Thursday, June 23, 2016

Traditional Korean Tea Houses in Insadong (Moonbird Only Thinks of the Moon 달새는달만생각한다) + Insadong

When you visit Insadong, getting some cheap souvenir shopping done is important, but so is trying out authentic traditional Korea dining that is harder to find in the city. To get to 'Moonbird Only Thinks of the Moon' walk down the main street of Insadong and pay attention to the small alleys as you go down the street. Unfortunately, Google Maps leaves out a lot of the small alleyways that should exist on the map, so finding your way around this neighborhood can be a bit of a hassle. Stop when you see Insadong 10-gil, and then turn right, keep walking straight down and you should see a white sign above a walkway that has a small yellow crescent moon and the Korean characters, 달새는달만생각한다. Walk inside and the entrance will be on your left. Slide the door open and be ready to get swept into an antique looking teahouse.

The menu offers cold teas and also hot teas, some are served in a teapot while others are in a huge cup. Rice cakes filled with red bean and a popped rice cracker is complimentary to any drink order. We ordered the cold Omija Tea, Sikhye, and the Frozen Persimmon. The total was 15,500 won.

The omija tea was perfectly tangy, the floating slush kept the drink cold and refreshing.

The sikhye was also very satisfying. Compared to the one we had at the sauna, this one was much lighter in sweetness and the bits of rice inside wasn't overly mushy at all.

The frozen persimmon was delectable. The rice crackers was a nice crunchy texture that complimented the teas, but the stickiness of the syrup that held the snack together wasn't t my liking.

The red bean rice cake was pretty sweet. Overall, I definitely recommend giving this place a try if you are looking for a more traditional tea house rather than a quick stop at a common franchise you can find at every corner of Seoul.

We also explored Insadong and tried on some of the traditional clothing, Hanbok, in the Ssamziegil Mall. There, you can pay 5,000 won to take photobooth stickers. They give you a booklet to choose the outfit you want to wear and then they pair it with accessories (the headband.) There are also gowns for "kings," so this place is still a good date spot to bring a boyfriend and take pictures together!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Nam San Tower (Seoul Tower) (N서울타워)

At first, we were going to hike up to the Seoul Tower, but the heat and the amount of steep uphill climbs really got the best of us. Luckily, there was the cable car option. A one-way ticket costs 6,000 won per adult, and the round-trip ticket was 8,500 won. After getting off the cable car, there was a resting spot where you can sit on the steps and walk traditional performances. Some of the performances include a traditional Korean instrument, Korean folk dance (풍물 pungmul) where they dance with a spinning ribbon attached to the hat, and a swords show.

Going up the stairs past the performance area are brightly painted benches and walls covered in love locks. There are several restaurants to dine at. We chose not to go up to the observatory deck, but if you do, there is a ticket box center to purchase the tickets before heading inside to take the elevator up. I've been up to the observatory deck the previous time I visited Korea, and the elevator has an LED screen that plays a short video clip as you ascend up the tower. The observatory deck itself is just walking around the floor in a closed circle to observe the cityscape from above. Definitely try coming at night instead of in the morning to get a nicer view. your pictures most likely won't capture you in them at night, but the view at night is definitely breath-taking.

Thursday Party Bar (Hongdae)

Being a foreigner in Korea means you can drink if you are 19 years old instead of waiting until you are 21 back in the States. Since I recently turned 20 here, we hit up a bar that was popular among foreigners, called Thursday Party. You can get there by heading down the big street a block further than Exit 9 of Honggik University Station. Turn right on the alley where the fruit on a stick stand is (leads you to the street shopping stores) and keep going until you reach the end of the block past Inssum Club. Then turn right and walk 2 blocks down, and the bar should be on your left.

The bar also has a few games inside, such as darts, foosball, and beer pong. Beer pong costs 10,000 won for 2 pitchers of beer. We ordered some of the lighter drinks, Midori Sour, Blue Hawaii, and a frozen strawberry margarita, a total of 27,900 won. The bar was a fun place to chill, talk to friends you came with, and even meet new people! We ran into a group that also happened to be from the Tri-state area, one was from NYC like us too! Starting out at a more foreigner-friendly bar would probably be easier for a first-timer because they are more open to conversing with strangers, whereas in a more Korean bar, you might get a few glares for trying to start a conversation.

Yoogane DakGalbi 유가네 닭갈비+ Henna Tattos + Luxury Su Karaoke

Yoogane is a well known chain for Dakgalbi (닭갈비), spicy stir fried chicken with vegetables. Each portion starts at 8,000 won for the original and it costs more for additional topping or mix-ins. The chicken is semi-cooked on a large flat skillet, and then the vegetables are added to finish cooking. A tip is to leave some remaining and get fried rice mixed in afterwards to soak up all the remaining flavor and sauce from the chicken.

After dinner, we walked further into Hongdae, where there were street performances and stands for henna tattoos, drawings, jewelry, etc. For the henna tattoos, the price of each design is indicated on the booklet with a certain. For example if there is a number 5 next to the tattoo, it means that it costs 5,000 won for that specific design. They place a stencil where you want the tattoo and paint the henna ink over it before removing the stencil and letting it dry. Mine was 7,000 won and lasted for about a week (around 5 days). However, my friends barely lasted 2 days because the person didn't give it enough time to soak in the ink and didn't apply enough for hers, so it faded really fast.

The main karaoke place that is in every variety show and even drama is Luxury Su Karaoke. You can't miss it in Hongdae because the windows are transparent for any bystander downstairs to observe. The bright pink/lavender hue of the building and flashing disco lights is an immediately attention seeker. This karaoke place costs fairly more than the others (we paid 16,900 won per hour at night). The drinks and snacks are bought separately at the convenience store downstairs. The karaoke machine is harder to use for foreigners, but the basic breakdown of the buttons you need is located on the far right or far left of the keypad.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Lotte Department Store + Sulbing (설빙)

The Lotte Department Store is located near Myeongdong, and is one of the luxury malls to purchase all your duty free goods. We walked to Myeongdong from Line 2, the Euljiro-1-ga Station, so the department store was along the way. Once you enter the main entrance, there are signs for a tax refund station where you can get your tax refund. There is a kiosk to get another verification receipt and a separate counter where you get the money back immediately. When I made a purchase, they told me I had the option of having the refund completely automatically, but unfortunately, I did not bring my passport with me that day, so I was unable to do it that way. They do not accept any State-government issued id cards, only passports for tax refunds. I tried the tax refund center at a later date, and was also unable to get the refund. If you are staying in Korea for only a few weeks of vacation, you can get the refund at the counter, but since I am staying for another 2 months, I have to wait until the end of the next month, closer to my departure date. However, there is the option of just getting everything done at the airport, so don't worry about rushing to get it all done immediately after each purchase.

After shopping around for a bit, we stopped by a dessert cafe around the area called Sulbing (설빙). They serve a variety of traditional bingsoo with soybean powder and red bean topping, but we opted for a summer fruity version instead. We ordered the Grapefruit Mango Shaved Ice and Mango Hallabong Ade. The drink was strange. It had bits of pulp in it, but over time, the drink got worse and had a bitter orange peel taste. The shaved ice was good, but the mango chunks tasted like thawed frozen mango. The ice cream wasn't the usual vanilla ice cream that I was expecting, it was more like frozen yogurt. The shave ice itself was very light and fluffy. It reminded me of eating real snow, the way we used to stick our tongues out as a child during a snow day to catch the snowflakes.

Travel Maker (Breakfast in Hongdae) + Trick Eye Museum

Travel Maker is located further up, towards the dark blue line (Line 1). They serve the classic American-style breakfast: pancakes, waffles, french toast, scrambled eggs, breakfast sausage, bacon, hashbrowns, etc. The breakfast sets come with a drink, either coffee or unsweetened ice tea for 12,000 won. I ordered the French Toast set with Iced Tea, but they also had a pancake or waffle option. My friend opted for the Strawberry and Banana Pancakes with Iced Tea as a separate order. The French toast set was good, not overly sweet/salty, but the portion was pretty big for both orders.

We walked back to the Hongdae area after breakfast and decided to visit the Trickeye Museum. If your birthday happens to be when you're here, definitely take advantage of the perks as I did. Admission for the Trick Eye Museum is free on your birthday, and the entrance ticket comes with access to the Trick Eye Museum, the Ice Museum, and the Carnival. Access to the Love Museum is not included in the package. We had a coupon that worked up to 4 people, so the final cost for one person was only 12,000 won. Inside, there are many setups and examples of how to take the photos to make it seem more "realistic." The photo points are constantly changing, so when I went this time, many of the sets were switched out for newer ones. After you get to the end of the Trick Eye section, there is a short mirror maze that you can go through, which leads you to the exit.

Next, we went to the Ice Museum located on the same floor. They will hand you a thin cover up that you simply slip over your head, but trust me when I say it honestly doesn't help with the cold. You really need to dress warmer for this. The last time I came was in the winter, so luckily the winter coats kept us semi-warm. Once you enter, on the right is a staircase leading to an ice slide which is pretty fun! There are foam mats in a box that you have to take and use to ride on. The slide itself is pretty slanted, and was faster than I expected. If you're lucky and it's empty on the day you go, go for a few more turns before walking around the rest of the ice museum! There are various ice sculptures such as igloos, wings, a piano, Christmas-themed sculptures, and even a toilet and bed!

Gustos Tacos 구스토 타코 + Milky Bee Rose Ice Cream

^Chicken Tacos shown above, below are the chipotle pork tacos
If you're starting to feel homesick, definitely give this place a try. The restaurant is closest to Sangsu Station on Line 3. We walked over from our Airbnb in Hongdae, and it was maybe a 30 minute walk. It's around the corner from Milky Bee. The owner also happens to be from Brooklyn, NY. He was really nice and even gave us a few more non-Korean restaurant suggestions to try out.

Gustos Tacos has a variety of tacos to chose from on the menu, along with Jarritos, the well-known glass bottle of Mexican soda you can find at a regular taco joint back in the States. We ordered the first two taco options on the menu (Chipotle Pork and Flaming Chicken). Each one was 7,000 won and came with 2 tacos. I personally preferred the Chipotle Pork Taco. The flavor was incredible. And I would quote the owner, "Forget the Instagram nonsense." These tacos are definitely meant to be eaten right away because everything here is made from scratch, so there's no preservatives that keep the taco consistent even after 10 minutes of nailing that Instagram-worthy food shot. Do keep in mind, not to wear a white t-shirt, because it can get messy. The pork is perfectly juicy and as you're eating, the juices will drip off the other end of the taco when you are least aware. The chicken taco was really good too, the salsa was good, but it just didn't have the same flavor bomb impact as the first taco. Now I know, save the best taco for last. ;) If they turned this joint into a Chipotle-style joint, I definitely wouldn't mind paying extra for more meat!

Next up, is Milky Bee. The pretty rose shaped ice cream cone was hard to resist after an extremely satisfying late lunch. The rose ice cream is similar to Amorino's Gelato chain in the States, where the ice cream is shaped into petals. The only difference is there is a very limited selection of flavors--there was only strawberry, original (tasted kind of like vanilla yogurt), green tea, and chocolate. The basic rose ice cream with only strawberry and the original flavor cost 4,500 won and there is an additional cost for more layers. The ice cream itself was alright, the strawberry ice cream was better than I expected. There were tiny bits of strawberries in the ice cream that gave it a nice texture and gave it a more realistic strawberry flavor rather than the typical artificial strawberry flavoring. They also offer a stamp collection card where you can get a free cone for every 10 cones you buy, but I'm not willing to spend that much just for a free cone. Maybe if they expanded the selection of flavors instead of sticking to the "rose" color scheme.

Noryangjin Fish Market (노량진수산물도매시장)

We decided to stop by the fish market as a pre-dinner snack and to see the types of seafood sold at the market. We took Line 1 to Noryangjin Station, and from there, simply followed the signs to the closest exit. Once you get out of the train station, walk toward the right side and keep going until you see the underpass that leads into the fish market. Once you're inside, thats when numerous ahjummas and ahjussis start persuading you to buy their seafood. Tanks are filled with live abalone, squid, a huge variety of fish, octopus, etc. We settled for 3 small octopus that cost 10,000 won total. Upstairs is the seating area where you can bring the fresh seafood and they'll prepare it and serve it to you for a table fee of 3,000 won.

Live octopus (산낙지 sannakji) is very intimidating at first because it is served to you, with the tentacle muscles still working. Each piece continues to squirm around on the plate before your eyes. Honestly, it doesn't taste like much other than the sesame oil that its coated in to reduce the suction. For me, I wasn't a fan of the texture--it was very chewy, not to the point where it was rubbery, but it was hard to swallow for me. The nightmares of getting octopus stuck in your throat and dying from it is more of a myth. As long as you chew it well, it won't kill you. I would come again and get raw fish (회 hoe) though. As for the octopus, great as a once a lifetime thing, but not something I would go for again. It's really an acquired taste.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Chinatown (Incheon)

From Hongdae, the commute is roughly an hour and a half, but do give yourself more time to get there. We transferred from Line 2 (Honggik Station-->Sindorim Station), to Line 1. Once you transfer to Line 1, pay attention to the actual stops because not all of the trains go directly to Incheon. Some of them loop around, completely bypassing the Incheon segment. If your train is not headed towards Incheon, transfer at Guro Station to another train also on Line 2, but specifically Incheon-bound.

Once you get off at Exit 1, and The bright red gates of Chinatown will be right across the street. Once you walk through the gate, you will immediately see restaurants lined up that all advertise the same thing--Jjajangmyun (aka Chinese-Korean Black Bean Sauce Noodles), a Koreanized take on a Chinese noodle dish. I initially wanted to find the restaurant where they filmed the jjajangmyun delivery special episode of Running Man (a Korean variety/game show), but ended up eating one of the first few grander restaurants instead. It just so happened that it was a filming spot for another variety show, Infinity Challenge. Their menu has bough Chinese and English on it. We ordered 2 rice dishes (Mapo Tofu over rice (8,000 won) and another meat and vegetable dish (12,000 won)--forgot the name), the classic jjajangmyun (5,000 won), and tangsuyook (22,000 won), which is sweet and sour fried pork with onions, carrots, and pineapple. The rice dishes came with a spicy seafood soup, which I assumed was a similar soup that they use for their jjambong (spicy seafood noodle soup), which is another famous Koreanized Chinese dish to try in Korea.

As we explored the area, shops also sold an interesting puffed cookie shell. There were variety of "mooncakes" with different filling, egg tarts, coconuts, rainbow slush, and ice cream cones.

When you go up the painted stairs, you'll find the entrance to Freedom Park, which is perfect for a peaceful hike/walk after a filling meal. There is a spot where you can observe an overview of the city below, and nearby is a small flower garden.

After walking around some parts of Freedom Park, we decided to go around to the other side of the park, where the Fairy Tale Village was located. The Fairytale Village is a small neighborhood where all the walls are painted with murals of folktales, fairytales, famous Disney characters, etc. It's similar to Ehwa mural village where you walk around, and stop to take pictures in front of art. There are more cafes and places to grab a quick snack as you walk.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

James Cheese Back Ribs 제임스치즈등갈비

A MUST TRY! They serve ribs with melted cheese, and then the ring outside is sectioned for eggs, a potato salad, sweet potato, and grilled corn. The ribs vary in spicy levels. We ordered the slightly spicy one and it was actually very sweet and mild. Our entire bill came up to be 62,000 won for 3 people. The sodas were 2,000 won each, beer and soju were both 5,000 won per bottle, and each serving of ribs (a rack of 4 ribs) was 16,000 won for the basic James Cheese Ribs.
The ribs were very well seasoned and coated in a thick glaze that was mostly sweet, but with a slight kick of spice. The downside to this dish is that the cheese hardens extremely fast once the waiter (or waitress) turns off the heat when the cheese is fully melted. The grilled corn side was really good too, and so was the kimchi. Wasn't a fan of the potato sides.

Cheonggyecheon Stream/Plaza 청계천 + Gwanghwamun Square 광화문광장

We grabbed a late lunch on our way to the stream--we ordered the spicy galbi jjim, which came with banchan (white kimchi, sauteed mushrooms & zucchini, spinach, and ponytail kimchi--mini radish). For 3 people, the total came up to be 38,000 won with rice. The galbi jjim was good, not too spicy and very filling.

To get to both the stream and the plaza, the easiest way is to get off at City Hall (Sinchon) on the 2 Line. We walked to Gwanghwamun square first where they were statues of King Sejong, and a general from Korean history. Further down is the entrance to one of the palaces. We stopped by to take a few pictures before looping back around to the Cheonggyecheon Stream. There were many insects flying around, especially near the stream, so if you plan on dipping your feet in, choose an area not by the bridge tunnel because that's where most of the insects swarm. Be careful not to accidentally inhale them! The stream itself stretches for quite a while, we chose not to walk to the end. There are many staircases that lead you back upstairs to the main street.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Coex Aquarium 코엑스 아쿠아리움

We dropped by the aquarium. From Hongdae, it was roughly an hour commute (Honggik University Station to Samseong Station on the 2 Line). The entrance was bright and had 2 huge cylindrical fish tanks with fish. The admission price was 22,000 won per adult. Arrows on the floor tell you where to walk--the aquarium was basically one road through each of the exhibits.

There fish, but there were also other animals such as rabbits, aligators, etc despite being an aquarium. One of the sections included a hands on lab where you could touch marine animals like starfish or get a doctor fish treatment. Photo points were also scattered throughout the aquarium, but the highlight was definitely the glass tunnel where sharks could literally swim over your head. These tanks contained various types of sharks, sting rays, and sea turtles.

The last stop of the aquarium was the gift shop. There were many stuffed animals, all of which I had to resist bringing home with me, especially the huge shark! I opted for the pressed coins instead, which cost 1,000 won.

Ring Making in Hongdae 반지마켓 홍대 (Banji Market)

If you're familiar with the Korea virtual dating show, 'We Got Married', one of dating spots is a ring making cafe called Banji Market in Hongdae. To get there, walk towards the center of Hongdae, and turn into the alley with fruit on a stick in the corner, the street lined with most of the clothing stores. The ring cafe is located on the 3rd floor on the left side of this street, just look at the signs hanging off the sides of the buildings. The guy there doesn't know a lot of English, so it will be hard to communicate as a foreigner. He was very helpful and showed us the display, and explained which styles were more difficult to create. If you are studying abroad here, there is a student discount, so let him know you are a university student, and you will get 10,000 won off your total. The rings start at 40,000won (2.5 mm), 50,000won (3.8mm) and 60,000won (5mm), and the price is added for any additional designs (initials, engravings, birthstones). I opted for the 2.5mm silver flat band, with a birthstone and laser engraved initials. The flat band is the easiest, the rounded band is harder since it requires more shaping. He said he doesn't recommend it for beginners, but was really nice and helped my sister out with shaping hers. 

Below is the booklet that shows the instructions for making the ring. Some of the steps he does for you. We mainly flattened the ends of the metal, then sized, smoothened, polished our ring band and then chose the design (initial fonts, and birth stone).



^The fonts for initials are on a separate booklet that he lets you choose from when you are done polishing.