Most people don’t travel internationally with their cat, but we recently brought Bluke from Calgary, Alberta to Seoul, South Korea. Here are a few of our cat travel tips.
Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌) is a historic residential area north of central Seoul between the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces. Today Bukchon contains almost 900 traditional Korean houses (hanoks) and is a great place to find traditional Korean architecture in modern Seoul.
Bukchon (which means “North Town”) backs onto the mountains, giving it hilly streets and great views. It’s a wonderful place to wander through the narrow streets and alleys, appreciating the craftsmanship and simple beauty of the hanoks.
A very brief history of Bukchon
Bukchon Village was formed during the early Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910) and was originally home to noble families and high-ranking officials. During a housing shortage in the early 20th century, larger plots of land were filled in with smaller homes. These are called reformed hanoks, as they incorporate modern materials such as glass and western tiles. In the 1970s developers began tearing down hanoks to replace them with modern structures. But recently Seoul has recognized Bukchon for its cultural significance, and the hanoks are appreciated and preserved.
What is a hanok?
A hanok is a home built in a traditional Korean style of architecture. Han means Korea, and hanok literally means Korean house. Hanoks are similar in appearance to other Asian structures, but there are differences that make them uniquely Korean. Although palaces are highly decorated, hanoks are usually left natural. They blend in very well with natural surroundings, as they are constructed of wood, stone, and paper, with a tile roof.
Ondol and Maru
A main feature of hanoks is the efficient combination of ondol and maru floors that keep the temperature comfortable in Seoul’s variable weather. Ondol is a heated stone floor that keeps the occupants warm in cold months and maru is a raised wooden floor that remain cool in hot weather. Rooms often surround an inner courtyard. The maru room is usually in the center of the home, and is like a living room, larger, and used for receiving guests. Its wooden floor is raised so air circulates keeping it cool in hot weather. Sliding doors and hinged doors are able to open for circulation or close for warmth and privacy. The ondol rooms are off the maru room and used for sleeping and eating.
Ondol floors have existed in Korea since prehistoric times, and are made up of large stones covered by clay. Under the floor are flues that carry hot air from a fireplace in the adjoining kitchen. The kitchen is slightly lower so the hot air rises through the flues to the chimney on the other side of the ondol floor, heating the large stones. These stones retain heat for hours heating the room and keeping the occupants cozy.
In Korea today, even modern high-rise apartments usually have heated floors. The floor may be heated with hot-water pipes heated by gas or electricity, but are inspired by the traditional ondol system. Warm floors are part of the reason Koreans often sit and sleep on cushions directly on the floor. Because they sit on the floor, Koreans always remove their shoes before entering a home.
Hanoks are also characterized by deep eaves, which create shade in the summer when the sun is high, but allows the sunlight to enter in the winter when it is lower on the horizon. Because of space limits, eaves in reformed hanoks are more compact.
In a traditional hanok, interior surfaces, windows and doors are covered with hanji, a strong, translucent paper made from the mulberry tree. It has the benefit of insulating the room while letting in sunlight. Today many hanoks have added modern materials such as glass in the outer windows.
If you really want to immerse yourself in Korean culture you can rent a room (often including breakfast) in a hanok. The lady who runs this soon-to-be-opened Bukchon guest house (below) let us take a peek inside. For myself I prefer western beds, but it would be fun to spend one night.
Sometimes tourists are a problem in the area, so please respect peoples privacy and don’t make too much noise, especially if you are walking through in the evening. Although visitors are welcome, Bukchon is a living residential neighbourhood and most hanoks are people’s homes.
Today in Bukchon there is a charming contrast between the old and new, and the galleries, restaurants and tea houses make it a popular spot for both Seoulites and visitors.
How to get to Bukchon Hanok Village
- Anguk Station (Line 3), Exit 2. (5-minute walk) About one block straight ahead is a tourist information center where you can pick up a Bukchon walking map.
- Jongo Station (Line 1, 3 & 5), Exit 6. (10-minute walk)
Want to see more traditional Korean architecture?
Nearby you can also visit:
- Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395, which was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty.
- Changdeokgung Palace and Secret Garden (UNESCO World Heritage)
- The Korean Furniture Museum
- The Blue House, which is the executive office and official residence of the South Korean President.
- Insadong: a trendy area with antiques shops, artisan goods, galleries, cafes and restaurants. The main street is Insadong-gil with smaller alleys and roads connecting to it.
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About 300 km southeast of Seoul is the South Korean port city of Busan (부산). The city has so much to offer with its beautiful South Sea coastline, sandy beaches, mountains, as well as the fun of Korean food and culture—yet the city is under the radar of most western travelers.
A Few Facts:
- Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, with about 3.6 million residents.
- Busan is the largest port in South Korea and the fifth busiest container port in the world.
- Although Busan is a big city, it feels more laid back than Seoul
- There are three major beaches in the city: Haeundae, Gwangalli and Songdo.
- Busan hosts many popular festivals, such as the Haeundae Sand Festival, the Busan Sea Festival, and the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).
- The quickest and easiest way to Busan from Seoul is by KTX train, which takes less than three hours.
We recently spent some time in Busan, and here are some of our best experiences.
Strolling along Haeundae Beach
Haeundae’s 1.5 km strip of golden sand is the most famous beach in South Korea. There are numerous hotels, guest houses and restaurants right across the street, and if you visit there’s a good chance you’ll be staying in this area.
During high season Haeundae’s sandy beach is covered with umbrellas, and has even achieved a Guiness World record in that category. We visited in the shoulder season near the end of September, during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), when it was much quieter. The weather was beautiful, and still warm enough to walk along the water’s edge. The beach is clean and safe to visit both day and in the evening.
▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Haeundae Station (Exit 5), then it’s about 500 metres to the beach.
Sea Life Busan Aquarium
Right on Haeundae beach is the Sea Life Busan Aquarium, which is much bigger than it looks and spread over 3 underground levels. It is home to more than 35,000 species of fish, algae, reptiles, and amphibians. The aquarium is known for its conservation work including the rescue and release of sea turtles. More information and discounts are available on their website.
Fireworks, Chicken and Beer
One of our favourite Busan experiences was our evening of fireworks and a picnic on Haeundae Beach. We purchased a pack of fireworks for a few dollars from a convenience store along with some beer, and some fried chicken from one of the many take-out places (try the spicy sauce). (Chicken and beer is a very popular Korean combo made even more so by the drama, “My Love from the Star” as it was the favorite food of the drama’s heroine.) (Yes, I’m a Korean drama fan)
We headed to the beach and ate our picnic watching others setting off fireworks towards the sea, then set off our own.
Lunch at Haeundae market
A fun place for lunch just across the street from the beach is the Haeundae Market. Along with the fresh vegetables, seafood and kimchi are inexpensive restaurants and stalls selling street food. We had some excellent dumplings in a small restaurant.
Walk around Dongbaek Park
Dongbaek is a lovely park next to Haeundae beach on a rocky island forested with evergreens and camellia trees (dongbaek in Korean). Although it is still called an island, Dongbaek is connected to the mainland as the waterway was silted in many years ago. There is a walkway that circles the whole park with beautiful views up and down the coast. At the top of the island is a statue and a monument of Choe Chi-Won, a ninth century scholar and poet, who carved “Hae un dae” in the rock, thus naming the area (which means sea and clouds).
The park is very popular in the morning with people out walking or using the exercise machines along the pathway. At the tip of the park is APEC House, a modern building which was used for the APEC Summit Meeting in 2005. It’s open to the public 9:00-18:00 and worth a quick look, but the main attractions are the awesome views and the park itself.
▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Dongbaek Station (Exit 1) walk 800m towards the Busan Westin Chosun Hotel, which is at the start of the park.
Haedong Yonggunsa Seaside Temple
Haedong Yonggunsa is a beautiful temple first built in 1376 in a unique coastal setting. It’s a top tourist attraction in Busan, so there are lots of people, and lots of booths selling snacks and souveniers.
The beautiful temple and spectacular setting are worth the visit in spite of the crowds. Go early if you can and grab a piping hot Hoddeok (pancake) from a food stall to munch on as you take it all in (try not to burn your mouth on the delicious melted brown sugar filling). The temple area can all be seen in an hour or so.
▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Haeundae Station (Exit 7). Then take bus 181 and get off at Yonggungsa Temple. Or take a taxi about 15 minutes from Haeundae.
▶ Open Daily 04:00 – 19:00.
A Sunset Stroll at Gwangalli Beach
Gwangalli beach is famous for it’s fine sand, clean water and romantic night atmosphere. The focal point is the Gwangandaegyo Bridge (also called the Gwangan Bridge or Diamond Bridge), which stretches over 7.4 km and is the largest ocean bridge in South Korea. The bridge sparkles at night with 100,000 lights that change colors making it especially beautiful.
▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Gwangan Station (Exit 3 or 5). It’s about a 5-minute walk to the beach.
A Must Try: Busan’s Fresh Seafood
After your evening stroll, Gwangalli is a great place to try a seafood bbq called jogae gui (baked clam). There are many options at the east end of the beach. Like other Korean bbq places there are vents hanging down over the centre of the table above a grill. Red hot coals are placed under the grill and you cook your own meal. With the shellfish comes foil containers of enoki mushrooms, kimchi, and shredded cheese to cook over the grill with the shellfish. So good and a great Busan experience!
Shop at Shinsegae Centum City – the world’s largest department store
Shinsegae is the world’s largest department store according to the Guinness Book of World Records, so if the weather is poor or you are needing a shopping fix it’s worth a visit. Besides every kind of merchandise you can imagine, it has numerous restaurants, an indoor ice rink, golf range, movie theater and the famous Spaland. (Note: it’s the world’s largest department store, not the largest mall.)
▶ Check the Shinsegae website for more info.
▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Centum City Station (Exit 12)
Busan Museum of Art
Korea is a very creative place, with a lot of interesting architecture and design. If you enjoy art, the Busan Museum of Art is a great place to spend an hour or two, and near the Shinsegae department store. They have an interesting collection of Korean modern art as well as contemporary pieces from throughout Asia. We especially enjoyed an exhibit by Busan-born artist Kim Tae Ho.
▶ Check museum website for current exhibitions.
▶ Open 10:00-20:00, closed Mondays
▶ Admission free, except for special exhibitions.
▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Busan Museum of Art Station (Exit 5), then walk about 100 metres to museum.
Tip for Getting Around
Taxis are reasonable for short distances in Korea, but don’t expect your driver to read or speak English. It will help your driver to have a map of your destination and the address in Korean.
Have you been? What are your favourite things to do in Busan?
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As usual for us, many of our experiences during our visit to Seoul involve food. I like Korean food, but a lot of it is still unfamiliar to me, so I figured a Korean home cooking class would be a fun way to learn more about Korean cuisine and ingredients.
OME Cooking Lab in Seoul offers a Korean home cooking class, so I signed up, hoping to learn enough to make a couple of the most popular dishes myself.
Our class of six first toured the Gyeongdong market in the Dongdaemun District. Gyeongdong (or Kyungdong) is the largest wholesale food market in Seoul, and you can find every meat or produce imaginable, as well as herbal medicines and ginseng.
Shredded peppers were one of the ingredients we would be using in our tofu stew.
The quality of the produce and other foods looked very high, and we also saw small manufacturers producing staples such as sesame oil and Korea’s famous red pepper flakes (gochugaru).
Time to cook!
After the market we went to cook and then eat together in a traditional style Korean house.
Our menu of traditional Korean foods consisted of mushroom soft-tofu stew, beef bulgogi, jeon (Korean pancake) and acorn jelly salad.
The first task was making the delicious sauce for the bulgogi, which includes soy sauce, garlic, green onion, sesame oil, sugar, and pepper. Thin sliced beef is first marinated in the sauce, then we pan-fried it with onions scallions, mushrooms and carrots.
Our chef/teacher Minseon explained that a well-planned Korean meal should include five colours (or close variations): green, white, red, black and yellow—representing the five basic elements wood, metal, fire, water and earth. As you can see we did so with the ingredients for the beef bulgogi.
Mushroom Soft-Tofu Stew
The soup is a flavourful and spicy combination of green onion, garlic, soft tofu, mushrooms, clams, and Korean red pepper. I was given the job of shredding mushrooms for the soup. I usually chop mushrooms with a knife but shredding them worked really well.
Pajeon (Korean Green Onion Pancake)
Jeon or Korean pancakes are a very popular food item. Making jeon is quite simple – mix the batter, then add the vegetable or seafood, and fry until crispy on each side. We made green onion jeon or pajeon, and also cute little zucchini jeon, but you can also make kimchi jeon, or seafood jeon. Jeon is often enjoyed together with Makgeolli, a milky, refreshing, rice wine.
Tip: Using ice-cold water in the batter helps make the pancake more crispy.
Acorn Jelly Salad
Lastly was the acorn jelly salad. The acorn jelly was already made, so we only had to make the salad dressing, then arrange the jelly on the plate first, topped with the salad. Since having it at the class I’ve noticed it is a fairly popular banchan item (Korean side dish), at least this time of year.
Dinner is served!
Time to eat our Korean feast, (left to right): soft-tofu stew with clams, beef bulgogi, acorn jelly salad, and Korean pancake (jeon).
The meal was delicious, and I’ll try making these dishes myself at home.
If you are interested in a fun, Korean cooking lesson, I would recommend OME Cooking Lab. Our chef/teacher Minseon was friendly and knowledgable, with lots of tips and information about the ingredients. She has even traveled to over 20 countries to experience and understand different cultures and foods.
You can find more information about the OME Cooking Lab at 5-tastes.com.
Have you tried eating or cooking Korean food?
(Note: we did not receive any compensation from OME Cooking Lab, and opinions are our own.)
I confess I’ve developed an addiction to Korean Drama. For a long time I have enjoyed movies produced or set in foreign countries. I suppose it gives me a bit of a travel fix while I’m at home. So when my daughter moved to Seoul, she suggested I watch a Korean drama to see a bit of what her new city was like. I started watching “The Coffee Prince,” and soon I was hooked.
The Korean Wave (also known as Hallyu) refers to the massive popularity of South Korean dramas (and Korean pop music/K-pop) since about 2000. This global wave has spread across Asia, into Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and to at least a couple of baby boomers I know in the Western world.
Korean TV dramas are usually around 20 episodes, which allows time to develop the story and characters, but there is a conclusion in sight, unlike most North American TV dramas. There are a variety of genres, but the ones I’ve watched are romantic comedies. They reflect everyday Korean life in the same way Hollywood movies reflect life in the west, but still, for an outsider they do provide a glimpse into Korean society.
I watch dramas on Viki.com, but there are other online options as well, and some are showing now on Netflix. The drama images below link to the official sites, but if you want to watch with English subtitles you will need to watch on a secondary site such as Netflix or Viki.
If you enjoy romantic comedy and are looking for a fun escape with a touch of foreign culture, here are a few of my recommendations.
17 episodes | MBC | 2007
Genre: Romantic comedy
Starring: Yoon Eun-hye and Gong Yoo
Go Eun Chan (Yoon Eun-hye) is a young woman supporting her mother and sister. With her short, no nonsense hair, clothes and manner, she is often mistaken for a boy. Wealthy Choi Han Kyul (Gong Yoo) hires her to pretend to be his “gay lover,” to scare away the blind dates set up by his grandmother. When Han Kyul is ordered by his grandmother to manage a coffee shop, Eun Chan maintains her false male identity to become a “Coffee Prince” employee. Eventually she falls in love with her boss, who is confused by his romantic feelings towards this “young man.”
20 episodes | SBS | 2010
Genre: Romance, comedy, fantasy, melodrama, action
Starring: Hyun Bin and Ha Ji Won
Kim Joo Won (Hyun Bin), the handsome but arrogant CEO of a luxury department store doesn’t care about romance; he’s looking for a marriage that will increase his power and connections. Gil Ra-im (Ha Ji Won) is not a beautiful heiress, but a stuntwoman dedicated to her craft. She’s not impressed by Kim Joo Won’s money or position, and thinks he’s a pest. After a strange sequence of events, they find they have switched bodies leading to a complicated relationship.
Part of this drama takes place on Jeju Island, which we visited when we were in Korea, so it was fun to see those places in the drama.
My Love from Another Star
21 episodes | SBS | 2013
Genre: Romance, comedy, fantasy
Starring: Kim Soo Hyun and Gianna Jun
“My Love from Another Star” is a fantasy romance about an alien, Do Min Joon (Kim Soo Hyun) who landed on Earth in the Joseon Dynasty. His superpowers and 400 years of earthly experience lead him to feel superior over humans, until he falls in love with a top actress in the modern era, Cheon Song Yi (Gianna Jun).
As a recent example of cultural impact, when Cheon Song Yi ordered chicken and beer on an episode of “My Love From Another Star,” Korean beer exports rose by over 200 percent.
If you’re looking for something fun and foreign to watch, I recommend giving one of these dramas a try.
Warning: They are addictive!
Have you watched any Korean dramas?