Getting There: Seoul to Hamburg

I love traveling. But sometimes the getting from one place to another is not so great. My January journey from Korea to Germany was no exception. Three flights, two layovers, and four countries were involved. I guess I often gloss over the unpleasant and annoying sides of travel in my blog. This is a post entirely about how annoying travel is. So read and commiserate, prepare yourself for a similar long-haul, or skip it entirely if you don’t want anything to bring down your travel high.

I started in Gimpo airport, Seoul around 11 am. Gimpo is much smaller and easier to navigate than the awesome, but imposingly sized, Incheon. I was seen off my some of the loveliest people I know and waited as long as possible to go through the security gate– passing final hugs and kisses across the barrier before I ducked in for my check. Somehow before boarding my flight, I managed to lose my black knit hat. The first casualty of my Europe trip.

The first stop was Beijing. I am fairly well traveled. I have been in many airports throughout the world. Never have I been more frustrated than in Beijing. The signage was very sparse and unclear. They staff gave me contradictory instructions. I relied on the technique, “I guess  wil just go where other people go and hope for the best.”

My layover was about 8 hours long with my flight being after midnight. Since my flight was technically the next day, the airport offered some accomodation. That was a big relief. The idea of trying to find a niche to spend 8 hours wasn’t particulary appealing. Especially considering that once off your flight, you must go back to the big dparture hall and start the check in process all over again if you are taking another flight. And of course, no flight lets you check in 8 hours early.

A China Southern Air representative told me to go get my bag– it would need to be rechecked, then come back to find her. She was the ticket to my slightly more comfortable layover. I went to the carousel that had my flight number and waited. I waited for nearly a half an hour. Then suddenly, the flight number in the carousel screen changed and we were all herded down to a different carousel. Finally, after a few minutes, the correct bags came out.

I grabbed my bag and went looking for the China Southern employee, but of course she was gone. I ran to the international connection desk to ask them for advise. They scolded me for taking my bag and told me to put it back on the carousel. I heaved it back up and bid it farewell– starting to doubt the likelihood of seeing it again at this point. I went through customs and ended up back out in the main area of the airport with a 24 hour pass into China, but nowhere to go. I went to the China Southern desk and was told that (of course) it was too early to check in. So I hazarded to ask about the mysterious accomodations again.

She said that yes, they do indeed exist, but that I have to take a shuttle bus to the hotel. It’s not that close. She said that the next shuttle was in 10-15 minutes. That I should stay nearby and she would call me when it arrived. I sat by the desk and waited for about 20 minutes. Then I realized that I had been forgotten about and awkwardly crept back over to the desk to ask if it was arriving soon. Oops. She had forgotten, so she called them again and sent a staff member to escort me to the next bus. It was the original lady I had met before baggage claim. She and a male staff member very helpfully got me on my way (the male staff member even personally escorting me to the bus outside, inspite of the cold windy weather).

The hotel was very far from the airport. At least compared to what I was imagining. It was also on a weird back road by some train tracks, quite far from anything else. My plans to walk around a bit were immedieately squashed as my atempts to look for any sort of public trnsportation nearby didn’t turn up anything promising. So instead, I was able to rest for about 5 hours at the hotel. I napped for about an hour.nI washed up a bit and changed my clothes into something a litle more comfortable for the longest leg of my flight coming next. I Skyped a friend in Korea and browsed the offerings of Chinese television. Finaly, the shuttle to take me back to the airport came. The shuttle driver kept answering his phone on the way and seemed quite angry with the person on the other end. Whenever he started yelling into the phone, his driving became much slower. A problem when we were in the middle of the highway. I couldn’t help but think that I might die on a highway outside of Beijing. Inspite of the three phone calls that stood between us and our destination, we managed to make it relatively unscathed back to the airport.

Back at the airport, I was about two hours early fro my flight and feeling quite hungry. I swung by an open snack stand where I was told it was cash only (maybe due to the late hour). The lady told me that they took US currency, so I whipped out an old, crinkled twenty left from the last time I was stateside. Then she told me that my orderwas only $6 but she couldn’t make change, so if I wanted it, I would be paying the entire twenty for a sandwich and juice. I walked away. Who needs fod after 8 hours? I sat by my gate waiting. The flight was delayed almost an hour. Fortunately, my next layover was three hours long, so I easily made my conection in Amsterdam.

I slept about five hours on the flight from Beijing to Amsterdam and arrived pre-dawn in Europe. My brief stop in Amsterdam was blissfully uneventful. We were taking off as the sun was coming up so I was able to enjoy watching the orange-pink rays pierce through the deep, cool layers of cloud. It was a welcome change from the gray skies I had been watching since Seoul.

And then, I was there. Safely tucked into the arms of my old Oxford buddy, Cat. I had amde it to Germany. Even my bag had somehow managed to arrive safely in my arms. Which was lucky, since it was loaded with presents for everyone I’m seeing along the way.

I am in France now and have a lot to catch up on! I wil post soon about my time in Germany.

My Travel Survival Kit

I am about to embark on a litte European/North American travel extravaganza which is going to last two months, use up all my money, and hopefully refresh me for another grueling round of ESL teaching applications and interviews. My trip was delayed, but I saw the change of plans as an opportunity for adventure, so I will be dropping in on some friends in Germany now on my way to France.

I love traveling, but sometimes the getting there part can be really challenging. Especially when you can’t afford first class, direct flights, and bullet trains. So as I prepare to go, I thought I would share with you some of things I pack for long hauls and longer layovers.

Sleep Aids: No, it doesn’t have to be medicine to help you sleep (though sometimes I do toss medicine like Advil in my bag to help relieve headaches caused by cabin pressure). Think about the things you’ll need to be comfortable, especially while flying coach. A neck pillow might be a good investment– especially an inflateable one that can be easily stowed in your bag when you land. A sleep mask may also be useful when your seatmate is awake watching movies or using the reading light beside you.

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Extra Clothes: I am one of those people who are always cold. And plane cabins have notoriously unpredictable temperatures. I like to dress in layers (to keep my suitcase light) and bring an extra jacket and wide shawl/scarf I can use as a blanket when the temperature starts dropping.

Skincare: Plane cabins not only tend to be cold, but also dry. My dry sensitive skin can feel like cracking and peeling after 14 hours in the air. I pack a little kit of supplies such as cleansing wipes (not part of your liquids allowance and easy to use at your seat) and moisturizer for my face and hands. Solid lotion bars will also save you on your liquids allowance and you can use them to keep your hands and body feeling moist and supple. A small bottle of toner might be helpful as well if you have acne prone skin.

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Hygiene basics: Sometimes I end up in transit for more than 24 hours at a time. So having the basics of my daily hygiene ritual are extremely important. This includes toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and often dry shampoo. If you have a long layover in a well-equipped airport, you might get the opportunity to do the works with a full shower. Othewise, dry shampoos and deodorant are helpful cheats that let you feel somewhat human again.

Digital Equipment: A power bank or travel charger is indispensible. Charge it over night and depending on the size, it can charge your phone, tablet, or ereader up to four times. That tablet or ereader is also very useful on flights and layovers. Load them up with books, podcasts, and games. And don’t forget your earphones–noise canceling if possible.

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Analog Equipment: I am an analog sort of girl. I love paper books, notebooks, pens, etc. And this can come in handy while traveling. If you’re going to be taking a lot of trains and buses while traveling (as I will be in Europe) you don’t necessarily want to be flashing your tech around. Pickpocketing and purse cutting are very common crimes in many big cities. I am happy to pretend to be a penniless student (while I’m still young enough to sort of pull that off) with a paperback and notebook. Besides, I love to write and taking notes about what I see is a big part of traveling for me.

Snacks: Airports sell food and often so do trains. However, I don’t want to blow half my budget on buying food during a ten hour layover. Nuts, dried fruit, protein bars, and chocolate are some of my favorites to pack. Airports, in my experience always have water fountains. So bring a bottle to fill up instead of wasting money on drinks. Water is the best way to keep your body healthy and fight jet lag.

If you’re new to long-haul flights and long layovers, hopefully this article will give you some ideas on how to survive it. If you’re a veteran of this style of travel, what are some of your most valuable items?

Going to Your First Korean Wedding: An Etiquette Guide

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Korea easily has one of the most “coupley“cultures in the world. In fact, it seems a large part of the economy is driven by young couples. Marriage, however, still tends to be a business-like arrangement. If you don’t marry your college sweetheart, you will probably go on arranged blind dates when you are in your late 20s to early 30s.

For more information about romance and culture in Korea, check out my posts on Flirting in Korea  and Sexuality in Korea. But, the topic on hand today is marriage.

First, don’t be surprised if one of your Korean friends or coworkers hands you a wedding invitation out of nowhere one day. You likely didn’t even know they were dating. This is pretty normal. Courtships, especially ones that started through a matchmaker are pretty short. 3-6 months after meeting, it is typical to be married.

You’ll need to make a few preparations. First, while weddings can get very formal for the guests in Europe and North America, don’t stress so much about what to wear to a Korean wedding. While you’ll want to look neat and presentable, often the dress code tends more to semi-formal or even business wear. A dress and a cardigan will be fine for a woman, a basic suit or dress shirt, trousers, and tie will work for a man.

You’ll also need to prepare some cash. Presents aren’t typically given at Korean weddings. Instead you’ll bring cash (approx. $30-$50 for a coworker or acquaintance is considered polite, $50-$100 for a closer friend, relatives and bosses will often drop in the equivalent to a couple hundred USD at the wedding).

Likely, their venue will be at an all-in-one wedding hall. Some couples opt for church weddings if they’re from religious families, but typically it’s all in a wedding hall. These halls are kind of like the conveyor belt of marriage. You’ll rent the main, pre-decorated auditorium for 1-2 hours and have your ceremony quickly before the next couple runs in. When you enter the wedding hall they will be a reception where you can get envelopes to put in your cash. Sign the envelope and exchange it for a meal ticket at the desk.

When it comes to finding a seat, there is no bride’s side or groom’s side. Just make sure you get there early to sit. Wedding invitations in Korea are often spread wide to distant relatives, friends of the family, coworkers, old school friends, etc. Out of politeness, many people are included. At every wedding I’ve been too, it’s been so crowded that there were dozens of people standing at the back.

After the ceremony, the guests a line and take turns congratulating the couple (sometimes 2 lines, one for the bride, one for the groom). Then it’s picture time. First will typically be photos with the couple’s family. Then they will do friends– depending on the number of guests, they may do separate photos for the bride and groom’s friends. While you finish up your pictures, the venue staff will likely be prepping the next groom and guests for the next wedding will start trickling in.

After pictures, you’ll make an exodus to the eating area, often on a different floor. Occasionally, venues will have the wedding and eating all in one area, but typically it is in a separate area with a large buffet. If it’s a large wedding venue with multiple halls going at once, then you may be eating with the guests from several other weddings. The bride and groom will sometimes have a reserved table with their families. The couple will usually make the rounds to greet and thank their guests before they get to enjoy their dinner. After you eat and congratulate the couple again, you should get out of there and make room for the next party coming in.

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Some couples may opt to have a traditional Korean wedding. I have only attended one of these at an outdoor venue. A traditional house or temple may be the backdrop and the couple will wear classic wedding hanbok. The colors tend to be red for the bride, blue for the groom. In this ceremony, the bride and groom get carried to the front on a chair or palanquin. These ceremonies tend to be a little more intimate because you don’t have the same venue sharing. Time is less restricted and you know that everyone there is part of your wedding party, not from the wedding down the hall.

Korean weddings tend to be quick and efficient, if a tad impersonal for my taste. What kind of weddings have you been to in other countries? Have you had a traditional wedding?

The Perfect Seoul Weekend for History Buffs: The Jongno District

Now that the heat and humidity of summer have dissipated, people are taking advantage of the temperate weather to enjoy the city of Seoul. This also a peak time for visitors to the city. If you are visiting from another city in Korea or another country all together it can be hard to budget your time. I’ve made a couple itineraries for your best weekend in Seoul, no matter what it is you want to see.

Saturday For the History Buff: This one is a lot of walking, so lace up some comfortable shoes, bring a water bottle, and maybe a hat for the late summer sun. We’re centering your Saturday on the Jongro district of Seoul.

If you come out Gwanghwamun station exits 3 or 4, you are perfectly positioned alongside monument square in front of Gyeonbukgung palace. From here you are ideally situated to either grab some brunch the the Paris Croissant in the Kyobo building or walk down the block to hit the entrance to the free underground museum about King Sejeong, creator of hangul and Lee Soon Shin, famous military leader. The museum is small, but has a half size replica of the famous turtle boats of Korean military history inside it.

From there you can approach the famous Gyeongbukgung palace. It’s on nearly everyone’s itinerary of Seoul, but it is actually very interesting and worth seeing once. It’s rebuilt, but still only a quarter of its original size. Everything is authentically recreated, so it’s impressive to see the innovative architectural technology (like the original ondol floor heating) being used hundreds of years ago. Many of the original stones were salvaged for use in its rebuilding. And the water garden is a lovely place for photo ops. IMG_1662

If you can get an English guided tour of the palace, it can really help you pick out many cool details about the palace you might not see just looking at the information brochure. However, tour guides are obliged to take you to everything, even the repetitive royal bedroom after royal bedroom. So you can decide whether you want to explore on your own or not. Gyeongbukgung also gives you access to the Korean folk museum that can be accessed from one of the back side gates, just follow the signs in the palace. When you finish the palace, you can exit out the back gate facing the mountain and see the Blue House. This is the home of the current president of Korea.

After staring at the palace (and being stared at by guards) swing to the right and walk down the side wall of the palace past all the security to head back toward the main street. It’s a long, peaceful walk, but at the end of it, just before you hit the main street, you can cross the road to Seoul Selection. It’s book shop with a mainly English collection. They sell and even publish books about Korea. From history to food to language, traditional folks tales and poetry, even some modern Korean set fiction, the small shop always has a great variety of books. They even have some DVDS in stock of documentaries and kdramas. They also serve beverages such as traditional Korean honey tea, which will be a nice refreshment after the palace.

From there, you can cross the main road and head down to Insadong. Insadong is a fun, but often crowded and touristy neighborhood where you can buy traditional pottery, calligraphy brushes, and plenty of food. Get off the main road and try the little side alleys for some more interesting and unique shops. Down the main walking street of Insadong is an OSulloc tea shop– one of my favorite Korean tea producers in Korea. Black, green, and oolang teas from Jeju blended with herbs and flowers in dozens of different flavors, the shop has  containers on the shelves that allow you to smell the perfume of the tea before buying. The upstairs of the shop is also a cafe, so you can order teas and even food made with tea (green tea ice cream, green tea pesto grilled cheese, scones with green tea spread!) before committing to buying a whole box of the tea.

However, if you stay on the same side of the street, you can head to Samcheongdong. At the foot of Bukchon, the traditional house district, Samchegondong is a cute little district of shopping, eating, and playing. It’s mainly populated by young couples, but there’s cool stuff for everyone, with buskers playing on the street, and crafters selling handmade goods at pop up tables. Get some traditional Korean street food or dessert– there’s even a few places to get western food if you’re craving it, and some coffee shops that offer cheap to-go cups. Head up the hill to Bukchon to look at the houses in the traditional Korean architectural style, and snap a few photos of both the beautiful houses, and the beautiful view if you make it all the way up. But remember, Bukchon is a residential neighborhood with quiet hours late in the evening through morning.

And that’s your historical Saturday! For some alternative plans or plans for your historical Sunday, here are a few more ideas.

If you’ve seen Gyeongbukgung before or are simply looking for something a little bit different, you can also try Changdeokgung. This is a smaller palace in the same neighborhood. It was built later and covers less ground. However, it is a UNESCO heritage site largely because of its beautiful Secret Garden.

The Jongno district also features the Cheonggyecheon stream– an open stream that runs through the center of town from Jongno for several km. You can follow it all the way to Dongdaemun if you want a walk. Jongno features the Cheonggyecheon plaza. It’s a big open square around the start of the stream that has fountains and a giant conch shell that signals the beginning of the walk. Many times there are markets and events around the plaza as well on weekends. Families and couples frequent the walkways around the stream and often put their feet in the cool, clear water. Don’t be shy, join them.

The Jongno district and beyond is home to many great museums. Try the Seoul Museum of History or the War Memorial of Korea for interesting (and free!) permanent collections with changing special exhibitions.

Once your taste for history is satisfied, there is still plenty to do in Seoul. What kind of weekend do you want to have next?

Theories about Fan Death

Every summer Korea is plagued with concerns about the menace known as “fan death.” This  danger is apparently isolated to the Korean peninsula– as I’ve never heard of such a thing anywhere else.
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Many of the older generation in Korea believe that sleeping with a fan in a closed room is extremely dangerous. In fact, if you do sleep with a fan, you may not see another sunrise. Some say that the fan will “slice up the air molecules” and make the air unbreathable. Like all urban legends, many people know it is ridiculous, but some people persist in passing around this story. I would have been dead many times over if it were true. So I have spent the last three summers in Korea wracking my brain about why people might believe this (even news reports will apparently cite fans as a possible cause of death!). Here are three theories I’ve come up with.

Dehyrdration: If it is ridiculously hot and humid (aka: all summer in Korea) you can get dehydrated very easily. Combine this with the warm weather tradition of sitting outside and drinking large amounts of soju late into the night and not drinking appropriate amounts of water afterwards. If you fall asleep in front of a fan a little drunk and sweaty, the fan will only further dehydrate you. In fact, a US climatologist said something similar and  had everyone believe he was a supporter of the plausibility of fan death. In extreme cases dehydration can lead to coma and death.

Elderly People: Every summer, even in the US, elderly people end up dying in hot apartments. If they have pre-existing health problems, summer heat can be too much for them and they are unable to regulate their body temperature. Especially if they don’t feel hot (because the fan makes them feel a bit cooler) they may not use an air conditioner in order to save money. This can lead to elderly ones dying in their sleep without an obvious cause. It’s understandable in that case that they fan my get blamed. The fan of course is not the reason, so much as the summer heat.

Cover Up This is my most conspiracy-theory-tin-foil-hat theory. You’ve been warned. But in Korea there is a great sense of public image and “saving face.” Your bad actions have an effect on your whole family. Emotional problems and mental illness are still considered a bit shameful. So perhaps if someone in your family dies of suicide, perhaps in the night, it is less shaming to blame it on something unexplained like fan death. It’s less controversial than saying that they overdosed on a lot of pills, or even that they died of something like alcohol poisoning. It might be easier for the whole family to let their friends and neighbors believe that it was a freak accident than something possibly intentional.

These are the theories I’ve pieced together after three years of collecting fan death warnings by older Koreans. Many of my younger Korean fans don’t believe it’s true, but my students tell me they still worry about it and tell me to be careful. But what do you think? What are your theories about fan death?

My Favorite Seoul Coffee Shop: Bean Brothers, Hapjeong

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Any expat in Korea will tell you that coffee here is done a little differently. If you long for drip coffee in various roasts and flavors… you’re going to be disappointed at most Korean coffee shops. Espresso is the order of the day. Black coffee is now an Americano. Coffee with cream is a latte.

But I have found a coffee oasis about 10 minutes walk from Hapjeong station on lines 6 and 2. Bean Brothers has several locations, including a small coffee counter near Hongdae station and a large shop in Incheon, but the Hapjeong location apparently is their headquarters. They offer 2-3 roast of hand drip coffee (that they roast on location in Hapjeong) and 2 varieties of espresso for the usual blended drinks. They also offer tasty homemade baked goods (try their caramel cake or blueberry cream tart).

Their JB barista roast is probably my favorite. It’s a medium roast coffee that has a nice balance and isn’t too acidic. I don’t typically like black coffee, but the flavor is so fresh and perfect just the way it is, I would never add milk or sugar. It has a slightly fruity taste. According to the roast’s description card (that they serve up with each cup) it has notes of “peanut butter, makgeoli, and oolong tea.”

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The space has an industrial chic feel. It seems to be housed in what used to be a large garage. The huge garage door now serves as a projection screen. There is plenty of seating downstairs around the coffee counter, but more above.

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Like any cool cafe in Korea, it’s a popular space for couples. But there are plenty of 4 person tables for groups of friends. Some people settled down on the second floor with their laptops for a couple hours of work as well. This is made easier by the fact that the cafe is open until 11 pm and offers free unlimited coffee refills. My friends and I weren’t sure how many free refills we could get, so we unwisely tested this. After 4 cups of coffee, it became clear that they didn’t keep tabs on this. It also became clear that 4 cups of coffee at 8 pm were a bad idea.

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If all of this isn’t enough to win you over, consider the bathroom. Where else in Seoul can you find a washroom that throws this much shade at you?

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top: in the men’s room, bottom: in the ladies room

My Korean Addictions

Living in Korea, I have discovered many cool Korean brands that I am a tiny bit addicted to. Here are a few of the best discoveries I have made for shopping in Korea. I have been a bit spoiled by all the variety in a big city like Seoul. All the cool, affordable shops are hard to beat (unless I’m trying to buy pants or shoes… then my options are minuscule and expensive).

ArtBox: If you need anything cute or quirky in terms of stationary, home/office/fashion accessories, or even kitchen gear and houseplants, you should go to ArtBox.  It’s a delightful, whimsical world stocked with cute socks, pretty pens and notebooks, imported perfumes, even passport covers, and mini room fans. Cool 3D puzzles and window box garden supplies populate the shelves of bigger ArtBox stores in places like Gangnam and Sinchon. I have to limit my number of ArtBox visits because it is almost impossible for me to leave empty handed.

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Some recent ArtBox purchases.

ArtBox is a great place to get unique presents for people as well. And I love their pens. Pens I bought there my first winter in Korea still work today. I really hope that ArtBox expands more internationally because it’s fun, attractive, and not too expensive.

Korean Cosmetics Brands

Etude House: I typically get my nail polish and BB/CC cremes from Etude House. They have the “Play” collection of nail polish which  has dozens of shades. Those hard to find in between colors (like a soft, mossy blueish green) are likely to turn up on the Play shelf of Etude house. Their CC cremes are super lightweight and start white, but adjust to your skin tone. The BB Cremes give more coverage, but still lay nicely on the skin– not giving the applied-with-a-paint-roller look. All their base makeup also has SPF 30. My favorites are the Glow CC creme and the Precious Mineral BB creme.

Skin Food: I love Skin Food’s mineral eye shadow palettes. They only have about three different palettes, but each one is fairly neutral and will work on any skin tone. The mineral makeup stays put pretty well even after a day in Korean humidity. I also love Skin Food’s botanical based cleansers like their Honey and Black Tea face wash. It doesn’t feel like it’s drying you out. They have a some nice dusting powder and even dry shampoo which is great to toss in your carry-on when traveling.

Tony Moly: I only recently started frequenting this shop since one opened near my apartment (and initially I was put off by the silly name). I love Tony Moly for their lip colors. They have nice creamy lip stick that goes on lightly. I love soft sheer lip colors like their Lip Click pens. They also have some tints that go on like a sticky gloss, but the pigment really lasts even after the glossiness fades. Tony Moly also has the cutest and best smelling hand cremes. Peach hand creme in a peach shaped jar. Ditto for banana, apple, and several other fruits. The creme is pretty good quality beyond its novelty value and doesn’t feel greasy on.

Kyobo Books: This is a seriously cool book shop. Many locations, like my favorite one connected to Gwanghwamun station, have books in multiple languages. Their English section is huge. They have a sizable collection on Japanese and Chinese books too. And they even have a few shelves dedicated to French (I may have picked up Le Petit Prince to practice with), German, Portuguese, and Spanish books. It’s great for foreigners living in Korea, or even just on a longer visit. Plus, it’s an excellent resource for Koreans who are looking to improve their skills in any of those languages.

Kyobo is more than just books, many larger locations will also have sub-stores inside them for music and DVDs. Some even have mini ArtBoxes inside…I have a serious problem, I know. All the Kyobo books have fun kid’s section as well– it’s nice to see a love of reading being nurtured in the little ones.

Honorable Mentions:

I have also discovered some awesome Japanese brands in Seoul such as Uniqlo and Muji.

Uniqlo doesn’t have a lot of exciting individual pieces, but has all staple clothing pieces you need (for men and women). I can always find nice tissue thin cardigans and tank tops for summer there, plus Heat Tech leggings and camisoles (sometimes even with pretty lace trim) for the winter. It’s great for picking up your seasonal basics. They also occasionally have some cute accessories and dresses.

Muji is really cool, but I don’t typically buy a lot from them. They are mainly housewares and furniture with some clothing, foodstuffs, and stationary thrown in. The Muji I saw in Tokyo had a huge food section and bigger clothing section that was similar in tone to Marks & Spencer or a high end, minimalist Target. If I was living long term and furnishing a home in Korea or Japan, I would probably get most of my stuff out of Muji. It’s like… the Japanese Ikea. The furniture nicely mid-end quality and price with clean lines and functional features.