I’m taking a break from the Bali coverage today to write about a special holiday to the Korean people. On August 15 of every year Korea celebrates its liberation from Japanese occupation. At the end of World War II the defeated Japan was forced to give up its’ colonial possessions and after 35 years of horrific rule, the Korean peninsula was free again. Thus, August 15 is a national holiday and a national holiday means independence of another sort. Freedom from working. Taking full advantage of every second I don’t have to spend inside the walls of a school, I had a full day planned.
My first stop was the Gwangjang Market in central Seoul. This is the oldest market in the country and is home to many food stalls, fabric merchants and sellers of other wares. I was there for one reason. The food. Navigating your way through the many stalls can be somewhat overwhelming as there are many people serving up the same dishes, but my plan of attack was to figure out what I wanted to eat and sit down at one of the more crowded places serving it. I ended up at a bibimbap (mixed rice and vegetable) counter that served up the best version of the dish I’ve had in Korea. The vegetables were incredibly fresh and the gochujang sauce was lighter and less sweet then I’d previously had, providing a nice compliment to the vegetables instead of overpowering them.
Next I tried something completely new, bindaetteok, or mung bean pancakes. The beans are ground into a powder at the stall and then mixed with onion, kimchi, and sesame oil to form a batter. The batter is fried until the outside is golden brown and crispy, then the piping hot pieces of pancake are served with a soy sauce, green onion, and chili pepper dipping sauce. The pancakes, which were reminiscent of latkes, were cooked perfectly and I found this peasant food to be a real food higlight.
Although there were many more things I wanted to try (the kimchi dumplings looked especially tempting), I physically could not consume another bite so I took the subway a couple of stops to Gwanghamun Square. This square was recently redone and features water fountains and statues of many important Koreans, including King Sejong, who created Hangul, the Korean writing system. The water fountains were full of children splashing around, a welcome relief from the oppressive humidity, and the plaza was teeming with people walking between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Cheonggye Square.
As I walked toward the palace I saw a little stand dressing people up in hanbok (Korean traditional clothes). I’ve been dying to wear a hanbok ever since I decided to come to Korea so I jumped at the chance. After donning our brightly colored ensembles, my friends and I used our ten allotted minutes to run around the plaza taking photos. We attracted a lot of attention and were stopped countless times by Koreans asking if they could take a photo with us. Foreigners in traditional dress isn’t something they see everyday, apparently. While we were walking toward the King Sejong statue we noticed a crowd of people circling around a man and a few cameras. A nice bystander let us know that all the commotion was over the mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon. He was campaigning to bring people to the polls next week for a school lunch proposal he is trying to block. We politely pushed our way to the front of the crowd and asked for a picture. He took one look at us, laughed a little, and then obliged.
After we removed the hot polyester robes, we walked back to Cheonggye Plaza, the starting point of Cheonggyecheon. Cheonggyecheon is an almost 6 kilometer stream that flows through downtown Seoul. The stream was a natural water source until after the Korean War, when infrastructure bills required it to be covered and used as a roadway. In 2003 the government of Seoul decided to remove the highway and began a massive urban renewal project to restore the stream. Two years later the park opened and this green, natural space is enjoyed by both residents and tourists.
The stream was crowded on this hot holiday and both children and adults had their feet in the cool, refreshing water. A more daring few even got all the way in. Spots like these are a favorite of mine. The ability to see green in a city as large as Seoul isn’t always easy and oftentimes it takes something like this, an innovative recycling of space, to make it happen.
Overall, this day off, this special day of Korean independence, helped me reconnect with this country. The rain stopped for a few hours in the afternoon and the sun almost peeked out of the clouds for a few minutes, I got to experience a little bit of history and some urban beautification, and I explored some new facets in Korean cuisine.