When you’ve been living in Japan for six straight months, there are definitely times when you feel like you need to get away for a long weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I love Japan. But sometimes a change of scenery is nice. Luckily, due to Japan’s convenient location, you can hop on a quick two hour flight to Seoul for pretty cheap. So, that’s exactly what I did in January.
Some of you may be asking, “Why would you want to go to Seoul in January, when it’s freezing cold?”. The answer is simple; it’s cheaper to go to Korea, than it is to ski in Nagano or Hokkaido, where I was originally planning to visit. Additionally, I have a friend teaching English in Korea, who I knew would show me some fun places. (She was a great tour guide.) Plus, why not visit a new country and experience a different culture?
This trip marked the third country I have traveled to. Seeing how I’ve only been to Japan, and both times it was organized with a big group, I was a little anxious about going to Korea. But there was really no reason to be. In fact, it was easier to fly to Seoul than it was making all those flights to my college in St. Louis from Boston. I didn’t even need to take off my shoes!
I arrived at Incheon International Airport at 9:00 PM. From the airport, there is a train station that can take you to anywhere in Seoul. After getting off at Hongik, a lively university neighborhood, my travel partner and I walked around in circles for close to an hour in 20 degree weather in search of out hostel. We made a pit stop at a coffee shop to fuel up on some hot chocolate and use their wifi to figure out where we were. You can probably see at least 3 coffee shops in any direction no matter where you are in Seoul. Unlike Japan, they all have free wifi.
Finally, just before midnight, we found our hostel and unpacked. We went back out on the streets to grab a quick bite to eat. It was here where I ate kimchi, a spicy fermented vegetable dish, for the first time. Koreans love kimchi, and it’s served at every meal. Essentially, it’s Korea’s version of U.S. restaurants giving out bread/rolls. Just be ready to extinguish the fire in your mouth left by the kimchi. Exhausted and full of delicious Korean food, we made our way back to the hostel for some much needed sleep.
The hostel staff was super friendly, and the owner even stayed up to welcome us! I highly recommend the Bebop Guesthouse. Not only is the staff hospitable, but they give you fresh towels, soap/shampoo, and breakfast. All this luxurious hostel treatment will only run you about than $40 for two nights. Such a bargain.
Saturday was full of touristy things. First off, we went to beautiful Changdeokgung Palace, a 600-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site. After viewing the palace, we walked fifteen minutes to Insadong, traditional Korean shopping street, to buy some gifts for friends and family back home.
We ate lunch here, and sampled various street food as well. I recommend the sweet bean paste filled pooped shaped waffle bread. Trust me, you won’t regret it. When in Korea, eat poop bread. Also, egg bread, called, gye-ran-bbang, is surprisingly delicious. Especially when fresh out of the oven on a freezing cold day. This delectable treat is made from a pancake-like batter baked in muffin pans. A raw egg is cracked after filling the muffin tray about a quarter of the way with batter. Next, more batter is added on top, so the egg boils in the center of the bread. It sounds a little different, but combined with the slightly salty egg, the sweet dough melts in your mouth.
Later that night we went to Seoul Tower and used “the world’s fastest elevator”. The inside of the elevator is pretty neat, as it’s black lighted with a huge monitor on the ceiling, which simulates you being on a space shuttle.
We looked around Itaewon, the foreigner neighborhood, and ate a delicious lunch at a German bakery. Since it was so cold we decided to go inside and check out the National Museum of Korea. That night we stayed at Sauna. Yes, that’s right, we slept over at a Sauna. Except in Korea, it’s called a, jimjilbang.
We went to Siloam Jimjilbang, and it was awesome. You walk in, pay $12 for the night, and are given pajamas. From here, you can go to the bath house, get a message, eat at the restaurant, go to the juice bar, watch a movie, play ping pong, sing karaoke, and even work out in the huge fitness center. Additionally, the top floor (5th) is reserved for sleeping. Here, the women’s and mens rooms are separated, and each comes filled with bunk beds. There are even two smaller rooms reserved for all you snorers.
Just beside the ticket counter is the entrance to the locker room. Be prepared to walk into a room full of naked dudes. Protocol calls for you to leave your clothes in a locker, and strut your stuff down stairs to the baths. The bath house was a little different than ones in Japan. Instead of sitting on a tiny bucket, you stand while scrubbing your body clean with the soaps and shampoos provided. Additionally, Siloam Jimjilbang offers a wide variety of pools. You have the option of soaking in a warm wood bath, a charcoal bath, a jade bath with green water, an earth soil bath with yellow water, a cold pool, some jet pools, and an intense/painful waterfall shower. Each one is supposed to have some sort of special effect on your body.
You can also pay to have an old guy oil you up for a full body scrub; I passed.
After showering you can change into your pajamas and join your friends upstairs in the various sauna rooms. I can’t remember all of them, but a few include heated jade, salt, ice, and charcoal. Overall, it was very relaxing and a distinctly unique Korean experience.
We started the day off right at Dunkin Donuts. If you’re used to the somewhat dirty Dunkin Donuts packed in at every street corner in New England, then think again. In Seoul, they are equipped with leather couches and glass display cases. The menu is different, as it includes such drinks as sweet potato latte (it’s purple!) and green tea latte. The donut variety is completely different, and theyeven serve whole cakes. You can check out the pictures for more details.
I know Korea has delicious food, and I got my fill on many of the traditional dishes. But for a Boston native, it was a pleasant surprise to see so many Dunkin Donuts. I went four times.
After visiting a fun trick eye museum, we made our way to Incheon airport. Compared to all the airports I’ve been to in the U.S. and a couple in Japan, this is definitely the best one. It even has a skating rink inside. I bought some omiyage (souvenir gifts) for both my schools, and quickly boarded my flight home. Hopefully, I can get myself to Seoul again. Next time, I’ll make sure to go when it’s a little warmer.
Seoul vs. Tokyo
Although South Korea and Japan may currently disagree over the ownership of a cluster of islands in the Sea of Japan, both are a pleasure to visit. During the flight home, I couldn’t help myself from comparing these neighboring countries. One has been brutally oppressed by it’s neighbor throughout history. But has also recently seen tremendous economic growth, sprouting such companies as Samsung and LG. While the other has seen its decades of Asian dominance dwindle due to a revolving door of prime ministers and negligible economic growth. Here is a short list of observable differences between Seoul and Tokyo.
- In Seoul, it’s okay to talk on your cell phone on the subway. If you try this in Japan, the yakuza might make a house visit.
- In Seoul, it seemed like there was free wifi everywhere. On the other hand, finding free wifi in Japan is like finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.
- Bathrooms have paper towels for you to dry your hands with in Seoul.
- Buildings have insulation in Seoul. This “modern” marvel has yet to reach Japan.
- Due to genius piping, floors are heated in Seoul! In my Japanese apartment, I’m pretty sure the air is a good 8-10 degrees colder around my feet.
- You can drink/eat on-the-go in Seoul. In Tokyo, it’s custom to only drink next to the vending machine.
- There are trash cans in Seoul. If you find find one on a street in Japan, its like spotting an endangered lynx.
- When it comes to customer service, Japan tops Seoul. However, Seoul is extremely welcoming to visitors.
- Trains tickets in Seoul are reusable plastic cards. When you return them, you get $.50 back. In Japan, the turnstile eats your ticket.
- Everything is less expensive in Seoul. In fact, a fellow teacher of mine is making a one day trip to Seoul just to shop!
- There are larger food portions in Seoul. Although Japan presents its food in a nicer style with more delicacy.
- Socially, South Korea seems to be a little further along than Japan when it comes to women’s rights. Park Geun-hye was recently the first women elected as president in South Korea.
- In Seoul, the cars (all of which seemed to be Hyundai or Kia) are like regularly sized U.S. cars. In Japan, there is no need for a large car and many of them are tiny. These are called “kei cars” or “yellow plates”.
- Most things in Japan are 2/3 the sized of what American’s are used to. This is not the case for South Korea, as there are some big boys from that country.
Overall, it would definitely be more convenient to spend a winter in South Korea because of their heated floors and insulation. However, it was refreshing, maybe even a relief, to hear the stewardess speak in Japanese during the return flight. It provided me with some comfort to know that I was returning to a place where I felt more at home.
If you have anymore observations comparing these two countries, please leave a comment.