Subscriber Question: Where to go?

I recently received this question from a subscriber on the Vlog channel:

Hi,

How are you? I am hoping to be moving to Korea this summer if I can get either a job with EPIK or at a private/public school job for teaching. What areas would you recommend for a person’s first time in Korea, are there some areas one should avoid as a foreigner? I am excited but nervous at the same time. It’s a big adventure full of unknowns, but I am sure I will love teaching there:) Hope you have a nice day.

Kind regards, Joanna

Here are my answers:



Seoul Zoo

Believe it or not, the 10th largest zoo in the world is the Seoul Zoo. While not technically in Seoul, the zoo did start there in 1909 when Imperial Japan originated the zoo on the grounds of Changgyeongung. In 1984, the current facility opened and has been growing ever since.




Information:

Address: Gyeonggi-do Gwacheon-si Makgye-dong 159-1

Phone: +82-2-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese); For more info +82-2-500-7245 (Korean, English)

Web: http://grandpark.seoul.go.kr/Eng/html/main/main.jsp

Hours:

April – September: 9:00am – 7:00pm (Last admission: 6pm)
October – March: 9:00am – 6:00pm (Last admission: 5pm)

* Seal & Dolphin Show:
4 Shows Daily: 12pm, 1:30 am, 3pm, 4:30 pm
(December – February: 2 shows – 1:30pm, 3pm)

Parking: Small car : 4,000won / Large car : 9,000won

Admission:

Zoo: Adult(Age 19 or older) 3,000 won (group of 30 persons or more 2,100 won)/ Teenager(Ages 13 – 18) 2,000 won (group of 30 or more persons 1,400 won)/ Children(Ages 4 – 12) 1,000 won (group of 30 or more persons 700 won)
Dolphin Show: Adult 1,500 won/ Teenager 1,000 won/ Children 500 won
Youth Training Center: Adult 2,000 won/ Teenager 1,500 won/ Children 1,000 won

Getting There: Seoul Grand Park Station, Line 4, Exit 2

Namiseom

This past weekend, when Jo and I joined the KTO for a fun day trip to Gangwondo, many of our hosts were amazed that I hadn’t taken her to “the most romantic spot in Korea.” This of course earned me a look from Jo as well, but in my defense, just because a place was seen in a romantic Korean drama, doesn’t make it a romantic spot. However, our adventure to Namiseom (남이섬) was well worth the wait.

Today, Namiseom is a private park and visitors must purchase visas to enter the country. They even have their own immigration line, complete with queues for Koreans and Foreigners. The island itself is really a hilltop that became isolated when the Cheongpyeong Dam (청평댐) was built in 1944. The area itself is named for famed General Nami, who was tried and executed for treason at the tender, young age of 28 during the reign of King Sejo.



For this video, I opted to do something a little special… and release it in full 1080p for YouTube. I’m not sure that will be a continued habit and after seeing the final product, I know I need to up the video bitrate to take advantage of the film.

But enough about the film, let’s talk about the trip.

It was magical. Nami Island is a wonderful place to stroll and even better if you can secure a pension for the night. It’s quiet (aside from all the tourists) and picturesque. The ferry ride from the mainland takes only a few minutes, and while you never lose sight of “Korea,” you do feel as if you are transported away to a mystical land.

Our day was overcast and happened to be just after a morning rain. While we didn’t have crystal clear blue skies, the fall foliage was freshly washed and made for some great pictures. Walking around the entire island will only take about 2 hours, but why rush it? Everything here begs the visitor to stay and just chill. The fog we saw rolling though the nearby mountains were just itching for a timelapse – if only I had the time.

To get to this wonderful spot (which I think is a must), visit in the fall and winter for the best pictures. You can take a bus, but Seoul’s extensive subway network can also take you there. Just ride the Gyeongchun Line to Gapyeong Station. Then a short taxi trip will take you to the Gapyeong Warf. The first ferry runs at 7:30am and the last one back is 9:40pm.

For complete info, check out their website!

The Sights of Andong

Andong, is a city that most associate with soju or the annual Mask Dance Festival. However, if you ask people what else there is to see in this small eastern Korean town, they might not be able to provide an answer.

Recently, Jo and I went down to the city to enjoy a weekend away from the hectic life that is the Seoul Metro area. While there, we did participate in the Mask Dance Festival and the local variety of savory chicken noodles (jjimdalk/찜닭), but for us, the best part of the trip wasn’t any of these things (or the fantastic W20,000 per night motel we found), but a day exploring the cultural sights of the city.

Our first stop of the day was the Gwanwangmyo (관왕묘). This is a small shrine located on a small hill near the new Andong Bus Terminal. Buses 1, 2, and 3 all pass by the Taewa-dong area, but you really have to look for the stop if you’re going to find this historical location, for the buses don’t announce each stop. Look for the sign for Seoaksa Temple (서악사).

Gwanwangmyo were shrines built to honor the Chinese General, Guandi. The peasants of China elevated the celebrated general to a deity. Over the countryside of China, they erected these shrines to pay homage and pray for protection and prosperity. During the Imjin war, Koreans started erecting the same shrines. The first shrine was built in present day Seoul, near Namdaemun. The one we visited in Andong was built in 1609 and moved to its present location in 1904.

On our visit, Jo and I were the only human souls present. Even those living on the hilltop taking care of the shrine were not there. As we approached, the wind kicked up, swaying the tree branches and making a lovely autumn chorus. The shrine itself was constructed completely out of wood. Opening the doors, we found a large granite tablet and stature in Guangi’s image. Aside from the focus of the shrine, it reminded me of most Buddhist temples in Korea. What made the trip special was that Jo and I got to experience it alone and without interruption.

From here, it was time to hop into a cab and move on to our second location of the day. While we could have taken a bus, we really didn’t know where to get off. In fact, the only reason we found the Gwanwangmyo was because I spotted it from the road while we were stopped. In this instance, it was also fortunate we took the cab, since our destination was hidden behind a sound wall, making it almost completely invisible from the road.

The Sinsedong (신세동) Seven-Story Brick Pagoda is a massive sight. The pagoda was built during the Unified Silla Dynasty and stands 7.5m at its base and towers 16.8m in height. There is little else to see than the pagoda and after walking around it a few times, you’ve pretty much seen everything. Of particular note are the reliefs carved into the base of the tower. They depict the Twelve Gods of the Earth, Four Guardians of Buddhism, and Four Earth Guardians. They are extremely weathered, but incredible nonetheless.

Our final stop of the day could have been reached by bus, but we opted for a cab, since we were out in the middle of nowhere. In hind sight, we could have waited longer for the bus, but we were really in a hurry and wanted to get to Bongjeongsa Temple (봉정사). Why did we want to travel all this way to see a temple? I’ll tell you why: wood.

Geuknakjeon (극낙전) Hall happens to be the oldest wooden structure in Korea. The entire compound dates back to the Goryo Dynasty and encompasses 19 buildings. The complex’s name breaks down into “Phoenix Stay Temple.” The story of the temple’s foundation dates back to 672, when a monk launched a paper phoenix into the air, and this is the spot where it came to rest.

The temple is a very popular site and most drive to this remote location. Our cab ride cost us W25,000. This is quite the pretty penny, but something we were willing to pay, since getting out the temple requires one of only 7 daily buses.

Bus 51
From Andong Elementary School to Bongjeongsa: 06.00, 08.15, 10.30, 12.40, 14.40, 17.10, 18.50
From Bongjeongsa to Andong Elementary School: 06.50, 09.20, 11.30, 13.40, 15.40, 18.00, 19.30

As you can see, getting there can only take place at certain times, so plan accordingly.



In addition to these three sites, Andong has a lot to offer and well worth the trip for a relaxing weekend. Plenty of motels are available in the city center, or for a rustic experience, why not try a minbak in the Hahoe Folk Village?

Younjuam: Seoul’s Mountain Temple

Recently, Jo and I ventured out from our home on a beautiful Sunday morning to tackle a close-by temple, one that stands unique among others in Korea: Younjuam. Rather than resting in a city center or on a mountain, Younjuam’s claim to fame is its unique location near the summit of Gwanaksan. In Korea, it is very rare to have a religious center so close to the peak of a mountain, making this excursion truly special.

There are two routes to the temple: 1) start from Seoul University and take the long way; or 2) ride Line 4 to Gwacheon Station and stretch your legs once outside exit 7. This is the route we took. The Korean Tourism Information Line also recommends this way, since the total distance to the temple is just under 5km from the station and 3.6 from the trail head. Those hiking should bring a liter of water to stay properly hydrated. The trail is rocky and well traveled. Two watering stations and several restrooms are present on the way up to the temple, so there is no need to carry a lot of gear. Total hiking time will take a fit person under an hour, while those in moderate shape can easily make the climb in 90-100 minutes.

Hikers ascend Gwanaksan. Photo by Johanne Miller.

The temple itself dates back to 677, right in the Goryeo Dynasty. It was first given the name Gwanaksa, or Gwanak Mountain Temple, but the facilities were later renamed under the Joseon era as Younjuam. The temple’s primary role was to allow monks to study Buddhist scriptures in the seclusion offered by the mountains. During the Joseon Dynasty, the temple erected a one story stone pagoda. It is said that this monument was erected by Grand Prince Hyoryeong, brother to King Sejong. Hyoryeong retreated to the temple and became a monk after his brother ascended the throne.

Younjuam Temple. Photo by Johanne Miller.

Peace and Beauty at Younjuam. Photo by Johanne Miller.

There is such a thing as a free lunch! Photo by Johanne Miller.

If one times the hike right, you will arrive at the temple just in time for the free lunch. On our trek there, they served up a wonderful ramyun dish. But coming all this way to see the temple isn’t enough. Saunter on and up the staircase another 500m and you’ll find yourself at Younjudae, the peak. From here one can not only see Gwacheon, but also Seoul and the amazing Han river that winds through it.

The famous cliffs of Younjuam overlooking Seoul. Photo by Johanne Miller

This trek is one of our favorites in Korea and now on my list for visitors who travel to Seoul. The temple is amazing and the views are well worth the climb. Couple that with some of the best tasting ice cream snacks along the way and the great feeling of accomplishment one gains from reaching the summit, and you’ve got the makings of an awesome day out for all ages.


If you’ve traveled in Korea or elsewhere, what religious site has moved you the most?

As always, Jo accompanies me on these excursions and takes so many wonderful pictures. This trip was no exception. All the above photographs were taken by her. Please enjoy the complete set below.

Korea’s National Cemetery

Living just outside of Seoul, Jo and I take a wide range of transports to get from A to B. While we usually tend to stick to buses, when we need to travel to the west side of the city, we often will opt to ride Line 9’s express service. One of the stops we’ve always wanted to get off at has been Dongjak so that we could explore the National Cemetery. Since my Grandfather is buried at Arlington, this place has been drawing me for quite some time.

President Syngman Rhee (이승만) declared by presidential decree the plot of land south of the Han River in Dongjak-gu would be set aside as Korea’s first National Cemetery. On these hallowed grounds, heroes from Korea’s past would be laid to rest and honored for all time. The cemetery rests on over 16 million square feet, making it quite huge for a country tight on space.

One can walk through rows and rows of tombstones while on these sacred grounds, but most make their way to the Memorial Gate (현충문) and gaze at the Hyeonchungtap tower (현충탑). This monument honors dead from the Korean War. The names inscribed inside evoke strong emotions from those living on the peninsula, but even more-so, are the ashen remains of some 7,000 soldiers who could be identified that stand entombed underneath a beautiful statue.

While on-site, Jo and I visited the three presidents and two first ladies entombed at the national Cemetery, but what caught our eye was the gave site of Lady Changbin An. She joined the royal court as a concubine at the age of 9 in 1507. She quickly found favor in the Joseon court and her descendents would later take to the throne (King Seonjo). As a result, she was posthumously awarded the title of Lady in 1577. Today, her tomb stands as a prime example of what a typical Joseon era Lady of the Court’s tomb. Adjacent to her tomb is a large Sindobi steele. This addition to her grave site is placed here because of her later connection to the throne, something very rare for a Lady of the Court.

Jo and I spent about 4 hours walking the grounds and could have easily spent more. In addition to paying respects to those that have protected Korea, there are several exhibit halls that will capture your attention.



Information

Address: Seoul-si Dongjak-gu Dongjak-dong San (Mt.) 44-7 (Hyeonchung-ro 65 Beon)

Phone: Tourism Information Line: +82-2-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese), +82-2-815-0625,
+82-2-815-3625 (Korean Only)

Web: www.snmb.mil.kr (Korean/English)

Hours: 06:00-18:00

Admission: Free

Parking Fees: Free

Directions: Subway Line 9 (exit 8 ) or buses 5524, 6411, 361, 362, 363, 642, 640 or 360.

 

Five Places to See in Seoul

Time and time again, I’m asked what visitors should see while in Seoul. Truth be told, there are a ton of places. In my opinion, when visiting Korea for the first time, hitting the historical and culturally significant places first will probably provide the best experience. That being said, here is my first list of five places to see in Seoul.

First: Gyeongbok Palace

Why not start off the list with the grandest of the Grand Palaces? Some people really don’t like coming here. They say the crowds really get to them, but I really love this historical seat of power. It offers some of the best picture-taking spots in Seoul, no matter the season.

Operating Hours March to October 09:00-18:00 / November to February 09:00-17:00
* Admission is available until one hour before closing time.
* Closed Tuesdays

Admission Fees Adults (ages 19-64) 3,000 won / Group 2,400 won (10 or more people)
Youths (ages 7-18) 1,500 won / Group 1,200 won (10 or more people)
*Age 6 and under are free.

Interpretation Services Offered

* In front of information center, Hongryemun Gate (main gate)
Tours depart in front of the Information Office inside Heungnyemun Gate. Tour takes approximately one hour.
* English: 11:00, 13:30, 15:30
* Japanese: 10:00, 12:30, 14:30
* Chinese: 10:30, 13:00, 15:00
* Reservations are required for groups of 10 or more.
For group reservations, call: +82-2-723-4283
For reservations in Chinese, call: +82-2-732-4268

Directions

1. Use exit #5 of Gyeongbokgung Station (Subway Line #3),
2. From Exit #2 of Ganghwamun Station (Subway Line #5), walk 400 meters

 Second: Bongeunsa (Temple)

The other must-see sights while visiting Korea for the first time are the temples. With such a vast portion of the country’s history tied into Buddhism and Confucianism, seeing a sacred shrine or temple is a must. While there are several around the country that are more beautiful than Bongeunsa, this particular temple does have some great features and is located next to a major shopping mall.

Operating Hours 03:00~22:00

Admission Fees Free

Interpretation Services Offered English, Japanese, Chinese

Directions

1. By Subway:
– Exit #6 of Samseung Station (Seoul Subway Line 2), walk 100m toward Asem Tower, then turn left and walk through the Bongeunsa Temple trail. Beongeunsa Temple is located on the right. (10 minute walk)
– Exit #2 of Cheongdam Station (Seoul Subway Line 7), walk 150m toward Gyeonggi High School and turn right.

2. By Bus:
Take bus # 361, 680, 2225, 2411, 2413, 3411, 3415, 4411, 4428

Third: National Museum

Some have said that Korea’s National Museum is the third most visited in the world. I can’t confirm that statistic, but what I can say, is that it is a wonderful place to stop and look around. Entry is free (although admission is required for special exhibits). The museum is on some of the most beautiful grounds you’ll see in Korea and home to several national treasures.

Foreign Language Interpretation Services prior reservation required:
English, French, Spanish, Italian: +82-2-2077-9685
Chinese: +82-2-2077-9686
Japanese: +82-2-2077-9687

Directions

* Subway: Ichon Station, Seoul Subway line 4 & Jungang line, Exit #2
* Bus: Take the bus #502, #0018 >> Get off at National Museum of Korea

Web: www.museum.go.kr (Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Russian, Vietnam, Spanish, Thailand)

Fourth: The Cheonggyecheon

After being indoors or seeing so many items reflecting Korea’s past, it’s time to take a look at a modern addition to the city. The Cheonggyecheon runs for more than 11km through the city center and offers some history, as well as beauty for the traveler.

Directions
Subway Line 1: City Hall Station, Jonggak Station, Jongno 3-ga Station, Jongno 5-ga Station, Dongdaemun Station, Sinseoldong Station
Line 2: Euljiro 1-ga Station, Euljiro 3-ga Station, Euljiro 4-ga Station, Sindang Station, Sangwangsibni Station
Line 3: Jongno 3-ga Station
Line 4: Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station
Line 5: Gwanghwamun Station
Exit towards Cheonggyecheon Stream

Fifth: The Han River

On either bank of the Han River, visitors will find walking paths, bike trails, swimming pools, and parks. Set against the majestic skyline of Seoul, the parks offers visitors a wonderful place to come and relax and play. Many local restaurants will also deliver food out to the river if you don’t want to bring your own to cook. It’s a great place to also to take a river cruise.

Web: http://hangang.seoul.go.kr/eng


The Ocean Rail Bikes of Samcheok

Jo and I are always looking for fun and interesting things do. When sifting through all the announcements on the Internet, one thing caught my eye a short time ago over on the east coast of Korea – rail bikes. Just what are these things? Well, they are just like what they sound like: bikes that go on rail tracks. When traveling through Korea, I’ve seen a few out the windows of buses or trains, but never had the opportunity to get up and ride them for myself. Since we were planning a weekend in Gangneung for another project, it seemed like a good time to hit up the Samcheok rail bikes, since the town is only an hour south of the City of Pines.

First off, it is important to note, that to ride these rail bikes, a reservation must be made. They can be made at http://www.oceanrailbike.com/. The bike are quite popular, so be sure to plan ahead. Also, note, the reservations can only be made via the website. If you call up on the phone, they will refer you to the website. They even turned away 1330 when they called for me! In addition, foreigner IDs won’t work. Creating a login requires a Korean name and ID. When making your reservation, keep in mind that you’ll be arriving at the bus terminal (Both the express and intercity terminals share a lot). You’ll need to take bus 24 from here to the departure station of the bikes. The bus only runs a few times a day, so be sure to check out the times with 1330 before booking your ride. I recommend booking the rail bikes from Gungchon Station because you’ll be riding down hill. If you book from Yonghwa, you’ll have to ride uphill and no one likes that.

The ride was quite nice. For a group of four, the ticket was W30,000. This really makes the trip idea, since you can chit-chat the entire way. Also, while the briefing videos say not to take pictures or video on the trip, they really don’t care. All of us in our biking unit had cameras out the entire way.

Peddling was easy… if you’re short. standing tall at 194cm, my knees kept hitting the ‘protective bar’ and the peddles were so close to me that I had no power in my thrust. None-the-less, with four people peddling, it went along at a good clip. We even had to brake a few times because we were going too fast.

I can’t say that making the trip out to Samcheok only for the rail bike is worth it. I will say that if you’re in Gangneung for the weekend, and are looking for a fun experience, then it would be fun alternative. Samcheok has a lot to offer visitors, if you book early enough. For those that really enjoy the beach, you’re in luck. Samcheok is known for it’s beaches, and because it’s a sleepy town, they aren’t as crowded as others.



Yonggung Temple

One particular location has been on my radar for well over a year. In fact, I have a few separate folders on my computer labeled “Korea” that contain links to research I’ve done on places to go that simply haven’t fit into the travel itinerary of Jo and myself. We corrected that recently on our trip to Busan. I have always wanted to visit Yonggungsa and now was my time to do so.

Originally, the plan was to arrive in Busan, drop off our things at the hotel and scurry over to Yonngungsa for an afternoon shoot. We quickly abandoned that plan and opted for a chill afternoon. We finally settled on returning Monday (Memorial Day) since our train wasn’t until late in the day. This proved to be a smart move on our part, since Jo and I were captivated by the site.

To get to the temple, bus 181 is the easiest way to get there. If you’re traveling and have your bags with you, store them in lockers at either the Busan Train Station, Express Bus Terminal, or Haundae Station. All three locations are serviced by bus 181, but your travel time to Yonggungsa Bus Stop will vary by starting point (60 min. from the train station, 90 min. from BXBT, and 30 min. from Haundae).

Fresh off the bus, pass the large sign pointing the way and walk up a moderate sized hill. The Korean restaurant you pass is quite good, if you’re hungry. Once you’ve made it to the temple, the first thing you see is a row of life-sized statues. But only two have human heads. The rest are adorned with the animals of the Zodiac. Most who come here pause and take a picture with their animal birth year. Next, you’ll saunter through the main gate and descend 108 steps to the temple grounds. These steps pause about halfway and offer a great initial view of the main hall. My recommendation is to leave the trail here and head out onto the rocks. You can get an amazing shot of the bay and temple complex.

The temple was originally built in 1367, but destroyed by the Japanese. The current iteration was erected during the 1930s. It’s said that Naong built the temple here after a vision he had after seeing the location for the first time. In Korean Buddhism, having a mountain backing into the sea is considered good fortune. Many who pray here believe if you confess your wishes or prayers in the morning, they will be answered after sunset.

Yonggungsa is one of three temples in Korea, designated to honor the Goddess Buddha, Gwanseumbosal. The main shrine (Daeungjeon) is ornately decorated with dragons, a central theme of this site. For here, the sea, Goddess, and dragon live in perfect harmony. A large statue of the Goddess overlooks the temple grounds and many come to this statue to make their deepest wishes. Two other features are noteworthy: The Gulbeop underground sanctum provides an intimate prayer area and fresh water spring; a three-story pagoda is in front of the main hall with lions representing anger, joy, sadness, and happiness.

From what others say, catching the sunrise here is a great way to start the day. I haven’t done it yet… but I would have to agree. The view would be amazing.



Busan Street Temple: Daegaksa

This past weekend, Jo and I ventured down south to the port city of Busan. We had traveled there the previous year to meet a friend of a friend, but this trip was different. This time we were going to take a little time for ourselves and explore the city (and meet up with a few friends). In fact, while I did have a few projects to work on for the weekend, once we got into town, I opted not to take my camera with me and just enjoy the sights.

It was such a joy traveling without the bag, mic, and weight that I usually canvass towns with; however, when we shopped around, Jo looked up and saw something really unique: a temple.

We, of course, have seen many temples over the years, but this one was a little different. Stuck in the middle of Nampo-Dong’s shopping district, the temple rose two or more stories above the road. Furthermore, the backside was covered in retail establishments. Seeing this, we knew it was something special and had to be explored. With that thought in mind, I quickly took out my iPhone and turned on the camera.

It took only a few minutes to get to the temple’s entrance, where we learned its name: Daegaksa (대각사). After being on the KTX and in our hotel room for most of the day, it was nice to be in such a wide open area. The temple was peaceful and surprisingly quiet. During our time there, we only saw one monk and one person praying. I think that’s what I like about these small urban temples the most, is that they aren’t crowded. You can really get a feel for how Buddhism is practiced in Korea.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, the video was shot on the iPhone. I’m quite impressed with how it came out. Sound isn’t too bad and the colors are good. Editing was simple enough in iMovie. My only complaint is with the music that goes with the travel theme.

What do you think?