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Japan Korea Trip Report - Korea

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Here is part two of my report, better late than never. As I mentioned on the Japan portion of the report we were in South Korea mainly to visit our son so this report doesn't cover lots of sightseeing, but with the lack of any info on South Korea maybe it will be of some interest. Also here is a link to the pictures if anyone is interested. http://picasaweb.google.com/randygeesman/JapanKorea2008?authkey=-QreadPQGOg

On to Seoul – We flew round trip coach to Incheon on Asiana Air. They don’t allow you to reserve seats so we were glad that it wasn’t busy at the counter and we were early. Exit seats were taken but we got bulkhead although it was the two middle seats. When we boarded we smooshed into our seats and the flight was completely full. The seat next to DH remained empty until it was time to shut the doors and we thought maybe we could spread out! Then from the jetway we could hear the sounds of a major shrieking temper tantrum from a very small child. We knew this is who will be seated next to DH and we were correct. Grandma and her adorable, pissed off, two year old granddaughter who refused to sit in Grandma’s lap. Grandma managed to pin her down long enough to take off but from three on out she is leaned on DH’s leg, or stood in aisle. Good thing she was so cute and quit crying and it was only a two hour flight! I was surprised when they served us a hot meal that was quite tasty. Everything was fine and our son and his girlfriend met us at baggage claim and we all took the airport limo bus into Seoul. The limo buses are very nice with seats like 1st class airplane seats, plenty of room and very comfortable. They run all over Korea between the major airports and cities and the prices are reasonable. One of the first things I noticed are the cars there are generally larger than the models we saw in Japan and we could have been on the 405 freeway with all the Kia’s and Hyundai’s. We stayed two nights at the JW Marriott in a junior suite using Marriott points plus paying an upgrade charge. The room was very nice with a huge marble bath that has a separate toilet area and vanity. We have a stunning view of Seoul, the Han River that divides the city and the surrounding mountains. They provided a rollaway for our son. His girlfriend stayed for dinner and took the train home. We walked to a restaurant across from the hotel that specializes in duck. We had a whole duck that is stuffed with rice, and red beans. Every meal is served with soup, kimchee and other types of pickled vegetables. The food is good, not great but typical of most places that are next to a hotel and can count on customers.
The next morning I woke up to the daytime view of the city I was surprised by how many mountains surround the city. I also noticed there are tons of high-rise apartments that look nearly identical. Our son went to use the spa facilities as he has grown to appreciate the custom of communal baths in Korea. He likes to go for a bike ride in the mornings where he lives and then stop at the bath to soak and shower. He says the baths at the Marriott are the nicest he has been in. I took his word for it as I know I wouldnt feel comfortable naked in front of strangers. There were very nice facilities, it was a full spa and gym and you could see that it was a membership spa that was open to other than hotel guests.

We went to see Gyeongbokgung Palace. Our son wanted to take the subway, which I was game for but DH was afraid it would entail more walking so we took a cab. The cabs that come to the Marriott are nice but in general nothing like the pristine Japanese cabs with the white seat covers and gloved drivers. The palace and museum were interesting. These are recreations not the original because of the destruction of war. Sadly the 610-year-old Namdaemun gate, one of the original national treasures was burned to the ground recently by a 70 year old man who had some beef with the government.

After looking around at the palace we walked a few blocks to Insadong, a neighborhood where there are craft shops and restaurants along a pedestrian street. We met up with one of our sons friends who is also an ESL teacher living outside of Seoul. We had lunch at a noodle place. I had some sort of cold noodles that taste great on a hot afternoon. More pickled stuff and kimchee. I think our meal for four was about $25.00. The chopsticks in Korea are not the disposable wooden sticks that I have honed my skills on but narrow flat metal sticks that are usually in a box on the table. It took me a few meals to get used to them. Much more green than the wooden ones that get tossed. Every restaurant serves purified ice water in a jug or pitcher, often with tin cups. Our son told us that this is often the only drink available, no sodas or juices. Maybe some type of tea is served. He also told us if you want to order or get your check you have to yell at the waitresses to get their attention. He said it took him awhile to get used to this custom. We walked on and decided we want some caffeine and we found a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, which seems to be really popular in Korea. As we walked along I noticed that although things are fairly clean it is just not as tidy as Japan. When we cut down some side streets to get to a major street to find a cab we passed some pretty grungy areas.

That night we had DS tell the cab driver to take us to one of his favorite restaurants, not a tourist place but somewhere nice with good food. He took us to Samwon Garden Restaurant, which was very pretty, gardens, waterfalls etc but I think it was where all the tourists go to eat. In the lobby there was a recent picture of some pretty Korean lady with Bill Clinton, and several pictures of some of the famous young female Korean golfers. The food was good but it was extremely expensive for Korea, we paid $177.00 for three of us and DS was appalled because he said we could have had better food elsewhere for half the price. I am sorry that I can’t remember the names of all of the dishes. I am pretty sure this was Bulgogi, meat grilled at the table then wrapped in different lettuce leaves with rice and the side dishes.

We decided to leave the next day after checking out of the hotel and go on to Gwangju the town where our son has been living. We could have easily spent another week in Seoul but we really wanted to spend time in Gwangju while Ross was off work and have chance to see how he lives. We took the KTX train from Seoul to Gwangju, which takes about four hours. The train is fairly new and it was really comfortable. They serve food and drinks on the train. It was a pretty ride through the countryside. The country is pretty mountainous and heavily wooded. I noticed that every piece of land that does not have buildings on it has some type of farming going on. I was surprised that there are no suburbs with single-family homes. There are very few of the old style buildings left and it doesn’t appear that any effort has been taken to preserve the older ones that are left. As soon as you reach a city there are high-rise apartments and business high-rises. There is a ton of building going on and hopefully in the future more attention will be paid to architecture and aesthetics. All of the apartment building we saw looked identical, all tall beige rectangles laid out in a grid with nothing to make one stand out from another, kind of bleak. When we reach Gwangju there is nothing to set it apart from the other towns we have passed through other than its size. It is the 5th largest city in Korea.

Our fun started at the train station. We headed out to the cab line and realized due to the LPG tanks in the trunks of the cabs we will not all fit in one cab, along with the luggage. DH and the luggage wound up in one cab and my son and I in the other, leading the way. My son told DH’s cab driver the name of the shopping area that we want to wind up at but it was all very rushed and I swear our driver was trying to lose the other cab and succeeded in doing so by running several lights. We got to the designated location and paid the driver and he took off. We wait for several minutes and started to worry that the cab DH and luggage were in have gotten lost. They showed up just as I was trying to think of the best way to track them down. DH was less worried as he had the presence of mind to memorize our cab’s license plate and cab number.

We were definitely not in Japan! Many cabs we encounter in this part of the country are equipped with air horns, which are used liberally. The painted traffic lanes seem to be more of a suggested idea than anything the drivers adhere to. The older cabbies we use have the nicer large sedans that are well kept but the young guys have tricked out their cabs with blinking interior lights, and Day-Glo stickers of moons and stars stuck to the headliner. The older guys are also less prone to crazy driving.

We gather our bags and follow our son to our hotel. While in the planning stages of the trip DS told us that outside of Seoul hotels are just not what we are used to, and that we needed to lower our expectations. We usually stay in fairly decent places but I am not opposed to a plain clean place to lay my head. DS told us about the love motels that he and his friends stay in when they are out late, have been drinking or just want a cheap place to stay when out of town and I told him we are not really good with this. I told him just get a place like a Days Inn or Motel 6. We dragged our bags across the street and down an alley to the Windmill motel. It is a love motel. He has booked their “best” suite. He said we have to at least see it before we pass judgment. He insisted it is very nice inside. The parking area is obscured by hanging strips of fabric similar to the ones that wash the car at the car wash. He tells us these are to hide the identity of the patrons. Once you park they come out with a cover to place over your license plate. Adultery is a felony in Korea. Well Thank God I am checking in with my spouse of 29 years!!! We paid the guy for 3 nights at $70.00 a night and went up to the 8th floor to our “suite.” It was a large room with one queen bed and one double. I don’t want to know why they need multiple beds here. There was one large overhead florescent light, that’s it. There was a flat screen tv on the wall. The walls had a flocked wallpaper that looked like it was supposed to have sort of an “Arabian nights” feel. I can’t describe the décor or lack of it. There was one small window that had a solid shutter covering it. When I mentioned the lack of windows my son reminded me people are not here for the view. I tried hard not to be a stuffy American 52-year-old mom, but hey that’s who I am. I told my son I was appalled and I would not stay there, that there had to be a better place somewhere in the city. I had a Lonely Planet book that mentioned a couple of places. The World Cup soccer finals were held here in 2002, surely there is something. We left our bags and walked to the Hiddink Continental. It is named for the coach of the Korean soccer team. The lobby looked like the same guy who decorated the love motel decorated it. DH had DS translate. He wanted the best room they had, a suite if possible. Yes, there was a suite; usually it is $300 a night but he will give it to us for $200.00. We wantd to see it first and he took us up to the room, which looks like something from a hotel in a rural town in Appalachia. The bedspread and curtains had to be twenty years old. We told them no thanks and left. Finally our son said his girlfriend told him there is a resort hotel in the hills on the outskirts of town. We took a cab and rode about 15 minutes up into the hills to the Shin Park Resort. The grounds were beautifully landscaped and the parking lot had several BMW’s and Mercedes in it which we took as a good sign. The place had seen better days but it was much nicer than our previous choices. The décor is really awful, purple walls, and a purple leather couch and loveseat. They have draped the bed with sheer gold gauzy curtains. The carpet was very dirty. They told us this is one of the bridal suites. They show us a couple of rooms and I normally would have been pretty disappointed but it was a big improvement so we checked in and went back to the love motel where the front desk guy graciously refunded us all of our money. We had our son try & explain and apologize and tip him.

The hotel hunt has taken up the rest of the afternoon and we have worked up an appetite so we meet DS and his girlfriend for dinner. All of the restaurants are in one downtown area with narrow streets lined with shops. I thought they were pedestrian streets but realized that they are open to traffic after nearly being run down by a taxi and a motorcycle. We went to one of the nicest places in town for dinner. It looked really new and it was tastefully decorated. It had the same floor seating with the recessed area for your legs. I am not sure the name of what we had but it was several types of pork with assorted pickled vegetables, soup, kimchee, rice, and different types of leaves to wrap the food in. We drank a type of plum wine that is traditionally served with this type of meal. Our son’s girlfriend tells us that there is a story about drinking the wine that has something to do with the name of the wine. Apparently back in the day of chamber pots if someone consumed too much of this wine then used the chamber pot it could cause the pot to crack! We also had soju made from rice and one made from maple leaves. It’s a bit strong for my taste. Later DS excused himself to go to the restroom and when he came back he said that the urinal sprayed him with water when it flushed. We all cracked up when I said the story of the wine was true!

After dinner we went back to the hotel and tried to go to sleep but we discovered that the mattress was like a rock. We slept on top of the quilt for the extra padding it gave but we both tossed and turned all night. The next day we sent DS to the front desk to ask for an extra quilt and they must have understood because when we got back to the room later we had a featherbed type of thing.

The next day we went to visit a tea plantation in the countryside about an hour outside of Gwangju in Boseong. We could have taken a bus but due to DH’s height and bad knee we decided to take a cab. I think it was about $65.00 one-way but it was a large cab and much more comfortable than the local buses. There are several plantations that are open to the public; we went to one of the largest. It was really tranquil and beautiful. The tea grows like a hedge on steep terraced hills. One could either take a set of stairs straight up the middle of the hill or take the paved pathway around the side of the hill. I chose the later route after taking a few stairs with no handrails and looking back. I think Asian women must be blessed with the ability to wear heels anywhere and not get sore feet! I observed this all over Japan and Korea. Women in business suits and heels in the subway stations, young girls in knee socks and pumps trekking along in the temples and here at the plantation I saw a gal in strappy sandals with 3 inch heels scrambling up the stairs. It made my feet ache to look at them. We saw lots of older couples in their 60’s and 70’s dressed in walking shoes, visors and athletic wear. DS said that the Korean people are pretty health conscious when it comes to exercise and eating healthy diets. They also like to hike and mountain bike and I can imagine there must be many beautiful places to chose from. After climbing to the top and enjoying the views of the tea and the wooded hillsides across the valley we walked back down and got a snack of green tea ice cream and iced green tea. I found some cool tea related souvenirs in the gift shop. We found another cab and drove back to Gwangju. Everyone is surprised when DS speaks in Korean. He told us he has had the same conversation many times over. First they want to know how he has learned to speak Korean and they are surprised he has taught himself to read and speak. They ask him if he likes the food and if he eats kimchee. They always tell him what a wonderful country Korea is and that it has four seasons, which he thinks, is really funny. Our cab driver is from this town and explains that if we had kept going a few miles to the west we would have come to the ocean. He tells DS some background on the tea plants and harvest. Then they have a long animated conversation and when I ask DS what the guy is saying he laughs and says the guy is explaining that Korea is good because it has four seasons! We had a laugh over this and later I got to thinking maybe they think bragging about the four seasons is cool because people keep asking for really nice hotel “like the Four Seasons”.

That night we went to the downtown again to have dinner and DS wanted to have the Korean version of sushi. We decided to walk around in the street area that is a market place. There several combination fish market restaurants with live fish in tanks. DS told us that he has tried live octopus and DH decided he would like to try this. UGH! The proprietor of one of the fish places sees us looking at the octopus tank and comes out and takes DS’s arm and tells him she really wants us to eat at her restaurant. Most of the place is set up to sit on the floor but they had one regular table with 3 mismatched chairs. I like sushi so eating the raw fish is fine with me. It all tasted very fresh. However when the plate comes out with the still writhing octopus tentacles I pass on tasting it. DH and DS manage to swallow some. UGH. The suckers grip your tongue and teeth. DS says that it is a traditional drinking food… I guess there have been people who have been drunk and choked to death while attempting to swallow this delicacy. If interested go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPrO5lD4t9M

The next day we were invited to visit the school that my son is working at. It is in Naju City, which is a suburb of Gwangju, about 20 miles away. We didn’t want to get up really early and meet our son and ride the bus with him so we decided to take a cab. Our son told us that the easiest way to make sure we didn’t wind up lost would be to have the cab drop us off at the bus terminal in Naju. He said that if he wrote down the school address in Korean the driver would never find it unless he happened to be familiar with it. The school is within walking distance of the station and DS draws up a map of how to get there. Of course there are no street names on the map because he doesn’t know them and there are not many street signs. When our cab dropped us off at the bus station the driver was trying to see if he could help us and drive us to our final destination but we told him we were ok. We followed the pictograms on our map and found the school.

Our son works in a separate building in what is called “Englishtown” This is the latest trend in Korean public schools. The school district has set up the town at one of the schools and then they bus the kids in from all of the schools in the district for a one-day opportunity to practice what they have been studying. They have many rooms set up as mock homes, stores, restaurants, and airports, even a taxi. Our son is the official “native English speaker” He says he is the animal in the zoo. We meet his 3 female co-teachers and give them gifts of little mini packs of Burt’s Bees lotions and soaps. They ask us if we can participate with the kids so they can practice their English. We had a great time with the kids. That day the group was a bunch of 13 year olds. Their language skills varied quite a bit, some were dying to talk and others were really shy. Most of them learn from Korean teachers who are in no way fluent in English. I think this is also true of Japan, which accounts for people being able to read more than they can speak or understand.

We felt like minor celebrities the entire time we spent there. All of the kids were yelling “hello” from across the campus and when they saw our camera they wanted to be I pictures with us. The co-teachers wanted to take us out to lunch but we decided to eat in the school cafeteria with the kids. The place was immaculate and the lunches are delicious and healthy. The day we were there they had a chicken cutlet with some king of sauce, rice, vegetable soup, some pickled greens, sliced melon and of course kimchee. There is a nutritionist on the staff.

We all headed back to Gwangju. We ate our dinner that night at a chain restaurant that serves BiBimBop, which is traditionally, served it a hot stone bowl. It is rice with vegetables, and some type of meat, all topped with an egg. The hot stone causes the rice to get a little crispy. We all had a large bowl and DH ordered some dumplings and another side dish. I think we only paid about $20.00 for everything including a few bottles of soju. Afterwards we said good bye to our son and went back to the hotel to pack because we were leaving the next day. We took an airport limo bus from the bus depot in downtown Gwangju to Incheon, which takes about 3 1/2 hours. We booked the Best Western Hotel at the airport to stay in the night before our return flight and were glad we decided to break up the travel that way. The hotel was clean and comfortable and had a decent restaurant. They have a free shuttle to and from the airport. The next day we flew back to Narita and then on to LAX. We had several hours to kill in Narita so we hung out in the lounge for Korean Air. They had Kirin on tap so we were happy. I saw a massage shop and an oxygen bar in the terminal and had I not had last minute shopping to due I would have tried the massage!

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