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Korean Pancakes and the DMZ

On February 22 of this year I took a plane from Fukouka to Seoul, Korea. I was excited, but naturally a little nervous for the international trip.

My TMoney Card

Just like Japan, transportation cards are the way to go in Korea. They make it easy to get on and off trains and buses, but also can be used at select stores. You can purchase these cards at the airport or at any convenience store. They are called Tmoney cards.

Navigating around South Korea can be a bit tricky, Google Maps works sometimes, Apple Maps isn't reliable at all. Instead, there are some navigation apps that you can download beforehand that are specific to South Korea. NAVER Map and Kakao Maps seem to be your best options! Once you figure out your navigation app, the trains, subway lines, and buses seem a lot easier to handle than the transit in Tokyo (in Tokyo there are just too many options that it's overwhelming).

There are also many options when it comes to phones while traveling these days. It can be difficult to decide which one to choose. After doing some research, I rented pocket wifi and made my reservation through Klook. I can not remember which company I booked with, however it was similar to this one. The pocket wifi worked extremely well everywhere I went in Seoul and the battery lasted all day long. If you don't have a bag it can be a hassle to carry the pocket wifi around, but I want to reiterate how great the service was!

A Thin Layer of Snow in Seoul!

The day before my arrival, it snowed! It does get really cold in Seoul, but usually it's more icy than snowy due to heavy winds. There was a layer of snow in most of the areas I traveled. I should have packed my snow boots, but decided against it because I didn't want to take up too much luggage space. Instead, I wore my adidas that I wore on my entire cross country trip in America and many of my journeys throughout Japan. By that point, the traction on those shoes was completely worn off. Not to mention, there were holes in them from my Winter Vacation in Honshu (yes, yes they were used well over their expiration date, and don't worry they have since been thrown away!). See where I am going with this...

Henna Hotel Lobby

That first afternoon in Seoul I checked into my hotel. It was a Henna Hotel in the Meyongdong district, about an hour away from the airport by train. Henna Hotels are a Japanese hotel chain that literally translates to "weird hotel". I have stayed in several throughout Japan and knew it was an affordable, and clean option. I would like to mention here, the Henna Hotel that I stayed at in Tokyo had the worst beds I've experienced in Japan, so maybe skip on that one.

Buchimgae on the Right

Afterwards I immediately went to a restaurant by the hotel, which was my first full meal of the day. I got a variety of things like soup, vegetables, beef, Korean pancakes with different sauces, and of course kimchi! The Korean pancakes were my absolute favorite thing. In Korean they are called "buchimgae", it's kind of an umbrella term because they come in such a wide variety. Buchimgae generally refers to ingredients soaked in egg (or battered first) and then fried, they are thin and flat. They are also delicious! This was also my first experience using chopsticks in Korea. They are made out of metal, so they're heavier and are generally longer than what I am used to.

Psy's Hands

After eating, it was already evening and lightly snowing. I was exhausted, but wanted to do at least one thing on my never ending wish list of things to do in Seoul. So, I went to Gangnam. Yes, just like the song "Gangnam Style". Psy, the singer of "Gangnam Style", made a major impact worldwide with this single in 2012. It topped the charts in several countries, including reaching number two in the United States (which at the time was the highest charted song from South Korea). The music video was the first video to reach one billion views on YouTube. Regardless if you love or hate "Gangnam Style" Psy really paved the way for the rise of K-Pop globally with famous groups such as BLACKPINK, TWICE, Seventeen, Stray Kids, of course BTS, and more! Because of this, there is a large statue of Psy's hands in Gangnam where "Gangnam Style" plays 24/7. Since his 2012 hit, Psy has gone on to release three additional albums, he started his own production company, and he still continues to play "Gangnam Style" at Korean universities.

Starfield Library in Gangnam

"Gangnam Style" is in reference to the upscale shopping district and elite night clubs that make up Gangnam. I visited Starfield Library. It is a modern library with a beautifully lit display!

The following day, February 23, I went on a DMZ tour. The DMZ stands for the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. It is a 4km wide border, with 2 km on the South Korean side and 2km on the North Korean side. The DMZ was created in 1953 by the Korean Armistice Agreement which ended the fighting between the north and the south.

For 40 years the area was heavily monitored and only military personnel were allowed in. During that time, it became an ecological preservation area. Then the tours started running and became one of South Korea's most popular tourist destinations. There are two types of tours: The DMZ tour and the JSA tour. JSA stands for "Joint Security Area". The JSA is in Panmunjom, just north of the border, where North Korean and South Korean soldiers face each other. The JSA tour has been on hold since American, Travis King, crossed the border into North Korea in July 2023. King was deported to China before returning back to the United States in September 2023. So, as of now, the only tour that is running is the DMZ tour, which is the one that I took. However, there have also been times when the DMZ tour is closed, especially when tensions are particularly high. Even when you purchase tickets, there is a warning that the tour could be canceled the day of.

Right now, the tour does still seem to be running despite the recent "balloon wars". If you haven't heard, starting in May, South Korea sent balloons over the border filled with leaflets and USBs loaded with K-Pop songs and K-Dramas. North Korea responded by sending balloons back filled with trash. Hundreds of balloons have crossed the border in both directions since. More recently, in late June, there have been three separate occasions in which North Korean soldiers crossed the border into the south forcing South Korea to shoot warning shots.

Shrine with Icicles in Imjingak Park

The day I went on the DMZ tour, it was delayed, I believe due to the weather, but it gave us extra time in the meeting location. The buses pick up tours in an area called Imjingak Park. This area was built in 1972 as a place for people who were separated from their families. However today it is used as a tourist point for viewing Freedom Bridge, shops, and statues that all symbolize peace and the hope of reconciliation. This is where I bought North Korean money. It was quite an expensive purchase, but it's unique and one of my favorite souvenirs I've ever gotten on a trip. The value of North Korean won is unknown. The tour guide did, however, explain that North Korean families only receive a stipend of10,000 every month. Which is estimated to be about $3 a month! Military members, however, receive more money. So many citizens strive to be in the military. Most North Koreans are extremely poor and can spend their entire lives saving up for one bicycle.

Inside the Korean War Museum

While my tour group and I were waiting we also took a gondola ride over the Imjingang River. The other side has a great viewing point of South Korea as well as a museum that talks about the history of conflict between the North and South Korea as well as information about the DMZ. I physically struggled so hard here. The ground was completely covered in ice, that mixed with my no traction shoes made for quite a stressful journey. I relied heavily on a small rope that went up the side of the hill.

Gondola Ride at Imjingak Park

The first stop on the official tour was to the Third Aggression Tunnel. During the war, North Koreans used underground tunnels to infiltrate the south. As of 1978, four underground tunnels have been discovered. Experts estimate that there are an additional twenty tunnels that have yet to be discovered. Visitors can only enter the third tunnel. At the bottom of the tunnel you can get your first glimpse of North Korea, from underground of course.

The Tallest Structure in this North Korean Village is the Flag

The next stop is the most exciting stop on the trip. It is the DORA Observatory. It is where you can view a North Korean village, Kijong-dong, through binoculars. That day happened to be a super clear day, which was great because I was able to see so much. I saw North Koreans walking around and riding bicycles. I was also able to see North Korean soldiers looking back at us with their own binoculars.

More Structures in Kijong-dong

North Korea has an extremely low level of emissions and relatively limited or small buildings. Because of this, nature really thrives on the north side of the border. There are thousands of species that live in the DMZ area including over 200 endangered species. There have been reported sightings musk deer, otherwise known as the "vampire deer", golden eagles and much more. In the spring time, the area turns beautiful and green. At the time I went, it was cold and bare, however, the snow on the mountain side was beautiful!

The final stop on the tour was at a rest stop where you can buy food and other goods that are made in the DMZ. I got some chocolate, that was light and not too sweet. I also got some rice grown in the area. The DMZ was by far my favorite part of the trip. It was quite surreal. It also gave me a new understanding of things from South Korea's perspective.

Dinner After the DMZ

That night, I went to a Korean barbeque style restaurant where of course I had more kimchi and more Korean pancakes!

Walking to N Seoul Tower

Afterwards, I took a stroll to N Seoul Tower, which is quite difficult to get to. Seoul is a hilly city. There is a gondola that takes you up the steepest part of the walk, though, I highly recommend taking it! If you plan in advance, you can make reservations at one of the restaurants in the tower. The view at night is gorgeous! I relaxed at a window seat with a glass of rosé.

Not to mention, the tower has the most beautiful bathroom view I've ever seen! Would you use the toilet here?

The following day was my final day so I took a half day city tour with the same company that organized the DMZ tour. The main problem of going on an organized tour is that everything is on a time constraint. So, to me it felt like I was rushed, I didn't have the time to truly enjoy my surroundings or focus on photography. However, because I had such a short time in the city and wanted to do so many things, I do believe it was the best decision. On top of that, I didn't have to worry about navigating for a bit.

First, we did a walk through of the down town area learning about the history and architecture of some of the buildings. Including a K-Pop headquarters building that had goods for all major K-Pop groups. Unfortunately, it was closed because it was too early in the morning.

Cheong Wa Dae

Next, we took the bus over to Cheong Wa Dae or "Blue House" in English. The Blue House served as the president's home from (1948-2022). During the Korean War, North Koreans used the mountain behind The Blue House in an attempt to assassinate the President. However, they were unsuccessful, all North Korean soldiers but one died during the attack. The last remaining soldier was taken as a P.O.W. Today, The Blue House serves as a tourist destination. Anyone can enter as long as they show their passport beforehand. Since we were on a time crunch, we only got to view the outside of the building.

Change of Guard Ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Across the street from The Blue House is Gyeongbokgung Palace. The Palace was originally built in 1395 and was home to both the royal family and government employees during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Today it is mainly a tourist destination that holds daily Change of Guard ceremonies at 10am and 2pm (except on Tuesdays). On the Palace grounds there is also a National Folk Museum, which we visited.

Incense, Lanterns, and a Goddess At Jogyesa Temple

The final stop on the tour was Jogyesa Temple. It is the major temple of the Buddhism branch in South Korea. The temple itself was extremely busy. I had a moment of culture shock as I was making my way around the temple (that is elevated without barriers or railings to prevent from falling I might add) when an elderly woman aggressively shoved me out of the way. Afterwards there were some trucks selling food outside of the temple grounds. I got a warm sweet bread that had a light layer of honey and cinnamon on the inside.

Hongjecheon Artificial Falls

After the tour, I headed towards a café for lunch. I found this café on Instagram, it's called Cafe Pokpo. The reason it has gained traction on Instagram is because there is an outdoor patio that looks out at a waterfall. What I didn't know is that the waterfall is artificial. However, it was still a nice area to enjoy a quiet lunch, even if it is out of the way.

The Crowded Main Street of Bukchon Hanok Village Against a Backdrop of Modern Seoul

The exploring continued with my next stop being Bukchon Hanok Village. Bukchon Hanok Village is a residential neighborhood that is made up of hundreds of traditional Korean houses. These houses are constructed of wood, rock and have distinct roofs. It is quite the tourist destination with many shops, restaurants and tea houses. This is also an area where you can rent and wear a Hanbok, a traditional Korean gown. It can get quite populated on the main street. I found it quite peaceful walking down the narrow alleyways, there you only occasionally pass by another person. I ended up buying a cliche touristy tote bag with a giant "I Love Korea" on the front. It's great, I love it and take it pretty much everywhere!

Changdeokgung Palace

Just outside of Bukchon Hanok Village is Changdeokgung Palace, a World Heritage Site. This palace was the area where the king went to relax. On top of it's several buildings, Changdeokgung Palace also has a secret garden. The garden has a huge pond and probably looks beautiful in the spring time with cherry blossoms and red maple leaves in the fall.

Walk Views

Afterwards I took a long walk to a residential area in the city. I had another café on my list that I found through Instagram called HAUKE Café. HAUKE Café became trendy because they make cakes in the shape of crocs! Everyone close to me knows that I am the croc queen. So, I absolutely needed one. Unlike Cafe Pokpo, HAUKE Café is definitely worth the hype. It's in a quiet neighborhood with fun murals and colors on some of the buildings. It's also up high on a hill and has a gorgeous view of the city below. There are also several other restaurants and bars that line the street.

Would You Eat This Croc Cake?

By the time I had finished, it was early evening. I decided that it was time to have a proper meal besides just snacks and dessert. And since I was in a major city for one last night, the option I wanted most was Taco Bell! Taco Bell is the fast food I have missed the most while living in Japan (there are locations in both Tokyo and Osaka). So, I walked all the way back down the hill and took the train across the city just to get some Taco Bell, and it was worth it!

Bar in Meyongdong

Even though I was tired by that point, I rallied through and ended my last night by having a cocktail and doing some souvenir shopping in Meyongdong. There was a store I found with a large croc where I bought some jibbitz for my teacher crocs!

My overall experience in Korea was an extremely positive one. The food was amazing, especially those Korean pancakes, the people were sociable, and the city had great vibes. It has so many things to do and see, but also didn't feel nearly as congested as other major cities. I plan on returning one day and would love to visit Busan, Jeju Island or lesser known areas of the country. Until next time, South Korea!


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Jul 02

Wonderful post and great photos. I loved the little "parade" at the end.

Replying to

Thank you! I am really proud of some of the photos that I got from South Korea. I had a difficult time deciding which ones to include in this post (which might be the first time that's happened!) And yes the paradewas a fun surprise! They were doing a walk through of the airport as I was waiting in the terminal to return back to Japan. It was a nice little goodbye!

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