Stuff Yourself At These Dining Spots Just Across the Causeway in Johor Bahru

paiks-pan

Nowadays, I travel overseas so often, such that my passport seems to be getting more stamps than before haha. But well, before you think I’ve “struck it rich”, no! Because of the strong Singapore $ versus Malaysia Ringgit this past 1 year + I stay relatively near to the Woodlands Checkpoint, Johor Bahru (JB) has become my new “town area”, where I can shop & dine like a “queen”!

As you may already know, I don’t drive, so JB City Square & Komtar JBCC, the 2 shopping malls just across the causeway are places I frequent for my JB day trips. There’s a variety of food options to choose from, even if you don’t wish to venture out of the area by cab/bus etc. Here’s a list of the worthy dining spots in these 2 shopping malls, & I promise they won’t burn big holes in your wallet!

Komtar JBCC

1. 东 Azuma Japanese Restaurant

Address: Lot 202C, Komtar JBCC, Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Johor Bahru City Centre, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-300 5038
Open: 1000 – 2200 hrs daily

Azuma Japanese restaurant

After clearing the JB customs, you will take the overhead bridge to get to JB City Square & Komtar JBCC is just on its right side. Get into the mall through the entrance on the right of Starbucks Coffee & take the escalator up 1 level. You will see Azuma Japanese restaurant shortly upon reaching level 2.

I have not tried the typical Japanese food like sashimi, udon etc in this restaurant. Instead it was a friend who recommended me to try the Azuma Thousand Layer Mini Sushi Hamburger (MYR30++/ S$10++, bottom left of above pic) as well as the Azuma Pizza (MYR37.50++/ S$12.50++, bottom right of above pic). I love the tasty & unique Mini Sushi Hamburger – deep fried sushi rice layered with assorted raw fish & special sauce, at least this is a dish that’s hard to find elsewhere! The pizza is also interesting, using handmade sushi rice cracker as the pizza base with a spicy sauce, & topped with salmon, eel & shrimp roe. Check them out at Azuma for some tasty fusion Japanese-Western cuisine the next time you go shopping in JB!

2. Arashi Shabu Shabu

Address: Lot 215 & 216, Level 2, Komtar JBCC, Johor Bahru City Centre, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-300 5058
Open: 1000 – 2200 hrs daily

The Komtar JBCC outlet

The Komtar JBCC outlet

Combo, vegetarian & chicken shabu shabu sets with cold beverages

Combo, vegetarian & chicken shabu shabu sets with cold beverages

Arashi Shabu Shabu is a modern concept Japanese hotpot restaurant that has 6 outlets in JB & 1 outlet in Penang. I have been to the outlets at KSL City & Komtar JBCC, & there is also 1 in JB City Square level 1 (but I haven’t been there). Vegetarians will be pleased to know that the restaurant has a vegetarian shabu shabu menu as well.

There are 10 types of soup broth you can choose from, including tomyam, miso, milk broth etc. You can also have either rice, noodles or rice vermicelli to go with your shabu shabu. In addition, there is a wide variety of special sauces you can choose from, available free flow at the sauce buffet table. Personally, I like the Arashi special sauce that is a little spicy, adding more kick to your meal. Guess the price of this delectable meal? Price ranges from MYR26.90++ (S$9++) to MYR32.90++ (S$11++) for 1 hotpot. Definitely gives you a bang for your buck!

JB City Square

3. Paik’s Pan Sizzling Korean Chicken 백철판

Address: MF-08 & 09, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Open: 1100 – 2100 hrs daily

Paik's Pan

So much for Japanese food, let’s move to JB City Square for some other cuisines, starting with yummy Korean chicken on a sizzling hot pan – dakgalbi (닭갈비)! This restaurant, only opened since Dec 2015, is located on the other end of level 3 (the level you first arrive if you are walking over from the JB customs) from Uniqlo/ Old Town White Coffee.

Korean dakgalbi is one of my favourite Korean dishes but it’s impossible to eat this alone because a minimum of 2 servings per order is required. So I finally had a chance to tuck into this mouth-watering dish at Paik’s Pan only after my Korea spring holidays. While the dakgalbi here cannot match the exact standards of that in Korea (which I’m prepared for), it’s still a yummy dish to tuck into, & value for $ too compared to the price you pay in Singapore! We ordered a portion each of the spicy dakgalbi (MYR30.80++/S$10.30++) + the spicy dakgalbi with cheese (MYR38.80++/S$12.90++) & as you can see from the pic above, it’s a large portion that 2 of us struggled to finish. The final bill after taxes was MYR79.70 (S$26.60) for 2 pax. At such price, you probably only get 1 person’s serving (& definitely not as generous portion as this)!😉

4. Oleg by gCafe

Address: Lot M3-04, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-362 1561
Open: 1000 – 2200 hrs daily

Oleg by gCafe

If you know the JB cafe scene well, you would have heard of Mount Austin where many cafe hoppers flock to. Oleg by gCafe is the brainchild of gCafe Mount Austin. Located somewhere in the middle of level 3 next to Seoul Garden, this 2-month old cafe opened since May 2016 specialises in charcoal burgers, and one of its signature sauces to go with the burger is the curry sauce.

Currently, there is a daily promotion set meal that started from 16 July 2016, with a daily favourite burger set meal (comes with fries and iced lemon tea) priced at MYR10.90+ (S$3.60+) only! I happened to be there on a Thursday & so ordered the chicken charcoal burger with curry sauce set meal for dinner takeaway because I had to catch the KTM Shuttle Tebrau home. Although it was almost 2 hours later before I ate the set meal, other than the slightly soggy bun, the burger still tasted great. My chicken patty was “soaked” in the flavourful spicy curry sauce, & it was a big burger that left me burping after finishing the meal. Try this the next time if you want yummy burgers injected with interesting local flavours!

5. Kimdo BBQ

Address: J3-19B, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 1-2759 8838
Open: not sure of exact opening time, but it closes at 2200 hrs daily

Kimdo BBQ

Kimdo BBQ

Kimdo BBQ is just a few stores away from the escalator that connects JB City Square to JB Sentral/ Customs, on the left side of the path as you walk. As its name suggests, it specialises in all BBQ food items on skewers, & only barbecued upon customer order. Its signature BBQ item is the Single Bone BBQ Chicken Wings (MYR1.50/ S$0.50 per skewer). Besides BBQ food, it also serves fresh Bualonglong Juice mixed with Plum, which is supposed to lower your cholesterol & detox your body. But I never tried it before as I personally feel the Bualonglong has a weird taste.😛 I’ve tried quite a few of their BBQ items on several occasions & so far I’ve not been disappointed. But don’t say I didn’t warn you, be prepared for long queues especially on weekends & public holidays!

6. Miyakori Coffee

Address: Lot J5-10, Level 5, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Open: 1000 hrs, not sure of closing time

A brightly lit Miyakori Coffee cafe with the cute bear as its logo

A brightly lit Miyakori Coffee cafe with the cute bear as its logo

Finally my wish to have more cool cafes within JB City Square has been answered! Opened in Dec 2015, this Miyakori Coffee outlet is its 2nd one after the success of its flagship cafe at Bukit Indah. Unlike the Bukit Indah outlet, this outlet doesn’t serve mains, only beverages & cakes are found here. I 1st passed by this brightly lit cafe with a cute bear logo on level 5 while going up to watch a movie at the cinema & was attracted by its decor.

Recently, I checked it out in the late morning where there were no customers yet. Attracted by the pretty Sakura theme menu, I ordered a Sakura Chiffon Cake (MYR11.50/ S$3.80) & a Sakura Hot Latte (MYR13.50/ S$4.50) as seen in above pic. While I was prepared for the use of Styrofoam cups for my beverage, I was still a bit disappointed when it was served, especially when there wasn’t even any cute latte art on my beverage.😦 Fortunately the Sakura Hot Latte was quite fragrant, like rose milk. The Sakura Chiffon Cake was soft & fluffy, though a tad expensive just for a slice of chiffon cake by Malaysian standards. But still, this cafe is worth a visit for its sleek decor, & I heard their coffee is good too!

7. Hui Lau Shan 许留山

Address: J3-20, Level 3, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 7-2072 868
Open: 1000 to 2200 hrs daily

The famous Hong Kong dessert shop - Hui Lau Shan

The famous Hong Kong dessert shop – Hui Lau Shan

I think I visited this outlet a few years ago. Didn’t visit in the past 1 year not because it’s no good, but because there’s just too many food choices so I always ended up with no room for desserts here. Hui Lau Shan’s signature dessert gotta be its mango dessert items. If you are a mango lover & can’t be in Hong Kong for this highly acclaimed dessert for whatever reasons, satisfy your craving here! The prices are also quite affordable, from about MYR9 (S$3) for a bowl of sweet mango dessert!

8. Humble Beginnings

Address: J6-05, Level 6, 106 – 108 Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Phone: +60 1-2635 8035
Open: 1200 to 2200 hrs daily

I had introduced this cafe 1 year ago in my Cafe-Hop series. It is a cafe specialising in cakes, opened since 2013, in particular mille crepe cakes. Price wise, a slice of cake costs MYR10.90 (S$3.60) & beverages start from MYR6.90 (S$2.30). You can chill at this cafe after a movie at the swanky cineplex on the same floor.😉

Hope the list above provides you with some ideas on what you can stuff yourself with right after crossing the causeway to JB. Dining in shopping malls aren’t as boring & expensive as you think right? Enjoy!

6 Things I Wished I Knew Before Holidaying in Korea (April 2016)

KT-olleh

Finally, I’ve completed writing about my recent Spring holiday in Korea after returning home almost 2 months.😛 It’s been quite a while since I last enjoyed any overseas holiday of more than 1 week long, & also about 5 years since I last visited the Land of Morning Calm. Here’s a recap of my 11-day adventure (Seoul-Andong-Gyeongju-Busan-Suwon-Seoul):

Day 1 Singapore-Incheon-Seoul:

Early morning arrival at Incheon International Airport. Took the 45-min Airport Railroad Express (AREX) to downtown Seoul. Booked an 1-night accommodation via Airbnb near Seoul Station. Enjoyed a scrumptious Korean dakgalbi lunch with friend in Hongdae (홍대) before heading to Yeouido for the rest of the day.

Day 2 Seoul-Andong-Gyeongju:

Start of a self-drive weekend out with friends as we drove down southeast to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Andong – Hahoe Folk Village (안동 하회마을). Had a delectable Andong Jjimdak (안동찜닭) lunch in the Andong Gu Market. Following, continued our drive to the historical Gyeongju city, to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Gyeongju Yangdong Village (경주 양동마을). After that, checked in to a traditional Hanok for the night at Lucky Won Guest House. Gyeongju becomes prettier as it gets dark, so of course we ventured out to immerse ourselves in its beauty in the Eastern Gyeongju Historic Area too.

Day 3 Gyeongju-Busan:

Another Korean history day as we set out to Bulguksa Temple (불국사) & Seokguram Grotto (석굴암 석굴) in the east. Thereafter, we also checked out the Gyeongju National Museum (국립경주박물관), Oreung Royal Tombs (오릉) & Poseokjeong Pavilion (포석정지) back in the city centre. Time to say goodbye with my friends as I proceeded to Busan via KTX. Checked in to Hotel Foret Busan Station, my lovely “home” for 3 nights. Last activity of the rainy day was to explore Jagalchi Market (자갈치시장) & BIFF Square Street Food Market near Jalgachi Station.

Day 4 Busan:

A long day touring eastern Busan, starting from the Haeundae Station area where Haeundae Market (해운대시장), Haeundae Beach (해운대해수욕장) & the famous Korean dessert cafe Sulbing can be found. Next, I also visited the beautiful Haedong Yonggung Temple (해동 용궁사) by the sea, before moving to the quieter Gwangalli Beach (관안리해수욕장) for a lovely evening.

Day 5 Busan:

Perfect weather to head to Gamcheon Cultural Village (감천문화마을) for its beautiful scenery. Following, I explored the Yongdusan-Jagalchi Sightseeing Special Zone of Busan. My last night in Busan was spent near my hotel, at the Choryang Ibagu-gil (초량이바구길) & Choryang Ibagu Night Market (초량이바구야시장) where an important part of the city’s history lies.

Day 6 Busan-Suwon:

Time flew, I was already in the middle of the 11-day trip! Before leaving Busan for Suwon, I had a quick tour of Yeongdo-gu – home to Busan’s first connecting bridge & famous fish cake (어묵). Thereafter, took a 2 hr 44 min ride on the KTX back north to Suwon in Gyeonggi-do. Checked in to Benikea New Suwon Tourist Hotel for the night & then headed out for early dinner at the nearby Suwon Chicken Street (수원통닭거리). Attempted to climb a bit of the Hwaseong Fortress (수원화성) & traditional markets in the evening.

Day 7 Suwon-Seoul:

After checking out of hotel, revisited the Hwaseong Fortress by taking the Hwaseong Trolley (화성열차). Next, I made my way down the mountain to Hwaseong Haenggung (화성행궁) & also explored mini-Insadong in Suwon – the Gongbang Street (공방거리) for unique handicrafts. Of course, I had to tuck into another chicken feast at the famous Suwon Chicken Street before leaving the city. Arrived in Seoul & was picked up by my Airbnb host to check into Liga Apartment for my last 4 nights in Korea. Met up with my long-time-no-see Sogang University classmate in Hongdae & had fun reminiscing the good old days by visiting the campus!

Day 8 Seoul:

This was the day I broke my own steps record, as I was on the road (walking) most of the time from 11 am to 10 pm in downtown Seoul (중로)! Started the day with a tour around Deoksugung Palace (덕수궁), followed by a short bus ride to the arty neighbourhood of Buam-dong (부암동). After that, I also visited another charming artistic neighbourhood – Samcheong-dong (삼청동). Thereafter, I moved eastwards to Ihwa-dong Mural Village (이화동 벽화마을), before my last stop of the day in Dongdaemun (동대문) area.

Day 9 Seoul-Paju-Seoul:

This was probably 1 of the more relaxing days throughout my holiday, because I joined a DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour. After the tour, I visited Myeongdong (명동) as it was nearby to the tour drop-off point. Again, I went to Dongdaemun because I wasn’t satisfied with leaving empty-handed the night before haha.

Day 10 Seoul:

An informative tour at Changgyeonggung Palace (창경궁) to check out the cherry blossoms after an early lunch with friend at Gwangjang Market (광장시장). We also strolled to Insadong for afternoon tea before she left for the day, while I did some shopping at Myeongdong.

Day 11 Seoul-Incheon-Singapore:

Not much time left to explore the capital, but I managed to squeeze in a morning tea at my favourite O’Sulloc Tea House & some final quick shopping of beauty products in Myeongdong. Holiday time always flies & I had to say goodbye to Seoul already!

Before the holiday, I thought it shouldn’t be an uphill task to be travelling alone (for most of the days) around Korea, given that I can somewhat understand the language + I lived in Seoul before. But I wished I had known about all these hard truths before I actually stepped into Kimchi-land!

1. The Expensive (& Restrictive) Prepaid Data SIM Card

Since I’d be mostly travelling alone in Korea, I thought it’s essential for me to get a prepaid SIM card with data & a local phone number, for ease of communication/ navigating around. Numerous attempts to research on which mobile network offers the most value-for-money prepaid travellers’ SIM card package were kinda futile because most reviews were focused on just mobile Wi-Fi, i.e. no local phone number.😦 Anyway, I sort of gathered that the KT network seems to be the better 1 out of the lot (although I couldn’t find its exact pricing details because its website forever says “service in preparation” -_-) & noted where I could get 1 at Incheon International Airport. Little did I know I was in for a shock at the KT Olleh counter between exit 6 & 7 on level 1 arrival hall.

KT Olleh offers 3 types of prepaid SIM cards with different durations: 5 days (KRW22,000), 10 days (KRW33,000) & 30 days (KRW44,000). All come with unlimited data & free incoming calls/ sms. Outgoing calls/ sms are not included in the pack. The staff asked me for my specific day of departure, & then advised me to buy the 30-day pack. I was puzzled & asked if I could get the 10-day pack instead (thinking my last day I may not really need it). Sadly, she told me it’s not possible, as the SIM card is only for rental, meaning I had to return it on my departure day at the airport & pay any outstanding amount (due to outgoing calls). What? I’ve used quite a number of prepaid SIM cards overseas, but this was the 1st time I had to return a prepaid SIM card! Just because of 1 extra day, I had to pay KRW11,000 (S$13.20) more.😦

This wasn’t the end of my sad finding, because after I bought the prepaid SIM card, the staff tried to setup my phone for a long time, but it just couldn’t connect to the network. Eventually, we both realised it was because I was carrying a dual-SIM mobile, but unfortunately the Korea mobile network doesn’t allow the use of dual-SIM phones!😦 I had no other choice except to rent a Samsung Galaxy R phone (no other phone choices) from them. The rental of this phone was at KRW1,100 per day, so that meant an additional KRW12,100 (S$14.50) added to my bill, for such a small-screen smartphone.😦 The total bill I spent on the mobile network in the end was a whopping KRW56,100 (S$67). Ironically, that’s almost double the cost of my Telstra prepaid SIM card for my 11-day Australia holiday back in May 2014, when Australia is supposedly more expensive!

Lesson learnt: next time if I visit Korea & need a prepaid SIM card again, I’ll plan the length of my trip such that I maximise the duration of the prepaid SIM pack + I won’t bring dual-SIM phone along anymore!😛

The KT Olleh rental Samsung Galaxy R phone + casing

The KT Olleh rental Samsung Galaxy R phone + casing

2. Be prepared to carry your luggage up the big steps & wide gap between platform & KTX

See the wide gap between platform & train, as well as the tall steps to get on the train

See the wide gap between platform & train, as well as the height of the 1st step to get on the train

It was a challenge for the 3 occasions when I had to travel from 1 city to the other via the Korea Train eXpress (KTX) / train. Because carrying my 26-inch luggage up & down the train was a tiring task. Not only was the gap between the platform & the train wide, I also had to make sure I balance well with a luggage in tow while climbing up the big & tall steps to get onto the train. Furthermore, there isn’t much luggage storage space in the train, only a small section in between carriages, & sometimes you may need to lift it up again on the upper storage space if others have placed theirs on the 1st deck.

Lesson learnt: It’s best to just bring a small luggage or backpack if possible! Otherwise have to be prepared to train some muscles.😛

3. Google Maps not of great help when it comes to finding your directions in Korea

I’m a supporter of Google Maps whenever I need to navigate my way around in some foreign place. But it seems that this app wasn’t that helpful to me throughout the trip, particularly when I was out of Seoul. Many times, the suggestions Google Maps gave to get from point A to point B were confusing & contradicted what the locals told me. I realised it’s because there are many small alleys in Korea that the app didn’t register. The situation improved when I was in Seoul, maybe because the capital is already very structured & developed so it’s easier for Google Maps to build a comprehensive guide for the city.

Lesson learnt: I’ll download Daum or Naver Maps next time when travelling in Korea for better navigation as these are developed by the Koreans. Who else know the country better than the locals, isn’t it?

4. T-Money card can’t be used on Busan transport network

The Cashbee card (top) & T-money card

The Cashbee card (top) & T-money card

In case you don’t already know, T-money card is a stored-value card that you can use to pay for transport in addition to using it for payment in convenience stores etc. My T-money card has been my good Korea travelling companion since 2005. A few months ago, I got a complimentary Cashbee card, thanks to Korea Tourism Organisation, who told us that it works in the same way as the T-money. Fortunately, I brought it along with my T-money for this trip. When I was in Busan, I 1st tried to use my T-money card to board the subway but was denied entry. Then I found out from the station officer that it wasn’t accepted & she suggested me to use Cashbee instead. I’m puzzled why this happened as the KTO website claims it’s acceptable in most Korean cities: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/TR/TR_EN_5_4.jsp. In any case, you may want to take note if you are planning to use public transport out of Seoul.

Lesson learnt: Just bring out all the stored-value cards I have wherever I go in Korea, instead of keeping 1 in the hotel & create unnecessary hassle for myself again.😛

5. Korean beauty stores not as generous in giving out plenty of samples these days

OK, call me a cheapo, but I’ve been pampered by the Korean beauty stores in the past, which would hand you some door gifts to welcome you into the shop. They would also pour lots of samples into your bag of purchase upon payment at the counter. So I really miss the “good old days” at the Korean beauty stores now. Maybe they’re enjoying brisk business due to the K-wave so don’t wanna waste money on dishing out freebies…

Nowadays, most of them don’t bother giving you even a sheet of facial mask or small sample as a welcome gift. When you make your purchase at the counter, they’ll just pull out 1 small sample item as a gift to you. Some, like Skin Food, don’t even bother to give you any even if you buy their products.😦 Only Aritaum was somehow more generous than the others in dishing out substantial freebies, or maybe because the total value of my purchase was almost KRW150,000 (S$180).

Lesson learnt: Just treat the samples as a bonus without expecting them in future, so as to minimise the “unhappiness” haha. Otherwise just consolidate my purchase at the few more generous beauty brands!😉

6. The cumbersome tax refund service

Foreigners who buy at least KRW30,000 worth of goods from tax refund participating establishments are eligible to receive a refund for the value added tax (VAT) as well as individual consumption tax (ICT) on the purchased items they will take out of the country. There are 3 tax refund brands – Global Blue, Global Tax Free & KT Tourist Reward in Korea. You can only keep your fingers crossed which brand the participating establishment you bought from belongs to.

I had the chance to experience the different service from Global Blue (purchase from Tony Moly) & KT Tourist Reward (purchase from Aritaum). The former required me to either go to the tax refund counter at the airport or at designated branches downtown. I was happy to hear that they have a booth in Myeongdong, so made my way there after getting the form filled by Tony Moly. At the counter, I was asked for my credit card to charge a refundable security deposit (provided I return a portion of the form at the airport). To my dismay, my Standard Chartered Bonusaver credit card was rejected, because it wasn’t embossed & their machine couldn’t accept such cards. Only embossed credit cards are accepted. She suggested I go to the airport counter for the tax refund instead as there isn’t any need for security deposit at the airport. See what I mean for how these 2 cards look in the image below:

The Standard Chartered credit card is not embossed, i.e. numbers/ characters don't pop out = NOT accepted. Only cards like the one below can be accepted

The Standard Chartered credit card is not embossed, i.e. numbers/ characters don’t pop out = NOT accepted. Only cards like the one below can be accepted

For my tax refund at Aritaum, all I had to do after paying, was to head to the refund counter on a higher level in the shop to get the refund processed right away. Although KT Tourist Reward also needed my credit card to charge a refundable security deposit, there wasn’t any problem with using my non-embossed credit card. Pleased with the smooth tax refund transaction here!😉

On the other hand, I really almost headed to the Global Blue tax refund counter at airport, but thankful I didn’t need to in the end. Luckily I went to the Myeongdong branch on my last day with an embossed credit card (that I didn’t bring on the day of my 1st attempt) to complete the tax refund, because the queue for tax refund at the airport was horrendously long! Do take note of this if you need to do tax refund in Korea!

You may think, just buy at the duty free shops to avoid the hassle of going through tax refunds. Well, I thought so too, until I went to the Lotte Duty Free Shop in Myeongdong & was shocked to see so many tourists there with big trolley luggage to bring their “loot” back. It’s like a fish market where you gotta fight for your desired products in there. Not sure if this is really the best shopping environment to you, but it’s certainly not for me!

Lesson learnt: Bring along “normal” embossed credit card(s) if you want an easier time to claim your tax refund downtown, to save the hassle of joining long queues at the airport! Also don’t bother trying to squeeze through the massive crowds at Duty Free outlets unless you’ve nothing better to do.😛

To conclude, I guess I overestimated my ability to roam freely in Korea. Afterall, I’ve only stayed in the developed capital on my own before. As for the other Korean cities, I’ve only traveled with tour groups in the past where I could depend on others. Times have changed so it’s probably only natural to see so many changes in the country as well. I shall take note of the above for future trips to Kimchi-land. Hope these will help you in future too!😉

Exploring Changgyeonggung Palace (창경궁) – A Uniquely Designed Royal Palace in Seoul

palace-cherry-blossom

Located in the city centre of Seoul, Changgyeonggung Palace (창경궁) is next to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Changdeokgung Palace (창덕궁) & collectively known as the East Palaces (동궐), because of their geographical location. Although it is so close to the famous site, I have never visited this secondary palace for queens & the king’s father before. It is also not a common destination for tour groups to head to. When I read that this is 1 of the prime spots for viewing cherry blossoms in Seoul, it immediately went into my itinerary, since chasing after cherry blossoms was my main motive for this trip.🙂

My friend & I had a filling lunch at the country’s oldest traditional market – Gwangjang Market near Jogno 5-ga Station (종로5가역, Line 1) so she suggested we take a walk down Changgyeonggung-ro (창경궁로) to the palace. It took us about half an hour to arrive at the palace main entrance – the Honghwa Gate (홍화문), great breezy stroll on a sunny spring day. If you’re taking the subway, the nearest station is Anguk Station (안국역, Line 3), closest to exit 3. You’ll pass by Changdeokgung Palace before arriving at Changgyeonggung Palace.

Changgyeonggung 1

Visitors can purchase admission ticket at KRW1,000 per adult (S$1.20) & KRW500 per child/teenager aged 7 to 18 years old at the ticket counter in front of Honghwa Gate. Just like Changdeokgung Palace & Deoksugung Palace, it is closed every Monday. Since it is just next to Changdeokgung Palace, a combined tour of both palaces is possible but separate ticket must be purchased at Hamyang Gate. If you are game on exploring the royal palaces of Korea, you can also purchase an integrated admission ticket at KRW10,000 (S$12) so that you can access the 4 palaces – Changdeokgung Palace (including Huwon, Secret Garden), Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace & Gyeongbokgung Palace, as well as the Jongmyo Shrine.

As the 3rd palace to be built in Joseon Dynasty, after Gyeongbokgung Palace & Changdeokgung Palace, it was originally meant to be the residence of 3 queen dowagers due to a lack of living space at Changdeokgung, not as a seat of government.

Upon passing the main gate, there is the Okcheongyo Bridge, an arch bridge over a pond, a typical design of the Joseon Dynasty palaces. Cross the Bridge & pass the Myeongjeong Gate (명정문), is Myeonjeongjeon (명정전) – the oldest office of the king during the Joseon Dynasty. Unlike other Joseon Dynasty palaces that were built according to strict royal principles regarding design featuring a north-south orientation, Honghwa Gate, Myeongjeong Gate, Myeongjeongjeon & the throne hall all face Mt. Naksan to the east. This more liberal design in an east-west orientation was common during the Goryeo Dynasty. However, the major residential buildings & other administrative hall still face the south.

Furthermore, there are only a few small halls in this palace with a non-specific layout. Buildings were positioned according to the topography & not strictly aligned in a particular direction like Gyeongbokgung Palace. In addition, the residential “inner” halls are bigger & more elaborate than the administrative “outer” halls as the compound was originally intended for residential use. In case you are getting bored with the hard facts, see below for some photos I took of this uniquely designed palace.

Changgyeonggung 2

Haminjeong was where banquets were held and where the king received high performing civil and military officials at the palace

Haminjeong (하민정) was where banquets were held & where the king received high performing civil and military officials at the palace

Vast spaces between halls planted with towering trees

Vast spaces between halls planted with towering trees to beautify the compound

Guess what? I had a special tour experience in this palace, thanks to my Korean friend. As she’s very interested in history, when we entered the palace compounds & realised that a Korean guided tour had just started at the Myeongjeongjeon, we joined the free tour. I never knew I would be able to join in & listen to a full Korean speaking guided tour in the palace without the guide doubting my listening ability 1 day. Afterall, I only joined either English or Chinese guided palace tours in my previous visits to Gyeongbokgung & Changdeokgung. What surprised myself more was I could comprehend 60 to 70% of what the guide was talking about (although I don’t really remember the contents now until I read the English information brochure again haha). But oops… I must admit my attention span for history tours is not very long generally.😛 I got restless halfway through the 1-hour guided tour & that was when I needed more “translation service” from my friend haha. Fortunately, I “woke up” as we approached the Tongmyeongjeon (통명전) – the main hall in the inner court built in 1484 that served as the residential quarters for the king & queen at the palace. We walked up the stones past Tongmyeongjeon to Jagyeongjeon (자경전), an elevated spot where we could get a beautiful view of the palace compound.

The biggest hall in the palace - Tongmyeongjeon

The biggest hall in the palace – Tongmyeongjeon

Shortly after, we were brought to Chundangji Area (춘당지 일원), now considered the rear garden of the palace with pretty cherry blossom trees all around! This was where our comprehensive guided tour ended & we were free to roam around within the palace. I must salute the friendly tour guide for her professional service, especially when she’s just a volunteer guide who conducts such informative tours out of pure interest for Korean history!

Romance in a beautiful historical palace

Romance in a beautiful historical palace

The Octagonal Seven-story Stone Pagoda, Treasure #1119

The Octagonal Seven-story Stone Pagoda, Treasure #1119 that can be found in the Chundangji Area

Changgyeonggung 4

When Changgyeonggung Palace was 1st built, there was no garden to call its own & the residents shared the garden behind Changdeokgung Palace (the renowned Huwon Secret Garden with restricted access to visitors), as the 2 compounds were directly connected. The current Chundangji used to be 11 rice paddies on royal farmland, where the king personally plowed to serve as an example. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Japanese Colonial government turned it into a pond with little ships floating on it, as well as established a zoo & botanical garden here. After the Japanese administration left, Chundangji pond was reconfigured according to the traditional style in 1986. So now this area has become a popular cherry blossom viewing spot in spring.🙂

After snapping photos of the lovely pond, we proceeded to Korea’s 1st modern conservatory – the Great Greenhouse, Daeonsil, an enclosed botanical garden built in 1909. The design of the greenhouse, which features pointed arches and window frames, is based on the design of The Crystal Palace in London, England. At the time of construction, it was the biggest conservatory in Asia, with exhibitions of wild flowers, rare & native plants. In 2004, it was designated as registered cultural heritage.

Changgyeonggung 5

Since it is a greenhouse, you’ve been warned that it may get a bit too warm & stuffy for your comfort, particularly when it gets crowded. But we spotted many one-of-a-kind flowers & plants, great place to visit for those with green fingers. But before you want to hurry down to this palace to check out this iconic building, please be patient & wait for it to reopen its doors to visitors, as it is currently closed for maintenance work till November 2017 (scheduled). Glad that I made it in time before it closed from 17 May 2016!😉

If you have more time & love exploring historical buildings/ palaces, I highly recommend you to also visit Changdeokgung Palace next door. Why? Because even a layman like me who has short attention span for history stuff finds the latter a mesmerizing beauty (especially in autumn) & has visited twice. If you can, try booking the 90-min Huwon Secret Garden guided tour at http://eng.cdg.go.kr/reservation/reserv_01.htm as tickets for this popular attraction sell out fast!

Can’t Leave Seoul Without Visiting the Trendsetting Myeongdong

myeongdong-sulbing

Technically speaking, I’m not someone who follows the latest trends closely, but I do make it a point to visit Myeongdong (명동) whenever I’m in Seoul, because it’s just so vibrant & bustling with activities all the time. Needless to say, I made sure there’s time for Myeongdong for the period I was in Seoul. In fact, I was in the area for more than once, partly because it’s conveniently located near the apartment I stayed in.

Within 5 years since my last visit, Myeongdong has changed a lot, & gotten much more crowded with tourists. It’s definitely a great sign for the merchants there with increased popularity, but I found it a bit daunting to find my way through the massive crowd… Another change that caught me by surprise was how quiet the Migliore (밀리오레) shopping mall is now. Located near Myeongdong Station (명동역, Line 4 exit 5 & 6), this shopping mall used to be filled with customers most of the time given its strategic location & trendy little fashion shops on its many floors. Now, not sure if it’s because there is some revamp taking place, at least half the retail space was vacant when I visited. The remaining shops looked like they seriously needed an overhaul. I was out of the mall in less than 30 min.😛

This area is still filled with countless Korean skin care & cosmetics shops just like before, & many brands have more than 1 outlet in the area. This meant that you can always hop to the other same-brand outlet to make your purchases if you aren’t satisfied with the service in a particular outlet. But what had changed was, these shops were no longer as generous as before, in terms of dishing out door gifts (facial cotton, facial masks etc) to welcome you. Fine, some may consider the door gifts in the past to be a bonus, but now, even if you make a purchase, some brands either give you really little samples/ gifts (e.g. The Face Shop, Adieu, Tony Moly) or they don’t even bother to give you any (e.g. Skin Food)!😦 Guess Korean skincare brands feel they no longer need to attract new customers with such free gifts, since they’re already enjoying brisk business now!

Besides shopping for beauty products & fashion, Myeongdong is also a place where you can find the most “in” (or popular) cafes, restaurants, as well as street snacks that people go gaga over. With so many little alleys that you can turn into from the main street from Myeongdong Station, you’ll be spoilt for choice when trying to decide what to eat here. Maybe just let your legs bring you to wherever it wanna go since there’s so much good food to try here!

This Bonjuk Porridge Shop seems to have shrunk in size?

This Bonjuk Porridge Shop (본족) seems to have shrunk in size?

The famous Yoogane (유가네) chicken galbi restaurant

The famous Yoogane (유가네) chicken galbi restaurant

Yummy Korean dessert cafe Sulbing (설빙) has a big outlet in Myeongdong too

Yummy Korean dessert cafe Sulbing (설빙) has a big outlet in Myeongdong too

Fans of the famous mouthless cat, rejoice as you find this Hello Kitty Cafe!

Fans of the famous mouthless cat, rejoice as you find this Hello Kitty Cafe!

Not forgetting the huge Line Friends Store that sees long queues waiting to enter most of the time

Not forgetting the huge Line Friends Store that sees long queues waiting to enter most of the time

(From top pic in clockwise direction) Strawberry mochi KRW2,500, Glazed Sweet Potato Stick KRW3,000, & Vegetable Hotteok KRW2,000

(From top pic in clockwise direction) Strawberry mochi KRW2,500, Glazed Sweet Potato Stick KRW3,000, & Vegetable Hotteok KRW2,000

There were so many pushcarts here selling Korean street snacks such as the usual spicy rice cake, cuttlefish, hotteok etc. The latest trend when I visited in April seemed to be the strawberry mochi snacks. It’s probably because big & fresh strawberries were in season then I guess. I also bought 1 to try & it was beautifully wrapped in a small plastic bag tied with red ribbon.

Of course, I wouldn’t forget to visit my favourite tea house – the O’Sulloc Tea House (오설록) before I left. The Myeongdong outlet has shrunk quite a bit in size & is no longer located in a prominent location.😦 Fortunately, I still managed to find it & got my morning tea fix before flying home.🙂

Enjoyed a tea set - green tea swiss roll + green tea latte (KRW9,000/ S$10.75) at my favourite O'Sulloc

Enjoyed a tea set – green tea swiss roll + green tea latte (KRW9,000/ S$10.75) at my favourite O’Sulloc

Things may have changed a lot in Myeongdong, but it is still one of my must-go places in Seoul to check out latest trends (& also to feel young again haha), otherwise the whole trip would feel weird! What about you?😉

The DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour – Best to Go With Minimal Expectations

dmz-map

Since 2005, the Demilitarized Zone of Korea, or DMZ for short, has always been on my list of must-visit destinations whenever I go to South Korea. However, for my past 3 Korea trips, it was always missed for some reason or another. This time, after researching a fair bit on which type of DMZ tour to sign up for, I thought the DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour would be the more insightful one as the Joint Security Area (Panmunjom / 판문점) is the zone where I could be closest to North Korea (without going through North Korea’s customs). Sadly, I discovered that the DMZ would be closed for tours due to military training for almost the entire duration when I would be in Seoul. That meant I would have to miss it again?!

Just as I was about to give up after checking with a few tour agencies, I found International Cultural Service Club, where the DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour was available on Saturday! *Phew* I was in dilemma for a while though, as going for this tour on a Saturday meant I’d have less time to hang out with my Korean friend + miss the Hongdae Free Market that is only available on Saturday afternoons. Nonetheless, a voice within told me to go for it, since I had been trying to go to 1 for the longest time. So I registered for the 6-hour tour to the most heavily militarized border in the world!

The tour was conducted in English at KRW85,000 per pax (S$101.55) and included a Korean lunch. The pick-up point for the tour bus was at President Hotel [near to either City Hall Station (시청역, Line 1) exit 5, or Euljiro 1-ga Station (을지로입구, Line 2) exit 8] where the International Cultural Service Club Tour Office was. Everyone in the tour were assigned seat numbers & supposed to abide by that. My tour group was mainly made up of Caucasians, except for a handful of Asians like myself. As the bus only departed at 11.30 am from the hotel, our 1st stop was lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant near the highway in Gyeonggi-do, about 45 min drive from the hotel.

Panmunjom Tour 1

It was a chilly & foggy day, so this piping hot lunch of bulgogi soup with rice & kimchi came at the right time. I liked the side dishes, especially the sliced fish cake & big long beansprouts. Just a little uncomfortable that we had to sit on the floor, in the traditional way like the Koreans do… but well, this is Korea afterall!😛

After lunch, we made our way to Imjingak Park, which was built in 1972, with the hope that someday unification would be possible. This is the furthest north point in South Korea that South Koreans can visit freely without the need to seek military clearance to go further up north. It is like a Korean War memorial park, particularly as a consolation for those who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends & families because of the division of Korea.

Panmunjom Tour 2

Panmunjom Tour 3

Panmunjom Tour 4

Gyeongui Train Line was destroyed during the Korean War in 1950. Since year 2000, it has been under reconstruction. Beside this restored train, I also saw numerous colourful ribbons tied on the wired fence, as these are messages written by the family & friends of Koreans who had been separated because of the war.

Panmunjom Tour 5

A map of where the DMZ zone lies

A map of where the DMZ zone is defined

As you can see from my pics above, it was so foggy that day that visibility was very low. In fact I made some enhancements to my photos, otherwise they’d be worse. It was the day with the worst weather throughout my trip.😦 Even at the Imjingak Observatory that supposedly allows visitors to see Mt. Songaksan (송각산) in Kaeseong, North Korea (개성, 북한) on a clear day as it is located where the rivers of Hangang & Imjingang meet, we couldn’t see anything.😦

Look hard & you may see the Freedom Bridge in the background of the top pic

Look hard & you may see the Freedom Bridge in the background of the top pic

Soon, it was time to proceed to JSA Village – Camp Bonifas for our briefing + ID check after a 45-min free & easy tour in Imjingak. At Camp Bonifas, we were presented with a slideshow on what to expect, together with the dos & don’ts at JSA later. Thereafter, we were instructed to line up 2 by 2, just like in primary/ secondary school days as we arrived at Panmunjom.

The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) in JSA

The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) in JSA

Panmunjom Tour 8

I was looking forward to entering the Joint Security Area – Panmunjom because of what I had been reading online before the tour. Only 800m in diameter, the Panmunjom is designated as JSA between the United Nations (U.N.) & North Korea. It is outside administrative control of South & North Korea. The U.N. & North Korea sides each operate 6 guard posts with 35 resident security guards. Since the axe murder incident on 18 August 1976 by North Korean soldiers, security guards are forbidden to cross over to the opposing side’s area.

We were first brought to the MAC conference room & given an overview by the tour guide. This important room has held secretary’s meetings, joint duty officer’s meetings & general meetings for observation of the Armistice Agreement since its signing. However, general meetings have been suspended since a Korean Army General was assigned as the Chief Representative of the UN Command (UNC) on March 25, 1998. Instead, Army General’s meetings have been held since then. Since May 1994, informal contacts have been held between the UNC & the North Korean Panmunjeom mission. Either side can call for the joint duty officer meetings.

It was interesting to note that the line of microphone wires on the conference room table, as seen in above pic, marks which side the North Korean & South Korea personnel should sit during the meeting. So don’t try to touch & meddle with the microphone wire, you won’t know how the soldiers will react to your action.😉 The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) of the Joint Security Area runs through the middle of Panmunjeom & even the conference buildings, where the line of microphone wires traces the MDL path. I was standing on the North Korea side when I took the photo above, i.e. slightly further from the entrance to the conference room.

Outside the conference room, we were told to stand in a straight line facing the Panmungak (판문각) located on the North Korean side of the JSA. Then, we were given 5 min to take as many photos as we wish, but forbidden to look back. So it was a “mad rush” as everyone tried to make full use of the limited time to take photos of ourselves in front of this iconic building. As it was foggy that day, the 2-storey building which was built in September 1969 looked somewhat mysterious too. -_- Besides using it as a waiting room for North Korean representatives before a MAC conference, it also serves as an office for North Korea’s security guards. Our itinerary indicated that we would visit the Freedom House here as well, which is just 80m south of Panmungak, but I don’t seem to have any photos of that, can’t remember if it was because we weren’t allowed to take photos?😦

Lastly, before we made our way back to the JSA Village for souvenir shopping, we made a brief stop next to the Bridge of No Return. Instead of allowing us to alight here for quick photo-taking, we were told to take photos of the bridge from inside the bus.

A not-so-clear view of the historical bridge through the window of the bus

A not-so-clear view of the historical bridge through the blurry window of the bus

The Bridge of No Return runs across the MDL. After the Armistice Agreement in 1953, prisoners of war (POWs) from both sides were exchanged on this bridge. The bridge got its name because the POWs who voluntarily chose to go to North Korea instead of staying in the South would be unable to return to South Korea. Depressing history.😦

Panmunjom Tour 9

With about 100,000 tourists visiting the JSA each year through the USO & several local tour agencies, it’s of little surprise why there is a souvenir shop in the JSA Village. Special sunglasses worn by the military personnel here can be purchased for KRW38,000 (if I remember correctly), in addition to the usual fridge magnets, keychains, pens etc.

To be frank, I was quite disappointed by the tour, hence I titled this post as such. I guess I set too high an expectation for the DMZ tour that I had been missing so many years. It didn’t help that I was so “lucky” to visit on a super-foggy & chilly day (around 7 to 8 degrees celsius in the day), until our tour guide had to comment a few times that it was a pity we couldn’t even see the North Korean flag flying high. He said that on clear days, it’s pretty visible because the flag is hanging high on a tall tower. We couldn’t see most significant sights that day anyway due to bad weather.

In addition, although I was prepared that we had to follow very strict instructions throughout the tour, when faced with the real situation, it still startled me…. Photo-taking was really restrictive in limited time & places, we couldn’t even bring our bags into the JSA, & had to “file in” 2 by 2, the actual time spent in JSA was too short etc… Furthermore, there was hardly any chance to interact & get to know other tour members (people just talked within their own groups), so for a solo traveller like me, it was not as enjoyable as I had hoped for.😦 Not sure if it was because of the tour agency, or composition of the group, or the DMZ tour was really not as interesting as I imagined, but now, I wouldn’t be so keen to recommend visiting the DMZ as enthusiastically as before.😛 If you do decide to visit, please go with minimal expectation of how the tour should be! Good luck!🙂

Dongdaemun (동대문) – Not Just For the Shopaholics

dongdaemun-design-plaza

Ever since my 1st visit to Seoul on a South Korea group tour back in 2004, Dongdaemun (동대문) has always been part of my itinerary whenever I visit the capital city. Why? Because I love the late night shopping in Dongdaemun, particularly in the wholesale markets. Since this famous neighbourhood is also located in Jongno-gu, & the staff at the City Hall tourist information booth did mention to me that it’s possible to walk from Ihwa-dong Mural Village to Dongdaemun, I might as well squeeze this in as my last activity for the day.😉

By the time I found my way to the iconic Heunginjimun Gate (흥인지문), it was almost 7 pm. As the east gate of the outer wall of Seoul Fortress among 8 gates built during the Joseon Dynasty to protect the capital, it is commonly referred to as Dongdaemun which means the East Gate of Seoul. Seriously, I think this was the 1st time I’ve ever taken a good look of the historical treasure although I’ve been here so many times! Guess I was too focused on all the shopping bargains that I missed out this important gate then…😛

Apparently, this is the only gate among the 8 gates in Seoul to have the semicircle-shaped small wall, or Ongseong (옹성), to protect the gate. It’s a pity I didn’t go to the other side of the gate for a photo to show you how the Ongseong looks like. The Dongdaemun City Wall Park (동대문성곽공원) just across the road from the Heunginjimun Gate stands out with its rustic sight of the Seoul City Wall, especially against the evening peak hour traffic on the road. If you would like to visit the city wall park, you can alight at Dongdaemun Station (동대문역, Line 1 & 4) & the nearest exit is #1.

There are several established hotels near this significant gate, & the most prestigious one has to be the JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul near to exit 8 of Dongdaemun Station. This luxury hotel faces the Cheonggyecheon Stream’s Ogansugyo (오간수교), & I found the Jjeojat Food Street (저잣거리) just located conveniently beside the hotel. Part of the Dongdaemun Shopping Complex (동대문종합시장), this is where you can tuck into popular Korean street food such as spicy rice cake, gimbap etc, but at 7+pm, only a few stalls were open. I was somewhat hungry with all the walking, but none of the food sold here seemed substantial enough to cure my hunger pangs haha.

IMG_0710R

The quiet Jjeojat Food Street in the evening

After that, I continued my journey towards the shopping town, where the fashion hotspots such as Doota, Migliore, Hello aPM & Good Morning City can be found. It was too early to shop in the Wholesale Clothing Town opposite these hotspots, as it wasn’t past midnight. The trendy clothing sold in these malls didn’t seem to attract me at all, because I was so cold, hungry & tired. Fortunately, I managed to tuck into some piping hot Rice Cake Ramen Soup in a small Running Man-endorsed (a popular Korean game-variety show) eatery found in the alley next to Migliore. Nothing fantastic but it gave me my much-needed warmth & energy, so no complaints.😛

Perhaps it was really a strenuous day out in Jongno-gu that day, I was actually not in a shopaholic mood as I browsed the numerous stalls in these malls aimlessly. So I decided to call it a day after 1 hour, despite it being a Friday night & the night was still young. On my way back to take the train back to apartment from Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station (동대문역사문화공원역, Line 2, 4 & 5), I had to pass through the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). It is an innovative design of traditional buildings, relics & cutting-edge modern multicultural facilities, including the Igansumun Water Gate (floodgate channeling water from Namsan Mountain to Cheonggyecheon Stream and Seoul Fortress). I guess this was the building that was under construction when I visited back in March 2011 (read my previous post of Dongdaemun here). Many visitors were busy snapping photos of the beautiful plaza at night, & I followed suit.😛

DDM 2

With this, I ended my super long day in Jongno-gu, with walking as my main mode of “transport”. I broke my own step record that day too, clocking almost 30 km & over 300 min on the road! No wonder most of the clothing in the shopping malls looked so ugly because I was lethargic by the time I got to Dongdaemun. But at least, I followed through my plan & did not give up halfway! LOL

My inner shopaholic voice did remind me to visit the shopping town the next evening & I did make some purchases, though not as much as I imagined.😛 I also caught a nice open-air mini concert by 2 male bespectacled Korean pop singers on the stage at the open space between Migliore & Doota. Love their mesmerizing voices & ballads, but too bad I didn’t manage to catch their names. I guess I was so engrossed in their singing that I forgot to take photo/ video of their performance.😦 The duo reminded me of the Malaysian group 光良品冠.🙂

As you can see from my photos & write-up above, Dongdaemun is not just for the shopaholics. It’s a place with a bit of everything, from history, relics to the beautiful scenery to street food, modern art & free street performances. Come & experience this unique place in Seoul for yourself next time!🙂

The Artistic Ihwa-dong Mural Village (이화동 벽화마을) in Seoul’s Central District

ihwa-mural-village

Seoul’s Jongno district (종로구) has been the centre of the city since the Joseon Dynasty for over 600 years, hence it plays an important role in its culture & history. If you had followed through my earlier posts, you would have known that Jongno-gu is home to palaces in which the kings used to reside & work – Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung etc, & even the Cheong Wa Dae (President’s residence) is also located here. Besides all these majestic palaces, there are also many historical & cultural neighbourhoods in this district, & I had already explored Buam-dong & Samcheong-dong earlier in the day.

After a pleasant tour in the traditional village of Samcheong-dong, I continued eastwards, passing by 2 other palaces – Changdeokgung & Changgyeonggung on my way to another old neighbourhood – Ihwa-dong (이화동, 梨花洞), located at Mt. Naksan’s (낙산) west foot. In Dec 2006, the “Naksan Public Art Project” (“낙산공공 미술 프로젝트”) was carried out in the neighbourhood to improve the deteriorating living conditions here. About 60 artists worked together to paint beautiful murals on the walls of the worn-out houses, as well as erected sculptures here. Soon, the murals became a symbol of the village, attracting throngs of visitors flocking up the mountain to enjoy the art.

Similar to Busan’s Gamcheon Cultural Village, Ihwa-dong started as a village on the mountain after the Korean War. There was a desperate need for postwar housing with the city’s rapidly increasing population then, so people built homes wherever they could. Ihwa-dong was home to many working-class workers in the nearby garment & textile industries in Changsin-dong & Dongdaemun area. However, this mural village in Seoul was developed 3 years earlier than Gamcheon in Busan.

So much for its background, I finally arrived at Daehangno (대학로), the youthful university street near Hyehwa Station exit 2 (Line 4, 혜화역) after walking for about half an hour from Bukchon Hanok Village. This station is the nearest station to Ihwa-dong Mural Village (이화동 벽화마을), about 5 min walk away. Walk straight ahead on Daehak-ro 8-gil (대학로8길) upon leaving exit 2.

Views along Daehak-ro 8-gil

Interesting cafes & restaurants can be found along Daehak-ro 8-gil

Following the road sign that points to the direction of the mural vilage, I soon found myself on Naksan-gil (낙산길), a steep uphill slope with rustic houses lining both sides of the narrow street.

The 1st mural art I saw round the bendy Naksan 4-gil (낙산4길)

The 1st mural art I saw round the bendy Naksan 4-gil (낙산4길)

Soon, I arrived at Naksan Park (낙산공원), atop the 124.4m high granite mountain Naksan. Its name is derived from its camel hump-like appearance. As a result of hasty urban planning during the Japanese colonial period, most parts of the mountain were demolished. In an effort to save the remaining green belts, Naksan was designated as a park on June 10, 2002.

Ihwa-dong Mural Village 1

Beautiful cherry blossoms in the park

Beautiful cherry blossoms in the park

As it was almost 6pm when I reached Naksan Park, I could catch a glimpse of the lovely sunset along the Naksan trail. Not only that, there were also interesting sculptures installed along the path as you can see from the pic above. I also passed by the Dongsung Nursery School (동숭어린이집) & saw the cute animal mural below.

Outside Dongsung Nursery School

Outside Dongsung Nursery School

Now, I had officially stepped foot onto the Ihwa-dong Mural Village. Following the directional signs on the road, it was an idiot-proof tour in the neighbourhood, & I also followed other visitors to climb the huge & steep stairways to check out the various murals. Here are some of the lovely murals for your viewing pleasure.🙂

Don't forget to lower your volume even if you're excited at seeing so many pretty murals, because it's a village!

Don’t forget to lower your volume even if you’re excited at seeing so many pretty murals, because people still live here!

Ihwa-dong Mural Village 4

Ihwa-dong Mural Village 5

Ihwa-dong Mural Village 6

Too bad there wasn't anyone around to help me take photo with this cute mural...

Too bad there wasn’t anyone around to help me take photo with this cute mural…

It’s a love-hate feeling I had for the artistic Ihwa-dong Mural Village tour, because the murals & sculptures may be so attractive for photo-taking, but the terrain in this quaint neighbourhood is just like Busan Gamcheon Cultural Village. Both villages require visitors to exercise their leg power, with lots of narrow & steep stairways & slopes to climb! There were times I felt so stuck due to the horrifying terrain that I wanna cry. But I had to grit my teeth & move on, otherwise, I’d be stranded there & how to go home?😦 The location & terrain of the village is definitely not helping my painful knees that had already brought me round Jongno-gu for the last 6 hours haha.

Therefore, if you wanna visit this charming village in central Seoul that has retained its rustic beauty with the infusion of modern mural art, don’t forget to conserve some energy for the hike! It’ll take you at least 1 hour or more to appreciate the whole place fully. Do spend some time in one of the pretty cafes after a tedious hike to chill & unwind in this unique place just minutes away from the buzz & hustle of the city.🙂