The two kinds of posts…

•September 17, 2008 • Leave a Comment

There are two kinds of posts for each of our days in Seoul…a stripped-down highlights version, and a version where we drag out almost every photo we took that day in some attempt to remember it all.  The short ones will probably skip over too much, but the long ones will very long.

The long ones are going to act as memory aids for us, but if you’re curious about all the details, by all means jump on in. Everyone’s welcome to see what we ate each day, what the subways looked like, and the entertaining names of haircare products provided to us by our hotel. Personally, for me it’s all in the details (like the National Museum piece over there), but the highlights version will also contain some of that and give you an idea of how great Seoul is/was.

Oh, and by the way…one week wasn’t nearly enough time to see Seoul (much less South Korea), and yes, Seoul is a fantastic place to visit. Definitely one of my favorite vacations/countries/destinations so far in life, and it doesn’t hurt that the food was rock-your-world spectacular, that nearly every person (!) we met was kind, and that the sights were incredible. Can’t wait to go back.


What we wish we would have done…

•September 17, 2008 • 2 Comments

I feel like we did a lot while we were in Seoul, but I wish we’d had a few more days.  There are some things we really wanted to do and didn’t get the time.  I know that makes a great excuse for going again (and we will!).  Here’s our list of woulda-coulda-shoulda:

1.  War Memorial…we went to the DMZ on an organized tour (Day Four), and it was sort of disappointing.  I think the War Memorial/Museum would have been much more meaningful and educational, plus I’ve seen pictures and it looks really well done.

2.  Korea House…we went to Sanchon instead (Day Three).  I would have liked to experience both, but if we could do it over again I’d choose Korea House over Sanchon.  Sanchon was more unique, more intimate, but I would have liked to try the royal banquet food at Korea House and also see the spectacle of so many traditional dancers.

3. Open day at Changdeokgung…if you go to Changdeokgung on Thursday, you can walk the palace grounds by yourself.  The tour (Day Seven) was fantastic, but it’s still a tour.  I wish we could have walked through Biwon, the Secret Garden, on our own.  It’s such a huge place…we could have spent so much more time there.

4.  Buy a Buddhist bell (near Jogyesa) and a bojaji…there are a few things we didn’t buy when we had the chance, and I regret it.  My bargain-loving mind said we’d look for it in other markets, but it turns out when you see something you like you should just go for it.

5. Changing of the guard at Gwanghwamun gate…we just missed it on Day Two, and I would have liked to photograph it.  We caught most of the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung on Day Seven and we really enjoyed the color, movements, and drumming.

6.  Bathhouse…I can’t believe we missed doing this!  I was too self-conscious to try it, but now I’ve talked to other friends who DID try it and they said it wasn’t strange at all…once they got going, they were completely at ease.  Plus the spa-like massage and skin treatments sound incredible.  Next time we go, this will be at the top of our list.  I recently talked to a friend who went, and she said she brought her adopted son (12 mo.) with her into the different baths.  He loved it!

7. National Folk Museum…it’s located between the two palaces we saw on Day Seven, and making a whole day of those three things (Changdeokgung, National Folk Museum, Gyeongbokgung) would have made a lot of sense.  The Frommer’s ’08 writer says it’s one of the best museums for gaining insight into Korean history and culture, and the exhibits sound very interesting.  Next time!

8.  Cheonggyecheon walk…we spent a little while there one night (Day Two), but we should have gone back during the day and walked more of it.  It was so lovely.  I liked the people-watching, all the public art, and the simple beauty of the stream, grasses, and trees in the middle of the city.

I’ll add more as we think of them.  We’ve been home a few months now and I still think of our trip every day.  What great memories!

Day Seven: Palaces (Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung), The Elusive Red Mango, Time with K, Our Last Night

•June 27, 2008 • 9 Comments

We didn’t want to believe this was our last day in Seoul. I wish we’d had more time. There were lots of places we didn’t see, things we wanted to do but ran out of time…I can’t say enough about how great Seoul is, or what an enjoyable city it is to explore.

Day seven was palace day. All week we’d been reading about the two main palaces and planning to spend a morning visiting them. The two palaces are Gyeong-bok Palace (gung) and Chang-deok Palace (gung). I’ll do my best of giving you a tour of them through our own experience, but the websites of the two palaces give nice tours, too.

Gyeong-bok-gung (Palace of Shining Happiness) websites: Main site and Tourism site

Chang-deok-gung (Palace of Illustrious Virtue) websites: Virtual Tour site, Tourism site

We started out early, planning to catch the first tour (9:30) at Changdeokgung, taking a cab so we’d get there on time. We waited around to buy tickets, and when D got back from the ticket booth we realized our mistake: the 9:30 tour was at Gyeongbokgung, not Changdeokgung. Doh!

Waiting outside Changdeokgung gate:

The palaces are on the same street, separated by a small neighborhood, but we knew we’d probably miss the 9:30 tour. That messed up the whole day’s plans, since now we wouldn’t be able to take tours of both palaces before our afternoon meeting time at the orphanage. We improvised.

The neighborhood between the two palaces is called Bukchon, and it’s one of the only neighborhoods in Seoul that still has a lot of hanok (traditional Korean one-story homes with tiled roofs). The neighborhood is over 600 years old, and long ago was where the yangban (scholars and aristocrats) lived. I was looking forward to seeing it after seeing these great photos at the Marmot’s Hole.

We set off from Changdeokgung without any real clue about where to look to see hanok. In general it’s not a good idea to wing it with directions when you’re short on time, and this was no exception. While we had a nice walk, we didn’t find what we were looking for. Most of what we walked through in Bukchon was more modern…lots of galleries, upscale shops, a few beautiful gated homes. We also walked by the Bukchon Culture Center:

Thinking of time and efficiency we skipped it, thinking (surely) the hanok would be in the area. Nope. Efficiency would have been asking for directions.

FYI, if you’re looking for the hanok, there’s a walking tour map in the Lonely Planet Guide (didn’t find that out until we were home). It looks like the traditional houses are in the far northeastern part of the neighborhood, not the southern part with the Culture Center and the shops.

I snapped this shot of cabbage and red pepper paste delivered in front of a shop…looks like someone’s going to be making a little kimchi, maybe?

We arrived on the far eastern side of Gyeongbokgung (palace), near the entrance for the National Folk Museum, and we didn’t realize we could enter there. So we hiked it allllllll the way around the palace walls to the western gate Yeongchunmun (Gate of Welcoming Autumn). The palace’s main gate, Gwanghwamun, is being renovated and is closed.

When we arrived the changing of the guard was taking place. We ran across the plaza to see as much of it as we could:

The gate in the background is called Heungnyemun gate, and it must have been rebuilt recently. The original gate was torn down in 1926 by the Japanese, who built their capitol building on the site. From Moon South Korea, Third Edition:

Significantly, it [the Japanese capitol] was placed within the boundaries of Gyeongbokgung (the front wall of which had to be moved), directly in line between the throne…the traditional pinnacle of power in Korea…and Gwanghwa-mun [gate], the figurative point of contact between the king and his people. This symbolically severed any vestige of royal authority; and replaced it with the supremacy of the Japanese governor.

Before I get going, a quick history of Gyeongbokgung:

  • Built by King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, in 1394
  • Was Seoul’s main palace until 1592, when it was burned in a Japanese invasion
  • Left abandoned until 1865, when 200 structures were rebuilt for King Gojong (nearly bankrupting the government)
  • Raided by the Japanese in 1895; Queen Min was murdered, King Gojong fled
  • During Japan’s colonial rule, much of the palace buildings were taken down. A dozen or so remained.
  • Reconstruction of Gyeongbokgung began in 1990 and continues today.
  • For a map of the palace check out the two websites listed above


After the changing of the guard was complete, we walked up and through Heungnyemun gate. One of the guards:

Inside was Yeongjegyo bridge, a river (most if not all the royal palaces have a river in front of the palace and a mountain behind it) and Geunjeongmun Gate, the entrance to the central courtyard:

Geunjeongmun Gate, with Geunjeongjeon behind it:

Geunjeongjeon (The Throne Hall, or “Hall of Government by Restraint”) and courtyard:

From the Royal Palaces website:

Major events, such as coronations and receiving foreign envoys, were held around Geunjeongjeon. During the functions, court officials found their places according to the rank stones planted on the courtyard. The courtyard is paved with thin, wide and rectangular stones. The surfaces are finished rather roughly, so as to give a less monotonous look and prevent the sun from blinding people standing on the courtyard. In the courtyard, other important functions took place, such as parties for elderly civil servants and qualifying examinations for appointment to civil offices.

The ranking stones are interesting. Civilian officials stood on the right, a symbol of being more influential. Military officials stood on the left, except in times of war when places were reversed. From the Moon guide: “In the collective Confucian mind of traditional Koreans, this ranking of civilian over military points to the supremacy of those who live and act by the pen over those who rely upon the sword.”:


On the steps leading up there are animals including Haetae, the legendary animals of judgment, said to guard against disaster, prejudice, and violent change:

Centered in the staircase is a carving of a phoenix, representing authority and the king:

The layout of Geunjeongjeon (click to enlarge):

The royal throne and throne room:

Looking up:

Dancheong (characteristic decorative painting) and pillars:

Leaving the Geunjeongjeon courtyard to the west, looking back at Geunjeongmun Gate:

The west wall of the throne hall complex:

Our next stop was Gyeonghoeru pavilion (“Pavilion of Joyous Gathering”), built in the 1400s. It was built to the west of the king’s living quarters, and was used for royal banquets. The current structure dates from 1867. From the plaque: Its architecture manifests the Oriental philosophy of the universe. The three bays at the center of the elevated floor symbolize heaven, eart, and man, and the twelve bays outside them symbolize the twelve months of the year. The outermost 24 columns symbolize the 24 solar terms that mark particular astronomical or natural events of each year.

Mt. Inwangsan to the west:

In front of Gyeonghoeru:

Next we headed east, to the area behind the Throne Hall (Geunjeongjeon). There are three buildings there, the largest of which is Sajeongjeon Hall (“Hall of Cultivating Government”). These are the buildings where the King met with his officials and studied. It is also where he supervised the official qualifying exams for civil service. This picture shows Manchunjeon Hall (“Hall of Ten Thousand Springs”), one of the two smaller halls on each side of Sajeongjeon:

Inside Sajeongjeon:

Dragon in the clouds painting hanging over the king’s seat:

South of the Sajeongjeon quarters are the king’s and queen’s living quarters. Here’s a map:

Gangnyeongjeon is the King’s living area. It was also used for his daily activities and office duties. Behind it is Gyotaejeon, the queen’s residence. Gangnyeongjeon:


Painting on the king’s quarters:

Info and map (click to enlarge):

Looking from the veranda, roof lines and a well:

The queen’s living area, Gyotaejeon, has a very distinctive brick wall and brick chimneys with designs incorporating Chinese characters. The Gyotaejeon compound as seen from the Jagyeongjeon compound:

At the very back of the living quarters is a hillside garden called Amisan (also scroll down here):

From the plaque:

Behind the queen’s residence is a terraced garden along whose length stand four hexagonal chimneys. The chimneys are made of light-orange bricks and topped with raftered tiled roofs. The various decorations on the chimney are imbued with symbolic meanings. The phoenix symbolizes the queen, the bat symbolizes fortune, the plum and chrysanthemum symbolize a man of virtue, and the ten longevity symbols such as the crane, deer, herb of eternal youth, pine tree, bamboo, and stone symbolize longevity. On the bottom terrace are two stone tubs named Hamwolji and Nakhadan, which mean “a pond containing the moon” and “a pond that reflects the sunset.” The terraced garden symbolizes a mountain; the stone tub and pot symbolize a lake; and the motif decorations on the chimneys symbolize the world of plants and animals. Thus, the garden of Amisan was a natural world for immortals.

View of Mt. Inwangsan from Amisan:

A doorway as we were leaving the living quarters:

Behind the living quarters and Amisan there is another section of royal buildings, and beyond that is HyangwonjiPond and Hyeongwonjeon Pavilion:

When King Gojongrebuilt Gyeongbokgungin the late 1800s, he had this pond and island built. On the island is a hexagonal pavilion called Hyangwonjeong (“Pavilion of Far-Reaching Fragrance”). The bridge is called Chwihyanggyo (“Intoxicated with Fragrance”). Behind the Pavilion is Mt. Bugaksan.

That’s all we were able to see of Gyeongbokgung. There’s a lot more to explore…it’s a huge area. You can get some idea of it by looking at these two maps.

I’m not sure what the map says, but I’m guessing this is a map of what Gyeongbokgung looks like today (click to enlarge):

This map shows a more complete Gyeongbokgung before it was destroyed (or possibly once all the reconstruction is finished?):

To the east of Gyeongbokgung is a substantial area of land dedicated to the National Folk Museum. When you enter from the palace grounds, there’s a zodiac with statues of the twelve animals:

The building at the top of the stairs used to be the National Museum, but now it’s the National Folk Museum (tour info):

As we walked toward the exit, we passed a display of jangseung, rock or wood totem poles set up at the entrances of villages or by a roadside. They had various purposes. At the entrance of a village they kept out evil spirits. Located between two villages they indicated village boundaries. Along roadsides, they were guardians and guideposts for travellers:

At the entrance to the Folk Museum, we hailed a cab and zoomed off to Changdeok Palace (after the cab driver gave us a lesson on how to pronounce the vowels properly…it’s embarrassing how poorly we were able to communicate sometimes, but people were always so patient with trying to understand us). The main gate of Changdeokgung as we arrived:

Changdeokpalace is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Seoul’s best preserved palace. You have to book a tour to see it, but on Thursdays you can buy admission that lets you wander the grounds on your own. Next time we come to Seoul, we’ll be buying tickets for that day. The tour was wonderful, and we enjoyed it a lot, but Changdeokgung is so large, so lovely, that we’d love the chance to wander around it for hours.

We bought our tickets, got our map, and met our guide…a very nice woman with perfect English, wearing a VERY warm guide outfit on a VERY hot day. Seriously…it must have been 90 and humid, and she was wearing gloves. UNESCO requires some serious dedication from its staff. The brochure map (click to enlarge):

A painting of both palaces from the late 1820s (click to enlarge):

Again, Chang-deok-gung (Palace of Illustrious Virtue) websites: Virtual Tour site, Tourism site

If you compare the Changdeok map to the Gyeongbok map, you’ll notice a big difference in the two, and something that makes Changdeok Palace unique. Rather than being set in rigid directions or patterns, the buildings harmonize with the natural setting in an asymmetric way. Changdeokgung is also unique because of its beautiful forest, a 78-acre woodland called Biwon (“Secret Garden”).

A quick history of Changdeokgung:

  • Originally constructed in 1405, it was a side palace to Gyeongbokgung
  • Burned during the Japanese invasions in the 1590s , rebuilt in 1610
  • Gyeongbokgungwas abandoned after the invasion, and Changdeokgung became the primary palace
  • It served as the primary royal palace for almost 300 years, until Gyeongbokgung was rebuilt in 1860s
  • Renovated in 1907, and used by Korea’s last king, Sunjong, until his death in 1926
  • His widow (Queen Yun) lived there until her death in 1966, and the last royal family member lived there until her death in 1989

The tour begins at the outer gate, Donhwamun (“Gate of Mighty Transformation”). Like Gyeongbokgung, there are three gates before reaching the throne room, a stream in front of the palace, and a mountain behind the palace (Mt. Bugak). Crossing a stream before entering the palace was based on the geomantic belief of pungsu (fen shui). The flowing water was thought to secure auspiciousness and prevent harm.

Geumcheongyo (“Forbidden Stream”) Bridge was built in 1411:

When you cross it, you reach the second gate, Jinseonmun (built in the 1700s):

Beyond Jinseonmun there is a courtyard. Injeongmun Gate (“Benevolent Government Gate”) is to the left and leads to the throne hall. Across the courtyard is Sukjangmun gate, leading to the royal residences Heuijeongdang and Nakseonjae. The different levels of walking paths were for different ranks. The king used the central path, his officials used the secondary paths, and ordinary citizens used the ground paths.

A view of the throne hall, Injeongjeon, from Injeongmun Gate. As at Gyeongbokgung, there are stone markers for when officials gathered, and raised walkways for the king and his officials.

the stone markers:

Injeongmun was first built in 1405, rebuilt after fire in 1609, and modified slightly in 1908 (interior changes like electric lights). The throne:

Next was Seonjeongjeon Hall (“Hall of Good Administration”), where the king discussed state affairs with high-ranking officials. It’s famous for its blue-tiled roof, which were very expensive and luxurious even for kings. The blue roof:

A covered corridor, used in the funeral processions when Seonjeongjeon was used as a royal shrine:

The administrative buildings connect the throne hall to the king’s living quarters, Heuijeongdang. Looking up at the painting on one of the side buildings (I don’t think you can visit Korea without taking this shot on at least once):

More of the dancheong painting:

Looking toward the royal quarters:

Beautiful red and green doorways (our guide said the red and green paints were used to keep moisture and insects from deteriorating the wood):

A type of lock we saw often at the palaces and on antiques in Korea:

A map of the royal living quarters:

The gate to enter the royal living quarters:

In Daejojeon, the royal bed:

The sign above reads “Hall of Great Creation,” and given that this is where the heir was produced, it makes sense. We were told the reason the hall is the only one without a ridge on its roof also has to do with creating an heir. Roof ridges are called yongmaru, or dragon spine. The queen’s sleeping quarters does not have a dragon ridge because the dragon symbol might interfere with the creation of a new king, or dragon.

The courtyard is filled with gravel, so that guards could hear anyone as they approached where the king and queen were sleeping:

The living chambers had ondol heating, a heated floor unique to Korean homes (both traditional and modern). Traditionally, furnaces were placed under the living space, and warm air from the furnace filled the small space between floors. The small square with white bricks is the furnace, with a small door beneath for scraping out old coals:

Behind the living quarters, as at Gyeongbokgung, there is a garden on a hillside with decorative chimneys:

Walking east along the garden, you reach a small stone gate…the royal entrance to Biwon, the Secret Garden:

Biwon is a spectacularly beautiful place, with ancient trees, rolling forested hills, and lotus-covered ponds. We only got to see a small fraction of it. From the Seoul City Virtual Tour website:

The rear garden of Changdeokgung Palace was landscaped during the reign (1401 ~1418) of the Joseon Dynasty’s 3rd king, Taejong. Here the dynasty’s kings and princes studied, hunted, practiced martial arts, or offered worship rites to the gods of heaven and earth. Keeping its original state until today, this garden boasts trees more than 300 years old, and a crystal-clear stream meanders through it. Alongside the ponds in lush garden are beautiful pavilions in varied shapes and styles of the Joseon Dynasty. The rear garden was formed in the same year the Changdeokgung Palace was built in 1405. In the later colonial period, an organization which was called Biwon, the Secret Garden, was established to maintain it. The garden has been so called ever since. Pavilions, gardens, trees, and ponds are harmoniously tuned with the topographical configuration and surrounding natural settings.

Beyond a steep hill behind Yeon-gyeongdang Manor, at the foot of Chwihanjeong Pavilion, flows Ongnyucheon Stream. At the western hillside from the Chwihanjeong is Eojeong, the Royal Well, covered with a pyramidal capstone, which is believed to gush the most refreshing water inside Changdeokgung Palace. Water from the Royal Well runs down into the Ongnyucheon Stream, whose water is often described as bejeweled with jade-blue beads. In the olden days, the royal family and court functionaries enjoyed reciting poems or songs while cups of wine floated on the stream.

We headed down a wide access road toward a pond and a gathering of buildings:

To our left, Buyongjeong Pavilion, Buyongji Pond, and two buildings on a hill (Juhamnu and Seohyanggak) used for academic studies:

To our right, a large open area and Yeonhwadang:

Our guide gave us a brief history of each building, then we were free to wander the area on our own:

First, Buyongi Pond. From the brochure: Buyongji is a pond that was created based on the traditional perception of the universe, that heaven is round and the earth is rectangular. The rectangular pond refers to the earth, while the round island in the middle symbolizes heaven.

Buyongjeong Pavilion is a striking building jutting out over the pond. From the palaces website:

The applicants who passed the examination in the Yeonghwadang went to the Juhamnu, in which they studied tens of thousands of the books collected in the royal library. When the course of the study was finished, a commemorative party was held at the Buyongjeong pavilion. Even though the Buyongjeong is a small building, the surface of it is in the shape of ‘亞’ and it is very complex. The two legs of the Buyongjeong are in a pond, which looks like a beautiful lotus flower in full blossom in the pond.

The lotus roof:

Opposite Buyongjeong Pavilion is Juhamnu, a large building on a terraced hill with a gate before it and a smaller building at its side. From the plaque:

The two-story Juhamnu Pavilion was built in 1776, the same year that King Jeongjo ascended to the throne. The first floor served as the book repository of Gyujanggak, the Royal Library, and the second floor was a reading room. Gyujanggak was established as a library and a research institute to develop policies in support of the king’s reforms. From the time he became crown prince, King Jeongjo was under constant threat by his political foes, but he did not yield and worked hard to strengthen his mind and body. He went on to become a great leader, who enlightened his people.

On the way up to Juhamnu one passes through a small gate named Eosumun, whose name reflects the wisdom that a fish cannot live out of water. It served to remind King Jeongjo that a ruler must always consider the people.

The Junhamnu literally means the “Pavilion where every kind of principle of the universe gathers.” In other words, it’s here that all future officials-to-be read and study.

Juhamnu and Eosumun:

Looking up at Juhamnu and one of the side gates (for officials…only the king used the center gate):

To the right of the pond is Yeonghwadang. From the palaces website: The Korean society of the Joseon dynasty was organized and administered by the scholar gentry, recruited from the class of petty landlords through an examination system which was called “Gwageojedo” in Korean. It’s here in the Yeonghwadang that such an examination called “Jeonsi” was held. But this is was originally the place where the king and his subjects enjoyed poetry and flowers. It was from King Jeongjo’s reign that such an examination was held here.

Yeonghwadang, where the king sat and supervised the exams for civil and military officials:

Chundangdae, the yard where the exams took place:

We left the Buyongji area and continued south. There was another large lotus pond on the other side of this gate, Bullomun Gate:

It was carved from a single piece of stone (symbolizing never aging, or being broken), and the inscribed message is a wish for the king to live a long life. “Bullo” means “not to age.”:

Aeryeonji Pond and Aeryeonjeong Pavilion:

Aeryeonji means “loving the lotus.” The lotus is a symbol of being virtuous. I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s tied to the Buddhist meaning of the lotus.

While I struggled to get a photo without people in it, D suggested I look up. I’m glad he did:

Walking away from Aeryeongji pond:

We looped through the forest briefly (oh, how much I would have loved to have “gotten lost”!), then walked around and above the Buyongji area. The roofs of Juhamnu and Seohyanggak:

We left Biwon and entered back into the main palace grounds, this time on the other side of the royal living quarters. To our right was Injeongjeon Hall (the throne hall):

Our last stop was the Nakseonjae area:

The area consists of royal living quarters that are very different in style than the rest of the palaces. Some of the buildings date back to the 1600s, but they’re not different because of their age. Rather, the palace was constructed as a simple, personal space for King Heonjong to relax and read. Our guide said he preferred to live a more humble life, and wanted to live in a space without the bright decorative patterns and opulence of the main palaces:

Nakseonjae is also the area where the royal family lived during the 20th century. The last royal family member, the wife of the last Crown Prince lived here until she passed away in 1989.

Plain dark wood:

Our guide in the courtyard:

A beautiful wall:

Inside Nakseonjae (where members of the royal family lived until recently):

That was the end of our tour. We walked back through the side gate, Sukjangmun, and past the throne gate (Injeongmun). As we passed, there was a group of white-clad nuns on their tour. I couldn’t resist a picture:

We said goodbye to our tour guide, then exited through Geumhomun Gate. We’ll almost certainly be back. The chance to wander through Biwon would be heavenly, and I want to see the Ongnyucheon area very, very much (it’s a brook that runs through a U-shaped groove over a large flat rock…the king used to float his wine cup on the water while he wrote poetry).

Geumhomnun Gate:

One second you’re in the middle of Joseon Dynasty splendor, the next you’re out on the road:

We took a taxi back to Insadong (it was HOT, and taxis are cool, and we were loving the ease of hailing cabs). For days we’d really wanted to try dessert at Red Mango, but time after time we’d come just at closing or just before they opened. Red Mango became The Elusive Red Mango. A scorcher of a day seemed like a perfect time for frozen fruity yogurtyness…surely it would be open!

It was!

Frozen yogurt on top of grapefruit ice, with banana, kiwi, watermelon, and pink grapefruit sauce. Yum!

D opted for the creamiest, coolest, sweetest coffee drink on the menu:

As we were relaxing in the restaurant, these guys walked into Insadong, did something official (I’m guessing), then walked back out. Seeing them chatting and walking around taxis in their official costumes was odd:

That afternoon we were supposed to meet Mrs. S. and K at the orphanage. We headed back to the hotel to change (and to nurse my sunburn…ouch!), then found our own way out to the orphanage. Mr. C., you’d be proud! We didn’t get lost at all!

We got to the orphanage 20 minutes late, and unfortunately we missed Mrs. S. by just a few minutes. We didn’t realize she’d be there for such a short time, and we’re so sorry we missed her.  Thankfully we’ve been able to stay in touch by email, but it would have been nice to see her again.

K was frightened to be in a strange place with strange people, and seemed only a little comforted by our presence.  Still, she was very sad and very scared, and she was running a slight temperature. She took a short nap in the arms of the nanny while we were given a tour of the orphanage, but she woke easily and couldn’t settle herself. We held her, rocked her, and patted her back with the forcefulness of the Korean nanny.  Nothing seemed to help. Eventually she calmed to gentle rocking, and us singing the songs from the cd we’d sent in her care package months earlier.  She took a long nap in my arms, and when she woke up she was cheerful. We played, rattled keys, rolled balls, and shared watermelon.

We spent hours there, and it was hard to leave her. I know it wasn’t up to us, but I wish she could have spent her last night with Mrs. S., in the home she knew with the people she loved. D and I both felt awful about the stress she must have been feeling during that long last night in Seoul. I know she was held almost all night, but even then they said she had a difficult time.

Early the next morning, she’d be at the airport and we’d fly home. That thought felt strange as we left the orphanage, and it felt even stranger at the airport when it was actually happening.

When we left the orphanage, we stopped again at E-Mart. We wanted to buy a enough of K’s favorite snack foods, baby barley tea, a few baby toys for the plane, and a combination Baduk/Janggi board we saw on our earlier trip. We also couldn’t resist getting some “Choco Diget” (chocolate digestives) and “Binch” cookies for D’s family…we thought they’d get a kick out of those:

By the time we got back to the hotel is was getting very late. Time to think about dinner, then the long job of packing. The restaurant Gogung was highly reviewed and nearby, so we thought we’d check it out. Turns out it was in the lower level of the same plaza P and J took us to for dinner on our first night in Seoul.

Gogung has a nice atmosphere, with lots of brightly colored bojagi as decoration:

The side dishes, or banchan:

White cabbage kimchi (baekkimchi):

Delicious and beautiful:

Moju, a thick, sweet slightly alcoholic drink that tastes like cinnamon:

I ordered a dish that was described in English as “noodles and mixed vegetables,” and when it arrived it was jap chae. I wish I had a picture of it before our server mixed it up…it was lovely.

D ordered dolsot bibimbap, which is bibimbop served in a VERY hot stone pot. The rice and sauce sizzle, creating a delicious crust of rice along the bottom of the pot. Pre-mixed it looks like this:

After dinner, chilled tea (it tasted just like Bizeun’s eng tu cha):

We enjoyed our meal but we weren’t very festive. It was sad and stressful to think about K spending her first night away from Mrs. S., and we were sad to see our time in Seoul coming to an end. I wanted to linger along Insadong-gil, but I knew we had to get back to the hotel for packing. The next day we’d be taking a very, very long flight with a baby. A baby we didn’t really know, and a baby who definitely didn’t know us.

On the way home we passed the tea shop S. took us to just two nights ago:

We stopped to enjoy the kkultarae stand one more time, and watch the young Korean children beg their parents for a taste:

Back in the hotel we packed, packed, and packed even more. Two suitcases and two carry-ons on the way there had turned to four suitcases, a duffel, and two carry-ons on the way back. We said a short prayer to the luggage gods that nothing vital would be lost, packed all of K’s important mementos in the carry-ons, and went to sleep.

[Short] Day Seven

•June 27, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Our last day in Seoul. We knew we’d be spending the afternoon with K at the orphanage, so in the morning we decided to visit two of Seoul’s Joseon Dynasty palaces: Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung.

Geyeongbokgung is the older of the two palaces, dating back to 1394. It’s been burned and rebuilt several times over the centuries. We arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard:

Some of the sights of Gyeongbokgung…

The throne hall:

Gyeonghoeru pavilion:

A view of Inwangsan mountain (where we’d hiked the day before):

After Gyeongbokgung, we took a taxi to explore the nearby palace of Changdeokgung. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so all the tours are guided. The main gate:

A map/painting of how the two main palaces looked in the 1820s:

Inside the throne hall:

One of the most outstanding features of Changdeokgung is Biwon, or the Secret Garden. It’s a huge space of forest, paths, gardens, ponds, and buildings, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Some of the pictures from Biwon:

After the tours of the palaces, we had lunch at Red Mango (it was finally open!):

Then it was time to go the orphanage. When we got there, we’d already missed Mrs. S. and K was having a tough time coping. She was tired, upset, and frightened, and there was very little anyone could do to calm her. Eventually she fell asleep in my arms, after a lot of rocking, patting, and singing (thank you, Mrs. S., for playing the songs I sent!):

When she woke up she was happy and calm. We ate snacks together, walked around the orphanage, and played with toys. After a few short hours it was time for us to leave…and time for K to spend the night at the orphanage. We wished she could have been with Mrs. S. that night, but with the early flight time all the babies had to stay at the orphanage.

We did some shopping (stocking up on K’s favorite snacks), then walked around Insadong for a little while. We were sad about leaving Seoul, sad about K leaving Seoul, and worried about how she was doing at the orphanage without her foster family. It wasn’t a very festive evening. For dinner we chose Gogung Restaurant. The food was good, and their specialty drink (moju) was something I’d wanted to try:

After dinner it was time to pack. We headed back to the Sun Bee, packed for a few hours, then went to sleep. The next day meant 24 hours of travel…this time with a new baby.

Day Six: Ae Ran Won, Hiking Inwangsan, Namdaemun, Date Night: Protests, Chamsutgol, Seoul Tower

•June 26, 2008 • 4 Comments

Our day started out with a ride on the subway and this fantastic t-shirt:

That got us smiling, and it only got better from there.

The night before, S. suggested we spend some time outside of the city. When I told her that I really enjoyed Jogyesa, she said that the temples in the parks and mountains would probably be even more lovely. When we first planned our trip, we intended to spend at least one day hiking…perhaps with a daytrip outside Seoul, or in Seoul’s (very large) Bukhansan National Park.

As the week went on, though, we started filling up the days with appointments and meetings related to K. Taking a five-hour hike, complete with travel time to and from a park, didn’t fit in anywhere. We’d already used our open day for the DMZ tour. So we took S.’s suggestion, and looked around at the local mountain parks (there are several of them right inside Seoul…it’s amazing…one minute you’re surrounded by skyscrapers, the next minute you’re climbing a forested mountain). We looked at the possible choices, and chose Inwangsan. It has Buddhist and Shamanist shrines, unusual rock formations, and is the mountain backdrop to both the royal palaces and the president’s residence.

First, though, another important appointment.

When we were still deciding to adopt, and where to adopt from, I read a book that changed a lot of my perspectives about adoption, adoption from South Korea, and especially the relationships in the adoption triad: birth parents (also called first parents), adopted children, and adoptive parents. The book is called I Wish For You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Ran Won to Their Children. The letters were collected by Mrs. Han Sang-soon, the director of Ae Ran Won (a home for unwed mothers).

Mrs. Han has spoken around the world on behalf of unwed mothers, and for years she has advocated for unwed mothers and birth mothers in Korea…working to improve their rights, their opportunities, and also working to promote understanding of how and why women are faced with the unbearable choices leading to adoption. I admire her very much. Because of her, and her book, so much of what I believed I knew about adoption has changed. It’s very difficult to understand the choices first mothers make when they choose not to raise their children, but through her book you get some understanding of their lives, the heartache of their situations, the love they have for their children.

Mrs. Han in front of Ae Ran Won:

From her introduction to I Wish For You a Beautiful Life:

In Korea, there is much misunderstanding of birth mothers, as well as prejudice against them. They are often criticized for not showing responsibility for their babies and for being concerned only about their well-being. It is thought that most of them are only interested in hiding their pregnancies, and that they go into the hospital to give birth with great fear.

Some people look with contempt on those birth mothers who agree to send their babies away after a short counseling session with social workers from an adoption agency. These mothers often appear to be apathetic, almost numb, and they remain aloof from their problems, even denying them. Some young women just disappear from the hospital and, in some cases, if they can’t find any help, they abandon their babies in the street, hoping that someone will find them and take care of them.

I would like to emphasize that such behavior by birth mothers is a sign of even deeper conflicts than those of the young women who agonize about placing their babies for adoption. I believe that such behavior is defensive, and is the result of the scars and pain of the negative experiences in their lives, their unexpected pregnancies, and the shock of giving birth without any preparation. These feelings eventually lead them to think that they are helpless and alone.

Furthermore, it is extremely difficult for the mothers to make proper judgments or display sensible behavior when they are numb. That numbness is brought about by the shock and unforgettable sadness they experience. Along with this, I understand that it might be natural for the birth mothers to try to hide from the disapproving stares of society. I think their inability to cope and their subsequent desire to escape reality are the same as that of anyone who has to face an unbearable situation.

I wonder how they feel deep inside when the cold stares have faded away and the incident is all but forgotten by others. It is then that the wounds and suppressed emotions of grief, guilt, and yearning surface again. It is precisely these feelings, if not treated properly, that cause much harm in their lives. On the other hand, if these feelings are treated properly and the mothers recover, I believe that they will be able to come out into the light from the darkness and make a new start.

We find that a helpful part of recovery is for each birth mother to express her feelings in the form of a letter to her child. It is my great pleasure to select some of these letters from our files at Ae Ran Won in order to share them with adopted children and their families. My staff and I hope that people who read these letters will better understand birth mothers, and we are honored that the profits from this book will benefit our work at ARW. It is fitting that the stories courageously told by some birth mothers will help other women on their journeys.

Through this book I have wanted to share a clear picture of the reality of unwed mothers and the indescribable pain that they undergo when they send their babies away for adoption. Furthermore, I would like to deepen the understanding of adopted children who grow up in foreign countries and in cultures different from Korea. I would like as best as I can to help them answer the nagging question of “why.” In doing so, I hope that their feelings of rejection will begin to heal.

The book:

When I knew we’d be traveling to Seoul, I emailed Mrs. Han and asked if we could visit Ae Ran Won. I had heard she was welcoming of visitors, but I never expected the warmth and generosity of her invitation. She asked me to call and arrange a visit time once we were in Seoul, and after a few days of phone tag I was able to make an appointment for the morning of our sixth day.

We arrived that morning, and we were invited for tea in Mrs. Han’s office. I had imagined a brief introduction and a tour, but instead we sat down for a long conversation. She told us about the work being done at Ae Ran Won, and about all the programs they’ve created to assist unwed mothers. When she started as the director of Ae Ran Won, less than 20 years ago, 80% of women chose adoption and 20% chose to raise their children. Now, with the support of ARW, 81% of mothers are choosing to raise their children. Given the long history of Korea’s disapproval of and discrimination against unwed mothers, that is an amazing accomplishment.

The entryway to ARW:

The painting in the entryway:

ARW doesn’t just provide a home for women facing a crisis pregnancy. They provide individual and group counseling, job training, and tutoring to attain at least a high school diploma. After their babies are born, whether or not they choose to parent, mothers stay at the home for 100 days of counseling, job training, and help planning their futures.

The computer training lab:

After that time, mothers are able to live in a group home for one year, plus six months more if needed, to complete their job training and diploma. Mothers get assistance with finding a job and a place to live.

Many mothers have difficulty supporting themselves and a baby on their own, especially since rent in Seoul is so high and many of these mothers don’t have enough savings to pay for rent while they get on their feet. With that in mind, a new branch of ARW is opening this summer. It’s a self-supported group home with subsidized rent for one year. The mothers pay their own living expenses, but save the rest of their wages for their future independent living.

Also, while mothers are working full time, they have access to ARW’s “Happy Mothers” program. The HM program connects moms with emergency daycare or crisis care, in case a work or job emergency occurs and they, as single parents, don’t have the support they need to care for their child.

Isn’t that an incredible program? Mrs. Han is a gentle, distinguished, incredibly graceful woman, and she speaks with equal grace. Still, even she couldn’t disguise the disappointment she feels for what the government of South Korea has done for unwed mothers. She spoke about how the birth rate of South Korea is around 1.1%, and that most people feel it should be higher, that more people should be having babies. Still, there is no support for unwed mothers to keep their children, because people believe it will bring too much trouble for the society’s future. The government does little or nothing to assist single moms, so ARW fundraises on their own.

(By the way, if you’d like to donate to ARW you can do so directly from their website or through this fund to support unwed mothers in South Korea.)

I kept thinking we were keeping Mrs. Han too long (she’s such a busy woman!), but she assured us we could stay and talk as long as we liked. When it came time to take a tour, she showed us around herself. We met several of the women staying at ARW, and their adorable children, but out of respect for their privacy I didn’t take any photos with people or babies in them. These photos make ARW look somewhat empty and dark, but it’s not…it’s just that I couldn’t take photos where people were gathered, and most people were gathered in sunny, open rooms.

The dining room:

Going upstairs (there are two upstairs floors) with Mrs. Han:

The new nursery room (the number of mothers choosing to raise their children is so high now that they’ve had to rearrange the floors and rooms of ARW to accommodate more children. This room was almost ready.):


One of the dorm-like rooms for the residents of ARW:

Inside one of the rooms (there is no bed because sleeping mats are often used in Korea. During the day they are folded or rolled away):

Laundry room on the roof:

Looking into the nursery area:

Leaving Ae Ran Won:

I’m so glad we spent that time at Ae Ran Won. We’ve both done a lot of reading about adoption…I think our ideas and assumptions about almost everything have changed over time, but visiting Ae Ran Won made first moms very real to us, made K’s first mom very real to us. It also made us even more committed to supporting Ae Ran Won, and working for equal rights for unwed mothers in South Korea and the world. We’re adopting a child, yes, but we believe that first families should stay together whenever it’s possible. Certainly we can work toward a world when what keeps children and parents apart isn’t discrimination, denial of resources, or desperation. Mrs. Han has shown that, with access to support and resources, most mothers feel they can choose to raise their children.

On the way home, another subway station:

And the yellow rubberized path (I like to think of it as Seoul’s yellow brick road) you see everywhere around Seoul…on the sidewalks, in the subways… What is its purpose, do you think?

Back in our hotel lobby, I waited for D to get the rest of our currency out of the safe (the people at the front desk were so helpful…we must have accessed that safe every day at least!).

We were on our way to pick up K’s name stamp from the stone cutting artist, and we had plans for a date night later on…time to exchange more money! Around the corner from Hotel the Sun Bee is an Insadong visitors information center, and from there we were told we could exchange money at the Korea Exchange bank…which is right next to our hotel (duh! on our part).

While D exchanged money, I had fun looking for the differences in a Korean bank versus our banks. 1) the number of flat screen televisions and 2) red ink for name stamps. Instead of signing their names, many Koreans follow the traditional practice of using a their name stamp (dojong) on important documents, bank forms, and artwork.

Before we came to Seoul, we were given a special gift from our friends Marilyn and John. They asked us to use it toward a something special for K. At first we thought the perfect gift would be an antique wooden box to keep her little treasures, but after a while that didn’t seem possible (see Day Four). Then the day before, we walked past the window of this stone cutting artist, and it clicked…what about a name stamp? We knew we wanted one for her eventually, and it would be so much nicer to get one here rather than order it online or send for it.

The artist who designed our stamp was really kind. When we arrived to pick up the stamp, we were surprised to see he’d added some of his own artwork to the body of the stamp…a carving of a father, a daughter, and a mother under a shining sun. He couldn’t have known, but K’s English name translates to “shining sun.”

He asked if we knew how to do use the stamp properly, and when we said no he gave us a covered porcelain bowl of red ink (it’s strange stuff…sticky, and a little more solid than honey). Then he showed us how to do it. You dab the stamp in the ink many times, quickly and lightly, to fill up the stamp without getting too much ink on it.

Then you position it over the paper, and press down firmly…hesitating just a little while to let the ink stick to the paper.

This is his card, so if anyone reading this blog happens to be in Insadong you can look him up:

D in his shop:

Thank you, Marilyn and John. It’s the perfect gift, and without you we wouldn’t have thought to have it made.

Walking back through Insadong, this is a very typical sight…walls of gallery and exhibit posters:

It was time for lunch, and we were in Insadong, so that meant I’d finally have a chance to try Sadong Myeonok’s beoseot jeongol (a recipe here). Yum!

The restaurant entrance, with ajummas busy making dumplings (mandu):

The menu at Sadong Myeonok (click to enlarge):

A couple of Korean cokes:

Beoseot jeongol, cooked at our table (I had no idea this is what it would be like, but hey!):

Closeup of the egg in the onion flower:

Cooking (we weren’t sure when to stir it, but one of the restaurant ladies came by and gave it a good mixing at the appropriate time):

Beoseot jeongol, complete:

Noodles, several varieties of mushrooms, a little thinly-sliced beef, a little egg, some veggies, and a few herbs in a spicy sauce…YUM. D had some rice with it, but I preferred to eat it as-is.

The side dishes/banchan (jap chae in front, chinese cabage kimchi (baechu-kimchi) behind it, and diced radish kimchi (kkakdugi) way in back):

Whatever this side dish was, it was pretty good…kinda meaty and chewy:

Walking out of the restaurant, we went into one of Insadong’s many stamp and brush shops. There were stacks of old name stamps along one wall (some with Hanja, Chinese characters, and some with Hangul, Korean characters):

The brush shop had more kinds of brushes than I ever knew existed. Check out that enormous one on the left!

After lunch we headed back to the subway and toward Inwangsan. We didn’t have any hiking directions or map other than what was in the Lonely Planet Guide (LP), so we were hoping the directions LP gave would be accurate. Thankfully, they were!

To get to Inwangsan, take subway line 3 to Dongnimmun station (map here), exit 2. Turn left down a small alley (there’s really only one that looks alley-ish), then walk uphill past shops, apartment buildings, and a golf driving range for 10 or 15 minutes. The walk is steep. And it only gets steeper.

Dyed fabrics and lace hung out to dry in the alley:

They warn you it’s steep, and they aren’t kidding:

We got stuck in one dead end, but someone walked by eventually and helped point out the right way. The entrance to Inwangsan isn’t that far from the subway, so it’s harder to get lost than you might think. Walk up a steep steep hill, turn a corner, and this greets you (this photo is looking back at it):

More detail:

Inwangsan, as I mentioned before, has a lot of history and cultural significance. Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung Palaces, from which Korea was ruled for centuries, were built at the base of the mountain. Today, the Korean President’s residence (like our White House, but called Cheong Wa Dae or Blue House) is also at the base of the mountain. On the mountain itself are several important sights, including Seoul’s most famous Shamanist shrine, Buddhist temples, and part of the old Seoul fortress wall.

Back in the Joseon era, I read somewhere, the mountain was known as “white tiger mountain” because of the number of tigers living there. I can understand why…it’s forested, difficult to climb in places, and the rock formations seem like they’d have a lot of caves and hidden dens.

The hike is all uphill, but it’s not too bad after the initial stretch. There’s a small mountainside village beyond the gate, and if you walk up and to the left you go past a few gates, entryways, and enclosed yards:

Up above, you can see a pavilion and bell, belonging to the Bongwonsa Buddhist temple, the largest of the Buddhist temples on the mountain:

The bell:

Detail of the bell pavilion:

The gate to Bongwonsa. According to LP, the paintings on the doors “depict the guardian kings of heaven who protect Buddhists from evil and harm.”

Closeup of one of them:

Bongwonsa was closed and we couldnt’ see much of the building from the outside, so we turned around and went back up the hill toward Guksadang, the shamanist shrine:

From the plaque:

This building is a shamanic shrine that houses the spirits of Joseon founder Yi Seonggye (King Taejo) and various guardian generals. It as built in 1395 on Namsan and was called Mongmyeoksinsa. Guksadang was located on the site of the Namsan octagonal pavilion up until 1925, when the Japanese built the shrine Joseonsingung on the site. The shrine was moved halfway up Inwangsan in July of that year[according to LP, Guksadang was demolished by the Japanese, then rebuilt secretly on Inwangsan by Korean shamanists].

Even today shamans perform rituals for invoking spirits, for healing, for good fortune, and for praying for the spirits of the dead. Nearby Guksadang is the Seonbawi, called Gijaam, and several small temples, which are helpful in the study of shamanistic beliefs in Seoul. Within Guksadang are various paintings of shamanic gods, which are collectively designated Important Folklore Material Number 17.

For more information on Korean shamanism (muism) or the role played by shaman (mudang), the Wikipedia site is a good quick read. It’s interesting that Korean shaman are usually female.

In the courtyard in front of Guksadang, there was a statue and an area for candles and offerings for spirits (from LP “For shamanists death does not end relationships, they simply take another form. Shamanists believe that the dead still need food and drink):

A man praying in front of Guksadang:

…I should mention here that taking photos around Inwangsan isn’t always possible or appropriate. There were places where people were conducting ceremonies or setting up for prayer where photos would have been really rude. As it was, there were several times when I used my small camera (set on silent) to snap a quick photo of people when I thought they wouldn’t notice or be disturbed. In addition to reasons of prayer or worship, I was told that some areas of Inwangsan are off limits for photos because of the overlook to the president’s residence (though we didn’t encounter any of those areas).

From Guksadang, we climbed steep steps to a couple of large, eroded rocks called Seonbawi (Zen rocks). The rocks are so eroded they look like two robed monks, and there is a platform and altar in front of them where people come to pray…supposedly women come there to pray for a son, and because of that the rocks are sometimes called “Gijaam,” or “rock where one wishes for a child.”

From the plaque:

“This rock is called Seonbawi (zen rock) because it looks like a robed Buddhist monk. It is also called the “Rock of Preying for a Son” as many women who wanted to bear sons came here to prey. This rock is said by some to resemble the likeness of King Taejo, Joseon’s founder and first King and the Great Monk Muhak daesa and by other the likeness of King Taejo and his wife.

Beliefs concerning Seonbawi became more closley linked to folk beliefs after the Japanese Empire moved Guksadang , which had been at Namsan next to Seonbawi. Guksandang was a shrine to a Shamanic god and the place where shamanic rites were held. As a result Seonbawi became connected with these shamanic beliefs.

These is an interesting story about the time when the city wall of Hanyang (Seoul) was being built. It is said that Muhak daesa wanted Seonbawi to be within the city walls , but Jeong Dojeon wanted the rock located outside the walls. Jeong Dojeon said: “If Seonbawi is within the wall Buddhism will flourish; if it is without Confucianism will flourish.” Taejo followed Jeong Dejon’s advice , an Muhak daesa sighed: “From now on the monks will be following the Confucian scholars around carrying their packages of book for them.” The story tells us that Seonbawi attracted attention from the early Joseon era as a striking feature of Inwangsan.”

We climbed up above Seonbawi, over areas of enormous eroded rocks and striking pines:

Up, up, up, until eventually you reach a steep outcropping of rock with only a few tiny steps to keep you on the path:

Step too far out and a nasty fall awaits. There was a sweeping view of Seoul, but 1) D gets nervous when I get too close to deadly falls and 2) a young woman was setting up for prayer to our right and we didn’t want to get too close. This will have to do (the mist was from the heat and humidity…it was a really warm day):

Above us was the peak of Inwangsan, which we thought looked like a man sitting cross-legged, looking out over Seoul. It’s a very distinctive mountain peak, and we could see it when we toured the palaces:

At the top of that long climb it levels out a little, so we stopped for water and a quick photo:

As we walked toward the peak and away from the rock outcrop, we passed a couple of magpie nests. I loved being outdoors again…smelling the forest, hearing the birds and insects, and especially watching the magpies. They were so rowdy, and seemed so happy flying between trees and temples, soaring around the edges of the mountain. They’re interesting, enjoyable birds:

From up so high, there were several lovely views. The rocks across the mountain:

A restored section of Seoul’s fortress wall:

We started climbing down toward a small steep valley cut by natural springs and streams. It was damp in that lovely forested way, and along the path were several outdoor Buddhist prayer sites. A little Buddha statue in an eroded crevice:

Further down, Buddha carved into the rock face:


Behind it, a small, covered, natural spring for drinking:

A short climb above the carved Buddha, there was writing, many burned candles, and a mat for prayer:

We walked down, and bumped into what must have been a park guard…he was the first person we’d seen on Inwangsan who wasn’t there for prayer. He directed us along this forested path:

We passed through an area where people were praying and engaged in ceremonies. We heard drumming and chanting, passed a couple of tents where people seemed to be living next to a shrine, and quickly walked past a few areas where people were setting out offerings or praying. Only once we were past it all did I take this photo:

I’m not sure if the pile of stones is a seonangdang, or prayer rocks, or if the two are one and the same. I’ve seen pictures of other stone piles, and this one was much smaller than the others I’ve seen. From An Illustrated Guide to Korean Culture (2002): A seonangdang is a pile of stones placed at the edge of a village or at a mountain pass or along the road for a religious purpose. The pile of stones itself is an object of worship symbolizing the body of a god. There is rarely just a seonangdang, but usually there is in addition a shrine shaped like a small house, which is sacred to an old tree or god. In this case, the pile of stones, being constructed very high like a grave mound, is frequently called a stone grave. As they pass, people throw a stone on the pile or spit, praying for what they desire.

We reached a dead end at the Seoul fortress wall (being renovated), and could go either uphill or downhill:

There we bumped into the only other hikers we saw that day…two women from France. They said the path to the peak of the mountain was closed, and that they’d been turned back by soldiers. As they walked down the mountain, we stopped a while to look out over the fortress wall and Seoul. A man sitting below us seemed to be doing the same:

Beautiful pines and rocks:

A view of Seoul and some of the strange eroded rocks:

Another view of Seoul’s ancient wall:

Colorful pieces of cloth tied to a tree…one of our books about Korea says these ribbons are tied to a sinsu or dangnamu (a divine tree) by parents hoping for their children’s long lives or merchants seeking prosperity:

Looking back to where we’d climbed the rock face:

Eroded rocks (and some sun!):

The Korean magpie Pica (pica) sericea:

The same guy flying away:

Climbing back down toward the stream, we turned a corner and this greeted us:

An outdoor exercise area! What a great idea… D couldn’t wait to try it out:

This thing was cool. You stood on the disk, held on with your arms, and then twisted back and forth on the spinning disk. It’s more tiring that you’d guess…it works muscles you didn’t know you had:

D was trying out all the equipment, my eye was drawn to a tumbling coreopsis (I think?) and lots of happy bees:

That’s just about everything we saw at Inwangsan. Next time I’d like to climb to the top for the view. On the way down the mountain we took a different path…over to the left of the Buddhist temple. We passed over pretty little springs and walked through lush green forest:

When we reached a clearing we could see Bongwonsa from the opposite side, with the Seonbawi in the background.

At the end of the trail, the entrance gate:

If we’d had more time that day, we could have seen Seodaemun Prison (the prison where independence fighters were jailed an tortured during the Japanese occupation). It’s on the other side of the main road near the subway.

We walked back to the subway (downhill this time…nice), and made our way toward Namdaemun market. The night before most of the shops had been closed, and I still wanted to find a special hanbok for K’s Tol (first birthday celebration). D’s main goal for the market was to find and buy a few of the t-shirts we like so much. We’d tried shops and street vendors around Seoul, even E-Mart, but we hadn’t had much luck finding the stellar t-shirts he wanted. Surely they’d have them at Namdaemun…

Wow. Namdaemun during the day…that is one BUSY place:

It’s also fantastic for people-watching and photo-taking, and while D looked through the collections of various t-shirt vendors, I kept my camera busy. A fresh seafood stand:

Pink sparkly ties and pink shirts (pink is a happy color in Korea, not a girly color…a very large percentage of the businessmen we saw were wearing very pink ties, and many of those ties had little sparkles on them. I begged D to get a couple for work, but he wouldn’t.):

Ajumma frenzy (this was an awesome sight….there was a pile of shirts and skirts on the back of this cart, all tossed together, and the same group of 10 or so ajummas gathered around it grabbing, tossing, and digging through the pile. Each of them was grabbing and looking at 8-10 shirts a minute, and they were so determined, so forceful, in their browsing that no one else stepped up to see what was for sale. I wouldn’t mess with them, would you?):

Typical market scene:

Food + clothing vendors = just enough walking space:

If you’re at Namdaemun and looking for a hanbok (any size, male or female), look for this sign and building:

Building C, 3rd floor. We rushed in just as they were closing, and thankfully one of the ladies who sells hanboks was still there. She showed us several lovely hanboks, in materials that were much nicer than the stores and stalls along most of the Namdaemun streets. We saw even nicer ones in some of the shops in Insadong and Bukchon, but for $60 or so you can buy a very nice hanbok at C3. We bought two…one for K on her first birthday, and one for when she’s three or four and wants to play dress up.

Hanbok mission completed, we could finally dedicate ourselves wholly to finding D’s t-shirts. It took a lot of digging, especially since finding men’s XL shirts isn’t very easy in Seoul, but we found two.

Shirt one has a can of paint on it and reads:

7thannual Armadillo Christmas
Tru-test Suprem! Quality Paints
This Tin Santamonica You Beer Original
[upsidedown:] Vendorsbazmr

Shirt two has a graphic image of an old aviators mask and reads:

Simple childhood games
My Toy star booting
If the computer is where it should be, the call is simply log
ged. But if the computer has been reported stolen

When we were looking, we saw this one:

(There were other really good ones, but the vendors said no to my photo requests.)

After he had his t-shirts, we were free to wander a little. Namdaemun has a information station, and the lady there gave us a map. It’s too big for me to scan and share all of it, but here’s some (click to enlarge):

The alleys intrigued me…”Boiled fish alley”…”Beddings Alley”…”Alley for soldiers or appliances”…”Food Vendor alley”…”Leisure/climbing wear alley”…”Noodles Alley”…they all sounded interesting. I had also wanted to see the spices and grocery areas, but they were like the rest of the main buildings (1 through 7 and C through G)…most of them closed at 5pm or so.

We headed toward boiled fish alley:

Around the corner was a vendor selling red peppers, and he had the cutest little kitten as company:

The back alley of restaurant alley (very narrow and steamy, with access to a few restaurants but mainly the kitchens and dishwashing rooms):

Restaurant alley by day:

Back out on the main street, one of the many, many evening outdoor restaurants:

We had our hanboks. We had our t-shirts. We really enjoyed Namdaemun market. It was time to find dinner. A couple of days ago we’d tried LP’s suggestion for bulgoki over wood charcoal, but the restaurant had closed. Tonight we thought we’d try Frommer’s suggestion…a restaurant near City Hall called Chamsutgol.

This was officially our “date night,” though as parents of young children that idea was a little laughable to us. When you’re used to having, at best, one date night a month, an entire week of kids-free time feels like the best, the happiest, the most wonderful date you’ve ever been on. This, though, was a date night among date nights. Dinner, a cable car ride up Namsan mountain, and a view of Seoul at night.

First we had to find our restaurant. The guidebooks tend to give you a subway stop and a vicinity, but they’re not so great with detailed directions. In this case, the directions for Chamsutgol were really lacking. We left the subway and found ourselves nowhere near restaurants. Instead, we were at City Hall. US beef protest time!

The building had barricades up, which people were covering with hand-written notes, and the plaza was slowly filling up with protesters. There was a giant stage set up with bands playing, tables handing out protest signs, buttons, and t-shirts, and there were candles everywhere. It was busy, but it wasn’t tense. It seemed like a fun and interesting place to be.

Before we left (ironically, for a meal of beef), I took some of the protest signs and stickers:

…I wish I would have taken a picture of the candle girl image (on t-shirts, protest signs, etc.). She was an image we saw all over Seoul that week…a symbol of protest against US beef imports. This isn’t my photo, but it’s the best I could find of candle girl:

(photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

We passed Seoul’s Press Center on the way to our restaurant (we got directions from a few people passing buy…if you ask enough people, and pronouce your destination a few different ways, you’ll get there eventually).

The Press Center has daily newspapers posted in glass cases outside its building, and that night there were men standing to read:

A couple of young women were kind enough to walk us the final two blocks to our restaurant:

Supposedly Chamsutgol serves some of the best bulgoki and galbi, fired over wood charcoal (not just gas burners). When we sat down, a man brought a glowing bowl of charcoal to our table and set it down with very heavy tongs. The restaurant was so orange, and the coals so hot, I think my camera had a difficult time registering the right colors:

Side dishes and ingredients were brought to the table, and so was the raw marinated beef. A woman pulled down a retractable vent from the ceiling and started grilling the beef for us.

She used tongs and kitchen shears, and after a few minutes the beef was perfectly done…it was so tender, with a little bit of crisp to it. She moved the beef to the side of the grate, pushed the vent back to the ceiling, and left us to figure things out on our own.

We didn’t do very well.

In no time at all she was back, showing us how to stack the beef, the red pepper paste, the kimchi, the garlic, and the green onion salad on lettuce or sesame leaves, wrap it into a large bundle, and shove it (all in one bite) into our mouths. We felt a little like chipmunks, but oh was it delicious. You can see a video of how to eat it here.

(Later on, D decided he wanted his beef a little crispier, so he pushed it from the edge of the grate back over the hot coals. The lady spotted us out of the corner of her eye and was back at our table in a flash. Apparently double-grilling the wasn’t allowed.)

We also had our first try of Soju that night, a vodka-like beverage unique to Korea. It’s cheap, it’s sold in beer-sized bottles, and at 20% alcohol it’ll get you drunk fast. Well…we’re not much for drinking, so it’s no surprise that we didn’t like soju (my cheeks flushed a royal red after just a few sips). Still, we tried it.

Chamsutgol was just as Frommer’s described…it’s a little short on atmosphere, but when the food is that good who needs atmosphere? I’m glad we went.

It was pretty late by the time we left Chamsutgol, and we were worried about having enough time to see Namsan (Seoul) Tower.  Spending time on the metro didn’t seem like a good idea, so we hired a taxi. We should have been doing a lot more of that. The regular taxis (not the black upscale ones) only charge around $2 for quick rides around Seoul, and most of the drivers we encountered spoke enough English to help us communicate where we wanted to go. They’re fast, easy, and cheap…next time (especially with the kids), we’ll be taking a lot more taxis.

The taxi zoomed up Namsan and dropped us off at the cable car building. We bought tickets, climbed the stairs, and waited for our cable car. There were several other couples like us, plus groups of young people. We all crowded into the car and made our way up toward Seoul Tower, which at night is very bright and very colorful:

(That’s the best I could do on a swaying cable car!) My favorite part of the ride was looking down. The cable car runs just a few feet above the tree canopy, and it felt like we were floating over the forest at night. Even in the crowded cable car, it was a dreamy sensation.

Namsan is a fun place to be at night. There were young people, couples of all ages, and kids everywhere, and everyone was smiling and having a good time. As with the rest of Seoul, there’s a lot of public art. While we were visiting, there were several wire men suspended on wires and lit up with spotlights:

We bought our tickets and took the very futuristic elevator up to the observation deck….a round room completely surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. Each window has writing on it, telling you how far away you are from the other major cities of the world. Chicago? 10,525.62 km. San Francisco? 9,040.09 km. There were also pictures of Seoul from the past century, and given South Korea’s lightning-fast development since the war, it was fascinating to see what a difference 40, 20, or even 15 years made.

The observation level:

The distance markers and old photos:

Seeing the city clearly was a bit of a challenge (hand prints and glaring lights on the windows), but I did my best. Downtown Seoul at night:

Looking south, bridges over the Han River:

Looking up into the mirrored ceiling:

Unfortunately we forgot to check out the Seoul Tower bathrooms, which I’ve heard described as the most amazing bathrooms in the world (for the view, at least). You can see the men’s bathroom here.

We took the elevator back down to ground level, and I think the lower open air observatory was nicer at night. There was a full moon over Seoul:

The full moon and some of the padlocks I mentioned on Day Two:

A container to leave padlock keys (???? I’d love to know the story or process behind that!):

From the lower observation deck:

Another wire man:

We walked back out toward the pavilion, and the tower was lit up in purple lights:

All of a sudden, classical music started playing loudly, and jets of mist came up from the paved courtyard. Before we knew it, the trees and courtyard were lit up with lasers. They flew over the trees and around the plaza…turning from flowers to stars to circles.

Children went wild with delight, and ran around trying to stand in moving pools of color, shapes, and mist. What a happy stroke of luck, to be here just at this time! The adults all stood, frozen in place, with huge smiles on their faces (us included).

It was almost closing time for the cable cars, so after the laser show we left Seoul Tower and rode back down the mountain, floating over the trees. Cabs were difficult to come by at closing time. After a short wait, we decided to walk down the road into the city. Eventually we found a parked cab (the driver was taking a break), and he said he’d give us a ride back downtown.

This was our landmark building, Jongno Tower (our hotel was just around the corner):

I should have taken a better picture of it while we were there, but thankfully P. just posted this on his website…a much better picture of Jongno Tower.

That was the end of our evening. Home sweet home at Hotel the Sun Bee.

[Short] Day Six

•June 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

We spent the morning at Ae Ran Won, a home for unwed mothers and expectant mothers. The director of ARW, Mrs. Han, published a book of letters written by birth mothers to their children. It’s called I Wish For You a Beautiful Life, and reading it changed a lot of my ideas about adoption, birth/first parents, and being an adoptive mom.

I emailed Mrs. Han to see if we could visit her at ARW, and she replied with a warm invitation. She was very generous with her time when we arrived, and we were able to have a long conversation about adoption, the status of unwed mothers in Korea, and about the mission of ARW.

Mrs. Han in front of Ae Ran Won:

ARW doesn’t just provide a home for women facing a crisis pregnancy. They provide individual and group counseling, job training, and tutoring to attain at least a high school diploma. For women who choose to parent, there are other programs of support…a group home, then a self-supported home, and access to emergency daycare. ARW has shown that, with a little support, many mothers will feel they can raise their children. When Mrs. Han started at ARW, 80% of the women chose adoption. Now 81% choose to parent.

Visiting ARW was one of the most meaningful parts of our trip to Seoul, because it made K’s first/birth mom much more real to us. It was also an honor to meet Mrs. Han, and to see ARW in person.

After our visit to ARW, we went back to Insadong to pick up K’s name stamp (dojong). The day before we’d asked a stone carver in Insadong to make one for her, as a special gift from our friends Marilyn and John. It turned out so much better than we’d imagined…the artist had added a carving of a mother, father, and daughter, and overhead is a bright shining sun. K’s name translates to “shining sun,” but the artist didn’t know that. Neat coincidence, hm?

Next was a great lunch at Insadong’s Sadong Myeonok, where we tried the mushroom hot pot: beoseot jeongol. This is how it looks when they first bring it to your table:

It cooks at your table, and at the end it’s a spicy stew of noodles, mushrooms, some veggies, and a little bit of beef and egg. Delicious!

We spent the afternoon hiking on Inwangsan mountain. The night before, S. suggested getting out of the city and seeing a little nature. Her encouragement, and ideas of where to go, made us rearrange our plans for the day, and I’m so glad we did.

Inwangsan has a lot of interesting sights with very interesting histories. If you want to read more about what you see, check out the longer post about day six. Some of the sights:

The Bongwonsa temple bell:

Guksadang, Seoul’s most important Shamanist shrine:

Seonbawi (Zen Rocks):

The peak of Inwangsan:

A restored section of Seoul’s fortress wall:

Beautiful rocks and pines:

We spent several enjoyable hours on Inwangsan, and S. was right…it was good to get out of the city a little (even if technically we were still surrounded by it). Thanks, S.!

The night before we hadn’t been able to find a hanbok for K at Namdaemun (late at night most of the shops were closed), so between hiking and dinner we went back to the market. It was so incredibly busy! And fun!

We found the hanbok we wanted, plus a couple of the t-shirts we liked so much, and headed off for dinner. Even though the entire week had been like one long date (what an odd experience!), we decided this night would be “date night.” Dinner, a cable car ride up Namsan mountain, and a view of Seoul at night. Romantic, huh?

Before we found the restaurant, we stumbled on another US beef protest…this time at City Hall. It would have been interesting to stay and listen to the bands and speakers (the atmosphere wasn’t negative at all), but we had a restaurant to find.

Chamsutgol is known for having really good Korean grilled beef (bulgogi and galbi). Rather than grill it over gas, they grill it over real wood charcoal. The atmosphere isn’t all that much, but the food is fantastic. It’s grilled at your table:

Then you place it on sesame leaves or lettuce, pile on the other ingredients: grilled garlic, green onion salad, a little kimchi, and hot pepper past (ssam jaang). You wrap it up like a stuffed grapeleaf, pop it in your mouth, and mmmmmmm!

The galbi was everything we expected. The soju….not so much. Soju is a vodka-like beverage unique to Korea. D and I aren’t big fans of hard liquor, so it’s no surprise we didn’t like it. We’re glad we tried it, though.

We’re also glad we took the cable car ride, the next part of our date. The cable car runs up the side of the mountain, just over the tops of the trees. It feels like you’re floating over the forest, and when you get to the top there’s this:

We went up to the tower’s observation deck to see the city at night. It was fun, but the views from the lower observation deck were just as nice. A little of Seoul at night:

It often pays to linger in locations, and tonight was an exceptional example of that…while we wandered around Seoul Tower’s plaza, classical music started blaring out of loudspeakers, mist began rising from little hidden water jets, and the trees were suddenly lit up by lasers. It was a laser show!

It was such a happy surprise. We sat there smiling as little kids ran around chasing the beams of light, trying to jump into the stars and circles formed by the lasers, and weaving in and out of the mist. What a night!

Day Five: Tapgol Park, Jogyesa, Foster Family Visit, Dinner with S, Namdaemun

•June 25, 2008 • Leave a Comment

All of our days in Seoul were wonderful (no, I’m not exaggerating), but this one was a favorite. We knew we’d be meeting Mr. C. later that afternoon to visit K’s foster family, but the rest of the day was somewhat unscripted.

It was raining when we woke up. For late June, I guess, we’d been pretty lucky. Somewhere in or near July, Seoul’s rainy season starts. We only had a few mornings of rain our whole week. We took our umbrellas with us and headed out.

Our first stop? This little restaurant right around the corner:

Ever since reading this blog/website about Korean food I’d been intrigued about all the little restaurants with Korean-only menus. Not only is the food incredibly cheap ($10 would be a large multi-course meal), but it sounded like the food was really good! It’s kind of the equivalent of an American diner. A rainy morning seemed like the perfect morning for a little Korean comfort food. The restaurant interior:

I chose this (warm mushroom and veggie juk, or porridge):

D chose this (I think it was ddokguk: soft rice cakes, egg, and small pieces of meat in a beef broth):

If you know D, you know that soup isn’t his thing. Never has been, even though soup is one of my favorite things. “Too liquidy,” he says. Well, apparently Korean soup is so good it’s made a soup person out of him, because at the end of this meal he said words I never thought I’d hear: “We should eat more soup.” Wha?!

This was our basic set-up (notice the basin of metal chopsticks and spoons):

The food was delicious. While we sat and ate, there was a woman in the storefront window making kimbap at a rate I couldn’t believe.

Her kimbap must have been popular, because a steady stream of business people came in to buy rolls (and at $1 or $2 a roll, what a cheap and healthy lunch!). Since D was now a soup convert, I thought I’d encouraging kimbap (he swears he’ll never eat sushi or any kind of seaweed roll):

Nope. Oh well, more kimbap for me!

It was still raining after breakfast. Umbrellas in hand, we set out for Tapgol Park. It’s just a short walk from our hotel, and on our last try (day two) it was closed.

The map of the park:

The brochure:

click to enlarge

This morning it was open…and better still, the rain kept other tourists away. It was just us and the regulars…small groups of older men who sat at the pavilion to read and talk, and individual men who prayed at the sacred sites.

Sitting on the steps:

Praying (he was also doing some sort of physical exercise against the pillars; we weren’t sure what it was):

Tapgol Park isn’t large, but it has a lot of sights. National treasures #2 and #3 are here, and the octagonal pavilion at the center of the park is where the Declaration of Independence was first read, and where the 1919 (March 1) independence movement began. The movement was ruthlessly crushed by the Japanese occupation, and Tapgol Park contains several monuments memorializing the independence fighters and their unsuccessful struggle.

Some of the sights…

At the center of the park is the octagonal pavilion.

From it’s plaque: This pavilion, built in 1897, was originally used for musical performances for the royal family during the time of the Great Korean Empire, but it also has meaning as the place where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud at the time of the March First Independence Movement of 1919.

Beginning on the morning of March 1, 1919 four to five thousand students and the crowd gathered in Tapgol Park and read the Declaration of Independence. They waved Korean flags and shouted “Long live Korean independence!” Then the crowds headed for Daehanmun, and thus began the demonstrations of the March First Movement, which spread across the whole country.

Around the western edge of the park are ten metal reliefs depicting the March First Movement. Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested. In the country-wide movement for independence, over 7,000 were killed by the Japanese. Most of the courageous teachers and leaders who read the Declaration at Tapgol Park were locked up in Seodaemun Prison…a place known for torture of prisoners.

One of the park gate roofs in the rain:

March 1st memorial writing:

The Wongaksa pagoda is South Korea’s National Treasure #2, and dates from 1467. It’s encased in a glass and metal building, but you can still see some of the pagoda’s details of you get close:

From the plaque: This 12 meter-high stone pagoda once stood in the early Joseon-era temple, Wongaksa. In 1465, Heungboksa temple, which had stood here since the Goryeo era, was rebuilt and renamed Wongaksa. This pagoda was built three years later, in 1467.

In 1947 the upper three levels, which had long lain scattered on the ground, were restored to their original state. This marble pagoda is unique in form, being the most recent of all pagodas designated national treasures. Also, the structure has been built in a refined and richly ornate, thus making it a superior work of a kind not found in any other Joseon-era stone pagodas.

National treasure #3 is a stone stele (tablet) from 1471, recording the history of the Wongaksa temple. It’s in the building I showed earlier, where the man in blue was praying. Like many other stele in Korea, it rests on the back of a turtle…a symbolic means of passage from the secular world to the idealized world of Paradise.

From the plaque: This monument was built in 1471 and records the history and founding of Wongaksa Temple, which was built in 1465.

The monument is 1.3 meters wide and 4.94 meters high. The turtle-shaped base is made of granite, while the head and monument are made of marble. The turtle-shaped head and body of the monument are made of one stone, and on the head of the monument are two elaborately carved intertwined dragons rising toward the sky and holding a wish-fulfilling Buddhist gem (yeouiju; Sanskrit: cintamani).

We wandered around Tapgol park, sat at the pavilion, and enjoyed the quiet and the rain. It’s a very peaceful place, or at least it was that morning, and it was nice to sit and watch the world go by for a little while. We weren’t the only ones who seemed to think so.

We walked back down Insadong-gil, and tried to get some frozen yogurt at Red Mango (which after a few days became either “The Elusive Red Mango” or “The Forbidden Red Mango” because it was always just closing or not quite open when we’d walk by). Closed again. Just up the street, though, is Bizeun, a trendy little tea shop and “riceteria” with a delicious creation called eng tu cha (sweet cherry tea, I think?). Cool, sweet, deliciousness.

We sat at the little table in the window and watched traffic move up and down Insadong street, then continued walking up toward Jogyesa. On Insadong-gil, near our hotel, is a little kkultarae stand that’s so well-known it’s in most of the guide books we read. If you spend thirty seconds anywhere in its vicinity, you’ll hear why…the guys who run it are hilarious.

Kkultarae is type of candy once served at court. A hardened block of honey is stretched and rolled in cornstarch until it becomes 16,000 individual threads. It’s then rolled around a mixture of sweetened nuts, and eaten in little bite-sized pieces of sweet fluff. It’s chewy, but it also melts in your mouth. Good stuff!

You can see someone else’s video of its production (along with some of the verbal antics) here:

More walking in the rain (this time snacking on kkultarae), gradually making our way toward Jogyesa. We stopped on the way at a little artists’ shop to inquire about having a name stamp made for K. More on that later…

Jogyesa during the day is a very different place than at night. I’m glad we were able to see both. On this day it was very, very crowded. Some sort of service was taking place in addition to all the other people that were there to pray, so people were everywhere. It was standing room only inside, and outside people were spreading out prayer mats under the eaves.

There was prayer and chanting, later followed by a choir singing a song that seemed similar to what we used to sing in church. You can hear a little of the prayer and chanting in this video I found (recorded by someone else on a different day):

For a look into Jogyesa at its most festive, see this video taken at the Buddha’s birthday celebration in 2008. Other pictures of Jogyesa…

At the side entrances, you take off your shoes before entering (only the monks use the front entrances):

Standing room only:

Prayer books:

A monk (wearing the traditional Jogye grey robes) looking in:

Prayer cloth:

Monks walking across the grounds with their golf umbrellas:

Offerings for Buddha (and a ceiling hung with paper lanterns):

Details of the exterior painting:

Jogyesa bell pavilion:

A charming little donation box with a smiling Buddha and an offering someone left…bottled water and Pringles:

Jogyesa has a little shop across from the temple where you can buy Buddhist prayer beads, traditional dyed fabrics, trinkets, prayer books, foods etc. that support the work of the temple monks. We spent quite a while in the shop looking around, and bought a few things for family and friends. For our older daugther, who loves stickers, we got these:

Buddhist monks playing sports!

And I liked this image (on a piece of cloth), so I brought it home:

If you’re curious about Jogye Buddhism or Buddhism in general, this FAQ from the Jogye website is an interesting read.

The main street near Jogyesa is lined with dozens of stores selling Buddhist items. We wanted to bring home a model of a Korean bell in a cherrywood stand (our kids would have loved ringing it) and a bronze Buddha, but we were a little dismayed at the prices and thought we could come back later if we didn’t find something we liked elsewhere. Note to self: when on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, if you find something you really like…get it. We never made it back to those shops.

It was getting close to our meeting time with Mr. C., so we went back to our hotel to change, then bought flowers for K’s foster mom at a local shop (I wish we had bought a plant instead…turns out she has a green thumb):

We took the subway to Meet Mr. C., then took a taxi to Mrs. S.’s home. K’s foster family lives in a high rise on the north side of Seoul. This is the view:

I don’t want to post public pictures of her home, but the time we spent there was wonderful. Mrs. S. was so kind and friendly, and she seemed more willing to give us advice about K than she had been at the orphanage. She was concerned about the photo we’d sent of K’s future bedroom (with a double bed), and was relieved when we assured her K would only sleep there when she’s much older. We had a snack of watermelon (one of K’s favorite foods) and rice cakes, and spent a couple of hours talking.

We got to see K in her home environment, which on its own made the cost and effort of traveling to Seoul more than worth it. It was such a gift to see the games she played with Mrs. S., to hear about her life in the past months and about Mrs. S’s family, and to see all the little ways K was comforted, made happy, fed, held, washed, dressed… not only did it give us a window into the care she’d received (such wonderful care), but it helped us make K’s transition a little easier.

We’ve tried to maintain similar routines…even down to the lotion Mrs. S. used after baths (Johnson’s baby lotion) and K’s favorite snacks (which took up half a suitcase on our way home). Best of all, we were able to establish the beginning of a relationship with Mrs. S….exchanging addresses, email, and making plans to exchange photos and letters in the years to come. K will always have a connection to her family in Seoul.

We left Mrs. S’s home (past her enormous tomato plants out on the balcony). We thought we’d be seeing her two days from now when K was brought back to the orphanage for the trip to the US, but it didn’t turn out that way. The last time we saw Mrs. S. she was holding K, waving and smiling, framed by tomato bushes taller than she is and a view of Seoul in the background. I hope we’re able to meet again someday, perhaps with our whole family in tow.

Leaving Mrs. S.’s:

Saying goodbye to Mrs. S. also meant saying goodbye to Mr. C. His kindness meant the world to us. Without his help, I don’t think we would have been able to have this window into K’s life with Mrs. S. We were so sad to see him go, and we hope either he can visit the US or we can visit him again in South Korea…though perhaps next time we could come to his region of South Korea. It sounds beautiful. Thank you so much, Mr. C.!

Late in the afternoon we returned to the store of the name stamp artist. He had given us a design for K’s name (in the Korean characters rather than the Chinese ones), and we wanted to run it by Mr. C. before deciding on it.  Mr. C. thought the circles in the characters should be hollow dots instead of solid ones, and the artist had a good laugh when we communicated that. It took us a little while to understand, but he was laughing because solid dots are part of his artistic style. Essentially, we were telling him to change his style. Whoops. Once we understood, D and I agreed that we wanted him to make the name stamp as he saw fit. We agreed on a design, picked out a stone, and agreed to return the next day.

That evening we had a special treat…we were going to meet S., a South Korean blogger I’d met when I asked around for photos of K’s birthday. S. didn’t have photos from that day, but she very kindly volunteered to translate some of the headlines and stories from K’s birthday.

When we found out we could travel to Seoul to meet K, I emailed her and asked if she’d like to meet. We nearly missed each other because of timing, but in a crazy coincidence it turned out she works in the office building right next to our hotel. In a city as enormous as Seoul, what are the chances of THAT?! In another strange coincidence, her English nickname (Sunny) is the meaning of K’s English name.

We were so excited to meet her. She met us at our hotel after work, and we walked to a restaurant in Insadong. I wish I’d taken a photo of the exterior, or even the restaurant name, because it was our favorite meal in Seoul. It seemed to be a very popular restaurant…the upper level was full, so we went to the basement level to find an open table. The interior looked like this (that’s the menu on the wall):

The main dish had three components…a bowl of rice, a basket of greens (chives and lettuce?), and a bowl of stew (a type of doenjang jjigae, I think?). When mixed all together, the flavor was incredible (!!) and looked like this:

That’s the stew in the background. Different varieties can have tofu, meat, veggies, shellfish, or a combination of several. Ours had tofu and veggies. Here’s a recipe for a slightly different doenjang jjigae. You can bet I’ll be attempting several versions in the near future…D can’t stop talking about how good it was.

The meal had great side dishes (banchan), too. Soup, oi-kimchi (stuffed cucumber kimchi), a salted marinated beef (D ate almost all of that himself):

salty dried fish (I tried it…pretty good, actually.)

This might have been yeolmu kimchi (young summer radish kimchi). Whatever it was, it was beautiful and delicious:

S. was a great dinner companion. She’s lived and worked in other parts of the world, she’s funny, and she was really patient with all our silly questions about Seoul (there were many). Why is so little water served with meals? What’s with the English t-shirts? Why is Korean food so good but so healthy? Is it okay that I’m always taking pictures of the food (A: Yes, because South Koreans are always taking pictures of their meals for their blogs, too.). She asked us our favorite sights so far, and encouraged us to get out of the city a little to appreciate the outdoors. We talked about our impressions of Seoul, about her work and plans, and about adoption.

One question S, Mr. C., and P. & J. all asked us was why are we adopting a child from South Korea? It’s a good question to answer, because not so long from now it’s a question K will be asking. The answer isn’t one simple reason, but a long list of logical reasons, random chance, and personal leanings.

We’re adopting a child because we’ve always wanted to. Because ten years ago, when D and I were dating, we talked about it and decided we wanted children to love, and it didn’t matter how they joined our family. Birth or adoption, they’d be our own. Back in college we also had lofty ideals about overpopulation, and environmental footprints, and only having one biological child at most, but over the years that’s faded. The truth is, the plans to adopt have been around so long that do-gooder reasons don’t really apply anymore. When you dream of a child for years on end, that dream becomes your motivation. Selfless turns to selfish, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s just my opinion, but I don’t believe do-gooder motivations hold up very well under the strains of parenting.

So why South Korea? We enjoy traveling, and always pictured adopting internationally…probably from Asia. For a long time we’d assumed we’d adopt from China, but for lots of reasons that wasn’t an option for our family. When the time came to get serious about adopting, we looked at all the programs and the South Korean program seemed like a perfect match for us. There was so much we liked about how children are treated in South Korea (small orphanages, foster care, access to great medical care, accurate medical reporting, the chance to know birth/first parents, a predictable process mostly free of corruption, etc.). We appreciated the changes happening in South Korea, and the gradual push for increased domestic adoption and increased support for single mothers.

We also liked the idea of having a relationship with South Korea and its culture. When we adopted, we knew we’d want to make that country and culture a part of our lives…through travel, through holidays and customs. If you’re going to have a lifelong tie to a place, and spend precious family vacations returning to a country, best to make it a country you think you’ll like, right? We read about Korea, about its history, about its climate, food, customs, people. It was definitely a country we wanted to explore, and a country we felt we could embrace with genuine enthusiasm.

So those are our reasons for adopting, and for choosing South Korea. Hopefully I can polish that up a bit and make it a little less rambling when 3-year-old K pops the question.

Back to dinner with S. After our incredible meal and happy conversation, she suggested tea. We went to a tea house she liked…a quiet little place in a second story overlooking Insadong-gil. We ordered her suggestions for tea (plum tea and red berry tea…both delicious), then spent more time talking. She gave us the articles she translated from K’s birth day (they’re in K’s memory book already!), and we talked a little more about all her travels and about our meetings with K. We were having such a good time, and the chance to sit and talk with S. (who really knows Seoul, and has all kinds of interesting stories) was one of our favorite parts of our trip to Seoul.

Before we knew it, it was late. S. had been out late the night before, and we felt guilty about keeping her out so late this evening. We said our goodbyes. Thanks so much for the relaxing, delicious, enjoyable evening, S.!  Best of luck in your future travels!

We walked away feeling so lucky…what a great night! Rather than go home to our hotel, D and I decided to go late-night sightseeing. We were more than halfway through our trip to Seoul, and we were getting worried we wouldn’t be able to see or do all that we had planned. All the guidebooks say that Namdaemun market is open all night, and that sounded fun… from Frommer’s 2008 South Korea: “Namdaemun is the largest traditional market in the country and going strong since 1414. They say if you can’t find it here, it probably doesn’t exist. There are no set hours, which vary by store, but the shijang is bustling any day of the week. Serious bargain hunters come for the night market from midnight to 4am.”

Bargain hunting? Traditional market? Vendors, shops, and alleyways? Sounds great!!

The main gate of Namdaemun Market:

And it would have been great…in theory. Turns out 11pm isn’t the best time to see Namdaemun. Though some shops are open, 90% or more of them are closed. Most of what you see are deliveries taking place for the next day’s market, or people closing up their stalls, stores, and restaurants. In a city less safe than Seoul (it’s so safe!), it would have been a darkish scary place to be at night.

This is a good picture of what it was like…lots of store signs, but almost all the vendors had packed up and left their stores covered in black tarps.

Some shops were open, though.

We checked out these two toy stores for Pororo:

And looked at all the beautiful kinds of wrapping paper for sale in this alleyway store (it’s a shame the lighting was so harsh…the colors of the paper were incredible):

A ginseng store was just closing (the ginseng stores kinda creeped D out…most of them had large posters with ginseng roots in the shape of human bodies, preserved in bottles and covered with wispy roots. I thought it was kinda cool.):

And restaurant alley was still bustling, with sample dishes set out to draw in potential customers:

The one thing we wanted from Namdaemun was a hanbok for K’s first birthday celebration (called a Tol in Korea). A few hanbok stores were open at that time of night, but the hanboks they sold weren’t the nicest. We knew we couldn’t leave Seoul without that special purchase, so we made plans to come back during the day.

Before leaving, we sat down at Namdaemun Gate. The wooden structure of Namdaemun dates back to 1447. Namdaemun Gate, or “Great Southern Gate,” was South Korea’s #1 National Treasure, and was destroyed by arson earlier in the year by a man who held a grudge against the government. Now there’s a temporary enclosure around it, and at the window you can see scaffolding for rebuilding.

Namdaemun is surrounded by business buildings, the market, and busy city streets, but it sits in the middle of a green lawn with a plaza and benches. I’d seen old photos of Namdaemun all over the internet and in books, and before it matched the bustle and bright lights of its location. It was ancient in the middle of modern, but it was grand and bright and busy. The night we visited, it just seemed quiet. Still. Almost like it was asleep behind its new blue walls.

They’re rebuilding. I hope when we return with K and the rest of our kids we can see it as it was. We sat for a long while and looked, then wandered back through the market and back to our hotel. G’night, Seoul.