Seoul is located about an hour away from Incheon airport. There are various transportation options, including taking the subway, but none of us were in any condition to figure out baggage claim, let alone how to take the subway after our twelve-hour flight. We found out beforehand that there was a bus that would take us to Seoul for 16,000 won per person. The conversion is about 1,000 to 1, so, about $16/each. Thankfully I was traveling with other people, and their brains were functioning, which was key to our success in finding the bus kiosk and purchasing our tickets.
The airport bus was quite nice. It was air-conditioned, and the cushy seats reclined fully. We were also the only people on it, save for one man who sat about three seats up and sniffed incessantly throughout the hour ride. When I say incessantly, I mean incessantly. All I could think was “sniff one more time motherfucker” but I couldn’t make it halfway through that sentence in my mind before he did it again. Over and over, over and over, over and over. For an hour.
By the time we got to the Ramada Seoul, it was night. Check in was a breeze, but sadly, operating the elevator was not. We made a spectacle of ourselves as the elevator door kept opening to reveal to everyone in the lobby that we were still standing in it, trying to make it work. There was an alarm (accidentally triggered by me) involved, but we did eventually get our floor number to light up and off we went.
The Ramada Seoul is located in Gangnam, and while there isn’t a ton of activity directly outside the hotel, there is enough. There are two 24 hour family marts (a 7-11 type convenience store) across the street, about five restaurants within obvious walking distance, lots of coffee shops, and best of all, the subway is directly outside the door. The rooms were roomy enough, the bathrooms well equipped with the fancy Japanese toilets, and the beds were big enough to accommodate our western bodies, which is something I was concerned about before we left. I think they were queen beds, and Jake’s 6’0″ frame did dangle off the end a little, but it wasn’t horribly uncomfy for him.
We decided to go explore, and to our delight, there was a little street food stand right outside the hotel, about 40 feet to the right, manned by an adorable little ajumma.
I recognized the items she was selling, and made a horrible attempt at pronouncing “tteokbokki,” but in the end, with a combination or her saying things in hangul, me mispronouncing things in “hangul,” and a lot of pointing and nodding and holding up fingers, we ended up with an order of gimbap,
plain tteokbokki, and tteokbokki with crispy skinned mandu.
Piping hot, spicy, saucy, rice cakes mixed with deep-fried, crispy dumplings? Yes! I’m not sure food gets any more comforting than that.
From there we wandered a block or two, then made a left into an alley that looked interesting, and walked upstairs into a quiet, stinky bar (and by stinky, I mean thick with perfume) that had two patrons in it, who were sitting at a table together with a bottle of booze. That was to be our first of many run ins with “bottle service” in Korea. It is actually fairly difficult to find a place that will just give you a shot of hard alcohol. For the most part, you are required to buy a bottle of Jim Beam for $70US. We bailed on that place in search of something more fun and reasonable and delicious, which was thankfully, right outside.
I still don’t know the name of the place, or the name of the street it was on, save that it was two blocks down the road from the Ramada (if you turn right outside the hotel) across the street, and left up into the alley. Fish tanks outside, little plastic kindergarten chairs, small metal tables, loaded with smoking, drinking, feasting, patrons. That’s it there, next to “1st Ave.”
This place, like so many in both Korea and Japan, had a menu that consisted of paper rectangles hanging on the wall with a menu item written on it (in Hangul).
Our server didn’t speak much English, but we managed to order four beers and our first of MANY bottles of Magkeolli, a wheat and rice alcohol drink that is served in a plastic sprite looking bottle, then poured into what looks like little kitten milk bowls for consumption.
We did some more gesturing and nodding and smiling with our server, basically just saying yes to things he was trying to tell us they had to eat, and, the food started coming.
The first dish was some sort of tofu soup; really light broth, very delicate. It was served with a dipping sauce that looked like soy sauce with green onions in it, and tasted like a soy/ponzu mixture with green onions in it. Our server showed us that we were supposed to dish out the soup in individual bowls, and then add the soy mixture to it. It was really delicious, and certainly the perfect item for our unsettled travel stomachs. A couple of banchan items came as well, one of which was gelatinous and maybe made with bean paste? Another which was a vegetable I didn’t recognize.
Next they brought us a table burner, a standalone unit that could be taken from table to table. Kind of like a propane stove for camping, with one burner. They lit that and came back with a big bowl, full of broth and clams and topped with vegetables. It was so delightfully fresh and delicious, and at that moment I just felt so fulfilled and happy to be in Seoul. Everything we had put into our mouths in the one hour we had been on the ground had just been phenomenal.
We noticed, while eating, that outside the window our server was standing over a large fire. It seemed that he was cooking, and he was standing right next to the fish tanks, and then it occurred to us that perhaps we could try the live octopus here. When he came back we somehow asked him, and he said yes, so we ordered it, thrilled that we had already located a food item on our list, without even trying.
It arrived, legs wiggling all over the plate and looking like a pile of swarming worms. We all grabbed at them with our chopsticks, which is hard to do because the tentacles stick to/grab the plate. I ate it so fast I really couldn’t feel it moving in my mouth. I was so paranoid that it would somehow get down my throat before I chewed it enough and then that it would cling to my throat, because Randi had read about that before our trip. It didn’t taste spectacular and it didn’t taste bad. It just tasted like fresh Octopus. I couldn’t get a clear shot of it, but I did get the chopped up bits of head that were served it, which were fantastic and rich with flavor.
Eating live Octopus, delicious fresh clams, delicate tofu soup, sitting in little plastic chairs drinking magkeolli, trying to communicate with the young Koraens sitting behind us, it was a heavenly way to begin our trip in South Korea. I’m not sure any one of us could have felt any more content than we did right then.