Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Korea Bucket List: Seoraksan National Park

Sitting high on my Korea Bucket List for the past three years has been Seoraksan National Park. I don't have a single good reason for why it took me so long to make it out there, but I'm definitely kicking myself for putting if off for so long. A couple weekends ago, Corey and I took a trip with Adventure Korea out to this famous park to soak up the cooling fall weather and do some hiking. 



Seoraksan National Park is located in northeastern Korea, about three to four hours driving distance from Seoul. The park itself is massive -- 398.5 km² (over 98,000 acres!), with so many hikes and trekking courses to potentially follow. The weekend we spent in the park definitely wasn't enough, and I really wish I'd made more trips to the park during my time in Korea. (So let that be a lesson to you, readers! Don't follow my terrible example!) 





The day we arrived, we hiked the popular Ulsanbawi course, which is probably one of the tougher hikes I've done in Korea. While being far from being the tallest peak in the park (that would be Daecheongbang, standing at 1,708 meters), Ulsanbawi is known for its unrelenting stairs and the stunning view from the top. The jagged rocks along the ridge of nearby peaks has made the view from Ulsanbawi become one of the iconic photo spots of Seoraksan National Park. Looking forward to this, we steeled ourselves for the stairs. 



However, as we set off for Ulsanbawi, we looked doubtfully up at the clouds that obscured the mountain peaks. Not only was it threatening rain, but if we did make it to the top, it looked like we wouldn't be able to see a damn thing. The rain held off during the hike, and when we got to the top, this was our surreal view: 





So, no rocks spiking along the tops of mountains, and instead, blue-grey nothingness. While I would advise you to keep an eye on the weather, hiking into a cloud and being surrounded by sound-muffling fog was a new level of bizarre, but also something I'm happy to have gotten to see. 





The hike itself isn't very long -- we went all the way up, with numerous rest breaks along the way, took photos, enjoyed our accomplishment, and made it all the way back down in under four hours. The stairs are punishing, especially the steep stretches that are literally affixed to the rock face, but while blogs online will say this hike is a rough one, it isn't impossible, and I highly recommend doing it. 



Feeling rather jelly-legged after the Ulsanbawi hike, we opted for leisurely trekking on our second day, following the Yongso Falls course through Jujeon valley. This route took us along a small river that snaked through the valley, showing off the impressive mountains above us. The path to the waterfall was under construction, so we weren't able to see it, but we still had fun climbing on the rocks in the river and taking photos of the scenery. Note the dazzlingly blue sky that would've been awesome for the Ulsanbawi hike... -_-



Along this course, we also stopped at some of the natural springs to drink the Osaek mineral water. Osaek means five flavors, and drinking the mineral water is said to be good for digestion and upset stomachs. There are a couple spots at the start of the course where the mineral water can be scooped from holes inside of the rocky riverbank. The water had an interesting taste -- very metallic and bitter. The area surrounding the valley also has numerous spas where you can soak in the mineral water to relax aching muscles.


Seoraksan National Park was stunning, and it's definitely on my list of spots to someday revisit.

For more information about the park, visit its official website. If you're interested in doing a tour with Adventure Korea, check their schedule here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Korea & Its Cafes: Animal Edition

Do you miss your pet(s) from home? Do you enjoy looking at sheep? Do you have calloused feet? I know these questions might seem a little odd, but read on.

Cafe culture in Korea is serious business -- I can't spit without hitting a cafe in my neighborhood. In addition to your run of the mill coffee shops, cafes with specific themes abound. In my time in Korea, I've visited a board game cafe and the Mustoy cafe, but I have to admit, I've always been the most excited about the availability of a completely different cafe theme: animals. And now that it's starting to get cold here in Korea, it's the perfect time to hang out indoors! 

Here are the four animal-themed cafes I've visited so far, listed in order of my least to most favorite.


korea animal theme cafes

Sheep Cafe

This cafe, which is actually called Thanks Nature Cafe, is located in Hongdae, Seoul. It's cute, with sheep-related paintings and decorations hanging inside the cafe. We tried coffee, some ades, and a dessert while we were there, and all were decent.

korea animal theme cafes

The draw of this cafe, as I'm sure you've guessed, is their sheep. Don't expect a flock -- to my knowledge they only have two. They don't seem to typically be wandering around freely, either. Instead, they're in a small pen on the patio outside the actual coffee shop. You can snap pictures and watch them, but that's about it. Overall: so-so. The novelty is fun for a few minutes, then it wears off.

Information: Check their Facebook page for more info. The cafe is located in the basement of its building, so when you go looking for it, keep an eye out for the sign in the photo above. 

Dr. Fish Cafe


Sometimes, your feet are just gnarly and you need a bunch of little fish to munch on the dead skin.

korea animal theme cafes

The sensation is a strange one -- it kind of tickles, but it also doesn't. I didn't notice a huge change in the softness of my feet after letting the fish have at it, but that was probably because I couldn't stand to keep my feet in the pool for very long at a time. I also opted for the much smaller fish, as the larger ones (as seen in the photo on the left) just freaked me out.

You do need to order a drink to do Dr. Fish, and then the cost for Dr. Fish is just a couple thousand won per 15 minutes. These cafes also seem to always offer a bread buffet (baguette slices, cake-like bread, butter, and jam), complete with toasters to warm up the slices. Overall: weird, but cool. Definitely one to check out, even if the feeling (or general concept) of the fish freaks you out.

Information: Of the two Dr. Fish cafes I've been to, the one in Gangnam is the nicest. To get there, walk straight from exit 10 of Gangnam station. You'll walk for about 5 minutes, then the cafe is on the second floor of a building on your left. 

Cat Cafe


I'm not lacking in cat snuggles personally, since my boyfriend adopted a cat from a shelter outside of Seoul, but a cafe full of cats still got my attention.

korea animal theme cafes

Before you can pet and cuddle all the cats in these cafes, you're required to purchase a drink, which essentially serves as your admission fee. Drinks are pricier here, usually closer to 8,000 won or so, but it's worth it. 

I was impressed with how clean this particular cat cafe was, so I feel like they take good care of the cats. You can buy a can of food or little treats for the cats, which will make them swarm you, which is basically heaven for cat lovers. Overall: awesome. Cats are so weird.

Information: Cat cafes seem to be everywhere, so instead of providing detailed directions, I will point you in the direction of these blogs. In popular areas of Seoul, such as Myeongdong or Hongdae, just keep an eye out for someone in a Garfield costume -- they work for a cat cafe and can easily point you in the right direction!

Dog Cafe

The best for last -- because I do believe that dog cafes are magical places. I'm a dog lover to a possibly neurotic degree, and when I moved to Korea, I had to leave my darling miniature schnauzer with my parents. Spending time at the dog cafe helps fill the canine-shaped hole in my heart.

korea animal theme cafes

While smaller dog cafes seem to be popping up more and more, the most well known dog cafe would be the Bau House in the Hongdae area of Seoul. This cafe operates by the same rules as cat cafes: buy a drink, play with animals. There's also a variety of treats to buy, which will make you quite popular with the dogs.

Some dogs only want to hang out with you for the treats you have, but others seem to just enjoy the attention. There are usually a few dogs happy to curl up next to you and have their head scratched. The only off-putting part of this cafe is that it is dirtier, as dogs are wont to be, but the staff is quick to swoop in and clean up. Overall: THE BEST. Because dogs. Obviously.

Information: Bau House is located near exit 3 of Hapjeong Station. Make a right as you leave the exit, then walk down the nearest alley to the left, keeping an eye out for the sign to your right. There are also other dog cafes in Seoul, but I haven't checked any of them out yet. For more of my ramblings about my love for dog cafes, check out this entry from 2012.

Have you visited any of the animal cafes in Korea? Do you know of any that I didn't mention? Leave a comment below! 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Getting Lost in the Ihwa Mural Village

After nearly three years in Korea, I feel like I've managed to see a lot of stuff. Loads of the touristy spots, tons of festivals, and even a fair amount of the quirkier activities. Overall, I feel pretty accomplished. 

I now have about three months left in Korea and... well, the "Korea To-Do" note on my phone is absurdly and intimidatingly lengthy... [Seriously, what you see on my Bucket List is just a handful of the mess that is the disorganized list of things I've jotted down in my phone...]

I've been quite proactive lately, checking out new places weekly. Recently, I was able to cross a slightly-less-well-known spot off of the list in my phone by visiting the Ihwa Mural Village. 



My friends and I had decided to head to the Ihwa Mural Village after reading about it online. Murals scattered on the walls of houses in a neighborhood? Sounds awesome. That was basically all we knew as we set out for our sightseeing. Since then, while researching the area for this blog, I've learned quite a bit about its history, and it's pretty cool.



As Seoul has grown over the years, certain neighborhoods have been forgotten in the rapid development. The ones situated on the sides of mountains remained somewhat untouched for a long time due to their undesirable location and poorer demographic. They're called dal dongnae, or moon villages, since being on a mountain puts them closer to the moon. While many have been demolished in recent years in favor of fancy, modern architecture, a few have survived. 




The neighborhood of Ihwa-dong is one of these moon villages, situated on Naksan ("san" meaning mountain), and it houses the murals we went to see. Stepping foot into this area is like a time warp. Steep hills, narrow alleys, and surprising silence. There are no cars or delivery bikes zooming along, and the area is devoid of neon signs, making it feel like you aren't even in Seoul anymore, much less the 21st century. While I do think that the typical row after row of high-rise apartment buildings looks cool (and also makes me think of this), these smaller, old-fashioned homes all stacked right next to each other are far more picturesque and charming. 





The beautification of Ihwa-dong is similar to the project undertaken in 2010 to save Hongje-dong, or the "Ant Village," as well as other areas in Korea. Over sixty murals fill Ihwa-dong, painted as part of the "ART in the City 2006" campaign by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as a way to rejuvenate the image of these smaller, older neighborhoods. To quote the Seoul Metropolitan Government's website about Ihwa-dong, the idea behind this project was to "improve living conditions through practical and financial help and support, as well as giving the area an artistic and cultural makeover." 



Artists were hired, murals were mapped out, and now it's a tourist destination. Some of the houses have even been converted into restaurants and cafes, seizing the opportunity for revenue from all the wandering tourists. We spotted a lot of other tourists and photographers as we walked around, and we even stumbled (quite literally) onto the set of what looked like a new drama... No clue which drama, but we stopped to watch as one of the actors had a very pensive moment at someone's rooftop door, struggling internally over whether or not he should knock. 

While we wandered, we got distracted by finding part of the old Seoul City Wall, so mural-hunting was abandoned for the day as we decided to hike up Naksan instead to catch a view of the city at sunset. But! I'm planning to head back to Ihwa-dong soon so I can get lost in its tiny alleys as I search for the murals that I missed. 




Words of advice:
  • Much like the Bukchon Hanok Village, this is a real neighborhood, so be respectful of the residents. Luckily, the majority of the murals are on walls that line the common areas, so you won't feel like a creep/intruder when you take pictures. 
  • Lots and lots of stairs and some areas have uneven pavement (it's on a mountain, after all), so keep that in mind when choosing your footwear for the day! 
  • While it's called "Ihwa Mural Village," don't confuse it with the area near Ewha Women's University! Very different areas, so follow the directions below so you can get their easily.
  • While you're there, check out the Daehangno area that surrounds Hyehwa station -- it seemed like a really hip and interesting area, and one that I definitely want to revisit. 

Directions:
  • Hyehwa Station, Seoul Metro Line 4, Exit 2.
  • Go straight for 200m, then turn left onto the street called Dongsung-gil.  
  • Walk straight until you get to the Lock Museum.  
  • After about 50 meters, turn right onto the street called Naksan Gongson-gil and walk towards Naksan Park.  
  • Keep an eye out for signs -- there will be some for Naksan Park, including maps that show you the different paths to take around Ihwa-dong. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Exploring Korea: Easy Day Trips from Seoul

This blog entry was originally published on the Aclipse Blog, which is produced by current Chungdahm Learning teachers in Korea! The blog features entries on current events around Korea, advice for incoming teachers, and the best spots for sightseeing, shopping, and eating. The original entry can be viewed here.

By "day trip" I mean just an hour or two of travel from Seoul, with activities that can be accomplished in one day, and time to get all the way home again before bed. Technically, anywhere in the entire country could be seen as a day trip as it's approximately the size of Indiana, but here are my favorite spots that are really easy to get to and from. 

nami island gapyeong korea

There's absolutely plenty to keep you busy within Seoul's city limits, whether you live and work there or if you're trekking in for weekend adventures. That said, it's nice to escape from the big city every now and then to see a new area of Korea. 

Here are some options: 

Gapyeong

Just an hour away from Seoul via the ITX, Gapyeong is beautiful, mountainous, and full of cool things to see. Top of the list would obviously be the famous Nami Island, which I blogged about last summer. Nami is small, though so don't waste too much of your time on the island -- there's more in the area to check out! A shuttle bus, for only 5,000 won, does a giant loop between all the popular spots. 

Nami Island is the closest to the train station, and from there it travels on to Petite France -- a small "French" style village smack in the middle of Korean mountains. I happened to visit Petite France with my sister, who just spent the last year teaching in France, and she said it was truly bizarre.  

petite france gapyeong korea

From there, you can catch the bus again and head out to the Garden of Morning Calm, which is absolutely stunning. This huge flower garden is open all year round, featuring an elaborate light festival in the winter months. 

KTO has great info about Gapyeong travel here. In addition, check out Trazy's pages on Petite France and the Garden of Morning Calm

Suwon

Recently, I wrote about Suwon's Hwaseong Fortress, which is absolutely one of my favorite spots to hike in Korea. The architecture of the old fortress wall plus the landscape of new high-rise apartments is just a really striking combination.  

hwaseong fortress suwon korea

In addition to the fortress, you can also hop on a bus to the Folk Village. I visited the Folk Village one year during the Chuseok holiday and it was bustling with activities and performances -- all of which are part of their regular schedule. 

See the Trazy page for more information.

Incheon

Obviously, I'm going to include the city I've called home for the past two and a half years, but that's not just favoritism talking. Check out these two entries about the top things to see in Incheon. 

central park songdo incheon korea

Honestly, I would recommend the following: eat lunch in Chinatown, walk around Jayu Park while you digest, head over to Wolmido for some amusement park rides and street food snacks, then grab a bus or a cab into Songdo for a walk along Central Park's canal and some dinner. 

Travel info from Trazy: Chinatown and Jayu Park.

Paju

Paju is typically known as the city that's closest to North Korea, as it sits on the 38th Parallel. It's also the city that you'll be in if you visit the DMZ. But, there's so much more to see in Paju than just the DMZ (though that is pretty cool, too). 

heyri art village paju korea
Photo credit: Korea Tourism Organization
While this remains on my Korea Bucket List, I've been told by numerous friends that the Heyri Art Village is a must-see spot. It's a community of artists that was built by artists. Cool restaurants, eye-catching architecture, as well as lots and lots of art will keep you busy wandering around and snapping pictures. 

For more information, check out KTO's website, and Trazy's information on both the Heyri Art Village and on the DMZ

And, for the latest travel destinations, visit Trazy.

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Have you visited any of these spots? Do you know of any other great day trips from Seoul? Leave a comment below! 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Seodaemun Prison

Always one for exploring museums and learning about history, I finally checked out a spot I'd really been interested in visiting: Seodaemun Prison History Hall. During my time in Korea, I've been very interested in any opportunity to learn more about the country's past, and friends have told me this museum was not to be missed. Now that spring has sprung, it seemed like the prime time to walk around the prison's grounds in Seoul and take in the history of the place. 

seodaemun prison seoul koreaThe first building you'll come to upon entering -- start here! Lots of basic information of the prison's history is in this building, which will help you understand everything else.

To give a brief history lesson to contextualize the photos I took, Seodaemun Prison was opened in 1908 under the name Gyeongseong Gamok. As you may know from your history lessons, Japan invaded Korea, and at this point in time, Korea was considered a protectorate of Japan. 1910 marked the official annexation of Korea by Japan, an occupation that lasted until the end of the World War II in 1945.   

seodaemun prison seoul koreaOriginal layout and size of the prison.

Seodaemun, being operated by the Japanese, was a prison reserved primarily for Korean independence and freedom fighters. At the time the prison was built, it was the largest in Korea, with cells to house 500 people. However, over the course of Japan's occupation and the resistance movements by Korean activists, the number of people interned reached more than 3,000 around the time of the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919.   

seodaemun prison seoul koreaOne of the buildings, looking foreboding.

After Korea's liberation in 1945, the prison remained in use until 1987. Then, in 1998, Seodaemun Prison History Hall was opened to commemorate dark history of the prison and its prisoners. 7 of the 15 buildings have been restored and all contain information for visitors about their historical significance.   

It was fascinating, while also saddening, to learn about life in the prison. We were able to see not only an average cell but also look into the cells for solitary confinement. The basement of the main building was the area designated for interrogation and torture, so scenes depicting these have been recreated for visitors.   

seodaemun prison seoul korea

seodaemun prison seoul koreaSolitary confinement cells.

seodaemun prison seoul koreaMannequin in one of the cells, showing how inmates would tap on the cell walls to communicate with each other.

seodaemun prison seoul korea

seodaemun prison seoul koreaPhotos of prisoners line the walls of a room in the main history building.

seodaemun prison seoul koreaBox torture: prisoners were put into the box, which has spikes sticking into the inside, and then the guards would shake the box around.

seodaemun prison seoul koreaA mannequin Japanese guard oversees the cell block.

As the prison's history is irrevocably tied to Japan's presence in Korea, much of the museum focused on the history of the two countries during the prison's operation. Exhibits detail the struggle Korea faced during the time of its occupation, detailing the brave acts of the men and women who dared to stand up for Korea's freedom and independence.

Overall, it was a very interesting, albeit somber, experience, and definitely one of the better museums I've seen while in Korea. The organization was tasteful and informative, and we left with a much greater understanding of Korea's history in the first half of the twentieth century. I highly recommend spending an afternoon exploring the prison and soaking up the history while you're in Korea!

Directions and information: 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Smartphone Apps You NEED While in Korea

This blog entry was originally published on the Aclipse Blog, which is produced by current Chungdahm Learning teachers in Korea! The blog features entries on current events around Korea, advice for incoming teachers, and the best spots sightseeing, shopping, and eating. The original entry can be viewed here

We live in a smartphone world. My dependence on my iPhone is, undoubtedly, ridiculous, and yet I just need it. Living in Korea has made my borderline addiction a little bit more understandable, though, because I use my phone constantly to get information about buses, subways, restaurants, and events. Living in an unfamiliar place is made so much easier by the accessibility of information on the internet and through apps, so here are the most useful apps I've found (and used!) while in Korea. 

Note: All of the following apps are available in both Apple's App Store and Android's Play Store. AND they're all free! 
smartphone apps in korea

KakaoTalk

Your smartphone plan will likely have a limited number of texts and minutes, but you don't need to worry about that because KakaoTalk will fill all of your texting (and even calling!) needs. Similar to messaging apps like WhatsApp or Kik, Kakao is Korea's version of free, unlimited messaging. It seems like nearly everyone here uses it, and I've even gotten family and friends back home to install it on their phones so we can text like normal as well. 

smartphone apps in korea

Seoul Subway

This particular subway app, by Broong Inc, is my favorite one. I've played with a couple others, but this app remains the best from its accuracy to its overall interface and design. Not only does it cover all of Korea's major cities and their respective subways, but it gives detailed information about routes from the time you have to transfer in a station to the particular doors you should be at for your needed transfer or exit. 

I will say, every now and then I spot a route that is actually faster than the one suggested by the app, but overall, it hasn't lead me astray and it's been a necessity for living here.

smartphone apps in korea

Seoul Bus 

Getting around by bus, whether it's just around Incheon or all the way into Seoul, is extremely convenient and inexpensive. I take the bus to commute to work each day and this app has been very helpful. I saved the bus stop number in the app so that as I'm getting ready for work, I can keep an eye on the arrival time of the next bus. The impressive part is it's really accurate, constantly updating should a bus get delayed in traffic. 

I'm listing only the Seoul Bus app here since I don't have firsthand experience with the bus apps for other cities -- so please leave a comment below if you have anything helpful for people located in the likes of Busan or Daegu! 

smartphone apps in korea

Visit Korea

A lot of my travels around Korea to various cities and festivals have been planned with the help of the Korea Tourism Organization's website. All of this information, of course, is also on their app! 
Covering the entire country, the app gives you news about what's happening around Korea, activities nearby to your current location, addresses of events and attractions, and all of the admission information you'd need. Definitely worth browsing through when you're planning a weekend trip! 

smartphone apps in korea

Google Translate & iTranslate

These two are my go-to apps when I need to translate something, and while I use both, I'm sure a lot of people have a preference. Google in particular can be a bit wonky with its translations, but my students have told me they prefer using Google. iTranslate does spoken translation, which isn't too bad. I typically use whichever one gives me a translation that makes the most sense. I will let you decide what you like the best, but I recommend checking both out. 
smartphone apps in korea

MangoPlate

This app was actually just recently introduced to me by a friend. We were wandering around in a somewhat unfamiliar area of Seoul, feeling hungry, and weren't sure which direction would yield the most restaurants. She whipped out her phone and this app and voila! Lots of restaurants to choose from. I've used apps like this back in the States but for some (dumb) reason, never tried to find one here in Korea. Definitely going to be utilizing this more!
smartphone apps in korea

Google Maps / Naver Maps / Daum Maps

Depending on the requirements for what is needed in a map app and one's ability to read Korean, these are the three top hits for navigation apps. I still prefer Google, simply because it's what I've been using for years. Google's coverage of Korea seems to have improved since I first came here, so for the very few times I actually need to whip out a map, it's handy. 

However, I've also had great success with Naver and Daum, which are both Korean companies and therefore much more accurate and detailed. The latter two require you to be able to read more Korean than Google, but that shouldn't stop you from checking them out. 

Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to helpful apps in Korea. Do you know of any others? Have any opinions to weigh in on what's good and bad? Leave a comment below!