While Hong-Kong was very much a food-lover’s paradise, Seoul is a shopping obsessive’s dream (or nightmare if you don’t want to spend the money). There were many shopping streets and almost every other shop was centred around skincare or make-up. People in South Korea are arguably more concerned with their appearance than other countries; South Korea has by far the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world (source). This is reflected in the volume of skin-care related products on the shelves – in South Korea a dewy, perfect complexion is highly valued, so skincare is of great importance to achieve this beauty standard.
Anyone that wants good moisturiser, toner, emulsifier or any skin product imaginable, should go to South Korea with a bag you can check into the hold; 100ml allowances will severely limit your skin-care extravaganza. As I was travelling carry-on only I was limited to a few samples and masks (probably a good thing for my wallet really). The sales people are also fairly aggressive – you get samples with most purchases which is nice, but they will also physically drag you into the shop (with promises of a free mask) to look at their products (Nature Republic were particularly guilty of this).
Before visiting Seoul I thought that you only really got face masks, but it turns out you can get a mask for pretty much every body part. There were foot masks, thigh masks and breast masks, all with a huge range of options in terms of what magical product you were sticking to your body. I even found a rather odd selection of Shrek-themed products. The Shrek mask was pretty tempting but I resisted.
Perhaps another side-effect (or cause) of the image-centric culture was this rather amusing stall at the market, which was selling images of all the idols. To be fair idol culture is also huge in Japan, but I have never seen them commercialised to the extent that market stalls that sell only celebrity pictures exist.
If you really want to give your skin a treat and buying masks just isn’t cutting it, you can visit a Korean bath-house. On a day that we felt we deserved a break from touristing we went to Dragon Hill spa. This spa has pretty much everything you could need to spend the day; public baths, saunas, restaurants, a swimming pool, arcade, massages and even beds if you want to stay the night. It cost around £8 to get in, and the baths and beds were no extra charge, so the spa is a great alternative to booking a hostel or hotel if you don’t have much luggage. You are given pyjama-like clothes to wear and a wristband with a chip in it. You pay for everything (such as food) with your wristband and settle up when you leave.
Thus I became Inmate 298 for the day; it felt a little like a prison with the uniform and wristbands but of course it was amazingly relaxing. There were around 15 different types of baths, and as long as you can get over everyone being naked (single gender only, don’t worry), you will have a fantastic time. I felt so relaxed and heavy afterwards from the cycle of hot, cold, outside, medicinal and jacuzzi-style baths. Of course, my skin felt fantastic afterwards which was very welcome as it was cold and dry outside in the city. Obviously being a bath-house and full of naked people I couldn’t take any pictures, but there were a few amusing statues outside. I would highly recommend taking the chance to do this while visiting Seoul, especially if you live in a country that doesn’t have public baths.
Seoul was a built-up city, reminiscent more of Tokyo than Kyoto (which doesn’t have sky scrapers). The subway was a little challenging for someone that doesn’t speak Korean as all the Roman script for the stations is written really really small. The only real reminder that Seoul sits only 35 miles from North Korea, a hostile country with the capability of doing some serious damage to Seoul should its volatile leaders choose, could be found in the subway. The subway had ‘shelter’ signs outside and inside were what initially appeared to be vending machines, but were actually emergency gas masks and food supplies. As they are deep underground, subway stations do make good bomb shelters, but it is a daily reminder that all is not as safe and peaceful as it appears.
In addition to this disconcerting reminder, the apparent peacefulness of a commercialised city was slightly broken by the presence of protesters near the shopping district. Though protests are of course normal in a country that allows them (and South Korea has made great leaps in that regard as it was essentially a police state less than 50 years ago under the current president’s grandfather), I looked up the protest and it was concerning LG U Plus labour conditions. These conditions involve unfair quotas that ultimately led to the suicide of one of its workers last year (you can read an article about that here). The lack of concrete labour rights and exploitation of workers are a reminder that South Korea is a young democracy that is still in development, not yet a perfect high-tech utopia.
Though I have painted Seoul as a cosmetic place (as that was really striking), the food was also fantastic! I have written about everything I ate here. I noticed several tent-restaurants while we were walking around Seoul, which really were just tents with a grill and counter in them, with enough space for around 6 people to sit and eat. I wish I had gone inside one, though I feel like I might need to learn Korean first!
All-in-all, Seoul was a great city to visit. It reminded me a lot of Japan in many ways but it had its own character. I would definitely go back there again when it’s a bit warmer and maybe with a check-in bag so I can get hold of some of the amazing skincare products! I had a fantastic trip in both South Korea and Hong Kong, normal Japan blogging will recommence shortly!