Seoul is different than any city I’ve ever visited before. This was to be expected, as this is the first time I’m checking out a city in East Asia.
Most big cities around the world have buildings that rise high into the sky and several levels below the surface. Seoul is no different in that regard, but the way these spaces are filled, is.
I’m used to parking garages underground, stores on the ground level, and offices and apartments on top of that. Here, the entire city is filled with buildings of about 10 floors that have small businesses on every level, including underground. There have been moments where I thought I was going into a subway station, and ended up in an enormous underground mall. “Enormous” doesn’t even cut it. It’s so large I could walk around there for an hour without having seen everything.
The types of businesses are all over the place, too. You’ll find a dentist, a bar, a music school, a coffee place, and a video game arcade right next to each other on a random 5th floor somewhere. The outsides of these buildings are filled with blinking neon signs, very bright and in-your-face.
Most of these buildings are open 24 hours a day, and people walk in and out at all times. There’s usually one bathroom (of the “hole-in-the-ground” variety. Also, no toilet paper most of the time, so bring your own) per floor that’s shared by all the establishments. People hang around in the staircases to smoke cigarettes, even though this is officially not allowed.
That’s one of the things I had to get used to again: people smoking inside buildings. It’s apparently also not considered rude here to clear your throat in front of others, smack gum loudly (in the subway, in a busy coffee place, or in a lunchroom), or spit on the ground. Funny how the little things are different.
One of the many underground malls in the city
Seoul has an enormous subway system, which is cheap, efficient, and easy to figure out. The trains have a surprising luxury: heated seats in winter and cooled seats in summer. Sitting down is only for a lucky few, as the trains are almost always packed. There’s no time for courtesy when the train arrives, and people start wedging themselves into the car before people even start to get out. It’s an aggressive push and shove-fest.
The subway map
I noticed on the train that people here are absolutely obsessed with their phones. It’s already pretty bad where I’m from, but here it’s the next level of zombie-mode. Many have their phones hooked up to external batteries, or have spare batteries with them to swap out when their current one goes dead. Naturally, there’s fast WiFi on every subway train.
They also have jingles indicating the direction of the trains, and whether there’s the option to transfer to another line.
As you can tell, my favorite one is the train moving away from Seoul Central Station.
This guy likes the Seoul subway so much, he made a song about it.
“Bang” means “Room” in Korean. There are many noraebangs, Jjimjilbangs, and PC-bangs around the city.
A noraebang is a karaoke-bar, but not in the way you and I know them. Instead of a regular bar with a stage containing a random drunk guy, you get your own private room. These rooms can be as small as a phone booth for one person, or large and luxurious for groups. In the luxurious ones, you can actually press a button to have someone come over to bring you food and drink. Many rooms have different themes such as “Korean”, “British”, “French” or even “jungle”.
This particular Noraebang has rooms with windows facing the street, so bystanders can see your K-pop moves.
The “Luxury Su Noraebang” in Hongdae
I’ve found that Koreans are generally very quiet and introverted. In the noraebang, this all changes. You will see them on their knees, screaming Korean pop (K-pop) ballads passionately into the microphone while tears roll down their cheeks from emotion.
The noraebang is also a place for business. If you want a raise, for example, you go with your boss to the noraebang. Once he’s a little loosened up and you two bonded over singing karaoke together, it’s the time to bring it up.
Noraebangs are literally everywhere to be found. They are probably more common than the average bar in this country. Checking one out should be on your to-do list when you’re here, and taking a stroll through one for the first time feels like walking through an insane asylum.
Dozens of rooms on multiple floors, and you have to book in advance.
The average price is around ₩15.000 an hour, which is about $15. A lot of them are open 24 hours a day, and many Koreans end their night in one after hitting the bars/clubs. Some people also sleep there because they’re either passed out, or missed their last train.
A PC-Bang ^
There are LAN-gaming centers, where patrons can use PCs for an hourly fee. The most common cost is ₩1000 an hour ($1), which is not a bad deal considering the average gaming PC costs about 800-1000 times that.
Eating and drinking is allowed, and it’s possible to easily order food from the restaurants that are in the same building. Most people eat potato chips or ramen, combined with canned coffee or energy drinks.
The most popular games that are played are StarCraft and League of Legends, although there are also several Korean-made MMORPG games. The Korean games actually encourage players to use PC-Bangs by giving them extra in-game money if they login through a PC-Bang-computer.
StarCraft is a phenomenon in Korea to the point where it can almost be considered national pastime. I could compare its popularity to the Star Wars franchise in the West, although it’s probably even bigger.
A Korean Air Boeing 747 with a Starcraft II ad on it^
Many players stream their games live for the world to see, and it’s not weird at all for people to watch others play this game on TV like a sports match. There are players that make a living by charging a fee to watch them play. Some differentiate themselves by going completely wild when they win or lose. There are plenty of videos on YouTube of players smashing their displays and keyboards, or doing plain weird shit. Anything for views.
Here’s a really bizarre one. This guy carved out a niche for himself by screaming his ass off while pouring random stuff on his head when he wins or loses a game.
Volume warning: this clip is LOUD!
This guy has a large fan following.
There are official tournaments that are watched live by millions. Opposing teams literally sit in a boxing ring with their PCs. These tournaments fill up entire convention centers and arenas. To give you an idea of how big this is, last year’s League of Legends tournament final was watched by 35 million viewers.
A Jjimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse, which is open 24 hours a day. Many Koreans go here after work and spend the night in these places, usually because they live outside of the city and it’s a relaxing place to wind down and take a nap.
Just like the karaoke bars, these bathhouses are quite different than in the West. It started right away with the location: the one I went to was two levels below the ground under a train station.
Entrance is around ₩8.000 ($8) and you can stay as long as you want. There is a gender separated section where everybody is in the nude, and a mixed section where everyone wears a little uniform. Men get a blue outfit, and women a pink one.
The gender separated part is kinda like the bathhouses we know. There are saunas and pools varying in temperature. The main difference is that people seem to treat it more like their own bathroom. Many guys were having their morning shave with a cup of coffee sitting next to them in there like it was nothing. There was also a barbershop in there, because why not?
The mixed part feels more like a community lounge than a bathhouse. There is a very large main room with a heated floor which is quite nice. There are big lacquered tree trunks lying there to lean against, and pillows to rest your head on. People randomly lie sleeping on the floor, watching one of the two big screen TVs, or playing with their phones (people love their phones so much here, they even bring them into the saunas). There are also sleeping spaces, which are basically holes in the wall with a mat on the floor, which you can crawl into.
In the mixed area are also several saunas, including an ice sauna. There’s a “living room” section which has a bookshelf, a TV, and several lounge couches. Connected to this main room is a complete food court (including a bar that actually sells draft beer), a massage parlor, an amusement arcade, a PC-bang, and a playroom for to drop off kids. Larger Jjimjilbangs sometimes even have Norebangs in them, for those who want to sing some karaoke between sauna sessions.
An interesting place to be, for sure.