Cuddling cats and dogs in Asian cafés

Cat in a cat café in Asia


How is it to visit an animal café in Asia? Are the animals well treated, what kind of animal cafés exist, and how does a visit work? I took a look and tested different cafés in South Korea and Japan.

💡 What is an animal café?
Animal cafés are especially famous and popular in Asia. It is basically what the name already tells: a café where you can enjoy some drinks as well as play and interact with different animals. The first café was with cats and was created in Taiwan in the late 1990s. Nowadays exist all kinds of animal cafés with dogs, racoons, hedgehogs, sheep, rabbits, birds, and reptiles. Animal cafés are booming in Asia and already grew far behind the usual pet variation. [Note: Usually, I do not put any opinion in the info box but this time I feel I have to make an exception: I want to underline that in my opinion wild animals shouldn’t be part of human amusement and being used as ‘pets’ in cafés.]
The idea behind the animal cafés is to give people the chance to spend some time with animals without actually having pets at home. Especially in bigger (Asian) cities, flats are often small and the living expenses are rather high. Plus Animal cafés basically only reveal the good sides of having a pet – spending time with it when you are in the mood, cuddling and playing with them, without actually being in charge.

Animal cafés are rather famous in Asia even though I know that the first cat and dog cafés did also open up in my home country Germany. I liked the idea of spending time with animals which is why I decided to visit some of the cafés in South Korea and Japan.
My visits were a few years ago and I think some things changed since then – me as well. This is also why it was important to me to write a conclusion at the end of the post and to reflect on the visits in the cafés.

8,000 residents per square kilometre

I can understand that animal cafés are especially famous in the capitals since both cities Tokyo and Seoul are on the top ten list of the biggest metropolitan areas in the world. Tokyo is with almost 40 million residents even the sole lead, Seoul is the 6th place with around 22 million. Eight countries on the top ten list are in Asia. The living expenses are quite high, the housing market overflowed, and therefore the flats are getting smaller. In Tokyo are living approx. 4,700 people per square kilometre. In Seoul, it is even more than 8,000. Either way, in most cases there is no space for nor money for extra pets.

Before entering the café…

Some cafés have an entrance fee, sometimes with a drink included or if the entrance is free the cost of the drinks is usually higher. Sometimes they also have some donation boxes where you could leave some small change for the food or the general costs of the animals.
In every café I visited, I got a quick introduction on how to treat the animals and the most important house rules. I always had to use disinfectant first to make sure my hands are clean before touching and cuddling with the animals (and this was before Corona). Some cafés had even certificates on their walls which showed a photo of every animal along with its name, and proof of vaccination.

Cat in a cat café in Asia
Cat Café

I visited two different kinds of cat cafés. The first one looked more like an actual café with normal chairs, and tables but of course also cat toys.
The second one was a really bright room with two floors as a duplex. They were connected with each other by a few ladders. All furniture, as well as the duplex itself and the ladders, were made out of wood. The room was inviting with low tables to sit on the ground. Therefore the basic lay-out could be also used by the cats. But of course, they also had their own equipment and furniture for climbing, playing, or sleeping.

I do not remember the exact amount of cats in the cafés but I would guess both times probably around eight. The atmosphere was rather calm and cosy. Both cafés had another wooden way for the cats above the heads of the guests which was not reachable by them. I think this is important for the animals because it gives them the chance to withdraw themselves.

In both cafés, the cats were allowed to move freely in the room. Some were curious and came to us and even sit on our lap to cuddle a bit. We enjoyed our time petting the animals and took really nice memories from the cafés.

  

Dog Café

Next, we visited a Puppy Café. We were first a bit confused by the name and actually really relieved to learn that the dogs were actually not really puppies but just smaller to medium-sized dogs. Because in the beginning, we were a bit afraid that it could be a café which gets new puppies every year and gets rid of them when they get too old (but as I said it is not). The system was a bit different from the cat café, here we had to pay an entrance fee, therefore, the drinks were cheaper in general.

The café did not really look like a café but more like an open, bright studio with only a few tables and a lot of free space. In the right corner were two flights of stairs, some carpets and small dog houses. The kitchen was somewhere in the corner left and not really open to the area which makes sense because of the animals. The feeling was more about getting comfy we got some slippers during our stay in the animal café.

With a dog in a dog café in Asia

The dogs were really open and curious. Most of them came to us when we entered the café to sniff and check us out. When we were sitting down we actually had to pay some attention to our drinks (they were in closed containers) because it did not take long until the first dog was sitting on top of our table. The atmosphere in the dog café was way more exciting and loud contrary to the cat café. We switched our seats to the stairs where the first dogs were sitting on our laps to cuddle and play with us. Other dogs were even more active and one tried to nibble my camera (as you can see in the video).

❗️ my conclusions
Like I wrote in my introduction, I like the idea of the concept of the animal cafés but obviously, the well-being of the animals should be the top priority. I have to admit that I never had any pets since my sister was super allergic to all kinds of animal hair when we were kids. Therefore I am really not an expert depending on the keeping of animals.
I think the types of animal cafés went way too far. Wild animals should not be part of human amusement either in cafés or somewhere else. With pets like cats and dogs, I feel a bit differently. I think the most important is obviously that the animals are held in a good as well as accurate health way and that the café is animal friendly. This means the animals have always water and have their toys and rooms or extra places to which they can escape when they feel uncomfortable, stressed, or just sleepy. The owners have to pay attention that the animals are well treated by the guests. I think it is also important that the animals can move freely and are not forced to interact with the customers. I love the idea of adopting animals from animal shelters or just from the street and giving them a new home and some love from animal friends. I can actually say that in all cases the owners actually seemed very caring for the animals.

You have read the blog post Cuddling cats and dogs in Asian cafés on My Travel Journal-Blog.

222 Days of Asia – backpacking & culture shock in 13 countries

Cherry blossom trees in a king's palace in Korea

In 222 days I travelled to 13 different countries. It all started with my exchange semester in Seoul at the end of August 2016. Afterwards, I went from Beijing to Bali and ended with a stop-over in the United Arab Emirates. During my travels I learned a lot about backpacking, other cultures, living on a budget, and finding new friends.

Young woman sitting infront of a gate of a Korean palace

It all started in January 2016, when I applied to study abroad in South Korea and already half a year later, I was sitting on a plane to Seoul. I remember how I chose the country of the exchange programme: I wanted it to be one which would be completely different from every country I have ever been to. I basically wanted to get a culture shock – another language, language script, food, culture, architecture, and history. And when I arrived in Seoul it came with a lot of challenges but also with a lot of excitement. For example, at first, the food was way too spicy for me. I upset my stomach so much that I could only eat soft bread for a week. I also remember how my friend and I got kicked out (or actually we weren’t even allowed to enter) of a restaurant by an Ajumma (it is a Korean word to describe middle-aged women) because we couldn’t speak Korean fluently – but no worries I am pretty sure this was a unique experience. But still, it was love at first sight. I loved Korea from the first moment on. You can read more about my first impressions in my blog post University, Hangul & Samul Nori – My first week in Seoul.

The fear of travelling alone

But Korea was only the first part of my travels to Asia. Back in Berlin, I met a German couple at a party, Anni and Alex who were in Seoul themselves. They told me about their semester abroad and how they travelled Asia afterwards. The winter semester in Korea ends in mid of December, the summer semester in Germany starts in mid of April – this makes almost four months of free time in between. I was really hooked from this chance but also a bit worried. I felt a bit jealous that they had each other to explore all these adventures together. Would I really be brave enough to travel for four months on my own? – far from home, far from anyone I know, and without the language skills? Also travelling alone as a woman was part of my (self-)doubts. This was for sure a step outside of my comfort zone. But it didn’t take long until I realised that this was my chance to see a bit more of the world and that the excitement about this possibility was way bigger than any fear I ever felt.

Travelling is not a race

On New Year’s Eve 2016, I started the second part of my journey. I took a flight to Beijing, from there I continued to Hong Kong, did a day trip to Macau and flew to Vietnam. In the beginning, I felt I had to see as much as possible. I had only two weeks in Vietnam. My days were packed with activities; I only stayed for one or two nights in each place and travelled on night buses to save the days (and the money). After Vietnam I realised, this is not how backpacking works and how you travel long-term. Being all day outside and exploring is great for a two weeks vacation but for another three months, this would be way too exhausting. This was the time I decided to slow down. This beginner’s mistake was also the main reason why I travelled to so many countries in such a short period of time. It was a combination of naivety, a lack of knowledge, and also the easiest reason: I just couldn’t decide which countries I should head to first. In the end, I had to learn on the road to pick a few destinations and rather take more time to explore them than to miss half of it in the rush.

On a budget – 10 $ a day

Besides that fast travelling is exhausting, it is also more expensive. First of all, you have a smaller time frame to find a suiting mode of transport and secondly, obviously, you spend more money on entrance fees if you want to squeeze everything into one day.  
I had a limited budget of 10 $ a day, including accommodation and food. It was (and is) definitely possible to travel on a budget through South East Asia. I always chose the cheapest dormitory rooms in hostels or did Couchsurfing, I ate a lot of street food, travelled by public transport, and asked the hostel staff for insider tips. But I also allowed myself to have one more expensive activity or trip in every country. I did kayaking between the 4,000 islands of Laos, went snorkelling and visited a Full Moon party in Thailand, went to the Forbidden City in Beijing, as well as the famous Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, and the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. My travels ended after three months at Bali. From there I went back to Seoul and with a short stop-over in the United Arab Emirates, back to Berlin.   

During my semester abroad in Seoul, I travelled for four days to Tokyo, and also visited different places in South Korea as the borderline to North Korea, the island Jeju, the second biggest city Busan and an island in a river – Nami Island. On New Year’s Eve, I took a flight to Beijing and from there I started my travels through South East Asia – to Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and on my way back from Korea to the United Arab Emirates.                  

Alone but never lonely

In the beginning, one of my fears was that I would be alone and maybe even lonely on my travels. But anyone who already backpacked and stayed in dormitories knows you are never alone, especially if you do not want to. The backpacker community is huge. In every hostel, you meet new inspiring people from all over the world. I spent hours listing to travel stories, visited sights together, I even took a motorcycle ride with other backpackers, went to parties together, and learned a lot about different cultures. But not only the backpackers were open, but also all the local people I met during the time. I talked to the staff from my hostels and homestays, used hangouts to get in contact with locals who were interested in meeting, and Couchsurfing to get another chance to meet new people and learn more about other cultures. One of my favourite memories is, when I stayed with Ratha and his family in Siem Reap (read more here: Couchsurfing in Cambodia) or with Stella in Macau – she is like the sweetest even if she forced me to try my first chicken feet (I am not a fan, so sorry). Also how I met Lan in Hoi An, she worked in the homestay I slept for two nights. She was super lovely. One day, when I was still figuring out what to do, she brought me some of the food she had cooked for the staff. She had made rice with meat and vegetables. Especially the sauce was really tasty.
It was very inspiring to meet all these people during my travels, listen to their stories, their lives, their cultures, and their goals in life. Some of them were already since a few years on the move. Travelling is the opposite of being lonely; you will rather have a few more friends after your trip. 

For now, this is all I want to tell you about Asia. Everything else will come later – piece by piece. So hang on and read about all my crazy, funny and adventurous stories from Asia.

First written on Monday, May 22th, 2017, you have read the blog post 222 Days of Asia – backpacking & culture shock in 13 countries on My Travel Journal-Blog.

How to see your K-pop idols for free

kpop band CNBLUE

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
Kpop duo December

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.

K-pop band CNBLUE
My favourite band CNBLUE on the Korea Sale Festa 2016
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
Kpop band I.O.I.

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.

If want to read more tips for free events and entrances to cultural institutions then you should read my blog post about Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts.

You have read the blog post How to see your K-pop idols for free on My Travel Journal-Blog.

University, Hangul & Samul Nori – My first week in Seoul

Streets of Seoul

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.

EWHA Womans University with the view in direction of the city

💡 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
Clown and girl on the street

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
King Sejong who invented Hangul
King Sejong who invented Hangul

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
Samul Nori

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.

Read more

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.


Culture on a budget – free trips, museum admissions and discounts

Fish shaped lanterns on the lantern festival in Seoul

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.

Riders on horses on the lantern festival 2016
Free events, festivals and attractions
Peacock at the Lantern Festival 2016

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 Festival at 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
Beondegi (Korean silkworm pupa)

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.

Jeju – Life-threatening jobs on the vacation paradise

Seogwipo in dawn

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.

cliff and sea on Jeju-do
cliff and sea on 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
Grandfather souvenirs
Granfather souvenirs

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.

Hallabong fruit

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.

Dol hareubang

Haenyeo – a dangerous occupation in the seas of Korea
Haenyeo statue

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.

Woman sells seafood

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.

Click here to read part II:
Jeju – The vacation paradise of Sout Korea Pt. II

First written on Sunday, October 30th, 2016, you have read the blog post Life-threatening jobs in the vacation paradise on My Travel Journal-Blog.

Jjimjilbang – One night in a Korean sauna

Jjimjilbang

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”.

Street of Seoul at night
💡 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
Inside one of the saunas

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 degrees Celsius (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.

A few minutes in North Korea – JSA & DMZ

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

North Korean Soldier

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

View to the Peace Village

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 really weird.

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.

 

Daily Life in South Korea Pt.II

High-tech toilets, smileys which look like a butt, life jackets in water parks, funny holidays with black noodles and teaching videos in the metro, which show you how to use the escalator in the right way – that’s South Korea with part II. 

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Rarely items: tampons, sunscreen, and deodorant

That is actually a tip for whole of Asia. Especially when you are “Westerner” you shouldn’t forget to bring tampons, sunscreen, and deodorant. Because it is hard to get and in most cases really expensive. Of course, I forgot my deodorant and had to buy a bottle in Korea. Funny thing, it was German deodorant. I was lucky and got a discount but still paid five times more than I would have paid at home. Most Asians don’t use deodorant since they supposedly don’t sweat as much as the rest of the world. Another thing you should know: the perfect beauty ideal is white skin in Asia (for Asians: the perfect beauty ideal in Europe is to become brown from the sun, I know really ironical). That is also a reason why you have whitener in many beauty products but also in sunscreen. Furthermore, the sun protection factor (SPF) is really high and the cream extremely expensive. You should be aware of it. So if you are more the type of “I want to become brown in my holidays” you should bring your own.

The silent place of Korea

Actually, that’s a German thing. We call toilets “stilles Örtchen”, which means something like a “silent place”. Nothing is more ambivalent in Korea as their toilets. On the one hand, they still have some really simple toilets with a hole in the ground and flush like they have almost everywhere in South East Asia (but then most times without a flush). On the other hand, they have this really luxurious toilets with extra remote control. There you have different water flushes and shower. Once my toilet also had a button for water sounds what is really crazy, but also kind of useful. In some public places as restaurants or hotels, Koreans have extra toilet shoes for general use.

Frodo, Ryan and Apeach – the first friends you’ll have

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Con and Muzi

I felt really often that Korea has from everything kind of his own company, product or version. Everything I bought seemed to be “made in Korea” which is really impressive how one country supports itself. Korea has also his own messenger app for cell phones to chat with friends. It’s called Kakao Talk and has its own smileys which are really famous here. You can also buy merchandise article from the famous Kakao Talk friends. There are seven and a half characters, a half because Con the small Crocodile is actually always stuck with Muzi. Muzi is a yellow radish in a rabbit-looking disguise and according to the official page was magically brought alive by Con – seriously, I’m not kidding.

Other Kakao Talk friends are the fashion-conscious cat Neo and the city dog Frodo (I believe the favourite movies of the creator of Kakao friends is Matrix and The Lord of the Rings), the choleric duck Tube and according to the creators a “stylish secret agent” called Jay-G, I would say it’s a bear with an Afro and sunglasses.

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Ryan – the lion as a soft toy

Furthermore, there is Ryan, the lion, which looks (sorry Koreans) totally like a teddy bear. According to the creators, it is a lion without a mane. To be honest, I thought first that my Korean friends thought it is a lion since the “L” and “R” is really similar in Korean or actually for them it’s kind of the same letter. So when they say “Ryan” it’s more called like “Lyan” – but I took a look and unfortunately, the creator thinks really he drew a lion.

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Apeach

Oh yeah, and the last Kakao friend I want to introduce is “Apeach”. I think I’m not the only foreigner who thought (again, I’m sorry Koreans) that Korea has a pink butt as a smiley. But according to the creators, they draw a peach which actually likes to show its butt(s). But also the creators had to admit that especially the backside of this funny fruit reminds of something else than a peach.

Instructions in the subway – or how to use the escalator

I have the feeling Koreans really love to instruct others. A really good example is the videos on the screens of the metro stations in Seoul. There the government shows in little videos how to use an escalator in the right way – pay attention to your shoes, don’t run but use the handrail. Furthermore, you learn how to wash your hands correctly, what happens if you don’t buy a ticket, why it is important to pay attention when you leave the train (don’t hear music, sing and dance and fall in the gap between the train and the kerb), what a pregnancy seat is, how to leave the train correctly or also how to stand on the train without being in the way of others. In my opinion, some of the videos are really funny but some also have a really important message like against suicide and for situations of emergency.

The secret of the fountain of youth Koreas

The last secret I share with you is the one about the fountain of youth Koreas. Many people think Koreans look in general younger as they are. Especially, Europeans and Americans think it is hard to estimate the age of Koreans. Okay, one of the reasons will be probably that Koreans are older in Korea than in (almost the whole) the rest of the world. In Korea age starts already by one when you are born and continues counting with every New Year after the Chinese calendar. This different system makes you one to two years older than you actually are in the rest of the world (of course, there are some exceptions in East Asia as parts of China, Japan, Mongolia or Vietnam).

By the way, the argument “I’m older” is a really important one in Korea and can help you in almost every conversation. Elderly people enjoy a really high reputation in Korea and have some advantages over young people. Besides, Koreans always talk really formal to older people.

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Kimchi

Furthermore, South Korea is really famous for its many beauty products as anti-ageing-creams or also some plastic surgeries. But the mother of a friend told us she learned about the real reason by googling it. And Google says the secret of Korean women is the really healthy Kimchi which Koreans eat every day.

Click here to read part I:
Daily life in South Korea Pt.I

Daily Life in South Korea Pt.I

High-Tech toilets, smileys which look like a butt, life jackets in water parks, funny holidays with black noodles and teaching videos in the metro which show you how to use the escalator in the right way – that’s South Korea.

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I had the chance to live for four months in Korea when I studied abroad. I already learned a lot about the huge differences between the Asian and Western cultures in my first week, or to be more specific between South Korea and my home country Germany. Here I want to share my experiences with you. Maybe you already went to Korea and find yourself in the stories. Maybe you are just curious, or you want to go and find one or another tip for your travels. If you’re Korean – you will see how I saw your country and what seemed funny to me (so funny I wrote a blog entry about it). Don’t take it too seriously because I love your country a lot.

Koreans love endings

Gu, Dong, Si, Gil, Do – Koreans use endings to describe places. First of all, it seems really complicated if you are not aware of the meanings. But if you know them, it is actually quite useful since it describes which places are “what”. The ending “do” markers the province you are in. South Korea has eight provinces and one special autonomous province. The ending “si” describes a city in this province. For example, the capital of the island Jeju has the same name as its island. In this case, Jeju-do describes the whole island as one province, Jeju-si is only the capital of the island.

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Jeju-do

Bigger cities have different boroughs with the ending “gu” (towns and the countryside have the endings “eup” and “myeon”) or rural districts “gun”. One level below is the district marked with “dong”. Villages are labelled with “ri”. Last but not least, is “gil” which tagged streets.

Special holidays

Koreans love to celebrate and give each other gifts. The biggest holiday is Chuseok (추석) which is equivalent to Thanksgiving and is a celebration with the whole family. The holiday is for three days and around autumn. Furthermore, Koreans celebrate a special New Year called Seollal (설날) after the Chinese calendar. This holiday is at the beginning of the year. Valentine’s Day is always on the 14th of February and a famous day in the whole world. In Korea, it is the day where women have to bring presents for their lovers. But Korea also has the “White Day” which is the equivalent of Valentine’s Day. It’s exactly one month later and at these days women get the presents from their partners. But Korea also has a special day for singles.

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Jajangmyeon

On the 14th of April, it is “Black Day”. All single persons wear black clothes and meet each other in restaurants to eat Jajangmyeon, Black bean noodles. Another commercial and unofficial holiday is “Pepero Day”. Pepero (빼빼로) are little sticks with different flavours like chocolate, berries or green tea. It is supported by the big company Lotte and celebrated on the 11th of November since 11/11 reminds to pepero sticks.

Overnight in libraries

Since I studied in Seoul I already know Koreans are really diligent and have to learn a lot. Especially before midterm and final exams, the libraries are full of students. Some of them are so into their learning period they even sleep in the library. My friend accidentally stayed overnight in our library at my university. She didn’t know the doors close at midnight, and since a lot of other students also stayed beside here, she didn’t think of the closing hours. When she wanted to leave the doors were closed and she was forced to stay until 5 o’clock in the morning to get out of the library. The students told her that they stay by their own choices in the library to concentrate fully on their exams. If necessary, they take some naps or bring blankets to sleep overnight in the library to start learning early in the morning.

Free time in Seoul

If Koreans don’t study all night and stay in libraries they of course also enjoy some free time in Seoul. One of my favourite stories is my day in a water park in Seoul because I felt like I learned a lot about small differences that day. I went with three other friends to a water park in Seoul. We are all from Western countries, so for us, it was pretty in common to wear a bikini. The thing is wearing a bikini seems not so famous in Asia. In general, I also felt Koreans don’t wear low-cut tops (miniskirts are no problem). This is the reason why I felt a bit uncomfortable in my bikini. Most Koreans wore swimsuits made out of neoprene or long shirts. In general, I was really surprised how many people wore just normal clothes as jeans, shoes, sunglasses or shirts for riding a slide. I am pretty sure in Germany they wouldn’t be allowed to wear street clothes in a water park.
Another fact is that many Koreans (but also in other countries) can’t swim or aren’t the best swimmers. That is why many people also were lifejackets. Actually, that was another fact, why we attract attention. I wondered about the girls in the water park who wore nice makeup and lipstick. Because for me a water park wouldn’t be the spot where I would wear any makeup. But my Korean friend told me the water park is also a possible flirting spot so it is important to look beautiful even there. Furthermore, people had little transparent and waterproof pockets where they carried really expensive cell phones, makeup or credit cards. More stuff I wouldn’t bring in a water park so I really had to think about the difference. Another interesting fact is that in Korea, it is completely fine to be naked in front of the same gender. In Germany, we have single changing rooms and most people would not show themselves naked not even under the public showers. On the other side, German television is more open showing naked people in movies or series. Whereas in Korea naked parts in movies and series are rare.

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A game place in Seoul

One other thing I really loved for our free time is the game places. There you find a lot of nice games you can play by yourself or with friends. Really famous is the Baseball game where the player plays the role of the Batter and hopefully hits a home run. Also famous are the machines with soft toys you have to grab in one shot with a crane to get the toy.

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Noraebang (노래방)

The most important free time activity is Noraebang (노래방) – Korean Karaoke. It is a good opportunity to meet with friends and sing favourite Kpop music, but also hits from Japan and China and of course, world hits in English. Every group gets its own room with a big screen, microphones and party lights. Noraebangs are sometimes also a good opportunity to bypass the time until the first metro is running again.

Click here to read part II:
Daily life in South Korea Pt.II