Prof Glen Calderhead, world leader in LED, Vice President of Scientific Affairs at Lutronic and world expert in laser therapy, shares his love for the vibrant, dichotomous and captivating city of Seoul.
What do you love most about Seoul?
I have to preface this appreciation of Seoul by saying that I actually live and work out of the city itself, but I get in to Seoul enough to be able to enjoy thoroughly what has become one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
During the Korean war (June 1950-July 1953), Seoul was occupied by the North Korean/Chinese forces and in recapturing the city, an enormous amount of damage was done by the occupying and liberating armies, leaving large parts of the city literally flattened. However, several enclaves fortunately remained undamaged, including large sections of the 15th and 16th century palaces and other centuries-old areas in the city. The destruction left a tabula rasa, a clean slate, for new urban construction, meaning that Seoul has become a unique blend of ultramodern and ancient, cheek by jowl.
I first visited Seoul in 1978 to get my working visa for Japan, and as I was coming in to Seoul by taxi from Gimpo Airport, I felt I was entering a reasonably large market town after having left the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. But today, just over 40 years later, the transformation is nothing short of incredible. The “ancient” is still there, carefully preserved and tastefully cultivated, but the technological explosion that has taken place in the past 20 years, coupled with the fact that South Korea is not troubled at all by major (or even minor) earthquakes, has allowed the soaring and ultramodern architecture of the skyscrapers in Seoul to dazzle the eye and confound the senses with buildings seemingly defying gravity. Additionally, as anyone who has visited Seoul knows well, the traffic is unbelievable, with gridlocks quite often occurring at peak times: “Shall we walk, or do we have time to take a taxi?” is very appropriate to Seoul. On the other hand, in the middle of all this, there are many time-travel oases offering open space, tranquility and swathes of greenery. This dichotomy is what makes Seoul special for me.
What’s the best way to see the city?
The absolute best way to see Seoul in a nutshell is by the fairly recently-started city hop-on, hop-off bus tours: the London-born company operates in all the major cities. Some of the buses are the iconic double-decker type: these have a much better view that the single-decker buses. Some are open, others have a transparent roof, so judge the weather carefully … the rainy season can be very … rainy. There are a number of shorter courses, such as the Palaces Course, the Gangnam Course, the Night Course and the longer All-Day Course: bookings can be made online before your travel. The advantage of this approach is that you can take your tour from beginning to end, noting the places you want to visit. Then you go round again, hopping off the bus to visit the desired attraction, then hopping on once more to continue to the next one, with your ticket valid for 24 hr.
The Seoul International Taxi company is another possibility for an individualized tour with an English-speaking driver. Naturally this is a more expensive option, but the drivers are very knowledgeable and one can tailor one’s tour. The third alternative is Shanks’s Pony, using the excellent Seoul Metro system (in-train announcements are in English, Japanese and Chinese as well as Korean). There are stations near all the major “must see” sites, and a International Travel Card can be purchased at Incheon or Gimpo airport which is rechargeable, and which offers discounts for entrance tickets at the major attractions.
What are the must-sees when travelling there?
The list is potentially huge! For the top five, however, I’d recommend first the Seoul City Tower, a radiotelecommunications transmitter tower which perches on the side on Namsan (Mount Nam). A cable car can whisk the traveller up the mountain (it’s actually more of a steep hill) to the base of the tower (for those less athletically inclined), and there are staged observation platforms which give 360° views of the city. Additionally, for those who are a little challenged by heights, there is a digital virtual observatory, also offering 360° views, but on solid ground. During cherry blossom time this is a VERY popular attraction. There is also a revolving restaurant for those with a stable stomach!
Another must-see is Gyeongbokgung (Gyeonbok Palace), the largest of Seoul’s five grand palaces. Originally dating from the middle of the 14th Century at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, it was rebuilt several times during the 5 centuries of that dynasty, badly damaged during the Japanese colonial period, but was fully and painstakingly restored to its present most imposing state in the 1990s. It occupies a large footprint, and although it is to the north of the centre of the city, inside its walls it is surprisingly tranquil. For those who want to enter the spirit of the Joseon Era, very near the majestic main Gwanghwa Gate (Gwanghwamun, an attraction in itself) there are costume rental shops where one can hire Hanbok (literally ‘Korean clothing’), traditional and colourful Korean garb for females and males, and stroll round the Palace in Joseon Era splendour. At that gate can be seen daily ceremonial displays of Changing of the Guard, and Guard Training Rituals, all in period costume.
To stay in the traditional and historical theme, the Bukchon Hanok Village will transport the traveller to a bygone age with its carefully preserved centuries-old neighbourhoods. Hanok means ‘Korean house’. The area is not a mock-up, but people actually live and work there, and some of the authentic buildings operate as shops and even bed-and-breakfasts. As it is not far from the Gyeongbokgung, those who have hired traditional Hanbok costume can taxi to the Village and wander the streets there, feeling right at home with the locale.
To bring us well into the 21st Century, the Lotte World Tower Skyscraper will please everyone. At well over 500 metres above the ground this is currently the fifth-highest building in the world. The double-decker express lifts are an adventure in themselves, glass on one side, and video screens on the walls and ceiling. On the 118th floor there’s the Sky Deck with the world’s highest glass floor. Like magic, the floor changes from opaque to clear, terrifying unsuspecting visitors! There are other attractions, including an aquarium; and of course, boundless opportunities for retail therapy and eating with a sky bar on the 123rd floor giving amazing views over Seoul and its adjoining provinces.
Finally, in the centre of the bustling Gangnam area (remember the Psy hit Gangnam Style?) is Bongeunsa. This is one of the many Buddhist temples in and around Seoul. It first opened in 794 and it is actually a complex of multiple buildings, gardens and shrines. It is on the side of one of small mountains found in and around Seoul, opposite the huge COEX exhibition centre, and the gardens are wonderful from spring through autumn. As an added bonus, travellers can actually experience the life of a Buddhist monk if they so wish, for a few hours.
What are the top three eating spots?
Like the city itself, the culinary scene in Seoul is eclectic, ranging from Michelin-starred restaurants to stand-and-eat street food stalls. First off, for traditional high-end Korean food, but with a twist, the restaurant Poom is reckoned to be one of the best. Poom is located just at the foot of Namsan and the Seoul Tower mentioned earlier. The restaurant serves prime seasonally-themed dishes, be they seafood or meat, but it is not by any means cheap!
At the other end of the scale, one can visit Seoul’s century-old Gwangjang Market. Here you can find a vast array of vendors selling traditional street food, including (but not restricted to) hotteok (stuffed pancake), pajeon (savoury pancake), kimbap (seaweed rice rolls). yangnyeom tongdak (Korean fried chicken) or sundae (blood sausage … for the more adventurous). These delicacies are all washed down with litres of local beer or soju, Korean rice wine; or for a “different” taste, the two mixed together (somak) … but not for the faint of heart!
If one is tired of Korean food, for a bit of everything from the international scene the area of Itaewon is the place to go, also known as “Westerners’ Paradise”. Of course there are Korean eateries here too, but you can find almost anything else you want, ambulating along the main street and exploring alleyways packed with restaurants, bars, bistros, cafés …. a really fun place!
The locals’ best-kept secret?
One of these must be the 10th Floor of The Seoul Express Bus Terminal! If you’re thinking that this sounds like a strange name for an attraction, you’d be right. It’s actually an unofficial gathering place for trendy young Seoulites (or ageing visitors) during warm city nights. The 10th floor of the Express Bus Terminal boasts two Korean BBQ restaurants from which guests can buy drinks and take-out food with which to enjoy their view. The true attraction, however, is the gorgeous night view of Seoul and the unexpected garden that wraps around the building with random plots of grass. Benches and seating areas are dotted about from which patrons can enjoy a casual drink or two (or four) while being 10 floors above the city of Seoul.
What is the most unique or unusual place to visit in Seoul?
One of these for me must be Cheonggyecheon. Meandering for 11 km through the heart of Seoul is Cheonggye stream. Originally covered by an elevated highway during Seoul’s post-war rebuilding period in the 1950s, it was redeveloped as part of an urban renewal project and was opened in 2005. It is bordered on both banks with attractive planted walkways, and passes under a total of 22 bridges before flowing into the Han river (Hangang), with many attractions along the way. During the humid summer evenings, Seoulites (and visitors) like to sit on the banks, and cool heir feet off in the water while enjoying the atmospheric lighting effects.
Anything else you would like to add?
I would have to put forward another interesting place to visit in my own area, in fact visible from my home office, namely Lake Park (Hosu Kongwon) in Ilsandong-gu, about 35 km from Seoul. As the name suggests, Lake Park is laid out around a lake, the largest man-made lake in Asia with a surface area of approximately 300,000 m² The lake has a fountain which sends water more than 10 metres into the air during the summer. There is also a very popularattraction with a series of fountains lit with different coloured lights that pulse in time to music, the Musical Fountain, open from spring through autumn. The many walking and cycling trails which surround the lake meander among well-tended gardens and trees: there are over 100 species of wild flowers, and even a dense forest of over 100,000 trees. It is truly a piece of real nature right in the centre of a densely populated urban area (including me!).
NOW, A LITTLE ABOUT YOU
What led you to pursue a career in the science of laser medicine?
The answer is pure serendipity. While in Japan on a sabbatical in the late 1970s I happened to be introduced to Dr Toshio Ohshiro, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and the pioneer of the medical laser in Japan.
I was astounded by his success in treating large cutaneous naevi, both of the vasculogenic and melanogenic type, using only two lasers, an adapted commercial pulsed ruby laser and a Coherent argon laser (2 W on a good day going downhill), combined with conventional techniques. Dr Ohshiro took me under his wing, indoctrinated me with the science of light-tissue interaction, and placed my feet very firmly on the pathway of the laser in surgery and medicine … and I never returned from my sabbatical. Toshio remains till today a dear friend, mentor and highly respected colleague.
What’s been a career highlight for you?
There has really been a series of them, all rather serendipitous. They started with meeting and working with Prof Ohshiro as I explained already, then I was head-hunted in the very early 1980s to Laserscope Corporation in Santa Clara, CA, USA, the developers of the first commercial KTP-532 laser. In 1987 I returned to Japan, to Prof Oshiro and to laser therapy as distinct to laser surgery: in 1988 Ohshiro and I published Low Level Laser Therapy: A Practical Introduction with John Wiley & Sons of Chichester, UK, which launched the era of LLLT into the medicoscientific world. The next milestone was 2002, when I realised that LEDs were not just pretty flashing lights, thanks to the development by the NASA Space Medicine Laboratory in 1998 of the NASA LED. I was able to bring my laser-based LLLT know-how to bear and develop the first 830 nm LED therapeutic system (Omnlux plus) with Photo Therapeutics in the UK. Low level laser therapy became low level LIGHT therapy, but remained LLLT. During this phase of course there was a really important highlight …. meeting Michelle Kearney and her fantastic team at the Bella Media-managed conferences (ah, the good old days)! The next milestone was my offer of employment in Korea with Lutronic Corporation in 2009 and my design and development of the HEALITE system in 2010. A much appreciated and recent highlight is my having been able to work closely with our Australian Lutronic distributor, Catherine Biederman and her team in Advanced Cosmeceuticals, which has kept me well-connected with Australia and the highly successful COSMEDICON meetings (which I sadly missed this year because of Covidiocy) … the “good new days”!
What’s your experience of practicing in South Korea, particularly working in Goyang?
I am like a child in a sweetie shop, working with Lutronic. The company builds what I can objectively say are amongst the best laser, light and energy-based devices in the world, bar none, with superb Korean engineering and technical know-how, especially the newer systems incorporating elements of artificial intelligence. They are not the cheapest systems in the world, but “you gets what you pays for” and I can play with them all day, from benchtop to pre-production prototype onwards. I have an excellent relationship with leading clinicians and researchers in the top Korean University Hospitals, with collaboration on exciting new projects in the use of LED-LLLT, or photobiomodulation as it is now known (but I still prefer LLLT!) in a large variety of fields. We recently completed a very interesting and successful study on LED-LLLT for dry eye (meibomian gland dysfunction), and another group has shown very promising control of crippling post-mastectomy radiodermatitis with 830 nm LED-LLLT.
Korea is reckoned to be the aesthetic capital of the world, and our R&D division works with some of the top dermatology and plastic surgery clinics to help develop our systems. It’s very much a work-hard, play-hard environment, with a lot of the (very necessary) “play-hard” component sadly curtailed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, I still manage to ingest a reasonable quantity of liquid antiviral preparations (having vaguely mind-altering natures) with my colleagues. Life is good!