3 days in Seoul (and the DMZ)

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Gyeongbokgung palace

I started out my spring holidays with a bang – by travelling to South Korea for a few days.

All these months I’ve been hearing a lot about a cheap airline many people living in Japan use. It’s called Peach and it’s a bit of a sham. Their normal prices are actually quite expensive, and the only way you can get a good deal is by subscribing to the website and waiting for sales. But even with the sale prices I recently found cheaper tickets from other airlines. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this back in December when I booked my tickets to Seoul – oh well. The plane was averagely comfortable at least (unlike the dreadful Air China).

The area of Seoul we stayed in is called Hongdae and is famous as the place for young people to hang out, full of hostels, bars, and quirky shops. I’m glad we chose it, as well as the comfy hostel we stayed in – Able Guesthouse. In the evening, especially on weekends, you can walk down the main road and watch a dozen different wannabe Korean idols sing to groups of squealing girls. It’s surreal and hilarious.

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Creepy view of North Korea

The absolute highlight of the trip for me was also the first proper touristic thing we did: an organised trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) just north of Seoul, which was a 45 minute bus ride. It is the space between North and South Korea, a rather large piece of land, containing over 2 million landmines and more than 20 secret North Korean war tunnels, only 4 of which have been found so far. To this day, South Korean soldiers work in the area to keep looking for the tunnels and be prepared in case of attack. There are several tour companies you can go with; all of them are associated with the military. We used a half-day tour from a company called Koridoor, which was very helpful and cost us 36$ each.

The tour started at 8 am in central Seoul, from where they took us to the DMZ. We got some background information on the decades of war and tension between North and South Korea, and then we got to go down into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which left us only about 100 m from North Korea. It was a claustrophobic and sobering experience. From there we went to the Dora Observatory, to see a panoramic view of the border of North Korea. You can spot the fake villages, abandoned factories, and even some skyscrapers of the nearest city. At certain times of day both Koreas play music of their choice, and we got to hear a haunting melody emanating from behind the wall. After that we went to Dorasan station, which is a symbol of the hope of unification, because it would be the last South Korean station before a train would enter North Korea. We also got lunch which we paid a bit extra for: the traditional, delicious bibimbap (see below for me gushing about food). The tour concluded with a visit to the Imjingak Park, another symbol for peace, built on the place war prisoners were released after the Korean War. This was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, and I’m now a little bit obsessed with gathering information about North Korea, especially as the threat it poses grows with every day.

On a lighter note, the food in Seoul was incredible. It was very cheap compared to Japan, delicious, and most importantly for me – there were many vegetarian options! The only challenge was the spiciness, and on the very first day the three of us managed to thoroughly burn our mouths, but by the next day we were enjoying the food with a renewed enthusiasm. I’m a picky eater, but to my own surprise I ended up liking kimchi a lot! It’s a great snack while you wait for your main meal. My favourite dish is definitely bibimbap, which contains a pot of rice with fried vegetables, with a fried egg on top. Healthy and filling!

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In Bukchon

In terms of cultural tourism, we managed to go to Gyeongbokgung palace, where we got a free tour from an extremely smart 14-year-old Korean boy, which lasted a whole hour, as the place is huge and bursting with history. We also visited Jongmyo Shrine, which is a World Heritage site, that to this day performs ancient imperial rituals. My favourite was the Bukchon village – it’s an area between two palaces, full of ancient houses that people live in to this day, and is simply stunning. Also many Koreans wander around the centre in the traditional clothing called hanbok, which grants them free access to palaces and shrines, and adds a special ambience to the city.

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Myeongdong

In contrast to historical sightseeing, we also did plenty of shopping. Seoul is famous both for cheap and bustling markets, as well as for high streets lined with fashionable shops. The market we popped into is called Insadong, where I got hold of many affordable souvenirs. Then we kind of went crazy about all the Korean beauty shops – which there are more of than any other kind of shop in the main shopping area called Myeongdong. My friend Nick had to buy an extra suitcase to carry all of his new possessions home… Again, stuff in Korea is cheap and great.

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Us, looking so happy and oblivious…

I also have a kind of embarrassing anecdote about the very first day there. In Korea barely anyone speaks English, much fewer people than even in Japan, so sometimes it was a challenge to get by. When Elena and I kept trying to catch a taxi to go to the Gyeongbokgung, the drivers just kept making an “x” hand gesture, but eventually one took us in… and ran into a wall of policemen. There was a protest! I love protests! So of course we joined, without any idea of what it was about. I figured something was suspicious when we only met fairly old Korean people… but they were so delighted to see us, random white girls, there, that they gave us blinding smiles and free flags and wanted to take pictures together. Once I got to the hostel and found wifi, I checked the news and… of course. I, the very liberal, politically engaged Maria, managed to stumble into a protest organised by the Korean Conservative party, in attempt to keep the corrupt President from impeachment. I’m still mortified. I really care about politics, ok? Moral of the story: don’t join random protests. It’s probably about something dodgy.

I mentioned before that we took the taxi around town, and that was another amazing thing about Seoul. The taxis are extremely cheap! Sometimes cheaper than taking the underground,especially if you split between a few people. The underground is also not bad, has station names in Latin letters, pretty easy to navigate. Both Gimpo and Incheon airports have a dedicated underground line which makes it quick and easy to get there.

Well, this more or less sums up the frenzy that my 3 days in Seoul were. I was glad to go back to Japan by the end, it does feel like home after all these months.

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 3)

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Ueno

It’s almost the end of January, but I’m back with some more anecdotes from my trip to Tokyo.

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Meiji Jingu

On the third day of the trip I managed to pop into another famous Tokyo shrine: the Meiji Jingu. It’s quite a contrast to Senso-ji, because it was founded as recently as 1920. It is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912. Unfortunately, the temple was partially destroyed in the Tokyo air raids during World War II, but it has been rebuilt in 1958. Meiji Jingu is the go-to shrine for famous foreign visitors, such as George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and many others. I loved that the shrine was surrounded by woods, so that you feel separate from the bustling city, and can find a bit of peace and quiet for a change. Well, aside from when it’s January 2nd and hundreds of people are visiting the shrine, creating a crowd akin to those at a pop concert… still, it was a very pleasant visit.

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Takeshita Street

Leaving Meiji Jingu, it takes about a 10 minute walk to get to the polar opposite of the shrine: Harajuku, and especially Takeshita Street. It’s Camden Market multiplied by ten and injected with a heavy dose of crazy Japanese fashion! Think ‘kawaii’ cuteness, gothic lolita, and cyberpunk shops side-by-side. Again, the crowd was crazy, but I loved seeing some of the trippy stuff in Harajuku, and got to try the famous pancakes (I got the chocolate and banana ones and definitely recommend it).

In the same day we managed to pop into an area of Tokyo similar to London’s Brick Lane: Shimo-kitazawa. It’s full of trendy second-hand shops and hipster cafes. We got there after sunset, so shops were already closing, but still spent some quality time browsing around. I wouldn’t prioritise this place as a thing to see in Tokyo, but if you have the time it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Koto demonstration

On the 3rd of January I popped into the Edo-Tokyo museum and got lucky because it was open for free that day. Most Japanese museums charge a small entry fee, though some prices, like that of the Samurai museum, are quite steep. The museum itself is charming and full of explanations in English and reconstructions of all sorts of things like a kabuki house. There was also a koto music demonstration! I was really impressed because most visitors were Japanese, which is not something you see in European museums: those are normally full of tourists, whereas here in Japan the locals seem to be more active in going to galleries and museums.

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Pokemon Paradise

By this point I caught a mean cold, courtesy of my friend who brought it all the way from England, but still managed to walk around Tokyo and enjoy the city itself. I spent some time in the two famous ‘otaku’ (pop culture fan) areas: Akihabara and Ikebukuro. I mentioned in a previous post that Akihabara is more male-oriented, with maid cafes and adverts featuring anime girls in suggestive poses. Ikebukuro did indeed seem to have more host clubs (mostly female-oriented establishments where you pay for chatting and drinking with an attractive male), and anime goods from more girly shows. I also had a quick look at the Pokemon mega-centre in the Sunshine City shopping centre, which was lots of fun.

John’s aunt was kind enough to take us out to a shabu-shabu restaurant at some point, which turned out to be a fantastic time. Shabu-shabu is a partially self-serving dish, where you get a hotpot and some broth, and then you mix and match meat and vegetables that you want to cook. Finally, as a vegetarian, I got to eat a delicious meal without any trouble! I had my separate veggie broth and revelled in lots of tofu, mushrooms, and greens. Certainly a recommended experience.

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Ueno Park

I also visited the Tokyo National Museum. You can find it in Ueno Park, which is a giant area full of various museums and galleries, as well as a zoo. It’s the perfect place for family-oriented fun. As for the museum I went to, my nerdy self had a fantastic time, as some of the exhibits are directly relevant to the historical topics I learned about last year at Oxford. For example, they had a beautiful copy of the poetry collection Kokin Wakashu from the 12th century, which is a particular interest of mine. There was even some pottery all the way from the pre-Japan time, the Jomon era, which took place around 10,500-300 BC!

On my way from Ueno I popped into Ameya Yokocho, a shopping area that was recommended to me many times. Maybe it was the setting sun, or my persistent cold, but I didn’t really get why Ame Yoko is included in every tourist guide. It’s a place full of somewhat suspicious little stores selling cheap goods; there was also a food market. I guess it might feel more authentic than the polished feel of most of central Tokyo, but I’d rather spend time in the ‘false’, futuristic and pretty Tokyo. After all, if I want dodgy little Japanese shops, there are plenty of those in Kobe!

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Busy-busy Shibuya

My final stop before going home was Shibuya. If you picture Tokyo in your mind, you probably think of that famous giant crossing, surrounded by LED screens with endless adverts. That’s the one in Shibuya. Shibuya is An Experience. It is indeed full of people madly dashing across the road, which was interesting to be part of. There are lots of Western shops there, but I was more curious about Japanese fashion. I went to the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre, full of female-oriented stores (it has a male-oriented counterpart next door). It was terrifying. Whenever you go into a Japanese store you get accosted with repeated shouts of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome); but it was multiplied by the fact that early January is the time of mega-sales here. The more they yelled at me, the faster I backed away from the shops… There are around 12 floors in Shibuya 109, full of clothes, shoes, and make-up. Prices range from affordable to ridiculous. Unfortunately, I’m still disappointed in Japanese fashion: you either get exactly the same kind of sweater and blouse across all the different shops, or you stumble into an overly frilly-and-lacy store glorifying the image of a young girl. Yes, oriented at middle-aged women. I don’t really get the hype around this stuff. Shopping in Japan still feels like a hellish experience, even though back in London it’s an activity I do with gusto. Oh well.

And that was about it for my time in Tokyo. It was an intense week full of fun and happy moments. Tokyo is huge and there is so much more to see, but I think I got a good feel of the city. It is and isn’t what I dreamed of for all those years. Tokyo has many quirks and is a vibrant place to live in. It’s also a typical city, and those who live in it complain that it’s too large and too expensive. The same thing can be said about London, I guess. A capital city is often fun to visit but hard to live in. I’m looking forward to coming back to Tokyo for some more sightseeing, but also I’m really glad that I actually live in Kobe – a much less stressful place surrounded by nature!

Shopping in Osaka

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Pretty much an Osaka landmark – iconic crab restaurant

In Japan you can really feel the countdown to New Year’s Eve. Yes, not Christmas – the holidays here are spent the other way round from Britain, with Christmas being a time spent partying or dating, and New Year spent at home with family. Aside from the annoying all-year-round Christmas shops, I’ve been spotting festive decorations even before Halloween. By now there are lights everywhere, and people around me are chatting about plans for the end of the month.

I’ve also been in a bit of a planning frenzy, booking tickets to China for February, and trying to organise a Tokyo escape with classmates for New Year. Everyone’s low on money because of this, so we pushed plans of going to the famous Osaka Spa World (I’ll write about this gem later when I get to go!), and went shopping instead.

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Busy Shinsaibashi in Osaka

Kobe is a lovely town with just enough to get by on a daily, or even weekly, basis. But I’m used to London, full of options of where to go and what to do, and Osaka provides that and more. For example, I’m a bit starved for European brands of clothing. I’ve been trying to find good Japanese women’s fashion shops, but so far they are more cutesy and less practical. Also, I never thought that my shoe size (UK 6, EU 39) is big, but it seems like a bit of a rarity in Japan! I’ve been warned about this before coming, but it’s still surprising to see lots of tiny shoes everywhere. In terms of what European brands I noticed in Osaka, there is a good range: Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Lush, Bershka, etc. These were enough for a budgeting student getting some layers for the winter.

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That festive feeling

Normally I love going to a big shopping centre like Westfield to browse stuff all day long for recreation. However, to me Japan seems like a bit of a capitalist hell. I keep trying to get used to it, but going shopping here is extremely chaotic, especially in the Sannomiya area of Kobe – there are too many colours, objects, and signs everywhere, and I simply can’t concentrate on what I need to find. Thankfully, Osaka was a bit more organised and familiar, though the sheer range of shops available on the giant shopping street in Shinsaibashi made my head spin. Osaka is also famous for its Brighton-esque vintage shops, some of which we peeked in, but it’s such a different world of stuff compared to what I’m used to that I had to idea what to look at.

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Never enough purikura 🙂

One thing Japan is brilliant for is gift shopping. There are so many random but awesome items everywhere, and there seems to be a shop for everything. I’m addicted to Daiso, which I might have mentioned before: it seems to have all the household items you might need for just 100 yen (£0.69 as of today). Another shop I adore is Tokyu Hands: the one in Kobe has more than half a dozen floors of every category of item, and it’s absolutely perfect for finding presents, especially if you don’t know the person that well, as it gives you lots of ideas. I’ve been recommended the other famous 100 yen shop Don Quijote before, but that was a terrible experience, as again it was too chaotic to find anything. Have a look here if you want to see some of the crazy stuff you can find in Don Quijote.

The scariest bit of shopping in Japan for me has been the drugstores – they are full of names and things I’ve never heard of. This is one of the difficulties of moving to a new country in general: not knowing what products are reliable, and having to get used to it all very quickly. I’ve been googling popular beauty products in Japan, so one day I’ll brave one of the drugstores and write about it if I survive. 🙂