I had a layover in Seoul on my return home from Thailand last spring. Upon learning this, I asked my airline to expand my stay so that I could go into the city. And so it went. A little over an hour after landing at Incheon, I was in the heart of the city, thanks to a super-sleek bus ride on an adept freeway. The weather was perfect, like a cool fall day. In the spring Seoul is plagued with yellow dust from wind storms in Mongolia. My twelve hours were beautiful and clear and free from dust. Compared to the heat of Thailand and the Philippines, it was a welcome reprieve.
Sometimes, there’s nothing that inspires more joy than the prospect of wandering the streets, armed with nothing more than a book, the entire day ahead of me. It’s an understatement to say that I will always remember this day fondly.
As I waited for Seoul to wake up (I’d arrived at seven in the morning), I found some breakfast at Black Bonny Coffee and Waffle (which, aside from being a venue on Foursquare, is strangely absent from the Internet). I ordered an americano (real coffee!) and a chicken and blueberry waffle. I’ve not seen anything like that waffle since. I sat in the tiny shop and enjoyed the strange and complex flavors in my waffle while reading a second hand book I’d picked up in a Filipino department store. A few chapters (and a clean plate) later, I was ready to continue my journey, with the help of a tourist map that the barista gave me.
Through the magic of Twitter, I wasn’t going to be entirely alone on my day in Seoul. Anna and Andrew, the folks who write Just a Rough Draft, (a food and travel blog), had been in Seoul for several months, teaching English. They graciously agreed to meet me for a meal, and gave me lots of wandering-around-Seoul tips. They suggested that I take a look at Myeongdong, a shopping district known for both high end retailers and incredible street food. I found the area to be remarkably similar to Easton Town Center, an outdoor mall in Columbus. I window shopped for an hour or two, looking for weather appropriate clothing. (Seoul’s heavenly temperate climate was just a little too cool for my Thailand attire.)
I searched the streets—to no avail—for Andre’s suggestions of stuffed pancakes and peanut butter fried squid. I did find some sort of meat on a stick from the stand shown above, but our language barriers stopped me from knowing exactly what I was eating.
To kill more time until I could meet Anna and Andre for lunch, I stopped by the Seoul Animation Center, which seemed to double as an educational facility and a library of endless animation. I was fascinated by the children in side-by-side “pods” staring at cartoons, as if it were their occupation. Somewhere, an irritated parent says to her little ones, “Why don’t you go watch some cartoons?” The answer? A cartoon factory, as it were.
After getting extremely acquainted with Seoul’s public pay phones, near our assigned meeting place, I finally caught sight of Anna and Andre heading toward me. They guided me toward one of their favorite restaurants, Myeongdong Gyoja. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but my make-the-bus travel anxiety overshadowed our entire meal. I had to catch a bus, then another, to get back to Incheon in time to catch my flight. Even though I’d done my research and knew, deep down, that I’d given myself enough time, I wouldn’t be content until I set foot in the airport. My new friends promised me that they’d taken me to one of the quickest restaurants in the area. This helped to ease (some of) the anxiety.
We sat at a table equipped with drawers beneath it, offering all needed utensils. Very efficient, indeed. I let my hosts do the ordering: kalguksu (cut noodle soup with beef) and gogi mandu, (beef and pork dumplings). Both were incredible, though I liked the dumplings just a tiny bit more. My fellow food bloggers shared snippets of life in Seoul with me as we ate. (Fun fact: Korean women go hiking in heels.) If they were annoyed by my time-related neuroses, they hid it well. Thirty minutes after we sat down to eat, I was on the street, saying goodbye and boarding a bus toward my destination. As the airport drew nearer, I watched families strolling outside near the shore, enjoying the beautiful day. Without room on my camera for more images, the only pictures I could take were with my mind. I will return someday to capture those images permanently.
According to my host, like most places in Seoul, Myeongdong Gyoga does not have an address. Andre tells me that it’s off the Myeongdong stop on the 4 line. Go straight from exit 6 into the busy section, take the first right, and the next left. The restaurant is on the left behind Forever 21.