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December 3, 2017

An Interview with Joey Rositano, Photographer of Jeju Shamanism

Joey Rositano is not your ordinary expat. Hailing from Nashville, the Tennessee native has called Jeju-do, an island off the southern coast of South Korea, home for the past nine years. 

But it's not just the island's tropical charms and beautiful beaches that keep him there. Rather, his interests in shamanism, a religion that has all but become extinct in recent years, as well as his desire to protect it and share its stories with the world, have driven him to produce a documentary and publish a book of photographs that document his experiences on the island.

Spirits: the Photo Book, which features 220 full color images that highlight Jeju's shrines and shamanic religious practices that are often carried out by its elderly population, including rare ceremonies performed by haenyeo, the island's famed women divers, that are meant to ensure safety while performing their treacherous work.

The book, which was released in 2015, is available for purchase in Jeju, as well as on Joey's blog and Facebook page.

Joey took the time to chat with me for an exclusive Seoul Searching interview to discuss his experiences in Jeju, his efforts to preserve shamanism and the future of the island religion.

What is it that fascinates you most about shamanism?

Shamanism is so fascinating, especially an intact system like Jeju’s muism. After immersing myself in the practice and exploring a number of shamanic communities here, I waver between being fascinated by the familiar and the unfamiliar. 

There is so much in shamanism that mirrors the world’s major religions. There are points at ceremonies where I feel I am at a religious gathering back home; the emotions, the sense of community is really familiar. Then there are times when it is so clear that the elderly practitioners of muism view the world very differently than I do. It’s really fascinating that people with intensely different world-views live beside each other on Jeju Island, the elderly and the younger generations. 

How common is shamanism in Jeju?

It’s in every village but to varying degrees. This is a difficult question to answer because we would have to first agree on what shamanism is. I’ll try to answer simply though. As far as fully functioning systems with a living village shaman and regular shrine rites, perhaps around 25-30 villages out of some several hundred villages practice shamanism in its original form. In villages where the line of traditional village shamans has broken, people still worship at shrines and contract shamans from outside to perform ceremonies. 

Elements of shamanism can be found everywhere in Jeju, in Buddhism and even in Confucian rites. For example, people in Jeju celebrate the Mountain God and Sea God ceremonies with Buddhist monks and at each family’s memorial services a table is set for the Door God who is one of the central deities in Jeju muism’s cosmology. Shamanic funerary rites are often performed in houses even if the younger residents aren’t practitioners of shamanism.

How is shamanism and the religion's shrines in Jeju different than shamanism on the mainland?

It’s really different, though it was more similar in the past. In Jeju, the village shaman, called shimbang in Jeju-eo, a variation of Korean that is only orally spoken on Jeju, is the religious leader of each village. The shimbang is responsible for leading ceremonies at shrines and performing ceremonies in village residents’ homes. These ceremonies are performed to call on the gods to bless a new home, to heal the sick or to ensure the souls of the dead are able to reach the afterlife. 

These are just a few examples. The position of shimbang is generally inherited through family lines and the community is organized around this person who has the unique ability to recite the island and village myths. This is no small feat. We’re talking about up to thirty hours or more of recitation in some cases. I understand that this type of village shamanism is more common in Jeju still than the mainland. 

Also, the music is quite different as are the deities. The female deities are more prominent in Jeju. Of course, all these practices take place in Jeju’s language. Some of the gods overlap with gods in the mainland but they play a different role in Jeju’s cosmology. 

In the 1980s, the Korean government attempted to eradicate shamanism in an effort to shed its reputation as a superstitious, "backward" nation. Even today, it is often viewed by mainlanders in a negative light. Are these sentiments shared by those in Jeju? How is the religion perceived by the general public there?

The Anti-superstition Movement had a great effect on shamanism in Jeju. Many village shamans were coerced to give up their practice during that period. Shrines were also destroyed. Yet, the people of Jeju resisted and fought back. That is certainly a theme in the story of shamanism in Jeju. 

Outsiders have tried over the centuries to destroy the practice but the fact is the people of Jeju always pick up the pieces and rebuild their shrines. That said, the movement did a lot of damage. It successfully erased shamanism from the minds of the younger generations. 

I am constantly educating younger people in the city about muism’s myths and shamanic practice. I’m not trying to be arrogant when I do this. I am always shocked to find out how little they know. So I give presentations at high schools and talk to whoever I can. Many younger people from outlying villages know about muism though, as they grew up around their grandparents. Many of them have had encounters with the village shamans when they were young.

What efforts are being made, if any, to protect the shrines?

There are around 400 shrines. A handful have been protected as cultural assets and individual villages have been making efforts to protect their shrines as well. But the overwhelming majority aren’t protected and many are near to being entirely forgotten. 

There are people working on this problem in Jeju and there is a sense that it is an eminent problem as so much development is occurring. Recently two shrines have been damaged and both are seriously threatened. I’ve been working with a local group on this issue and have played a prominent role in the case of Sulsaemit shrine, which was desecrated last year. I want to work on an initiative to protect all of Jeju’s shrines.

You mentioned that each shrine is associated with a myth. Which is the most interesting you've heard?

I really like the myth of Miss Hyun’s shrine on the southeastern side of the island. Miss Hyun, unlike many of Jeju’s deities, is a young goddess, not a grandmother goddess. She was an actual person, a village shaman, who lived several hundred years ago. It is said that she died of grief after discovering her brother’s corpse on the nearby beach. He had returned to Jeju from the mainland with a ceremonial dress for her but then shipwrecked. Today, villagers still hang ceremonial dresses for Miss Hyun in a tree in her shrine. You can see these dresses in some of the photos I included from the book.

Throughout your research on shamanism, for both your book and your documentary, what is one event or discovery that sticks out the most?

There are so many. It seems like every time I go out I learn something new. I particularly like hearing people’s personal stories, stories of miracles or stories of times when people had no one to turn to except the shrine gods. 

I have enjoyed getting to know one elderly shaman called ‘Oh Halmang’ (Grandma Oh) in her village. Over three days we recorded about fifteen hours of Jeju’s myths. She’s a very comical woman and often would clarify the plots of the myths by comparing them to situations in Korean dramas. Also, hearing stories from the period of the Jeju Uprising, also known as the April 3rd massacre of 1948, has been very sobering. 

In your opinion, what is the future of shamanism in Jeju?

Many believe that Jeju’s native shamanism is on its last legs. Many village shamans agree with this view. Ten or fifteen years is generally a number given. Yet, there is a movement building in Jeju. The youth are starting to embrace the mythology and learn a little bit more about the religion. Shamanism is being incorporated into many art forms. Time will tell if this is only a fad. 

It isn’t unheard of for a community to rebuild its traditional religion. Estonia is a great example of a place where shamanic shrines and practices were essentially entirely reinstated. It will be difficult though. The training that village shamans go through is very extensive and takes great commitment. There are some new shamans in training now.

Anything else to add?

On Jeju, there is a living example of Eurasian shamanism that is extremely valuable. By examining it, we can get a sense of what it was like to witness the pre-Christian era in places such as Europe as well. I want to bring people’s attention to this and show them that shamanism is not what they think it is. As far as protecting the shrines, it’s time to make some noise. 

Interview by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Images courtesy of Joey Rositano. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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November 30, 2017

1, 2, Cha, Cha, Cha: The Rounds of Korean Nightlife

It's no secret that Koreans are some of the hardest workers in the world. From a young age, one spends his or her school days buried in books, memorizing endless pages of material while hopping from math academy to English lessons to study hall. There's very little time for play, or childhood, for that matter.

Things don't change much by the time one reaches the workplace. Of the cities across the globe, those working in Seoul put in the most working hours per week on average. Efficiency has nothing to do with it, but because of their propensity to work hard, Koreans often find it necessary to play hard, too. And very few can play as hard as the Koreans do.

When visiting South Korea, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that nightlife here is a big deal. Drinking and going out is as much of an integral part of Korean culture as kimchi. As in many places, university students and twenty-somethings flock to nightlife districts like Hongdae, Gangnam and Itaewon to escape the imminent pressures of life and to get buzzed on cheap drinks and celebrate their youth. 

For the career man (or woman), going out is a way to maintain social connections and is often unavoidable and obligatory in many workplaces. But, unlike in the West, evenings of binge drinking occur just about every night of the week and rather than throwing back a few brews in one particular restaurant or bar, Koreans party in cha, or rounds, moving, drinking and eating in various establishments.

It's not difficult to find a watering hole in Seoul, a city of neon.

Generally, a night out involves four cha but a big night out can take party-goers all the way into a fifth. Depending on who you ask, each round should be at a specific kind of place but after having hung out with a variety of Korean friends, I have my own ideas as to what each round includes and have come up with a cha system based on my personal experiences.

I recently had some friends visiting Seoul and when I asked them what they wanted to do and see in Korea, they didn't have anything specific in mind but did want to try out karaoke with Koreans. I knew that I would have to show them much more than that and decided to take them out to Hongdae, Seoul's youth and art district, for the ultimate Korean experience: a night of cha

Il-Cha (Round 1):  Dinner and Drinks

Although we actually did this a little out of order, the majority of Koreans usually begin their nights out at a barbeque restaurant. There's something about Korean barbeque that encourages drinking.  Perhaps it's the sight of the fatty slabs of samgyeopsal (pork belly) or the smell of burning charcoal.  Maybe it's just the fact that BBQ and beer taste so damn good together. Either way, a few bottles of maekju and soju are ordered almost immediately upon sitting down. 

Meat and maekju... a match made in heaven.

There are quite a few drinking games that encourage taking shots of the Korean firewater from the iconic green bottles but I find that the best way to pace oneself is by mixing a bit of soju with some maekju to make "so-maek", which is what we did while grilling a few platters of meat.  So-maek seems to make everything go down a bit smoother and makes walking to the next round somewhat easier.

Korean barbeque is a good way to start out a night on the town.

Ee-Cha (Round 2):  Bar or Hof

Little did I know that when I was planning my friends' night out that Santacon (think: huge crowds of drunken foreigners decked out in Santa gear) would be taking place on the same evening in the area.  Having done this before, I figured it would be something he would enjoy partaking in. 

We picked up a few Santa hats at the dollar store and met up with the other Santas before heading to Ho Bar III. While the name may sound funny to some, Ho Bar is a popular chain of bars dotted throughout the city. Clientele is mostly twenty- and thirty- somethings and cocktails are cheap (starting at 3,500 won). There are pricier options that include bottle sets, a common find at most Korean bars.

Bottle sets can range from 100,000 ($100USD) to 600,000 ($600USD) depending on where the bar is located and often include a bottle of liquor, mixers and a platter of bar food or fruit. While it is a bit pricey, Koreans usually order these sets when in groups and the bill is typically picked up by one person, as "going dutch" is practically unheard of in traditional Korean culture.

After listening to some Christmas music, having a few drinks, and being entertained by the eclectic mix of Santas, it was time to head to the next place.

Santas take over Ho Bar III in Hongdae.

Sam-Cha (Round 3): Another Bar or Hof

Sam-cha is more or less the same as ee-cha, except at this point, everyone is boozed up. This is the point where folks let out their frustrations or problems with one another, as anything said while intoxicated is essentially "forgotten and forgiven" the next day.

Hofs are common hangouts for round three, as anju (drinking food) must be purchased with drinks. Said snacks are usually consumed with the intent of decreasing the chance of a morning hangover. Figuring we didn't need this round, my friends and I went right into four.

Sa-Cha (Round 4):  The Main Party

When partying in a youth district like Hongdae, round four typically involves dancing. There are plenty of big, flashy clubs throughout Seoul but there are also some cool underground places that are pretty chill but allow for dancing and mingling if its desired. 

I took my friends to Obeg ("500") Club which is literally underground and has the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern desert. Patrons sit at tables in caves or dance to indie electronica (if there is such a genre). Fortunately for the night owls, most clubs and bars such as these stay open until the wee hours of the morning, or at least until the first subway trains start running.

Obec, or 500, is a cool place to enjoy strong cocktails and good music in a unique atmosphere.  (Photo: Oh SoKo)

O-Cha (Round 5):  Karaoke

Karaoke is a national pastime of Korea and it would be a sin to skip out on this experience while visiting or living on the peninsula. Karaoke isn't something that is done in large groups of people here; instead, noraebangs are businesses of individual rooms, allowing private parties to sing their hearts out without fear of being judged by complete strangers. 

The facade of Luxury Noraebang in Hongdae.  Passerby usually stop to see what sorts of shenanigans are going on inside. (Photo: WhosTheFOBNow)

For the most part, noraebangs are extremely tacky with their neon flashing lights and cheesy decor, but it all seems to work. I was excited to bring my friends to Luxury Noraebang, one of Seoul's most famous singing rooms, easily recognizable by its glass facade. We waited to get one of the rooms with a window so we could have a good view of Parking Street, the main strip of Hongdae. We drank a few beers, shook tambourines and sang (or tried to at least) a very random mix of songs, including the finale: "Gangnam Style." 

The ten minute wait was well worth our pimped out room with a view of Parking Street.

By the end of o-cha, most are exhausted and head home (or to the nearest sidewalk) for a few hours of sleep before making it to class or work the next morning. We did the same, waking up somewhat early and feeling pretty good to get out and do some sightseeing despite the exhaustion. Still, I will never understand how Koreans work so hard and play so hard at the same time. Hangover drinks? Secret naps at work? I just can't figure it out.

As time and Korea progresses, however, many companies are working to stamp out the excessive drinking culture. Employees are beginning to take a stand and some have even gone so far as to sue their employers for being forced to drink. This is definitely a good thing in my book, and it's great to know that measures are being taken to combat binge drinking in the corporate environment. But, something tells me that the cha tradition - BBQ, soju games, karaoke, and all - is here to stay. Only time will tell, but in the meantime, I'll keep on cha, cha, chaing.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 
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November 25, 2017

Glamping Under the Stars at Raventree in Gapyeong

Fall has officially arrived in Korea. The season may not be the longest, but it is, without a doubt, the most beautiful. The country's autumn colors, crisp air and cool temperatures beckon its inhabitants to don their sweaters and head outdoors for festivals, mountain hikes and danpoong noryi, excursions to see the fall foliage. Yet there is one autumn activity that has particularly taken off in Korea in recent years that sets itself apart from every other seasonal activity -- glamping.

Although camping has always been popular, with campsites often booked months in advance, glamping (or glamorous camping) offers a bit of luxury to those seeking to get the full experience of the great outdoors without sacrificing any creature comforts of civilization.

Raventree in Gappyeong, located just a forty minute's drive from Gangnam, is not only the most conveniently located glamping site in Korea, but is also one of the most beautiful. A couple weeks ago, a friend and I packed our bags and made our way out to the rolling landscapes of Gyeonggi Province. Thanks to her GPS, the site was easy to find, and offered a scenic route which conveniently passed by some tasty restaurants and snack stalls, as the glamping anticipation worked up our appetites.

Upon arrival, our eyes widened at the site of the campground's lavish tents, arranged in a neat semi-circle and perched on the side of a mountain overlooking a picturesque valley. Unable to contain our excitement, we jumped out the car and were quickly welcomed by the friendly manager of the campground who escorted us to our home for the evening. We wasted no time in exploring our two-story tent, an incredible shelter unlike any I had seen before.

In the lower level of this two-story tent was a kitchen and living area that extends out onto the wooden deck. Equipped with a mini-fridge, a hot plate, cutlery, plates, pots and pans, the room offers everything one might need to prepare a hot bowl of ramen, a simple camping meal or a feast (as we would later learn many visitors opt for). The sleeping area upstairs is accessed via a ladder and is completely screened in, so as to keep out bugs. Additionally, it is fairly spacious and easily fits two people very comfortably, but is also big enough for a family with two small children.

We took a walk around the site, which boasts a nice pond, a playground, shower facilities, a dish-washing station, a convenience store that sells snacks, drinks and basic camping necessities, and the quintessential karaoke machine. (This is Korea, after all.)

The sun began to set on the campground and as clusters of constellations and a full moon claimed the crystal clear skies, the friendly manager stopped by our tent with plenty of firewood (that he would refill throughout the evening) to help us start up a fire in the raised pit on our deck. He also delivered the Raventree BBQ Glamping Combo that we ordered ahead of time for an additional cost. Packed in our set was a tasty variety of pork, sausage, shrimp, veggies, kimchi and condiments. We got right to grilling and inhaled lettuce wraps of barbecue goodness and slurped down cold beer. It was all very good but my friend and I agreed that bringing our own food on the next visit would be far more economical.

I had intentionally made the reservation for this particular night, as I knew there would be a full moon, but to to our surprise, a lunar eclipse also took place. Families gathered together after dinner to marvel at the spectacular site, one that I am sure wouldn't have been as nearly as impressive in the city.

Just as we finished up another round of beers, an American gentleman invited my friend and I to join his gumbo party a few tents down. Not ones to turn down gumbo, we joined the feast that was already well under way. The group had packed all sorts of treats and were quick to share as we exchanged travel stories and playlist recommendations. It never ceases to amaze me that despite being out in the middle of nowhere, there are always new friends to be made and laughs to be had.

Unlike most campsites in Korea, Raventree was occupied by families and couples rather than the rowdy groups of intoxicated ajusshi (old men) that tend to shout and blare trot music all through the night. With this added sense of calm, my friend and I had no problem falling right to sleep. Additionally, despite the frigid temperatures, the heated mats under our pallets kept us cozy. From the beginning of November, heaters are installed in the lower level of the tents to provide extra warmth, making camping in the winter not only possible, but also enjoyable.

I woke to a view of misty mountains in the morning and after whipping up a mug of hot cocoa, bundled up and did a bit of reading on the deck, a last attempt to enjoy the great outdoors before check-out.

Sure, a stay at Raventree isn't exactly roughing it and some might even consider it a bit too pricey for a night out in the middle of nowhere. However, I could equate our stay to that of one in a decent hotel, but with the added benefit of good service, friendly neighbors, fresh air, incredible surroundings and a memorable experience that only the nature of the Korean countryside can offer.

More Information: Raventree

Address: 10 Wegoklee Seorak-myeon Gaypeong Gyunggi-do (경기도 가평군 설악면 위곡리 10)
Phone Number: +82 2-1688-8614
Price: Tents 165,000 won/ night (Sun-Thurs); 177,000 won/ night (Friday); 198,000 won/ night (Saturday, holidays); Premium BBQ Combo Set (2 people) 98,000 won
Check-in: 3pm
Check-out: 12pm
Reservations: By the Raventree website (Korean), Glamping.com (English) or by e-mail at raventree@naver.com (English)
Facebook: Click Here
Get There: Take bus number 7000 from Exit 5 of Jamsil Station (Subway Line 2 or 8) to Seorak-myeon (설악면) (4,000 won). The bus runs every hour and the travel time is about 40 minutes. After arriving at Seorak-myeon, take a taxi to Raventree (about 8,000 won).

Disclaimer: Although Raventree provided accommodations free of charge in return for this post, the 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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November 19, 2017

Top 10 Things to Do in Seoul

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. Even those on a budget can watch these excellent performances by purchasing rush tickets at the Seoul TIC.

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. Check out Kozaza for a complete listing of hanok homestays and rentals.

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 immediately clear, 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 and the Korean tea ceremony, and get a nice tour of the temple grounds and perhaps even some tasty temple treats.

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 the price well 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 tourist 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 picnics 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 comfortable 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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November 13, 2017

10 Ways to Stay Warm During Winter in Korea

Let me just make one thing clear. I am not a fan of Korean winters. Sure, the snow can be beautiful and the holiday decorations do make me all fuzzy on the inside but on any given day from December to March, the last place you'll find me is outside. Coincidentally, many Koreans share my sentiments and as a result, the country boasts an abundance of places to enjoy the great indoors.

So, without further ado, here are the top ten ways to stay warm during winter in Korea...

10.  Find Hot Deals at Seoul's Mega Malls:  From Dongdaemun's 24 hour clothing markets to Cheongdamdong's luxury boutiques, there's no doubt that Korea's capital city is a haven for shoppers.

Over the past few years, the construction of mega malls like IFC Seoul, D-Cube City and the newly-opened Lotte World Mall has further substantiated this fact. These shopping complexes, which are usually attached to subway stations, boast the hottest names in fashion from all corners of the globe. But the best part about them is that shoppers can enjoy a number of entertainment, dining and nightlife facilities all day, every day without ever even stepping foot outside. Now that's cool.

9.  Enjoy a Hot Cup of Cha:  Although Koreans tend to drink more coffee these days, cha (or, tea) was once the preferred beverage of the country. They may not be as common, but tea houses still exist and one of the best neighborhoods to enjoy a cup is Insadong.

Hidden in the back alleys of this favorite tourist destination are cozy, obscure cafes (like Shin Old Tea House) that serve traditional Korean teas, many of which have medicinal properties. Yujacha (citron tea) is packed with vitamins and soothes sore throats, making it a personal favorite of mine during the winter.

8.  Get a Hot Bod:  Between hibernating and holiday snacking, it's easy to put on the pounds during winter. Beat the belly bulge and get enrolled in one of the many fitness classes offered throughout Seoul. Whether you're a yoga novice or a master of mixed martial arts, there's a program for just about everyone. Plus, when the sun decides to come out again in spring, you can hit the beaches of Busan feeling confident and, well, hot.

7.  Get Toasty (or Toasted):  Sometimes winter weather calls for certain beverages that may not necessarily be native to Korea. A hotty toddy, Irish coffee or mulled wine might be just enough to warm you up on even the coldest days. While many Seoul institutions each feature their own take on these cocktails, the fellas at Southside Parlor near Noksapyeong Station and Mix and Malt in Hyehwa both do excellent winter cocktail menus. Chai Bourbon Toddies? Yes, please.

6.  Crank up the Heat in the Kitchen:  Just because the temperatures plummet to well below zero does not mean that it's okay to eat Shin Ramen on a daily basis during the colder months in Korea. Pick up a few tricks you can you use in the kitchen by enrolling in a cooking class. Learn how to make tasty Korean dishes like bulgogi, kimchi and jjigae from professionals then practice in the comfort of your kitchen and invite some friends over to show off what you've learned. They'll be thankful for the meal and you'll appreciate the extra body heat.

5.  Dance the Night Away with Hot Guys and Gals:  For those that prefer partying until the sun comes up, there is no shortage of dance clubs and music bars in Seoul's nightlife districts. Hongdae and Gangnam are two of the more popular locales to jam out to hip-hop and electronic jams and meet other attractive youngsters looking to do the same.

This blogger did a fine job of putting together the pros and cons of the more well-known clubs. Do know, however, that most of these places ignore fire codes and allow the dance floors to get so packed that it becomes virtually impossible to move. This is beneficial if and only if you're actually going to a club to literally warm up.

4.  Warm Your Bum: Ondol (heated floors) are the saving grace of winter in Korea. I've actually come to favor this traditional (and typical) method in which Korean homes are heated over the central heating we use in the West. There is seriously nothing better than plopping oneself down on the hot spot of the ondol with a blanket and a good book while snowflakes fall silently outside. Head out to the hidden hanoks of Samcheongdong and Bukchon Hanok Village to experience similar winter bliss. If such a thing exists.

3.  Spice it Up:  Another way to kick up the heat is by torturing your taste buds and gorging on Korea's spiciest foods. Buldalk (literally, "fire chicken") consists of tender slices of barbecued chicken that is doused in a chili pepper sauce, and is a good dish to build up one's spice tolerance. Another option is jjamppong, a Korean-Chinese fusion soup of seafood, noodles and a red broth that tastes as fiery as it looks. Still my favorite sweat-inducing snack is tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes that are so popular there is an entire food neighborhood dedicated to them. Just bring along an antacid. Or two.

2.  Have a Warm Heart: Nothing warms the heart more than giving back to one's community and there is no better way to do this than by getting involved in one of the many volunteer groups throughout the country. Whether your interests lie in helping the homeless, supporting unwed mothers, teaching English to North Korean refugees or promoting animal rights, there's a group for just about every cause.

1.  Wash Away the Winter Blues:  The most obvious and perhaps most effective way to stay warm during merciless Korean winters is by spending an excessive amount of time in jjimjilbang, public bath houses no doubt established by ancient folks who disliked the cold as much as I do. Here, one has the option to soak in hot tubs, relax in steamy saunas and even get a body scrub to rid of all that excess dry skin.

Upscale jjimilbang also feature facilities such as movie theaters, internet lounges, aromatherapy rooms and restaurants. So what are you waiting for? Get over your fears of public nakedness and enjoy an afternoon of premium pampering. And for those preferring a more upscale pampering experience, there are plenty spas around the city that will have you wishing every day were winter.

No matter how you stay warm this winter, have fun doing it!

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

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November 9, 2017

Final Fall Encounters at Seoraksan National Park

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Korea in fall is a sight to be seen.  There are plenty of places to experience all the wonderful things about the season, but there is one special destination that allows visitors to experience autumn in all its glory: Seoraksan National Park.

I had traveled to Seoraksan a few years ago with my cousin and a friend and while it was a great experience, we underestimated the crowds; thousands flocked to the park at the same time to catch the fall foliage during its peak in mid-October.  It was the only time in my life I've ever had to wait in line to hike. The scenery was breathtaking, but the throngs of tourists kept me from getting the most out of my travels.

So, when I saw that Adventure Korea, Korea's number one budget tour company for expats, had a trip lined up for early-November, I knew I had to sign up. Fortunately for me, this meant that I didn't have to worry about booking accommodations or worrying about transportation. They took care of everything from start to finish and when I boarded the bus in Seoul the morning of the trip, I was surprised at how well-organized and friendly the staff was.

By the time we reached the park, located just outside the seaside town of Sokcho, we were ready to hit the hiking paths, but not before gorging on a bibimbap buffet of all sorts of grains, mountain vegetables and fermented sauces.

After lunch, we were given the opportunity to choose which hiking route to take. I had already once attempted the Ulsanbawi course, an arduous 4km trek that requires a climb up 800 steep metal stairs. Not wanting to be shown up by a bunch of elderly women in much better shape than I (AGAIN), I joined the "lazy group" and followed our guide to Biryong Falls.

The hike was relatively easy though there were a few rough patches. (Note to self: invest in a good pair of hiking boots by spring.) The walk was very pleasant and I was glad to have chosen the easier route, as I was able to enjoy the remnants of the colorful leaves instead of having to keep a close eye on where I was walking.

After crossing a number of footbridges and making our way up a few boulders, we took a rest at our destination. The waterfall was pretty, but I imagine it's even more impressive in the summer after the rainy season.

After relaxing for a while, we headed to Sinheung-sa Temple. Built in the mid 7th century, Sinheung-sa is believed to be the oldest Zen temple in the world. Although its design is similar to those of the rest of Korea's temples, it was incredibly striking during our visit. The paint used to embellish the wooden structures of the complex seemed to perfectly harmonize with the fall foliage, and the surrounding mountains transformed the humble temple into something majestic.

Nearby, we stopped to marvel at the Tongil Daebul ("Great Unification") Buddha, a larger-than-life bronze statue constructed in the 1980s and 90s to symbolize the Korean people's hope for the reunification of North and South Korea. There were many people lighting candles and bowing in prayer under the almost-smiling Buddha, adding a sense of serenity and spirituality to the park.

We had booked tickets in advance (which is a must during the high seasons) for the cable car (9,000 won round trip) to the Geongumseong walking course. The path was well paved and although it involved many stairs, it was comfortable and provided some amazing views of Ulsanbawi and other nearby mountain ranges.

I got a bit nervous when we made it to the top (adult-onset acrophobia, perhaps?) and opted out of climbing the steep rock face at the summit. Because of the higher elevation, there weren't many leaves left, but I was happy simply chatting with our friendly guide, watching adorable families snap cute photos and breathing in the incredibly crisp mountain air.

Just as we made our way to the park's entrance gate, it began to rain. We drove on to Osaek Valley where our hotel was located. Everyone was exhausted so many of us headed to our rooms and cranked up the ondol (floor heating) to warm up and grabbed a bite to eat. There were also a few hot spring spas in the vicinity for those needing to soak their aching muscles before getting a good night's sleep.

The next morning, we ventured out together to explore the Heulimgol Valley, which has only recently been reopened to the public after 20 years due to damages caused by severe flooding. The trek was easy and included a number of highlights: Seongguksa Temple, a pagoda, Yongso Waterfall, and an opportunity to taste oseak, the region's famous mineral water. The sights were pretty but the previous night's rainfall had lowered the temperature significantly, a reminder that winter is well on its way.

We warmed up with a delicious lunch of doenjang jiggae (bean paste soup) and some seriously tasty banchan (side dishes) before heading back to Seoul. Judging by the silence on the bus on the way home, it became certain that everyone enjoyed themselves on this delightful excursion to one of Korea's most beloved national parks. It was also a great chance for me to enjoy one last taste of autumn in the great outdoors before winter creeps in.

See you again next year, fall.

More Information

This overnight trip is called “Autumn Seoraksan & Osaek Hot Spring.” Adventure Korea hosts weekend trips to this area throughout the year. It costs 109,000 won and includes transportation (a chartered limousine bus), overnight accommodation, three meals, entrance fees, and English speaking guides. For more trip options, visit Adventure Korea’s homepage.

*Although this post is partially sponsored by Adventure Korea, the 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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November 7, 2017

An Impromptu Hike on Dobongsan

"Serendipity.  Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for." - Lawrence Block

Earlier this week, I felt the need to get out my apartment and take advantage of the beautiful weather.  A friend had told me about a place called Herb Island in Gyeonggi Province and without doing much research, I made it my destination for the day.

After a late start – the snooze button and I are far too well acquainted these days – I hopped the wrong train. Twice. After an hour of transportation mishaps on the ever-complicated Line 1, I had reached northern Seoul and realized that by the time I would get to Herb Island, I'd only have a couple hours to enjoy it before having to return to the city. So, I threw up my hands, stepped off the train, got my bearings and exited the station.  

Little did I know that I was in store for a day of serendipitous Seoul searching.

Standing outside Dobongsan Station, I looked around, not sure of where to go. Although I had heard of the mountain of the same name as the station, I had never been to the area.

Suddenly, a flock of friendly elderly hikers (easily recognizable by their fluorescent trekking attire) emerged from the station. On a hunch, I followed them past groups of feisty grandfathers playing janggi (Korean chess) and into the biggest concentration of hiking supply stores I've ever seen in my life. Vendors in portable kiosks sold roasted corn, kimbap, and makgeolli, all essentials for a good hike (or Korean picnic).

A hiker checks out the wares of a hiking supply vendor on the route to Dobongsan.

Just before I reached the entrance of Bukhansan National Park, I stumbled upon a cluster of sundubu (soft tofu) restaurants. I later found out that Sundubu Alley, as this area is often referred to, is a hotspot for foodies, as all of the restaurants in this location make their own tofu daily, ensuring that the dishes served are distinctively fresh.

I ordered a bowl of sundubu jiggae (soft tofu stew) at Dubu Cheonji (두부천지), an unassuming hiker's hangout with a nice patio and friendly servers. The dish arrived piping hot with generous portions of dubu and shellfish. The tofu was as soft as silk and very tasty, if not extremely spicy, proving the area's reputation for good food to be true.

Sundubu jiggae, or soft tofu stew, is the perfect pre-hike lunch.

With a full stomach, I entered the park and didn't bother looking at any maps. Instead, I walked along the paths of colorful lanterns that hung in celebration for Buddha's Birthday into a number of temples that dotted the paths of Dobongsan. The monks welcomed me with smiles and motioned for me to look around.

Just as I was taking a moment to snap some photos, an air raid siren sounded from the distance. Although I had heard plenty of these practice sirens before, I wondered if, considering the recent tensions with the North, this might be the real thing. I quickly shrugged it off, figuring that if it were, I was in a Buddhist temple. That had to count for something in the afterlife.

Considering my visit to Dobongsan was a spontaneous one, I was unprepared for any real hiking. I was without proper shoes, clothing or the obligatory sparkly sun visor. Opting not to head up to the peaks, I continued on through flatter terrain, admiring the occasional waterfall and thankful that there were still some cherry blossoms in bloom. 

Lanterns and flowers in full bloom added a great deal of color to the otherwise verdant scenery.

There was even a gentleman playing the saxophone on one of the walking paths, treating my fellow hikers and me to some joyful melodies while we filled up our water bottles with refreshing spring water. I regretted not bringing bug spray, as the gnats were out in full force, despite it being early May.

Along the paths of Dobongsan are taps where you can fill your water bottle with spring water.

I parked it on a boulder under a canopy of trees, enjoying the sounds of birds chirping and water flowing in a nearby stream. There were very few interruptions but my guess is that would not have been the case had I been there on a weekend. (Tip: If you visit any mountain in Korea, it's advisable to go on a weekday, as the crowds can get overwhelming.)

Although I plan on getting to Herb Island eventually, I was glad that fate had brought me to Dobong Mountain. It was a great excursion to clear my mind and a convenient way to enjoy nature without having to leave Seoul.

To Get There:  Take the Seoul subway to Dobongsan Station (Lines 1 & 7).  From Exit 1, cross the street, take a left, and walk for 200 meters.  Turn right, following the road signs to Bukhansan National Park.  Continue to walk straight for 800 meters (about ten minutes) past the hiking supply stores to reach Sundubu Alley.  The entrance to the park is just a few minutes' walk beyond that.

More Info: For more information, including hours of operation and hiking route suggestions, click here.

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

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