Seoul Searchin’

As I type this I am sitting on my rickety wooden chair on my balcony enjoying the sunset over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. I’ve just spent five days in Bangkok, following my ten days in South Korea which I am only just getting around to writing about now. So for that, I apologise. I flew from Taipei to Seoul, spent five days there and then headed south to Gyeongju and Busan. Seoul is AWESOME. I loved it. A lot. Here are 10 reasons why.

1. The socks. Why has the rest of the world not caught up with the sock phenomenon that is going on in South Korea – especially in Seoul? There are tiny little sock shops all over the city that sell hundreds of the grooviest designed socks I’ve ever seen. And most of them are only $1 per pair!

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2. The street food is delicious. Certainly not the cheapest street food around, but tasty none the less.

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3. The café culture in Seoul rivals that of Melbourne. In Hongdae alone, there are dozens of coffee shops, with everything from large 2 storey chains like Starbucks or tiny, hole-in-the-wall boutique roasters like Coffee Prison (my recommendation).

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4. I was given this half cheeseburger as a FREE SAMPLE!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!??!?!

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5. Catching buses in foreign countries freaks me out because I never know where I am. Luckily, Seoul’s subway system is fast, clean, cheap and easy to use (with announcements in English). And the passes are cute.

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6. Puppy cafes. Need I say more?

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7. The shopping is out of this world. Whether you’re into t-shirts at dirt cheap market stalls, indie labels from independent young designers or the most luxurious brands are more your style, Seoul something for you.

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8.  They have guards outside the royal palace that are just like the ones outside Buckingham Palace in England, except they wear blue dresses. They aren’t allowed to speak or smile, or refuse to be in selfies.

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9. Even though Seoul is modernised and full of the latest technology, its still not uncommon to see stuff like this around.

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10. The airport is a great place for a snooze when you land late and you’re too cheap to pay for a hotel room.

Rocking PJ's in the middle of Incheon International. Comfort > Dignity
Rocking PJ’s in the middle of Incheon International. Comfort > Dignity

One day when I have a uni degree and my life together, I can see myself joining the huge community of expat English teachers in this amazing city. I guess I’ll see you then, Seoul.

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Eating Everything at Shilin Night Market

My wonderful friend Robin took me out again for a night of non-stop eating and bargain hunting at the famous Shilin Night Market. Night markets are big business in Taiwan, and there are dozens to choose from in Taipei alone. Shilin is highly regarded as the largest, busiest and most famous of all the night markets in the country. It sells a HUGE variety of goods. If you want it, Shilin’s got it.

The crowds at Shilin Night Market
The crowds at Shilin Night Market

We were there for one thing – food of course! I was super keen to get my hands on some amazing Taiwanese street specialties, and I was not disappointed. Having Robin with me was a massive help, as she was able to tell me what things were before I dove head first into trying them.

A lime jelly lemonade type of drink. So good.
A lime jelly lemonade type of drink. So good.
DUMPLINS. Well, more like steamed buns. Extremely oily and delicious fried buns actually. So good.
Pork Buns. So good.
Juice. So good.
Juice. So good.
Crispy custard-filled cakes. So good.
Crispy custard-filled cakes. So good.
STREET MEAT. So good.
STREET MEAT. So good.
Squid on a stick. So good.
Squid on a stick. So good.
Fried mushrooms. So good.
(Sorry for the terrible photo of) Fried mushrooms. So good.
STREET MEAT #2. So good.
STREET MEAT #2. So good.

Now let me tell you about this champion of chickens. This crumbed conquerer. This perfection of poultry. It was the biggest and best damn fried chicken I ever did have y’all. Piping hot and fresh from the fat frier, it is apparently pronounced “jee-pie” and if you want to try it, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait in line. We waited, and oh boy it was worth it. This piece of chicken was literally bigger than my face. At least twice the size of your average Aussie pub schnitzel. In the picture below, I’m not lifting the chicken up out of the bag at all, it really was that massive. And so, so, so good.

And don’t you dare try to tell me about calories and cholesterol because not a single f@#k was given.

Giant chicken. So good.
Giant chicken. So good.

Of course I couldn’t come to Taiwan without trying the infamous Stinky Tofu. Or should I say, Robin wouldn’t let me leave Taiwan without trying the infamous Stinky Tofu. This stuff really, really stinks. Really bad. Eye-wateringly bad. Like an old, homeless man’s junk. We searched what felt like the whole market, and eventually found a stall that smelled mild enough that I would come out of this experience alive. Did I mention the reason it smells so bad is because they let the tofu ROT before they cook it? Yep, rotten tofu. Pretty appetizing. I took a very tentative first bite and was surprised to discover that it’s actually not horrible! Definitely not tasty by any means and I wouldn’t order it again, but certainly edible.

Stinky tofu. Not good.
Stinky tofu. Not good.

Again, a massive thank you must go to Robin for showing me around Taipei’s best night market. I would have been lost without her!

Next post will be my Seoulful (get it?) adventures in South Korea!

In Dumpling Heaven at Din Tai Fung, Taipei

Din Tai Fung is renowned as the world’s best chain of restaurants specialising in soup dumplings. So when Taipei locals Robin (who I met in Kyoto) and Joey led me to the basement of the huge SOGO building and to the door of Din Tai Fung, I was pretty damn excited. The wait time was one hour, but I would have gladly waited two just to taste those delicious pork and vegetable xiaolongbao (soup dumplings).

We were getting along so famously that our one hour wait felt as little as ten minutes. We were then whisked away to our table, and our mouth-watering dishes began to arrive. Everything was DELICIOUS! We shared the whole lot and split the meal three ways, bringing the cost to $405TWD each ($14 AUD) which is, admittedly, a bit steep for Taiwan, especially when you can get dumplings from a little old lady on the street for next to nothing. But as an Australian, this seems a totally reasonable price, and is still far less than what I would pay for a nice restaurant meal back home. Thank you so much Robin and Joey for putting your study on hold to take me to a great dinner out!

Yummy soy sauce bean sprout salad.
Yummy soy sauce bean sprout salad.
Dumplings, stir-fried greens, bean shoots and prawn fried rice!
Dumplings, stir-fried greens, bean shoots and prawn fried rice!
Technical instructions for the best way to eat xialongbao.
Technical instructions for the best way to eat xialongbao.

Dessert! Red bean paste steamed buns!
Dessert! Red bean paste steamed buns!
Mmmm... red bean...
Mmmm… red bean…
Me, Joey and Robin!
Me, Joey and Robin!

Hot ‘n’ Sweaty Culture Shock in Taipei, Taiwan

I arrived in Taipei with no expectations whatsoever. I stepped off the plane and was thrilled to be greeted with free wi-fi at the airport, the first of many great things I would encounter in my short time here. Whilst making my way through the arrivals terminal, it began to dawn on me just how unprepared I was for this country. I think I realised this after I paid a visit to the currency exchange desk and out of habit, thanked the very confused lady who served me, in Japanese. Well that wasn’t going to be very useful to me here, was it? After a quick google search of basic Mandarin I had mastered “nihao” (“hello”) and “xie xie” (“thank you”) and was ready to take on the chaotic city of Taipei, or so I thought.

Taipei backstreets. Motorbikes EVERYWHERE.
Taipei backstreets. Motorbikes EVERYWHERE.
Very duck. Much yum.
Very duck. Much yum.

I didn’t expect to experience culture shock coming to Taiwan, especially since I’ve been to Hong Kong and China before. On the surface, these are three very similar countries. I’ve put it down to the combination of the sudden change in climate, culture and language, that resulted in a less than smooth transition from Japan.

I now know first hand from experience that the Taiwanese are a very friendly lot, but after coming from Japan where the majority of people are extraordinarily friendly, polite by nature, and will go out of their way to assist the lost and confused foreigner, the sometimes blunt attitudes of a small but noticeable number of Taiwanese were a little shocking. I did my best with my “nihao”s and “xie xie”s but I still felt a bit put out by the attitude’s of some shopkeepers and market stall holders. Perhaps it was simply because of the language barrier I was suddenly facing. Believe me, I’m definitely not a master of Japanese, but at least I was able to communicate basic ideas, read some signs, and ask for help if I needed it. But in Taipei, I suddenly found myself unable to understand anything that was going on around me, let alone effectively communicate with anyone. Accepting that I was unable to get simple points across, or ask questions, or read any signs or menus, was a difficult adjustment to have to make.

Nothing but squiggly lines.
Nothing but squiggly lines. Unlike most, this actually has pictures!

Then there was the heat. MY GOD IT WAS HOT. Well, it was only 30°C which I should be very used to, being from Brisbane, but after the cool Japanese spring I’d been enjoying, Taipei felt like one giant, noisy (and sometimes smelly) sauna. The heat washed over me like a bucket of warm cordial, leaving me sticky with sweat and drained of energy. I forgot what it was like to actually sweat from my face so heavily that I couldn’t apply moisturiser, and to be so hot that it was impossible to get dry after a shower before feeling damp again. Needless to say no matter how many bubble teas and fresh juices I got from the street stalls in my attempts to cool down, I really didn’t cope well.

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Bustling streets.

But I wasn’t going to let a little bit of sweat and miscommunication get in my way of enjoying Taipei. I saw the changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, coughed through a cloud of incense smoke at XiangTian Temple, burnt my tongue on AMAZING soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, and stuffed myself full of tasty Taiwanese specialties at Shilin night market (the last two I will be blogging about soon).

Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall.
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

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Guards doin' their thang.
They take their jobs pretty seriously over here.
Outside of Xiang Tian Temple.
Outside of Xiang Tian Temple.
Sooooo much incense.
Sooooo much incense.
Tasty looking food offerings.
Tasty looking food offerings.

I’ll leave you with three of my favourite photos from Taipei. The first three were taken at a tiny little hole in the wall restaurant I came across, that seemed to double as a house. It was run solely by a sweet little lady who didn’t speak a word of English but smiled blankly at me as I looked around for any pictures of the food she could serve, there were none to be seen. After quickly shuffling to the fridge, she pulled out a tray of raw dumplings to which I grinned and gave the thumbs up. They were crazy good; bursting with delicious herby porky flavour. Not my all time favourites, but hey, you’re talking to a dumpling connoisseur here. The fourth photo has no story. Just a little old lady hidden behind her trolley of who-knows-what.

The view from where I sat to eat.
The view from where I sat to eat.
The tiny kitchen and entranceway.
The tiny kitchen and entranceway.
I was hungry I ate them all before I remembered to take a photo.
I was hungry I ate them all before I remembered to take a photo.
Better stay out of the way.
Better stay out of the way.

A Taste of The States in Okinawa

Okinawa prefecture is a group of many small islands in the south of Japan. I flew into Naha, the capital city of Okinawa Island, the biggest and most populated island in the area. Even though there isn’t a long white sandy beach anywhere near the city, everything in Naha attempts to create an illusion of an idyllic island paradise. Walking down the main street, I was constantly reminded of the “island life” idea by the hundreds of souvenir shops selling beach inspired merch, the ice-cream stands with dozens of tropical flavours and the extravagant seafood restaurants on every corner. Of course the blue skies and palm trees don’t go too badly either.

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“Oh yuck it looks so touristy and horrible blah blah..” I can hear the travellers saying. YES, it IS extremely touristy. I know lots of people would absolutely hate Naha city as it really is a mecca for tourists and it has been built to be that way. If you really dislike this sort of atmosphere, then head further north to the more remote parts of the island, or to a different island altogether. Honestly I actually quite liked Naha. It reminded me a lot of Surfers Paradise, which made me feel like I wasn’t far from home at all.

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The island is home to a number of American military bases so as a result there is a noticeable American influence on things like food and entertainment. Somehow, a strange cultural mix of Japanese, Mexican and Hawaiian has emerged. The (somewhat) signature dish of Okinawa is “Taco-rice.” A bowl of Japanese style white rice topped with Tex-Mex inspired salad, salsa, cheese and the choice of beef or chicken. In addition to the unusual take on Mexican food there is an unmistakably Hawaiian theme to the place as well. Many of the locals can be spotted wearing Hawaiian shirts, even the bus drivers. Some souvenir shops even sell hula skirts and leis!

Chicken and avocado Taco-Rice and Chili Cheese Fries!
Chicken and avocado Taco-Rice and chili cheese fries! DAYUM SO GOOD

The most concentrated American presence in Okinawa can be found at the Mihama American Village, where I sourced the delicious feast above. It’s located about a 45 minute bus ride north of Naha, and is very close to the US military bases.

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This entire village has been created to resemble a large American outdoor shopping mall, abundant with restaurants specialising in taco-rice, hot dogs and hamburgers, as well as numerous fashion boutiques that attempt to mimic American style clothing and accessories. Many of them accept US dollars as payment, and most sales staff speak great English. There is even a movie theatre showing the latest films straight from Hollywood. Of course, the area is very popular with the residents of the US army bases, as well as offering a change of scenery for the locals. On the day I went, the village was packed with American teenagers shopping with their moms. It was a very bizarre feeling, I almost felt like I was walking around LA or somewhere. It definitely felt strange to be surrounded by way more foreigners than Japanese people.

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The village is situated behind Sunset Beach, a tiny but very nice looking beach with plenty of sun lounges and picnic tables on the grassed area behind the sand. It was still a little bit too cold for swimming when I went but I imagine it must get crazy busy during summer.

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On my last day in Okinawa I went for an unexpected super long walk up a hill to Shuri Castle. The Castle didn’t interest me very much, but I got to witness this view on a perfect day.

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dat view tho
dat view tho

Pretty sad to be saying goodbye to Okinawa and Japan as a whole. The last five months have been awesome, and I seriously can’t believe how fast that time has gone. Srsly.

There are still so many places in Japan that I didn’t make it to, which gives me all the more reasons to come back again another time. I’ll be climbing Mt Fuji one summer soon for sure.

And now, onwards to Taipei! Bring on the street food!