Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Korean 한글 Keyboard Stickers

You can find them in the computer section of large stationery stores (문구).

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu

Samcheong-dong (삼청동) is a really popular area for tourists to wander around in central Seoul. It's the part of Jongno-gu that contains Bukchon Hanok Village, where you can see old-style Korean housing, and is crammed with boutique stores and cafes. In fact, the whole of Jongno-gu is great to wander around. But what is particularly appealing about the area around Samcheong-dong is how colorful it is, with bright paintings on the walls everywhere you go. There's also Samcheong Park, a massive woodland area with an adventure playground for kids, and a hiking trail heading up towards the mountains.

The thing to remember if you want to visit Samcheong-dong for wandering around and taking pictures is this: GO EARLY. The little streets and alleys get jam-packed with tourists on the weekends and it can be kind of a nightmare, but it you go before 11am you can stroll around in peace. The stores and cafes start opening from 10am onwards.

How do I get there?

Anguk Station (안국역) exit 1 or 2. All the stuff you want to see is in the area immediately north of Anguk station, between Gyeongbuk Palace and Changdeok Palace, and stretching up to Samcheong Park. So, the opposite side of the road to Insa-dong. You could take a map, but it's more fun to just wander and get lost.

What else can I do in Jongno-gu?

Pretty much all the main tourist attractions for 'traditional' or 'old Korea' style things are in this part of Seoul:

1. Visit the palaces
Gyeongbok Palace (경복궁) is the biggest and most popular of the palaces, and also the busiest. It's where you can see the Royal Guards procession. Changdeok Palace (창덕궁) is slightly less popular, but in my opinion much prettier, especially in Spring.

2. Wear a hanbok!
There are quite a few photo studios in this area for tourists to dress up in Korean traditional clothes (hanbok) and take pictures. But as I was walking around today I saw this hanbok rental place that actually lets you take the hanbok out of the studio and wear it while wandering around. The sign said they charge only 30,000won/day, with free entrance to Gyeongbok Palace. To get there, walk up the main road that goes around the east side of Gyeongbokgung, and you will see their sign directing you down an alley on the right.

3. Buy stuff at Insadong.
Insadong (인사동 거리) is where you buy all that crap like decorative chopsticks, hand-painted fans, Korean flag T-shirts and other gifts and souvenirs to take home with you when you leave Korea.

4. Visit a Buddhist Temple
If you haven't managed to visit one of Korea's more scenic temples, which are often out in the mountains, Jogyesa (조계사) is really conveniently located right near Insadong. It's also opposite the Templestay center, which is where you can go and get information about the nationwide Templestay program, if you're interested. There are lots of stores around the temple selling Buddhist statues, clothing and artifacts.

5. Observe a Confucian ritual performance
Once a year, on the first Sunday of May, there is a ceremony of special ritual music and dance called 'Jerye' (제례) at Jongmyo shrine (종묘). The shrine is located near Jongno 3-ga station (종로3가역).

6. Nurture your creativity with some artisitic inspiration
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) is located right across the street from Gyeongbok Palace. There are also lots of tiny independent art galleries and museums nearby and around Samcheong-dong.

7. Learn some history
After taking in some modern art at the MMCA, go back in time to learn about Korean culture and traditions. The National Folk Museum, Palace Museum and Children's Museum are all right there at Gyeongbok Palace - There's loads to see at all of them, and entrance is free.

Although Samcheong-dong is known as an area for traditional and historical buildings, sadly there are more and more big businesses filling up the streets nowadays. Every time I visit, a new branch of some popular cafe or cosmetics brand has popped up in place of an independent store. I hope the area can retain its individuality and not end up looking the same as everywhere else.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The poop cafe, Seoul

There are a lot of cafes and tea shops in the tourist area of Insadong, central Seoul. Some of them serve traditional Korean herbal teas. Some brew excellent coffee. Some of them have a rooftop view. But only one of them, that I know of, is poo themed.

Go up to the top level of Insadong's SSamzigil (the boutique complex with a staircase that spirals up around a square coutyard), and you will see a nice-looking cafe. On closer inspection, you will notice that the windows are adorned with delicate drawings of cartoon poo. Inside, the theme is continued, with a display of antique chamber pots, and a squat toilet set into the floor among seating area.

This Poop Cafe is just one example of Korean culture's apparent obsession with excrement. There's also the toilet museum in Suwon, the 'poo bread' hotcakes you can sometimes find at street food stalls, and an exhibition titled 'The Scoop on Poop' which is currently running at the Children's Museum. Indeed, Korean culture positively celebrates this basic bodily function.

Lift the lid ... What's inside?
Oh! It's poo!
The strange thing about this cafe is that it doesn't take its theme to extremes, so at a glance it just looks like a regular, rather tasteful and well-lit cafe, and it isn't until you look closely that you notice the odd scattalogical decorations here and there. I was hoping for a hilarious toilet-themed coffee drinking extravaganza, but instead it was just a pleasant break from Insadong shopping, with just a little added chuckle.

The poop cafe is on the top level of SSamzigil

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Korea Hiking 101

I wrote a post a few years ago about how popular mountain hiking is in Korea. But I wanted to give a bit more information for anyone who might be interested, since it's such an awesome way to spend a day, and it really is so easy. All you need to do is:

1. Go to a mountain.
2. Start walking uphill along any trail. As long as you see other people going the same way, it's all good.
3. If you get lost, just follow any trail downwards again, and eventually you will get to the bottom of the mountain, and then if you just keep walking you'll find a bus stop.

Seriously, mountain hiking is such a popular pastime here, all of the mountains in Seoul have very well maintained trails and are easy to get to by public transport, so there's no excuse not to go. I had never even been near a mountain before I moved to Korea, and now I don't know if I could live without them!

My tips for first-time hikers in Korea:
  • Buy a good pair of hiking shoes/boots. They should fit well, be comfortable and have good grip.
  • Wear comfortable, breathable clothing. Don't wear jeans or leggings - they will get uncomfortable and sweaty after a while. It's best to layer up because it can be colder higher up, but obviously you will also get hot from moving. A windbreaker style jacket is useful, as are gloves and a hat.
  • Don't be intimidated by all the Korean hikers in full mountain gear, expenisve brand outdoorwear and matching accessories. The mountains in Korea aren't that big and you don't really need all that stuff.
  • Do some stretches before hiking, to warm up your joints and muscles.
  • Go slowly, watch your step, and trust your shoes.
  • It's not too difficult to climb up big rocks, but getting down again can be much more challenging. Just be mindful of this, and see the point above.
  • When you first start hiking, stick to the popular trails where there are lots of other people around.
  • If you do stick to the popular trails, you will eventually get sick of the thousands of middle-aged people waving their hiking poles around, blasting old trot music from their phones and setting up boozy picnics everywhere. But don't worry - there are plenty of much quieter trails where you can experience the tranquility of the natural landscape in peace. You'll just have to explore to find them.
  • There are trails for every level of difficulty, ranging from easy forest strolls that are basically a walk in the park, to long and arduous scrambles to peaks, where you might need to use your hands to grab onto rocks and ropes to pull yourself up. So you can choose what feels comfortable for you.
Crowds at Seoraksan in Gangwon-do, famous for its Autumn colour
Korean mountain vocab:

산          (san)                mountain
폭포      (pok-po)          waterfall
휴게소  (hyoo-geh-so)  rest area
매표소  (may-pyo-so)   ticket office
바위      (ba-wee)          rock
둘레길  (doo-leh-gil)     a walking trail that goes around the base of the mountain, not up it
샘터      (sem-tuh)         spring*
약수터  (yak-soo-tuh)   mineral spring*

(*for water - see information posted at the site to check if it has been tested and certified safe to drink.)

Place name suffixes:

~산   (san)         Mount ~
~봉   (bong)  峰     ~ Peak
~사   (sa)           ~ Buddhist Temple
~암   (am)     庵     ~ Buddhist Hermitage
~묘   (myo)   墓     ~ Grave / Tomb

Popular Mountains to hike in Seoul:

Bukhansan (북한산)  - Massive National Park. Loads of different trail options, and lots of different sights.
Dobongsan (도봉산) - Also in the National Park area. VERY popular. Difficult but rewarding trails.

Gwanaksan (관악산) - Rocky trails, lovely temple near the top.
Cheonggyesan  (청계산) -Really easy to get to from Gangnam.

Achasan (아차산) - Easy, gentle trails; Fantastic views of the river and eastern Seoul.

Inwangsan (인왕산) - Small scenic mountain right in the middle of Seoul. Some areas restricted / No photo zones.
Bugaksan (북악산) - Particularly gorgeous. You can follow the Seoul Fortress Wall or explore the neighborhoods around the edge of the mountain. Some areas restricted / require ID to enter.
Namsan (남산) - Not really a mountain, but a hill that has been turned into a giant park. One of seoul's top tourist attractions, and a great place to go for a walk any time.

Happy hiking!

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Seoul's Doll Cafes

If you are a doll collector and hobbyist, Seoul is a good place to be! Not only is there a bi-monthly doll fair, the Doll Free Market, and a Volks store in Hongdae, but there are also a few doll-themed cafes where you can hang out with other enthusiasts, take pictures of your dolls and even shop for clothing and accessories.

My top pick: Cafe Nine9 Style, Hongdae

Nine9 are a small company that sell clothing and accessories for ball jointed dolls online, and they have also opened a physical outlet and cafe. I really like this place because they have a little 'photo studio' corner set up, where you are free to use their sets, props and lighting to take pictures of your doll. The cafe has a great atmosphere, and there is a good selection of things to buy in the store area.

Cafe Nine9 is located on the 'other', quieter side of Hongdae station. Come out of exit 1, walk 140m and take a right at the large junction. Walk 340m and take a left just before Shinhan bank. The cafe is on the corner of the next street, on the 3rd floor.

Also in Hongdae: Cafe Blue Fairy

Blue Fairy are fairly well known for their sweet and charming style ball jointed dolls, and you can see some of their creations on display at their rather classy cafe near Hapjeong station. Unfortunately when I visited, it seemed that there were no seats, or it was their closing time, so I didn't get a chance to sit and have a coffee there, but I had a look around. The dolls are displayed very nicely behind glass, and some of them are for sale. You can also pick up wigs and eyes here.

To get to Cafe Blue Fairy, come out of Hapjeong exit 5, take the first right, walk 130m then turn left at the crossroads where Luck Strike bar is, then keep walking until you see the cafe on your right.

*HOWEEEEEEVER, I just read on someone else's blog that this cafe has now closed down! I will have to  check and update. Places come and go quickly in Seoul.*

Cute and quirky: Alice's Teapot, Buam-dong

If you're not into ball joint dolls, there is a cafe that will appeal to collectors of other kinds of dolls, and even to those who aren't doll lovers, too. Alice's Teapot is chock-full of vintage fashion dolls and children's dolls, as well as old English style tea sets, creating an 'Alice's tea party' vibe. They do a great cup of tea, served of course in one of those beautiful cups, and I think they also serve cakes and desserts. There are soooo many dolls everywhere in this cafe!

Alice's Teapot is in the lovely neighborhood of Buam-dong, pretty far from any subway stations. I discovered it accidentally when taking a long stroll around the area. It's very close to 자하문터널입구 bus stop. Address: 종로구 부암동 208-39.

Alice's Teapot
Alice's Teapot
If you know of any other doll-themed cafes in or around Seoul, I'd love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Sanmotoonge: Coffee with a view

If you're looking for a cafe with a view in Seoul, there's probably no better place than Sanmotoonge (산모퉁이) on Bugak mountain. Famous for being a filming location for the Korean drama series "Coffee Prince", this cafe is usually quite busy on weekends, despite being located on a quiet mountain path about 700 metres uphill from the nearest bus stop.

The incredible view can be enjoyed from two different terrace levels at the cafe.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Bukhansan trail: 정릉 - 대성문 - 구기

This trail in the southern area of Bukhansan mountain national park is a moderate hike, a few rocky parts on the way up, and gentle on the way down. Total 3.5 hours. No stunning views but pretty enough, and when I went there were a quite a few other hikers around, but it wasn't super crowded.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Good Design, Bad Design

Today I visited the War Memorial of Korea, Seoul's military history museum. It's only a 20 minute walk from my house and I often go past it on my way to the supermarket, so I thought it would make a nice afternoon out on a lazy Sunday. If it wasn't so close by, I don't think I ever would have been interested enough to go there, and that would have been a shame, because it turned out to be a very worthwhile visit.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Mustoy figurine painting in Seoul

In Seoul, you're never short of things to do. While coffee shops, bars and karaoke rooms may be the most popular hang-out spots, there are also a huge number of 'theme cafes' that offer a range of unique experiences. Although these places call themselves cafes, it's not their refreshments that you'll be going there for. Some offer a chance to play dress-up, others allow you to hang out with dogs or cats, and others give you the opportunity to get artistic and spend time creating something.

Yesterday me and a friend discovered 'Mustoy' cafe, where you are given a blank ceramic figurine and a basket full of permanent markers, and you then sit and decorate the character however you want.

The whole cafe is surrounded by shelves of toys painted by celebrities, artists and regular customers
There's no need to book to visit Mustoy, you can just walk in and sit down, and you then choose which size and shape of figurine you want to customize. There are a few different options, and we both chose the basic smaller figure with a 'hair up' style.

Once you've been given your blank figurine, colored pens, a drink, and a card to draw your design on, you are free to sit and work on your character.

Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few couples in the cafe when we visited. I think part of the reason that so many of these kinds of themed cafes exist in Seoul is to do with Korea's couple culture. The way that people date here means that there's a big market for easily accessible places that offer interesting and unusual activities. Of course, it's also a great way to spend an afternoon just with a friend or two.

Our finished Mustoy characters
Not only was this a really enjoyable way to spend some free time in Seoul, but we also got to take our toys home at the end. The figurine is carefully wrapped and put in a box for you to take away. The best part is that all of this cost a total of just 15,000won per person!

We visited the Mustoy cafe in Hongdae, but there are also 8 other locations around the country. Check the Mustoy website for more information.