Asia Day 51: Seoul – Tokyo

Asia Day 51: Seoul – Tokyo

Photo of the Day: Burnt miso ramen @ Gogyo Ramen. Photo credit: Aaron.

We had to get up at 6:30am this morning to try to catch the 7:35am express train to the Incheon airport to try to save some time. It will also allow us to pre-check in at the City Centre Terminal. Unfortunately, we missed that train and figured we should just take the all stops train, since the next express train will be in more than half an hour. This was probably the biggest mistake we made today. By the time we arrived at the airport, we realized that the next express train would’ve arrived at the same time as the all stops train we took – about 1.5 hours prior to our flight (9:09am). There was no online check in, so we tried the self-check in kiosks which did not work. We located the check in counter and saw a sea of hundreds people waiting to check in. Luckily, we did not have bags to check in and that line was much more reasonable. She made sure to let us know that the gate will close at 10:20am. Feeling somewhat relieved, we walked over to the security. Once again, we saw another sea of people. There were 4 security gates and the status for all were labelled as “very busy”. Time check: 9:42am. So we joined the first line we saw and looked at the people who pre-checked in at the city terminal airport zoom by through the designated line, bypassing immigration. Regrets filled our thoughts. We finally made it passed immigration. Time check: 10:12am. Again, I felt a bit of relief, but not for long. We now find out our gate was at another part of the airport, requiring us to take a train. The train was here but looked stuffed to the rim and the doors closed in front of our eyes. Time check: 10:17am. Next train will be in 5 minutes. There was no way we will make our gate. We saw across the platform there was another train approaching in 2 minutes. We run across. We arrived at the concourse at 10:21am. It turns out our gate was at the end of this other concourse, so we glided across the moving walkways. We see airline staff holding up signs for our flight and a flashing red dot next to our flight number on the status board. I assume that means final call. We still have a chance. It was a whirlwind of a journey but we made it. Unlike the other airports we’ve been to on our trip, people were not being overly conservative when they said we should arrive at the airport 3 hours prior to departure. We already decided to forgo the whole delayed tax refund process, which would have added another who knows how long to the journey. Unless if you’re looking for an amazing race adventure and a cardio workout, I would not suggest you do what we did. As a matter of fact, I have dedicated a separate post on tips for flying out of Seoul. Click here to read.

After a uneventful short flight, we land in Tokyo (Narita Airport) at terminal 3. I was expecting ultra-modern facilities but was underwhelmed. After walking to terminal 2, we boarded the Narita Express towards Shibuya. The trains are a lot nicer than the all stops train we took in Seoul but also a lot more expensive at 3190 yen ($37 CAD) per person one way. There were luggage racks with locks as well as overhead shelves for storage. The free wifi was also a nice touch. I managed to do some blogging on the train and we arrived in Shibuya in no time.

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Shibuya Crossing.

The station can be busy and overwhelming at first but there were enough signs to figure out where we were going. First impressions of  Tokyo: many food options available here with more lower price options compared to Seoul. Secondly the fashion here is a lot more varied with everyone having their own individual style. Thirdly, the weather was more pleasant here compared to Seoul.

This last leg of our journey will be a little different since Aaron has been to Japan quite a few times before. I feel less of a nice to read up and do research beforehand. Aaron wanted to bring me to his favourite Ramen place that he must go to first thing every time after arriving in Japan. It was called 五行 (Gogyo Ramen) located near Roppongi station, which was a quick subway ride away. We loaded up our Suica cards (the equivalent to the T-Money in Seoul). As we walked to the restaurant from the subway stations, we see a line of taxis. Aaron told me this was where the taxi drivers park to take a break. Some were on their phone, while others were taking a nap. We arrived at the restaurant and the first thing Aaron noticed was that their decor is a lot nicer now. Next thing, is that the prices have inflated accordingly. He ordered 2 of their speciality: the burnt miso ramen, with char siu and egg.  We later found out it came with half an egg already so we got an extra egg on top of that. To Aaron’s disappointment, they ran out of sake (what?), so we just had some Suntory beer instead. The burnt miso was different unique. They had an open kitchen so you can see the huge flames as they are burning it. I don’t like charred-tasting food but I was pleasantly surprised that it was not the case here. I must comment on quality of the noodle being a lot more fresh and not like the soggy ones I’ve had in Canada. The broth was also more complex in taste and not just salty like some of the ones back in Canada. We also had an order of their gyoza, which were cute bite-sized pieces of deliciousness. Overall, impressive and tasty meal. The total cost came to more than $40 CAD which is comparable to Canadian prices; however, you can definitely get ramen and gyoza at lower prices here.

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The interior of Gogyo Ramen.
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They are not kidding when they said it’s burnt. Photo credit: Aaron.
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Gyoza @ Gogyo. Photo credit: Aaron.

We decided to stroll around the streets of Shibuya to check out this bustling area before going home. The busy streets full of shopping options and restaurants remind me of Myeongdong and the street performances reminded me of Hongdae; however, there were differences. Here, we witnessed people dressed up in Mario character costumes riding go carts on the street alongside normal traffic. The 18+ scene is also prevalent with neon signs of young girls dressed up in sexy lingerie as well as love hotels everywhere. Despite spending most of our day on various forms of transportation, we have actually been walking lots, so we head back to our humble abode to rest our feet.

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Shibuya at night.

Tips for flying out of Incheon Airport, Seoul

Tips for flying out of Incheon Airport, Seoul

This is our first experience flying out of Incheon Airport and we had quite the adventure, almost missing our flight. Here are the lessons we learnt and would like to share in hopes that your journey will be less stressful.

  1. Travel carry-on only, if possible. This will save you from an insane line up at the check-in counter at the airport. See featured image.
  2. If not, check-in at the City Centre Terminal at Seoul Station. You should do this at least 3 hours prior to your flight. We think it is for them to get your luggage there on time.
  3. Even if you don’t have bags to check in, just check in at the City Centre Terminal anyway to avoid the crowded security area lines at the airport.
  4. If you have tax refund slips to claim, try to do that in the city. There are specific kiosks and service windows to do this. Click here for details. At least that will save you one step from having to collect your refund at the airport. Note, you still will need to go through customs to declare your purchased goods. Do a cost and benefit analysis. You will only get less than 10% back from your tax free eligible purchases, so do the calculations and see if it is even worth you time.
  5. If you must do it at the airport, please give that extra time. Who knows how long that line is. We did not see it but this is based on others experiences that we’ve read.

Overall, just give yourself extra time! Lots of extra time. Gates may not be in the same area as the main terminal and may require a train to shuttle between the areas. So plan ahead! Arrive 3 hours prior to departure, especially if you have not pre-checked in at the City Centre Terminal.

Have you ever had a close call or entirely missed a flight? I would love to hear your stories!

Trip Reflection: South Korea (Seoul)

Trip Reflection: South Korea (Seoul)

Photo of the day: The glitz and glamour of Gangnam in Seoul, South Korea.

Culture and Tourism

Seoul is definitely the hotspot for everything beauty and fashion. It is difficult to come here and not do any shopping at all, even for someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy shopping. The population is very young and the trends are very obvious. Their influences are mainly from Hallyu or the Korean cultural wave (whether it’s from k-pop or tv dramas). They even have replicas of earrings with a photo of a star who has worn that same style next to them. Having fair skin is prevalent almost everywhere in Asia, but they take it to the next level here. The majority of people wear a full face of make up here including the Ahjummas working in the kitchen. This where also where impressive plastic surgery facilities can be found. This was very apparent in the Garosugil area where people walked into coffee shops post-op with huge bandages over their faces.

Food is rich in fats and carbs here. They not only love their hot pepper sauce with its sweet and spicy flavour but they also love their cheese, found in everything from Buddae Jjigae to cheese lattes or just straight fried cheese on a stick. Fried food is ubiquitous and well as huge plates of grilled meat. Eating alone is rare here and food items are usually ordered in number of servings, with 2 usually being the minimum. You will not starve as your meal is always served with Banchan or side dishes which can be refilled. Cost of living is definitely higher with fewer cheap food options. Even the street food costs are much higher than in Southeast Asia.

Street food in Myeongdong.
Street food in Myeongdong.

Weather

I’d have to say that this is probably not the best time to be visiting Seoul. It was pretty cold, mostly in the -1 C range while we were here. This really limited our ability to walk around and explore. We had to rely on the subway more than we actually would have needed if the weather was warmer. The street food scene is also limited because of the weather as well, although it was still impressive despite the cold. Snow and rain was not common but just remember to check the forecast and bring an umbrella with you, if necessary, because when it rained, it rained the whole day.

Language

I found the language particularly fun to learn because it was not tonal and it also had some similar sounds as Chinese. For example, the Sino-Korean numbering system was not difficult to pick up at all. English is not widely spoken here compared to Thailand and Vietnam, although Mandarin-Chinese is very useful.

Top Food Picks

  1. Dumplings @ Myengdong Gyoja
  2. Jummulock @ Tong Tong Dwaeji
  3. Chicken Galbi @ Happy Yoojane
  4. Gamja Tang @ 동원집
  5. Croissant Taiyaki on the streets of Myeongdong

Top Sights

  1. The view of the city on our walk up to N Seoul Tower
  2. The bustling streets of Myeongdong and Hongdae
  3. The glitz and glamour of Gangnam

Firsts

  • First time in South Korea
  • First time using a portable wifi device – pretty handy but having data would still be more convenient
  • First time seeing so many cosmetic shops in such close proximity to one another
  • First time colouring my hair
  • First time using a bidet (and it wasn’t as messy as I had expected)
  • First time eating breakfast from a convenience store
  • First time trying legit Bulgogi
  • First time trying Makgeolli
  • First time feeling the urge to go shopping everyday
  • First time trying Korean street food
  • First time trying a traditional Korean meal (Hanjeongsik)
  • First time seeing so many policemen and being near a million person protest
  • First time taking a dance class in South Korea

Asia Day 50: Last day in Seoul

Asia Day 50: Last day in Seoul

Photo of the day: Seafood and Kimchi pancake in Myeongdong. Photo credit: Aaron. 

We have come to our last day in Seoul. We were hoping to grab some brunch on this sunny Saturday, so we headed over to Itaewon, back where we began. Not surprisingly, this expat-friendly area, has plenty of western brunch places to chose from. We even saw a “Canadian restaurant” and were curious as to what they would serve. Their menu included pancakes, bacon and poutine. Interesting.

A Canadian restaurant for those home sick Canadians in Seoul.
A Canadian restaurant for those home sick Canadians in Seoul.

Our restaurant of choice was Suji’s. Unfortunately, it looks like it has closed. Luckily, right down the block from where it should have been, we saw some attractive brunch items being advertised. Most importantly, it was a restaurant specializing in churros. We later found out it was the same churros as the ones we had last night – from the street vendor with the same name, Street Churros. Aaron ordered the American breakfast with churro and I had the club sandwich which came with churro fries. Aaron’s breakfast was ok but what really brought the meal to life was the churro. My sandwich was very tasty, which I attributed it to the mayo and the sausage patties they used. The churro fries were also amazing, especially when dipped in the plum sauce provided. We hung out there a little longer to get some work done and people watched. There were many kids on the street this pleasant morning with the temperatures finally above 0 C. We also noticed many people holding white flowers, but had no idea why. Does anyone know?

We couldn't say no to a churros restaurant.
We couldn’t say no to a churros restaurant.
 American breakfast with churro @ Street Churros. Photo credit: Aaron.
American breakfast with churro @ Street Churros. Photo credit: Aaron.
Club sandwich @ Street Churros.
Club sandwich @ Street Churros.

We walked around Itaewon seeing what it was like during the day. It was still busy but not as lively as it was at night. Some of the popular restaurants already had many people lining up outside of it at 4-5pm.

We then went over to Myeongdong to meet up with Aaron’s cousin, who previously studied in Seoul. While waiting for her, we decided to try a few more street food items. I saw Mike Chen  eating the cheese skewers the other day and was curious as to how good it really was. The skewers consisted of a light cheese alternating with rice cakes, drizzled with condensed milk. It was not bad but also not as mind-blowing as I had expected.

Cheese skewers in Myeongdong.
Cheese skewers in Myeongdong.

We were thirsty and were hoping to buy some pomegranate juice but found out it was 6000 KRW! This was 3 times of the price of those we got in Thailand, so we decided to get some Sikhye instead. Aaron has been seeing many people with tall soft serve cones and we finally found the stall for it, so we went ahead and got the 32” mixed cone. The soft-serve was not the most delicious, so it was more for novelty. We did not even end up finishing it.

32" soft serve in Myeongdong.
32″ soft serve in Myeongdong.

Aaron heard me mumbling in my sleep last night that we still have yet to try the Korean pancakes here, so we got a mixed plate of the seafood and kimchi pancakes (see featured image). I preferred the seafood pancake but felt that both were too oily.
We were hoping to get dinner with Aaron’s cousin but by the time she arrived, we were full from all the street food we had. She wanted to show us around and brought us to Samcheongdong. She said it was close to Insadong and the palaces and is a nice street to walk along. We got out of Anguk station and were suddenly surrounded by a squad of policemen. We walked out and there were more on the streets. We kept walking and some the streets were blocked off by big buses, which had even more policemen in them. By this point, we were very curious as to what was going on. We heard some chanting in the distance as well as some people with flags and banners. We deduced there was a large protest happening. According to Aaron’s cousin, the people here are very passionate. They would hold large protests until the government acts. She was disappointed that the view of the nice streets are currently blocked off by the large buses but it is also not everyday that you will witness so many policemen on the street, at almost every corner we walked. We decided to sit down at Hansik for some food. We ordered the beef tartare Bibimbap, spicy beef brisket and tripe soup and Bulgogi stew. We also tried their Makgeolli. The food was alright. I was surprised that the spicy beef soup had full-on intestines and not tripe as I had expected. I was not a fan of that. The Makgeolli was sour, and not sweet at all compared to the previous Makgeolli’s we’ve had. As the night progressed, the policeman formed a line in front of the restaurant, so we were advised we should probably leave now or else we might not be able to leave later.

 

Bulgogi stew @ Hansik. Photo credit: Aaron.
Bulgogi stew @ Hansik. Photo credit: Aaron.
 Beef tartare Bibimbap @ Hansik. Photo credit: Aaron.
Beef tartare Bibimbap @ Hansik. Photo credit: Aaron.
 Spicy beef brisket and
Spicy beef brisket and “tripe” soup @ Hansik. Photo credit: Aaron.

We ended the night with some last minute shopping at Lotte Mart, then headed back to our place for some leftover Makgeolli from last night before getting to work to start packing for tomorrow. It was definitely more challenging to pack this time around, after having visited the shopping-obsessed city of Seoul.

Asia Day 49: Seoul (Garosugil/Gangnam)

Asia Day 49: Seoul (Garosugil/Gangnam)

Photo of the day: Budae Jjigae @ Nolboo. Photo credit: Aaron. 

Today, we had the chance to explore the trendy neighbourhood of Garosugil, located in the western portion of Gangnam. This area is known for its tree-lined streets, although, at this time of the year, there wasn’t too much to see. There were unique boutiques everywhere as well as some more well-known clothing franchises. On the side streets, there were plenty of cafes and fusion restaurants.

You will find a plethora of cosmetic surgery clinics in Garosugil.
You will find a plethora of cosmetic surgery clinics in Garosugil.

The restaurant which we had lunch at was called Better Than Beef. They specialize in pork belly. The first floor decor is very quirky, whereas the basement decor is more old-school European. We ordered the original pork belly and the tofu gratin. The pork belly came in peanut sauce and perilla leaf on top. It was not my favourite as it was quite dry. The tofu gratin was pretty delicious and super cheesy. Despite its western flare, the meal kept true to its Korean roots with its side dishes and rice. The side dishes here were very interesting, including tuna salad, pickled peanuts, regular salad and mini hot dogs. Overall, it was an interesting menu to try out if you want a change from the regular Korean food.

The appetizers/side dishes @ Better Than Beef.
The appetizers/side dishes @ Better Than Beef.
The tofu gratin @ Better Than Beef.
The tofu gratin @ Better Than Beef.
 

The original pork belly in peanut sauce. Photo credit: Aaron.
The original pork belly in peanut sauce. Photo credit: Aaron.

Next, we were hoping to find a cafe to do some work. Despite being known for having many cafes, most of these cafes were more dessert cafes for girlfriends to have a nice chat and not so much for people who want to get some work done. We found Hammersmith Roastery, which was not too noisy, so we decided to grab some tea/coffee here and get some work done. Unfortunately, it was really dark and cold, and the wifi was not working very well, so we decided to cafe-hop after we were done our coffee/tea.

Coffee shop #1.
Coffee shop #1.

We’ve seen quite a few Coffeesmith’s around Seoul, but haven’t had the chance to visit one, so we decided to check this one out. It was huge with plenty of seating. It’s been a while since I’ve heard some American top 40 so that was really nice. Aaron had their cappuccino and we shared their cheese soufflé cake, which was actually not bad. We sat upstairs facing the large windows, perfect for people-watching. The table was actually a large monitor, with input USB ports. It turned on at one point when we tried to charge our devices. There was a designed smoking room, but it wasn’t entire airtight; therefore, there was, unfortunately, a slight smell of cigarettes in the coffee shop.

Soufflé cheesecake at Coffeesmith (coffee shop #2).
Soufflé cheesecake at Coffeesmith (coffee shop #2).

With time, I decided to go and take a walk around the area. There were a variety of stores, ranging from cute more-upscale boutiques to larger more affordable stores such as 8 seconds. There are also department stores like Jaju, which was like a Korean version of the Japanese Muji. I walked by Simone Handbag Museum but wasn’t too interested in visiting it. The street itself wasn’t too long and the stores began looking bigger and more upscale as I approached Apgujeong.

The view of Garosugil from Coffeesmith.
The view of Garosugil from Coffeesmith.
Simone Handbag Museum in Garosugil.
Simone Handbag Museum in Garosugil.
A really nice cheesecake cafe on one of the side streets of Garosugil.
A really nice cheesecake cafe on one of the side streets of Garosugil.

I went back to meet up with Aaron, then we walked around for a bit trying to look for a good restaurant for dinner. We were not too interested in the choices we had here, so we decided to head back to Gangnam station, where there was definitely more happening. The streets were even more crowded than when we came yesterday, now that it is a Friday night. The night is still young but people are already unable walk straight and are passing out on the street.

I’ve been hoping to try some Odeng (fish cakes) since the beginning of this trip, but haven’t had the chance yet. We passed by a stall selling it on our way to dinner and decided to try one. Supposedly, these wavy fish cakes on a stick are meant to be self-serve, along with a cup of the broth. You can pay at the end after tallying up how many you’ve consumed. We only had 1 between the 2 of us and the older lady at the stall was teasing us why we did not get more. (At least that was what I thought since she was speaking Korean the whole time). This was a great snack for winter to warm us up, especially with the hot broth.

We decided to go to Nolboo for some Budae Jjigae, since Aaron enjoyed the other one we had in Hongdae so much. Nolboo is a chain, so other locations can be found throughout Seoul. Again, their menu had no English and I was all prepared to order in Korean, but the lady started speaking Mandarin to me. As a matter of fact, her Mandarin was probably even more fluent than mine! Chinese is definitely a more useful language here compared to English. We ordered the set menu with thinly sliced beef, noodles and a pop. This restaurant definitely was bigger and appeared more like a chain restaurant compared to Simpson Tang. When the stew first came, we were disappointed in its colour, which was quite pale, but we found out all the contents have sunk to the bottom. After placing the meat, dumplings, noodles and other carbs from the separate plate into the stew then mixing it, it started looking more like what we were expecting (see featured image above). This Budae Jjigae had a lot more in it compared to the one at Simpson Tang. Their spam pieces were larger, allowing us to taste it better. The mini dumplings were a nice touch. There were also a variety of carbs such as udon, macaroni, rice cakes and other unidentifiable chewy, gooey things. Along with the bowl of rice, I felt this was a bit carb overload. I did appreciate the taste of the macaroni with the broth though. It reminded me of eating a tomato-based pasta. Overall, I enjoyed this Budae Jjigae more compared to the one at Simpson Tang. One interesting thing we noticed while we were here was there was a lady who appeared to be broadcasting a live Mukbang. At least that was what we assumed, since she was eating in front of her phone and she had viewers commenting on her screen. That was pretty fascinating to witness in person. I guess it is a really popular trend here.

Aaron was really intrigued by the Makgeolli we had the other night, so he wanted to check out another place in Gangnam, which was actually made their own Makgeolli. But first, we passed by a churro stall called Street Churros, which according to Aaron instinct, means we must stop for one. It was really good churro and Aaron even felt it was probably the best churro he has ever had – crunchy on the outside but soft and a bit chewy on the inside.

Churro from Street Churros. Photo credit: Aaron.
Churro from Street Churros. Photo credit: Aaron.

We arrived at the brewery called 느린마을 양조장. It was categorized as a “bar” on Foursquare, so we walked right in. After we were seated and were ready to order, was when we found out they had a minimum order of food. We were really not hungry by then and decided to just buy some Makgeolli to go. This Makgeolli was actually even tastier than the one we had the other day. It tasted very fresh and it was really nice served chilled.
Makgeolli straight from the brewery! Aaron's new favourite. Photo credit: Aaron.
Makgeolli straight from the brewery! Aaron’s new favourite. Photo credit: Aaron.

I can’t believe our time in Seoul will soon be coming to an end. I feel like there are still so many neighbourhoods to explore and I am not yet ready to leave. We chose not to visit the palaces and other touristy attractions but there were still many other things to occupy our time with! See you tomorrow, as we spend our last day in Seoul.

Asia Day 48: Seoul (Insadong)

Asia Day 48: Seoul (Insadong)

Photo of the day: Gamjatang Tang @ 동원집.

From the ultra-modern neighbourhood of Gangnam, we move on to the more traditional and artistic Insadong today. I’ve been hoping to try Hanjeongsik and this is the perfect place to do that. The little alleys are filled with restaurants specializing in the traditional Korean meal. Our restaurant of choice was Chon. There were a few other restaurants which took place in a traditional house with seats on the floor but we read reviews that the food in some of those places may be a bit bland. We ordered the Namchon set menu at 16,000 KRW per person ($18 CAD), as we were worried there would be too much food if we had ordered the larger sets. First came our 6 side dishes. They included the basic kimchi, sesame oil-infused greens, some marinaded seafood, sweet lotus roots, sesame oil bean sprouts and pickled onions. We took a bite of each and it confirmed our choice of the restaurant. All of the dishes were so tasty! I especially liked the sesame oil-infused greens one. Then all our main dishes came. We started with the hot dishes. First we had the sizzling fried fish doused with hot pepper paste, which was really good. Then we had their soup, which is a nice twist on the Japanese miso soup. Then I tried the Bulgogi expecting it to be hot but it was actually a salad version of the dish. The beef was still really good even though it wasn’t sizzling hot like we’re used to. Next, I had to try their other fried fish, which was nice and soft, much better than the one I had at the cafeteria the other day. Their mung bean noodle salad was very nice and simple, with thin slices of cucumber on top and seasoned with sesame oil. There were 2 other salad dishes, which I felt were both over-dressed. Their Japchae was also very flavourful, but too oily. Finally, my favourite dish was the pork belly. When combined with the green onion drenched in hot pepper paste, it was the perfect combination of all the right tastes and textures. I was surprised that the amount of food was not overwhelming. I did not feel stuffed after the meal. Overall, very delicious meal with appropriate portions. I’m very happy with my first experience with Hanjeongsik.

Hanjeongsik @ Chon.
Hanjeongsik @ Chon.

After lunch, we began exploring the quaint street and alleys of Insadong. We immediately got distracted by an attractive tea store, Osulloc, selling green tea roll cakes. We walked in, tried some of their light green tea, took at look around at their merchandise, then ordered ourselves a sejak green tea and a green tea roll cake. They had seating on the 2 upper floors. The first floor was more like a cafeteria and was full of people. The second floor did not have windows but provided a nice, dimmed and quiet ambience to enjoy your tea. We chose to sit there. Our tea and cake came in a tray along with a timer and a mochi treat. Our server was very attentive and immediately brought over an extra cup once she saw there were two of us. After the timer went off, we poured the tea through a strainer into a bowl, then transferred that into our cups. The colour of the tea was very light, with a corresponding light taste. It reminded me of the Chinese dragon well tea. After we were done, we got the server’s attention and she immediately knew we wanted some more hot water. The second run was darker and had a richer taste than the first. As for our cake, the green cream in the middle of the roll tasted like butter. The cake itself did not really have a strong taste of tea, which was disappointing.

The green tea roll cake that lured us into the store @ Osulloc Tea House. Photo credit: Aaron.
The green tea roll cake that lured us into the store @ Osulloc Tea House. Photo credit: Aaron.
 

Nice seating on the top floor of Osulloc, Insadong. Photo credit: Aaron.
Nice seating on the top floor of Osulloc, Insadong. Photo credit: Aaron.

We continue on to explore the area. We came across Ssamziegil, a multilevel plaza, filled with small stores selling all sorts of artsy souvenirs. There was also a poop/toilet-themed cafe on the top floor.

Another way to declare your love by writing cute little love notes and hanging them up here @ Ssamziegil.
Another way to declare your love by writing cute little love notes and hanging them up here @ Ssamziegil.

On the streets, we noticed a lot of people wearing traditional Korean costumes. Apparently there were quite a few stores in the area where you can rent these out and walk around with them. Their customers were mostly young ladies but I’ve also seen couples walking around as well. It was really nice seeing the different architecture and shops here compared to the previous neighbourhoods we’ve visited in Seoul but it was getting really cold, so we sought refuge at Caffe Themselves and got some work done, alongside many others who were also buried in their books and laptops.

We were going to get some dinner nearby, but we’re disappointed to see that most of the restaurants in the area has closed by now. The streets are dead, except for a few street stalls. We had a chicken skewer to pull us over and were intrigued by how meticulous the lady was cutting the tiny burnt bits off while carefully grilling the skewer. It was, as delicious as the first Dakkochi we had at Namdaemun Market.

Dakkochi stall in Insadong. Photo credit: Aaron.
Dakkochi stall in Insadong. Photo credit: Aaron.

We realized we were actually close (i.e. 2 subway stations away) to a place specializing in Gamjatang that I have been meaning to visit, so we made our way over to the industrial area of Euljiro-3-ga. It was interesting to see how this area was more lively than Insadong at night. The many establishments here, which appeared to be beer gardens, were full of people. Playing another game of matching Korean characters, we found the place we were looking for – 동원집. What initially looked like a cozy place with a few tables turned out to be a multi-room restaurant pretty filled with locals. It kind of reminded me of some of the famous restaurants we’ve been to, like the Bun Cha Huong Lien in Hanoi and Kau Kee Restaurant in Hong Kong, where the front dining area is just the tip of the iceberg. Luckily, there was a table available for us upstairs. It appears the staff here do not speak English, so I pumped myself up to order in Korean, after reviewing a few phrases online. To my surprise, the lady does not appear to be speaking Korean to me. I was very confused at first but realized she was speaking Chinese! She was very honest in informing me that a medium pot that I pointed to on my phone would’ve been too much for the 2 of us and she recommended ordering 2 personal-sized ones instead. They seemed really busy and our food took a while to come, but it was well worth it. We already saw the huge pot of broth brewing downstairs and were excited to see it now sitting in front of us. It was interesting that the Chinese name for this is called “potato stew” but it was really missing the most important part of the stew, which was the pork bone. They were generous with their portion-sizes and we had quite a few large bones in each of our small bowls. The meat was tender and just fell off the bone. The broth was tastier than any other Gamjatang broth I’ve had in Canada. There were only a few pieces of potato, which is probably a good thing because we already have rice as our carb. I enjoyed the rice by dipping spoonfuls of it it into the broth. It was amazing and all only for 7000 KRW ($8 CAD). It was much better value and much tastier than the oxtail soup we had the other day in Namdaemun market. Overall, I was very impressed with this authentic version of one of my favourite Korean dishes. Eating Gamjatang in Canada will never be the same again.

Enormous pot of boiling Gamjatang broth @ 동원집. Photo credit: Aaron.
Enormous pot of boiling Gamjatang broth @ 동원집. Photo credit: Aaron.

Asia Day 47: Seoul (Gangnam – Dance Class in Korea)

Asia Day 47: Seoul (Gangnam – Dance Class in Korea)

Photo of the day: 1 Million Dance Studio.

It was finally time to head over to the infamous Gangnam district of Seoul. It’s about time and this is why. One of my goals for this trip was to take a dance class in Korea. I’ve always been very impressed by Korean dancers and really love their interpretation of dance whether it is modern, jazz or hip hop. Their “music video” or “k-pop” style dance can also be very girly, which is a style that I really like. I found a few dance studios in Seoul, which are more foreigner-friendly, and the ones I was most interested in had their studios in Gangnam. I originally decided on 1 Million Studios. It was a top-notch studio, with millions of YouTube subscribers (myself included), and past contracts with entertainment companies. for those interested, this was the first of their videos that I watched a while ago that really impressed me. I’ve read/watched some reviews on people’s experiences there, which made me change my mind. I got very intimidated. It sounded like a very intense class with many students lining up 30 minutes to 1 hour before class just to get into the class, hoping to impress their instructor/idol. I also read that even the beginner’s classes were still quite difficult to follow. I just wanted to have fun and all this did not sound too fun, so I’ve been putting this off.

Instead, I chose Def Dance School. They also offer vocal and modelling training as well and appeared to be quite a professional performing arts school. They also supposedly had English-speaking staff and instructors. The studio was located near Seolleung station, so we got off there instead of the more central Gangnam station. We walked around for a bit and found a nice, cozy restaurant serving Japanese food called Yurikamome. I did not want to overeat before dancing so I just had a fish-cake udon. Aaron had the lunch set menu with Tonkatsu and a mini-udon as well as other side dishes. I was pleasantly surprised that I got a couple pickled side dishes too with my udon. One can always expect to find side dishes with their meals in South Korea. The broth was very tasty and peppery, perfect for a cold winter day. The Tonkatsu was delicious and the portion-size was huge! This is a trend we have noticed. The meals here are definitely North American-sized, compared to the smaller portion-sizes found in Thailand and Vietnam. It was a nice simple meal and before long, I had to get walking to the studio.

Fish cake udon @ Yurikamome.
Fish cake udon @ Yurikamome.

Tonkatsu meal @ Yurikamome. Photo credit: Aaron.
Tonkatsu meal @ Yurikamome. Photo credit: Aaron.

One thing I noticed about the fashion here is that people don’t wear boots. I’ve only seen foreigners wearing them. I did not understand because in Canada, almost everyone wears boots in the winter. Today, I finally saw people wearing boots and it was because it was snowing earlier today. It makes perfect sense now. In Canada, where it was always raining (Vancouver) or snowing (Ottawa), we needed to wear boots to keep our feet dry. Here, there is not as much precipitation, so it was not necessary! Well apparently my boots are not that waterproof because it was now raining and my socks were soaked. That is not a problem because you can get cute socks for 1000 KRW almost anywhere in Seoul.
I finally found the studio and was super excited! I walked up and checked with the front desk where the girl k-pop class was happening. The staff did not speak that much English but I got my point across and she asked me to go upstairs to register. I went upstairs to their main office and filled out a form, got my picture taken and then paid. I was asked to go back downstairs for the class. I was introduced to the instructor downstairs. That was when I found out that it is the end of the month and they were at the end of their choreographies. I wouldn’t really be able to catch up with all that has been taught already, so she said it was up to me whether I could just watch or I can just cancel the transaction. Again, that took a while to get through since she did not speak any English. So I went back upstairs to get my class refunded. They were happy to do so initially but later explained that because I used a foreign credit card, it would be more difficult for me to get a refund and they do not know how long it will take. They again offered that I can watch the class instead. I insisted I preferred a refund since it’s really no fun just watching a dance class and they said they will apply for it. So I am not sure if I will get the refund but we will see. So, as you can probably tell, I was pretty disappointed. I wish I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate in the class before registering and paying.

The weather matched my mood as I strolled through the rain to meet up with Aaron at The Bean Brothers near Gangnam station. It was a really nice coffee shop with lots of space for working. There was plenty of seating by the window and really fast wifi. The only downside is the price of the drinks! I should expect that in Seoul, coffee and tea at a nice cafe should cost 6000 KRW (~$6.90 CAD) and up.

Coffee @ The Bean Brothers - for the serious coffee drinkers. Photo credit: Aaron.
Coffee @ The Bean Brothers – for the serious coffee drinkers. Photo credit: Aaron.

I quickly got to work on blogging, but in the back of my mind, I still haven’t given up on dancing. I was no longer dissuaded by the intimidation and decided to go try 1 Million Dance Studios. It was quite a few stations away, so I took the subway. It was rush hour so I got to experience what it was like to be packed into the subway like sardines. You would think there was no longer any space but you are then pushed further and further in to make room for more and more people. It was quite impressive actually. Impressive, but not comfortable.

It took me around 30 minutes to get to the studio by subway, which tells you how big Gangnam really is, since it’s still in the same neighbourhood. It was only 30 minutes away from the class start time now and I was crossing my fingers that there I would make it in the class. I was pleasantly surprised that there were no crowds in front of the studio. This was probably because I was taking the beginner’s class with a newer instructor – Minyoung. I did see the crowd downstairs for the popular Mina Myoung’s class. You can take a look here to watch her more advanced choreography. The staff spoke English very well and she helped me process my payment right away. I got my photo taken just like with Def Dance and then had to set up a code for me to use when I attend any classes. It’s more relevant for people who paid for several classes to prove their identity. I was told to go upstairs to place my belongings on this huge shelf. I returned to the studio downstairs and then was told to enter my code while waiting in line. The instructor was practicing inside the studio and we were only allowed in right at the start of class. The instructor teaching this class was Minyoung, who apparently is a student-turned-teacher. I have seen her choreographies previously and liked her style. You can watch it here. The instruction was all in Korean, which is not a problem because dance is more about following movements than listening. The experience was really not that intense! I really liked the 90 minutes of class compared to the usual 60 minutes that I get in Canada. It gives us a lot of time to repeat the choreography to cement it to our memory. Like most dance classes, the last 8-count of choreography did not get as much love and was not given as much time. The class ended with the instructor splitting us up into group of 3’s to perform in front of everyone else. This is when many people pulled out their phones to film the instructor or ask others to film themselves. If you performed particularly well during the class, you were asked to dance with the instructor as the last group, concluding the class. I was pretty relieved today was not a filming day, so you will not be seeing me on YouTube. Overall, I had a very pleasant experience and it definitely wasn’t as intimidating as I originally thought it would be. I enjoyed the choreography, although it wasn’t as k-popish or girly as I hoped. It has definitely resparked my interest to try to take dance classes more regularly again. I did catch a glimpse of Mina Myoung’s class downstairs though and that class was packed with people and there was a lot of floor choreo with some butt waving going on, so I would probably not have survived that. Feeling very content, I head back to Gangnam station to meet up with Aaron for dinner.

Minyoung, our instructor, marking the steps on the side as a group was performing.
Minyoung, our instructor, marking the steps on the side as a group was performing.

We finally got to walk around the Gangnam station area a bit and found a very attractive  Dakgalbi restaurant on one of the side streets called Happy Yoongane. We originally were heading to a Nolboo for some Budae Jjigae but we could not say no to such temptations. We ordered 2 servings of the original chicken Galbi with a side of cheese and rice. They also had an option with a whole outer ring of cheese but we figured that was too intense. If there is one thing Koreans like, we discovered, it was cheese. They add it in everything – even lattes! A huge pan was placed in front of us, then some marinaded chicken and rice cakes were placed in the pan for us. They placed a huge metal fence around the pan to prevent splatter. The server would come by every few minutes to help us cook, eventually adding the cabbage and cheese to the mixture. Then finally she removed the metal barricade and it was time to eat. First bite was amazing! What was even more amazing what as when I added the rice in to soak up all the sauce. The sweet and salty taste of the chicken, fresh sweetness of the cabbage, stringy cheese and softness of the rice, was the perfect combination for a happy belly. They had a self-serve side dishes station, where there was a delicious creamy macaroni salad, in case you wanted to add more comfort to this comfort meal.

Dakgalbi @ Happy Yoogane. Look at that cheese.
Dakgalbi @ Happy Yoogane. Look at that cheese!

We decided we could not come to Gangnam without checking out the nightlife here so we found a cozy bar called 알콜패밀리, full of locals, to try some Korean rice wine (Makgeolli). The menu was all in Korean so I just asked for some Makgeolli. Apparently there were many flavours. Google Translate saved us as the server used it to explain what the different flavours were. We asked him which is the most popular one and he suggested the chestnut-flavoured Makgeolli. He gave us these metal bowls to drink out of which was interesting. It came in quite a large bottle, so I am glad he stopped me from ordering 2 at once. It looked quite milky and smelled sweet. The taste was quite sweet and very easy to drink. You can taste a little bit of the nuttiness and it was nice. Apparently, it originally appealed only to farmers and older people but now it has gained more popularity amongst younger people, especially Korean rappers (see source here). 

 Makgeolli @ 알콜패밀리.
Makgeolli @ 알콜패밀리.

We would’ve loved to enjoy the bustling Gangnam some more but we had to catch the last train at midnight. Despite the little hiccup at the beginning of the day, we quite enjoyed our time here in Gangnam. We definitely need to come back to check out this glitzy neighbourhood.

Glitzy Gangnam. Photo credit: Aaron.
Glitzy Gangnam. Photo credit: Aaron.