The Korean wave and above all K-pop is conquering the world. Bands like BTS or Blackpink break new music records and conquer the Billboard charts. In this blog post, I give you some tips on how to see some of your idols for free in South Korea.
The first K-pop band I was listening to was CNBLUE back in 2011. My friend Jenni was a huge fan of Japanese and Korean pop culture including K-pop and K-dramas. As a media scientist, I was more interested in dramas. When I watched “Heartstrings” with Hyung Joong-Hwa in the male lead role, I found out about CNBLUE. But to be honest, until my exchange semester in South Korea, I was listening more sporadic to K-pop music.
❓What is K-POP?
The shortcut K-pop (케이팝) stands for Korean popular music and is influenced by all kinds of music genres and stylistics. The term itself became popular in the 2000s but was already used before. The Korean wave brought K-pop as well as K-dramas around the globe. Usually, the songs are a mix of the Korean language with some sentences or phrases in English. Most bands get cast through a tough trainee programme at a young age like the girl band Blackpink. These trainee programmes get more and more criticised, especially by Western media outlets. Other criteria of most K-pop idols, especially former trainees are the complex choreographies but also the experimental way of fashion on stage and in their videos. Usually, K-pop groups have a leader who is the oldest or most experienced one of the group.
Free Concerts for foreign residents
A few of my friends from Taiwan told me about free K-pop concerts for foreign residents. A free concert in Seoul with my favourite band CNBLUE included. Sounded too good to be true? Well it was, the tickets were already gone by the moment I heard about it (you can not imagine how sad I was). Spoiler Alert: I still saw them playing live – I will come back to this in a minute.
The idea behind the free concerts is to promote Korean culture to make K-pop as well as traditional Korean music more popular by inviting foreigners to free concerts. It started in 2015 organised by Hello K! which established itself as a cultural performance for foreigners in Korea. But since the last year, they seem to concentrate more on traditional music but this could be also because of Covid-19. I guess checking it out can not harm.
Festivals including free concerts
As I already mentioned, I could not manage to actually go to one of the free K-pop concerts for foreigners but I actually got another chance. During my semester abroad in 2016, I was able to visit the opening show of the Korea Sale Festa with bands like SHINee, Red Velvet, MAMAMOO, Wonder Girls, INFINITE, GOT7, B.A.P. and most importantly (to me) CNBLUE. At the opening ceremony, every band was invited to play one of their current songs. The festival is about the shopping week in Korea with a lot of different programmes as fashion shows, concerts, and obviously thousands of possibilities to go shopping. This shopping week is every year. But be warned the concerts are very popular and you have to come super early (seriously early) to get a spot. My friends waited in line seven hours before the beginning of the concert (I came a bit later because I had university) and we got in but were quite far from the stage. Anyway, I was so happy to see my favourite band, therefore, it was worth waiting for.
K-pop Music Shows
Another possibility is to attend K-pop music shows which are pretty popular in Korea, for example, Simply K-Pop (Arirang TV), MTV The Show (SBS MTV), Show Campion (MBC), M Countdown (Mnet), Music Bank (KBS2), Music Core (MBC), or Inkigayo (SBS). I did not gain any experience with this but found a good article about how to attend these kinds of shows as a foreigner by KoreabyMe, click here to read it.
That one time when I arrived in Saigon (Ho-Chi-Minh-City) and realised I am a multi-millionaire. But also how a sightseeing tour brought me to tears, a theatre where puppets dance on the water and a boat tour right through the jungle.
My first impression when I arrived in Saigon was: The city is crazy. There are cars and especially motorcycles everywhere. The latter replaces the family van. Parents and three children fit easily on one motorcycle. It’s loud, it’s crowded and especially for a Westerner like me, it is confusing. In case you want to cross the street there are often no traffic lights and if there are some there are still motorcycles that ignore them (in Vietnam they sell t-shirts with the slogan Red means I can still go). Especially the Rush Hour is horror. People told me for pedestrians the trick is: Keep walking.
💡 Information about Saigon
The city Saigon (Sài Gòn), or how it is called nowadays: Ho-Chi-Minh-City (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) is with 7 million inhabitants the biggest city in Vietnam and also its primary economic centre. Both names are still in common but the official name is Ho-Chi-Minh-City since the reunification in 1976, named after the further president of the Northern part of Vietnam. Until 1975 It was the capital of the Southern part of the country when Vietnam was divided.
Oops, I am multi-millionaire
One other overburdened thing is the money. The lowest banknote in Vietnam is 1,000 VND (circa 0.04 US$), the highest is 500,000 VND (circa. 21.78 US$). So when I first came to the bank I took 2 million VND (circa 87.11 US$) from my bank account – I never felt richer.
❗️ Money tips for Vietnam
If it is your first time in Vietnam, the money could be probably a bit confusing. The banknotes are high, all notes are colourful but have the same person (Ho Chi Minh) on them. A nice idea is to install an app for currency translation to check how much money you spend on something. A helpful rule of thumb is around 25,000 VND are one US-Dollar. Don’t let yourself rush by paying because unfortunately, there are people who try to utilise the situation and get more money from you by not telling you that you paid one zero too much or giving the wrong change. But these people are the exception most people I met in Vietnam were really friendly and helpful. You will get pretty fast used to the high numbers on the banknotes. Also, remember that bargaining is part of the culture (only on markets, not in stores). Best is to inform yourself before how much money you should spend on taxis or articles from the market.
Sightseeing in Saigon
In my opinion, Ho-Chi-Minh-City does not offer too many Sightseeing-places. They have some pretty buildings in the French colonial style as the post office (built by Gustave Eiffel the engineer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris), the Reunification Palace or the old City Hall with a little park and a statue of Ho Chi Minh in the front. All the places are nice to see but you can not really spend a lot of time there. Therefore, I would recommend the War Museum and the Water Puppet Theatre.
Tears in the War museum
The War Remnants Museum costs 40,000 VND (circa 1.75 US$) and shows different photos, articles from newspapers and some videos about the First Indochina War (1946-1954) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). They tell some really personal stories about different people who got killed in the war or even more cruel through war crimes as massacres. People who were born in the last 35 years (some of them are my age or younger) have to live with the worst deformation of their bodies due to the toxic Agent Orange. But also of victims of the war who lost their legs and/or arms and who are top athletes or painters today. I have to admit that I had more than once tears in my eyes. Tears because of the incomprehension of how so many people can protest all over the world against this war but can not do anything against it. Tears because of the never-ending possibility of the cruelty of people in killing, destroying and torturing others which make me feel sick and so angry. But also tears for the hope that the people in these stories can give you about living a successful and happy life whether they have to live with limitations or diseases. In my opinion, learning about the history, culture, and people of places I visit is very important. It helps to understand a lot about the political but also cultural approaches of its inhabitants in which circumstances they were born and raised. Especially when they had to live through a war. I admit visiting a war museum is not exactly a fun activity but I think it is very important to learn from the mistakes of the past and try to understand what happened in Vietnam in the past decades. This is why I really would recommend you to visit the museum. If you are even more interested in history you can also visit the exhibit of the Independence Palace.
Dancing puppets on the water
One of my absolute highlights was the Water Puppet Theatre. The tradition of the theatre goes back until the 11th century and is from Northern Vietnam. The show in Saigon was around 45 minutes long. I paid 200,000 VND (on a Sunday evening, circa 8.70 US$) and showed several little stories about animals and humans in the water combined with traditional live music, singing and sometimes speaking (in Vietnamese). The puppets are made out of wood with lacquering and dance, swim and walk through a small pool. The puppeteers are hidden behind a drop.
🚌 How to reach
📍 War Remnants Museum The museum contains exhibits about the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War and is at 28 Vo Van Tan, Ward 6, in District 3.
📍 Water Puppet Theatre In Ho-Chi-Minh-City, the most famous one is the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre in 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai in District 1.
The War Museum and the Water Puppet Theatre are just 5 minutes away from each other by foot and both just an approx. a 10-minute walk from the Independence Palace.
Shipping through the jungle
Many hotels and travel offices offer different kinds of tours. Really famous are one-day toursto the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi Tunnels. I decided to do the former. Some agencies already offer group tours for around 10$. The Mekong Delta is a region in Southern Vietnam. The Mekong is a huge river that extends over six countries: Vietnam also China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. I would guess most Mekong Delta tours offer a similar programme. We went to a little temple on our way and at the Mekong Delta, we took a boat, tried some tea and domestic fruits. We went to a coconut farm, rode in a horse-drawn carriage and of course the highlight – taking a rowing boat along the different canals.
First written on Wednesday, February 8th, 2017, you have read the blog post My highlights and tears from crazy Saigon on My Travel Journal-Blog.
To me, South Korea and Seoul itself are full of new experiences, differences in culture, language script, food and even in everyday life. It’s a country full of opposites. New-age Korea with all of its high modern technic versus the old traditional Korea with all of its palaces and Hanbok – This post is about my first week as an exchange student in Seoul.
💡 Facts about South Korea and Seoul
The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea (Daehan Minguk in Korean, 대한민국). The official language is Korean and the official script is Hangul. After Second World War the country was divided into North and South Korea. Since then, North Korea is the only borderline of South Korea. The capital of the Republic of Korea is Seoul. It is also the largest city in the country and the 16th largest city in the world. Circa 50% of the population from South Korea live in the metropolitan area of Seoul.
Finally, my semester abroad in Seoul started. After 18 hours and a little stop-over in Abu Dhabi, I finally arrived in Seoul. South Korea has a time difference of seven hours compared to my home country Germany. Lucky me, I hadn’t to deal with jet lag plus the weather is just very nice – Something between late summer and early autumn.
Living expenses and grocery shopping in South Korea
I am studying at the EWHA Womans University. The campus is really beautiful and even a little tourist attraction in Seoul. Rents and especially deposits are disproportionated high in South Korea (at least compared to Germany), which is why I am happy to stay in a dormitory (even though in the beginning it was a real fight, read more here: Curfew. Woman’s University. Visa. And lots of preparation.) The living expenses are rather high in South Korea, which makes the country so expensive compared to Germany (and many other countries). Also, the food prices in supermarkets are higher, especially, fruits and vegetables are quite expensive (for example, five apples cost approximately 6,500 ₩, these would be 5.80$). Unsurprisingly, groceries which include (for Asia) uncommon ingredients are also pricey. This includes all kinds of milk products as cheese and chocolate, but also most of the bread. And for a reason – nobody understands – toilet paper seems to be a luxus article as well.
❗️ Tips for groceries and toilet article
We bought our toilet requisites including toilet paper but also sweets and some basic food in the discounter around the corner of our university. A common and good one is the Japanese shop Daiso. You can look after street hawkers or local markets mostly it is cheaper there for fruits and vegetables. Also do not forget, some toiletries are especially expensive in Korea (or actually the whole of Asia). Therefore, my tip is to bring enough deodorant (most Asian do not use it because they do not sweat as much – therefore it is hard to find but really expensive), tampons, and especially sunscreen. Latter is not really hard to get but can be really pricey plus most sunscreen includes whitener because the Korean (and also other Asian) ideal of beauty is pale skin.
Dining outside – restaurants
Even though, grocery shopping feels quite expensive to me, eating out is actually really affordable. I wondered really often how it can be that cooking for yourself seems to be more expensive than actually dining outside. I heard that special groups of society like families and restaurant owners get a card with which they can do cheaper grocery shopping (but I have no proof this is true). I guess a few points which make going to restaurants quite cheap compared to many other Western countries are three main points. First of all, you always get free water or cold tea with your food (you only pay for additional drinks). Second, usually, you get free side dishes like Kimchi, yellow radish, other vegetables, or rice (it depends a bit on your meal) and you mostly also reorder them for free. Third, Koreans do not tip.
Fast food, street food and markets
But I noticed very fast that even when eating out is comparatively cheap (to me) it is still too expensive to do so every day. The cheapest meals you can get are probably street food and meals from the local markets. As well as from convenience stores like my favourite snack Samgak Kimbab (triangle Kimbab). Also, the prices depend a lot on the district. I noticed that the street food in the student districts is way cheaper than in the city centre. Another really common way is to order food. I feel like most shops have their own delivery services, even the fast-food chains. One of the favourite spots to order food and have a picnic is the Han River. When we went there in my first week we got 41 different flyers (I counted them) for delivery services in Seoul, most of them offering Fried Chicken or Pizza.
❗️Tips for eating out
Not surprisingly, the cheaper restaurants are outside of the centre. The restaurants owned by Ajummas (아줌마, middle-aged Korean women) or Ahjussis (아저씨, middle-aged Korean men) with traditional Korean food are usually cheaper as well but they will not speak English or offer a translated menu. But usually, the menus have some pictures (or even a display window with the meals). Also ordering food is quite easy (literally the only word I knew when I went to a restaurant), just say the name of the meal and behind it Juseyo (주세요), it means please, for example, Bibimbab Juseyo (비빔밥주세요). Also, one restaurant my roommate and I love is the Food Café. They have common dishes as Kimbab, Jajangmyeon (black bean noodles), or omelette. As far as I know, the restaurant exists close to Gangnam and Sinchon. The other way around, all kinds of restaurants which offer so-called Western food are usually more pricey.
Learning new language characters
Hangul (한글) is the official written language in Korea. Although it looks really complicated, it’s not that difficult to learn. My university book for Korean classes says it’s the 12th widely used language in the world and ahead of Italian and French (sounds unbelievable, I know). Hangul was invented in 1443 by King Sejong, the fourth monarch during the Joseon Dynasty. The new language script was supposed to help ordinary people to write and read. Because before Hangul, Korean was written in Chinese characters. One says a wise man could learn Hangul in one day, a stupid man could learn it in ten days. I have Korean classes twice a week, so I learned Hangul in seven days ;). The modern Hangul has 24 letters and 27 digraphs. But also if you don’t speak the Korean language, especially Seoul has many English speaking people who will try to help you and the metro signs and the station announcements are also in English.
Samulnori – Traditional Korean dance and music
Samulnori is a genre of traditional Korean music and dances (read more in my blog post about Traditional Korea). My roommate and I were lucky to see such a dance performed by Korean students at our university. Samulnori means literally translated playing four things which already explains the use of four different percussion instruments. They have a small gong (Kkwaenggwari), a larger gong (Jing), an hourglass-shaped drum (Janggu) and a barrel drum (Buk drum). The students wore beautiful Korean dresses, called Hanbok. They had two students, which were dressed differently in pink jackets. These two had small gongs and provided the rhythm. Some students from the audience ran to the dancers and clipped some banknotes under their hats. There was also a little ceremony in the beginning. We didn’t understand what they were saying (because it was in Korean), but one girl had a pig mask. Pigs count as a lucky charm here. Some of the girls were standing in a line, got something to drink, then they had to kneel down. After they got up, they gave some little papers to the pig mask. My guess is that they wrote down some of their wishes.
Other things I joined in during my first week were a museums visit during Culture Day, and a free trip to the South of Korea. Culture Day is an initiative of the country offering free entrances and discounts on cultural facilities. I visited the Seoul Museum of History. It shows the history and culture of Seoul from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) to the present day. It represents the living of the people in Korea, also during the Japanese colonial era until the late 1990s. The free trip was sponsored by the Korean government to show foreigners around their country. We went to a little island, different festivals and another museum about Korean art. You can read more about Culture Day and how to join in a free trip in my blog post Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts.
First written on Friday, September 16th, 2016, you have read the blog post University, Hangul & Samul Nori – My first week in Seoul on My Travel Journal-Blog.
The Culture Day in Korea offers free museum visits and discounts, the government invites foreigners to free trips, and national holidays await you with many activities and festivities. Sounds good? Then you should read the following blog post.
Korea has a lot of cultural sides to offer with its own traditions and modern pop culture – even though the country was influenced by many different Asian countries, especially China but also the USA. Particular Seoul offers a lot of museums, palaces, festivities, and events you should not miss. I have been on two free trips for foreigners and visited a bunch of museums for free. Let me tell you how.
Culture Day and free entrance to museums
Since 2014, every last Wednesday of the month is Culture Day. This particular day offers discounts or sometimes even free entrance and extended opening hours for all kinds of museums, galleries, and other cultural facilities. Usually, on Culture Day, most museums including the king’s palaces have free admission and cinemas offer a discount. I really love the idea behind it and I think it is such a good experience to explore a lot of Korea’s culture on a budget. I have used Culture Day to visit a bunch of museums in Seoul including the Seoul Museum of History and the National Museum of Korea.
Free events, festivals and attractions
Besides Culture Day you should also take a look for free events, festivals and attractions. Especially South Korea’s capital Seoul has a lot to offer. One of my favourite ones was the Lantern Festival at Cheonggyecheon, the little river starting at the city hall. The festival returns every winter with free admission. Another big festival is the Seoul International Fireworks Festivalat the Han River at the beginning of October. Every year, two to three changing countries plus Korea create a show of fireworks. During the day, there is a programme, in 2016 there was a K-pop concert as well (with B1A4, I.O.I., 24K, and Mamamoo), and in the evening there was an after-party with a DJ. The festival was very well organised and even with traffic control on the subway to make sure that the subway is not getting too full and everyone gets home safe.
Public holidays for discounts
You should also take a look at the public holidays in Korea because they also bring free entrance, festivities or discounts. The biggest holidays are Seollal (설날) – the Korean New Year on the first day of the Korean calendar, and Chueseok (추석) – the Korean harvest festival in autumn. When I was in Korea we got a 50% discount as foreigners on Chuseok to visit famous amusement and water parks in Seoul (the downside, it was pretty full because of the holidays). Another holiday you should watch out for is Buddhas birthday in late spring. It is the perfect day to visit one of the Buddhist temples because they celebrate the day with different festivities and beautiful lanterns.
Tips for the king’s palaces
If you visit the Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung Palace in Seoul make sure to attend the changing ceremonies of the royal guards. The shows are for free and right in front of the king’s palaces (before you enter). If you visit the king’s palaces wearing a Hanbok (Korean traditional clothing) you also get free admission. Otherwise, you can save money by buying the Integrated Palace Ticket to visit more than one sight. For more information read my post about Traditional Korea.
Free trips for foreigners
When I visited South Korea back in 2016, I was lucky enough to attend two free trips in the South of the country. The idea behind the trips is to bring foreigners closer to the Korean culture and improve tourism by offering them free tours and cultural events, which are sponsored by the government. On my first trip, we went to the Great Battle of Myeongnyang Festival, the Korean Minhwa Museum with traditional Korean paintings, and the little island 가우도 (Ga-u-do). The second trip included the visit of the Naeso Temple in Buan, the Gomso Salted Sea Food Festival, the International Integrative Medicine Expo and Woodland in Jangheung. The latter is a cypress forest and offers a bunch of activities and facilities. Apparently, it is also a known spot for TV productions as the K-drama Faith.
Free tours and silkworm pupas
Just a little story from one of the trips: at the Sea Food Festival, my roommate Jazz convinced me (plus two other US-Americans and two Koreans who apparently never tried it before) to eat our first (and for me at least also last) Beondegi. This is a silkworm pupa, a Korean snack. What can I say, I thought it would be crusty – well it was not. I guess the worst part was the juicy consistency and the knowing of what I actually ate. Probably I would not recommend it (little fun fact: in 2019 I became a Vegetarian).
❗️ I did the free trips with Kim’s Community Travel. As far as I know, nowadays it is a combination of free tours and really cheap trips overnight. Another fun fact: The organiser of Kim’s travels Dongryeong also founded a community house. It was a shared flat with foreigners from around the world. Given that sharing flats are not a thing in Korea the shared flat got national attention when the TV channel KBS made a reality series out of it. You can find Kim’s Community House on Facebook as well.
First written on Friday, September 16th, 2016, you have read the blog post Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts on My Travel Journal-Blog.
Three days in the vacation paradise of South Korea, the island of the little grandfathers, the hallabong fruit and Haenyo – the free diving women of Jeju-do.
💡 Facts about Jeju
Jeju (제주, or actually Jeju-do, because the abbreviation “do” stands for the province) is an island and the southernmost place of South Korea. Furthermore, it is one of the nine provinces of the country. The capital of the island has actually the same name, it is Jeju-si (“si” stands for the city) or simple Jeju City. The island is built up of volcano rocks from the mountain Hallasan, which is 1,950 m also the highest mountain in South Korea. The mountain is a dead volcano with a crater lake and located in the centre of the island. Nowadays the mountain and its environment is a national park. The island has a subtropical climate and is a really famous vacation destination for Koreans. A few years ago, it was also the most popular place for honeymoon travels. Nowadays Europe is also a favoured aim for newly-married couples.
From little grandfathers and new fruits
Dol hareubang (돌 하르방) is the Korean name of the stone figures which are everywhere in Jeju. Rather the word “dol” (돌) stands for stone and “hareubang” (하르방) for grandfather, so they are the (little) grandfather stones. And of course, they sell these little sculptures also in any variations of souvenirs. Those versions remember me actually a bit to the little trolls from the Disney movie Frozen. However, originally the figures are considered to be gods and should bring protection and fertility.
I think hallabongs and tangerines are the most sold fruits on Jeju. Hallabong is a variety of mandarin and orange. The more widespread name of the fruit is “dekopon” and it is a hybrid fruit. But in South Korea, the fruit is named after the mountain Hallansan in the centre of the island, where it is primarily grown. Besides the fruits, the markets also offer freshly squeezed juice, chocolate and pastries made out of hallabongs and tangerines. Also, popular fillings for chocolate are blueberries, green tea and cactus fruit.
Haenyeo – a dangerous occupation in the seas of Korea
Haenyeo (해녀) means literally translated “sea women”. This old traditional occupation is just running by women who are free divers to reap seafood from the ground of the sea. They dive just with a wetsuit and flippers – up to 20 metres deep. Since they do not use compressed air cylinders they have special trainings to retrain their breath. Researchers found out that they actually expanded the capacity of their breath by using their spleen as a store for oxygen. The profession of the Haenyeos is not only physically demanding but also life-threatening in terms of the deep dives. Since the women run the risk of getting unconscious while emerging from the water they usually dive in pairs. That way they are able to render first aid.
New prestige and climate change
In the 18th century, women and men were both diving in the seas around Korea to earn their subsistence. Later it became purely an occupation for women. Reasons were probably that many men died at sea due to war but also that the state upraised the taxes, especially for men. However, the occupation as a free diver got very popular with its time and also received prestige. Haenyeos got more rights and freedom in difference to the women who lived on the mainland. Haenyeos were able to get divorced and remarried. Often it was common that men had to watch out for the children and the woman became the head of the family.
Nowadays, the occupation is in danger of extinction. Rarely young women start the hard training to become free divers. Most Haenyeos are older than 60 years. The profession is not only a very arduous one but also the climate change plays an important role. The seas around Korea are getting warmer which destroys the natural habitat of the sea animals. The women have to dive every year a bit deeper to find enough seafood to meet their demands. In December 2016, UNESCO inscribed the occupation of the Haenyeo on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
🚌 How to reach Jeju
Most people take a flight to reach Jeju. The distance from Jeju to Seoul is the busiest air route in the world. But of course, there are also ferries from Busan, Mokpo, Haenam, Wando, Goheung, and Yeosu. The benefit is that you can bring your car and enjoy the ride over the sea. In every case, you will arrive on the Northside of the island in the same-named capital Jeju-si. The different places and sightseeing spots are reachable by bus. There are eight express bus routes which bring you from the airport in under one hour over the island. The Airport Limousine Bus stops at the more expensive and frequently booked hotels. For more information about the bus system click here.
Akihabara probably sums up what people imagine when they talk about modern and crazy Japanese pop culture. If I think back I remember dolls, toys, cosplay, lots of vending machines, sex-shops, video games, maid cafés, electronic goods, anime and of course mangas. This time I will bring you with me and show you this very unique neighbourhood in Tokyo.
💡 Information about Akihabara
Akihabara (秋葉原) is a famous area around the same-named station of Japan’s capital Tokyo. It is known for its major shopping centres full of electronic goods but also video games, mangas, and animes. Therefore, it is the perfect place for Otaku – which is Japanese and describes people who love consuming anime and mangas. After World War II Akihabara gained the nickname Electric Town.
When I first arrived in Akihabara I was both totally overwhelmed and fascinated. This colourful, glowing, crazy, and flashing district in the middle of Tokyo with skyscrapers wrapped in advertisements. Akihabara (and Shibuya with the stuffed streets – but this is another topic) describes exactly how I expected modern Japan to be.
Vending machines full of food, figures, and toys
In Akihabara, shops exist only filled with different types of vending machines. There are rows over rows with machines. Some are for food, and drinks – basically everything you can imagine. From soft drinks over juice boxes, and canned coffee to cake in boxes, sweets, canned food (apparently even hot soup) and Japanese snacks (we even found some insects for grazing right away). Vending machines without food usually include all kind of (soft) toys, key chains, sweets, stickers and figures to collect. They also have these typical claw cranes where you have to grab a (soft) toy with a gripper. Another type of automats isGashapon(ガシャポン), themed vending machines filled with capsules that have surprise toys inside. These actually remind me of my childhood memories and gumball machines.
Over 18 only
Some shops just had display cases filled with all kind of figures and dolls you can buy. Clearly, not all of the figures were made to play with (depending on the people inside the store I would say even less – some are just for collecting and surprisingly expensive). In the corners in the back of the stores were sections for “over 18 only” hidden in curtains. These areas are guarded to make sure that minors do not enter them. There were lightly dressed or naked female figures in sexual poses with partial utopic body parts. The shop keepers were smart and covered the genital area with the price labels. But I am seriously asking myself what kind of image these sexist figures mirror and how it affects the society.
Pachinko – the amusement halls of Japan
There were also amusement halls called Pachinko(パチンコ) filled with gaming consoles most of them anime-themed, arcade games (these games were especially popular in the USA in the 1970/80ties, it is a gaming machine with a joystick and two to three buttons) and gambling devices. The rooms are filled with flashing screens that are lined up in a row. It was so loud because of the sounds, and music from the games that we had to scream at each other. I really can not imagine staying in these kinds of amusements halls for a few hours. Since gambling for cash is illegal in Japan the gamers actually play to win non-cash prizes.
Manga stores and the 18+ section with Ecchi and Hentai
We also went to some of the shopping centres which were filled with a lot of different themed stores. Again plenty of vending machines, but also a lot of shops for all kinds of technical and electrical devices, animes, Cosplay articles – and of course mangas.
We visited two huge floors just filled with thousands of mangas. We browsed through the shelves – and even I recognised some mangas from animes which also aired in Germany. Similar to the shops with display cases they also had an adult 18+ section. My friend and I wanted to take a look inside. We were the only women in the section – no wonder, the magazines were clearly made for men. These kinds of mangas are called Ecchi or Hentai – Ecchi is the softer version that plays with sexual innuendos but has actually backstories and characters. While Hentai is basically porn as a comic version. Some of the magazines allowed a sneak peek inside. I was surprised that some of the mangas actually hid the genital parts with the help of bars – basically censored porn. Most magazines were welded in plastic but I guess the covers already revealed enough about the inside.
Create your own doll
Another two floors were filled with dolls of all sizes, made of different materials as plastic or with porcelain-faces, Barbie-like, in Manga-style, or just plain dolls you could basically build by yourself. – As far as I could see, all of them were female. Mostly with typical doll eyes, long hair, in short skirts – innocent and cute looking. I am not sure who is actually the main customer target here similar to the figures I guess most of them were not made for children to play with. And of course, every doll also had tons of accessories, clothes, hair colours, furniture, and other equipment. There were also doll sets where you could pick all kind of body parts from the eye colour and hair until the size of the breast. At least this time there was also a male version.
Sex-stores and forbidden floors
With a visit to an “adult amusement park”, we ended up in a sex shop – or more accurate a sex department store. These stores were huge – the one we were in had five floors, two for women, three for men. Hence the variety is big. But I would say mostly similar to the sex shops I know from Germany. Though there were actually three floors which were for men only – and two of them were not allowed for women to enter. They even guarded the elevator to prohibit women from sneaking in. Since we were only a group of women in Tokyo we never figured out what they sold in these storeys. Of course, we started guessing a lot because all of us thought it is super weird that we were actually not allowed to enter that particular part of the store.
Maid Cafés are a big deal in Japan – and as I heard were invented in Akihabara. The staff in the themed cafés wears Cosplay costumes and serve cute or special looking food – for example, shaped like animals. The most common ones are the maid cafés where the waitresses dressed as elegant French maids. The male equivalent is butler cafés but I think they are less frequent.
I saw a lot of girls dressed up like maids on the streets of Akihabara who tried to attract the people around with flyers and their costumes to visit the cafés. The competition is high and most of the entrances hidden on one of the higher floors of the many skyscrapers.
🚌 How to reach Akihabara
If you want to visit the area of Akihabara you can take the metro to stop H16 of the Hibiya Line. Another opportunity is the JR-Line. You can choose between the Yamanote-Line, Keihin-Tohoku-Line or Sobu-Line. The station is called Akihabara. When you reach the station follow the exit signs in the direction “Electric Town Gate”.
❗️ One last comment
I wrote this blog post mainly because I got to know Akihabara as a very lively, exciting and for me also unusual district of the metropolis of Tokyo. Originally, I did not want to include the sexual representation of women – primarily because I only “know” roughly about the role of sexuality and the image of women in Japan, secondly because I was only a few days in Tokyo. But to ignore the whole topic was also difficult because it is very present in Akihabara. I can only speak for myself when I say that I did not feel personally attacked by the figures, dolls, and mangas – even if they are certainly controversial – because at this point I could completely distance myself from the way they were portrayed. Since I am Western European and do not want to judge Japan or its people, and culture – especially since I am simply not qualified for this and also watching two documentaries and reading three professional articles won’t change much – I decided not to go any deeper into the representation of women (especially with a sexual context). The blog post is completely subjective and reflects my own feelings at the moment of my visit. However, if you are Japanese or feel approached in any other way please use the commentary section to leave a message or write to me privately.
You have read the blog post Between mangas and sex-shops in Akihabara on My Travel Journal-Blog.
What is it like to spend a night in a Jjimjilbang? I have given it a try, together with Lea from France and Xiao Ying from China – two of my fellow students from Seoul. We got to know the differences to conventional saunas, slapped eggs on our heads and made a “sheep head”.
💡 What is a Jjimjilbang?
A Jjimjilbang (찜질방) is a Korean public bathhouse with various saunas, pools, showers, and a relaxation area that is typically open 24 hours. Usually, the place has a larger common area with lounges and TVs, exercise rooms, restaurants, sleeping quarters, and of course different temperature saunas. In these areas, it is mandatory to wear clothing that is handed out at the entrance. There are also areas divided into men and women with hot tubs, steam baths, showers, and sometimes massage tables. Here it is intended to be naked.
As soon as our semester abroad ended, our university was kind of in a hurry to get rid of us. We already have had our graduation ceremony ten days earlier – with a little celebration and handing over of the certificates, although we had not even written our final exams at this point. The last day of the university also meant that we had to move out of our dormitory rooms – meanwhile, some of us still had to take their final exams, as my roommate Jazz. The university’s hurry was also due to the fact that the new students who had rented the dormitories during the semester break should have the chance to move in immediately.
The next day, I was planning on taking a bus to Busan, the second biggest city of South Korea with around 3.4 million inhabitants. But there was (so far) one more night left in Seoul. – And where could we have spent it any better than in a Jjimjilbang.
Lea, Xiao Ying and I met in the early evening in Sinchon – a district for students in Seoul – for having dinner and to spend the end of the day in a Korean bathhouse in the neighbourhood. The Jjimjilbang was comparatively small. At the entrance, we were given clothing – a t-shirt and short sweatpants as well as two small towels. Mine was in light pink. After we left our bags in a locker at the entrance we were ready to explore the Jjimjilbang.
Jjimjilbang as a replacement for taxis
Jjimjilbangs are one of the cheapest possibilities to stay overnight in South Korea. Depending on the size it usually costs between 10,000 and 12,000 Won (8.50-10.50 USD) per visit. It gets even a little cheaper if you do not stay overnight. During the day, Jjimjilbangs are a popular destination for families. At night time they serve as cheap accommodations after work or in favour of party people (either way because they are too drunk to find their keys or the taxi for going home is just too expensive – because Korea has no public transport at night).
A sauna for chatting, reading, and relaxing
The saunas of our Jjimjilbang were housed in bright coloured igloos made of stone with small windows facing the common area. On the ground of the saunas were pebbles covered with thin mats to prevent burning the soles of one’s feet. The igloos have dim lighting. The atmosphere is calm and relaxing. At least the main sauna where we were sitting was not too hot in order to comfortably last for some time. Actually, Jjimjilbangs are designed for longer stays and differ from a conventional sauna in its temperature, which is usually between 40 and 70 degrees Celsius (between 104 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit). The stay reminded me of a very hot summer day. Those days where you already start sweating while sitting around. Someone was even lying next to us and reading comfortably. Jjimjilbangs are often used to chat with friends or just relax a bit. The kind of saunas I know from Europe, dry saunas and steam baths are way hotter. Usually, they have temperatures between 50 to 100 degrees Celsius (between 122 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit).
An oven as a sauna
A few weeks later I visited a way larger Jjimjilbang in Hongdae, another student district in Seoul in the neighbourhood of Sinchon. There they had a much bigger selection of saunas. Including some which work as a sort of oven (한증막). These are significantly hotter with temperatures up to 135 degreesCelsius (up to 275 degrees Fahrenheit). In the Jjimjilbang I had visited, existed a small rounded stone house which was formed like an oven with a narrow passage to keep the heat indoors. Inside it was comparative dark. On the other end was a walled-in fireplace for burning coal. It was absolutely silent. Talking takes too much energy in the heat. Every visitor had to bring an hourglass inside to make sure to not exceed the prescribed maximum time in order to not overload one’s body. I was sitting close to the exit because the heat was increasing towards the back. Unlike the Finnish saunas which are the most common ones in Europe, the saunas in Korea (normally) do not have benches. Instead, all visitors sit on the floor – the material is mostly stone covered with mats or planks. In Korea, it is common to take a sauna in clothing (except in the gender-segregated areas).
The sheep head – the fashion trend of the sauna
Lea, Xiao Ying and I got quite fast into a conversation with three Korean women in our age – here in South Korea going to a sauna is definitely also a common evening activity instead of karaoke or watching a movie. We noticed that the three had folded their towels in a special way by rolling the ends up. I have read that this trend gained national attention in 2005 introduced through a K-drama (My Lovely Sam-Soon) and since then it has become a cute fashion trend in saunas. Because of its look, it is called sheep head and even has a practical purpose. The towel around the head is supposed to ensure that you sweat more but also protects the hair from the heat. The three Korean women willingly taught us the correct folding technique.
💡 Dressed vs. naked
As already mentioned, Koreans take their saunas in clothes. The Korean etiquette prescribes to stay dressed in front of the opposite gender. It appears way looser in the gender-segregated areas. There it is common to show yourself naked. This applies to both saunas as well as for example changing rooms of public swimming pools (read more about my visit to a water park in Seoul in my blog post about Daily Life in South Korea Pt. I).
Why my friend hit soy eggs against her head …
Every Jjimjilbang has at least one kiosk if not even its own restaurant. The most popular snacks are eggs steamed in soy sauce and Sikhye, a Korean rice drink that is served in cups with straws. I have read that some eggs even get cooked by taking them into the oven-like and therefore hottest saunas. My food decision was rather unusual because I bought ice cream and a Korean beer. But my friend ordered the famous eggs. She wanted to try opening the eggs by slapping them against her head (but I am afraid she would not recommend this technique). She got the idea from a K-drama which aired at the time (The Legend of the Blue Sea). In this drama, the main female character Shim Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun) spends a night in a Jjimjilbang and cracks her eggs with the mentioned technique. Anyway, this does not seem like a common way of peeling eggs since in the series the main lead handles a lot of things a bit extraordinary. But in her defence, she is a mermaid.
Steam bath and whirlpool
Little by little, we tried a steam bath as well as a whirlpool in the women’s area. I also let myself kneaded by a massage chair. The latter was actually quite pleasant the only thing was that the chair also massaged my calves and feet which was rather uncomfortable. That is why I cheated a bit and changed my seat to cross-legged to avoid the massage on my legs. After all the sauna visits we were finally tired enough to go to sleep. There was a common igloo for men and women to sleep. Since my fellow student did not want to sleep in the same room as foreign men we decided to sleep in one of the rooms in the separated area for women. The sleeping rooms are equipped with thin mats and hard pillows. The next morning ended with a shower and the checkout.
You have read the blog post One night in a Korean sauna on My Travel Journal-Blog.
Couchsurfing in Cambodia – Chicken feed, the screaming neighbour kid, rolled Ice Cream and other cultures.
What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is one of the most famous, commercialised platforms to find hosts worldwide. Other users offer you their couch and home to stay with them for free. Many members use Couchsurfing not only to find free accommodation but also to meet people from all over the world, find new friends, travel mates, do a language exchange, or get to know more about different cultures. It was founded in 2004.
I had shared my plans coming to Siem Reap on Couchsurfing and that is how it came that Ratha invited me to stay with his friends and family. I accepted the invitation thankfully especially because I was really curious to learn more about Cambodia and its culture – and what could be a better opportunity than to stay with Cambodians. Ratha is a tour guide in his home town, his friend Veann who lives with him in a sharing flat has his own Tuk Tuk. He was actually also the one who offered me to pick me up from my former hostel I stayed the first nights in.
Ratha lives together with two of his best friends, his friends’ wife and little brother. They share a small flat with three bedrooms, a bathroom, a small kitchen and the entrance is like the common room. They also have a smaller apartment next door. Ratha hosted a lot of different people at the same time. Together with me stayed a couple from Russia, Akhil from India, an older woman from the Philippines and a guy from the US. But I still got my own bedroom for myself. Veann insisted to give me his room since I am a woman I would need space for myself. The room was pretty small and had not much more than a bed. That wasn’t the only time I encountered the hospitality of Cambodians.
Akhil and I spent the night with the family and shared dinner together. We were sitting in a circle around the plates and pots with freshly cooked food like soup with fish balls, vegetables, meat, Curry and Cambodian pancakes. Everyone got a bowl of rice and just took the food directly from the pots on his plate or optionally directly in their mouth.
Rolled Ice Cream
After the dinner, Ratha showed us a bit around Siem Reap. Really practical when your host is a tour guide. We visited the different stalls of the night market in the city centre. There we also got a little dessert – Ice Cream Rolls or also Stir-fried Ice Cream. The special about this ice cream is that it’ll be prepared freshly. The vendor spreads the main ingredient basically made out of milk, cream and sugar on a steel pan, adds toppings and mixes them with two scrapers. The ice cream will evenly spread on the pan, cut into pieces and rolled together. I chose strawberries and Nutella for my rolls – it was really delicious.
When the neighbour boy screams …
… or it’s time to take a bath. I already took a cold shower in the morning since most flats -as well as a lot of cheaper hostels – don’t have any warm water at all. Even on the coldest days, the average temperature is still around 20 degrees in Siem Reap. Anyway, it cost me some effort to jump under the shower. Later when I was sitting in the living room I heared a loud scream from the neighbour’s kid through the open door. First, I was a bit confused but a few minutes later I saw him just dressed in a towel in the arm of his mother. He probably also had to take a bath in the cold water today.
Adventures in Phnom Penh
Couchsurfing is also really nice to meet people from other cities. This can be other travellers but also locals. So, I met with Theara in Siem Reap and with Phearum in Phnom Penh – both Cambodians – to explore a bit the particular place. It’s really nice to be with someone who knows the city and sights. In Phnom Penh, Phearum picked me up with his motorcycle to catch dinner together. He brought me to an open-air restaurant with local food and besides a small street. As far as I could see, I was the only tourist there. I made the mistake to tell him he should just order food – my only condition was that he shouldn’t order seafood. Phearum actually ordered another serving of chicken feet (I already ate them in Macao and maybe wasn’t the biggest fan) – rubber-like meat and a lot of bones to spit out again. Then he ordered eatable snails – I never ate snails before and I’m afraid it’s not becoming my favourite dish as well. And last but not least, the really famous pancakes, I already ate in Vietnam. They are filled with chicken, bean sprout and mini shrimp – so not exactly without seafood. But the pancakes are actually really delicious and a true Cambodian dish.
At this point, I really want to use this spot to say a big Thank You to all the nice people from Cambodia I met. A special Thanks to Ratha, Veann and their family – thank you for hosting me, showing me around and sharing your food with me <3.
I learned why people burn money, bought a Lottery ticket and took a motorcycle tour which ended literally in hell. Furthermore, I visit the Russian holiday paradise Nha Trang and learned more about egg spas.
Da Lat is the capital of Lam Dong Province and carries the nickname “City of Thousand Flowers”. It is seven hours away from Saigon by bus, although it’s only around 300 km (186 miles) away. I took a sleeping bus overnight. These busses are actually quite comfortable (at least in my size) with padded leather seats which recline to around 80 degrees, on two floors. I was actually happy that I caught a seat on the bottom but there are actually safety belts on every seat as well. The feet go under the chair of the person in front of you which allows you to stretch out your body, just moving around seems a bit difficult. But back to the ride. The next morning at 4.45 we arrived in Da Lat and the driver woke us up by honking and shouting. Oh boy, I really wished I just could stay in my bed – but no chance.
In the beginning, I was actually quite disappointed by Da Lat. All the nice sightseeing spots I heard about were not in the city but in the hinterlands and the public transport is not sufficient. I know many people rent a scooter and drive around. But I never drove a scooter before and didn’t drove a car for a few years. Maybe not the best time to start with it again, Vietnamese traffic is crazy ;).
Funny thing, in the end, I kind of coincidently booked a motorcycle tour. Actually, a man asked me if I’m interested in doing a tour. But it was 30$ for places I didn’t want to see, so he started haggling. I know, here people can be really persistent if they wanna sell you something. But in the end, he actually offered me a really good deal, the places I wanted to see for less money. Perfect!
Just one last thing was difficult. According to him, he was part of a really famous motorcycle company in Vietnam. But his papers looked really unprofessional and to be honest I was really not sure if I should take the ride. But luckily the concierge of my hostel – Tabe – also did some tours for that company and recognised my tour guide. I was thrilled, and the tour could start.
Linh Phuoc Pagoda
What means heaven and hell in Buddhism?
In the next morning, my driver picked me up from my hostel. Unfortunately, I don’t know his name, cause when I asked him he just answered with ‘Yes’. I believe his English is as good as my Vietnamese. Our tour started at a tobacco shop on the street where he bought some cigarettes. He asked me a few times in a row if I also want a cigarette and in the end, we were smoking together – I also didn’t want to be rude.
Da Lat has a few nice spots to visit as the different waterfalls, which are definitely one highlight, but also architecture and temples. For me, an absolute must-see is the Linh Phuoc Pagoda. The buildings there are designed with help from little mosaics made of broken pieces of glass and porcelain which make it unique and really pretty. The temple was built in 1949 and finished around three years later. The temple is ornated with different kind of dragons which are everywhere. Some crawl up the pillars, some just sit on the little roofs or frame the temple. The longest dragon is 49m long and is made out of 12,000 bottles.
I took a lot of time to explore all the ways and hidden corners, followed the spiral stairs and walk around the roof, notice all the little details and ornaments, visit the main hall with the golden Buddhas and different monks made out of wax. Next to the Pagoda is a room with different wooden furniture, a souvenir shop and heaven as well as hell. In one room are more wax figures of monks in green light with nature around, in the centre are three statues of Buddha. To complete these idyllic picture music boxes played the sound of wood and the splashing of a stream. But downstairs waits the hell guarded by an ox and horse with red flammed eyes. I and another guy (his girlfriend was too afraid and wanted to wait outside) went the stairs down and followed a small labyrinth which gives an impression of the idea of the Buddhism hell. There were different scary scenarios behind bars which showed skeletons or human figures tortured by demons. The music boxes in the corners played a mixture of human screams and demonic laughter. Even if it was kind of surreal to me and remembered more to a ghost train in a theme park (and I really don’t like ghost trains), the thought that this scenario could mean the reality to believers made it in some ways even worse.
Burn your money
At my last day in Da Lat I found a 100 US Dollar banknote on the street. Of course, my first thought was that it will be fake money but just in case I had to take it with me. I showed the banknote to the concierge of my hotel. Tabe was in my age. He laughed and said “No one can be that lucky and find a real 100 US Dollar banknote on the street.” (Two weeks later in Cambodia I had a real 100 US Dollar banknote in my hand and had to admit the fake was really obvious). Finally, he explained what the matter about the fake money is. In Vietnam and also other East Asian countries people sell and buy fake money (Joss paper) and burn them after someone dies. It is a way to send money to their ancestors for their afterlife but also to show respect to the dead ones. – And of course, no one would ever burn real money.
Another thing I was really curious about were the little colourful papers which older women sell in the streets. When I asked Tabe about it he didn’t know what I was talking about. So there was no other way than to buy one of the papers. The woman laughed a lot when I bought the little ticket which made me even more curious. When I showed it to Tabe he explained to me that I bought a Vietnamese lottery ticket. The jackpot is 2 billion VND (ca. 86.000 USD) and Tabe meant I could buy two houses and one car from that money – but yeah, of course my ticket didn’t win ;).
Egg spa and Religion – Nha Trang
My stop in Nha Trang was more by accident than really planned. I wanted to go from Da Lat to Hoi An but the bus didn’t go straight. That’s why I decided to stay one night in Nha Trang. The city is full of tourists, especially from Russia. Nha Trang is directly at the seaside and offers large beaches. So, in my opinion, this city offers less cultural spots but more relaxing places, water parks and spa for Tourists. A little bit extraordinary seems the egg spa. But just because of its name it does not mean that one swims actually in eggs. The pools there are filled with all kind of mud and minerals to take a bath in, peelings, tubs full of herbs and essential oils, and jacuzzis.
Po Nagar Cham Towers
I arrived in the evening and enjoyed a relaxed night at the rooftop bar at my hostel with backpackers from all over the world and free beer. The next day, I started a sightseeing tour around the city with Dave from Canada. My day in Nha Trang was very hot but cloudy and grey – so not really the perfect beach day. But a little walk along the seaside was still one of our plans. We had a small list of spots we wanted to see, mostly religious buildings. The most famous spot is probably the Po Nagar Cham Towers, a Hinduism memorial site from around the 8th century made of sandstone. At the end of the day, I ended in an inspiring photo gallery with impressive black and white photos of Vietnamese people. And thanks to a translation app I could ask a seamstress on the street to repair my bag. In the evening, my bus was leaving for the next stop – Hoi An.
The borderline of Korea is one of the best-guarded ones in the world. Between peace and freedom village, blue houses, soldiers, conflicts and secret tunnels lay a tourist attraction between North and South Korea.
Korea was over 35 years the colony of Japan before it got independent in 1945 after the Second World War. But only a few years later the Soviet Union and the United States divided the country into South (Republic of Korea) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) in 1948. Two years later North Korea attacked the Southern part during the Korean War (1950-1953) which recessed the separation. Afterwards, the countries worked for a peaceful reunification which did not occur until today.
JSA and DMZ
Since I was more than four months in South Korea, of course visiting the borderline of its only neighbour country was on my bucket list. The DMZ is the Demilitarized zone, four kilometres long and de facto the borderline of North and South Korea. In 1953, both countries signed an armistice agreement which says that soldiers are not allowed to cross the line and do not attack each other.
“Don’t worry the man in the back is here to protect you!”
JSA is the abbreviation for Joint Security Area and is directly at the borderline. First of all, we got an introduction to the JSA and it’s mostly Don’ts from American soldiers, who are still based at the border from South Korea. Actually, before I went on the tour I already got a whole list of clothes which are not allowed to wear at JSA. Forbidden are shorts, ripped jeans, t-shirts, flip-flops or also sportswear. They really pay a lot of attention that North Korean soldiers don’t find a reason to feel provoked.
First, we crossed the freedom house in rows of two on the South side. Our tour guide led us to one of the blue houses. These are conference rooms who are used by the two Korean countries to negotiate with each other. In the middle of this room is a long table who markers the exactly borderline. The room has two entrances, one on the South Korean side, one on the North side. A Korean soldier guards the door to prohibit that North Koreans can enter the conference room. Tourists are allowed to go on the other side of the table. Yeah, I was at least for five minutes in North Korea. The American soldier who guided our tour told us that the people on his side of the table are still in South Korea – and save. But we others would not need to worry, the soldier on the door would protect us. To be honest, I wasn’t worried before he told me this. But this sentence really emphasized the seriousness of the situation. It feels kind of surreal. The poor Korean soldier next to the North Korean door was our favourite background motive for the next twenty tourist photos. But he looked really so cool with his sunglasses (all South Korean soldiers were sunglasses – and yes, even if the sun isn’t shining).
Souvenirs from North Korea
We were only allowed to take photos from the North Korean side with the Panmun-gak (the building of North Korea) but not from the Freedom house on the South Korean side. This is kind of ironical since I heard that you can also visit JSA in North Korea. There it’s only allowed to take photos from the South Korean side. Along the blue houses stand the soldiers from North and South. At which the North Koreans mostly hide in the building. But we were lucky and could see one North Korean in front of the other building. I used my zoom to take a look at some North Korean soldiers. It felt a bit crazy to stand there and observe them. But the American soldier assured us that they also observed us from the other side and made probably some photos from us. – Weird thought.
After the visit of the directly borderline, we went to a small museum and a souvenir shop. There you can buy souvenirs from North Korea. They sell different things, among other things also money and alcohol. I bought an old 100 KRW banknote with the face of Kim Il-sung on the top, the father of Kim Jong-un, the actual leader of North Korea. I heard that if you visit North Korea you never get the North Korean money but pay everything in US Dollar to your guide who pays for you in the local currency. So it is really interesting that you can buy North Korean money here in South Korea.
Panmunjeon and Bridge of No Return
Former Panmunjeon was a village in Korea. Today there is the inter-military complex of JSA. Almost 65 years ago North Korea, China, and the UNO signed the armistice agreement to end the Korean War in 1953. The building where the agreement was signed is still preserved and today stands in a province of North Korea. The borderline and JSA kept the name and is still called Panmunjeon. Close to Panmunjeon is also the Bridge of No Return which is a bridge between the two countries and has its name from the former Korean War. The bridge was used to exchange the prisoners and prohibit them to return ever in the other country.
Freedom vs. Peace
A few people still live close to the border. On the South Korean side is this the village Daeseong-dong, also called freedom village. There live mostly farmers who already lived there before the Korean War or are directly progenies of the former residents. The village also has its own school. The inhabitants profit by special benefits as the exempt from taxes. Soldiers guard them and they have a curfew which forbids to leave their houses after 11pm. On the other side in North Korea is the closest locality Kijŏng-dong, also called peace village. Our US-soldier and tour guide explained to us that they call it propaganda village because the houses would only be dummies and they do not believe that people would live there. North Korea claims that families live in the peace village and there would be also a health center, kindergarten, and schools. In both villages are flagpoles. After South Korea built its flagpole, North Korea also built one. This flagpole was higher and until a few years the highest in the world.
German history meets Korea
Our group also visited the last train station Dorsan in South Korea
right infront of the borderline. Theoretically, Dorasan connects South
Korea with North, practically, there are no trains leaving the station
from here. But a big sign in the entrance hall says “To Pyongjang” and
we could buy train tickets for around 1 Dollar. We also could go to the
tracks. Our tour guide told us that the station was built to connect
both countries in case of a reunification and could immediately send
trains to North Korea’s capital. From this station, we could also listen
to some music from North Korea coming out of loudspeakers. That felt
The station of Dorsan also represents some history. There is a piece of the Berlin Wall. On both sides are boards. On the left side with the dates of the German reunification (41 years, 4 months and 11 days), on the right side an electronic one which counts even in seconds the division of Korea. Our guide told us that they would stop the counting immediately if Korea would become one country again. A small wagon shows old newspaper articles and photos of the reunification of Germany plus some relicts from the former DDR (German Democratic Republic, East Germany). The German reunification reminds the visitors of the train station that also the reunion of Korea seems possible.
Peace and Destroying (3rd tunnel)
Also part of the DMZ-Tour is the visit of the 3rd tunnel. This tunnel was built by North Korea together with three other tunnels which cross the DMZ. In the beginning, they denied that they built them but the walls proof that dynamite blows up the earth from North to South. The 3rd tunnel was discovered in 1978. South Korea believes that North Korea built these tunnels to send their men fast to South Korea in case of another war. It is evaluated that around 30,000 soldiers could walk within an hour from North Korea to Seoul to start an surprise attack. But the tunnel was never finalised. The UN charged North Korea for breaking the agreement between the two countries.
We got a yellow protective helmet for visiting. First, we needed to go downstairs. The tunnel is around 70 metres under the earth and at some points so small that even I needed to move in my head. Nowadays, the tunnels are blocked by cement blocks but visitors of the 3rd tunnel can walk forward until one of the blocks and look through a window until the next one. It was a weird feeling to walk in this narrowed tunnel system under the earth and so close to the border. South Korea believes that they are probably more than the four secret tunnels underground just they did not find them yet.