After 3 months of life in Korea, we wrote up our overall impressions. Korea was amazing! (But we’ll probably say that about every country we visit. :))
There are a lot of sightseeing options in Seoul. It’s also fairly easy to escape the city by train/subway and walk or hike in public parks.
We spent most of our time in Daejeon, which is the 5th largest city in Korea (and an hour south of Seoul). There is plenty of activity in Daejeon since it is such a large city, but there wasn’t all that much to do or see on the weekends.
We found a hiking spot within walking distance (albeit a little far), and we were fortunate enough to live near a university with an outdoor track and small patch of woods.
Public Transportation: Getting Around
It’s pretty easy to get around the country by public transportation, even if you don’t know Korean. Maps for the trains/subway in Seoul generally include English.
However, the buses are a little harder to navigate since everything is in Korean. I consider us extremely lucky that out of the 4 times we rode buses, we managed to get off at the right stop. This was mainly due to counting the number of stops and trying to match up the Korean characters.
We learned via a documentary that Seoul has some English to help drive tourism to Korea. According to the tourist association, tourists prefer to visit China or Japan over Korea, and this is something Korea wants to change.
Cost of Living
Apartments in Seoul are pretty pricey, but we were able to find an apartment in Daejeon (on AirBnb) for nearly ½ the price it cost me to rent a tiny room in San Francisco.
(It was about $550/month for a whole apartment in Daejeon vs. the $1000/month it cost me for a tiny room in San Francisco with other housemates.)
Restaurants are a pretty good deal! We got a decent amount of food at restaurants for roughly $6 a person, including vegetables, kimchi, and meat.
Fruits, vegetables, and meat were pretty pricey in stores, so I ate more ramen in Korea than I have before in my life!
How friendly people are!
If we looked lost or confused for a second too long, people immediately asked us if we needed help finding something.
Our first night there, a couple who helped us find our apartment even bought us Korean treats! (I will probably forever call them “friendship balls,” but they’re really just Korean donuts.)
Bakeries are often French-themed.
Bakery names usually have something to do with France/Paris, and there are sometimes French quotes in the windows.
In fact, Koreans seem to love anything European!
Korea has a Little France area, with an annual Little Prince Lighting Festival.
Even though we had trouble conversing with people (we basically got around with one Korean word “kamsahamnida” – “thank you”), everyone we spoke to seemed very excited to find out Manne is from Sweden. I found this amazing, since many Americans usually confuse Sweden with Switzerland, but people in Korea seem to know and like Sweden!
We found Swedish dishcloth packs in regular grocery stores in Korea, Dala horses in some shops, and even a Dala horse-themed purse in the Korean movie The Man from Nowhere.
There are no garbage collection bins people wheel out to the curb or dumpsters in Korea (it seems). People just leave trash bags in piles outside, but it isn’t like in New York, where people place trash in large black trash bags. You can use any old bag to throw your trash away, and in Daejeon, stray pieces of garbage litter the streets.
Seoul seemed much better with the trash overall. The streets stayed very clean there, compared with Daejeon, and they were incredibly fast at picking up trash left on the side of the street (whereas in Daejeon, it happened maybe once a week).
There are quite a few areas with special light displays. We saw the rose garden at Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which has 25,500 LED roses. The other places were a little too far to travel in our limited time, but there are definitely a lot of lights to see!
Namsan Seoul Tower also had a Tunnel of Love light display that we saw while we were up there.
I still don’t know why, but we came across a number of random Chinese characters in Korea. In some situations, this actually came in useful since I studied some Mandarin previously. For example, it was either a Korean restaurant or a grocery store we visited that used Chinese characters for small, medium, and large. That eliminated some guesswork!
Since so many movies take place around Korea, they put up signs to show which movies took place where.
Reactions of kids.
Overall, everyday life seemed pretty normal in Korea (although some people asked where we were from and seemed fascinated by the fact that we were in Korea).
It was only in The War Memorial of Korea that I encountered different reactions from kids. Some young boys (around 8 years old maybe?) were on a school field trip, and one pulled out his camera to take a picture with me, which took me by surprise. A few others tried practicing English with me (“Hello. My name is __. What is yours?”)
This was the first thing we noticed down in the subway stations. It was odd at first to see gas masks there, but it quickly became a normal part of life.
It took us a while to realize all the yelling we heard on loudspeakers sometimes came from trucks selling fruit. They often came by multiple times a day, yelling (we believe and confirmed by a Google search) about their fruit. (In a way, all the yelling on loudspeakers reminded me of Bioshock.)
We watched a documentary describing how incredibly fast Korea rebuilt after the war and how this resulted in a lack of city planning. The tourism association believes a part of driving tourism is to beautify Seoul architecturally.
We couldn’t believe how fast construction happens in Korea! We saw the foundation of a building poured one day, and the next, the entire exterior of the building had already been built! I’ve never seen construction happen so quickly before.
There also don’t appear to be poorer or richer parts of cities. Nice looking buildings are mixed in with empty lots/disintegrating buildings.
It’s hard to tell whether zoning is a thing in Korea, since residential is often mixed in with commercial buildings (meaning you never have to go far to find food!).
The most popular brands of cars seem to be Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi Volkswagen.
Foam stickers on the side of cars.
Many cars have foam stickers to prevent dings on their doors. They sometimes look like rectangles or little wings.
A lack of sidewalks.
Seoul has a lot of sidewalks, but in some areas (particularly outside of Seoul), it can be stressful to share the road with cars and scooters. Motorized vehicles always seem to have the right-of-way! This is very different from the US and Sweden, where pedestrians typically have the right-of-way.
Outdoor exercise machines.
I enjoyed using some of these. Not all of the machines seem to be for working out – some seem to be for massage, stretching, or just getting your heartrate up, but it’s nice that so many parks, universities, and apartment complexes have free machines!
English language proficiency.
Particularly in Seoul, a lot of people had some level of English knowledge, even if only a few words. We thought it would be much harder to get around Korea with no knowledge of the language, but even people who didn’t know English often knew a word or two!
We improved our rudimentary sign language (and I kept a small dictionary in my pocket, just in case!).
People use them to get around and to deliver food. They’re very effective for going down the many small alleyways! Even McDonald’s delivers on scooters in Korea!
We had quite a few interesting experiences with food. Where to begin?!
For a while, each new restaurant we went to was a new experience. Usually the server mimed to us what to do with the food. We typically went to restaurants where we saw a picture of food alongside a price, but it didn’t take long before we braved the places that didn’t have pictures.
We once stood outside a restaurant in Seoul with the dictionary, trying to decipher some text on the window, and a man came up behind us and ushered is in. There were no pictures, so we didn’t know how to order. They brought us food and mimed that we were supposed to put some food in leaves and eat it that way. I apparently started out making my “Korean leaf tacos” too big, so the waiter smiled and mimed to us to make them smaller. It was quite an experience, and an amazing meal!
Being from California, I’m used to seeing churro stands at amusement parks and fairs, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to find churros all the way in Korea! When I asked about churros at Disney World in Florida once, employees weren’t sure what they were.
People really seem to like churros. In addition to “fresh Spain churros” in small churro stores, Korea has churro chips. They taste cinnamon-y, like churros but in chip form.
Hof & chicken.
This seems to be a staple food pairing in Korea. There were so many signs for hof & chicken.
(We tried it, and the chicken is a lot like Buffalo Wild Wings or Panda Express’ Orange Chicken – fried, with or without sauce.)
I couldn’t believe that Korea has even regional American brands. Jamba Juice is a popular smoothie chain in California that doesn’t exist in many other states, but somehow, it made its way over to Korea! I saw many other chains I wasn’t expecting to see, such as Krispy Kreme.
We were shocked to find many Swedish brands as well. (Apparently Japan brought Swedish design and fashion to Korea, and Koreans love Swedish & Scandinavian design, called “The Scandinavian Fever.”)
In general, Korea imports a lot of brands. For anyone looking to test a brand’s international success abroad, I’d recommend trying your brand in Korea.
The showers are a little like Swedish showers, in that shower heads are automatically detachable. (Comparatively, many American shower heads are stuck in one place, but some do have a detachable shower head.) Unlike Swedish showers, Korean showers may not have a separate glass area or tub separating the shower area from the rest of the bathroom.
You see these in a lot of Korean movies. They don’t look too comfortable since they appear to be really thin, but they’re great to sleep on and easy to store!
Games in Korea
There are so many rooms of just claw machines to win stuffed animals, and they are swarmed by teenagers and even adults on the weekends.
Mobile game ads.
TVs with mobile game ads frequently play on the train.
They are everywhere! As part of my freelance work for LAI Global Game Services, I happened to update the page on Asian Game Industry Statistics while in Korea (the new information may not be reflected on the website until later this year).
It was interesting to note that while online gaming is still overwhelmingly popular, mobile gaming consumption boomed rapidly, which led to a perceived decline in online games. (There was a nearly 10% online gaming decline in 2015, with online games reaching $2.46 billion. This occurred while mobile gaming exploded, seeing a growth of 250% in 2013, resulting in $1.3 billion from mobile games in 2015.)
Measures taken to prevent gamers from spending too much time playing games.
As research for my work at LAI Global Game Services a couple years back, I discovered that the Korean government imposed a 10pm curfew on online games.
We didn’t encounter any major restrictions while playing games in Korea, but we did encounter multiple pop ups while playing Unravel on EA Origins, which reminded us to maintain a healthy balance between gaming and life. I wish I managed to take a screenshot of that! If anyone has a screenshot, feel free to send along in the comment section below.
Game Development Scene
Seoul Indies Meetup.
We found out that Seoul has a monthly meetup for indie developers. (Twitter: @SeoulIndies) Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it since the train was a little more expensive than we hoped it would be between Seoul and Daejeon, but it seems to have a great turn out!
G-Star in Busan.
As far as I know, G-Star is the largest video game industry conference in Korea. It takes place far south (a country away from Seoul basically), but Busan seems to be a major hub for game development.
Busan Indie Connect.
Busan also has a special event for indie developers! If I were to visit Korea again in the future, I would definitely check out Busan. (Also, if you haven’t seen it and enjoy zombie movies, I recommend Train to Busan.)
Korea Games Conference.
We did make it to KGC while in Seoul. It was a relatively small conference, but they had a few playable games there and a number of talks spanning over two days. A couple talks were from Westerners, and the rest were from local game developers.
Food & Drinks to Try
Sounds weird. Looks weird. Tastes like chicken.
(Thanks to our local Korean grocer for giving us some of these for free to try!)
(Again, thanks to our local grocer to giving us a whole bag of these for Lunar New Year!)
It’s like American pizza (as opposed to Swedish pizza, which is thinner, like New York style pizza), but there are different toppings than you’ll find in the US, such as carbonara and quesadilla.
Fortunately, we found a blog post describing how to make these pancakes, since the box was mostly in Korean. They are different than regular pancakes, as you put a sugary mix in the middle of each pancake, which melts to a liquid as you cook.
Sweet potato chips
There is a lot of sweet potato themed food in Korea. Even pizza has a sweet potato topping. Until we looked up the Korean characters online, I thought it was cornbread because of the picture.
Sounds weird to mix milk and soda, but it was surprisingly good!
Fruity soju drinks
(And you can’t beat the price! At the time we tried them, there were less than $1.50 each!)
Places We Recommend
Bukchon Hanok Village
There was another small area with restaurants closeby that was also awesome to explore (and would make for a really cool level in a game!).
Namsan Seoul Tower
We accidentally hiked up the tower after spending a few days walking all over the city. We thought we’d find the ski lift eventually. We made it all the way to the top before we found it!
The War Memorial of Korea
A fascinating museum, including tributes to each country who helped South Korea. (See the Swedish memorial below.)
Thanks for reading! Korea was an amazing place, and even though we visited in winter (cold!), we’re glad we were able to experience it.
And now, Golden Moose Studios journeys onward, to Thailand!
Did we get something wrong? Have a Korean movie to recommend? Let us know in the comment section below!