This story starts with my desire to visit New Orleans and ends with an incredible 10 day holiday to Asia.
A dear friend of mine lived in Louisiana and I had been looking for an excuse for years to visit. Since my standard trips to the USA were always in summer or Christmas there was never a good time to combine the visit with a trip to Louisiana. However in October 2015 my childhood friend chose to have an autumn wedding, which meant I had traded my summer trip home for an autumn one.
I reached out to my friend in Louisiana and declared that I wanted to visit her in October! Her response? That she was moving to Seoul and wouldn’t be in Louisiana.
As much as I wanted to see New Orleans I was far more keen to see her; so I reconsidered. I tabled the idea of a trip to New Orleans and instead began researching and investigating what a trip to South Korea would look like in 2016.
And thus this trip was born! A desire to visit with a dear friend.
Flight prices were surprisingly low and hotels in Seoul very reasonable. Based on prices, my own availability, and how long she might be in the country we opted to visit at the end of January 2016.
Day 1: Red Eye Flights & Korean BBQ
While researching flights I noticed that almost every route included a layover, and they were in a variety of interesting place. The airline reviews for a lot of the more Asian based businesses did not look promising when we unpacked the details of those flights, and therefore ended up choosing Finnair to flyg with. This meant a layover through Helsinki, which was really pleasant and afforded us a view of the snow covered ground there.
The plane was large but the legroom was small, which proved an issue for Andrew during the lengthy leg of the flight. Luckily we were able to get 2 seats together instead of being squished in with a 3rd person. I was able to sleep for part of the flight, but not nearly enough. It proved to be a long journey – given that we had started our first day of travel mid-morning in the UK, laid over in Helsinki, and then landed in Seoul the following morning.
The experiene in the airport was swift and relatively painless, though hardly memorable after a red eye flight across Europe and Asia. We jumped in a taxi and headed towards our hotel in Gangnam, where we planned to drop off our luggage for the day and meet my friend to go exploring in the neighbourhood. We traveled from the penninsula where the airport was located and headed into the expansive and large city of Seoul.
In any new environment I’m usually plastered to the glass of my vehicle – be it plane, train or automobile. In this case I was taking everything in of the trip from airport to city. I was amazed at the buildings, that they were all tall tower blocks and were nearly symmetrical. The cars were mostly brands I was familiar with – Kia and Hyuandai were naturally popular. I saw logos along the way that I recognized – Samsung for example. It was all fascinating, new, and exciting.
Among the newness of the city were also other scenes that caught my attention – a man selling a product in the middle of traffic, what looked to be a bamboo takeaway box. There were others as well and what was more remarkable was that the traffic was not standstill, it was still moving at a clip. We did seem to arrive just at the tail end of rush hour though, based on the traffic we were experiencing to get to Gangnam.
As we got closer to central Seoul I noticed that the buildings became more modern, taller, and with a more designed architecture. We arrived at our hotel, which was a 20+ story building itself, and were able to drop off our luggage though the room wasn’t ready yet. We were given a time in the afternoon when we could return to check-in and met up with my (now) local friend Nat. It was just after noon so we thought to go for a wander in the neighborhood and find somehwere to eat lunch along the way. Which provided us with a great opportunity to catchup.
It was my first foray into Korean culture and admittedly I was exhausted. Since I had not slept much, or well, on the flight I wasn’t as focused as I would have liked to have been. It was surprising to me since I’m a vetern flyer and have taken countless red-eye flights in the past, but perhaps it was a sign that I was aging (or that simply the flight was a lot longer than I was used to).
I appreciated how different everything looked and felt in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t until we sat down for a late lunch (or early dinner) that I finally felt like I was in Korea.
This restaurant had actual chairs but later in the trip I would find more than my fair share that had us sit on the floors, in a more traditional style. Between the three of us was a grill and we ordered from the list with Nat’s guidance. Immediately they put an array of Kimchi on the table, at least 8 different varieties, and we had a tasting tour of our table while the meat and vegetables were cooked in front of us in a spectacularly mesmerizing manner.
Whenever I travel I am always eager to try new food and will often eat things outside of my comfort zone – so I tried each piece of kimchi on the table. And admittedly only enjoyed one of them. It wouldn’t stop me from endlessly trying kimchi throughout the trip.
The barbeque, however, was delicious. I’ve had Korean BBQ in a variety of locations – Paris, London, New York to name a few – but nothing can compare to have it in Korea. It was truly a delightful experience and I ate everything. I loved that we had it fresh off the grill and all the vegetables were unlike others I had eaten regularly before. I normally don’t enjoy mushrooms but these were incredible.
After we finished the meal we stepped outside into the brisk cold of a Seoul winter.
The restuarant had a beautiful garden area, including a lovely waterfall and pond – both of which had frozen over. It was a stunning reminder that the temperature was -10°C / 14°F. Both Andrew and Nat were used to milder climates so I was surprised that neither had complained over much about the few hours we had spent wandering. I had layers on and was comfortable, but definitely was missing my warmer winter jacket which I had left in the United States (never having needed in the United Kingdom due to the mild climate).
We wandered for a while longer, soaking in the sights and sounds of this new and wonderful city, before we started heading back for the hotel.
Along the way we stopped by Gangnam subway stop, where a Gangnam Style platform had been errected. It had a button to put your hand on to initiate a clip of the famous song by Psy, and a built platform to dance upon. Feeling a bit loopy from being tired I tried to push it – but it appeared to be turned off during the day. At a later point in the trip we did see it light up, so at least I knew it wasn’t broken.
Exhausted we decamped to the hotel where we could finally check-in and discovered that we had a large living quarters – bedroom and living space. We opted to all sit together and chill, which gave me a chance to gift a few items I had brought with me to Nat (as a thank you for being our tour guide for a time). We ended up putting on the local television, something I always do when I travel, and were quickly introduced to some K-Pop (Korean Pop Music). Initially it was horrible but after a few songs we started to discover it was catchy, and began to learn about the nuances and anatomy of a K-Pop band.
Eventually we parted ways with Nat for the night and went to bed embaressingly early.
It had not been the most exciting first day in Korea, but it had been rewarding. We had arrived, reconnected with my dear friend, eaten local cuisine, and experienced local culture (even if it was on the television). It was an introduction to our holiday and I looked forward to what the next day had in store.
Day 2: Exploring Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace & Insadong
Since we would be taking several day trips around Korea for the next two days we had wanted to spend a full day exploring several key places in Seoul. This meant a trip to the exquisite Gyeongbokgung Palace and the neighborhood of Insadong. I had done some research and consulted Nat and both of these seemed like the best to combine for a day worth of wandering Seoul.
Nat had helped us arrange for subway tickets the evening before and we had cards freshly loaded with Won and were ready to travel. The system was painless, the carriages impressively clean, and we were awed by how efficient and effective the services were. When we made it to platform level on the subway we did notice that there were shelter provisions in place, a reminder that South Korea was technically a country still at war.
Another thing we noticed was that the entrance doors to the subway were marked, and many apps that helped you get from Point A to Point B could direct you to the most efficient door. Having lived in London for years by this point I had pride in knowing these things inherently, but it was a hard won knowledge that comes with a lot of experience. The way Seoul mapped it out was effciently beautiful and I was immediately envious.
Our first stop was to have breakfast with Nat near where she had church; it gave us a chance to catchup over breakfast before she headed off for the afternoon with her congregation. We had a wonderful breakfast in a place of her choosing and wandered around the neighborhood further as well.
Then we headed onwards to explore Gyeongbokgung Palace and the nearby neighbourhoods.
As we left the subway and headed towards the palace we walked along Gwanghwamun Plaza. We came across a statue to King Sejong, who is a famous historical figure in Korea. He was the creator of the Korean alphabet, replacing the Chinese one which was difficult to learn in read, so he created an alphabet that was simpler and easy to adopt. He was also a huge supporter of Confucianism and scientific technology. Therefore in Gyeongbokgung Plaza stood a large statue in his honour and several smaller statues reflecting the scientific technology he supported, and also a reflection of the alphabet.
The Palace entrance was flanked by a pair of guards in identicle clothing. Everything about the palace was colorful once you got up close; the stone and wood were gorgeous, but the colorful details brought the structure to life and brought a detailed level of beauty that captured my imagination and appreciation. The guards were identicle, which was impressive in many ways, but when we looked closer we noticed that their facial hair was stuck on, which made me smile.
Each color respresented something specific, and I loved the nuances of those details. I later found this great blog on The Art of Dancehong painting, which summarizes the details really well.
We explored the grounds of the Palace and took it all in. I was impressed by the wooden structure, and we read that this was a rebuild of the original palace, and encompassed the wide expansiveness of that Palace. It covered an incredible amount of space and prime real estate in the center of Seoul. The building was unique in that the floors were my height, since they were raised. This allowed the palace to be cooled by airflow in the summer, or heated by fires beneath in the winter.
The door frames were my height, which I was delighted by.
We came upon a pagoda in the middle of a frozen lank, and beyond that another museum that was attached to the Palace. Each direction I turned I could see something impressive – snow capped mountains or incredible Korean architecture. At the end of our tour of the Palace we visited the National Palace Museum of Korea. This provided further details of what the life in the palace would have been like and brought much of the structure to life. If you’re going to Korea I’d recommend doing these thigns in reverse order to how we did it – Museum first, Palace second!
Insadong is a neighborhood known for it’s food and shopping, and we had planned to spend the afternoon wandering around the area and finding a place to have a late lunch. It was a great place to wander around, soak in the atmosphere, buy a few bits of street food to nibble upon, or even visit a cat cafe (we did not). We did, however, find a place to have lunch that was fantastic. They brought out the course of kimchi first and I did have a tasting tour of the small dishes, but waited for the main course. We also found a few shops to buy a variety of souvenirs for gifts. I bought myself a name stamp with my name in Korean that was quite lovely. I found a variety of other items as well – from inlay wooden jewelry boxes to gorgeous tea sets.
We returned to our hotel to drop off the gifts we had purchased and then carried on to meet Nat again in the neighborhood where we had breakfast. She showed us to a local Korean-American fusion restuarant and introduced us to the concept of Korean Fried Chicken. Eventually jetlag took its toll and we headed back to the hotel much earlier than we would have liked.
Day 3: Day Trip to Korean Folk Village & Hwaesong Fortress
While planning our trip we had arranged to make a few day trips out of Seoul to see other parts of Korea. Since Nat was working this left us with some free time to partake in the trips. There were dozens of options when we looked, even in the middle of winter, but discovered two trips that captured our interest and imagination.
We knew it would be an early start that morning and had spotted a cafe across the street from our hotel on the previous day. We picked up a quick breakfast and coffee from there to see us through the morning. They had a very odd selection of pastries and other offerings but we bought a few varieties to try and hot drinks as well. And then we waited for the guide to show up. It was far too cold to wait outside so we hovered in the lobby of the hotel while awaiting the guide to show up.
It was office season and I had found a decent deal online for the tour. Normally in these group day trips you would have a group anywhere from 10 to 25 or more. I was therefore shocked to discover that we were the only ones on the tour. We were essentially being given a private tour for the same cost as a large group one. I was nervous at first but it ended up being one of the best tours I’ve had over the years.
Our guide had a small van and infectious energy (which I was not quite ready for as I’d yet to finish my coffee).
The first stop on our day trip was to the Korean Folk Village, or 한국민속촌. It was a living museum that depicted Korean life. I’ve been to a few living museums such as this around the world – Old Sturbridge Village was a constant museum we visited for field trips during school, and I had also visited another in Wales. These types of museums are delightfully authenticate and include relocated traditional houses and traditional performances throughout the museum. It’s a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the history and culture.
It was empty at the time that we arrived, and was quiet throughout our visit.
The first stop we had was at a rock structure that had many ropes tied around it and upon those ropes were tied pieces of paper. Our guide explained that it was customary to write a wish upon the paper and tie it to the string. We did so, at great risk to our fingers in the freezing temperatures, and tied our wishes to the rock.
The village was beautiful with lots of vibrant colors throughout. The traditional homes were interesting to explore and they had livestock present as well. We learned quite a lot about Korean culture and history, including what motivated the Koreans to begin making kimchi – which was developed as a way to preserve vegetables for the long winter.
Our guide was fantastic at ushering us through the various sites and parts of the museum, allowing us to spend longer at those that captured our attention best, and moving us along at a swift pace. It was great to have a guide or else it could have been easy to get lost in the vast museum.
As we were heading back towards the exit a folk band took stage within the museum and we stopped to listen to them play.
Outside of the village there was a small restaurant that specialized in tofu. In an effort to try the specialty cuisine and local food I did order a plate with tofu, but unfortunately it was only mildly better in Korea than in the west. Andrew ordered the better meal and we ended up splitting so that he too could try the tofu.
The restaurant was outside of the large city and therefore we followed a different etiquette. The entrance was a small foyer where we took off our shoes, placed them in a cubby, and then walked into the restaurant in our socks only. When you went to use the loo/bathroom there were a pair of common sandles there that you could put on to step into the bathroom, to avoid touching the floor (even though it looked spotless).
After lunch we headed off to Hwaesong – first to the Fortress and then to the Palace. The Fortress was an impressive structure that made up the city walls and provided some truly beautiful views and insight into the craftsmanship of the era. It was very easy to see why Hwaesong was named as a UNESCO Heritage Site.
We traveled into the fortress and to the entrance of the palace – Hwaeseong Haenggung. The colorfully painted gates to the palace were reminiscent of the ones we had seen in Seoul the previous day. A line of brightly colored flags lid the walk up to the palace gates, each one representing a different area in Korea.
The day visiting the folk village and Hwaesong provided us wonderful insight into the history and culture of Korea, and a real appreciation for the culture.
Our guide brought us right back to our hotel; which was a benefit of being the only people on the tour. It’s not uncommon to be dropped off at a very inconvenient location when you’re in a large group. We were absolutely knackered by the time we got back to the hotel, but we were still keen to get out and see some of the neighborhoods in Korea.
We met up with Nat who showed us around one of the neighborhoods known for it’s nightlife. She explained to us that the nightlife in Korea was less about pubs or bars, and more about cafes. We tried to enter an escape room but it wasn’t open that evening, surprisingly. Therefore we grabbed dinner in a back alley after stumbling upon a place while wandering in the neighborhood. It was a restaurant that was a fusion of Korean and American food – which was apparently a common mash up due to the American influence in Korea.
From there we visited a local board game cafe where we were able to pay a meager amount for drinks (non alcohol) and make use of the wide games collection that they had. The first game we tried was a challenge since they had altere the cards to be Korean only (cutting out and glueing the Korean rules for the cards on top of the English ones). We put that one back and found another that I knew well enough to not rely on the rules that they had. And we passed a few enjoyable hours together playing board games before heading back for sleep.
Day 4: Day Trip to Andong and Hahoe Village
The second day trip we had booked and planned in advance was a further drive to the Andong region. We had booked through the same company so should not have been surprised to have the same guide as the day before. We were prepared, once again, having had our breakfast and coffee before he arrived.
Since it was a longer drive we made a pit stop along the way at a service station. We picked up a few drinks to keep us going and opted to make a trip to the loo while we had the opportunity. After I stepped into the stall and locked the door I found myself looking down at the floor where a porcelain bowl was built into the ground, complete with a flushing handle. I realized that I didn’t quite need to use the loo that badly and rejoined the men.
The first stop we had for the day was to visit Buyongdae Cliff. Our guide led us to a small parking lot near a small forest. He led us on a hike through the forest while talking to us about the region and what we would expect the see for the day. At the top of the small hike there was an overlook that had a magnificent view of the valley below where the village of Hahoe was located. We would be visiting Hahoe later in the afternoon and it was named as a World Heritage Site. It was a very dry time of the year and the river basin was particularly drive, showing the beds and a light trickle of a stream rather than a large river. The view was incredible. Our guide explained that Hahoe translated to “village enveloped by water” and from this vintage point I could easily see why it had been named as such.
We had been traveling for much of the morning so our next stop was for an early lunch. Our guide led us to a nearby restaurant and again we left our shoes in the entry before making our way to our seat on the floor and at a table. There were rows of empty tables with the grills in the middle here but it looked like the restaurant was capable of holding quite a crowd, despite being in the middle of no where.
Lunch stops on these types of tours are always hit or miss, at least in my experience. The staff brought forward in the kimchi and then setup the grill with a variety of vegetables along the bottom of a coned dish, and the meat at the top. Given that the location was empty and that it was a shared meal I didn’t hold much hope for the meal. I still hadn’t found kimchi that I liked but I refused to give up on the hunt so I gave it a taste (and still did not enjoy it).
The dish was served, after all the juices from the beef had cooked the vegetables and the staff had added some noodles. The smells had been incredibly promising while it had cooked, one of my favorite aspects of the Korean BBQ, and learned that the dish’s name was Jap Chae. We tucked into it and I was amzed at how incredible it was.
It ended up being my favorite dish of the entire trip.
As we were finishing up at the restaurant there were more customers entering, and it became clear that it had been empty because of how early we had arrived. After the meal our guide took us out to the front of the building where there was a field of clay pots. He explained to us that these were marinating batches of kimchi and the restaurant not only produced their own kimchi for their meals but also sold it on as well.
We drove another short distance to the Museum of Masks that stood outside of the grounds for Hahoe Village. We toured the museum and admired the various local masks but also those from around the world and learned about the hidden meanings and uses of the masks. It was an unusual museum but I really enjoyed it for that reason. One of the best parts though was that the museum was heated, and it was -16°C / 3.2°F outside.
To help combat the cold we layered up significantly with an extra sweater, gloves, scarves and hats. The sun helped to keep us somewhat warm, but it wasn’t very effective against the freezing temperatures.
A shuttle picked us up from outside the Mask Museum and drove us to the edge of the Hahoe Folk Village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our guide led us brisky through a winding tour of the village. We started by visiting the local wishing tree, similar to the prior day we wrote a wash on a piece of paper and tied it to the tree. I didn’t have much hope of it surviving long on the tree since the wind was strongly blowing, but it was still nice to participate in that small ritual.
We were shown several of the traditional homes within the village and told about how the raised floors allowed the buildings to be easily cooled in the warm summers, and during the cold winters the animals would have shelter beneath the house and help to provide heat for it as well.
It was unique to see all these buildings and homes as a living village, rather than just a museum as we had seen the previous day.
We were shown a tree that Queen Elizabeth, of England, had planted when she had visited in the late 1990s. It was outside of a beautiful example of a traditional home that we were able to enter.
Eventually we started heading back to the parking lot, taking a path that led us along the river and adjacent to the cliff we had been on earlier in the day. The path was tree lined and our guide explaiend that in spring these would bloom into gorgeous cherry blossoms. It was well below freezing and I wasn’t sure I could even imagine what spring might look like in that beautiful village, even with the sun shining upon us. I later looked up some photos only to breath life into that mental image, and each photo was more stunning than the previous. However, I enjoyed visiting Hahoe in the quiet of winter, with the sun trying desperately to warm us up. Despite the cold I appreciated the quiet atmosphere we got to experience in the village, rather than a more bustling or hectic one that would certainly be present in spring or summer.
Our last stop for the afternoon was to another UNESCO Site, the Byeongsanseowon Confucian Academy. This beautiful structure, nestled into the mountains of the Andong region, was a gorgeous final stop on our day trip to Andong.
The drive back to Seoul gave us time to finally warm up our hands and extremeities after the cold outings of the day, but they had been well worth the cold. Back in Seoul we met Nat for dinner in our neighborhood, back to a more traditional Korean fare. Since it was our last night in Seoul we decided to have an evening of Noraebong, or “song room”. Essentially it was Korean for karaoke!
This was great fun and we rented a room with just the 3 of us in it, with a colossal book of songs. We paid for an hour to start with but whenever we would begin to run out of time more would appear. It was a quiet evening for Noraebong so the attendant was being very generous with us. We sang everything from classics like “House of the Rising Sun” to modern comedy like “I’m on a Boat”.
Eventually we had to give up due to exhaustion, and headed back to our hotel for a night’s rest.
Day 5: Touring Seoul
On the last day in Seoul we decided that we would try and see as much of the city as possible – and joined a “hop-on-hop-off” style bus tour around the Korean capital. We hopped on the subway to get to the starting location, near the Gyeongbokgung Palace. As we crossed the Han River I noticed how iced over it had become and snapped a photo at speed that I felt captured the cold winter of Seoul from my memory extremely well.
Since the weather was still painfully cold we opted to stay on for a significant portion of the bus and take in the full sights and scenes of Seoul.
As the bus finished a full loop of Seoul we chose to hop off in Insadong to spend a little longer that neighborhood since we had thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon there on the second day of the trip.
We found a place for lunch and had a wonderful meal. Afterwards we stumbled upon the Jogyesa Temple which was beautifully coloured and festive. We stopped here for a while to learn more about the Temple and the neighborhood.
Ended the afternoon by visiting the Korean War Memorial.
We entered the memorial, and visited the museum, and wandered the large exhibtion of war era planes and vehicles that were stored outside the museum. It was interesting to gain a local perspective on that conflict and understand further how it continued to impact the day to day life of South Koreans.
As the sun set in Seoul we rejoined Nat in the neighborhood of her church for a final dinner in Seoul, and to spend some time with her as well. We wound up at a bar afterwards to have a drink as well.
We eventually parted with Nat so that we could head back to the hotel to prepare for the next stage of our visit. The following day we would be taking a plane journey across the Sea of Japan to Osaka! Andrew and I were flying in the morning and getting some time together in Osaka before Nat would join us on the Friday evening to head across to Kyoto together for the weekend.
Day 6: Traveling to Osaka
Seoul had been a beautiful city to visit – warm, welcoming and vibrant in culture. We reflected on the wonderful visit as we finished packing up the suitcases, making room for our purchases in Korea and carefully putting them away. We checked out from our spacious hotel room and found a taxi to take us back to the airport. We checked in and began wandering the halls of the airport when I discvoered a Dunkin Donuts, which I had not been able to find in Europe but was here in Asia. We had seen them in Seoul but here at the airport I had a chance to indulge in coffee before the flight began to board.
The flight to Osaka from Seoul was painless. We flew the short distance with Korean Air and found the plane to be surprisingly spacious and comfortable. It was certainly a preferable mode of transport compared to the flights we had taken from London/Helsinki to reach Seoul. The ease and comfort of the journey ended once we deplaned and began queueing for immigration and passport control.
We queued for 3.5 hours – by far the longest time I had stood in any Passport Control queue in my traveling history.
The lengthy wait at immigration scuppered some of our plans for the afternoon, as we had hoped to be able to spend some time exploring Osaka. We had purposefully booked an earlier flight to give us the chance to have a half day in the city. By the time that we left the airport there was little chance of getting to spend any quality time in Osaka itself. We hopped on the local train services and heade towards the hotel so we could check in and leave our luggage. By the time we arrived at the hotel we were exhausted but rallied to drop off all the luggage and try to explore the area a little.
The hotel was next to Osaka Castle but it was too late to join any tours there. We did get a chance to walk around the castle, the moat, and it’s grounds and get a beautiful view of the area and castle in the process. I loved the detailing of the roof and gold gilding on the castle and the entire structure was beautiful to see up close.
We were keen to get a local dinner and were trying to find a neighborhood called Namba that was known for it’s food and nightlife. So we headed away from the castle and took a route to cross the moat again.
One aesthetic I loved about Osaka, and many European cities I’ve visited, is the opportunity to see the juxtipostion of a historical building against a more modern structure, and I saw this view of the castle’s moat and a mirrored tower building in the distance, with the castle reflected in it’s surface. For me this captured the beauty of Japan, the old meeting with the new, and the continued influence of both within the society.
We headed out to find Namba and jumped on the train system. I nearly dragged Andrew onto a carriage that was designated as women only, but he pointed it out. It was not a concept I had seen in the US or Europe, so I hadn’t been looking for it.
While navigating the streets to reach Namba we paused briefly as I looked down a narrow street, more of an alley, and the scene captured my attention. The street was narrow and prettily lit with strung lanterns. I grabbed my camera and we detoured down this street for the photography opportunities and sheer loveliness of the scene.
Along the way we spotted a seafood grill that looked interesting and opted to stop there for a round of appetizers; the place was Souya Sushi & Grill. And despite the name being written in roman characters and English there was no sign of either when we entered the premises. We were shown to seats at the bar which overlooked the grill and chefs hard at work preparing a wide variety of food.
No one spoke English, or it was very poor when they did. We were handed a hand written menu with the Japanese words and a poor English translation beneath it. We had only rough ideas of what we were ordering so tried first to pick a few things each as a test.
Ordering was done by pointing and then raising fingers to indicate how many. When we wanted 2 orders of scallops we would point on the menu and raised two fingers.
This proved effective thankfully, and the food was cooked freshly and delivered in less than 10 minutes each time we ordered. I devoured each piece put in front of me and our plan to stop here for only appetizers was quickly scuppered.
We must have ordered 5 rounds of seafood and a few beers, but the staff were good natured and happy to serve us. We ended up having a rapport with facial expressions and gestures, as well as constantly pointing to the menu. I ate endless scallops and dabbled in a variety of other items from the list, including squid.
Eventually we couldn’t eat any more food and settled the bill, which was significantly cheaper than we had anticipated. They only took cash at the restaurant, which took us by surprise, but we had come prepared and were able to settle the bill without issue.
Throughout our stay in Japan we discovered that many places only took cash. So much so that when we did try to pay with a credit card for something at a later date, at a major hotel, they had to carbon copy swipe the credit card. I hadn’t seen one of those machines since my childhood! Luckily we had come with plenty of Yen and found opportunities to top it up at cash points where needed.
Day 7: Day Trip to Himeji
On our second day in Japan we booked another day trip. This one was particularly interesting because it would involve a trip on the Bullet Train, a visit to Himeji Castle, and a visit to Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, and returning to Osaka. To make the day extra long we were also planning to meet Nat at the airport in the evening and then travel across to Kyoto for our next leg of the trip.
I was particularly excited for this day of the trip to come for a single reason: bullet train.
It was definitely a feature on my bucket list and I was super excited to get the opportunity to ride it on the way from Osaka to Himeji. We met up with the tour group at the train station and were brought to the platform to wait for the train to arrive. By no means am I a train geek but I’ve used enough trains globally to have a keen appreciation for a well run service and a stylish train.
The carriages were spacious and comfortable, and the journey was painless and incredibly smooth. The views from the train were also fascinating, I spotted netted green areas on tops of tall buildings, and what looked to be a driving range at a distance. In what seemd like no time at all we arrived at Himeji, and I caught a glimpse of the castle in passing.
If I were to return to Japan I would try and concentrate my journeys to traveling by bullet train exclusively, it was that good.
We had a brief lunch near the station before heading directly to the castle. As we walked down the streets of Himeji I noticed a few things – manhole covers that were painted and had the design of the castle, images of an anthropomorphic castle as a cutesy Japanese character, and upside down cast iron fish heads.
Our guide explained that the castle had recently been renovated and repainted. This was a monumental task to undertake because the castle is made of wood and painted white, which displayed any inpurity of the castle. It seemed that with Himeji castle they had a particular issue with black mold growing on the painted wood and it was a never ending cycle of removation to keep the castle open. From a distance the castle gleamed pristine and white but I noticed as we got closer I could see the imperfections of that black mold already creeping back to try and damage the beautiful building.
We explored the castle and the grounds, taking in the history and the architecture of this beautiful site. Himeji Castle was also known as the “white heron castle” and is one of the last surviving castles of its type and significance. It was also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1990s, and I could understand why, especially when we learned that the castle was nearly 700 years old. And the architectural style something of true magnificence.
Upon entering the main part of the palace, the three story structure, we had to exchange our street footwear for slippers. The star cases were steep, boardering on a ladder, and found it near impossible to climb with the slippers on. Inside the building they had a model structure of what the architecture looked like to allow this beautiful wooden castle to stand.
After we finished the tour of the wooden structure of the palace we had a bit of time to have free reign to roam the grounds of the castle for a bit. I found it to be utterly enchanting and one of my favorite stops during the entire time in Asia. The castle was one of the most unique locations I had visited in my extensive travels and had an otherworldy feel. I loved the town of Himeji as well. If you’re ever in the area please take my advise and visit this beautiful 700 year old castle that depicts so much of the history in the region and the inspiring architecture.
It was a shame to leave Himeji but we had another stop for the afternoon, and therefore boarded a train (sadly not on the bullet train). The train service was a bit less luxurious than the bullet train but absolutely pleasant, on time and comfortable.
We arrived at the station next to the impressive Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge.This suspension bridge that connects two of Japan’s islands has the longest central span of any suspension bridge in the world, and a monumental display of civil engineering. Appropraite since Andrew was a civil engineer – and this was his dream of a spot to visit.
The bridge had a nice exhibit where you could access a walkway under neath the bridge itself and understand more about the magnitude of it’s construction.
We had a really lovely time visiting the exhibition, and seeing the underworkings of the bridge. The views of the nearby city were also lovely, and in general we got a nice feel for the waterways of Japan and their prowess for civil engineering.
After touring the bridge we caught a train back to Osaka and decided to walk to the Umeda Sky Building to visit it’s rooftop. If we timed the visit just right there was a chance that we would see sunset from the rooftop of this tall skyscraper and a glimpse of the expansive city of Osaka.
The building was an unusual structure – two towers connected by a circular rooftop and escalators between them. By the time we reached the top it proved that our timing was perfect; there was enough light remaining to see the expansive city and still late enough that we got to watch the sunset.
We stil had time to get dinner so we headed back to the Namba neighborhood that we had tried to find the previous evening; and ended up heading to a ramen restuarant there. Again we sat at a “bar” and were able to watch the chefs in action as they prepared bowl after bowl of fresh ramen. It was absolutely delicious and had come recommended by our guide as well.
After dinner we headed back to the hotel to get our bags and then carried onwards to the airport to meet Nat. In our haste to head to the airport we did not notice that the trains came in 4 varieties of local/express, and we ended up not on the fastest train. However, the immigration queues prove to be a bother again and we all arrived roughly at the same time.
The journey from Osaka to Kyoto was thankfully a short one, but we had to carry to Otsu where our hotel was. The rest of the evening was a headache that involved a train, taxi and argument with the hotel staff. We were unable to share a room, despite having booked one to host 3 people, and were forced to buy another room on the spot; we were later able to sort out a refund with our booking site since they had listed it as appropriate for 3 people.
We were far too tired to argue further and fell into our respective beds for the evening, with a plan to be up early in the morning to visit the Temples in Kyoto.
Day 8: Kyoto
We had an early start in Otsu and headed straight to the train station to carry us into Kyoto. We booked with a local tour company on site to show us several temples that day. And while waiting for the bus to laod we found vending machines to purchase drinks from. What I had not expected was the coffee that I purchased to come out warm and in an aluminum can with a screw top. It was an odd experience but a surprisingly decent drink. We later learned served both cold and hot drinks.
Our first stop was the famous golden temple – Kinkaku-ji. This is one of the main images that travelers have in mind when they choose to visit Kyoto, and is one of the most beautiful locations within the city. The most amazing part to me was that despite the hoards of tourists (and there were hoards despite us getting there really early), but there was still a feeling of peace and tranquility.
Where we had not run into many tourists during the trip – few in Korea and only a little more in Osaka and Himeji – but it seemed that every place we visited in Kyoto was crawling with them. It was not even the height of tourist season and the temples were incredibly busy. I would not want to have been there when the cherry blossoms.
The second temple we visited was Kiyomizu-dera. We walked up this beautiful narrow street on an incline after being dropped off by the bus, and came to the base of the temple. Red and orange structures welcomed us but as we got further in the temple’s wood had been left a shade of natural dark brown.
The awe inspiring element of the temple was not apparent until we were on the way out, and had a glimpse of the intricate structure that held the temple in place on the side of the hill.
The last of the temples was Ryoanji Temple. We arrived here to see the incredible Zen Gardens that were there with the Temple. The precision in curating them was incredible and even awe inspiring.
After the tour we returned to central Kyoto but all of us were feeling drained, exhausted, and none had slept well after the late arrival. We chose to wander the nearby city for a spell and even stepped into a department store (or a Japanese equivalent) for a hypermart. It was an insane experience but also extremely fun.
We found an area of 6 or more length aisles of toy machines – put a few Yen in and get a random toy out of it.
We returned to the hotel for an easy evening, intent to have dinner there and relax by playing games. Unfortunately what we had not prepared for was how expensive the restaurant would be – it was mostly a hotel used by conferences and business people so that later made sense. After consulting Google we opted to go for a lengthy walk to a nearby restaurant that Nat knew from recommendations.
It was not fancy or even impressive but the food was really superb. It was an unusual experience to dine in a Japanese food chain. I was not usually a fan of Katsu Curry but ordered it (since it was their specialty) and found that I quite enjoyed it.
Afterwards we stopped at a Japanese grocery store – I always make an effort to stop by one when given the chance. It’s a really unusual perspective of learning about the culture while traveling. There were loads of expected and unexpected items for sale there. We were mesmerized by the aisle with the instant noodles – an entire aisle for just that.
In the end we ended up playing games and eating strange puff snacks we bought at the grocery store in something of a roulette style manner. There were some that were not worth opening but we had a hilarious time trying each one.
Days 9&10 – Final Morning in Kyoto and (a lot of) Travel
We had a little time in the morning to have a wander near our hotel walking alongside the lake, and then take our suitcases to the train station and head back into Kyoto.
There was enough time for us to find a place to sit, have breakfast, drink coffee and create a small base that we could take turns leaving to do final errands in the train station. I found a few more final gifts for friends and family (and myself) in the shops within the station. It was a really interesting building as well with very tall ceilings made of glass, and a vibe uniquely it’s own.
We made it back to the airport in Osaka without incident, and had a few final bites of Japanese food while there. The flight back to Seoul was unmemorable, other than it was painless, and that the immigration queue at the airport was a delight (after the hell we’d suffered in Osaka).
We had a final meal with my friend in the airport, nothing special but was good to spend another few hours with her, before we headed to our airport adjacent hotel and she headed back to Seoul. We had a really early flight the next day, after all.
We took a shuttle to the airport, which was one of many just outside the airport, and settled in for the evening. In the morning we returned ti the airport, flew back to Helsinki, and again to London.
It was a long, exhausting trip, but it was a beautiful experience.
What would I recommend?
In reflection of the trip I think I appreciated the days in Korea more than those in Japan. I went into Korea with no expectations of what it would hold and it therefore blew them out of the water; whereas Japan simply met the high expectations I had for it. Both countries were amazing and provided such incredible experiences.
If you’re traveling to Korea I would absolutely suggest:
- Gyeongbokgung Palace
- Hahoe Folk Village
- Rent yourself a Noraebong room!
If you’re traveling to southern Japan I would suggest:
- Himeji Castle
- Umeda Sky Building
For more ideas and inspiration on where to visit in Japan, I recommend this great article on: 13 of the Best Cities to Visit in Japan
Between both countries and areas we traveled to there were dozens of other locations I would have loved to have had the time to visit. When I was booking the trip 10 days seemed plenty but once I was there I could have spent weeks longer and still not have seen everything I hoped to. Definitely do not short change yourself if you’re planning a trip!