August 13, 2018
Our flight arrived in the evening in Seoul, and we made our way via public transit to our Pop @ Itaewon in (surprise) Itaewon, which turns out to be a pretty big party district. We arrived late and collapsed into bed, and the next day did all kind of internet things that the Great Firewall of China prevented us from doing. Yes, we had a VPN, but it was best described as “spotty” so we spent most of our first day resting and communing with the interwebs.
That evening we took a turn around the neighborhood and looked at some of the shops and bars, and got some dumplings to eat, called mandu, at a little shop down the street from Pop. I’m not Hangeul compatible so I can’t offer the name, but the storefront looks like this.
Management at Pop was very friendly and helpful; the first room we were in was epically moldy and it was super easy to get moved to another dorm. The shared spaces are pretty limited. There’s a nice roof area, but it was so hot out with no shade it was nearly unusable. I did take advantage of the pull up bar on the roof and got a work out in, but even before 10 am things were roasting outside.
Overall Pop review: good location, helpful management, kind of small and dirty.
After two nights we packed up our stuff and made our way south of the city to go visit my friend Sun Yu. Sun Yu is a yoga instructor and fitness coach who I met in Rishikesh during my yoga teacher training, and it was a real treat to get to see her again. We met her for lunch, and I got an iced noodle dish which was great in the heat.
Once we got our stuff dropped off at her place we took a walk around to the local market and made our way towards where Sun Yu had some classes to teach. Dan and I wandered back to the apartment and saw some nice parks, including one with a water park.
And in the arena of funny foodstuffs, we stopped into a shop on the way home, and I found… different varieties of emoji themed gummy snacks! There were themed by emotions, happy, love, sad, angry, etc. So if you’ve been wondering if there’s a poop emoji gummy candy, look no further.
The next day the three of us went on a hike to the top of a nearby mountain, a short walk from Sun Yu’s apartment. We found that in general the area around Guemjeong Station had lots of proximate nature and tons of parks. The mountain had tons of trails and we had a nice hike to the top, then back down for lunch.
That night I got to go with Sun Yu to work and take her aerobics and pilates classes, which was a lot of fun. Getting to see her in her element speaking in her native language was great, and even though I couldn’t understand much, her physical cues and the other students were enough for me to keep up. Between classes some of her students made conversation with me, and I was really impressed at the level of English they had, especially since I only knew how to say the bare minimum of “hello” and “thank you” in Korean.
For dinner we had fried chicken and beer, which is a pairing so common in Korea it has it’s own name, chimaek, which is a portmanteau of “chikin” and “maekju” (beer). Dan and I liked the sauced versions of the fried chicken, but weren’t so big on the plain fried. A tasty meal, and I love that this is such a thing it gets its own term.
The next day we did some more hiking to some beautiful temples, including Seongbulsa, and man it was hot. I was beading up with sweat in the shade. Something that also seems very common in Asia is foot reflexology, at least outdoor installations for you to walk on and massage your feet, which is both nice and slightly uncomfortable.
Our last stop before lunch was an ecological park that was both pretty and educational. They had a children’s playground that featured a crank-powered overhead rail system that I immediately hopped on even in the heat. The bruises I got from cramming my enormous self into something designed for a Korean child were both unsurprising and totally worth it. I even convinced Sun Yu onto the bizarre crank-powered spinning teeter totter, which is possibly the most unnecessarily advanced piece of children’s playground equipment that I have ever seen.
That night we went to a jjimjilbang located in this building. This is very similar to a Japanese sento (with which I am more familiar), but there are key differences. Both jjimjilbang and sento have a bathing area with seated showers and baths of various temperatures ranging from cold to hot, as well as saunas.
Because bathing is done in the nude, these areas are gender segregated, but the fancy ones, such as this, also have a communal area for which you are provided attire to hang out, eat and enjoy other facilities. In the case of the jjimjilbang, these facilities include dry saunas, with rooms of different temperatures and characteristics. (Dan: and a cool little video game tunnel, but I didn’t have enough coins to play and they were crappy emulators so they should have been free anyway). You can also sleep there overnight, and as you can see, a lot people do! You have your stuff in your locker in the bathing area, and you get a mat to sleep in the communal area.
The next morning we got up… and went camping! We met up with Sun Yu’s friend Ji and her two daughters for lunch before heading to the camp ground to set up our spot. I started doing yoga and the girls enthusiastically joined in. They didn’t get bored at all. and stuck it through. They did yoga for at least half an hour, if not more.
After that we took a walk around and I was amazed with the facilities. There’s a lake, a huge fountain, a cafe, a disc golf course, a performance hall (shaped like a giant Jiffy pop, which is probably unintentionally appropriate)…
And a planetarium! We saw some shows in the dome that night (with moving seats) and afterwards got to peer through some telescopes at things like the rings of Saturn and the moon. It was a blast. Though I’ve gotta say, their mural depicting people dying in space was hella dark. Not that I didn’t like it, it was cool, but it seemed incongruous with the general kid-friendly educational atmosphere. Someone has a dark sense of humor…
Ji and the girls went home instead of camping with us that night, but they came back the next day and we all went to see an unusual amusement park. Yongin Daejanggeum Park is a huge lot with permanent sets for filming Korean historical dramas and they’ve turned it into a tourist attraction. While most of it was unoccupied, we did see some actors and crew on site to do filming. It’s a huge complex of all kinds of buildings, houses, markets, a castle and even an underground prison.
After lunch we bid Ji and the girls farewell (it was so great to meet you guys! and so much fun to play with the girls!). We headed back to the city with Sun Yu, and then packed up our things and said farewell to Sun Yu to head back towards city center for a few days. Sun Yu was an amazing hostess, and it was so nice to get to spend more time with her. Thank you! ❤
We went to stay at Dadareum Guesthouse, which gets a thumbs up from me. It had a nice kitchen and a stylish common area with adequate seating, and though our private room was not much larger than the bed, it did have a private bathroom and everything was clean. It was a little out of the way, but had good bus service running past and we didn’t have any issue getting around.
For lunch the next day we headed to the Hongdae neighborhood to catch up with someone I met at the veerrrryyyyy start of our trip, Abby. It was the day we sold the car in Austin, TX, and I went to Lush to get a shampoo bar. Well, we struck up a conversation, and I discovered she was about to go to Seoul to study! She had just finished her year of study and was about to head back to Texas, so we caught her just in time!
We got some lunch, and I got naengmyeon, another Korean iced noodle dish, and we chatted about Seoul, the past year of travels and study, and generally got to catch up, which was lovely. Great to see you Abby!
Abby also informed of us of the existence of something fascinating: the Raccoon Cafe. This is a style of cafe like cat cafes back home, where you can cafe and pet cats, but this is the Korean raccoon version. Abby had to get going, but we took her suggestion to check out a raccoon cafe that happened to be nearby (located in this building).
At the cafe you bought a ticket to pet the animals that included a drink, which you could have before or after pets, but not during (due to health code reasons). You were instructed to remove all jewelry and everything from your pockets before entering the combo raccoon and dog petting area.
It was very interesting, but I got the distinct impression that the animals were rather peopled-out. Most of them were sleeping and pretty disinterested in interacting. Though the raccoons were quick to spot people standing near the window that opened to the cafe areas, those people got climbed like trees with the staff rushing to stop the animals from jumping through the window in an attempt to escape.
The next day we decided to pay Banpo bridge and its rainbow fountain a visit. This is a bridge with colorfully lit water jets all along it that spraying off the side of it that wave up and down choreographed with music.
On the way there, we went to pick up snacks, and I want to point something out that seemed pretty consistent in Korea: restaurants and businesses being tucked away deep inside of nondescript buildings. The grocery store we went to for snacks is a great example. There was a sign outside that it existed, but we had to go up several flights of stairs and down a narrow hallway to find it. So if you travel to South Korea, be aware of this quirk and you may find all kinds of interesting things!
Drinks and snacks in hand, we wandered down to the waterfront where we saw the floating restaurant complex and then sat to watch the water fountain light show.
Our last day in Seoul we hit up the Yongsan electronics market, Insadong street where you can find lots of souvenirs, and finally we paid a visit to Lotte World Tower, Seoul’s tallest building and currently the 5th tallest building in the world. Dan’s goal was to visit the Lotte Mart inside of the Lotte building and buy a Lotte product. He was perhaps unique in this goal and finding the actual Lotte Mart was actually kind of difficult. But the goal was achieved (special edition Snoopy Milkis in case you were curious) and Dan also found what he describes as the greatest Lego display he has ever seen.
Our last act that night was to go for a run along the waterfront, which even at 9 pm was still quite warm, but it was incredibly beautiful. This one of my favorite things.
The next day we packed up and headed to our final destination in South Korea: Busan. And this included another great travel friend coincidence. Back at the beginning of our trip we made a friend in Mexico City. His name is Tony (he makes an appearance in this post), and he had moved to CDMX to teach English. It turns out he stayed there for about 6 months, and ultimately ended up in Seoul teaching English. So by the time we arrived he had been in Busan about five months.
Only he was out of town on vacation in Japan! However, he kindly offered to let us stay in his apartment, which made our stay that much more chill and comfortable. And since we were heading to Japan in just a few days… I was able to make plans to catch up with him in Tokyo (stay tuned). How is that for some crazy travel coincidence?
Our first day in Busan we laid pretty low, venturing out of the house late to visit Gwangalli beach, which has a bunch of bars and restaurants immediately adjacent, reminding me vaguely of South Beach in Miami, only, lots more clothes 😉
Nearby we found a school track with some pull up bars, and got a ring workout in. The field was being used for a youth soccer practice, and while we didn’t get anyone coming over to play with the rings, we generated a fair amount of amusement for coaches and kids alike.
After a shower we hit up the famous Spa Land, which is located in the Centum City shopping mall. We went late and got the discount price, but it was still pretty expensive. They did have nice roofed-but-open air bathing areas which were beautiful, and an extensive number of fancy rooms for dry sauna in the common area, many of them themed after various international styles of sauna.. and some weird alternative medicine ones. This is one of the spas where you can stay overnight.
The next day we paid a visit to the Gukje market, which sold everything, from lunch, to house old appliances, to souvenirs, to clothes. Oh, and you can also get liters of coffee nearby… In addition to caffeinating ourselves we got some snacks, including japchae (one of my favorites) and these saucy rice-noodle rolls called tteokbokki that also seem like a Korean staple (delicious).
Our big touristy day we hit up a number of sites, informed largely by this post which is pretty good. We started with the Gamcheon Culture village which was picturesque with its colorful hillside buildings, but it was mostly a bunch of kitsch shops and kind of a haul to get there so, it gets a solid “eh” from me. Additionally, you get similar views from the other side of the hill that we hiked up to get there. I did find it interesting to see Korean tourists politely queuing to wait to take photos at the iconic look out.
From there we headed to the Oryukdo Skywalk, which was fascinating far beyond the actual architecture. It’s a small platform extending from the side of the cliff with a transparent floor. Kind of cool, but nothing mind blowing. The thing that made it unusual was that it was staffed, apparently full time, by someone who makes sure everyone puts on shoe covers to keep the floors becoming scratched and opaque, and makes sure they go the right away around the short one-way loop. And it’s free.
Also, please enjoy this series of selfies from the bridge where Dan simply could not get his act together, ha.
The Skybridge is adjacent to a beautiful park, the Igidae Costal Walk, where we hiked along enjoying the views. Interestingly, a lot of the paths were “paved” with woven rope mats, making things like rock easier to navigate, but not causing the permeability problem that concrete would. Probably easier to install too!
We followed up with a run back to Gwangalli beach. Along the way we found a sweet public exercise area, which included hula hoops! Woo!
After all that hard work we went to get a treat called Bingsu or Snowflake at a shop here. It’s snow-like shaved ice (very powdery), topped with ice cream, syrup and fruits. We got the blueberry cheesecake one, and it was delicious.
The next morning was our last in Korea, and we packed up and left Tony’s apartment (thank you so much Tony!). We took a bus back to the train station, and from there walked to the ferry terminal to catch our boat to Japan. Busan isn’t that far from the western edge of Japan, and there are fast boats that can get you to Fukuoka in a few hours. We decided to take the cheaper overnight ferry, the Camellia Ferry Line, and we were pretty happy with it. Our tickets got us a mat in a shared 10 person room, and the boat had seating areas, a restaurant, beer vending machines, and even a game room and karaoke.
The trip was pretty uneventful, but there were some beautiful views of the city leaving Korea. We woke up the next morning, verrry early, too early, to enter Japan at Fukuoka.