On my first evening back in Seoul, on my first visit in almost twenty years, I could hardly believe I was in the middle of a metropolitan area of over twenty million people. I was staying in the Buk-chon neighborhood, in a 'hanok'--one of the courtyard houses with upswept tiled roofs and sliding paper doors that characterized the city before the 20th century--that had been converted into a guest house. A rooster and a rabbit shared the courtyard onto which my sliding latticed doors opened. A persimmon tree towered overhead...traffic--barely audible.
During the Korean War (1950-1953), much of Seoul's traditional residential architecture was destroyed. Fortunately, you can still find a concentration of historical houses here in Buk-chon, just north of the downtown core. Tucked in between two Joseon-dynasty royal palace compounds, this hilly neighborhood is one of Asia's urban gems.
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'Nighthawks' for dumplings and noodles
On my last night in Seoul, this streetscape in the Bukchon neighborhood reminded me of the classic Edward Hopper painting: "Nighthawks."
Brightly lit and steaming, the façade drew me in. I sat down in this urban oasis for buckwheat noodles in spicy broth and handmade dumplings, sharing a counter with two businessmen who had just got off work. They dared each other to order the "way-too-hot" noodles off the wall menu instead of the simply "spicy." But they called each other's bluff and both slurped "spicy," all the while saying to each other 'whoa, this has got a kick.'
The owner then walked over and teased the men, 'too much for you?' Then, pointing over at a young woman, quietly enjoying her dinner, he told them, 'SHE got the "way-too-hot."' Playing along, she motioned with her chopsticks and asked the sweating pair of salarymen, 'yeah; wanna taste?' Their reply: "no thanks," accompanied by nervous laughter...