Life and Seoul


Free Tourist Bus – Extension of Operation & Happy New Year

Hello one and all. A very happy 2012 to you. 새해 복 많이 바드새요.

Great news to start off the year! As mentioned in a previous post, there was a free bus operating between Seoul and 3 major Korean cities exclusively for foreigners. This service was for ‘Visit Korea’ year and was due to end on December 31st, 2011.

Well, due to popular demand, and bar a few changes, the service has been extended.

Changes to note are as follows:

  • The route to Gyeongju which I took and wrote about previously has now been cut. The routes Seoul-Busan and Seoul-Jeonju will remain open, with one bus travelling in each direction every day.
  • The timetable for the Busan bus has changed, now leaving later and stopping at fewer places along the way.
As before, the service is only open to foreigners (both tourists and foreign residents). Buses run every day except Mondays and major public holidays.
Visit this link to see more information and make a reservation.

Mark Zuckerberg loves kimbap?

So you may have heard the latest news about Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook. Apparently, hackers managed to infiltrate one of the flaws in Facebook’s security program and thereby access Zuckerberg’s own private photo collection. 13 images were subsequently posted on Imgur online in an album called ‘It’s time to fix those security flaws facebook’. Being nosy I took a look at them and was surprised to see this one:

That’s right people, it’s official, one of the world’s richest men loves to make kimbap in his spare time. It looks like he’s doing a pretty good job with it too. Nice even spacing with the rice, with the meat going down the centre. I bet that’s the premium grade meat though. Not the usual spam.

Exercise and Korea

Koreans love the great outdoors. Across the country there are 20 national parks (including Hallasan on Jeju Island), and in and around Seoul there are a number of mountains streaked with paths and well maintained walkways. In short, Korea is a outdoor lover’s haven.

During autumn especially, people head to the countryside in their millions to get fresh air and exercise. Autumn in Korea is particularly beautiful, the late-October-early November period brings a blaze of colour and beauty to the whole nation. Much of Korea is covered by forest, and the Korean peninsula is very mountainous.

One of the curiosities of Korea is that you are likely to see more retirees getting their exercise in the gym, and outside than you are to see younger generations. All Korean men are required to complete a 2-3 year stint in the military, which of course comes with the necessity to exercise. Koreans in general seem to be healthy, in both diet and recreation.

Korea’s urban areas are rather disappointing in terms of open spaces. Urban planning rarely takes into account the need for parks and open recreational spaces, so to escape the city, one really must leave it, unlike a city such as London which has plenty of parks. However there are a number of small outdoor exercise areas (again something that would probably be vandalised in the West). Normally a few rudimentary metal machines that promote flexibility and healthy joints, the exercise areas are often frequented by the elderly.

Old people in East Asia really strike me as a wonderfully optimistic demographic. I love seeing groups of excited retirees excitedly amble their way up a mountain with the energy of a group of teenagers. It adds to the joy of the outdoors for me. If you come to Korea, aim to travel to the country away from national holidays and the autumn/spring high seasons, as this is the time when many people head to the country. It is hard to get tickets on public transportation or find low priced accommodation at this time.

Hyehwa/Daehakno – University Road

My stomping ground in Seoul is an area just one stop north from Dongdaemun market on Line 4 of the subway. It’s name is Hyehwa. I chose this area to live based on a couple of things. It is in an area of Seoul that has history, and buildings aged over 50 years that have not yet been pulled down to make way for unsightly tower blocks courtesy of Hyundai. Furthermore, there are a number of universities with campuses based in the area, and a large number of actors at the start of the careers giving the area a youthful energetic atmosphere, filled with the hope and possibility of what may be.

That is right where I am at with my own acting career and we suit one another well. Another reason why I love Hyehwa is for it’s sense of creativity. I love wandering through back streets and coming across unusual sculptures and art installations. Hyehwa has a heart. Something which many other regions of the city seem to lack.

Hyehwa has been dubbed the Broadway of Korea, owing to the 80-90 theatres within one square mile around the main thoroughfare – University Road (대학로). As a result it can get particularly busy, especially over the weekend and on holidays. In addition, on Sundays, the Filipino Market brings another crowd to the area.

Currently The Seoul Open University is extending its current campus here and Hongik is building its own fresh campus which means there will be a steady growth in the region.

Historically, before Hongik University grew to its current stature, the Hongdae area was not the main night entertainment spot north of the river in Seoul. That mantle was previously held by Hyehwa. However as youthful tastes and proclivities changed with rapid globalisation, the hip jazz bar culture of Hyehwa was abandoned for the emerging night club, live music culture of the more modern Hongdae and Gangnam areas.

Hyehwa does not generally have the space to accommodate a large club, and to my knowledge, ‘The Bunker’ is the only club in the area. Personally I prefer the smaller bar, many of which are at basement level. Many have rows of vinyl on the wall behind the bar which you can select and listen to. I call these places vinyl bars and in Hyehwa there are at least 7 that I know of.

My favourite vinyl bar has never struggled to find anything I have requested, even obscure bands like Minus the Bear. There is nothing better than having a chat in a bar with friends, drinking beer, shooting some pool and listening to your own playlist.

In addition to theatres, there is a large CGV cinema with a giant Gandalf the White sculpture outside (one of the many random sculptures scattered liberally about the area).

A final thing that Hyehwa offers is a good range of cheap food. Some of the fancier areas such as Gangnam, Apgujeong, Hongdae and the glitzier Itaewon that is emerging offer global cuisine at inflated prices. Hyehwa has seemed to keep prices reasonable so you get a great quality to price ratio. The area between exits 3 and 4 away from the main road is filled with decent Korean BBQ joints and the odd little surprise like Brazilian and Italian. The opposite side of University road are the European themed areas, with the occasional Chinese and Japanese restaurants.

Failing that, around exit 4 are the pojang machas (big tents outdoors where you can eat and drink), and a great little fish place, which is incredibly cheap, a little way out of exit 1 (take your second right turn).

Outside exit 2 of the station is Marronier Park. If you walk uphill away from University Road from there about 100 metres you will find yourself close to the old city fortress wall and a number of curious and unique little shops and boutiques.

For those who are interested in the theatre, head to the theatre information booth just behind exit 4 of Hyehwa station. There are not a great deal of English language plays, but occasionally you can find them. Hyehwa is worth a look for anybody who know Korea well and would like to experience something a little different. Come during the day and you might even witness an impromptu street performance or flash mob which are pretty common here.

When? – 24 hour area. Plenty of bars, restaurants and coffee shops are open round the clock.

Where? – Line 4 of the subway, one stop north of Dongdaemun, or 4 stops from Myeongdong. Many bus routes pass through Hyehwa.

Click here for a map.

Why? – Theatre, sight seeing, good eating and drinking, youthful atmosphere.

Claw Cranes in Korea

Claw cranes are popular worldwide, but it seems like prizes in the Korean version have the edge over anywhere else. If you play the game right, then a 10megapixel camera could be yours! Another curiosity of Korea is that these games can be found everywhere. On every major street there are probably a couple of these things, even in smaller towns.

Back in England, it’s almost impossible to find claw cranes, most likely because they would not last very long before somebody came along with a rock and tried to smash it open and take all the prizes.

My buddy tried to go for the camera, so he put in $5 (5000 Korean won), which gave him 30 attempts.

I’m not sure how ownership of these machines works; whether there is a company that comes around to collect the money and keep them stocked, or whether they are owned by small local businesses, but a benefit of Korea’s lack of petty crime is that these things are ubiquitous and nobody need worry about senseless vandalism by idiots.

Whoever is in control however probably also has the shameful job of attaching weights to the prizes, such as huge chunks of rubber. This makes it difficult to really hook the prize, and although my buddy is pretty adept at playing these machines, the weights were proving too much for the claw crane’s claws, and the camera kept dropping out.

So, down to just 5 attempts left, we gave up the camera and went for something more achievable: a key-chain.

Note the two pieces of rubber which had been inserted inside the box of the key-chain even. Now the BMW key-chain rip off holds my buddy’s keys together, but his ignominious defeat over the camera was down simply to some hefty chunks of rubber.

Korea also has many of the machines which poke prizes off a shelf through a small gap (for want of a better explanation). If you thought that sounded phallic, the name ‘Love Push’ (see photo above) doesn’t help alleviate that thought. These are slightly easier in theory, but just as impossible to win.

Air raid sirens in Seoul – no cause for alarm

Occasionally I will be sat in my room in Seoul writing, when all of a sudden a sound both familiar and dreadful will stir me. It’s a sound I know from visiting museums about world war 2 in England which would have a soundtrack of mortar fire and the ‘Moaning Minnie’ as it was known.

Since that tumultuous time, I doubt the moaning minnie has really ever been heard. In Korea however, every 3 months or so, the early warning sirens are tested. It can be a daunting thing to a new comer in Korea, to hear those strained sounds reverberate across the city. There is never any cause for alarm, I still maintain that the media, as it seems with everything in this age, completely overplay the situation between the two Koreas. I have friends in the army (both American and Korean) stationed here who compare being stationed in Korea today with Germany in the 80s. Want to know what I mean? Watch the movie ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ with Joaquin Phoenix.  A few buzz words like tension and animosity are all it takes for a ever increasingly sadistic press to misinterpret reality.

I reiterate, the siren will most likely only ever be a test out here. Check the time if you do hear it. 11am or 2pm on the dot are generally the test times. The siren will last 2-3 minutes then stop. They are usually indicators of a flyover by the air force in a civil defense drill or just a maintenance test for the equipment. If it is a defense drill you might also notice cars will stop in the streets whilst the alarm sounds. People may also stop. Most likely there will have been a public notice given on radio and in the news in Korean. Of course the best ploy is to watch the Koreans. If they are not panicking, then neither should you. Rest easy people. Go and eat some kimchi.

The Filipino Market

Every Sunday in Hyehwa, on University road (대학로), there is a large Filipino market that starts around 10 or 11am and runs until 5 or 6pm. It is a very popular local event with the large Filipino expat community, Koreans and other foreign nationals alike.

Many Koreans come out to taste authentic Pinoy cuisine at the market stalls or the small restaurants which are tucked away and go unnoticed for the rest of the week.

Filipinos come along to socialize, have a taste of home and pick up food stuffs and household that are impossible to obtain elsewhere in Korea. Things which are reminders of home mostly. The market adds a nice touch of multiculturalism to the area of a weekend.

The Wooribank at the Hyehwa Rotary here is one of the only banks in Seoul to remain open on a Sunday as this is the day they cater to foreign nationals’ needs. This could prove to be useful in an emergency cash-flow situation.

Definitely try some of the food. It is cheap and usually really good quality, although I have know a couple of people to whom it wasn’t exactly to their liking. I personally love it. For $6 you can get a big plate of food and it’s a nice change of gastronomic pace from Korean food.

When? Every Sunday from 10am – 5pm

Where? Hyehwa Station, Subway Line 4, exits 1&4 – walk straight for 100 metres upon exiting the station.

Alternatively, a large number of buses run by Hyehwa, including but not limited to, 102,106,107,140,143,171,271,272,273 and many more

Click here to see a map.


How to keep small dogs warm in winter – Korean style

The winters in Korea are pretty darn cold. Temperatures delve as low as -20 degrees during the worst month of January. It is often a dry cold which is, I supposed a blessing of some sort. Although we don’t have hair like dogs, I suppose we are lucky in that we can fashion wonderfully warm clothes to deal with the excruciating cold. It seems in Korea however, people have taken things a step further and allowed their pets to wear aforementioned clothing also.

Now in Korea, this comes in two different forms. 1st is the full clothing ensemble for dogs (Note: hair is sometimes, inexplicably, dyed also). It looks a little something like this:

Second of all is the what’s mine is yours approach where the dog, size permitting, shares coat space:

Open Guest House – featured in a Korean drama

Being an actor, I sub-consciously looked for an area of Seoul that was vibrant, youthful and creative when I arrived here.

No surprises then that after my first 2 days in Korea, I found myself in a guest house in Hyehwa (the theatre district around university road). Within 10 minutes from here there are roughly 80 theatres, countless music bars and always something interesting and creative going on in the street.

2 years later and I still live in the same guest house. It seems to be a lucky place for me. Whilst I have been here, countless number of filming shoots have taken place in or around the house, including one very famous SBS drama, and a famous Filipino drama which came to Korea for a special edition of the series and also filmed here. The cast and crew also stayed at the guest house.

I mentioned that I don’t tend to advertise places to stay and rather let individuals choose from the internet, but I have been here 2 years without problems and I love where I live.

It’s in a peaceful place minutes from the subway station and a major commercial area of North Seoul. To book accommodation at Open Guest House, click on this link.

The chicken van man

One of my favourite things in Korea is the chicken van.

The chicken van man is exactly what it sounds like: a man who drives around with a van full of chickens. The key thing to point out is that the chickens are already dead, and located in the back of the van, slowly cooking rotisserie-style. The van is specially made to cook chickens. The chickens are often whole and stuffed with fried rice.

The chicken van man usually appears in the evenings, from around 6pm onward as everyone makes their way home from work. He will park in a choice location and sell out of the back of his van.

There is no one rule as to where they appear. I tend to wander around the neighbourhood and buy one if I find it. They are generally located close to but not in busy areas. Sometimes they are not far away from high streets or subway stations.

The prices don’t vary too much, but the deal you get depends on the location and the quality of the chicken. Usually the chickens are slightly anorexic, but there is always some good eatin’ on them. The lowest price will often be 4000-7000 won ($4-7) for one. The best deal I saw was 10000 won ($10) for 3 whole chickens, but you will normally get 2 whole chickens for that price, which is still a fantastic price.