Seoul | Tokyo
The narrow street runs uphill before twisting right between tightly packed homes stacked three or four high. A few steps in a straight direction is all it offers before descending in a series of switchbacks down 50 feet to a street below where it turns left and continues its staggering drunkard pattern. Eventually the homes and apartments become grocery stores and cafes and coffee shops as we leave behind the entwined residential district and find ourselves in the outskirts of the commercial. As we slip into a quiet spot for lunch I turn to David and say, “Thank you for that.”
Everything is different, unreadable, unknowable. You can never understand the motivation. Yet everything is the same, familiar, like memories from childhood that refuse to come into focus. Steam swirls from vents in the street floor and from vendor carts. A couple dressed in kimonos pass hand in hand, while overhead the electric metro rattles on; tradition mingles with the future, the old with the new, and I know that I am in the Asian East.
It’s no secret that I love this part of the world, so my wife wasn’t surprised when I told her that for our next adventure I wanted to go to South Korea and Japan, specifically to Seoul and Tokyo. With family to stay with in Seoul and adding in a few days in Tokyo as an extended flight connection, it seemed very doable.
We’ve only just arrived in South Korea, and already Seoul is living up to everything I hoped it would be. Over the next 10 days, words like jimjilbang, ddukbokki, and norebang will feel familiar, though not necessarily normal.
Each year, my wife and I try to plan an adventure that’s all about joy. Much of our year gets swallowed up in the week-to-week living that sort of feels like just trying to keep it all together. I live so much of my “normal” life in the way I take my groceries in from the car: trying to get it all done at once, arms overflowing, just make it to the counter. Except that the counter becomes bed, or the weekend, or another beer, and those aren’t quite the finish line experience we really need.
We’ve been cultivating a space in our lives where we can recharge. It gives us something to look forward to; it gives us a context to place ourselves in. There is work, and there is rest. There is daily life, and there is mythic. There is the familiar, and there is Seoul and Tokyo.
We begin by staying with family in South Korea, having learned over the years what a difference it makes to explore a new place (especially a new country) with someone who knows it. During the day we hike into the hills above the city, then wander through the labyrinthine streets and always eat at some hole-in-the-wall place with character.
Globalization has made it easy to find your Frappuchino and Big Mac almost anywhere in the world. Plenty of folks want what feels familiar. I want back-alley grilled fish in a shop filled with locals. I want the wriggling, the fermented, the unusual, or why else come? To be fair, I want that in my home town to some extent as well… but diving into what the locals do and eat is exactly what I want to experience.
So we climb the hills and mountains and old walls that protected the Seoul of old, and we go to a bathhouse and my skin gets scrubbed off in sheets, and we sing until… well, until our time runs up. Slow mornings spent with nieces and nephews usher us into new days of exploring.
And then just as we begin to feel comfortable with “hello” and “thank you” we leave Seoul for Tokyo, and our etch-a-sketch of understanding is all shaken up again. After being with family, it’s both exhilarating and lonely to be on our own. We wander through parks and shopping centers and quiet streets. I’m blown away by the size of it all. Los Angeles is over 500 square miles, with its different valleys and sub-cities and sprawl, while Tokyo is 850 square miles. Words like “massive” fail to explain it.
On that scale, you could spend a lifetime and not know it all. On that scale, your mind must shrink it all to whichever street you are on, whichever park you are in. For something so large, it invites you inward in countless small ways. Safe to say, I’d love to go back and explore these countries outside their capitals. In fact, I intend to.
I read somewhere that to be the kind of person who can be fully present when you travel—someone who enjoys the little details and passing conversations and trying new things—you need to cultivate that posture in your hometown. When I was young, we could hear the coal train passing in the night from miles away. Eventually I stopped hearing it. I’ve lived by the ocean and in the shadow of mountains, and it’s sad how quickly I can forget to look up and take in the view.
Certainly the novelty of a new place can make me pay more attention to details that eventually become mundane, but our lives become mundane only if we let them.