south korea

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul

Ahhh, Seoul.

My home away from home, and a vastly underrated travel destination.

From endless underground shopping to incredible nightlife... a vibrant, well-preserved culture and amazing, modern architecture... this sprawling city seriously has it all. 

Turns out, it's also a photographers paradise…

In no particular order, Here are 10 urban photo spots you won’t want to miss.


Ewha Womans University

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

I was pumped when my friend Nick said he wanted to shoot here because, despite living in Seoul for years, I still hadn't been. We arrived so early on that Saturday morning that the, typically crowded, famous walkway on campus was practically empty... which made for some incredible shots.

According to google images, this is also an epic spot to shoot after the sun goes down and the buildings light up. I didn’t get a great shot of the buildings (because I only had my phone camera, and, when it comes to night photos, its shooting abilities are subpar at best). I did, however, get this cool photo of the empty cafe area.

Getting there

Head to Ehwa Womans University Station on the green (2) line. Take either exit two or three and walk straight for a few minutes. You'll run right in to the university grounds!

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

CanonPlex

On the southside of the Han, in an unsuspecting camera shop, is one seriously swoon-worthy spiral staircase. There's really not much to see here other than that... (unless you're in the market for some new Canon stuff), but it makes for a pretty cool "Down the Rabbit Hole"-esque shot.

If you're in Apgujeong, pop in to the CanonPlex for your next insta-post!


Getting there

Head to Apgujeong Rodeo Station on the Bundang (yellow) line and walk straight out of exit 5. The CanonPlex will be just down the road on your right!

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE... YES, YOU! If there is one place in Seoul you HAVE to go… it’s here. Seriously.

This was one of my favorite areas in the whole city since I first moved to Seoul in 2015. My friends made fun of me for loving it so much, but who could blame me!? - Look at those curves! (Side note: I also had a really adorable first date, first kiss on a butt-statue chair here, therefore, it will always hold a special place in my heart. The place, not the butt statue...).

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

Aside from its sentimental value, the DDP's futuristic architecture and design never cease to amaze and inspire. Be sure to wander inside the spaceships as well. Scotty might not beam you up, but I guarantee you'll find an exhibit, stairwell, or spacey corridor that'll make you feel like you're on another planet.

Getting there

Head to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station, (located on lines 2, 4, and 5), and walk out of Exit 1.

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

Blue Square

Blue Square is a culture complex with a bookstore, cafe, and even a performing arts theatre. The walls of its Book Park are lined with books from the floor to the ceiling, and the massive windows, giving this aesthetically pleasing location an even cozier feel.

There are several little nooks and lofts where you can literally sit amongst the bookshelves... so, that's exactly what I did. I got a cup of tea, pulled out my journal, and was happily stuck here waiting out a rainstorm for the rest of the afternoon.

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

Note: BYOB(ook). 

There are lots of books here, but, as I wasn't here book shopping, I'm honestly not sure if any of their books are actually in English. It isn’t uncommon to go in a book store in Korea and find fake English books on display.

Getting there

Blue Square is located at Hangangjin Station on the brown (9) line, and just outside of exit 2. Pair this with a visit to Leeum Art Museum (mentioned a bit later).


Sulwhasoo Flagship Store

This location is a spa, a boutique, lounge, and the home to what may be the most genius staircase concept I've ever seen. The metal grid alongside the outdoor stairwell seems to go on forever... and, though it actually stopped at the rooftop garden lounge, it was still awesome.

We got some really cool, minimal shots here - in most of which, I was either sticking my tongue out (or taking photos of Nick taking photos of me)... but I was such a minimal midget, you'd never be able to tell... (which is why I LOVE THIS TYPE OF PHOTOGRAPHY - as there's zero pressure on the person in the frame).

The golden metal staircase at Sulwhasoo would undoubtedly be an amazing background for portraits as well... but, unfortunately, at this point in the day, my sniffly nose was wayyyy too red and runny for that

Getting there

The Sulwhasoo Flagship Store (not to be confused with the Sulwhasoo Spa in Jamsil) is also accessible from Apgujeong Rodeo station.

Take exit 5 and walk straight along Seolleung-ro (선릉로).

When you reach the first major intersection, past the CanonPlex & Sony store, turn right on to Dosan-daero (도산대로). Turn down the third road on your right. This spot will be down the road and on the right - can't miss it!

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

Anyang Art Park

This park deserves a post of its own… because it is quite literally the most elusive park I have ever been to. The installations are scattered throughout the woods… and the signage is all in Korean… so the first time I attempted to go, I didn’t find any of them.

The second time, I found a few installations but most of them were locked… so I tried a third time… (and, surprise surprise, still didn’t find all of the installations I was looking for).

Thankfully, Seoul photographer James Lucian let me snag a few of his photos for this article!

Each installation is so unique. I love the different compositions you can make of the textures and colors.

Getting there

Gwanak is the nearest Metro Station to the art park. Like I said, it’s super tough to sort out where everything is… I’ll go into more detail in a post just for this a bit later.

In the meantime, I’ve pinned it in the map below - Pay attention to the signage when you leave the station and be prepared to walk through the woods. May the odds be ever in your favor!

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

StarField Library

The beautiful StarField library is located in the COEX mall, Asia’s largest underground shopping center. It is well lit, aesthetically pleasing, and has the cutest little photo spot at the curve of the shelf.

Though it isn’t the quietest library in the world, it’s definitely a cool spot to check out while visiting the city.

In addition to the library, there are so many other things to see and do within this complex. There is an aquarium, clubs, hotels, restaurants, and, of course, lots of shops.

Right across the street from COEX, you’ll find the Bongeunsa Temple - one of the largest Buddhist Temples in the city.

Getting there

Take the metro to Samseong Station and take exit 5 or 6 to get to the mall!

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY BRITTANY VARANO

PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY BRITTANY VARANO


Leeum Art Museum

On my second weekend in the country, I braved the metro and headed to Itaewon to visit the Leeum Art Museum and explore the area… making this museum one of the first places I visited on my own… not just in Korea, but probably ever. Prior to moving abroad by myself, I had a group mentality, and was honestly a bit scared/nervous to go places on my own. This would be the first of many times I ventured out solo.

Unfortunately, being by yourself sometimes means missing out on epic shots like these. Thankfully, Brittany of LifeOfBrit let me borrow this shot of her in one of the Museum’s most well known exhibits.

The Leeum Art Museum has many permanent and rotating exhibits of traditional and modern art. Museum 1 showcases traditional Korean art and Museum 2 features modern and contemporary pieces.

There is an admission fee of 10,000 won, but if you are a university student with school ID, under the age of 24, or over age 65, you can get a 50% discount.

Getting there

Head to Hangangjin Station (Seoul Subway Line 6) and take exit 1. Walk straight for 100m then take a right down the first alley. Walk about 5 minutes up the hill to reach the museum.

Pair this with a trip to Blue Square (located at the same station) or a day of eating your way through Itaewon.

PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY BRITTANY VARANO

PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY BRITTANY VARANO


Seoul Botanic Park

This gorgeous Botanic Park opened in Western Seoul in October 2018… (which is a huge bummer for me because I had already left the country by then).

Like the famous Cloud Forest in Singapore, the Seoul Botanic Park has a skywalk through its upper canopy. There are currently about 3,100 kinds of plants, but their goal is to eventually have 8,000 plant species.

The architecture of the park looks gorgeous… especially in these golden hour shots by James Lucian… plus - I love plants. The best part… during their trial period, admission is free!

Getting there

Seoul Botanic Park is a short walk from exit 3 of Magongnaru Station on subway Line 9 and the Airport Express Line.  They are open from 9 am to 6 pm.

Visit their website for more information!

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN


Ttukseom Resort Station

Okay, so I know I said the DDP was my favorite spot in the city… but that’s not entirely true. This riverside station actually takes the cake for my number 1 favorite spot in Seoul.

There are plenty of parks by the Han, but, the first year and a half that I lived in Korea, I’d ride the train 40 minutes across the city just to get to this one. Thankfully, my last apartment in Korea was just a couple stations away!

The spaceship-esque building connected to the station is actually a small library and events center, so if it’s too cold to be outside, you can go inside and still get a great river view.

This is a great spot to chill and have river beers, go biking, or just do some people watching. On weekends when the weather is nice, the lawn areas are filled with tents and blankets as friends and families picnic together (one of my favorite Korean pastimes).

Getting There

Directions for this one are easy. Take the train to Ttukseom resort station… and then you’ll be at Ttukseom resort station!

Make sure to take exit 2 or 3 so you come out of the station on the river side.

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

PHOTO BY JAMES LUCIAN

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

BONUS PHOTO SPOT

While you’re in the area, I’d recommend walking or taking the train one stop to Konkuk University station area and heading to another super trendy photo spot in the area - Common Ground.

Common Ground is a shopping and restaurant area made from shipping containers where lots of festivals and special events are held.

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

MAP

Need a little help finding your way in Seoul? Click around my custom map to discover the best urban photo locations in and around the city.


About the Contributors

Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

Nick Classen

Nick Claasen, a New Zealand born photographer based in Hong Kong, is absolutely incredible behind the camera.

During his visit to Seoul last year, we teamed up to create some minimal shots that show off just a handful of the city’s many futuristic, architectural masterpieces.

I can say without a doubt that he is one of the most creative people I've ever met and has what is easily one of my favorite urban photography accounts on Instagram


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Brittany Varano

Originally from the states, Brit quit her job to move abroad and  teach English in Daegu, South Korea for two years.

She has loved spending her weekends finding the most picturesque spots in Seoul and  
practicing her photography along the way.

Brit shares all of her Korea travel tips, guides and recommendations on her blog LifeofBrit.com.

Follow her adventures on Instagram.


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James Lucian

Originally from St. Louis, James is now lives and teaches English in South Korea. Though his interest in photography began in high school, and he majored in photography in university, James says living in Seoul really rejuvenated his desire to pick up the camera.

He bought an old camera at the Namdaemun Market and started taking pictures again.

James says that living in Seoul has given him a great canvas for photography. “The streets of Seoul are so different from home and I am constantly stimulated by them, even after three years of living here. It’s been such a pleasure to go photograph them!”

Check out his work on Instagram.


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Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld
Urban Photographers Guide to Seoul - HallAroundtheWorld

A Plant Lover's Dream Come True - Seoul's Cactus Greenhouse and Plant Delivery in Korea

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Are you a plant lover? More specifically - are you a low maintenance plant lover? You know... the type of person who loves having pretty, green things alive in your apartment... but isn't so great at the keeping them alive part? 

Since moving back to Seoul, I've basically turned my studio apartment into a mini greenhouse, and it has made this little hole in the wall feel much more homey...  (not to mention the fact that it has also significantly improved the indoor air quality).

Unfortunately, due to my forgetful nature (and frequent weekend getaways), most plants and I have a pretty short lived relationship. Therefore, I have boundless love and the utmost respect for plants of the low maintenance variety - I'm talkin' succulents, air plants, and cacti. I love em... and, so far, the ones brightening up my spot in Seoul seem to love me too.

If you're also a fan of these low maintenance beauties, then you'll definitely share in the excitement I felt when I found out that 1) Plant heaven is a place on Earth... and it's in Ilsan, and 2) you can get plants delivered to your door in Korea.

First things first...

 

Ilsan Lake Park's Cactus Greenhouse

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That's right... A green house filled with my favorite little (and big) green (and red and white and orange) prickly little, self-sustaining friends. For only 1,000 won, you can wander around the greenhouse enjoying these beautiful plants for as long as you'd like... Well, at least 'til closing time.

There's even a little shop where you can purchase a cactus, succulent, or air plant to take home with you. (Sadly, I couldn't take advantage of this part since I'm planning a big move soon and already have more plant babies to find new homes for than I can handle).

For me, a visit to the Cactus Greenhouse was a really cool (and cheap) way to spend our random Wednesday off. It was something different, we were able to see a new part of the city... and I love plants. If cacti and cheap activities aren't really your thing, then travelling 2+ hours round trip to and from Ilsan to look at plants probably isn't for you... but, even if you decide to skip the greenhouse, Ilsan Lake park is still a cool place to spend the day.

 

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These last few shots weren't taken in the Cactus Greenhouse, but you'll find these spots on your way there!

 

As you can see, the rest of Ilsan Lake Park is pretty cool, too!

 

 

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Getting there

Head to Jeongbalsan Station on the orange line (3).

From there, walk out of exit 2 and straight across the pedestrian overpass until you reach the park. To get to the Cactus Greenhouse walk to the right past the Rose Garden (pictured above), cross the two footbridges over the lake, and then turn left. The greenhouse will be on your right!

 

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If you've made it this far, I'm guessing you like, like me, are big on plants...

You may be wondering how I ended up with so many little green plant babies in the first place.

If you're living in Korea currently, you'll find part 2 useful.

 


Getting plants delivered to your door in Korea

I blame (and praise) G-market for my little greenhouse apartment. I have literally lost count of how many I've acquired in the past few months. Though there are lots of cute mom and pop plant shops scattered throughout the city, it can be difficult to get your new plant babies home if you, like me, rely heavily on public transportation.

Skip the hassle and go plant shopping online instead. In a few business days or less, you can get virtually any plant (or anything really) delivered directly to your door by G-Market... Korea's equivalent to e-bay or Amazon.

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Though I was skeptical about purchasing plants without seeing them first, all of my selections from the sellers below arrived quickly and (most importantly) still alive. I highly recommend purchasing through these vendors - (and no, this isn't a sponsored article, just tryin' to share the love with my fellow plant people in Korea).

I spent an entire day scouring the site for the best plant deals, so here they are!

 

 House plants, flowers, herbs, and succulents

NeoFlower - SO many options, and free shipping on purchases over ₩12,000!

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Air Plants

Tillandsia -  Lots of different sizes and options, with a low ₩3,000 delivery fee... 

(...unless you go crazy and spend 100k... then delivery is free).

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Larger house plants (with a decorative touch)

 E-Green Store - Make sure to select the option for the decorative potting when purchasing - it costs a bit extra!

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For more tips on the best places to find low-budget plants

and other trinkets to make your Seoul apartment feel like home,

get in touch

 

 

 

Saturdays in Seoul (ep. 1) - Bongeunsa Temple + The Great Korean Beer Festival

Welcome to "Saturdays in Seoul"

A new lil’ vlogging venture…

...and, this time, my boyfriend Andrew is along for the ride.

Though we still have quite a bit of work to do as far as our coordination goes, (in more ways than one... watch 'til the end to see what I mean...), overall, we had a great Saturday and are really excited about creating more of these to document the rest of our time in Seoul.

 

*No Andrews were harmed in the making of this video*

 

WHERE WE WENT

 

Bongeunsa Temple

In episode one, Andrew and I start our day at Bongeunsa Temple, a calm oasis in the middle of the bustling city. It's my favorite time of year to visit the temples in South Korea... because the rows of lanterns are already hung for Buddha's birthday, but the hoardes of tourists aren't lined up to snap photos with them... yet...

Avoid the crowds and head there early, or stop in at night to see the lanterns all lit up.

Getting There

By cab: 봉은사 

By metro: Bongeunsa Temple Station, Exit 1. Cheongdam Station, Exit 2.

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Great Korean Beer Festival

After exploring the temple, we wandered over to the Great Korean Beer Festival, conveniently located by the COEX mall just across the street. If you missed it this weekend, don't worry - this year's beer festival is everyday from 12 p.m. until 10 p.m. through May 6th. 

COEX is pretty massive, and we weren't sure where exactly to go at first for the festival. You'll find this year's festival at the K-POP Square right outside of SMTOWN. Check out the food and drink selection before you go here.

Getting There

By cab: 삼성역

By metro: Samsung Station, Exit 5 or 6.

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Starfield Library

When it got a bit chilly at the beer festival we ducked inside COEX's Starfield Library to warm up (and charge my phone). If you're in the area, it's absolutely a must see.

Directions are the same as above.

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Unfortunately, the day wasn't entirely smooth sailing. When the hoodie I bought at H&M didn't warm me up, I was shivering so much I was nearly spilling my beer. Then Andrew told me it wasn't even cold outside, so I decided to stop rallying through the day and we headed home... where a full blown fever fully caught up with me. Being the complete perfect human that he is, Andrew got me soup, made us tea, and I was asleep by 10.

Despite this turn of events, it was still an awesome day, and, again, in my opinion, resulted in what may be the best video I've made so far.

Check it out for yourself!

If you liked this week's episode, be sure to give it a thumbs up, and subscribe to my channel on Youtube for future Saturday shenanigans in Seoul!

 

 

6 Spots You Don't Want to Miss in Busan, South Korea

Planning a visit to Busan? Good!

Korea's second-largest city, situated on the country's southern coast, is absolutely beautiful... and, like most other Korea-related things, it is highly underrated.

From picturesque beaches and traditional temples, to bustling markets and bars, there's truly something for everyone in Busan.


Watch our busan adventures

For more information on what to do in South Korea click here

Seoul Doesn't Suck... But You Might - 6 Things I Love About Living in Korea's Capital City

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Alright… here goes. I’ve kept my mouth shut on this one for far too long.

I’ve just moved to my fourth apartment and finished my first few weeks at my third school in Seoul. I’ve been through the freakin’ ringer in this city… I’ve had good days and bad days, but at the end of all these day, I could not be more thankful for the chance I have to live here.

Since moving to Korea, I’ve met some pretty fantastic people, and I’ve done some things that weren’t even on my radar before… (like, most recently, going to the 2018 Winter Olympics – check out that epic adventure here).

I’ve delved back into old passions and am more motivated to write, to capture moments, and to keep a record of all these crazy experiences this expat life has rewarded me with.

I know people make the cliché “Seoul Searching” reference all the time… but that’s truly what this experience has been for me. In a city where no one knew me, I was able to get back to a version of myself that had almost been buried under the mundane expectations of living a “normal” adult life.

South Korea isn’t the end goal for me, but moving to Seoul has without a doubt been the catalyst that allowed me to begin living the life I’ve always dreamed of.

…And on that note, I am sick and freakin’ tired of seeing and hearing people rant on with nothing but negative things to say about this place… saying that Korea sucks… that’s it’s soul sucking… and, my personal favorite, a shit hole.

If you’ve heard or seen statements like these… please take them with a grain of salt and don’t let them deter you from visiting (or moving to) this dynamic, beautiful, and seriously underrated country.

Sure, Korea has its positive and negative aspects, just like ANY other place in the world… but at the end of the day if you say it “sucks” I say, sittttt down. Korea doesn’t suck… and Seoul definitely doesn’t suck… but, hey… you might.

Save for the brutally frigid winters and occasional heavy smog, I truly love living in Seoul. Here’s why.

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1. It’s extremely safe.

Seoul’s night life is popping, and, more often than not, late nights out turn in to early mornings. Thankfully, unlike in many cities, you don’t have to be fearful after the sun goes down.

I can (and have) walked home alone at 4am and not been afraid… at all. For reference, I wouldn’t walk a city block by myself after dark back in the states… and I am from a very small North Carolina town.

Obviously, you should be on your guard like you would anywhere else, but I’ve never been fearful here in South Korea.

To prove my point on safety, here’s a super embarrassing story that I’ve never made public… til now. My first few weeks in Korea were like my first few weeks of university… but on steroids. I was in a brand new environment, meeting new people, finding my way… and mistakes were made.

When I first moved to Seoul I vowed that I wasn’t going to go out drinking for a while… not til I found solid friends that I could trust. Well, on my first day in the office, one of my coworkers said, “Hey Kirstie, we’re going to wine buffet next weekend, do you want to join us?”

…I, without even a smidgen of hesitation said, “Yes!”… not because I was worried about missing out or wanted to fit in and impress these people… but because it was a WINE. BUFFET. My favorite two words.

So anyway… flash forward to my second weekend (and ninth day) in the country. My coworkers and I put on our Saturday best and went to said wine buffet. Being the overly competitive person that I am… I took on a bet to try all of the dozen or more wines. After losing said bet (but trying my damn hardest) we stumbled to Itaewon, Seoul’s foreigner district.

Three years later and Itaewon’s winding streets and hills STILL confuse me... but that night, as you can imagine, the drunken maze that is HBC was even more puzzling.

Once there, things went downhill pretty quickly. We for some reason continued to drink, and I promptly lost literally everyone… in a part of town I had NEVER been to before.

I took my phone out of airplane mode… (tragic)… called my ex (also tragic)… and then finally used it for something useful… mapping my way to what I guessed was the main road.

When I finally managed to hail a cab, I realized I didn’t actually have a clue where I was going and, instead of providing a proper address, proceeded to rattle off every English sign I’d seen in my neighborhood in the past 9 days. Bless that poor cabbie who did not have the slightest clue what I was on about.

Eventually, drunk Kirst got the bright idea to call one of my coworkers who was able to direct him. I made it home in one piece, but it was still a pretty dumb night for me.

If I’d been this unaware of my surroundings anywhere else in the world, I’d probably be chopped up in the basement of a warehouse somewhere… but that, thankfully, is a non-issue in Seoul.

Soooo yeah, despite its proximity to a malevolent northern neighbor, South Korea is really safe.

In addition to personal safety, you also generally don’t have to worry about theft.

I’ve had people chase me down the street to return cash that has fallen out of my pocket. When I’m at a café, I frequently leave my laptop and bags unattended to go on a bathroom run. I’ve even known people to lose their wallet and have it returned with the money put in order.

*Again… bad things CAN and DO happen here… just like anywhere else (so don’t be totally off-guard), however, in my experience, safety isn’t as much of an issue in Korea as it is in other places I’ve lived and visited.

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2. Most things are incredibly convenient.

Korea is also extremely conveninent.

You can pay your bills at the convenient store, use T-money to pay for the subway, cabs, or whatever things you’re picking up from the convenience store. You can link up to public wifi on the train (or walking down the street), and get just about any food imaginable delivered straight to your door with one of the many mobile delivery apps.

Public transportation is super cheap and, once you get the hang of it, is really simple to navigate. You can get across the city or across the country by hopping on a bus or the train.

Seoul seems massive… but Korea as a whole is actually pretty small. Catch an express train, and you can go from one end to the other in a matter of hours.

Between the beaches of Busan and the green tea fields of Boseong… epic hikes and island getaways… Korea has actually got a lot to offer.

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3. I’m never bored.

Speaking of having a lot to offer, you’ll literally never be bored here… unless you yourself are a boring person.

In and around Seoul, there is literally always something happening… even on the most frigid winter weekends.

I personally prefer to hibernate during the winter months, and save my energy (and money) for all the fun spring activities, but despite my frequent seasonal reclusiveness, It’s still nice to have options.

There is always a new café to visit, some sort of sporting event happening, rotating museum exhibitions, concerts, festivals, and so much more. If you’re not comfortable navigating to a festival or special event on your own, there are several facebook groups you can join that frequently organize outings and other trips. A couple of my favorites are Adventure Korea and WINK – (for other travel group suggestions, feel free to contact me).

TRAZY, a Korea-based travel company can also organize private transportation and guided tours to popular destinations like the ski slopes of Pyeongchang, the cherry-blossom lined streets of Jinhae, Jeju Island, or Seoul hot spots like Nami Island and Gyeongbukgung Palace.

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4. I don’t pay rent. This one is a no brainer.

One of the best things about teaching abroad in Korea is the benefits provided to foreign teachers… and, for me, the biggest benefit (after getting to work and live in a foreign country) is that my living expenses are fairly low.

Most schools provide either a furnished apartment or a housing stipend for their teachers. In addition to not having to pay rent, I don’t need a car here so I don’t have to worry about those monthly payments either.

I don’t have cable… as a matter or fact, I don’t even have a TV. I don’t have a phone bill, as I usually stick to using public wifi and only charge up my data when I need it.

All of the money I save by not having these expenses goes straight to whatever budget airline has the cheapest flights (and my highly unfortunate student loan payments).

 

5. My job is really rewarding

…AND KOREAN KIDS ARE FREAKIN’ CUTE.

Let it be known that a lot of the things foreigners in Korea (myself included) complain about are job related… and many of these job related grievances are things that we literally signed up for.

Like I said, I’m guilty of this as well.

The hours are long… the vacation days are few and far between... But, hey, we knew this when we signed our names on the dotted line and faxed our contracts back to our future employers.

Though there are obviously things about the Hagwon (private school) teacher life that I wish I could change, I overall really enjoy my job, and find it to be SO much more rewarding than the other positions I’ve held.

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There are so many positive aspects to teaching English and working with young kids here in Korea, and I’m going to focus on those… (but, if you want to hear about the negatives, and other sticky situations, stay tuned for a bit of a Hagwon tell all).

I’ve been at my current school for nearly a month now, and I already love my students so much. They’re still in a bit of an adjustment period as they get acclimated to a new school year, new teachers, and new subjects… but, like with most things, they are soaking it all up like a dozen little sponges, and I couldn’t be more proud.

When it comes to Hagwons, I’d say third time has definitely been the charm. Though the school I just started at has been a lot of work so far, it’s really nice to feel like a teacher again. I was able to decorate my classroom (something my previous school told us NOT to do), I teach my kids all day, and, since I’m their only teacher, feel like I’ll get to know them really well.

I’m only teaching kindergarten, which is my preferred age group, and am finished teaching by 3 p.m. everyday (this is HUGE for me). Though I don’t really have a break from the start of the work day til the end, I finish MUCH earlier than I used to. It’s been SO nice being out of work before the sun goes down, and having time in the evenings to work on things that I want to!

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6. OPPORTUNITES

Speaking of working on things that I want to, Korea has opened SO many doors – travel opportunities, creative opportunities, collaboration opportunities… you name it.

There is truly something for EVERYONE in Seoul.

Into writing? There are several foreign magazines always looking for featured writers. Want to do yoga or learn muay thai? There are gyms for that. Want to try your hand at stand-up comedy? Yep. Salsa dancing lessons? You can take those too.

I guess this goes along with my previous point about never being bored. ANYTHING you could want to do or try or learn about, you can find it here.

Of all the opportunities I’ve had, the opportunity to meet such diverse, interesting, and talented people from all over the world is without a doubt at the top.

Here’s a fun little fact that’s actually laughable now… I had never even met a Canadian until I moved to Seoul (I guess they don’t really travel to the south much, eh?).  In the past two and a half years I’ve met people from SO many walks of life... and I’m so thankful for all of the laughs, adventures, and late night chats I’ve shared with each one of them.

The growth I’ve made by moving to Seoul is due, in part, to the lessons I’ve learned from each person I’ve crossed paths with – some good lessons, some bad, and all important.

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So… yeah… I really like Seoul and am so happy to live here.

If you need a change of pace… want to do something challenging… to try new things, meet new people, and see new places, I’d highly recommend spending at least a year in this city – and teaching abroad is without a doubt the best way to do it. I can’t really speak much for the rest of the country, (though Busan seems pretty tight).

Maybe I’ve just been really lucky… but I have a hard time believing that anyone can truly think Seoul sucks. If you see these statements, again, take them with a grain of salt... then consider this...

A lot of times, by the time someone's teaching contract is finished, they're SO ready to get out of the country... to begin travelling, or to go home... that they're broadcasting the negatives and ignoring all the positive experiences they've undoubtedly had in their time here. Living in Seoul be stressful, you can meet bad people, and you WILL have bad days... but, does that mean the place as a whole sucks?? Absolutely not.

(To said people who spout nothing but hate for their time in Seoul, if your hometown sucks… and that’s why you came to Korea… and then Korea sucks… and then the next place you go sucks… and you hate the next place, etc, etc, etc… Maybeeeee it’s not the location that sucks, after all. Perhaps… the common denominator is… you?).

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If you have questions about teaching or living in Seoul, feel free to contact me.

For more information about things to do in South Korea click here or follow me on Instagram @kirstie.hall.

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Post-Olympic Adventures at Yongma Land - Seoul, South Korea Day Trips

In the suburbs of north eastern Seoul lies an abandoned, supposedly haunted amusement park. The whole place and it’s run down rides have a pretty creepy vibe… that is up until the bands of Korean models show up with their matching outfits, camera men, and boom boxes blasting K-pop.

By the time I left on my first visit, the creepiest thing about the place was me – the lone foreigner, wearing all black, slinking about the place and hanging out on all the rides.

Like most attractions in Seoul, Yongma land is kind of a photo trap... but, all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was happy to go back again when a travel buddy at the time came to visit Seoul.

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GETTING THERE

To get to Yongma Land, go to Mangu Station and take exit 1. After walking around for a bit on my first trip to Yongma, I decided to just get a cab. I had no trouble finding my way back to the station from Yongma Land, but, for some reason, finding my way there was tough.

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My second visit to Yongma Land with Tara was literally right after we returned to Seoul from our Olympics trip. Mangu station is one stop away from the Sangbong KTX station, and it was silly to go all the way back in to Seoul to drop our things off... so we just brought them all with us... (and, looking like a couple of bag ladies, quickly opted for taking a cab). 

Since it only costs a few bucks, cabbing it is the most time and cost effective way to go. Most cabbies are familiar with the park, so it takes the guess work out of navigating there.

 

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

There will be hoards of selfie taking Koreans... and they probably really will have K-Pop anthems blaring as the soundtrack for their photoshoots. Join the fun! Everyone's here for a few (hundred) quirky shots, and a good time.

There is also an entrance fee of 5,000 won per person to get in to the park. *Note that only cash is accepted!*

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NEED MORE IDEAS FOR THINGS TO DO IN SEOUL?

The Truth About Making Friends in Seoul - Memoirs of a Small Town, Introverted Extrovert

One of the biggest questions I get asked, right after the annoying, post-college small talk starter "So... what's your plan?" and the very common "How do you get a teaching job in Korea?" is "How do you make friends in Seoul?"

Chances are, if you've ever asked me the latter of these questions, I've put my rose-colored glasses on and given you a highly sugar-coated response about how it's really easy to meet people here. 

If we've had this conversation... I'm sorry... because that's kind of a white lie.

Sure, it's easy to meet people... what's not easy is meeting the good ones. So, here's the truth... Making friends in Seoul kinda sucks.


Seoul is a massive city... one of the largest in the world... and, when I moved here in 2015, I was so overwhelmed. I come from a teeny tiny, North Carolina town called Pleasant Garden. A place that, for much of my childhood, was a one stoplight town. I hadn't practiced "the art of making friends" in a REALLY long time. Most of the people I'd met at home just kinda WERE my friends by default I guess.

Let me paint a picture of my small Carolina town for ya. There is a cow pasture beside my house... a house where my parents still live. I spent my summers playing outside, walking back and forth to my cousins' houses, fishing at the pond, and getting yelled at for playing with (chasing) the cows. I knew the majority of my neighbors (because I was related to most of them), and many of my friends and acquaintances were people who I'd grown up with.

When I went to University, I went as far away as I could... just not over the state line (because have you SEEN those out of state tuition rates). This led me to four years in Wilmington, North Carolina... a little beach town made famous by One Tree Hill.

Again, this was a fairly small town. I ran in to the same people on campus, had the same people in my classes, and spent my time with, mostly, the same group of friends... just not the people I went to high school with (because, at that point, I'd realized that some of them kind of sucked). Actively trying to make new friends wasn't ever a thing... Because when you work together, study together, and see each other everyday, you might as well get along and enjoy the occasional two (or 20) beers.

The big city vibe was NOT something I'd ever really experienced before, so, for me, Seoul might as well have been the largest city in the universe. When I arrived here and started my first job, I did it with the small town mindset that everyone I met would just be my friend... We were, after all, in the same boat, right... Foreigners abroad just wanting to meet people, travel, and have a good time, right? Wrong.

 

Enter... let's call her... D... - coworker, Cali girl, and unbeknownst to me, my arch nemesis. She, for whatever reason, had it out for me from the start, and proceeded to shut me out and exclude me from virtually every office outing, joke, and conversation.

This threw me for a huge loop. I'd encountered plenty of girls who were mean for no reason, but never one who was so upfront and in my face about it.

Looking back, D was both a blessing and a curse. A curse because, for awhile, I was pretty sad and miserable about being excluded from everything... A blessing because she made me wisen up to the harsh reality that not everyone is going to want to be your friend... and that's okay.

 

In the beginning, I spent my fair share of time feeling sorry for myself. I resented D and my coworkers who blindly went along with her. Then, one day, I snapped the hell out of it and realized that I did NOT come this far (7,071 miles to be exact) to let my happiness be determined by one catty individual. I decided to enjoy the new city I was living in, whether it was with other people or not. 

I went to art museums by myself. I went to bars by myself. I read books, taught myself to read hangul, and spent hours writing by the river. I sought out volunteer opportunities. I tutored North Korean refugees. I did things that made me happy, and, even though I was doing them alone, I didn't feel lonely... because, after a certain point, I'd started embracing my solitude. I found that when I started doing things I cared about, I was meeting people with similar interests and passions... and even when I didn't meet people, I didn't care.

I thought I was pretty selective from that point on, but, in hindsight, turns out I'm still a pretty horrible judge of character.

When I tell you I've had horrible experiences with friends and relationships in this city, I mean it with every grain of my being. I have some downright tragic tales to tell.

You see, unlike the small town vibes that I was used to... in big cities, people don't have to be nice to you by default. Most expats know they won't be in Seoul forever, so they're reluctant to get too attached... and they probably don't give a damn about your feelings. The likelihood of them ever seeing you again is slim to none. Those are facts... Facts that empower a lot of people to be dicks (like D) for no reason. (Every Seoul friend I've talked to about this has agreed... we're all guilty of it).

When everyone's putting up this hard, cold, front, it makes it really hard to meet good friends... and so, for a long time, I didn't.


 Okay... this all sounds really sad, and this isn't meant to be a sad post... but it's the truth. I let myself be disappointed by other people more times than I care to count, but that never stopped me from continuing to try to find the diamonds in the rough.

I think that, no matter where you are in the world, the older you get, the tougher it is to find people who you really vibe with... and who also vibe with you. That's life.

Thankfully, when it comes to Seoul, for every shitty person you meet, there's about a dozen good ones right around the corner... but, if you hole up in your apartment feeling sorry for yourself because a couple people didn't like you, you'll never meet the good ones.

The key to making friends in this city is this - Grow up.

Make like Amanda Bynes in She's the Man and rub some dirt in it. 

You're not everyone's cup of tea and everyone doesn't have to be yours either. If you can make plans to pack up your life and move to a massive city on the other side of the world, then you can let the actions and opinions of a few shitty people roll off your back.

Keep doing you. Be yourself.

 

Instead of sticking your nose in the air when you see other expats around town, like you've somehow "assimilated better" than them, SAY HELLO. Don't be a dick. When you come across someone who's new here, take them under your wing. Show them the cool stuff. Go on group trips to new places with a bunch of, possibly super annoying, strangers. Maybe you vibe with them, and maybe you don't.

I've made friends at bars. I've made friends on random weekend trips. I've made friends by joining one friend at a group outing where I wasn't going to know anyone else. I've even made friends from apps like Tinder and Instagram (yes, tinder). Some of them I still keep up with, and some of them fizzled out.

When it comes to making friends in this big city as a small town, introverted extrovert (who loves going out and doing all the things, but also staying at home), the bottom line is this... if you want to make friends here, you will... as long as you don't close yourself off to meeting new people.

 

Of all the lessons I've learned as I (continue to) master the art of making friends, these are the most important.

  1. It's not supposed to be easy. Stay true to yourself. No matter how many assholes you encounter, don't let it reflect in the way YOU treat people. When you meet someone who sucks, make like a duck and let it roll off your back. Not everyone is for you.

  2. When you find good people, hold on to em! Tell them you appreciate them in the name of good vibes and positivity (the world needs more of it)!

  3. Everyone who comes here has their own goals, plans, and, likely, is headstrong afffff (because it takes a special kind of soul to up and move to a country where you don't know anyone). You WILL butt heads with your best friends sometimes... know when to get over it.

  4. The friends you meet in this city will come from all over the world. They will have different experiences, speak different languages, and challenge the way you see things. Your nights out will be a mix of making fun of each others accents, sharing childhood stories, and teaching each other new expletives.

  5.  Not having everything in common with your friends is a GOOD thing. This allows you to learn and grow.

 

And the NUMBER ONE lesson I've learned in this massive city is that the most important relationship I need to work on is the one I have with myself. 

 

All the "friends" who turned out to not be so friendly after all, made me much more self-aware and self-relient. I realized that, whether you live in a small town or not, you should never be friends with someone by default. Choose your circle wisely... and when someone shows you their true colors, believe them.

To the people who have literally screwed me over... I genuinely wish the best for you (and luck to all who encounter you). I hope that you eventually see the light, and change your ways. Moreover, I thank you... because you showed me exactly how NOT to treat people, and gave me a firsthand glimpse of the type of person I never want to be.

To the amazing, beautiful, kind souls who have entered my life since I began this Asia adventure, I am so grateful for all of you. You make life sooooo much more fun, and I wouldn't trade the hours, days, weeks, or years I get to spent with you for anything.

 

Bottom line: If you're moving to Seoul... fear not when it comes to making friends.

It will take time, but you will find your people.

In the process, be prepared to find yourself.

Fall at Nami Island - Seoul, South Korea Day Trips

Need an escape from the hustle and bustle of Seoul?

Trying to relax and enjoy the outdoors before winter sets in? Looking for a spot to snap epic photos of the fall leaves... or do you want to be a little adventurous? 

Less than a couple hours outside of the city lies a teeny tiny 'island' in the middle of the Han River where you can do all of these things and more - Nami Island. 

Whether you're visiting South Korea or living there, Nami Island should be on your to-do list. Keep reading to find out why!

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Nami exploded as a tourist destination for Korean drama fans, as many scenes from the wildly popular film Winter Sonata were shot there. If you're into K-dramas, you'll enjoy retracing the character's steps and recreating scenes at various spots around the island. If you're not into K-dramas, expect to see lots of people queuing up for identical pictures that you don't understand - Confusion can be avioded by joining the club and watching the film before you go. I didn't... but you could. Anyway, peace and quiet can be hard to come by when you suddenly find yourself in a mass of tripods and selfie sticks all competing for the same shot. It depends entirely on the time of day & time of year that you go, but the army of selfie takers can typically be avoided by going early.

Personally, I enjoy Nami because it's nice get away from the concrete jungle, honking cars, and busy city streets. The trip is well worth it, if for nothing more than to be surrounded by nature's sky scrapers for a bit. There is a definite bonus to visiting in the fall... The already picturesque tree-lined paths become a work of art, and make Nami Island an absolute autumn wonderland.

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If you're planning to just pop in for a quick visit to Nami Island, keep in mind that it IS a bit of a hike from central Seoul (about 1.5 hours on the subway). I'd recommend making a day of it and seeing some of the other sights nearby - see the end of this article for other things to do and see near Nami Island.

We decided to make the trip to Nami this past weekend. I knew that it would probably be insanelyyyy busy since the fall leaves are at their prime, so I talked my friends into waking up at the literal crack of dawn on Sunday morning to beat the rush.

Even though my bed was extremely warm and cozy, I somehow fought the urge to snooze my fifth and final alarm. However, when I got a text from one of my friends telling me it was 0.5°C outside... (that's 33°F for all you Americans), I almost doze headfirst right back under the covers. ALMOST. Again... I fought the urge to hibernate, and at 6:47 on a SUNDAY MORNING, I rolled out of my apartment and began the train journey to Gapyeong Station.

I'm REALLY glad I didn't hit snooze, because our day-trip to Nami Island ended up being incredible.

I'd visited Nami before, but I went in February (so I was freezing), and I also went alone. This time was much different... and much better. It might have been the makgeolli (traditional Korean rice wine) we had for breakfast... or maybe just being outside, soaking up the sunshine... possibly the random ostrich sightings, but, most likely, the beautiful fall leaves surrounding us. We all looked and felt like a bunch of little kids again.

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Once we arrived at Gapyeong Station, we caught a cab to the Nami "Immigration" zone, bee-lined to the convenience store for our makgeolli breakfasts, and spent the morning by the river. We sipped our rice wine to stay warm, and killed time before it was our turn to zip-line - yes, I said zip-line - to Nami Island.

There are two ways to get to Nami - by boat and by zip-line... so we obviously chose the later.

Even though we got to Gapyeong literally as early as humanly possible... there was still already a line for the zip-line! Of our two options, we chose the course that had the shortest wait time - The Adventure Course. On the Adventure Course, we zip-lined to a smaller, nearby island first. From there, we rode what was, for us, a practically private ferry (with only 3 other people on board) over to Nami. For 38,000 won you can either take the Adventure Course or go for the Family Course which zips you straight over to Nami. Both options include a return ferry ride! - (After doing both, I'd recommend the Adventure Course. It takes a bit longer, but you get more for your money).

Once we arrived on the island, we were all still feeling an adrenaline rush from the zip-line ride.

I spotted a massive clearing where the ground was covered in yellow leaves and literally made a run for it. We spent the next few hours rolling around in the grass, throwing leaves at each other, gawking at the random ostriches in the middle of the island, and climbing trees like a bunch of little kids. The makgeolli, the sunshine, the laughter... and likely the running around... warmed us right up.

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A visit to Nami was the perfect way to spend a fall Sunday.

Don't believe me? - Go see for yourself!

If you're in Korea, get your butt out of bed and get over to Nami as early as possible NEXT WEEKEND to catch the end of this beautiful, golden season. You won't regret it.

Til' then, get yourself pumped up by watching this recap video! 

(Note - Look out for the Nami fun police, as they will tell you to stop climbing the trees).

 


Want to go to Nami Island?

Not sure how to get there? 

Good news! - you've got options!

The bad news is, you've got so many options that the sheer number of choices may confuse you even more.

I've tried to simplify things a bit.


Getting to Nami by Metro

Take the metro to Gapyeong Station located on the light green Gyeongchun ITX line. My friends and I were all coming from Eastern Seoul, so the metro was our quickest and most convenient option. From my station, the trip only cost 2,350 won (this amount will vary).

By ITX

If you're traveling from Western or Central Seoul, I'd recommend taking the ITX – Cheongchun High Speed Train from Yongsan Station to Gapyeong Station. This line operates from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and has trains departing from Yongsan station on every hour. Gapyeong is only three stops away, so you should arrive at the station in a little under an hour. The cost is 6,900 won each way.

Keep in mind this train doesn't run very often, so check the schedule ahead of time or book online here.

By Shuttle Bus

I've never personally taken the shuttle bus, but it seems like a great option for people travelling from the Insadong/Myeongdong areas in Northern Seoul. The following are the shuttle bus departure times. A one-way adult fare costs 7,500 won... and roundtrip will cost you 15,000.

Seoul Insa-dong - 09:30 - (Nearby the West Gate of Tapgol Park)

Seoul Namdaemun - 09:30 - (Sungnyemun Square Bus Stop in front of Namdaemun Market)

Seoul Myeong-dong - 09:45 - (Back Alley of Shinsegae Department Store (Main))

Nami Island - 16:00 - (Parking lot in front of ticket office)

If you want to depart Nami at a different time, only purchase a one way ticket. 

For more information on shuttle bus schedules, fares, and packages, click here.

Tour Group

Several tour groups have organized trips to Nami Island (and usually at least one or two other destinations) as a part of a package deal. Check out Trazy.com and KoreaTravelEasy.com to book a smooth sailing, (almost) no strings attached tour to Nami - the only string that's attached is that by going with a group you're not able to be on your own schedule. Still, it takes the guess work out of the trip and might be your best choice if you're not familiar with public transportation in South Korea.

from Gapyeong Station

Again, you have options here! Either follow the cars and walk (which will take about 20-30 minutes), take a cab for 5-6,000 won, or take the Gapyeong City Shuttle bus for 6,000 won. I would only recommend the last option if you plan on seeing other attractions while you're in the area. Other than that, your quickest and cheapest option (especially if you're travelling with friends) is to split the cost of a cab.

Once you arrive at the "Immigration Zone," you have yet another choice to make - ferry or zip-line to Nami.

By Ferry

The ferry to Nami Island costs 10,000 won roundtrip, but foreigners get a discounted price of 8,000 won. The daily schedule is as follows

07:30-09:00 (30 minute intervals)
09:00-18:00 (10-20 minute intervals)
18:00-21:40 (30 minute intervals

By Zipline

Zip-lining to Nami Island costs 38,000 won. This includes your admission fee for the island, so if you plan to zip-line head straight to the tall building on your left, and DON'T wait in the, likely very long, "immigration lines." Those lines are just for ferry tickets.

You can choose from two courses - the Adventure Course and the Family Course. The Adventure Course zips you over to a smaller island, and, from there, you take a more private ferry to Nami Island. With the Family Course, you zip-line straight to Nami Island.

From April to October the zip-line operates from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. From November to March it closes at 6:00 p.m.

 

When is the best time to go?

According to VisitKorea.com, the reccommended periods to visit Nami Island are May, July-August, and October. I was a big sucker for the fall leaves when I visited in early November, however, I don't really think there's a bad time to visit.

 

What else is there to do nearby?

If you make the trip all the way to Chuncheon, you might as well make a day of it and see what else is there! Petite France and Garden of the Morning Calm are both located in Gapyeong (and on the city tour shuttle bus route). For more information about this shuttle bus, click here. 

To read about my trip to Petite France and Garden of the Morning Calm with KoreaTravelEasy, click here.

One more place to visit is the abandoned amusement part, Yongma Land, located just a 10 minute walk away from Mangu Station (also on the Gyeongchun line, and on the way to Gapyeong station if you take the metro). Read about my trip to Yongma Land here.


Need a place to stay?

Click here to book discounted accommodations in Gapyeong-gun with Agoda!

 

Did you go to Nami Island? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

What to Do for Halloween in Seoul - Good Times ROK Han River Cruise

If you find yourself in Seoul towards the end of October, and aren't sure what to be for Halloween, well... I can't really help you there. I'm sure if you walk around Dongdaemun's Fabric and Craft Market, a DIYer's paradise, you'll be inspired. If not... there's always Pinterest... the virtual DIYer's paradise.

Where I CAN help you, however, is deciding where to go.

With so many trendy neighborhoods and bars to choose from, picking one spot to spend the holiday can be tough. So, let me make it easier for you...


If you like all you can drink booze, costume contests, awesome DJ's, and bangin' fireworks shows... it's a no brainer where you should be on Halloweekend.

Good Times ROK's Halloween Cruise Bash - where you can spend your evening on a four deck party boat cruising down the Han River!

This year, there was over 5 million won in costume contest prizes, not to mention you get FREE admission and drink specials for exclusive after parties around Seoul. (The cruise lasts 'til around 10:30, so you have plenty of time to get your bar-hop on).

Before moving to Korea, a friend in my TEFL course recommended this cruise as the one thing I MUST do when I moved to Seoul. After spending the last two Halloweekends partying on the Booze Cruise, I'd have to agree... 100%. It has yet to disappoint.

Don't take my word for it... get your Pinterest on, craft that contest winning costume, and check out next year's cruise for yourself - but, in the meantime, peep the 2017 Cruise Bash Recap below! 

(Shot and edited on iPhone7 so be sure to play in HD).

* not sponsored by Apple, but a gal can dream *


To stay in the loop about tickets for next year's bash, and to find out about other trips, parties, and special events in Korea, like Good Times ROK (GTR) and Adventure Korea on Facebook. 

Note: I was a guest of Good Times ROK, but, as always, all thoughts, opinions, and shaky dance videos are my own.

The Art and Encumbrance of Coming Home

Home is where your story begins...

...And, though Home may also be where your story ends, it definitely isn't your whole story... At least not for me.

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People say it's harder to come back home than it is to leave, and, in the four months I was there, I can say that this is completely true. Don't get me wrong... coming back home for more than five days (for the first time in nearly two years) was as heartwarming and wonderful as you'd think it would be. Everyone is happy to see you... they're happy to hug you, and to have a conversation that's not on a screen.

When you meet your friends after months of poorly timed text convos and missed FaceTime calls, they're all buying your drinks, and interested to hear your stories from the road. It's like you never skipped a beat.

Then, eventually, the novelty of you being back wears off... but, there you are... still back. Home is still home, and you're still you... except... you're not.

Unless you've done it, not many people can fully understand what it's like to touch down in a new, unfamiliar place... A place where you don't know anyone... where you don't fully understand the language, the currency, the transportation systems... and where the simplest tasks become a challenge.

You've learned to love foods you couldn't quite pronounce the names of, and played weird drinking games with strangers who turned in to friends. Sometimes your heart was so full, you felt like it could burst... and other times, it did... it absolutely shattered. You slept on floors, slept with bugs, and even slept in an aircon-less hut, in the middle of a random Thai island... where you fell in lust with a Spanish dive instructor... and you fell in love with life.

Unless you've done it, it's impossible to fully grasp the impact of all this... All of the beautiful souls you've met, the places you've seen, the things you've done, and the experiences that changed you.

After awhile, you stray away from telling these stories at all... because talking about "your favorite place in Thailand" or "that one time in Myanmar" just feels, well... pretentious.

I realize that I am so lucky to have had all of these experiences... and I know that not everyone can, will, or even wants to. I don't think I am better than anyone else, but there were times at home when I felt like I had to downplay the person I'd become... with old friends, new friends, and, sometimes, even family.  (Excuse my French), but F that. I worked really hard to get to where I am, and, as much as my parents have supported me, the life I've led was not handed to me... I made it happen for myself.

I quickly realized that watering yourself down is THE most self-deprecating thing you can do...

Because when you have to be excessively modest, to belittle your accomplishments, and to downplay your dreams JUST so everyone else in the room can feel bigger, well, then you have left little to no room for your own future growth.

After completing two overseas work contracts, two months of living out of a backpack, nearly two years of non-stop travel, and three days of being home, I did the gut wrenching, but inevitable, thing that any long-term traveller eventually has to do. I got a job... and a few days later, I got another job. I was back in the service industry, and back to my old home antics... Working non-stop. Almost immediately, my personal growth came to a screeching halt.

One of my main reasons for returning home was to see family, but because I was constantly in a server apron taking orders, or behind a bar pouring drinks, that never really happened. And when I wasn't making people's drinks, I was consuming them... sometimes at alarming rates (because, well... days off were hard to come by... and when we had one, we went all in).

I wasn't growing, I wasn't changing. I was working myself in to the ground, but I wasn't working towards anything. I had hit a standstill, and I damn near started moving backwards.

Two months flew by, and by the end of June, I couldn't stop thinking about Seoul. I missed the city that never sits down. I missed teaching, my students, my sushi mom, and the incredible subway system. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I hadn't been ready to leave because I wasn't finished with this city yet... or, rather, the city wasn't finished with me. My purpose here hadn't been fulfilled, and I hadn't quite finished this chapter's transformation.

Coming back to Seoul just made sense.

It's somehow been nearly a month, and I am loving this city even more than I did the first time around. I've reconnected with some old friends, made some new friends, and even get to see some of my old students. My new neighborhood is awesome, my new kindy kids are adorable, AND I GET TO HAVE WEEKENDS! AND HOLIDAYS (which, you bartenders know is un.heard.of)!

Overall, I'm focused, happy, and, to put a long story short, I am truly living my best life.

For whatever reason, I thrive in the unfamiliar... but, this time around, Seoul isn't completely unfamiliar. I've figured out just enough to where the city isn't totally daunting. I'm comfortable here, and don't feel completely out of place... it feels a bit like coming home.

In a city where next to no one knows my name, I have an easier time remembering who I am... and more importantly, who I want to be...

...(And don't worry, they whole "Impending North Korean Nuclear War" thing is TOTALLY being blown out of proportion by the Western media. It's fine... I'm fine).

The First and Last 48 - Saying Hello and Goodbye to Korea

Somehow, after 18 months of calling Seoul home, on March 2nd, the day finally came when it was time to say goodbye…

(and then that day came again on March 3rd after missing my March 2nd flight).

When I decided to move to Korea to work, I genuinely had no clue what to expect. I saw it as an opportunity to travel, to break away from the norm, and to experience a new place for a while. When I embarked on the journey to Seoul, I (shamefully) didn’t know much about Korean culture, didn’t know a single soul there, and could barely pronounce “Annyeonghaseyoooo” – (hello). I thought I was cultured, and I thought I knew myself, but I had no idea.

It wasn’t long after I touched down in Seoul that I realized, up until that point, I’d never truly experienced culture shock. I had traveled abroad before for vacations, spring breaks, and to visit my mum’s family abroad, but this was the first time I’d ventured so far alone… and it was one hell of a first experience. On my very sleepy ride in to the city with the cabbie who spoke zero English, I wondered what the hell all of the buildings were that looked exactly the same. Keep in mind, I'm from a very small town called Pleasant Garden, North Carolina. Rows upon rows upon rows of high rise apartments were a foreign concept to me. So was the fact that my school was not a free standing building, but in the same building as a pharmacy, grocery store, doctors office, dentist office, and bank (among other things).

Though the highlight reel that is social media probably did a good job of making the last year and a half look like nothing but good times and smooth sailing, let me tell you, it has not been. For one, just being on my own and actually enjoying it was a massive adjustment. Learning to operate solo enabled me to do a lot, and to travel a lot, but, behind the scenes, it also meant working extremely hard to make it happen. (I’m talking 14-hour work days… which I had three times a week after picking up a second, possibly illegal, tutoring gig).

On top of the crazy work hours, regular life things were sometimes a pain. The simplest tasks, like going to the post office, or to the pharmacy were much more difficult given that, most of the time, I either had no clue where to go or was faced with a massive language barrier once I got there. Making it to the doctor was a horror story of its own. Picture me with a runny nose, horrid cough, and extreme chest pains, crying in a maternity ward to Koreans who couldn’t understand that I was looking for urgent care… or just any doctor who would see me and put me out of my misery. This was the worst of my hard times.

At the end of the day, despite these complications, Korea was completely life changing, and I’m so thankful for the time I had and the people I met there. Looking back, my first and last 48 hours in Seoul were spent in quite similar ways... with a very disoriented, running around like a chicken with my head cut off, and crying… a lot.

 

The first 48

When I moved to Seoul and got to my shitty little apartment with the nonexistent kitchen and smoke-stained wallpaper, I had been travelling for something like 36 straight hours: From Dublin to Dubai, then Dubai to Seoul. I wanted to check in with my family to let them know I’d arrived, but since the spotty wifi connection in the room sometimes worked and most times did not, I couldn’t even do that. So once my director left, I settled in to my rock hard mattress, and the waterworks began. I cried because I was scared, I cried because I didn’t know when I would see my family again, and I cried because, for the first time in my entire life, I was totally alone – and without a functional internet connection, I literally couldn’t contact anyone.

Bright and early the next morning, I went to work and met more people than any one, severely jet-lagged, person could possibly be expected to remember right off the bat. Normally lots of new teachers arrive at a school at the same time, but, aside from the guy who’d arrived a week prior, I was the sole newbie that day. I kind of didn’t know how to act. It was like the first day of school, and I was the new kid.

 
Selfie before my first day on the job... which is hilarious when compared to what I looked like on my last day. What's more hilarious is the hairbrush in the corner, something I no longer really have a use for.  Pictured here: Overachiever, hair done/make-up on after three hours of sleep, dress-pants to impress first day of work Kirst... which differs quite drastically from leggings, oversized flannel wearing last day of work Kirst... a look that was completed by a baseball cap to cover my unbrushed hair.

Selfie before my first day on the job... which is hilarious when compared to what I looked like on my last day. What's more hilarious is the hairbrush in the corner, something I no longer really have a use for.

Pictured here: Overachiever, hair done/make-up on after three hours of sleep, dress-pants to impress first day of work Kirst... which differs quite drastically from leggings, oversized flannel wearing last day of work Kirst... a look that was completed by a baseball cap to cover my unbrushed hair.

 

The girl who trained me was so over the job that she did little to make me feel included or clue me in as to what the heck was going on. I tried to be professional in a new work environment, to feel out the vibe among my new coworkers, and more than anything, I tried to not fall asleep.

Looking back, I was totally afraid to be myself coming in. Honestly, that’s probably because outside of my small town, comfortable environment, I really had no idea who the heck I was because I had always just been the person I was expected to be. At this point in the game, I was such a massive pushover that it was like I’d resumed my mousey, uni-freshman persona. It’s no wonder I became such an easy target for the office mean girl.

I had come in with the expectation that I would automatically have all of these work friends, and, in reality, was all but shunned by my coworkers. For a while, I totally felt sorry for myself. I typically get on well with everyone, so I was really surprised and put off when, after asking for suggestions of good places to eat in our neighborhood, the response I got was, "I don't know, just go somewhere." There aren't enough wide-eyed emojis to describe the shock I felt at how mean they could be to a newbie who clearly had NO clue what the hell she was doing. 

Once I got over the initial shock that not everyone will always want to be friends with me, I quickly found my own way around, and started to become comfortable with doing things on my own. I sought out new opportunities and made friends with people who I got along with not out of necessity or proximity, but because we actually had things in common. I realize now, that what I thought was a misfortune was actually a blessing in disguise. Sooooo thank you, Deborah for being totally rude to me and leaving me out for no reason. You were the catalyst for the first of many lessons I learned in Seoul.

 
This was the first day that I ventured out on my own in Seoul - I went to an art museum, a hole in the wall book store, and sat down with a beer to read a book by myself. That first solo adventure day was a game-changer.

This was the first day that I ventured out on my own in Seoul - I went to an art museum, a hole in the wall book store, and sat down with a beer to read a book by myself. That first solo adventure day was a game-changer.

 

 

The last 48 (or week... whatever)

For my last few days in the country, the string of goodbyes was never ending. First I said goodbye to my kindy class, and, though I held my shit together pretty well on graduation day, when a mom came to me with arms open for a hug and tears in her eyes, it was game over. And of course it was THEN that all of the other moms decided it was a great time to begin taking photos. My Kim K cry face and I probably look fantastic in those shots.

 
You see that airplane of a child cheesing as he jumps in to the photo at the last second? That's Brian... The same Brian who I couldn't get to pick up a crayon or say a word when the school year began.

You see that airplane of a child cheesing as he jumps in to the photo at the last second? That's Brian... The same Brian who I couldn't get to pick up a crayon or say a word when the school year began.

 

A couple days later, I said goodbye to my ex-coworker and long-time FWB – (by long-time I mean on and off for the full time I was in Korea… give or take a few days... which is a long ass time for me to not grow entirely bored of someone). That was a surprisingly tough time too, as, naturally, he was oddly sweet and not the complete shithead I’d grown accustomed to. We went for drinks with his coworkers, and, at the end of the night, he randomly told me how he was going to really miss me. What is it with guys and their epically awful timing?

That Monday and Tuesday, I said several waves of goodbyes to my elementary students, coworkers, and one of my closest friends. I wasn’t quite as attached to the elementary kids, but true to form, still cried when no one was looking. With the exception of a few people, saying goodbye to my coworkers was more sweet than bitter, and my goodbye with Alma was so nonchalant that it didn’t seem real… probably because it wasn’t a goodbye – sorry, babe, but you’re gonna have to see me again when Alexa and I come crash your wedding).

 
Almeezie looking fab, per usual... before getting her margarita to-go. Only in Korea...

Almeezie looking fab, per usual... before getting her margarita to-go. Only in Korea...

 

On Wednesday, what was supposed to be my last full day in the country, I hung out with Tomato and her nanny all day. We went to TeamLab World, one of the coolest interactive exhibits in Seoul. It’s definitely made for children, but, naturally, Alexa, Alma and I had already been. When we went, I immediately thought how cool it would be to go there with Sabina, so I was stoked when her mom suggested it. Though I was surprised to see it was her nanny (who I’d never met before and who didn’t speak great English), we managed to communicate and had an awesome time.

That evening after dinner, we rode the train home together, and, as soon as they got off at their station, she messaged me saying that she hopes I come back and to let her know if I need help with anything. Sabina’s mom also messaged me that night saying that when I come back to Korea she wants me to stay with them. I thought these were the last goodbyes, but, of course, was wrong.

 
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Thursday was when the “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” really began. I spent the day selling off more of my things, walking massive bags of stuff to the donation bin, and packing up boxes to take to the post office. I had two boxes to send home, and one filled with school supplies to mail to Cambodia. Now, at home, getting all of this stuff to the post office would have been a piece of cake. I simply would’ve loaded them in to my car, driven to the post office, and been set.

Obviously, I don’t have a car… so, one by one, I had to lug the boxes down the hall to the elevator, one by one, load them on the elevator, and then, one by one, to the curb by the apartment. Taxis don’t come down that particular road too often, but frequently drive through the intersection one block up, so I grabbed one of the boxes and walked to the corner.

A free taxi stopped, I set the box in the back seat and, with my head poked in the car, tried to explain that I needed him to drive back to my apartment up the street so I could get two more boxes before going to the post office (a word I had just learned how to say in Korean that day). My usual pointing/broken Konglish tactic was totally failing me… And that was when an angel with blue hair tapped me on the shoulder.

I nearly smashed my head on the door frame of the cab I was so shocked. I turned around, and, in perfect English, a small blue haired Korean girl asked me if I needed any help. I explained my situation, and she then translated to the cabbie. She even offered to come with me if I needed help carrying things, saying that she was done with the things she needed to do for the day. I declined, thanked her, and told her she had helped enough already… I don’t know who you are, blue haired girl, but I will truly be forever thankful that you were kind enough to stop and help me out.

The cabbie drove to a post office two stations away, even though there were several close by, and once I got there, there was a massive line. The line was made worse by an ajumma who was so up in arms over something mail related that they literally had to call the police. I had allotted myself JUST enough time to get to the post office, and to breeze in and out. Spending over an hour at the post office was not in the cards… and set the rest of my day off.

I walked home and resumed my chicken with its head cut off act, quickly scurrying around to get the rest of my things together. That evening, when I went to catch the airport bus, it was leaving as I was waiting to cross the street. The next bus came half an hour later… and didn’t even stopped. Soooooo, I missed my flight, and thought to myself, damn, great start to this backpacking adventure Kirst. Though I had to put out the money for another flight, and squatted in my supposed to be vacated apartment for the night, missing my flight gave me the opportunity to 1) take some things out of my way too heavy backpack, and 2) to go to Hana, my go-to sushi spot, just one more time.

I was so happy when I discovered Hana for the first time. They had cheap sushi rolls and delicious fried green tea ice-cream. Though the food was amazing, I always went back because of the great service. The ladies at Hana were so warm and welcoming, greeted me by name, and always knew exactly what I wanted to order (because I’m a predictable creature of habit, and their 5,000 won spicy salmon rolls were too good to pass up).

 
 

If you’ve kept reading up until this point, you know that my last couple of days in Seoul were super emotional… and my last meal at Hana was no exception. Though there was an hour til closing time, it must have been a slow night because the ladies were starting to clean up the restaurant. Despite their closing preparations, they, as always, welcomed me with warm smiles and motioned for me to come in. I took a seat at the bar and said, “This will be the last one.” They must have thought I was referring to the last order of the night… and it took them a while to realize that I meant I was leaving the country.

The head chef, and my stand-in Korean mother, looked shocked then then got teary eyed… and then, over my spicy salmon rolls, so did I. On my worst days in Seoul, I'd go to Hana and her smiling face and warm demeanor would instantly cheer me up... and the fried icecream definitely helped as well. Long story short, this was another goodbye that was harder than I imagined it'd be, but I’m so thankful that in the middle of a massive bustling city, I found a place that felt so much like home… a place where I cried over my last super with my sushi mom. If I had written this as soon as I left Korea, I would have called this the last goodbye, but, turns out, my travels have been filled with many more.


The truth is, whether they come after 1 hour or 1 decade, goodbyes are an inevitable part of life. It’s hard to say those two bittersweet words and go your separate ways, but, I’ve found it’s always much better to make connections with people, no matter how short lived they may be... Better than the alternative of closing yourself off for fear of “losing" someone in the end.

I never imagined that I would have just as many tears leaving Korea as I did when I arrived there… if not more. I met friends and sushi ladies who turned in to family, and could not possibly have loved my students more. I had become really comfortable in Korea, so much so that that’s exactly why I knew it was time to go (though I’m being tempted back daily by messages from friends and the parents of my old students). The whole point of this journey isn’t about being comfortable… if that were the case I’d likely never have left home.

Korea taught me a lot… but before I (most likely) return, there’s more that needs to be learned elsewhere. To the people who I met, the sights that wow’d me, the experiences that tested me and challenges that changed me, I am forever thankful. I still don’t have it all figured out, but I am a lot more cultured and open, more sure of myself and my goals, and much closer to the person that I want to be. Thank you, Korea… til’ next time…

How to Zip-Line to an Island, Prance Around France, & Go to a Garden Rave... All in One Day - KoreaTravelEasy

Sundays are fun days. They are made for mimosas, or adventures, or naps, or, if you're like me, all of the above. With only three Sundays left in Seoul, I knew I’d have to suck it up, fight the urge to hit up the nap cafe, and get out and about despite the frigid temperatures. There are still so many places on my Korea Bucket List, and with the help of a new travel company in Seoul, I was able to cross three of them off this weekend.

Keep reading to find out how to zip-line to an island, prance around (the petite) France, and go to a garden rave all in one day.

I have been wanting to go to Nami Island, Petite France, and The Garden of Morning Calm for MONTHS – just ask my friends… I hassle them about it every other weekend. Unfortunately, though these destinations are accessible from Seoul, they’re not exactly the most convenient spots to get to. You have to take a train up north to Chuncheon or Gapyeong, (which are more than an hour away, depending on where you live in the city). Then, after arriving to your train station, you take a city bus to a stop somewhat nearby your actual destination… and then… you walk. I’d done all of the research on how to get to these places, how much they cost, etc… but, for these reasons and more, had yet to actually make it there.

 Given that it’s still early February, it goes without saying that Seoul’s current temperatures are less than ideal for outdoor activities, but, it isn’t getting any warmer before I leave… so I found another alternative to walking around in the cold searching for these must see spots. On Sunday, I did something that, for me, is pretty unheard of… I joined a tour group… with actual tourists. KoreaTravelEasy… a company that, in my experience, absolutely lived up to the name.

The early morning tour left from Dongdaemun Design Plaza at 11:10. True to form, I arrived at 11:12, but, in my defense, it’s because I was meeting a girl who was buying a pair of my shoes and couldn’t find her way to exit 10. (The pre-backpacking purge is still in full force, so if you’re in Seoul & want cheap goods, let me know). Once arriving to the station, I breezed straight out of the exit and started looking for some sort of tour bus or van. Turns out, the guide leading the group was waiting for me AT the exit... Oops.

Eventually, I found my way to the bus and the rest of the group. I grabbed a seat in the back, and pulled out a stack of writing tests to correct while on the way to Nami Island. Productivity is key, and I must say, my time management skills are on point these days). I had the whole row to myself, so I was able to stretch out and get comfortable on the long ride.


Nami Island

Our first stop was Nami Island. Once we arrived in Chuncheon, we were given the choice between taking the ferry or zip-ling to the island. For me, this was a laughably easy decision. When given the choice between ferrying with the masses and zipping across by myself, I will zip every time. GoPro, snacks, laptop, and all, I was strapped in to the zip-line and breezing across the waterway in no time. In a little over 90 seconds, my feet were on the ground and ready to explore Nami. Though zipping in does cost a bit extra, and may take longer depending on the line you have to wait in… (or be freezing cold depending on which season you go in), the view was so worth it. On top of that, you enter Nami on a much quieter side of the island, and not within a herd of tourist cattle.

Before it was time to join the rest of the tourist cattle to hop aboard the ferry to leave that afternoon, I successfully walked around the entire island. There were certain areas that the masses seemed to flock to, namely Metasequoia Lane and Central Korean Pine Tree Lane. The island is home of some famous K-Drama filming locations, so I’m assuming that’s why these areas were so popular. I don’t actually know anything at all about that stuff, so, again, this is just my assumption.

The Forest Village and Bungalow Row Riverside Path were so quiet and relaxing, and, in my opinion, the best areas on the island. The other spots were beautiful, but they were kind of ruined by the fact that I had bob and weave through crowds so as to avoid getting smacked in the face by selfie sticks. On Pine Tree Lane, someone bumped my arm as I was putting my phone in my pocket… causing my phone to slow-motion fall face-down on to the hard, icy path. My glass screen protector is unscathed, but I cannot say the same for the glass underneath… (Is there some type of warranty for this? – because, seriously!? Wtf.)

 
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Petite France

After Nami we headed to Petite France, a cutesy, colorful little French cultural village in the Korean countryside. Aside from the pastel buildings, brief marionette show, and tribute to the French novel The Petite Prince, there wasn’t really anything too French about this place. It has also been the filming location of many K-Dramas and movies, which I suppose explains the sea of selfie sticks. I enjoyed wandering around the picturesque little town, and grabbed a milk tea that served as a yummy beverage and a hand warmer.

 
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The Garden of Morning Calm

We left Petite France just before sun down and headed to our last stop of the day, the Lighting Festival at the Garden of Morning Calm. Over 30,000 lights cover the trees, bushes, bridges, and archways of the garden, making it Korea’s largest lighting festival. Despite being filled with selfie taking couples in matching outfits, the garden still had a really magical and whimsical feel. It was well worth the frozen fingers I left with. Before getting on the bus to head back to Seoul, I got the MOST delicious honey ginger tea from the coffee shop in the garden – seriously, it had little pieces of ginger inside and was SO good. 10 out of 10 would recommend.

 
 

Speaking of things that I would recommend, the entire tour with KoreaTravelEasy was great.

From creating a profile and signing up for the tour on their website, to getting to and exploring all three destinations, traveling with KoreaTravelEasy was just like the name says… easy!

My favorite part about the trip is how easy it was to get from point A to point B… and that when we got there we were left to explore on our own. I was worried that by going on this trip, I’d be stuck with the tour group all day, but that wasn’t the case at all. Once we arrived at each destination, we were given a time to be back at the bus, and spent the time in between wandering around doing our own thing. EVERYONE on the trip respected the time of their fellow travelers, and made it back to the bus on time every time, (which is not something that can be said for other tour groups I’ve been a part of in Korea).

I was the only person traveling solo on this trip, but I like it that way. If you’re someone who wants to meet new friends on tours, I would recommend going with a meet-up group instead. If you’re like me and want the traveling bit to be easy, but to do your own thing once you’re there, then you should absolutely consider taking this tour (or one of the many other trips offered) with KoreaTravelEasy.

The truth is, if I’d tried to do Nami Island, Petite France, and the Garden of Morning Calm on my own in one day, it would have been a big hassle. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with taking the easier route & traveling with a company that takes the stress of getting there out of the equation. Aside from cracking my phone screen, I thoroughly enjoyed my tour with Korea Travel Easy, and all three destinations on the trip. Check out the video below for more of the Sunday Funday Shenanigans!

 
 

You can sign up for the three part tour I went on by clicking here, or check KoreaTravelEasy.com for more tours and activities.

 
 

 

I was a guest of KoreaTravelEasy, but, as always, all observations, opinions, and bad jokes are my own.

True Life: My BFF is a Kindergartener

The Story of Tomato

 

Tomato/tomatoe: (n.)

The confusing fruit/vegetable.

Pronounced quite differently by my British mother and American father.

Frequently served in salads, and, in Korea, alongside grapes and apples in fruit cups.

Also the nick-name of my favorite kindergartener (and Korean bff).

Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites… and I know that. I love all of my kindergarten students, and find each of them to be adorable, and amazing, and annoying in their own special way… but there was always something particularly unique about Sabina, (otherwise known as Tomato). She’s the cutest, spunkiest kid I have ever met, we have the same birthday, and, for these reasons and more, she became my unexpected favorite, and a big part of the reason I extended my contract.

So you’re probably wandering why the hell I call her Tomato. Long story short, first thing every day, my kindergarten class and I go through our morning routine. They meditate, and then we do the days of the week, the weather, and their feelings. As you can imagine, with a class of 12, this process takes a while. After learning about storms, it took even longer, because, being the jokesters that they are, they made a habit of shouting out, “IT’S A BLIZZARD” and “TORNADO!” when asked what the weather was like outside. Sabina, practicing her rhyming words, would always shout “Tomato!” instead.

…But it didn’t stop there. When asked, “How do you feel today?” most kids would list a smorgasbord of feelings like happy, angry, sad, and exhausted…or, more frequently, all of the above – (Side note: basically they have no clue how they feel… ever; and to have a kid say, “I feel very angry” with a huge smile on their face is one of the most twisted and terrifying things I’ve ever seen). Sabina, on the other hand, kept it pretty simple. I still don’t quite know why, but, everyday she’d say, “I FEEL TOMATO,” and, thus, the nickname Tomato was born.

In September, I was told it was her last day ON her last day, and all of the waterproof mascara in the world couldn’t have prepared me for it. At Korean hagwons, teachers don’t typically communicate with parents directly, unless we’re sending home report card comments, but, that day, I wrote a letter to her parents telling them how proud I am, and that I would really like to stay in touch – (aka nanny or babysit for free).

The response I received was much better than a babysitting request. On that Friday, the day after she left, Sabina’s mom messaged me saying, “Miss Kirstie, you have changed our minds. I’m truly moved. At home, parents take care of kids. In school, kids totally rely on their teachers. Having a good teacher is lucky for Sabina and I. On Tuesday, say, “Hello Tomato,” to Sabina as always.” So she came back, and I was absolutely ecstatic… but, unfortunately, that was not the end of the Tomato Rollercoaster.

 
 

At the end of October, Tomato left our school for good, and, though I was absolutely crushed, I totally understood her parents’ reasoning. When kindergarten classes were over for the day, she always stayed for afterschool. It wasn’t until 4:25 that she’d get on the bus to head home with the first and second graders, and the rest of the afterschool kindy kids. Then, due to construction along the route, she had an extremely long bus ride home… way too long for a girl so young. By the time she got home, she was exhausted, stressed, and unhappy… and hearing THAT broke my heart much more than learning she’d be moving to a different school

I kept in touch with her parents (and, again, emphasized my free babysitting offer). Just before Christmas I sent them a picture drawn by a girl in Beethoven class. It was a class portrait… and Sabina was in it. It made me smile, and broke my heart. Those kids either still don’t realize she’s gone, OR realize that she’ll always be a part of our class no matter what. Sabina’s mom was also touched, and responded with several recent holiday photos of Tomato. We arranged to meet after I got back from Australia, and planned a dinner for early January.

 
 

I hadn’t seen Tomato since she left Beethoven class in October, and was genuinely nervous about the dinner. I was right to worry because, at first, as expected, she acted totally shy and was not at all herself. On top of that, I thought I was just going to have dinner with Tomato and her mom, but, as it turned out, I was meeting the whole family: Tomato, mom, dad, and her older sister!

If I told you it wasn’t veryyyy awkward at first, I’d be a huge liar. I’ve only met her parents a handful of times… and it’s always been on the same days I’ve met every other student’s parent – (Thank goodness Tomato was easy to pick out of the crowd). Her parents ordered us beers, which threw me off. I thought to myself, “Is this a test? Do they want to see if I’ll drink in front of their daughters?” Then I remembered I’m in Korea, stopped overthinking, and took a big, delicious sip. Drinking is a huge part of the culture in Korea, and if you refuse a drink offered to you by a superior, it’s seen as extremely rude.

Tomato’s dad did most of the talking in the beginning. His English is much better than her Mom’s, and, I discovered that, though I thought I had been messaging her mom all along, most of the time, it was actually her dad. Tomato quickly warmed up to me as the dinner went on. At one point, she was poking a tomato around on her plate, and so I said, “Hey… tomato… look! You’re about to eat a tomato,” and she laughed hysterically. From then on it was game over, and she was 100% the silly, funny student I love and miss.

It was SO nice to hang out with her in a setting where I didn’t have to tell her to be quiet, or to sit nicely, or to focus. We just laughed, ate, played, and had fun. She taught me games she’d learned from friends at her new school, and got super territorial when her mom or sister tried to jump in.

 
 

When we were finished with dinner, her mom suggested we go get coffee and ice-cream. I’m not sure what it is with Koreans and getting coffee past 9 p.m., but I wasn’t quite ready for the evening to end, so I agreed. As we left the restaurant, Tomato clutched my hand and wouldn’t let go. She practically dragged me down the street toward the coffee shop, and continuously looked back over her shoulder at me, as if she was checking to make sure I was still there.

At the coffee shop she opened up my late Christmas present, and I think it’s safe to say she liked it. I brought her a koala T-shirt back from Australia, and other little odds and ends like hair clips, pencils, and stickers. She pulled the T-shirt on over her dress, snapped the Minions hair clip on one of her pigtails, and admired her sparkly new stickers. (If I’d known her sister was coming too, I’d have brought extra, but, being the sweet angel she is, Tomato opened up a pack of stickers and immediately shared a sheet with her older sister).

All in all, the evening was perfect. My stomach and heart have never been more full. I was so happy to see Tomato, and even happier her parents wanted to set up another day to meet before I leave – (We’re going to see Moana this weekend, and, I’ll tell ya what, I am pumped!) They said that if I come back to Korea, they want me to be her tutor, and a part of me almost considered ditching my plans to return home altogether. When I got home that evening, her mom sent me a text saying how sad Tomato was to see me leave after dessert. We arranged the movie date, and then her last text said, “I was so happy to meet today! Sleep tight!” I feel so welcome by that woman, it’s almost like having another mom in Korea.

Not long after my reunion with Tomato, I came across this quote by Miriam Adeney.

 
You will never be completely at home again because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.
 

This could not possibly describe my current feelings more accurately. Though I’m looking forward to my trip, and I’m excited to return home to my family, I absolutely dread leaving my students. Korea has brought me a lot of experiences that I am thankful for. Of all of them, nothing comes close to the blessing of knowing and loving Tomato and the rest of Beethoven class. 

It’s cliché, but true - these kids have made me want to be a better person. their unconditional love and joy are things I will remember, and cherish, for the rest of my life.

 
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25 Korean Years Old & My Premature Quarter-life Crisis

According to the Lunar New Year, I turned Korean age 25 over the weekend… and boy did the quarter life crisis hit hard. My newsfeed was chalk full of engagements, sonograms, toddlers, wedding photos, and anniversary posts… It probably wasn’t actually any more so than usual, but it sure did seem like it. Seeing my friends running through all of these massive life events like it’s some sort of race sometimes makes me wonder when all of these things are going to happen for me.

The truth is, at times, it really sucks not having someone to share my experiences with. I feel like maybe I’ve made the wrong move, and feel guilty for being so far away from my family. I wonder when I should join the rat race and get a job, a retirement plan, a car, and, I don’t know… maybe settle down with a boyfriend or a dog or something.

Then, I snap the hell out of it.

After a well-deserved long weekend of relaxation and running (rather, sliding) around the freezing city, I’m going in to February with renewed vision and a sense of clarity.

 
...I wonder when I should join the rat race and get a job, a retirement plan, a car, and, I don’t know… maybe settle down with a boyfriend or a dog or something.

Then, I snap the hell out of it.
 

This Lunar New Year holiday was the first time since moving to Korea that I have not gone on a trip during a school vacation. The combination of not having plans, and being stuck in the arctic tundra that is Seoul, sent me spiraling into a bit of a funk.

To paint a picture of this funk, I spent the first evening of the break with wine, Netflix, and a huge bag of popcorn. I binge watched a show that’s entirely in Portuguese… and finished the whole first season. The massive bag of popcorn? Well, it is now half gone… so perhaps when I said I was in a “bit” of a funk, that was a bit of an understatement.

Saturday was spent attempting to adult. I did laundry, cleaned my apartment, and got rid of more clothes to my pre-backpacking purge. I spent the rest of the day and night with a couple girlfriends. I love them to death and had so much fun, but, as they’re both happily in serious relationships, my Single Sally, quarter life crisis funk got worse. I drudged through the weekend feeling cold, lonely, and tad a bit sorry for myself.

Finally, I decided that something had to give. I planned to go for a hike Monday morning, as, in my experience, the best remedy for feeling low is to get high… and in Korea, the only legal way to do that is to climb a mountain. Then my friend messaged me about going sunrise roof-topping, and I figured that’d be even better… a not so legal way to get high. Just before the crack of dawn on Monday morning, I channeled my go-to “freezing hobo” aesthetic, put on several layers, and skated through the black ice filled streets to the train station.

 

Jason and I met outside the subway station, looked both ways before riding the elevator to the top floor of the building, snuck up the fire escape, then, despite the cold (and my lack of gloves), I clutched the freezing rungs of the metal ladder, and climbed from the first level of the roof to the top. Hiking and roof-topping are nice de-stressors… because I’ve found that the higher I go, the smaller my problems seem. The closer I get to the edge, the clearer I see things. Slightly dangerous (and possibly illegal) activities are where I find my zen – sorry, mum.

For a good portion of our time on the roof that morning, I wasn’t taking photos or climbing things (which is totally uncharacteristic of me). Jason kept laughing and commenting that I looked like I was waiting for something. I wasn’t waiting for anything, (other than for the feeling to return to my fingers and this dreadful winter to end). I really just like being up there, and was in deep thought.

 
 

With the beginning of my Korean 25th birthday came recollections of grade school days past. When young Kirst was asked what she’d be doing at this point in her life, she always imagined that she’d have it all figured out – that she’d be settled in to a life with a handsome husband, a cool job, a house, and a couple dogs. This prediction could not be further from 24 (Korean age 25) year old Kirst’s current reality.

Ya see, I’m more single than a slice of American cheese. I have no car and no pup. In a month, I’ll be jobless for the first time in 9 years, and homeless for the first time in my life. As excited as I am for this backpacking journey, and whatever the next chapter of my life holds, I’d be lying if I said the uncertainty of it all wasn’t a bit unsettling. I guess that’s one of the most redeeming parts about the 9-5, get married, buy a house, have babies path of life... It’s comfortable and predictable… but, at this point in my life, I don’t want predictable.

I realized on that rooftop that I love this crazy, random, life. I love living on the edge of it, taking in all it has to offer, making the most of my days, and spending them the way I want to. Sure, it can get lonely… but I’d rather spend time figuring things out for myself than to spend it in bad (or wrong) company. Kid Kirst thought she’d surely be a wifey by now, but smarter, slightly older Kirst wouldn’t settle, and had dreams of seeing the world. I’m glad that I’m living a life that would make my older, wiser kid-self proud.

Pictured below: A very young, but very wise, Kirst with her priorities totally in order. Ain't nobody got time to eat cake batter like a dainty princess. Grub now... clean your face later. (Not much has changed on this front).

 
 

It’s really hard being so far away from home… but when I dove out of my comfort zone and in to life abroad, opportunities arose that I never could have imagined. I realized just how much I’m capable of, and that I can achieve whatever I’m willing to work hard for. I’m thankful that I made the decision to create my own path, and to do it alone, even though it may be uncomfortable.

The clarity I regained on that rooftop Monday morning was reinforced this afternoon in my grade five literature class. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that our curriculum had us reading Aesop’s fable, “The Dog and the Wolf.” For those of you who may not be familiar, it goes like this:

 

There was once a Wolf who got very little to eat because the Dogs of the village were so wide awake and watchful. He was really nothing but skin and bones, and it made him very downhearted to think of it.

One night this Wolf happened to fall in with a fine fat House Dog who had wandered a little too far from home. The Wolf would gladly have eaten him then and there, but the House Dog looked strong enough to leave his marks should he try it. So the Wolf spoke very humbly to the Dog, complimenting him on his fine appearance.

“You can be as well-fed as I am if you want to,” replied the Dog. “Leave the woods; there you live miserably. Why, you have to fight hard for every bite you get. Follow my example and you will get along beautifully.”

“What must I do?” asked the Wolf.

“Hardly anything,” answered the House Dog. “Chase people who carry canes, bark at beggars, and fawn on the people of the house. In return you will get tidbits of every kind, chicken bones, choice bits of meat, sugar, cake, and much more beside, not to speak of kind words and caresses.”

The Wolf had such a beautiful vision of his coming happiness that he almost wept. But just then he noticed that the hair on the Dog’s neck was worn and the skin was chafed.

“What is that on your neck?”

“Nothing at all,” replied the Dog.

“What! nothing!”

“Oh, just a trifle!”

“But please tell me.”

“Perhaps you see the mark of the collar to which my chain is fastened.”

“What! A chain!” cried the Wolf. “Don’t you go wherever you please?”

“Not always! But what’s the difference?” replied the Dog.

“All the difference in the world! I don’t care a rap for your feasts and I wouldn’t take all the tender young lambs in the world at that price.” And away ran the Wolf to the woods.

 

The moral of the story is that no amount of comfort, or good food, is worth as much as freedom. And so that’s where I’m at – (even though I do miss my mum’s cooking). For me, the mark of a collar would be the mark of an engagement ring on my finger. The chain would be a mortgage or car payments… and *shudder* children *shudder.* Again, these things are right for some people, but not for me. Not yet. Right now, I’m perfectly cool with loving on my kindy kids, and sending them home to their parents at the end of the day.

Truth be told, a certain level of sweetness comes with loneliness that I’ve, until now, made out to be a negative thing. If I want to get sushi for dinner for the fourth time in less than a week, I can. If I want to take an impromptu trip to Japan, it’s fine. Eat sushi there too, home girl. Having a last minute girl’s night in a city over an hour away? Cool – you don’t need permission. Wanna go sunrise roof-topping with a guy friend? Sure, why not! Bring gloves this time, ya dumby.

I can spend a day being super productive and running errands around the city, or a night in drinking cheap wine and watching an entire season of a Portuguese show on Netflix. The fact that I choose how I spend my time, makes me accountable for this time, and for my life. If it’s a bad one, I have no one to blame but myself.

I do look forward to the day that I find someone I want to share this journey with, but, for now, I am young, and I’m loving all the places this adventure is taking me on my own. There's just one more month ‘til I continue the adventure of a lifetime... and I cannot wait.

 
 

2016 Recap - Part 5 - Friendsgiving, Korean Santa, and Champagne Showers Down Under

 
 

With November came a wicked chill in the air and the sudden realization that my time in Korea was quickly running out. Though I’d been doing a lot all year, I still had an inexhaustible list of places I wanted to go and things I wanted to see. Up until then, it had been easy to put them off and make the excuse that I’d do them later… but my time to do things later was dwindling fast. Since there were no international trips this month, I kicked crossing off the Korea bucket list into high gear.

One of the first places I went on my Seoul Searching adventure is Yongma Land, an abandoned amusement park on the outskirts of the city. It was creepy, quirky, and made for some interesting photo ops. I got there pretty early, so I had the place mostly to myself for about an hour, but, by the time I left, the park was filled with hordes of Koreans. From amateur couples with their selfie sticks to teeny models with wardrobe changes, a full blown posse of photographers, and a blaring boom-box, the influx of people and K-Pop tunes kind of ruined the creepy vibe for me. I grabbed my GoPro and called it a day.

 
 

I explored new parks in the city, marveled at the JunkHouse piece on the side of LuLuLemon in Apgujeong, and went to the Euljiro Light Way Exhibit at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Despite my best efforts to stay ridiculously busy, as the temperature grew colder and Thanksgiving drew nearer, I couldn’t help but start to miss home. Thinking about all the turkey and mac and cheese I wasn’t going to be eating had me feeling low, so I got high and had breakfast with a view. No, not THAT kind of high… the mountain climbing kind of high.

I’ve been meaning to hike Gwanaksan for ages. I can see it from my apartment window and it’s only a short walk away… but, because of its proximity, it had always been one of those, “Oh, just do it later,” things. Finally, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I got up well before the sun and headed to the mountain. I’d been TO the mountain, but had never hiked up it. It was still pitch dark outside, so I found an ajussi who looked like he knew what he was doing, and followed close behind til the sun came up and I got my own feel for the trail.

Losing a few extra hours of sleep was well worth getting to watch the sun come up over the city. The view at the top was absolutely incredible. If you’re in Seoul, I definitely recommend checking out Gwanak Mountain. It isn’t the tallest mountain by any means, but it is a fairly easy climb and highly accessible from the SNU subway station.

 
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The following weekend, to celebrate Friendsgiving, a couple girlfriends and I went on a winery tour and to the Daedunsan Cloud Bridge. I definitely hadn’t anticipated hiking in the snow that weekend, but, when the snow began to fall and the world turned white, the Cloud Bridge got that much cooler… literally. Though it was freezing, the snow was beautiful and refreshing, and we were like a bunch of giddy little kids...

...So giddy, in fact, that I decided to start a snowball fight with no gloves on, and I'm not convinced the phrase, “Cold hands warm heart,” was made for that day. My hands were so frozen I couldn’t properly hold or use my chopsticks at dinner, but, all in all, I am not sure there's a better way to spend a Saturday than with a post-wine tasting snowball fight on a suspension bridge. Click here to read more about our Friendsgiving day away from the city.

 
 

Another HUGE thing that happened in November was the finalization of my backpacking plans. After weeks of planning various routes, and searching one-way flights at such super human speeds that SkyScanner literally kept locking me out, and asking me to solve CAPTCHAs to prove I wasn’t a robot. I’m so pleased with the deals I was able to find and can’t wait for this two month, 8 country adventure. Shout out to Air Asia for the cheapest flights in the game. Read all about where I’m going, and when, here.

 
 

 
 

Andddddd (can I get a drum roll please), we FINALLY made it to December – The coldest, and seemingly longest, month of the year. Last December, I was twiddling my thumbs and counting down the seconds til I could get on my Christmas day flight to Thailand, but, this year, that was not the case. In an attempt to stay busy and prevent the pre-holiday away from home blues, I went into full blown Christmas elf mode... but I bit off way more than I could chew. I had SO much to do to prepare for my trip to Australia that I was actually wanting the weeks to slow down.

Pictured below: A wild Kirst in her natural Christmas decorating habitat.

I'm never at my apartment, so I decided to decorate my classroom instead. This tree was covered in ornaments and actual lights by the time I was done with it, but, first, I had to cut it and make it a bit smaller... which was tough because I was practically in tears from laughing when I realized I was literally trimming a tree. If that's not funny to you, we can't be friends.

 
 

The month FLEW by with a slew of tests, corrections, report card comments, and, for me, funky Christmas sweaters and packing. I didn’t just have to pack up enough clothes for a week… I had to go through literally everything I own and decide what I was going to sell, what I was going to send home, and what I was going to bring with me on my post-Korea trip. In addition to that I took on a rather big (given everything else I had to do) endeavor of creating a massive advent calendar and daily gifts for my Kindy kids.

It was a pretty stressful month, and I didn’t have time to get sick… so, naturally, I got sick… for two weeks. It was absolutely awful. Being a sick adult with no one to have your back or make you soup is the worst… but imagine how bad it is in a country where there is no such thing as sick days, and doctors only halfway understand what you’re saying when you finally find the time to go to them. I had been coughing so hard for so long that I literally pulled a muscle, and, when the pain in my ribs became too much to bear, I headed to the doctor for a third time. Read all about that literal nightmare here.

 

Thankfully, the third time was a charm, and my voice came back just in time for the last week of school before the winter holiday... and our open class. Open class happens twice a year, and is the day where all of your student’s parents sit in on a lesson. You are judged on your looks just as much as your teaching, and so I had to do my hair for the first time all month. I wasn’t nearly as nervous for it as I was the first two times. It could be because I know these parents better than I knew parents in the past… or because I’m about to leave this job anyway and have a serious case of “end of contract-itis.”

The open class went really well. The students (per usual) mocked me when I hadn’t asked them to repeat after me, and so I took that opportunity to tell their parents that a lot of the English the kids learn comes from copying what I say when I don’t want them to.

Later on in the lesson, which was about the five food groups, Jayden (my youngest, and brightest, student) provided more comedy when he shouted out some very insightful information about the protein group. He said… and I quote… “PROTEIN GIVES YOU MUSCLES BUT MISS KIRSTIE DOESN’T HAVE ANY.” Like I get it… I should probably train arms more at the gym, but geez. (Side note: After getting straight up called out by a five-year-old, I trained a little bit harder at the gym that evening).

Pictured below: Jayden also critiquing my photography skills. (Also pictured... Korean Santa Clause. He looked super uncomfortable in his beard, and the kids and I were not convinced. It took absolutely everything in me not to shout, “You're not Santa, You smell like soju and kimchi!”... which he did.)

 
 

Once open class was over, I felt like I was home free. I finished up my packing and started to get SO pumped up for Australia. Bright and early on Christmas Eve, I started pumping some tunes, headed to the airport bus, and prepared for what would, after layovers, be nearly 24 hours of travel time.

 
 

When I boarded my final flight from China to Melbourne I was so pleased to see that 1) I had a window seat, and 2) I was sharing a row with the most adorable old Chinese man. He was reading a newspaper as big as he was and greeted me with a friendly smile when I sat down. I could see that his passport was brand new, and, throughout the flight, he was visibly confused about things like how to turn on his T.V., light, and what to write on his declaration card. 

He didn't speak a lick of English, and my Mandarin (despite my attempts in Taiwan) still doesn't extend beyond hello and thank you. Through a series of hand gestures, nods, and smiles, we were able to communicate (and laugh at our hilariously failed attempts). I was able to help him sort out his T.V., light, and, somehow, what to write on his arrival card. Towards the end of the flight, he pulled some tangerines out of his bag and shared them with me. I had Christmas cards in my backpack so I discreetly wrote one for him and gave it to him after we landed... He definitely couldn't read it, but was still so tickled.

It was a pretty beautiful way to spend Christmas morning, and a nice reminder that no matter where you are in the world, no matter who you encounter, and no matter what your differences may be, you can always find common ground and share beautiful experiences with people when you open yourself up to them. Traveling on the holidays can make you forget that it’s a holiday at all, but the connection I made with this man served as a pretty good reminder of what Christmas is all about.

 
 

I went through customs, picked up my bags, and then began the (seemingly endless) wait for Bethany and Rachel’s flight to arrive. Their luggage was lost, and we had a bit of a rough start, but the days that followed would be filled with bottles of champagne, rainy bicycle rides, wedding fun, marvelling at Melbourne’s street art, eating all of the avo-toast I could handle, obligatory sister fights, ogling at Australia’s incredibly good looking men, and watching the fireworks at a rooftop bar as we said goodbye to 2016 (...and also watching my little sister mack on the Aussie boys. Side note: she was the only one of the trio to land a New Year's smooch.) - Ya heard it here first, mum ;)

 
 

Bethany is going to kill me... so I suppose I'll leave it at that for now. Full post on Decking the Halls in Oz, and all of the Aussie shenanigans coming realllll soon.

 
 

Stay tuned to hear about kangaroos on golf courses, the ferrari rides that led to all-nighters down under, and How Bethany is basically a huge lady-stud...

 


Did you miss something? Catch up on the previous recaps!

 

2016 Recap - Part 4 - Typhoons, Tomato & the Date That Led to my Tinder Retirement

 
 
 
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Typhoon-y Taiwan

After weeks of planning and counting down, I finally made the trip to Taiwan in mid-September. After a rough August at work, this break was so needed and so well deserved. Though my visit fell during the biggest super-typhoon of the year, I still had a kick ass time, and made it to almost all of my top destinations.

A friend of mine, and a guy who I had sort of been seeing off and on in Seoul also just so happened to be in Taipei at the time. After hanging out solo for most of the day, I met up with him and his friend (rather, ran into them) on Elephant Mountain. After 10 minutes of his constant bitching about bug bites, I was over it. He wanted to know what I was up to for the rest of the day, so I told him about the temples I planned to visit. His exact words were, “Well, that sounds kind of boring… I don’t want to do that… But I don’t know what else we’ll do, so we’ll just come with you.”

In my head, I’m thinking, damn… I do NOT want to spend the rest of the day in this beautiful (albeit rainy) country with this whiney human. I very strategically pulled out my map while we were on the subway and said, “Heyyyy, you guys should totally go check out the Memorial… You’ll reallyyyy like it. I went earlier, so I’m going to go on to the temple... Oh! Here’s your stop. Have fun – byeeeee!”

Meryl Streep, look out… because I truly deserve a Golden Globe for this performance. It was so well done that they didn’t even realize I was shaking them off. I gave them a smile, waved, and, as the train doors closed behind them, I breathed a sigh of relief in honor of my solitude. We tried to hang out again the next night, which resulted in us having a big argument on the streets of Taipei, me walking back to my hostel by myself in the middle of the night, and him sleeping with a random girl he met at the club.

He was a total shit head for the entirety of the time we were talking to each other… and I should have realized it sooner, but his accent made it easy to forgive his rude comments and damn near constant complaining. You really do learn whether or not you vibe with a person when you travel with them.

If a super-typhoon couldn’t ruin my trip, you’d better believe I wasn’t going to let a (for lack of a better word) fuckboy ruin it either. Taiwan was so dope and I loved every minute of wandering around solo in the pouring rain. My hostel was cheap, clean, trendy, and the staff was so friendly. My last night, I stayed at a fancier hotel close to the airport where I treated myself to a bubble bath, room service, and jumped on the extremely comfy bed in a bathrobe. Of all the places I visited in my few days there, my top three favorite spots were Bitou Cape, Ximending Cinema Street, and Elephant Mountain. Read more about where I stayed, what I did, and how I struggled with Mandarin here.

 
 

Tomato

 
 

Shortly after I returned to work, I was dealt a seriously blow to the chest. I was told that my favorite student, Sabina… aka Tomato… would be leaving our school. If you know anything at all about my kindy class, you likely know all about her, and how she’s the cutest, spunkiest five-year-old I have ever met. We have the same birthday, and for all of these reasons, she’s both my favorite, and a huge part of the reason I resigned my teaching contract.

Though she showed no signs of it at school, she apparently was extremely unhappy. Her parents said she cried at home every night because of the amount of homework she had. For the record, this “homework,” was never assigned by me, and I think it is absolutely ridiculous that a poor kindergartener goes home at night stressed to the point of tears. On top of the work load, due to road construction, she also had an hour long bus ride every evening… so, at five-years-old, Sabina was going to school and beginning classes at 9:40 in the morning and not getting home until after 6:00 in the evening.

I know that kids move, teachers leave, and life goes on for all parties involved, and I especially understood given Sabina’s circumstances… but I’ll tell you what, all of the waterproof mascara in the world could not have prepared me for Sabina’s last day. To make matters worse, I didn’t find out it was her last day until it WAS her last day. I cancelled classes, took the kids outside, and we played for the rest of the afternoon.

In my break period, with teary eyes, I sat at my desk and wrote a letter to her parents. I told them how proud I was of her, how far she had come, and how they should be very proud, too. I asked them to please keep me updated on her progress, gave them my contact info, and let them know that I would always be willing to nanny, tutor, or babysit for free.

 
 

The following week I received a message from Sabina’s mom. I have never had a direct line of communication with my students’ parents before. With the language barrier that’s typically left to the Korean co-teacher, so this was extremely rare. Her message said, “Miss Kirstie, you have changed our minds. I’m truly moved. At home, parents take care of kids, but at school they totally rely on their teachers. Having a good teacher like you is lucky for Sabina and I. On Tuesday, say, “Hello tomato,” to Sabina as always.”

So the next week, Sabina came back. Basically, the week was one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. I cannot begin to explain how sad I was to see her go, or how excited I was to hear that her parents had decided against switching schools. Mostly, I was really happy that what I was doing was finally actually making a difference.

Sadly, the emotional roller coaster did not end there. Sabina ended up leaving Beethoven class for good in October, which, though it left me devastated, I totally understood. At the end of the day, all I want for Sabina is the same thing I want for all of my students in my kindy class – for them to be happy (and to stop gluing their hands together and coloring their faces). I still keep in touch with her mom and get adorable pictures like this one! 

 
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Like I mentioned, with October came another Tomato related blow. This time I was told she was “on vacation,” which I’ve realized is what they say about every kid who’s actually leaving or has already left. Eventually, one day her mom sent me a message saying Sabina wouldn’t be coming back. Every morning, when I did feelings with Beethoven class, all of the kids pointed out that, “Sabina is absent today.” They didn’t, and, even though we have a new 12th student, still don’t know she’s gone. I miss that kid a hell of a lot, and our class just isn’t the same without her.

Glamping Getaway

 
 

Between the tomato shaped hole in Beethoven class and my Taiwan blow-up with Mr. Mosquito Bite, I was feeling pretty down and out when October began. I needed a girl’s weekend and I needed it fast. Thankfully, that’s just how we started the month. A couple girlfriends and I loaded up our backpacks with cheese balls, champagne, and face masks, and headed to Banu Glamping site for a weekend away from the city. Aside from the sound of me popping open bottles of champagne at the crack of dawn, it was really relaxing. Give me a barefoot walk in the grass, some fresh air, a mimosa filled mug and I’m totally in my happy place. Read all about our trip (and other quirky Seoul escapes) here.

 
 

Getting Back on the Horse... Then Promptly getting off it

The following week, I decided to stop being down about Mr. Mosquito Bite and got back on the proverbial dating horse. I re-downloaded Tinder, and, after swiping left so many times my finger nearly fell off, I managed to match with a few promising, seemingly charming, fellas. One in particular stuck out to me. True to form, the one I had most interest in was the one who was only in town for the week (of course).

We made tentative plans to grab drinks throughout the week, but I was both battling a cold and unsure about meeting him. Mr. Mosquito Bite, and his laundry list of things wrong with me, had left me feeling rather crushed, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to let that happen again. However, Mr. October was persistent, and FaceTimed me one night that week.

Since I was about to go to bed, and refused to get up to turn the light on, my video was totally dark. The fact that he didn’t complain about my laziness, (and that the call proved he was as attractive and charming as in his photos and messages), made me finally decide that, perhaps all men weren’t evil. I decided to meet him that Friday night, and, after work, attempted to make myself look like an attractive human.

The evening was filled with more chicken and beer than either of us could actually consume, soju-ice cups at Dongdaemun Design Plaza, and an epically perfect first kiss beside a weird chair-butt statue. When it started to rain he gave me his jacket, and we went back to his hotel to finish our soju, (which at that point we probably didn’t need any more of).

Considering it was our first time meeting in person, there was no uncomfortable hello, no painfully awkward silences, and, the next morning at breakfast, I enjoyed his company just as much as I had the night before. I couldn’t help but to feel a little bummed as he checked out of the hotel that morning, and really regretted not meeting him earlier in the week. Ya see, Mr. October is a tour manager for a group (who apparently sings one of my favorite gym pump up songs). They played a music festival in Seoul, and were leaving that morning to head to Japan – the next stop on their tour.

We had made jokes all week about me joining them in Osaka for the weekend… but at the time I really hadn’t really anticipated enjoying his company enough to hop on a plane for more of it. When I got home that day, it was already Saturday afternoon… and after very little deliberation, I entered serious auto-pilot, YOLO mode. I packed my backpack, looked up flights, got my Monday morning classes covered, and finalized my booking on the way to the airport... So for the second time in 2016, a Tinder matchup was taking me on an international date... Lol.

 
 

At around midnight, I arrived in Osaka where I, without a working phone, caught a bus and then somehow (without getting lost) walked to the Ritz Carlton. I am still SO impressed with my ability to hit the ground and navigate in totally foreign cities… because it took me most of my life to figure out how to get from Pleasant Garden to Greensboro. I was always reading a book in the car, and so I literally never paid attention to where we were going. Anyway, back to my story…  I rolled in to the fanciest place I have ever stepped foot in with my backpack and a hoodie on. Looking highly disheveled, and totally out of place, I asked to link up to their Wi-Fi so I could get in touch with Mr. October to tell him I was there.

As you should be at that time of night, he had accidentally fallen asleep… but I’ll tell ya what, in the five-ish minutes I waited before he came downstairs, I seriously questioned my decision to go all the way there. In my head I was thinking, “WHAT IF THIS IS ALL A JOKE, AND I CAME ALL THE WAY TO JAPAN AND HE’S GONNA BLOW ME OFF?” …But then he came downstairs, asked if I was hungry, and I stopped my crazy girl musings.

While he worked the next morning, I went out to explore Osaka, and then, that afternoon, we all headed to the venue. I was so wrapped up in living in the moment that weekend that I barely had my camera out to record anything, but believe me when I say that as we drove over the bridge from Osaka to Kansai, I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my life. One of the singers made some ridiculous noises while warming up his voice in the van, and I wanted to laugh but somehow held it in when I noticed no one else was phased.

When we got to the festival we were given drinks, and the girlfriend of one of the brothers in the group took me under her wing while Mr. October got to work. We sipped champagne, talked about life, travels, and Mr. October, then, when it was show time, watched the performance from backstage. I was genuinely surprised by how down to earth this girl was. Despite dating a celebrity, she was so hardworking and totally had her own stuff going for her… And she wasn’t the only one. Everyone I met that weekend was SO grounded. It was inspiring to be around such hardworking, motivated, and successful people, Mr. October included.

 
 

The trip was brief, but epic, and, as with all of my trips to Japan, involved me stuffing my face with sushi. Way too early that Monday morning, I headed back to the airport, back to Korea, and back to work.

I realized a couple important things that weekend… one being that no tinder date in the past, present, or future of tinder dates could ever top this one (and, so I promptly deleted the app… cause ya gotta end on a high note). I also realized that if you want cool things to happen, you have to get the hell out of the house and start living. Given that I’d never been to a music festival (until Ultra a few months earlier), I never thought in a million years that I would end up backstage at a music festival in Japan of all places. When you open yourself up to new people and experiences, (and booking impromptu flights), life has a pretty cool way of making awesome stuff happen.

Another thing I learned that weekend is that I do in-fact have a type… and that my type is the go-getter – guys who are so focused and hardworking that they honestly don’t really have time for me. It’s taken me ages to realize this, but, from major league baseball players to guys climbing the corporate ladder, literally every guy I have EVER been in to for an extended period of time has been this way… and I’m alright with that… because even though, at times, I may think I want a relationship, I have absolutely zero time for one right now.

Mr. October was, and is, one hell of an awesome guy, and I have so much respect for his kind heart and work ethic. Our first kiss was on an odd butt-statue-chair in Seoul, and our last was at the Ritz Carlton in Osaka... So, as much as I'd love to see him again, I'm pretty satisfied with the epic story we created in our short time together.

Our timing was shit, but I’m thankful that he reminded I deserve much more than a fuckboy who complains about mosquito bites… and also for unintentionally making me get my ass in gear as far as chasing my dreams is concerned. I realized that, yes, I have a type… and yes, I want to be with a successful guy… but just like badass band girlfriend who took me under her wing, I want to have my own things going for me, too. With Tinder deleted and Mr. October no longer in Korea, I stopped worrying about boys altogether.


Halloween on the han

October got cold, just in time for Halloween when a few coworkers and I went on a booze cruise on the Han River. I really love Halloween now that people have stopped wearing store bought costumes and started getting creative. Stephanie and I dressed as a strawberry and pineapple wearing boxing gloves. Get it?! - Fruit punch! I thought my costume was wildly original, but, somehow, there were THREE other pineapples on the boat that night. None of them had boxing gloves, so, in my totally biased opinion, I think my costume was better. All in all, it was a great night and a pretty kick ass month.

 
 

Only two more months left in the 2016 recap! – Catch up on the shenanigans from January to August below and stay tuned to read about how I ended the year!

 

2016 Recap - Part 3 - Oxygen Tanks, Bojangles, and Green Tea Everything

 
 

Same Tinderfella, Different City

Remember Tokyo Tinderfella from my June recap? (If not, read all about him here). Well, a couple weeks later in July, I returned the local guide favor, and showed him around when he visited Seoul. Throughout my time in Korea, he’s the only friend who took me up on my offer to visit, (but he was only an hour flight away, I guess that had something to do with it).  Since he’s been the only person to visit, he’s also been the only person to meet Beethoven class and to see me in “Miss Kirstie mode.” Tomato gave him the side eye the entire class, but softened up a bit when he gave her one of the origami frogs that he’d made for each student in the class.

All of the Korean teachers swooned and told Tinderfella how handsome he was, we explored the city, drank mimosas at the river, and hiked at Bukhansan National Park. Again, though we did not have a magic happily ever after moment, he has become a good friend, and I’m so glad to know him. It’s true that strangers are just friends we haven’t met yet. Tinderfella is now in Canada killin’ the Jameson game, and making me seriously reconsider my decision to stop working in marketing.

Christmas in July

Another July highlight was going to my favorite place. A year to the date from when I left, I flew back to home sweet home. Unfortunately, my journey there was not smooth sailing. In the middle of my flight from Tokyo to New Jersey, I was woken up feeling extremely light headed. I knew something was wrong because the flight tracker on the screen in front of me, which I knew should be blue, looked pink. I knew that if I was going to go get help, I needed to get up right then. I unbuckled my seatbelt and somehow made it to the back of the plane where the flight attendants were. They took one look at me and ran to my side. All I could say before my knees gave out was, “I don’t feel good.”

Over much of Canada, I was in the flight attendant's seat at the back of the plane, where I sat sucking oxygen from a tank like it was going out of style. When the color returned to my face, I went back to my seat where I was still watched closely for the remainder of the flight. Shout out to the flight attendants on that United flight. You all were awesome.

The whole experience was quite a strange time, and, to this day, makes me a little nervous on long flights by myself. Though the majority of my time at home was spent in numerous doctors’ officees, I’m still unsure why I have problems on long flights. I do know one thing – I’m SO glad that I woke up when I did and was able to get help before I blacked out or had another in-flight seizure. Nothing would have been worse than making an emergency landing in an unfamiliar city by myself. Hopefully these freak accidents are in the past and won’t happen again.

Aside from the doctors’ visits, the rest of my time at home was spent eating all of the foods I’d been missing (like salt and vinegar chips, Chick-fil-a, and Bojangles), buying things I didn’t need at Target, and hanging out with my dog and family on our couch in good ole’ Pleasant Garden, North Carolina.

 
 

My one night of going out was to a Money off Monday game for dollar beers at the grasshopper stadium… my old stomping grounds. I’d worked there for 5 years before leaving home, and, since I’d become legal drinking age, could count on one hand the number of games I’d attended as a fan and not an employee. A few friends and I over-indulged in beers, and then headed to Jake’s Billiards, our favorite dive bar.

 
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My dad, understanding that I wanted to see family AND friends while I was home, offered to be my DD (bless him), and came to pick me up from Jakes when I was ready. I’d consumed one too many free shots… and also spat one out (sorry, Dev), so I honestly hadn’t been paying a bit of attention to my phone when my dad arrived. Instead of waiting on me to answer or return his calls, he came right on inside to find me. This, at any other age, would likely have left me MORTIFIED, but it actually had the opposite effect. I was SO excited to see him that I introduced him to all of my friends before he drove me home. (Thanks again, Dad – you da bomb).

 
 

Mom, you are also the bomb. Since I'd missed so many holidays (and delicious holiday meals), mom cooked Christmas dinner in July, and even pulled out the mini Christmas tree. She's so adorable. The day before I left, family and friends came over for a cookout and to say hello/see you later. It was so lovely to see everyone, and I'm so thankful to those people who made the trip. After everyone left, I packed up my bags, took a power-nap, and at 2am was on the way to Raleigh Durham International to begin the hellishly long journey back to Seoul. Leaving so soon was not fun, but I'm so lucky to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. 

Read more about why I decided to ditch my travel plans to go back home here.

 
 

 
 

By the time I’d finished time traveling from the States back to Korea, it was somehow already August. After living in a small, dark apartment that had a nice view of the building next door for over a year, I finally moved in to an apartment that got some natural light. What I didn’t know when I moved in was that the air-con was broken. It was unbearably hot for a few weeks, and my multiple floor fans did little to help.

Finally, on a Friday evening, after I’d been at work all day, maintenance came into my apartment to replace my air-con unit. I’d had a really long day and was ready to change into something comfortable and have some food, but that didn’t happen because I was told to “come back in an hour…” to my own apartment! Korea, man… Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they fixed it, but the timing, as with most things in this country, was highly illogical.

Though it was a low key month as far as international travels were concerned, I did manage to check plenty of sights and activities off of my Korea bucket list. I explored new parts of Seoul, completed an adventure ropes course, went zip-lining, visited wet lands down south, celebrated pajama day at school, finally went to the colorful and abstract Mr. Brainwash exhibit, and had another photoshoot with my friend Tim Van der Merwe (who is an absolutely fantastic guy and really talented behind the camera. If you’re in Seoul and need portrait work done, I’d highly recommend giving him a shout)!

One of my favorite places I went was the Green Tea fields in Boseong - home of green tea everything... Literally. I bathed in green tea at the spa, ate my weight in green tea ice cream, and learned how to pick and roast the leaves on a green tea farm. Of all these things, my favorite was playing with Nokcha, which means green tea in Korean. While we were learning about the farm, she ran right up and sat in my lap. Her two furry, four-legged friends also decided to use me as a puppy playground. Between the puppies, consumption of all things green tea, and getting to know the sweet old Korean couple who owned the farm, the trip to Boseong was perfect.

 
 

The rest of the month was spent planning my September trip to Taiwan. Stay tuned to hear all about getting stuck in super typhoons, realizing how much I truly love solo travel, and my most epic Tinder date to date - (Yes, more epic than Tokyo).


Did ya miss the first two recaps? Catch up on the shenanigans from the first half of 2016!

 
 

2016 Recap - Part 2 - Birthday Suits, Russell Wilson, and International (Semi)-blind Dates

 
 
 
 

Birthdays and Birthday Suits

Compared to April and June, May was a pretty laid back month for me. I celebrated my own birthday, my favorite student Tomato’s birthday, Buddha’s birthday… and stripped down to my birthday suit in a room full of people in the name of art. Judge all you want, but it was a very tasteful figure drawing class, and there was nothing slooty or raunchy about it (just like JC Penny catalogues – shout out to you, Guri).

It takes a hell of a lot of confidence to 1. strip down, and 2. sit in the middle of a room full of strangers who are not only observing all of your flaws, but also scrutinizing and recreating them on paper. Like most women, body image is an ongoing struggle for me, (especially living in the plastic surgery capital of the world), so I really pushed the limit with this one... but that's what this whole Seoul journey is all about - Pushing limits, becoming more confident, and discovering who I truly am. When you strip yourself of material things, you are raw, human - you are YOU, 100%. 

As luck would have it, a night of soju and norebang-ing the weekend before the art class had caused me to take quite the tumble on a very slippery staircase. It might actually have been a couple of tumbles, and, thus, resulted in me having a bruise the size of Jupiter on my butt cheek.

After many failed attempts to heal and cover the bruise, I gave up, but decided to do the class anyway. I took off my robe, sat in the middle of the room, picked a pose that concealed the goods, and proclaimed (in my mind), “Here I am… flaws (bruises) and all… now draw them.” Thankfully, only one person drew Jupiter… a girl who also got kicked out for using her phone to take photos during the class.

Maybe I’m just incredibly hyperactive, but I can't believe how painful it was to sit absolutely still for such a long time. One thing is for sure - my ADD ridden brain worked overtime to make up for the fact that my body was not to move a single inch. I contemplated everything from our humanity to problems like global warming and world hunger… and solved neither. I left the class that night feeling absolutely invincible - and I still do. Because if I can do that, I can do anything.

This check on my bucket list taught me to be brave, be bold, be raw, and always be myself... regardless of what anyone has to say about it. After all, have you ever met a hater doing better than you? ...Me either.

It was a weird, wild, bucket list experience… but, hey… When in Korea… 

 
 

 
 

It’s a good thing May was mellow because June. Was. Nuts. I started the month with a short, impromptu trip to Manila… and when I say short, I literally mean I was in the country for all of 36 hours. Those 36 hours were some of the most eye opening and life changing hours I’d had all year.

 
 

Thrilla in Manila

Most people who go to the Philippines either skip right over Manila or are forced to stop there because of a connecting flight... and it’s no surprise. This is definitely no five-star, up-scale, tourist destination.

There’s a famous quote that says, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries,” and I think that’s pretty true for Manila. I received many warnings and comments that I should be careful… namely from my dad who responded with crickets when I jokingly asked how much ransom he’d pay for me if I were kidnapped, (which, for the record, was his concern not mine).

Despite the warnings, I really enjoyed wandering around and experiencing Manila. We stayed right across the street from what was supposedly the red light district, and, I must say, though there were many ladyboy/prostitute/lady boy prostitute sightings, (which is to be expected), the area was pretty tame. 

There are good and bad people everywhere, and good and bad parts to every city. No matter where you go, you should always be careful. Because of my experience in Manila, I decided to never let someone else’s opinions and experience, (or, oftentimes, lack thereof), deter me from traveling to a place and experiencing it for myself.

 
 

One of the locals I was lucky enough to encounter in the city was an overly cheerful 23-year old named Russell, “like Russell Wilson.” With his jokes about free Wi-Fi and air conditioning, he somehow managed to talk two very frugal travellers into taking a tour around in his “Ferrari.” His jokes sold us, and we hopped in to his Ferrari, (which was actually just a bicycle with a little wagon-like cart attached to the side).

 
 

When we told him we were from the USA, he responded cheerfully with, “I’m from the USA, too!” He later drove us to his home… the USA, or United Squatters area. There were families bathing on the side of the street, people sleeping on cardboard boxes, kids wearing shirts for pants, and others wandering around with no shoes on at all in the blistering heat.

 
 

Despite their less than favourable living conditions, EVERYONE I encountered was friendly, happy, and welcoming, always offering a smile and a hello. Their joy was genuine, and the sense of community in “the USA” was so much stronger than that which you’d find in most white-picket fence American neighbourhoods.

The pedicab tour with Russell was the highlight of the trip. He had a contagious positive attitude and an adorable three-year-old daughter who rode around with us for part of our tour. He told us he was working and saving to send her to school because he wants to make sure that she will have a better life.

 
 

Though the Philippines’ “USA” wasn’t an intended destination on our tour that weekend, the experience was so incredibly eye opening. I was reminded that no matter how bad things may seem, there are people in the world who are far happier with far less. I’ve since tried to stop stressing the little things and to start being grateful for the life I live, even on my bad days… because, all things considered, the life I live is a pretty damn good one.

The rest of the trip can be summed up as eating cheap food, getting a $10 one-hour chocolate massage, consuming one $1 Red Horse too many, and getting majorly annoyed with my travel partner for thinking, and loudly voicing, that all the cab drivers were out to rip us off. We did get MAJORLY ripped off on a ride from the airport to our hostel, but there was no way for us to know that at the time, (and even what we paid wasn’t that much by Western standards).

Shit happens, and you shouldn't let a few bad apples who dupe you ruin your perception of an entire country of cabbies. Bottom line: learn from my mistake! If you fly in to the airport in Manila and are approached by some seemingly official guys holding a laminated sheet of paper with cab fares, talk down their price or tell them you will only take a metered ride. 

 
 
 

Ultra Korea

 
 

Once I returned to Korea, I had a four-day work week and another busy weekend to look forward to – Ultra Korea! It was my first big music festival and definitely lived up to the hype. Though I only went for one day, when you do it right, sometimes one day is enough.

As it was in Korea, there wasn’t quite as much dancing as I’d like, but I still had a good time running around between the various stages, drinking way too many red bull vodkas, and getting soaked in the periodic torrential downpours. According to this photo, I went to Ultra Tokyo, too.

 
 
 

Crossing the International Date Line

Tokyo Round 2

 
 

The weekend after THAT, I actually did take a trip to Tokyo. It’s still funny to me that I’m able to go on international weekeenders with nothing but my small backpack, but with the flight being just over an hour, it’s totally doable. The price was right, so I booked it.

You’re probably thinking, "You already went to Tokyo. Why did you go back?" The short answer is that I wanted sushi, and hadn’t yet discovered Hana (my favourite sushi spot in Seoul, which you can read about here). The long answer is that, though I’ve never been a huge fan of tinder, I sorta, kinda had an epic international tinder date.

To make a long story short, this cute Japanese Irish guy and I matched on Tinder when I was in Japan in February, again in April when he was in Korea, and finally decided to meet in June while I was visiting Tokyo. Potentially the most epic international tinder story of all time? Maybe. (Just wait until you read about October). Regardless, technology is cool.

After matching for the second time, we had also become Facebook friends, (so I knew he wasn’t a massive creep-o and that I wasn’t getting cat-fished). We bonded over our Irish roots, love of whiskey (he works for Jameson), and had a really awesome time exploring the city. At Asakusa Temple, my "omikuji," fortune telling strip, was a good one, and Tinderfella relived his childhood on Nakamise Shopping Street (minus the temper tantrums). 

 
 

It’s easy to get lost in Tokyo (both literally and figuratively), so it was cool getting a feel for the city through the eyes of a local (and someone who could speak the language). We Tokyo drifted around Shinjuku on our bikes, and went the coolest hole in the wall places that I never would have known to go to on my own.

It's really rare that I actually meet up with people from Tinder, (especially internationally) but I'm really glad I took a chance on meeting Tinderfella in Tokyo of all places.  No, we didn't have some magical happily ever after moment, but I did make a really good friend. It isn't often I meet someone who shares my loves of whiskey, traveling, and video making - AND who also puts up with my bad jokes. Tinderfella is now killing it in Canada as a rep for Jameson, and has a girlfriend who I'm told I would love (and hope to meet when I make it to Toronto).

The weekend was over before I knew it, and, before long, I was jetting back to Korea and in to July.

 
 

Stay tuned to hear all about Tinderfella's visit to Seoul... and what it's like to pass out mid-flight then suck on an oxygen tank over Canada. 


Miss the first recap? Catch up on the January to April adventures Here!

 
 

Escaping Seoul - The quietest, quirkiest, and quickest getaways

Life in Seoul is incredible. You can hop on the subway with no set plans and will absolutely always find something to do. The possibilities as to what you will find in this massive city are endless. Seoul is dynamic, it's fast-paced, but, to be honest, life in the city is downright hectic at times. Sometimes, this Carolina girl needs to escape the can of sardines that is Seoul to get some much needed breathing room. Thankfully, Korea’s many mountains and affordable public transportation make it easy and cheap to take a break from the city.

Here's a handful of my favorite quick escapes. They’re the quirkiest, quietest, (and creepiest) places I’ve been when I needed to take a  breather, and just cool places to go if you’re looking for something different to do.

1. Up a mountain. Any Mountain

For several reasons, this is my favorite way to escape the city. There are so many mountains and trails to choose from, so, even if you do go up the same one twice, every hike feels different. My personal favorite is Gwanaksan, which is conveniently just around the corner from my apartment. A short walk there, an hour or so hike up, and I can be at the top in time to enjoy the sun rise.

There is something about hiking to the top of a mountain that just provides a renewed sense of clarity. You're so relieved to make it to the summit that whatever problems you were stressing over before or during your climb up seem so small. If you go early enough and beat the crowd of ajummas and ajussis, it's also DEAD quiet... which is a rare find in Seoul... Not to mention the added bonuses that hiking is both a killer workout and totally free.

 

2. Glamping

A close second to a weekend hike is Korea’s glamorous version of camping. A couple girlfriends and I, with four bottles of champagne, face masks, and a family size container of cheese balls in tow, headed to Banu, a glamping site in Hongcheon.

With two full size beds, a loft, full kitchen, and an indoor bathroom, these “camping” pods were nicer than our apartments in Seoul. We played around in the grass in our barefoot (a luxury you will miss more than you think if you were raised in the country), roasted hot dogs over the fire pit on the deck, played with the camp site owner's puppy, and, when the mosquitos eating us alive got to be too much, went inside our trendy pod to play cards and watch old N*Sync music videos (while wearing our hilarious Shrek and Kung Fu Panda face masks).

The next morning, my friends awoke to the sound of me popping our last two bottles of champagne – (What can I say? Life is meant to be celebrated). We finished off our goods, and very reluctantly, (when the cleaning staff came knocking on our door), vacated our Banu home away from home.

If you need a quick escape from Seoul, I would highly recommend glamping. There are SO many glamping sites to choose from, but I found Banu to be really easy and convenient. It’s just an hour bus ride away, and you can book a pod on AirBnb!

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3. Yongma Land

In the suburbs of north eastern Seoul lies an abandoned, supposedly haunted amusement park. The whole place and it’s run down rides had a really creepy vibe… that is up until a band of Korean models showed up with their camera men and boom boxes blasting K-pop in tow. By the time I left, the creepiest thing about the place was me – the lone foreigner, wearing all black, hanging out on all the rides and slinking about the place. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

To get to Yongma Land, go to Mangu Station and take exit 1. After walking around for a bit I decided to just get a cab. I had no trouble finding my way back to the station from Yongma Land, but, for some reason, finding my way there was tough. After walking around for a bit I decided to just get a cab (and since it only costs a few bucks, it’s the most time and cost effective way to go).

 

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4. Gonjiam Psychiactric Hospital

If you're into abandoned and/or supposedly haunted places, you should also check out Gonjiam Psychiactric Hospital in Gwangju-si. Mental illness was, and is, really taboo in Korea, so this place is really out in the middle of nowhere. There's a big gate out front that says "Do Not Enter," but we crawled under and explored the old asylum anyway. (We later discovered that we could have just walked around the gate instead of crawling under it... don't make this mistake).

Gonjiam was more interesting than creepy. There were so many rooms filled with old calendars, tables, chairs, beds, and other random personal items that had just been left behind. The walls were covered in graffiti, and several empty cans of Cass, left behind by fellow trespassers, were scattered around the various deteriorating floors. The scariest part about this place was not knowing whether or not we'd get caught here... and the funniest part was hiding and scaring a Korean couple who wandered in after us. Weird way to spend a Saturday... but a cool one nonetheless.

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My time in Korea is beginning to come to an end, and, with just nine more weekends left before I leave the country, I want to cram them with as many good times and funky places as possible. What are your recommendations for a quick and quirky escape from the concrete jungle that is Seoul? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

SeoulFood Spotlight: Hana (하나) Japanese Sushi

Me in my happy place... ready to chow down with non-metal chopsticks in hand: A rare find in Korea.

Me in my happy place... ready to chow down with non-metal chopsticks in hand: A rare find in Korea.

If you know me well, you know that I loveeeee sushi. After I became a pescatarian a couple years ago, sushi practically became its own food group for me. When I moved to Korea, my pescatarianism had to take a back seat to survival. Shortly after arriving in the land of ChiMak and all you can eat barbeque, I realized it was going to be pretty impossible to keep up my pescatarian lifestyle while living here (plus, I didn’t want to miss out on trying all of the Korean foods).

Though my diet changed, my unyielding and extreme love for sushi did not. To say I was happy when I finally stumbled upon a decent sushi joint right in my neighborhood would severely downplay my (extremely elated) feelings.

Hana (하나)Japanese Sushi is quite appropriately named. In Korean, Hana means the number one, and this is hands down my number one, favorite place to eat in Seoul. My coworkers can attest to this, as I eat there at least 4 times a week… (and suggest it literally every time someone asks who wants to go for dinner). Hana has everything you’d want from a sushi spot and more: It’s quick, it’s affordable, the staff is friendly, and the food is delicious.

I’m such a frequent flier at Hana, the ladies here not only know my order, (spicy salmon roll… and fried green tea ice cream, if I’m feelin’ frisky), they also know my name, where I’m from, and what I do in Seoul. They greet me with a wave, and a pure kindness that makes me feel so welcome it could turn just about any bad day around. Then they feed me delicious food. Basically, they're my Korea moms.

The feeling of anonymity you have in a big city can be nice, (especially when, like me, you come from a tiny town, where everyone knows everything about everyone). After a while it can be hard living in such a fast-paced city environment, where no one knows, or cares to know, your name. Having a place where I’m remembered and always greeted with warm smiles is such a blessing in this massive city, even if it’s just a teeny, cozy sushi spot.

As if the amazing service isn’t enough to make you want to try this place, their food is phenomenal. With a wide variety of choices, and fresh fish, straight from the nearby Noryangjin Fish Market, there is something to satisfy everyone. My personal favorite, and usual go-to, is the spicy salmon roll. The roll is eight pieces, and, when you dine in, you also get a salad and miso soup… all for ₩5,000 (or $4.29USD).

Not a fan of sushi? They have plenty of other options on the menu too, (like fried green tea ice cream which is only ₩4,000)! Overall, the quality, service, and price is absolutely unbeatable.

This hole in the wall spot has a small bar for seating, a few tables down stairs, and a few larger tables in the upstairs loft. Hee-Soon Moon, the head chef, is one of the kindest people I have met in Korea, and makes incredible Japanese food. I don’t just come here for the sushi… I come for the amazing people who make this tiny restaurant feel a bit like home.

If you're ever in Gwanak near Seoul National University, or are just craving some solid sushi rolls, I highly recommend checking out Hana Japanese Sushi. They’re located near SNU Station on line number 2 – just take exit 2 and walk straight until you see the Subway restaurant on your left. Turn left like you’re going into Subway, but, instead keep walking straight inside the building. Hana Sushi will be the first place on your right. Tell em Kirstie sent ya – and eat all the sushi and green tea ice cream your heart can handle!

856-5 Nakseongdae-dong, Gwanak-gu

02-876-4262

11:30 am - 10 pm everyday except Sunday