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!