South Korea roundup 🇰🇷

We began our South Korean adventure with a week in Seoul, before zig-zagging our way through the country, stopping in Seoraksan National Park, Gangneung, YongPyong, Daegu and Golgulsa Temple. After a brief excursion to the island of Jeju, we ended our month in the city of Busan.

We’ve already talked about signage and the tiny towels, which turned out to be ongoing themes throughout South Korea. We also mentioned how friendly, generous and helpful people had been in Seoul, and this continued throughout Korea, too – at various points, complete strangers offered for us to share their makgeolli (while hiking), gifted us with small packages of yakgwa (while queuing for a restaurant), shared their locally grown persimmons (while checking out of a hostel) and insisted we help ourselves to their bag of kiwi fruit (while waiting for a bus). We aspire to have this level of outgoingness and generosity!

But probably our most unexpected discovery about Korea was when Sara went looking for deodorant…

While at high altitude, ‘our’ deodorant (yes, I’m afraid we now share deodorant to save weight and space 😬) exploded and so we needed a new one. Cue nearly a week of increasingly puzzled browsing in convenience stores, pharmacies, supermarkets and cosmetics stores before we realised something funny was going on. Why on earth couldn’t we buy deodorant anywhere?! I felt like a total idiot googling it, so imagine my surprise when the search results brought back a series of blog posts from foreigners living in Korea about earwax genes, the resulting struggles of buying deodorant and how to get hold of it. I’m sure this is vastly simplified (and I’m afraid I haven’t done a full literature review – after all, I was just trying to shop for deodorant), but it seems that the same gene that determines whether you have wet or dry earwax also determines whether you tend to produce armpit odour. While over 97% of Europeans have wet earwax and so need to buy deodorant, almost all Koreans do not. Who knew?! With the help of one of the blog posts, we eventually managed to buy an extremely expensive imported deodorant in a branch of Olive Young, you’ll be happy to learn!

A very confused Sara


Our travel to and within South Korea emitted the greatest amount of carbon of any country we visited on this trip so far. This was almost entirely due to our five hour flight from Almaty to Seoul, which emitted just over a tonne of CO2e. While we’re disappointed to have emitted so much carbon on a single hop, it’s also highlighted how much carbon we would have emitted if we’d not been making every effort to travel overland where possible.

This has pushed our total emissions since leaving London to well over 2 tonnes, which we’ve offset via Gold Standard’s Climate+ Portfolio. This means that as much CO2 has been prevented from entering the atmosphere as was emitted by our modes of transport, and consequently the net carbon emissions are zero. As always, carbon offsetting isn’t as good as avoiding the emissions in the first place, but it is a way of taking responsibility for emissions that couldn’t be avoided otherwise.


South Korea was our third most expensive country per day, though I feel like this does South Korea a slight injustice. Our high expenditure was mostly due the flight we took to get to Seoul and our 3-day skiing trip to YongPyong, while both food and accommodation were consistently impressive and affordable.


South Korea accumulated the third lowest cat count of our trip, despite our intervention at a cat cafe. I wasn’t sure if it was fair to include these cafe cats, so I’ve separated our “cats per day” metric into “naturally occurring” cats and “paid for” cats. Sometimes I find it hard to tell whether I’m taking this too seriously or not seriously enough…

Meanwhile, Sara’s been mulling over the fairness of visiting countries in different seasons, since cats are far more likely to be inside and out of view when it’s cold outside. She’s now considering introducing a “seasonally adjusted cat index” to control for the effect of outside temperature. Good to know I’m not the only crazy one!

As always, we met some cats eligible for our prestigious awards.

🏅Joint award for friendliest caretaker

🏅Least menacing cat gang

While we were sad to say goodbye to South Korea, we were also excited about our 33 day itinerary for Japan. On top of this, we couldn’t wait to catch up with our good friends George and Erin for a few days in Tokyo, and also spend a week travelling around Honshu with Sara’s sister Katie.

Jjimjilbanging in Busan

After our unexpectedly luxurious overnight ferry back from the island of Jeju, we had a couple of days to explore Busan, South Korea’s second largest city.

The top item on my Korea list was to visit a Jjimjilbang (public bath), and this was only partly because they are so delightfully named! After a successful visit to the communal bathhouse in Almaty (and being cross with myself for not having tried one sooner), I’m now on a bit of a mission to try them in as many countries as possible. Korean bathhouses are a bit different for a couple of reasons, principally that they are generally open all night (it’s not unusual to sleep at them after a night out!), that they contain all manner of other entertainment such as video games rooms, and that you are given pyjamas to wear around the mixed-sex sauna areas.

I’d read that SpaLand was a great modern example, and given that a standard entry ticket is for four hours, it was the perfect place to spend some time between disembarking our ferry at 6.00am and checking into our apartment. Honestly, this place is a bit difficult to describe – it is apparently Asia’s largest bathhouse and it was so huge that even with a concerted effort, I don’t think we managed to see it all in our allotted time.

After showering and popping on our pyjamas, we met in the relaxation room, a large room filled with rows of comfortable reclining seats. People were sprawled on their chairs, scrolling their phones or watching films on their individual TV screens. It was cool but not quite what we were here for, so we moved on to the main spa area downstairs. This was a huge, light-filled space over two floors, with several ornamental ponds, a cafe, and loungers, cushions and mats for relaxing.

First, we practised making our traditional towel hats and then visited the outdoor foot bath area to show off our handiwork, picking up some quilted jackets on our way outside. We realised later that our hats looked totally different to everyone else’s, but at this point we were still very proud of our creations!

Back inside and leading off the main space were the saunas, at least ten of them. Each had a different theme and purported benefits, like the Pyramid room (51.9°c)…

“Designed at a tilt angle of 52 degrees to absorb universal energy at maximum, it is designed for you to experience a mysterious atmosphere in a pyramid space”


…(erm, ok!) and the ice room (6.5°c), in which Oli is shivering below right.

All this sauna hopping was making us hungry, so we picked up some sauna eggs and sikhye (a sweet, iced drink made from rice) as a snack.

Finally, we couldn’t leave without experiencing the communal bathhouse section, so we parted ways, whipped off our pyjamas and spent some time bathing in the sex-segregated hot and cold pools.

Continuing our theme of visiting the ‘country’s largest…’, next on our list was the Jagalchi Fish Market. We started off gently by taking the lift to the viewing gallery on the seventh floor, which didn’t allow us to see the market as anticipated, but did give us a great view of the harbour.

Then, we got into the thick of it by walking through the market itself. We’ve been to plenty of fish markets, but this one really was on an industrial scale.

Thanks only to our sheer laziness in not unpacking our trainers after our walks on Jeju, we were both wearing our walking boots, but this turned out to be a real blessing! The floor was very wet and there was evidence of some…struggles, shall we say, between the determined traders and the poor fish.

We observed a woman wrestling a huge fish in the aisle, saw trays of the unnervingly wiggly penis fish, and stood for a while watching a very determined crab attempt to escape his tank.

On the second floor were the raw fish restaurants, which will prepare your purchases and serve them to you, no cooking needed. Not being particular fish fans, we weren’t quite brave enough to try this – maybe next time…

Our final stop in Busan was the mountainside Gamcheon Culture Village. Having been built as low quality housing to relocate Busan’s poorest residents away from the city centre in the 1920s and 1930s, its population really grew in the aftermath of the Korean War. Over time, residents gradually moved away and the buildings fell into disrepair. Since 2009, when the government invited residents and artists to participate in projects to improve living conditions, decorate the village and bring it back to life, it has become a case study for urban regeneration and a real tourism success story.

We did wonder how long-time residents must feel about the changes, though – while it sounded like living standards had improved, the village must also be unrecognisable and much busier. In that sense, it made us think back to Matera, which had a similar story to tell.

We read that it was nicknamed the Machu Picchu of Busan or Korea’s Santorini, presumably by the tourist authorities, as frankly both seemed a bit of a stretch! However, it did remind us very much of Rio de Janeiro’s Santa Teresa neighbourhood, still not exactly an unflattering comparison.

We enjoyed a wander through the steep alleyways, with views down to the sea, and embraced the area’s apparent obsession with cats – they appeared in murals, signs, and scultures everywhere we turned.

After this, it was time for us to hot-foot it to the ferry terminal, picking up our bags from the metro station lockers on the way (thankfully it went a bit more smoothly than in Seoul). We totally fell in love with Korea and couldn’t believe our time was almost up! Next we’ll head to Japan, but not without some further ferry drama along the way.

Hiking Jeju’s first Olle Trail

Even though we had less than a week until our ferry to Japan, we were keen to squeeze in a visit to the sub-tropical island of Jeju. Jeju sits in the East China Sea about 100 km south of the Korean peninsula, and is a favourite year-round holiday destination for Koreans owing to its mild climate and stunning landscape.

To make the most of our time before leaving Korea, we opted to take overnight ferries both to and from Jeju, which seemed like a great idea when we booked our tickets. Our outbound ferry departed at a very sociable time (around 7pm), and we treated ourselves to two rather comfortable beds in a four-berth cabin with the hope of waking up fresh to enjoy the next day.

You can imagine how smug we were when the two other berths in our cabin remained empty as the ferry chugged out of the port of Busan. However, the one downside to these ferries was the 6am arrival time, which meant that the in-room announcements began at 5am. And my goodness, there were a lot of announcements. With the help of Google Translate, we sometimes managed to glean a few details from each update, though other translations were complete garbage. Memorable announcements encouraged us to “wait a bit, but not too much,” and to “mind the 13 garlics”. These were funny at first, but I was ready to rip the speaker from the wall by the time we arrived at Jeju!

We disembarked the ferry in the dark and hopped on a couple of buses across the island to Seogwipo, a cute little town on Jeju’s south coast. After dumping our luggage at our hostel and taking a regenerative shower, we stumbled out bleary eyed into the sunshine ready to explore our surroundings. Seogwipo’s Chilsipnisi Park was right on our doorstep, and afforded stunning views out to Munseom Island. Jeju’s mild climate also meant that the autumn colours were still going strong even this late in December.

The park drops off dramatically into a gorge created by the Yeonhee-chun stream. At the centre of the gorge is a 22 m high waterfall, which we reached via a couple of bridges past more stunning foliage and a handful of rather unusual stone statues.

After a short walk along the coast west of the gorge, we came across a 20 m high sea stack famous for its appearance in many TV K-drama series. While the significance of this was somewhat lost on us, we could see why it was such a popular filming location.

Jeju is well-known in South Korea for its mandarins, and our visit just so happened to coincide with the mandarin harvest. Mandarins were pretty much everywhere – in every convenience store, market stall, cafe, and even honesty boxes at the side of the road. We couldn’t help trying them, and they were genuinely some of the best fruit I’ve ever eaten. We later learned that the mandarin harvest is more than business or sustenance – it’s actually celebrated by visitors, and we even noticed fellow tourists sporting orange knitted top hats and anything else that could be vaguely connected to this citrus fruit.

One of the many mandarin roadside honesty boxes

Just south of Seogwipo lies the tiny uninhabited island of Saeseom, connected to Jeju via a footbridge, and skirted with a lovely coastal path. As always, the pedestrian infrastructure was nothing if not impressive!

We also passed through a small harbour lined with fishing boats, each of which had a row of lights between their two masts. These powerful bulbs apparently attract squid when they’re most active – after sunset and during the early morning.

While we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area immediately around Seogwipo, the main reason we’d come to Jeju was actually for the Olle Trail – a 430 km series of coastal footpaths that encircle the island. The name “Olle” derives from the Korean word for the garden path that connects a house to the street, and conjures up images of the slow-paced amble at which these footpaths are best enjoyed. And what better place to start than Olle Trail 1; a 15 km route around Jeju’s easternmost tip. This trail is one of the most popular for a reason – it summits two extinct volcanoes, and bypasses a third (dormant) volcano.

View from volcano number 2

Despite Jeju’s mild climate, it’s still an island, and its weather changes fast. In fact, within 5 minutes of alighting the bus we’d been hit with wind, snow, sunshine and hailstones, in that order. Still, we were well-prepared for snow after our trip to Astana, and ploughed on regardless. After admiring the views from the two extinct volcanoes, our walk passed through a patchwork of fields edged with stone walls made from black volcanic rock, and then headed along the coastline towards the largest (and still active) volcano of the three. We loved the brightly coloured houses in the village we passed through…

…but we were less keen on the squid lining the seafront promenade. I guess they were there to dry? Either way, Sara came face-to-face with one that was blowing in the wind and it made her jump!

When the snow turned to steady rain, we needed a little more than just warm clothes to lift our spirits. Fortunately, it wasn’t our first hike in Korea, so we knew to do the sensible thing and picked up a bottle of mandarin makgeolli from the next shop.

The Olle Trail followed the coast towards volcano number 3

The makgeolli lifted our spirits so high, in fact, that we decided to climb Seongsan Ilchulbong, the third volcano of our walk, not least because we didn’t want to disappoint our hostel’s owner who had recommended it so highly. The path was actually very well paved and not too strenuous, and the views from the summit were stunning. That is, so long as you could see beyond the OTT decking and warning signage that littered the volcano’s highest ridge.

That evening, we braved an almighty queue to try out Jeju’s famous black pork at Ppolsaljib. While we were waiting, our neighbours in the queue offered us some Yakgwa, a deep-fried, wheat-based sweet made with honey, rice wine, sesame oil, and ginger juice. It was absolutely delicious and just about kept our hunger at bay until the main event – a selection of tender cuts of pork (inexpertly barbequed by us), alongside a baffling array of side dishes and washed down with a couple of victory beers.

Our journey back to Busan was a little less straightforward, when the ticket counter clerk couldn’t find any evidence of our booking. We ended up having to purchase two brand new tickets, but thanked our lucky stars that at least the ferry hadn’t been fully booked. Feeling sorry for us, the clerk very kindly upgraded us to a ‘special class’ two-berth cabin. We’re still chasing a refund for the mystery unbooked ticket, though! 😬