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

 

My #nuclearholiday #YVR

Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve come a long way mentally from the last stream-of -consciousness-post that I sent your way and I can now make fun of myself and my mini (ed. Ahem) panic attack. As you know, I decided that while Raj was travelling, I would travel too, and booked a trip to Vancouver to see my brother, Kesh, and sister-in-law, Rosa. Sidebar: have I mentioned recently how lucky I am that Raj is SO indulgent of me and my over-active imagination? I don’t think many people would have accepted my need (and my mother’s need!) to not be in Korea at that time and gone along with plans which were a complete over-reaction, but he did and, with regards to this, will, I believe, continue to do so. Definitely a lucky girl.

Anyway, once I landed in Vancouver, it only took a few minutes with my joker of a brother – I call him this to his face, it’s ok and truly, Kesh is the funniest person in the world – for me to accept that my panic was probably uncalled for and for him to coin the phrases, subsequently developed into hashtags for my social media needs obvs, #nuclearholiday and #falloutfun. Some might consider these in bad taste, but I defy those who say that to experience my levels of panic and then avoid attempts at humour to make yourself feel better about it.

I was spoilt in Vancouver. Rosa and Kesh live super centrally to everything – all my needs were met within a 15-minute walking radius of the house, and #keshcooks became an oft-used hashtag on Instagram. Kesh has always enjoyed cooking (you know my feelings on that already) and Rosa and I are more than happy to clean up, which he hates. The sun made an extended appearance during my stay and long walks to see the surrounding area, excellent food and copious amounts of salted caramel ice-cream were the order of the week. I was able to do the usual ‘buy-things-that-I-don’t-get-in-Korea’ easily and catch up on a couple of zombie/sci-fi films that haven’t made it out here too. I finished reading my current collection of psychological thrillers – Mr. B is SO thankful for that, as it is helping to temper my ‘what if’ scenarios that I wake him up with – and I learnt a couple of things as well.

(1) My brother and I are more alike than I realised – I have emergency plans in place, he walks a different route every day so that in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse he has escape options. I look at buildings and wonder how easy, or otherwise, they would be to scale (up or down, need-based) and he always sits facing the room in a restaurant so that he can deal with potential assassination attempts more easily.

(2) I talk A LOT. Rosa was away for the first two days of my trip, and I talked my, somewhat quiet, brother’s ear off non-stop. When Rosa returned, she and I jabbered on endlessly. Kesh said that the word count of the apartment had increased by 5,000 words a minute and he really couldn’t get a word in edgeways even if he wanted to.

One pretty important thing that came out of my trip is that I finally know what I want to do with my time here in Songdo. Apart from the obvious perks of being an expat-wife, Kesh suggested that I should put my crazy imagination* to use and do a creative writing course. I mean, it’s so simple but SO GENIUS I am surprised that none of us thought of it earlier. I’m on the hunt now for a suitable online creative writing course that I can do from Korea so that I can embrace my future career as a writer. It might even mean that some of my previous, as yet unseen by the world, musings and writings might make it into the public eye. Who knows. At the very least its a fabulous way to keep busy. So, readers, if you have any hints for any courses that I could look into, please do leave a comment with the details and I’ll get searching. This might mean that my somewhat-erratic blogging habits become even more erratic, but I will try not to let the one affect the other. Here’s a couple of pictures of beautiful Vancouver as an ending….

*Here’s another example of the way my mind works, just in case you hadn’t figured it out already: The return to Songdo has been hectic. Landing on Sunday, one overnight guest on Monday and then Raj’s cousin, wife and six month old arriving on Tuesday for a visit. We have a few fun things planned so I hope to share a bit more about the local area and things to do in the next couple of posts, but all this is by way of setting the scene for an amusing anecdote. On Monday, we borrowed a travel crib and car seat from a colleague of Raj’s for the aforementioned six-month-old. I made our overnight guest (who reads this blog – Hello!!) fix the car seat into the car on Monday night- having two children of his own, I determined that he possessed the appropriate skills to do this correctly. On Tuesday morning, I get into the car and get the fright of my life – I forgot the car seat was there and all I saw was a big red blob behind me, which became a serial-killer who snuck into the car during the night and was going to stab me and leave my decimated remains in the car park. Well, I quickly realised that wasn’t the case, and whilst waiting for my heart-rate to come down, I texted Raj. He laughed. I moved on with my day, but I will always remember the time that I was nearly a goner.

A Danish (Scottish-Japanese) Love Party 

So it has been a quiet period on the blog because I’ve been on holiday in England and Denmark but while I have been away, a couple of independent sources have found my blog and mentioned to me that it has been useful and interesting, especially for those living in or planning to move to Songdo. Accordingly, I thought it worth noting here that if anyone has anything in particular that they would like to know about leave a comment and I’ll do my best to find out about it! Whilst a post about the oddness of being on holiday in the place I called home, where working long hours and a hectic social life were very much the norm, is certainly called for, that’s not where I want to go today.

We originally planned to go to England this Summer because we had been invited to one of Raj’s very-good-friend-from-uni’s wedding in Denmark and going to Europe without making a stop in London would not have gone down well. K is a half-Scottish-half-Japanese girl who met Danish P in Tokyo many years ago. They dotted the t’s and crossed the i’s in London (i.e. legally wed), where they live (ironically formalising their personal European Union on the very day Brexit was announced), but for the big celebration went to P’s family home in what has been regularly described as “the middle of nowhere” in Northern Denmark. Dubbed “The Danish Love Party” it was arguably the most inclusive, warm and, well, loving wedding that I have been to in recent years.

The fun in Northern Jutland began with the welcome – being a farm, there were horses and very enthusiastic family and friends of the couple. Being the awkward English Folk that we were (there were 5 in our little party) we very much stood aside until it was time for official proceedings to unfold and for the merriment to begin, but it would appear that we unwittingly formed a receiving line of sorts. 5 of us, stood on the corner of the patio and every Dane came up to us to introduce themselves by name and relation to the couple. One chap was so focused on the task of introducing himself to us that he didn’t notice the groom patiently following him down the line trying to attract his attention! This was our first clue that the Danes are a super friendly bunch but little did we know quite how much..

Now the ceremony itself was taking place in the woods so it was off with the heels and on with the flats for a little wander through actual woodlands to come to a pretty little clearing where we would wait for the Bridal Party, and what an arrival. The Bride, dressed in white-gold with a brightly coloured Kimono, arrived on the back of a tractor driven by her father-in-law, where her groom awaited looking SO happy and SO proud that you couldn’t help but be swept up in his cloud of excitement. They were preceded down the aisle by nephews and nieces and the ceremony was officiated by close friends (a couple) who prepared a service that was utterly unique to K&P.

One of the first things that they did was to acknowledge all the friends and family present, saying that it takes a community to make a marriage work and every guest was asked to affirm their commitment to the marriage we were witnessing. Clue 2 to the inclusiveness of the Danish Love Party. It’s pretty safe to say tears were flowing from the moment the Bride made her entrance, through the service, readings and group-sing-a-long too.

Following the Bridge & Groom’s tractor-departure, we all pottered back to the main house, where several hours of drinking and getting to know everyone ensued. It had the relaxed feel of summers idly spent in the park, except with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was none of the time sensitive rushing commonly associated with weddings (I am sure that the wedding party felt differently) and a most enjoyable afternoon was spent in the grounds of a farm in the middle of nowhere..

Then we had the reception. The reception where every bit of decoration and food was hand-made, hand-picked, home-grown and then some. Dinner was held in a marquee set next to acres of farmland and a number of Danish traditions were followed, including:

(1) When all the guests clink their cutlery on their plates, the bride and groom had to get up on their chairs and kiss

(2) When all the guests stamped their feet, the bride and groom had to crawl under the table and kiss

(3) If the bride/groom left the room (marquee) then all the men/women respectively would line up to kiss the person left in the tent (they like the kissing these folk).

(4) The Speeches. Oh the speeches. Tradition has it that anyone who wants can get up to give their words of love to the couple and without fail, I cried at EVERY SINGLE SPEECH. Not only are the Danes super-friendly, inclusive and full of love, they aren’t afraid to show it or talk about it either. We had speeches from the bride, groom, groom’s father, best man (groom’s brother) and several other friends who had stepped up to have their say. If you were in that tent, you couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the ridiculous amount of love that was causing that tent to rip open at the seams. And that is just how I felt as a guest-once-removed. The outpouring of love didn’t stop at the couple – friends and family were thanked time and again for their presence (and it’s the only time I’ve ever been furthest-travelled to a wedding!) to such an extent that I am pretty sure everyone in that wedding felt as though they had personally played a part in the union before us. Thankfully the next tradition helped to subdue tears…

(5) Songs. It’s traditional to take a well-known song and change the words to suit the couple… this was a fabulous warm up for the Karaoke to follow

In between the various speeches and songs and general fun, there were stunning sunsets and views over the field to take in. It was another world and the fact that it was still bright bright bright at 2230 was rather disorienting, not least because you couldn’t begin to explain where the day had gone!

Tradition (6) was the first dance.. as the couple danced, everyone claps and steps closer and closer to the bride and groom to enclose them in a circle and a big-bundle-type-hug on the dance floor. So amidst all the love there remains a sense of fun and togetherness always.

The evening rounded out with more drinks than could be drunk, Karaoke (to remind everyone where the couple met) dancing and a sausage-grilling-Campfire in the fields.

Raj & I had to hot foot it to another wedding in London the next day, so it was an early end for us (1am – still a respectable 12 hours spent celebrating!)but overall such a privilege to be a part of the day and easily the best wedding I’ve been to yet.

Nikko, Yamazaki & Nara

Following last night’s little rant about a mere handful of things going on in the world which all leave me indescribably sad, I thought I would lift the tone by returning to my current favourite topic. Japan.

This blog seems to have taken a turn for the travel-blog, rather than one of my musings but I suspect that as I end my missive to Japan, things will return to normal, so bear with me dear folks.

Right, so, I’m combining a few of the day and half-day trips that we did (using our trusty JR Passes) – I could quite easily wax lyrical about each place in a post of its own, but your comfort and interest is at the forefront of my mind (somewhat) and so brevity is the order of the day.

On Saturday, the sun was shining and we planned to take our first Shinkansen. Now, as much as I love Japan, I super-super love the Shinkansen. Granted I only managed to stay awake on one of the Shinkansen (I even love to say the word..) trips we did but wowowowowow. Anyhow, my first Shinkansen experience was to Nikko. We’d heard many good things about the place and it didn’t disappoint. The initial sunshine of the day waned a little, so we didn’t spend the whole day there, but we did visit the Shrines Tosho-gu and Futarasan. I can imagine that when the weather is more consistent, Nikko would be a glorious place to spend a couple of nights.. and that is on the agenda for my next trip. The evening consisted of dinner with friends in Shibuya and the all important viewing of Captain America: Civil War, followed by a little stroll and the easy-peasy reservation of our seats on the Shinkansen (there is that word again) to Kyoto from Shinigawa station.

Jumping forward a few days, we spent Tuesday visiting the Yamazaki (or Kamikaze, as i kept, rather Freudian-ly kept saying) distillery and the temples of Nara. As we only realised the distillery was so close to Kyoto rather late in the day, we were unable to get a space on the tour – this books out months in advance, so plan ahead and make the most of it. We were however able to wander through the museum and try a few of the more choice whiskeys, which made for a most pleasant morning! A word to the wise for you whiskey aficionados out there: Yamazaki 18 is near impossible to buy. A bartender in Kyoto told us that most bars send their staff out to remote countryside liquor stores on the off-chance that there is a bottle in stock and nobody has realised it’s worth. The distillery had none left to sell and nor did any of the stores or bars we went to. I believe that a few years ago there was a dramatization of the Whiskey Industry in Japan, which increased popularity and led to ginormous sales and the current low stock situation. So enjoy the drink when you find it in bars but set your sights a little lower when planning which bottle to take home!

From Yamazaki, we went back to Kyoto and took a local train (no Shinkansen today, sigh) to Nara. If you head to bus stop 2, you’ll get to the Todaiji Temple Complex. The main sight, the Todaiji Temple itself is of huge historical significance in Japan. Constructed in 752, it was the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples. At the time, Nara was considered the capital of Japan but the growth of the Todaiji temple meant that the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784, to reduce the influence of the temple of the governmental affairs.

We then wandered uphill to Kasuga Taisha – unfortunately slightly too late to go inside, but we hung around the front and snapped a few pictures nonetheless, and I met one of my favourite trees of Japan.

Dinner was Ramen at Ippudo (more about this in the Kyoto post) and a little wander through the streets of Gion, which evoke all the traditional feelings that one associates with Kyoto. Tonight was the night of drinks at the wonderful Finlandia, but I’ll tell you more about that next time..

 

The Start of a Lifelong Love Affair – Japan

Oh Wow. Japan. What an amazing country. It has always been a place that I wanted to visit but little did I realise how much I NEEDED to visit the country. The history, the culture, the sights, the food, the Shinkansen.. everything has just worked its way into my heart and I have a feeling will be staying put for a long time to come.

Anyhow, we planned to spend a week in Japan – leaving Songdo late on a Wednesday night and returning first thing the following Thursday and we packed in a lot, so Japan is going to be the subject of my next few posts, starting with pre-departure.

Planning the trip started off pretty easily – we wanted to visit our friends in Tokyo before they moved back to The States and to minimise the days off that Raj needed, we decided to go over the long Children’s Day weekend in Korea – but this did mean that flights were slightly more expensive than usual for this 2.5 hour flight. We later realised that our trip also coincided with the tail end of ‘Golden Week’ in Japan. It worked out great for us, as it meant that Tokyo was nice and quiet (although restaurants had a habit of closing early on us) and when we moved onto Kyoto, it was a teeny-tiny bit quieter.

We made the decision to pack in some travel and so, I ordered JR Passes from http://www.jrpass.com on Friday morning. By Monday lunchtime (for an additional fee of $19) FedEx had dropped the exchange vouchers into my hands. You need to make sure that you get the ‘temporary visitor’ stamp in your passport upon entering Japan and then take your passport with you when you go to exchange the voucher for the actual pass. You have to choose the day your pass starts and for us, we started it immediately as we had exactly 7 days to use it in. This meant that we could use it on the Yamanote Line within Tokyo as well, which definitely saved us $$$.

We also got Suica cards (The Japanese T-Money Card equivalent) for all the inbetween journies and although you can return them to get your deposit back (500 JPY) we kept ours for future visits.

IMG_5564Once in Japan, unlike in Korea, Google Maps is your friend. If you aren’t using roaming on your cellphone (we had Raj’s work phone for that) then I’d say it is helpful to invest in a pre-paid sim card / hire a phone at the airport for the duration of your stay. We also made good use of our battery pack – a must on any day trip with an iPhone.

Our friend’s in Tokyo had prepared some useful information for any travellers to have and you can access it via this link:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=193Fu1dfQwLEGz260cla0ReWeC2CwaHvFSJG30X-axDo

Anyways, as I said, we packed in a lot during our week in Japan and below is the itinerary we ended up following (we started with a slightly different one, but adapted as needed). I’ll be writing a few posts about the trip, but combining the days so that they make more sense, not to mention limiting my ability to waffle on…

Thursday 5th May & Friday 6th May: Exploring Tokyo

Saturday 7th May: Day Trip to Nikko (and my first Shinkansen)

Sunday 8th May: Kyoto

Monday 9th May: Miyajima Island & Hiroshima

Tuesday 10th May: Yamazaki Distillery & Nara

Wednesday 11th May: Kyoto and return to Tokyo for our flight the next morning

For fear of boring the reader with too long a post, I’ll continue with Tales of Tokyo soon…

 

 

 

 

 

Tourists for a day or two (part 2) 

Day two started with a wander down to the Yeouido Spring Festival (Subway: National Assembly and follow the crowds. The festical consists of a street market – a variety of food to eat, food to take away, live music, crafting and the ever-present technology under a canopy of cherry blossom.  The weather wasn’t perfect when we went, but it was still beautiful to stroll through. The festival is in a U shape so starting at one end, you can walk right back round to the subway.

One of the nicest touches that I have seen at any festival was a stall where you could hire strollers, trikes for toddlers and women’s trainers – for those ladies who picked style over function and then realised that tottering around in those 3-inch heels was not conducive to a good time!

Next stop was Itaewon, again, mostly to do a bit of grocery shopping and we unwisely took a taxi from the festival to Itaewon. Traffic was horrendous and it took a lot longer than the subway, however I used the time to have a little nap and rest my feet given that we had more walking around to come later in the day.

Circumstance today meant that I was in a really bad mood post-Itaewon, which meant no notes or pictures taken at Deoksugung Palace, or as we wandered through Insadong, but I promise I will go back to both and make up for it another day!

Tourists for a day or two (part 1) 

Now that the weather is improving (slowly.. the nights are still jacket-worthy) we thought it would be a nice plan to spend a night in Seoul so that two full days of touristy activities could be completed.

Staying in one of the two business districts of Seoul meant that we were walking distance from the first point of interest – Gyeongbokung Palace (in Korean, the ‘kung’ at the end actually means Palace, so calling it Gyeongbokung Palace is somewhat redundant but anything else sounds strange in English). One of the two largest Palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokung is a must-see on your to-do list.

Tickets to enter the palace are 3,000 KWR per adult – there is a combination ticket as well, 10,000 KWR for four palaces and a shrine. I’m not sure which shrine and they wouldn’t let me buy this ticket at the Gyeongbokung ticket counter. I was in a bit of a hurry so didn’t push the matter. The combo ticket only permits entry once into each of the palaces, so do your research and figure out how to buy it! It is also worth visiting the websites of all the palaces at least a couple of days prior to your visit, as you can book access to some of the restricted areas of the palaces as well.

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There are English language tours taking place throughout the day too, so it is worth timing your visit according to the season – there aren’t tons of explanation boards around, so having someone share  history definitely adds something. You’ll see a lot of people in local dress (Hanbok) in the Palaces – these will just be visitors to the Palace like you or me. Wearing local dress gains you free entry to the Palace, so don’t make the mistake of some tourists of stopping these people for a photo – imagine how you would feel. However, the tourguides are happy to stop for a photo if you ask nicely!

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Here are a couple of interesting tidbits learnt on the tour – one reason that you will see so much Chinese Writing on all the old Palaces is that prior to 1443, Korean was only a spoken language and any writing was done using Chinese characters. The King developed the Hangeul characters to consist of 10 vowels and 14 consonants in the grounds of Gyeonbokung, to ensure that “even a stupid person could learn them in 10 days.”

Also, the Palace was entirely rebuilt in 1867 and with the rebuilding, came under floor heating – keeping Royal toes toasty for over a century!

If you leave the Palace through the North Gate, you can pop outside the grounds and see The Blue House – where the current President of South Korea lives. Re-entry into Palace grounds is possible as long as you’ve kept hold of your ticket.

Your palace ticket also gives you admittance to the Folklore museum, which we didn’t have time to visit this time.

Leaving the Palace through the main gate leads you directly onto Gwanghwamun Square, displaying a glorious statue of the King of Signs. The square symbolises the new direction of the country, towards humanity, openness and mutual  ticket you can gain admittance to the folklore museum as well (we didn’t have time)

When you come out of the main entrance you’ll immediately find Gwanghwamun square, with a glorious statue of the King of Signs -the square symbolising  the new direction of the country – towards humanity, openess and mutual respect 💖

Gwanghwamun is also the start of the hop on hop off city bus tour – we didn’t do it this weekend, but I have done it previously. It isn’t like the tours that you would go on in other cities – there are headsets on the bus and you get a brief history of the sights, but to actually catch a glimpse of the various sights, you have to get off the bus and continue on foot.

After a visit to the D-Tower and the BEST pizza we’ve eaten in Seoul (Big up Paulies…) we made our way over to Namsan for a cable car trip up the mountain.

The cable car costs 8,500 KWR for a round trip. It was super foggy, so the views weren’t great and in the tower, the ticket clerks (going up to the observation tower is a separate ticket) advised us not to go to the tower. Instead, we wandered around the Gift Shop – which was awesome. Nice qualtiy and interesting items – I’ll definitely be going back before I make a trip back to London! The queues to get down the by cable car were pretty long and we just made it onto one of the last cars. Getting a taxi from the cable car station back to the hotel was easy enough, but the non-metered taxis wanted to charge a huge mark up on the metered taxis, so be careful!

All in all, a successful day one in Seoul!