Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Designed by Zaha Hadid (no relation to Gigi & Bella as far as I can tell) and typical of her designs I’m told, Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a great place for a day out in Seoul. We only made it over for the first time three weekends ago and have ended up going there three weekends in a row.

Here’s a picture I’ve stolen from the interweb – I couldn’t get a great one of the entire building on my phone :

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DDP, as it is colloquially known, is made up of five halls: Art Hall, Museum, Design Lab, Design Market and Dngdaemun History & Culture Park. Located at the centre of South Korea’s fashion hub, it is a popular place to visit with locals and tourists alike and super easy to access – the subway station Dongdaemun History & Culture Park leads straight into the plaza. There are pretty gardens surrounding it, as well as numerous malls, and in the past few weeks we’ve visited in rain and sunshine alike.

 

The Art Hall is known as the primary space for the Korean creative industry, and we visited it to check out “Volez, Vougez, Voyagez,” The Louis Vuitton Exhibition. The exhibition is a free one and on until the 27th August 2017 and if you haven’t been already, it is definitely worth checking out! You can reserve a space online, so that you don’t have to stand in the queue – we didn’t do this but were still in within 15 minutes and spent a happy hour wandering through various stages of LV’s history, checking out the designs, patterns and collaborations that make the brand so well known today. For a free exhibition, the accompanying brochure and app were amazingly produced and full of information.

We also visited the “30 Years of Pixar” exhibition in the Design Exhibition Hall – it is only on until the 8th August so get your skates on! Tickets cost 13,000 KRW per adult and inside you will find lots of background information on how some of your favourite Pixar movies are made and the incredible initial sketches and colourscapes that go in to each and every scene. It is SUCH a treat for any Pixar fan and the little gift shop is a great bonus at the end!

DDP is also the location of one of three Shake Shacks in Korea – and yes, we’ve eaten there every week for 3 weeks now (they even have a mushroom burger for the veggies)!

All in all, you should definitely have a look on the website regularly and keep heading on down (up) to see what DDP has to offer: http://www.ddp.or.kr/main?hl=en_US

 

The Incheon Injection

Now don’t worry, I’m not about to write a treatise on the various vaccinations that are recommended for South Korea (when we left the UK, there weren’t any but I believe nowadays they recommend Japanese Encephalitis – especially if you plan on visiting Jeju Island during rainy season). Rather, it was my not-so-clever revamp of what my South African Expat Friends in London would refer to as ‘The Heathrow Injection’ i.e. the phenomenon of moving to a new country (for the Saffas, England, for us, RoK) and putting on weight that proves hard to shift. Speaking to my trainer on Monday (Get me – I have a trainer. If you had known me in my previous London-Life you would be beyond shocked that I regularly and voluntarily work out with a trainer) he said of the foreigners in Korea he trains, about 70% put on weight after arriving here and 30% find they lose weight.

The 30% are usually people who ate unhealthily in their previous country and relied heavily on cars as their means of transport and find that their arrival in Korea means eating better (if you aren’t vegetarian, Korean eating can be surprisingly healthy) and not owning a car means that simply increasing the walking they do means they are a lot more active.

Unfortunately, we fell into the 70% category when we arrived. The world-over, people put on weight in the winter. Comfort eating during the long dark nights and hiding behind lovely big sweaters and jumpers. Now take two Brits turning up in Korea (remember how cold I said it gets?) in January. No Hangul skills and they don’t know anybody. Raj would at least go to work every day – but as we lived a 30 minute walk from the office, he’d either take the shuttle bus or, more often than not, a taxi to avoid the biting cold. Once we discovered the convenience store in the bottom of our building, that was usually the furthest I walked (the occasional walk to Lotte didn’t count) so my activity levels really dropped  – London meant at least 2 hours commuting to work each day and walking around the office / meeting friends in the evening etc so even if I didn’t do any actual exercise, I was at least hitting the 10,000 recommended steps daily. So lower activity, coupled with a drink almost every night with dinner and eating ‘winter portions’ of our meals, which were limited in their variety while we were at The Prau didn’t make for the healthiest of starts here.

Once we were settled in our current home, we tried to stick to healthy eating plans and to be each others conscience when it came to eating well but we’re both too soft on each other. So we checked out the gym in our building, which felt expensive (some buildings include use of the gym when you live there, but not ours.) Along with that, we also didn’t really know what we were doing in a gym, don’t enjoy working out and the trainers int the gym didn’t speak enough English for me to be comfortable (all my various aches and pains mean that I need a lot of hand holding when trying to build strength.) I also worried that Raj and I wouldn’t be motivated enough on our own to make use of the gym. So we pottered on with our own attempts without a great deal of success.

Fast Forward to Feb 2017. A bunch of our friends had been seeing a trainer, Bryce,  in Incheon who is Australian but lives here and has done for 9 years. Bryce’s training style is mostly mat work with weights in the form of Kettlebells thrown in, focusing on movement, flexibility and strength. Now here was something I could get on board with. Before he moved to Canada, this was my older brother’s training style too and the few sessions I did with him really helped me. I think Raj was a bit more sceptical of it, as he prefers sports – football, hockey etc but he was willing to give it a go (it was either that or put up with my nagging. Easy choice really.)

So we went for our consultation and came away with our targets – primarily strength building for me, and flexibility for Raj and our weekly sessions were booked in. Our exercises in the gym vary between weights, stretches and also just moving more. Once you start to make progress on one target, Bryce will add in others – for both of us, this was weight loss. He helps with diet and nutrition and keeps tabs on activity levels as well. Alongside the weekly sessions in the gym, he also sets homework – two workouts at home a week and daily stretching / walking to increase movement generally. Now I try to be pretty good about doing all my various exercises each week, but he understands that people who are working might not always do this, so he works them a bit harder when they are in the gym instead.

6 months later, I definitely see and feel the difference. My most recent pain issues have all but gone and although the back still plays up from time to time, Bryce works with me and my limitations so that I’m always taking two steps forward, even when I take one step back. The accountability and motivation he provides means that I now have the strength of a normal 30-something adult and Raj is beating his personal bests every week. The weight loss isn’t instant but my sister-in-law (yes, my brother and his wife are both disgustingly fit trainers – Keeping up with the Raghuveers is not an option) always promotes ‘strong not skinny’ and she has always said that when you train for strength, your shape does change and she is right. Apparently men lose weight more easily than women (obviously. I mean, why should women get a break when it comes to our bodies right?) but we are getting there.

The studio (which is also a Yoga Studio) used to be in Songdo but they needed a bigger space, so are now in Incheon, near the Lotte Department Store/ in between Incheon Bus Terminal and Arts Centre stations on the subway. It takes about 20 minutes to drive to, traffic permitting and there are two reserved parking spaces for the gym round the back, that are available on a first come first serve basis. Bryce always says his website needs work but you can check out the gym on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/powerbalanceyoga/

One of my favourite things about coming to Korea and being a housewife? The opportunity to get fit, healthy and strong!

Power Balance Map

 

 

 

What (Not) To Wear

When you think about the Asian Fashion scene I am sure that the Harajuku girls of Japan (whether you know them by that name or not) is one of the first images that comes to mind. That, and impossibly skinny and impeccable women made up to perfection. I feel like Korea didn’t really make a big impact on the global fashion scene until the 00s but more likely it was a combination of watching Gucci’s S/S 2013 trunk show in Seoul online (Sidebar: I worked in a really cool agency and my boss opined that creativity begets creativity so watching a superbly produced fashion show counted as research) and the fact that Raj first planted the seed of South Korea in my mind in 2013 that made me sit up and take notice of the country.

Of course I went into overdrive researching the country, the dos and don’ts, trying to find out as much as possible about Songdo – for which there was limited information online, hence the birth of this blog – but one thing that I didn’t think about was clothing beyond the practical i.e. lots of warm layers for the ridiculous winters.  Turns out there are a lot of unspoken rules about what one should wear to minimise* the staring as you go about your business. A quick note – my tips below don’t cover a working environment be that in an international organisation where the global standard of dress tends to apply,  or a Korean organisation, where as far as I can tell high heels are the only acceptable shoes for women.

(1) Keep ’em covered.

Generally speaking, exposing one’s shoulders and anything with a low décolletage is frowned upon. Spaghetti strap tops and dresses are sold here but girls will tend to wear them over a t-shirt – and this rule is adhered to by even the youngest of society. Now I feel like the shoulders rule is of less import but if you are blessed in the bust department and a sleeveless top almost inevitably means a bit of cleavage on show, perhaps its better to keep those tops in your holiday wardrobe. You’d probably get away with it fine in Songdo due to its international composition but in both the smaller and larger cities in Korea, a t-shirt helps avoid unwanted attention. Songdo is beyond safe but many stories of local men being a bit creepy towards foreign women flood Facebook (I haven’t been subjected to this personally however, probably because I’m usually in the company of Raj / in a large mixed group).

(2) When it comes to hemlines, the sky is the limit

I have a former boss who used to say that rising hemlines are sign of a rising economy. If this is true, the Korean economy is BOOMING. Whilst knee length is probably the norm for more formal occasions, you will see women in itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-shorts, skirts and dresses on a day-to-day basis. In winter these will be paired with thick, decorative tights for warmth but short short short is still the order of the day. As it can get breezy, I’ve seen women wearing cycling shorts (or similar) under their skirts and dresses to avoid a Marilyn-moment – and if you are of average European size, this trick also helps with the dreaded chub-rub (as does hacking a pair of tights into shorts along the gusset line).

(3) Footwear is key

In summer, I am guilty of slipping on flip flops to run my daily errands but a Korean woman will always be well-heeled. Be it trainers (sneakers), pumps, sandals or heels their shoes are well cared for and chosen with care to work with their outfits. Many fancier bars (very strict on- and off-line defamation laws in Korea prevent me from naming names) won’t allow you in wearing open-toed flats (even if they are actual sandals and not flip flops) and keep a stock of heels for women to borrow.  I’ve even seen trainers for hire at outdoor festivals for women who make the mistake of wearing their heels to such events. You’ll find no end of footsie socks, cute trainer liners and fancy tights in all the subway stations to accompany your shoes too – and as with most things in Korea, the cuter the better!

(4) Game, set and MATCH

The phenomenon of couples wearing matching clothes is HUGE. It’s something that I am yet to get Raj to do but you’ll see tons of couple wearing his’n’hers t-shirts, sweatshirts, coats even! I’ve also seen a couple wearing matching skirt (for her) and shorts (for him) and taking about a million selfies to document the outfits obviously.

Now a whole separate post is needed about how women always look immaculate here but even if they are going grocery shopping in tracksuit bottoms and uggs, their faces are flawless and hair is neat and tidy. Long gone are the days that I had the patience for such things but once in a while it is fun to try 🙂

So there you have it. A simple set of tips for what (not) to wear in Korea if you want to fit in or at least, not stand out quite so much.

*Minimise. That’s all you are going to be able to achieve so it’s worth putting on your thickest skin before you get to Korea. Society here is pretty homogenous and the emphasis on how a person looks is high. Deviate from the norm – perhaps you’re bond, or tall or have green eyes – in any way and you will earn the open stares of passers by. A group of girls might look in your direction and laugh – for no reason other than you are a foreigner and  I’ve also heard tell of ajummas (older Korean Women – think your neighbourhood grandma) who thinks nothing of adjusting a bra strap/ fingering the material of a dress  on a stranger sitting next to them on the bus.

 

Aaannnddd Reee-lax

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a bunch of stereotypes in your mind before you make the move over to Songdo and you’ll very quickly be disabused of most of those. I mean, some of them – Asia being the land of multi-story buildings with lots of bright lights for example – do prove to be true in Seoul, and even other areas of Incheon (Bupyeong comes to mind) but not so in the manicured streets of Songdo. Dream city is the closest that you get to that view of Asia in South Korea, but even still, its pretty tame – at least compared to my imagination.

I also expected cheap mani/pedis – **imitates buzzer** and in fact, the nail treatments here are more expensive and without all the nice soak in warm water / foot scrub elements that you have come to expect from home. And massages. I really thought we would be able to get good, firm massages regularly without paying an arm and a leg. Well, yes, places exist, but to be honest, when Raj and I went to look at them, they all felt a bit on the seedy side and we weren’t so comfortable trying them out. Plus, all my back issues mean that I need a reasonable level of English to be spoken so that I can make the various aches and pains clear. The other option, massages at the spa in the Sheraton, are supposed to be good, but definitely comes at a price.

Well not so any more. Through all my various Facebook group memberships, I glean a lot of (not entirely always useful) information but then popped up this gem:

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I had heard about a place near Cinder Bar / The Prau that was good for massages, so when I saw this post, I decided it was meant to be. Post-board-meeting-massages here we come. I called Mr. Kim and made the appointment for a Saturday morning at 1030. Now, whilst his English is excellent, there was a bit of confusion about the timing, as when I showed up for my appointment, he thought I had said 12. No matter, he rallied and was there with his partner in about 10 minutes but knowing this, I’d probably advise people to send a text or Kakao to confirm the appointment.

We had opted for 1 hour Swedish Massages and, I think because he felt bad about the confusion in timing, he threw in some hot stones as well – Uh-May-Zing! I didn’t even realise how much time was going by and really felt thoroughly beaten into shape post massage. You can specify whether you want to be in a single room or don’t mind sharing and as promised on the poster, there was a 10% discount for having a morning appointment.

So what are you waiting for? Get on the blower and book a massage – you’ll thank me later I promise!

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We followed our massages with a weekend in Seoul – the Louis Vuitton Exhibition at Dongdaemun Design Plaza, burgers at ShakeShack, Dinner at Julios, a movie at the Charlotte Theatre in the Lotte Cinema (Myeongdong) and a visit to an 8 STOREY DAISO made for a great weekend… and another post for another day!

 

Songdo Strolls

 

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks wandering around Songdo in an effort to get my daily step count up (More about that later) and following other people’s recommendations have found a couple of incredibly useful places that I thought I would share with you all here: A tailor (for repairs) and a fabulous stationery shop:

Joint Map

Now Songdo is replete with tailors – mostly for men’s suits and shirts, but if you are female and have a shirt that they can copy, I hear this works pretty well – but what I have needed is someone to do minor repairs. Over the last year or so, with the invaluable support of YouTube, I have been teaching myself how to do some of these repairs myself but it’s never the neatest job  – as we know, patience is not my strong point. I also had a dress that needed re-hemming, but not urgently enough for me to post it home to mum. Well about a week ago, a couple of my friends told me of this random tiny little store in a part of town that I would never really wander to where there sits a genius with a sewing machine. One even said that when her friends come visit from out-of-town, they bring all the repair and sewing work they need done as they no longer trust anyone else with their clothes. Well, I’m sold! Before I took along the dress, I thought I would wait and try something else. Raj had a tear in the leg of his linen trousers (now relegated to lounge-wear only) which was the perfect start. Off I wander with the vague directions: Across the road from Relish, up the street from the GS25 Supermarket (ed. GS25 is a convenience store, but the supermarket has a larger selection of products, including a mini-Daiso – wait, what, I haven’t told you about Daiso yet? Ok, that’s getting a whole post to itself soon. Daiso might just be my favourite thing about South Korea) into a building, next to a book store and by the pink sign. And I found it! For only 4,000 won, the trousers have been brought back into the outdoor clothes rotation – she is amazing. Next time, I went I took my dress to be hemmed and a few days later, I have a new outfit for all of 8,000 won. Seriously guys, all your mending needs will be covered here. But directions OK.

The shop is based on Haedoji-Ro. If you walk up Haedoji-ro towards Haedoji Park (on the opposite side of the road from the Korean Coast Guard and Relish). You’ll pass the GS25 Supermarket (hello red onions!) and soon you’ll come up to an NH Bank. Take a right down the little street and when you see an ‘H’ above the door, in you go. Walk all the way to the end (there is actually a HUGE pink sign outside the tailor) and you’ll see a lovely lady with her sewing machine and lots of clothes. It really couldn’t be easier!

To make sure you are turning into the right little street, across the road you will see this building:

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It was a little weird to take pictures of the tailor’s shop but I’ll try for one of those next time!

Now, for all your stationery needs, you need to head to The Life. It took me a few attempts to find it, but I can confidently say it is on Sinsong-ro – just around the corner from Songdo Mart and up the street from Burger Z. If you’ve ever taken 6724 bus from Seoul back to Songdo, you’ve certainly passed it. It’s on the second floor (Korean second floor, so the first floor in other countries) so, as ever in Korea, look up as you wander.

This store has everything that you need for arts and crafts-ing. Paints, paper, card, aerosols, varnish, glue polystyrene balls, brushes and so on. There is also a huge selection of ribbon and gift wrap, board games (in Korean) batteries, cleaning products and school supplies. Also, if anyone is playing cricket, huge bottles of linseed oil to keep your bat in check. Now I can’t share everything I bought because I’m in the midst of planning a baby shower and don’t want the decoration ideas to get out but I tell you, definitely worth a half an hour wander to pick up all the things that you didn’t know you wanted (sorry Raj!).

Stationery Shop MapIMG_0574

Here come the girls.. 

Here’s a post just for the girls out there – if the word “period” makes you blush more than tomatoes dried in the sun then stop reading now. If, however, you have a girlfriend, wife, daughter, female friend or relative that might visit you, stick around for the ride.

One unavoidable fact of life is that if you are a pre-menopausal woman, you’ll have a period or two while you are here. Now I know I harp on and on about how everything is so expensive here but sanitary products are the worst. Whilst some women have said tampons are more readily available in Seoul, I’ve only seen them in Olive Young (next to Awesome International) and they cost about 70 million dollars for 5 tampons (ed: slight exaggeration but you get the point.) And sanitary pads don’t feel a lot cheaper except when they are on 3 for 2 – and then you end up being the weirdo walking down the street with 6 packets of pads in your arms because you don’t want to take a bag (go green!) and they will not fit in your already full trolley. Yikes. Recently however, Lotte Mart has launched its own brand to rival Emart’s ‘No Brand’ brand – helpfully called ‘Only Price.’ The red & white packaging can be found across a variety of items in store, including, you guessed it, sanitary pads. For a mere 2,000 won per packet – Yes ladies, English prices have hit the South Korean Peninsula! – your monthly needs are covered. Having just road-tested the ones pictured below (TMI? That’s how dedicated I am to the task of making your life easier here people…) are comfortable and pretty much the same as the more expensive counterparts found in other stores. The 41.5cm long one is HUGE and they have one more, slightly less long size not pictured here. As an aside, you want to buy your regular-day liners from Daiso – the same brand is sold in every shop, but its only 1,000 per packet in Daiso.

IMG_0518Birth Control: Now if you are from the UK and used to getting it for free, then be prepared for a shock. Or stock up from home. The pill costs about 7,000 won per month here – you can (and should) take your packet from home to the pharmacy (I recommend the one I refer to here ) so that they can match the active ingredients and hey presto you’re set. Once again, I will direct your attention to Facebook: the women’s groups (such as Expat Women in Korea, mentioned in my post about social media ) are full of information about other types of birth control and female doctors in Seoul. Use the search function / check out the files on the group before you post a question, because chances are that somebody has already asked it and all the information you need it just sitting there waiting for you! I’m yet to find a women’s doctor in Songo/Incheon, mostly because I haven’t looked, but I’m sure the Asian Tigers hotline will be able to help and there is bound to be someone at the Inha University Hospital too.

I think a separate post on the various skin care and beauty stores here is called for but I’ve had a couple of questions on periods and birth controls from readers, so I thought this would be helpful.

Happy Monday folks and speak to you again soon 🙂

An Afternoon Out: Wolmido Island

It’s a very short post today about a little gem of a place called Wolmido Island. Around Songdo, there are loads of little places that are perfect day trips (especially when you have visitors) without having to make the journey into Seoul. A few weeks ago, I took our guests to Wolmido Island. Don’t ask me for directions – I just plugged it into Waze and followed the directions – with the unavoidable u-turns included of course. You can get there by public transport too – go to Incheon Station (line 1) and from there, take one of the following buses: 2, 23 and 45.

In Wolmido, you’ll find a little promenade – small scale Blackpool for you Brits reading, with an amusement park and various street performances. It’s right by the sea, so it can get nippy – although it being May, I was perfectly happy in shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops. For the carnivorous amongst you, there are plenty of food options, but those veggie folk only really have a choice of one restaurant which has some pizza and pasta options. If you’re game to go on the rides, then you could easily while away an afternoon here, but even if you aren’t, just adjacent to the promenade is Wolmi Park. There are some beautiful gardens to walk though and if you are feeling active, you can take the short walk up to the observatory to get some pretty decent views. I didn’t make it to the observatory when I walked around – time was not on our side that day – but I definitely plan to go back.

Like I said, a quick note about one of the day trips that I’ve done. There are a bunch more than I intend to do and as and when that happens, there will follow a post. Until then, time to get exploring so that I have something to write about!