South Korea was one of the last countries on our Asian bucket list that we still needed to visit. We’d been putting it off mostly because we couldn’t decide whether we wanted to visit in the summer or winter. In the summer, South Korea is known for its great hiking. In the winter, for its skiing. Dave loves to ski and skiing in Asia has been something he’s wanted to do since we got here. We actually thought about going to Japan last year to ski (which is supposed to have the best skiing in Asia), but when we started looking into it, most places in Niseko, Hokkaido (the premier Japan ski spot) were already sold out or too expensive. So, this year we got an early start and decided to combine Korea and Japan for an Asian Winter Wonderland/ski trip AKA Dave’s dream trip!
Since we’d be spending most of our time in S. Korea (2 weeks) but only skiing for a few days, my parents decided to join us for part of this trip. They weren’t that thrilled about going on a cold weather trip in the middle of their own winter, but they couldn’t resist their 3rd (for my dad) and 4th (for my mom) visit to Asia (and seeing us, of course). As usual, Dave put together a killer itinerary for our trip, with about 2 weeks in S. Korea, covering all corners of the country, and then a week in Japan, heading just to Hokkaido for skiing.
We started our trip in Seoul, where we’d be spending a good amount of time. We were there for 5 nights with my parents and then Dave and I went back for a couple nights on our way to and from other places. Seoul is a huge, sprawling city, so while planning our time there, thinking about the location of each site/activity was key. Again, Dave did not disappoint in mapping out exactly what we had to do each day to make the best use of our time. For the most part, we followed the Lonely Planet’s 5-day guide, picking and choosing what looked like the best activities from each day and pairing them together so that they all made sense location-wise.
Our first taste of Seoul (literally) was very shortly after we arrived, for their famous chicken and beer. We didn’t get in until late, and by the time we met up with my parents, we (especially my dad, who is used to eating by 7pm every night) were starving! We went to pretty much the first restaurant we saw, which just so happened to be a wings and beer place. This meal, definitely topped the list of foods Dave and I were anxious to try, so we had no problem with this. We also had our first taste of Soju, Korea’s most popular alcohol, and immediately realized why the South Koreans drink so much. Not only is soju delicious – think Sake, but even stronger and better – it’s also super cheap, at around $1.50 for a small bottle. We’d end up having this chicken and beer meal about 3 more times throughout our trip and the soju, well, pretty much every night, of course!
The restaurant we found was in Hongdae, the area we choose to stay for our many nights in Seoul. This was an awesome neighborhood and one we’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Seoul. While it’s a bit of a trek to some of the daytime activities we did, it’s a straight shot to the airport on the subway and you can’t beat the nightlife. With Hongdae University nearby, this area is packed with college students and tons of restaurants and bars. It’s nice to be able to come home after a long day of sight-seeing and have great eating and drinking establishments within walking distance. You’ll see that we took advantage of this on many of our nights in Seoul.
We were up early our first morning in Seoul, and after bundling up (this was our first Asian trip in the freezing cold), we made our way around the Gwanghwamun area. This area is home to two of Seoul’s most prominent/famous palaces, the Changekgong Palace and the Gyeonyookgong Palace. We started the day at the Bukchon Hanouk Village, which has Seoul’s largest concentration of Hanouk, traditional Korean homes. Our book had a nice walking tour through the village (we love Lonely Planet walking tours!), which took us all around the homes, and even past the setting from one of Korea’s famous TV drama series (Winter Sonata). All of our students LOVE Korean dramas, and Dave recognized this place immediately from hearing students talk about it so often.
After our walk, we were starting to get hungry so we walked over to the Gwangghang Market. This was one of my favorite meals of the trip, and one of our only times really eating street food. We weren’t quite sure if street food just isn’t as prevalent in South Korea, or if we just didn’t see much of it because it was freezing outside, though it may be a combination of the two. At the market, we tried a noodle dumpling soup (which was 100% needed to warm up) and a few other side dishes, like blood sausage and kimbap (like sushi but with cooked fish, pork, or kimchi instead of raw fish). We sat down at one of the vendor’s shops to enjoy our meal and I loved that the benches were all heated!
After lunch, it was temple time. We started at the Chnagdekgong Palace. Our book said that we’d need to take a (free) tour in order to see most of the palace. We were ok with that, but were worried about the timing, as they only have them at specific times throughout the day. We got there and it turned out that the only tour necessary was of the flower garden, which you do have to pay more for. We decided to skip this tour due to the fact that it was winter and we imagined there probably wouldn’t be many flowers to see! The palace grounds were nice and easy to explore on your own.
Next we headed over to the Gyeonyookgong Palace. We’d been trying to make it there for the changing of the guards, which happens every hour on the hour from 10-4 pm. When we arrived at 4pm, however, they told us that the guards were done for the day. My mom had been really excited to see this, so she was bummed (sorry mom!). Dave decided to still go in and take a look around the palace, but my parents and I opted out and went into a coffee shop nearby for some hot chocolate instead! Day 1 was definitely the coldest day of our time in Korea, so we were in some desperate need of warming up.
After a long day of sightseeing, we wanted to stay around us for dinner (see, I told you it’s good to be in an area with good nightlife!). Dave and I scoped out the dinner situation and found a cool restaurant where they cook stir-fry for you right at your table. The South Koreans seem to be all about the cook-at-your-table situations. The food was delicious and I was just happy that I didn’t have to be the one doing the cooking this time.
Day two took us out of South Korea and into North Korea (for about a second). We had been very excited about a tour to the DMZ (de-militarized zone – the only one in the world). We booked this tour about a month in advance and opted for the full-day option that also took us to the JSA (Joint Security Area). We were a bit wary of spending about $85pp on the tour, but thought it would probably be worth it to see the actual dividing line between the North and the South and to literally step foot on North Korean soil (there’s a half day option for half the price but it doesn’t include the JSA). We were right.
We were on the bus at 7am for the hour-long ride and spent the day learning about the troubles between the North and South and seeing how intense this area really is. It’s hard to believe that there are South Korean soldiers whose sole job is literally staring face to face with the North Korean soldiers, making sure no funny business transpires. While we didn’t get to cross over the “actual” line into North Korea, we did enter a conference room that spanned the two sides, and therefore are officially able to say that we’ve been to North Korea. After seeing the JSA in the morning (and having our first bibimbap for lunch at the DMZ cafeteria!), we visited the first train station heading to the capitol of North Korea, which South Korea built in hopes of reunification. Then, we ended the day at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, where North Koreans had at one point tried to sneak their way into South Korea underground.
Overall, it was a really fun and educational day. It was interesting to hear about how hopeful the South Koreans are about their reunification with the North. To me it seemed like this is something that’s probably never going to happen and I wondered why they would even want it to. I’d say that if you have the time and money, this tour is definitely worth it. If you can, splurge for the full-day, as the JSA was certainly the highlight for me.
When we arrived back to Seoul in the afternoon, we ended up near another area that we wanted to see, so instead of going back to our hotel, we decided to check it out. Itaewon is the trendy, international part of town, filled with Western restaurants (including a Halal Guys, which was just opening the day we visited). Of course, Dave and I were in heaven walking around checking out each and every menu, planning where we’d come back for dinner another night (it was too early to stay there this night)!
For dinner on night 3, we stuck to our area (once again!), for another cook-at-the-table meal of Korean BBQ. This time, however, I was the chef, and I’m pretty sure everyone was very happy with my cooking skills – even my mom, who doesn’t eat meat! You can find about every type of Korean BBQ place, from very fancy to very local. We opted for one right in the middle and it was awesome.
Day three brought us to the Myeongdong Shopping District in the morning. This was one of my favorite areas in Seoul, as it was filled with every Korean skin care brand imaginable (most of the stores even had multiple locations on the same block – that’s how popular they are!). For those of you who don’t know, my family and I started an e-commerce website selling skin care and beauty products, so my parents and I wanted to scope out the best of what South Korea had to offer – and it was a lot! This area had store after store after store selling different beauty and cosmetic products, my favorite of which were the wide variety of different face masks. I had heard how obsessed with skin care the Koreans are, but couldn’t quite believe it until I saw Myeongdong.
When Dave was finally able to peel us away from the shopping (after getting lost by telling him and my mom that my dad and I would meet them at a certain store, only to realize later there were several of those same stores within the maze of Myeondgdong), we found a great lunch spot serving traditional Korean foods, such as gimbap, bibimpap, bolgolgi, rameyon (ramen with a slice of American cheese on top – my favorite!), etc. We had a delicious lunch before heading off on our big “hike” through Namsan Park to N. Seoul Tower. The hike itself wasn’t very hard (though my mom may beg to differ), but we’ve never seen anything quite like this – it was basically a mountain smack in the middle of the city, with amazing views all around. At the top, there was a mall and a whole area devoted to love – including huge hearts on display and thousands of love locks – couples show their love for one another by writing their names on locks and attaching them to fences, benches, trees, and pretty much anywhere possible, to remain there forever. It was very cool and pretty to see.
And our day wasn’t over yet (it’s no trip with the Staves if you have even an hour to rest during the day!). After N. Seoul Tower, we made it over to the Korean War Museum for the last couple hours of the day. My grandpa was in the Korean War, so this was a must-see for us. We spent a couple of hours walking around the impressive museum and learning a little more about the history. We definitely got a much different vibe here than we did at the Vietnam War Museum (or the American War Museum, as they call it), in regards to the involvement of the U.S.
The War Museum was only a short walk from Itaewon (the trendy, international area), so we headed back over there for dinner. Unfortunately for my parents, even though Dave and I had already scoped out all the menus the day before, we still had to go through them all again before making our decision. We chose a great Italian restaurant for our first Western meal of the trip.
For our final day in Seoul, we went to scope out a couple more shopping areas. Apgujeong is known as Seoul’s Rodeo Drive, though it reminded us much more of Michigan Ave. We walked through this area and then to the Co-Ex Mall, Seoul’s largest mall, which had nothing on the malls in Bangkok (sorry guys, we’re hard to impress when it comes to malls!). We did get to have Quiznos for lunch and saw a movie (La La Land), so it was a day that made us feel like we were right back at home.
The final area we had to check out was Gangnam. This is supposed to be another great nightlife (and shopping) area, though regrettably, we only made it here during the day (it was one of the furthest areas from where we were staying in Hongdae). After walking through though, it did remind us a bit of where we were staying and we could see that it would certainly be a cool night spot. After exploring Seoul’s supposed shopping mall area (and confirming they had nothing on Bangkok’s malls!), we headed back to our area for dinner once again, and weren’t quite ready to get back to Korean yet, so we settled on Chinese. We loved the fact that we had to walk downstairs in a basement type setting for this place!
After four great days, we were finally ready to get out of the big city and see some more of what Korea had to offer. Our next stop was Busan, South Korea’s second biggest city. After taking a two-hour high-speed train there we settled into our hotel (the Lotte hotel, the nicest hotel in the city, which my parents treated us to for Hanukkah – thanks, guys!) and then made our way to the Gamcheon Cultural Village on the outskirts of the city. This village was pretty awesome. It’s up on a mountain and filled with colorful houses. When you look down from the top, you get some pretty spectacular views! We all really enjoyed walking around here for a couple hours, and it was especially nice to be there around sunset time, as we got to see the views during the day and at night.
We had a very special and memorable dinner later that night at the Jagulchi seafood market to celebrate my mom’s 55th birthday. This is the largest seafood market in Korea, and is very impressive in its selection. The entire market is surrounded by seafood restaurants, but the really fun places to eat are right inside the market! After scouring each and every menu, we settled on the place with the best prices and the nicest owners. One of the specialties here is live octopus, which Dave and I had to try and we actually both loved. They literally bring out a plate of chopped up raw octopus, that are still squirming around! If you pick them up with your hands, their tentacles will suction to you. It was a very interesting and fun experience (and delicious too!).
For our one full-day in Busan, we took the train to the outskirts of the city to Geumgang Park. You take a cable car ride up a mountain and then there are hiking trails all around. Our destination once we reached the top was a fortress about two miles from the cable car. We only got lost a couple of times on our way there, but we eventually found it. Luckily it wasn’t too cold outside this day.
The afternoon was rainy, so we decided to go back to our hotel to enjoy the amazing pool and spa there. We picked up a pizza and bottle of wine from the mall next door and surprised my parents with a new movie they hadn’t seen. For those of you who have read some of our posts, you know that we love to watch movies about the country we’re in while were there. This trip was no exception! We just so happened to have the movie The Interview with us, the spoof with Seth Rogan and James Franco about North Korea. It was the perfect night to watch this comedy and fun getting to see the DMZ/JSA, which we had visited a few days earlier.
The next day (after an unfortunate bus situation – we ended up at the wrong bus station due to our hotel giving us wrong directions and had to buy new tickets!), we made our way to Jeonju, a smaller city known for its cultural village and also for being the origin of bibimbap, my favorite Korean dish. We only had a day there, so as soon as we got in, we set out to explore the Jeonju Hanouk Village, which was a very cute town that reminded us of a much smaller version of Lijiang in China. It was funny seeing so many of the girls dressed up in traditional Korean clothing (and their winter coats, of course) walking through this traditional Korean village.
The highlight of our time in Jeonju, however, was our dinner. Besides bibimbap, the most popular thing to do in Jeonju food/drink wise is get a kettle of rice wine at a local bar. We read that these come with free “snacks,” however, we didn’t know that these snacks were actually an entire meal. We stopped by one of these bars for happy hour planning to hit the most famous bibimbap place in town for dinner afterwards, but like I said, the free snacks were actually a free meal! Being the Americans we are (and because I LOVE bibimbap), we just decided to eat two dinners. Neither of our meals disappointed (though we definitely prefer soju to the much weaker rice wine).
After a short stop in Jeonju, the next day we made our way to my parents’ last stop and the beginning of our ski trip, Muju. This is the only Korean ski resort inside a national park. My parents wanted to get a little glimpse of what a Korean ski town was like and lucky for all of us, it started snowing a ton just as we arrived! We checked out the mountain for a while, Dave and I rented our equipment for the next day, and then we went back to our hotel for the night, which was about 10 miles away from the resort. You can stay right at the mountain, as long as you’re willing to fork over $400/night for a room! We opted for the cheaper accommodation a short drive away – luckily the owners of our hotel were amazing and very accommodating, and literally drove us everywhere we wanted to go!
We had a great last day (and whole trip) with my parents, and an awesome last meal at a great Korean restaurant next to our hotel, but now Dave and I (well, mostly Dave) were ready to ski!
We stayed in Muju the next day and while unfortunately some of the runs were closed, we still had a really nice day skiing (I won’t lie, I was perfectly happy to ease back into skiing after a 4-year hiatus!). There was a ton of snow and the conditions were good, which was really all we could ask for. We weren’t quite ready to eat in town after we were done skiing, so we picked up some food at the grocery store and went back to our hotel to cook and watch a movie. I wasn’t feeling great, so I was happy to have the night to relax.
We spent Christmas Eve back in Seoul and celebrated with our 2nd Korean chicken and beer meal. After a short stopover, however, we were ready to hit our 2nd Korean ski mountain, Yongpyong (in PyeongChang), which will be hosting the 2018 winter Olympics. Similar to Muju, some of the slopes here were closed although there was a lot of snow and the conditions were really good. Even though we didn’t get to ski the runs all the way at the top of the mountain, we still had a great ski day (or at least I thought so).
This time, it was a little easier to get around, as we found a place right in the main town with a bus going directly to the mountain every hour. The town itself was small, but cute, and we found a Korean restaurant, which we actually ended up eating at both nights we were there. We figured this would be our last couple of traditional Korean meals so we had to take advantage.
Before heading off on part two of our trip, we had one more night in Seoul, which we spent catching up on some work, seeing another movie (amazingly we were there for movie day and got our tickets for half price!), and having another great meal in Hongdae (though don’t worry, it still wasn’t our last).
We had a great time in Korea, but now we were ready for what we thought should be the highlight of our trip, a week in Hokkaido Japan, for New Years and then skiing at arguably the best ski resort in Asia. We spent a couple weeks in Japan two summers ago, but we’d never made it to Hokkaido, and of course, we never got to experience Japan in the winter, so we were excited to see a new side of this country that we loved so much.
We spent our first few days in Sapporo, which we came to know as probably the snowiest place we’ve ever been – it was a true winter wonderland. We stayed near the main nightlife area in Sapporo, Susikino, and went to check it out for dinner for our first night. It was a weekday night, but this area was packed. As we were walking around, we saw piles of snow literally as tall as cars. The roads were all covered in sheets of ice inches thick and it was amazing that cars were able to drive through it. The people, on the other hand, were not doing quite as well and were slipping and sliding all over the place – it was quite a funny sight to see! We ate on “Ramen Alley” for dinner (an alley full of ramen restaurants, actually called ramen alley on a map). After a rude owner yelled at us at the first place we tried, we settled on a spot not in our guide book. It was good to have a hot soup, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t the best meal of our trip.
The next day, we started our exploration of Sapporo. We headed to the Nijo seafood market to walk through the many stalls selling the famous Hokkaido crabs. These were a little out of our price range, so instead, we opted for a pre-lunch snack of a clam and oyster, grilled up for us right on the sidewalk!
We spent the day walking around, checking out Sapporo Station (where we had a great sushi lunch at an awesome food court, which we ended up returning to every day for lunch in Sapporo), the Sapporo TV Tower, and a few other sites our book mentioned. It was cold, but a beautiful, sunny day to walk around.
That night, we made our way over to the Sapporo Beer Garden/Factory. This place is more of a group of restaurants than an actual beer factory and if you come here, keep in mind that you need a reservation. While you can come just for a tasting, you still need a table reserved in advance at one of the 4-5 different restaurants. We started at Kessel Hall and they were able to seat us for one beer (only because we had a reservation at a different restaurant later on), and then had dinner at Poplar, where we got to try Sapporo’s famous Ghingis Khan dish, which is another cook-it-yourself meal with lamb and grilled veggies. It was an awesome meal and the factory itself was in a very pretty setting, especially at Christmas.
The following day, we took a trip to the Sapporo Olympic Museum. The museum itself was actually closed, but we came to see the Olympic ski jump stadium. You can take a chair lift up to the top of the ski jump they used in the Olympics and get a glimpse of what it must feel like for the participants – in a word, terrifying!
That day we received some sad news, right before New Year’s Eve – my grandfather had passed away. He’d been sick for a while, but had gotten very ill in the past week or so, and did not make it. We were very sad to not be able to be with my family during this time, but our thoughts were certainly with them.
That night was New Year’s Eve. We celebrated the new year and my grandpa’s life with some new friends we made at our guesthouse. We’d planned to be in Sapporo for NYE because we thought it would be a fun place to celebrate, but it turns out that it’s actually a very religious holiday in this area, celebrated by spending time with family, not by partying, as we’re used to. This is not the first time we’ve made a mistake like this. We had been planning on going out to a nice dinner, however, when we learned that most of the restaurants would be closed that night, we decided to cook at our hostel instead. We felt lucky to even find a grocery store that was open! We picked up a couple of steaks and sides, cooked in our hostel, and then went to a couple of bars to ring in the New Year with our new friends.
The last leg of our trip took us to Niseko, arguably Asia’s best ski resort. While it doesn’t have the height of the Rockies/Alps, it gets 4 times the annual snowfall, making it the powder capital of the world for ski/snowboard enthusiasts. And the town itself is super hi-so and mostly European/Australian, making it feel more like Aspen/Vail or Chamonix than Asia (these are Dave’s words describing it!).
We stayed at a really cute place literally at the Hirafu Station. Hotels in Niseko were charging upwards of $1,000/night, so we opted for something a little more authentic. We kind of felt like we were in the wilderness there. Luckily, the owner of the guesthouse, Yoshi, was very accommodating and helped us get to and from the mountain.
Our first day there, we explored Niseko and were so surprised to see what this town was like. It was filled with food trucks, fancy restaurants and bars, and some crazy nice houses. We had a great meal of burgers and wings our first night – thank you to all the Aussies in Niseko who love pub food and make it so prevalent there!
In addition to eating in Niseko one night, we wanted to check out another town nearby, Kuchan. While a lot of places were still closed because of the New Year holiday, we found a great local Japanese place, where our entire meal (plus drinks) cost the same as one burger OR beer in Niseko!
When it comes to skiing, Niseko is known for two things: 1) powder and 2) backcountry/out of bounds skiing. Dave warned me ahead of time that he wanted to try a couple out of bounds runs, to my dismay, of course, so I allowed him one per day. Luckily, that’s all he would have wanted to do anyway because they take so long (you typically have to hike for a while back up to the chairlift at the end of these runs) and don’t leave you enough time to see all the runs actually ON the mountain! Niseko is also famous for skiing among the trees, even on piste. It was a very beautiful place and even I really enjoyed our time skiing (and I guess I did a pretty good job, as Dave awarded me the nickname “Silky Smooth!”). We also got to try night skiing (well, skiing in the dark – it gets dark by 4pm, so I’m not sure if you can REALLY call what we did night skiing).
After our two days of skiing in Niseko, we rewarded ourselves with a traditional Japanese onsen (hot tubs and sauna where men and women go separately and naked). It was a great way to end our ski vacation!
We spent our last night in Japan in a little port town between Sapporo and Niseko called Otaru. The town was super cute, with a main street filled with awesome seafood restaurants. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that this main tourist strip is only open for lunch, so we missed out on getting to eat at one of these places, but still ended up with a great meal closer to the train station where we were staying.
We flew back to Korea for one more night on the town in Hongdae, where we had our final meal of chicken and beer and FINALLY found a Karaeoke bar. It was such a fun last night and the perfect end to a great winter break trip!