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September 24, 2014

Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Hotel: A Refuge on Japan's Kumano Kodo

This is my fourth trip to Japan, but something is different about this visit. I've bypassed the major cities and tourist hot-spots and ventured off the beaten path to Takahara, a small mountain village located in the heart of Wakayama Prefecture, about two hours south of Osaka.

I sit in my modest but comfortable room on an aromatic tatami mat that smells of herbs. I sip hot tea as I peer out my window into the motionless countryside. I listen. I hear only the quiet chirping of crickets.



This isn't the Japan I have gotten to know over the past few years. This Japan isn't flashy or loud or brimming with maid cafes or Pachinko arcades. No. This Japan is mysterious and magical and shrouded in mist, a Japan I thought was long-gone and only existed in the movies.

This small village of 40 residents is so sacred, in fact, that thousands of pilgrims flock here each year to begin their trek on the Kumano Kudo, a network of forested trails that stretch across the Kii peninsula, important routes in the Shinto and Buddhism religions. Temples and shrines dot the hallowed courses and provide an interesting glimpse into Japan's religious history and culture.



While many visitors still come here for the spiritual experience, others make the healing journey to soak up the natural beauty of the Japanese countryside, made up of towering Cedars, rolling green hills and breathtaking waterfalls. In addition to the scenery, three elements make the Kumano Kudo experience truly memorable: Wakayama cuisine, hot springs and traditional accommodations. Fortunately for me, my ryokan (Japanese inn) is known as the best in the area to experience all three.

I was greeted in the neighboring city of Takijiri by Jian (or John, to English speakers) who was quick to introduce himself as the "producer" of Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Hotel. Although I had never heard of such a title, I would soon learn why he called himself this. Jian loaded my bags into his car and we were soon on our way to the hotel, as public transportation is non-existent. Jian explained everything about the area as we drove over streams and around sharp turns, pointing out the local vegetables that the hotel uses in its cuisine. When we reached Takahara, it became apparent that Jian knew everyone in the village; elderly farmers waved at him with toothy grins as we passed.



When we arrived, Jian gave me the grand tour of Kiri-no-Sato, greeting each hotel guest by name as we passed. The reception area and dining room boasted high ceilings supported by wooden beams, typical of a mountain lodge, and an outdoor patio furnished with picnic tables, lanterns and even a telescope was an extension of the common area.  It was here that local fishermen, who had just delivered a recent catch, chatted over a beer, next to a group of conversing guests who had presumably been strangers just a few hours before. I was already loving the community vibe of the hotel and I hadn't even seen my room.

When I did, however, I was sold.



I stayed in a "Western" style room, named so because guests sleep on beds instead of the floor, but despite its name, the room oozed Japanese charm. The delicate sliding doors, the tasteful Asian art and the tea set waiting to be used immediately put me at ease. Still, the highlight of the room was the view of the majestic Haetenasi Mountain range, known particularly for its mists that settle into the valley in the mornings. Unlike most hotels, each of Kiri-no-Sato's rooms offer this impressive view and boast a small terrace, perfect perches for soaking up the beauty.



Soon it was dinner time, a meal I was anxiously awaiting. Kiri-no-Sato places a great emphasis on supporting local organic farmers so it sources only organic ingredients for its meals (breakfast and dinner are included in the price). Farmers and fishermen deliver food daily and Jian and his staff plan the menus- mostly Japanese fare with an international twist- based on what is delivered... quite a task in my book.

I took a seat in the dining room and my eyes quickly widened at the sight in front of me. Tiny, colorful morsels- none of which I could identify- made my mouth water but I managed to sit calmly while Jian explained to me what each was.

First I tried the pickled sansai, or mountain vegetables, which are picked in the spring, fermented and consumed throughout the year, much like Korea's kimchi. The flavors of these vegetables, however, was lighter and the texture crunchier; while each had a distinctively different taste, not one was overpowering enough to alter another's flavor. I followed the pickles with a soft, sweet deep fried tofu and mountain potato dish and a side of chewy taro root. River crab, eggplant with herbs, and gelatinous peanut followed.

When I took a bite of the tataki white bonito, which was slightly charred on the outside but sashimi-like on the inside, I involuntarily let out a string of expletives. Never before had I tasted such a clean, well-balanced fish dish. The local Kumano beef, cooked table-side and topped with succulent mushrooms, practically melted in my mouth and had my eyes rolling into the back of my head. And this isn't even a slight exaggeration.



At some point during the middle of my meal, I let my attention wander from the food for a brief moment to look at the other diners around me and noticed there were three other single travelers. Yet not a one was distracting themselves as we so easily do while eating alone. No books, no phones. They were genuinely focused on their dinner, admiring the meal as if it were art, which in a way, it was.

Just when I thought the meal was over, salted mackerel, roasted chestnuts and chawanmushi, a savory egg custard of mushrooms and shrimp, were laid before me. Dessert was a refreshing berry sorbet. As if I weren't already in culinary nirvana, Jian poured me an icy glass of homemade ume (Japanese pear) wine. It had enough kick to get me buzzed, but it but was still crisp and sweet, a perfect choice to wrap up a dinner.



Although I could've easily settled into a food coma right then and there, I was eager to take advantage of Kiri-no-Sato's bath facilities. I donned my yukata (Japanese style robe) and headed to the women's bath where I spent the rest of the evening soaking in the onsen's rejuvenating water, which is shipped in daily from a local hot springs. It was heavenly and I imagine for those trekking the entirety of the Kumano Kodo, healing, too.



After an incredible sleep, I was awakened by the sound of gongs echoing from somewhere deep in the mountains. I watched the sky fill with the morning light as I made a pot of tea. I was still full from the night before, but not one to turn down a meal, I made my way to the dining room once again for breakfast.

Jian wished me good morning as he poured me a cup of strong organic coffee- good coffee- while a relaxing mix of Spanish music played in the background. (Unfortunately there were no Spanish guitar performances while I was there but it is said that locals like to give concerts from time to time at the hotel.)

A traditional Japanese breakfast spread was delivered dish by dish to the table: steamed rice, miso soup, rolled egg, fish and more pickled vegetables. Delicious and healthy... it's no wonder Japan has the most centenarians in the world.



I wanted to stay at this quaint mountain-side haven forever. But I packed my bags, eager to explore some of the Kumano Kudo. Jian, the "producer"- the cook, the driver, the manager, the chef, the server, the event-planner, the travel guide, the eyes, the ears and the face of Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Hotel- offered to drive my bags down to Takijiri so they'd be waiting for me when I arrived, packed me a few bananas for the trek and wished me well on my way.

Yes, this was a different Japan. One less concerned with money, consumption and speed and more focused on finding joy in the simple things: a hot bath, a delectable meal, a sunset and a long walk in solitude. This was my kind of Japan.

More Information: Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Hotel

Address: 826 Takahara Nakahezi-cho Tanabe City, Wakayama, Japan

Phone Number: 0739-64-1900

Website: Click here

Price: Western style rooms 10,000 yen/person ($90 USD, double occupancy) or 11,000 yen/person ($100 USD,single occupancy). Prices include breakfast AND dinner. (What a bargain!) Family and group rooms are available. See website for pricing. TIP: Book your reservation through e-mail rather than a third party site to avoid service charges.

To Get There: From Osaka, take the JR Shin-Osaka train to Kii-Tanabe Station (approximately 2 hours). From the station exit, take the Ryujin Bus (bus stop #2) bound for Hongu-Kumano. Get off at Takijiri Station (about 45 minutes). From the tourist center at the bus stop, you can call Jian and he will pick you up.


Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.


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September 21, 2014

What's In My Memebox: Superbox #33 Collagen Cosmetics

Those that follow Seoul Searching may already be familiar with Memebox from my previous post. For those of you that have yet to be introduced to this brilliant service, Memebox is a Korea-based cosmetics company that is allowing the world to experience the wonder that is K-beauty one delivery at a time.

Similar to other beauty box companies like MyGlam and Birchbox, Memebox offers shoppers a mystery box of 4-8 sample and full sized products that are all sourced, packaged and shipped directly from Korea to over 45 countries worldwide. Although the products are generally a surprise, with the exception of a few spoilers, the cool thing about Memebox is that you can pick from a selection of fun themes like "Wine and Cheese Cosmetics", "Pinkaholic" and "Blackheads No More." This helps to ensure that you receive the types of products you want.

Unfortunately, I get a lot of slack from my Korean friends about my skin and often get told that I look older than I am. This bluntness, common in Korea, is something I'm still getting used to. Nevertheless, it's a fact that my fair, 28 year old Caucasian skin is already showing signs of aging and wrinkles. Which is why I was super pumped to receive Superbox #33 Collagen Cosmetics ($35 USD).

I had really high expectations for this box and most of them were met, if not exceeded. Here's what I got:



1. Ramosu Carestory Collagen Extract 100 10ml Full size product (valued at $36) Infused with over 17 different amino acids, this 100% concentrated Collagen Ampoule is meant to deliver intense hydration to facilitate cell regeneration.

This product was a bit difficult to assemble and it definitely brought me back to my nursing school days of preparing injections. Application was easy and it only required a few drops, but I felt that it didn't provide the hydration I was expecting and should be used with other products to be fully effective. Considering this product is used in many Korean aesthetic salons, I'm hoping for good results with continued use.

2. The Skin House Wrinkle Collagen Free Spot 30ml Full size product ($28) This wrinkle-care product is packed with collagen and adenosine components for delivering deep, intense nourishment to the skin to nullify the signs of aging by filling in between fine lines and wrinkles.

I had just run out of my Innisfree Eco Science Wrinkle Spot Essence so I was happy this spot cream was included in the box, as it has the same function. It can be used as an eye cream but also works well on the forehead and in the smile lines. I felt it wasn't as moisturizing as my Innisfree cream (which costs about the same) but absorbed faster and better.

3. Deweytree Real Collagen Nutrition Serum 50ml Full size product ($39) Deeply moisturizing and nourishing, this facial serum infused with high concentrates of collagen treats enlarged pores, sagging skin, and signs of aging with its highly moisturizing and nutritious formula which catalyzes skin regeneration and renewal.

This product is hands-down my favorite, not only from this Memebox, but among all the cosmetics I've bought this past year. This silky serum glides on easily and makes my skin feel baby-soft. This product in itself is worth the purchase of this particular box... I just wish there were more of it.

4. 3W Clinic Collagen Make-up Base 50ml Full size product ($30) This silicon-type collagen make-up base contains blemish-control powder components for matting out and preparing the skin condition before foundation application.

I had been wanting to buy a green-tinted base for a while to neutralize the redness in my skin- a big complex of mine- so I was eager to try this product first. I was quickly let down, however, as this base didn't blend into my skin very well. In fact, it didn't settle into my pores at all and after I applied my foundation, my skin became flaky and my makeup clumpy. Fortunately, this was the only miss in the box.



5. Dermahouse Collagen Firming Cream 30ml Full size product ($29) The abundant collagen, shea butter, and mango shea butter ingredients in the Collagen Firming Cream work to lock in moisture and deliver beneficial nutrients deep down into your skin. With continuous use, fine lines and wrinkles should disappear and skin texture and clarity should improve.

I'm fairly loyal to Kiehl's when it comes to lotions and creams but I've been alternating my day cream with this firming cream. My skin isn't yet saggy (knock on wood) so I can't speak for the firming properties of this cream. However, I found it satisfyingly hydrating and liked the light fruity scent. It worked perfectly as a day cream but I felt that as a full-sized product, it was rather small for the price. Still, it's a steal since the Memebox itself costs slightly more than the product.



6. Abelle So Hot-Burning Concentrate Ampoule 20ml Full size product ($24) This is a unique hair ampoule that warms up by itself and absorbs deeply into your hair. This highly concentrated ampoule is made from E.G.F, hydrolyzed keratin, hydrolyzed collagen, and hydrolyzed silk (whatever those things are), which all work to strengthen the hair cuticle and make your hair shine with a natural glow.

This product is a godsend, as I regularly blow dry and straighten my unruly, naturally curly hair, causing constant damage. I felt like this ampoule started working immediately after I applied it to my just-shampooed, towel-dried hair. It is to be used once a week for best results so this full sized product should last about a month.

Overall, I was very happy with this box and felt it was a great value for the price. Can't wait to see what the next one will be!



Want to try Memebox? Now is the time! Seoul Searching readers get $5 off on orders above $100 from now until the end of September! Just click this link and enter the coupon code MC13 at checkout to receive your automatic discount. Enjoy, K-beauty junkies!

Although my Memebox was free in return for this post, all opinions are, of course, my own.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.


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September 16, 2014

Hanging Out in Hyehwa

Once the center of Seoul's art and music scene, Hyehwa is a neighborhood bursting with creativity and youthful energy. The area is situated in the northeastern part of the capital and is also known as Daehangno, a nickname derived from dehag, or "university," because of its close proximity to a number of learning institutes.

Over the past decade, Hongdae has garnered the reputation of being Seoul's SoHo, lessening Hyehwa to a mere a notch in the history of the city's culture boom. Today, it remains off the radar to most tourists and is even overlooked by locals. Nevertheless, it remains to thrive as Seoul's theater district- with over 80 independent theaters showing performances on a daily basis- and is brimming with diverse, inexpensive eateries, eye-catching cafes and greenspaces to boot. The neighborhood, while seemingly typical on the surface, is one of surprises. It just takes a bit of digging to discover them.





Caffeine is an essential component to the start of any day and the best place to get it in Hyehwa is b2project. Part cafe, part gallery, this cozy space is a haven for both coffee lovers and design aficionados. Enter the first floor, place your beverage order and take in the cafe's tasteful decor. Colorful paintings adorn the walls and quirky lighting fixtures hang from above, while miss-matched chairs and tables create a comfortable environment for studying or reading a book. Before you go, take a look at the gallery downstairs, which features an array of modern Scandinavian furniture. If you've got money to burn, you can purchase the wares on display, which start at a whopping one million won ($1,000USD).



Now that you're properly energized, follow the signs up the hills to Naksan Park, one of my favorite places to get a bit of fresh air in the city. The park itself offers some incredible views of downtown Seoul from the city's fortress wall, but the real highlight is the collection of sculptures and murals that decorate its paths that wind into the low-income residential area of Ihwa-dong.



The urban art, a beautification initiative of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, is unique in that rather than being a contrast to the dilapidated buildings that line the streets, it blends so that it appears as if the installations and paintings are at one with the spots they occupy. In my opinion, the decrepit characteristics combined with the personalized art make this part of the area far more charming than the affluent but sterile neighborhoods south of the river.



Wind your way back down to Hyehwa Station for lunch. Hidden on a side street in a renovated hanok is Zzimmani. This quaint yet modern restaurant serves up tasty Korean fare and offers some fantastic lunch specials. Everything on the menu is good but the moksal barbecue deopab (BBQ rice bowl), a mound of steamed rice covered in juicy, charcoaly meat and greens, keeps me going back on every visit to the area. The entrees are served with loads of fresh unlimited banchan (side dishes), which include a chicken salad, atypical of a Korean spread. An added bonus is the ridiculously cheap price: each set costs about 7,000 won ($7USD)!



Zzimmani's duenjang jiggae (bean paste soup) with fresh and healthy sides.


No trip to Hyehwa would be complete without shopping. The neighborhood is cluttered with cheap clothing shops, most of which carry the same trends sold in Dongdaemun, but are far more organized. The downfall is that many vendors won't allow you to try on their wares before you buy them, but it's worth asking, anyway. Whenever I visit Hyehwa, I make a trip to 10x10, a multi-store that sells just about everything. The focus of the shop is on design and many of the lifestyle products for sale, which include clothes, bags, jewelry, candles, kitchenware and stationary, are designed by Korean artists. There's even a florist and gift-wrapping center in case you're shopping for someone other than yourself. But where's the fun in that, right?





My favorite 10x10 products have to be the travel goodies... everything you could possibly need for your next trip is here!

If you happen to visit Hyehwa on a Sunday, make your way toward Hyehwa Rotary for a taste of the Philippines. Many Filipino expats gather here, usually after mass at Hyehwa Catholic Church, to congregate, pick up hard-to-find snacks from the motherland and gorge on specialties such as pork adobo, lumpia (egg rolls) and pancit (Filipino noodles). The Filipino Market is small and the seating for the food stalls is limited but I've always been one to love sharing a table with strangers and this market is no exception. I also had one of the vendors hand-feed me one of her famous empanadas on a previous visit, a testament to the warmth and hospitality Filipinos are known for.




As the sun begins to set, street performers abound and one of the best places to see them in action is outside Hyehwa Station, Exit 2, or Marronnier Park. Recently renovated, the park is a nice open space that often hosts free performances and concerts. Weeknights are a bit calmer and the location is a peaceful place to relax after a long day of wandering.

There's no shortage of nightlife venues in Hyehwa and my all-time favorite hangout is Jazz Story, an obscure music bar. Shrouded in metal work, it seems as if a very talented and creative blacksmith had a heyday with the interior of the palce. Yet, for as industrial as the metal intends the bar to be, velvet-covered chairs, shelves of vinyl records, and clusters of candles create a cozy, romantic atmosphere. Drinks aren't anything to write home about, and there's a 5,000 won ($5USD) cover, but the live music performed by Jazz Story's house band every night of the week beginning at 8:30 (or 8 on Sundays) is more than worth it.





A newer favorite is Mix & Malt.  Opened only a few months, this homey bar uses fresh ingredients- many of which come straight from their garden- to concoct some of the best cocktails in the city. In addition to the classics, Mix & Malt also has some signature and seasonal specialties on the menu, like the Elderflower Mojito (11,000 won, $11USD). Presentation is also superb. Because so much effort is put into each drink, they take a bit longer than usual to make it to your table, so be prepared to wait. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to entertain yourself, from board games to a shuffleboard table. On the second floor, there is a fireplace... a feature I will definitely be returning for in the fall.


Mix & Malt's Elderflower Mojito and Hibiscus Mojito... perfect flavors for the summer. (Photo: Mix & Malt)

After a few rounds at Mix & Malt, you can easily catch the last train at nearby Hyehwa Station, or hail a taxi, as there's always one passing by. Either way, it's certain that you won't be gone for long. Hyehwa has that effect, and with the increasing trendiness of areas like Hongdae and Itaewon (and as such, increasing crowds), Hyehwa is convenient, enjoyable and comfortable alternative hang-out.

More Information (See Map Below)

b2project Address: Seoul Jongno-gu, Dongsoong-dong, Dongsung3-gil 6-6 (서울시 종로구 동숭동 동숭3길 6-6) Telephone: 02-6369-2900

Naksan Park Address: Seoul Jongno-gu, Dongsung-dong, San2-10

Zzimmani Address: Seoul, Jongno-gu, Myeongnyun 4(sa)ga, 117 Telephone: 02-744-6262

10x10 (텐바이텐) Address: Seoul Jongno-gu, Dongsoong-dong 1-7 (서울특별시 종로구 동숭동 1-7) Telephone: 1644-6030

Hyehwa Filipino Market Address: Seoul Jongno-gu Hyehwa-dong 58-2 (종로구 혜화동 58-2) Hours: Sun 9am-5pm Payment: Cash only

Marronnier Park Address: Seoul Jongno-gu Dongsung-dong, 1-124

Jazz Story Address: Seoul, Jongno-gu, DongSoong-dong 1-138 Telephone: 02-725-6537 Hours: Daily, 5pm-late

Mix & Malt Address: Seoul, Jongno-gu, Changgyeonggung-ro 29-gil, 3 (종로구 창경궁로 29길 3) Telephone: 02-765-5945 Hours: Mon-Thu 7:30am-2am; Fri-Sat 7:30pm-3am; Sun 7:30am-2am



Disclaimer: The above information is accurate and correct as of September 17, 2014.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching, unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced without authorization.
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September 6, 2014

Top 10 Things to Do in Seoul

I've been writing Seoul Searching for just over five years now and although I've mentioned a lot of great places to visit, it recently came to my attention that I have yet to put together a list of the best things to do in the city. Of course, "best" is a highly subjective word, and while everyone has their own ideas of what a visitor should experience during his or her stay, I have my own personal favorites. So, without further ado, here are the top ten things you should do on your stay in Seoul:

10. Tap into your artsy side

Koreans have always had an appreciation for the arts. From the intricately crafted ceramic pottery of the country's dynastic days to modern reinterpretations of pansori, a genre of musical storytelling, Korean artists know no limits. Explore ancient treasures at the National Museum of Korea- one of the largest in the world- or if your tastes are more contemporary, opt for a visit to the Seoul Museum of Art. For a complete list of exhibitions and concerts going on throughout the city, visit this website.

9. See a non-verbal performance

Treat yourself to a night of entertainment by booking tickets for one of the many high-energy non-verbal performances showing daily in theaters throughout the city. Miso, a personal favorite, showcases traditional dance, emotional music and some incredibly beautiful costumes, while Bibap is a food-centric story that utilizes martial arts and a whole lot of slapstick to keep the audience laughing from start to finish.



A non-verbal performance illustrates the beauty and mystery of Korean culture.

8. Sleep in a traditional house

For a truly Korean experience, spend a night or two in a hanok. These traditional homes, which are diminishing by the day, are a unique reminder of Korea's past and still preserve the country's history in their tiled roofs, papered windows, enchanting courtyards and heated floors. Bukchon Hanok Village is an especially picturesque neighborhood mostly comprised of these homes. It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful areas in the city and is conveniently wedged between Gyeongbok and Changdeok palaces, among other cultural relics, making it a great spot to rest your head after a long day of Seoul searching.

7. Get monk-y

Although the majority of Korean nationals today do not profess a specific religious orientation, Buddhism was once the national religion and its influence on the country is obvious, even in modern day Korea. There are a few temples in Seoul worth visiting, particularly during Buddha's Birthday in May, but one of the best places to get oriented to Buddhism is Bongeunsa, a 1,200 year old complex located in the heart of Gangnam's business district. Visitors with a deep interest in the religion can opt to stay overnight and live like a monk for a day (think grueling prostrations, vegetarian meals and a 4am wakeup call) but for those looking for a less intense look into the life of Buddhist monks, Bongeunsa offers a TempleLife program on Thursdays. Here, participants learn the basics of Seon meditation, the Korean tea ceremony and get a nice tour of the temple grounds.



Temple stay participants learn how to meditate.

6. Have a cuppa

Korea is a coffee-crazed nation, with a cafe on practically every block of every street. Still, there are a number of traditional tea houses primarily concentrated in Insadong. These cafes are easy to spot but the best are tucked away in the alleys of the neighborhood. My go-to is Moon Bird Thinks Only of the Moon, a tea house far more simplistic than its complicated name suggests. Shrouded in rustic decor, Moon Bird is a cozy spot to enjoy a cup of homemade omija (five-flavored) or yuja (Asian citrus) tea. Although the prices for these traditional teas are a bit costly (usually around 7,000 won), the complimentary tea snacks and atmosphere make it worth it.


5. Spend an afternoon on the Han

Seoul is often portrayed as a city of concrete and neon, so many are surprised to learn that there are a number of green spaces strewn across the Korean capital. My favorite place to soak up some sun is the Han River and the parks that border it. On any given day, locals can be found in these parks shooting hoops, riding bikes (which can be rented for pennies) and picnicking under sun shades. In the evenings, a musical fountain show is held at Banpo Bridge in which over 200 tons of water are sprayed out of the illuminated bridge in sync to musical tunes. In warmer months, free concerts are held and movies are shown on stages around the river.



Enjoy a bike ride and picnic on the picturesque Han River. (Photo: Talk To Me In Korean)

4. Explore Hongdae

Hongdae is a vibrant neighborhood known for being the creative hub of the country. Boasting a number of design shops, art galleries, indie music bars and fashion studios, the district is the perfect place to soak up the city's up-and-coming trends and youth culture. Spend an afternoon in Hongdae checking out unique (and sometimes strangely) themed coffee shops, snap photos of the colorful street art and chow down on gimmicky street snacks like nitrogen ice cream. After the sun sets, Hongdae really comes alive as thousands flock to the area's bars, dance clubs and noraebangs (private karaoke rooms) for round after round of drunken debauchery.



An indie band jams out in Hongdae's Children's Park. (Photo: Jeffrey Tripp)

3. Go on a food tour

The world is slowly becoming more aware of the tantalizing flavors Korean food has to offer and people from all corners of the globe are flocking to the peninsula to taste the cuisine in its most authentic form. While many restaurants in touris areas are foreigner-friendly, it can be difficult to find the gastronomic gems of Seoul, often located in obscure and hidden back alleys of lesser known neighborhoods. That's why going on a food tour is the best option to sample the tastiest treats Korea has to offer, all the while allowing English-speaking local residents to do the dirty work for you. From seafood market visits to Korean barbecue tours to pub hopping, there's a tour for just about everyone.



2. Hike a mountain

When I do decide to leave Korea, one of the things I'll miss most is having immediate access to gorgeous hiking trails and outstanding city views. A number of mountains can be easily accessed via Seoul's subway system and trails are clearly marked and maintained. The fact is Koreans- mostly of the elderly variety- have made a lifestyle out of hiking, investing thousands of dollars in colorful outdoor get-ups and equipment. Hiking is a social activity in itself and once on the trails, the cranky and pushy characteristics those of the older generations are known for seem to dissipate. Hikers are quite often eager share both their smiles and lunches of kimbap, fresh fruit and makgeolli- lots of makgeolli- with passersby. These interactions, in addition to the beautiful vistas offered by mountains like Bukhansan, Inwangsan and Dobongsan, make a hiking trip a must on any visit to Seoul.



Hikers take a picnic break. (Photo)

1. Get off the beaten path

Without a doubt, the best thing to do in Seoul is to get lost. The city is very much a treasure trove of sights and smells and sounds and tastes waiting to be taken in. While I have my own personal favorite off-the-beaten-path destinations I escape to every now and again, there are plenty others I have yet to discover. Seoul is an incredibly safe city which makes wandering its streets not only fun but secure as well. So don't feel the need to stick only to the areas your guidebook suggests. Get out there and experience all the surprises the city has waiting for you!

What's your number one thing to do in Seoul? Leave any suggestions I may have left out in the comments below.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.


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August 28, 2014

Sampling Seoul: A Night Dining Tour with O'ngo Food Communications

Korean cuisine, much like the country's people, is vibrant, flavorful, eclectic and packs a lot of punch. It's so diverse that it would take years to try each banchan (side dish), variety of kimchi (there's over 200!) and regional and seasonal specialty. Fortunately for gastronomes eager to sample Korea's tastiest cuisine in a limited amount of time, O'ngo Food Communications offers a number of food tours that take all the guesswork out of the search for the country's best restaurants.

This week, I joined O'ngo on their highly popular Korean Night Dining Tour, an activity that consistently ranks in the top 5 list of things to do in Seoul on TripAdvisor.  After meeting my tour mates- a diverse group of friendly Singaporeans, Germans and Australians- and our enthusiastic local guide Gemma, we hit the streets of Jongno with our mouths watering and our bellies growling.

From the get go, Gemma gave us fun tidbits about the landmarks we passed and the streets we wandered, including Galmaegisal-gil, the first stop on our tour. This street, a cramped alley of tiny restaurants, smoking grills and boisterous businessmen perched on plastic chairs downing soju, was incredibly picturesque and captured the true essence of the city.


We took our seats at an unassuming corner restaurant, the first in the city to serve galmaegisal, pork skirt steak. The table had already been prepared for our group, and the servers were kind enough to do the cooking for us, a big plus for foreigners less versed in the art of table grilling. Gemma explained how to wrap the perfectly cooked pork in mustard greens and sesame leaves, adding just the right amount of mung bean and sesame powders, salt, and ssamjang (dipping sauce), all the while devouring it in one bite.


Suddenly, the entire table was quiet as we stuffed our mouths with the deliciousness that is ssam (lettuce wraps). But, the silence wouldn't last long, as Gemma didn't waste any time in serving us cojinganmek, a "bomb" shot of Coca-Cola, soju, and beer. We were all a bit flushed and full by the end of the meal, but it was soon off to the next stop.


Weaving through Insadong's alleys, we found ourselves at a hidden tteokbokki joint. The rice cake snack we sampled was a twist on the original, and rather than being spicy, was sweet and soupy, and was mixed in with carrots and fish cakes in a soy-based broth. Although I still prefer the original, it was nice to try something new. We slurped up the tasty dish, and washed it down with few shots of maehwasu, Korean plum liquor.


We managed not to stumble to our next destination, a pojangmacha, or tent bar. Gemma explained to us that these quintessentially Korean drinking establishments are expected to be extinct within the next ten years, as the government has been doing away with them, firmly believing their existence tarnishes Korea's image as a clean and forward-moving society. (They've yet to understand the fact that they're one of the favorite places of foreign tourists and residents to experience the country's culture.)


We may have looked a bit out of place to the elderly gentlemen that surrounded us, but we were welcomed with smiles and hospitality. Despite the warm summer weather, the generous portions of dakbokkeumtang, or spicy braised chicken stew, hit the spot and was the perfect companion for the somaek (beer and soju cocktail) that Gemma so impressively whipped up for us. By this point, we had all bonded, not necessarily because of the alcohol, and were having a great time exchanging funny travel stories and telling jokes.


It didn't take long to reach Gwangjang Market, one of Seoul's oldest and most famous traditional markets, particularly popular for its food. The market was packed and scents of fermenting seafood, fried goodies and spilled alcohol permeated throughout. We were led to a three-story restaurant and were quickly served up plates of bindaekduk (crispy savory pancakes) and mixed jeon (fried veggies, meat and seafood). By this point, I wished I had worn elastic pants but still managed to shovel down a few bites. Gemma poured us bowls of makgeolli (Korean rice beer) and taught us a few basic drinking games. We couldn't stop laughing at our ineptitude to play, yet were still probably the tamest group in the entire place.


After a night of drinking games, wandering Seoul's streets, meeting new friends and gorging on the city's tastiest treats, we parted ways. Half of the group headed out to Dongdaemun for some late-night shopping while the rest of us, practically in food comas, went home. 

Overall, I was extremely impressed with O'ngo's Korean Night Dining Tour. Even after living in Seoul for five years, I was introduced to neighborhoods I had never visited and dishes I had never tried. The guide was fun and helpful, the tour well-structured and organized, and the price excellent for the value. It's the perfect tour for those wanting to make the most of a short trip in Seoul, but is also fun for long-term expats like myself looking to learn more about the hidden gastronomic gems of the city.


Photo courtesy of Chang Thuy.

More Information

The Korean Night Dining Tour runs daily at 6PM and is three and a half hours long. The tour begins at the O'ngo Culinary School, located just a few minutes' walk from Insadong. The cost is $88 USD per person and there are discounted rates for those not drinking alcohol, kids, and groups of eight or more. For more information about O'ngo or to make a reservation for this food tour, click here and fill out the form.


*Although this post is sponsored by O'ngo Food Communications, the opinions are, of course, my own. 

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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August 24, 2014

Korea's Best Grocery Delivery Websites

Seoul is, without a doubt, one of the most convenient places to live in the world. It's a 24 hour city, with businesses remaining open until the wee hours of the morning. It boasts an incredibly efficient and affordable transportation system.  And you can get just about anything delivered to your house. Including groceries. Which is particularly handy when you live in the hilltops of Gyeongnidan like myself.

Below is a list of helpful websites to use when you don't feel like hauling around heavy bags of veggies or fighting ajumma in chaotic supermarkets.

iHerb.com

Although I live in Itaewon and have easy access to a number of international markets, I prefer shopping on iHerb.com for the price, selection of food and quick delivery. iHerb.com is based in America and prides itself on having the best overall value for natural products in the world. You can find just about anything on iHerb, from user-reviewed breakfast foods and baking items to vitamins and toiletries. One of my favorite brands to order is Bob's Red Mill; I'm particularly fond of their gluten-free bread mixes, steel-cut oats, and soups. I'm obsessed with their hearty Vegi Soup Mix for $5.37 USD which sells at Itaewon High Street Market for the equivalent of $10.69. And I won't even get started on the mark-up of vitamins in Korea.

Surprisingly, the shipping is crazy cheap- a flat rate of $4.00 USD for up to 15 pounds. Shipping takes about a week and despite the more complicated customs process as of late, all you need to complete your order is an ARC number (either yours or a co-signer's).

First-time users can use the code STJ541 to save up to $10.00 USD on one's first purchase. Be warned, however, that once you start using iHerb.com, you WILL become addicted.



Gachi CSA

Korean farms use 15 times more pesticides than those in the United States.  Scary, I know. Fortunately, for the health-conscious, there's a new farm-to-table initiative quickly gaining popularity in Seoul. Gachi CSA is a food delivery system that provides residents in Korea with trustworthy, local, organic produce directly from local farms straight to your doorstep.

Gachi offers a base basket of local, seasonal fruit and vegetables in two portions: one for couples, the other for families. The Couples' Basket contains 8-10 different items and is priced at ₩27,000 per week, whereas the Family Basket contains 10-12 different items and is priced at ₩35,000. These two baskets both have a time-frame option of month share, half share and full share (1 month, 3 months and 6 months respectively). For an additional fee, add-on options such as snacks, juice, bread and meat can be added.

Gachi posts recipes using ingredients of their weekly boxes on their Facebook page and those interested can register for the service at their website.



High Street Market

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of High Street's prices are a rip-off, but for those items that can't be purchased on iHerb- i.e. perishables- their website comes in handy. High Street has a great selection of meats, including harder to find options such as pastrami and chorizo. Additionally, High Street offers whole cooked turkeys and hams, which is particularly convenient if you're hosting a holiday party. (Just remember to order a couple weeks in advance.) They also have a good, albeit expensive, variety of cheese, which is nice for those living outside the city with a lack of access to the unprocessed stuff.

The delivery fee for orders under ₩120,000 is ₩3,000- not a bad price, considering they ship all over Korea, including Jeju Island. Check out High Street's online store here.



Waeg Farm

Located in Gyeongju, Waeg Farm is home to 7 goats and former university teacher Doug Huffer, who has made goat cheese available for purchase on the internet in an otherwise goat cheese-less country.  Each 200 gram container of goat cheese costs ₩10,000 and shipping is ₩4,000, or free if you order 4 or more containers. Additionally, Waeg Farm sells their own farm-grown veggies, so inquire as to which are available.

Visit the Waeg Farm website or Facebook page for more information and photos of their oh-so-adorable goats.



Alien's Day Out Bake Shop

Vegans with a sweet tooth will be happy to learn about Alien's Day Out Bake Shop. Opened by Mipa, food blogger and owner of PLANT Cafe in Itaewon, the online store offers tasty cookies, muffins and cakes at prices comparable to other bakeries around the city, but are made using organic, unrefined cane sugar and organic soy milk.

Some of Mipa's especially yummy goodies include pumpkin cranberry oatmeal cookies (₩7,000 for 6 cookies) and banana chocolate nut muffins (₩9,000 for 4 muffins). She also has a nice variety of cakes on sale that start at ₩30,000 and should be ordered a week in advance.

Alien's Day Out Bake Shop ships all around Korea for ₩4,000/order and delivery takes a few days. Visit the website to place your order or visit PLANT's Facebook page for more of Mipa's treats.



ExpatMart

For those looking for authentic Indian groceries, spices and sauces, ExpatMart is the place to shop. While the website offers a variety of curries, flours and varieties of rice, it also sells fresh items. Hard-to-find produce like cilantro and okra can also be purchased on ExpatMart, which is perfect for those hoping to whip up some Mexican or Southeast Asian cuisine. Additionally, halal meats are available, making this website a go-to for Muslim residents in Korea.

For orders over 70,000 won under 22kgs, shipping is free. A ₩4,000 shipping fee is charged for orders under ₩70,000. Browse the Expat Mart website here.



Happy shopping!

Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.


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August 17, 2014

5 Day Trips from Seoul

Korea is a rather small country. In fact, it's possible to travel from Seoul in the north to Busan on the southern coast in a matter of a few hours by KTX, the nation's high speed train. So technically, any city could possibly be classified a day trip. However, there are a few destinations located particularly close to the capital and are all accessible by Seoul's efficient and affordable subway, making them the perfect day trips to get a feel for life outside the big city. Check them out below.

Incheon

Home of the “world’s best airport,” Incheon is the port of arrival in Korea for international visitors. But its much more than an airport; it was a city of great importance in the American/UN victory in the Korean War, it was home to the majority of Chinese immigrants not so long ago and its port is responsible for ushering in the modernization of Korea as a center of industrialization.

For foodies, Incheon is a must-visit destination for fresh grilled seafood and jajjangmyeon, a dish of black bean noodles that originated in the city's Chinatown, a picturesque (though not so authentic) neighborhood of snack vendors, souvenir shops and art galleries. Red lanterns and Chinese murals decorate the streets, adding to the quaint atmosphere.

Just a short bus ride from Chinatown is Wolmido, a Coney Island-esque locale that boasts an amusement park as well as the entertaining games, performers and cotton candy stalls one would expect to find on a boardwalk. For those seeking a bit more quiet, hop a ferry to Muuido, a tranquil island of sandy beaches and hiking paths.



A friendly vendor serves up lamb skewers in Incheon's Chinatown.

Chuncheon

Located east of Seoul, Chuncheon is a city for nature lovers and those eager to get a breath of fresh air. One of the perfect places to soak up the city's natural beauty is Nami Island, an idyllic stretch of land made up of tree-lined nature paths, water-side picnic spots and nature-inspired sculptures and artwork. Rent a bike or partake in one of the many water sports available on Nami.

Don't leave Chuncheon without sampling dalk galbi, the city's most famous (and my personal favorite) Korean dish, made of stir-fried chicken and veggies in a spicy sauce. Chuncheon's Myeongdong neighborhood has a street dedicated to the dish, but don't fret about which restaurant is the best. They're all good. I assure you.



Families and couples enjoy a stroll down Nami Island's tree lined walking paths.

Paju

When I first visited Paju, I was surprised at how bright and colorful it was, considering its proximity to the North Korean border. In fact, Heyri Art Village is the definition of cheerfulness, with its quirky museums, beautifully landscaped parks and funky modern architecture. The village is also a popular filming location for a number of K-dramas, music videos and movies so Hallyu fans might recognize certain spaces and places.

If you manage to not spend all day in Heyri, go bargain hunting at the Paju Premium Outlets, which houses over 200 shops including Polo Ralph Lauren, Lacoste and Tory Birch to name a few. The outlet mall is spacious and not nearly as crowded as the stores in Seoul.



Colorful and quirky cafes, museums and galleries abound in Paju's Heyri Art Village.

Yongin

Many tourists usually make their way to Yongin, as the city boasts some of Korea's most famous attractions.

The Korean Folk Village is set in a natural environment and contains over 260 restored traditional Korean homes from all regions of the country. There is also a variety of workshops where traditional handicrafts are made. Additionally, visitors can watch reenactments of important cultural ceremonies and partake in fun activities around the village.

For thrill-seekers, Everland is an impressive theme park with attractions for the entire family. The T Express is one of the world's biggest wooden roller coasters and alone, makes the one hour trip from Seoul worthwhile. Attached to Everland is Carribean Bay, Korea's best water park complete with water slides, wave pools and plenty of areas to soak up the summer sun.

Although not technically in Yongin, but in the general vicinity, is Suwon's Hwaseong Haenggung, a former summer palace of Korean royalty. Unlike Seoul's palaces, each room of the complex is decorated in the style of the period in which it was first constructed, which makes it far more interactive and interesting in my opinion.


A woman dries chili peppers at the Korea Folk Village in Yongin. Photo

Pocheon

Like Paju, Pocheon is located rather close to the DMZ, but despite the obvious military presence, there is still a number of ways to enjoy what the city has to offer.

The Pocheon Art Valley, located in what used to be a granite quarry on Cheonjuho Lake, makes for a great family picnic spot. Interesting sculptures and art installations (including a makgeolli igloo) are also sure to be the center of all your selfies. However, if you'd like a more memorable meal, head over to Deulmusae, a family-run restaurant that serves up traditional Korean fare on ceramic plates in the shape of genitals. (See what I mean here.)

Finally, the city's Herb Island is in major need of some renovations and upkeep, but does have some pretty gardens and quaint restaurants and shops. The ideal time to visit is spring, when the flowers are in bloom. Otherwise, it's a bit on the creepy side.



Experience the grandeur of nature at Pocheon Art Valley. Photo

Other day trips worth mentioning include Ilsan Lake Park, Icheon Ceramic Village and the DMZ.

Which day trips are your favorites? Which did I leave out? Leave them in the comments box below.


Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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