20 August 2012

Journey to South Korea: Part 1 in Seoul

Well I thought to myself I have been given 5 days off work because of the Japanese holiday Obon I may as well go on a short holiday. Originally I didn't want to go anywhere but I thought I should try to visit more countries in Asia before I decide to leave Japan. I felt South Korea would be a good place to visit based on their culture, proximity to Japan and the overall cost of the flight.

I flew from Fukuoka Airport and the flight took around an hour and ten minutes. When I arrived at Icheon International Airport it was clear to see that the airport was still fairly new looking and seemed very efficient. they also had Wi-Fi which was a big plus in my books. After I made it through the massive queue at immigration I tried to use one of the interactive terminals to find out which bus I needed to take to my hotel. But luckily one of the staff members approached me and told me that I needed to take the 6002 bus to Shinchon and that I could pay once I got on.

The journey was fairly quick but finding my hotel was a little troublesome at first. I had already looked at the area on Google Maps but the view was day time only and it was night when I arrived. Luckily I managed to get some help from someone on the street and got to the hotel in one piece. My room had a nice big bed, a computer and a massive HDTV with satellite. I was quite impressed with the room considering that it was a Love Hotel.

I was lucky enough to have planned some things to do during my trip to Seoul. On the first day I ended up visiting the Gyeongbokgung Palace. However that wasn't before I became extremely confused with the metro system! It didn't help that I couldn't find a map to take away in the Shinchon station either. I found the Hong Kong subway system much easier to navigate. I did notice that in every station there are multiple gas masks inside these glass cabinets. I guess this is a good idea since South Korea is still technically at war with the North. When I got to the palace grounds it was clear to see they were quite large but the palace itself seemed familiar in the sense that it looked quite similar to temples/shrines I had seen in China.

After I had finished at the palace I made my way to Bukchon Hanok Village. I found that traversing the metro this time was a bit easier than my first. Supposedly this area of Seoul is quite traditional in regards to cultural heritage and art work. I walked around that area and then stooped at Dunkin Donuts for some lunch. I had looked at what was on offer in Buckchon but nothing really jumped out at me.

After the village area in Buckchon I walked around the area a bit more and stumbled upon a market which was quite busy. There were many vendors selling various items and some evening making sweet snacks or drinks. Lemonade homemade style seemed to be really popular as well. After I had finished here I made my way to N Seoul Tower!

From the market it took me around 30 minutes to walk to the cable car in Namsan which would take me up to N Seoul Tower. There was a bit of a queue as I waited to get on the cable car. It cost 5000won for a one way trip and 8000won for a return. The cable car gave me a really clear view of Seoul but unfortunately I was unable to take any good pictures. Once I got to the top there were a lot of people taking photos and walking around. The cost of visiting the observation deck of the tower was 9000won which I felt was fairly reasonable. At the top of the tower I could clear see most of the city. They also had on each window the distance from the tower to other major cities around the world which I thought was quite interesting.

As I came down the tower I noticed an area outside where many people (couples) had written message/love notes on to a padlock and then locked it to a fence. There were probably thousands of locks on this fence which I thought was quite interesting. Many people were taking pictures in this area as well as writing their own message to put on the fence.

Once I was finished at N Seoul Tower I made my way towards Myeong-dong. I had read that this area was great for shopping but what I didn't realise at the time was I didn't bring that kind of money to but anything decent in Myeong-dong. I did happen to notice a Superdry store in the area but they were selling their 'Osaka 6' T-Shirts for 66,000won (£37) which was too much for me considering I could buy one in London for £25. I walked around the area checking out the shops and then had some dinner at one of the local restaurants. Later I made my way back home for a much needed rest!

When I got back to the hotel I tried to book the Dematerialised Zone Tour for the following day. However I was told that the tour would not be running that day because it was a national holiday. So I decided to rearrange my itinerary and go on the tour on Tuesday instead of Wednesday.

I woke up at about 6:50 to get ready for the DMZ half day tour. In total the tour would cost 46,000won which I thought was quite decent. The mini-bus picked me up near my hotel but on the way there I was transferred to a larger bus with more tourists on it. As we drove along the highway our tour guide pointed out points of interest such as the Han River and which mountains belonged to North Korea. She also explained more about the divide between North and South Korea and how it all originally happened.

Our first stop on the tour was Imjingak' Park. There happened to be many tourists there that day both Koreans and Foreigners. The weather was also beautiful that day so I guess that could've been the reason too. Within the park were a few monuments and shrines dedicated to the time when both sides of Korea were in conflict.

After we were finished at the park we headed to Dorasan Station which is a part of a railroad that eventually will connect the South to the North. Also in the future you will be able to take a train from South Korea all the way to Europe although our guide said it would take 14 days to get there!! Whilst at the station we had the opportunity to take some photos with a few soldiers and have something stamped with the Dorasan Station stamp as well as a North Korean Immigration stamp. Although the guide said not to stamp our passports as this could cause trouble for us so I stamped some postcards I had bought at the gift shop.

The next stop on our tour was an area where we could view the secretive state which was maybe around 1.5/2miles away. We could take some photos but only from behind a designated yellow line. This area was also guarded by soldiers who tried to enforce the no picture rule but it didn't always work. Unfortunately the lens on my camera was not good enough to take any great shots of North Korea.

The last stop on our DMZ Tour was one of the largest tunnels that the North Korean soldiers had dug some time ago. This tunnel was accidentally discovered by South Korean soldiers as they dug in this area. The tunnel was very deep under ground, maybe more than 70meters and it was well over 200+meters in length but we could only go so far as tourists. The tunnel was quite low due to the NK Soldiers being smaller than usual so everyone need to wear hard hats whilst in the tunnel. Since this was the last stop for the day we made our way back to Seoul to conclude the tour.

I had realised on the way back that I still had half a day left to do something. So I ended up going to COEX Mall to spend some time at the Aquarium. The cost of entry was 17,500won which was fairly reasonable. The Aquarium was fairly standard as far as Aquariums go apart from the odd display that was a bit odd such as fishes in fridges, sinks, washing machines and bathtubs. The Aquarium was quite busy on this day as was the mall. The mall was quite big and had many shops and places to eat. It made me wish there was such a place where I lived in Kumamoto.

My last plan for the day was to go on a cruise along the Han River. I ended up going to Jamsil Station and badly directing a taxi driver to the dock. However when I got there I didn't know where the dock was so ended up walking along the back to a boat yard and the man told me there I had walked past the dock. As I was making my way back to the right area I saw the boat pulling away! I had thought that the boat didn't leave until 18:40 but it turned out my information was wrong and the time the boat left was 18:20!! The next cruise wasn't until 19:30 and I didn't want to hang around until then so I decided to walk to Lotte World! But when I got to Lotte World I realised I didn't have enough money since the entrance fee was more than the 21,000won I had. By this time it was 19:05 and I thought maybe I can make it back to the dock in time. I made a mad dash back to the dock and got there with 5 minutes to spare. I was surprised since it took me around 35mins to walk to Lotte World the first time!

I had originally wanted to do the 60min tour at 11,000won but I was told only the 90min tour at 15,000won was available. It seemed I had come just at the right time as all the lights around the city were starting to be turned on. Unfortunately whilst on the boat it started to rain heavily and so I wasn't always able to get good pictures. Some of the bridges we passed under looked really cool at night as we passed under them. After the cruise I quickly made my way back to the nearest station and back to the hotel because of the rain and I didn't have an umbrella!

The Wednesday was my last full day in Seoul but when I woke up all I could hear was the sound of heavy rain!!! I didn't know what to do but in the end I thought Lotte World would be a good idea since it was indoor after all. However what I didn't think about was the potential amount of people that could be there because this day was a national holiday!

Because I had already been to Lotte World the day before it was quite easy to get there again from my hotel. You can get off at Jamsil Station and there is an exit that leads directly to Lotte World and the shopping mall. Just like COEX Mall Lotte World was very nice with many shops and restaurants spread over three floors. On the ground floor was an Ice Rink, on the 2nd floor was the the Theme Park and on the 3rd floor was the Folk Museum. I walked around the mall for a little while just window shopping as I didn't bring enough money with me to do any serious kind of shopping. I visited the Folk Museum briefly before heading to the Lotte World Theme Park. I waited until after 4pm because a discount to the entrance fee was applied. I also used a coupon that I received when I bought my electronic travel pass which gave me even more of a discount.

Once I was inside the park it was obvious that it was some of kind of National Holiday due to the sheer amount of people there. The layout of the park was quite similar to Disney Land with each area having its own theme. I walked around the park taking some photos and just to get a feel for the place before I decided to ride on any of the rides.

During my time walking around I saw many performance such as live bands playing and performers dancing. This type of entertainment created a nice vibe within the park which was nice.

One of the first rides I went on was 'Pharos Fury'. I honest had to wait nearly two hours to get on this ride. The queue was ridiculously long! However at the time I didn't realise that this ride was one of the more popular once in the park hence the long queue.

Lotte World is known for having the largest indoor theme park but not all of Lotte World is indoor with its Disney like Castle being outside in Magic Island. This area looked very nice at night with many people taking photos in front of the illuminated castle.

As closing time drew closer I stumbled upon some interactive art on one of the upper floors. When I saw interactive art I simply mean art that you can interactive with. It was nice to find this as there had been a display of this type of work in Kumamoto but unfortunately I never had the opportunity to see it.

That evening I had wanted to see a live performance in the city but I ended up leaving the park too late for this to happen so I just made my way back to the hotel.

Luckily the next day my flight back to Japan was in the late afternoon so I had more than enough time to relax before heading to the Airport. I had lunch at a really nice restaurant really close to my hotel. The rice bowl I had there was very delicious!

I decided to take the train to the Airport this time unlike when I made my way to the hotel by bus. The train worked out to be a lot cheaper than the bus at only 3745won compared to 10,000won. As I had some time I took the opportunity to walk around the Airport and take some photos after I had checked in. The Airport looked really nice and modern. However in terms of best Airports I would say Beijing International Airport is still the best!!

I can honestly say that I enjoyed my time in Seoul but I wished that I just had a little more time in South Korea to experience a little more of the country. I hope to visit again one day in the near future.

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