Wednesday, December 29, 2010

And So This Is Christmas

In Korea, Christmas is pretty different from NZ - it's a couples holiday, so the boyfriends and girlfriends of the country get together, eat dinner somewhere swanky and pay double the price to stay in a Love Motel on Christmas Eve. This wasn't my first Northern Hemisphere Christmas but it was certainly the coldest - we went to Seoul, and it was a bitter minus 15 degrees.

On Christmas Eve we decided to partake in the sacred Kiwi tradition of getting drunk so we went to Hongdae. Hongdae is the entertainment area and clubbing district surrounding Hongik University. It's jam packed full of bars, nightclubs, restaurants and shopping stalls, and it's one of my favourite places to visit in Seoul. Amongst other things, Hongdae is host to:

The Tigerabbit
A super cute Makgeolli (Korean Rice Wine) bar


Random dance-offs at 3am.

On the Eve we went to the excellent Dos Tacos for margaritas and burritos (mm, Potato!) and then moved on to our favourite bar - Vinyl. Tom and I are total Lonely Planet tourists and when we read about a tiny bar that serves cheap cocktails in IV bags, we were hooked.

Vinyl is super small, with seating space for about 10 people and a window for takeout orders. When we first realised that drinking on the street is legal here in Korea, we ordered a few bags and wandered around exclaiming 'We are drinking! Alcohol! On the street!' for about an hour. You know what they say about small things.

Along with our $5 peach crushes, woo-woos, Midori Sours and Gin and Tonics, the lovely staff supplied a small cup of candy canes and snacks, and some delicious cake! Our drinking companions were all antipodean - Lauren, Kristen and Andrew from NZ, and a travelling couple from Australia who told us that the best thing about Beijing was Mao Zedong's cadaver and watching a woman vomit in Tienanmen Square. We'll keep that in mind when we visit next month.

The actual day was spent in a hungover fug as we ran from warm spot to warm spot trying to avoid the aforementioned bitter coldness. Tom tried Taco Bell for the first time, I had an awful peppermint mocha at Starbucks, we attempted to go to an aquarium only to discover that EVERYONE in SEOUL was there too. At 5pm on Christmas Day we went to a bar in Itaewon, ate cold mashed potatoes, Turkey and cranberry sauce and then bought salt and vinegar chips from an international store before hopping in bed by 8:30pm.

Although Korea is the only East Asian country to put Christmas on it's National Holiday list, because this year it's on a Saturday we were back at work by Monday. 'Work' for me is sitting at my desk for three hours a day, reading things on the internet, 'work' for Tom is sitting at home all day, reading things on the internet. We're off to the Philippines on Friday for a much-needed break from all this work.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some fish ate my feet today, and it was awesome!

Tom, Lauren and I went to Seoul with the sole purpose of getting our soles chomped on by fish. I'd read about 'Dr Fish' cafe's before I came to South Korea, and when I found out that there were a few in Seoul I got excited and made it happen.

Dr Fish cafes come from a Turkish tradition of using freshwater fish to bite or suck away the dead and unhealthy skin on your feet and stimulate the growth of new skin. The fish are sometimes use to treat psoriasis and other skin conditions, but since 2006 Dr Fish treatments have been available globally to anyone who wants them.

On the day of the event we got up early to make sure that the fish would be hungry and we made our way to the cafe. We went to the Namu Gunul in Gangnam. For anyone who wants directions - get off the subway at exit 6, walk about 250m until you see the BSX store. The cafe is on the second floor - go through the doors to the right.

The Dr Fish service costs 2000 won (about $3) but you have to buy a drink from the cafe as well. Once we'd finished our drinks, one of the staff members came to help us out. First, we had to roll up our jeans and wash our feet. Pro tip - don't wear skinny jeans! Half of my pants were saturated for the rest of the day. Then, we got to dip our feet in the pools.

At Namu Gunul there's two pools - they're about a foot deep, a foot wide, and 6 feet long. The one I spent the most time in contained Garra rufa, the 'traditional' Dr Fish. They're about an inch long and they treat your feet by sucking on them. The treatment is not for the ticklish although I coped okay, when they're on your feet it feels a little like being shot with jets of warm water - my feet felt like they were buzzing.

In the next tank along there are Chin-Chin's, a Chinese breed which are much larger than the Garra rufa and a lot more brutal. Garra rufa are toothless whereas the Chin-Chins aren't so you can feel each chomp - it's like being tickled be someone with long fingernails. Tom has no patience for my analogies and says it feels like your foot is being eaten by a fish.

It should be noted that although Lauren had her feet in the Chin-Chin tank first, when Tom put his in, all of the fish swarmed to him. Gross.

Before we went we had a few people tell us that Dr Fish places are unhygienic and a breeding ground for bacteria. We made sure our feet weren't cut or grazed and we checked out the cleanliness of the water first. If I get feet AIDS I'll be sure to let the blogging world know.

Here's a teeny-tiny video, the best kind:

After about 20 minutes, the attendant told us our time was up so we washed our feet again, dried them off and wandered out. My feet feel amazing now - soft and smooth - and I can't wait to give it another go.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Photo post!

Best stop on the Seoul Subway

My favourite food - Naengmyeon

Awesome burger at Jacoby's near Itaewon

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mountains and Temples and Bears, Oh My!

On Sunday I went to check out Naesosa Temple and Jikso Falls, two of Buan's "tourist attractions". It's about an hour by bus to Naesosa, and (according to the internet) an hour walk from there to the falls. I was worried about finding the right bus, but thanks to my mad hangeul (Korean alphabet) reading skills I able to find the one that said 내소사 (Naesosa). The road from the bus stop to the temple entrance was lined with a surprisingly large number of gift shops and restaurants with bottles of makgeoli on the tables out the front to lure customers. There was even a small motel.

The temple itself is at the base of a huge mountain, which I really hoped wasn't between me and the falls. The path from the ticket office to the temple was an avenue of tall trees. To one side of this was a river. This was clearly a work in progress - lots of concrete and no water - but it did offer a spectacular view of the mountain.

As I wandered back to the main path I had my first encounter with the cartoon bear that seems to serve as mascot for the park. There was something about this bear that made me laugh, and I was a little embarrassed looking through my photos from the temple to see how many of them were of those stupid signs.

The entrance to the temple was a small gate building with four huge statues in it. They were pretty impressive, if a little menacing.

The temple had some similarities to other traditional Korean buildings that we've seen, but I think it had enough different going on to be worth the visit. I walked up a small hill to a shrine, but when I got there I discovered a Korean woman having some sort of religious experience so I left her to it.

After I finished looking around the temple I for Jikso falls. The sign said it was 3.2 Kms away, which didn't seem too bad, and although the path led uphill it seemed to be heading over the lowest point of the ridge rather than towards the peak. It was a very steep climb, and the quality of the path was pretty variable; in places it had proper flat steps, but in others it was really just a steep rocky hillside. I was beginning to understand why all the Koreans in their brightly coloured hiking gear carry special walking sticks. It was quite beautiful though, I imagine it would be stunning in autumn with the leaves changing colour. The bear - who I'd named Chuckles - was there too.

I got to the ridge. Still 2.9 Kms to go, but at least the hard part was over. The sign for the falls pointed along the ridgeline, but I figured the path just followed the ridge for a bit and then headed back down the other side. In the meantime I was treated to some spectacular views.

After walking for about a hundred metres I realised I wasn't just walking along the ridge for a bit. I was climbing the mountain. But I wasn't going back after climbing that far. And the views kept getting better. The day was a bit hazy - and my photography skills leave a fair bit to be desired - so I don't think you can see it too well in the pictures, but I could see for miles.

After a while I started to worry about it getting dark. And bears. The slight change in light level took me from relaxed and groovy to terrified of being eaten by a bear. I don't even know if there are any bears in Korea (aside from the sad ones in the zoos). But the park's mascot was a bear, right? I kept going, but I did start to wonder what all the signs in Korean were saying.

Caution: Bears.

I know that the English part of that sign is just the scientific name of the tree, but I've had too many ten minute conversations "translated" into a few words to assume that the Korean part says the same thing.

Finally I reached the top. Uh. . . or not. Another junction, and Jikso Falls still 2.3 Kms away. At this stage I was an hour of serious hiking into my one hour walk and I'd covered less than half the distance. I didn't fancy any more climbing, and the path to Jikso was near vertical down. Looking down it was like being at the top of a roller coaster. I could cope with going down it but there was no way I was climbing back up.

I think there's was another way out from the falls, but I didn't know if the buses went there. With the light getting lower I decided to leave Jikso for another day. I'd forgotten how far up I'd gone, and the walk down took ages. In the fading light on the way down the hill my concerns about the hundreds of bears in the woods just waiting to eat my delicious face only got worse.

"What do mean running out of hot sauce to dip this human in isn't a 'real' emergency?"

Eventually I made it down the hill uneaten. I had been worried (in between bouts of bear panic) that I would miss the last bus, but it was there waiting for me when I got to the stop. Turns out I was right to leave when I did, just as the last of the daylight faded away the bus rumbled to life and we set off on the long slow journey back to Buan.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The last time we were in Seoul we got to check out Insadong, a cute little street crammed full of shops hawking tea, pottery, antiques, and more Korean souvenirs than I've seen in the rest of Korea combined.

Along the side of the street were a few stalls of people making kkultarae - a honey and nut traditional sweet that looks like Mini Wheat cereal and tastes like baklava. Kkulturae is also known as 'Dragon's Whiskers' because the solid honey is dipped in cornstarch then stretched and pulled into thin, fine, whiskery strands. The vendors put on a show as they prepare the candy - in English, Japanese or Korean depending on the audience. I accidentally deleted a few of my pictures, so here's Dan's kkulturae video from when she visited Korea in September.

We also checked out Ssamziegil Street - a shopping mecca full of handmade crafts, restaurants and cute stalls. The most remarkable thing about the street is that it's actually a four storied building with a sloping spiral ramp so you can walk from the first floor to the garden on the roof without taking any stairs. I did say 'from the first floor' - to get to the first floor you have to go up one flight of stairs, which made the feat slightly less impressive.

Again, my photos have been deleted so I've thieved this one from here.

I think I could have easily blown a few hundred thousand won on cute stuff in Ssamziegil but fortunately I'd spent a lot of money already in the delicious tea shop on the bottom floor. Lauren, Tom and I had ginger, cinnamon and quince teas and they were amazing - so good we went back for more the next day. The women who run the stall were really lovely as well. 

Insadong was well worth (both) visits and if anyone visits us, we'll be taking you there as one of our first stops!

Insert Snow Catchphrase Here

Check out what happened in Buan overnight:

Tom and I are both holed up in our apartment with the mother of all colds. We've got a stockpile of Korean medicine, several bottles of orange juice, a  few kilos of mandarins and our sweet, sweet broadband connection. Not a bad time to be sick.