Hana and my trip to Seoul had been in the works for a while – ever since last Golden Week when Justine went and had a blast, we knew we had to make a trip too. And this Golden Week was when we made it happen!
I had always wanted to visit Korea (especially during the peak of my K-Pop obsession a few years ago) and with it’s proximity to Japan and the political situation having calmed down somewhat in recent times, it seemed like the perfect time to go.
To maximise our time in Seoul, we flew over on Wednesday night after work so that we would have three full days there. Our flight over was painless (though it was out of Narita, which can be a pain to get to) and as our Airbnb hosts had provided very explicit instructions as to how to get from Incheon Airport to the apartment, we were able to check in very smoothly, despite it being close to 11pm.
My first impression of Seoul can be summed up with the expression ‘same same but different’. Many things resembled Tokyo – the subway system, signage (albeit it being in Korean, although to be fair, there was a significant amount of Japanese and English around too), the helpful people but somethings were markedly different too – the fashion, the air of the people, the atmosphere of the streets to name a few.
Our Airbnb was cute and small yet comfortable. It was remarkably cheap considering it was in a very convenient location and it was a no frills kind of place with the hosts owning a fair few rooms in the same apartment block.
We were wiped out from work and then the travel but were super excited to finally be in Korea! We watched some Korean TV (a reality dating show called Romance Package) and tried to decipher what was going on, it was good fun!
The next morning we put together a rough plan for the day. Our first stop for the day (after a Starbucks breakfast of coffee and bagels) was Gwanghwamun Square which was within walking distance of where we were staying. The roads felt significantly wider in this part of town and just more spacious in general. The mountains in the background were also pretty amazing. The square has a particularly intimidating stature of King Sejong the Great (the creator of the Korean alphabet, Hangul) and another stature of Admiral Yi Sunshin (a naval commander who fought against the Japanese in the 1600s).
It was unfortunately a freakishly cold and rainy day (hence the beanie in May!) so we headed inside the National Museum of Contemporary History to get a little cultured (and out of the freezing wind for a bit). I am always stunned by how much I don’t know about world history, and this museum certainly opened my eyes to whole chunk of history I had no idea about. I also took the information provided with a grain of salt, as we know that history can be skewed to tell a certain story especially with the use of strongly emotive language.
I was so lucky to have in Hana a traveling partner who is so easy going, laid back and willing to go with the flow, with most of the planning going into food related activities! As we both had certain dietary requirements, we figured we would plan our days around accessibility to vegan restaurants which turned out to be much easier than expected. Our first experience with Korean food was at Ose Gye Hyang, in the trendy neighbourhood of Insadong. The restaurant itself was cool and had a traditional feel to it, the food was delicious but we were kind of weirded out by the cult like propaganda about veganism and the ‘Supreme Master’ (it was super creepy).
We had stumbled upon Insadong as the place we went to lunch happened to be there, and exploring Insadong was on our list of things to do, so we decided to have a little look around all the cute cafes and boutiques. And this is where we fell in love with the shopping in Korea…everything was so cute and significantly cheaper than Japan.
We then decided to go into fully fledged shopping mode and caught the train over to Myeongdong, which is THE shopping neighbourhood in Seoul. It certainly didn’t disappoint. We didn’t even make it out into the streets of Myeongdong before making a few purchases each in the underground shopping mall attached to the station.
I thought LINE was a Japanese messaging app, but the characters from LINE were everywhere here and just made for the perfect photographs!
After stopping partway through our shopping expedition for dinner at a hybrid Nepalese, Indian and Tibetan restaurant (partly because we were hungry and partly we needed a rest from the frenzied atmosphere that is Myeongdong) we walked back to our Airbnb to peruse our new purchases.
Our second day was warmer and sunnier than the day before (thank goodness) so we decided to head to the first of the palaces on our list – Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest of all the palaces in Seoul. It was built in the 1300s, destroyed by the Japanese war in the 1500s then rebuilt in the 1800s. (It seemed that many of the historical landmarks in Seoul share the same history – built a really long time ago, destroyed in the 1500s and then rebuilt in the recent past).
The day we went it appeared that an event was being set up for the next day (we later found that a cultural festival had been going on for a couple of weeks, culminating in a major ritual on the Sunday at Jongmyo Shrine – which we would visit the next day). We tried tagging along with an English tour but there were too many people and it was difficult to hear what the guide was saying, so Hana did a fantastic job being our replacement guide – using the guide map to explain the history of the buildings and navigate our way around.
The palace and the grounds were beautiful, to be in a place with such a long and dynamic history was humbling. It was a warm and sunny start to the day, and after a couple of hours of walking around and getting overwhelmed with the history of the place, it was time for lunch at Maji, a temple restaurant specialising in vegan Korean Buddhist cuisine.
Those pancakes on the right were sooooo good!
We then hopped on the train and headed to another shopping destination – Ewha Womans University, known for its skincare shops and cheap women’s clothes (hence being right next to the university campus – which in itself was beautiful). Here was our first step into the world of Korean skincare and makeup – neither of which Hana nor I are particularly interested in. It was still fun to have a look around and pick up a few things to test out.
Shopping is hard work! So naturally we stopped at one of the many adorable cafes for a afternoon pick me up – ‘Waffle it up!’
Another must see place on all the lists is DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza) which is renowned for its futuristic architecture. We decided to check it out as there was also a night market there – Bamdokkaebi Night Market – (which turned out to be fairly small and comprising of some small handmade jewellery stalls plus a load of trendy food trucks) and I ended picking up a handmade necklace and the craftsperson, a lovely girl, personally readjusted the size for me.
Our final destination for the day was Itaewon for dinner at a super popular vegan restaurant – Plant. This restaurant was on all the vegan forums and websites as a must visit place and it certainly didn’t disappoint, especially in portion size! As it was still fairly early on on a Friday night we decided to make the most of our time and try to find a karaoke place (or as it is called in Korean, Noraebang). This was a fairly hard task, as we cannot read Korean, spotting the places we Googled was a hard task and they all appeared to be in the sketchiest buildings in the middle of the already sketchy neighbourhood of Itaewon (the Roppongi of Seoul). We finally found a place in a super dodgy looking building, but it turned out it was run by an older couple and they kept giving us ‘service time’ which is basically free time. The place was a little run down but rustic – we had to look through a book to find songs to sing. It was such a fun time!
Our final full day was a glorious warm sunny day and we started off early, hitting some major cultural sites before lunch. First stop was Jongmyo Shrine, a Confucius shrine where the kings from the Joseon dynasty used to pray, which is a UNESCO Heritage site because it is the setting for the oldest complete ceremony in the world (which just so happened to be taking place the day after we were there!) The shrine was quiet and a nice respite from the city’s craziness.
Next to the shrine was Changgyeonggung Palace, which was built in the 1400s by King Sejong of the Joseon dynasty and was used to house the queens and concubines of the time. This palace was far less crowded than the one we had visited previously so it was easier to appreciate the architecture and the history of the place. We saw people taking a cute photo using what looked like an Instagram frame, so we asked if we could take a picture too and ended receiving a free fan!
While we were exploring this palace we came across what looked like another palace, next door. Turns out, I had read out this palace as a must visit spot, rather than the one that we were in! So we hopped on over to Changdeokgung Palace and headed to its most famous part – The Secret Garden. It is said that this garden was where the royal family members spent a fair bit of their time. Visitors are only let into the garden at certain times, so we waited for a bit until the next group was allowed in and made our way the luscious green garden. It was significantly cooler within the garden and despite the number of visitors, surprisingly serene.
Sneaky pic! Look at those cuties dressed up in their hanboks!
We were thoroughly shrine and palace-d out by this stage and were ready for lunch and trusty Happy Cow led us to a near by vegan buffet restaurant in the Insadong area. It was lovely fresh and tasty home-cooked Korean food and the place was run by a nice couple.
After lunch we walked over to the Bukchon Hanok Village, an area in the Samcheongdong area known for its traditional Korean houses. Before going there I had no idea that there has been a significant amount of resistance from the local residents against the daily influx of tourists interrupting their normal lives. There were signs and placards everywhere warning visitors about their behaviour, which was a little jarring but nonetheless the hanoks were beautiful and it was nice to see a bit of culture still thriving.
We then spent most of the afternoon exploring the Samcheongdong area, with its cute cafes and boutiques lining the streets. I even made my most outrageous purchase here – a zebra cardigan (though I have made a thorough effort to wear it any opportunity I get!). As usual, suffering from shoppers fatigue, we stopped for a afternoon tea at a traditional tea house serving tea and Korean sweets (we had a delicious pancake sweet thing…yum!)
Our last stop, which we had been anticipating our whole trip was to Hongdae (short for the Hongik University area) which is famous for young people performing to the latest KPop songs on the street. It was a Saturday night and accordingly it was packed with people. It was such a unique experience; there was something magnetic about the performers – they knew how to attract an audience and even though there were multiple performances happening at the same time (and thus lots of competing music) they somehow knew how to draw their audience in.
Left: This guy was trying his best to look so cool, but he was drinking a Yakult so I am not sure he pulled it off!
And like that our flying visit to Seoul was over. Our flight back to Tokyo was at around 3pm so we had to make our way to the airport by 12pm which only left us the morning. So after a lovely birthday breakfast and visiting a couple of bookstores, we headed to the airport and wrapped up a lovely holiday with a classic vegan ramen at Ts Tan Tan in Tokyo Station. Thanks again to the lovely Hana for being a super travel buddy and making my birthday extra special! 🙂