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I plunged into the brilliant, frosty Sunday morning determined to break through all trepidation about moving around Korea.  It’s easy enough to travel from the warmth and security of the hotel sofa, and quite another to get out there and navigate.  Luckily the Korean public transport system is quick, cheap, and easy to use; from my hotel on post I took a cab to the front gate, walked through and caught a bus to the Pyeongtaek train station, rode one train to Asan and another to Seoul Station, and finally hopped the subway to Anguk station.  Three hours total – and totally worth it.  Up the stairs and temporarily down the wrong street, I found my way to the long, hilly, windy street that serves as the centerpiece for the cute Samcheong-Dong area.

Most notable as I walked the main drag, is the absolute plethora of coffee shops in the neighborhood.  I literally could have stopped every ten feet, and the freezing temperatures made it pretty appealing.  Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are the recognizable brands from home, but I enjoyed the Korean-owned small businesses, quirky in their own way with themes ranging from rustic to modern, down-home to design school.  For looks and name, my favorite was Caf’e Kitchen Shelves.

I went looking for the 2nd Best in Seoul, and found it just in time to fill my growling stomach.  I got quite a few looks, being a white woman of the Amazon sort, and the furniture was a bit small for my frame, but I crouched in at my table and ordered the panjuk, a red bean porridge that has made the place famous.  It arrived in under a minute, pungent with cinnamon and sweet potato, the consistency of thin black bean soup but a bit sweeter with chunks of sweet potato and a rice dumpling floating in it.  I didn’t have the heart to order the “herb tonic tea with overgrown deer antler” although I admit a part of me that really wanted to give it a try.  The porridge and (regular) tea cost me about $5 and kept me going for quite a while.

Samcheong-dong mainly consists of coffeehouses, restaurants, and shops.  I ducked in a few shops, as much to escape the cold as to shop, but two stores did not disappoint.  The first was the best surprise!  Mani’s Shop was an adorable little place run by two sisters who handmade every single thing in the shop.  Was there a better place for me to be?  I think not.  The sister who was manning the store showed me all the sweet bags and boots, giggled and shouted “No!” when I told her that her English was very good, and laughed even louder when I opined that her English was much better than my Korean.  She also gasped with delight when I told her I made my hat.  After a nice conversation I bought a hot pink leather case to hold my crochet needles…and let’s not kid ourselves.  I will be back.

Danju was a total gem – a local yarn shop! – run by a girl who darted back and forth through the small store, on the phone the entire time, never saying a word to me until I checked out (I think she was shy about speaking English).  Most of the yarn was my favorite, Rowan, even pricier than at home.  Still, I found a few skeins on sale to keep me busy.

After a bit more exploring, I stopped in at Amandier to warm up and have a sweet.  French-style patisseries almost match coffee shops in popularity here, and macaroon sandwiches are one of the few treats that are (usually) gluten-free.  I sampled four: salted caramel-sesame, avocado-banana, yuzu, and pistachio-brandied cherry.  Humunuh.  I’ll let you mull that over for a bit.

While sitting in the window enjoying my treats, a co-worker recognized me and sat for a bit, tipping me off to a Buddhist temple just a block away, so once I finished my macaroons I was on my way.  Can I tell you, I actually thought for a nanosecond about not going in because I had to take off my boots and leave them outside!  But I did it, staying only for a minute because I wasn’t sure of protocol when monks are chanting and I’m standing in a small sea of devotees in the middle of their thousand prostrations.  I snapped a quick pic, said a quick prayer, bowed at the three Buddhas, and jammed out to get my boots back on.  A few minutes taking snapshots outside the temple left my fingers burning with the cold, and the sun was setting so I headed for the barn.

On the way back I stumbled upon a fantastic sculpture of a traditional brush painting an Enso (open circle, symbol of Zen).  Dig it!  I love how the moon perched right on top of the brush for me.

There is something exhilarating about tackling a brand new city and culture, and I had many moments of inwardly pumping my fist and saying “Yessss!  Girl power!” as I made my way through the day.  I feel comfortable making any kind of excursion now, so we’ll see what’s next.  The Lunar New Year is coming up, and the late winter festivals.  Who knows?

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