06 November 2011

A Year In Review

Wow.  That went fast.  I'm not quite finished with my time in Korea yet, but I'm pretty much finished with my traveling and I'm spending most of my free time planning my trip around Asia.  I love rankings and listings and all that good stuff, so I figured I'd take the time to compile a comprehensive list of the stuff I've done in Korea and Japan.

For my full rankings of everything I've seen in Korea and Japan you can click here.

My rating system is as follows:
5 Stars - Extremely unique, beautiful, and interesting.  These are places that really stand out as highlights of my time in Asia and rival some of the best places that I have ever visited.

4 Stars – Definitely do this.  May not have the whole package, as is the case with 5 stars, but these places were still extremely interesting or beautiful.

3 Stars – Highly recommended.  

2 Stars – If you have the time.

1 Star – Don’t waste your time.

So let's start out with my Korean Destination Rankings.  I have listed the main destinations with minor destinations in parentheses.   

1. Jeju - 5 Stars

Nature at its finest.  I have never been to Hawaii, so I can not comment on the validity of Jeju's nickname as "The Hawaii of Korea", but if Hawaii is anywhere close to as beautiful as Jeju, then I definitely want to visit Hawaii.  This is probably the most naturally beautiful place that I have ever visited as it easily puts Bermuda and the Caribbean to shame.  Certain parts of Italy were also extremely beautiful, but taken as a whole, Jeju is #1 in my book (at least until I visit New Zealand).  Hallasan, Mara-do, Yeongmeori, Seongsan Ilchulbong, Manjanggul, etc.  Amazing place.

2. Seoraksan (Sokcho, Gangneung) - 5 Stars

Another stunning display of nature.  Ulsanbawi was absolutely amazing and the rest of the mountain makes for some pretty great hiking.  This place actually isn't too far behind Jeju.  They're both about equally as beautiful, but Jeju had more attractions than Seoraksan.   I think Seoraksan is about a 4 or 5 hour trip from Seoul, but it is definitely worth it.  In fact, Gangwondo, which is Seoraksan's home province, is in general very hard to travel through, but is easily the most beautiful place on the Korean mainland. 

3. Seoul (DMZ, Incheon) - 4.5 Stars
A city with amazing architecture, a near infinite number of bars, beautiful palaces, the best museum in Korea, tons of English signage, and a beautiful and huge subway system.  All of this located only an hour from the most fortified border in the world.  The DMZ is a must for any foreigner if for no other reason than that it's completely unique.  Seoul is generally on every visitor's itinerary and rightfully so.

4. Gyeongju (Pohang) - 4 Stars

The ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, which existed for almost 1,000 years and controlled the southern portion of the peninsula from 668 - 892 AD.  This should probably be the number one destination for history buffs.  The museum is also beautiful and its collection rivals the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

5. Busan - 4 Stars

The second largest city in Korea is located right on the water and offers beautiful coastal views and extremely popular beaches.  Not as many attractions as Seoul, but I personally thought the nightlife in Haeundae was more fun than any area I had been to in Seoul.  Haeundae is a must for visitors and Jagalchi Market is also pretty cool. 

6. Daegu (Gumi, Waegwan) - 3 Stars

I'm rating these places based upon tourist draw.  So while Daegu has been an awesome place to live, I wouldn't say that a visit to Daegu is an essential part of a visit to Korea.  There isn't really anything in Daegu that you wouldn't be able to find in Seoul or Busan.  With that said, Daegu has an awesome downtown area that rivals any area I've found in Seoul or Busan.  It also has beautiful mountains for hiking and Haeinsa, which is one of the most famous temples in Korea, is only about an hour away.

7. Yeongju (Dong River) - 2.5 Stars
Even though these places aren't even in the same province, they're both out in the middle of nowhere.  Yeongju is a pretty small town, but Buseoksa is a beautiful temple located right outside the town and nestled into the mountainside.  I also went rafting on the Dong River in Gangwon Province, which provided some outstanding views.  Again, pretty tough places to get to, but definitely enjoyable.

8. Daejeon (Gongju, Buyeo) - 2.5 Stars
Nothing too fantastic about this place, but could still be worth visiting if you enjoy history.  Gongju and Buyeo were both ancient capitals of the Baekje Kingdom and each has its own museum and mountain fortress.  As for Daejeon itself, I had a lot of fun when I went out, but I only stayed over in Daejeon for one night, so I can't really make an assessment on the nightlife.  There aren't really any attractions in Daejeon that warrant a visit.

9. Gwangju - 1 Star

Not really anything on the tourism radar.  Boseong, which I tried to get to, is located to the south, but beyond that I can't really imagine why any foreigners would really want to visit this city. 

And now on to the individual sights.  I gave all of these a 5 star rating.

1. Ulsan Rock (Seoraksan)

 I really enjoyed every aspect of this place.  The unique rock formations, the amazing view from the top, and even the relatively difficult climb to the top.  I would say the hike to Ulsan Rock is the most difficult climb in Korea (although it's not really that bad), but it is also the most rewarding.

2. Halla Mountain (Jeju)
Another somewhat difficult climb (especially in a tropical storm), but also worth every bit of effort you put into it.  Amazing views along the entire route and of course also from the top.  The Gwaneumsa Trail is definitely the best way to get to the top.

3. Yeongmeori Cliffs (Jeju)
Awesome.  Honestly, any one of these top 3 could have been number 1.  They are all very, very close in my opinion.  I have never seen rock formations like this before.

4. Mara Island (Jeju)
Provides amazing views of Jeju along with having beautiful coasts of its own.  It's only a 30 minute ferry ride from Jeju and is an amazing way to spend a half-day.  It's kind of pain to get to the ferry terminal, but other than that it's smooth sailing and amazing pictures.

5. Gyeongbok Palace (Seoul)

This place is filled with beautiful structures.  I thought the gates stole the show, but many of the halls are beautiful as well.

Onto the temples...

1. Bulguk-sa (Gyeongju) - 4.5 Stars
The temple dates to 774 AD and is located in the most historically important city in Korea.  It is generally considered to be the finest example of Silla architecture and is also arguably the most famous Korean temple.

2. Sinheung-sa (Seoraksan) - 4 Stars
Location, location, location.  While the halls of the temple itself are not particularly impressive, this temple is located right at the base of Seoraksan.  Build a temple surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains Korea has to offer and it's bound to attract some visitors.

3. Bunhwang-sa (Gyeongju) - 4 Stars
The reason I liked this temple so much is that it's actually different from most temples.  It's true that most Korean temples are constructed in a very similar manner, so it's hard to develop a true appreciation for each individual temple.  However, this temple dares to be unique with its central pagoda that I thought was beautiful and I'm sure was even more impressive when it had nine stories.

4. Naksan-sa (Sokcho) - 3.5 Stars
Again, it was not the architecture that sets this temple, but rather its location directly on the east coast of Korea.  There's something inherently spiritual about the ocean, so it only seems natural to construct a temple right on the coast.

5. Buseok-sa (Yeongju) - 3.5 Stars
You guessed it.  The reason for this temple's inclusion on the list is again its spectacular location.  It is nestled right into the mountainside.  The main hall of the temple is also believed to be the second oldest wooden structure in Korea.

How about a little architecture? (Not surprisingly, most of these are in Seoul)

1. Yeongdong Curved Building (Seoul) - 4.5 Stars
I have never heard anything about this building (I couldn't even find the name) and I couldn't even really tell you where to find it, but I was completely blown away when I saw it.  The entire building is made of waves and looks completely unique.

2. COEX Mall (Seoul) - 4 Stars
The coolest mall I've ever seen.  This is actually located pretty close to the number one building on my list, but it is much more well known.  It also hosted a G-20 Summit, which is pretty interesting.


3. Gyeongju National Museum (Gyeongju) - 4 Stars 
I really love the way that they incorporated traditional Korean architecture into the design of this building.  It really seems like the perfect design for a Korean museum. 

4. Jagalchi Market (Busan) - 4 Stars
Can you think of a better design for a building that houses a fish market?  I mean the roof is shaped like seagulls.  I thought it was pretty clever.

5. 63 Building (Seoul) - 3.5 Stars
A slight curve and the color of the building are what set this one apart.  It is also by far and away the most prominent structure in Yeoui-do.

Honorable Mention: Hyundai Building (Seoul)
I couldn't rank this building along with my favorite architecture in Korea because I personally find the structure to be repulsive, but I had to include it on this list simply for originality.

Still interested?  How about museums?

1. National Museum of Korea (Seoul) - 4.5 Stars

A little bit of everything in this museum.  The ground floor is dedicated to a chronological exploration of Korean history, while the second and third floors are dedicated to fine arts both from Korea and abroad.  Seeing as how this is the sixth largest museum in the world, it was kind of a forgone conclusion that it would be number one on this list.

2. Gyeongju National Museum (Gyeongju) - 4.5 Stars
This one isn't too far behind the National Museum and it certainly takes the cake as the most architecturally impressive museum.  The museum is designed using a modern form of traditional Korean architecture, which is pretty impressive.  This museum is almost solely dedicated to an exploration of the Silla Kingdom.

3. Gongju National Museum (Gongju) - 3.5 Stars
The success of this museum is for the most part due to its proximity to King Muryeong's tomb, which proved to be a treasure chest of ancient Baekje artifacts.  This museum focuses on the Baekje Kingdom.

4. National Science Museum (Daejeon) - 2 Stars

This is by no means an essential visit, but I thought it was pretty fun for the fact that it didn't contain much English.  I found it kind of fun trying to figure out the displays.

5. Buyeo National Museum (Buyeo) - 2 Stars
A so-so museum, with exception of the Baekje incense burner (pictured on the right), which is the centerpiece of the museum.

Hmmmm, what else?  How about nightlife?

1. Haeundae (Busan)
This place is located right on the beach and contains a pretty crazy crowd.  A very touristy place that kind of reminded me of Atlantic City or Myrtle Beach.

2. Itaewon (Seoul)
The foreigner hotspot for all of Korea.  It really seemed as though foreigners outnumbered Koreans, which is a phenomenon you will not even come close to seeing in any other part of Korea.

3. Daehangno (Seoul)
Not as well known as Itaewon or Hongdae, but this place is located next to a university and certainly has its fair share of drinking establishments.

4. Daegu Downtown (Daegu)
This is obviously the place that I know the best and it really does rival any of the places in Seoul.  The only difference is that Seoul has about ten different nightlife areas whereas Daegu only has one.

5. Hongdae (Seoul)
A very famous nightlife spot that is located right next to Hongik University.

What about the food you ask?  Well here's a list of weirdest stuff I've eaten in Korea (and no, I have not eaten dog).

1. 미더덕 - Mideodeok (Warty Sea Squirts) - Vomit Inducing
I am all about trying new stuff, but this one seriously made me reconsider that claim.  This is one of the most disgusting things I have ever eaten.  The thing explodes when you chew and it seriously brought me pretty close to the brink of throwing up.  I was unaware of the translation prior to consumption.

2. 선지국 - Seonjiguk (Ox Blood Soup) - Better than it sounds
This one actually wasn't too bad.  I was actually having a pretty good time chowing down before I got wind of what I was actually eating.

3. 산낙지 - Sannakji (Raw Octopus) - Awesome
This is definitely an interesting one and not for the faint of heart.  With that said, it tastes delicious.  The only warning I should give is that the tentacles are still moving for about five minutes after they serve the dish.  It tastes great, but is slightly difficult to eat. 

4. 해삼 - Haesam (Sea Cucumber) - A Little Too Slimy 
I didn't even know what a sea cucumber was before I ate this, but apparently it is considered to be a delicacy in many Asian countries.  This is a really slimy food and while it doesn't taste terrible, I can't say it is anything that I would want to eat again.

5. 번데기 - Beondegi (Silkworm Larvae) - This is a snack food???
This is a popular snack food in Korea and for the life of me I can't understand why.  I'll take some potato chips.

Honorable Mention: 막창 - Makchang (Pig Intestines) - Essential
I didn't include this one on the list because I've eaten it so many times since being here that it actually seems normal, even though by western standards it's still pretty weird.  This is a dish that is particularly famous around the Daegu area and is as popular of a dinner choice as beef or chicken.

It seems as though I almost forgot about teaching...

 At School

Well I can't really rank teaching, but my job has been very enjoyable.  I would have to say that my favorite ages to teach are older elementary (fifth and sixth grade) and high school.  I like the older elementary school students because they seem to generally be the hardest working and most attentive.  I also really like high school students due to their ability to actually sit around and have a good conversation in English.  It has been a fun year and the kids have been outstanding for the most part. My coworkers have also made the job 100 times better and have become some of my best friends in Korea.  Unfortunately, I don't have too many pictures from the school (I rarely bring my camera to school), but I did take some pictures on Halloween. 

 And that about sums it up.  It's still hard to believe my time here is almost over.  One last thing I will say that I can't rank, but is really important in choosing a place to visit or stay, is that Koreans in general are the most hospitable people I have ever encountered.  The people are really the biggest reason that you should visit the country.

This will probably be my last or one of my last posts and I thank the people who have read my blog for the year that I've been here.  I have acquired more than 7,000 page views over the past year and I really didn't think that people would be that interested in my travels.  So I thank you and I would direct you to my new blog, entitled "You Missed It Magellan", if you are interested in tracking my progress around the world after I leave Korea.