrived the night before; we would then transit to Tokyo together after our holiday in South Korea. And bonus, a Vienna friend now posted to Seoul would be able to join us for some sightseeing! The more friends to sightsee with, the merrier, right? And that’s exactly how our four days in South Korea’s capital happened.
I messaged Japan Friend (JF) upon landing, telling her I needed to stop for some Won before catching the shuttle bus that runs between the two terminals. Retrieving Won was easy, once I located a machine that accepted International Bank Cards. But, what was that? A service fee? Sorry, Seoul, but charging me to withdraw my own money is not very welcoming, so I made a note to guestimate my cash spending to reduce the withdrawals necessary. As it turned out Seoul (and Tokyo) both accept plastic for even small purchases (€1,50 equivalent), so I could avoid fees for multiple cash withdrawals.
But I have digressed. Cash in hand, I boarded the shuttle for T2. Looking out the window I notice the bus driving further and further away from the airport. I called up Google Maps and discovered I was not jet-lagged; the two terminals are quite far apart! Fifteen minutes later we reached T1, where I connected with JF and we purchased our AREX (train) tickets to Seoul.
Our hotel was rather upscale but simple and right in the middle of Insa-dong; the location worked out superbly. We arrived from the airport and were able to check-in early, freshen up, then forage for a large snack before making the most of the afternoon ahead of us. JF said she was thrilled to go along with the Seoul itinerary I had drafted, so our first destination was the National Museum for its temporary art exhibits on Tigers, closing that day; the visiting pieces from The Hermitage; and the standing calligraphy exhibits plus whatever else struck our fancy.
I must write now about JF’s snack from the 7-Eleven. If you are not in the know, Korean 7-Eleven’s are food meccas. I picked up a fresh made SPAM onigiri (be jealous, it was fantastic) and a package of grapes. JF purchased a wrapped package labeled, “Sandwich with Cheddar Cheese,” the picture showing a brown bread sandwich containing lettuce and cheese. But it was not a cheese sandwich; the package contained sandwich cheese—five slices! We laughed and laughed on our way to the Metro.
Speaking of Metro, and pretty much every large public gathering place, there were large cabinets filled with “Relief Goods.” Just par for the course when L’il Kim is your neighbor.
The National Museum of Korea was worth every minute of the two-plus hours we spent. The temporary exhibits were well done and held our attention, the Tigers a little more so than works from The Hermitage; the former showcasing the Asian King of Beasts to coincide with its representation as mascot of the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games. But the way in which the museum wove the history of Korea into the space left us feeling as if we had actually learned something.
From the museum we visited the War Memorial of Korea and viewed the old military equipment on the grounds, though we did not visit the war memorial museum. While we were inspecting the inside of a tank we were asked by two older Korean men, once they confirmed we were American, if they could take their photo with us. They remarked that they were veterans and wanted a photo by the tank. This would not be the last time on this holiday we engaged positively with older Korean persons.
By now the afternoon, and we, were waning; a SPAM and rice ball and some cheese slices only goes so far. In retrospect, though, I am entirely pleased with allowing as much time as I had for the National Museum, and don’t feel the visit to the war memorial was shortchanged.
I had not devoted as much research to Korean foods as I had to Singaporean cuisine, mostly because my appreciation for Korean foods has little bounds. A copout, some might write, but I prefer to call it leaving serendipity to chance (you’ll read why later in the holiday). After a few moments to collect ourselves back at the hotel we set out for dinner in Insa-dong, where old meets new, and where girls in rented Hanbok are as popular as the Naked Singing Cowboy in Times Square, finding a little place that could be the Seoul equivalent of the Izakaya in Midnight Diner: Tokyo. We cozied up on two chairs facing the wall and pointed at the pictures on the menu: made-to-order Jap Chae Dumplings; Fried Shrimp; and Galbi Dumplings that were savory and flavorful, and obviously a big hit with locals, for there seemed always to be someone ordering for take-away. Go where the locals go. The total tab for the two of us? A mere 10.500 Won (€8). The locals know where to go.
Would our sightseeing and dining good fortune continue (the “Cheese Sandwich” episode aside) we mused later that night, when checking the weather forecast and plotting the next day’s adventures…