Getting around Seoul, an enormous city, is reasonably easy, due to the great public transport system, especially the Subway System.
The Seoul Subway System is excellent, with 9 main lines and 9 other lines. There’s English-language signage in the trains and in the stations, so foreigners can fairly easily figure it out. In addition, each line has a number and a color so it’s quite easy to follow directions and transfers. Every station has a name and a number and it’s possible to follow your route on the English-language subway map.
To get around it’s best to buy a T-money card, or City Pass card, which you can use on buses, the subway and taxis.
They are available at most convenience stores and at all subway stations. You have to buy the card for 3,000 won and then load it with any amount you want, and re-load later. We bought ours at the subway station near Seoul National University and reloaded them there too. The first time, our Korean hosts showed us how to use the rather bewildering ticket machines but after that we could cope on our own, as most instructions are also in English. Prices start at 1,150 won per journey and rarely go above 2,000 won, even though many of the trips we took were very long and often required multiple transfers.
Once you’ve figured out where you want to go, you enter through the turnstile and tap your T-money card. At the end of the journey you tap out again and the correct amount is deducted from the total on your card.
Most subway carriages don’t have rows of seats, as we are accustomed to in the west. Rather, there are long benches on either side of the carriage and a big open space in the center, to accommodate more people. And, the trains sure do get very crowed! Trains are spotless; some have stainless steel seats along the sides, which I imagine is easier to clean.
All stations have good public toilets and many have shopping centers too.
These are some of my notes and thoughts after our fist visit to Korea. I never did get to putting them on the blog, but will do so now, as the sentiments have not changed after our subsequent visits.
South Korea is a small country that would fit into Illinois. And yet, it’s a land of great contrasts, an extraordinary mix that goes into making the country what it is. The provinces outside of Seoul are very varied: with rivers and rice paddies; shrines and mountain scenery; timeless temples; mushrooming modern apartment cities; neon and bamboo; a blend of old and new, modern and traditional.
It has a long convoluted coastline with many islands on three sides; coastal plains devoted largely to agriculture (rice, barley, ginseng, multiple vegetables in tunnels, huge cattle barns); and mountains, lots of mountains—about 70% of the country is mountainous. That doesn’t leave much land for human habitation, so high-rise cities pop up in open spaces. You’ll emerge from a tunnel on the highway and suddenly in front of you there’ll be a forest of tall apartment buildings. Many are relatively new cities, we’re told, and many are satellite cities for other mega cities, like Seoul or Busan.
It’s a mix of old and ultra-modern—small shops with curving tiles roofs just down the street from tall curving steel creations, likely the HQ of one of the mega companies that tend to have a monopoly here. Wonderful palace complexes, built hundreds of years ago, open up behind their walls right in the center of the city, and you’ll likely find old stone pagodas preserved in a more modern park. You can find colorfully decorated temples both high in remote mountain areas and right in the middle of a bustling town or city, perhaps opposite a huge new conference center.
The public transport system in the large cities is great, and well-used, and yet the traffic jams can be horrendous, as Koreans also love their cars. Koreans are very polite people generally, but this often disappears on the roads, with pushy, impatient drivers. The highway system around the country is amazing, engineered over valleys, and through and around mountains. On some of the highways heading south there are so many tunnels that we lost count and we also marveled at how long many of them are. The Highway Service Areas can be enormous, like shopping complexes in their own right with huge varied food courts.
The country is very aware of the green movement, trying to save energy, and to recycle etc. and yet the cities are awash in a sea of brightly colored, flashing neon at night.
Koreans are very patriotic and very proud of their long, complicated history, with strong influences from China and Japan. Some of the people who hosted us were able to tell stories of previous dynasties and kings, even giving dates of various battles. They tell us proudly about King Sejeong, who developed Hangul, the system for writing the Korean language, which freed them from using Chinese characters; and about Admiral Yi, who helped fend off Japanese invaders hundreds of years ago.
And yet, many (most) Koreans still also have a Chinese character as part of their name—the character gives a meaning. These days, Korea has embraced the concept of learning English as a necessity in our global world, and almost all schools teach English to kids from an early age. There are also private English academies and schools and I saw signs, even in relatively small towns. Younger people are usually quite keen to practice their English but older folk are more reserved and hesitant. Many signs and directions are in English as well as Korean, especially in the cities, so it’s possible as a foreigner to get around on one’s own—notably in the Seoul subway system.
Even though English is widely taught, for us as a foreigner the Korean language can be a problem, especially outside of the Seoul metropolitan area. We picked up a few words orally but the written language remains a mystery—it looks like no other western language we’ve either learned or had contact with. It looks pretty and I’m told it’s relatively easy to learn as it was scientifically developed. But sadly, so far, I haven’t found time to try and learn it.
Korea has a long history of drinking green tea, and yet recently has embraced coffee in a big way, and you’ll find a coffee shop or two on virtually every block. But strangely, coffee is not usually available in restaurants.
Modern fashion is a thriving industry and most Koreans are very elegantly dressed, especially for work. And yet, for special occasions they favor the traditional clothes: we see women dressed in hanboks to visit the temple, or to dance an old traditional dance, and most of the palaces have changing of the guards ceremonies, with the guards all in the old-style costume.
We loved learning about this country and its culture. The following is just a few of the other things that we noted, in no particular order.
Metal chopsticks and a metal spoon are the standard cutlery. More hygienic I believe, but actually harder for us to use than wooden ones!
Beds, or rather roll-up mattresses, are often on the floor. Most westerners are not familiar with sleeping on the floor any more (not unless camping perhaps, when that’s often associated with discomfort!). In fact, in many Korean houses and many restaurants, people sit on the floor too, so long-legged folk like my husband can have problems. Shoes are always taken off in Korean houses and special restaurants, probably because the tradition is to sit, eat and sleep on the floor.
There is excellent public toilet accessibility everywhere, generally. Look for the red (female) and blue (male) signs. For women, also look for the sign for a sitting toilet, not the traditional squatting type (the sign is usually marked on the door of each stall). In some hotels and many homes they have the fancy toilets with all kinds of buttons. Even if they have symbols or an English word I still haven’t really figured them out! And if in Korean, it’s rather daunting as who knows what that button means! A few times I even had trouble finding the flush.
Water is offered almost everywhere, either in jugs on the table or in a large dispenser
that patrons can use. In some public places, like museums, we discovered a very interesting water system: a large water dispenser with small paper cups in a cone shape. We saw very few drinking fountains anywhere as we know them.
There are many convenience stores everywhere—-and they sure are convenient. Many are 24/7.
We noticed lots of noise, people, traffic and neon lights. I can now better understand why some of my Asian students tell me that they sometimes feel lonely here in Champaign-Urbana! They are so used to having crowds of people around them in their lives.
Lots of tourist/historic places have a sign saying “Photo Point”, for the best spot for a picture.
We hope that we can return soon, to learn more about this fascinating country.
The temple complex is busy, teeming with people, noise and chatting, but green with lovely lotus leaves and colorful with flowers, and still somehow peaceful too, so one gets the feeling of a special place. It felt like a bright and cheerful place to us, and people were very relaxed about being there, bowing, chatting, chanting. We saw a couple of monks, with cell phones and taking photos of the lotus flowers—modern technology is everywhere!
We’ve been here twice, once on our own when we just wandered around, and once with a Korean friend and her young daughter. I’d love to go again and spend a bit more time, just sitting and absorbing the atmosphere.
Unlike most Buddhist temples in Korea that are nestled in the mountains, Jogyesa is located in the city center, not too far from Insadong or the Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. It is one of Korea’s most famous temples, Seoul’s most prominent temple and the headquarters of the Jogye order, Korea’s primary Buddhist sect.
The temple compound is surrounded by modern buildings, some fairly high-rise, and traffic noise is never far away. There is no garden per se as the surrounds of the Great Hall are concrete. But, they have managed to create the feeling of a garden with a couple of big trees; multiple flower pots, mainly with lotus plants, grouped together creating a sea of green; a number of small bricked ponds with lotus plants; and many smaller flower pots. When we were there the lotus plants were flowering profusely, and the flowers were gorgeous.
In the grounds of this temple compound is Daeungjeon, the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. It was built in 1938 but the design followed the late-Joseon-dynasty style. The main hall is a fantastic example of the country’s colorful and immaculately patterned temple decorations. Typical Buddhist banners are strung outside, creating a kind of canopy-roof. When we were there, lots were decorated with colorful fish, large and small, plus a shoal of tiny white fish. The grounds also have a stone pagoda, and other stone sculptures, including some lions and elephants on the verandah surrounding the main hall. Our friend’s daughter climbed on one of these and no-one was worried or upset at all!
Murals of scenes from Buddha’s life, and the carved floral lattice-work doors are two of the attractive features. Inside are three giant Buddha statues. On the left is Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise; in the center is the historical Buddha who lived in India and achieved enlightenment; on the right is the Bhaisaiya or Medicine Buddha with a bowl in his hand. There’s a small 15th century Buddha in a glass case that was the main Buddha statue before it was replaced by the larger ones in 2006. On the right-hand side is a guardian altar with lots of fierce-looking guardians in the painting behind; on the left is the altar used for memorial services (white is the funeral color).
Believers who enter the temple bow three times, touching their forehead to the ground—once for the Buddha, once for the dharma (teacher) and once for the sangha (monks), 20 of whom serve in this temple. Outside there are candles (like Buddha, they light up the world, dispelling darkness and ignorance) and incense sticks (the smoke sends wishes up to heaven). We are not Buddhist, so we just looked at what we could from the outside—which is quite a lot, as the big doors are open.
Behind the main shrine is the modern Amitabha Buddha Hall, where funeral services are held. The statues are the 10 judges who pass judgement, 49 days after someone’s death, to decide if they go to heaven or hell. The belfry houses a drum to summon earthbound animals, a wooden fish-shaped gong to call aquatic beings, a metal cloud-shaped gong to call birds, and a large bronze bell to summon underground creatures. They are banged 28 times at 4am and 33 times at 6pm.
The new Central Buddhist Museum has three galleries of antique woodblocks, symbol-filled paintings and other Buddhist artefacts. In one corner is a tearoom, and in another corner the Information Center for Foreigners, open 1am-5pm and staffed by English-speaking Buddhist guides. You can try making lanterns and prayer beads, doing woodblock printing, painting, and drinking green tea. It’s free but donations are welcome. You can also ask about having a meditation lesson and a four-bowl Buddhist monk meal. We didn’t actually have time to go in there, so we never did any of this.
On Buddha’s birthday, the Lotus Lantern festival is held in the Jongno and Insadong areas and the temple is the starting point of the parade.
Jogyesa offers temple life and temple stay programs to foreigners, but we don’t know anyone who has done that, so am not sure how it would work out.
The best way to get here is on Metro Line 3, Anguk station or Gyeongbokgung station, and walk 10-15 minutes.
Cherry blossoms are beloved around the world, but especially in Japan, China and Korea, where they have special meaning and significance, besides being beautiful and attracting visitors.
Cherry trees seem like clouds as they bloom en masse, and look like a canopy of soft color when one walks under them. Soft and velvety petals cascade from the swaying trees, drifting down slowly, like the first soft snow flakes of winter.
The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. For the Japanese, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is beautiful but that it is also tragically short. When the cherry blossom trees bloom for a short time each year, they are a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is. So, when Japanese people come together to view the cherry blossom trees and marvel at their beauty, they aren’t just thinking about the flowers themselves, but also about the larger meaning and deep cultural tradition of the cherry blossom tree. I will write more about cherry blossoms in Japan and post pictures at a later date.
The cherry blossom is the most prominent spring blossom in Korea, but is not as central to the culture as it is in Japan. However, the Korean people do also love to view the cherry blossoms and there are a number of cherry blossom festivals. In fact, in Korea sakura, used as a loanword, is the most common way to refer to the flower (the Korean word is beot-kkot), and the activity of blossom viewing also uses the loanword hanami (the Korean word is kkot-gugyeong).
Above and here are a few fun photos of cherry blossom petals, and other petals, that have driftedinto a small stream on the campus of Seoul National University. They look beautiful, but are also a reminder of the fragility and short life of these wonderful spring flowers.
Part 1: On the campus of Seoul National University
Spring in Seoul (and no doubt other parts of South Korea) is a delightful time, especially for lovers of flowers and nature. It’s an explosion of colors, a riot of gorgeous blossoms of many kinds. We love spring in our town in Illinois, but somehow the flowering trees and the blooming shrubs in Seoul seemed to stand out more—perhaps because it’s a huge urban area, with so much concrete and many closely-clustered apartment blocks; while our town is less densely-populated and has many tree-lined avenues, so the contrast in spring in Seoul is much more obvious.
We were living on the campus of Seoul National University, south of the Han River. The campus was really gorgeous in April. Really noticeable were many cherry trees—white or very make pink— all across campus, and even more in the valley below—so many that looking down on them was like seeing a white cloud of blossoms below.
On campus and all across the city we also marveled at the bright azalea bushes, sometimes grouped in a single color but sometimes bushes of multiple colors all mixed together into a colorful whole.
Add yellow forsythia bushes, huge peonies, mixed flower beds and we get a floral paradise.
Here are just a few photos from our spring in Seoul—we took so many it was hard to choose! But, they give an idea of the gorgeous blooms and why we were so excited.
This first selection is on the campus of Seoul National University and many shots are of the prolific cherry trees.
(Please note, I will be away in Paris for a week or so and may not be able to post on here for a couple of weeks. My apologies)
Part 4: Murals
Behind Maronnier Park many narrow streets lead uphill to much larger Naksan Park, passing through Ihwa Village.
Ihwa Village, still very much inhabited by locals, is known for its murals, created by “Art in the City” project. The murals began to appear in 2006 as the city ministry launched a project to develop the poor neighborhood as a tourist landmark with a unique atmosphere.
I visited some of the lower streets and the murals are really colorful and interesting. However, I also heard that many of the local residents are not at all happy with all the tourists who troop by, taking photos and making a lot of noise.
I guess that must always be a problem if public art is located in a somewhat private area.
Part 3 in the Daehangno District: Statues in Gardens of Arts Council of Korea
To one side of the park is The Arts Council of Korea (ARKO), housed in Arko Art Center (architecture by Kim Swoo-geun, 1977). Arko Art Center, which has become an important landmark in the Daehangno area, is one of the most representative works by Kim Swoo-geun, who wanted the building to be a “poem written with light and bricks”.
The building has exhibition spaces inside, where local artists of all kinds can have their works exhibited. There’s also a café, but I didn’t go into that.
An attractive garden surrounds two sides of the building and I found some fascinating outdoor sculptures in the garden, done by local artists. Here are two, as examples.
The first is called “Ecology Cycle”, 2005, by Lee Sangho (see below)
The second is “Outflowing Strength”, 1978, by Noh Jae Seung (see below)
Part 2 in Daehangno District, Seoul; Maronnier Park
Located on the former site of Seoul National University, Marronnier Park was opened in 1975 after the campus relocated to a new location in Gwanak and the area was redeveloped. I found a miniature replica of the university near the center of the park, which gives visitors an idea of what the area looked like before the university was moved.
Marronnier Park is named after many horse chestnut trees (marronniers) growing in the park (maronniers originated from the Mediterranean). The horse chestnut tree tradition began with three trees that were left when Seoul National University moved and most of the buildings were demolished.
This small park has become the center of Daehangno. It has pretty fountains, a large children’s playground and an open-air performance stage, used by street artists and young musicians or dancers. Every week, there are various different performances, both traditional and more modern. Many restaurants, galleries, museums and theaters cluster around the park and famous Daehangno Street starts from one corner of the park.
In the park is a coffee shop (where I stopped and it was very pleasant) and along the main street you’re very likely to see impromptu street stalls—the day I visited the park area, there was a large stall selling shoes, hundreds of shoes of all kinds, and many people were trying on shoes and buying.
You can also rent bicycles here (similar concept to the Vel’ibs in Paris), but I have to admit I would be way too afraid to try and ride in this traffic!
Get there on Metro Line 4, Hyehwa Station, exit 2.
Part 1: Introduction and Daehangno Street
Our Korean hosts at Seoul National University told us that the campus at Gwanak is relatively new and that it used to be located in Seoul city center. So, one day I decided to explore and find the original location. I did, and it turns out that this is a really interesting part of Seoul today—the center of performance culture, with a lovely park, and colorful murals.
Daehangno Street is the center of performance culture in Seoul, with over 150 small theaters. This area is called the “Play Mecca”, “Theater Mecca”, or “Young Street” as well. This is where you an enjoy theater and impromptu performances by young artists. Daehangno area bustles with people who come to enjoy plays or musicals or just to stroll along the streets and soak up the ambience, especially on car-free weekends. Not many performances are in English, but attending one can still be an enjoyable spectacle. There are also many restaurants, bars and movie theaters.
At first this district was popular with mainly the twenty-something crowd but now it attracts diverse age groups as well. Young people still dominate the scene, but more families with children and middle-aged couples are coming, due to the variety and abundance of attractions offered.
But the area was not originally planned as a theater district. Keijo Imperial University was located here, during the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was under Japanese occupation (Keijo, or Gyeongseong in Korean, was the colonial-era name of Seoul). When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Seoul National University opened in its place. In 1975, the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and College of Law moved to its current Gwanak campus south of the Han River, and many of the school buildings were demolished.
But, the modern red brick building that had housed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was spared, plus three horse chestnut trees (marronnier) that are still reminders of the former university site. A park was created at this site, which people began to call Marronnier Park.
More red brick buildings were built around the park, to complement the previous university building. These include Munye Theater (current Arko Arts Theater), which opened in 1981. In the 1980s, many theater groups started moving to Daehangno. At the same time, movie theaters, live-cafes, regular cafes and pubs sprung up and the area developed into a cultural and entertainment center.
When the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially adopted the name Daehangno in 1985, it hoped to create a global cultural destination like Montmartre in Paris, once the world’s mecca of modern art; or Tokyo’s fashion hotspot Harajuku; or London’s Piccadilly Circus. Daehangno has become a theater district widely known among performing artists around the world, so maybe the city’s ambitions did come true!