Koreans have a lifestyle similar to the New Yorkers. The society is fast-paced, thus they got the phrase “Ppali ppali” meaning “hurry, hurry!” The people are anxious and hard-working. Within the last two decades, Korea has advanced tremendously to compete globally in technology and economy.
The best time to visit Korea is in the Spring or Fall. The colorful array of the ginkgo leaves and foliage in the fall is the prettiest I have yet to see in the world. Summer is hot and humid, raining almost everyday in Monsoon season. Winter gets down to -40 degrees F in some places. It usually starts to snow end of November, so on Christmas, it really feels like a “White Christmas.” The decorations are so beautiful and building snowmen with other kids in the neighborhood is so much fun!
From $1-5 (USD), you can get around short distances on taxis. Subways, trains and buses cover about almost everywhere including Incheon International Airport (ICN). While Incheon International Airport has a sauna, Gimpo International Airport (GMP) has a movie theater, a shopping mall and is situated conveniently within the city.
Because the land is so small compared to the population, Korea is very involved in recycling just about everything including food scraps. All the grocery stores have teamed up to charge a dime for each plastic bag in efforts to use more reusable bags or cardboard boxes.
Education is pretty intense. I learned multiplication at school in 1st grade. From elementary, almost all students study with private teachers learning arts, taekwondo or martial arts, instruments, ballads, languages or sports. After school, high school students come home past midnight, studying for college entrance exams in “hakwons” or academies, only to get a few hours of sleep and start over again early morning. Parents are intensely involved in putting their kids to the best schools and education possible, spending their fortune. Some parents even start teaching English at birth instead of “Hangul”, the native Korean language. They assume that Hangul can be learned eventually in the society.
Korean politics, like most Asian countries is very corrupt. 299 members of the National Assembly are elected by the people for four-year terms. One Speaker and 2 Vice Speakers are elected by the Plenary Session through secret vote to each serve two-year terms. As the leader of the legislative body, the Speaker represents the National Assembly. To maintain impartiality, he or she is not allowed to affiliate with any political party during his or her term of office. The regular session in the national assembly convenes on September 1st of each year and may not exceed 100 days while extraordinary sessions meet in even-numbered months except August, October and December, beginning the first day of each month upon the request of the President or a quarter or more of the entire membership and may not exceed 30 days. During these sessions, so many fights outbreak inside the assembly hall.
Korean food is flavorful and spicy. To break up the monotony of eating rice or flour, which is the staple, many recipes have been discovered for the same dish but using completely different ingredients. For example, flour kalguksoo or hand-tossed noodles can be made with clear anchovy/dashi broth or thicker base such as sesame, black bean, or sweet red bean, each delivering unique flavors to make it seem like they are all different dishes. On my last visit, I fell in love with “Ssambap”, a healthy dish consisting of barbequed meat, a variety of different side dishes, raw garlic and green hot pepper, a teaspoon of hot pepper/miso paste, wrapped like a burrito with a vegetable leaf of some sort such as chicory, sesame seed leaf or red lettuce. You can’t help but smell afterwards but the food is worth every bite of it. Another dish called “Dak galbi,” spicy marinated stir-fried chicken rib mixed with vegetables, by far beats anything I have eaten the whole week. Myung dong, a street in Chuncheon, east of Seoul is where people go for good dak galbi. However, the quality and quanity of the food has gone significantly sour in this area. Take a cab to “Jang Ho Dak Galbi,” where they serve 100% locally raised chicken. This restaurant has been on SBS Korean TV channel voted for its authenticity and quality. After you are done eating, the restaurant offers a shuttle to Soyang Dam. When you order any main dish where ever you go, kimchi and many side dishes as well as a stew come with it. Once you are done with the main dish, you can mix rice or noodles to create a second or third course. When people say Koreans can eat, they mean it. At first, it was shocking how people stay so thin when they eat so much carbohydrates. But long days, starting at 6-7AM to midnight as well as walking up and down many flights of stairs using the subway, require a lot of energy. Food is prevalent. In fact, some of the best food I have eaten were from the street vendors selling “odang” (fish cakes), “tthukbokgi” (spicy rice cakes), “dakggochi” (marinated bbqed chicken skewers), vegetable, squid and shrimp tempura, “bam” (chestnuts), “oksoosoo” (corn), “boonguhpphang” (red bean sweets), “soondae” (noodles wrapped in the skin of pig intestines) and “ppundaegi” (silkwarm larvae). The last two, I have not had since I was a child when I did not know what they were. There is barely anything that “ahjuhssis” referring to men in their 30’s and up would not eat.
Kimchi, the main traditional korean side dish, comes in many different kinds, such as cucumber, radish, napa cabbage and green onions. The reddish fermented dish is made with chili peppers, salt, pepper, garlic, vinegar and other spices. Women in the family and neighborhoods gather before cold winter for a day of “gimjang,” a full day to make kimchi for Winter and the Spring. Back in the days, they stored the kimchi in large clay pots underground for refrigeration. Nowadays, they use kimchi refrigerators which offer precise temperature controls for storing gimjang kimchi.
Norangjin Fish Market in Seoul is the biggest fish market and has the freshest fish, crabs, octopus, abalones, prawns, clams, oysters, sea snails, sea cucumbers, etc…as well as dried fish products. This is the place to buy wholesale from 1 to 630am or come during the day and bargain whatever you want to eat. If you want, they will prepare your fish for you as sashimi, then make spicy fish stew with the leftovers.
Shopping is fun. Although there are nice department stores like ShinSaeGae or Lotte, I prefer to go to Dongdamun or Namdaemun markets for some bargain finds! Whatever the price is, I start from 1/3 off the price and bargain my way up. Once you start to walk away, most people will call you back to get your business. Unfortunately Korean women are small and petite, so it is difficult to find clothes that fit. Pants are always too short and shoes only come in size 8, unless it is custom ordered. However I get a thrill buying cute accessories such as dollar earrings, inexpensive hairbands and clips, hats, purses, scarves, gloves, nail polishes, etc…
Sadly, beauty and appearance has tremendous values in the society. A scary number of population get plastic surgery to look Westernized with tall nose bridges and cheeks, double eyelids and pointy jawlines. Almost every office space in Apgoojong is a plastic surgery clinic. Pale, supple, clear skin is considered beautiful, so all the cosmetics include whitening products. Women wear high heels and dress up even for grocery shopping. I wonder how they go up and down the stairs on subways and walk everywhere.
For relaxation, I look forward to going to the “jjimjilbangs” or saunas, especially when I am feeling sick or it’s chilly outside. They are open 24-hours, provide mats and pillows, so many people often sleep in the rest area. There are restaurants, sports massage clinics, eyelash threading salons, nail salons and a fitness center. The restaurant offers hearty soups and stews, hard eggs cooked in one of the hot rooms, “ppatbingsoo” or shaved ice and beverages. You receive a shirt and shorts to wear to the eucalyptus, salt, gem, ice rooms that are unisex. Each room vary in temperature, some scalding hot and unbearable to breathe. The idea is to switch off from each hot to cold rooms every 15 minutes to experience different health benefits, such as improving your immune system, circulation or blood pressure. It’s neat because you sweat all the toxins out of your body and work out your cardio at the same time. In the bath area, there are showers, dry and wet saunas, cold tub, and hot tubs with different herb ingredients. “Onsan” is famous for their hot springs mineral water. For foreigners, it is strange to see all the women completely naked. My first time, I followed my aunts and cousins to the sauna without knowing what I was getting myself into. Changing in the locker rooms and walking around naked was so embarrassing, I tried to cover as much as possible with the little hand towel they gave me. Within minutes, I realized I stuck out like a sore thumb and people were staring at me, thinking there was something wrong with me. At that point, it might have been better to uncover and act just like everyone else but I just couldn’t. I was appalled seeing so much cellulite in different shapes and sizes and it scared me to see how saggy and ugly your body can become after having kids and as you age. The most awkward moment was when my aunt asked the scrubbing lady to scrub me. After sitting in a hot tub for about 15 minutes, I was lying naked on top of a scrubbing table. The lady worked on my whole body, turning me side-to-side and front-to-back and it hurt! I was again grossed out to see how much “stuff” came out from my body. But since we only take soapy showers in the states, this was normal. She then soaped and massaged me with aromatherapy oil and gave me a face pack. I felt weightless, refreshed, happy! Korean sauna was worth every bit of it!
Soyang Dam in Chuncheon is the largest domestic man-made lake. The dam was built in 1973 to prevent flooding, water storage and hydroelectric power production. It holds 29 billion cubic meters of water. Soyang Ho has a large fishing farm with 50 different kinds of fresh-water fish. A short 15-20 min. ferry ride will take you to Cheongpyongsa Temple, built in the Goryeo Dynasty in 973AD. Then it is another 30 min. from the port to walk up to the temple. The reddish-orange, green, yellow fall leaves and the streams made the walk so picturesque. Two stops before Chuncheon stop on the train is a stop for Namiseom Resort. A taxi will take you to the port to catch a ferry to the island for $8 (USD) for foreigners. The island is half-moon shaped, situated 63km from Seoul in the middle of the Han River. It looks like a leaf floating gracefully on top of Cheongpyeong Lake, and on it is the tomb of General Nami, who died at a young age of 26 but led a great victory in the 13th year of the 7th king of the Joseon Dynasty. Namiseom is famous for tree-lined paths of gingko, chestnut, poplar trees, grass fields and nature coexists with rabbits, squirrels, deer and ostriches. The island became a tourist destination not only from Korea but from China, Japan and the Philippines due to the 1st worldwide hit Korean drama, “Winter Sonata.” Stay a night in one of the cute bungalows and resort villas and recreate the scenes in the drama or enjoy recreational activities such as motorboats, water skiing, gun shooting, camping, biking or roller skating.
Surrounded by Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palace, an area in Seoul named Bukchon, consists of 900 out of 10,000 “Hanok” homes left from Joseon times. These homes have “ondol,” underfloor heating, sliding doors made with paper and wood and large living area space. Experience sleeping in one of these homes in the guesthouses for about $40 (USD).
The DMZ, the demilitarized zone, serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel. It is about 2.5 miles wide and 160 miles long. Many foreigners ask if I am from North Korea. Though there are North Koreans that have escaped to China or South Korea, this is a risky maneuver with acres of mine traps and one of the heaviest militarized control in the world. If caught, you are killed and your family and relatives become slaves in the concentration camps. North Koreans spend all their time, money and effort to build nuclear weapons and missiles to attack South Korea. There are major scarcities in food, education and healthcare. Yet the country’s exclusivity from other nations encourages the people to worship and respect their president Kim Jong-il as their king and god. In fact, I have never seen anyone more patriotic than the North Koreans, where all praise and glory goes to Kim Jong-il. On the president’s birthday, the whole country dresses up in “hanbok,” korean traditional costumes and dance and celebrate all week long. At schools, young kids are brain-washed to worship Kim Jong-il as their only god. Teenagers are sent to factories with their parents to work long hours. The frontline of North Korea is put on as a show with fake lights and buildings, no one living inside. Past this area, the country is dark and barren. Many missionaries sneak into the country in medical teams, with the hopes to secretly teach and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, there are three state-controlled churches, with one church dedicated to former leader Kim il-sung’s mother. Over the years, underground churches have developed, but the numbers and information are unknown. Various organizations offer the DMZ tour from South Korea. Most tours will take visitors to the observatory, one of North Korea’s infiltration tunnels, a military base and into Panmunjeom, the joints security area in the middle of the DMZ where negotiations between the two sides are held.
If you want to eat good food for cheap, Korea is the way to go. Size of Portugal, Korea is packed with numerous activities during the day and night. “PC bangs” or computer game rooms, “noraebangs” or karaoke rooms, “manhwa bangs” or comic book rooms, “jjimjilbangs” or saunas, are all open at night including bars, clubs, cafes and restaurants. With public transportation, you can visit the suburbs and the countryside within a few hours. It takes less than a half day to get from one side to the other side of the country. If you have money, go to Korea and enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle. If you are visiting, allow at least a week to tour Seoul and some outskirts of Seoul. You won’t believe how much there is to see in such a small country.