Christmas comes to Korea: Part 1

Christmas came and went suddenly.  Leading up to the 25th there were lots of opportunities for me to miss my parents, miss my friends back home, and miss the traditions we had together, but the actual day went by in the blink of an eye (we’ll get to that later!).  The holiday is celebrated in Korea as a “couples day”.  Since Christianity is not the primary religion, the festivities generally associated with Christmas are seen as romantic.  Koreans love cute little Reindeer antlers, donuts, and sweaters, Santa comes to the hagwons, and the kids learn to sing “Feliz Navidad” (but not always that they’re actually singing Spanish!).

A couple of weeks ago I took the slow train up to Seoul and got to check out a few new places that actually led me to take a new job in the city come March, 2016.  We walked from Seoul Station (where I popped my duffel bag in a locker for the afternoon for a mere $3) up to Deoksugung Palace.  It was an incredibly sunny and warm day, and I was over-prepared for the alleged frigid weather of December in Seoul by wearing my Canadian ski jacket.  The palace itself was in the same design as other palaces and temples, and was fairly simple.  It’s the kind of place I’d go to read a book in the summer, however it’s not the kind of place I’d bring a visitor new to Korea if we had limited time as it’s just not impressive enough straight away.  That said, for the $1 admission I’d gladly go again when I have more time.

After checking out the palace, we continued along to Insadong.  We wandered around the area near the palace and found a neighbourhood that didn’t feel like Seoul, or Korea, at all!  I told my friend that I felt like we were wandering around an older street in Toronto, and suddenly we happened upon the Canadian Embassy!  I couldn’t believe the coincidence of how at home I had felt in that area, and it just felt like kismet to find a beautiful area with a Canadian flag that reminded me so much of home before even seeing the Canadian coat of arms.

I had been told that Insadong was the only place in the world where “Starbucks” was written in another language.  Well, en route we saw one “스타박스“, so I snapped a picture. Once in actual Insadong, we found another!  I guess I should research little travel tidbits before I go getting excited (or sharing)!  We we ravenous, so we stopped into one of the many Indian spots and had a wonderful lunch of small plates.  I took no pictures and was completely okay with it!  I’ll probably head back there once I move back up to Seoul (ps. I’m moving back up to Seoul March 8th, 2016 – can you believe it?) so I’ll blog about it all then!

After lunch and a walk through the artistic community of Insadong we went back to Seoul Station to pick up a friend of mine who had lived in little Hwamyeong-dong but moved up to Suwon in August.  It was so much fun to see her after months of Facebook messages.  We picked up some fruit, snacks, and wine at the LotteMart at Seoul Station (that complex is awesome!) and headed over to the house to relax for a bit before heading out to SANTACON!

Did I forget to tell you about Santacon?  Well, Santacon is a festive event in Seoul and various other cities around the world.  People dress up as Santa (in our case – reindeer because we weren’t entirely sure the $5 Santa costumes at Daiso would fit).  We started the night at the Rocky Mountain Tavern, a Canadian-themed bar in Itaewon.  I ordered a Rye and Ginger (with Canadian Club and real Canada Dry Ginger Ale!) and the three of us shared a poutine.  The poutine was…$11 and absolutely atrocious.  Do not order this dish regardless of the Canadian nostalgia factor.  The frozen, McCain-style fries were garbage, and the gravy was just…confusing.  It was peppery and seemed to have a hint of curry.  I mean, we ate it…but it was…not the best.  

After the Rocky Mountain Tavern, we wandered over to the Itaewon venue of Santacon (they started in Hongdae but…we were not prepared to head over there first).  At the Wolfhound, which is eerily the same as the location in Haeundae, we found a number of Santas standing around drinking.  Really…no carols, no games, no Christmas spirit, just drinking in costume.  I really enjoyed seeing the bar all decked out, but there didn’t seem to be all that much to SantaCon, so we continued along to The Grand Ole’ Opry (a country bar in Itaewon named after the Nashville venue – score!).  Take a peak at the Lonely Planet map, which describes it as: “Bang in the middle of Itaewon’s red-light district, this honky-tonk dive bar is an old-school GI hangout and something straight out of a movie. The original owner Mama Kim still works behind the bar and is good for a chat about Itaewon’s colourful history. The Star Spangled Banner is played at the stroke of midnight, as it has been here for over 40 years”. Having lived in Vancouver, this Canadian loves a good knock-off honky-tonk dive bar, and was not disappointed.  The drinks are cheap, the dancefloor is a decent size, and the servers are diligent.  Sure, it’s in an area of town I wouldn’t normally check out, but Korea is very, very safe and our group of friends new and old was growing.

After a great night out in Itaewon, we ventured back through the area having a decadent, protein-heavy brunch (again – didn’t take pictures, sorry all!) followed by a relaxing afternoon.  By nightfall, I knew I wanted to check out the Christmas lights of Myeongdong.  The subway in Seoul is really convenient, and even though we had to transfer it felt like we went from Noksapyeong to Myeongdong in the blink of an eye.

…because every Christmas tree needs a little Psy. 

We took exit 5 or 6 (sorry…can’t remember…there are signs in English everywhere, though!) and stepped out onto the main shopping street in Myeongdong.  There you’ll find Western giants like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 as well as Club Monaco (who knew they had Club Monaco in Korea?) as well as Tommy Hilfiger (Bahama? Not interested…), American Apparel, and Lacoste.  When I came to Korea I knew it would be tough for me to buy clothes.  Now, I’m not so worried about Korean sizing (see…other posts about how eating right, exercising, less stress, and sleep help with losing weight!), but it will be pretty cool to have style and clothes that don’t feel like they’re straight out of the 90’s (or a G-Dragon music video).  Myeongdong is definitely the place to be if you have big feet in Korea or do not fit Korean conventions.

The evening was fairly warm and we walked around for at least a couple of hours.  We poked our head into a Dog Cafe but it just looked really sad.  I have a large, irrational (welll…kind of – let’s remember I lived in Toronto where raccoons eat neighbourhood cats for breakfast or even just a late-night snack) fear of raccoons and apparently there are a few raccoon cafes in Hongdae and some other neighbourhoods (Raccoon Blog Post 1Raccoon Blog Post 2Raccoon Blog Post 3Raccoon Blog Post 4Raccoon Blog Post 5.), so we decided just to grab some of the fantastic street food in the area.  Once you head down the main shopping street, hang a left at the Woori Bank and you’ll find a massive street lined with vendors.  There were tons of stops for chicken skewers, waffles, crepes, tteokbokki (rice cakes in a [mildly] spicy sauce), fish cakes, oysters, fruit, and shawarma wraps.  We decided on sharing shawarma (say that ten times fast), a nutella and banana crepe (my inspiration for Christmas morning in Hwamyeong!), and chocolate-covered strawberries.  Our snacks were cheap and delicious and just enhanced the beautiful background of sparkling lights and excited people, Koreans and Waygookins alike.

An early night was in order since I was taking the 5:50 AM Mugunghwa Train from Seoul right back to Hwamyeong Monday morning.  I was sad to say goodbye to what little I’ve seen of what I’m certain is a fantastic city.  Seoul – I can’t wait to get to know you.  
My trip was just too short…

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