When Nature Calls

Seogwipo (서귀포) is a mistake. Unless your idea of a holiday in Jeju (제주) is to stay in a five-star luxury resort and romp around kinky sex dioramas. Because you had really come here to soak in Jeju’s natural beauty. And that makes Seogwipo a mistake because Jeju’s “upmarket” area also happens to be furthest away from Jeju’s most captivating sights.

For those not intending to drive, it will be more sensible to base yourself in Jeju-si (제주시), the island’s city centre just 4 km east of Jeju International Airport. From Jeju-si, two of Jeju’s highlights are less than an hour away. First up, the Manjanggul (만장굴) is an awe-inspiring 13.4 km-long cave (the world’s longest) carved up by molten volcanic lava thousands of years ago.

After your underground escapade, head further southeast until you see the ocean. Along the coast stands a juggernaut of an extinct volcanic crater – the Seongsan Ilchulbong (성산일출봉). It takes only 20 minutes to scale up the stairs to the best view in the whole of Jeju. And if you’re crazy enough (like me), give Hallasan (한라산) – Jeju’s highest peak at 1,950 metres – a holler! There are five hiking trails to choose from, in order of increasing difficulty: Seongpanak (성판악), Yeongsil (영실), Eorimok (어리목), Donnaeko (돈내고) and Gwaneum-sa (관음사).  LS

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Seoul Comforts

Saying goodbyes is probably the toughest part of any trip. Some cities leave you desiring for more. Other places leave you feeling relieved that you are getting the hell out of that place. Some cities leave you caught in between.

I found myself pondering over what Seoul meant to me. Before this trip, I had studiously made a list of the places I wanted to go, restaurants I wanted to check out, and things I wanted to do. While I had managed to tick most of the boxes, I also felt kind of short-changed when some of the places I had been looking forward to visiting didn’t quite pan out the way many over-zealous bloggers had described. Of course, travelling is a mixed bag of hits and misses, and I’ve long come to accept that as part of the package.

Despite the disappointments (my excessive walking has left me walking with a limp), what I really treasured the most is the friendship that I made along the way (or in the past). I am thankful for the chance to meet up with my Korean friends again and catch up on each other’s lives.

It’s easy to see Seoul as a city of cafes, of restaurants, of Joseon dynasty palaces, and perhaps even cosmetic surgery. The Korean language is daunting to the visitor who had absolutely zero knowledge of Korean. I know some would disagree and say that many foreigners, especially those from English-speaking / European countries, get by just fine without any inkling of Korean. But do you know that Koreans themselves are similarly daunted by the English language? The younger generations in general fare better, due to the emphasis on the teaching of English in mainstream schools these days. But by and large, most Koreans stil prefer to communicate in their native language.

And that is the secret to enjoying Seoul, or even Korea, for that matter. Today’s younger Koreans are more forward-looking and they open up to foreigners more easily. And they would be very happy to offer a helping hand to you – especially when you speak to them in Korean. You do not have to be fluent. You just have to learn simple Korean greetings and useful phrases that could help you get around and order your food. Even with my rudimentary grasp of the language and spitter-spatter of Korean, I realised it opened doors and allowed me to appreciate Seoul, and Seoulites from a different perspective.

DSC08268DSC08247I appreciated the advice given to me by this wholesaler at Noryangjin market (노량진 수산시장) on how to enjoy wriggling “live octopus” and raw sea cucumber. (He happened to be enjoying an early lunch and round of soju with his fellow colleagues at an adjacent table). I felt the warmth and dedication of the ahjumma who placed a bowl of hot piping kimchi stew on my table. I thanked the couple who told me that it was okay to order “half and half” when I couldn’t decide between having original or spicy fried chicken.

DSC08258DSC04870At the end of the day, what I found most comforting about Seoul is its people. Seoulites, young and old, work hard. Very very hard. And they drink even harder. Working life is tough and stressful here because of the rigid social hierarchy that still dominates many companies. So drinking helps Koreans to forget their troubles, their stress, their bosses. And when tomorrow comes, they fight another battle at the office.

There’s a saying that Seoul never sleeps. Literally. There’s probably no other city in the world where you can order a bowl of hot piping tofu stew, fried chicken, pizza (in fact, almost any kind of food you can think of) at 3 – 4 a.m. in the morning, and have your orders delivered to your doorstep in minutes. That’s because some Seoulites work around the clock to provide that delivery service, and even that service itself sees some serious competition. Many also balance several part-time jobs to eke out a living in a city with a phenomenally high cost of living. Well, at least alcohol here is cheaper than coffee!  LS

DSC08512DSC08498DSC04922DSC08350Final reporting from Incheon International Airport, South Korea.

Lost And Found

I suspect I’m my worst enemy when it comes to travelling. Okay, maybe not ‘suspect’. I am sure I am. Because when I set my heart on finding something, say a particular sight or a recommended restaurant / cafe  or whatever, I have to find it. This dogged determination and tenacity has served me well on a few occasions (for example, new discoveries, experiences or even meeting new people) and of course, caused frustration on others.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have got lost trying to find that “off-the-beaten-track” attraction. I know what you must be thinking right now. You are either nodding your head in agreement or snarling at me in disgust. Perhaps, that’s why I find travelling alone easier. The time is yours to use it the way you want it. And if it means getting lost trying to find your favourite restaurant, my blistered feet are the only ones complaining.

Getting lost is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, I discover something really cool and fascinating, and the rewards and sense of achievement I feel justify the sores on my feet.  Sometimes, getting lost is a way of finding what you want in life. The thing is, people nowadays are too afraid to get ‘lost’. Getting lost is like making a mistake. And in today’s society, making mistakes is a weakness, a flaw, something that makes people sigh and shake their heads. It’s imperative for these people to know what is going to happen 5 years from now, 5 hours from now, and in extreme cases, 5 minutes from now.

To this day, I still find myself getting lost in Seoul on many occasions. I get off at the wrong station.   I amble along blind alleys, wander around inconspicuous neighbourhoods and trudge along dirt tracks. Sometimes, I walked till my bladders threatened to burst. Getting lost is not always fun. But if getting lost helps you find your direction in life, I think it’s worth the trouble from time to time.  LS

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Coffee With A View

I’m exhausted. After a 30-minute and more strenuous-than-expected “walk” up a hilly road, I realised I desperately need to lose weight. Damn all that beer (and these days, soju / makkeoli)!! And the reason for my industry – to seek out this picturesque cafe in the middle of nowhere.

Buamdong, according to my Korean friend, is nicknamed the 사장님동 (Korean for ‘CEO’). That’s because many of the well-heeled and some Korean celebrities live in this neighborhood. And its star attraction is undoubtedly Sanmotoonge (산모퉁이), otherwise known as the filming location of popular Korean drama series “Coffee Prince”. Its breathtaking views justify the steep climb (and prices) I suppose. A cafe latte will cost you 7,000 won, almost twice the price for a cuppa in the city. Cakes start at 7,000 won a piece too. In cooler seasons, the alfresco area would have been fully occupied, but as it is summer, the heat drove me indoors. The view is great, but air-con is what I need at the moment.

Off-the-beaten-track enthusiasts have waxed lyrcial about the quaintness of Buamdong, its charm and mix of art galleries and cafes. Can I be brutally honest? It’s not exactly worth the hike (or the hype). Thankfully, I had also pencilled in an afternoon at Samcheong-dong (삼청동). This is still the place for some aimless wandering, cafe hopping, or leisure shopping at the local designers’ stores. In other words, a wonderful place to bum.

On hindsight, I felt a little silly, having trekked all the way to Coffee Prince Cafe earlier when there are so many fantastic options to choose from in Samcheong-dong. Seoul is caffeine city. There are probably more cafes in Samcheong-dong (or in Seoul for that matter) per square metre than vehicles that you wonder how they actually manage to balance the record books. But who’s complaining? An afternoon at Samcheong-dong is the perfect way to while away that lazy Saturday afternoon in Seoul. And if you’re tired from all that walking, treat yourself to a cuppa at one of those cafes with a rooftop terrace and a “Coffee Prince” view.  LS

DSC08109 DSC08111 DSC08116 DSC08121 DSC08154DSC08167DSC08162DSC08181DSC08176 Cafe hopping at Samcheong-dong, Seoul.

Hongdae Is Still Alive!

imageAlmost everyone that stood in the long lines at the Immigration Check-in counter at the Incheon International Airport this morning donned a mask, driven by fears of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The virus, first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012, had disrupted the nation’s economy and claimed 27 lives and infected 172 at last count. The sudden outbreak of MERS in one of the most sophisticated countries in Asia has caught the nation, and the world, by surprise.

On the streets, though, the situation is quite different from the pictures in the media. Life goes on as per normal, and many people do not walk around armed with a mask. Tourist arrivals have plunged due to a spate of cancellations from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, in an ironic way, this has made for less crowded shops, restaurants and cafes. It’s possible to grab a seat even at the most popular joints, and appreciate Seoul sans the tourists.

On the streets of Hongdae (홍대 / 弘大), a popular shopping and dining district in the vicinity of Hongik University (홍익대학교), youths thronged the streets and ‘live’ bands played away to huge but sporadic crowds. You would never have guessed that MERS had hit Korea in any way, if you have been here. Hongdae is the playground of the young (and the young-at-heart) in Korea. There is so much to see, shop and eat here. That’s why I always base myself in Hongdae or its vicinity every time I visit Korea. Everywhere you turn, there is so much energy and buzz about this place. Hongdae is still alive, MERS or no MERS!

If you’re there, be sure to check out Sobok (昭福), Seoul’s latest dessert craze. Made from brown rice grains, soy bean powder, with toppings of pumpkin, dried persimmon fruit, rice cakes at the side, Sobok ice cream is Seoulites’ latest indulgence. Its use of all-natural ingredients (which also happen to possess health benefits) makes the perfect excuse to treat yourself to as many as you want, without having to worry about your waistline.

맛있게 드세요! (Bon appétit!)  LS

DSC08054 DSC08064 DSC08072 DSC08074DSC08062DSC08066DSC08076DSC08077DSC08083Live reporting from Bread Comma, Hongdae, Seoul.

Oh Silla! Where Is Your Glory?

Believe it or not, Korea had, once upon a time, been one unified country instead of the current North and South divisions. For nearly a thousand years, the Silla () dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD) ruled over a unified Korea after vanquishing the Goguryeo (고구) and Baekje () kingdoms in 668 AD during the reign of King Munmu (). And Gyeongju was her capital.

Today, Gyeongju is a forgotten capital. And perhaps, (whispers) even a forgotten city. Lonely Planet generously dubs Gyeongju as the ‘museum without walls’. True, in the sense that much of the landscape is littered with royal tombs or tumuli (대릉) that appear as dome-shaped grassy mounds. There’s also the regal Anapji Pond (안압지 연못), which yielded thousands of ancient Silla relics. However, much like the lone standing Cheongseongdae (첨성대) – which could have been an astrological marvel during its time but nothing more than an anachronistic totem today – in the city centre – these royal ruins are mere remains of Gyeongju’s glorious past, and like the rest of the city, risk being forsaken, and forgotten.

The real gems are actually tucked away in the outskirts of the city centre. Bulguk-sa (불국사) and Seokguram (석굴암) are Buddhist temples built during Silla times, and designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, if you’ve had your dose of temples and regal ruins, it’s possible to just while away the whole day in a nondescript café and appreciate the tranquillity of the city. On top of that, your latte comes served with freshly plucked (and peeled) persimmons. LS

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Proud To Be Loud

Busan is a city of opposites. Here, smelly (but fascinating) fish markets sit alongside gleaming Lotte megamalls. Along the coast, colourful houses (Gamcheon Cultural Village 감천문화마을) sprawl over like lichen in a haphazard fashion, which has earned the city the moniker “Santorini of the East”. Korea’s second-largest city is an eclectic mix.

Busan’s calm coastal vibe is constantly punctuated by some of the loudest, brashest Koreans you will ever find on the peninsula. The Busanites speak a local dialect (or ‘satoori’ in Korean 사투) particular to the Gyeongsang () region with an accent that sounds like Japanese. Loud as they are, these are also possibly some of the most unpretentious, down-to-earth and friendliest Koreans you will ever meet.

DSC05961Busanites are proud of their seafood and beaches, and rightly so. Haeundae Beach (해운대 해수욕장) is Busan’s top draw (there’s even a movie title of the same name), and also plays host to a couple of special events annually, such as the Busan International Rock Festival and Busan Sea Festival. However, the event that has arguably placed Busan on the global arena is the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), held in early October. The largest of its kind in Asia, the 18th edition in 2013 saw just under 300 film screenings from 70 countries and more than 200,000 guests in attendance. For more updates on this year’s edition, visit the official website of the BIFF 2015. If you prefer to stay away from the limelight, Gwangalli Beach (광안리해수욕장)  is ideal for a romantic evening stroll.

DSC05729DSC05876Off-the-beaten-track seekers should check out the Haedong Yonggung Temple (해동용궁사), well concealed in the rocky confines of Busan’s northeast coast. For a more intimate Busan experience, get wet and dirty at the Jagalchi Fish Market (자갈치 사장) or go bargain-hunting at the sprawling night markets along Gwangbok-dong Cultural & Fashion Street (광복동거리) and Nampo-dong (남포동).

Alternatively, join the local folks at a free open-air foot spa (Dongnae Spa 동내스파) in Oncheonjang (온천장) or check into one of the pojangmacha (포장마차) – which literally means ‘covered tent stalls’ – for some fresh seafood and embrace the boisterous greetings from the Busanites.

어서오세요! (“Welcome!” in Korean).  LS

DSC06732DSC0676120141125_195857P.S.: The green-coloured tents are not pojangmacha (포장마차) [i.e. food-and-drink stalls] but fortune-telling stalls. If you fancy another authentic Korean experience, pop into one of these to peek into your future. Of course, it helps to have someone with you who can speak Korean to do the translation.

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Feels Like Home

DSC07960Every major Japanese city boasts of some tower of sorts, the kind that gives you an adrenaline shot when zipping skywards in their shinkansen-esque elevator. Fukuoka is no exception. Standing at 234 metres, the city’s sentinel, the Fukuoka Tower is all gleaming blue glass, and looks like a slender glass shard from far. And if you visit at 7 p.m., you get to witness a dazzling lights display. Take a leisurely stroll along the Momochi Seaside Park (シーサイドももち, Shīsaido Momochi) and enjoy some lovely evening snaps.

As I took in a 360 degrees view of the city skyline, I thought about my experiences here over the past few days, and what this city meant to me. Many people see Fukuoka as nothing more than a transit hub (like a ‘Frankfurt’ of sorts), a base from which to explore the Kyushu region. “Functional Fukuoka”, some may say. True, Fukuoka may not have the diversity of attractions that Tokyo boasts of, or the cultural richness that Kyoto exudes. Yet, Fukuoka combines a cosmoplitan vibe with the laid-back charm of a coastal city. It’s a curious mix that makes a city-dweller like me feel, almost, at home.  LS

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The Best Ramen in Town is Black

Before leaving Kumamoto for Hakata, there’s just one final pilgrimage I had to make – and that was to Kokutei (黒亭). If Hakata has its Holy Trinity of Ippudo, Ichiran and Ikkousha, then Kumamoto’s Kokutei is its undisputed King (of ramen).

Tucked away in a nondescript neighbourhood across from Nihongi-guchi Tram Stop (二本木口電停), Kokutei doesn’t strike one as the Holy Grail of Ramen in Kumamoto. But wait till you check out the lunchtime crowd that snakes around the restaurant. Even at night, there’s no glitzy neon sign that points the way to this ramen shrine. In fact, don’t even bother dropping in after dark (as I found out the hard way). Kokutei’s ramen sells out everyday by 4 p.m. The good news is that you can find Kokutei’s signature tonkotsu (とんこつ) broth in almost every Japanese supermarket worth its salt. As for me, nothing tastes better than the real McCoy.  LS

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Uma Umai? 馬 うまい?

One of the highlights of travelling alone is the opportunity to meet new people, some of whom later became my friends along the way. There’s so much to learn from such interactions, whether it’s the exchange of language, culture, societal norms, etc. And these interactions often happen when you least expect them.

That was how I met Ruriko (淵 ルリ子), a Nagasaki native who happened to be in Kumamoto to meet up with a friend. She was happily chatting with her friend when I accidentally knocked over a pint of beer while browsing the menu at this restaurant called Uma Sakura (馬桜) in the Shimotori shopping arcade (下通り ショッピンアーケード) that specialises in horsemeat. There’s of course no lack of restaurants in this shopping arcade but I just wanted to try a full horsemeat course that day. And this restaurant looks pretty decent.

Back to Ruriko and my beer accident. Sensing that I may have some difficulty understanding the menu or ordering the food, she offered her assistance. And the next thing I know, the three of us (including her friend) started chatting like long-time friends. We exchanged contacts, and till today, we still kept in touch. I had promised her I would definitely visit Nagasaki the next time I go to Japan. Coincidentally, my original itinerary had included Nagasaki but I changed it just 3 weeks prior to departure, in favour of visiting Beppu and Kumamoto after a colleague’s advice. There’s so much left to explore in Kyushu, and two weeks really don’t do this place justice. In case you’re wondering how the horse meat tasted, it wasn’t enough to blow my socks off. I would say it’s a little like beef, but on the fatty side, which is ironic because I had imagined these horses would have tough muscles from all that running. By the way, a full horsemeat course doesn’t come cheap, and expect to spend upwards of 80-90 USD. I opted for a humble horse steak instead. And a second pint of beer.  LS

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