Fancy Dress in Bukchon Hanok Village

A trip around Bukchon Hanok Village is a peculiar experience. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be people, mainly young women, dressed in brightly coloured traditional Korean clothing being photographed in a variety of poses, in a variety of different locations. Around every corner individuals and groups were striking poses in doorways, alleyways and in front of historic buildings.

There are around 900 traditional houses, or hanok, in this area and it attracts a large number of tourists, domestic and foreign. The influx of tourists – over 600,000 foreign tourists alone each year – has resulted in lot of restaurants,  bars, tea houses and shops dotted throughout the area. It’s also resulted in numerous signs in different languages asking people to be quiet and considerate.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

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Korean tourists flock here to have their photos taken in costumes that can be rented in numerous shops around the area. It’s a strangely Korean thing to do, with the hot spots for photography signposted around the area. I’m not sure I understand the whole fancy dress thing, but people were having a lot of fun.

As befits an area that nestles between two of Seoul’s most illustrious royal palaces, Bukchon Hanok Village has a long history that dates back more than 600 years. Its location close to the royal court meant it was originally an area for the nobility and high-ranking officials in the government. Today, it forms one of the few remaining areas of traditional wooden houses in Seoul.

There is a route that can be followed, but just wandering aimlessly around the narrow winding streets is just as satisfying. I know this because I started following the route and got hopelessly lost. Some houses are open to the public and you can get a glimpse into a traditional Korean home; some lanes lead to viewing points above the rooftops, from where you can see how they’re built around a central courtyard, the grey tiles forming a perfect pattern.

It’s a picturesque place that merges the old and the new, not always harmoniously, making it a fascinating area to wander around. The traditional building methods are perfect for coping with the extreme cold of Korean winters, and the heat of summer. They are also remarkably robust, designed to withstand earthquakes.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

The day I visited there were plenty of tourists around, and the costume shops were doing a good trade. It was a hot day though, and walking up and down the area’s hills was hard going even without traditional clothing. After a couple of hours I ended my explorations, and my time in the city, drinking a Korean IPA at a cafe on the bustling Samcheong-gil, a street lined with restaurants and bars. It seemed a fitting end to a brilliant 48 hours in Seoul.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Historic Seoul, Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung Palaces

Amidst Seoul’s skyscrapers, business districts, high-tech industries, fashionable shopping and pulsating nightlife areas, the city’s streets hum with modernity in a way that’s hard to find in Europe. Spend even a short time here and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a city with its gaze fixed solely on the future. Yet Seoul has a surprising number of tranquil parks, historic temples and beautiful royal palaces, reflecting its more than 600-year history as the capital of Korea.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

The glorious, UNESCO World Heritage listed, Changdeokgung Palace, is generally considered the most important in Korea so, on my final day in the city, I set off to explore this wonderful place. Korean royal palaces are large, sprawling complexes that require time to explore. Thankfully the rain of the previous day had given way to blue skies, and I was able to walk through the expansive grounds concerned more about sunburn than getting soaked.

Constructed in the early 15th century, in line with the Korean architectural philosophy of the time, Changdeokgung was built to be in harmony with nature. It sits at the foot of Mount Baegaksan, one of the Guardian Mountains of Seoul, and the large grounds are beautifully landscaped. Walking through the main gate, which sits opposite a busy four-lane road, the tranquility of the palace is in sharp contrast to the surrounding city.

I’d expected it to be very busy – almost every historic site I’ve visited in Korea has had lots of tour groups – but, with the exception of some of the main buildings, I often found myself alone. In Seoul, that is not something you can say very often. I strolled through the complex, following the map I’d been given at the entrance, not realising that the site is home to two interconnected palaces: Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung.

I paid an additional entrance fee and set off through some woods to a pleasant lake before entering the grand square outside Changgyeonggung Palace. This area had far fewer people, and was more beautifully landscaped. A group of school children had just swept through in front of me, making lots of noise. As they left, silence descended and I had the whole place to myself. It was rather magical.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

There is a lot of history bound up in these two palaces, home to generations of Korean royalty. As you wander through the courtyards and peer into the wooden living quarters, it’s possible to feel a sense of the lives lived inside this a city within a city. The palaces haven’t always been so peaceful, they were repeatedly damaged by invading armies and, being constructed from wood, were vulnerable to fire.

The palaces burned to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592, but were rebuilt faithful to the original in 1609. Which was just in time for them to burn to the ground again in 1623. Changdeokgung remained a royal palace and seat of government well into the 19th century; while Changgyeonggung was home to the Emperor Yunghui, Korea’s last emperor. Deposed by the Japanese invasion and occupation of 1910, he lived here until his death in 1926.

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

As well as the royal palaces, there is Huwon or the “Secret Garden”, which can be visited only as part of a tour. The tour takes 90 minutes and I simply didn’t have time to do that and visit Bukchon Hanok Village before heading to the airport. I skipped the tour and wandered back through Changdeokgung on my way back into the city.

Fish Tales at Noryangjin fish market

Seoul’s largest and oldest seafood market, Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, is an extraordinary place. Amongst its avenues and stalls it’s possible to find a barely imaginable range of seafood: giant crabs are dwarfed by enormous squid, huge mounds of prawns sit alongside sea cucumbers. Rays, lobster, giant mussels, clams, snails, scallops, sea urchins and an array of fish varieties beyond my knowledge, spread out as far as the eye can see.

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

The market opened in 1927 and moved to its current location at Noryangjin in 1971. Earlier this year a brand new version of the market was opened next door to the old market amidst controversy and protests, and not just because it cost $455 million to build. Six months after the new building opened, hundreds of the original stall holders are still holding out in the old building amongst accusations of harassment.

Sadly, the writing is on the wall. The remaining stall holders are under pressure to move, and the restaurants that once cooked fish fresh from the market for visitors have all gone. The old building has far more character, the new facilities are better appointed and more hygienic, with rents to match. A redevelopment of the old market is planned, which will forever change the culture of the area.

Until the inevitable steam roller of modernity extinguishes the history of the old market, the main problem for tourists is knowing which Noryangjin to visit, and whether it’s worth going to both.

I arrived at the old market first and, after spending an entertaining hour or so wandering around the stalls, decided I’d probably seen enough fish for one day. Defying the reality of modern life, I skipped the new building. Stall holders in the old building were very friendly and, when asked, were more than happy for me to take photos. Several proudly posed with their fishy friends. It was a fun atmosphere.

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

In a city that is moving at a breakneck pace towards the future, it seems a shame that one of the connections to its past will be lost. It also means the end of a truly working class area of the city, the future of which is likely to be expensive apartments, boutique shops and over-priced coffee houses. Maybe, like in the Steve Earle song, Down Here Below, the stench of fish will remain:

“I saw Joe Mitchell’s ghost on a downtown ‘A’ train
He just rides on forever now that the Fulton fish market’s shut down
He said ‘they ain’t never gonna get that smell out of the water
I don’t give a damn how much of that new money they burn’.”

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Sexing it up at Seoul’s Love Museum

Korea is a fairly conservative country, definitely not a society that is particularly open about sex or sexuality. That seems a little strange given the amount of sexualised advertising you find across Seoul – not to mention K-Pop starlets – but it might explain the strange phenomenon that is the Love Museum. It’s such an odd experience, I’m not even sure where to start, except to say that I went with an open mind and left very confused.

If you’re easily offended, probably best to turn over now…

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The museum describes itself as “a sex themed interactive attraction, that offers visitors to explore the subject of sex in a light and enjoyable manner”. Advising would-be visitors that while they can take photos and touch the ‘exhibits’, having actual sex inside the museum is not permitted. That warning doesn’t stop a lot of simulated sex from happening, but I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere.

The museum has several theme areas, including Fun and Sexy, Femme Fatale, Erotic Garden, Dream House and Sexy in Life. It’s a bit like being inside an erotic Roy Lichtenstein painting that found its way into a ‘Hill’s Angels’ sketch on the Benny Hill Show, while taking experimental drugs. It really is that weird.

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Weird, definitely, but visitors to the Trickeye Love Museum have a lot of fun. There seems to be something liberating about being given ‘permission’ to loosen inhibitions and make a lot of smutty jokes. People are more than willing to throw themselves into the 3D scenes that create optical illusions, and which are perfect for selfies and sharing on social media.

Men and women pose between pairs of enormous breasts, lean through a window to cup the breast of an undressing woman, sit on the lap of an aroused Superman, become part of an erotic painting, and simulate sex in the kitchen. I’m not sure anyone is learning much about sex, but they are certainly expressing something about human sexuality. The message seems to be that people enjoy light-hearted titillation.

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The museum is found amongst a crush of streets in the youthful Seogyo-dong neighbourhood, close to Hongik University. It’s an area worth exploring, full of fabulous traditional Korean restaurants with low prices, trendy craft beer bars and lots of shopping opportunities. At night this becomes prime clubbing territory and on a Sunday morning there were a few bleary-eyed casualties from the previous night.

The streets were crowded the day I was there, despite the fact that it was raining heavily, and the lively atmosphere of the streets was replicated in the Love Museum. If you want to participate in one of Seoul’s odder experiences, this is the place to come. As the museum itself says, “There is no reason to be shy here!”

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The Kimchi Express, 48 hours in Seoul

It was the traditional breakfast of thick rice soup with dried shrimp, roasted seaweed, pickled garlic, raw onion and beef with sliced raw chilli peppers, that was the first clue that I was somewhere that most definitely was no longer Kansas. This assault on my tastebuds so early in the morning was proof that, after 11 unpleasant hours in the air, I was finally in Seoul.

It’s barely possible to scratch the surface of Seoul in 48 hours. Especially when it’s pouring down with rain for the first 24 hours and jet lag is doing peculiar things to your sense of reality. This city of over ten million people is packed with fascinating areas to explore, and I’ve wanted to visit ever since my first trip to Korea last year. I was on my way to Australia so breaking the journey, even for 48 hours, seemed like a good idea.

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

There was a time when tourism largely ignored Seoul, the northerly capital of the southern, democratic half of the Korean Peninsular. That’s changing rapidly as rumours of the delights of the city leak out to the wider world. Last year over 16 million foreign tourists visited. That number seems likely to keep rising as Korean culture grows in popularity and travellers relate their tales of this fun, cultured and friendly city.

I arrived at Incheon International Airport in the middle of the afternoon. It’s an efficient airport and I was quickly on a train towards Seoul Station, the main railway hub in the city. A confusing transit to another line involved a long underground walk but I eventually got a metro train to my final destination, Jongno-ju, a youthful and vibrant area that mixes culture and nightlife in equal measures.

I was staying amongst a maze of small streets that are home to lots of restaurants, bars and Love Hotels. Although it sounds a bit dubious, it’s perfectly normal to stay in Love Hotels. Mine was brilliant. Hotel The Designers has individually themed suites, taking inspiration from anything from the night sky to children’s stories. I ended up staying in the Alice in Wonderland suite and, with the jet lag, I felt like I’d slipped down the rabbit hole.

I’d have happily collapsed onto the bed and slept for a few hours but, with only two days at my disposal, I decided to hit the streets and explore my new neighbourhood. Besides, it was Saturday night, the Mad Hatter was giving me a hard stare, and Alice was nowhere to be seen. It turned out Alice was in the shower, but I only discovered that the following morning.

On the streets, night had fallen and the world seemed to be bathed in neon light. Everywhere was busy with people enjoying a Saturday night out, and everything was a disconcerting mix of the ultra-modern and traditional. As I wandered around in a bit of a daze, I bumped into two university students who wanted to practice their English. We had a drink and they gave me some good suggestions for things to do and places not to miss.

Korean’s enjoy a night out, especially one involving a lot of alcohol, and the Jongno-ju district is a hotspot of nightlife. The whole place is crammed with bars that are open late and buzz with humanity having fun. I found my way to a brewpub – a bit of a craze in Seoul – where I sampled Korean sausages washed down with craft beer. Delicious. Refreshed, I headed back out onto the streets to take the pulse of downtown Seoul.

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

The pace of life here is ferocious and, as I wandered aimlessly amidst the partying chaos, the night was flying past. I popped into another craft beer pub and, while sipping a Korean porter, realised it was 2am. The jet lag suddenly kicked in. I managed a small snack from a street stall near the hotel before happily slipping into unconciousness in Wonderland.