Solo in Seoul

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Apr 4th, 2016, 05:00 PM
  #1
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Solo in Seoul

Before I begin, I want to express a big "thank you" to kja and the others on this forum who provided tremendously helpful advise and encouragement. Your help had a huge impact on my trip and I'm very grateful.

My 17-day trip to Seoul (beginning March 17th) was primarily for business. If you guessed from my screen name that I’m a songwriter, you were right. I was invited to Seoul to write for some K-Pop recording artists. I was able to fly from Nashville using American FF miles. It turned out that by arriving a day early and staying three days later I could snag first class seats for a small amount of additional miles than if I had flown in steerage. That was perfect because it would give me some time to sightsee.

I’ve traveled extensively, but this was my first trip to Asia. My trepidations were primarily about the language barrier and the food, as I don’t like spicy food or seafood. Also, I had very short notice about the trip—no time to obsess or plan.

The flight was heaven compared to coach or even business class. The 14-1/2 hours non-stop from Dallas “flew” by. I slept ten hours on the flat bed! It will be very hard to settle for coach on my next long haul.

My hotel was provided by the record label that hosted me (and twelve other writers from the U.S. and the Netherlands). It was the Aloft in Gangnam—ultra modern and quite nice. The hotel staff was terrific; their English was good and they were excellent at giving me directions and suggestions.

Breakfast at the hotel was an event! In addition to the “Western” breakfast items (i.e., an omelet bar, hash browns, bacon, sausages, fresh fruit, waffles, pancakes, toast, etc.) the buffet included deliciously addictive dumplings, fish and seaweed soups that were way too far out of my comfort zone, vegetable porridge (creamed rice with the consistency of oatmeal and bits of vegetables), salad, lots of fermented/pickled side dishes, awesome muesli, cereals, and raisin pecan baguettes that were my diet downfall. The coffee was surprisingly good (thank heavens) and was served with warm, frothy milk. Espresso-based drinks were available at no additional charge.

As I had been forewarned, the Gangnam location was not ideal for sightseeing. The only places I was able to walk to (beside my office) were the Bonguensa Temple and the high fashion designer boutique area. Seoul is shoppers’ paradise—and apparently there are plenty of people with the money to shop at Gucci, Prada, Rolex, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Maserati, Lamherghini, and the likes. The Coex mall and aquarium were also walking distance from my hotel, but I didn’t go. The Cheongdam subway station was less than two blocks away and there were lots of restaurants and convenience stores nearby.

My first impression was that the city was overwhelmingly massive, densely populated, and that the air quality was horrid. It turned out that I’d arrived during a particularly bad time for the “yellow dust”—industrial pollution that comes from China. The smog and/or pollution were always noticeable and the skies were almost always hazy, which was bad news for my photography. Otherwise, the weather was on the chilly side for spring (highs in the 50s; nighttime lows in the low-30’s), but the only rain was brief, light sprinkles on two occasions. The last few days of the trip the daytime temps hit 70.

I arrived during Friday rush hour. It took more than two hours to navigate customs and immigration. The crush of travelers waiting to get the train to customs and immigration--and then get through those lines--was more oppressive than anything I’ve ever encountered at any other airport, and I'm well traveled. But apparently, it’s not typically that bad. My colleagues got through in thirty minutes to an hour. I had been told to take the Airport Limousine Bus (15,000 won each way – approx. $13.25) for the “70-minute” ride to the hotel. Rush hour traffic extended the drive to more than two hours.

So, from touchdown till arrival at my hotel took more than four-and-a-half tedious hours. I was tired and the hotel’s restaurant was closing and unable to prepare any Korean food, so I settled for that traditional Korean delicacy—a club sandwich ;-). I had expected to arrive late afternoon and explore, but my flight had been an hour late, and the 4-1/2 hours of waiting in lines and traffic gave me only enough time to unpack and collapse.

On my first day (after arrival) I decided to hit the palaces. The 40-minute taxi ride cost 14,000 won. That translated to approximately $12.50 U.S. – very cheap compared to taxis anywhere else I’ve been. But … the taxi driver could not read the English characters on my map and apparently, my pronunciation of “Changdeokgung” didn’t give him a clue. I learned to have the hotel staff write out in Korean the name of wherever I was headed. FYI, there are as many taxis in Seoul as in NYC--and probably twice as many places to buy coffee.

I was blown away by Changdeokgung Palace. It was remarkably beautiful. The admission fees there (and everywhere else) were very low. I bought a combination ticket that gave me access to four palaces and a Buddhist shrine for about $8.50 U.S. (total). I enjoyed a free English-language tour of the palace that provided some interesting info about the history of the Joseon dynasty. A separate tour of the Secret Garden was pleasant, but less exciting than its name implied. I suspect it would have been more impressive a few weeks later when the leaves and flowers returned. My tour guide’s English was barely decipherable.

I somehow came upon a second palace, Changgyeonggung. I was jaded from the remarkable beauty of Changdeokgung and I wasn’t as impressed by the second palace as much as the first, but I enjoyed my walk around the grounds. I gave my camera quite a workout.

Quite a few teenaged girls were dressed in beautiful traditional costumes. Apparently, a fun thing for them to do on a weekend is to dress up and stroll around taking selfies and posing for tourists’ photos. It was so lovely to see. I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of seeing them in traditional costumes, texting on their cell phones.

Next stop was the main palace, Gyeongbokgung. Walking toward the palace I passed a street that looked interesting. I wandered down, not knowing I was in Bukchon Village, an area known for its old houses. I enjoyed browsing in the shops and restaurants and had lunch at a little stand. The dumplings were delicious; but the ramen noodles were blow-torch hot. I don't do "spicy," so I left them in their bowl and later stopped at a stand for a made-to-order greenish pancake that had a sweetish paste inside. I now had a new addiction! The most memorable shopping stop was a shop called “Bathhouse”—a converted … bathhouse. It was four stories of nothing but expensive sunglasses. I have no interest in sunglasses, but the displays and the shop itself were nothing short of art. Loved it! My next stop was for a much-needed caffeine fix—then I continued on to palace #2.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was more mobbed than Disneyland on the 4th of July. The crowds were oppressive and I the palace didn’t impress me as much as it would have had it been the first one I’d seen. It was larger than Changdeokgung, but I didn’t find it as beautiful. By late afternoon, the crowds began to thin and I was better able to appreciate the very pretty setting and the impressive structures. I had now officially fulfilled my quota of palaces.

Afterward, I strolled through the jewelry district en route to the Jongmyo Confucian Shrine. OMG, I’ve never seen so much bling in one place. I can’t imagine how all of those stores stay in business. I eventually found my way to the shrine, a UNESCO Heritage site, where the memorial tablets for the kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty are kept. Very pretty grounds and blissfully uncrowded, but the architecture was similar to the palaces, and I was on pagoda overload. I took a taxi back to the hotel and collapsed.

The next day’s highlight was something I’ll never forget. To be continued …
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Apr 4th, 2016, 05:18 PM
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Following along and enjoying your report. I must say that I am a bit surprised at the crowds you're encountering. I did not make it to Seoul when I visited Korea in 2012, but I did not recall the crowds to be particularly significant anywhere we went.
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Apr 4th, 2016, 05:58 PM
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Thanks for coming back to rep[ort! glad you had a good trip - now you've had a taste of Asia there's so much more to explore.

I didn't encounter crowds in Korea in 2010, and I did visit Seoul. Was there a particular festival or exhibition on?
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Apr 4th, 2016, 06:29 PM
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In terms of the crowds ...
Not everyplace was crowded. I think a snafu, with delayed flights arriving at the same time, caused the mess at the airport. But rush hour traffic was consistently HORRIBLE--as bad as the L.A. freeways.

In one instance I took the subway at the peak of rush hour and people were cramming themselves in before the doors shut. I could hardly believe how people were pressed so hard against each other. I'd heard different estimates--that the population was between 10 - 12 million. I think they were all on the subway that day! I'm guessing that was normal for rush hour--but during off-peak times, I could usually get a seat on the subway.

I think the reason for the crowds at Gyeongbokgung Palace was because it was a sunny weekend--probably the first one of the season.

The crowds at the street markets were unbelievable -- but that was all part of the vibrant atmosphere and I didn't mind. Other places were not particularly crowded.

to be continued ...
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Apr 4th, 2016, 07:07 PM
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You are most welcome, Songdoc, and thank YOU for “paying back” by posting your experiences!

Seoul is massive – among the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, so you were certainly right on those counts! FWIW, the “yellow dust” was, perhaps, a combination of industrial polution and actual yellow dust from the loess planes to the north and west of Beijing.

I believe the girls (and some boys) dress up in part because their admission fees are reduced if they do so.

BTW: Congrats on your professional success in being invited to participate in this opportunity. I hope it was a rewarding experience for you.
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Apr 4th, 2016, 07:24 PM
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Thanks again, kja. Yes, the fees are waived if you dress in traditional costume at the palaces, but I don't think that's the real motivation, because it only cost 3,000 won ($2.65 US) to get in. They just think it's fun to play dress up--and I saw many costumed couples (but mostly girls) in the street markets and other places where was no admission fee. I loved it!

And ... thank you for the kind congratulations. I won't learn for at least a few weeks whether any the ten songs I wrote will be chosen. The competition is FIERCE! But regardless, both the writing and the sightseeing were awesome experiences!
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Apr 4th, 2016, 08:15 PM
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Good luck on the song selection.
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Apr 5th, 2016, 06:32 AM
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Thanks, tripplanner. I've been doing this a long time and I'm used to being squashed like a cockroach! No matter what happens, it was an experience I wouldn't trade.

On my second full day in Seoul, two of my colleagues arrived and we shared a taxi to Insa-dong, a big street market, specializing in antiques, but mostly selling souvenirs and clothing. There were lots of food vendors preparing exotic dishes, including mini-octopi on skewers, dumplings, and fried, stuffed buns. We noticed a traditionally costumed troupe of drummers preparing to perform. The troupe included lots of cymbals and two reed instruments that looked like recorders but sounded like shrill bagpipes. The performance was awesome. The drumming and dancing was primal and thoroughly infectious. They danced while they played, whirling long ribbons that were attached to their hats. It hurt my neck just to watch! As the music reached its peak, several of the performers noticed my friends and me--the only non-Asians in the audience--and grabbed our hands and pulled us into the center of their circle. Next thing I knew I was dancing with utter joy and wild abandon, knowing I will never see these people again in my life. It was so exhilarating!

That night there was a business dinner (with food that I didn't like) and the next morning began 10 days of intense, ridiculously long hours of work. We were basically sequestered and food was brought to the studio. On two occasions I had the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. Other nights were Korean rice and meat dishes that I would order “NOT SPICY,” which would be too spicy for me. Pizza and burgers were surprisingly good, though, and fried chicken was popular. So, let’s flash forward to when work was through … But first I'll mention that fans were always waiting outside all the record label offices (including the one where I was working) hoping for a glimpse of the K-Pop stars. Instead they got me and my colleagues, so I had my picture taken many times!

Our after-work celebration was at a swanky, trendy restaurant/night club called SMT. The food was excellent—Korean fusion tapas. I don’t drink alcohol, but my friends were raving about the house drink. The music and the vibe were great. There were even holograms. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip.

Here’s the quick version of the long horror story of my first experience with the subway: I wanted to go for a walk someplace close by the hotel. Hangang Park, along the Han River seemed close—just across the bridge. The desk clerk told me I could not walk across the bridge (which I later found was not true) and I was too intimidated to try the subway, so I took a taxi. Big mistake. It was approaching rush hour and the very short drive took forever in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The taxi pulled off the interstate and dropped me off in the parking lot. (You’ll soon see why this was important.) The park was a pleasant place to walk, but wasn’t anything I’d particularly recommend. It offered great views of high-rise buildings that seemed like a computer-generated images from a futuristic sci-fi movie. Couples and families picnicked and rented cute little paddle boats shaped like ducks and chickens.

When it was time to leave I realized there was no way to hail a taxi. They would have had to have already pulled off the interstate into the parking area—and there weren’t any taxis there. But … there was a subway station in view. I couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket or where I was supposed to go. I was completely overwhelmed and stressed. I somehow made it to the train platform without having bought a ticket! Luckily, a very sweet teenager, who spoke just enough English, came to my rescue and walked me to the machine where I could buy a ticket. She was going in the same direction as me and made sure I got off at the correct stop. A few days later I had mastered the system and was very impressed with its efficiency—and ease of use! I couldn’t believe I had found it so difficult and intimidating. From that moment on all my transportation was via subway, bus, or train.

The most important thing was to know (for each train) the FINAL stop in the direction I was headed. As long as I knew that—and the line number I was transferring to—I did fine. The public transportation system was SO cheap. A trip with multiple transfers (including subways, buses, and trains—if needed) cost under the equivalent of $1.85.

Two hot tips:

When taking a taxi or a bus have someone write out the name of your stop in Korean. (The taxi drivers did not understand English and could not read the English words.) Writing out: “Changgyeonggung” (for example) was of no use. They couldn’t read English characters any better than I could read the Korean ones, and in many cases my pronunciation must have been too far off for them to decipher.

Buy a transportation card in the convenience store. I can’t begin to describe how difficult it was for them to convey to me that it was a 2-step process: first you buy the card for 2500 won; then you add the amount of money you want. Doesn’t seem difficult, but I could not figure out what the clerk at the information booth was trying to express.

While I’m on the topic of language barriers …

Most of my sightseeing days involved some degree of frustration and feeling stressed because I was lost and unable to get accurate directions. Everyone I stopped was exceptionally kind and helpful—but most of the time when I was given directions, they did not get me where I was trying to go. In defense of the very nice people who tried to help me, I admit that I do not have a good sense of direction and am not great at using maps. But I did find myself lost quite often. It wasn’t that big a deal because I knew I could always hail a taxi (except that one time at Hangang Park) and show them the Korean language version of where I wanted to go—if I had planned that stop in advance and had someone at the hotel write it out for me.

Somehow, I am no longer wandering the streets of Seoul, and I eventually found everyplace I looked for. So, it was do-able ;-).

Just to be clarify before I continue… I had a FABULOUS time and found Seoul and surrounds to be vibrant, exciting, stimulating, and fascinating. The next day included one of the highlights among highlights!

To be continued …
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Apr 5th, 2016, 06:46 AM
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Did you have a smart phone with you? I have found that it is more difficult to get lost these days with a maps app on a smart phone. Mine even understands buses and subways and knows when the next train/bus will arrive - and where to find the right bus stop!
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Apr 5th, 2016, 10:00 AM
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Very interesting... Some of the transportation issues and the language barriers you initially encountered reminds me of my own experience during the first days of my visit to Tokyo, although my understanding of Chinese characters helped a bit.
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Apr 5th, 2016, 10:32 AM
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I did indeed have a smart phone with me, but being a total techno-moron I couldn't figure out how to get English-language maps. But I did use Google translate which helped several times.

I forgot to mention that it was critical to know which subway exit to take. The station closest to my hotel had 14 different exits!

As the report continues, you'll see that as time went by, I became much more comfortable with the transportation system. By the time I left it seemed easy!
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Apr 5th, 2016, 08:06 PM
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kja
 
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Aren't those dancers with the long ribbons on their hats amazing?!? I saw them a few times and was impressed each time.

I'm so glad you found the wherewithal to master the subway and bus systems -- they really are efficient and -- once one learns how -- extremely easy to use. Good job, songdoc!

BTW, I suspect that for some South Korean teens, 3,000 won is a chunk of change Free admission, with the bonus of having fun getting dress up, might actually be quite an incentive.
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Apr 6th, 2016, 05:33 AM
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The next morning, I knew exactly what I wanted my reward to be for all that hard work. So, I paid a Korean man wearing a Speedo to rub my skin raw and slap my naked butt—repeatedly. And I loved it! Um, I guess I should explain.

I conjured up all my courage and took two subways and a train to the Dragon Hill Spa (Seoul’s top-rated traditional bathhouse). I signed up for “the Gold Deluxe Package”—110,000 won. (On my credit card statement that was billed as $96 USD.)

There are separate floors for men and women, and on those floors, you stay naked. I read that it’s so they know you’re not trying to hide that you have a disease!

No one spoke any English after I left the initial check-in area, but they managed to convey that I was supposed to leave all my clothes in a locker and take a shower. Then someone pointed me to a room where the slender little Speedo’d man (mentioned above) had me lie face down on a table. I had my eyes closed and got quite a surprise when I was splashed with a bucket of hot water. Mr. Speedo proceeded to do his very best to scrape my skin off my body with a torture device that was rougher than sandpaper. I seriously thought I must be bleeding. But after I got used to it (and saw that there wasn’t any blood) I really liked it. In fact, I loved it! My skin was tingling as if an electric current were running through it, and it felt great. I was rolled over and (almost) every inch of my body got scrubbed raw.

After another shocking bucket or two of hot water he dried me and the massage began. OMG. There are no words. At times it was acupressure—and very painful; other times it was utter bliss. I went to heaven and back—several times. The man on the table next to me was moaning in ways I hadn’t heard since I lived in West Hollywood.

By the time the face massage and shampoo was over, 80 minutes had passed, and I had been deposited onto another planet. He finished by massaging me with thick lathery soap. I couldn’t imagine how my legs would carry me to the shower--but they did. They also managed to deliver me to a series of saunas and tubs of temperatures ranging from “Help, I’m boiling!” to “Ahhh this is perfect,” to “OMG it’s an ice plunge!” There was a place where you sat on a very low stool and used a high-pressure hand-held shower massager thing that was incredible.

The spa was enormous – 6 stories – and it included two pyramids intended for meditation. I think some people were unclear on the concept because at least half of them sitting in the meditation area were busy texting on their phones and taking selfies!

I ate lunch at the restaurant in the spa, It was the first place I saw with traditional, low-to-the-ground seating. I ordered the pork cutlet, which seemed to be the only item that wouldn’t be spicy. It was served with soup and several pickled side dishes. It was lousy. But not nearly as disgusting as the silkworm larvae that I tried from a street vendor a few days later. Blech!

I floated out and was very proud to have negotiated the two subways and a train to get back to my hotel. I don’t know when I have ever felt this blissed out. This was definitely a highlight among highlights!

To be continued …
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Apr 6th, 2016, 06:02 AM
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Great description! You'll also encounter that sandpaper effect in a proper Turkish bath - I'm always amazed at how much dirt comes off apparently clean skin.

Very sorry to hear they allow cell phones aka cameras in!
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Apr 6th, 2016, 08:23 AM
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There are "no photography" signs and the phones were on the communal floors where everyone was dressed. So I think I'm safe and won't show up on YouTube ;-).
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Apr 6th, 2016, 08:06 PM
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I am really enjoying your report. Those dancers and drums are great aren't they.

I imagine you worked quite hard while there so its great you found some time to look around. How was your interaction with local workers? I found they would say to just do the hours you feel like but if you stick to their quite long working hours with them they really value your commitment. People I worked with have become family.

I'm off back to SK in a couple of weeks and can't wait. Unlike you I have been remiss in doing trip reports but will try a bit harder this time. Every one has a few extras to add to help the next visitor to get the most from their trip and there aren't many reports for South Korea. Fortunately the ones that there are have been really good (especially kja's most helpful one)

I admire your bravery at the spa but dont think I'm really for such as yet. Apart from modesty I don't think I could handle being skinned and boiled.

I look forward to reading more.
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Apr 6th, 2016, 11:09 PM
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You really did spread your wings, songdoc -- good for you!!!
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Apr 8th, 2016, 06:05 PM
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kja: you've got that right!

MaryW: Most of my work was with colleagues who came from the U.S. and the Netherlands. 12 – 14 hour workdays were expected and there would be no days off. That was made clear before I accepted the invitation. Knowing that, I intentionally built in days off before and after the work.

I did one 17-hour day and some of my (much younger!) co-writers worked much longer. Our Korean music biz hosts worked at least 12-hours a day. They said they work 6 days a week and get very few holidays. It’s very difficult for them to have relationships or friends.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled trip report ;-).

It was about a 20-minute walk from my hotel to the Bonguensa temple. It was very crowded with worshippers and the chanting of the monks could be heard throughout the grounds. I loved it there.

Namsan Park was a bit of a disappointment. I rode the cable car to the top, hoping for hiking trails. Instead, I found incredible numbers of tourists who were eating, buying souvenirs and love locks, and of course … taking selfies. The city views were impressive, but once again were filtered by heavy pollution, which was making me cough and blow my nose every three minutes. I skipped going to the top of the tower for an additional fee. I was ready to get away from the crowds. Although I had purchased a RT ticket on the cable car, I walked back down. It was a long walk. I was expecting peaceful gardens, but there was a lot of construction, and it wasn’t very pretty, except for a couple for sculptures.

I found the maps very difficult to use. Things appeared much closer than they were—and the orientation wasn’t what I expected. After asking directions at least five times I found the Namdaemun market. It was mindboggling. Total sensory overload (in a good way!). It is Korea’s largest market and seemed to go on and on forever. It was quite the feast for the senses—especially the taste buds. Lots of vendors were preparing food on the streets. I pointed to something and a woman grabbed a slab of dough, stuffed it with cheese and bean sprouts then fried it while I waited. It was FABULOUS! I thought some fresh fruit would be nice so I pointed to a cup filled with banana slices, kiwi, and strawberries. 3,000 won. I figured they’d give me a toothpick to eat it with. But before I could say, “Stop!” my fruit was tossed into a blender with ice and water and I walked away with a delicious smoothie!

I stuffed myself with outrageously good handmade buns and dumplings (filled with minced pork and onions) before waddling back to the subway. What an amazing experience. I’ll mention that even walking back from the office at midnight or later I felt perfectly safe. There were always people on the streets.

The Myeong-dong area offered much more upscale shopping being enjoyed by huge crowds. That’s where I found the cat and dog cafés—places where you drink coffee (or other nonalcoholic beverages) while petting cats or dogs (depending on the café). Being an animal lover I couldn’t resist. There was an 8,000 won admission fee that covered your first beverage. Refills cost 2,000 won. There was a wide variety of approximately 30 purebred exotic breeds in each café. Most of them wanted to curl up on a lap and sleep. It was a fun, unique experience.

Outside one of the cafés I spotted a sign for “Doctor Fish.” For 28,000 won you could put your feet in a tank filled with little fishies that nibble away your callouses and dead skin. No, thank you! But I heard from several people that they (or someone they knew) had tried it and loved it.

To be continued …
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Apr 8th, 2016, 06:20 PM
  #19
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I'm glad you enjoyed Bonguensa -- I found it delightful! And aren't those markets amazing?

The first I heard about fish "treatments" for feet was in Turkey, and I must admit that I'm intrigued! But it seems to me that some of those callouses protect me when I'm relying on my feet a lot, as I do when traveling, so I've never indulged. I wonder which of us will give it a try first....
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Apr 8th, 2016, 07:31 PM
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There is a sheep cafe in Seoul too. At least I believe its still there. Started in the year of the sheep so maybe now its some other animal! They had just 2 perfectly washed and groomed sheep. Not quite as good as a cat for curling up in a customers lap though.

The working hours are pretty steep aren't they. I work for myself so often put in the hours by choice but the general workers in SK have it hard. Then they go out a few nights a week drinking till all hours. I'm probably just getting old but keeping up was a challenge. I was glad to get home for a rest.

Looking forward to more of your report.
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