My favorite places to hang in Seoul

Since I’ve finished my Jeju Island article series, I’m going to write about some of my favorite places to hang out in Seoul next.  It’s hard to structure this article because there are literally so many cool areas of the city!  My two favorite districts in Seoul are by far Itaewon and Gangnam.  Both have extremely different vibes but are perfect for a night out depending on what my mood is.  Itaewon is friendliest and most international while Gangnam is the fanciest district is Seoul.  Even though I can’t speak Hangul, I never have trouble making friends in this city.  Spontaneously getting invited to a bachelor’s party while staying here was one of the coolest things that have ever happened to me in a foreign country.  I’ve been to Korea three times and hope to visit again when international travel is possible again.

Without further ado, here are the most fun places that I’ve discovered:

Common Ground

Common Ground is an urban mall that was built out of containers and is really fun to explore.  Unlike other malls, there’s not a huge mob of annoying shoppers here because those type of people usually go to the fancier malls in the center of the city.  Common Ground features small designer stores and also has restaurants and live music.  A lot of stores here import brands too.  No matter what your price range is, you can usually find something that fits your taste here.  I actually didn’t buy much but I had fun doing photography with the winter illuminations outside.  There was also a statue of an astronaut outside and some replicas of Roman statues inside the main building when I visited.  How aesthetic!

While I was walking around here, a Korean student came up to me and interviewed me for a university project.  Since I didn’t have a strict itinerary during my first trip, I happily participated.  She asked me various questions about my country and also gave me some Korean snacks.  Though it was a simple project, I was happy that I could help out.  Common Ground is close to many universities so it’s great for socializing and meeting people!

Lotte World

Lotte World is one of the most famous amusement parks in Korea.  In fact, it’s the largest indoor theme park in the world—which is why I had to go!  It’s located in the massive Lotte Mall that has hundreds of shops and food from all around the world.  If you are looking for top tier shopping in Seoul, then this is the place.  I came after the start of the new year so the park had a winter theme.  Fortunately it wasn’t very crowded and I could ride all of the rides that I wanted!  There are carousels, roller coasters, haunted houses, and my personal favorite: The Balloon Ride.  You can see the entire indoor park and mall from the top which makes it an amazing experience.

Even though Lotte World is owned by Lotte Co. Ltd., there are actually a lot of parallels between it and Disney Land.  For example, the outside of Lotte World resembles the Disney World Castle.  It also has a beautiful lake that you can view by walking across a bridge that leads to the artificially created “Magic Island” which is a lot like Disney Sea.  Despite these similarities, the attractions are quite different and the entrance to Lotte World is considerably cheaper.  If you like one park, you’ll probably like the other too.

I would recommend checking out Lotte World as opposed to other amusement parks because you can come here in any kind of weather thanks to the indoor park area.

Entrance Fee: 32$ for adults (cheaper than most amusement parks in Japan so it’s overall worth it)

Jogyesa Temple

The Jogyesa Temple in Insadong, Seoul is probably my favorite temple of all time in Korea.  I first came here during the Lotus Festival in April and many bright hand-crafted paper ornaments were hung around the entire complex.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!  Jogyesa is actually the center of Buddhism in Korea and many rituals and ceremonies are held here.  There are private prayer rooms as well as places that you can make public offerings.  The Chinese Scholar Tree was planted on the temple grounds because it is said to convert negative energy into positive energy and happiness.  Though I’m not particularly religious, I definitely felt in high spirits here.  Please check this place out if you ever get the chance.  The monks are very friendly and welcoming.

I enjoyed seeing the English pack of M&Ms being used as an offering when I went:

img_1856

Entrance Fee: Free

Myeongdong

Myeongdong is essentially the Shibuya/Harajuku of Seoul.  You can come here at any time of day and find something fun to do.  It has street food, hilarious fashion (“say no to kids, drugs”), recreational parks, and cafes galore.  The street and night markets have knock-off Gucci and Supreme which you can score for a low price.  I enjoyed eating octopus and drinking sochu while I walked through all the streets and alleyways.

Some of my favorite places I found around Myeongdong Station were:

  • Artbox – An adorable mall with art supplies, cosmetics, and accessories.  It reminded me of the LINE Friends store in Japan but had way more variety.
  • Stylenada 3CE – A pool-themed shopping mall and cafe with beautiful pink decor.  It has amazing desserts!
  • Bbongsin – An amazing restaurant with cold noodles and calzones.  Some of the best Korean food I’ve ever had!
  • Milky Bee – An ice cream shop with flower-shape gelato.
  • Happy Pills – Candy prescriptions.

Myeongdong has bars that stay open late, but not much of a club scene.  Continue reading to see my recommendations for clubs:

Gangnam

Ever since the song “Gangnam Style” became a hit song, I feel like this district doesn’t really need an introduction but I’ll give it a go anyway.  Gangnam is the most upscale district in Seoul but you can enjoy the nightlife here with almost any budget.  In addition to some of the most reputable clubs, it has secluded parks you can walk through by the river side and amazing cafes.  Gangnam itself is pretty spread out so people don’t normally drink in the streets like in Itaewon.  It’s classy and has a club area as well as a quiet upscale residential district as well.

My first memory of Gangnam was meeting up with some of my old college friends here and going to Octagon, where we got invited to VIP tables and drank champagne.  If you’re a girl then it’s really easy to meet people that will buy you drinks here.  The crowds and sound system are pretty insane too.  I honestly got too lit my first time here so I’d really like to come back and just focus on the music next time.

Last year I decided to get my eye bags removed at JK Plastic in Gangnam.  I had sunken eyelids that were caused by genetics so the veins under my skin would show and create permanent eye bags.  I always looked tired and wanted to fix the issue so I opted for eye surgery.  I chose JK Plastic because they are one of the highest-rated clinics in Korea and speak English.  It took about a week of downtime in Korea and then six weeks of recovery at home, but the skin beneath my eyelids has been fully restored now!  When I woke up from surgery I nearly cried because they did such an amazing job and I could already see the results despite having a swollen face.  During my down time I played visual novels and also watched a lot of anime.  It wasn’t so bad—just make sure you have enough time off to take care of yourself!

Plastic surgeons in Korea are the best in the world.  The advantage of going here is that if you’re a tourist you can get a tax refund from the surgery when you go to the airport.  I would not recommend plastic surgery in Japan because my friends have said the surgeons here are not as experienced or friendly.  I would recommend doing research, scheduling an online consultation with a clinic you like, and seeing what options fit you best.  I may write a full article on this at a later time!

Itaewon

26195351_10213465610706090_665561559694358007_n
The inside of Fountain, one of my favorite watering holes in Itaewon.

Itaewon is my favorite place to start my night out in Seoul.  I have so many fond memories here.  It caters to the late-night international crowd and has small, condensed streets as well as beautiful murals that decorate the walls.  You can sit at an outdoor bar or go drinking in the street and easily meet people (both tourists and Korean nationals).  You can find pretty much any type of restaurant or dessert shop here too.  It has the feel of a college town but is much more upscale and classy.  Usually I spend my first night going to various clubs and bars then wake up and soak in Itaewon Land Spa.

My favorite club here is called Cakeshop because it features a lot of independent producers from both Seoul and other countries plus it has a great vibe.  It originally caught my eye because Carpainter did a set here in 2015 (unfortunately I was in America at the time or I would have gone).  The club is small enough with one DJ booth and bar that it’s easy to converse with people and enjoy the music.  I have made a number of friends here that I still stay in touch with.  The entry fee usually isn’t more than $25.

Besides Cakeshop, Fountain is a great place to check out.  The first floor is huge dance floor that’s always usually packed and the upper floors have tables and arcades for bigger groups.  The music here is usually western EDM which disinterests me, but the atmosphere of the club is impressive.  I have never paid any entrance fee when I have gone in.  What I remember of Club Awesome was awesome too!

Next time I’m here I really want to check out a club called Pumpkin.  If it’s actually Halloween-themed like its outer decor implies then I’m in.

Other Interesting Places:

  • Hongdae – Hongdae is a popular spot for college students and those who love K-pop music clubs.  I came here to visit the ADERerror store and also to do some shopping.  I didn’t like it as much as Itaewon or Gangnam due to my music taste, but I highly recommend you spend a night exploring here and see what you think.

    I found an amazing “Magical Item Shop” called Creamy DD with tons of Sailor Moon and other magical girl accessories here.  It’s easy to spot the sign if you walk down the main road:

  • Ihwa Mural Village – Since I went to Busan and saw Gamcheon I skipped this village, but if you are looking for beautiful murals and art to see then please check this place out!  I want to go here in the future.
  • Secret Garden – A scenic area around Changdeokgung Palace that I recommend checking out if you have the time.  It is one of the most beautiful gardens in Seoul!
  • Nami Island – A scenic island near Seoul where many K-dramas are filmed.  Click the link to read my full article on it!

Places to Stay

As a backpacker, I favor cheap hostels but the majority of accommodations in Korea are less expensive than in Japan.  You can likely find a nice hotel for $45 USD or less too.

Here are some of the places that I stayed at and enjoyed in Korea.  I booked them close in proximity to the clubs I was interested in checking out:

  • Guesthouse Yacht (Itaewon) – A very inexpensive apartment-style dorm in the heart of Itaewon.  This is my go-to place if I’m spending the night there because it’s safe, quiet, and conveniently located.
  • Kimchee Guesthouse (Gangnam) – A guest house near Gangnam City Office that has private and dorm rooms.  I stayed here during my eye surgery recovery period and it was perfect because my room had a shower inside it.  This is the cheapest you will get in the fanciest part of the city, I assure you.
  • Neo Seoul Guesthouse – I wanted to try staying in Hongdae for a night, so I chose this place because of the cool name.  It was cheap and I could easily access the airport limousine the next day so I recommend it for its convenience (Itaewon and Gangnam are a bit further away).

Dessert Recommendations

Please see Desserts that will make your heart melt in Seoul Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

This will be the last article about Korea that I write until my next trip!  Since I live in Japan, I can sometimes find cheap round-trip flights for under $150 so I come here usually once a year for a week long vacation.  Usually new restaurants and venues open, plus cosmetics and beauty clinics are really cheap here so I always have something to look forward to.  Until next time, Seoul!

 

The Jeju Chronicles: Last Day on the Island Exploring Beaches, Sex Museums, and the Nexon Computer Museum

After exploring the east and west side of Jeju Island and climbing Mt. Hallasan, I decided to spend my final day on the island relaxing and seeing some of the places that most tours don’t cover (such as the sex museum and private beaches).  Since I don’t have an international license, I had my hostel help book me a private taxi driver.  The average cost of private taxi drivers in Jeju is about $150 USD per day but hiring one is much easier than trying to use the local buses.  The duration of the taxi session is around 9 hours and you can easily see all of the things you want to see without hassle.  Hilariously, all the English-speaking drivers were booked already due to high demand but I was able to book a Japanese one.  Without further hesitation I set off for my fifth and final day on the island and hoped for the best!  Fortunately the weather was on my side.

See Iho Tewoo Beach & Gwakji Beach

Jeju has around eight popular swimming beaches in total, but I chose to travel to the two most photogenic ones.  Iho Tewoo Beach is famous for its two horse-shaped lighthouses.  I wanted to see them in person so this was the very first destination I chose!  Unfortunately it was bit too cold to go swimming, but I just liked being on an empty and relaxing beach.  Apparently this beach is extremely popular during the summer because you can go for boat rides here, but during late April when I went it was extremely peaceful and quiet.  Just what I wanted after all of the exhausting hiking that I did!

I picked up some amazing octopus at a nearby restaurant here.  Raw Korean octopus tastes amazing:

After I had my fill, I decided to head to Gwakji Beach which is much livelier because there are a lot of resorts around it.  None of the resorts on Jeju are particularly fancy, but the cafes sure are.  I decided to try Mônsant which is owned by G-DRAGON purely because of its flawless architectural design.  You can see the ocean through the panes of glass while sipping on delicious coffee.  I ordered a strawberry smoothie and couldn’t believe the view that I was seeing:

I tried to go swimming here, but the beach shore was a bit rocky so I was reluctant.  Jeju’s beaches are more designed for soaking up the atmosphere rather than actually getting soaked.  I didn’t mind though, because Gwakji Beach definitely had a nice vibe.  In addition to posh cafes there were squids being sun-dried and local food stalls around.  I appreciated the diversity of food here.

One hilarious and slightly creepy trend here I saw was having photos of couples and babies printed onto lattes.  I’m usually quite adventurous when it comes to food, but I don’t know if I’d have the courage to drink myself…  This is just too realistic:

img_1680
WOW!

Nexon Computer Museum

The next stop was my favorite museum of all time in Korea: The Nexon Computer Museum.  Nexon is the company responsible for creating Maple Story and the longest running commercial graphic MMO in the world: Baram, also known as Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds.  I was really surprised to see that a modest company in Korea had this award; which makes me think that Nexon is seriously underrated so naturally I wanted to learn more.

I featured this museum in my Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums article, so please check it out for the full description!  If you travel all the way to Jeju, you need to come here.  You won’t be disappointed.

Museum of Sex and Health (Jeju Loveland)

Ah yes, the infamous Sex Museum of Korea.  I’ll admit I was a bit embarrassed coming here by myself, but I was on vacation so I figured why the hell not?  Jeju Loveland is an art museum of erotic outdoor sculptures and has an indoor collection of various adult toys.  What’s good is that it promotes a safe approach to sex and only admits entry to adults (honestly I’ve seen enough pedophilia in Japan bookstores and this was a much classier attraction).  “Various romantic and sexual art works are waiting for you.” the official website says.  I liked the ambiguity of the upside-down sculptures submerged in water… But I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.  Definitely see it if it fancies you!

Entrance Fee: $9 USD (not bad)

Jeju Horse Park

Before having my driver drop me off at the airport so I could take my flight back to Seoul, I decided to make one more stop at Jeju Horse Park.  I was wearing the most extra outfit because I was shooting pictures on the beach just before, but once again I figured why not!  I was on vacation and I wanted to ride a horse one last time.  This was the perfect way to end my Jeju Chronicles.  I had successfully accomplished everything that I had planned so this was yet another perfect trip to commemorate.  The park has a really laidback approach and you can choose multiple routes around the mountains and seaside.  I couldn’t use my camera because I was riding, but I had an amazing time!  There was a guide who was keeping close watch on me so I felt safe at all times.  Horseback riding is a great way to see Jeju Island and is relatively cheap so you should try it at least once while you’re here.

Entrance Fee: $10-$20 USD depending on how long you go.

Final Remarks

As this article implies, I had a phenomenal time on Jeju Island and would recommend it to all my friends.  There were a few issues with the language barrier here and there, but island people are some of the friendliest people that you will ever meet.  I really treasured all of my time here.  I was also able to speak Japanese in a few instances and find my way around.  Google Maps aren’t always reliable in South Korea so I would do your research on what attractions you want to see before coming here.  That’s it really.  Once you arrive at Jeju, you’ll find that the island is small enough that you can easily navigate and fit in all the activities you want.  Jeju is by far the most beautiful place in South Korea and you should definitely give it a chance because it has activities for everyone!

Monet’s Pond: Just as Gorgeous as the Original Paintings (Gifu, Japan)

Over the weekend I decided to re-visit Gifu Prefecture and see if it’s famous water lily pond in Seki was worth the hype.  This originally nameless pond has been nicknamed “Monet’s Pond” (モネの池) by the locals because it closely resembles the Water Lilies art series painted by Claude Monet in the late 1800s.  Depending on the season and the weather, the scenery of the pond can vastly change.  Some online reviews have said that Monet’s Pond is a vibrant place that is a spitting image of the artwork, while others have dismissed it for appearing as murky and overrated.  It’s somewhat humorous to see the variety of scrutiny this place gets (both in English and Japanese).

My favorite review comes from “Kevin B” on Google:

review3

“It is nice, but professional photograph[s] ruined it for me.  My expectations were too high, don’t trust the pictures on the Internet.” – Kevin B

This could be true of any place, anywhere—don’t trust the pictures on the internet.  Kevin B’s review implies if you set your expectations too high, you will be undoubtedly disappointed.  Especially since the pond is located in a considerably remote location with infrequent transportation.  But as an adventurer, reading that description just made me want to travel here even more so I could see it for myself.

Fortunately I was not disappointed because the photos I captured look complementary to the artwork:

Fun Fact: I didn’t actually look at any of the Water Lilies paintings until after I went to the pond because I didn’t want my expectations to be warped.  I only looked at them for reference in order to accurately write this article.

Here is a gallery of photos that I took.  The pond is quite small in size, but depending on where you stand you can see an entirely different reflection in the water:

I was lucky because I got the chance to see Monet’s Pond in both sunny and cloudy weather in the hour that I was there.  During sunny weather the pond perfectly reflects the clouds in the sky giving it that dream-like oil painting aesthetic.  During cloudy weather it looks a lot darker, but with the floating water lilies it still appears beautiful.  Perhaps in the colder months it looks more bare and devoid of color, thus provoking the negative reviews.  Coming in June gave me the perfect experience though.  I was extremely satisfied with what I saw.

In this video the Koi look like they’re swimming through the clouds:

If you search for pictures of the pond online, you will see mixed results.  Some photos have been purposely edited with filters and textures to look more like the paintings.  However, the photos on the Official Gifu Tourism Website look pretty natural.  I used both my iPhone’s camera and my GoPro so I could closely compare the detail.  I only edited the lighting and shadows slightly in the photos I posted here because the sunlight was already optimal.  It is recommended to come in the summer and fall months for the best viewing but the pond is open year-round.

Even if we can’t trust the internet, one thing we all can agree on is that this cheesecake replica of Monet’s Pond is awesome:

monets pond cake
Monet’s Pond Cheesecake created by an anonymous pastry chef (posted on Grapee).

Not gonna lie, seeing this cake was another huge inspiration for my journey here.  Perhaps Gifu Prefecture will some day replicate this idea and create a cafe with food and souvenirs based on the pond like many other places in Japan.  Until then, enjoy this capitalist-free piece of nature.

Access

From Gifu Station take the N83 bus towards ほらどキウイプラザ行き (Horado Kiwi Plaza) and get off at the last stop.  I was a bit disappointed to see that there were no kiwis here (this is simply a parking lot on the side of a highway).  From the bus stop at the parking lot you will see a small van waiting adjacent to the bus.  The van’s time tables are aligned with the local buses so you can take it for free to Monet’s Pond.  The bus ride takes about 1.5 hours, and the van ride takes 15 mins, so the total travel time is around 1 hour and 45 mins.  Though this is a bit of a journey, the ride only costs 670 yen and the pond has no entrance fee making it one of the cheapest attractions in Gifu.

If you like seeing the country side of Japan and don’t mind riding the bus, then I would recommend this trip to you.  Just be sure to watch the weather and get there early so you have enough time to take pictures and return to the station.  Besides the pond, there’s really not a lot to do in Seki.  There’s a local shrine and a few places to eat, but most of the area is used for farming.  After seeing the pond I went to Nagoya to spend time with my friends because there’s much more to do there.  This was a great escape from reality though.  I was happy to confirm that the pond does indeed resemble the real artwork and is not just a hoax.

If you are interested in seeing more attractions in Gifu Prefecture, please check out my Your Name and Gero Onsen articles!

The Jeju Chronicles: Venturing Around the East Side

In my last article I wrote about fully exploring the west side of Jeju Island.  This included riding a horse on a volcanic crater, trekking through Cheonjeyoen Falls, going to some hilarious theme parks, and more awesome activities.  In this article I will be writing about exploring the east side of the island with the same tour guide: Jeju Day Tour.  The East Course runs on odd-numbered days and is the same price as the West Course—roughly $65 USD.  The duration of the tour is 9 – 10 hours but includes lunch and plenty of breaks.  The tour group was also under 10 people which was great too.

As I mentioned before, the local buses only stop at certain places so having a tour guide for thorough exploration of Jeju is ideal.  Especially if you don’t speak any Hangul like me!  I was once again very satisfied with the high quality of Jeju Day Tour because it’s run by a local guide named Mr. Ko and his courses stop at the most places on the island.  With a heart wistful of adventure, I set off for my 4th day on the island!

Manjanggul Lava Tube

 

Our very first stop was the Manjanggul Lava Tube which is one of the longest lava tubes in the world and is also a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.  It was formed when lava flowed towards the sea and has a cave you can explore.  The cave only takes a couple of minutes to see, but examining all rock formations and detail inside is very interesting.  There are also bat colonies that live in here, but fortunately we didn’t run into any!

Maze Land

 

Maze Land is a self-explanatory theme park with the world’s longest stone maze that is just over 5km.  Look at Jeju, setting those world records!  There are three mazes in total you can challenge here—two of them intersect with a combination of stone and hedge walls.  Most mazes can be completed in 8 – 24 minutes.  This was one of the most relaxing parts of the tour because I was able to walk around the beautiful hedges and listen to music.  Parts of it felt more like a large garden than a maze!  The most hilarious part was watching Korean children climb the walls and give their friends instructions on how to get out.  Fortunately the walls weren’t very steep.  I will admit I got lost a few times though!

Seongsan Ilchulbong

 

Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak”, is one of the best lookout points on the island…  But of course the day I went it was submerged in fog!  The peak was formed by hydro-volcanic eruptions so it has a very unique shape.  If you click on the 2nd picture, you can vaguely make out the beautiful coast of Jeju.  The climb to the top only takes around 25 mins and you can use the wooden stairs.  Fortunately I already had climbed Mt. Hallasan and got clear pictures of the crater lake at the top.  If you run into fog during your tour, I would recommend going to Mt. Hallasan by yourself on a sunny day for a better chance!

Seopjikoji

 

 

From 1410 to 1914, Seongeup was a small village that played a big role in the cultural history and development of Jeju Island.  The village is located at the foot of Halla Mountain and has since turned into somewhat of an open air museum.  Here you can see the huts that people lived in, fortress ruins, stone monuments, and a lot of other interesting things that have made up the history of Jeju.  Outside of museums in Seoul, this was the first time I had the chance to see the history of Korea up close.

Eco Land

ecotake1
All aboard the Eco Train!

The last stop was at a train-themed amusement park in the forest called Eco Land!  Not going to lie—I was completely exhausted by this point.  After 4 action-packed days of hiking and being exposed to an entirely new culture, I could feel my body craving rest.  Eco Land was a great place to relax though because you can literally ride the train around five different stations without getting off.  Or you can be super active and get off and explore at each station.  Within the forest there are multiple gardens, a lake with a cave and various attractions, and also animals you can see!  This was the only part of the tour that felt a bit rushed, but it was also likely due to my lack of energy.  Even though I was tired, being in the forest was a great way to end this tour.

Final Remarks

What another amazing day!  I enjoyed this tour almost the same as I did the west side of the island and would recommend it to all my friends that are traveling through Jeju.  The East Course seemed to have more nature activities, but that was completely fine by me.  Even if you don’t like hiking, you can choose to go horseback riding or try local food at the stops.  Jeju is so beautiful and has so much to see that it’s extremely hard to get bored here.

My next article will be the last of the Jeju Cronichles.  I will be writing about how I hired a private taxi to go to the few places that weren’t covered by the tour.  Though it’s been two years since I’ve been here, this island still is extremely special to me.  Thank you for reading.

The Jeju Chronicles: Venturing Around the West Side

After successfully climbing Korea’s tallest mountain, I decided to take a bus tour around the west side of the island so I could relax and enjoy some of the quirky attractions of Jeju Island.  I booked my tour through Jeju Day Tour because they go to the most places out of all the tour companies and are locally owned.  The price for seeing half the island is only $65 USD which is worth it because it’s cheaper than renting a taxi or car.  Mr. Ko, who personally organizes the tours and is the main guide, speaks very good English and answered all of my questions about the culture here.

The tour is about 9 – 10 hours but includes lunch and plenty of breaks.  Our tour only had about seven people on it which was the just the right amount.  The bus came directly to my hostel at dawn so we could get an early start.  I couldn’t wait to see how my third day on the island was about to unfold!

Mysterious Road

Our first stop was the “Mysterious Road” (also known as “Dokkaebi Road”) which was located at the base of a mountain that connects two major highways.  It was given this name because things that fall on it seem to roll up the hill rather than down.  In other words, the road appears to defy gravity due to an optical illusion of its mountainous surroundings.  Since we came on a slightly rainy day, we could see water droplets coming towards us from the top of the hill and it was supernatural.  The demon head statue that marked the road also added to the ambiance, and it was only our first stop!

Cheonjeyoen Falls

Our next stop was the Cheonjeyoen Falls, which are three of the most beautiful waterfalls in Jeju!  The water from the first waterfall divides into the other two making it a beautiful natural occurrence.  The water from this park eventually flows into the ocean, which is why people call it “The Pond of the Gods”.  It definitely looks like something mythical straight out of a video game.  I was grateful to have my guide explain its origin or else I would have overlooked it.  These are the best waterfalls to see on the island in my opinion.

Mt. Songak

Mt. Songak is a little volcano with 99 peaks.  This was the second volcano I visited after Mt. Hallasan and was a much easier climb!  The summit has the best view of the west side of the island, but unfortunately due to the heavy fog it was difficult to see.  The coast and walk to the temple however were breathtaking.  Even with the fog I could still clearly make them out.  I climbed part of the mountain (which only took a few minutes) then opted to go horseback riding for a small fee.  My horse looked similar to Epona so it was totally worth it.

jeju-horse-and-seongsan-ilchulbong-douglas-macdonald

The good thing about Jeju is that the fog usually clears quickly.  Since I was here for 5 days and had already climbed the tallest mountain, I was more focused on the experience of hiking rather than taking photos.

Jeju Trickeye Museum

After spending the entire morning submersed in nature, we had a Korean buffet lunch that was included in the tour package and were dropped off at the Jeju Trickeye Museum.  At Trickeye museums you can pose with various paintings that are designed to make it look like you are part of the art.  I had been to the Trickeye Museum in Seoul the previous year so this was quite similar.  However, the Trickeye App that you can download for free on your phone makes photography much more interesting here.  My favorite part was the VR pandas that were created with the app.  This video I took made it look like they had crawled out of the painting.  It was honestly worth the trip.

Soingook Theme Park

I was not expecting to run into Shrek and crew while I was in Korea, but that just goes to show how crazy this island is.  At Soingook Theme Park you can can see replicas of famous architecture around the world juxtaposed to characters from famous films in a humorous display.  I enjoyed seeing Buddha, Shrek, an Angry Birds plane, and some vaporwave all in the same place.  Not to mention a beautiful bridge and lake from god knows where.  I bought some knock-off Kit-Kats called “Twin Kicker” at a convenience store here and they tasted pretty good.  I’m still trying to process everything I saw here!

Osulloc Tea Museum

Osulloc is the largest tea plantation in Korea and is also a museum with delicious sweets.  From Jeju Island, the plants receive the perfect amount of sunlight so they can be processed into high quality tea and shipped around the country.  You can freely wander through the plantation and learn about how tea is made.  I tried the green tea ice cream and chocolate green tea roll which was amazing!  This is one of the best spots to pick up souvenirs on Jeju too.  I would say Korean green tea is just as good as Japanese green tea.

Teddy Bear Museum (Teseum)

Because meeting Shrek wasn’t enough, our final stop was the Teddy Bear Museum (also called “Teseum”) where we went on a “Teddy Bear Safari” to meet stuffed bears from all over the world.  Not gonna lie, the concept seems childish but this was actually a very fun exhibition.  Seeing everything from the anatomy of a teddy bear to their origin made me think back to all the stuffed Beanie Babies I collected as a kid.  I did not realize how much of an impact teddy bears had on the world before I came here.  Why was this on a sub tropical island in Korea?  I have no idea, but it was an interesting concept.

When we got back on the bus, Mr. Ko kindly gave us mini bear keychains as souvenirs from the museum.  I still have mine and think back to this trip very fondly.

After a fulfilling day of nature, green tea, and some of the craziest museums in Jeju, I was taken back to my hostel Skywalker around dinner time.  I chose this hostel because it was close to Mt. Hallasan Park and the dorms were only around $12 per night.  Unfortunately this hostel is now closed, but my other recommendation GreenDay is still open!

img_1524
<insert your own Star Wars reference here>

Final Thoughts

This tour was 100% worth it.  The amount of things we were able to see in one day was astonishing.  We had the perfect balance of nature, museums, and silly tourist attractions (which I never would have went to by myself but I enjoyed them).  Basically we saw the entire west part of the island and were free to explore each destination after listening to a brief explanation.  You could try to reach these places with a local Jeju bus, but some spots such as the Mysterious Road can only be accessed by car or via tour bus.  The amount I paid for this tour was about the same as I paid for my bus tour in Okinawa, Japan, so it was pretty fair.  I was happy to have a Jeju local as my guide.  If you book a tour with Jeju Day Tour then be sure to say hello to Mr. Ko for me!

In my next article, I will be exploring the east side of the island with the same tour company (they were that good)!  The west tour runs on even days and we east tour runs on odd days, so you can easily fit them into your schedule.  Thank you for reading!

Traveling to the Real-life House from Totoro (Nagoya)

During my first trip to Nagoya for the World Cosplay Summit, I made sure to book tickets to see the real-life Totoro house because it had been a lifelong dream of mine to visit.  Located in the east part of the city, the Satsuki and Mei House is a perfect replica of the setting in My Neighbor Totoro from my childhood memories.  You can enter the house and explore it to see what living in the 1950s was like in Japan.  It has everything from the palm trees planted outside the veranda to the exact shape and size of all the furniture within the house.  The clothing of the characters can be found inside the closet adding to the realness.  Photography inside is strictly forbidden, but photos from the outside are allowed so it’s fun to create comparisons to the movie.

What I like most about Totoro is much of the story is told from the viewpoint of children but everyone watching can relate to their imagination.  It’s a story that focuses on exploration and not fear or conflict.  Totoro is a mysterious creature but his over-sized and fuzzy design give him a friendly aura.  This house doesn’t have any replicas of Totoro himself, but you can easily imagine that he’s there beside you.

Reserving Tickets

I originally used a Loppi machine at the Lawson convenience store chain to book my tickets 2 months in advance.  If you make a reservation on a weekday, you should have a chance of getting in faster.  If you are overseas, you can try sites like Voyagin to buy tickets (I’ve tried this in the past for tickets I can’t get and it works).

Admission Fee: 510 yen for 30 mins

30 minutes is more than enough time to see everything in the house, and there is a huge park that you can wander through once you’re finished.  As I’ve said before, Nagoya is a seriously underrated city.

Access

Yazako, Nagakute, Aichi 480-1103

From Nagoya Station, take the Higashiyama Line to Fujigaoka Station, then take the Yakusa Line to Ai-Chikyuhaku-Kinen-Koen Station.  This takes around an hour and costs 670 yen.

 

Staying at a Backpacker’s Penthouse in Malaysia

IMG_4814

Ever heard of infinity pools?  Though the sleek concept involving cityscapes and a seemingly endless body of water is popular in some countries, coming from Tokyo, it was a brand new experience for me.  After exploring some remote beaches in Mersing and near Singapore, I took a 6 hour bus ride to Malaysia’s bustling metropolis; Kaula Lumpur, and stayed in a penthouse with other backpackers for the duration of my trip.  During this time I connected with other people from around the world that I’ll never forget.

After browsing a few places online, I settled on Sky Society, a backpacker’s penthouse boasting both a high quality stay and a stunning rooftop infinity pool.  I figured I’d have to try staying in a penthouse at least once in my life, and with dorm prices going as low as $15 per night, who could complain?

My stay there was incredible.  The Regalia Tower in which Sky Society is located has high security making you feel safe at all times, and it feels like a homestay because the hosts take extremely good care of you.  There’s free breakfast every morning, plus they have clean private showers.  Despite staying in the cheapest dorm room, everyone was quiet and respectful of one another.  However, I was able to socialize with other backpackers out on the balcony even after midnight and that’s where I met some of my best friends on this trip.  No matter how social you want to be, you can have a great time here.  Did I mention the pool?

IMG_4714
View from my penthouse room in Sky Society.

That just shows the basic swimming pool.  Here’s the grand infinity pool on the top floor:

It was a bit narrow, but the breathtaking view made up for it.  You can see all of the most iconic buildings, including the Petronas Towers, from this pool.  The number of people up here was just right too.  There’s a minibar, though I recommend pregaming in your room first like I did.  Overall, this is an experience that I think everyone should have.  I will be writing about exploring the city of Kuala Lumpur next.

This is the Future: Shinjuku VR Zone Analysis & Review

Welcome to the VR World

VR

Since the beginning of my early childhood, I had always dreamed of escaping reality and entering a virtual world.  Not because I had a bad life (because I actually had a really good life), but because I was heavily influenced by anime and games as a kid and wanted to live in a fully interactive world where I could freely express myself.  My fascination with VR started when I first watched Digimon as a kid, then later grew as I became engrossed with Yu-Gi-Oh! (specifically season 3) and Sword Art Online.  When I entered college, I had the opportunity to test VR games with an Oculus Rift through my university’s gaming program, and even got to try some indie VR games at Tokyo Game Show last year!  Just recently in 2017 the Shinjuku VR Zone has opened in Tokyo as an experimental VR gaming arcade and playground for the public to try out, so naturally I had to go and visit!  Currently boasting 15 different immersive activities and an interactive VR exhibition by Tokyo Art City, this zone is growing at a rapid rate and was definitely worth the trip!

The System

I came here early Saturday morning with my friend visiting from America who is also a huge nerd like myself.  We purchased 4 different colored tickets online (each for a different selection of games) so we could ensure that we got in.  Tickets are available at the door, but some attractions are so popular that you may not be guaranteed entry so I recommend booking in advance online.  You can buy tickets in sets of 4 (for 4,400 yen) and also individually (for around 1,200 each).  After showing our tickets at the door, we were welcomed in by friendly staff and decided to explore the area!  At the center of the building we saw a hologram projected on the wall and a giant glowing VR tree structure  looking like it was radiating powerful energy.  This was such a fitting atmosphere–I already felt like I was the hero of a sci-fi series!

Immersive Horror Room

After staring in awe at all of the cutting-edge decorations, we made our way to our first game, which was the Immersive Horror Room (IHR), just because we wanted to be thoroughly spooked before we had to wait in line for the more popular attractions.  IHR was overall the best way to start our VR experience because the wait for short and the game was extremely entertaining and high quality.  The aesthetic was very Silent Hill-esque and some parts of it actually made me scream out loud.  Fortunately, I was not the only one!

While sitting down with VR helmets, you and your partner control characters in a wheelchair and navigate through a haunted house full of wicked obstacles and enemies that try to kill you.  It was a bit hard to get used to at first, but you could use a flashlight to choose different directions so the gameplay was easy to learn.  At one point, I triggered an alarm and was blindfolded and captured by the enemy.  Once I regained my vision, I was strapped to the floor and couldn’t move my character was twisted figured surrounded me and other victims.  I watched them murder characters around me one by one with gruesome weapons and was truly terrified that I was next.  Luckily my friend was able to solve a puzzle and save me just in the nick of time!  The game has multiple scenarios, and you can see and talk to your partner through a headset.  Though we won the game, it had a “To be continued…” screen at the end implying that it might be developed into a “real” full-length game someday.  I really hope that it is because it was a lot of fun and it was truly immersive making me feel a lot of terror, suspense and excitement!  I would rather pay for this than go to a horror movie any day.

Evangelion: Throne of Souls

Next, we decided to go to the Evangelion Throne of Souls attraction, because who doesn’t want to pilot a giant robot!?  Since I was 14 (the same age as the pilots) I’ve wanted to volunteer myself at NERV HQ, so I am happy that nearly after 10 years later I can finally achieve my dream!  This VR attraction was extremely personalized and you could choose to pilot Unit 00, 01, or 03, and see a launch sequence that made you feel like you were in midair!  After launching, you need to stealthily navigate through Tokyo-3 and pick up weapons along the way to destroy the AT field of a giant Sachiel with your partner co-op style.  The simulation was amazing because when you looked down at yourself, you were wearing a plug suit, and piloting the Eva felt a bit narrow and clunky just like its frame implies.  It felt genuine–like nothing else I have ever experienced before.  My only complaint is that there weren’t multiple stages and the simulation was so short.  In the future I really hope they give you the option to pay more to continue, because I definitely would!

VR Mario Kart

Next we made our way to everyone’s favorite attraction–VR Mario Kart.  The wait for this was nearly an hour, but there were places to sit while waiting in line (unlike Tokyo Disney and Universal) so the wait was actually quite pleasant.  The game was complete with 4 different players going against one another!  They let you choose your character (Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, or Peach), and I of course chose Princess Peach!  The game sequence begins with the 4 of you lined up at the starting point, and all of you can communicate through the headset!  Then 2 popular villains show up, and you must all race them to the finish!  Along the way you can pick up and throw turtle shells, whack other players with hammers, and also throw bombs at one another!  Fortunately blue shell VR technology has not been developed yet (and for the sake of friendship, it hopefully never will).  The game was very fun and had a lot of obstacles that balanced out who stayed in first.  You could not customize your car so everyone plays on equal ground.  Being launched in the air and flying through the sky was my favorite part!  I came in 3rd but I had a wonderful time and was glowing after the experience.  I highly recommend doing this one, because before a long-term VR world like SAO and Accel World is developed, this is a once in a lifetime experience.

Panic Cube

The last attraction that we did was one called Panic Cube which is a non-VR activity where you are locked in a prison cell and must solve puzzles on a giant touch screen while handcuffed or else a giant balloon will pop and you will meet your end!  We were specifically asked not to publish any hints about this game online by the staff so I will respect their policy, but one thing I recommend is not sharing the cuffs with your partner.  We did this thinking it would make the game easier, but it did not!  We sadly lost in the simulation, but it was still a fun way to die.

Final Thoughts

After finally processing this mind-blowing experience, I am eternally thankful for my trip here. To those who truly interested in VR and have the money, I highly recommend it because currently this is one of the most cutting-edge public areas where you can have a hands-on VR experience.  However, unfortunately the long wait lines and ticket purchasing policy ruin some of the momentum, so if you are just looking to spend the day at an arcade playing with a friend then I would recommend going to something like a Taito game center instead.  I really liked how clean the place was as well.  They make all players wear a face mask before putting on the VR helmet and also thoroughly wipe down the controls before the next players get in (hence the long wait).  It is reassuring to know that the facility is well-maintained and treated with respect so it was last long! It is clear that this is a very experimental project and a lot of the games they have are still in development, but it is drawing a crowd and gradually expanding!  Being one of the first to try it out truly made me feel like a hero.

Because I know that my money is going to a good cause, I will likely return in the future.  I would really like to try the Gundam, Dragonball, and VR rock climbing games next time.  I have high hopes that they will develop more angels for me to fight and more courses in Mario Kart that I can go back and triumph over.  From 8bit to virtual reality, I will always appreciate the glorious gaming world that has forever influenced my life.