Friday, October 20, 2023

We Went to Seoul, Tokyo and Kyoto

Last month, my daughter took hubs and I for a holiday to Korea and Japan. She wanted to celebrate her birthday while on a holiday. She had gone to Japan last year with her friends and loved it so much she wanted a return visit. She added Korea to make it a long holiday. A total of 12 days with the last day spent travelling back to Singapore. 12 days! No we didn't kill one another but... Anyway, my daughter did everything - she booked the flights, hotels, transport, esim, came up with the itinerary and while we were in Korea and Japan, she was our chief navigator. All hubs and I did was tag along.

Of course I fell very sick weeks before the departure date. My stupid sinus got really bad due to the burning of incense paper by my neighbours during the Hungry Ghost Festival (16 Aug to 14 Sep). My doctor was too easy going and did not treat it aggressively. Three days before departure it got worse and my hearing became muffled. I almost lost my mind. As I have only one good ear (left one), I get very paranoid when my precious hearing is affected. I ran back to the doctor and this time I was prescribed antibiotics which thankfully did the trick and by the next day, I could hear properly again. I was so close to cancelling on the holiday. Unfortunately this meant I had to take antibiotics on the first 5 days of my holiday. Antibiotics tend to affect my stomach badly. Despite taking probiotics, on our flight to Seoul, I had diarrhoea... Just a week or two ago, I had read a story about a passenger on a plane who had so much diarrhoea it flooded the aisle. I became very concerned that my stomach would give up on me and I would become international news thus ruining my daughter's birthday holiday. That was all I could think of throughout the flight. Thankfully my stomach stayed strong.

Changi Airport

The last time hubs and I flew on a plane was 2017 - 6 years ago. I was surprised by a couple of "new" things.

Firstly, there are baggage check in kiosks. It's all DIY but we had help from a guide. Secondly, the security check is done at the gate and not upon entry to the departure area. I don't know if this is the same for all the terminals but that was the case at T3. I like this change because there's no crazy queue when you first enter the departure area.

Singapore to Seoul

We flew via SQ600, economy class of course. The seats had very little leg room especially for hubs. We sat together which was nice. I had the aisle seat and wanted to switch with hubs so he could have more room but he stubbornly refused. Later he told me the flight to Seoul was the worst part of our holiday. 😭

For our airplane meal, there was chicken or fish. I chose fish. It doesn't look good but it was delicious!

Incheon Airport

We left Singapore at 8am and landed at Incheon Airport around 3:30pm. There wasn't much crowd at immigration and we got through quite fast. I had the privilege of getting an immigration officer who showed complete lack of interest in her job. She sipped her drink from a straw while using some facial expressions to indicate to me what she wanted me to do - have my 2 index fingers scanned plus my photo taken. Then she stuck a sticker on my passport and I was dismissed with her eyes looking away from me extremely bored. No Welcome to Seoul?

The minute we walked out of the airport, I knew we had made a mistake. The weather was super hot. Like volcano fire hot. Worse than Singapore. Ok, maybe equal to Singapore heat. Years ago when the kids were little, we had gone to Korea via a tour package and it was freezing cold. I remembered the temperature was minus something. We were totally unprepared then because the weather had suddenly changed - freak weather. We still have weather PTSD from that trip. This time we had checked the weather carefully and we packed mostly long sleeved tees expecting temperature in the mid 20's. That's cool for us. I only brought 3 short sleeved T shirts!

The first 2 things we did:

  • activating our prebooked esim
  • finding our Airport limousine bus to our hotel which was also prebooked

The esim activation took a while but eventually it worked. Don't ask me anything because daughter did everything. We found our bus stop (6701) but we needed to get paper tickets using our QR code. In Korea, we discovered most front desk staff don't speak any English. After some running around, we got our tickets from a counter inside Arrival Hall, just beside exit door 4.

Our limousine bus would take us close to our hotel but we needed to walk a bit. Our driver constantly worried about us. Our stop was City Hall (Seosomun), the last stop. He kept coming to check our tickets. I think he was worried we would end up back at Incheon Airport! At various stops, the bus would wait for passengers. That made our journey longer than the expected 1 hour.

Seoul Hotel

Our hotel was up a slope. What am I saying? ALL of Seoul is up some kind of slope, some gentle, some killer. The hotel room - a 3 bedder was nice. We had a window view, private toilets, wardrobe, small fridge - the usual hotel stuff. And yes, the toilet comes with a bidet. The TV was fantastic - so many channels to watch. Unfortunately, none of the Korean channels offered English subtitles. The pillows were horrible though.  

Our itinerary in Seoul was simple. Since we had visited Korea before and done a lot of touristy stuff (although my daughter said she remembered none of it), this round, our aim, or rather, my daughter's aim was to go to every shop that sells cute, cute stuff and buy them all. I did have a small bucket list and it was to visit handmade markets and shops, visit the hanoks and eat gimbab and Korean fried chicken. I had considered watching a Korean variety show live but the logistics was too complex for me. Hub's bucket list was to get a haircut.

To get around, we travelled using the subway and we used T-money card. We bought our cards from a convenience stall near our hotel. Later we discovered there were cheaper ones in another convenience stall. The cost of the card varies with the design. 

I just followed my daughter. Haha. She used Kakao map while hubs used Naver map. The two of them frequently disagreed and fought especially when we were lost. Since I suck at navigation, I just kept my mouth shut. In Singapore hubs and daughter get along very well, like buddies. But in Korea and Japan, they were like cats and dogs. There were times when I really wanted to find a stick and beat the crap out of both of them! 

Seoul is very friendly when it comes to payment by card. We used very little cash and ended up with a lot of leftover won.

Duty free
It was so easy to handle the duty free payment - just meet the minimum sum, show your passport and the cashier takes care of everything. 

Tap water
What's with the tap water? My hair was super frizzy after washing - it felt like dried grass when dry. My daughter said her hair felt different as well. I regretted not cutting my hair before the trip. What a hassle washing and drying my hair every night. 

Convenience stores and supermarkets
I love to visit supermarkets but the big ones were harder to find in Seoul. The ones we manage to find were at the huge malls. Convenience stores on the other hand are everywhere. In Singapore, I never shop at convenience stores because we have supermarkets everywhere. I'm not kidding.

Seoul is very unfriendly to the elderly. Apart from the slopes everywhere, the subway does not have escalators. Just steps, steps and more steps. And always, just when you think you've reached the top, there's more steps or another damn slope. If there are elevators, you might have to make a detour because they don't necessarily take you to where you want to go.

Smell of Seoul
I'm not sure if it's because I had sinus issues but I couldn't stand the smell of the streets. There were 3 kinds of smell mixed together - firstly, a bad sewer smell, secondly vaping and thirdly a sweet incense. In Gangnam though, the smell was absent. In many other areas, the smell was very persistent.

Vaping and smoking
I noticed many people vaping and smoking on the streets. In Singapore, vaping is forbidden so I'm not used to the smell of vaping, not that anyone should. As for smoking, in Singapore, it's only allowed at specific places although in housing estates, people do tend to walk and smoke. The smoke in Seoul made me feel ill.

Hanok Tour
I booked a Bukchon Hanok Village Walking tour from On the website, there's no warning that this tour will break your feet and that you will continue to suffer for the next three days. We walked and walked, always uphill, until our feet wanted to fall off. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go back to Singapore. Of course I could have dropped out of the tour but I was too embarrassed to do so. 

Our guide met us at the entrance of Unhyeongung Palace. He is a retired Korean man who is supremely fit. I suspect he used to be a soldier, a marathon runner, navy seal or a mountain hiker because he walked effortlessly. 

Our group consisted of us, a German couple (who didn't know what Germany's national flower is when quizzed by the guide) and an elderly Malaysian father and daughter.

Overall I sort of enjoyed the walking tour because it's nice to see the sights from a local's perspective. But I found it hard to understand the guide's English and I had to listen very carefully to figure out what he was saying.

Slopes after slopes

After the Hanok tour, we had our first mental breakdown. We couldn't make up our mind where to eat. We were starving and really, really tired. But we kept walking and walking and still couldn't find anything we liked. Eventually we ate at an organic restaurant which hubs had originally suggested. (yup, he gave us a lecture) My daughter and I rejected it at first because we thought we could find something better and after walking another 10,000 steps, we decided the organic restaurant was our best option. To our dismay, it was full house. So we walked around some more and when we circled back to the restaurant, there were seats!

The restaurant only served bibimbap and I got the vegan one. This meal turned out to be the best meal for me in Seoul. Maybe I was starving but it changed my view of bibimbap which I kind of never liked before. The bibimbap I had before in Singapore came with a sauce in the rice and I really hated the sauce. This one had a tiny amount of sauce and it's up to you to add it.
We spent a total of 4 days in Seoul. Because of the Hanok tour on day 2, I really suffered on the last 3 days in Seoul. My shin, calf, ankles, feet hurt like crap but you're on holiday so you have to keep walking. I wished I had worked on my fitness before the trip. 

Maybe because I was on antibiotics and sinus medication, my appetite wasn't very good in Seoul. I lost some weight during the 4 days in Seoul.

For breakfast, we usually just have something light in our room. Green tea and coffee are provided. I was very happy that I could find oatmilk at the convenience stores. Oatmilk is very important to me and I need to drink at least a cup a day. 

Our first Korean meal - We ate at a traditional looking restaurant near our hotel. My favourite Korean food is seafood pancake so that was my order. This one didn't taste as good as the ones in Singapore Korean restaurants. I think hubs really loved the pork pancake. The kimchi was sooooo sour.  

I ate buckwheat noodles twice. It's very chewy. 
In Korean reality TV, I've often heard celebrities talking about the clean taste when eating buckwheat noodles. After eating a bowl of buckwheat noodles with cucumbers, I totally get what they mean by "clean taste". It felt refreshing.

I ate tuna gimbab (no photos) from SSADA Gimbab - it was fantastic and huge. I love gimbab but in Singapore it's hard to find. I've tried making myself but I'm no good at it.

We happened to walk past a Seoul Express 88 restaurant and decided to try the Korean Chinese food. It was tasty at first but after a while all I could taste was msg.

We ate burger once. I didn't enjoy it because it's full of mayo.

We ate fried chicken in Gangnam. We were the first customer. The chicken tastes the same as the Korean fried chicken in Singapore. 

My daughter ate the most food. She sure knows how to enjoy herself. One night, she wanted to try this spicy noodles at a restaurant. I didn't eat because it was night time. Anyway there were a few non-Asian foreigners in the restaurant. A local customer observed the foreigners and later went around correcting the way they held their chopsticks. He was very friendly and so were the foreigners. Honestly, my family holds chopsticks the wrong way as well. We're easy going. I was wondering if the Korean man would come and correct us? Well, he didn't. I guess he knew better than to tell a Chinese family how to hold the chopsticks! 

There was a drink I had which I found extremely refreshing, maybe because I was hot but I couldn't find it again. It's called Jeju Hanrabong crush. (the orange drink) I could drink it everyday.

Hongdae Free Market (it's not free, just a bit sad because there were only a few stalls)

It's the guy behind in blue tee
Hongdae has a really cool vibe. There is this long pedestrian stretch where some people were recording tik tok videos. This particular guy was dancing to BTS Idol and he was very passionate, had all the right moves but unfortunately, he's not graceful. So he came across as clumsy but very, very entertaining.

Insadong - a handmade market on the ground floor. Later when we explored the building, I realised the stalls at the ground floor were tenants. 

Hangang Moonlight Market - food, handmade crafts and singing. The food kiosks were very crowded. The queues were insane. The handmade - not so much.

The COEX Aquarium was nice because we caught 2 shows by chance - seal feeding and a mermaid show. My daughter loves aquariums that's why we went.

Starfield Library - me and daughter went up and down the escalator multiple times so hubs could take a photo of us but the timing was never right.

Gangnam style statue - we were too embarrassed to dance, not that we could.
My daughter has an insane appetite for cute stuff and I lost track of all the places she dragged us to. 

I didn't buy much in Seoul except for skincare products. We went to a few Olive Young and I saw some products we use and the price was so ridiculously low I felt stupid not to buy. I would have bought a lot more if we weren't going to Japan next.

Overall, my daughter and I achieved what we wanted in Seoul. Hubs didn't get his haircut because he wanted a barber and we couldn't find one. I wished the weather had been cooler. What I liked about being in Seoul was I could recognize many celebrities on posters and ads. 

I was expecting to see more BTS but it was mostly Son Sukku, IU, Gongyoo and some others I didn't recognise. I thought I would hear Oppa on the streets but to my surprise I did not hear a single Oppa. Lots of Unnie, though. Unnie! Unnie!

Leaving Seoul
Early morning on Day 5, we took the same Airport Limousine bus to Incheon Airport to catch our flight to Tokyo. My daughter had prepaid and the driver scanned our QR code for payment. No need for paper tickets. We flew via Jeju Air. My daughter couldn't check in online and when we checked in at the counter, we had some problems. I have no idea what the issue was because the staff kept speaking to us in Korean. She made a few phone calls which ended with no solution. Then she went to consult another staff who made a few phone calls and after a long time, she came back to us and spoke more Korean. Finally she asked to see our confirmed flight back to Singapore and once we showed it to her, she checked us in. Honestly I was a bit worried we would be stuck at Incheon Airport. It would have been a nightmare. 

For Jeju Air (flight 7C1106), my daughter upgraded us to Business Elite. I totally recommend it. Look at the amount of legroom! No complaints from hubs this time. We got water, juice, pastry and a snack. The flight is short, about 2.5 hours. The night before, hubs started feeling sick. He was very sleepy and tired on the flight. I did get worried but he recovered quickly in Tokyo so he didn't miss out much. 

I'll write about the Japan leg in my next post. I have finger fatigue now. See ya.


Jane McLellan said...

Good for your daughter, organising such a holiday!

Kate said...

Thank for showing me the sights of Soeul. I'm looking forward to Tokyo.

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