Fuck me October has lasted forever, it feels like bloody ages ago that Spencer and I were in the city of funky cafés and colourful buildings. Seoul was fantastic in lots of ways.
I have visited Seoul before but I wasn’t able to do all of the things I wanted, in fact I didn’t do anything at all because I was following that abusive ex-boyfriend around whilst he rode BMX for four days. I wasn’t able to visit the cute café that provided you with watercolours and paper whilst you drink or relax in an all day spa for 3 hours with absolutely nothing on. It sucked the first time around. The only thing that didn’t suck about that trip was an awesome picture I took all by myself, with absolutely NO help from Reddit in removing said ex-boyfriend from the photo.
This time was sure to be different and amazing. I had an incredible travel guide with me, she was able to book the tickets for the flights, hotel, trains and even come up with an extensive list of things that we could do whilst we were in Seoul, AND, the best part of all that is I didn’t have to pay a penny for her. Yes, Spencer is my travel guide. Yes, we are co-dependant. Yes, when we went to Vietnam she planned every single detail and I did fuck all. Yes, the same thing happened this time too.
Another wonderful factor of the trip to Seoul was meeting Hannah, Spencer’s friend from college, who also works as an English Teacher. Hannah is a human who radiates warmth and happiness when you’re close, she will lend a listening ear (to which she really will hear you) and give you a heartfelt response. She’s a human who considers views the world from every angle and has a breadth of openness because of this. She works really hard on making an ethical mark on the world by being plastic-free, making her own clothes and her own skin care products. I’m in absolute awe of her.
Our mornings started exactly the same – a hunt a for a Starbucks Chai Latte just like it was in Vietnam. China’s Starbucks deprives you of this of this delicacy and it sucks. Dirty chai lattes have changed my life and I don’t think another chai will ever be the same. Each sip tickles your taste buds and slides so gracefully down to your stomach until the cup feels depressingly empty and you wish you’d ordered a Venti.
With chai swimming happily in our systems and the sun shining bright above our heads we decided to take our first day (in fact our whole trip) with ease. Spencer had also visited Seoul prior to our trip so we both agreed that scuttling from landmark to temple to landmark was absolutely banned. When you live in China it is definitely possible to see one too many temples before they begin blurring in your memory. Therefore, our interest fell upon the vast range of independent coffee shops that decorate the criss-cross alleyways of Seoul.
So, our first day and the sun is shining, we were meeting Hannah in the University district meaning that we had to catch the subway to get there. Taking the Subway in Korea can be comparable to taking a limousine when all you’re used to is the narrow sardine-packed carriages of China. Maybe I’ve written about this before because I have a strange sense of deja vu but, there is a beautiful jolly chime when the train arrives that makes you feel all fuzzy and ready to embrace a long commute. The carriages are wider than the ones in Beijing – if you took a full to the brim carriage from Beijing and put them all in a carriage from Seoul, you could commute without being pressed against the groin of an old Chinese guy grinning happily that he’s stood next to a foreigner. In every carriage on a Seoul subway train is a pink seat specifically for pregnant women. In China we have a similar thing, there’s a yellow seat dedicated to hosting the bums of old people, pregnant women, children and injured people but, is it given to these people when they get on the train? Absolutely fucking not. People sprint and shove you out of the way so that they can slide their bodies into any space that they can plonk themselves. In Seoul, however, this pink seat for pregnant woman is not touched whatsoever. Whether the train is full or as empty as the desert NO ONE sits on that chair.
Hannah emerged from the subway baring a huge smile and handmade beauty products for us both. She embraced me for a hug the moment we met and I was captivated by her presence instantly. We took a slow wander into the hectically arranged alleys as Spencer and Hannah nattered away caught up on all things boys, life, surgery and teaching. I listened intently feeling as if I’d known them both my whole life.
The final destination of our slow walk was a themed café that would make me all starry-eyed and giddy. A yellow brick building with huge wooden doors crept into my eyesight and my insides did a little leap. A huge broom was parked outside with several colourful ones lining the wall behind, hung up above them was a huge sign titled “934 King’s Cross”. Hannah had insisted we visit the Harry Potter café because it was rumoured to be magical and she was not wrong. As a Harry Potter fan with the Deathly Hallows symbol scratched into my arm forever, I haven’t done or been to any Harry Pottery things so this was an absolute delight. You must buy a drink to be able to wander around this three-storey building thus we grabbed a scroll, unravelled it and diverted our eyes directly to the butterbeer and potions beverages. We spotted the cake fridge and inside were rows of glorious looking cheesecakes and a long line of pink cakes with the words “HAPPEE BIRTHDAE 943” iced on top. We couldn’t justify spending a wad of money on it but, it sure pulled us from the café lobby to the deserted island in book one where Hagrid presents the cake to Harry in the dead of night.
The first floor resembled the inside of Ollivander’s with boxes and boxes of orange, blue and maroon stacked along the back wall. As you take the doorway beside the stairs you enter a rectangular room which has fluffy pink things hung up on the wall and on the chandelier. Footprints similar to those on the Marauder’s Map guided you to the end of the room and had you standing in the reflection of the Mirror of Erised. The stairwell was dark and dingy, you could either head up the stairs to The Great Hall, Café and Lounge or go down to Hog’s Head. Our little service buzzer went off and we collected our beautifully presented beverages and made our way upstairs to sit down. My butterbeer came in a tall silver mug overflowing with whipped cream and butterscotch sauce; Hannah’s drink was a cold gradient of purple, sea blue and emerald green, it looked like it had come straight out of potions class. After our glasses were empty and plates were clean we climbed the stairs to the lounge where you could put on Hogwarts robes and feel like a true witch or wizard. I snatched up the Hufflepuff robe, Spencer wore the Slytherin robe and Hannah the Ravenclaw and we glided around feeling like boss witches.
With Hannah as our Sunday tour guide she had our best interests at heart when it came to dinner. I mentioned before that Seoul is a criss-cross mess of alleys and streets and even though it’s kind of charming it is also incredibly confusing. We wandered mindlessly through the streets stopping occasionally to absorb the quirky artwork and eventually arrived at an adorable quad garden filled with tables and chairs and lined with an indoor eating area. It was a clear and warm evening, perfect for dining outside in this cute little spot. Bibimbap was the dish Hannah highly recommended and I knew I could trust the taste buds of another vegetarian. Bibimbap is a rice dish with kimchi, gochujang and a mix of vegetables served in a sizzling hot stone pot. As the rice crackles on the bottom of the pot you can direct your chopsticks to the traditional Korean side dishes that are given with every meal. Once the stone pot cooled down we all dug in eating, stirring and chatting the night away. It was absolutely delicious by far my favourite Korean dish, sorry cold noodles.
Earlier that day we diverted our path and ended up in a piercing shop. Hannah’s ears are full with cute little studs and she wanted to get her tragus done. I voiced, in angst, that I had been toying with idea of having my nose pierced but it was the pain and aftercare that held me back and left me crippling in fear. Hannah looked me dead in the eyes and told me to do it because in her mind “I already had it done” and then took my hand and lead me to the chair. My stomach began to knot and my palms were clammy, I instantly regretted the decision. The woman told me to sit down but I refused in panic, if i didn’t sit down on the chair she couldn’t do it and therefore I didn’t have to go through the pain right? Spencer and Hannah held both of my hands in support and told me that it’ll be fine. I gripped them both for dear life and slowly perched my butt on the chair. I screwed up my face as the needle went through, loosened my grip on Spencer and Hannah and felt pathetic. “Was that it?” was the first thing that came out of my mouth because it didn’t hurt in the slightest. Absolute hypochondriac.
Our second day was a little more touristy; we spent our morning exploring the peaceful grounds of a Buddhist park and watching locals pause to pray at each temple. At the heart of the park stood a tall white stone Buddha with thousands of tiny Buddhas sitting snugly on shelves behind, each rocking a different name. Like with any temple or holy ground you visit, whether you’re religious or not, you leave feeling incredibly calm and blessed. This, however, was short lived because our afternoon activity was filled with dicks, boobs and pussies. With Korea becoming more sexually liberated a sex museum in the middle of the city seems reasonable, right? Giant boobs were there to be fondled and huge dicks were inviting us to sit on them. Gawping at genitals is not something Spencer or I feel awkward about, the awkward part of the tour was that a group of small old men were looking around at the same time we were.
My favourite day of our 6 day vacation was the Wednesday. It being Wednesday was significant. As people who proudly advocate for the empowerment of all women we were very determined to make it to the War & Women’s Human Rights Museum. This museum shares the story of the Korean women taken during WW2 and used as sex slaves by the Japanese Army – otherwise known as “comfort women”. This place was beautifully haunting. The moment we stepped through the door we were warmly welcomed and given audio guides and directions on how to move around the building. The first part was immersive – we walked along gravel in between narrow walls painted with silhouettes of young women. Our footsteps were inaudible, they were drowned out by the soundtrack of hundreds of slow marching thuds and drags of women unaware of where they were going or what they were doing. Hundreds and thousands of women (Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese) as young as 12 were snatched from their home and separated into “comfort stations” located throughout Asia. These stations forced women into sexual slavery for/by Japanese Soldiers for years with some of the women moving from station to station. I remember seeing several women who had been in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen (3 cities in China… so, not even in Korea).
“After the end of World War II, however, documents on the system were destroyed by Japanese officials, so the numbers are based on estimates by historians that rely on a variety of extant documents. As Japan rebuilt after World War II, the story of its enslavement of women was downplayed as a distasteful remnant of a past people would rather forget. Meanwhile, women who had been forced into sexual slavery became societal outcasts. Many died of sexually transmitted infections or complications from their violent treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers; others committed suicide. For decades, the history of the “comfort women” went undocumented and unnoticed. When the issue was discussed in Japan, it was denied by officials who insisted that “comfort stations” had never existed.”
Every Wednesday since January 8th 1992 people, in the presence of surviving comfort women, have been protesting outside the Embassy of Japan in Seoul demanding Japan to redress the sexual slavery system they established. The Korean Council are yet to feel as though the rights and dignity of these women have been restored. The brave fight of these women and their families has been going on for decades and will continue to be at the forefront of their lives. When we were made aware of the Wednesday demonstration we checked our watches and were gutted, we had missed it by a few hours. The entire experience and learning of the history had left us feeling broken and yet liberated at the same time. The strength of these women transcended through the eyes of their photographs and into our hearts.
Wednesday ended so beautifully. Hannah had recommended a little place called Peach Gray on the other side of the city that provides you with watercolour paints and paper with your drink. This dainty place had only 8 tables, all but one of them full with sturdy hands gliding brush pens across the paper. Spencer chose to paint flowers, typical, and I chose to sketch a moody photo of the pier I took back in January. Home was and has been on my mind for a while and I’m very excited to be heading there in the next 6 months.