At the end of November, we had a few days off in a row and took the opportunity to visit a country close to Japan which we hadn’t beeen to before: Korea.
Just a couple of hours flight from Tokyo, our first destination was the coastal town of Busan on the Sea of Japan. Busan is a popular tourist destination in Korea, particularly in the summer when Koreans flock to the gorgeous open beaches. Visiting at the end of November meant that although the beaches were empty, the weather was not quite so appealing to spend lazy days sunbathing!
Visiting Korea was again an eye-opening reminder in being illiterate; in Japan, in the restaurants there are at least pictures in all the menus so that if you don’t know what you’re ordering you can at least pick something which looks semi-palatable. Korean restaurants were not so forgiving, so walking around and finding something to eat was quite challenging! When we did finally find somewhere to eat, we found the food to be phenomeneally spicy! Our first meal was spicy pork on rice; in Japan, ‘spicy’ food really isn’t – in Korea though, they clearly mean what they say. After the first bite my eyes started watering and the sweats started! I managed to struggle through the rest of the dish but not without copious amounts of tea. The following day, we decided against spicy food, but the soup we had was on the opposite end of the scale and incredibly bland. We just wanted something with a touch of flavour!
In Busan, we took a taxi to Haedong Yonggungsa, an old Buddhist temple overlooking the sea. It looked very similar to temples in Japan (an international religion) but what set it apart was its stunning vista over a cliff. Sadly, when we visited, the original bridge to enter the temple looked like it was under repair after some erosion, but it still looked impressive.
We headed back to the city and took a stroll along Haeundae beach. This would clearly have been a nice place to come in the summer, but many of the restaurants and cafes near the beach were not so busy (or even closed) for the winter which was a little disappointing. We then took the train round to Gwangali beach, with its dusk views of the Gwangan Bridge which spanned the bay.
We took the high-speed train to Seoul where we met with one of Helen’s colleagues from Hong Kong who had since moved to Korea. She took us out for dumplings and drinking in the trendy Hongdae district. I experienced my first ever Taco Bell (not too bad for post beer food), but arriving back at the hotel at 4am put paid to our plans for the next day. While we were in Seoul, we’d wanted to visit the DMZ between North and South Korea; however, due to the conflict status, it’s only possible to visit on a guided tour. Waking up quite late the next day, we thought ‘no sweat, we’ll go tomorrow’; having done little (read: zero) preparation for the trip however, it turned out that ‘tomorrow’ was the one day of the week where there weren’t any tours – and by that time it was too late to go on one of that days’ tours. Disaster! Sadly, though lack of preparation and drinking too much the night before we missed out
Instead, we headed to the Gyeongbokgung, the old royal palace of the Joseon dynasty of Korea. Razed by the Imperial Japanese during the 20th Century, it had been reconstructed back to its former glory. We witnessed the changing of the guard outside the main gate; the guards didn’t seem to be particularly good at guarding anything, especially as they were equipped with what looked like plastic swords and fake beards. We visited the Seoul Olympic Park and Olympic Stadium (to add to our Beijing Olympic visit in 2013) and even paid a visit to the Gangnam District to get a photo with the statue of Psy. It turns out Gangnam’s quite a business district and as such there’s not really very much to do, but we did find a very nice sandwich shop.
Our final visit in Seoul was to a Jjimjilbang, or Korean Spa. We only had an hour to spare there before our evening flight so we had a quick rush around, but it was really worth visiting there. In a Jjimjilbang, you get changed into a trendy matching t-shirt and shorts combo, before visiting a mix of different style of stone and mineral infused saunas, pools and hot tubs. We were short on time so only popped into the saunas, but spending a day there would definitely be more relaxing and worthwile.