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

 

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!

 

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!

 

Itaewon

Just a quick one today about the joys of Itaewon.

Itaewon is on line 6 of the Seoul subway and a major hub for all foreigners in and around Seoul. There are lots of international restaurants – with an emphasis on Turkish (ed. meaning lots and lots of Baklava) – for when you need a dose of home and plenty of English speaking tourists around. Just wandering through the streets Raj and I were given advice on restaurants by passers-by and it was nice to hear another English accent.

One of the best thing about Itaewon is the foreign food markets – Mexican, Indian, Italian, Turkish … all kinds of yum. The three markets that we went to are around the corner from each other and I’ve plotted them on the below map. It is a bit of a trek from Songdo into Seoul just to buy one or two items, so plan ahead and get a little shopping trolley on wheels (or use a backpack, which is what we did). It is worth checking out prices for the same items in each of the markets – it can save you a few thousand won which all adds up when it comes to food shopping. Itaewon is also a good place to buy souvenirs but I’m told there are better markets with less of a marked up price – will let you know when I find them.

I’d recommend getting into Seoul early on in the day for any sightseeing/exploring that you want to do, and making Itaewon your last stop on the way back to Songdo – do your shopping, have a bite to eat and have a little snooze on the bus home.

I’m away for the next couple of weeks but when I come back I’ll have updates on Incheon – where you can find the fruit and vegetable market – and the fun that is apartment hunting to share! Happy Seollal (Korean lunar New Year) in the meantime!

International Food Shopping

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Raj’s office gave every employee a HUGE box of sweets to celebrate the new year with.. yummy!