Jeju Extras

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Here are some more photos I took while in Jeju-do. The previous submission was too long and cluttered already. There just wasn’t anywhere for me to put these so I had to save them for a separate post.

Check out the orange building I discovered walking away from Yongduam (Dragon Head) Rock?

Then there’s the beach Jong Chan and I stopped at very briefly. The sand was incredibly soft and on a sunny day I suspect the water glows as blue as the water at Udo’s Coral Sand Beach. But it was cloudy, giving things a moody, muted look.

Morning light

Morning light

I also played around with my waterproof camera in some tidal pools. I got some interesting reflection and perspective shots.

Then there’s the random grasshopper I spotted on the road.

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Another thing Jeju is known for are the haenyo (해녀). For those who want to learn more about these incredible female divers there’s at least one museum on the island (along with tons of resources online). It’s a dying art but there are still some women who still do it.

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And if you go to Gueom Village (North Western part of Jeju past Hagwi-2 ri if you are coming from Jeju city) there is salt rock farm on Aewolhaean-ro road (애월해안로 – the Seaside road), at the water’s edge. When I was there, it was a rainy mess of a day. But if you go the right time of year you may be able to observe it in use. If not, you can still enjoy exploring the rocks there.

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click on the picture to expand.

I probably took several hundred pictures just of the waves crashing against the rocks, trying to get one that was satisfyingly stunning. In that, I’m afraid I didn’t do any better than this.IMG_4064 (2) But I still enjoyed myself.

One last bit. For those interested in checking out the guesthouse I stayed in, in Hagwi-2 ri on the northwest coast, you can check out the website here. It’s a little hard to navigate since it’s all in Korean but the owner speaks some English and you can make a reservation by phone if you call the number 010-2365-1807. The hostel is called 바람이 머물다 게스트하우스 which roughly translates as the Stay Breeze Guesthouse. There’s no specific check-out time. Beds are 20,000 won per night with an added 20,000 won if you want to participate in the group dinner (a lot of delicious food).

Final Chapter: Jejudo

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Since time shows no sign of slowing down – indeed, I’m starting to believe it’s speeding up – I’ll try to be more succinct in my writing and try to keep out the unnecessary details. But it’s not easy.

So without further ado, here’s the last chapter of my vacation, the Jeju-do portion.

When making preparations for my vacation, my energies were unevenly spread. That is to say, I spent a good deal of time and energy organizing, planning and simulating that first week. My thoughts rarely moved beyond that. Luckily I had the benefit of a magic-planning-genie named Greg who ironed out all the major details for me in Japan. When it came to Jeju-do, though, I was flying blind. I had no room reservations and my “plan” was little more than a vague list of the things I wanted to see on the island. But as, you’ll see, it all worked out anyway.

Honestly, by the end of week two, my introverted self felt drained and rather angry at having to share earth-space with other human beings. A full day hiding in a hostel room in Busan helped me feel a little more gracious towards humanity by the time I boarded a plane once again.


Jeju-do (제주도) is also known as the “Hawaii of Korea” though it’s too far north of the equator to be tropical. It’s a popular honeymoon destination and has a plethora of (often strange) museums and parks as well as natural wonders like caves, mountains, and beaches. The most iconic image of Jeju-do is the stone man. Guardians or markers of some sort, they are volcanic stones carved in the shape of…well, a man. The other symbol of Jeju is Hallasan (한라산): the main volcano that formed the island.IMG_4458

My first task when I fly into Jeju city is to find a hostel and establish a home-base for the day. Luckily, I’d done a little research the day before and found a place close to the airport with decent prices and reviews: Yeha Guesthouse. I take a bus there, get a room, grab some maps, and go back out to explore the downtown area.

Right next to the water is Yongduam Rock (용두암 – Dragon Head Rock). It’s swarming with busloads of Chinese tourists clamoring to take their picture in front of the lumpy piece of volcanic stone that’s much smaller than I expected it to be. I’m less interested in the rock itself than in the things around it.

It’s not long before I realize that there isn’t much I’m actually interested in seeing downtown, so I take a bus from the terminal to Loveland. Yes, Loveland. Such an innocuous name for something dedicated solely to the obvious manifestations of love (ie: sex). Actually, it was Grrrl Traveler’s blog review of Love Land that initially sparked my interest in coming here. It just sounded so strange (like a lot of other things in Korea).

Pretty much everything in the small park pays tribute to the human body and sex. Most of these are in the form of statues and miniatures – some more realistic than others – but all rather tasteful or whimsical. Even the bathroom doors can’t escape special decorations.

While I genuinely admire some of the larger than life statues, I think it’s the signs that amuse me more.

The car in the background of the third one is rigged to jiggle back and forth while producing recorded moaning sounds. How is that not funny?

My primary interest in Jeju-do is the natural beauty, however. Love Land was the exception.


I head out early the next morning to hike Hallasan (the main volcano). There are several trails, two of which go to Baengnokdam Crater (백록담) at the top, but only one trail is accessible by bus: the 9.6 km “easy” trail. I don’t mind, particularly since I have all day and want to see the crater.

The morning is foggy with a chance of rain. I buy a plastic raincoat at the store, just in case. I’m feeling pretty prepared, with water and snacks to eat along the way. The only mistake (as I later learn) is hiking in my Chacos.

Hey. I know people who’ve hiked in those shoes and this trail was advertised as “easy” and “not dangerous.” I’ll let you judge on that last one.

See? Totally “safe” right?

Needless to say, I find myself scrambling over rocks and half-formed steps much more than I expected. I discover a new pet peeve of mine: the sound of people walking behind me, particularly if they’re breathing heavily. It’s like being chased. I hate it so much I often just stand to the side and let them pass. Thankfully, I spend a good chunk of my time relatively alone on the path.

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The smell at the restroom stop halfway reminds me strongly of the Skate fish I ate with my parents a couple weeks ago. The thought is simultaneously funny and revolting.

The gloomy weather and the predominance of leafy trees most of the way prevents me from taking many pictures. There’s not much to see anyway. That and the fact that the path becomes more challenging as I get closer to the top. As I slip over porous and slime covered rocks, I try to avoid thinking about how I’ll make it down.

I finally reach the top and am, to say the least, a little underwhelmed by the view. Even a little disappointed. Just check out this comparison between expectation…

A lake versus.....

A lake versus…..

and reality.

...a mud puddle

…a mud puddle

The view away from the crater – with the clouds covering the base of the mountain – is more interesting. I meet a friendly German couple, on vacation from studying in Seoul and a group of Koreans (university students I presume) who share their snacks with me and call us their “mountain friends” (as in: we just met while hiking).

And I finally have to use my glorified trash bag poncho when it starts to sprinkle.

Descending the mountain is painstaking work. The rain makes the already slippery rocks more treacherous. I stumble a few times and am forced to slower than I did when coming up. I start to feel grateful whenever other hikers are nearby. I’d hate to have an accident and not have anyone around to help me. Thankfully, it does get easier the further down I go and by the end I practically run to the trail head. Never thought I’d be so happy to see a parking lot.

I make my way back to the hostel hoping to avoid movement for the rest of the evening. The girl working the front desk generously shares her dinner with me. She even helps me make reservations for the next day. I plan on going to a guesthouse in the Northwest part of Jeju. A friend from church recommended it, saying it was a good place to get out of the city and enjoy the coastal view.

Unfortunately, I wake up to rain. It’s the first time this whole vacation that the weather hasn’t been conducive to outdoor activities. Too late to change my plans, though. I take the 30 minutes bus ride to Hagwi-2 ri and check into the hostel there. Unlike Yeha Guesthouse, which had the professional attitude of a hotel, this place is more casual. It feels kinda like crashing at a friend of a friend’s place for the night: awkward at first but ultimately good. I’m notably the only non-Korean there.

Refusing to let the weather limit me, I don my trash bag poncho and go out to the water. The rain keeps fluctuating from a barely perceptible spitting to full-on pouring. The seacoast road is an actual road, not a walking path like I’d imagined. With the wind and rain, it seems dangerously stupid to walk along the narrow shoulder but my other option is turning back and staying inside. Yeaaaaah, no thanks. Most of the cars I see are going the opposite direction anyway.

Partway, I meet a family doing the same thing. Good, I’m not the only crazy one. The husband is quite chatty. His wife and son don’t speak to me at all, whether from lack of English skills or just withdrawn personalities, I’m not sure. They’re nice enough though. The dad even invites me to have dinner with them but I have to decline. I already paid in advance for a group meal at the hostel. We reach the end of the road together and taxi to where they joined me. From there it’s just a short walk back.

I stay silent during dinner – everyone is speaking quickly in Korean – but I understand just enough to get the gist of some of the conversation. I get to know some of the other guests while playing card games and during the post-dinner drinks.

“Where are you going tomorrow?” a few ask me.

“I’m going to the eastern side of Jeju to explore the caves and to see Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak).”

“I’m going that direction. Do you want to go together?” my current conversation partner, Jong Chan, offers. “I have a rental car.”

I consider the question for a second. I’ve been perfectly fine taking the bus so far, but the convenience of a car is highly tempting. Plus, from him it feels like a genuine offer. I decide to trust my gut. “Sure.”


It’s amazing how much smaller Jeju-do feels when you travel by car. The first stop the next morning is Manjanggul Cave (만장굴), a UNESCO world site. It’s a lava tube meaning that the whole system was formed by underground lava flows. I haven’t been in many caves (none come to mind actually) but even I can see what makes it different than a typical cave.

The temperature drop is quite noticeable even from the entrance. The floor of the cave is bubbled and uneven – pockmarked with little puddles formed from the water constantly dripping from the ceiling. It’s so dark, even with the dim lights illuminating the path, that most of my pictures come out blurry. I refuse to use flash though; I hate how it looks.

The next stop is Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak (성산 일출봉). It’s a small mountain crater on the coast. The aerial photos of it online are quite striking (just Google it). It’s one of those places that is more stunning from a distance. The crater itself is too big to take in when you climb to the top.

The sun finally comes out (it’s been cloudy all day) as we hoof it up the stairs. It’s nothing like my Hallasan hike but my legs are still sore and the 15 minute climb is pretty steep. The sight from the top (the view away from the crater), and the wind, make it worth it.

The next morning – still traveling together – we take the ferry to Udo (우도): a small island near Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak. It’s possible to travel around the island by car, by foot, or by bike if you plan on staying the whole day there. We only have a couple hours so we rent a motorcycle and explore what we can in that time. The Coral Sand Beach is pretty stunning, if for nothing else than the vivid blue of the water there.

Jong Chan and I part ways at the airport (he’s returning to his home in Seoul). I have a few hours left so I walk along the coastal road (walking by Yongduam rock again). Incoming flights pass right above me in one place, flying so low I have to plug my ears from the deafening noise.

I take more random pictures until it’s time to leave. It’s been an incredible vacation but I am more than ready to return home.

Final thoughts:
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect blend of experiences. When I finished my first week with my parents, I thought there was no way the next two weeks could top that. And I was right. But neither were they inferior. Each chapter was so different; it’d really be unfair to compare them. The whole thing reads kind of like pieces of a story (which is why I referred to them as chapters) with a slow progression from family to traveling independently and (mostly) alone. From plans to flying by the seat of my pants. And of course, I met so many people along the way and had interesting conversations with all of them.

 

Japan 2014

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A quick overview:

Time spent in Japan: 5 days from Monday, September 15th — Friday the 19th. Primarily in Kyushu, Japan’s southern island.
Monday: in Fukuoka
Tuesday: On my own in Kagoshima. Highlight: the active volcano on Sakurajima.
Wednesday: Spent in Kumamoto. Highlight: visiting Greg’s workplace and meeting his students.
Thursday: In Hiroshima. Highlight: Bomb memorial park and the museum.
Friday: On Miyajima island. Highlight: the floating torii.
For a map of Japan or more information about the places I visited, use your fingers and highly evolved brain to Google them. All of them are famous enough to have multiple webpages dedicated to them if not their own official site. 😉

A month or so before my vacation started I ran into Greg, someone I knew from Emily’s church. He’d been an English teacher in Korea for a number of years before moving to Japan. Now he teaches at a Kindergarten/daycare of sorts run by his cousin. When he heard that I planned on spending part of my vacation in Japan, he invited me to visit him and crash on his couch. Within minutes he’d mapped out a rough outline of what he thought my schedule should look like. How could I refuse such a tempting offer?


I arrive in Fukuoka and meet up with Greg at Hakata station. We grab some convenience store bentos and walk to a lake park to eat. A bridge allows us to access the island in the middle. Amused, he points out the signs that remind people to pick up their shit, and at the signs marking where fishing is and isn’t allowed.

After a lunch, we decide to hop on one of those swan pedal-boats and explore the lake a little. They’re slow but there’s a nice breeze and we aren’t in any hurry.

We relax later with tea and cake, then ride the elevator up Fukuoka tower to get a panoramic view of the city.

For dinner we eat ramen.

For those who, like me, tend to associate the word “ramen” with the unhealthy, sodium-laden, instant stuff of the poor university student diet, throw away that thought now. Admittedly, I found the ramen to be a bit salty for my taste, but it was otherwise deliciously fresh and not too oily. Naturally, the taste was completely different.

We part ways on the Shinkansen – a high-speed bullet train in Japan – when Greg gets off at Kumamoto. I continue south to Kagoshima.

The next morning, following Greg’s plans, I buy a day-pass that lets me use all kinds of public transportation for free, as well as discounts for certain things. Then I go to the ferry terminal. I have time before boarding, so I explore the aquarium next door.

11:05 – I take the special 50 minute, detour/tourist ferry to Sakurajima. Normal ferry rides are just 15 minutes but this supposed “tour” ferry gives people, as far as I can guess, more time to take pictures of the same thing. I find it a little dull actually and the repetitive musical track playing on deck starts driving me crazy.IMG_2024 (3)

The volcano is puffing billows of clouds and the sooty evidence of its constant eruptions are everywhere. I always thought eruptions were big catastrophic events but apparently volcanos can have small eruptions, akin to burping. It’s safe enough that people still live at the base of the volcano. I’d be rather annoyed by the constant accumulation of soot on all surfaces but I guess they get used to it.

My plans get a little derailed when I can’t find the place Greg recommended for lunch. When I do find it, it’s closed and I have to settle for a convenience store bento. There are a couple of different bus routes around the island. The shorter one is a “tour route” meaning it  stops at several key places and gives people a few minutes to get out and take pictures before continuing.

I soak my feet in a naturally heated outdoor foot-bath while waiting for the tour bus. A guy with a nice camera approaches me and asks if I can speak french. “Ah…Just a little” I reply.

The Frenchman is in Kagoshima for the sole purpose of taking pictures of the volcano. He’d been here since early in the morning trying to get clear shots of the eruptions and of the mountain itself. When he opens his backpack to put away his camera, I spot a second camera body along with at least 2 other lenses. Lucky.

The smoke plumes over the volcano are clearing up a little and he decides to take the ferry back and get shots of it from a different angle. “Want to join me?” he asks.

“Sure.” I was never really invested in the tour bus thing anyway.

On the way, he tells me all about his job as a photographer (mostly landscape and macro) and gives me a mind-boggling list of all the places and countries he’s been. It sounds a bit exhausting yet I can’t help but feel a little jealous, too.

View from the park

View from the park

Before getting back on the Shinkansen I hop on a Ferris-wheel, riding the glass car. It gives me a nice view of the sunset as well as a dizzying one of the street below.

In Kumamoto I once again meet up with Greg  who takes me to a restaurant near his house. It’s a sushi bar where you pay by the plate. Special plates run by us on a conveyor belt while all the dishes we order are delivered via a tray  on a motorized track. The tray is shaped like a mini Shinkansen! Greg insists I try the melon soda, unique to Japan. It comes out looking unnaturally green and the taste reminds me faintly of Bonbon Anglais (a soda from my childhood), but not in a good way. It’s entirely too sweet for me.

The next day I follow Greg to work and observe him with his classroom of 6-7 year olds. I’m impressed with how well they follow instructions (in English no less) and how responsible they are but maybe that’s just because I’m rarely around kids this age.

They go outside to prepare for Sports day. Their preparation consists entirely of running a lap around the playground (half a lap for the younger kids), coached along by an adult.

I admire the creatively decorated bento’s during lunch time: carrots cut like cartoon characters, mini sausages with cute toothpicks stuck in them, and rice balls shape like animals and decorated with seaweed. One girl proudly shows me her new Elsa chopsticks; she’d recently learned how to use them.

After lunch, it’s back outside to play then inside to cool off and listen to some songs. The kids eagerly take turns singing along with Frozen’s “Let it go.” Will that song never die? Actually, I’m amused by it. We finish at 2 – an early day for Greg – and spend the rest of the afternoon walking around Kumamoto.

We go to another garden and explore Kumamoto Castle. It’s a pretty impressive structure. On its own hill, the castle complex rises above the trees surrounding it, looking like a piece of history transplanted and stuck in the middle of a modern city.

The next day I take the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. It’s a sunny day but I spend a chunk of it inside the somber darkness of the bomb museum and memorial. The testimonials are powerful reminders of humanity’s potential for destruction. As someone who’s never lived during that part of history, the stories and drawings bring a kind of immediacy to something I’ve only read about in dry, impersonal textbooks. Walking back outside into the sunlight feels disorienting, to say the least.

My last day, I take a ferry to Miyajima island where the famed “Floating Torii” is. The island was considered sacred so when the temple and torii were built, they built them in the water next to the island. During low tide, the water recedes away from both structures, exposing the base and leaving them to dry until high tide. The torii is still surrounded shallow water when I get there.DSCF0535 (2)

I strike up a conversation with a Mother-daughter pair from the US, also on vacation. They’re incredibly nice and we end up exploring the island together, talking about all manner of things, until they leave.

I stay until I can walk closer to the torii and take more pictures. It’s the last thing I really do in Japan. After that, I take the Shinkansen back to the airport in Fukuoka and then back to Korea.

(Coming up next: the last installment of my vacation: the Jejudo portion!)

In Gwangju with family

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Here it is, the second part of my week with my parents.

The bus ride from Seoul to Gwangju was largely uneventful; though Dad may like to point out the oddity of getting off at the rest stop and seeing a group from Ecuador dressed in full-feathered Indian regalia and blowing on their flutes for any who’d listen.

It’s not that unusual of a sight to see if you go to a lot of festivals but it’s definitely strange the first time.

As for Mom and Dorothy…well, they couldn’t stop laughing after their trip to the bathroom. While everyone had stood in an orderly line waiting for their turn to use a stall, old Korean ladies just walked past us and into whichever doors opened first. Many of them were doubled over, leaning on walking sticks and half a foot shorter than me. The rules clearly didn’t apply to them. No one reacted or said anything because that’s just how Korean halmonis (grandmothers) are. Someone once told me that after the history they’d lived through, they deserved to do whatever they wanted. Mom and Dorothy found it incredibly amusing. I suppose you kind of had to be there.

We get to Gwangju in the afternoon, drop by the hotel, then walk to my apartment building. I introduce them to all those aspects of my mundane daily life that I’ve been eager to share with them: my tiny closet kitchen, the shops downtown, the culture complex, the underground shopping center, and the couple from Cafe Florida. We finish the afternoon with one of my favorite meals: shabu-shabu.

Credit for this image goes to my dad.

I found myself rather out-of-sorts that afternoon. I didn’t feel like myself, in part because I wasn’t sure what “self” I was supposed to be: my parents’ child or the person I’d become after living here for a year as an independent adult. The first few days in Seoul had configured me into my “parents’ child” version. Experiencing my home in that mode felt incredibly strange and uncomfortable.

Thankfully, the feeling passed and I was able to to continue my week quite happily.

IMG_1224 (2)Wednesday: a sunny day, perfect for flower viewing. we take a bus to Suncheon where we plan to explore the international gardens (the site of the 2013 Expo). We pretty much spend the whole day walking around, looking at flowers, watching the flamingos (Dorothy keeps mistakenly calling them penguins), eating ice cream, and admiring the impressive landscaping.

The “American” garden section is underwhelmingly nondescript. The Spanish style garden is a patio with some citrus trees and little water fountains artfully arranged. It’s quite popular, as evidenced by all the children playing in the water.

Thursday, Boseong Green Tea Plantation:  It’s another day perfect for being outside; sunny with a bit of a breeze. Mom, Dad, and Dorothy hike the trail to the top while I opt to stay at the halfway mark. Once was enough for me. While I wait for them to come back down, I take pictures of the dragonflies sunning themselves, flowers, and anything else that captures my interest.

We eat green tea ice cream and peek at the bamboo grove nearby before leaving.

Friday is an overcast day but this hardly matters since we don’t have many plans. We meet up with my co-worker and supervisor, then walk over to the restaurant where the academy owners treat us to a traditional Korean meal.

Banquet is a more apt description. We’re served at least 4 courses, each consisting of numerous dishes of artfully arranged food and requiring a bit of rearrangement to fit them all on the tables. Slices of raw fish, rice cake, various kinds of cooked and stewed veggies, oysters, squid tentacles, and…..skate fish.

If you haven’t tried this expensive Korean delicacy then let me give you just a whiff of what it’s like. That’s what you’ll notice first, by the way: the smell. The way it is fermented or preserved gives it a strong ammonia smell. Never stuck your nose in a bottle of that? That’s fine. Just head to the nearest outhouse or visit that elderly neighbor with 20 cats. Breathe deeply, then imagine eating that with a slice of pork and a little kimchi. That’s samhap, a popular way to eat the stingray-like creature. The other two components help keep your taste buds confused while you chew, which means it’s a much more pleasant way to eat skate than it would be to eat it as a stand-alone item.  On the upside, it clears your sinuses. On the downside, the taste and smell of it can linger long after your meal was but a distant memory. It’s something of an acquired taste, I’m afraid.

Credits to my dad for this picture.

After that experience of a meal, we take a trip to my workplace so Mom, Dad, and Dorothy can see it in person. My co-workers have a busy day ahead of them so we don’t stick around long.

We spend the rest of the rainy afternoon at  a jimjjilbang (spa) called Hyundai Wellbeing Land.

Saturday, Wando beach:  Even though it’s a Saturday, it’s not unusual for kids to spend several hours at a hagwon or two. Still, I’m surprised by how empty the beach is. The showers and many of the nearby shops are closed, too. I guess beach season ends along with the students’ summer vacation.

We manage to find a fried chicken place open for business and order lunch there. Then we relax in a perfect combination of sun, sand, and water.

Sunday: We attend church (a rare communion day), then take a bus to Busan with all our bags. Mom, Dad and Dorothy plan to take the KTX (a high speed train) to Incheon airport in the morning. I, on the other hand, will leave for the Japan portion of my vacation from Busan. We say our goodbyes that night, feeling incredibly blessed to have had such a wonderful time together but sad to part ways once again.

Image captured by my dad.

Chuseok 2014: In Seoul with family

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I’m back from my 3 week vacation so now it’s time to catch you up! It’s going to take several tellings, which I’ll try to spread out a bit, for myself as much as for you. Enjoy!

We begin three weeks ago on September 6th, after I’d hopped on a 4 hour bus ride to Incheon Airport to meet my parents and family friend, Dorothy.

1:30 pm.

I’m at the airport much earlier than I need to be to pick up my parents and Dorothy. They won’t get in until 4:20. With several hours to kill, I walk around the airport, explore the train station area, and buy a book to read. The hours creep by, but they do pass.

4:30 pm.

I put down my book and start craning my head to see the gate where they’ll exit despite knowing that, with luggage and paperwork, it’ll take time.

5-ish.

I’m standing now…too impatient to keep peering around the people who keep blocking my view. The moment I spot them an involuntary whoop of excitement bursts from my lips and I wave my arms wildly. I shock myself by starting to cry, as well. It’s been 8 months since I last saw them (Skype doesn’t count). More importantly, this is the first time I get to share this part of my life with people who are more familiar with its previous chapters.

The train ride to Seoul goes smoothly: quiet, save for the shutter sounds on Dad’s cellphone camera as he eagerly snaps shots of the passing landscape. Outside the train station, a taxi driver with a large car expertly maneuvers us into his ride, drives us to the hotel 5 minutes away, and skillfully gets us to pay more than twice the cost of a regular taxi ride. Of course, this is because we took a ride in his luxury car and he probably doesn’t get as many customers as the regular taxis. I feel rather dumb for letting myself fall for it when. Given his special car, it’s understandable, but had we taken a normal taxi the price would have been less than half what he charged us. Oh well.

For those looking to stay in a reasonably priced hotel in Seoul, near Seoul tower and shopping areas like Myeongdong, then I highly recommend Hill House. It’s a little walk from any subway stops but they aren’t unreasonably far. Some of the staff speak excellent English and are able to answer any questions about getting around. Boring breakfast of toast, eggs, cereal but at least it was something. If had been traveling alone, I would have stayed somewhere cheaper – like a hostel – but for the 4 of us, it worked well.

That first night, we venture to the nearby Myeongdong shopping area for dinner, before collapsing on our hard hotel beds. After a night of rest, everyone feels eager to explore so we decide to make it a palace day.

We start the day with the main palace: Gyeongbokgung Palace, where we witness the changing of the guards and wander around its expansive grounds.

Then we head over to Changgyeonggung Palace, and walk through the “secret garden” (a guided tour):

Next door is another palace: Changdeokgung Palace.

By this time, we’d walked quite a bit, from one place to another so Mom, Dad, and Dorothy give their legs a rest – sitting on a bench by the large pond – while I explore further. I find a glass greenhouse in the back as well as a few white-barked trees that contrast nicely with the surroundings.

Jongmyo Shrine is last on our list of things to see that day. By this time, I’m too tired to take pictures of buildings that, ultimately, look the same to me. Plus, Dad is better at landscape style pictures than I, who prefers focusing on the small details.

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The next day is the actual day of Chuseok, Korea’s version of Thanksgiving. Due to the holiday, we are able to enter the one palace we didn’t have time for the day before (for free). Unlike the other palaces, it shows some signs of western influence, side-by-side with the more traditional styled buildings.

Across the street, in front of city hall, rows upon rows of chairs are set up for an event later in the day: prayers for peace and the unification of the Koreas. Sharing the same space is a tribute to the Sewol ferry disaster, that is still a very fresh in the minds and hearts of many here. When I see yellow ribbons pinned to people’s shirts or tied next to others in a public place, I know them to be in memory of that tragedy.

We visit the Namdaemun gate and eat lunch at a street stall before heading to Shiloam (a jimjjilbang = public bathhouse and sauna) to wash and relax. I slept there last time I went to Seoul and though I didn’t find my sleep there very relaxing, it remains one of my favorite jimjjilbangs so far. Everyone enjoys the experience even though no one shares quite my level of enthusiasm for the various sauna rooms. My parents really like the oxygen room and Mom admits that the salt room is pretty nice. But they draw the line at anything hotter and I’m left on my own as I jump into the hottest room for a few minutes.

In the end, I think our greatest shared enjoyment comes from the massage chairs. For 1,000 won ($1.00) you can sit in one of the chairs for fifteen minutes of butt squishing, back thumping, and body jiggling. Mom and I watch as Dad and Dorothy receive this treatment, eliciting yelps of discomfort – interspersed with sighs of relief when the chair switches to something more comfortable – from them, and barely contained peals of laughter from us. Dorothy’s chair adds a level of amusement. It clearly needs some oiling or maintenance work because it buzzes quite loudly every time it hits a certain phase in the cycle.

Mom goes next but picks a slightly different chair. It has arm rests instead of foot massagers. It must have been built to squish the forearms of someone with the proportions of an orangutan because when the seat leans back, the only thing that can comfortably reach to the arms squisher are her hands and wrists. Still, she clearly made the better (though less hilarious) choice as she settles into the chair comfortably for her 15 minutes.

We eat a dinner at a small restaurant near the hotel, sitting outside on plastic chairs as the owner cooks and cuts our meat all while trying to strike up a conversation with me in Korean, only half of which I understand (at best). I manage to answer enough to satisfy his curiosity. When we leave, he hands us a pack of four yogurt drinks to take with us.

We attempt to visit Seoul tower. Even though the cable car is just a short walk away, the line simply to ride to the base of the tower is ridiculously long. We decide to go back to the hotel instead of waiting the 2.5 hours to get to the front of the line.IMG_0983 (2)

The next morning we hop on a bus to Gwangju.