Souvenirs and Surprises in Seoul

Seoul Changdeokgung Palace
Changdeokgung Palace

I travel for a lot of reasons, and for several years business was the biggest one. Work took me all over the world and gave me ample opportunity to live out lifelong dreams: standing on the Great Wall of China, eating pan au chocolat in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and gazing up in awe as the sun set on Christo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro were checked off my travel list amidst a whirl of convention centers and custom lines. Thinking back, though, my best travel moments were most often born away from the memories of tours and taxis that take up so much of my brain; the best travel moments were the people and experiences that captured my heart.

This is one of those stories.

In 2010, work sent me to Seoul for a multi-day conference. Most of my trip was spent staffing a booth and talking to attendees, so I scheduled my return flight to allow a few extra days to tour the city and see some of the temples I had read about in travel guides. I found myself with no real plans for my last day; my flight was scheduled to leave at 7 PM, which left me with the whole morning and some of the afternoon for one final activity. I decided I would spend my last few hours visiting the Beautiful Tea Museum in the Insa-dong neighborhood; I love tea and have made it a goal to try local tea everywhere I visit, so a morning of pretty ceramic cups and learning about new varieties sounded pretty perfect before the long flight home.

Seoul Beautiful Tea Museum
The Beautiful Tea Museum

I took the subway to Jonggak Station and walked along Insadong just like the guidebook said… and realized I had no idea where I was. I backtracked to the subway and walked in the opposite direction. Still, nothing looked right. The street signs weren’t in English, I couldn’t read Korean, and I didn’t have a map. Frustrated from walking aimlessly for almost a half hour, I decided if I didn’t get some kind of sign from the heavens right then and there I was going back to the hotel. I looked to the left—and there it was. A giant sign on the side of a building with three arrows pointing toward the Beautiful Tea Museum.

Well, then.

Finding the museum was pretty easy after that, but once I arrived I found that my problems had only just begun: the museum was closed for the day. A small portion of the gift shop was open, but the museum itself was dark and heavy ropes barred my entrance. I spent a few minutes politely looking at the tea available for sale, and I started toward the door. Then, from somewhere toward the back of the museum, a voice:

Having some tea with my new friends

“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I turned around and noticed, for the first time, a small café where two people sat at a table. A third, the one belonging to the voice, had stood and approached me.

“Yes, I speak English,” I said. The woman who had called out to me smiled. “I do, too,” she said. “My friend is the owner of the Beautiful Tea Museum. It is closed today, but my friend and I are joining her for tea. She would like to invite you to join us, too.”

And that is how what should have been a completely lackluster visit to a little museum in the middle of Seoul turned out to be one of the best days of my travel life.

I spent several hours in a very different world than the one that had brought me to the museum. From the museum owner I learned the art of a Korean tea ceremony; she taught me how to prepare and serve the tea, how to observe its color, how to appreciate the flavor. Only the woman who first approached me spoke English; she translated our questions, our responses, and contributed her own thoughts as she effortlessly switched between two languages. The conversation was easy and flowing, and words in either language spoke less than our smiles and laughter. It was an uncomplicated mix of joy and good tea and great people that made that morning among the best I have had.

Seoul Tea CupsAs we drank the last drops from our teacups, the museum owner’s friends offered to take me to a nearby tea market to sample more Korean tea. Just as we started to leave, the owner jumped up from her seat—jam-si-man-yo, wait a minute—and disappeared to the back of the café. When she returned, she had a small package wrapped in tissue paper. “To remember your friends in Seoul and your time with us,” her friend translated for me.

The rest of the morning was a blur of new teas and shopping; my new friends helped me select a souvenir for my office (painted masks) and two types of tea for my collection. They showed me to the Seoul subway and made sure I knew exactly which train to take and where to transfer. I was at the airport before I had a chance to open the carefully wrapped tissue paper package.

Inside were two beautiful white ceramic teacups.

Today, those teacups from Seoul sit in my living room among some of the other favorite treasures we have collected on our travels. They are a powerful daily reminder of how any experience can turn into an incredible opportunity, a beautiful memory, or a powerful connection with the people I meet. You never know where your road will take you.

I’m glad I looked up and saw the arrows.

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Souvenirs and Surprises in Seoul, South Korea