Julia Dimon/for Metro Toronto
South Korea must suffer from middle child syndrome. It’s often overlooked by the international community, understated and overshadowed by China and Japan, its superpower siblings.
Many may be familiar with Korean brands such as Hyundai or Samsung, but few know much about the firms’ country of origin.
After only a few days in Seoul, I discovered that Korea is Asia’s hidden gem, a buried tourist destination, distinct with its own language, food and culture.
The capital city is remarkably modern with trendy neighbourhoods, cute boutiques and laid-back restaurants serving the most delicious barbecued beef ribs a girl could ask for.
Downtown, the architectural design looked a tad uninspired, but neon signs and multi-level shopping malls, selling everything from haute couture to runway knock-offs, made up for the drab skyline.
Saturday afternoons, city life throbbed. The eclectic scene buzzed with culture and consumption. Fashionable teens in clashing outfits and wild wardrobes chatted on cellphones. An American soldier, one of thousands of military men currently posted in Korea, window shopped hand-in-hand with his girlfriend. A group of Falung Gong activists, demonstrating against the Chinese government, held up “China’s Holocaust” signs. Photos glued to these signs were raw and gruesome depictions of human atrocities. Just a few steps away, a strange contrast: Vendors sold framed photographs of Korean pop artists, teen idols most popular with and marketed to Japanese tourists.
For tourists visiting Seoul there’s a lot to do. Some may wish to visit the DMZ, a demilitarized zone that, as of 1953, provided a buffer between the feuding north and south. Others may want to visit the historic palaces, all-night markets, art galleries or saunas that dot the city. They can also check out the War Memorial Museum or belt out a tune at a karaoke club.
When it comes to food, it’s all about the kimchi. It didn’t take long before I was addicted to this spicy fermented veggie dish. From white cabbage kimchi, to pickled radish kimchi, cold kimchi soup and stuffed cucumber kimchi, I loved all variations of this national culinary treat.
Dog meat, on the other hand, sounded less tasty. In South Korea, boiled canine soup is found on many a menu and is consumed regularly, especially among the older generation and rural population. In metropolitan Seoul, the meat from man’s best friend is not so common and is much harder to find.
Under pressure from animal-rights activists and the West, eating dog has become a big taboo. Young locals I spoke to said that, though many people still eat dog it’s not as popular as it once was. “It’s a cultural practice I’m embarrassed about,” admitted one young woman. “People still eat dog meat but things are changing.”
Julia Dimon, a Toronto-based freelance writer, is travelling around the world. She can be reached through www.thetraveljunkie.ca.