A few firsts in Seoul

As I mentioned in earlier blog entries, I haven’t seen much of Seoul yet.  This morning I had the pleasure of driving past two of Seoul’s most famous monuments, Seoul Station and Namdaemun (남대문).  Seoul Station is Seoul’s central railway station.  Built in 1925, has served as Seoul’s rail hub for 80 years.  It is still a fully functional rail hub.  The building’s structure is a classy design that reflects the architecture style of that period.  It is one of the few remaining structures built by the Japanese during the colonial period.  I also saw Namdaemun (literally "South Gate"), the former southern gate of the City of Seoul.  The wall that once surrounded the city was dismantled by the Japanese during occupation, and only a few of the prominent gates remain.  Namdaemun is perhaps the most famous.  It is especially well-known for its large open market situated just to the west of the gate.  The gate has been beautifully restored.  Because it sits on an earthen island in the middle of one of Seoul’s main traffic arterials, Namdaemun reminds me of an Asian version of the Arc du Triomphe in Paris (or vice-versa).  The ancient gate in the middle of modern Seoul serves as a reminder of the city’s pre-modern history.  Although I was only able to view Seoul Station and Namdaemun from a car window, I enjoyed seeing them for the first time.  I read about them often while learning the Korean language, and now I finally know what they look like firsthand.  I want to revisit them as soon as I can as a local tourist.

I also encountered my first demonstration (데모) today in Seoul.  It is well-known that demonstrations are common in Seoul, especially near the U.S. Embassy.  This is the first one I have seen, and it was very orderly.  Police outnumbered the number of protesters, and the protesters marched peacefully, waved colorful banners, and chanted with bullhorns.  Traffic was snarled near downtown, but otherwise the protest passed without incidence.  A Korean friend mentioned that these protesters were primarily street vendors protesting recent changes in the law on how they can conduct business.  I don’t know much more than that.  I observed the protest with curiosity while I was stuck in traffic.  It was not an anti-American protest, as I feared it would be.  Local police patrol vigilently in large numbers at key points in the city everyday.  It’s a strange feeling wearing a suit and overcoat and walking past an armored vehicle with a squadron of police in riot gear armed with shields and batons.  It’s one of the surreal aspects of Korea I’ve encountered since I arrived.

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