Just Peachy – Low Cost Airlines in Japan

Japan is often noted as being an expensive place to vacation. Like most generalizations this is a bit short sided and not quite accurate. If you are on a strict schedule and you are particular about accommodations then yes, Japan will set you back a pretty penny. If you don’t mind a public bath, odd travel hours and spending a night or two in a comic book shop, you can get around Japan at a pretty low cost. One of the most cost prohibitive things in any travel situation is getting from A to B cheaply once you have arrived within the countries’ borders. As I’ve discussed earlier regarding Japan, Shinkansen is very expensive and highway busses are a little time consuming.

On my summer vacation I settled on Peach Airlines to fly from Sendai to Osaka and then Osaka to Seoul. Following the same path in reverse on my return trip.Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 11.38.11 AM

I didn’t choose Peach because it got the best reviews (it doesn’t have many being relatively new), I chose it almost solely on price and availability. Sendai’s airport is small and there are not a lot of airlines that operate out of there to begin with. Price wise, it was about two thirds the cost of high speed train for round trip fare.

Well, how does Peach compare?

The Business End

I think the best way to think about Peach would be to place it side by side with a similar Euro and American counterpart. The closest thing to a low cost national airline in the states is probably Southwest. In Europe I will use EasyJet.

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I went through of process of trying to book a relatively equidistant flight on each Airline and then looked at my breakdown of charges before check out. For Southwest I used Sacramento to LAX, for Peach I used Sendai to Osaka, for EasyJet I used London to Berlin. For Southwest (or any US flight) the total taxes will change because the Excise Tax is 7.5% of your fare price. I included this as $20 tax fee but it can be less or more depending on the fare price. Timing of the flight would also play a major role in costs that are based on a percent of the fare total. I used a one week round trip in early December as an estimate.

Overall I would say Peach compares very well to the other LCC’s on the list. Within Japan, Peach’s biggest issue is that most of the flights require a trip through Osaka. If you are in Sendai and want to go to Sapporo or Even Tokyo a trip through Osaka is required.

I was a little worried they would nickel and dime me out of my low fare though hidden charges and other nonsense but as you can see from the above chart Peach is relatively tame compared to their US and European counterparts.
It is still really annoying to pay a fee to pay for your ticket. The “convenience fee” is either a charge for using your credit card or a charge for paying in cash at a convenience store in Japan. I like to imagine trying to charge a convenience fee in a barter economy.

George: “Hello, I’d like to trade you some lettuce and onions for these eggs.”
Adam: “Sounds great, I think 1 dozen eggs for 3 heads of lettuce and 3 onions is fair.”
George: “Ok, here is 3 heads of lettuce and 3 onions, thanks for the eggs.”
Adam: “Not just yet, there is a convenience fee of 1 potato.”
George: “Convenience what for what?”
Adam: “I am accepting a payment from you, isn’t that convenient for you?… Well it’s not convenient for me. So I have to charge you for the time it took me to finish our transaction. That costs 1 potato.”
George:“But I brought everything to you, and I am taking everything away, you did nothing but stand here and agree.”
Adam: “Conveniently I might add.”
George: “So I have to pay you, to pay you.”
Adam: “That sounds vulgar, it’s a convenience fee.”

Now imagine an online transaction with no human interaction at all. Ugh. A convenience fee should be a charge for reading my mind and then sending me a ticket via email without me having to stop binge watching Battlestar Galactica on Netflix. That would be worth a convenience fee.
Grade: B

The Flight

My biggest issue with EasyJet was that every flight was a non stop sales pitch. Since nothing is complimentary on an EasyJet flight they try to get you to buy 4€ cans of Coke or snacks. Peach did offer a menu of overpriced snacks but for the most part left me alone when it came to the sales pitch. Just one at the beginning of the flight informing the cabin that there were things for sale (in English and Japanese).peach_airlines_hostess
Our flights were during the summer and the Peach crew kept the plane extra frosty which was nice. The temperatures outside were just stupid hot. They even spray a cool mist in the cabin during boarding and taxi. Also the smooth jams that Peach plays during boarding were quite groovy.

Peach is a very new airline and just about everything on the plane was brand new and in great shape. The complimentary beverages were adequate but not on the level of Lufthansa which offers free wine and beer. The in flight staff on all four Peach flights was extremely courteous. In flight entertainment was a little lacking but the flight distances are relatively short and I am pretty well equipped with my own entertainment.
Grade: A+

The Check in Counter, Boarding Gates, Baggage Claim and Airport

For one reason or another I experience severe anxiety about the boarding process. If I am not one of the first 5 people on the plane (not counting those who require assistance down the jet way, families with children under 5 years old, and active duty heroes in our military) I get unreasonably annoyed. The ideal boarding process is me first, then everyone else. When I had frequent flyer status in the US I felt like such an awesome person. I would purposely lord my status over the peons in the REGULAR security line by walking extra slow between the empty stanchions in the priority line.

Southwest Airlines has nearly given me an aneurism due to their cattle call boarding procedure. Peach has boarding zones on their boarding cards but doesn’t seem to know that they exist. During all the Peach boarding processes I went through, they made every attempt to line up the passengers in some sort of order via the overhead announcement system, and invariably everyone boarding the plane ignored them. This is bad and good. It’s bad because I prefer order and knowing that I will be first if my boarding card reads, “zone 1” or whatever. However, the gate chaos can be great if you lack scruples and regardless of your boarding card, force your way to the front of the line. Sometimes I lack scruples.

Sendai Airport Terminal

Sendai Airport Terminal

Baggage was very prompt and nothing in the bag was severely damaged in flight. The highest mark any airline can receive for baggage handling is that my suitcase and back pack showed up where they were supposed to and were in one piece. At Osaka-Kansai the Peach baggage check was a little disorganized first thing in morning with about eight flights leaving between 7:05AM and 7:20AM. Maybe they might want to space those flights out a little bit to give the poor girl at the counter a break.

Lastly and probably not the fault of the airline itself, but the boarding gate areas in Terminal 2 at Osaka Kansai and Sendai airport were severely lacking in amenities. Not as bad as Santorini or Prague but pretty bad.
Grade: B

Overall, I could definitely recommend Peach to someone looking to save a dime with airfare. However for the time it takes to get to an airport and get on the plane the value may not be there. Shinkansen for short journeys is on average only a little bit more than the plane flight without all the hassle of the airport. If you are on a really tight budget, highway bus is the way to go because LCC’s are still expensive and air travel has many draw backs and fees that eat into any savings you might have got on the fare itself. See the chart below for cost comparison. Getting from your point of arrival to your final destination costs a lot if you are flying in to an airport that is well outside the city limits. It costs roughly $20 to $25 to get from Narita or Kansai to a central station in Tokyo or Osaka respectively.

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Below is a chart of comparing and contrasting the various LCC’s in Japan. I have attached an Excel file with working hyperlinks to items referenced. Since I have only had personal experience with Peach I can’t rightly say anything either way about the rest of the LCC’s in Japan. Let me know in the comments if you have any experiences you’d like to share.

LCC Airlines Japan Excel with hyperlinks

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The fare prices on this chart are not as accurate as I would like them to be. In order to get an accurate fare price a full booking must be completed. I went by the lowest prices I could find on comparable flights. I tried to stick to domestic flights in Japan on similar routes and using major hubs like Tokyo and Osaka. Its still not perfect, Air Asia for instance only flies from Japan and not domestically (as far as I can tell from trying to book flights). Peach and Jet Star offer great calendars where rate comparison is very easy but that still doesn’t guarantee a flight at the price listed above.

In no way am I receiving any compensation for this article from any company listed or otherwise.

*Convenience and Credit Card Fees can be avoided if you pay using a different method. In the case of Peach, paying by credit card is still cheaper than the fee associated with other methods of payment. For EasyJet this is a 2% addition to your your total.
**Seat Selection fee can be avoided if you don’t care where you sit.
***For EasyJet the admin fee is included in the fare but it’s still a fee. Since I am not giving totals on specific flights which would change with destination I have just included it separately. If you book a flight with EasyJet this fee is rolled into your fare to start with and isn’t shown separately.

Bought and Seoul’d

After our full day of pretending to be in the midst of an international incident at the DMZ we felt like had earned a day of doing simple tourism. Shopping.

Our first order of business was to head to Insa-dong which Insa-dentally was very close to our guest house. We had wanted to try ginseng chicken soup but at 15000won a bowl it just didn’t seem like it was worth it. We ended up people watching from an up stairs restaurant where Shana was able to get her iced noodles and I got a spicy kimchi and pork bimbap dish.

After lunch we made our way through the souvenir shops. Just like most places, everything was essentially over priced but we picked up some magnets (obviously) and Shana bought a necklace that looked like a companion to one she bought in Thailand. There were some beautiful inlaid boxes with traditional Korean designs and some really neat sets of metal chopsticks. We decided that we had given Korea enough of our money for the time being.

With our time in Korea coming to a close on a Tuesday most of the major palaces and museums were not open (that we hadn’t already seen) and it was still stupid hot outside. We elected to take it easy at the guesthouse until early evening.

Around 6:00PM we headed down in to the Seoul subway for a train to Myeong-dong again. Although this time we weren’t going shopping. We were heading to North Seoul Tower or Namsan Tower. Constructed from 1969 to 1980 it stands 237 meters tall, but it was built on top of a massive hill. The construction site places the top floor of the Seoul Tower roughly equivalent to the height of the observation deck of the Willis (read: Sears) Tower in Chicago. In other words, the observation lounge is really high up.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There is only one option to get to the base of North Seoul Tower and that is to take a cable car to the base. Well, that is partially true. There is a path that goes up the “hill” to the base of the tower. No thanks, it’s really steep. The ropeway is rather expensive though so if you’re on a tight budget go ahead and hoof it. Once you get to the base of the tower though you will have to get in line for another set of tickets to actually go up the observation level.

This is stupid.

Tickets for both should be available at the cable car booth at the bottom but they are not. Anyways, the entrance to the elevator is below the main platform to the left if you’re standing at the ticket booth and it isn’t at all obvious. The arrows point to the observation “deck” which is where you would already be standing if you are buying tickets.

At the top of the tower we hung around for about an hour getting sunset/dusk shots and then waiting till the city really lit up to get some great night shots. While hanging out we met a fellow traveler named Lauren. Lauren walked around the tower with us and after we had mentioned that we were heading to the Hongik University area for dinner and drinks. Being an awesome person she said that her hostel was near there and that she would show us around.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Upon our departure we came outside to see the tower lit up in a brilliant blue light. This is only done on days when the air quality in Seoul is 45㎍/㎥ or less. Much like our experience with the fountain in the Lotte Department store in Pusan, we were leaving slowly enjoying the view when suddenly the blue light went out and a movie projection started on the side of the tower. The three of us hung around for the 15 minute movie that included giant break dancers, the tower being disassembled and then reassembled, being filled up with water and fish, then flushed, and some traditional Korean drumming. It was pretty damn extravagant and cool. Not sure why we hadn’t read about that anywhere but it was awesome.

With Lauren we headed to Hongik University and got a nice slice of the Seoul nightlife as we popped into a couple bars, chatted about Japan vs Korea and generally just had a good time being amused by people walking by on the street. We were so engrossed in conversation that I looked down at my watch and realized we had five minutes to make the last train back to our guesthouse. We said a quick goodbye and rushed down into the Seoul subway for the last time.

Well, isnt that uplifting

Well, isnt that uplifting

The following morning we caught an airport bus, slightly more expensive than trains but you don’t have to change because it’s a direct route to the terminal. And back to Osaka we went.

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The Korean DMZ

In case you didn't know where you were...

In case you didn’t know where you were…

While planning our trip to Korea, I made sure to include time for a visit to the DMZ. While not the most exciting tourist destination I can think of, it is one of the those things you just feel compelled to see. Like going to Auschwitz, the Berlin Wall, or the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, you don’t make the trip to be entertained, but to become more culturally and historically aware of the country you are visiting. The Japanese prison in Seoul that we had visited earlier was a somber lesson about Japan’s involvement in Korea. Now we wanted to learn a little about the situation between North and South.

There are a plethora of English-guided tours you can sign up for. You can only visit the area with licensed guides, and you must make reservations at least a day in advance. The bus came bright and early. We spent about an hour gathering the other tour guests and another hour driving out to the border on the highway they call “Freedom Road.” The bus made a stop in Imjingak, a small city below the DMZ that contains monuments to the Korean War, the Bridge of Freedom, a nearby Unification Village, and a small amusement park, oddly enough.

We stopped here only for half an hour, to allow our guide to pick up our entrance tickets. We checked out the remains of a freight train on display that had been practically obliterated during the war, as well as an installation detailing the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to our guide, South Korea has always maintained hope that the two countries will be reunited one day, which is why this area was made to focus attention to unification. This idea of unification gave us a lot to think about, and we talked about what that could even look like for Korea as we headed back on the bus towards the Dorasan Observatory.

Crossing the Military Demarkation Line into the DMZ

Crossing the Military Demarkation Line into the DMZ

We officially crossed into the Civilian Limit Zone, an area inside the four kilometers’ width of the DMZ. As we arrived at the security checkpoint, our guide told us about the explosive tank traps we had just driven over. In case of an attack on land, South Korea has wired bombs in various locations so they can detonate if necessary, preventing soldiers from entering on the ground. A little spooky, although our guide followed this up by explaining that they are almost obsolete, due to the fact that North Korea would now attack from the air with missiles. Well that’s reassuring. A few idiots, no, that’s too harsh a word, let’s say careless tour participants apparently didn’t realize that North Korea is indeed its own country and forgot to bring their passports. Our bus did have to be inspected and we showed the Korean MP our official documents in tense silence. Our guide had explained that the military police there have to meet rigid qualifications to make the post, including a minimum height of 160 centimeters, written exam, and according to her must be “good looking.” While I’m not the best judge of what makes Korean men good looking, I checked out the MP during his inspection none the less. Meh.

Dorasan Observatory

Dorasan Observatory

Good to go (even the dummy passport-less people were made an exception for), we reached the Dorasan Observatory in a few minutes and were briefed about what to expect. Our guide explained about the condominium facades we might be able to see. The North Koreans, trying to keep up appearances and make life look glamorous to the South, built a bunch of nice looking apartment complexes with electric lighting that on further inspection prove to be empty concrete shells where no one can live. The little town you can view from the observatory, called the Kaesong Industrial Region, was actually being used for manufacturing, with South and North Koreans working together in factories to produce a variety of material goods, but all activity was recently suspended by North Korea. There are also strange photography restrictions here. Cameras can only be used in a small, specified viewing area about twenty feet back from the perimeter, making it hard to get a decent shot. However, we were warned that getting a good shot may be hard in general because the weather (and smog) is not always clear enough to afford a good view. There had been quite a few clouds in the sky that morning, so we crossed our fingers and headed in.

Inside the actual observatory building there are no photos allowed, but a spectacular view with a detailed scale model for comparison. A soldier proceeded to brief us on particular aspects of the DMZ and Korean military service, which is compulsory for males in South Korea once they turn 18. He pointed out the location of the recently shut down factories, and noted that the beautiful mountains that predominate the area are basically bare with deforestation. Since North Korea does not have an advanced electrical infrastructure, they still rely on burning wood for energy and heat. Even with most of the lush greenery missing from the hillsides, the landscape was stunning. Luckily, we had perfectly clear views that day. Our guide was amazed at our good luck, as the soldiers don’t normally provide guests with a briefing either. We headed outside for a closer inspection, tried to snap some photos, and made our back to the bus for the next stop, Infiltration Tunnel No. 3.

The best picture we could get of North Korea, can you spot me?

The best picture we could get of North Korea, can you spot me?

Yay, more descending into caves! Well, not exactly, and not exactly as majestic as the lava tubes. The South Koreans discovered four infiltration tunnels dug by the North in 1974, which the North Koreans had tried to disguise as coal mines. They even went to the trouble of lining the walls with a graphite-like substance to lend it credibility. There are believed to be some twenty other tunnels, as yet undiscovered. After waiting in an awfully long line, made longer by all the Chinese tourists simply cutting in front of us, we put on our hard hats, hunched over and walked the course of the tunnel. If I had been alone in the dark tunnel, I made have had the sense of how truly eerie it was, but with hundreds of other tourists in tow, it just felt like a waste of time. After our group was reassembled, we made our way to Dorasan Station.

Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station is an operating train station, and the farthest north you can go in Korea. While the train tracks were extended into North Korea and had been running freight trains to Kaesong industrial plants in 2007, wishy-washy Kim Jong-il restricted all access in 2008, even though he had just agreed to open the train lines a year prior. President Bush (Jr.) had even visited this station in 2002 to encourage South Korea in its efforts toward unification. His speech is memorialized in the lobby. Ironic, I know. This station only receives trains from Seoul four times a day, for the purpose of transporting DMZ tourists. It is immaculately clean and eerily quiet. The fact that it isn’t buzzing with humanity like all the other stations is a bit unsettling. You can even see the entrance for the north-bound train line, with signs for Pyeongyang listed above. In all appearances it is a perfectly functional train station, but something about the sterile emptiness was more disturbing than the rest of the tour. Outside of actually getting to see the view of North Korea, I found this stop to be the most meaningful.

We left the DMZ on that note. If you purchase a longer, more expensive tour, you can go to the JSA, the Joint Security Area where North and South Koreans stand guard face to face. While I’m sure this also would have been interesting, it was a little out of our budget, so our bus began its return to Seoul, with a last stop at the Metropolitan Government Ginseng Distribution Store. This fancy little building is where you can buy really expensive duty-free Korean ginseng licensed by the government to ensure its quality. The employees there show you the farming process of ginseng, explain why Korean ginseng is the best in the world, and then give you various samples of ginseng in different forms. One was a hot tea blend, one is a powder, and one is a candied like rind. Then you exit through the gift shop where more free samples of Korean snacks and candies were on display. This turned out to be a good thing, because our bus driver, who had been sleeping it off between stops the whole day, had disappeared and turned off his cell phone. Our poor guide finally managed to get ahold of the hungover slob, and we were dropped off at Seoul City Hall.

I have debated since the trip whether it was really worth the $50 and seven hours of my time. Peak season is not the best time to visit anything in Korea, so I would recommend this excursion if you find yourself in Korea sometime other than the summer. Chinese tourists are the worst. However, we were told we had a very rare experience with the good weather and military brief, so I can’t guarantee you’ll see the same tour I did. In retrospect, I am still glad that I went, and I got what I had come for: a better understanding of the conflict in Korea and a personal experience that will temper my thought process on the matter. Ultimately, the goal of traveling should always be to broaden your world-view, and the DMZ will definitely do this. For that very important reason, I recommend a visit. Plus you get some free government-grown ginseng, yum!

2 days in P/Busan –

Haeundae in the afternoon

Haeundae in the afternoon

Since we were out unitl around 3am the night before, we got a late start on our day in Busan. Excited that we could actually find brunch (there are no restaurants that we know of in our town Iwanuma that are open for breakfast), we made our way to the Wolfhound, an Irish pub near our love motel that had a decent “full English” breakfast and good Bloody Marys. After brunch, we took a quick stroll around Haeundae in the sunlight, surprising clean considering how trashed it was the night before. Haeundae beach in the afternoon becomes a sea of umbrellas and inner tubes. Still sunburnt, we didn’t relish the idea of another beach day just yet, so we headed over to the Metropolitan Art Museum.

On display were local Korean artists in a mixture of styles. One room was contemporary, with large oil on canvas and watercolor works. Some four or five rooms were lined with scrolls of calligraphy text in Korean and Japanese. Another five rooms consisted of hundreds of scrolls done in sumi, Japanese ink brush painting. While the calligraphy was certainly beautiful, it was a little redundant after two or three examples, but the sumi paintings were so simple yet gorgeous. Each time I thought I had found my favorite, the next scroll would be even more stunning. I have a particular fondness for Japanese art and I wanted to take every piece home with me. The contemporary work was excellent as well, minus the bratty Korean children whose parents insisted on taking their photos in front of every picture! One child was too young to speak yet, but he knew how to make the “peace” sign for the camera. Ugh, I read about how Korean mothers simply worship their children when they are young, and after having it confirmed by Amy and Michael, it’s a little overwhelming to see how little discipline OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgoes on at that age.

After a little over an hour at the museum, we made our way to the subway to check out the Jagalchi Fish Market. While we had already seen quite a few markets like this in Korea, the Jagalchi is lauded as the most famous, so we had to see for ourselves. It is definitely the most massive fresh seafood market I have ever seen, composed of an outdoor area along the street and a five-story indoor market with hundreds of individual booths for the fishmongers. Each fishmonger also has his own area to prepare food for hungry customers. I really wished I was with a local who would know what and how to order some ridiculously fresh seafood, because I had no idea what to ask for. We contented ourselves with watching all the live octopus trying to escape from their tubs, which is highly entertaining. One made it out and partially down the street before his owner caught up with him. There is something so oddly hilarious about watching an octopus slither along the concrete. As you walk through the market, it is also not unusual to be sprayed with water by the various creatures in the tanks. If you have any interest, you can check out this video of the Jagalchi Fish Market experience for the highlights.

The market is right next to Nampo, a massive shopping district of Busan, so we wandered through this on our way to the Sky Park in the massive Lotte department store. Korea has more outdoor gear stores than I have ever seen in one place. They love to hike, so every corner has a North Face-type outlet filled with backpacks and moisture-wick shirts. There is also an extremely expensive Jeep retail store in Nampo, and apparently everyone in Korea has paid for a $50 Jeep logo t-shirt, because we must have seen a hundred of them being worn. We kept looking for a “knock-off” tent selling rip-off Jeep shirts for super cheap, but we only saw the actual Jeep store. What an odd thing to be trendy.

We headed for the Lotte department store because the rooftop viewing area boasts a “Sky Park” where you can catch views of Busan from on high. There is a tower in Busan, like that of Kyoto and Kobe, but the department store is almost as tall, and free! The rooftop also has a small petting zoo and aquatic activities for children, if you’re into that kind of thing. My uncle Michael had warned us that there is never a “clear” day in Korea. Even when the clouds are gone, a general atmosphere of haze tinges the sky. We got what pictures we could, and headed downstairs.

On our way out of the department store, we passed through the lobby where I noticed a large crowd of people sitting on benches, all facing a large fountain in the center of the room. The lights began to dim and an announcement came on in Korean. Andrew was in front of me, heading for the exit, so I got his attention and whispered “Something’s about to happen…” Not creepy or anything. We headed back to the fountain and in a few moments we were treated to an epic fountain show surpassing all other fountain shows… Okay the only one I can think of is the Bellagio, but it was definitely way  better than Vegas! Water jets sprayed from the top and bottom, creating a cylindrical water column onto which projectors shined images of flowers and dancing ballerinas, set to classical music. The water being dropped from the ceiling was manipulated into single droplets, so it fell as a sheer curtain of suspended orbs. Sometimes the droplets fell altogether in rings, like a chandelier. Other times, gaps were created to spell out letters and words. Not being able to read these, we joked that they were probably subliminal messages to encourage more shopping. Whatever it was, it was magnificent and a completely unexpected fifteen minute treat.

Next we made a brief stop at the hotel to cool off, and then off to Jangsan, where the puppy cafe is! For those of you who don’t know

"Puppies" everywhere

“Puppies” everywhere

about this brilliant idea from Asia, a dog or cat cafe is somewhere you can go after work to hang out with animals, drink a smoothie and relax before you go home to your tiny, sterile apartment that doesn’t allow pets. I thought this sounded awesome, and was formulating a plan to do some research and bring this concept back home with me to the states. First thing, the word puppy was just wishful thinking. Perhaps this cafe should have been called “lovable mutts we found in the shelter” because no where did I see a puppy. There were a few small dogs of the same breed, and a few larger guys who were kept separate from the cafe area because they were too energetic and badly trained to be played with. After we got the dogs to settle down, they finally seemed to enjoy sitting in our laps, and if we stopped petting them they strongly protested. While not the puppy utopian society I had embellished in my mind, the little buggers do tend to grow on you none the less. I probably wouldn’t return, and I definitely won’t be opening my own cafe anytime soon, but I’m not sure wether to recommend this activity or to tell you save your money. If you’re okay with rescue dogs that pee on the floor and bark a lot, you might enjoy it…

Mmmm bibimbap

Mmmm bibimbap

We headed back on the subway to the Kyungsung University area, which is just about the coolest little neighborhood you could ever wish to attend college in. Every inch of it is crammed full with cheap restaurants and enticing bars, glowing from the neon and electric with the hum of vibrant youths. As we searched for a spot to eat (my ravenous desire for more baby octopus still strong), we came across a board game establishment, with open tables and various card and board games on a shelf, waiting to be played. More interested in food, we finally settled on a Japanese restaurant serving Korean bibimbap, which is almost as addicting as baby octopus. After dinner, we meandered to an ex-pat bar next door called Eva’s. Eva’s had a huge venue, with a stage for live music, darts, billards, and a beer pong table. They even offered hookah. Unfortunately it was Sunday night, so it was totally empty, but I’m sure the night before would have been a fantastic time. We sat at the bar, tried some Korean IPA and watched a little pre-season football. That’s American football to you. The IPA was okay but a little expensive, so we headed home to catch up on some zzzs.

Our next day was mostly spent in travel back to Seoul, so I’ll just sum it up quickly. We dropped our luggage off at the KTX station, bought our tickets to Seoul for the evening and headed off to check out one more beach before we left the coast. Gwangalli was close by, so we braved the heat and walked along the beach. It was too early in the afternoon for any of the restaurants with nice beach-facing patios to be open, so we did the next best thing. Bought big cans of beer and hung out on the surprisingly nice wooden deck of a convenience store and let life go by for a bit.

Gwangalli Beach

Gwangalli Beach

A couple hours later, we headed back to the station and picked up some spicy fried chicken and bibimbap for the road. The area across from Busan Station is called Chinatown, but this neighborhood includes lots of Filipino and Russian establishments as well. It is certainly an odd mix. The KTX ride north to Seoul is close to three hours, but comfortable and scenic. This time we had decided to stay in Insadong, my aunt Rebecca’s favorite area, in a nice little guesthouse called Lavinia. I double checked our reservations for tomorrow’s trip to the DMZ. We were good to go.

Shoulders on flame with bags of clothes – Seongsan Ichulbong

We had a full day to kill before our Korean Air flight to B/Pusan in the evening. We left our bags at the guesthouse and caught the first bus to Seongsan Ichulbong, also known as, “Sunrise Peak,” due to its easterly position on Jeju island.

the crater

the crater

Shana’s obsession with volcanic phenomena usually involves descending into things. I on the other hand have a peculiar interest in climbing stairs. Well, not the stairs so much as just seeing what’s at the top, or also seeing what can be seen from the top. My desire to see whats up that next set of steps has been with me since I climbed the Statue of Liberty in the fifth grade. Since then I have dominated stair wells and flights such as: Yamadera (1,000 steps), Le Tour Eiffel (710 steps – that are open to the public), Sacré Cœur (534 steps-including the hill), St. Peter’s Basilica (491 steps),  The Statue of Liberty (354 steps), St. Stephen’s of Vienna (343 steps), and (but not limited to) The Acropolis (156 m, not strictly speaking stairs but it’s a good hike). Seongsan’s website sadly does not list the number of steps to the top but it’s roughly as tall as the Seattle Space Needle.Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 1.05.36 PM

Seongsan is a “tuff cone” and a very good example of one at that. Standing at roughly 180 meters (600 ft.) Seongsan was a great pile of ash that hardened with the reaction of ascending magma and sea water. Seongsan had a wet eruption which caused the interior to become a smooth bowl unfilled with lava and ripe for vegetation. The eruption’s proximity to the ocean allowed a great wave or waves to form steep cliffs on all sides save the north western portion of the volcano. Even more unique than the well preserved tuff cone is that there are plants on the volcano that are only found on Jeju island and one plant that is only found in the crater of the volcano.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bus ride to Seongsan is about one and a half hours depending on your bus driver’s mental state. Upon arrival at Sunrise Peak a fifteen minute walk is required to get to the ticket office. From there it takes about an hour round trip to the top and back if you’re moving fast. That means if you want to do anything else that day plan on at least 5 hours to really spend time there at make it worth your while. There is a complex at the bottom where you can get slushies and over priced food.

The hike to the top is not that unreasonable, well it wouldn’t be unreasonable if it the temperature and humidity outside are not record breaking. It’s more than reasonable if you’re not suffering from unreasonably bad sunburns from being UNDERNEATH an umbrella the previous day. Despite our cautious sun exposure and appropriate chemical protection we had both acquired awful sunburns from our day at the beach. Mine was on the shoulders and Shana’s was her shoulders and strangely just her right thigh. Sunburns that were bad enough where the sun can be felt through a shirt. At the top of Seongsan there is no respite from the sun. A massive view deck awaits with no shade.

panorama including the viewing deck at the top

panorama including the viewing deck at the top


This picture also shows how terribly sunburnt Shana got

Someone asked me at the top, “Was it worth it?” Maybe. I was going to tell myself that it was regardless of my actual feelings. On the way down to the north of the peak is a small cove where tours of a local island, free diving elderly women and fresh sea food are available. We decided not to spend time there but we did stop on our way back to the bus to get a massive hamburger. Massive in the sense that it could be cut into pizza slices. We managed to have some excellent luck as we arrived at the bus stop right as the bus was pulling up.

Back at the Jeju bus terminal we hopped on local city bus to the Jungang Underground shopping mall. We didn’t have anything to shop for but felt like it would a good place to enjoy some air conditioning while we killed time before heading to the airport. The Jungang mall is comprised of small shops that sell almost exclusively clothes. There were a few shops that sold cell phone accessories or food. During our tour we noticed several stores selling matching sets of his and hers; polo shirts, horizontally striped t-shirts, bathing suits, underwear, and full outfits including sandals. One of the few souvenirs we bought in Korea was a matching set of Pud & Lix (I have no idea what it means) t-shirts.

We then headed above ground to walk around the “famous” traditional Dongmun market which is above the Jungang underground mall. The Dongmun market is several city blocks at odd angles to each other featuring numerous elements of Korean cuisine, knick-knacks, seafood… so much… sea food, and an occasional clothing store. Just wandering among the stalls, avoiding delivery boys hot shotting around on mopeds, and occasionally stopping to gawk at their food preparation is cool in and of itself. Many of the fish and meat stalls have tables behind them where they pull the (you name it) out of the tank/freezer and cook it for you right there. Some things do not appear to be edible like skinned but still alive eel (true story). Some things look amazing like the vats of different types of kim-chi.

Nevertheless we wandered for a while and decided it was time to head to the airport. The bus for Jeju airport is not particularly frequent so we opted for a taxi and arrived at an incredibly busy airport terminal. In terms of passengers Seoul to Jeju is the busiest route in the world. In 2012 there were over ten million passengers that came through Jeju terminal. Unlike the island airports of Crete and Santorini, Jeju’s airport was big with many lounge areas and lots of overpriced food. However, in the actual boarding area there were not a great quantity of seats.

Our short flight to Pusan was uneventful. I had booked us a hotel near Haeundae beach earlier that day on a deal through hotels.com and it was about an hour from Pusan airport to Haeundae via the Pusan subway. We arrived at our hotel and checked in around 11pm, dropped our bags and spruced up a little because Saturday in Haeundae during the summer is a 24 hour party. Haeundae is chock full of Korean love hotels and they are all essentially pretty nice with loads of neon on the outside and hidden entrances. We stayed at Hotel The Sun about a 10 minute walk from Haeundae Beach proper.IMG_6099

The main street, Gunam-ro, was absolutely electric around midnight. We had donned our matching t-shirts and khaki shorts to disguise ourselves as locals. Down at the beach no one is allowed to swim after dark but the beach is open 24 hours. The Korean laws are also not squeamish about drinking in public. Just about ever 10 steps on the beach was a group Koreans with guitars or a jam box playing their favorite tunes, drinking and dancing. They were packed in so close that we wondering how they heard themselves play. Most of the bars and clubs along Gunam-ro are way way overpriced. Especially for a place like Korea where most everywhere else the drinks are pretty cheap. The best way to solve this problem is convenience stores. A tall beer at a convenience store is $2.50 or a bottle soju is about $1.50 and then people watch from the numerous benches or sit on the beach with your cheap beer.

Haeundae at night

Haeundae at night

Around 2AM we figured it was time for dinner so we found an outdoor patio that served the famous Korean fried chicken and finally wrapped up our night around 3AM.

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Samyang, the black sand beach

Shana and I had been itching for a day of nothing. While that’s not particularly interesting travel blog material it was a much needed break from the LETS SEE EVERYTHING TODAY attitude that we normally have when we travel.

We had decided on a day at Samyang Beach or Black Sand Beach about 40 minutes East by bus which is considered to be a less crowded beach than Iho Teu Beach which is the closest beach to Jeju City. We had our towels, swimming gear, sunscreen and some reading material.IMG_1704

You can rent a patio table with an umbrella for about $10 which we did because it was blazing hot again. We had got to the beach relatively early and it was mostly empty except for a windsurfing class going on at the far eastern side of the beach. We had our pick of spots. We set up under the umbrella and applied a good amount of sunscreen while we chuckled at those silly Koreans swimming in long sleeve shirts and pants. There was even a group of old ladies who were on the bus that appeared to be dressed in floral armor.

Mostly the thing to do at Korean beaches is to rent an inner tube and float above the water. Then go back the umbrella, drink and eat Korean BBQ. I decided to save some coin and hoofed it to the convenience store across the street from the beach and bought a couple large beers, some Korean flavored Doritos and cups of ice.

Black Sand

Black Sand

Our total time in the sun was probably around 45 minutes to an hour. We applied sunscreen twice after getting out of the water. Otherwise we were under the umbrella.

At around 4PM we headed back to the bus stop and took a thankfully uneventful bus ride back to Jeju City Bus Terminal where we took a shower and changed in preparation for a trip to “Black Pork Street” or Heuk Dwaeji.

Black Pork is one of the signature dishes of Jeju Island. There are these little black pigs that live there and they have a special sauce for it. It is on all the tourist maps. I had a tourist map of Jeju City and I thought, “I’ll just point to the spot on the map where the street is when we get in a cab.” My advice would be to NOT do this.

The taxi driver that we stopped started a map of THE CITY HE WAS IN for 5 solid minutes, holding up traffic, trying to figure out what I was pointing to. I said, “Black Pork Street, Huaek Dwaeji.” Nothing. Frustrated as all hell, we got out of the cab and went back to the guest house to use the internet to get a street address in Korean. I also used Google Translate to get, “Black Pork Street” written in hangeul, the Korean writing system.IMG_1724

The next cab we stopped I showed him the address in hangeul and he stared at it for too long. I took the phone back and showed him “Black Pork” written in hangeul. If a lightbulb had appeared over his head it would have shattered. As a taxi driver I could not believe that an address for a major tourist destination didn’t register and neither did the English name for the street. Mind blown.

Regardless, we made it Black Pork Street and stopped at a placed I had found on someone else’s travel blog.  We ordered their signature dish and the food started to pile up on the table.

We went here

We went here

It started with the  black pork and all the side dishes. Having the grill at the table looks like you’re supposed to cook it your self, but clearly we were doing it wrong and the staff would kind of huff at us and take the tools and “fix” it. I would start messing with the stuff on the grill just to amuse myself with their reactions. Then came this seafood soup which looked like it may never cool down enough to actually ingest. The soup was followed by a bowl of spiced meat which I plainly heard the server call, “pork loin.” We didn’t think much of it until we piled it on the cooking surface at our table and watched as the baby octopus that was in the bowl started to move and curl on the grill. It was only a little unsettling. The baby octopus was maybe one of the spiciest things I ever tried. It was really quite good, from that moment Shana began to have a vampire like craving for baby octopus. Maybe baby octopus needs to be classified as a schedule one controlled substance.

At first we had declined the dessert option for our meal, as there was already a ton of food we hadn’t finished, but we had ordered magkeolli which had enamoured the wait staff with us. They insisted on bringing us dessert. We capitulated and this was the right decision. The dessert was an “ice noodle” dish. It was a cold sweet/salty broth with buckwheat glass noodles, a hard boiled egg and giant ice cube. While not a traditional dessert it was still delicious.

After that we headed back to the guest house to sneak some beer into our room and hit the sack. We had to climb a volcanic formation the next day and then catch a flight to P/Busan.

A collection of Korean couples dressed alike.

One of the interesting contemporary cultural elements that can be found in Korea are couples, even whole families, that dress alike. While we did not see the illusive whole family we did see many couples. All the ones I was able to get a shot of are here.