Sunday, 16 August 2015

Independence Day - What to do in Seoul this weekend!

Posting this a little late, but if you're wondering what to do this weekend (or what's left of it, at least!), how about getting out and about and educating yourself on the history of Korea's independence?

Here are my suggestions of places to visit in Seoul, to celebrate National Liberation Day:

1.  War Memorial of Korea (Click to read post)

 


Situated by Yongsan military base, in between Noksapyeong and Samgakji stations, this military history museum and memorial is free to enter, and offers an up-close look at machines, vehicles and weapons that were used in the Korean War, World War II and the Vietnem War.

2. Seodaemun Prison (Link coming soon)



Definitely worth a visit, Seodaemun Prison History Museum tells the horrifying story of how people involved in the Korean independence movement were imprisoned, tortured and executed by Japanese soldiers, during the years when Korea was under Japanese rule. Be aware, there are some gruesome representations of toruture scenes. Seodaemun Prison is by Dongnimmun station, exit 3.

3. Seoul National Cemetary (Click to read post)



Covering a vast area of peaceful, grassy grounds, Seoul National Cemetary is a good place to go to pay your respects to those who fought and died in the Korean Independence Movement and the Korean War. Dongjak station, exit 8.

4. Seoul Museum of History (Link coming soon)


Close to Gyeonghuigung Palace in Jongno, Seoul Museum of History contains permanent exhibits showing what Seoul was like under Japanese control, as well as of course many other exhibits showing different periods in Seoul's history.


Even if you don't have time to visit any of these places this weekend, make sure you visit them another time while you're in Seoul, because they all offer an eye-opening and educational insight into how modern day South Korea came into being.


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Ihwa Mural Village in Hyehwa

Ihwa Mural Village (이화 벽화마을) is a fairly well-known tourist spot right in the middle of the really popular Hyehwa area, but for some reason I had never been there before, in all the time I've been in Korea. Well I'm glad I finally went!

Actually, after finding a much smaller-scale version of one of these 'mural villlages' near Achasan the day before, I decided to make it my new project to try and visit as many of them as possible from now on. I had already really enjoyed looking around the 'Ant Village' on the edge of Inwangsan, and Suamgol in another region of Korea, and it seems there actually loads of these old mountainside villages that have been dolled-up with colorful murals, instead of being demolished, re-built and modernized.

So, to add to my list of these painted villages, I definitely had to take a trip to what is probably the most popular one in Seoul, Ihwa Mural Village. Plus it's like a 20 minute bus ride from my house, so I really had no excuse not to go.

Painted flowers ...

... real flowers ...
... and fake flowers.

I went there around midday on a Sunday, expecting the place to me crammed full of tourists, but actually it was pretty quiet. This was a big relief, as was the discovery that the place is still essentially just an old residential neighborhood, and hasn't been re-vamped to the point of becoming nothing but another commercialised tourist attraction. Yes, there are more cafes here than you might find in a residential area that hasn't been painted from top to bottom, but on the whole it was mostly just houses.



If you're the kind of person who enjoys just wandering around cities, like I do, this is a great place to do just that. It really captures the feel of Seoul: a hodge-podge of new, old and very old buildings, sweeping city views contrasting with quirky little details like the painted walls, a sense of nature never being too far away, and of course plenty of places to buy coffee.


What else can you do in the area?

Ihwa Mural Village is right next to Naksan Park (낙산공원), one of Seoul's many large and beautiful hilltop parks. There are some truly gorgeous views of the city from up here.

You can also follow a walking trail along the Naksan section of the old fortress wall, which stretches from around Dongdaemun station up to Hansung Univ. Station, and passes around both the mural village and Naksan park on the way.

Obvs, there is also all the fun stuff in Daehangno (대학로, 'University Street'), the area immediately around Hyehwa station, which is one of the main areas in Seoul for drinks, food, shopping and going out. It's also known for being Seoul's theater district, so you can go and see a play or some other live performance.

Altogether this is one of my favorite areas in my favorite city!

View from up on Naksan

To get to Ihwa Mural Village, come out of Hyehwa station exit 2, walk a little way and then turn left after the colorful poop art (above).

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Qingdao's Laoshan 崂山

If you're in Qingdao for more than a couple of days, you have to make a full day trip outside of the city to Laoshan mountain, which is about an hour's drive to the east. Actually, you could spend a couple of days here, or more. I did a day trip, and really only saw a tiny tiny part of the area.

Be warned, however, it's not like there's just a mountain there and you can just wander up and do some hiking - No, as like a lot of areas of natural beauty in China, it has been dubbed a 'Scenic Area', paved with set tour pathways (you have to admit, they do maintain it all very very nicely), and closed off so that you can only enter after paying 130 RMB and getting on a special shuttle bus.


Firstly, it always amazes me how in Korea everyone has to get dressed up in really serious outdoorwear whenever they go to a mountain, but in China the men are often topless and the women are tottering around in high heels and miniskirts, carrying their handbags. But then, nobody really 'hikes' in these places, because it's all paved and they mostly just come to see the main sights, which are accessible by shuttle bus or cablecar. However, if you do want a bit of a challenge, there are some really long (paved) trails and you can get quite a workout.


Getting to the entrance of Laoshan from Qingdao city center is simple enough: Take the city sightseeing bus number 1 eastbound - Laoshan is the last stop. You buy the bus ticket (10RMB) from the on-board conductor. Once there, it's a bit more complicated. There is a huge, busy ticket hall (even on a weekday it was busy, so I imagine it's hell on weekends), with two different ticket windows, for two different route options. There are lots of guide staff around to help explain the routes, but of course you need to speak Chinese. I wanted to see Taiqing Temple (太清宫), so I asked a guide and with a big smile he pointed me towards the ticket window on the right-hand side, selling tickets for the Taiqing (太清) area.

Once you've got your ticket, you have to go through the barriers and scan your fingerprints before they let you board the shuttle bus. Then the bus takes you along a coastal road further into the mountain, finally dropping you off at the start of the Taiqing area trails. Keep the bus ticket for getting on and off the bus again and for entering and exiting different parts of the scenic area.

From the bus drop-off point, you can walk upwards to see the Longtan waterfall. If you keep walking past the waterfall, you will find yourself on a long, long, trail with lots and lots of steps. I got as far as Shangqing Temple, and then a little further to where the trail opened up for a great view, and then I gave up and went back down again because the heat was crazy. I think I only walked about 2km, but it was gruelling.

You can get back on the shuttle bus in the same place you got off, and take it to Taiqing Temple, or instead of taking the bus you can just follow a sign towards Taiqing temple that will lead you on a trail downwards, finishing at the temple, and then you will exit to the beautiful, windy coastline (complete with KFC). From there, you can get back on the shuttle bus.


I think there were more areas that were accessible along this route, with this ticket option, but it really takes a long time to get around all the sights just in the Taiqing area.

Laoshan is really beautiful and definitely worth visiting if you're in Qingdao. If you are planning to go there, my advice would be to research which area you want to go to beforehand, since there are so many options, and no information in English at the ticket hall. Or you could just get on a shuttle bus and see where you end up! ;)


Saturday, 20 June 2015

Hiking Achasan

Achasan (아차산) is in Eastern Seoul and easily accessible by several subway stations. It's an easy and gentle mountain to hike, with fantastic views of Seoul and the Han river. It is connected to Yongmasan (용마산), and you can hike Achasan and Yongmasan together in one day.


I've been to Achasan a few times, but taken a different route every time. Even though it's a small mountain, just like everywhere in Seoul there are always new things to see. Today I woke up to a deafening thunderstorm, and heavy rain continued to pour all morning, so I decided to stick to gentle trails.

From Achasan station, I took exit 1 and walked uphill through the neighborhood. There were some nice-looking cafes and bakeries dotted around. Leading up to the mountain is a road called Gingoran-gil (긴고랑길), a quiet residential area of older buildings, which has received the colorful mural treatment that seems to be a popular thing in old mountainside villages in Korea. The paintings on the walls add something interesting to see, but people do actually live in the houses so I didn't take many pictures. It's worth a look.



From there I reached the mountain and started out on the dule-gil, the trail going around the base of the mountain. However, I somehow ended up on a trail going upwards instead! I ended up at a historical site which was part of the old fortress wall. The signs told me that various ceramic and metal artifacts had been excavated there, and there remained the foundations of a building. From up on top I could hear cars way down in the distance, but everything was shrouded in mist and clouds, so I couldn't see the view. I think you should be able to see the river from there on a clear day.

This part of the old fortress was labelled Mt. Achasan Forts 4 (아차산 4보루)

Hardly able to see anything through the mist
After hiking a little further I decided to call it a day and just go back down the way I came, since it was still raining and my feet were soaking wet. I went back to Achasan subway station and had a very very satisfying vegan bibimbap at Loving Hut (right outside exit 1). Actually I got the idea to go there from someone else's blog, so thank you whoever that was! :)

Other stuff to do in the area:
Immediately to the other side of Achasan subway station is Seoul Children's Grand Park. It's pretty big so you could probably spend a whole day just wandering around there.

If you want to go to the river, hike down towards Gwangnaru station. I've also heard there is some kind of historic re-enactment village on that side of the mountain, so I'm pretty excited to check that out next time!

Language: 
아차산   峨嵯山  Achasan   ('high' 峨 - 'rising up' 嵯 - 'mountain' 山)
용마산   龍馬山  Yongmasan   ('dragon' 龍 - 'horse' 馬  - 'mountain' 山)

벽화   壁畵   mural paintings   ('wall' 壁 + 'picture' 畵)
보루   堡壘   bastion, fort 
 

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Vlog News!

You can now follow me and my friends on Youtube! We will be making videos of various things around Seoul and Korea, in Korean and English, so if you are interested, please check us out here:

Erin and Megan on Youtube




Sunday, 19 April 2015

Vintage Clothes Hunting in Seoul

If you love vintage clothes, and rather than buy online you prefer to rummage through thrift stores for hidden gems, you may have a bit of a hard time in Korea. People here generally don't 'do' second-hand clothes. Or second-hand anything. They prefer stuff that's new, shiny and trendy. So vintage fashion is much more of a niche market, and thus harder to shop for.

However, there are a few ways to get a vintage fashion fix in Seoul: Firstly, there are some dedicated 'vintage' stores which stock carefully selected pieces, but just like vintage stores in the UK, prices can be high. One of the best places is A-Land in Myeongdong, which is not a vintage store but does have a whole floor dedicated to vintage. There are also a few vintage stores in the Apgujeong and Itaewon shopping areas.

Another way to find vintage clothes is in charity shops. However, there are very few of these in Seoul! The main ones are Goodwill, Salvation Army and Beautiful Store, and you can find the locations by searching online. These stores don't tend to have many quality items for sale, unfortunately, and sometimes they literally look like someone just threw out all their really old useless junk and dumped it in the shop. On the plus side, if you do buy anything here, at least you know your money is going to charity.

Somewhere in between a vintage store and a thrift store is 'Vin Prime', which sells everything from gaudy 1980s vintage, to newer second-hand stuff, to well-worn designer pieces from Dior, Celine, etc. They have a massive store inside the underground of Express Bus Terminal, at the tranfser area between subway line 3 and 7, a new store in Gangnam near the subway exit 12, and a few other locations. Personally I like the new Gangnam store best. You can find a few good pieces if you search the rails, but nicer items have a higher price, so don't expect to come away with bags full of bargains.

Found this great Adidas T-shirt and 1980s denim jacket for 9,000 Won each at Vin Prime

Language Tip!
If you go to Vin Prime and you want to check the inside label on something to find out what it's made of, it might be handy to know a bit of Japanese. That's because a lot of the stuff they sell has been shipped in from Japan, so the original garment labels will be in Japanese. Here are some handy words to know:

ポリエステル  Polyester
レーヨン         Rayon
絹                   Silk
綿                   Cotton

If you're not that familiar with Japanese at all, just look for what is written next to the percentage, and you can just take a guess that if there is a traditional character (you know, like Chinese), it's probably a natural fiber, and if it's something written in katakana (which looks longer but with simpler letters), it's probably a sythetic fiber. 

I struck lucky with this 5,000won printed dress - 100% silk!  地 means outer and 裏 means lining.

Although vintage is not such a big thing in Korea, I do recommend seeking out these stores if you want to stand out from the crowd in Seoul. Fashion here is a lot more uniform than it is in a city like London, for example. A lot of the cheap stores and market stalls here are selling exactly the same items as each other, so it's hard to find anything unique or different without spending a lot of money. Vintage is a good way to go if you want to be sure that nobody else will be wearing the same clothes as you.

Happy bargain hunting, everyone! And leave me a comment if you find any other good vintage clothes stores in Seoul.

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:

North:
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.

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

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

Central:
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!