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Three weeks ago, I hopped on a plane headed for Seoul.  My main objective: to see Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy. If I didn’t live within range of Kim Jong-Il’s missiles so close to Korea, I wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of flying internationally for what amounted to two and a half hours of geeking out. But I live 20 minutes from the airport, and Seoul’s just an hour and 20 minutes away so…yeah.  Besides, the piece “J-E-N-O-V-A” had just been added to the repertoire, so how could I miss out? ^o^;

I left Fukuoka Friday night. By the time I got into Incheon International Airport, it was around 10:30PM.  I saw the signs in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese pointing towards the airport railway that I could use to get to the city after transferring to the subway but…honestly I have a large fear of getting lost. The taxi stand was right in front of me too, so I gave in to fear and laziness and took one.  According to the guidebook I’d bought (which, granted, was two years old, but I didn’t think it could be too off) a taxi from the airport to downtown should run around 45 USD. But man, did I ever get the foreigner shaft! The taxi had a sign that said “highway toll not included.” By the time we pulled up to the hotel, the meter read 87,000 won (around 75 USD). Then the guy points to the sign and gives me a bill for 120,000 won (about 105 USD)! Whaaaa?!? A $30 highway toll?! I don’t know, but that seems a bit much to me.

Anyway, I checked into the two-star Friend Hotel around midnight.   The room had heated floors, which was really nice.  For the first time, I didn’t take my own shampoo and conditioner, because even cheap hotels always had some, but not this one! Later I noticed small holes in the sheets and odd stains that looked like baked-in dirt on one of the towels. It really wasn’t all that big a deal, but I think if I ever go to Seoul again I’ll go for a three-star hotel. There was a map in the dresser that turned out to be very convenient.

I had picked that hotel not only because it was cheap, but because it was the closest one to the concert venue, the Seoul Arts Center. Saturday morning I got up at 8AM to be able to get to the box office right when it opened, in hopes of getting a VIP ticket—meaning, a chance to meet composer Nobuo Uematsu and conductor Arnie Roth!

On the way there, I walked by this cool overpass.

Unfortunately, VIP tickets were already sold out. T_T But since I’d gone willing to get one of those, I went for the next best thing: a box seat. At 77,000 won (67 USD) it’s the cheapest box seat I will probably ever get.  Well, it was the first time I’d sat in a box seat!

I had about 5 hours before show time, so I went to the palace all the tourists go to: Gyeonbokgung. At this point I needed to get on the subway. As everyone had told me, Seoul’s subway system is excellent.  It lives up to the hype.  There were signs in English, and the ticket dispensers also had full English.

I already put many of my favorite photos from the palace in the video in the post below this one, so I’ll add different photos here.

This lies past the second threshold.

So colorful!

These next two sculptures are across from each other, lining a small waterway. The waterway was dry, there was only a small bit of snow in it.  While I labeled these sculptures as “gargoyles,” I’m not sure that’s exactly what they are.

When it was getting close to show time, I made a quick tour of nearby Samcheondong-gil, which, according to my guidebook, was supposed to be a lesser known but just as good “tourist alley” like Insadong-gil.  Don’t know if things changed that much since the book was published, but I didn’t see what the big deal was.  Well, I didn’t go down any side streets.

As I was walking down Samcheongdong-gil, I saw what I thought was a store selling action figures.  I’ve a friend who likes comic books, so I thought I’d go in and see if they had anything interesting.  When I walked in, I saw that it was wall-to-wall toys, some shelves replete with multiple copies of the same figure outside of its packaging.  The woman at the register said something to me in Korean, I said I didn’t understand, and she said “Ticket.” I said, “Do I need a ticket?” She said, “Yes.” So I left.  I thought, maybe it’s a special collectibles store where you need an appointment or something to see the merchandise.

Then, I rushed back to the Seoul Arts Center and got there just in time.  It turned out I was sitting on the same side as Nobuo Uematsu!  So, I was able to see him during the whole concert.  Well, I couldn’t see him when he went up into the choir to sing along during “One-Winged Angel,” all I could see was his bright orange do-ragged head bobbing next to the far singers of the choir. Overall, the concert was good. Not as good as it would’ve been had it been a more experienced orchestra, but it was their first night performing those pieces, and for me, still well worth the trip. The new arrangement of “J-E-N-O-V-A” was excellent! When the CD Distant Worlds 2 comes out later this year, I will be sure to get it! It’s going to have all the pieces that have been added to the concert tour since the first Distant Worlds album was released.

After the concert, I stopped at a conbini to pick up a sandwich.  Breakfast had been a bulgogi sandwich and chai latté from Starbucks.  Partly from lack of time, and partly from fear of running out of money since that taxi ride from the airport took out 105 USD from the start, I didn’t really eat meals while in Korea. ^^; I rested up at the hotel, then set out for Insadong-gil to buy omiyage.

I had barely started walking up Insadong-gil when I came across another toy store.  I went in, and was taking in the cluttered scene, when the guy at the register said, “Excuse me, excuse me, this is toy museum.  Ticket is one thousand won.” I was thinking, huh? This is a museum? But, one thousand won being just one dollar, I paid the fee.  The “toy museum” consisted of random toys, not special editions or anything, some broken, some covered in layers of dust, crammed ungracefully into every corner on old shelves and dirty showcases.  The guy had said photography was okay, so I realized what a shady operation it was.  You get people to pay a dollar to walk around and look at old toys that are of no particular value, and have a few toy-related things for sale. There were people who were getting a kick out of seeing all the toys, but most of the time I was just like, “what is this bullshit?” I got a small gift for one friend, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Anyway, back to looking for omiyage for the school…

Several JETs had told me that Japanese love Korean seaweed.  They told me not to bother with expensive gift boxes and just go to a supermarket and buy a bunch of the stuff.  Unfortunately, given my lack of time, I didn’t hunt for a supermarket.  The conbini I’d gone into earlier didn’t have any.  So, when I came across a bakery that had rice cakes and other Korean sweets in gift boxes, I just bought all my omiyage for the school at once: a box for kouchou-sensei, boxes of half that value for the two kyoutou-sensei, and a large box for all the teachers.  The boxes were pink and gold, which I didn’t really think about.  When I got back to Japan and gave them to the kyoutous though, they were like, “oooh, it looks like boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolate, hahaha! *wink wink*” I said, “Oh, it’s just that those are the store’s colors,” but in my mind I was like, “okay guys, okay, think what you want.” ^_^;;;

I did end up coming across a 7-Eleven that had seaweed, but as it didn’t come in nice packages (it wasn’t meant to be omiyage, afterall) I just bought a few that I could give to the neighborhood people that are nice to me, but that I don’t really “owe” anything to, such as the Takoyaki Lady.  Perhaps I would’ve been able to find nice gift boxes of Korean seaweed at the airport shops, but I didn’t want to risk having to buy omiyage at the last minute.  Which was a good thing, because…

The day of my flight back to Japan, Sunday, I knew I didn’t have enough money to take a cab, but I didn’t know how long it would take to get there by train.  According to the guidebook, the airport and downtown Seoul were about an hour apart by airport railway and city subway.  I knew I wasn’t staying in downtown Seoul, but I wasn’t that far away, so I estimated it would take an hour and a half and checked out of the hotel accordingly.  The night before, I had looked at what trains I’d need to take in my handy-dandy guidebook’s subway system map.  Me being paranoid as I am, normally, I would’ve quadruple-checked the route in the guidebook, then double-checked it again on the map in the station proper.  But sometimes, unfortunately, I’ll think to myself, “I should stop being so paranoid” and don’t check things the usual 10 million times.  *sigh*

The problem was that my guidebook’s map of the subway system, given that the book wasn’t in full-color, was in 4 shades of orange and 4 shades of grey.  It was a bit difficult to keep the lines separate as it was, so, I didn’t see the short transfer route, and since I unfortunately decided that morning not to be paranoid and didn’t look at the map in the station, I took a route that added 30 minutes of travel time because I had to double back.  I realized this while on the subway train, looking up at the full-color system map over one of the doors. I wonder if the other riders heard my mental facepalming?

After the city subway, I had to transfer to an AREX train.  I thought AREX was only for the airports, so I thought it would be fine.  But no, AREX trains stop at the airports, but also make stops in the boondocks by the airports.  I was so, SO agitated on that train! I kept screaming in my head, “GO FASTER!!” I nearly lost it when I saw that the cars were passing us!

By the time we reached Incheon Airport, I had about 40 minutes before my flight left.  When I checked in, I checked one bag.  The lady told me, “please wait 5 minutes for a bag check,” and pointed to a few rows of chairs.  I was confused, because there was no security checkpoint there.  I thought, maybe someone’s going to come?  So I sit there, worried about missing my flight, and no one came.  I asked a nearby Korean Air guy, and figure out that the lady meant, “please wait 5 minutes while we check your bag, and we’re not gonna tell you anything unless there’s something shady about your luggage, otherwise you can just leave after you’ve sat there for 5 minutes.” Not that I’m a globe-trotter, but sheesh! I’d never been to an airport with that procedure.  Luckily, the rest of the process of going through security was a lot less of a hassle than in American airports, so I went through quickly and got to the gate just 8 minutes after the flight had started boarding. What a close call! So, it was a really good thing that I had already bought the omiyage!

Well, that’s it! My 36 hours in Seoul! ^o^