Seoul is like an equation with all the messy working out left in, the false starts, crossed out, taking up half the page. And so, despite the many surface similarities to Tokyo – the organic wend of its streets; the shops and restaurants that reproduce, perfectly, every conceivable culture and cuisine; the soothing music that plays as subway train approaches the station – the atmosphere is completely different. When Japan solves a problem, you see only the solution; it’s arrived at in private. Everything in Tokyo – including the Japanese sense of manners – seems designed to minimise the inevitable noise and mess of a big city, so that millions of people can live together as harmoniously as possible. In public it’s more polite to sniffle than blow your nose, thus keeping your mucus to yourself. When you buy a book at the Maruzen bookstore, the clerk offers to dress it in a paper jacket, to protect it from its damaging journey through the world. Koreans, however, seem to embrace the abrasive side of city life, in a slightly gladiatorial spirit. People, men and women, hawk and spit in the street; every morning I watch the man across the street open his first-floor window and lob a big gob of phlegm into the street before he lights a cigarette. Where the Japanese carry their rubbish around with them, all day if necessary, until they can dispose of it at home, here people let it fall as soon as they are done with it. Cars and pedestrians compete for space in the narrow streets, squeezing impatiently into gaps as they open up. It’s pushy here, and sometimes coarse; in Japan only Osaka has a similar feeling.
This is not to say that Seoul is only harsh, or unfriendly. The manners are not as elaborate here as in Japan; the interactions in shops and restaurants come more quickly to their point. But the feeling that underpins them – the generous sense of welcome – is just as warm. That warmth is simply expressed in a more casual way. In this, Korea is perhaps more congenial than Japan for Australians, relaxed to a fault. In Japan I sometimes felt like a buffoon, big and clumsy and loud, my accent a nasal squawk. In Seoul I’m much less worried about giving offence. The women who preside over the restaurants are openly amused by my attempts to navigate the various soups and pickles that come with each meal, and it would be fussy and overrefined to worry too much about it. Here it’s a matter of mucking in, of pressing into the scrum. Seen from another perspective, it’s not pushiness but pragmatism to admit, as the Koreans do, that city life is a violent contest in which each individual must fight for their small space. The sense of violence is heightened by the scars, still fresh, of the city’s recent history: the American army base lodged like a huge piece of shrapnel between the mountains and the river; the stretches of the Han lined with sentry boxes and barbed wire; the anti-aircraft guns on top of the mountains. Seoul does not disguise the contest or the violence, but allows it to happen in the open. It’s an honest, straightforward attitude. The working is always on show.
This straightforward approach has many virtues: it’s grounded and concrete, unself-conscious, easy with itself and free of hypocrisy. Koreans laugh more often and more loudly in public than the Japanese (except perhaps on a Friday night, after many hours drinking). They have readier access to high spirits. Outsiders are named in a manner that’s blunt, but not, so far as I can tell, hostile: the gay district in Itaewon is called Homo Hill, and the adjacent Muslim quarter (there are Turkish restaurants and transgender bars side by side) Halal Hill. The films of a director like Bong Joon-ho, with their casts of half-wits and grotesques, combine a shrewd knowledge of human nature with an enthusiasm for the messy extremes of emotion; they’re generous and cruel. In my neighbourhood, I’m especially fond of the tough older women – veterans of many city skirmishes – who sit in the street on plastic stools, holding up their blouses to expose their bellies to the sun. It’s a no bullshit sort of place.
But something is lost in the unrelenting pursuit of individual success: the sense of society as a fabric seems much weaker here than in Japan. The Japanese version of capitalism is surprisingly capacious; every business seems to employ more people than is strictly necessary, so that everyone has a job. It feels like a society that tries to provide for all its members. Korea is more American: capitalism without guard rails, in which those who fall fall much harder. People scrabble to make a living, like the old women who sit in underpasses with baskets of garlic and spring onion, or the man with a sample board of light fittings working the subway cars in Busan. Often this street commerce has a pleasant neighbourhood feeling – like the man who parks an open blue truck of vegetables outside my building and walks up and down the block, touting his wares on a bullhorn – but you also feel the precariousness of the merchants’ livings.
The emphasis on the individual can be seen in the streetscapes too. Every effort is expended on the interior of each shop and café, but the streets themselves are a mess of uneven paving and open drains, rubbish piled against the walls. It’s as if everyone has decided, collectively, to concern themselves only with what they own. And so the streets are ugly, functional spaces, dotted with exquisite shopfronts, like a string of jewels sewn into a torn hessian bag. This is more pronounced in some parts of the city, Itaewon among them. At the other extreme, private developments dot the country like residential zones in SimCity: huge estates of identical apartment blocks, numbered so that people can tell them apart, with sentry boxes and perfectly manicured grounds. It’s the same principle – a controlled environment in the midst of chaos – on a much larger scale.
But Seoul is beautiful in ways that Tokyo is not, particularly in its access to nature. The Koreans prize physical fitness – stairs are often labelled with a calorie count, so you can see the precise benefit in climbing them – and there are countless bike paths and walking trails, along the Han River and in the forested mountains that stand right in the centre of the city. In Tokyo, they play recordings of birdsong on subway platforms, the nearest many commuters will come to nature that day. Here the birds are real. My personal favourite is the magpie, different to the magpies at home; their bellies white and their wingtips ink-blue, their call like the scratch of cicadas, a special buoyancy in the way they hop along the ground. The Cheong-gye-cheon, a long-buried stream through the CBD, has been exhumed, and now runs again in the open, lined with lanterns and trees. There are sections of the city where people still live in traditional hanok houses; in Bukchon, next to the CBD, looking towards the western mountains, it’s possible to forget that you’re in a city of twenty-five million people. The Joseon dynasty chose this site for its capital because of the powerful influence of the mountains and the river; they retain that influence today, sanding off the city’s rough edges. From certain vantages and in certain lights – from the top of Namsan on a day poised between sunshine and hail, or Seonyudo Park, an island in the Han River, at sunset – the urban sprawl is beautiful.