South Korea has been on our bucket-list for a while now as it is a popular country for Japanese people to visit due to being so close. So we decided we would jet off to Seoul with our last 5 days of winter holiday.
Our flight from Tokyo at 8:15am left little room for sleeping in and we left the house before 5am for our train journey to the airport. A short 2.5hr flight later and we had arrived at the Gimpo International Airport. After a quick bite to eat, we picked up our pocket wi-fi and set off towards our hostel.
When we reached the hostel we met our lovely host Hanna, who owns and lives in the hostel. We dropped our bags and headed out for a wander through the streets of Hongdae, including an alleyway of street art.
We met up with Maddy’s friend Yeon who was on exchange in Tokyo with Maddy, for dinner and ate the most delicious food! Korean pancakes, kimchi and Korean vegetables were on the menu and were fantastic.
After our free hostel breakfast on our first morning in Seoul we jumped back on the train and headed to Gyoengbukgung Palace, the largest of the five palaces in Seoul. We witnessed the changing of the guard and many beautiful women and men in traditional Korean dress.
Gyoengbukgung Palace is HUGE with many buildings surrounding the palace.
Famished after our exploring, we wandered in the direction of the ‘historic town’ area of Seoul and found a Korean restaurant down a side street that served giant pork cutlets with lots of vegetables as sides.
After lunch it was time for a visit to Bukchon Hanok Village, a small section of Seoul that has retained its historic appearance. We quickly called into a Hanbok hire place and strolled around Bukchon Hanok in our beautiful Hanboks. The traditional architecture is stunning with magnificent wooden doors and panelling.
To top off our day of sightseeing we caught a few buses to Lotte Tower, the 5th largest tower in the world. Lotte is a multinational conglomerate that own endless shopping malls in Seoul and are famous for selling confectionary. At first our map app took us to a different Lotte Tower, but with some corrections we finally made it there. A stop at the Guylian café saw us drink some delectable hot chocolates followed by a stroll through the illuminations at the base of the tower outside.
We bought tickets to the observation deck in Lotte Tower as it provides a spectacular view of the city and took the speedy elevator to the 118th floor. From the observation deck we noticed that a lot of buildings in Seoul are identical, sporting large block numbers on the side. With some further reading of the information in the tower we discovered that they are apartment blocks built to house the nearly 10 million people who live in Seoul.
For day 3 we had booked a DMZ tour and it was a day we had been looking forward to a lot. The DMZ is the ‘de-militarised zone’ between North and South Korea. On the tour we learnt that North and South Korea are technically still at war as North Korea and the United Nations only signed a cease-fire and not a peace treaty. However, they have been living with the cease-fire agreement for over 60 years now. The de-militarised zone is a 2km wide barrier between North and South Korea that acts as a border between the two nations. United Nations soldiers are the only ones allowed in the DMZ and each ‘neutral’ country takes turns at being guardians of the area. These are countries such as Switzerland and Sweden who are each posted for 5 years at a time to the DMZ.
Interestingly, there are civilians who live inside the de-militarised zone, mostly farmers, however, we were told that they don’t often interact with people outside of the DMZ and their movement is controlled fairly tightly by the governing UN nation of the time.
Our first stop on the tour was to an observation centre where you can use powerful binoculars to look over into North Korea. From the appearance of the buildings (some without roofs), they are not as fortunate as South Koreans.
The next stop on the tour was to the Imjingak Peace Park. This park was built as a place for separated families. As a tourist you can walk partway across a reconstructed version of a bridge out into the DMZ and look down on the farmland below. The original bridge was blown up by the South Koreans to stop the North Korean movement. The second bridge is called the Freedom Bridge upon which the prisoners of war were returned to their side of Korea after the cease-fire.
Next to the destroyed bridge is an impeccable train bridge to North Korea which was built and is maintained in the hope that Korea will one day be reunified. In addition, there is a monument called Mangbaeddan for displaced people whose hometowns are in North Korea or whose families are separated. The table in front of the monument is for the lost souls and people in South Korea will come bearing their lost family member’s favourite foods and have a meal with them at the memorial.
A lighter stop after the Peace Park was to the National Ginseng Centre. Ginseng is a plant grown over 6 years in Korea that has many properties such as maintaining healthy organs, giving you energy and curing/preventing hangovers.
The last stop on the tour was the War Memorial of Korea, a 3 story museum with exhibitions on the Korean War, the United Nations and early Korean conflicts. The Korean War exhibition was fantastic, with life-sized models of the vehicles and scenes of war.
Our tour was only a half – day tour so during the afternoon we had planned to go to one of the famous bookstores in Seoul, however, on the way there our bus driver kicked everyone off the bus a few stops early because there was an annual protest happening and the streets were being closed down. The annual protest is held by the supporters of an imprisoned president who they believe was wrongly accused of corruption.
Fortunately, the stop that the bus driver let us out at was near the Seoul skygarden, a raised walkway above the streets of the city, home to a diverse range of plants, many public pianos and artworks. We strolled along the walkway and planned our next café visit to the ‘Stylenanda Pink Pool Café’ in Myeondong. Stylenanda is a fashion brand, famous for their photogenic shopping experience. Their building is five floors, each with a different theme within the hotel theme including ‘Laundry, Rooms, Lobby, Spa and Pool’. The café is on the ‘pool’ level and with a tiled floor and walls and swimming instruction signs, the ‘pool vibe’ is definitely achieved. The café serves vintage looking drinks topped with fairy floss the size of your head. After you’re done in the café, you can wander down through the floors and check out the beautifully styled beauty product floors.
Maddy’s friend Yeon had managed to get the day off on Sunday so we spent the day doing touristy things in Seoul. It was so lovely having Yeon show us around her city.
Our first stop was to the Greem Café where the walls, floor, furniture and crockery have been painted to appear 2D. The hot chocolates were delicious and the cups photogenic.
On to lunch it then was and Yeon took us to a fabulous Korean restaurant where we ate beef stew, kimchi, something resembling beef rissoles, egg rolls and a variety of Korean vegetables. We rolled out of the restaurant and headed for a VR (virtual reality) café in Hongdae, near our hostel.
Having never had any interest in VR games before, we sure did have fun. In a VR café there are many levels with different games on each level. There were adventure games, car racing games, a rollercoaster simulator, an escape room game, a zombie apocalypse game and many more. It’s incredible how immersed you are in the VR world with the goggles on and with slight movements in the equipment.
To top off our themed cafés day, we stopped by a dog café where you can sip your hot chocolate and pat the gorgeous puppies. To our delight they were all well – looked after, well-loved dogs in a very clean environment.
On our way to the dog café, we walked down the ‘busking street’ where hopeful K-pop (Korean Pop) singers and dancers perform for the public in free performance spaces. K-Pop is a huge business in Korean and Japan where successful artists reach ultimate stardom and fame.
To finish off our last night in Korea we visited the Namdaemun markets to grab some Korean street food. We chose a Korean pancake filled with vegetables and mozzarella cheese, sold by a very chatty Korean woman who spoke so fast that Yeon didn’t have time to translate for us!
Korea is famous for it’s skin care and beauty products and it is customary for visitors to have a Korean facial while in Seoul. Not being ones to buck the trend, we booked a facial through a tour company for the ‘Whoo Spa’ and settled in for an incredibly relaxing 70mins. The ladies in the salon spoke perfect English and it was a wonderful experience.
After the facial we stopped by Starbucks for a quick hot choccie where the barista told us it was a CASHLESS starbucks and could we pay with card?! We were so shocked after coming from Japan, a cash – based society. Thankfully she took our cash anyway.
Our final stop was to the Arc N Book bookshop in the basement of an office building. It is famous for it’s curved walkways filled with books. It’s a very stylish and large bookshop with cafés inside as well.
After lunch at a café we popped back to our hostel to grab our bags and went to the airport. At 10:15pm we landed in Tokyo and made our way back to our apartment ready to start work again the following morning.
We had an amazing time in Korea and look forward to returning to explore different sections.