I was making observations about some of the similarities of Korea to the Japanese. One of the locals was explaining some of the differences and he summarised it for me like this: Koreans have very strong relationships with those that they know but collectively as a nation they're not that strong. Japan has much weaker inter-personal relationships yet their strength as a nation is very high. I found all the people I dealt with to be friendly, sociable and willing to chat about any particular topic that was ventured, particularly soccer. Manchester United played the Seoul football club on Friday night (which Man U won 4:0) and you'd think that it was the world cup final or something, such was the interest. Apparently 40 million of Manchester United's 75 million fans live in Asia.
Meal times were interesting and good fun. The first night we went to a local restaurant next to the hotel as it was one of the few places open when we went looking for a feed at 9:00pm. The floor was wooden and slightly raised. Shoes were removed as the doorway and we sat on the floor at low tables with just enough room to slide your folded legs underneath. Mats were available if desired. The food itself was quite OK. The meal consisted of several small servings of things and a bowl of beef, rice, lettuce and bunch of strange spicy sauces, all mixed in and prepared for us by the waitress. The next night we ate out at a classier restaurant, but it was still an on-the floor affair. These floors are heated in winter to keep you warm. This time dinner consisted of a seemingly endless stream of small dishes. There was fried fish, sashimi, fruits, various shelled seafood, stewed fish, sushi, water chestnuts, beans, crumbed potato, rice and so on. There must have been about 30 different dishes for the 3 of us! Some of it was really spicy and I was drinking to try and put the fire out. I can also tell you that Kimchi isn't anything special, just spicily flavoured fermented cabbage really.
South Korea still has signs that it's a slightly male-dominated society. The man does the hard work, the man puts the roof over the heads of the family, the man drives the car, etc. Despite a healthy array of western influences, particularly western branding, there's still some traditional customs to be observed. One example of this is the man seeking permission and approval from the father of his woman before getting married. If the father says 'no' the the chance of being married is very small. Once consent is given a formal dinner is held where the two families meet. There are then some customs to be observed in preparing for the wedding too, such as the groom providing the house to live in, often a gift from his parents, and the bride, and her family, providing all the interior furnishings.
I found Seoul as a city is not particularly interesting. The people were interesting but as a city it seemed fairly stereotypical as far as modern Asian cities go. Typical apartment buildings top out at about 20 stories and there's lots of buildings down around the 6 or 7 story mark. The building architecture is relatively straight forward, most buildings are well maintained, others not. The buildings are missing the design element that cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong put into everything they're building these days. There's a comprehensive subway system and lots of buses and taxis charging around everywhere. About 10 million live in Seoul proper and there's another 10 million living in the metropolitan area.
There is a lot of protection for local industries here. For example, 90% of the cars on the roads are built locally by local brands. The local industries are protected through import tariffs. Standards are often in place that make it difficult to take off-the-shelf products from other countries and sell them in South Korea. This stimulates the local industry to develop skills internally, as the Koreans want to have all the things that the Japanese (and others) have however importing can be expensive. As such, the general skill level of Koreans in technical fields is fairly high.
The Koreans follow technical fads quite quickly. If someone has the latest thingy then his friends just have to have it. The latest techno fad in South Korea is GPS in cars. It's happened so fast that about 80% of the cars I saw had a GPS screen stuck with a suction cup to the windscreen and the manufacturers haven't had a chance to integrate the technology across their model ranges. This all seems fine however apparently these dash-mounted screens are causing lots of injuries in car accidents.
Seoul was fine to visit but I don't have any burning desire to go back there. Some cool toys, some friendly people, lots of bright lights and a bit of Asian history. That's how I'd sum it up.