20 Reasons to LOVE Korea

Since we only have DAYS left here in Korea I wanted to pay homage to the place we’ve called home for the past two years. When I first found out we would be moving across the pacific I thought, “YES!! I LOVE Asia. I love India. I love southeast Asia. Finally I get to travel to all the places i’ve been pining over my whole life. And Korea, okay sure. It wasn’t necessarily on my list, but hey, it’ll be a decent jumping off point.” I thought I knew the basics about Korea.. like that there was a north and south- the north being communist and scary and the south a democracy that was a tech empire of sorts. I frequented a few Korean restaurants while living in Utah, so I had a decent idea of what it would be like, or so I thought.

Korea has been so much more than what I thought it would be. I’ve fallen in love with so many different aspects of this country and culture. I hope any foreigners who come to live here in Korea learn to live with an open mind, because when you do you are rewarded far greater than you can imagine. Here are my top 20 reasons I love South Korea and will miss it like crazy.

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  1. Rest stops 

When going on any extended driving trip in Korea you MUST stop at a rest stop. And not just for a quick bathroom break. They have cafeteria style restaurants where you can order pork cutlets and gravy, udon noodles, beef bulgogi, bibimbap, and many other Korean classics. And they are GOOD. The best udon noodles i’ve had in Korea were at a rest stop.

2. Baseball Games

The perfect summer activity. I love a classic American baseball game in the summertime and this is pretty darn close. Just substitute hot dogs and cracker jacks with squid and gourmet tea. But don’t worry the beer is just as plentiful!

3. Public Transportation

It’s clean, quiet, easy to navigate, and everywhere. Even if there isn’t a subway that reaches into your town there’s a bus. Grab yourself a T-money card from any convenience store and hit the road. The train system is also easy and affordable. (affordable being the key word here. While in Japan the same type of train going the same distance at the same speed was more than triple the price!) So take advantage! Plus it keeps you out of all that crazy traffic you would otherwise deal with in a car.

4. Street Food

When it comes to street food in Korea, there are SO MANY choices. Go to any market and you’ll be sure to find an ajumma frying up anything from sweet potatoes and squid to corn dogs coated in french fries and whole chilis. There’s odeng (fish cake) which can come in all different varieties and is stuck on skewers. And there’s tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes in red sauce) which my husband LOVES, mandu (dumplings both fried and steamed), beondegi (steamed silkworms) we’ve never tried considering all we’ve heard is they taste like juicy dirt and dirty vomit.. so no thanks. Then there’s bungeoppang (a pastry shaped like a fish filled with bean paste, ice cream, or custard), and my personal favorites- hotteok (sticky rice dough filled with pumpkin seeds, variety of nuts, cinnamon, sugar then grilled to create a warm pancake like pastry. SO YUMMY and so easy to find in the colder months.) and peanut butter grilled squid. I know, I know… it sounds gross, but it’s DELICIOUS! They sell it at Everland and movie theaters, it’s the best. Also try going to Myeongdong, especially on the weekend- it’ll be crazy but there’s food vendors galore and it’s the perfect spot to try lots of the above mentioned items.

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5. Fashion 

People here look good. And I mean ALL people. Little toddlers here are trendier than I am, seriously. Your average 20 year old male will be wearing a perfectly fitted suit while standing next to a 75 year old man on the subway station wearing a suit just as nice with a cap to finish off the look. And don’t even get me started on the women here *insert heart eyes*. There are no baggy, sloppy, or frumpy looking styles here. Only trendy and trendier, which makes the shopping here a must do! Now if only all American guys would dress as nice…

6. Honey Bread

Go to your nearest coffee shop. Order honey bread. Then come and thank me. Thick slices of soft bread toasted, then slathered with butter and honey, crushed nuts and cinnamon sprinkled on top, and finished with a thick drizzle of caramel sauce. There’s a few varieties of honey bread and every shop does it a little different, so go wild trying a bunch out.

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7. Safety

This might be one of my top 3 favorite things about Korea- it’s SO insanely safe. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and it lives up to the hype. I can’t tell you how many times a dollar bill has been hanging out of my pocket, or even fallen completely out of my pocket, in a crowded subway station and someone has come running after me to make sure I get it back or notify me that my money is well on its way to being lost. I’ve heard countless stories from others who have left behind wallets or phones only to have them promptly returned by a honest Korean citizen. There have been times someone could have easily ripped us off and charged triple what they were charging, yet they didn’t. As a woman, I feel completely safe walking alone at night in most areas. There was a recent government protest in Seoul that generated over 1 million people and yet only a few minor injuries occurred and was considered a successful, peaceful protest. Besides the threat of their neighbors up north, South Korea is by far much safer than almost anywhere in the USA.

8. Food delivery services

Almost every restaurant around delivers food to your home. Even McDonalds has cute yellow and red scooters with matching helmets for their employees ride/wear as they make deliveries. Let me just say that again, MCDONALDS DELIVERS TO YOUR DOORSTEP.

9. Incheon Airport

Seoul’s main airport actually lies outside of Seoul but is a gem worth exploring. Incheon has been voted world’s best airport more than once. And for good reason. It’s big, but well marked and easy to manage. It’s clean, the staff is on point, free wifi AND free  showers, and if you’re traveling with kids or babies they will happily let you cut long immigration or security lines. It even has a spa, casino, and ice skating rink.

10. Hiking

Hiking in this country is not like hiking anywhere else. Koreans are serious when it comes to extra curriculars or hobbies. They go all out when it comes to trying a new sport out. If they go bowling, they buy the shoes, the outfit, and even their own ball. And when it comes to hiking, it is no exception. I’ve never seen a Korean hiking without wearing the full outfit they bought from an expensive outlet like North Face or the Black Yak, including a high end walking stick (sometimes two walking sticks!!) Part of the fun when going to a park or trail is to not only look at the pretty landscape, but the walking Columbia ad that is surrounding you. And while they may stare at you for being so.. underdressed or “ill-equipped” they will happily offer and share their snacks with you.

11. Heated Floors

Being an American means I’ve missed out on one of man’s best creations- heated floors. I know this is not exclusive to Korea but it was my first time living in a home where I was happy to step out of my bed during the cold winter.

12. Hot Stone Bibimbap

A stone bowl filled with rice and an assortment of kimchi, pickled radishes (and other veggies), dark leafy greens, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and sometimes thinly sliced beef with a raw egg cracked over the top. The hot bowl is brought out sizzling then you quickly mix it up to cook the egg and keep the rice from burning on the bottom. It is most definitely my favorite Korean dish.

13. The Spa (Jjimjilbang)

Jjimjilbang is a Korean spa/bath house. And it is another one of my top 3 favorite things about this country. While there are some unisex areas (bathing suits and clothes required!) the gender segregated areas are the best parts. You literally strip down to your birthday suit in the locker room and freely explore all the different pools, saunas, and steam rooms. IT. IS. FABULOUS. I know it sounds weird to get naked with other random women and roam freely from pool to pool but it is the most exhilarating, freeing, and relaxing feeling all in one. And if you don’t love your body, it’s even more reason to go… I promise you’ll leave feeling oddly more confident in yourself. The spas even have cafeterias, napping rooms, and lots more to explore! And make sure to get a “massage” from one of the ajummas walking around in a bra and panties. It’s not at all a massage and really just an aggressive scrub down but your skin will have never been softer.

 

14. Markets

You can find local markets right in your town or go to Seoul for the complete experience. Namdaemun market is the oldest and largest traditional market in Korea. They sell everything from kitchenware and baby clothes to party supplies and street food. It’s cramped, chaotic, and a must do!

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15. Strawberries

The best strawberries i’ve ever had in my life. Not artificial tasting. Not pumped-with-hormones-and-pesticides tasting. Juicy, flavorful, and delicious.

 

16. Nursing Rooms

Korea is kid friendly. And Koreans love white babies and children. The older people especially love to pinch their cheeks and play with the babies. Maybe it’s like this in other countries as well, but in most department stores, malls, and bigger establishments they have nursing rooms or baby stations. When we went to Everland, an amusement park here, they had a few different baby stations set up all around the park. And they were NICE. Attendants manning the desk wore milk maid costumes (too cute and clever) and could help answer questions or direct you around. They have a quiet area with little stalls separated by curtains to create a private room complete with comfy leather chairs and side tables to sit and nurse your baby. Some even have nursing pillows you can use. Another section of the building has cribs so if you need to take a break and allow your baby to nap, you can. Another corner hosts a large counter with tiny dividers and pads to create a diaper changing station. Across from there they have sinks, filtered water faucets, and microwaves to make and heat bottles. There are even a few highchairs and kids tables to feed older babies and children.

17. Skin Care

The people here love to look good. And they are passionate about good skin. Koreans are adamant about wearing sunscreen and full wetsuits to protect themselves from the sun. And they spend lots of money on all the latest and greatest techniques the beauty industry has to offer. You can find cheap face masks all over the place or go high end and drop some major moolah on exotic serums . It’s worth checking out and getting free samples so hit a market or subway station and you’ll be sure to find many stores handing out free masks to entice you to come inside.

18. Karaoke

Any building that has lights flashing and a disco ball design on the sign means that it’s a Noraebang (karaoke place). A Korean karaoke place is divided up into rooms. You pay for however many hours you want at the front desk then head to your own private room. No singing in front of strangers at a bar, it will be just you and your friends in a comfy room. Most places provide drinks and sometimes snacks for purchase in case you need a bit of liquid courage. It’s a blast and the night always ends in exhaustion and everyone losing their voice.

19. Bingsu

Think of a creamier, milkier, finer, and more elaborate version of Hawaiian shave ice. Instead of a water base it is usually always a milk base and it’s so silky and fine. The original flavor, Patbingsu, is topped with a red bean paste but the flavors are endless. One of my favorites is simply topped with fresh fruit, like strawberries and mangos. Chocolate and coffee flavors tend to be popular too. You can also get syrups and condensed milk drizzled on top. It’s hard not to find a place that serves this cool treat during the summer. And even in the winter it’s worth it. Bingsu makes every other cold icy dessert look (and taste) pretty pathetic.

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20. The People

Obviously there’s a lot I love about this country, but the Korean people are my number one favorite thing about this place. It is what makes the culture and spirit of Korea so unique. I know you hear it about every country, “oh the people here or there are just SO great”, but I really mean it when I say that the Korean people are special. They are strong and resilient- they come from a tough background of invasion, civil war, etc. It’s only been a little over 60 years since the Korean war and to see how much progress South Korea has made since that time is simply astonishing. They went from being a war torn nation, impoverished and considered third world by most standards to now being a leading nation in Asia and in the world of technology. The innovation and discipline these people posses is more than impressive. And it’s not just the Korean peoples’ drive and determination that makes them great. It is their hearts, their gratitude, the respect they have for their elders and other human beings that sets them apart. They might seem quiet and reserved at first, but Koreans will happily take the time to help a lost foreigner at the train station or give up their seat for a pregnant woman or elderly person. They giggle and appreciate any bit of effort you put into using their language but are more than happy to practice and use their english with you. While traveling through Asia i’ve come to realize every nation’s people has their corks and their positive attributes, but also their differences. It makes me ashamed that I ever grouped together “Asians” as a whole or got confused at the difference between someone from Japan or Korea.. or a Chinese person or a Korean. And maybe it’s just the fact that I lived here for two years and I am biased, but I most relate with Koreans. I love their culture. I have become a better person having lived here and met so many selfless, wonderful, and remarkable Koreans.

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EXPOSED: My Korean Spa Experience Undressed

First things first: JJimjilbang. What are they? A jjimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse/spa. These spas often include many pools of mineral or salt water with varying temperatures, steam rooms, outdoor pools, massage rooms, etc. The one I went to even has a special foot bath where little fish eat away at your dead skin.

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I had heard some about Korean bathhouses before arriving in country, + while I didn’t know much, I was intrigued. I heard they were supposed to be amazing + in some, you went NUDE! OOOH scandalous! I figured after meeting lots of new friends + many months of getting to know each other better, I would ask one of my girl friends to go with me! I mean, who wants to go alone to experience some new phenomenon in a country where you can’t even speak the language?? Not me! I was not going to be the only doe eyed white girl giggling in the spa while the Koreans stared on. But I assumed I would have to find the “right” kind of gal to go with, you know, the ballsy, wild, rebellious type who was totally down for new, taboo experiences. And once I found that gal, I figured it would take at least 4 or 5 months to get comfortable enough with each other that I could ask said gal to get naked with me at the spa. So until that person + moment happened, my lips were sealed tight!

Enter Amy. So I go to church with Amy. Lemme tell ya about my good friend Amy… She is a genuinely sweet, pure hearted, + GOOD human. Amy was the first friend I made + one of the first real interactions I had since coming to Korea that didn’t include handing over my military ID + reciting my birthday or social security number. We have had dinner together 3 or 4 times now (but who’s counting?) + our husbands get along too! Neither of us have children or a job so that in + of itself bonds us. Last week Amy texted me asking if I wanted to go to the Asan Spa, her husband was gone for a week + mine would be leaving soon too. It sounded like the perfect girls trip + when I googled Asan Hot Spring Spa, it looked like a nice clothed, “American” style spa/resort. Nudity didn’t even cross my mind. I was just excited to maybe get a facial + try out the natural hot springs. Amy texted me the next day- “So I just learned some stuff about this spa…. How do you feel about being naked with other women??? (insert mixed emoji faces including the monkey covering his eyes). With wide eyes, I burst into laughter + my mind went something like this- ‘UM WHAT. Okay so this IS a traditional Korean “spa” (aka bathhouse). But wait, what do I say??!? This is all happening so fast!! This wasn’t how I imagined it going!! I want to go, but does Amy want to go? Will I sound weirdly eager if I say YES?? And I’m not prepared.. I want to work out a lot more before this experience so I can be in shape!’ (basically the same feelings I had when I started falling in love with Joe). After a few more texts Amy convinced me that we needed to do this + it would be fun. AMY. CONVINCED. ME. Again, I didn’t see it going down like this, but okay.. it was happening. So the next day I jumped in the car with Amy + off we went, our husbands were gone + we’d only known each other for about 3 + a half weeks, but here we were, going to get naked together + hang out in the spa.

spavis1Entrance to Asan Spavis (via the website)

spavis2Co-gender indoor pool (via the website)

spavis3Co-gender pools on a busy day (via the website)

The Spa- We walked in with no idea what to expect + the natural fear that we would accidentally walk bare ass naked into an area where you needed a bathing suit. We paid $5 for the indoor spa access (aka just access to the naked female area. You could pay more for entrance into the outdoor spa pools that were not gender segregated + some other co-gender areas but we wanted steam rooms + nudity only). Again, it was ONLY $5 PEOPLE!! We were given watch like bracelets that had our corresponding locker number on it + were ushered to the first locker area at the entrance. These lockers were for shoes only. So we took our shoes off and started walking towards an open reception area with very little instruction on where or what to do next. We passed a cafeteria (sweating everything out makes you HUNGRY), a few coffee stands, + some lounge furniture before seeing a sign that read LADIES LOCKER ROOM (in English + Korean). We passed through the threshold knowing that there was no going back now. Immediately we saw a few naked Koreans walking back to their locker + as soon as we arrived at our lockers (which of course were side by side haha) started stripping down. “THIS IS IT”, we joked. So there we were, standing proudly in nothing more than our skin, trying not to laugh, + acting like we’d done this before, all the while knowing we had NO idea what to do so we just looked like the creepers staring at all the Korean women walking towards the steamy spa. We walked into a giant, open room that had many shallow pools, showering/washing stations, an open massage room, a few saunas and steam rooms. Each pool was different… either warmer or cooler water, jetted, plant/mineral infused (??? One was a jade green + another was neon yellow). All the signs were in Korean so we had no idea but we didn’t care. IT WAS AMAZING. We giddily went from pool to pool trying them out until we realized how dehydrated we were + went to get water from a cooler right inside the locker room. And for whatever reason, we could not stop giggling. We could not get over the fact that we, two adult women, were standing naked leaned against a water cooler + frantically gulping paper cups of water one after the other, while watching other naked women walk around going about their business. (Maybe we sound immature or just stupid, but I dare you to go to a Korean spa with another white girl you haven’t even known for a month + not laugh.) We saw a door off to the side that led to a private outdoor pool. Talk about perfection. The clashing temperatures of the water + breeze were absolutely divine. After talking awhile between the two of us a large group of jabbering Korean women came in + started smiling, giggling, + pointing at us. Amy and I awkwardly looked at each other… One lady was clearly trying to tell us something but we had no idea what she was saying. Finally another lady yelled “UH..UH.. PWETT..PWETTTYY!! YOU PETTY!” The first woman smiled + pointed to us, “You petty!”. We bashfully thanked them using the one Korean word we did know, “kalmsamidah!” (deep down knowing they were probably making fun of our tits or ass or my white hair or something else). With that they all hooted + hollered! They then started spitting out other Korean words we might know like- kimchi + bugolgi, as we smiled + nodded struggling to understand the majority of what was even happening. They offered us a paper cup of tea from their thermos (I wouldn’t have been surprised if they spiked it with Soju). After a few more minutes they waved goodbye + left. We had survived our first naked group conversation in Korean. (SCORE!) As we were finishing up we decided to try out the small washing stations set up inside the spa. We followed all of the older ladies + grabbed a plastic stool to sit on and began scrubbing with salt and body wash before rinsing off for good. Back to the dressing rooms we went to get dressed + gulp down a few more paper cups of water. And that was it, so simple + relaxing, yet so new + exciting for us. I can’t even begin to explain how liberating + utterly delightful the whole day was. We left feeling renewed + serene with the determination to not only come back once a week from now on, but to recruit others to join us on our quest for tranquility. I encourage everyone to give a traditional bathhouse experience a try.. It will change your life for the better!

Until next time y’all,

xoxo V

PS, sorry for the lack of pics this time guys.. I wanted to take pics, but didn’t…. for obvious reasons.