Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Springtime in Korea = Cherry Blossoms

My favorite season in Korea is a toss up between spring and fall. Both feel rewarding because they're such stark contrasts to the preceding season's extremes. Springtime, however, might have a slight edge over fall simply because with spring comes the cherry blossoms.

To me, the cherry blossoms officially herald the beginning of sunny, warm days, and making time to see them is always on the top of my spring to-do list. I completely missed them last spring while I was home in the U.S., so this year, being as it's my last Korean spring, I was determined to get my fill.

cherry blossoms spring korea 
This year, I'd hoped to head down south to Jinhae for their huge festival, but I learned the hard way that tickets for the train need to be booked far in advance. However, it was for the best because the warm winter caused the trees in Seoul to bloom earlier than estimated this year. The annual Yeouido Spring Flower Festival was set to kick off the weekend of April 12th, but it got bumped up one week, beginning instead on the 4th. Since I wasn't going down to Jinhae, the timing was perfect to make the (much, much shorter) journey into Seoul.

cherry blossoms spring koreaEntrance to the festival at one end of the street.

I've been to this festival before so I was really looking forward to going again this year. Last time, though, I stuck to the area around the Han River. The park that lies between Mapo, Yeouido, and Yeouinaru stations and the river is just lousy with cherry blossoms. Last weekend I spent some time soaking up the sun at the park along the Han River and we saw some beautiful cherry blossoms while we wandered around.

cherry blossoms spring koreaThe Han River and the park.

While that area itself is beautiful, I didn't realize until this year that I was completely missing a more picturesque part of the festival. If you wander away from the river a bit, you'll find a street, Yeouiseo-ro (or Yunjung-no), behind the National Assembly Building that is completely lined with hundreds of trees. The trees form a tunnel in some areas along the sidewalk, which is just gorgeous.

cherry blossoms spring koreaCanopy of white and pink.

cherry blossoms spring koreaThe bright blue sky really makes the branches of blossoms pop.

The festival was packed when we arrived, with everyone moving at a leisurely pace down the street. Families, couples, bicycles, photographers -- everyone seemed to be out to enjoy the cherry blossoms and spring weather. Luckily, they have the street blocked off to cars, making it easy to wander and pause to take pictures.

Lots of booths were also set up, ranging from boutiques selling jewelry to demos of 3-D printers. There were some arts and crafts areas, all charging a low price to make bracelets, paint a fan, or just draw a picture. You could even have your portrait (slash caricature) drawn. One of the more entertaining areas was a stretch of tents full of musical instruments. It was too crowded for us to find out why all the instruments were out on display, so we just watched from afar as kids ran around playing on the drum kits and xylophones.

cherry blossoms spring koreaOne of the rows of booths.

cherry blossoms springtime koreaPortraits.

cherry blossoms springtime koreaNew favorite drummer.

cherry blossoms springtime koreaThis magician was a big hit with the kids.

Some musical performances were happening as well, from impromptu busking to a band playing on a full stage. The only performance we stopped to watch is one that always catches my attention whenever I see it -- pungmul (which historically has been known as nongak, meaning "farmers' music"), which is a traditional Korean folk music drumline. The dancing and swirling ribbons attached to the hats is mesmerizing.

cherry blossoms springtime koreaPungmul in action.

cherry blossoms springtime koreaPerched in a tree, watching the performance.

cherry blossoms springtime korea

Sadly, the cherry blossoms are all gone now. They never last long, which I hate, simply because I want the trees to look like that all the time. 

For future reference, since it's an annual thing, here's the information for how to get to the festival: 

  • National Assembly Station, Seoul Metro Line 9, Exit 1. After leaving the station, cross the street, walking towards to National Assembly Building. The cherry blossoms are along the u-shaped road that wraps around the grounds of the government buildings. This map can help as a reference of the layout of the street around the buildings:

cherry blossoms springtime korea

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Visiting Ulleungdo: Korea's "Mysterious" Island

Continuing in the vein of Things I Should've Blogged About Months Ago, here's another overdue entry: Ulleungdo. I still dream about this island, and I'm planning at least one photo blog as a follow-up to this entry. It was just so, so beautiful and I kind of wish I could live there. Sigh.


This past year, Korea's Chuseok holiday fell on a Thursday, meaning we would have Wednesday-Friday off from work. A glorious 5-day weekend is a rare thing, so I was resolved to go somewhere. As I watched airplane tickets to international destinations steadily climb in price, I looked to domestic spots. Ulleungdo, an island off of Korea's east coast, was high on my Korea Bucket List, and the Chuseok weekend seemed like a prime opportunity.

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

I'd been drooling over pictures of Ulleungdo for over a year by the time I finally found the opportunity to go. As it's a bit of a trek away from Incheon, most holiday weekends weren't every quite long enough -- driving across the peninsula takes a good chunk of time, and that's without the ferry ride out into the East Sea to reach the island.

As if to further encourage my decision to finally head out to Ulleungdo, Adventure Korea had a special holiday trip to the island, which included pretty much everything -- transportation there and back, three nights in a hotel, various activities, as well as most of our meals. It all looked amazing and the price was right, so some friends and I booked our spots and started obsessively Googling the island.  

Ulleungdo, without a doubt, is breathtakingly beautiful, and aptly nicknamed the "mysterious" island because of its stunning scenery. Over and over I've read articles and blogs that claim Ulleungdo is actually better than Jeju. The two islands are similar in that they're both the result of volcanic activity, so both have striking land formations and great hiking paths. I've been to Jeju since this Ulleungdo trip, and since it was in late January, it wasn't exactly prime weather to fully appreciate Jeju's beauty. I'm reserving my final judgment for a time when I can see Jeju when it's lush and green, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Ulleungdo is actually prettier. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandCan I just live here?

Our Adventure Korea guides also insisted that Ulleungdo is better than Jeju, largely because they feel like Ulleungdo has yet to be overrun with tourists. While tourism is Ulleungdo's largest industry, it's less developed, so it still feels like a small island full of fishing villages. Island people just seem to move at a slower pace, which definitely makes for an appealing, relaxing vacation.

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

We left for the island on Tuesday night from Seoul, filling a couple buses that drove all night to the east coast. We stopped at a beach to watch the sunrise before heading to the ferry terminal. Our ferry left from Mukho harbor and took about 3 1/2 hours to reach Ulleungdo. Luckily, we had mostly clear skies to and from the island, but be warned that a ferry's voyage depends entirely on the weather. While it wasn't an issue for us, Adventure Korea wisely scheduled the return to the mainland on a Saturday just to allow for the potential delay due to bad weather. Also, should you be worried about seasickness, medicine can be purchased easily at your local pharmacy or in the ferry terminal itself. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandOur ride to the island: the Sunflower 2.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandThe inside of the ferry felt a lot like an airplane with sections of lettered and numbered assigned seats.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandFirst glimpses of the island from the ferry window.

About 125 people were on the Adventure Korea trip, so they rented out what I assume must've been the majority of a hotel with traditional floor-mat sleeping. Our meals were largely in the hotel restaurant, which served a variety of Korean food buffet-style. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandSimple but comfortable. 

We spent our days on the island wandering around, following the seaside paths and various hiking trails to points that revealed gorgeous views of the island and deep turquoise blue water. The volcanic eruptions formed some really amazing caves, particularly right along the waterfront, through which walking paths have been built. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandI feel like this would be a lovely picnic spot.

Also included in our tour package was a cable car ride, which was a really spectacular way to get a bird's eye view on one of the villages. From the peak, we were able to look into some binoculars and see the nearby, and hotly contested, Dokdo

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandDodong, where we were staying, from above.

On our second morning we had the option of a three hour bus tour, which drove along the coast and stopped at most of the picturesque sites, giving us time to wander around. This was especially awesome because our last day was largely free time, so the bus tour gave us a nice preview of areas that we might want to revisit. 

I went completely crazy taking pictures -- Korea in general is extremely photogenic with its mountains and palaces and neon lights, but Ulleungdo is on an entirely different level. I feel like it's actually a challenge to take a bad picture of this place. (Sorting through my 200+ pictures to choose a handful for this photo-heavy blog entry was hard!)

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandTurtle Rock, which was one of my favorite spots.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandSamseonam Rock sticking up in the distance.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandAnother seaside walking path along/above/through the rocks.

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

Ulleungdo is well-known for two things: pumpkins and squid. Pumpkin candies, pumpkin bread, pumpkin jelly, and pumpkin makgeolli were everywhere, the latter being my personal favorite. Definitely something to hunt down when on the island. It was de-licious, especially when served up with some pajeon.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandHobak (pumpkins) as far as the eye can see! 

Their famous squid was literally everywhere. Racks of it were leaning up against every other house or restaurant, stretched out on a popsicle stick for drying. You could also eat squid in nearly every form: raw, semi-dried, totally dried, grilled, in soup... the list goes on and on. We didn't get a chance to sample the raw squid, but we did try a couple different varieties of the dried and had a really delicious squid soup for lunch. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandMelt-in-your-mouth delicious squid. 

One thing Ulleungdo lacks is the traditional sandy beaches. The beaches they do have are rocky, which left us really wishing we'd thought to bring water shoes. The rocky beaches did not, however, stop us from jumping in and swimming around. The water was cool and salty and felt amazing after a warm day of hiking around the island. (Though keep an eye out for jellyfish!)

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandThere are a few spots where you can even jump into the water from a bridge or dock!

Ulleungdo is a small island, but there are so many other attractions we didn't get around to doing. There's a monorail, more seaside paths, tons of hiking, beautiful forests, and quite a few other rocky beaches. You can even take a ferry out to Dokdo and see it in person, should you care about that kind of thing. (I don't... Sorry, Korea.)

My typical go-getter approach to a vacation in a new place was heavily curbed by my need to relax -- I wanted to stroll along the shoreline, eat good food, collect bits of seaglass, and just soak up the sunshine and nature. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandPosing with Ulleungdo's happy little pumpkin and squid mascots.

Although I have a decent amount of time left in Korea and a lot of places left to check out, I already know that Ulleungdo is one of my favorite places that I have seen or will see. 

I think that going without a tour group wouldn't be as difficult as I'd initially thought from what I've read online, but it was definitely nice to have transportation and activities all arranged for us. (Though if you can go to Ulleungdo and have a car, you'll be golden. We had buses that drove us around and we used taxis a couple times, but being able to drive yourself would be ideal.) If you're looking for a pre-organized trip, I highly recommend Adventure Korea's annual Chuseok trip, so if you're already planning for this year's holiday, keep it in mind.

Between the rural, quiet fishing village vibe and the awe-inspiring scenery, I can't emphasize enough that you all need to go visit this island. You won't regret it. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Cave Exploring: Hwanseongul in Samcheok

Since I'm terrible at remembering to finish and publish blog entires, I have a lot of catching up to do... So, let's rewind to last fall when Dinah and Marley came to visit and we took a trip over to Korea's east coast...


A trip to Samcheok on Korea's east coast isn't complete without a visit to one of its best tourist destinations: Hwanseon Cave. I'd never been in a large cave before, so I was seriously excited to check out one that boasted being not only the "largest limestone cave in Korea," but also one of the largest in all of Asia. Last fall, I took a weekend trip with some friends who were visiting from the U.S. and the cave was just as awe-inspiring as we were hoping.

hwanseongul samcheok cave

The Samcheok area is full of activities, such as a very, ahem, special park (photo blog coming soon of this gem...), gorgeous beaches, delicious seafood, railbiking, and great hiking. They have two caves, Hwanseongul and Daegeumgul. We only had time for one cave, so we opted for Hwanseongul. It sounded the most impressive with its 6.2 kilometers of known passages. So, we bought tickets and hopped on a bus from Samcheok Intercity Bus Terminal, ready to do some cave exploring.

hwanseongul samcheok caveThe bus from the bus terminal drops you off in a big parking lot, with the bat-shaped ticket booth ahead, which is where you purchase tickets for the cave for ₩4,000. 

In order to get up to the cave, since it's inside a mountain, you have two options: a short hike or a ride up a little monorail. Since we were looking to conserve energy, we chose the monorail. A roundtrip ticket is ₩5,000, which is what we opted for, but you can also do a one-way for ₩3,000. 

hwanseongul samcheok caveBefore going up to the monorail platform, stop at the little ticketing booth to purchase your ticket.

hwanseongul samcheok caveStrange little boxy monorail car, with the track ascending in the background.

hwanseongul samcheok caveMy view from the monorail window as we went up. 

hwanseongul samcheok caveThe entrance! 

The mountain air was already crisp and cool, but as we approached the cave, we could feel the temperature dropping. We stopped for some pictures and marveled at the map of what we get to explore vs. the sheer size of the entire cave and its tunnels:

hwanseongul samcheok caveAs you can see, this cave is HUGE. 

hwanseongul samcheok caveAnd in we go. 

Walking inside, we were immediately hit with sounds of rushing water. This cave, as you'll see in my pictures, is very, very wet. It has quite a few small lakes and waterfalls. There's something about the sound of water echoing through gigantic chambers of rock that's just cool

hwanseongul samcheok cave

hwanseongul samcheok cavePhotos just don't do it justice.

hwanseongul samcheok caveTons of really strange looking rock formations.

hwanseongul samcheok caveTook this leaning over the side of a bridge -- the pit below is of unknown depth. Meaning it's too deep for anyone to be able to tell. Crazy!

hwanseongul samcheok caveLots of rope lights in this place...

As you can see, the entire cave was pretty well lit. They've set up small spotlights on the various features of the cave, along with names and little information signs telling you about how it formed/what it is/etc. It was all very interesting, so if you go, try to make the time to read as you walk through. 

hwanseongul samcheok cave

hwanseongul samcheok caveMore crazy looking rocks.

hwanseongul samcheok caveJust incredible.

Tips for visiting Hwanseongul:
  • Get there super early. We caught the 8:20am bus from Samcheok Intercity Bus Terminal, arriving at the cave around 9am, and it was nice and quiet. We were able to wander through at a leisurely pace, not feeling rushed by crowds of people behind us. When we made it back to the bus stop to leave around 11am, floods of people were getting off tour buses. 
  • Dress warm! Even in the summertime, the cave stays a cool 12-24°C (53-75°F), so plan to always have at least a light cardigan on you. In the winter it's obviously even colder, with the average being 8-9°C (46-48°F). 
  • Wear shoes with a good tread. As you can see in the pictures, the paths through the cave are all metal, including the grates that make up the flooring. Also, the cave is quite wet. While I was wearing decently grippy shoes, I was anxious to watch my footing because it did feel like it could easily be slippery. 
  • Speaking of water, beware of drips. If you're coming into the cave with a nice camera, be ready to shield it from dripping water -- it's pretty much everywhere.
  • Your overall travel time to and from the cave will look something like this: 40 minute bus ride from Samcheok Intercity Bus Terminal, about a 15 minute walk up the base of the mountain to reach the monorail station, about 15 minutes on the monorail itself, and about an hour to meander through the cave. If you actually want to hike to and from the cave, budget in about an extra hour or so. 
  • For more information, check out Samcheok's website and Korea Tourism Organization's Hwanseongul website.
I highly recommend a trip to Hwanseongul. Samcheok is a beautiful area and well worth a weekend getaway, and while you're there, definitely make the time to see this massive cave! 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Crafty DIYer's Paradise: Dongdaemun Fabric & Craft Market

Imagine a warehouse with tiny booths packed so full they look ready to explode. Imagine each booth fill with fabrics and yarn and beads. Imagine narrow little aisles stretching out into an impossible maze. Multiply this by a thousand and put it into one six floor building. Voila, you have Seoul's Dongdaemun Fabric and Craft Market. It's a total sensory overload of colors and textures and people, but for the crafty DIYer, it's basically heaven.

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoul

Living in Korea, I often miss the giant craft superstores from home. I've always been artsy, and the latest DIY trend that's been facilitated by the likes of Pinterest has kept me busy with dreaming up all the amazing things I want to make. Unfortunately, supplies are limited in my area -- if craft stores exist, I have yet to find them. Stationery stores abound, so anything paper-craft related isn't hard to track down. Art supplies are also easy, so I haven't had to go without good paints or drawing pencils. One thing that was notably missing, however, was any form of textiles and jewelry-making stuffs. I like to tell myself each winter that this is the year I'm going to finish knitting that scarf and maybe learn a fancy (beginner) pattern. Honestly, the lack of yarn availability was really harming my grand daydreams of starting scarves that I never get around to finishing.

Enter Dongdaemun's fabric and craft market, with both of these things (and many others) aplenty.

I'm not exaggerating when I say Dongdaemun's Fabric and Craft Market has pretty much anything craft-related that you'd be looking for. Any kind of fabric (including a massive section just for hanboks), endless skeins of yarn, giant carts of ribbons, all the pendants and charms and beads you could possibly want... That's just the beginning. In addition to all of that, you can buy things already made. They sell clothes, little decorative lace collars, leather belts, blankets, dishes, embellished hats and jackets... It's insane.

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoulSee? I wasn't kidding. They have -everything-.

The last time I went on a craft supply run, we arrived around 11am and the place was already bustling with shoppers and supply deliveries. We had to dodge quite a few delivery men as they plowed down the narrow aisles with giant bolts of fabric on their backs.

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoulNearly all the stalls are packed full like this.

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoul

The prices at Dongdaemun are great -- definitely cheaper than what I would expect to pay back home. I needed fuzzy white fleece for my Halloween costume last year, and when I finally found the right fabric, I was happy to hear that a yard (the smallest amount they would give me) was only ₩7,000 (~$6.60 USD). To make it better, the amount given to me was definitely more than a yard.

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoulNeed to replace any buttons? I'm 99% sure you could find any button ever here.

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoul

The biggest draw of Dongdaemun for me, however, is all the jewelry-making supplies. I used to have a fierce obsession with seed beads and even had a small bead loom for making bracelets. As I got older, I was way more into buying chains and charms and stringing things together. Not only am I able to make basically the exact same necklaces as I would find at Forever21 or Urban Outfitters, but it's a hell of a lot cheaper.

We spent a really, really long time searching through the little trays of charms and beads, carefully picking out ones we wanted. About ₩15,000 (~$14 USD) later, I had everything to make several pairs of earrings and new charms for some chains I already had at home. Not bad! 

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoul

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoulOverwhelming, but awesome.

dongdaemun craft fabric market seoulMy jewelry supply haul! 

To get to Dongdaemun:

Dongdaemun Station, Seoul Metro Lines 1 and 4, exit 9. Walk straight out of exit 9, the entrance will be on your left. See the photos below as a reference: 
 dongdaemun craft fabric market seoul dongdaemun craft fabric market seoul 

Tips and information:

  • Hours: Monday-Saturday, 8:00am-6:00pm, though be aware that many shops start to close by 5pm.
  • Bring cash, as most vendors prefer that / don't accept cards.
  • Shop around -- a lot of the vendors sell similar products, but some definitely offer lower prices. 
  • The building is divided into four sections, lettered A, B, C, and D, so keep an eye on those are you walk around. (It might also help you not get too lost...)