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April 10, 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.

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

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. 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.

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April 4, 2017

Six Things You Need for a Korean Picnic

Is the weather not glorious right now?!

In sunshine like this, I refuse to be inside for any longer than I absolutely have to. This includes for meals. In fact, one of my favorite things to do in this weather is picnic. And with all the great green spaces the city has to offer (like Naksan Park, the Han River and the Dream Forest), a picnic can be had just about anywhere.

Koreans picnic under a canopy of cherry blossoms, an icon of spring. (Photo by Travel Unmasked)

And I'm not the only one who feels this way. In fact, Koreans love outdoor dining. Whether it be on a mountain hike or simply outside a convenience store on plastic furniture, they know how to do it right. I've taken a few cues from my Korean friends to get the picnic techniques down perfectly. So, I decided, why not share all the valuable know-how I've learned over the years with you guys, so that you too can have a great Korean-style picnic.

So, without further ado, here are six things you absolutely need for your Korean picnic:

6. Picnic Mat

Why get grass stains on your favorite duds when you can pick up a picnic mat at Daiso for a few bucks? These easily toteable mats pretty much last forever and really come in handy during picnic season, whether at the park or a rooftop party.

5. Selfie Stick

Because let's face it. No Korean outing is complete without one. Enough said.

4. Sun Protection

Everyone knows that Koreans have gorgeous skin and this is no doubt thanks to their skin care systems, which they follow religiously. Be sure to follow their lead and slather on the sunscreen, don a giant sun hat and if you're a really serious picnicker, order one of these sun tents, easy to pack and perfect for the beach or park.

3. Kimbap

The Korean equivalent of America's sandwich, kimbap makes for a great picnic snack. It's easy to eat. It's healthy. It's delicious. It's cheap. And thanks to the recent trend of gourmet kimbap, there's a flavor to suit everyone's taste. My go-to is Robot Kimbap, which sells varieties like Wasabi Tuna and Cream Cheese. Pick up a few rolls or make your own and your picnic will be perfect.

(Photo by SamIsHome)

2. Fried Chicken

A less healthy but even tastier Korean picnic staple is fried chicken. But even better than the dish itself is the picnic culture that surrounds it. In many of the green spaces around Seoul, like the Han River and the Dream Forest, nearby chicken restaurants will actually deliver your order right to your picnic spot. For reals. Just keep an eye out for their fliers, make a phone call, let them know where you are. In a matter of minutes, they'll bicycle it over in record speed. Did I mention they also deliver beer?

1. Makgeolli

Chilled makgeolli and picnics go together like peanut butter and jelly. Just ask any Korean hiker, farmer or me. More refreshing and tangier than beer, it's a great way to get a bit of a buzz on your weekend outing. Available at any convenience store, it's easy to get your hands on and not so strong that you'll get out of control. In small doses, that is.

So there you have it. Your packing checklist for a great Korean picnic. Plan out your picnic spot using this list of the top 10 outdoor spaces in Seoul or Time Out Seoul's top picnic spots and enjoy!

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

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March 25, 2017

Korean Designer Leesle Delivers Fashion-Forward Hanbok to the World

A seamless blend of complexity with simplicity, flatness with volume and curved lines contrasted against straight edges, the hanbok beautifully conveys the Korean desire to be at one with nature and maintain balance in life. Modern takes on the dress have recently become incredibly popular in fashion circles all the world over, while Korean designer Leesle is spearheading the hanbok revival. Read on to learn more and find out how you can get a special discount for your own hanbok.

A Bit of Hanbok History

Worn daily up until about a century ago, the country’s national dress has roots that trace back to as early as the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE- 668 CE), when its fundamental designs were first established. The hanbok has, for the most part, remained unchanged aesthetically since then but in the 19th century, it fell out of fashion when it was replaced by new imports, such as the Western suit and dress.

Eventually, hanbok was reserved for only special occasions, such as weddings and holidays. Until recently, that is. As is usually the case with fashion, old has become new again, and younger generations of Koreans are looking to the past for inspiration in a world that seems to be headed to the future just a bit too quickly.

Traditional Dress for a Modern World

Enter the contemporary hanbok, apparel that marries classic motifs with wearable designs that render traditional patterns and structures in simple materials such as cotton and linen.

These modern reinterpretations of the hanbok have made a splash in the fashion world and have been spotted around the globe, from the Champs Élysées to the catwalks of New York to the pages of some of the biggest magazines in the industry.

Leesle—Leading the Hanbok Revival

Perhaps no specialty designer is more passionate about reviving the hanbok than Leesle Hwang, the founder and CEO of casual hanbok brand Leesle.

It was around a decade ago when she was a freshman in college that Leesle designed a hanbok for a cosplay event. The outfit was a hit with event attendees and sold quickly when she put it up for sale. Realizing that there was a growing interest in hanbok, she founded an online shopping mall. Since then, the humble mall has grown into a wildly popular brand that has a following not only in Korea, but around the world. Still in her 20s, Leesle continues to make a name for herself, and was recently even featured in Vogue.

Easy Shopping, In English

I first found Leesle by chance on Instagram. Her beautiful designs stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to get my hands on one of her hanboks. What could be a better keepsake of my time in Korea?

I headed straight to Leesle's multilanguage online shop, and immediately recognized that
the brand’s designs add a very young, modern sensibility to South Korea’s national dress. The aesthetics of her dresses, tops, pants and accessories for both men and women maintain the traditional motifs of the classic dress, but also make hanbok more accessible through an interesting play with contemporary patterns and trendy colors.

Making use of zippers and other modern elements, Leesle’s clothes are wearable, not to mention machine washable. Hems are raised and skirts flare less, highlighting the feminine form but also maintaining the conservativ nature of traditional designs.

The layout of the website made it easy to navigate and unlike many Korean online shops, everything - including size dimensions – is in English. The worldwide free shipping (over $99 USD) was also an added bonus.

With spring ahead, I selected the ‘Everside Miinodo Dress’ in Apricot and the Leesle Sharon Jeogori. I was absolutely delighted when my order arrived. The clothes were individually wrapped in plastic and they even took the time to include a card with my name printed in Korean. So cute!

A Day in Hanbok

The materials were soft and of the highest quality. The items also looked exactly as they did in the pictures, and fit me perfectly. In addition to the sheer beauty of the clothes, I also really love that I can either wear them together for the complete hanbok look, or mix and match them with other items in my closet to create a more personalized style.

In fact, that’s just what I did when my friend and I spent an afternoon exploring Seoul one day last month. Pairing the dress with a denim jacket made for a nice casual look, while mixing the jeogori jacket with a basic skirt created a vintage style.

And let me just say... I have never in all my years in Korea received so many compliments from complete strangers. Korean grandmothers, in particular, were eager to ask me about my hanbok and some even requested that I take pictures with them. The young and old alike were really surprised to see such a unique take on their national dress and it was a really special experience to be wearing such a beautiful item that balanced the old with the new, while incorporating Korea’s naturalistic beauty, ideals and art forms.

Seoul Searching Reader Discount

I know what you’re thinking—“How can I get one of these beautiful designs for myself!?” Well, you are in luck, hanbok lover! In celebration of their global site launch, Leesle is offering Seoul Searching readers a 10% discount on their total purchase! 

Simply head over to the Leesle online shop and when viewing your shopping cart, enter the coupon code seoulsearching and click "Apply Coupon" before proceeding to checkout. The offer ends June 30, so be sure to take advantage of the discount while you can!

Special thanks to my dear friend Danielle Potgieter for taking these lovely photos and to Bonum 1957 for letting us use their gorgeous hanok as a shooting location.

Disclaimer: Although Leesle provided the items mentioned above free of charge in return for a post, the opinions are, of course, my own.

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March 9, 2017

A "Zen"-Course Lunch at Barugongyang Buddhist Temple Food Restaurant in Insadong

Barugongyang offers up authentic Buddhist temple cuisine using only fresh, local ingredients. Read on for my personal review of the restaurant's peaceful atmosphere and thoughtful course meals.

It's only been fairly recently that we've learned how eating greener and cleaner rather than focusing on calorie and fat counts can positively affect the health of our bodies and minds. With trends like CSAs and slow food movements becoming all the rage in the nutrition world, we're taking a step forward toward healthier lives.

However, the Buddhist monks of Korea have been slightly ahead of this trend. And by slightly I mean by hundreds of years.

Strictly vegetarian, Korean Buddhist temple cuisine uses only natural flavoring agents such as kelp, mushroom, wild sesame seeds and raw soy bean powder to assist in maintaining nutritional balance while at the same time delivering a simple, clean taste. Moreover, the food lacks the ingredients usually found in Korean cuisine such as onion, garlic and chili powder. I mean, can you imagine Korean food without this holy trinity of ingredients?!?!

Temple food also utilizes medicinal plants from local forests and mountains and focuses on using every part of the ingredient, so there is no waste. This includes using the water used to wash vegetables and rice as a base for soups, and incorporating even the seemingly inedible parts of the ingredients into the dish. This "complete consumption" concept is also followed in temple complexes, where monks only take as much as they can eat during meal times.

Situated on the fifth floor of the Temple Stay headquarters, just across the street from Seoul's iconic Jogyesa Temple, is Barugongyang (which is also known as Baru, as well as Balwoo). Adorned with minimalist furnishings in natural color schemes and encapsulated by floor-to-ceiling windows which illuminate the space with plenty of light, the restaurant exudes a relaxing atmosphere. Separated into two dining areas -- Western-style tables and traditional floor seating -- the restaurant expertly balances the old and new.

On the menu is a variety of pre-fixed seasonal course meals that start at ₩27,000, each offering up an eclectic sampling of dishes commonly found in formal monastic meals.

My friend and I began our 10-course lunch with a small bowl of smooth pumpkin juk (porridge) garnished with chewy rice cakes and red beans, which, with the delicate lotus tea, warmed us up immediately. A black sesame salad of slightly bitter but incredibly fresh mixed greens followed, which paired well with the burdock sweet rice pancakes, beautifully embellished with flower-shaped jujube garnishing.

At this point in our meal, the restaurant got a bit noisy. As it turns out, Barugongyang is a popular spot with the local chatty ajummas. Still, our little corner of the partitioned off floor seating section gave us a lot of privacy.

Wooden plates of soft bites of tofu, pumpkin dumplings and vegetables topped with teeny rice cakes followed. These dishes were notably bland on the first bite but transformed into something wonderful when dipped into the restaurant's magical soy sauce which, because it was so thick, didn't really resemble soy sauce at all.

The highlight of the meal was the mushroom "tangsuyuk", a delectable combination of deep-fried shiitake mushrooms smothered with a sweet though slightly overpowering apple sauce and tossed with apple, lotus root, carrot slices and pumpkin seeds. Saucy crunchy deep fried goodness.

The tteok guk (rice cake soup), though usually a favorite of mine, could have been omitted as the portions of the following dishes were quite large. A big bowl of flavorful Kum-su homemade bean paste soup, made with slices of mushroom, tofu and seasonal vegetables, and the earthy lotus-wrapped sticky rice with ginkgo nuts could have been a meal by itself. These two dishes specifically were the most flavorful of the meal and I wondered how the chefs were able to create the powerful tastes without garlic and onion.

Dessert was a bowl of sweet-and-salty slices of dried goodies: sweet potatoes, lotus root, oranges and seaweed. We washed it down with a cup of the most unique shikhye (traditional sweet rice beverage) I've ever had, a perfect ending to a delicious and nutritious meal.

On the way out, we found out that there is additional temple food restaurant on the second floor of the same building. Offering juk for breakfast and a lunch buffet for only ₩8,000, Barugongyang Kong is a good option for those on a budget wanting to get a taste of temple cuisine.

Be sure to also check out the Information Center on the first floor for more info on temple stays throughout Korea. You might even be asked to join in for a cup of tea with Jogyesa's monks!

Also, if you'd like to learn more about Korea's temple food, I highly recommend you watch the first episode of season three of Chef's Table. The beautifully produced episode follows Jeong Kwan, a 60-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who prepares vegetarian meals for her community at Baekyangsa Temple. It is arguably the best episode to date on the popular Netflix show and her story will no doubt inspire you.

More Information: Barugongyang

Address: 56, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 종로구 우정국로 56 (견지동,5층)

Phone: 02-733-2081 (Some English is spoken.)

Hours: Lunch 11:40AM-1:20PM (first seating), and 1:30PM-3PM (second seating). Dinner (only seating) 6PM-8:50PM. *Reservations are highly recommended.

Website: Click Here

How to Get There: From Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), walk straight from Exit 6 for 2 minutes. After passing the giant paintbrush statue, take a left. Walk straight for 3 minutes. The Temple Stay Information Center will be on your left.

*Disclaimer: Although the meal mentioned in this post was provided free of cost by Barugongyang, 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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February 20, 2017

How to Enjoy Spring in South Korea

Korea's winters are long and harsh, so spring is always welcomed with great excitement and celebrated with fervor. It's by far one of the country's most beautiful seasons, but it doesn't last long. So, if you are around, here are a few things you should see and do to enjoy it in all its glory.

See the Cherry Blossoms

Perhaps no other symbol is as representative of Korean spring than the cherry blossom. And while they might not stick around for an extended amount of time, they are most definitely a sight to behold and seeing them should be at the top of your travel itinerary.

Expect to see them around April 6, 2017 here in Seoul. (For a list of expected blooming dates around the country, click here.) One of the more popular places to take in the beautiful blossoming of the beotkkot is Yeouido Park, where canopies of pink hang over crowds of camera-toting love birds. For less crowded cherry blossom sightseeing, head over to the tranquil Seokchon Lake in Jamsil, Seoul's University Quarter or Seoul Grand Park.

Yours truly among the cherry blossoms on Yeouido.

Picnic in one of Seoul's parks

While you're at it, why not pack a picnic? Picnicking is a favorite pastime of Koreans and when they do it, they do it big. Think all-day drinking sessions, complete with kimbap and chimaek. Don't forget to check off these 6 items when packing for your outdoor escapades.

Go to a Festival

While winter has its fair share of festivals, spring offers pleasant weather that actually makes the festivals enjoyable. Many of these celebratory events focus on flowers, but there are also a number that glorify regional cuisine and cultural traditions.

Not to be missed are the Lotus Lantern Festival, which showcases thousands of colorful lanterns and traditional performances. It's celebrated nationwide, but the most spectacular celebrations are held in Seoul's Insadong neighborhood and Busan's Samgwangsa Temple. The Boseong Green Tea Festival, held on a gorgeous tea plantation in the southern part of the country, is another not-to-be-missed event. Both of these festivals are held in May. For a complete list of spring festivals, visit the KTO website.

The verdant rolling hills of Boseong's green tea plantations are a wonderful spot to spend a spring afternoon, especially during the annual Green Tea Festival.

Bike Along the Han

Seoul is often portrayed as a city of concrete and neon, so many are surprised to learn that there is a vast array 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. In addition to featuring riverside cafes, basketball courts and fishing spots, the Han River also has its fair share of bicycle rental shops.

To rent a bike, all you need is a photo ID. Prices are extremely reasonable (around 3,000 won per hour) and the river is equipped with safe and well-marked bike lanes. For more info and a list of routes, click here.

Wander a Cafe Street

It's no secret that Korea is known for its cafes. So much so that there's practically one on every block. There are even themed cafes, as well as entire streets dedicated to the caffeinated beverage that boast patios or terraces that open in spring.

You don't need to look hard to locate said streets, and many, like Garosu-gil or Samcheongdong-gil are already quite famous. To get off the beaten path, make your way to Jukjeon Cafe Street in Bundang, or Seoraemaeul Cafe Street near Express Bus Terminal, both of which exude a sophisticated European atmosphere.

Visit a Palace

Few places capture the essence of Seoul in spring as well as the palaces of the capital city. Not only are the flowers of the royal gardens in full bloom, but there are often outdoor concerts and performances held on palace grounds, allowing visitors to truly experience pungnyu.

Pung (wind) and yu (flowing) refer to the enjoyment of tasteful activities that combine the elements of nature, life and art. It also symbolizes being close to nature, knowing music, being well learned in arts and being composed yet merry, free from worldly cares.

Changdeokgung is known for its secret garden but my personal favorite of the five palaces is Changgyeonggung. With fewer people, a large pond and a number of picnicking spots, it's got plenty of pungnyu.

Walk the Cheonggyechon

Although not as impressive as the expansive Han River, the Cheonggyechon is a picturesque stream located smack dab in the middle of the city. Often decorated with artwork in the spring, it also functions as an outdoor cultural space. Grab a lemonade or a bottle of makgeolli from a nearby convenience store and dip your feet in the water to enjoy a nice break from touring nearby Insadong or shopping in Myeongdong.

Go Camping

Take advantage of the short-lived gorgeous weather and reserve a spot at one of Seoul's many camping spots. Like picnicking, camping is a favorite outdoor activity of Koreans which involves barbecue, drinking and lots of laughs with friends and family. For a luxurious (though pricey) experience, take a day trip outside of Seoul to Raventree Camp Grounds in Gapyeong.

Happy spring, y'all!

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

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February 10, 2017

How To Celebrate Valentine's Day Like a Korean

No one does lovey-dovey coupley stuff better than Koreans. This is evidenced by their tendency to snuggle in public, book lovers' seats in movie theaters and celebrate a number of made-up holidays dedicated to coupledom. While each holiday has its own concept and is celebrated on the 14th of each month, there's no doubt that the biggest of these is Valentine's Day.

Although the Western-inspired celebration of romance didn't become popular in Korea until the mid-1900s, it has since become one of the most anticipated holidays in the country, at least for those with a significant other. Valentine's Day, unlike in the West, is a day reserved for women to celebrate the special men in their lives while the men reciprocate in March. Despite this, it's not unusual for Korean men to do something nice for their girlfriends on V-Day.

So, how exactly do Koreans celebrate Valentine's Day, you ask? And, how can you celebrate Valentine's Day like a Korean? Check out Seoul Searching's suggestions to Koreanize your special day of romance this year.

Make Personalized Chocolates

Valentine's Day is synonymous with chocolate, and this is just as true in Korea as it in the West.  Giving chocolate to your sweetie is pretty much obligatory and because of this, it's hard to walk down the street without running into sales displays of all sorts of chocolates and chocolate-inspired desserts. Even convenience stores pre-package Valentine's Day goodies for those on the go. But, to most, this is a cop out.

Koreans that are truly dedicated to their significant others wouldn't dream of handing over any chocolates that weren't homemade.  Girls across the country are pros at tempering and molding layers of chocolate into cute little designs with personal messages iced right onto the tops. Some overly dedicated ladies take chocolate making to the next level by creating the chocolates to look like their boyfriends. This can be seen in dramas like "Boys Before Flowers." Cute? Of course. But I'm not so sure how I'd feel about eating my own face.

Go on, give it a try. Melting chocolate, molds, icing, sprinkles and all the other tools necessary for creating personalized chocolates can be found at stationary shops like Artbox throughout the country as well as Bangsan Baking Market near Dongdaemun.

 Guem Jan-di presents Gu Jun-pyo with homemade chocolates made in his likeness on "Boys Before Flowers," a popular K-drama.

A couple designs dolls at Mustoy. (Photo: Foreigner/Joy)
Make Something Together

Korean couples love making things together and there are a variety of places that thrive on the business of lovestruck youngsters.

Mustoy is an adorable cafe in Hongdae where customers can purchase small ceramic dolls and decorate them with permanent markers. It's common for couples to each design their own then present the finished product to each other as a gift. There are a number of designs on display to provide some inspiration for those of us that lack creativity. Don't forgot to add bashful lashes and puckered lips to complete your token of love.

Speaking of, nothing says "forever" like a plastic mold of your lover's lips, which is why Alchemist's Studio (연금술사의 작업실) in Insadong is a great place to make some unique memories with your special someone. Yes, you read that correctly. Visit this obscure, tiny shop in the Ssamziegil shopping complex and the kind owner will create a plastic mold of your pout in your color of choice in a matter of ten minutes. You can even turn your lips into a cell phone charm or a key chain so that your beau or gal can have a part of you on hand at all times. Saddest Update Ever: As of October 2013, this business is closed.


 A girl has her lips molded into a cell phone charm at the Ssamziegil shopping complex in Insadong. (Photo: Heejin An)

Declare Your Love to the World

You're not officially a couple in Korea until you declare it to the world. Fortunately enough, there are many locations that make this declaration both convenient and romantic.

The most famous of these locales is on Namsan Mountain, where you and your partner can literally lock your messages to the base of N'Seoul Tower. However, considering it's still winter in Korea, this is a rather uncomfortable option.

Instead, head up to the rooftop of Ssamziegil--preferably why you're waiting for your lip mold to dry--and purchase two love tags, embrace your inner poet and write a message to or about your loved one while he or she does the same. Then, you can add it to the thousands already hanging on the rooftop's walls. Sure, it may not be the top of the city, but it's the top of Insadong. That's good enough, right?

If you prefer to stay indoors, head to one of the Miss Lee Cafe (별다방 미스리) locations in Hyehwa, Insadong or Myeongdong where you can write your messages over a hot cup of traditional tea. The interiors of these cafes are covered with love notes, sketches, confessions and lots of X hearts X inscriptions. There are also free refills, for all you lovebirds on a budget.

Messages of love adorn the interior of Miss Lee Cafe in Myeongdong.

Wear Matching Outfits

Of course, no couple holiday in Korea would be complete without matching outfits, or "couple look," as this style is often referred to.

Although couple fashion is more often seen in warmer months in the form of t-shirts and baseball caps, there are still plenty of winter options for those wanting to make their romantic union known to all those they cross paths with. For one, couple sneakers are a hot commodity these days, as are jackets. If you feel that your relationship isn't quite ready for matching shoes (i.e. you have commitment issues) then you can settle for matching gloves or lingerie.

Most lingerie stores like Yes! and DAB have underwear for both men and women in matching patterns. Guys, be warned, though, as most of the patterns involve pastels and/or some sort of animal print. So, if your lady friend gifts you sparkly zebra print boxer briefs, suck it up, smile and thank her, maybe even with a little dance while wearing said briefs. You'll have a full month to recuperate from your loss of masculinity before White Day rolls around.

However you celebrate and whoever you celebrate with (even if you're single), may your day be a special one filled with love and happiness. Happy Valentine's Day from Seoul Searching!

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

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February 6, 2017

Learning Korean: Which Program is Right for You?

Considering that fact that Korean is often regarded as one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, those that move to Korea might be intimidated to begin the arduous and often frustrating journey of learning the local language.

But, there can be many benefits to learning Korean. Getting a grasp on the basics makes expat life far more comfortable, as it allows one to better understand the culture and become more integrated with society. Then there are the added bonuses of more job opportunities and bragging rights. Because, let's face it... how many non-Koreans can actually say that they speak Korean?

Committing oneself to studying is the first and often most difficult step to learning Korean.

So what about after that?

For those of us who grew up in a country where there is little to no priority on learning a second language, it can be difficult to decide which study methods and programs are best to memorize vocabulary words, comprehend unfamiliar sentence structures and perfect one's pronunciation. And because everyone learns differently, it usually requires a bit of trial and error to figure out which approach is best for you.

Although I am still very much a beginner, I have attempted a number of techniques and attended a variety of classes to find what works for me. Below are a few of the ways I've personally attempted to learn Korean, including the pros and cons of each.


Self-study might be the most obvious choice for learning Korean, especially for those living outside Korea or for those with a busy schedule, as the student is able to create his or her own study schedule and move at his or her own pace.

Fortunately for students that are learning Korean on their own, there are a number of resources that are extremely beneficial in improving one's language ability.

A good language book is essential in establishing a curriculum for oneself and there are plenty to chose from. Many language schools use the Sogang Korean language book series. It's well-organized, easy to understand and practical. The Korean Made Easy series is also good for beginners.

But, let's be honest. Sometimes learning from a book can just get... well, boring. So, when you need to break up the monotony, there's the internet.

TalkToMeInKorean.com is a fantastic language site that uses short audio and video clips to teach conversational phrases, vocab and grammar in a way that is sure to keep your attention. Professor Oh and Friends (aka SweetAndTastyTV.com) is another fun site where you can learn Korean through hilarious language instruction videos produced by a Korean speaker who plays various characters.

But while these sites are helpful, they are limited in their capabilities and don't necessarily provide a systematic way to learn. 90 Day Korean, on the other hand, uses accountability measures to ensure learners stay on track.

Additionally, the simplified, customizable system, which was developed by a mixed team of native and non-native speakers, ensures that learners stay interested all the while getting a solid language foundation in the fastest amount of time possible. (90 days, to be exact. Yep... that fast!)

Also, it's free to start. 90 Day Korean will e-mail you a free four-part series of Korean lessons that will teach you how to read Korean and say some simple sentences in about two hours (!!!) via e-mail. If you like the method, you can sign up for the paid course, which is an affordable $27 USD/month.

Finally, let your smartphone be your teacher.  Download Memrise to enhance your Korean vocabulary and Dongsa, a great app to use when you can't quite remember all those irregular verb conjugations (which, for me, is most of the time).

Language Exchange

Participating in a language exchange with a native Korean speaker can be a great way to get some free one-on-one speaking practice.

These meetings, which usually involve two or more people, are held in cafes or restaurants and involve an allotted amount of time for each party to practice his or her target language in exchange for helping the other party. There are a number of websites and message boards online such as HanLingo.com and weekly meetups like Language Exchange Cafe that function as platforms to match language exchange partners.

Although language exchanges are quite common in Korea, many people often use them as an excuse to meet potential girlfriends/boyfriends/hook up buddies. This is all fine and dandy if that's what you're looking for, but if you are legitimately interested in meeting someone to help you improve your language ability, consider arranging an exchange with someone of the same sex, or be sure to make your intentions clear from the beginning.

Language exchanges can also be tricky, as most Koreans are far more advanced in English than English speakers are in Korean. Therefore, these meetings often tend to involve a lot more English than Korean. Set specific time frames for speaking either language from the start and attempt to make meeting a weekly habit to get the most out of this type of studying.

University Language Program

For those with a more flexible schedule (i.e. the funemployed), enrolling in a university language program is one of the best ways to pick up Korean in a short amount of time.

I took a semester at Sogang University here in Seoul with the intent of completing the first half of the six levels. The university, which is reputed as one of the best for learning how to speak Korean, gave me a great foundation for learning the language. For four hours a day, five times a week, I was attending writing, speaking and reading classes and was completely immersed in Korean.

Because it was an intensive program, however, it was very difficult for me to keep up. I studied tirelessly to learn new vocabulary words, grammar points and phrases. So much so that I was dreaming about studying Korean at night and often woke myself up mumbling the day's vocab. I kid you not.

Despite my efforts, I found that it didn't take long for me to forget everything that I had worked so hard to learn because the pace was faster than what I could handle. I often wondered if I was wasting my hard-earned cash (about $1,300/semester) because of this.

In the end, I decided that I personally needed to learn at a slower pace, but I can confidently say that attending Sogang was the perfect way to kick-start my learning. For those that are more experienced in studying foreign languages and have a lot of time on their hands, this would be the program to consider.

Korean Hagwon

When the university program didn't quite work out how I intended to, I registered for classes at Omija Korean, a language hagwon (private academy) located in Itaewon. Although I cut my daily class time from four hours down to two in doing so, I was glad that I made the change. I was able to learn at a slower pace, and as a result, had more time to process the information. I found that I was quickly learning naturally, rather than by rote memorization.

Omija Korean has small class sizes (around five students or less per class) which allows for more speaking practice. The teachers also put a great deal of effort into teaching at the students' levels, but at the same time make the classes interesting and fun. We learned to converse in a natural way, which isn't always the case in textbooks or university classes. The curriculum is structured but not so much so that the teacher doesn't leave room for issues or conversation topics that are brought up by the students.

I don't have much experience with Korean hagwons, and I'm certain that they're all different, but I found that the flexible schedule, more lenient curriculum and laid back atmosphere of Omija Korean worked for me. It also didn't hurt that it was located within a close proximity to my home, but for those living outside of Seoul, or even Korea, Omija also offers Skype lessons.

When considering enrolling at a hagwon, it is important to do your research. Stick with reputable institutions like YBM or ask around for advice on expat message boards.

Free Classes

Fortunately for foreign residents in Seoul, there are a number of organizations that offer free Korean classes that are structured similarly to hagwons.

In addition to attending Omija, I also took classes twice a week at the Itaewon Global Village Center, a branch of the Seoul Global Center. I learned a lot and my teacher was a doll, but the pace is very slow considering the class is only three hours a week. The class size is usually large, as well, which limits speaking practice. However, for those with a hectic schedule or who are on a budget, this is a great way to get exposed to the language and is a good supplement to self-study.

Again, everyone learns a foreign language differently and finding the right study method (or combination of methods) takes time. But don't get frustrated when you hit a roadblock or feel like giving up.

Be realistic with your learning goals, always keep in mind what motivates you to study and don't forget to reward yourself when you've tried your hardest. With some a lot of patience and some trial and error, you'll be well on your way to mastering the Korean language. 행운을 빌어요!! (Good luck!)

Which methods do you use to learn Korean?  What helps your learning process? What hinders it? Leave your thoughts in the comments box below.

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

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