Christmas In Seoul
Posted by Heliocentrism on May 29, 2014
December 23, 2012 – January 1, 2013
Mark and I had an argument around October of 2012. He wanted to go to Seoul to visit his new cousins. I said that it was too expensive.
Mark: How will it be expensive?
Me: Didn’t you say the Beetle is not that cheap around peak seasons? And, it only takes us to Busan. We still have to take a train to Seoul. Then we’ll have to pay for a hotel!
Mark: We don’t have to pay for a hotel. My cousin wants us to stay at her house. And, I found cheap airline tickets on JejuAir that cost less for two round trip tickets than one one-way fare on the Beetle.
Me: Well then, sounds like we’re going to Korea!
So on Sunday, December 23rd we set off to Fukuoka to get our JejuAir flight to Seoul.
When we got to the airport Mark’s cousin and her husband were there waiting for us. The cousin gave us both big hugs. I could tell she was very happy to see us. They stood there asking us questions.
Cousin: Flight good?
Me: Flight good!
The cousin looked at me and asked, “You speak Korean?”
Me: 조금한국어 (a little Korean)
The cousin looked at Mark. “And Mark?”
Mark: 가자! (Let’s go!)
They found this extremely amusing. “가자,” the husband said mockingly while laughing as he led us to their car. During the trip they would continually set the conversation up so that Mark could say, “가자!” They enjoyed hearing Mark “speak Korean”.
24th Monday: You’re not going out in that, are you?
We got up early in the morning and watched Sponge Bob Squarepants in Korean with the kids. Mark and I wondered what the plans were for the day. For most of the trip, we didn’t know what the plans were. Mark and I had made a few Facebook events to meet up with some friends of ours from Japan that were also in Korea for Christmas. But, other than that, we had no idea what we would be doing over this trip. This day, we found out as we were putting our shoes on to leave, we were going to the movies.
As we were getting dress, Mark’s cousin took a good look at my coat. Now, I have lived in Seoul for two years. I’ve been through two Seoul winters. But, my last three winters were in Thailand and Kyushu. Kyushu’s winters are quite mild if you stay off the mountains and Thailand… Well, you know. We were dress appropriately for winter in Oita, not Seoul.
“Josie No! Too cold. Sick, you sick. No!” We stood there and Mark’s cousin and her husband put more clothes on us. We got scarves, gloves, hats, sweaters, and more coats. Mark’s cousin pulled up one of my pant legs to reveal a footie sock. “No!” She handed me her cell phone. “Snow storm,” it said.
I looked out the window. It looked fine. There was no snow storm. I told Mark, “I bet it won’t even snow the whole time we’re here.” But we took the clothes. I felt like an abominable snow man with all those layers of fabric. I could hardly bend my arms.
Before we got to Korea I spoke with Mark’s cousin a lot over Facebook. She asked me what Korean dishes I liked most. I didn’t think much of this. “What food do you like” is a common question one gets asked in Asia. I have never met a Japanese or Korean who didn’t ask me this question during our first conversation. I think this is one of the first English questions everyone learns.
I told her about some dishes that I liked. I mentioned that my very favorite food, not just in the Korean category but food in general, is gamjatang. Had I known she was not asking for the sake of asking, I would have kept this dish off the list. Gamjatang takes all day to prepare. Like how roasted turkey is only made for Thanksgiving, gamjatang isn’t just a Wednesday night meal.
But while we were in Korea, every night was a feast.
I can’t emphasize this enough. We would sit and eat while Mark’s cousin continued to cook. If the plate of fritters became empty it would be replace with another plate of fritters. I had to pay close attention to my rice bowl. Any time it came close to being half empty it would get filled when my back was turned. After eating so much that sitting upright became a chore Mark’s cousin and her husband would ask, “Soup?” Then they would proceed ladling soup into a bowl for me.
One day after 4 hours of non-stop eating Mark and I sat leaning against the wall for support. One of the kids asked the husband a question. He shot right up as if inspired. “Ice Cream!” “Ice cream?” he asked us. “What!? No one told me there might be ice cream later. I would have eaten less to make room,” I said. “No you wouldn’t have,” Mark scoffed, ” You don’t get to choose when you stop eating around here.”
It would have been easier to say no if the food wasn’t so damn delicious.
25th Tuesday: Mr. Toilet’s Christmas
On Christmas day the plan was to meet up with friends from Japan and see Mr. Toilet. I’m not sure how I managed to talk everyone into this. Oddly enough, no one seemed the least bit hesitant to spend Christmas day at a place called Mr. Toilet’s house.
Mark, his cousin and I got to the meeting place early. It was around lunch and there were several eateries to choose from. The cousin asked us where we wanted to eat. There was no doubt. We chose Kimbab Chunggook (Kimbab Heaven).
I ordered two of my favorite dishes, cheese ramen and chamchi kimbap. When Mark’s cousin saw my food she giggled. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “You like child food.” Apparently cheese ramen is the Korean equivalent to mac and cheese.
With perfect timing our friends showed up just when we finished eating. We all hopped on a bus and headed off to see Mr. Toilet’s house.
Mr. Toilet, Sim, Jae-Duck, was actually born in a toilet. He grew up with the nickname “doggy poop”. But rather than fight this name, he embraced it. He grew up and became the mayor of Suwon, a town that didn’t have the best toilets in Sim’s opinion.
Not satisfied with the sanitary conditions of his city he started the World Toilet Association. He wanted the bathrooms of his city to be a “clean and beautiful resting places imbued with culture”. Later he would knock down his house and rebuild it in the shape of a giant toilet.
The centerpiece of the house was in fact a really nice bathroom with a cardboard cutout of Mr. Sim. One of the walls is made of glass giving the user a great view of the living room and the neighbors and giving the neighbors and everyone in the house a great view of the user. Of course you can flick a switch and fog the glass, but who wants to do that?
Outside we walked the grounds looking a potty art and taking photos. There was a section for the history of Korean potties. As we came upon the items in the photo above, Mark’s cousin said, “Mark village.”
Mark – What?
Cousin – Child Mark use.
She stood there nodding her head. “Mark hometown use. Everyone use.” That’s when it hit us. Mark and I knew he was very poor when he lived in Korea, but we were not expecting this. According to the cousin, everyone in the tiny village both she and Mark lived in, used pots like the one in the photo for doing their business. Then someone would come by and empty the pots into barrels and take the contents away.
When the cousin was in the US, Mark’s family took her to see the sights in Michigan. When Mark and I went to Seoul, she wanted to do the same for us. During dinner on our first night she and her husband told us about the places in Seoul. “Seoul Tower; you know?” one of them would ask. “Yes. I lived near there my first year in Korea.” They kept naming other places, palaces, museums, Lotte World. Then we’d show them pictures of us at those places. We’ve been everywhere in Seoul already.
After Mr. Toilets House the husband had an idea. “We can show them the fort in Suwon.” They would surprise us and not tell us where we were going. We hopped on a bus and the cousin got very excited. “Korean special history place.” As the bus went further into Suwon, Mark and I tried to guess where we were going. “The only thing I can think of in Suwon is the Hwaseong fortress.” The cousin turned around to look at me. “Oh, you know!?”
We got off the bus and walked along the wall. Mark and I contemplated going in anyway. But right then I started to feel cold and tired… and worse. My throat felt scratchy. The cousin was right, I was getting sick.
26th Wednesday: Sick Day
The next day I woke up feeling a bit feverish. Both the cousin and the husband had to work. We were going to use this day to visit our old hang-outs in Seoul. We even made it all the way to my old neighborhood of Chang-dong.
When I lived in Chang-dong they were building a new mall at Chang-dong station. This mall would have been right next to the apartment building I lived in. During my year in Chang-dong I saw this mall go from the ground and slowly make its way to just below my 9th floor apartment. I thought they would be done by the time I came back.
We got off at Chang-dong station expecting to see a great mall. But there was nothing. It looked like construction had stopped shortly after I left. I’m not sure what happened.
We walked around Chang-dong. We were going to head to Myeong-dong next, but my temperature was going up. Mark thought it would be best if I got out of the cold and rested. So we went back to the cousin’s home.
I slept the rest of the day. I missed lunch, dinner, and all snacks in between. Every once in a while someone would come into my room and touch my head. Their hands were icy cold.
Mark: “Josie… Josie…”
Mark: “My cousin thinks you should go to the hospital. You’re fever is very high.”
I felt my own head. That’s when I notice that I had something stuck to my forehead.
Me: “I barely have a fever.”
Mark: “Your head is very hot. You have a 40 degree fever. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit but if it gets up to 41 my cousin is going to take you to the hospital whether you like it or not. In fact, she thinks you might have to stay in the hospital overnight and you will have to stay home tomorrow.”
Me: “But, tomorrow is jjimdak day!”
I was not about to not go out the next day for jim dak. I had to seem to be better. So, I got up and walked around a bit. I even ate some type of porridge. I drank tea and juice and a packet of drugs the cousin gave me. (It’s okay; she’s a nurse.) I smiled my best I’m-feeling-so-much-better smile. I even began to actually feel better. Then I went back to bed as everyone else began dinner #3.
27th Thursday – Jjimdak Day
It’s hard to spend about a week in Korea without giving a good try at gaining 10 pounds. The food is just so good and many of the restaurants are quite affordable. On Thursday I felt well enough to go out, so Mark and I took his cousin and our friends to my favorite jjimdak restaurant in Seoul.
I warned my friends ahead of time. This restaurant specialises in jjimdak; all they sell is jjimdak. There are a few different flavors of jjimdak, but I like the traditional jjimdak best. I take mine with a medium level of hotness. Mark likes to challenge the cook to make it as hot as she can.
There was so many of us that we kind of took over the restaurant. I think we ordered every kind of jjimdak they had in both spicy and mild. Spicy wasn’t too bad if you stayed clear of the red peppers.
This is a very popular restaurant and in the past there were many times when I went there for lunch or dinner only to be turned away because the restaurant was full and people were waiting to get in. So I set our arrival this day for 3:00pm to avoid any chance of it being overcrowded.
Jjimdak is a dish that is both delicious and hard to eat. It has a wonderfully spicy sauce with glass noodles and, this being Korea, is eaten with metal chopsticks. The sauce-glass noodle-metal chopsticks combination makes it very hard to get the food into your mouth. Then the sauce and glass noodles become a choking hazard because the stuff tries to slide down your throat before you can chew it. But, it’s totally worth it once you get the hang of it!
Of course you cannot have dinner with this many friends without heading to noribang (karaoke) afterwards. Korean noribang, where you pay per hour, is so much cheaper than Japanese karaoke, where you pay per person per hour. Plus, if you go to a posh noribang in Korea, it comes with a free drink or ice cream and costumes and/or toys. (Some come with noribang “helpers” but I’m not going to explain that. Let’s keep things PG.)
28th Friday – At the Movies…tudio
I am going to North Korea. Well I have already been there, but at the time of this trip I was going to North Korea. I tried to talk Mark into coming with me, but he adamantly refused. He did however, agree to go with me to a movie set of a film of the DMZ. We all have to compromise once we are married, I guess.
Korea loves to make historical dramas. Many of them are filmed on this lot. Walking around the KOFIC Namyangju Studios is like walking back in time (minus the electrical outlets everywhere). We had fun posing in buildings and with props.
We came upon a house with thatched roof; the one in the photo above. It looked like a shabby house from a few centuries ago. The cousin looked at it and said, “Mark house. Child Mark house.” Then she pointed to a house a few houses down and said, “my house. Child my house.”
At first we thought she was showing us how close her house was to Mark’s house when they were little kids. But she kept pointing to things on the house like the door and the thatched roof and saying, “Mark house”. This is what Mark’s and her childhood houses looked like.
Shin Sang-Ok was a South Korean film director that was kidnapped and brought to North Korea on orders of Kim Jong-il. After spending a few years in a gulag, he was ordered to make movies for the DPRK. He was eventually able to escape while at a film festival in Vienna. After a few years spent making movies and living in the US he moved back to Korea. There he continued making films and wrote a book called The Kingdom of Kim. I have been dying to read this book, but as of now there is no English translation of it.
29th Saturday: Water and Ice
We got up very early and set out by car to the other side of Korea. We went to Sokcho, an area that is known for its mountain Seoraksan, its beach, Sokcho Beach, for being super cold in winter, and for being close to the DMZ. In fact it used belong to North Korea but it was given to South Korea after the Korean war.
The cousin told us that we would go to Waterpia, but I never understood what she said until we were actually there I and saw the name written. She said it was an outdoor waterpark. I thought that this was not such a good idea. I had just gotten over the fever I had and was just starting to feel normal. An outdoor waterpark in the middle of winter did not sound like fun. (Look at the photo above. Does that inspire you to go swimming?)
When we checked into our pension I looked out the window and all I saw was snow and ice. I also saw the outdoor pool and it was practically frozen. “This is crazy! I’m not swimming in this.” The cousin laughed at me. “No. Waterpia. No.” She waved her hand at the frozen pool when she said no.
Then I saw the indoor portion of the pension’s water area. It looked steamy but small. It looked more like something I could deal with so I headed towards it. “No,” the cousin said again, “Waterpia.” We got back into the car and drove a few miles down the road.
When we got there I read the sign. WATERPIA. Oh, that’s what she was saying. This place was huge! I put on my swimsuit and swim cap (Everyone must wear a swim cap.) and got ready for some fun.
This place was amazing. The water was heated in both the indoor and outdoor pools and rides. There were pools, slides, hot tubs for many, hot tubs for two, hot tubs filled with green tea, hot tubs filled with what looked like purple Kool-aide, green Kool-aide, and pink Kool-aide, cool hot tubs, almost boiling hot tubs, and hot water stations to warm up in while you move from hot tub to hot tub outdoors.
There was also a food court and a hot dog stand. (The hot dogs where no good unless you like your hot dog with sweet sauce on it.)
There was one ride with a long line. We didn’t know what it was for but if the line was long it had to be good. (The starting photo for the video shows a version of the ride with no cover. In the winter a cover is put on to keep the warmth in. This makes the ride dark and creepy.
I didn’t like it. It was nice enough to try once, but not a second time. The older I get the less I like thrill rides. But Mark and the kids loved it. Around closing time when there was no line they rode it again and again and again.
I prefered relaxing in the various hot tubs. My favorite was the 40 degree hot tub. Mark pointed out that 40 degrees was the temperature of my fever a few nights back. Now I could see what the fuss was about. I could not stay in that hot tub for too long; it was too hot.
The following day, Sunday the 30th we spent driving back to Seoul, watching cartoons in Korean and playing card games. Mark could not be beaten. This cause the men to start drinking which did not improve their chances of winning.
31st Monday: Free day in Seoul
I’ve lived in Korea for 2 years and one thing I’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to doing it, is have lunch or coffee in one of those lovely shops in the subway. I don’t mean a place near the subway or just outside the turnstiles, but in the station underground. When I lived in Korea and I used the subway I was always on my way to go somewhere. The most I ever had time for was a vending machine coffee or a newsstand kimbab. This day we stopped at a station, found a nice coffee shop with tables and chairs (two of the first and four of the latter), and we ordered some coffee and dessert.
Before we got to the subway station with the coffee and waffles, we walked over Mapo Bridge. This bridge is one of the most popular bridge for depressed people to jump off from. It has become such a problem that it was renamed Life Bridge. There are many posters and signs along the bridge showing you other things you can do that would be better than jumping, like eating great food or playing with your kids. There are statues that encourage giving life one more try and a suicide hotline you can call along with a free public phone for the hotline.
Of course we had to stop by Seoul Station to visit our favorite gamjatang place. This place offers other stews, but why bother?
When I worked at a public school in Seoul I would always have to make sure to get to the cafeteria early on gamjatang day. Normally the teachers do not go back for seconds and thirds, but everyone does on gamjatang day. (Teachers and students ate different meals in different cafeterias. They gave the kids pizzas and burgers while giving teachers Korean food.)
Once I made the mistake of catching a student writing on the desk and had to stay after class to watch her (It was an all girls’ school.) wash every desk in the class. By the time I got to the cafeteria it was 45 minutes into lunch and all that was left was rice and gamjatang sauce. All the meat and potatoes were gone. After that I never punished anyone on gamjatang day!
We left Korea the next day. Our suitcase was filled treats from Korea like hazelnut coffee, electronics, and Twix. The prices of everything in Korea is so much lower than in Japan! We bought so much stuff I was worried our suitcase would be overweight. It was, but since we were together and our other bag was so underweight, they didn’t bother us about it.
How to get there:
- You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
- Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
- People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
- To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.
- Useful Phone Numbers when in South Korea
- Tourist Complaint Center 02-735-0101
- Police 112
- Ambulance and Fire 119
- Eat Your Kim Chi – Life in Korea as lived by 2 Canadians
- Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
- You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
- Use common sense and you will be okay.
- Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.
Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.
How to get there:
Just walk around. There are thousands of them in Seoul and throughout Korea.
The cheapest thing on the menu would be a plain kimbab for about 1,000KRW. The plain kimbab (김밥) is a kimbab rice roll with egg, ham, carrot, spinach, pickled radish and burdock. (I’m not sure what burdock is, but if it’s part of a kimbab it must be delicious.)
I’ve never seen one closed.
- The food is good, hot, and inexpensive and you get served quickly even in rush hour.
- My favorite kimbab is the chamchi (tuna) kimbab.
- 37°15’56.7″N 127°00’00.8″E
There are many ways to get to Suwon.
- Bus: The easiest way would be to find a red bus that stops in your neighborhood that goes to Suwon.
- Subway: Go to Suwon Station on line 1. Make sure to get on a train heading in Suwon’s Direction or you’ll end up in Incheon when line 1 splits. It takes about an hour and a half to get to Suwon from Seoul Station.
- KTX: You can also take the KTX to Suwon from Seoul Railway Station. It costs 8,100KRW, but there are slower, cheaper long distances train that are around 2,500KRW.
Mr. Toilet’s House
How to get there:
9 Jangan-ro 458beon-gil (186-3 Imok-dong)
Jangan-gu, Suwon, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
Coordinates: +37° 19′ 9.40″, +126° 58′ 40.92″
- Mar – Oct: 10:00-18:00
- Nov – Feb: 10:00-17:00
Be sure to walk the grounds behind the house.
Bongchu JimDak in Jungro
How to get there:
260 Gwancheol-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Coordinates: +37° 34′ 10.23″, +126° 59′ 0.55″
- +82 2-723-9381 (Jungro)
Hours: 11:00 – 23:00 Everyday
- There are two Bongchu Jjimdaks. One in Jungro and another in Daehakro.
- Thisisajjimdakk restaurant.Theyonlyservejjimdak.
- They have a few flavors of jjimdak, like curry jjimdak to choose from and you can choose the level of hotness.
KOFIC Namyangju Studios
How to get there:
Gyeonggi-do Namnyangju-si Joan-myeon Sambong-ri San100
경기도 남양주시 조안면 북한강로855번길 138
- 19 yrs. and over, 3,000 won
- 13-18 years old, 2,500 won
- 4-12, age 65 and over, 2,000 won
- (Groups of more than 30 people may receive a 500 won discount each)
- Closed every Monday, Seollal, and Chuseok
- March-October: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
- November-February: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
- Parking here is free.
How to get there:
24-1, Jangsa-dong, Sokcho-si, Gangwon-do
강원 속초시 장사동 24-1
Coordinates: +38° 12′ 28.95″, +128° 31′ 38.47″
- Korea Travel Phone +82-33-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
- Waterpia 033-635-7700
- Early morning – 06:00∼10:00
- 1 Day – 10:00∼20:30
- Afternoon – 17:00∼20:30
- Night time – 19:00∼20:30
When you enter the spa you get a plastic bracelet. You don’t use money while in the spa. You just charge things with the bracelet.
Bridge of Life
How to get there:
Coordinates: +37° 32′ 2.13″, +126° 56′ 14.04″
Hours: always available
How to get there:
Coordinates: +37° 33′ 15.37″, +126° 58′ 20.39″
This is not an expensive restaurant. But, gamjatang is one of the most expensive dishes in the menu. It costs about 20,000KRW for a 2-person pot of stew. This will actually be too much food for 2 people but good for 3.
Most of the stews here costs about 5-7,000KRW.
I’m not sure that the restaurant has set hours. It opens when it opens. It will be closed in the morning and open by lunch. It will be closed again late at night when there are no more customers.
- This restaurant specialises in stews and soup.
- This is a great place to try hangover soup.
Incheon International Airport
How to get there:
There are 3 main ways of leaving or getting to the airport.
1. The Metro
- It’s pretty easy and not expensive.
- ₩10,000/ 10USD is more than enough to get to or from anywhere.
- The subway even goes past Uijeonbu.
2. A red bus
- If there is one near where you live, great!
3. An Airport Limousine (which is actually a bus)
- This is also pretty easy.
- It will cost about ₩8,500 for most trips or less if you have a T-money card.
4. A Taxi
- It doesn’t matter what those taxi drivers say. This is the most expensive option.
- You will most likely get stuck in traffic.
This is the best airport in the whole wide world!
- Free wi-fi
- After security check:
- There are free showers. (Open7am-9pm)
- You can rent a towel, buy some shampoo and soap.
- Or you can bring your own.
- There is a theater
- You can learn about Korea.
- There is a Family Mart convenience store.
- There are free showers. (Open7am-9pm)
- Before security check:
- There are lockers for your luggage.
- There is a post office.
- You can rent a phone.
- There is a Family Mart convenience store.
- There is a GS25 convenience store right before you leave the subway and enter the airport. You can get any extra money on your T-money refunded there so you can leave Korea with a zero balance on your card.