Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) , a traditional Korean tea and exploring the “most international area in Seoul”- Iteawon.

Many Asian countries have their own identity; though this may be subjective depending on whether you are native or foreign, we found Japan to be traditional and China to be an intriguing mix, a country which sometimes lives up to its first world international persona and other times is languishing behind with marked (but often internationally hidden) third world dimensions.

South Korea, however, is a delightful borrower. It shows off aspects of Japanese and Chinese heritage, yet is influenced by another country as well- the United States.

And as testimony to that influence, we started our day that morning at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. Having never been fortunate enough (or indeed, able to afford) to go the United States, this was my first introduction to the popular American brand. And I enjoyed it- my travel companion and I sat with long onion and garlic bagels and lattes, and Anna had a doughnut and a coffee. Having finished breakfast at this nearby train station (we could have also gone to a nearby Starbucks or Baskin & Robbins if we so wished), we hopped onto the metro to where Gyeongbokgung Palace was located.

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At the nearby train station, the Pullomen langors.

Legend has it that if you walk through the stone arch, you will never grow old.

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Guess who wants eternal youth!!!

Gyeongbokgung had a few surprises in store for us; for one thing, the Changing of the Guards (typically reminiscent of Buckingham Palace) also exists here. And watching the procession was amazing!

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The Korean Guards during the Changing of the Guards

There are some very interesting things to note about Gyeongbokgung. For one thing, it was built in 1395 but it burnt down by fire in 1592 after a Japanese invasion. The Palace was restored in 1867, and whilst there were initially 500 buildings, only 125 now remain (I paid attention to our tour guide on the English group tour).

Also, it is useful to note that if you are a young Korean student, you can get into Gyeongbokgung palace for free provided you have proof of age.

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The gates of Gyongbokgung

The palace was beautiful- adorned with a lake, gardens and buildings made up of colourful materials, most commonly a dusty cinnamon colour.

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We were allowed to walk around the King’s chamber (though, as expected, the furnishings and paintings were behind a rope barrier) but the Queen’s chamber was more closed off to the public.

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Note, the palace also gets a lot of educational visits. Above, a primary school tour group gets shown around

As obedient tourists as we are, we eventually tired of the tour and so crept off to the gardens. Like the palace, these were lovely- made lovelier by the riot of colours that met the eye:

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After we finished exploring Gyeongbokgung palace (경복궁), we moved on to Insa-dong (인사동) to find something to eat.

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Anna had done prior research on a vegan restaurant, called Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) in the area. We headed through the lanes of souvenir shops, including those selling your typical tourist items to those whose windows were filled with marvellous homemade ceramics, paintings and jewellery. As we reached our destination, it transpired that the vegan restaurant was shutting for a little while whilst staff went on a break. We were all very hungry, and a bit unsure as to what to do in the meantime; however, it turned out that we needn’t have worried! Nearby lay a cute, traditional Korean tea shop. We walked around the side and removed our shoes (as is customary when entering a home and some restaurants in Seoul) and climbed some stairs until we entered the tea area.

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In the top right-hand corner, the tea place we went to

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The interior of the restaurant

Here, people were sat on cushions, separated by only a low wooden table. Anna ordered for us and we ended up with, amongst other things:

Sujeongwa/cinnamon punch (cold)- which was lovely!

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Patbingsu (red bean ice dessert)- which I wasn’t keen on but Anna and my friend (who comes from Hong Kong) enjoyed. Perhaps it is just less suited to a Western palate.

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Schizandra berry tea- very different

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AND

A sweet set- full of light rice cookie-esque treats- this was my favourite- so yummy!

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After we had finished tea and let food digest a little, we went on to Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) for a late lunch/early dinner.

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Picture of the exterior of the vegan restaurant.

Note that it says “vegetarian” because it used to serve dairy and eggs before it became vegan.

The three of us had mixed opinions regarding the food but I really loved my dishes, which consisted of a spicy Chinese-style noodle dish and vegetable dumplings. Anna also ordered this really lovely mushroom filled batter dish, served in a moreish sweet and sour sauce.

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The lovely mushroom batter filled dish

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Our table of food! Front right- my beloved noodles

We walked around the many shops and little shopping precincts in the area. In the precinct below, on the top floor, was a poo café. I felt this symbolised a substantial cultural difference. As a Brit, I don’t find poo to be especially cute but clearly some people in Korea view the substance very differently 🙂

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Picture of a shopping precinct

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Pic of poo café exterior

Finally, we headed to Iteawon, somewhere that Anna described to us as being “the most international area” in Seoul, and somewhere with a large variety of nightlife. We headed out with the intention of grabbing some drinks, and after heading into a very international nightclub full of (I hate to say it) creepy Western guys staring at any young female, we made a sharpish exit. We stumbled across a little French restaurant and bar called Un Deux Trois. Since the cocktail menu was impressive here and the restaurant had a lovely, sophisticated ambience, we sat down for drinks and Anna and I shared a gorgeous cheese board (I always have a lot of love for Goats cheese). I also ordered a wonderful blueberry cocktail- whilst I can’t remember exactly what ingredients it consisted of, it was more like a dessert since alongside liquor, it consisted of vanilla ice cream and was topped with chocolate shavings.

Eventually we decided to head back to our hotel and just have a few drinks, chat and chill.

Tomorrow was our final day in Seoul, and we were determined to make it a memorable one.

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The tea ceremony that didn’t matcha up to our expectations and our visit to the “number one attraction on trip advisor” in Kyoto- Fushimi Inari

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The tea ceremony was something that I had been excited for prior to Japan. Hailed as a personal ceremony in which we would acquire knowledge and be able to experience how Japanese tea is typically prepared and consumed, expectations were high. Our day started off fairly slowly- we looked for a vegetarian place called Mumokuteki Café and Foods to eat lunch but were unable to find the place, so ended up at our old safety net (where I was guaranteed at least one type of vegetarian food)- Starbucks. Following our over-sugary stint in what had become our saviour of a coffee shop, we changed into warmer clothing (since the weather had cooled substantially during the early afternoon) and went to the Kiyomizu Gojo Station, where we took the Keihan Main Line towards Demachiyangi and got out at Gion Shijo Station.

Organised under a company called EN, finding the tea ceremony could have been easier. Though informed on our tickets that access to the ceremony would be near the side entrance of the Chion-in temple, the problem arose in that a) we had no idea whether the entrance we were at was the main entrance or the side entrance and b) passing locals and tourists also seemed to have no idea. In the end, we arrived at the ceremony 3 minutes late, but were fortunately let in since we would have otherwise had to wait a further 45 minutes to attend the next ceremony. In our mind, the “intimate” ceremony we were told tea-making would involve would consist of 4-6 people. Instead, picture 16 of us crowded and sitting cross-legged in a narrow, dark, Japanese-style room. My travel companion and I were sitting against the door, and a couple of Asian tourists in the centre of the room were more interested in sniggering at certain points than the ceremony itself. The woman holding the ceremony was knowledgeable and clad in traditional attire, which was a positive. But I did not enjoy making the tea, and drinking it was adequate at best. Before preparing the tea, we were supposed to eat a cube saccharine-tasting jelly sweet dusted with sugar but not everyone chose to complete this instruction. I also had a poor whisking action apparently, whereas my travel companion mastered it. The moral of the story is- never ask me to make you a cappuccino… I can make you a decent cup of English breakfast tea (I hope) instead though 🙂

During the ceremony, my emotions transgressed from grumpy (when I saw how busy the ceremony was), to incredulous (tea-making was clearly an art, and the way it was presented to us was doing no testimony to this fact) to amused (at how some of the other attendees were reacting) to finally exasperated. The thing that I had such high hopes for was a bitter (and bitter tasting in terms of the tea) let down.

My friend and I were sitting outside Chion-in temple trying to decide what to do next; we hadn’t finalised plans for that day so it was up in the air as to what we should do at that point. I suggested we get the train to where the Fushimi Inari Shrine lay, since this was awarded the accolade of number 1 attraction on Trip Advisor and that site has been my kindred spirit online whilst travelling (alongside Happy Cow- love you Happy Cow). We got on a train again from Kiyomizu Gojo Station and ended up at the wrong station since we accidently took a lim exp (limited express) train compared to the local train we needed. However, doubling back on ourselves was easy enough and in no time, we ended up back at Fushimi Inari. We arrived in fairly good spirits and, when walking past a tour group, my friend exclaimed “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream”, leading an older British woman to remark “Gosh, I haven’t heard that in years”. Amused, we carefully skipped past the tour group and approached the walkway leading up to the shrine entrance. To our left, stalls were selling grilled meats and pineapple sticks, and every few metres, a green flag proudly waved at us, reminding us how the shrine had been voted the number one attraction on Trip Advisor.

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Some of the meat kebabs on a stall                                         The flag acknowledging Trip Advisor

I’m not really sure what my first impressions were- my friend said “stunning but ridiculously touristy”. The entrance consisted of a number of large pillarbox red buildings.

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The top of a Fushimi Inari building                                    A shrine located near the entrance of the attraction

We ascended up a number of stairs before our eyes met the start of the Fushimi Inari gates and the subsequent footpath that followed.

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The beginning of the Fushimi Inari Path

At this point it was early evening and as we progressed through the makeshift tunnel of red arches, people were starting to leave the path, passing us in the opposite direction. It became more peaceful, easier to take photos and more mysterious, even slightly eerie. The now dark red (when light was absent) columns were majestic, stacked continually into the distance. We kept walking and climbing and walking again until we reached 15,500m on the path.

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Fushimi Inari at night

Though we were by no means at the end of the path, by this point we were losing light rapidly, some areas around us had been plunged into darkness and we hadn’t had anything to eat since midday.

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A list of heights that the Fushimi Inari Path can reach

We followed a different route to leave the path and though this was poorly signposted, we discovered other statues, shrines and monuments along our route. Part of the way there, a cat started walking in front of us and stayed with us for a while (a number of cats are present around the various shrines in Fushimi Inari). Although we knew we were close to the entrance, we were a bit unsure of where to go at one point but my friend’s years of watching Japanese anime and general aptitude for languages meant he was able to ask a local and understand the Japanese word for left, leading us back in the correct direction.

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The Hacherei Shrine (which we found during our alternative route back to the entrance)

Was this one of my more inept days? Probably.

Was this one of our more fun days? Definitely.

Dinner that night was at the glorious Maharaja (see my veggie bites blog post for a summary of the restaurant). To access this Indian Food haven, hop onto the Kiyomizu line again and disembark at Gion Shijo Station. We ended the day back at where we are staying watching a few episodes of the trashy reality youtube show we’ve become hooked on (don’t ask what it is- you will become addicted and time is too valuable) and, for me, writing diary entries.

I like days that go well, but my appreciation soars when a day starts sour and gets progressively better as it continues. Kyoto was not just matching Tokyo but overshadowing it by a considerable amount, and our impressions of the place (with Zenrin-ji yesterday and Fushimi Inari today) were becoming more and more favourable.