Travel stories, tips and suggestions from Korea

tour of seoul featured cover image

Tour of Seoul: This is KOREA!

The piece of tentacle I had placed in my mouth squirmed a bit as I furiously chewed, hoping to still the movement and get this painful episode over with as quickly as possible. Sitting at a makeshift table at one of the many sannjaki vendors in Korea’s Gangjang market, I realized that despite the fact that all eyes were on me, chuckling at the absurd faces I was making and how I was flailing my arms in an attempt to do I don’t know what to ease the process, I had found myself at the end of what was one of the best days I had experienced in the entire three months of our time in Korea. Yes, I thought, as the name of the tour company popped into my head, this IS Korea!

one modern couple in seoul

 

During the past year, we’ve not really gone for tours. We’ve had a boat ride down the River in Chiang Mai, an excursion to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary with an overnight stay at the Karen hill tribe that runs it, and an amazing day of snorkeling with a picnic through Island Gem Picnic in Koh Samui. But we hadn’t done the full out, day tour complete with guided stops at various ‘hot spots’ across the city.

Not that we think there’s anything wrong with them. Each person’s method of travel and exploration differs from the next, and we believe you should do you, whatever that may be, but we’ve kind of worked out our style of travel. For one, we take a lot of photos and videos, because well, it’s what we do for One Modern Couple, and so it can be excruciating for anyone travelling with us.

The other reason is that neither of us are very good at taking orders and following direction when it comes to timelines and strict orders on where and when we need to be at various places. But when we came across This Is KOREA! and discovered their unique approach to providing private tours in Seoul (they provide tours all over South Korea as well), we knew it was something we had to do and that it would provide an opportunity to experience the Seoul we knew we had yet to see!

A Freestyle Tour Experience

this is korea tour of seoul with gene

This is KOREA! has tour guides that are knowledgeable locals providing a freestyle tour experience. By freestyle we mean we were able to choose what we wanted to do, spend as much or as little time at each place, alter the plan as we went and keep our cameras snapping and rolling to our hearts content.

We were picked up by our tour specialist Gene who quickly began to feel like a new friend showing us around town, rather than a guide. By the end of the day we had hit up some major highlights on our tour of Seoul, learned a ton of information about the city, the country and the culture, and had one of the best days during our time in Korea.

The Palace and The Blue House

 

Our first stop on our tour of Seoul was Gyeongbokgung Palace to watch the changing of the guards ceremony. This is the main palace and though it was initially built in 1395 it was destroyed by Imperial Japan and has since been rebuilt albeit, Gene tells us, to only 10% of its original size! Since it is such a massive property to begin with, it was a surprising fact for us!

We probably wouldn’t have made sure we attended the 10 am changing of the guards ceremony. Chances are we’d stroll in for one of the other guard changes that are apparently shorter and less impressive and not get the full effect of this incredible procession so it’s a good thing we had Gene to tell us that we absolutely had to make it on time for the first change of the morning!

seoul korea changing of the guards

 

seoul palace changing of the guards

Gyeongbokgung Palace guards in seoul

changing of the guards seoul Gyeongbokgung Palace

 

We got a detailed tour around the grounds to see the main gates and the various buildings of the property like the building used for banquets and celebrations and the King’s secluded gazebo on the water where he romanced his queen, er, queens!

seoul palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace seoul korea

Gyeongbokgung Palace banquet hall

We then headed to a view of the Blue House (think White House but blue) which is the presidential home and heavily guarded not just by security, but also mountains. We were able to take some shots of it from a lookout point but we’re fairly certain that’s the closest anyone is able to get!

Blue HOuse Seoul Korea

Did You Know?

Though you can take all the photos you want of the Blue House, video is not permitted! Not too sure why but Gene was told that we had to stop filming, perhaps it was the rising tensions between the north and south during that time.

The Hanok Village

traditional hanok village seoul

After the palace, we headed to a traditional Hanok village, something we were both hoping to get a chance to see. Bukcheong Village is all hills and stone walls with traditional style houses and quaint shops. We loved walking through and seeing the old architecture, strolling past souvenir and jewellery stores, cafes and even a puppet shop! It’s definitely a worthwhile place to explore and if you get a chance, trying on a hanbok (traditional dress) and walking through the streets is a common and popular tourist attraction!

Bukcheong Village Seoul puppet shop

Bukcheong Village Seoul

Bukcheong Village Seoul

 

Did You Know?

Not only are Hanok homes traditional on the outside, they usually retain their traditional layout as well and much like centuries ago when Bukcheong was home to high status members of society, it is still home to the wealthy as prices for these properties are not cheap!

Insadong Shopping District

Insadong shopping seoul south korea

Not too far away, we stopped at Insadong, the biggest traditional shopping area. With a bustling main strip of stores and narrow, winding side streets filled with more shops and pedestrians, Insadong is a vibrant and popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

We had heard about this place over and over again by many people during our time in Korea but hadn’t managed to get to visit until our tour with This is KOREA!

We especially enjoyed visiting ssamzigil, a complex we definitely would have just passed by if we were on our own. This multi-storied centre is the main shopping building in Insadong with a spiraling path up each of the floors rather than stairs and a variety of shops along the way.

Did You Know?

Insadong used to be two towns – ‘In’ and ‘Sa’ – divided by a stream and home to government officials.

Traditional Korean Lunch

seoul ssambap wellbeing restaaurant

 

One of our favourite things about being guided around a city is the chance to try new restaurants and food that we normally wouldn’t know to look for and to learn more about the food culture of an area. Gene took us to Wellbeing Restaurant for ssambap, which is a style of Korean food where rice, meat and other ingredients are wrapped in green leafy vegetables. As usual, a variety of sides come with your order and with Gene’s guidance we got beef bulgogi and spicy pork. It was absolutely delicious and we loved the glazed mini-potatoes that accompanied the meal, something we had not had the chance to try while in Korea.

Wellbeing Restaurant is a place we wish we had found sooner as it had delicious food and was really reasonably priced.

Did You Know?

Ssambap literally translates to “wrapped rice” as Ssam means ‘wrapped’ and bap is ‘rice’.

‘N’ Tower, With A View


seoul n tower bottom view

From the first day we arrived in Seoul we could see the N Tower, or Seoul Tower, and we kept talking about going to actually see it up close. We got our chance with This is Korea! and had the added benefit of being driven almost all the way to the base – something that is only possible when you are with a tour! With Gene we were able to skip the cable car, or the lengthy uphill walk!

love locks seoul n tower

The area around the N Tower is actually quite scenic with incredible views over the city from the base of the tower. We opted not to go to the top as we were told we’d get a similar view, only higher, and explored more of the area around it. There were many restaurants, albeit expensive, but also a love lock wall and various other areas that would be absolutely perfect for a picnic!

While this was our very first love lock location, we didn’t leave a lock…perhaps at the next one!

n tower view in seoul

Did You Know?

The ‘N’ in N Tower is often thought to stand for North, however it actually stands for Namsan after the mountain on which it stands.

Cheonggyecheon Stream

seoul cheonggyecheon

The day was almost done, but Gene still had a few more stops for us before we’d be heading home so we made our way to a popular spot for locals to relax – Cheonggyecheon stream.  This stream is almost 6 km (or almost 4 miles) long and was only finally restored a mere decade ago. It is now an incredibly frequented spot where students go to study, families go to enjoy the day and couples go to spend time together. We had already stopped by here once before but wanted to see it again since we were already so close and had the added benefit of a guide who could tell us more about the area and the restoration project.

seoul korea cheonggyecheon stream

Did You Know?

The stream used to be used for laundry and had many shanty houses lining it’s waters after the war. While restoration initially began in the 50’s it wasn’t completed until 2005.

Gwangjang Market

seoul gwangjang market

After a quick detour for some coffee, upon our request, we made our final stop of the day. the traditional Gwangjang market. Over the previous few months we had ventured to several markets but had yet to explore this popular one that we kept hearing about. The narrow aisles were lined with food stalls, small shops of souvenirs, fabric, clothing and a variety of other traditional products.

gwangjang market food seoul

Gene told us it was famous for three different foods: mandoo (or dim sum), mung bean pancake and live octopus. When we entered we were fairly certain we’d be grabbing some of the first two, but were dead set against trying the last. Live octopus was just not on our list of things we wanted to try and hadn’t been since we landed in the country.

live octopus korea

Unfortunately, we could not have predicted a kind offer we had no clue how to politely refuse….and ended up with a mouthful of squirming octopus tentacle…

If you’d like to spend some time exploring the city with us and watch how the offer of live octopus turned out, take a look at our video of our tour of Seoul with This is KOREA!

Did You know?

Gwangjang market is one of Seoul’s oldest and largest markets and was started over 100 years ago.

A Day To Remember in Seoul

this is korea seoul

The entire day was filled with history, tradition, culture and fun and by the end of it we were left feeling like we hadn’t truly experience Seoul until that day. The tour of Seoul with This is KOREA! was an amazing way to learn about the city and get a chance to have a guided exploration of areas we really wanted to see.

The entire process, from first contact to arrange a tour to the moment we were dropped off by Gene at our accommodation was smooth, efficient and professional. We could not have asked for a better tour guide, a better schedule or a better day!

You Can Do It Too

If you’d like to plan a tour in Seoul, or elsewhere in Korea, contact This Is KOREA! and let them work with you to customize a schedule that works best for you! And if you happen to get Gene as your tour specialist, tell him we say hello!

The ‘Gentle Monster’ of Korea’s Fashion Scene

Shopping in Seoul offers a lesson in the diversity and complexity of the Korean culture that straddles traditional values and beliefs with modern commercialism and practices. There’s the low hanging, plastic tarp ceilings of the traditional street markets, where the smell of food being sold along narrow aisles wafts as you walk and old shops line the corridors selling random products or fresh produce like fish and fruit. There’s the cobble-stone, modern walkways of other ‘markets’ where name brand shops have staked their claim and the only interruption to the flow of the crowds walking is the centre lane of food stalls. And then there are the shopping centres and popular districts, like Gangnam, where designer brands aren’t just a luxury, they are a necessity.

Shopping In Seoul A Draw For Tourism

shopping in korea

Seoul is essentially a large playground for shoppers and tourists alike, looking for anything from designer brands to underground (literally, underground at almost every subway station) bargain shops. Tourism is booming here, and much of it revolves around the accessibility to products and brands people in neighbouring countries, just have to have. In fact, South Korea is now the top destination for Chinese tourists, now the largest body of tourists world-wide, who are drawn here for the luxury items they can find.

One such luxury item is the brand of sunglasses, Gentle Monster. This South Korean sunglasses company is a pride of the country and has taken the fashion industry by storm in just three years, breaking onto the European fashion scene and making its way to shield the eyes of celebrities world-wide. In fact, it was a K-Drama actress that made this brand so notable when she chose to wear several of their sunglasses onscreen. Immediately fans of this popular show in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Singapore hurried to make Gentle Monster sunglasses a part of their own fashion statement.

Gentle Monster Blends Art with Commercialism

thin framed gentle monster sunglasses

We’ll be honest, we hadn’t heard of this brand but as we walked through the trendy, hipster-esque streets of Garosu-gil, we were told by our friend, and impromptu-guide, of their popularity and some of the unique aspects of the company – like their business model of “innovative experiment” and their attention to their showrooms and displays. It should also be noted that their prices are considered more ‘reasonable’ by some as you can find a pair of these trendy, vintage-inspired modern shades for as low as 200,000 won ($170 USD). Not what we would consider cheap, but what most who are looking for designer brands would call affordable.

While in Seoul, you may look to find a tourist-worthy destination like an art gallery or museum and you may also look to do some shopping. At the showrooms for Gentle Monster, you can do both. We stopped by the Sinsa-dong location and got much more than we expected when we were told we’d be visiting the showroom for a brand of designer sunglasses!

If you’re in Seoul, a visit to one, or more, of these showrooms is a unique experience offering you a journey into the contemporary art scene of Korea and also letting you participate in one of the favourite activities of tourists to Seoul – shopping! Don’t forget to climb to the top-floor-turned-cafe for some refreshments.

 

Pick The Pair Of Sunglasses That You Want By Clicking Them

 

If you’re not into any of the sunglasses above check out more Gentle Monster Sunglasses style=.

 

Gentle Monster Showroom – Home & Recovery

If you can make it to one of the showrooms in Seoul, we highly recommend it though we haven’t decided if it should be considered more than an art gallery or more than a designer store. If Seoul isn’t on your list of next travel destinations, we’ve got you covered with this photo tour of the Sinsa-dong location. The theme is “Home and Recovery” and throughout you’ll see an amazing blend of the artistic with the commercial in the designs of both their showrooms and their sunglasses.

An interesting looking front entrance did nothing to foretell what we would find inside!

Gentle monster home and recovery showroom

Are these what you think they are? Yup! But let’s take a closer look…just in case.

gentle monster first floor showroom

We were a little surprised by the first display of hanging IV bags/lights. Though once we realized the theme of the showroom was ‘Home & Recovery’, things started to make a little more sense!

gentle monster showroom home and recovery

While there’s an explanation of the inspiration for the displays, like any artwork, it leaves everything up for LOTS of interpretation.

The First Floor: A ‘Gentle’ Introduction

gentle monster showroom first floor

gentle monsters first floor

gentle monster first floor clay

gentle monster shoe making room

gentle monster sunglasses Korea

cloth making machine gentle monsters

The Second Floor: Sleeping in Style

gentle monster second floor showroom

A bedroom for sunglasses?

Gentle monster bedroom of sunglasses

 

gentle monster mirror display showroom

stack of chairs in gentle monster showroom

The second floor also had a ‘bright room’ that was so bright, it just wouldn’t photograph, a room of cupboards filled with sunglasses, and a small curtained off area showing a very artistic silent film.

The Third Floor & Fourth Floors: From Vanity Room to Bathroom

Gentle monster 3rd floor showroom

gentle monsters closet showroom

The white made quite a stunning background and display for the various styles of sunglasses and frames.

gentle monster white wall
gentle monster showroom closet

 

gentle monsters sunglasses vanity

This was one of our favourite displays. There was just something about the vanity table and the perfectly suited glasses.

whisky room gentle monsters

What’s a house without a whiskey room? The sunglasses probably come in handy for the morning after!

gentle monsters sunglasses bathroom display

gentle monsters display with scissors

Couldn’t resist trying on at least one pair!!

carolann trying on gentle monster sunglasses


Shop For Gentle Monster Now! Don’t Miss These Great Deals!


Is this a direction more brands should be moving in? Would something like this influence your opinion of a brand and your likelihood of buying the product? Comment below and let us know! Or, if you’ve found a hidden and unexpected gem like this during your travels, let us know about it!

Light the Torches! Two Things We Regret Eating!

Controversial issues are not typically things we deal with on our blog and that’s a shame. It’s a fact of life that people have differing opinions and some people are incredibly vocal in their beliefs. It’s natural to shy away from creating conflict. Part of this is due to a gene-deep need to fit into society to survive. The other part is because it’s damn uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, to be the brunt of an attack by people who disagree with something you’ve said or done and want to let you know, in no uncertain terms, that they think you’re an ass. Get those angry comments ready folks. We’re about to stir up some emotion. You may just think we’re a couple of asses by the end.

Controversial Food Around The World

Penis Shaped Dessert at Shilin NIght Market Taipei

A little more controversy: Penis-shaped waffles, cakes and popsicles at Shilin Night Market, Taipei

Cultural differences range from the subtle, almost indistinguishable to the stark, brutally contrasting. While travelling, these differences are highlighted time and time again. Sometimes it feels as though there’s a spotlight following us around as we travel from country to country, pinpointing those differences. Usually, it’s other people controlling the direction of the beam: “Did you know they have ping pong shows in Thailand?!” or “Careful when you order in Korea, they eat dog!”. These completely incomprehensible differences then become the fuel for an attack of the morals and ethics of another culture.

Don’t get us wrong, we judge too. Especially when we’re hungry, travel-weary or just plain fed up with navigating the minefield of frustrations that come while dealing with the behaviours of a culture so different from our own. In the end, we get over it and realize it’s all about perspective. We’ve even come to realize that our own steadfast (or at least we thought they were) beliefs in what is right and wrong across cultures occasionally move into a grey area reserved for those who step away from their own ethnocentrism and attempt to view a culture from within. This is especially true when we cross paths with controversial food around the world.

Having said all that, we have done a few things we swore we would never do. Two things we ate in particular that, even after mentally stepping inside the cultural-framework within which it is acceptable, we feel regret and dismay. Alright, we’ll be honest, we didn’t step inside anything mentally with the first one…we were just flat out drunk.

A Night Of All-You-Can Drink Yakiniku

japan yakiniku bbq

Two hours. That’s how long we had to indulge ourselves and reach epic levels of sloppy, delicious gluttony. And boy did we indulge.

Yakiniku, or BBQ meat, is one of our favourite styles of restaurant in Japan where you cook your own meat over a grill in the middle of your table and get in touch with your inner caveman (or woman). Conversation ensues with the smell of wonderfully marinated pork or perfectly tender steak, and oftentimes the sake is flowing. Our friend in Okinawa decided to take us to a local yakiniku that also happened to be all-we-could-eat, all-we-could-drink, for only $30. And when we say ALL you can drink, we mean spirits, wine, beer, cocktails, sake, you name it, you can order it. And we did.

Needless to say, two hours later our friend’s suggestion to go across the street to an izakaya (tapas-style) restaurant and continue drinking seemed like the best idea ever. What she didn’t tell us was that she planned to order some of their specialty dishes for us to try. Dishes we hadn’t planned on ordering while in Japan.

We followed her inside the narrow entrance, squeezing behind the occupied stools lining the bar and made our way upstairs. Taking off our shoes, we settled ourselves onto cushions on the floor around a table, a traditional Japanese setting, as the owner discussed the menu with our friend. She talked us into agreeing to eat raw chicken.

horse meat and raw chicken japan

Disclaimer: These photos were taken while under the influence

As the dish of small, light-coloured pieces of uncooked chicken made its way in front of us, we noticed the dark-red, unknown strips of meat set to the side. “That”, she said, “is basashi…raw horse”. Carolann made some inane comment about Black Beauty and Macrae stared, eyes glazed with, er, uncertainty.

The rest happened in a alcohol-fueled haze. The cell phone recording of the experience, a helpful guide to the events that transpired as chopsticks met horse meat and horse meat met mouths. We have different recollections of the taste, neither of us found it overly offensive but then, neither of us went for seconds.

While horse meat is considered a delicacy in at least 9 other countries, including Iceland and France, the taboo of eating it is far more wide-reaching, though this wasn’t always the case. Nowadays, horses are a hugely controversial food, often too closely linked with the concept of a pet to make them acceptable food items and it was this connection that had us avoiding any further consumption.

The raw chicken on the other hand, was a dish we happened to order more than once while in Japan.

That One Time in Korea

live octopus korea

They were going to eat it and it was still moving.

Standing in one of the cluttered, busy aisles of the Gwangjang market, the food stalls alight from the overhanging lamps, we watched as the plate of squirming pieces of tentacles was placed in front of the two waiting customers near us. We had stopped at a stall serving sannakji, raw octopus that is cut into small pieces, live. As we watched the bowls of sauce moved ceremoniously beside the plate and the two patrons preparing to dig in, we saw no sign of those tentacles slowing down.

Then it happened. The duo glanced over and noticed us staring, with our eyes wide and mouths gaping, and they smiled. They were either being very nice or very clever in choosing their meal-time entertainment, but they offered their plate to us and told us we could try. With that kind smile and polite offer, we gave a few weak shakes of our head. A second offer, the plate moved even closer and a new pair of chopsticks appeared. We looked at each other and knew we were both thinking the same thing “how rude is it for us to turn this down?”. We finally accepted. Both of us taking turns choosing a piece, taking way too long to think about it, and finally placing that squirming, sliding, tentacle in our mouths.

eating raw octopus in Korea

It’s a controversial practice. Something we both said we weren’t going to do. Unfortunately, that’s not all we did. We also went home and researched the topic of eating live octopus, specifically how an octopus feels when it is being chopped up. Try that kind of research about something controversial you’ve done. It’s a great way to make yourself feel even shittier than you did.

Digesting (excuse the pun) a bunch of research on cephalopod neuroanatomy, and believe it or not psychology, as well as discussions on animal cruelty and welfare, cultural sensitivity and food culture we were left with the bone-deep knowledge that we would not be trying sannakji again. We respect that it is a delicacy in the country, not just a crazy thing tourists do when they go to Korea, but to us it is also an inhumane way to treat a living creature and something we don’t wish to participate in again.

What We Learned

So, have at us! We think we were wrong too, but you know what? In the end, we can say we learned a few things:

1. It’s not as easy as right and wrong. Cultural traditions and ties are a strong force and when you are immersed in a culture, things can start to look a little different than you once thought.

2. We’re a bit stronger in our beliefs BECAUSE we tried these two things. We can say unequivocally that neither are things that we really need to be eating. Granted, if you’re a vegetarian you will say no animal needs to be eaten…so you’ve got us there.

3. We learned another lesson in “not judging others”. After all, we’ve done it too!

and

4. We’ve learned that we can do some unpredictable things when we drink too much in Japan!

 

 

songdo south korea

Songdo: South Korea’s Smartest City?

Smart city. City of the future. High-tech utopia.

These are the words that were sprawled across almost every article we read about the newly built city of Songdo in South Korea. So, while we were prepared to see something different, and perhaps a little advanced, we were not expecting to step out of the train station into a place that felt, well, very much not like Korea – at least not the Korea we’d been experiencing over the previous month.

Home Sweet… Songdo?

city of songdo south korea

We probably would never have made our way to Songdo. We certainly wouldn’t have spent so much time there, but we had accepted a house sit through TrustedHousesitters.com and it allowed as a look into a new, unique and totally unexpected area of South Korea. For 6 weeks we stayed in this interesting, new city and got to see a totally unique side of South Korea, and city-life in general.

Our first glimpse of Songdo was pretty much exactly like the pictures of the small models used to design it – bright green trees lining the areas around modern looking buildings not yet marred by time and the elements. After a more thorough exploration we’ve come to see it as a sort of Sim City-esque community, with its strategic, pre-designed and perfectly placed residential and commercial buildings, centralized recreation centres, international schools, numerous parks and some fancy touches.

In fact, there are quite a few fancy touches. Fountains, ponds, and statues pepper the city and drawing on some of the world’s “best” cities, Songdo has installed similar features. It’s as if that crazy-haired mayor, hands-a-waving, popped up on a screen every so often and gifted someone with things like a Central Park, a Sydney Opera House and the canals of Venice (and for those of you who don’t know, we aren’t referring to the actual mayor, it’s actually a reference to the early days of Super Nintendo and Sim City… we may be dating ourselves with that one).

tribowl songdo south korea

We really felt as though we stepped out of the Korea we knew and into some pseudo-version of a North American suburban city. Before we left to travel, we lived in a city near Toronto, Canada, called Mississauga. For us, this feels like a very similar, albeit fancier, version of it.  There’s even a shopping centre called “Square One”, just like the major shopping mall in Mississauga, a short distance outside of the city.

We’re Not in Korea Anymore Toto!

songdo international business district south korea

Perhaps the reason we don’t really think of Songdo as typical Korea is because it wasn’t built to be such. Designed to attract international business and relations, it is a very “foreigner-friendly” area. English signs and translations are easily found and the entire feel for us was outside of what we had experienced during the rest of our travels in Korea.

It’s clear that Songdo was made in effort to accommodate and develop international interest. In fact, there is even a flag street – so dubbed because of the many international flags that line the centre of the road. We tested out our flag-knowledge on this street, walking from the start of the flags to the end, happy with our ability to recognize many of the countries represented until we realized that there was no Canadian flag! How could this be? We’re the only country allowed a whopping 6 months landing visa, there’s a whole host of us teaching English here and yet… no flag?

We decided to go on a mission, to verify we hadn’t just been tired or hungry or mistaken. Check out our great Canadian flag hunt down the streets of Songdo and how we took matters into our own hands!

Around The World

songdo south korea flag street international

We touched on it briefly, but some features of Songdo have been inspired from great cities around the world. They’ve taken the wide boulevards of Paris when designing their streets and a modern canal system based on Venice. They also built an expansive Central Park, inspired by the one in New York, a system of parks throughout the city like those in Savannah and a convention centre in the style of the Sydney Opera House.

Songdo also boasts the tallest building in South Korea, the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, next to the Songdo Convensia (the Sydney Opera House looking convention centre) and a pretty solid transit system via train and bus, into and out of the city.

The construction of the city is still not complete so it will be interesting to see what else pops up as they go! It’s definitely looking to pull in some unique characteristics and a fusion of familiar architecture and features.

Gizmos and Gadgets A Plenty!

songdo central park canal south korea

Not only is Songdo intended to be a global business hub, a designated Free Economic Zone, it is also the first new sustainable city in the world designed to be an international business district. It was once muddy tidal flats until large-scale land reclamation allowed for the development of the city.

Songdo has some pretty futuristic looking buildings! We love how different it looks and love some of the interesting implementation of technology in order to make this city “smart” and sustainable.

But what does it mean to be a smart and sustainable city?

Wikipedia defines a smart city as one that “uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.”

Basically, a smart city uses modern technology and data collection in order to create a sustainable city where costs and consumption (including waste, emissions, energy, etc) are reduced but quality of life is improved.

Songdo has been developed on these principles and has some interesting features including an extensive 25 km of bike lanes, an advanced technology infrastructure, natural gas fueled central and city-wide co-generation facility for clean power and hot water, energy-efficient LED traffic lights and energy efficient pumps and motors.

We’ve even heard of a TelePresence system that allows home-bound (and probably not so home-bound) residents the ability to video-conference a wide range of services including medical and health care, beauty consulting and remote learning, although we didn’t get to see this in action.

Interesting to us was the centralized underground waste system for wet and dry waste. This underground disposal system eliminates the need for garbage trucks and also allowed us to walk around the hot and humid summer months in Songdo sans the typical odours one equates with city living, garbage and the summer heat.

We were also impressed, even when we were slightly overwhelmed and frustrated, by the extensive recycling and sorting system. EVERYTHING seems to have it’s own area for recycling and disposal.

The city was also pleasantly and literally green. With 40% designated open space, many trees and parks, the city felt less like a concrete playground than would be expected with all its tall buildings and futuristic structures.

Is A Smart City Really So Smart?

songdo south korea smart city

But, this ideal of a smart city doesn’t necessarily equate to that of a utopian society. In fact, many criticize the attempt to create such a city and have concerns as to exactly how much individuality and control citizens would have over their own lives should these smart cities become commonplace. Imagine, a city laid out perfectly to direct traffic flow, shopping and spending habits, and all the everyday choices and decisions we make. Imagine a soulless city of cookie-cutter concrete buildings and a central computer system driving behaviour based on algorithms and formulas that dictate the best flow for efficiency.

As Richard Sennett discusses in his article on TheGuardian.com, No One Likes A City That’s Too Smart, the dangers in these smart cities is that these “information-rich cit[ies] may do nothing to help people think for themselves or communicate well with one another.”

We find this concept of a smart and sustainable city incredibly fascinating and look forward to finding more cities attempting to do the same. We’d like to see the pros and cons, see whether there is truth in the benefits of the advancements made or in what Sennett describes as the soullessness of the cities that are created. Rio de Janeiro, he says, is a good compromise with its “co-ordination” of systems in place in order to aid in emergencies and natural disasters rather than the “prescription” of behaviour in the many other cities moving towards a “smarter” existence.

We’ll be looking to visit Rio in Brazil, Masdar in the UAE and other developing smart cities in an effort to see what they are all about, and see if Sennett is right in his final statement of the article:  “We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life.”

songdo south korea smart city

We noticed that soullessness in Songdo. At times, it seemed bleak and desolate. Perhaps it was just the fact that the city was eerily devoid of human presence on the streets during weekdays and in the evenings and well, the sky was rarely without smog and clouds. But perhaps it was more than that. There was a strong sense of structure and rigidity to the area, a square of a community that had us walking around the perimeter and rarely breaking out from beyond the “prescribed” neighbourhood and facilities within. In fact, people seemed to rarely break out of the prescribed behaviours and expectations of the culture and community.

Perhaps, however, this soulless, cookie-cutter existence isn’t just present in smart cities. We’ve noticed throughout our travels in Asia, and back home in North America, a tendency to “fall into place” to accept the expectations of where to shop, where to live and how to live.  Cookie-cutter housing isn’t unique to Songdo or other like-cities.

Perhaps a “prescription” of behaviour already exists within each community and culture. We adopt and accept the cultural mores and expectations of our surroundings. We work to blend and to “fit” and rarely do we care whether it is coming from internal needs for acceptance, external pressures from peers or that controversial digital command centre of smart cities. So perhaps, we’re already primed. Already receptive to dictates of behaviour. These smart cities may just be a more eco-friendly, efficient way of doing the same thing we always do.

Back To The Future of Songdo

Songdo Northeast Asian Trade Tower South Korea

The development of Songdo, a $35 billion dollar venture, is still underway with still a portion of its construction remaining. By the time it is finished, Songdo will boast even more incredible features including more fine hotels, a luxury retail mall, museums, and the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea.

Getting to Songdo

If you’re looking to get to Songdo you can get there by bus or train.  By train, the best stop is Central Park Station on Incheon Line 1. This will allow you to explore the park and the surrounding area before venturing into the rest of the city.  Check out Life In Korea for a list of buses and routes from, and around Songdo, and from Incehon International Airport.

 

Looking to find interesting places like Songdo to explore while travelling? Check out Trusted Housesitters and, using our link, you’ll get 20% when you sign up!

 

What do you think of the concept of a smart city? Are cities like Songdo leading to future Utopias? or is the concept of Utopia just as imagined and unreal as it was when  it was first discussed by Sir Thomas More?

 

 

How Travelling To Korea Landed Us In Central Park

Where can you get a glimpse of Central Park from New York, the Canals of Venice, and the Boulevards of Paris all in one place?

We’ll give you a hint: We’re not talking about Vegas.

Chances are, if it wasn’t for the title of this post, you wouldn’t have guessed that, surprisingly, it’s in South Korea in the incredibly “smart city” of Songdo.

Before you read more about Songdo, and how we ended up staying here, check out our video and get a glimpse of a different type of Central Park than the one you’re familiar with:

 

We Followed A Cat To Songdo

songdo south korea smart city

After several recommendations by people we’ve met on the road, we decided to join a website that connects home and pet owners with people who are able to stay at their place, watch their animals and/or take care of their house and property while on vacation or out of town (check the end of this post for details on the site we use and a discount if you’re interested in signing up!).

Since we already knew we were going to travel Korea for several months, we decided to keep our eyes open for upcoming requests and fairly quickly, we saw one within the dates we required.

Fast forward a few months and we’re in Songdo, South Korea, not too far from Incheon Airport (a major airport near Seoul) and only about a 45 minute commute if we want to visit Seoul, taking care of a gorgeous, and slightly hefty, cat named Pumpkin and staying in quite possibly one of the most interesting cities we’ve seen in Asia.

It’s No Walk In The Park, Unless it’s Central Park, South Korea

deer in central park songdo south korea

This new smart city, was designed to be an international hub for business, and boy has it focused on the concept of bringing foreign people, and companies, to its backyard. The city drew on some of the “great cities of the world”, like Paris and New York, to find inspiration for various features and we were quite surprised when we heard that a “Central Park” was among one of them.

We took some time to walk through this expansive park – comprising 10% of the total area of Songdo International Business District – and explored the impressive grounds. This Central Park includes seawater canals that refresh every 24 hours and contribute to the ecosystem and two boat houses where people can rent canoes, kayaks or motorboats.

rabbit island central park songdo south korea

They also have artwork and statues throughout and a complex, built to look like traditional Korean houses, with a cafe, restaurant and hotel. We were pretty excited about the fact that there is even a deer park and a rabbit island!

It really is a beautiful and peaceful park in the heart of this incredibly interesting city and we plan to head back to rent one of their various tandem bicycles and explore more what Central Park in Songdo has to offer.

We loved the animals and active canal in Songdo’s Central Park. What would be in your ideal “Central Park? Comment below and let us know!


 

You Can Do It Too

Looking to start housesitting? Or do you have a need for a housesitter yourself? We’ve been using TrustedHousesitters and find it’s a fantastic, reliable and safe platform to find and interact with other users and they are pretty reasonably priced.  Whether you’re looking to find places for a weekend, a week or long-term, they basically have all the options available pretty much around the world.

Since we are members, we’ve got a discount code we can offer others. Register through this link to TrustedHousesitters.com and you’ll get 20% off whichever type of membership you choose.


 

 

 

5 Top Temples in Busan

In Japan, visiting temples was an interesting experience. Even during one of our most memorable temple visits to Narita, a smaller city in comparison to much of Tokyo, we were struck by the contrast found when looking from skyscrapers and technology to historic landmarks and temples. This contrast between old and new seems to be present in much of Korea’s bigger cities as well, including Busan, and their temples stand testament to the thread of tradition still strongly woven in present-day Korean life. So we decided to create a list of the 5 Top Temples in Busan for you to enjoy.

Throughout its history, Korean culture has been influenced by Buddhist teachings and its practice in the country, known as Korean Zen (Son) Buddhism, is pretty pervasive. You don’t need to look too far to find symbols, artwork or even temples that are Buddhist in origin. In fact, we’ve heard that there are at least 300 temples, even though we can’t confirm that number. Although many of the older and more famous temples were built in mountains, there are also some impressive and important temples right in the city centres. (If you’re looking, most temples end with –sa as it means “temple”).

We’ve counted about 30 temple names in the Busan area alone and with the number of temples and diverse locations, it can be difficult to decide which one to see. To help narrow down your options, we’ve put together a list of 5 amazing temples to visit while in Busan.

 

Our 5 Top Temples in Busan

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

One of the most original and unique temples in South Korea, Haedong Yunggungsa Temple is located on the coastline overlooking the East Sea and Songjeong beach.  This magnificent temple is also called “The Water Temple”, for its location and the breathtaking views it offers. This is one temple you have to see and while it can get busy on weekends, it is definitely worth the visit. We’d recommend going on weekdays and we’ve been told camping on the beach by the temple is possible and offers a spectacular view of the sunrise. Don’t forget to look for the giant golden Buddha that overlooks the temple from the shore!

How to get to Haedong Yunggungsa Temple: Head to Haeundae Station and take exit 7. Take bus 181 and get off at Yunggungsa Temple Stop. Click here to get Directions.

Beomeosa Temple

temple in busan korea, korean buddhist temple

Beomeosa Temple has a more traditional location and look, but has a variety of unique features. Located on the mountain Gaumjeongsan, it is one of the most important temples in Korea and has stunning views and gorgeous surroundings. An interesting aspect of Beomeosa temple are the programs that they run for visitors. There are a variety of activities that run throughout the year, including a temple tour, and the very memorable cultural experience of a temple stay where visitors get the opportunity to take part in Buddhist monastic life, from prayer to meals to sleeping arrangements.

How to get to Beomeosa Temple:  Head to Beomeosa station and take exit 5. Walk straight until you see Samin Bus Stop and take bus 90 for Beomeosa Temple. Click here for directions.

Seokbulsa Temple

Another unique temple, and perhaps not for the faint of heart, Seokbulsa temple requires a bit of a hike to reach. After dirt roads and some steep climbs, the spectacular temple can be found and along the way you’ll be able to pass through interesting mountain villages and see some picturesque views. While the trail is not perfectly identified, there are some signs to mark the route, and locals are always willing to help point the way. It’s not just the view from the top that’s incredible, the temple is itself. Carved into rock, Seokbulsa includes massive etched Buddhist images and is a truly powerful experience

How to get to Seokbulsa Temple: Head to Oncheonjang Station. From here, take a cab or walk to Geumgang Park. There is a cable car that gets you part of the way up the mountain. Follow signs out of the South Gate for Geumjeongsanseong Fortress. From here, the path gets tricky and you may need to ask questions along the way. We’ve also found some directions and photos that may be of help. You can also check out Google maps to help you find your way to the Seokbulsa temple.

Samgwangsa Temple

lanterns in a temple in busan

Samgwangsa temple stands at base of Baegyangsan Mountain and has a panoramic view of the city. Open 24 hours a day, it is located pretty centrally in Busan and is one of the most impressive temples to see around the time of Buddha’s birthday. Although it is worth a visit any time of the year with its expansive grounds, amazing scenery and hiking trails, the biggest draw happens once a year, in the weeks leading up to Buddha’s birthday. During this time, Samgwangsa Temple holds Busan’s largest Lotus Lantern Festival and the temple become an incredible display of light and colour as thousands of lanterns adorn the grounds providing a memorable experience and an amazing photo-op.

How to get to Samgwangsa Temple: Head to Seomyeon station and take exit 13. Take bus 81 to Seongyeong Apt stop. Click here to get there.

Tongdosa Temple

Tongdosa temple is one of the “Three Jewel Temples of Korea” and represents the Buddha although, unlike most temples, there are no statues or images of Buddha himself. Instead, it is famous for its relics since, legend has it, several of them, including Buddha’s skull and robe, are contained within temple grounds. The temple itself is the largest in Korea and is about 1500 years old. Near the entrance, there is a stream that is popular among locals and is a beautiful start to a visit to this popular and traditional temple. You’ll also find a restaurant within the grounds that offers Korean dishes and is a great spot to stop while visiting Tongdosa Temple.

How to get to Tongdosa Temple: Head to Yangsan Station and take bus number 12, 63 or 67 to Tongdosa Temple. Get directions to the temple.


Before you start your quest for the best temples in Busan, have you found a hotel in the area yet? If not, we have some of the best deals around. Just click below to head to Hotels Combined for the best hotel comparison site ever!

rent-a-hotel-in-busan-2

If you already have a place to stay that’s great! All you have to do now is explore Busan and its magnificent temples.


Although we’ve rounded up 5 top temples, if you only had time to visit one of these temples, which one would it be?

 

 

 

 

 

craft beer korea, best craft beer busan, best restaurant busan

A Craft Beer Paradise in Busan

Part art, part science but complete dedication and skill. What is it that combines the talent of an artist, the palate of a connoisseur, the scientific ingenuity of a chemist, biologist and physicist? It may sound strange, but we’ve discovered that some of the most interesting creations are produced in microbreweries. In Busan, we found it in one place in particular.

Galmegi Brewery – An Evening of Beer & Food

best beer busan, microbrewery busan, best restaurant busan

Stepping through the door into the first floor of Galmegi Brewery in Busan, South Korea, we had no idea that in a short time we’d not only be tasting some great brew, but also enjoying one truly delicious meal.

Now, don’t get us wrong, we enjoy Korean food and soju but at some point you’ve ingested enough Kimchi and hard liquor to say you’ve truly experienced Korean cuisine. Added to that, there’s a culture developing in Korea that involves international cuisine and an increasing demand for good tasting beer that can’t be found in the mainstream, major brewers’ repertoire of beer options. In this then, we were up for trying a different side of Korea’s culinary scene.

galmegi brewery craft beer busan, best microbrewery korea

Just a short walk from Gwangalli Beach, the casual atmosphere and the clean, unpretentious decor of Galmegi Brewery was friendly and inviting. Passing the downstairs bar, complete with a windowed backdrop giving a glimpse at the brewery behind, we headed upstairs to the main dining area and took a seat at a table with a view out of the large floor-to-ceiling windows. The second floor was equally as comfortable and welcoming as the downstairs was, with another bar area and more seating.

galmegi brewery, craft beer korea, best craft beer busan

The menu makes it clear that they take their craft beer seriously. With 10 of their own beers available (although the actual number may vary depending on new and seasonal options), there’s a great variety of flavours for all beer drinkers.  Their prices are also incredibly reasonable and you can tell they aim to provide a great, and honest, experience. We went with the sampler which gave us 4 half pints of different beer for only 12,000 won ($10.75 USD)

The four beers included Lighthouse Blonde, which was Carolann’s favourite and was light, soft and refreshing with a hint of citrus; Moonrise Pale Ale, a slightly tart, fruity and hoppy beer; Galmegi IPA a refreshing, hoppy and sharper beer, a little drier than the Moonrise; and Espresso Vanilla Stout, which was Macrae’s favourite and was a richer beer with a wonderfully blended coffee (which explains why it was Macrae’s favourite) and vanilla flavour.

craft beer south korea, best craft beer busan, microbrewery korea, best restaurant busan

Throughout our evening, we also tried several of their other craft beers including their Black Jindo Imperial Stout, Doljanchi IIPA and soon-to-be added Campfire. Each one offered another variety of flavours and we enjoyed them all.

The food options are also a testament to their focus on the microbrewery: extensive enough to provide a variety of choices with options that compliment the beer but not an overwhelming amount to overshadow the highlighted beer menu.

Their appetizers, or “bites”, include chips and dips, fries, fried chicken, salad and a charcuterie board and many of their dips and sauces, such as the Sriracha mayo and sweet & spicy sauce, pay homage to Northeast Asian flavours. We chose the Piselli Pizza (14,000 won or $12.50 USD) and, since it is the true test of a good burger, the Classic Burger (13,000 won/about 11.70 USD)

galmegi brewery, best pizza busan, best restaurant busan

The Piselli Pizza arrived with the onslaught of a wonderful aroma. A fairly large-sized thin crust pizza topped with pesto, mozzarella and feta cheese, salami and lemon. It was cooked perfectly, leaving a delicious crust with a great taste of its own, and the toppings provided wonderfully blended flavours. It didn’t take us long to polish off the slices.

best burgers busan, best restaurant busan, best restaurant korea

The Classic Burger had mouth-watering layers of beef patty, tomato, lettuce, cheese, bacon, mustard and ketchup and was presented with a side of fries. One bite into this thick, juicy burger and we knew this was a little more than a classic burger. Carolann, a self-proclaimed burger connoisseur (don’t forget, she’s been published for burger reviews in Koh Phangan, Thailand!), describes it as more of a classic burger – with a twist.

The surprising maple flavour of the bacon worked incredibly well with the combination of simpler condiments as did the mustard, which was more of a mustard seed spread and was void of the sharper, more sour flavour of regular mustard or even classic dijons. The fries were also flavourful, with a slight hint of smoked hickory and spice.

After a first taste of each of the 4 beers in the sampler, we could see ourselves becoming regulars. After we tasted the food, we knew we’d be back before we left Busan.

Mastering the Craft of Craft Beer in Busan

microbrewery busan, craft beer korea

One of the great things about Galmegi Brewery is that all the action happens in-house, which means that if you are visiting on a quieter night, and you are interested, they will be more than happy to give you a tour of the brewery and explain the process. While it was a Wednesday night and apparently “quiet”, there was still a steady and consistent stream of people but we were able to take a look at the microbrewery and learn about brewing craft beer and the business of craft beer in Korea.

It was through discovering the process of producing the beer and creating the flavours that we learned there is a lot more to brewing than we had realized and it’s evident that the brewers at Galmegi Brewery have a passion for what they do and a pride in the quality of beer they produce.

best craft beer korea, craft beer busan, best restaurant busan

For a microbrewery, there is the continual innovation of new tastes and flavour combinations and the task of recreating popular creations. With that comes the challenges of biology in the yeast strains, chemistry in the composition and production of the beer and the mechanics of the maintenance of the equipment and machinery. No small task this even, or perhaps especially, in the smaller setting of microbreweries.

We had an amazing night at Galmegi Brewery and will definitely be visiting again before we leave Busan. It’s a place to which you would want to keep coming back, with a menu chalk full of quality craft beers, that is consistently serving favourites, as well as frequently offering new beers, and a list of delicious food to compliment the variety of tastes, all served in a unique and welcoming atmosphere.

Do you prefer the creative flavours of craft beers or do you tend to stick to one brand label you know and love? Comment below and let us know!

 


 

You Can Do It Too

In Busan? Head to Galmegi Brewery for a truly memorable experience. You can also check out their menu online and keep an eye out for the new types of beer as they are added!

Galmegi Brewery

부산광역시 수영구 광남로 58, 613-813
58 Gwangan-ro, Suyeong, Busan 613-813

Phone: 010-4469-9658

Hours:

Tuesday-Saturday: 6pm – midnight

Sunday: 6pm – 11pm

Or, check out their other location just around the corner, serving their amazing varieties of beer and a lighter menu:

Gwangan Taphouse

부산광약시 수영구 남천바다로 3-4 세진진빌딩 3층
3-4 Namcheon 2(i)-dong, Suyeong-gu, Busan, South Korea

Phone: 010-4469-9658

Hours:

Monday-Thursday: 6pm – midnight

Friday: 6pm – 1 am

Saturday & Sunday: 1pm – 1am

 


 

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