|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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All MINIs I've seen in Seoul have this interesting tagline.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Overlooking the DMZ and the border line from Dora Observatory.
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.
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.
Halloween was round the corner. Starting another day with breakfast at Krispy Kreme and Halloween-themed and designed donuts.
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.
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.