A Week of Holler and Makgeolli

The Dongdaemun Gate (Heunginjimun Gate), one of the many landmarks of Seoul. Rebuilt in 1869, it is one of The Eight Gates in the Fortress Wall of Seoul.

My first visit to Seoul was a business trip back in 2011. Despite being a short 3-day stay of mainly business card exchanges with no sightseeing, this beautiful capital of South Korea had left a deep impression in my mind, touched my heart and stirred my soul.

Three years later, I had decided to return to this heartfelt city in search of some Kimchi and K-pop overdose that would easily electrify anyone with much flurry and fiery.

A 7-day itinerary for the world's second largest metropolitan city (after Tokyo) may sound rather short at first. But in the context of tourism and by the measurement of travel brochures, I had figured that a week's stay in the capital would be enough. Consider one would have otherwise covered from Seoul to Jeju and done some skiing in the mountains within 7 days with the help of Chan Brothers' highly efficient planning.

If you have seen my previous posts, you might have realised by now that detailed planning isn't my cup of tea. Call me lazy or incompetent, it just seems getting harder and harder to work out each trip in recent years.

With no exception this time, my 7-day travel planner printed on a piece of A4-sized paper was still a blank when I arrived in Seoul, except for the name of a few places scribbled faintly and sparsely in pencil. Yes, it was on a sheet of A4 paper and I wasn't using an iPad. I still plan and document my travel on pieces of paper.

Getting from the airport to the city was a breeze. The signs were very clear and one could walk to the connected subway station easily with their luggage. The A'REX rapid transit gets you directly from Incheon into the city centre in about an hour.

Getting around the city on subway was easy and efficient, but do require some careful prior route-charting. After all, the Seoul metropolitan subway system is the world's longest metro system in terms of total combined route length. It's an amazing subway network with a labyrinth of lines that seems to have ran out of colours to represent and distinguish one line from another. Good luck for travellers with colour-blindness.

With a flexible itinerary and little expectation, we were able to visit several key attractions and spend sufficient time at each place at a leisurely pace. From the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Joseon dynasty to the bustling shopping districts of Myeongdong and Insadong, that sheet of A4 paper was filled up with many places in no time.

It is a truly stunning city with so much to offer. The streets are beautiful and the people are gorgeous, well, we shall ignore how much of their faces are real or not for now. With Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Mario Botta and Jean Nouvel all contributing to the city's built environment, I'm sure there are many real good reasons why Seoul was named the World Design Capital and the UNESCO City of Design.

It doesn't matter if you prefer dancing to Gangnam Style or dressing up to the style of G-Dragon, Seoul will always have something for everyone, something to delight your senses and rejoice your heart. For those who seek rejoice in the skin more than the heart, the countless Korean skincare product stores in Myeongdong could easily let you bring back a lifetime supply of masks for any imaginable part of your body.

For a week, my ears were filled with familiar tunes of many K-pop songs, including the latest release, Holler, at every shop from the north to the south of Hangang. And in the evening, my stomach filled with an ice cold Makgeolli with every meal, at times with another bottle brought back to the hotel. Did I ever say that a week is enough?

First day, first morning, first stop - the famous Noryangjin Fish Market, one of the largest fresh seafood market in Korea. Some say it is the equivalent of Tsukiji in Tokyo. Alight at Noryangjin Station (obviously) and take Exit 1. Cross this bridge and it will lead you directly into the market on the other end.
Overhead food delivery inside Noryangjin Fish Market.
Local merchants and stall owners gather for a meal. A common sight in the market.


Gonna be someone's dinner soon.

Skate fish on sale. Rarely seen in many countries but they are everywhere in Noryangjin. They contribute to one of Koreans' favourite dishes - the Hongeohoe.

A typical stall in Noryangjin. Each stall has its specialty and would showcase an amazing range of products.

Another stall. Walking down each aisle is a great lesson on marketing strategy, product placement and visual merchandising.

Carefully packed and respectfully presented.

Who let the crabs out?

S, M, L, XL. I was staring at the few tentacles on the left and wondering how big could that octopus possibly be before it was ripped apart.

Shrimps of all kinds. Notice how neat they were displayed. No, they did not mix raw and cooked prawns. Those in the background were pink shrimps.

Which way to go? This is the corridor on the mezzanine floor above the wet market area pointing to many restaurants.

There are many restaurants on the mezzanine floor of the market. You may buy some fresh seafood from the stalls below (often from those in the front row) and bring those live octopus up to enjoy the freshest sashimi wiggling in your mouth.
The stalls along the front row catering to tourists. They would usually entertain tourists better than some other stalls deep in the market, which might find tourists and shutterbugs like me quite annoying. And many of these stalls in front could communicate in English and Chinese. The good thing is, they are never pushy.
A panoramic view of Noryangjin Market from the second storey. Yes, it is massive. But compared to Tsukiji, this is easier to walk around and explore as it is housed under one roof.
Next, a visit to KBS (Korean Broadcasting System), the national broadcaster of South Korea. 'KBS ON' is a visitor centre that showcases the company's business and has many interactive activities. The best part is, it is free. The KBS complex is located near National Assembly Station and can be reached in 10 minutes on foot from the station.
Walking past a foley recording studio in KBS. The few people inside were in the midst of recording what sounded like a storytelling programme.

Another recording studio in action.

After KBS, my Hallyu walk continued with a visit to one of the three biggest K-pop recording companies in South Korea - YG Entertainment. The walls of many buildings opposite YG were "highly decorated" by fans from all over the world.

The iconic eight-storey YG Entertainment building, supposedly designed and shaped after its initials, don't ask me where and how. Located just 10 minutes walk from Hapjeong Station, longer if you get lost in the small alleys.

No, I didn't see Psy galloping out in his shades; or 2NE1 and Big Bang strolling out for coffee.

Lunch. Super juicy and tasty Korean BBQ beef.

Continuing my Hallyu stroll at Apgujeong-ro. The main boulevard is lined with many boutiques and shopping malls, including the Galleria Department Store in the background.

Grabbed a drink first at Cofioca in Apgujeong. Cofioca is a famous bubble tea café often patronised by many Hallyu Stars including Girls' Generation, Super Junior, TVXQ and EXO. The walls are filled with autographed notes and posters.
Sadly, I didn't see any stars there. Neither Taeyeon nor Baekhyun was craving for bubble tea that day.

A short walk from the new Apgujeong Rodeo station (Bundang Line, yellow colour) lies many high fashion flagship stores and local designer fashion boutiques along the main road, Apgujeong-ro. A fashion mecca for all shopaholics.

Quite clearly which entertainment company this building belongs to. It's located just a short walk from Galleria Department Store, which is above Apgujeong Rodeo station. The mega posters are full-façade hoarding while the entire building is currently going through renovation.

Fans standing outside S.M. Entertainment - their current location (114, Seolleung-ro 190 gil) while it's original building (previous picture) is under renovation. To reach their current office requires a rather arduous walk from Apgujeong Rodeo station.

No, I didn't see 10 Super hunks or 9 Girls walking out in perfectly synchronised steps and formation. Incidentally, I was there on the day all SONEs will remember forever - 30 Sept 2014. Also the day Mr. Lee S.M. lost his beloved wife.

A 3-min walk from S.M. Entertainment stands another smaller K-Pop music label, FNC Entertainment (46, Dosan-daero 85-gil).

No, I didn't see that 5 Islanders strolling out.

Having a coffee break along a back alleyway in Apgujeong. There are many small, unpretentious and not overly decorated cafés in Seoul to rest your feet and spend the afternoon doing nothing.

The ideal café for 2AM and 2PM fans to spend the day.

No, that four girls sitting at the café were not Wonder Girls, disbanded, and having coffee across the street wondering what to do next.

Wrapping up my Apgujeong Rodeo K-pop walk is Cube Entertainment's building, which stands diagonally opposite JYP Entertainment.

No, I did not see any Beast charging out of the door, or 6 girls walking out looking for Mr. Chu. At least, I did spend 4Minute waiting and hoping for some star encounter.

All MINIs I've seen in Seoul have this interesting tagline.

The stunning roofscape of Bukchon Hanok Village in the evening. I find the best time to walk around this mesmerising Joseon neighbourhood is from the late afternoon. The warmth of the evening sun bathes the houses gently, rendering a harmonious composition of hues, shades and tones, creating a soulful ambience in this historical neighbourhood like it has been every evening for 600 years.

A typical old timber door in Bukchon Hanok. Potentially with a 600 year old history since the Joseon Dynasty.

Materials, textures, colours and patterns. Commonly seen on the outer walls of a hanok.

Looking out from Simsimheon Hanok - Views are a highly important part of architecture in the past. The consideration for composing and framing what's outside from the inside has mostly been forgotten in today's architecture and space design.

A visit to the Simsimheon Hanok within Bukchon (No. 47, Bukchon-no 11 ga-gil). This is a traditional hanok that has been restored beautifully and is open for public viewing at a small fee. They do limit the number of visitors entering at any one time. At one point, I was the only visitor and it felt like being in my own house for a while. Didn't want to leave.

The admission includes a short tour with an English-speaking guide, and a nice cup of plum tea to be enjoyed by the courtyard at your own time.

The garden courtyard of Simsimheon Hanok. What a beautiful composition between architecture and nature.

The main hall of Simsimheon Hanok, and my cup of plum tea. In fact, it is a modern home with all necessary amenities and a modern kitchen. The owner had purchased this beautiful architectural treasure but could not live here due to the noise from tourists. It is now an occasional holiday home.

Ready for Halloween party in Simsimheon Hanok.

The verandah around the bedroom in Simsimheon Hanok, and overlooking the city.

A perfect place to take a selfie. The entire Bukchon Hanok Village sits on a gentle hill offering many stunning vistas from the top.

One of the many beautiful evening views from the higher grounds of Bukchon Hanok Village overlooking the glittering Seoul city. Visiting the Village in the evening allows one to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of this charming neighbourhood, and could possibly avoid hordes of tourists in your photos as well.

Another good reason to visit till night falls is that one could appreciate the hanoks under artificial lighting, which highlights many unique architectural elements, rendering an extraordinary sense of place.

The charm of hanok architecture under artificial and moon light.

Having my coffee break on the balcony of Bukchon Observatory, an apartment-converted café located on the third storey (top floor) of an apartment, offering a stunning panoramic view of Bukchon Hanok Village. A small fee of 3,000 Won is applicable, drinks and chit-chat with the friendly local aunties included.

A panoramic view of Bukchon Hanok Village against the glittering Seoul city in the background from the Observatory balcony.

On the way back to Anguk Station, walking past many hanok-converted shops, restaurants and bars. An excellent eye-opening stroll, witnessing many examples of beautiful conservation and adaptive reuse projects.

Continuing my stroll downhill with many extremely cool cafés and shops along the way towards Anguk Station.

Back at Sheraton and ending the day with a glass of cabernet sauvignon at the lobby bar on level 41 of D-Cube City. Staring at this magnificent city and mesmerised by such a view, I couldn't help but sang out in my heart "S.E.O.U.L. let's shout it out together, a wonderful world where dreams will come true", from the official Seoul tourism MV featuring Super Junior and SNSD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=up6n1WrB7aE).

Taking the subway and going across the Han River, essentially slicing Seoul into half.

An early start at Myeongdong, possibly Seoul's most exciting and colourful shopping district with countless fashion boutiques and skincare stores. You will see many familiar faces on the billboards and store posters if you are a K-pop fan.

SPAO and EverySing in Myeongdong, a must-go for those S.M. Entertainment fans. SPAO is the South Korean equivalent of Uniqlo from Japan. As a result of a joint-venture with S.M., all ad models are celebrities from S.M. On the fourth storey is EverySing, a shop operated by S.M. Entertainment selling goods related to celebrities of the company. The bad news is, this EverySing Myeongdong had been closed since 31 May 2014. The doors were locked when I was there on 1 Oct, with no indication of re-opening or re-location.

Incidentally (or unfortunately), it was China's National Day Golden Week holiday. Expect waves of tourists from mainland China over-riding the Korean Wave. And many advertisements were in Chinese, with Chinese-speaking sales staff standing at the doors. Oh... and it's TaeTiSeo on the standee and Holler playing in the background.

It's easy to get lost in Myeongdong. It's hard to use any shop as an orientation landmark as many brands have multiple stores within Myeongdong. And the scale of every street feels almost the same. For me, the distant N Seoul Tower acts as my south compass needle. This street would lead you southbound towards Myeongdong subway station (Entrance/Exit 6).

Many Kim Soo Hyun on the streets of Myeongdong. For those who have watched "来自星星的你", you would know who this guy is.

Inside MusicKorea, located on the third storey of Nature Republic's store just outside Exit 6 of Myeongdong Station (there are many Nature Republic stores in Myeongdong). A one-stop CD/DVD store for all your K-pop music shopping desires.

Another familiar face in Innisfree, South Korea's first all-natural cosmetics and skincare brand. If you are not an SNSD fan, you would also recognise who Yoona is if you have cried watching "Love Rain" or "Prime Minister and I". Yes I did.

Consider which part of your body needs some masks? I was wondering what could happen if one uses them at the wrong places.

Fret not if you are lost! There are many volunteers like these walking around key tourist attractions and districts. Armed with maps in their bags, they could speak some simple English and would be highly enthusiastic to render assistance where possible.

Across the street from Myeongdong is Lotte Young Plaza, targeted at the young, hip and stylish. Six floors of very nice casual apparels, bags, hats and accessories, but sadly, I'm too old to fit into any. When I was there in Oct 2014, S.M. Entertainment's pop-up store - SM Town was occupying the basement event space, with another small corner on level one.

Moving on to Zaha's latest addition to Seoul's cityscape - the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). Visited the Culture Chanel exhibition "The Sense of Places".

A good overview of DDP from Smoothie King located on the fourth floor of Doota, a shopping mall opposite. A good place to rest your feet and get recharged with some energy-boosting beverage.

Zaha's "fluidity". More than 45,000 pieces of aluminium panels wrap the complex. Each and every panel is unique and different.

The DDP comprises The Art Hall, Museum, Design Lab, Oullim Square, and the Park behind. The Design Market is part of the Oullim Square, which links DDP to the business district with many shops and restaurants.

Scale, volume, space and fluidity.

Reflection from surrounding buildings and digital media walls, constantly having a dialogue with DDP.

Exposed concrete and aluminium panels form the DDP envelope.

Admiring curves.

An overview of the Oullim Square in DDP. That sand pitch isn't suffering from the same fate Singapore's new Sport's Hub did. It's an excavated historical site that preserve traces of the national military institute, called Hadogam, that once existed on this location in the Joseon period.

DDP - also symbolising Dreaming, Designing, Playing. A true testimony of the country's commitment towards design and the creative industry.

Inside DDP's Design Lab, Korea's largest art and design shop.

They wouldn't let SM Town off. After all, K-pop embraces art, culture and design in many ways.

On the second floor of Design Lab. More design-related products on display and on sale.

Had an overdose of design at DDP. Took a short walk from DDP to see the Dongdaemun Gate. Walked past the Cheonggyecheon stream, a highly successful project and showcase of urban renewal.

A bottle a day keeps the doctor away. Makgeolli is know for its many health benefits, including skin regeneration and whitening. I guess I haven't drank enough then.

Getting a break from shopping and everything Hallyu. Signed up for a half-day tour to DMZ - the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Unfortunately, the South Korean army was having an exercise the entire week when I was there. Hence, all full-day tours were not available, which means not a chance to visit the JSA to witness some tense close-range staring between soldiers from the North and the South.

Arriving at Imjingak, the point of entry some 7 km from the most heavily militarized border in the world.

Crossing the Unification Bridge with soldiers boarding the bus to check everyone's passport.

Possibly the 3 most tense letters in the world.
A walk in the Third Tunnel, one of the 4 tunnels found so far under the border of North and South Korea. It was built by the North and is capable of sending a surprise present of 30,000 soldiers per hour into Seoul. At a depth of 73m below ground, some parts of the tunnel can be quite steep. The ground is also slippery with occasional puddles of water. Mostly, you'll be walking in a slightly crouching position to avoid hitting your head, and that is why you might hear many "kongs" echoing through tunnel when many helmets hit the rocks and scaffolds. The return journey of descend and ascend was very, very exhausting for me. For those with weak health, please think twice before putting on that helmet.

Overlooking the DMZ and the border line from Dora Observatory.

A panoramic view of DMZ and North Korea from Dora Observatory. Unfortunate to have poor weather and visibility. Would otherwise been able to see some villages in the North, flying their DPRK flag high. Previously, photography was prohibited at the edge of the observatory. They have recently removed that rule.

Tour of Dorasan Train Station. Wish I was really taking a train into Pyeongyang.

Not that far to visit Kim Jong-un. Trains were once running between Kaesong in the North and Dorasan Station, but had ceased since 2008. 

A common sight. South Korean soldiers around the Station, with North Korea in the background.

Driving past Camp Greaves, previously occupied by the U.S. Army.

Some UNESCO-themed tour the next day. Locals enjoying their morning drink by the road. Walking to Jongmyo Shrine from Jongno 3-ga subway station.

The entrance to Jongmyo Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a Confucian shrine for memorial services for deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. The rituals and ceremonies are preserved and practiced till today.

Love birds on the roof of Jongmyo.

Jeongjeon – the Main Hall of Jongmyo Shrine. There are 19 chambers and houses the tablets of 19 kings and their queens during the Joseon Dynasty, totalling to 49 tablets. That's 2.5 wives per king on the average.

Do not walk on these raised, dark-coloured stone paths. They are used for ceremonial purposes and meant for the spirits to "walk".

Jeongjeon - The Main Hall with 19 doors, 19 chambers.

Our English-speaking tour guide. Free tours are available everyday at the gate. The English tour times are 10 am, 12 noon, 2 pm and 4 pm. Each tour lasts approximately an hour.

A panoramic view of the Main Hall of Jongmyo Shrine. It is an imposing and majestic building measuring 109m across, said to be the world's longest single wooden structure.

The Yeongnyeongjeon, the Hall of Eternal Peace. Due to overcrowding of the Main Hall, the Yeongnyeongjeon was built to house more tablets of kings and queens, 34 to be exact behind these 16 chamber doors.

A souvenir on my way out of Jongmyo Shrine. It fell from the tree and hit my head. Do watch out because it really hurts.

A short 15-min walk from Jongmyo Shrine would bring you to another UNESCO World Heritage Site - The Changdeokgung. It is one of the Five Grand Palaces built by kings in the Joseon Dynasty.

The Donhwamun, main entrance into Changdeokgung.

Started with a tour of Huwon (Rear Garden). This is the Eosumun Gate that leads to the Juhamnu Pavilion (library) in the background. The big doorway in the middle was meant for the king and the two small side doors for his ministers. The name Eosumun (鱼水门) symbolises that a fish cannot live outside of water. It was meant to be a reminder to the King that he must consider the reality of his people and respect them as he ruled.

A beautiful garden indeed. The Huwon was meant for exclusive use by the royal family. Hence, it's also called the Secret Garden.


Taking off from the roofs of Changdeokgung.

The distinct roof of Seonjeongjeon Hall - perhaps the "parliament" equivalent which the king held his meetings with his high ranking officials and ministers.

A forgotten corridor in Changdeokgung.

Enough of palaces and Joseon history. A short 15-min walk from Changdeokgung promises a totally different experience. Insa-dong is the place to go for traditional Korean cultural wares and crafts. The information booth is located in Ssamziegil, a vibrant shopping centre block located in the heart of Insa-dong. Behind the booth is an interesting directory wall showing the area.

The Ssamziegil shopping centre. A ramp connects the entire building and all its shops, allowing visitors to walk seamlessly alike any street-level shopping experience. There are many very interesting shops selling beautiful hand-made crafts, accessories, bags and wares. The courtyard is always filled with snack stalls, caricature booths, and other art and craft related businesses. Not forgetting Super Junior's Donghae and SNSD's Sooyoung dancing right here in the Seoul MV.

Yoona's omnipresence.

Halloween was round the corner. Starting another day with breakfast at Krispy Kreme and Halloween-themed and designed donuts.

Visiting the Namsangol Hanok Village. Unlike Bukchon Hanok Village where the traditional houses are mostly standing in their original locations across an authentic residential area, Namsangol is a planned attraction with 5 carefully restored hanoks being sited within the compound. Nonetheless, the entire Village still provides a very insightful experience into the architecture and culture of the hanoks and the people's way of life.

We were lucky enough to witness a real traditional Korean wedding at Namsangol. Apparently, the hanoks are available for rent for events like weddings. The musicians in hanbok entertaining the guests.

The groom going through the customary before receiving his bride.

The bride and groom standing for a very long time through the ceremony.

Finally standing together.

The bride's parents.

The wedding was held in a courtyard of a hanok. Informal but beautiful.

Material and texture at Namsangol.

Hanbok collection.

Advertisements of plastic surgery can be seen everywhere. It is so much a part of their lives that after a while, I was feeling the need to get myself fixed as well.

A typical plastic surgery complex in Seoul. Yes, they are usually big multi-storey buildings, not small scattered clinics. There were many people with masks over their faces walking along the streets. Not due to haze or sickness obviously.

Time for more shopping in Sinsa-dong.

Self-portrait along Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong.

Many interesting cafés line the streets of Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong. A perfect place to spend the afternoon having some latte and do some manwatching by the balcony.

Moving advertisements on segways with a smile.

A tagline that seems out of place, out of culture.

There are many interesting buildings, shops and restaurants, complete with beautiful people and cars in the back lanes of Garosu-gil. Worth a walk around these streets off the main road.

Facts and Figures:

Date: Sep/Oct 2014

Accommodation: Sheraton D-Cube (directly connected to Sindorim Station, Exit 1), and Small House Big Door (3-min walk to Euljiro 1-ga Station, Exit 2).

Equipment: Nikon D800E, Nikon AFS 17-35mm f2.8, AFS 24-120mm f4, AFS 50mm f1.4, Sony HX50V, Nikon Coolpix P330.

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