In Seoul, if you can't find it for sale on the streets, it probably doesn't exist.
Everything from socks and shoes to bug spray and cleaning supplies is available for purchase from thousands of vendors lining Seoul's streets and sidewalks. Vendors even come onto busy subway cars wielding wheeled baskets and hawking a variety of goods -- most popular seem to be shoe inserts to alleviate high heel pain. These vendors do a good business, too, using cheap prices (1,000 won seems to be the norm) to facilitate impulse buys.
Besides the usual knickknacks, the street is also a great place to buy handmade crafts. Sure, the usual tchotkes are widely available. If you want anything emblazoned with "Korea" on it -- t-shirt, key ring, chopsticks, fan -- that's an easy find.
But there are also many stands, especially in artsy neighborhoods like Insadong, featuring local artisans crafting and selling unique pieces.It's be fun to stop and watch for a few minutes as (like in the picture above) a man take an ordinary piece of wire and transforms it into an intricate piece of jewelry or decorative piece.
The New York Times recently ran a short piece about shopping in Korea and while the story featured upscale boutiques -- obligatory street food mention notwithstanding -- it was nice to see stores unique to Korea featured.
American stores are slowly dominating the marketplace here, pushing Korean retailers out of business. In the Myeongdong neighborhood alone, the past couple of years have seen the opening of a GAP, Forever 21, American Apparel and Zara, among others.
Right now the must-have fashion item is a Ralph Lauren polo shirt with a twice-as-large emblem. Want to leave Korea sporting a shirt with Hangeul? Good luck finding one. I've been looking, thinking it would make a cool souvenir, but English is all the rage.
Many traditional marts are having trouble competing with larger retailers, both Western and Korean, and seeing a steady drop-off in traffic. Why spend hours haggling in a crowded market when it's easier to pop into Lotte and grab exactly what you need?
At least at the marketplace, you can find things original to this country. Watching someone actually craft a piece of jewelry and then buying that exact piece from the artist -- now that is an authentic shopping experience.
What's your favorite kind of souvenir?