A Glimpse of Korean Culture and Heritage

A trip to Seoul would not be complete without a first hand experience of South Korea’s rich cultural history and tradition and Seoul is home to several of the grand palaces and historical sites that have been carefully preserved and reconstructed through time, some of which have been declared as UNESCO World Heritage sites.


 

The Grand Palaces of Seoul

 

If you’re into Korean dramas then you’ve probably heard of the “Joseon Dynasty.” This was the last dynasty in Korea, whose reign lasted over 5 decades, long enough to build several grand palaces around its capital city, Seoul.

The photos below were taken during our trip, of course they fail in comparison to the actual experience. Wandering around these palaces, you will marvel at the elegance in the designs and the sheer magnificence in structures, from the imposing gates of the palaces all the way to the main buildings, corridors and open spaces/gardens. You can just imagine how these grand structures were once a symbol of power and an empire.

 

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Webiste: http://www.royalpalace.go.kr/html/eng/main/main.jsp

Directions: Take the metro subway, alight at Gyeongbokgung Station, go to Exit 5.

Main entrance of the Gyeongbokgung Palace

 

 

Inside Gyeongbokgung (don’t you find this familiar?)

 

 

A pavilion over water

 

Changdeokgung Palace

Website: http://eng.cdg.go.kr/main/main.htm

Directions: Take the metro subway, alight at Anguk Station, go to Exit 3.

Note: The palace is also famous for its “Secret Garden” that is only accessible via a guided tour, which may be booked online via the palace website.

 

what a walkway…

 

 

intricate walls and roof designs

 

 

Inside the “Secret Garden”

 

Deoksugung Palace

Website: http://www.deoksugung.go.kr/eng/index.asp

Directions: Take the metro subway, alight at City Hall Station, go to Exit 2.

Note: While you’re here, I recommend watching the performance of the Royal Guards in front of the Daehanmun Gate of the palace, which are held 3x a day: 11:00-11:30 / 14:00-14:30 / 15:30-16:00

 

Entrance to the Deoksugung Palace (this is where you can watch the performance of the Royal Guards)

 

 

Jongmyo Shrine

Website: http://jm.cha.go.kr/n_jm/index.html

Directions: Take the metro subway, alight at Jongno-3(sam)-ga Station, go to Exit 11.

 

expansive shrine

 

 

Overall Verdict of the Grand Palaces:

You don’t have to visit all the grand palaces, especially if you have limited time. You can prioritize which palaces to visit and my recommendations and top 2 palaces are: (1) Gyeongbokgung – the first royal palace that was built by the Joseon Dynasty; and (2) Changdeokgung – the second palace that was built, and known as the “East Palace” as it is located east of Geongbokgung. The palace grounds are expansive so be prepared for a lot of walking.

Note: Changdeokgung, Deoksugung, and Changgyeonggung Palaces are closed on Mondays; while Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jongmyo Shrine are closed on Tuesdays.

 

Cost:

“Combination Ticket for Palaces”: KRW10,000.

 

Combination Ticket

 

This is an integrated ticket to enter 4 grand palaces: Geongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung and Deoksugung, plus Jongmyo Shrine. Because we planned on seeing as many palaces as we can, we bought the combination ticket, and you can purchase this in any of the ticket offices at the entrance of the palaces (of course, you can opt to purchase individual tickets only).

 


 

 

Suwon Hwaseong Haenggung and Fortress

 

Who was not moved by the story of Jang Geum in that drama Jewel in the Palace? This was where it took place and you know you just have to see it for yourself. Here you can enter the Hwaseong Haenggung, which is the palace area or take the trolley ride that goes around the entire Hwaseong Fortress. If you take the trolley ride, you will reach an archery area and you can try traditional Korean archery.

 

Hwaseong Haenggung

 

 

trolley ride going around the Hwaseong Fortress

 

Hwaseong Fortress

 

 

magnificent view of the fortress

 

 

Verdict:

If you’ve already visited the grand palaces in Seoul, you can skip the palace area (Hwaseong Haenggung) and just explore the Hwaseong Fortress. I recommend to take the trolley ride going up the fortress until the last trolley platform, then take a stroll going down to explore the beauty of the fortress and the magnificent view, and to return back to the bus stop.

 

Directions:

Take the metro subway and alight at Suwon Station. Note that it takes more than 1 hour from Seoul to Suwon. From Suwon Station, go into the underground shopping mall and proceed to Exit 3 (this is different from the Exit 3 of the Suwon Station). Walk out of the exit, turnabout and walk towards the main bus stop for Suwon Station. Take Bus No. 13 and get off at the Hwaseong Haenggung bus stop. Remember to be alert with the bus stops as the bus drivers only speak in Korean.

 

Costs:

  • Entrance to the Hwaseong Haenggung: KRW1,000
  • Trolly Ride going around the Hwaseong Fortress: KRW1,500 (one way)
  • Archery: KRW2,000 (10 arrows)

 


 

 

Namsangol Hanok Village

 

This place features a collection traditional wooden houses or “hanoks” of Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. The first thing that you will notice are the beautiful decorative outer walls and roofs of the houses. Plus, you can see the interiors including the sitting rooms, bedrooms and even the cooking area, complete with furnitures. You can also find in here a beautiful pavilion overlooking a pond.

 

Hanoks

 

Pavilion and pond

 

Verdict:

If you think you’ve enjoyed seeing the grand palaces, the traditional village is definitely worth visiting while in Namsan. The Village is located in Namsan so I recommend to combine this with your trip to the N Seoul Tower.

 

Directions:

Take the metro subway, alight at Chungmuro Station, go to Exit 4. From the exit, head towards the direction of the road intersection, then turn right on the next small alley (you will see the GS25 Store on the right). Walk straight and you will see the roof structure or entrance of the Hanok Village.

 

Cost:

Free entrance!


 

Seoul Global Cultural Center

 

Don’t you just find the “Hanbok” or the traditional costume of Korea so exquisite and elegant? Of course I wanted to try it myself and you can have that experience for free at the Seoul Global Cultural Center.

Unfortunately, the Center was open for visitors but they did not allow us to try the costumes, I reckon, because of the MERS scare at the time of our trip. It was disappointing since I was regularly checking their website days before the trip, but did not see any notice on the matter.

The “Korean Traditional Costume Experience” is on a first come, first served basis so better be there when the Center opens at 10:30AM. Check their website for more information: http://www.seoulculturalcenter.com/2013/eng/customer/customer1.asp

 

Inside the Seoul Global Cultural Center

 

 

Directions:

Take the metro subway, alight at Myeongdong Station, go to Exit 6. Turn left into the side road when you come out of the exit. Go straight and watch out for the “M-Plaza” Building on the right side of the road (it’s quite near Exit 6). The Center is at the 5th floor of the M-Plaza.

 

Cost:

Free entrance!

6-Day Itinerary for Seoul

I’m probably what they call the “obsessive compulsive planner,” the type of traveler who always like to be well prepared with a trip itinerary at hand. Don’t get me wrong, of course the plan doesn’t always have to be stricly followed, and you allow yourself to experience spontaneity, and besides, there are always those “unexpected” things here and there which makes the whole thing fun anyway.

Why I always create my own travel itineraries is that my time and budget for traveling are always limited. So I like to spend enough time researching to learn more about the place I’m visiting and to maximize the whole travel opportunity. The weeks or even months worth of research and preparation can give you assurance and comfort, and avoid stress during the actual travel, especially if there may be language issues to where you are going.

What’s good about planning in advance and preparing the itinerary yourself is that you can customize your trip depending on your interests or priorities and of course, your budget. I usually start with looking through travel sites and travel blogs and somehow, I get a general picture of how to arrange the trip if I were to travel there myself. South Korea, particularly Seoul, has a lot to offer in terms of culture, food and shopping. So, in planning your itinerary, you should be able to ask yourself the following:

  1. Which places I want to see in Seoul or South Korea? or Why did I want to go there in the first place?
  2. How many days do I have for this trip? ( if you have quite a long list of places to visit in Item a, you may need to check the likelihood of achieving all of them based on the trip duration, so prioritize!)
  3. Who am I traveling with? (consider the level of adventure like if lots of walking is an option, and the type of accommodation that you and your companion can accept)
  4. Given the duration of the trip, the places I want to visit and the accommodation, how much can I spend or how much do I need to save for this trip?

In my opinion, the plane ticket for Seoul is quite expensive (the 2-way ticket is PhP7,041 per person, and this was already on sale price that was booked about 6 months in advance) so I think it’s best to be there for at least a week to maximize the trip (and the plane fare). Below is our 6-day Itinerary for Seoul. I don’t know if this is too much for some people, but this itinerary is meant for a lot of walking and picture-taking, especially in the historical places of Seoul as I truly enjoy visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites and learning about culture. I’m not so much of a “foodie” or the type to prioritize on popular cuisines (since this tend to take most of your budget, haha!) but I do like to try where the locals eat and avoid those touristy/expensive restaurants. Plus, of course, there’s always a room for shopping, but still on a budget.

Sample 6-Day Itinerary for Seoul:

Travel Period: 20-25 June 2015

Featured image

 

South Korea may seem an expensive destination but really, it’s not impossible, especially for those who think they’re “too poor to travel.” Note: a savvy and budget traveler can survive and truly enjoy Seoul! 🙂 

Beewon Guesthouse and other options for budget accommodation in Seoul

I my previous entry: “South Korea: Preparing and Planning Your Trip” I have briefly mentioned about guesthouses and hostels as one of the best options for budget accommodation in Seoul. This time, I’m sharing my review of Beewon Guesthouse and will provide other recommended options for cheap accommodations in Seoul, based on my research. 🙂


Our accommodation at Beewon Guesthouse

  • Our Room type: Private Room with Bunk Bed (good for 2 people) with private CR.

Featured imagebunk bed

Featured image

Toilet with bathtub

  • Room amenities: AC, flat screen TV, mini fridge, hairdryer, towel, toiletries (tissue, shampoo, body wash, soap bar, toothpaste), slippers (bedroom and CR)

Featured image

inside the room


Here are the basic facilities/services of Beewon:

  • Information Desk/reception which is open until very late at night;
  • free WiFi (strong signal even inside the room)
  • common kitchen (small but clean and organized), with ref, microwave, and other stuff for cooking
  • common lounge with TV, computer, and reading materials
  • laundry area (free usage with detergent)
  • free breakfast (bread with jam or margarine and yakult)
  • free coffee (you can use their pot and make coffee any time you like)
  • free use of water dispenser

Featured imageReception/Information Desk 

Note: They have 2 beautiful cats in the guesthouse 🙂


What I liked most about Beewon:

  1. Very convenient location – probably the main selling point of this guesthouse:
  • From Incheon airport, you only need to take Airport Bus No. 6011 and alight at the Changdeokgung Palace bus stop, which is only about 3-min walk to the guesthouse.
  • It is near two subway stations: Anguk Station or Jongno3(sam)-ga Station (about 5-7 mins walk), hence, going to the famous attractions via the Seoul Metro subway is very convenient
  • There are two convenience stores nearby: GS25 Store and 7-Eleven, the latter being just a few steps outside the guesthouse. Near Exit 7 of Jongno3(sam)-ga Station, there is also a huge supermarket called Lemon Mart (pronounced as “Lemon Marto”),
  • Also near Exit 7 of Jongno3(sam)-ga Station, there are a lot of street food stalls and local restaurants serving korean barbeque and grilled pork, etc., which open at night.
  1. Reasonable rates – room rates are comparatively affordable, especially if you share a private room with a friend. We were able to book about 6 months in advance via agoda.com so we got even better rates.
  1. Friendly Staff – they have very friendly and accommodating staff. Check-in/out is very easy. The lady owner, although hardly speaks english, was very kind and likes to assist us with directions whenever she catches us on our way out. The rest of the staff was quite young and can speak well in english. On our last day, although we already checked out, they allowed us to leave our luggage for a whole day for free and we just picked them up later at night.
  1. Lots of famous and interesting places in walking distance – Beewon is located in Jongno-gu or Jongno District, which is home to several of Seoul’s traditional sightseeing places and other places of interest:
  • The Changdeokgung Palace is only about 3-min walk and Jongmyo Shrine about 10-15 min walk from the guesthouse. The Bukchon Hanok Village, where you can see traditional Korean houses, is also nearby (about 10-15 min walk).
  • It is very near Insa-dong gil (about 7-10-min walk), which is one of the centers for Korean arts and crafts in Seoul. Along the streets of Insa-dong gil, you can find the Ssamzie-gil Mall where you can shop for traditional Korean handicrafts, clothing, and fashion accessories. There are also other shops along the streets of Insa-dong gil where you can buy cheap souvenirs like Korean T-shirts and ref magnets, etc.
  • There are 2 branches of Alive Museum (the main branch towards the end of Insa-dong gil and another one at Ssamzie-gil Mall) where you can have lots of fun taking pictures via their 3D trick art.

Not so good points:

  • Perhaps it was just us or my “bionic nose,” but the bed sheets and pillow covers did not smell that fresh. The mattresses were not as soft, but good enough.

Verdict:

Overall, we had a very pleasant and comfortable stay at Beewon. The staff helped us with a lot of things, which we really appreciated. It was also fun meeting other backpackers.


Other Options for Budget Accommodation

In looking for cheap accommodation like guesthouses or hostels, I think that one of the best locations would be around Jongno area since it is home to many popular attractions in Seoul.

Aside from Beewon, here are my other recommendations:

South Korea: From Incheon Airport to Seoul City

  1. Arrival at the Incheon International Airport (ICN)

Whenever I set foot in any country for the first time, I’m always excited to see and experience their international airport, and somehow make a mental note of how their infrastructure facilities compare with us and with the other countries that I’ve been to.

ICN has been listed as one of the best airports in the world, and I think I understood why. The aiport is really huge that it will take a train ride to reach the arrival area, or to get to your boarding gate after passing through the immigration. The architecture is quite impressive and you will find it very clean (especially the rest rooms). Of course what I liked most are the awesome free services that are truly essential for travelers like the free WiFi, computers, showers, charging stations, among others. I also learned that there’s just so many things that you can do here like for a layover with all their facilities (e.g., garden, golf course, Korean Museum, Casino, movie theaters, etc.).

Featured image

Inside the ICN arrival hall

So, arriving at ICN, here are some reminders/tips:

  • Adjust your watch to local time in South Korea, which is 1 hour ahead of Manila.
  • Exchange only a small amount of Dollar to Korean Won and do the rest in Myeong-dong as they have cheaper exchange rates at the airport.
  • You can buy a T-Money card (and recharge) at the GS25 store located near Exits 10 and 14.

  1. Transport Options from Incheon Airport to Seoul City

From the ICN passenger arrival area (1st floor), there are various transport options to reach Seoul City. You can travel via train, bus or taxi.

         (via Train)

  • Airport Railway Express (AREX) – located at B1/F of the Passenger Terminal, Transport Center. For this, there are two options: (a) an Express Train or Non-stop Train that will travel from ICN to Seoul Station for 43 mins and is worth KRW8,000 ; or (b) an All-stop train (10 stops from ICN to Seoul Station) which takes 56 mins, worth KRW4,150. You can use your T-money card for traveling via AREX. For more information, visit the AREX website: http://www.arex.or.kr/main.do
  • Korea Train Express (KTX) – a high speed rail express train that can take you to Seoul Station for about 47 mins. The KTX is worth KRW17,500 for 1st class or KRW12,500 for standard class train. You can check the train schedule and purchase the train ticket online atmost 1 month in advance via the Korail website: http://www.letskorail.com/ebizbf/EbizBfTicketSearch.do
  • Seoul Metropolitan Subway – depending on which train station of the Seoul Metro Subway that you’re headed, you can take the combination of the All-stop train of the Airport Railroad which is also connected to the Seoul Metro Subway. You can check the subway route and train fare via this website: https://www.smrt.co.kr/program/cyberStation/main2.jsp?lang=e

     

    (via Bus)

  • Airport Limousine Bus – airport limousine buses provide convenient alternative option since they stop at various parts of Seoul, some of which are near famous attractions and hotels. Tickets may be purchased at ticket booths outside the arrival area and fares vary depending on the location of the stop (e.g., ranging from KRW10,000 up). The bus numbers, routes, schedules and fares may be viewed through this website: http://www.airportlimousine.co.kr/eng/lbr/lbr02_1.php

    (Others)

  • Taxi – lastly, if you don’t like to commute via train or bus, you can always travel via taxi, which of course is more costly. To give you an idea of the taxi fare, you can check this site: http://www.cyberairport.kr/mo/main.do?lang=en

Airport Limousine Bus No. 6011

 

We booked our accommodation at the Beewon Guesthouse, and for convenience, we opted to take the Airport Limousine Bus No. 6011 since it has a bus stop at the Changdeokgung Palace, which is only about 3-min walk to Beewon. So, compared to the train options, which usually only stops at the Seoul Metro Subway Station, the bus is the best option that has a stop closest to our guesthouse. To give you an idea, below is the route/stops of Bus No. 6011:

Featured image

Source: http://www.airportlimousine.co.kr/eng/lbr/gangbuk/lbr02_1_6011.php 

From the airport arrival hall, there is a ticket booth outside Exit 11, and the bus ticket is worth KRW10,000. The bust stop number is at 12A, which is just a few steps from the ticket booth (there is also a bus stop at 5B). At the bus stop, the bus driver or some airport employee will help you with your luggage.

Featured imageAirport Limousine Bus Ticket booth, just outside Exit 11

Inside the bus, it was clean and the seats are comfortable (with TV).  Once you’ve reached the popular bus stops, the driver will start announcing them and you can signal the driver or say your bus stop and he will assist you again with your luggage when you get off. Overall, we had a pleasant journey that took about 1 hour (may vary depending on traffic condition).

South Korea: Preparing and Planning Your Trip

First things first: Booking a Flight and choosing your Travel Period

As usual, it’s best to wait for the airline fare sales, then go ahead and book that cheap flight! I typically travel via AirAsia or CebuPac.

Now, when would be the best time to visit? In considering the travel period, I would usually check the seasons/climate or if there is a special event or festival worth visiting for. In the case of SK, it is a country blessed with four seasons, and most people I know would opt for Autumn (i.e., around September to November) to enjoy temperate climate and the changing of colors; or Spring (i.e., around March to May) to see blossoming of flowers and cherry blossoms.

We ended up choosing the Summer season (our travel period was last week of June 2015), mainly because we wanted to travel light (since the Spring or Autumn seasons in SK can be really cold requiring you to bring layers of clothing); and also because we were interested in visiting Busan, which is the summer capital of SK.

To learn more about the seasons and weather of SK, and help you decide regarding your booking, check these websites:


Planning your Itinerary

 

I always create my own travel itineraries, of course, this is based on weeks of research through various travel sites, published articles and blogs. Yup, I like to be prepared since my time and budget for travel are always limited. In my experience, SK has a lot to offer in terms of culture, food and shopping, and of course, if you’re into Korean dramas, you can customize your itinerary to track the places popularized by your favorite Korean telenovelas.

Preparing your itinerary really depends on your interests and priorities, like if you’re into culture/world heritage sites (like me), you can prioritize visits to the famous palaces (e.g., Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, etc.). If you prefer spending more time for shopping, then include a visit to Myeong-dong area or allot a whole day of shopping at the underground of Express Bus Terminal Station and Gangnam Station; and so on.

Here are my tips in preparing your itinerary for SK (based on budget travel):

  1. Decide on what places to visit

To help you get started on your research and preparation of itinerary, I recommend going through the following sites to check out the top recommended or most visited places in SK

 

  1. Check out street maps to plan your travel route

it’s best to plan or map out your travel routes to optimize your time and budget, especially as there also popular attractions in SK that are quite far from Seoul (e.g., Nami island, Petite France, etc.). You can do this by studying street maps to have a better grasp of the places that you intend to visit and thus, decide on the best route for your travel.

Unfortunately, most street maps of SK do not have English translation. I was only able to use the following:

  1. To get your way around, use public transports (as much as possible)

Going around SK, particularly Seoul and Busan, it’s more convenient to use the public transports like trains and buses, since they are accessible, efficient and cheaper. Most train stations also have coin lockers to store luggage or backpacks. So, you should familiarize yourself with the Metro Subways (like for Seoul and Busan).

  • Unfortunately, the website of published bus routes in SK does not have English translation so you need to physically check the routes when you’re there.
  • If you’re staying in Seoul or Busan for a few days, it is more convenient to buy the rechargeable transport card called “T-Money” card (costs KRW3,000.00), which can be used in riding trains and buses. In fact, you can save more using the card instead of purchasing a single ticket every time, since train/bus fares are discounted via the T-Money card. For more information about the coverage of the T-Money card check this site: http://eng.t-money.co.kr/

 

  1. Check out the potential climate condition (how cold) or weather forecasts

The website of the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) has accurate forecasts (daily, weekly) that will give you an idea on the percent chance of rain (especially if you’re traveling during Summer season) so you can adjust your itinerary accordingly.

You also need to check the potential climate/weather condition for your travel period via the KMA website to guide you on what type of clothes you should bring for the trip. Fortunately, most guesthouses (see discussion on Budget Accommodation below) have laundry facilities so you can take advantage of this.

  1. Have your money exchanged for Korean Won in Myeong-dong

I recommend that your itinerary should include a visit to Myeong-dong, perhaps on your first of second day in Seoul, for your currency exchange (and shopping!). My advice is to initially exchange only a small or minimum amount of dollar to Korean Won while in Incheon Airport, just enough to get you to the City or your hotel (and allowance for food if necessary), then do the rest in Myeong-dong. There are several foreign exchange shops in the area that offer much higher rates compared to the rates offered by various Korean banks or in the airport.

 


Finding Budget Accommodation

If your traveling to SK on a budget, I would recommend choosing to stay at Guesthouses (or hostels), since actual hotels in SK are quite expensive in my opinion.

Many of the Guesthouses I’ve seen seem like remodeled family homes or even traditional Korean homes and they also offer basic accommodation services that you would need (or more), like:

  • 24-hr receptionist/information desk
  • free wifi
  • luggage storage or private locker
  • laundry area
  • common lounge
  • common kitchen
  • airport pickup service
  • room amenities (e.g., AC, towel, toiletries, hair dryer, TV, fridge, etc.)
  • private or shared bathroom/toilet
  • free breakfast meal
  • coffee facility (free flowing coffee)

You can choose private rooms or dormitory type of rooms (bed spacer) and an overnight stay would typically range from 18K to as much as 30K korean won. Most guesthouses have online bookings (e.g.,via agoda.com, booking.com or direct booking in their website) and to get the best deal, my advice is to book your accommodation about 3-6 months in advance. Also, for convenience, choose a guesthouse that is accessible in terms of transportation (location is near train stations) and has nearby attractions or commercial establishments (like conveniece stores, supermarket, etc.). Take time to check actual travel reviews regarding their services/facilities such as via the Tripadvisor.

The following are my recommended affordable accommodation options in Seoul (Guesthouse or Hostel, mostly in Jongno area):

*we stayed at Beewon Guesthouse

The following are my recommended affordable accommodation options in Busan (Guesthouse or Hostel):

Near Busan train station:

Near Haeundae train station (beach area):

One of the cheapest that I found in Busan: Kims House in Busan

*we stayed at Blueboat Hostel Hauendae

 


Visa Application

If you’ve booked a flight, prepared your itinerary and booked your accommodation, then you’re almost good to go. Now, there’s one important thing that you still have to take care of. Unlike visiting our ASEAN neighbors, traveling to SK requires Visa entry… sigh….

But, don’t worry, my experience in applying Korean Tourist Visa (Single Entry) was quite easy and fast. Here are some tips:

  1. How to apply (list of documentary requirements)
  • The documentary requirements for Visa application are listed in the website of the Korean Embassy, and there, you will see the list of requirements based on the case of your application.

Featured image

Source: http://embassy_philippines.mofa.go.kr/english/as/embassy_philippines/visa/requirement/index.jsp,

  • If you are a regular tourist, you can select item 18: “for Employees” and you will see the following list of requirements (as of 01 March 2015):

Featured image

Source: http://embassy_philippines.mofa.go.kr/english/as/embassy_philippines/visa/requirement/index.jsp

  • Note that Items 7 (Original Personal Bank Certificate) and 8 (Bank Statement) are specific requirements to prove that you can financially support yourself during your stay in SK, so make sure you have enough money in the bank (several websites and travel blogs have suggested having at least PhP50K for about a week’s worth of travel, just to be on the safe side).
  • Be sure to arrange your documents properly, by order prescribed above. You only need to submit the above listed requirements, so plane tickets/flight itineraries, hotel bookings, etc. are not necessary.
  • The GMA website has uploaded an Infographic, which I found useful in knowing more about the documentary requirements for Visa and on how to fill up the Visa Application Form. Check the GMA link below:

Featured image

Source: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/377626/pinoyabroad/ofwguide/infographic-how-to-apply-for-a-korean-visa

  1. When to apply (timing of application)

Take note that the Korean Embassy would look into the validity of your documents, requiring the latest issued papers based on your travel period. My strategy was to submit my documents for Visa application about one month before my travel/departure date, so I prepared everything just about a week before my planned date of submission. Just make sure your Passport is still valid for more than 6 months, otherwise, you need to prepare way ahead to renew your passport.

 

  1. Application process
  • The Korean Embassy is located at the corner of Upper Mckinley Rd. and C5 Rd. Visa application is from 8:30 -11:00 AM. No need for appointment, submission is on a first come, first served basis.
  • Upon arrival, you will see a glass window (still outside the Office) where you need to sign in the log book to be given a gate pass. You will then proceed to enter the Office area.
  • Upon entering the main Office, line up towards the reception table and present your papers and sign in the log book. The Officer will initially inspect your documents and staple them together, then hand them back to you and give you a number slip indicating the Window # where you will finally submit these documents (again, be sure that your documents have been arranged properly; don’t forget your signature and paste your picture in your Application Form).
  • Be seated and wait for your number and proceed to the indicated Window # to present your documents. The Officer will then inspect your documents and if deemed complete, will give you a claiming slip indicating the date and time when you can retrieve your passport. Of course, this does not guarantee yet that your Visa application has already been approved. The Visa application is free if you will stay in SK for 59 days or less (or pay PhP1,800.00 if you will stay for 60 to 90 days).
  • Processing takes about 5 working days (or just 3 working days for those who have been to OECD member countries within 5 years as tourist); and releasing time is from 1:30 – 4:00PM.
  • Don’t forget to bring your claiming slip when you return to the Embassy, and write your name at the back of the slip before giving the slip to the Officer. In our experience, claiming is also on a first come, first served basis, so my advice is to be there before 1:30PM.

Follow-up blog about South Korea:

My 6-day itinerary for Seoul and 3-day itinerary for Busan 🙂

Moshi Moshi, Hakone! (Day Tour)

If you have a few days to spend in Tokyo, I would highly recommend that you include in your itinerary a side trip to Hakone, either for a day tour or an overnight stay. I treated my parents for a Hakone day trip during the spring season in Japan and was so happy to have given them an amazing and unforgettable experience. 🙂


What to see

From exploring the modern and bustling city of Tokyo, Hakone will offer you a pleasant respite from a city setting on to a scenic tour of the Japan countryside.

Hakone is at the southwestern part of the Kanagawa Prefecture (note: Prefecture in Japan is comparable to Provinces; Kanagawa Prefecture is south of Tokyo) and it’s part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park (source: Japan National Tourism Organization: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/kanagawa/hakone.html), so you will enjoy beautiful lake and mountain scenery, including the majestic view of the famous Mount Fuji. This town is also well-known for its hot spring resorts (“onsen”), as well as its historical sites, museums and green parks, thus, the perfect getaway for nature lovers! Also, part of the adventure of going to Hakone is exploring the place through the different forms of transports available within the area. Here, you can have sightseeing experience while riding trains, buses, cable cars, ropeways and boats/ships all in one day. So fun!


How to go there

For convenience, we opted to get the 2-day Hakone Free Pass worth 5,140 yen per person, which can be bought from the Shinjuku train station in Tokyo.

The pass covers a round trip transport from Tokyo (at Shinjuku station, West exit) to Hakone and back (ticket may be used only once) via the Odakyu Railways. Once you’re inside the Hakone area, the pass allows you to hop-on/hop-off in any of the 5 different modes of transports within Hakone including: train, bus, cable car, ropeway, boat/ship (note: this is via the Odakyu-affiliated transports within Hakone so the use of the Japan Railways is not included). But wait, there’s more… the pass also provides discounts in selected tourist attractions (e.g., hot springs, museums, restaurants, etc.). So, while the 2-day pass may seem a bit pricey, it’s really worth your money even if you’re only there for a day tour. For more information regarding the free pass, you may check out the website of Odakyu: http://www.odakyu.jp/english/deels/freepass/hakone/.


Planning your itinerary

                                                                                                                                     

You can plan for a whole day trip but most people I know (even the Japanese themselves) would recommend an overnight stay to experience the hot spring resorts and spas, which Hakone is really famous for.

Planning your itinerary is quite easy and you can follow the Hakone Model Sightseeing Course available at the Odakyu website, which is one of the recommended means of circling the whole area. The map of the round course is shown below. The suggested sightseeing course starts and ends at the Hakone-Yumoto point, circling the area in a counter-clockwise direction. In our case, we did the reverse track since we wanted to prioritize the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise. The travel from Shinjuku to Odawara will take more than one hour so it’s best to leave Tokyo really early to be able to complete the whole course and make the most of the free pass (we probably left Shinjuku at around 6AM).

Featured image

Hakone Model Sightseeing Course

(Source: http://www.odakyu.jp/english/course/hakone/)


Our Hakone Journey

  1. (Shinjuku to Hakone-Yumoto, to Hakone-Machi) : Hakone Tozan Train, Hakone Tozan Bus

So we left Shinjuku station super early in the morning and reached Hakone-Yumoto station via the Hakone Tozan Train. From there, we took the Hakone Tozan Bus until Hakone-Machi.

  1. (Hakone-Machi to Togendai) : Hakone Sightseeing Cruise

Upon reaching Hakone-Machi, we headed to the port area where we boarded the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise via a pirate ship! How cool is that? The cruise takes various routes and there is a specific timetable for the arrival and departure of the ships: http://www.hakone-kankosen.co.jp/foreign/en/timesheet/index.html).

Featured image

Featured image

(The pirate ship)

The ship traverses the calm water of Lake Ashi or Ashinoko Lake. On board, you can go up the viewing deck for a spectacular view of floating shrines, and surrounding mountains, including Mt. Fuji if the weather permits. The cruise takes about 40 mins.

Featured image

Featured image

Featured image

(The Captain)

Featured image

Featured image

  1. (Togendai to Sounzan): Hakone Ropeway

The cruise terminates at the Togendai station and your adventure will then continue via the Hakone Ropeway. The aerial lift provides a different angle for enjoying the scenic panorama of Hakone, and if the weather is good, you can have another chance at seeing Mt. Fuji. Each lift is shared by 18 passengers.

Featured image

Featured image(view of Lake Ashi from the ropeway)

Featured image

From Togendai, the ropeway will reach Owakudani Station within about 15 mins, where you can see volcanic scenery. You can stop by Owakudani to observe volcanic actitivies and try the famous hard-boiled black eggs (“kurotamago”), the consumption of which, according to legend, can add 7 years into one’s life. From Owakudani, passengers are required to transfer ropeways and then travel for about 10 mins to reach Sounzan Station.

Featured image

Featured image

(volcanic scenery at Owakudani)

  1. (Sounzan to Gora): Hakone Tozan Cable Car

The cable car is an interesting ride following a steep slope going down the mountain side from Sounzan to Gora. From the Gora Station, we headed to the Hakone Gora Park.

Featured image

Featured image

Featured image

(on our way to Hakone Gora Park)

Featured image

Featured image

Featured image

  1. (Gora to Hakone-Yumoto, to Shinjuku): Hakone Tozan Train

From Gora Station, we took the Hakone Tozan Train going back to Hakone-Yumoto and then back to Shinjuku. Along this route, there are other famous attractions to stop by if you still have time, such as the Hakone Open Air Musem, which is at the Chokoku-no-mori Station.

Tokyo: Top Favorite Parks for Cherry Blossom Viewing

The delicate and transient beauty of a cherry blossom

The arrival of spring, particularly the blooming period of the “sakura” or cherry blossom is probably one of the most recommended seasons to visit Tokyo, Japan. In fact, every year, the Japanese themselves keenly anticipate the coming of cherry blossoms after what seemed like a long, cold winter.

The celebration of the cherry blossom season is well rooted in the Japanese culture. The Japanese love to party and have picnic under the sakura, enjoying food, drinks and music. Not only is the cherry blossom the national flower of Japan, but it also has rich symbolism in their lives. The blooming period is very brief. The flowers usually last for only about one to two weeks, and then the petals will start falling off the trees and be blown away by the wind looking like pink snow. It’s such a beautiful and romantic sight!!! This delicate and brief life of the flower serves as an important reminder of how our life and everything around us is temporary, so we should make the most out of it.


Best time to see the cherry blossom

For a first time traveler to see the cherry blossoms, timing is everything, but scheduling your trip to fall within the blooming period can be quite tricky. Based on my experience, the safe period would be from late March to 2nd week of April (preferably 1st week).

While I mentioned that the blooming period can be very brief, the good thing about it though is that they don’t all bloom at the same time. Meaning, there are various popular parks and locations to see the cherry blossoms and they have different “best viewing time”. So, if you happen to arrive in Tokyo in mid-April, and missed the full bloom in late March or early April, there may be chance that you can still catch the cherry blossom in specific parks where the cherry blossoms appear at a later time. To further aid you in planning your trip, you can check out various news reports providing early predictions and updates on when and where to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom.


My top picks for cherry blossom viewing

Having lived in Tokyo for more than two years, I‘ve visited quite a few of the popular spots for cherry blossom viewing. So, here are my top picks (in no particular order… hehe) including the typical full bloom period:

  1. Shinjuku Gyoen

The park is among the most popular and largest in Tokyo especially as it is located in Shinjuku, which is one of Tokyo’s busiest commercial districts and transport (train) hubs.

Inside the park are beautiful landscapes and spacious lawns and a large variety of cherry blossoms to enjoy. Typical best viewing time (based on my experience) would be late March to 1st week of April. The park is about a 10-min walk from the Shinjuku train station; entrance fee is 200 yen (which is reasonable price for me considering the cost of living in Tokyo).

Featured image

Featured image

  1. Koganei Park

This park was declared by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association as the second largest park in the Tokyo metropolitan area (source: http://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/english/park/detail_02.html#koganei). Based on my experience, the cherry blossoms in this park appear at a later time, perhaps after a week or so compared to the other parks in central Tokyo (1st to 2nd week of April). The park holds an annual cherry blossom festival typically in early April (1st week).

Besides the abundant sakura in its spacious grass area, the park has many other attractions such as an architectural museum, children’s playground, archery, steam locomotive display, etc. It’s really one of my favorite parks in Tokyo especially since I used to live near Koganei , plus the park has no entrance fee.

Featured image

Featured image

  1. Inokashira Park

This park offers a different viewing experience of the cherry blossoms with the blooming trees lining up the Inokashira pond, particularly during early April (typically 1st week). The light pink blossoms against the surface of water and the blue sky make such beautiful scenery. Couples can be seen paddling boats in the pond while admiring the cherry blossoms. The park also features several fountains and bridges. This is also a public park and no entrance fee.

Featured image

Featured image

  1. Showa Kinen Park

This is also a huge park located in Tachikawa City, Tokyo (suburbs of Tokyo). The blooming period is typically around 1st to 2nd week of April. What’s lovely about the cherry blossoms here is that they can be seen beautifully contrasting the yellow flowers called “rape blossoms”. The park offers many outdoor activities such as cycling, and other outdoor sports. Entrance fee is 410 yen.

Featured image

Featured image

  1. Ueno Park

This is probably one of most crowded and popular parks during cherry blossom season. It’s usually jam-packed especially during weekends of sakura viewing and so you usually just pass by the lane of sakura as you will notice that most trees have already been reserved. Haha! Also nearby the park are the Ueno Zoo and the Ueno shopping district. Typical full bloom period is late March to very early of April. There is also no entrance fee.

Featured image

Featured image

  1. Zojoji Temple / Shiba Park

A visit to this place during early spring offers a unique combination of culture/religion (temples), architecture (Tokyo Tower) and the cherry blossoms adorning the temple grounds. It’s a must see for any body who happens to be in Tokyo during the sakura season. Typical viewing time is late March to very early of April.

Featured image

Featured image