Monday, May 19, 2014

What's your "home away from home?"

I was recently contacted by the friendly people at DogVacay to answer a simple question: 

What is your home away from home?

I cycled through endless possibilities -- all of the places that have been important to me over the years. Sometimes it's been the ballet studio, sometimes it's been inside a favorite book.

But now, after two and a half years on the other side of the Pacific from my actual home, I have to say that my home away from home has become Korea.

When I moved to Korea, I never thought expat life would be this easy. I found myself settling in quickly and experiencing very minor culture shock. While I'm sure my prior knowledge of Asian culture from years of studying Japanese helped me adapt, ultimately, I think Korea is just an incredibly welcoming and comfortable country.

The food, the festivals, and all of my students -- they are now home. I thought a temporary move -- one year abroad -- would be it, never thinking I would end up staying for three.

I only have six more months in this country, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Some days, I'm really ready to go home (I miss my dog! And, my family and friends, of course). Others, I can't imagine what it will be like to leave this place behind.

But when I do leave, a part of me will be left behind, that much I do know.

So, now you tell me. What's your home away from home? #HAFH2014

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Street Food at Gwangjang Market

Korean street food. Three words that will always, without a doubt, get my attention. As someone who's constantly hungry, the delicious options at the street food carts in Korea won me over instantly. Imagine my excitement, then, when a friend suggested stopping by Gwangjang Market in Seoul for dinner, telling me it offered basically every kind of street food imaginable...

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodOne of the entrances to the food part of the market.

Gwangjang, (or Kwangjang, as it's sometimes spelled,) is one of Korea's oldest markets, dating back to 1905. Like most markets in the area, it's also an excellent spot for shopping.

However, we approached the market with the express purpose of eating, having spent the day shopping and wandering aroung the new Dongdaemun Design Plaza. As we entered the market, we were immediately overwhelmed with tons of stalls selling every kind of street food.

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodThe little "restaurants" all look about like this -- a tiny kitchen surrounded by a counter with stools.

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodOne of the main aisles of the market.

We walked the length of one of the aisles, taking in all of our options, before we decided to pick a spot with some empty seats and order. While we were walking, I kept noticing these tiny little rolls of gimbap stacked up. That's when I suddenly remembered that I'd read about this market and this particular kind of gimbap: aka drug gimbap

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodGive me all the drug gimbap you have.

Of course, this gimbap doesn't contain any drugs. Its name, mayak gimbap, which means "drug gimbap," refers to the "addictive" quality of these little bite-sized pieces of gimbap and the mustard-soy dipping sauce it's served with. I'd been curious to try it out since reading about it in a blog, and they weren't exaggerating -- it's goooood. Between the sauce and the small bites, it really is easy to just pop one into your mouth after another. 

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodIf you're looking for this gimbap in the market, you can keep an eye out for the gimbap rolls themselves, or any sign that reads "마약 김밥" (mayak gimbap), like the white sign behind her head in the photo.

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodSo many foods to try! I wanted to order everything.

While I ate my gimbap, my friends ordered one of Gwangjang Market's other popular eats: bindaetteok, which is a fried pancake made of ground mung beans. Crispy and hot, everyone happily inhaled these.

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodThe sauce for the gimbap = perfect.

After eating as much as we could, we were shooed along by the women running the stall -- a queue had formed behind us of customers who were waiting to sit down and order food. Definitely approach this market with patience, especially if you go around dinner time as it gets quite busy.

On the way out, I decided I needed something sweet, and immediately began scanning signs for hotteok, which is a simple fried pancake filled with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts. As it's cooked, the filling turns into a sweet, syrupy mess and it's absolutely heavenly

gwangjang market seoul korean street foodI will find any possible opportunity to eat hotteok.

Like most street food, grabbing a meal at Gwangjang Market is cheap. Really, really cheap. A serving of the mayak gimbap and one hotteok only set me back 3,500 won. That's less than $3.50 USD. The bindaetteok were 4,000 won each. There's so much more that I didn't get to try, too, so I'm definitely going to be making future trips to this market when I'm back in the area. 

Directions & Information:
  • Jongno 5-ga Station, Seoul Metro Line 1, Exit 8 -or- Euljiro 4-ga Station, Seoul Metro Lines 2 and 5, Exit 4. 
  • Hours: 10am to 9-10pm. Hours will vary from stall to stall.
  • Pro tip: Bring cash. Most of these stalls don't accept cards.
  • For more information, check out Trazy's site for the market.
I highly recommend stopping by Gwangjang Market if you're looking for delicious street food (and shopping, too!). Not only is it an experience within itself, it's also just a good spot to grab dinner after you've spent the day wandering around Seoul's markets! 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park

Next to Dongdaemun Gate is an area of Seoul famous for its countless markets. From clothing to textiles to craft supplies -- it has literally everything you might ever want. Ever. Now, in the middle of these more traditional markets and hip shopping malls, a structure that looks like something out of a futuristic landscape has been added to this area's massive to-do list. This spaceship-like building is the new Dongdaemun Design Plaza, and it's really, really cool.

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulSpaceship? Or building?!

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or DDP, opened its doors on March 21st of this year, after over five years of planning and construction. According to the Seoul Design Foundation's website, the DDP is "the biggest three-dimensional atypical building in the world." 

Just looking at it from the outside is a trip -- all the curves and silvery panels are just aesthetically pleasing. I'd noticed it being built during previous trips into Dongdaemun, wondering what on earth the giant alien structure was going to be, so I was quite eager to finally take a look around.

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulSo photogenic!

The idea behind the DDP is that it will be a center for everything creative in the design community. Not only is it set up to feature exhibits from artists all over the world in its museum and exhibition halls, but it's full of little spots for these artists to actually sell their products. We were a little overwhelmed by the structure and didn't know where to start exactly with exploring the inside. Luckily, a map is posted at each entrance, explaining how the building is organized. Technically, it's kind of three buildings, which have been connected into one giant, curvy structure. Here's the map we found that was immensely helpful:

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulKeep an eye out for these on the walls by all the doors!

As you can kinda tell from the above map, the DDP is divided into three sections that are actually three buildings, connected by all the curvy, fancy architecture. The sections are split into zones that cover six floors. To help explain some of what we saw, I'll use the following pictures and their captions: 

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulThis is a photo from the Design Market, which features various retail shops, many of which are chains that you'll see elsewhere in Korea, and a decent selection of restaurants in a food court. This area in particular is open 24 hours a day! Which is pretty perfect if you happen to be in the area to see Dongdaemun's night markets.

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulA couple shops in the Design Lab section. This was my favorite -- so many cool little stores selling products featuring up and coming designers. I feel like this would be a really, really good gift shopping spot. A lot of stationery items, gorgeous art prints, and other decorative items. I had to resist the urge to buy almost everything I saw.

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulAerial shot of a different part of the Design Lab. 

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulEven the coffee shop looks all space age! The information desks scattered throughout the building also have bizarre designs, but this little pod cafe was my favorite.

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoul
We found little cubby holes! Perfect for children, and us, because we couldn't resist. Nearly everyone was stopping to take photos sitting in these little holes.

Everyone hanging out along the weird cubby-bench-wall. 

No clue why there was a room full of balloons, but no one could go in, and the struggle was real for these little kids. (And me too.)

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoulOutside (and under?) the building is a large park area, called Oullim Square. While we were walking around, we caught sight of a suspicious number of girls in poofy-skirted dresses. Wondering if we might catch a flashmob, we stuck around, only to see not only an impromptu dance performance but also a magic show! 

From its stunning architecture to everything it offers inside, you could easily spend hours upon hours wandering around. In fact, despite the hours we spent there, we didn't see everything! I'm looking forward to going back soon to explore it more and see the building at night. As impressive as it looks during the day, in the evenings the panels light up, making it look even more like a spaceship from another world. 

So, after a day of wandering around the markets, or if you're looking to kill time before going to the late night markets, definitely make a stop by the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Great shopping, random performances, lots of restaurants, and countless photo ops! 

dongdaemun design plaza and park seoul

Directions & information: 
  • Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station, Seoul Metro Lines 2, 4, and 5, Exit 1. As soon as you go out of exit 1, you'll be in Oullim Square.
  • Hours: Art Hall - 9am-7pm, Museum - 10am-7pm, Design Lab - 10am-10pm, Oullim Square & Design Market - 24 hours! 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Monthly Photo Recap: April 2014

I know I seem to say this every month, but how is April already over?! The past few weeks have just flown by, which may partially be due to my excitement over my sister's visit. (She's here now!)

I've finally got an evening of downtime tonight since it's rainy outside, but we're going to watch a movie and bake banana bread tonight to gear up for the next two days of being busy. (Back-to-back holidays over here in Korea = four day weekend!) Here we go:

This cat is just so photogenic.

My selfie game is strong. (Mostly because I just centered this shot really well.) I'm pretty proud of this one -- all the lines and layers of reflections are just cool. 

I took an outrageous amount of photos of cherry blossoms this year. I might throw them all into a photo blog entry because why not.

Finally got to explore the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which is pretty cool both from the outside and on the inside. I definitely see myself going back and probably spending a lot of money on all the cool things in the shops. Blog entry all about it is scheduled for this week. :)

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza is also full of great photo spots, such as these cubby holes that were definitely full of children. We did not even hesitate to climb in ourselves, obviously.

Hit up Gwangjang Market for dinner after the day in Dongdaemun, and I finally tried to "drug gimbap" -- blog entry coming later this week! 

More cherry blossoms. Can't stop, won't stop.

So we have a seriously legit Mexican restaurant in Songdo and it's already become a staple of my diet/life/existence. Living without Mexican food has been hard, y'all. 

Lanterns for Buddha's Birthday at Jogyesa! Waaaay more photos will be uploaded later this week once I sort through and edit them. It's my absolute favorite festival and I went nuts with taking pictures this year. 

More lanterns, being gorgeous.

Pre-lantern parade, which will also be covered in the future blog entry.

And last but not least, my Chungdahm branch is finally making the switch to the new "smart" curriculum. Should be interesting -- it's all tablets and smart TVs and stuff, which I think will actually be pretty cool. (Provided we don't have crazy technical issues, of course. Knock on wood...) Definitely curious to see how this'll go over with the kids as well as how I actually feel about it once we implement it in the classroom. 

New Favorite Spot: Bukchon Hanok Village

Just a short jaunt from my favorite area of Seoul, Insadong, is a neighborhood that's vying for the number two spot. Nestled between two palaces and overlooking hip Samcheongdong is the Bukchon Hanok Village -- narrow winding streets flanked with gorgeous hanok houses. I've taken a stroll through this neighborhood several times now and it just never gets old. Not only is this area ridiculously photogenic, but it also offers a variety of cultural activities and history lessons! 

bukchon hanok village seoul korea
Old and new.

Here's the basic history of the area: During the Joseon Dynasty, when the surrounding palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, were actually inhabited, the Bukchon area served as the residential quarters for the upper class, such as nobility and high-ranking government officials. Urbanization, naturally, harmed these neighborhoods, as did the years of Japanese occupation and subsequent war. 

In the years after the Korean war, Seoul's rapid modernization lead to the demolition of even more hanok houses. It wasn't until the 2000s that the Seoul Metropolitan Government created new policies to beautify and preserve what was left of the hanok houses. 

bukchon hanok village seoul korea

The hanok houses themselves are works of art. The slope of the rooftops is just aesthetically pleasing, and all the intricate patterns on the walls, windows, and doors will keep any photo-happy tourist busy for hours. 

In addition to being a touristy, gorgeous neighborhood, it's actually still just that -- a neighborhood. As you walk around, you'll see signs about the neighborhood's curfew as well as a reminder to respect the privacy of the residents. 

bukchon hanok village seoul korea

If you're hoping to get a glimpse inside the hanok houses, don't worry. They aren't all residential. In fact, many have been turned into mini-museums, showcasing artifacts and "intangible" cultural heritage. 

My first visit to Bukchon, I was completely unaware that these types of activities existed. Arriving shortly before closing time 5pm, we realized we were missing out on a ton of cultural workshops. I then vowed to go back and try to start exploring what the different hanok houses had to offer. 

bukchon hanok village seoul korea
Just look for signs like this outside some of the hanok houses -- it means there's something cool inside! 

When I was in Bukchon most recently, we wandered into a hanok house that had a sign outside advertising different kinds of alcohol. When we walked in, we were immediately greeted by an older gentleman who worked there and spoke excellent English. He told us about the history of the neighborhood, the house we were in, and led us through the different gallery rooms with display cases full of beautiful folk crafts.

bukchon hanok village seoul korea

After we looked all around, our host told us about what this particular hanok house offered: soju tasting. We all grimaced, as it was around noon, but he assured us that it was just tiny samples.

bukchon hanok village seoul korea
Only three of our party decided to do the alcohol tasting, and the price listed above provided enough for us to split it.

bukchon hanok village seoul korea
From top to bottom: the (very strong) soju, the yakju, and the makgeolli. The makgeolli and yakju were my favorites! 

After sampling the drinks, we made more conversation with our host and were brought free samples of moju, which I had never had before. It's a "folk" liquor that's made from boiling down makgeolli and mixing it with medicinal herbs. It was sweet and warm and delicious -- also with a very low alcohol content. Our host told us that it's thought of as a drink served by Korean moms since it's full of herbs and spices! 

We didn't have time to check out any of the other hanok houses on this particular visit, which I suppose just means I'll have to be making another weekend trip over there sometime soon. No complaints here -- I saw signs on other hanok houses for embroidery and pottery museums, which might even include some kind of workshop! 

bukchon hanok village seoul korea

For more information about the attractions of Bukchon, check out this excellent website by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. You can read more about the history as well as getting a preview of the museums, cultural workshop experiences, and a map for a walking tour. As you walk around, keep an eye out for information guides -- they'll have red aprons and are always happy to hand you a map and suggest the best route. 

  • Anguk Station (on Line 3), Exit 2. 
  • Walk straight for about 300m, keeping an eye out for signs/Tourist Information Center. 

I highly recommend spending an afternoon (or four) in the Bukchon Hanok Village. Between the photo opportunities and all the activities, it's definitely a neat, culturally infused way to learn more about Korea's past. 

Have you been to the Bukchon Hanok Village or any other hanok villages in Korea? Leave a comment below to share your experiences or thoughts!