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October 24, 2014

A Luxurious Staycation at Conrad Seoul

In recent years, Seoul has seen a dramatic increase in the number of accommodations offered throughout the city. With so many choices, finding the right place to stay can seem daunting to tourists, business travelers and even expats. For those seeking opulence without compromising location, Conrad Seoul, the luxury brand of Hilton Worldwide, is the perfect choice.

Although not a tourist, I occasionally treat myself to a staycation in the city- an opportunity to escape the monotony of everyday life and to recharge my batteries. After a recent chaotic week of work and ridiculously long hours, I knew one was in order and the rave reviews of the Conrad had me curious. As I took the short drive from the center of the city toward the Yeouido business district, the mere sight of the hotel's gleaming black exterior towering over the Han River put me at ease.

Upon entering the lobby, it was easy to see that even after two years, the Conrad had maintained that just-opened feel. The first thing I noticed was the ginkgo leaf motif- a symbol I've come to associate with autumn in Korea. I would continue to notice the leaf integrated into the hotel's design, from the golden sculptures hanging from the lobby's high ceilings to the embossed designs of the restaurants' menus to the subtle patterns in the carpet. This delicate incorporation of nature into a very modern structure with impressive views of the sprawling Seoul metropolis was a nice balance.



I was greeted kindly by the hospitable receptionist and after checking in, took the elevator to my deluxe room on the 17th floor. And deluxe it was. I was greeted by a great view of the Han River, which looked stunning even under a gray sky. The room, with its warm earth tones and soft lighting, created an atmosphere of undeniable comfort, certain to ease the minds of the weariest of guests.

What really struck me as impressive was the technological flair the room possessed. My favorite object was the touchpad control within arm's reach from the two queen beds on either side of it. Here, guests can change the room's temperature, adjust the lighting and control the blinds with a touch of a button. Which worked in my favor, considering how much effort it took me to pull myself up from the lavish bed and 300 thread count sheets.





The bathroom was just as smart, with magic glass that allows guests to make the window that looks into the bedroom opaque with the flip of a switch. Another cool feature was the small TV installed in the bathroom mirror; unfortunately, it's not positioned well enough to watch while taking a hot bath, as I would later learn.



I had reservations to visit the Conrad's acclaimed Italian restaurant, Atrio, and as is usually the case when feeding time is involved, I wasn't a minute late. Again, I was greeted with the utmost of cordiality and was taken to a table that overlooked the streets of Yeouido, which had slowed down significantly since the afternoon. The restaurant was spacious and dimly lit by a contemporary chandelier.

I ordered the restaurant's Olive Set, a four-course dinner of Atrio's best dishes. The meal began with a basket of scrumptious breads, made fresh at the brick oven near Atrio's entrance. Bread is always my weakness but I managed to keep myself from inhaling it all at once, which ended up being a good idea, considering the portion sizes of the following courses.



First was a dish of 12 month-aged prosciutto with sliced fresh figs, rucola and triangles of provolone, a perfectly balanced combination that was an instant winner in my book. It went especially well with the vintage Italian red recommended by the waiter at my request. Next up was a buttery linguine mixed with clams, broccoli and garlic that had a nice kick to it.



Guests can chose between sirloin or sea bass as an entree and my friend and I ordered differently so we could try both. I wished I had ordered the sirloin medium rare instead of medium, as it was a bit dry for my taste but the flavor, enhanced by a Chianti jus, was great. I preferred the sea bass, which was served over a bed of Sardinian fregola, clam, squid and black olives. It was the first time I had tried fregola, which are essentially tiny balls of chewy pasta, and loved the texture. It was a great match for the tender sea bass which was cooked with saffron and onion.



Dessert was a beautifully plated lime and coconut panna cotta topped with a scoop of tangy raspberry sorbet and coconut chips. The flavors reminded me of the key lime pie I often ate as a kid on vacations in Florida and the playful shapes and colors used in the dish only enhanced these feelings of childhood. Overall, the meal was excellent and though a bit pricier than the majority of Seoul's Italian restaurants, the atmosphere and portion sizes made it a good value. I left comfortably full and remain eager to return for the happy hour specials in the near future.

Despite my bulging belly, I wanted to take advantage of the Conrad's pool before it closed so I donned a swim cap (an annoying must in most swimming pools in Korea), and hopped into the illuminated waters. It was a bit chilly but enclosed in glass, making it swimmable throughout the year. Divided into lanes, it functions more so as an exercise facility rather than one for leisure but there was almost no one in the pool so it wasn't a problem.



My friend and I then headed back up to our room, too exhausted to check out the gigantic IFC mall in the basement or the parlor-esque bar on the 37th floor, and instead opted for drinking beer (the mini-bar is well stocked and gorgeous) and Walking Dead. The TV had a good selection of channels to accommodate a number of languages, on-demand movies and even video games.





When getting ready for bed, we realized that we had forgotten our toothbrushes and with a simple phone call, two of them were delivered on a tray right to our door. Attendants were just as accommodating when my friend needed her phone charged. By now it had become apparent just how incredible the service at Conrad was. Not once did I see an attendant or server without a smile and each spoke impeccable English.

Maybe it was because we were both exhausted, but my friend and I agreed that we had one of the better night's sleep in a long time.

Not wanting to get out of the super comfy beds, but not wanting to miss breakfast, we packed our bags and made our way to the buffet at Zest. The seating was spacious and modern but the real draw was the incredible variety of food options available. The Conrad has really gone out of its way to ensure that every guest- no matter his or her nationality or breakfast preferences- is catered to. There was a Western style breakfast bar, complete with an omelette station, a pastry section, a dim sum bar, a stir-fry station, a kimchi bar, a salad bar and juice bar to cater to all tastes. Our meal was incredible, especially for a buffet, and I ended up not being hungry until late that night as a result.



Sadly, it was time for work and after printing a few documents at the hotel's small but convenient business center, my staycation came to an end, as did my visit to Conrad Seoul. Still, the top-notch service, excellent food, comfortable rooms, subtle luxury and endless amenities were just what I needed to recharge.

I imagine the luxury offered by the Conrad does even more for couples looking to celebrate a special occasion or for the first time traveler to Seoul looking to experience new things but in a comfortable setting. Fortunately for those wanting to give it a try, the Conrad Seoul is offering a number of deals until December 19, 2014 in honor of their two year anniversary. The "Design Your Smart Luxury Package" includes a one night stay, and a choice of two of the following options: breakfast at Zest, a ₩20,000 dining credit at Conrad Seoul or a room upgrade to the next available room type. Prices start at ₩275,000 (single occupancy, exclusive of tax).

More Information: Conrad Seoul

Address: 23-1 Yeouido-dong Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, 150-945, South Korea
Phone Number: +82-2-6137-7000
Price: 2 queen beds deluxe room ₩335,000/ night (includes breakfast); Olive Set at Atrio ₩78,000
Reservations: Via Conrad Seoul's website
How To Get There: From the airport, take bus number 6030 to IFC Seoul Conrad Hotel. OR From Exit 3 of Yeouido Station (Subway Line 5 or 9), follow the signs to the hotel.
Current Specials: Check out their Facebook page for more current specials.

Disclaimer: Although Conrad Seoul provided accommodations in exchange for this post, the opinions above are strictly my own.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.
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October 20, 2014

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 9 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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October 15, 2014

Why You Should Blog About Korea

Moving to Korea is quite an adventure and while you will gain invaluable experience while you're here, whether you're enrolled in a language school, teaching English or simply backpacking across the country, writing a blog is one of the best things you can do to document your journey. But your blog doesn't have to be just a diary to keep track of your day-to-day life. In fact, there are a number of benefits to writing a blog, some more valuable than others. Read on to see what you can gain from blogging.


Updating Friends and Family in the Motherland

Considering you're probably moving at least a few thousand miles away from home, blogging is a great way to keep worried parents and curious friends updated on your adventures abroad. Social media sites are a great way to share photos and keep in touch, but blogging allows you to explain the stories behind those photographs and to paint a more accurate portrayal of your life as an expat. It's also a great way to make your friends jealous, or at least envious enough to make them want to pay you a visit.

Educating Yourself and Others

When you start a blog, you'll find yourself constantly wandering about the content of your next post. Such pressure to write about interesting tidbits- whether they be cultural observations, travel tips or personal experiences- will have you wanting to see more, read more and learn more. I'm fairly confident that the reason I've learned so much about Korea is because of this blog, a hobby that pushed me to get out and explore whenever I had the time to do so.

In addition to educating yourself, you have the power to inform others. If you keep at it and post consistently, you'll eventually earn a voice. A voice that can be heard by hundreds, if not thousands of internet users. What you use this power for is up to you, but to be able to raise awareness about particular issues or to shatter a stereotype about a culture evokes positive change, change that you can be responsible for.


A piece on display at the House of Sharing, a safe house for victims of sexual slavery during the Japanese Occupation.

Outlet of Self-Expression

Even if you choose not to promote your blog and instead keep it as a personal journal, the platform allows you to express yourself and your feelings. Sometimes this outlet is necessary when transitioning to a new country, or experiencing the ups and downs of the life of an expat. It's also interesting to be able to read previous writings and observe how both you and your outlook on the world change over time. It serves as a testament to how you grow as an individual.

Networking

One of the cool things about being a blogger in Korea, or a travel blogger in general, is that there is a strong network of fellow writers that exist online and offline. I have mixed feelings about the Korean blogosphere, but for the most part, I have also met some great friends through the hobby. It's not unusual for me to meet up with these blogging buddies for a drink, a photo walk, or even to collaborate on blogging projects. Put yourself out there, don't be afraid to reach out to others and soon enough, you'll have a slew of new friends to explore Korea with.


Korea bloggers have a drink at a Christmas "Tweet-up."

New Career Paths

Although I arrived in Korea with a nursing license, I have held positions as an English teacher, a social media marketer, a public relations coordinator, a travel consultant, a dialogue coach, an expo assistant, a travel show host, an editor and a writer. I can say that my blog has opened up most of these doors for me and has acted not only as a platform to gain exposure but through it, I've learned invaluable skills that I will no doubt use in my future career, whatever that may be.

Even if you're not looking to be a professional writer or an online marketing strategist, your blog will bring you down paths you never even knew existed.


Exploring Samcheongdong on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines iFly TV's "Secrets of Seoul."

Monetary Benefits and Blogger Perks

Sure, work experience and new friends are great reasons to start blogging, but let's be honest here, the tangible benefits are what most bloggers seek. I'll be the first to say that making money with a blog isn't easy; perhaps because profiting from Seoul Searching isn't the reason I write it, I don't really know how to monetize a blog the way professional bloggers do.

However, English blogs about Korea is a fairly untapped niche and Korea-based businesses are more than willing to provide you with perks in exchange for promoting them. While some find this controversial, I believe that if a post is honestly written and is clear in stating that it was sponsored, it's not only fair but beneficial for everyone, including the reader.

Additionally, there are a number of government-sponsored programs (including Global Seoul MatesWorldwide Korea Bloggers, and K-Performance Supporters) that have been established to promote Korea. Bloggers can apply for these programs to participate in free trips, get access to events and even earn some really cool prizes in exchange for blog posts. Other sites, such as Trazy and the upcoming Omija Korea, offer monetary incentives and benefits such as free Korean classes. And for those living outside of Korea, the Korea Tourism Organization has even been known to sponsor airplane tickets to see and blog about the country.



Fellow Global Seoul Mates and I participating in a mission-based challenge to bring to light some of Seoul's unknown attractions.

The benefits of blogging about Korea are endless, so what are you waiting for? Start your blog today!


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

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October 7, 2014

Tea Therapy: Samcheongdong's Healing Restaurant

These days, I'm trying hard to alter my lifestyle to be a healthier, happier me. This entails everything from establishing a morning routine of drinking lemon water, stretching and dry brushing to cooking with fresh ingredients, limiting sugar intake and snacking on green smoothies. I'm learning that what we put into our bodies greatly affects how we look, feel and even think. It's a slow process, but I'm getting there.

Such habits are easy to break when I'm out and about, as temptation calls my name from just about every bakery and snack stall that I walk past. Which is why I was delighted to find Tea Therapy (티테라피) on a recent jaunt to Samcheongdong. Tucked away on a side street, Tea Therapy is a respite from the crowded alleys of the touristic neighborhood and promises visitors a healing experience unlike any other conventional restaurant can.

Upon entering Tea Therapy, one instantly feels at ease in the airy, high-ceilinged dining room. An abundance of natural light highlights the ceramics organized neatly on shelves and the striking hangul tapestries that hang on the wall.





After taking a few steps further into Tea Therapy, it becomes clear that this is not just your average restaurant. Lining the counter is an array of herbs, most unbeknown to me, displayed in small bottles and decorated with tags identifying themselves as healing teas. Along with the names of the herbal concoctions are descriptions of their purposes: stress reduction, stamina inducing, cold prevention, weight loss and hangover-curing.

It should be noted here that these blends aren't just thrown together by any old barista. The owner of Tea Therapy is, in fact, a certified Oriental medicine doctor, who places great emphasis on creating his own brews, concentrating on the ingredients while maintaining a nice balance of flavor and aroma. His medical background is only substantiated by the enormous cubby of herbs, roots and dried fruits behind the counter, a storage unit commonly found in Oriental medicine shops.





I settled on the lunch special (7,000 won/ $7USD), offered on weekdays from 11:30am to 2pm, and was given the option of choosing curry rice, flying fish roe rice, taco rice or a BLT as my entrée. The server recommended the taco rice, which I ordered. I'm always a bit hesitant of eating Mexican food in a non-Mexican restaurant here in Korea, but the dish, consisting of a generous portion of rice topped with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and tortilla chip bits, was pretty good. It was served with a side of radish-miso soup- an odd pairing- and some perfectly spiced pickled radishes that I desperately wanted to request seconds of. Although the meal was good, I didn't find it particularly healthy.



What was healthy were the teas that came with the set. There are two daily self-serve teas and both offer medicinal benefits. The gyepi daechu (cinnamon jujube) option, served at room temperature, had a subtle spiciness to it but wasn't overpowering, as most cinnamon teas usually are. I slurped it down, hoping its anti-stress and anti-fatigue properties would kick in quickly. I followed it up with the hot doraji (bellflower root) blend, a common treatment for coughs.





Yet, the most memorable part of the lunch set was the foot bath that followed it. Yes, a foot bath. In a restaurant. Or, outside the restaurant, to be more precise. The servers explain how to use the faucet to control the temperatures and give you the option of adding a medicinal mixture to your bath to either improve blood circulation or decrease stress for an additional 5,000 won ($5USD). The bath can be used by all patrons but is limited to twenty minutes to keep other customers from waiting for too long. I quite enjoyed my few moments of peace, and it was only slightly awkward when tourists walked past and took pictures of me.



I felt so relaxed after my healing lunch and revitalizing foot bath that I actually walked out the restaurant without paying. Fortunately, the servers calmly chased after me instead of calling the police.

Tea Therapy is a healthy alternative to the over-sugared cafes and dessert shops that Samcheongdong is otherwise known for. Consider it for lunch or simply a pit stop to rest and enjoy a revitalizing cup of tea while exploring the neighborhood and checking out the beautiful hanoks of Bukchon Village.





More Information

Hours: Open daily 10am-10pm; Lunch 11:30am-2pm
Address: 6-1 Anguk-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Website: Click here
Telephone: 02-518-7506, 02-518-7507
Directions: From Exit 1 of Anguk Station (Seoul subway Line 3), turn right. Turn onto the road between Starbucks and Amandier. Walk straight for about 5 minutes until you reach the end of the road. At the fork at the end of the road, veer right and walk straight. Tea Therapy will be on your right.

Gangnam Location: Ago Building 1F, 616-6 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, 135-894

Map: From Anguk Station exit 1 to Tea Therapy:



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

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


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October 1, 2014

Explore Asia this Fall with Apple Tours and Travel

Korea has some incredible places to see and explore but sometimes it's nice to get out and travel other Asian lands. While the internet has made independent travel incredibly easy (and I'll be the first to admit, I love planning my own trips), sometimes it's nice to let someone else do the planning and booking and arranging for you. But in a country where English isn't exactly widely spoken, it can be difficult to find a travel agency that can cater to your needs without a language barrier.

Fortunately enough, Apple Tours and Travel, an agency affiliated with the US military's USO, is staffed with friendly English speakers who are eager to help you with your every need. From finding the best deals on airfare to creating itineraries, they pretty much take the dirty work out of traveling. With their help, there's no need to wait in long lines for visa processing or scouring the internet for hotel reviews and rankings.



One service that is particularly handy is their flight finder service, in which they utilize their partner airlines, as well as Korean flight finder sites (which usually offer better deals), to get you the best price. And what's even better is that you don't even need to be in their office to get the deals. All you have to do is e-mail them, or even shoot them a Kakao Talk message at appleuso to get a quick reply with the best rates. This is a free service for Seoul Searching readers, so be sure to mention the blog when you contact them.

In addition to booking flights, Apple Tours and Travels is constantly putting together fun 4-5 day tours. Some of the exciting destinations they offer include Cambodia, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Laos, Australia, Japan, Singapore and Thailand. Just let them know what dates you'd like to travel and they will take care of everything so that all you have to do is pack your bags and hop on the plane.

For those looking to save some money and travel with others, Apple Tours and Travels is hosting a number of group tours this autumn. Although the majority of the participants are American, anyone is welcome to join. Check out the tours below for more information.


Photo
Beijing, China

Dates: November 8- 11

Travel Highlights: Great Wall, Summer Palace, Tienanmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Hongqiao Market

Price: Adult (Double Occupancy) $750 USD; Adult (Single Occupancy) $880 USD; Child (Extra Bed) $650 USD; Child (No Bed) $555 USD

Inclusions: Round-trip airfare, airport taxes, fuel surcharge, round-trip airport transfers, 3 nights accommodation at Novotel Xinqiao Hotel, daily breakfasts, 2 Chinese lunches in local restaurants, 2 day tour with English-speaking guide, entrance fees

Deposit: Non-refundable $200.00 per person required on confirmation by October 17, 2014


Hong Kong and Macao

Dates: November 27- 30

Travel Highlights: Victoria Peak, Stanley Market, Aberdeen Fishing Village, ruins of St. Paul Cathedral, Macao casino, A-Ma Temple

Price: Adult (Double Occupancy) $895 USD; Adult (Single Occupancy) $1,155 USD; Child (Extra Bed) $785 USD; Child (No Bed) $615 USD

Inclusions:  Round-trip airfare, airport taxes, fuel surcharge, round-trip airport transfers, turbo jet tickets in Macao, 3 nights accommodation at Hong Kong Metro Park Hotel, daily breakfasts, 1 lunch in Macao, 2 day tour with English-speaking guide

Deposit: Non-refundable $200.00 per person required on confirmation  (photo)


Photo
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Dates: November 8- 11

Travel Highlights: Cu Chi Tunnels, Saigon sightseeing, boat trip to Mekong River Islands, excursion to My Tho

Price: Adult (Double Occupancy) $950 USD; Adult (Single Occupancy) $1,130 USD; Child (Extra Bed) $810 USD; Child (No Bed) $785 USD

Inclusions:  Round-trip airfare, airport taxes, fuel surcharge, round-trip airport transfers, 3 nights accommodation at Park Royal Saigon, daily breakfasts, English-speaking guide, entrance fees

Deposit: Non-refundable $100.00 per person required by October 17, 2014

More Information: Apple Tours and Travel Service Co., Ltd.

Address: USO Seoul 104 Galwol-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea 140-150
Operating Hours: Mon-Fri 9:30am-7pm; Sat 9:30am-1pm; Closed Sun and Korean national holidays
Telephone: +82-2-793-3478
E-mail: appleuso@hotmail.com
Kakao Talk ID: appleuso
To Get There: From exit 10 of Samgakji Station (Seoul Subway Lines 6 and 4), walk north one block (towards Seoul Station.) OR From Namyoung Station (Line 1), exit the station (there is only one exit). Then, turn right and walk to the main intersection; turn right at the intersection and walk about 500m. The camp and the USO are on the right.

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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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