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: 


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


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.


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 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.


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


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


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! 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Indoor Activities to Survive Summertime 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 for sightseeing, shopping, and eating. The original entry can be viewed here

While Korea's hottest days are still a month or so away, we also have the rainy season, which technically has already begun. So what to do on those weekends when you want to go explore and be social, but between the rain and/or the heat, you don't want to spend time outside? Well, check out this handy list of the top air-conditioned activities to check out in Seoul this summer! 

Last summer, I wrote a basic how-to for beating the heat during a Korean summer. This summer, I'm thinking of finding more indoor activities. When it comes to staying indoors as much as possible, I automatically think of museums. Luckily, Seoul has quite an array of museums to offer to those of us who are looking to enjoy the things Korea has to offer, but also would prefer to limit our time under the hot summer sun. 

Here are the activities I'm planning to check off my list over the coming weekends: 

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

I recently revisited this awesome building and allowed myself to get completely lost wandering around inside. Some shopping was done in its quirky, creative stores and delicious food was eaten at one of the Western-style restaurants in the food court. Even better, the DDP has various exhibits running throughout the summer that are worth checking out. 

ddp weta dongdaemun design plaza seoul

We wandered through the Weta Workshop Fantasy Exhibition and had a good time. Weta is well-known for being the special effects/makeup/costumers/etc. for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The exhibit features much more than pieces of Middle Earth -- it has sculptures and dioramas and conceptual artwork for many of their other fantastical projects.

For more information, check out the DDP's official website and Trazy's DDP page.

Art museums

I've seen some really great art exhibits come to Korea in the past, so I typically keep my eye on what's happening in the museums at all times. Luckily, this summer looks to be a good one for art lovers. 
Seoul Arts Center has two exhibits that just recently started -- The Great Artists: Renoir to Damien Hirst, and Edvard Munch and the Modern Soul. I'll definitely be visiting both of these soon and probably writing a full review. The exhibits I've caught at the SAC in the past have been excellent, so I'm looking forward to these too. 

There is also the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art that's right next to Gyeongbokgung in Seoul. Since the last time I was there, the exhibits have changed over, which means I'll be planning a trip there sometime soon as well. 

The War Memorial of Korea

The best part of this museum is that it's totally free. Who can argue with wandering around a huge museum, enjoying the nice air conditioning, and being able to save the money that would typically be spent on admission fees? 

war memorial of korea seoul

This museum is really quite well-organized and presented. Informative, huge, and really quite cool. Check out some previous Aclipse blogger write-ups of the museum here and here. And, should you feel like venturing outside, a sizeable portion of the museum is on the grounds in the form of wartime vehicles. You can even climb inside some of them to look around, so I would recommend saving this museum for a hot day rather than a rainy day.  

The War Memorial's official website and Trazy's info page have everything you'll need to plan your visit.

Trick Eye Museum

If art and history aren't quite your thing and you're looking for something a little more whimsical, definitely check out one of the many trick eye museums around Seoul (and Korea!). An optical illusion technique makes the paintings on the walls three-dimensional, and the best part is they're designed so that you can jump into the middle of them! Expect countless photo ops and make sure your phone's batteries are charged up.

trick eye museum hongdae seoul

We went to the Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae, which actually has the freezing cold Ice Museum -- and in the summertime, this might be just what you need. If you're in other parts of Seoul, check out the locations of the Alive Museum, which includes the same kind of illusions. 

More information for the Hongdae location: KTO site and Trazy site (and a coupon here!), including the Ice Museum, and for the Alive Museum herehere, orrrr here.


Any museums or exhibits to add to this list? I'm sure there's so much more to do on the weekends that would otherwise be lost to rain or gross humidity. Leave a comment below with your recommendations! 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Monthly Photo Recap: June 2014

Feeling bleh this weekend = finishing and scheduling a ton of backlogged posts. Lots and lots of (sometimes really old) posts will be going up soon, so check back! I think I'm going to even throw a bunch of photos up on Facebook since I haven't uploaded any pictures in about a year... So it'll be a massive best-of type album, I think. My time in Korea is officially winding down, which is totally nuts. I can't believe I'm leaving at the end of November. That's still quite a ways off, but when I sit and count the weekends I have left, it's only 18! I have so many things left to accomplish! My Korea Bucket List is getting a serious overhaul/update this weekend too -- I need to strategize a game plan so I can get all this stuff done.

But anyway, here's photos from June, which was a pretty relaxed month.

This summer hasn't been as hot or as rainy as I remember from previous years. Though we're all worrying that this means the rainy season will just come super late and drag on into August. Fingers crossed. The humidity is pretty obnoxious.

Finally finished a doodle that I'd started a while back. Definitely feeling like drawing more lately.

Mr. Cat.

My Master Lit class is HUGE this term and I have so many essays to grade... AND I LOVE IT. No, really. Grading papers is seriously one of my favorite things, as weird as that sounds.

I was given a "Yellow Card" by some of my elementary kids because I was eating chips during breaktime. We have snack rules at my school -- they kids can't eat dry ramen, chips, candy, cookies, etc. Basically anything that's unhealthy isn't allowed. But, even though I had retreated to an empty classroom to get some peace and quiet during the break, they walked by and noticed me eating chips. Feeling like this was deeply unfair, I allowed them to give me a Yellow Card, which I then taped to the wall behind my desk so I can proudly display it. The bottom part is my favorite -- they initially wrote in the reason as "eat swing chip (very many)" but then added "obyte no problem" -- meaning that if I vomited up the chips, I wouldn't get in trouble. It was hilarious.

Delicious, delicious food.

Fancy architecture in Songdo. So many of the buildings are really cool looking over there.

More cat.

So, this is a mangosteen. It's one of the weirdest fruits I've ever eaten and it's delicious. You have to cut through the thick rind first, then the inside looks weirdly like garlic but doesn't taste like it at all. It's really soft -- trying to pull out one of the segments makes it bruise and ooze juice. But it's so, so good.

One of my middle schoolers made me some friendship bracelets a while back and it got me on an insane kick of making tons and tons of them. I used to make these all the time during the summer when I was a kid, so it's been a lot of fun to rekindle that hobby. And! The internet has so many amazing patterns and tutorials! I'm really jealous of kids today because their friendship bracelet options are so much greater than mine were back in the pre-internet days. This is just a handful of what I've made... I might be out of control. 

Pretty lilies on my walk one day.

And last, the greatest article of clothing I currently own: a shirt covered in dogs. Oh, and my bangs are almost grown out to a good length and it's still weird. I constantly fight the urge to chop them back to straight-across. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Suwon's Hwaseong Fortress

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

One thing that I really love about living in Korea is the history that's simply everywhere. With Korea's rapid modernization, fancy cities have sprung up around old structures, creating a really interesting contrast of the new against the historical. One of the coolest examples of this is Suwon's Hwaseong Fortress. It's right outside of Seoul, easily accessible via the subway, making it an excellent day trip that you should check out this summer!

hwaseong fortress suwon korea

Hwaseong Fortress was built in the 1790s under the reign of King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty. It was designed to be a defensive structure, with 48 structures along the wall, including sentry posts and gun towers. It has four main gates, each facing a different cardinal direction, each of which are still impressive to see. The Korean War damaged the fortress, but in the 1970s, effort was made by the government to rebuild most of what was destroyed, with the current structure being about 75% of what it originally was. Then, in 1997, it was named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

hwaseong fortress suwon koreaSee all the holes in the walls? All for defensive measures.

What stands today is a fascinating look into Korea's history, juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of one of Korea's main cities. It really is neat to see cars zipping down the street right next to the walls of the fortress -- just as you forget you're in the middle of the city, you look out from above the wall and are reminded of the stark contrast.

hwaseong fortress suwon koreaOne of the many lookout spots.

Walking along the fortress wall is what I would recommend doing, which stretches 5.25 kilometers. Though I will warn you that it's a lot of stairs, just like much of the hiking in Korea. Definitely hike all the way up Paldalsan -- the fortress wall snakes up the mountain and leads to a lookout spot that offers a really stunning view of Suwon and its surrounding area. 

hwaseong fortress suwon koreaAs high up as we could get.

hwaseong fortress suwon koreaCity, city, and more city. 

In the middle of the fortress walls lies a palace, Haenggung, that was built not only as a place for the king to stay in when visiting Suwon, but also to serve as the king's residence since King Jeongjo supposedly planned to move the capital from Seoul to Suwon. This never happened due to his sudden death, but the palace remains and was a lot of fun to wander through while we were exploring the fortress.

hwaseong fortress suwon korea

Directions and Information: 

  • Suwon Station, Seoul Subway Line 1
  • Exit 4 -- the Tourist Information Center outside this exit can direct you to the city bus that heads in the direction of the fortress. 
  • Hours: 9am-6pm, March-October; 9am-5pm, November-February
  • Admission: 1,000 won
  • For more information, visit the Korea Tourism's site here or the official site for Hwaseong here.
Definitely give yourself at least a few hours to hike the whole thing, and maybe plan to pack some food. There are spots all long the wall to stop and rest, so I think this would be a great spot for a picnic while you soak up the history of this old structure that still stands smack in the middle of a modern Korean city!