Friday, October 24, 2014

Seoul Museum: Agricultural Museum

After the first couple of museums, we were hooked and wanted to go to more.  We were able to squeeze in one final museum - the Agricultural Museum.  Smaller in scale, but just as enriching with details of everyday Korean life from past, present and the future.

We just happened to drive by the museum during a taxi ride.  Fascinated by the name and content of the museum, we researched it online and found a guide of how to get there (it really helps to have a data plan on your smartphones to get around).  Opened in 1987 and then renovated and reopened in 2005, the museum has 3 exhibition halls: 1) Agricultural History Hall showcasing agricultural communities from prehistoric times to the modern era, 2) Agricultural Community Hall containing models recreating the life of farm families from the olden days, and 3) Agricultural Promotion Hall with information on farming and agricultural cooperatives.  The halls have displays and replicas of paddy fields, traditional homes, and marketplaces of agricultural societies.  You are taken away from the city as you walk through the past.

Never stop learning.  Through these museums we learned so much about culture.  I have loads of respect for how the Korean people have better their lives in just a few decades.  It's truly admirable how they have worked together as a nation for a higher standard of living.

Agricultural Museum

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Seoul Museums: Gyeongbokgung Palace, National Folk Museum, and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History

Museums are not only educational and enriching, but they are also a great way to burn calories between meals.  Some museums can even make you hungrier for your next meal.

Under the grueling summer heat, the Gyeongbokgung Palace is a lot to take in.  Meaning, "Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven", the royal palace was first constructed in 1395 and later reconstructed in 1867.  Much of it was destroyed by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century.  Since then, the government has gradually restored the structures and the grounds back to its original form.  It is the main and largest of the Five Grand Palaces.  And when they say largest, they really mean it.  It is overwhelming large, and it's so easy to get lost with the numerous gates, courtyards, quarters and halls.

Within the palace grounds, the National Folk Museum stands in the rear, or by a free side entrance if you wish to bypass the palace.  Speaking of free, all museums' main exhibits are free.  I'm still amazed how these museums, which should charge a lot for entrance because of their quality and quantity of displays, are completely free.  It encourages tourists and locals to learn more.  The museum has over 98,000 artifacts.  These are replicas of historical objects that illustrate the history of traditional life of the Korean people.  The 3 main halls cover: 1) the history of the Korean people through their materials of everyday life from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty in 1910, 2) the Korean way of life through the villagers in ancient times, and 3) the life cycle of Korean highlighting the influence of Confucianism.  The most fascinating parts of the museum for me were the food history areas which explained the past and present use of dining ware and the process of kimchi making.

Just outside the palace grounds, next to the US Embassy (the building with a ridiculous amount of guards stationed every 3 feet along the sidewalk) is the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.  Regrettably I took one photo because I was so fascinated and drawn to all the content of the museum.  It was my favorite museum of the bunch by far.  We sought out this museum because we wanted to learn about the Korean War and how the country moved its way to being one of the top global leaders today.  This is the first national modern contemporary museum in Korea, which opened late 2012.  It covers politics, the economy, society, and culture of the Korean country and people in 4 detailed halls: 1) the prelude to the Republic of Korea from 1876 to 1945, 2) the foundation of the Republic of Korea from 1945 to 1960, 3) the development of the Republic of Korea from 1961 to 1987, and finally 4) the modernization and Korea's vision of the future from 1988 on.  It is truly admirable how the country coped from the war and how successfully they have thrived in recent years.  I have so much more respect for the country and its people, in large part because of what I learned from this museum.

Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds
And the Heungnyemun Gate in the background

Main entrance gate
Gwanghwamun Gate

Monday, October 20, 2014

Seoul Museums: National Museum

Aside from books, the best way to learn about a country's history and culture is by visiting the country itself.  The people, the food, and the museums share so many stories about the past, present, and future.

I was one of those kids that really enjoyed school field trips to museums.  And it wasn't just because we were off of campus for the day.  I actually really enjoyed exploring all the exhibits and pieces in order to complete the class assignments.  Yes, I enjoyed (most) school work and really enjoyed learning more from museums.

And then there were family trips to New York and Europe where museums were a staple in all our itineraries.  Throughout and after college, I loved visiting art museums in San Francisco once a month.  That's where I found compatible friends who appreciate culture... and the happy hours that followed our museum days.

It's safe to say I've seen a good selection of museums around the world.  So when I'm blown away by museums, it means they are truly impressive.  Seoul's museums are truly impressive.  AND, free!  Yes, free admission.  These are museums where you'd normally pay $20+USD or feel obligated to donate in the box to walk around the museum with a "I'm a good person because I donated" pin.

Over the course of the week, I'll feature the few museums we managed to visit.  First, the National Museum of Korea.  Opened in 1945, the year Korea gained independence from Japan, this is the country's largest museum.  It is the flagship museum for history and art in South Korea.

Working your way from the first floor up, you walk through the country's ancient history to it's modern era (pre-Korean War).  The museum is filled with national artifacts and relics.  In the upper floors, national and international art feature crafts, calligraphy, and paintings highlighting the best of Asian art.

If you find yourself in Seoul, the National Museum is a must.

Entrance to the National Museum

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seoul Food

As a food lover and food traveler, Korea has been on the top of my list to discover.  For years, I've been drooling over food magazines and television shows highlighting the best of Korean grills and the spreads of kimchi and banchan.

In my traveling experience, very few cuisines are as good abroad compared to their homelands.  There's a certain vibrancy to the food in their own respective countries.  It just tastes more right, as it should be.  So now that I was in Seoul, I was so excited to eat from the source.

Because of the comparisons to Japan, I was expecting the prices to be similar.  Despite it reputation, eating in Japan is actually incredibly affordable for the quality.  Surprisingly then, Seoul was really expensive.  Everything was surprisingly expensive, especially compared to the rest of Asia.

We varied our eating with restaurants, take out from the food markets, and also with room service meals at our hotel.  Before you knock it, room service at luxury hotels can be a phenomenal experience.  You have the comfort of your room, the fun of eating in your hotel robe, and the luxury of a fine dining setting all cooked by high quality hotel chefs.  After long, hot days out under the Korean sun and on our feet all day, taking a shower and eating in the atmosphere of our spacious room was just the best.

Aside from meals, I was impressed with the numerous coffee and bread shops and their food packaging.  There is a coffee and bread store almost in every corner of the city.  As for their food packaging in the groceries, it's admirable with the care they take for their products.  They also give so much importance to their fruits and vegetables.  They obviously learned from Japan and have made the produce thrive beautifully in their own country.

The fruits and vegetable were too nice just to look at, and because we flew back to Manila where you can bring back produce and meats, we were able to enjoy at home the apples, grapes, gigantic cabbages and radishes, and some of the sweetest sweet potatoes.   (Travel tip: Always pack a foldable duffel that you can put into your luggage.  That way you have an extra bag for goods on the flight back home.)

After a week of eating in Seoul, I'm really happy to find that some of the Korean food served in the states (the Bay Area and Los Angeles particularly) is actually pretty darn authentic.  The Koreans and Americanized Koreans have done a great job of upholding their cuisine.  I came back home from the trip more educated with how well the Koreans have lived over the recent years, post-Korean War.  They have educated themselves and can take pride in the good their country continues to produce.

Grilled beef and ban chan

The tables

Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Seoul

Flying a lot encourages you to fly even more.  Thank you, frequent flyer miles programs.  My airline alliance miles were just about to expire.  So to make the most of them, I treated my mom on a trip to a new food destination.

Seoul!  A city which I've heard likened to Tokyo with a reputation of vibrant local food.  This was going to be a mother-daughter adventure in a new country and city where we had no knowledge of the language.

Seoul reminded us of the parts of the US, in that the roads were spacious, tree-lined, and clean.  In the Gangnam area, where the shopping district has been likened to Ginza and Beverly Hills (though I'd argue otherwise because of the quality, and flashiness of the stores), we came across a fun food hall in the Galleria department store.  Gourmet 494 is definitely a food destination in Seoul.  It is considered to be a luxury food hall filled with eating stations of varying cuisines from Korean, Italian, American, etc.  There are also quality sweets, breads, fruits, vegetables, and grocery goods.  Of all our food stops, this was definitely the winner.

We also went to the Hyundai department store in Gangnam and the main Lotte department store.  While they also had food halls, there weren't as impressive because they were smaller than those in Tokyo and Osaka, and they didn't have products that were extraordinary.  Perhaps I was really expecting them to have the scale and originality of products like in Japan, but it didn't quite measure up.

Aside from the department stores, we also strolled down Apgujeong Rodeo Street.  This is the area that has been compared to Beverly Hills.  So again because of that expectation, I was let down.  The shops were not as fashion forward or as boutique as I had expected.  It is a nice little street, though, for a quiet walk, and there's also a great bakery in the main corner (the city is filled with coffee shops and bakeries).  In terms of the shopping vibrancy on the luxury level, I felt like Seoul has the big brands, but they aren't as vibrantly present compared to Tokyo or Hong Kong.

In researching for the trip, I booked a room in the Lotte Hotel above the main Lotte department store.  According to TripAdvisor it's #1.  Despite that ranking, we weren't too happy with the hotel.  Yes, the location is good, but the department store is dated and mid-level.  It's like Macy's in NYC.  A famous destination, but when you shop there you feel the age of the store so it's not as fun as the shopping on Park, Madison, and Fifth avenues.  Additionally, with the unpredictable rainy weather, it was hard to walk around outside and during the day it was painfully hot to walk under the sun for so long.  The hotel itself is decent, and we stayed on the ladies' floor which is probably cleaner than the rest.  But the room and bathroom still felt old, dark, and dated for our standards.  Sometimes, renovations aren't enough.  I'd rather stay at brand new hotels.

So after one night, we woke up early the next morning to compare our backup hotels: Conrad and JW Marriott in the Dongdaemun area.  For our preferences, JW was not our place.  It's the newest hotel, but the area is purely for wholesale shopping, particularly textiles.  Not our thing.  Thankfully, the Conrad was exactly what we were looking for.

The Conrad Seoul is located about the IFC building in the city's financial district.  Our room was incredibly spacious as were were tucked in a corner room with huge floor-to-ceiling windows.  Staying in the IFC building allowed us the conveniences of later night dining, a younger crowd, a quality grocery, and indoor access to the subway.  Seoul's subway system is so impressive, clean, and spacious.  The crowds are educated to be orderly, quiet, and properly dressed.  And, every station has well set up entries and exits; it's so convenient for where you want to go.  Their subway system is a mixture of Japan's complexity with Hong Kong's of foreign-friendly signs.  Not as easy as Hong Kong, but not as overwhelming as Japan.

Aside from department stores and food halls, we also covered some cultural sights and museums.  In my next posts, I'll cover the food and museums.  For now, here's a little glimpse of our stay.

Gangnam streets

Galleria Department Store

Gourmet 464 in Galleria