On the evening of our first day in Seoul we were taken to a traditional Hanjungsic banquet at the Daewonyojung restaurant. It seemed to be a traditional restaurant for male businessmen – at least I think it was such a restaurant, because I’m really not sure what the night was all about. It wasn’t an open restaurant, but rather a series of private rooms – about 15. It was probably also very expensive, but we weren’t paying.
We were met at the entrance by an impressive, statuesque Korean lady in traditional garb – Park Sun Hee, whose card described her as President. She asked us to take our shoes off, then led us into a private room where there was a large low table. There we sat at floor level with our legs flat on the floor under the table. We were asked if we had have any objection to being provided with a “girl” each to “help us eat.”
When in Rome…
So they arrived, in traditional Korean dress, and each sat on our right. Unfortunately mine had almost no English, which didn’t help communication. Lucky Laurence got a good English speaker. Pretty soon the table was covered in local delicacies and bottles of wine, beer and whisky. I said I’d give my camera to a waiter to take a photo of the scene and Alex, our Korean host, quickly asked if I really wanted such a photo to go back to New Zealand. “Why not” I replied, perhaps naively, and passed the camera to the waiter.
We continued eating, with our girls telling us what the food was and moving the dishes around. We saw quite a bit of kimchi, a famous Korean side dish made of spicy pickled cabbage. Didn’t do it for me. Among various other meat and fish dishes was crunchy jellyfish, which was…interesting. There were no (at least I think there were no) really dodgy dishes from a western cultural perspective. I had to be careful with a few of the spicier dishes because of my tricky gut, and ultimately, for me the eating side of the banquet was only so-so. I once had a similar, but much nicer dining experience in Tokyo.
My girl was less than loquacious, but every so often she would enter the local name of a dish into a translation program on her Samsung equivalent to the iPhone. To my right, Laurence’s girl chatted away happily and for periods I talked with her too. That left my maiden out in the cold, but I wasn’t prepared to spend a whole evening communing with her Samsung. The English speaking girl did amuse me though – throughout the evening she carried on a third line of communication with her mobile phone, receiving text messages. She didn’t return them, but she certainly received plenty.
After a while, my girl placed her hand on my inner thigh. Whoah! What should I do? I didn’t want to create a scene, so I let the paw remain. Was this why Alex had said that I might not want photos of this place going back home? But call it high moral fibre, fidelity or dog-tiredness because we’d only got into Korea that morning, but her hand got no encouragement and it didn’t go a’roving.
The highlight of the evening was a performance by traditional musicians. A young woman played bamboo flute, a bored looking young man played an hourglass-shaped janggu drum, a woman sang and also played a 12-string Korean zither known as a sanjo gayageum and a sexy dame gave a standout performance on hanging drums which are called Gyobanggo or possibly Junggo. (If anyone knows the correct name, please leave a comment.)
I loved the young woman’s soulful flute playing which was based on a Korean five-note scale that reminded me of jazz pentatonic scales. I could hear the blues in there. I put my camera on video mode and recorded some of her playing – unfortunately just a brief segment. The performances, particularly the woman drummer, sound best on decent speakers or headphones.
Not long after the concert ended, our girls disappeared and came back in civvy clothes:
The evening was over – in the restaurant at least. Alex was going home separately and a taxi was waiting to take Laurence and I back to our hotel. On the way out, we put our shoes back on again. Well we didn’t put them on. Madam manager and the head waiter put them on, one shoe each, then tied the laces. Talk about being waited on hand and foot! I’d have loved a photo of that little scene to take home and show Liz.
So we got into the taxi. The girls piled in too…whoops! I thought perhaps they just wanted to share the taxi and would carry on to their homes after we were dropped off at the hotel. But no, it seemed they were coming to the hotel with us. We decided it would be good manners to offer them a drink in the lounge. That was quite pleasant. There was an excellent jazz trio playing beside us, and Laurence’s girl was interesting to talk to, even if the other one could only converse through her translation phone. The English speaker had only recently come back to Korea after six years living with her family in Toronto. She returned because her grades had not been good enough for a place at her preferred Canadian university. But because she spoke English well, any university in Korea was open to her. She said she worked at the restaurant one night a week.
After one drink I stood up and truthfully announced that I was really tired and was heading to bed. Which I did.
On my own.