Public Transport: A Brief Guide to the Seoul Subway

If you are new to Seoul, probably the first thing you will want to do is familiarize yourself with the subway system. But fear not! It’s very easy to use and does not require you to know any Korean whatsoever (although I’d still recommend having some knowledge up your sleeve).

I come from a suburban-leaning towards rural area in the U.S. where we lack all forms of public transportation, so you can imagine that I was very nervous on figuring out how to get around. On top of that, I came alone and my plane touched down two and a half weeks before school started, meaning that it was all up to me to figure out how to use it. Fortunately, I had two Korean friends pick me up from the airport and guide me to my first destination. I picked up a few tips from them and my experience that I’d like to share.

1. Jihachul. First and foremost, there is an application for the Seoul subway that is available on most OS’s. You can find it by typing ‘jihachul’ into the search window of the app store. This app is handy as it not only gives you a map, but allows you to select your beginning and destination in order to see the time it takes and number of stops you will pass through. It also provides you train departure times, which is helpful when you need to catch the last train. It also operates offline, so you don’t have to worry about wifi or data availability. (There is another version of this for the Seoul bus system as well, but I will describe it in another post.)

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2. Subways are just like airports. No, you aren’t flying anywhere or running from terminal to terminal (that is unless you are trying to catch a quick transfer). However, that is not what I am getting at. Subways are like airports as in they are well marked. All you have to do is follow the signs and it will guide you step by step through the transfer, platform, or exit. The signs are written in both Korean and English so there is no necessity to know how to read Korean if you don’t want to—but I definitely recommend learning at least how to read  because it will make your time in Korea a lot more enjoyable.

3. 5 minute rule. Generally speaking, a subway train will come about every 5-10 minutes depending on where you are at. The inner circle (line 2) runs more trains through than the far branch of, say, line 5. Even so, the train system is quick and efficient and does not require you to plan your schedule around it.

Subway Train Location Sign

4. Subway cards. There are many types of card that you can use for the subway and bus system. These include (but aren’t limited to) Pop Cards, Korean Debit Cards, Korean Credit Cards, and some Student/Work ID’s. Anything with T-Money compatibility will work in the subway. You can get at Pop or T-Money card at any convenience store (if you land at Incheon International Airport, they usually have a huge stock of them). They don’t cost hardly anything and you can add the balance when you buy it. If you need to recharge your card, there is always a line of self-recharge machines by the gates to the platform that take your cash and fill it onto your card. However, if you can’t find these or they are under maintenance then you can go to the convenience stores down in the subway (or on the streets) and ask for a recharge. Just give them the card and the cash you want to put on and they cashier will help recharge your card.

Recharging Station

5. Subway charge. A single subway ride on the Seoul system starts at 1050W up to 10 kilometres. You pay additional 100 won every 5 kilometres up to 40 km, and 100 won every 10 km after 40 km. You can also transfer to another form of public transportation (for instance, a bus) without paying the base charge again if you manage to transfer within 30 minutes normally (this time varies) up to 4 times. The base costs of the means of transportation are not always the same, so the maximum cost applies. Therefore, if you transfer from the subway (1,050 won base fee) to a city bus which belongs to Gyeonggi-do (1,100 won base fee) you will be charged 50 won when you get on the bus, and you will pay additional cost based on the total travel distance when you get off. It may seem confusing, but it is actually rather quite simple and painless overall.

Charge

6. Timing (can be) key. Of course, like any other major city, there is rush hour. If you try to get on line 1 or 2 around 8am in the morning or 6-7pm at night, you’re in for some fun. In Seoul, there are no conductors to push you into the car like packing peanuts, but most Seoulites are not afraid to pack in nice and tight. If you have claustrophobia, don’t go during rush hours. It’s not worth it. Also worth noting is that the subway opens at about 6am and closes at midnight (standard buses also stop running at this time). If you miss the last train, there are other options such as the Night Owl Bus or taxis, but they are more expensive, of course.

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Whether you are here for a few days or for months, chances are you will use the subway system at one point or another. Hopefully, these six tips will ease any worries and prepare you for an amazing time in Seoul!

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

여기서 잠실역까지 얼마나 걸려요?
yeo-gi-seo jam-sil-yeok-gga-ji eol-ma-na geol-leo-yo?
How long does it take to get from here to Jamsil Station?

단어 (Vocabulary):

역 (yeok) – station
지하철(ji-ha-cheol) — subway train
호산 (ho-san) — subway line
입구 (ip-gu) — entrance
줄구 (jul-gu) – exit

한글날 (Hangeulnal) – Korean Alphabet Day

Hangeul Day2

October 9th comes with yet another South Korean holiday, 한글날 (Hangeulnal) or Korean Alphabet Day. Known as Hangeul Day in South Korea and Chosŏn’gŭl (조선글) Day in North Korea, this national holiday commemorates the creation of the Korean alphabet (Hangeul/Chosŏn’gŭl). The alphabet was invented in 1443 and proclaimed as the official alphabet in 1446 by King Sejong the Great.

It is commonly held that King Sejong invented the alphabet himself and possibly with the help of some of his scholars. Before this revolutionary writing system, all records were conducted with Chinese characters (Hanja), which lead to many commoner lacking the ability to read. In order to change this—and against all royal discretion—King Sejong set himself on a secret project to write the alphabet.

This had to be kept secret from most of the royals because of many factors. Chinese political and military culture was highly regarded and many others were considered barbaric at the time, so deviating from a divine writing culture to another was frowned upon. Another likely reason was that the civic tests were reserved for those who were literate. Oftentimes these civil servants would come from higher class families that could afford a teacher for their child. With a universal alphabet that commoners could use, there was widespread fear that the caste system would be uprooted. Lastly, the political fear of contestation. With more people able to read and write, it would be easier for commoners to get an education and get involved in political activities. King Sejong revolutionized Korean society with his new invention.

King Sejong

Who is King Sejong the Great?

Sejong the Great was the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea (1392 AD to 1897 AD). He is a beloved folk hero in Korea. A highly educated and ingenious strategist, he is most noted for the invention of the phonetic Korean alphabet, Hangeul. Despite opposition from officials who wanted to keep Hanja, Hangeul is the prevailing alphabet today. King Sejong also established a scholarly research institute and library. Under his rule, Korean literature and culture flourished.

Sejong the Great is one of only two Korean rulers honored with the appellation “Great” in all of Korean history. The only other is Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo (57 BC to 668 AD), the monarch who expanded the Korean territory into Manchuria.

The Ingeniousness Behind Hangeul

Hangeul was written based off of the shape the mouth and palette takes when forming the sound. For example ㄱ ‘g’ represent the shape of the tongue when pronouncing the letter. ㅅ represents the shape of the teeth when making the ‘s’ sound and so on.

consonants-5-groups-diagram

To learn more about the Korean alphabet and how to write it, take a look here.

What to do on Hangeul Day?

Hangeul DayThere are small various events that you can go to on this day. A lot of people tend to go to Gwanghwamun Plaza or the Han River or just enjoy a day of relaxation. This holiday was removed from the list of national holiday because of pressure by companies in 1991. However, starting in 2013, October 9th was reinstated as a national holiday in celebration of the creation of Hangeul.

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

올해 한글날은 목요일에 있습니다.
ol-lae han-geul-nal-eun mo-gyo-il-e i-ssum-ni-da.
This year Hangeul Day is on a Thursday.

단어 (Vocabulary):

올해 (ol-lae) — this year
한글날 (Han-geul-nal) — Hangeul Day or Korean Alphabet Day
목요일 (Mo-gyo-il) — Thursday

개천절 (Gaecheonjeol) – National Foundation Day

GaecheonjeolIt’s National Foundation Day in South Korea! Literally translated as the “Festival of the Opening of Heaven,” 개천절 (Gaecheonjeol) celebrates the foundation myth of the Gojoseon state (Ancient Korea). The story places the creation of Gojoseon by 단군 왕겁 (Dangun Wanggeom) at 2333 BC.

The Legend of Dangun

Dangun’s legend begins with Hwanin (환인), or the “Lord of Heaven.” Hwanin’s son, Hwanung (환웅), yearned to live among the valleys and mountains of the earth, so he asked his father to permit him to descend with 3,000 followers. Hwanin gave his son his blessing and permission to descend to the Baekdu Mountains (백두산맥) on the border of modern day North Korea and China. Here, Hwanung founded Sinsi (신시), the “City of God,” where he—along with his ministers of clouds, rain, and wind—taught the humans various crafts and instituted laws and moral codes.

DangunWhile teaching the humans, a tiger and bear prayed that they may become human. Hwanung heard these prayers and gave them orders. With 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort, the two were ordered to eat only this sacred food and remain out of the sun for 100 days. Twenty days passed and the tiger could bear no more, so he gave up and left the cave. However, the bear remained, carrying out Hwanung’s instructions. On the 100th day, the bear was transformed into a woman.

Ungneyo (웅녀 ), the “bear-woman,” was made offerings to Hwanung in her gratefulness. However, she quickly became sad for lack of a husband and prayed beneath the Divine Betula tree (신단수, Sindansu) for a child. Hwanung was again moved by her prayers and took her as his wife. Soon she birthed a son by the name of  Dangun Wanggeom (단군 왕겁).

Dangun inherited his father’s throne and built the walled city of Asadal, the first city of the Gojoseon Kingdom (also known as Old/Ancient Joseon.)

10042013_national_foundation_day_001Customs

Every October 3rd, South Koreans commonly celebrate National Foundation Day with festivals, parades, burning of sandalwood incense, and 잡채 (chapjae). Each year, millions of Seoulites and foreigners flood Youido Park along the Han River to watch a magnificent fireworks display. Each country has it’s own display often with Japan, China, and then Korea as the finale. There is also a ceremony held at Chamseongdan altar at the summit of Mt. Manisan in Dangun’s honor. The altar is rumored to have been built by Dangun himself and is a legendary place of worship favored by ancient Korean kings throughout history.

Although North Korea recognizes 개천절 (Gaecheonjeol), it is not celebrated as a public holiday, but tradition is kept with an annual ceremony at the Mausoleum of Dangun.

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

이번 주 금요일은 공휴일인 개천절입니다.
i-beon ju geum-yo-il-eun gong-hyu-il-in gae-cheon-jeol-im-ni-da
This Friday is Gaecheonjeol, a public holiday.

단어 (Vocabulary):

개천 (Gae-cheon) — Opening of Heaven
공휴일 (Gong-hyu-il) — Public Holiday
고조선 (Gojoseon) — first Korean kingdom, Old Joseon
단군 (Dangun) — legendary founder of Gojoseon

Quality Kimchi is Important!

A restaurant is only as good as its kimchi.

The other day, I was out with one of my Korean friends for a nice dinner. When I asked her for recommendations, she pointed out a restaurant that has “the best kimchi on the block.” In my confusion I asked her what else she wanted to eat, because kimchi alone isn’t a meal. She explained to me that she didn’t want to go eat only kimchi, but rather that the restaurant was of good quality.

What is kimchi?

Kimchi is a Korean fermented vegetable condiment/side-dish. There are hundreds of kimchi varieties, but the basic premise is a vegetable food that is salted, blended, and fermented with various ingredientsat ambient temperature. Each kimchi variation has its own unique sweet, sour, salty, zingy, or bright taste.  Kimchi and sauerkraut are very similar, however kimchi is less acidic and takes less time (around 3 days, rather than 20).

Kimchi Varieties

Why does kimchi quality (often) equal restaurant quality?

Kimchi takes a long time to make because you have to deal with a long fermentation process. Good kimchi also requires daily attention to make sure the cabbage or radish is properly submerged. If a restaurant doesn’t pay attention to its kimchi, then what other foods are they not paying attention to? Good food take time.

At first it was quite hard for me to discern the taste quality between different kimchi batches, but after living here for almost two months–and feeling quite disappointed when there is no kimchi to be seen at my meal table—I can easily tell if the restaurant makes their own precious side dish or if they just ship in a batch of frozen, pre-processed kimchi. There is a very distinct flavor and consistency difference between the two as with most foods, so it doesn’t take a refined palette to spot.

Kimchi is often an acquired taste for foreigners, just as spice level is. I am quite used to fermented cabbage with my parents loving sauerkraut (although I’m admittedly not a fan of sauerkraut, especially being around when family are processing it themselves!), so I quite enjoyed it from the start. But if you are not used to this type of pickled vegetables, never fear! All of my international classmates have grown to like it and look for it at every meal within a month. Just like a song, kimchi will grow on you!

So next time you ask for restaurant recommendations, be sure to ask how good the kimchi is!

Kimchi-Ingredients-copy
Kimchi Recipe

Kimchi is not difficult to make, but it might be hard to find the necessary ingredients depending on where you live. Here you can find an easy recipe to make your own kimchi at home. If you have any tips or tricks to making your own kimchi, let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for good culinary advice!

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

김치는 보통  한국 식당에 반찬입니다.
kim-chi-neun bu-tong han-guk sik-dang-e ban-chan-im-ni-da.
Kimchi is usually a side dish at Korean restaurants.

단어 (Vocabulary):

한국 식당 (han-guk sik-dang) — Korean restaurant
음식 (eum-sik) — food
반찬 (ban-chan) — side dish
김치 (kim-chi) — kimchi

보너스 (Bonus)!

Korean Proverb:

김치국부터 마시지 말라
kim-chi-guk-bu-teo ma-si-ji mal-la
Don’t drink the Kimchi soup first

Figurative Meaning:

Don’t get ahead of yourself when planning for the future. Just as you won’t drink all the broth of your kimchi soup before eating the other contents.

비가 오다~ The Rain Comes~ How Suitable a Phrase!

비가 오다 (biga oda)

Rain is coming.

This phrase is very suitable. Why? Because the way it rains here. The rain starts with the slightest smattering, almost like that of an ominous warning signal shouting, “You have 15 minutes before the sky let’s loose!” Then, as if on cue, the downpour sweeps in, almost teasingly. Best hope you have your umbrella with you, because when they sky decided to let it go, it does with no remorse. You’ll be drenched in a matter of seconds.

Rain - Seoul National Museum
Currently we are at the tail end of rainy season, but the rain doesn’t just give up and go back to the sea. No, it likes to take its time. And tease. Since I have been here, the rain has seemingly had a system. If the rain comes early in the day, expect it to come in short spurts. It will rain for a few minutes and then peter off to sprinkles. Then, after an hour of no rain, the rain will come again for another short bout. The rain is coming. All day it does this as if someone is pulling the lever to a garden hose stationed right above us. I find it quite amusing.

Now, on the other hand, if the rain comes later in the day you should expect it to be harder with a longer, harder downpour. This time, if you are caught without your trusty umbrella it is best to run inside the nearest G-25 or 7-11, grab yourself a snack, and wait it out. Otherwise you will find yourself soaked to the bones. Trust me.

rain

Now, in Sinchon we don’t have to worry as much about flooding as other areas of the country, but if you are going to be out for a day during rainy season, it’s best to keep your eye on the weather or bring your little umbrella. If you didn’t bring your umbrella along, 걱정하지 마세요 (don’t worry). Almost every convenience store sells umbrellas for around 4000₩ (~$4 USD).

비가 오다. The rain is coming.

Reaction to the Overreaction: Psy feat. Snoop Dog – Hangover

Ok, so a lot of flames are stirring already around this song and it has been less than a full day since its release. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the comment section on YouTube.

People are up in arms, thinking that this is encouraging drinking. On the contrary, I believe the message is far from encouragement. Firstly, Psy is known for his outrageous persona in his music. This doesn’t however mean that his videos should be blown off or disregarded, but rather that his messages are far from straight forwards and are often portrayed with his trademark satirical twist. Need proof? Take a closer look at his two more recent hits “Gangnam Style” and “Gentlemen” both of which make fun of what is in their titles.

Gangnam District in Seoul is known for it’s elevated (and expensive) style trends which he pokes fun at with his outrageous videos and lyrics.  Gentleman also does the same, making fun of the gentleman ideal which is far from what most people follow. (Take a look at lyrics and translations for Gangnam Style and Gentleman).

South Korea has a huge drinking culture. There are a lot of codes around proper drinking and it often happens on formal occasions as well as with close friends. For some of the basics, take a look at EatYourKimchi’s seven steps to drinking properly here. Seoulistic also points out that South Korean drinking etiquette often leads to over-consumption.

Combine Psy’s satirical style and information on the drinking culture, it is a lot easier to flip the coin to see that he is not encouraging over-consumption and lack of self-controlled drinking. Rather, it is a comment on what it leads to. Getting wasted and mass public misbehavior from over-drinking is not desirable. The whole video displays the absurdity that can happen afterwards from it. How is that encouragement to drink?What do you think?

The best part about art is that it can be interpreted in many ways. So please, before making a judgement on artistic works that have underlying symbolism, do a little research rather than going to arms and condemning it.

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