In late October of this year I was very fortunate to be taken on a business trip to South Korea. Our flagship brand of guitars has a factory just north of Seoul and I was asked to visit as part of our new marketing initiative. I’ve talked about my factory tour photos in another post but I’ve also decided to write about the culture of South Korea and what I discovered in the short time I was over there.
South Korea is a 12 hour flight from London’s Heathrow airport with Korean Air. Two meals, 4 films and an awkward sleeping position will just about get you through the flight. Korean Air do a good job of keeping you comfortable and entertained but sitting in a small space for half a day can be a very tiring. I did enjoy the mountain views over Russia as we flew over the country and then dropped down to South Korea. The flight path was quite an insight as the plane headed through Russia and China, dodged North Korea via the sea and then swerved back to land at Incheon Airport, an island of the west side of South Korea. Seoul is 9 hours ahead of the UK so when we landed we were looking at having dinner rather than breakfast. The weather was surprisingly chilly for a Pacific country, very much like the UK in Autumn but more like the tropics in the summer with high humidity and rainfall.
On our arrival, our host took us round Uijeongbu where we were staying and to the biggest shopping department store I have ever seen in my life. Shinsegae in Uijeongbu is 150,000 square feet of pure shopping spread across 10 floors sitting on top of Uijeongbu’s rail transport station. You would probably need a week to work your way round this goliath of retail but we only had an hour so we glanced at the technology department instead. In my photos above there is an image of my colleague, Keith, (he’s over 6ft tall) and our host in front of an 84″ television (it looks like a poster but it is really a TV). This was the first Smart, 3D, 4K, Ultra HD 84″ TV I had ever seen and it was stunning at 4 cm thin too. Perhaps if I had a spare 24,400,000 Korean Won (or £15,000), I think I would be tempted but where on earth would you put it? There was also another TV at a more modest size (maybe 50″?) that disappeared as you walked around it as it was so thin. See my video of the disappearing TV.
We were later taken out for dinner in Uijeongbu where it was quite apparent how much influence chain restaurants had on the city. I was told that the chains were fast becoming popular with the youth of South Korea and Korean alternatives were also competing. We went to a very popular pizza restaurant called Mr Pizza whose strapline is “Love for women“. It’s a slightly bizarre translation which will raise a worried smile amongst us Brits but what it actually means is that Mr Pizza likes women to enjoy their pizzas and bring their male friends along. Their focus is marketing to young women which is evident by their advertising. We enjoyed two fairly traditional pizzas at Mr Pizza and a spaghetti lasagne. (Imagine a lasagne without pasta sheets but with spaghetti instead and a cheese topping) We headed back to our hotel called ‘Hotel Head-One’ where I watched Korean TV until I fell asleep. (True to Korean style, my hotel TV was enormous!)
Outside of the factory visits we were taken to a Korean BBQ in the city. Not a BBQ as we imagine it but restaurants fitted with gas grill stoves in the middle of tables where your food is cooked and cut up in front of you. Along with rice, salad and spicy sauces, the sides consist mostly of kimchi, Korea’s signature dish. Kimchi is mostly pickled vegetables consisting of napa cabbage, radish, cucumber and onion. I loved the favour of the BBQ and the spicy sauce, Ssamjang, which I mixed with the sticky rice. Everything was eaten with chopsticks (I love Japanese food so no issues there!) but there were no knives on the table. A common cutting tool for food in Korea is with scissors which I did find rather strange until we faced a big pot of spicy noodles the next day and I thought they were a genius idea!
We rolled onto the nightlife in Uijeongbu and walked around the variety of shops and bars that seemed to open by 7pm and stay open until 4am the next day. Even roadworks are not restricted to daylight, they continued all through the night as people were out eating and shopping. In bars we were questioned on our age and home countries by the staff there. Evidently we were too old for one barman who was all too eager to show us his magic tricks. Somehow I managed to explain where Cardiff was by the magical language of football. “England” followed by “Ryan Giggs” were the words that helped the locals pinpoint me on a map!
Having visited the Shinsegae shopping centre on our arrival, we ventured to the underground shopping market near to the station on our last evening in the city. I can honestly say that I have never seen so many stalls trying to sell Samsung phones in such a busy area. I cannot imagine that the trade there is that good as about fifty shops were all trying to sell the same phone. Our host said that most Koreans change their mobile phones every year but you would be forgiven for thinking it was more often due to the number of traders in the markets. We finally found some shops where we could buy some fun Korean souvenirs before heading out for a walk around the city. Another little Korean custom I noticed was that shop assistants follow you around in an overly attentive fashion. It’s like they’re glued to you! It’s a slightly uncomfortable experience for anyone British but you come to realise that it’s their way of being polite and helping you. I have never bought nail varnish so fast in my life though!
The skyline in Uijeongbu is impressive with bright neon logos on every commercial building. I can imagine that Seoul is a larger version of Uijeongbu but unfortunately we ran out of time for a visit there. There’s plenty of familiar American establishments with Dunkin Donuts (our breakfast venue) and McDonalds around the city plus some Korean chain alternatives. It’s a busy city with relatively little English spoken or read but you can make your way around with the right gestures and smiles.
Did I mention the internet? It is mind-boggling fast and quite literally accessible everywhere. I honestly thought my iDevices would pass out. (It looked like they were testing some sort of 5G network whilst I was out there too!)