In general, Korea is an extremely easy country to navigate, but there were a few times when we were awfully lucky to have kids living there to help. In particular, when you are using airbnb there is no concierge or English-adept staff to clarify those details which can make life miserable when you are not in the know.
Getting in and out of your apartment
We had paid for 2 weeks of an efficiency apartment, meaning we were completely on our own. In advance, the host was to send us the lock code which theoretically is all one needs to enter. Ha. We would have been stranded because the system of house locks is completely different from the US but consistent everywhere we went in the country.
Getting into your apartment: A small box about the size of a cigarette pack is mounted on the door. To use your key code first slide up the cover, enter the code on the numeric pad, slide the cover down, wait for the musical tone, and then open the door.
Getting out of your apartment: In order to leave your apartment, which will lock automatically again when the door is closed, you push the button on the inside of the lock mechanism, watch the little dial turn, and then the door can be opened. If for some reason the dial doesn’t turn you can turn it manually. But for both ingress and egress, take your time and wait for the lock to do its thing. Trying to open the door from the inside before it’s ready screws things up and you must take a breath, wait for tones and automatic things to happen, and start over if necessary. DO NOT PANIC!
Without our kids showing us, we would have been locked out, and then locked in! It’s a great system once you know how it works and though there are different versions in different apartments (and the exterior door of our guest house in Jeonju worked the same way) they all look and work the same.
Communicating With Your Airbnb Host
I had booked our Seoul apartment on my desktop. Emailing back and forth via the host’s airbnb address worked great in the US. In Korea, when I tried to email from my phone airbnb responded that I had to authenticate myself via the airbnb app because I was using an unknown device. I downloaded the app, entered all the info, but it never linked up to my original account. USE THE APP while in the US. Our kids came to our rescue, as they had gotten his phone number when I sent them the airbnb booking, but I was never able to get in touch with him on my own. It didn’t occur to me that the way I had communicated from the US would not work when all I had was a smartphone in Korea.
Use the “Egg”
Wifi is all over the place in Korea, and with few exceptions we were able to use various free services all over the city. Sometimes when it appeared no service was on where we happened to be, walking a half block usually revealed another we could use. However, most Koreans carry an “egg” which is the small personal hotspot and super handy. While the egg does lose connection depending on where you are, it almost always comes back. However, our phones always appeared from the wifi icons to be connected even when they were not, so you might not realize you aren’t connected until you try and do something other than GPS.
Many of the accommodations I looked at said “free egg” but ours didn’t so I didn’t know there was such a thing pretty much universally. Hence I hadn’t gotten the password, but again kids came to the rescue, called the host and got the “egg” password.
GPS-enabled Maps Are a LifeSaver
I am a fan of Maplets, even more so now. This little app downloads digitized maps (tourist maps, subway maps, trail maps, etc.) worldwide and more and more of them are GPS enabled. When no wifi was available we were able to figure out where we were by using these–and they worked even when Google and Apple maps seemed baffled (e.g., the blue spot would appear, but no map behind it). Get Maplets and download subway and other maps (you can search by location)–they are also great because you can zoom in to details.
In general, Apple and Google maps were useless for routes and distances. We could never get a walking route, for example, even when the map seemed accurate and visible.
Electronic Kiosks at Restaurants
If you walk up to a restaurant and see an iPad-sized thing mounted in front, this is how you register that you’re there and want a table. While you won’t have a Korean phone number, you can enter your name, in which case do find a human and tell them what you have done. Otherwise you will never get a table.
Spoken English is Rare
It seems strange that with every street sign, subway stop and most informational signs having an English translation so few Koreans speak English. They are extremely friendly, will try to help, and of course as in many countries people will strike a conversation when they hear you talking and they want to practice English. Hand gestures, pointing, and all the other things one does in a foreign country work just fine–but do not assume because the menu is translated that anyone in the place can read or explain it.
Use a Native or Foreign-Enabled Texting and Calling App
We use KakaoTalk to communicate with our kids living in Korea. It is highly functional–probably similar to WhatsApp which we also use. These work with wifi and enable crystal clear phone calls as well as texting. While they only work with other people who have the same app, we had told friends and family to download and use KakaoTalk and that was our primary communication mode.
We did not get a SIM card, and we turned off data services for our phones (which seems to annoy Verizon no end as we were bombarded with offers and warnings when we sent data via KakaoTalk or WhatsApp) by making sure airplane mode was always on. We used texting and KakaoTalk phone calls on wifi and it was entirely free.
If in Seoul and Hungry for Home Food, Head to Itaewon
Itaewon is for foreigners, and so there is a wonderfully mixed population and an incredible array of restaurants. American style food, halal restaurants, Mexican restaurants (a current fad so it might be something different in a few years) abound, mixed with every kind of Korean food you can imagine. There is also a reasonable choice of American food in the grocery stores–we bought a box of cornflakes so we could eat breakfast before setting out, both to save money and to have something familiar. Itaewon also has several of the best bakeries I’ve been to anywhere.
However, with a few exceptions the coffee places open later in the morning than we would have liked–we finally found one that opened at 8am (Bread Show–excellent!) but many do not open until 10. If you must have a caffeine fix before heading out there is ample instant (comes in little paper tubes that have both sugar and creamer, ugh) and the convenience stores (7-11, CU, etc.) all sell about 20 kinds of cold canned and cartoned coffee.
Nothing earthshaking but maybe one or two will be helpful
We spent just two weeks in three very different cities–Puebla, Taxco, and Mexico City, but picked up a few ideas about what to do/look out for that might help you on your next Mexican journey.
Do not fear the buses–once you are on, they are really superior modes of travel. No chickens in the aisle or scary driving, really! However, get some help if you can from your host or hotel in understanding how to reserve and purchase seats. See the earlier post on bus travel for some examples.
Street food is great. We ate everything that looked good and had nary a stomach upset. We found no reason for any continued concerns about lettuce or ice cubes.
The fruit/juice stands are a bargain and the juice could not be fresher. They seem to open at 8am Monday-Saturday, and in Mexico City they are in steel booths, permanently installed on sidewalks so they are reliable when you need something to drink. An enormous (styrofoam) cup is around 38 pesos. We would buy one on the way back to the hotel from coffee/breakfast, mix it with bottled water, and we carried these with us all day. More nutritious and renewing than plain water and delicious. We were there in the mandarin orange season so could get orange (jugo naranja) or mandarin (jugo mandarino). These stands also sell various kinds of fruit and fruit salads. Ask.
We also recommend the agua frescas that are sold in stands all over the place. You may see up to 10 big glass jars of different colors lined up on the counter–do not be shy about asking what they are. We always asked, but so did everyone else, natives and tourists alike. When you see agua fresca on a menu, just ask which kinds. Typical in restaurants, like here, are horchata, tamarindo, and jamaica (ha-my-ee-ka), but they often have others. Because the flavors change often everyone asks, not just dumb tourists.
It is tricky at times getting change for large bills, large being anything from 100 pesos and up. While everyone is very gracious about getting you change, it can be a hassle for them so try to plan ahead. Our hotel had change once of the four or five times we asked, so it wasn’t easy but we tried.
Uber is safe, reliable and very inexpensive–quite a bit less than taxis. Because of the potential change issue we were wary of taxis (and having to understand the amount quoted and figuring out a tip–though tips are not common in taxis unless there’s a lot of luggage wrangling involved). Uber drivers were unfailingly polite and some were positively delightful, offering ideas for what to see, interested in our reactions to Mexico. None but one spoke any English, so sitting quietly was just fine. We used Uber about 20 times in two weeks including many that were 30+ minutes, and the total we spent, with tips, in Mexico was less than we paid a Lyft driver to take us home from the Oakland airport, a 20 minute ride.
Silver jewelry shopping in Taxco is highly recommended. Prices are good but the selection is infinite. If this is a high priority for you, do visit on a Saturday when the weekly market is a riot of vendors, including many buying in bulk to sell elsewhere.
Museum gift shops do tend to carry high quality examples of artisan items and at good prices. They seem to curate their inventory pretty carefully, and you often see items that are elsewhere but a step up in quality. They are also well equipped to wrap breakables–street vendors and small shops, such as in La Ciudadela in Mexico City, do not have bubble wrap.
YouTube travel and foodie videos are worth the time before you go. We found several places that had been recommended and were very glad we did (e.g., Tia Calla in Taxco). We also stumbled on a very short video explaining how to find the bus ticket counters at the airport (see below) which, being our first day in Mexico was very comforting.
If you are flying to Mexico City and going on from there by ground, do not worry about bus connections. The Mexico City Airport has bus ticket counters and very frequent buses to many cities and you can count on walking right up and getting on a bus within the hour, often much less. While there are discounts for old people (65+) and children, they are limited in there are only a certain number available per bus. So you may qualify but they are simply sold out. Bus tickets are so cheap this shouldn’t concern you, but don’t think you’re being scammed if they say there are no child fares or if the ticket seller says she has to check to see if there are any available. The only time we felt something strange was going on was when, two times, our bus was stopped and boarded by officials asking about “discuentas.” They were checking ID to make sure the discounted tickets had been sold appropriately.
Random help from strangers was common and we were never steered wrong. If you look confused it’s common someone will come up and try to help. It was always sincere and a few times it made quite a difference. For example, when we walked out of Teotihuacan and were standing at the road looking around for the stop for the bus back to Mexico City, a young guy who was selling something (hats? tour guides?) came over to us and asked if we were looking for the bus back to “Mexico” as they call Mexico City. When I said yes he quickly pointed across the intersection and said (in Spanish) “That’s your bus–hurry!” Don’t be overly suspicious is the tip here.
Beggars were somewhat common, always women, older indigenes women or young women with babies. Just say no if so inclined. They can be persistent but never obnoxious. We saw more local people giving money than obvious tourists.
This is a very personal piece of advice. I never bargain with street vendors and suggest you do the same. There’s nothing wrong with paying the stated price. You’re not getting taken advantage of. You are not being scammed because you look like a gringo. Get into your head a quick translation of pesos to dollars so you can remember that everything is extremely inexpensive (because they use $ for pesos it takes a day or so). As a visitor with the money to buy a plane ticket and eat in nice restaurants and even hire private tour guides, you can easily afford to pay the price without haggling.
A second piece of advice–don’t take photos of people (or of their dogs) without asking. If it is a vendor I ask only after purchasing something–anything. The local people are not there to look picturesque for you, they are trying to make a living. Be respectful, in other words. I was never refused, and just asking makes all the difference. Memorize the sentence “may I take a photo please?” in Spanish and use it.
Miscellaneous tips and traps re traveling Portugal and Spain via Airbnb and trains:
The US has laws about how hot tap water can be. Apparently the EU has not–the hot water everywhere, from the modern apartments to the 300 year old house, was extremely, shockingly hot. And, so, ALWAYS find out how to use the shower while you have the host there. We had both annoying and one scary experience with setting the shower temperature (this was a mysteriously designed two level shower, and in the process of turning it off I got shot with hot scalding water at my groin–no harm but yikes). And ask if you can run any water in the edifice, e.g. to get a drink or flush a toilet, while a person is in the shower.
Do not expect WiFi on trains–there was none on the high speed train Barcelona to Sevilla; if there is WiFi it will be quirky. However we did have electricity so have your converter handy, not buried in your bag.
Drink the house wine! It was uniformly good, and often seemed especially good as food wines. Funny aside–in Spain the server would ask in response to a request for a glass of vino tinto or vino blanco, “Dry or sweet? Old or young?” Never was I asked by varietal, nor were wine lists organized by varietal. Made it fun and different, and I didn’t have a bad glass the entire three weeks.
If you travel without data service on your cell devices (we do because we are cheap and you can manage without it) and therefore are dependent on the connectivity you have in your abode, remember to download offline GPS-enabled maps (many that are on Maplets, Google, special apps) for when you are out and about. You cannot get the step-by-step or breadcrumb directions with just GPS, but you have a totally usable map to find your way. And it’s good practice to not be blindly following step by step instructions or maps. Look around you and get your head out of your phone!
Book trains in advance to save significant money.
Whenever possible go online for event or museum tickets. Don’t be daunted by the “must be printed out on paper” warnings…these seem to be obsolete. The difference between having a ticket you bought the night before and buying one onsite is about a 30-person line, and that was off-season.
Do get the audio tours in places of interest and museums. Worth the money every time.
If you are traveling by train, DO NOT HESITATE to get on as soon as the doors open. They are not waiting for anyone or anything. Pay attention to the car number and find it as soon as you can. Ask a conductor if you’re not sure which direction to head–at least then an official knows you are getting on. But be quick about it! We also noticed that the indication on your ticket as to seat number is often labeled mysteriously (e.g., one ticket had “Plaza” as the field label for seat number).
As we get ready to leave Japan I realize I’ve accumulated a few items that don’t deserve a full blog entry, so I’ll run through them here. Then a post or two about our last excursions.
Elevators in Korea and Japan Unlike the US, every elevator bank we used required you to push the button per elevator. Not realizing this, we had a few undue delays thinking that a single up or down request would apply across all the elevators in a bank. So remember—push every “up” or “down” to speed the arrival of what you want.
Japanese Tourist Maps We had forgotten this little quirk from our last visit–one of the oddest things about using the little billboard maps that are posted in many neighborhoods, train stations, and in other tourist-heavy areas. You know, these are the ones that have the red You Are Here circles to show you how to get to the next place or out of where you are. There are many of these around Kyoto and the often appear just when you need them.
However, first check is which way the North arrow is pointing. For some, to us, unfathomable reason, N is not always up as it is in the US. It can be to the left, to the right, or pointing to the bottom of the map, requiring you to completely reorient yourself. It is surprisingly difficult to figure out what’s what when N is pointing to the right, so there you are twisting your guidebook and your head around to make sure you are not heading in the exact wrong direction. As many times as we looked at these maps, and knew about the N issue, we repeatedly started to read the map incorrectly.
Disability Access and Using Escalators Accommodations for disabled or simply tired (or old!) folks are spotty, and there are places where there is escalator service but no elevator when an elevator seems called for. Getting to the JR train platform at Kyoto Station, where many folks are going long distance or to the airport, there is an escalator and no elevator. Other places have signs forbidding using the escalator if you have a suitcase (similar to the US), and in one department store signs stated no walking on escalators. We also found elevators quite slow and/or tucked into corners. Plan accordingly.
Since we were last in Japan about five years ago we did see many, many more disabled people out and about. It was great to see that people who obviously were always there were now in public without incident, even several severely disabled in fully motorized chairs. On the subway we saw a man in a motorized chair, and the moment the train stopped a train employee (there are many around who give directions or, more often instructions) put a small ramp in the doorway so this fellow could drive off easily across the gap. Twice I saw a train employee accompanying a blind person across the station, chatting away. (I say train employee, but I am not sure who they work for—perhaps these are public employees. They wear uniforms and they are in transit stations.)
We saw no wheelchairs or other disabled people in Korea which could have been chance or an indication they are still kept out of the public spaces. There isn’t much sign of accommodations there.
Rules and Worries and a Few Inconveniences It is cliché that the Japanese have traded conformity and safety for some kinds of American-style freedom as we like to think of it. It is true that people are expected to follow rules and instructions, and our first taste was when we landed in Osaka and proceeded to the train platform. Two uniformed men were checking each ticket and then telling us exactly how to line up for the train. This line, not that one. Put your baggage here, not there. Line up in an orderly queue. Do not step on the yellow barrier. It was quite lovely for us tired travelers because we knew for certain we were in precisely the right place and would end up in the correct car (the queuing lines were by car number for trains, bus number for buses) and subsequently in Kyoto Station. Even when the “instructors” seemed a little bit severe and unsmiling, we were continually grateful that we weren’t allowed to make an unfortunate mistake.
There are also a lot of signs in Japan, both official and handwritten, which even when a little alarming (“Bears have been sighted in this region.”) were helpful. My favorites were warnings were combined with seemingly unnecessary instructions. A cute example was at a neighborhood Shinto shrine, a rather raggedy and charming set of very small shrines and statues and figurines of animals, with a few flowers and teacups set out in honor of woodsy fauna. At the small entry there was blue tape and sign: “This barrier is to keep wild boars out. Please step over the barrier to enter.”
Both countries are seemingly free of petty crime. Bicycles are everywhere, and lots of bicycle parking lots in Japan. While there were bike locks, we saw many bikes leaned up or on kickstands outside of stores and houses as in the picture below taken from our hotel room of the alley behind the building.
We never for a second worried about making sure a bag was zipped up, or walking around with a phone in hand, or putting down a package for a minute to get organized. It was common to see bags left along the paths in shrines and temples while the owners took photos or walked around.
Both Japan and Korea seem bereft of trash cans. In Korea we finally asked—where do you throw anything away? A few times we traded a small purchase for an excuse to ask a shopkeeper to let us throw away a bag or beverage container. It seems the custom is to use the public restrooms (they are everywhere) to find a trash container, but even many of those had none, as they have either air dryers or nothing. Carry something to dry off with if you prefer not to shake off the drops or (as we did) use your jeans. In both countries every sit-down food place starts with a plastic-wrapped damp hand towel; we accumulated them when we didn’t need them right then, so we had them ready when we were sweaty or just a little greasy. In Korea, street food is usually served in a paper sleeve of some kind, sometimes even a sliced paper cup. While this is convenient for immediate eating it is messy and those extra hand towels were great.
In Korea, all the public restrooms I used were western style. In Japan, women beware that there are still many toilets which require very strong knees and sense of balance—they are porcelain troughs (in private stalls) which I could neither get down to or, I am sure, get up from. Some public restrooms had both, but a few only the troughs. One of the last I used had western toilets (this was in Arashiyama) complete with instructions. See photo below and note Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. In general, in both countries there are many more public restrooms than you see in the US or Europe (where in some places I have learned to march into large hotels like I know where I am going, because there is always a restroom near the lobby).
Re public smoking, it’s pretty much gone though the isakaya we went to did have a couple smoking in a corner. We may have seen one or two incidences of smoking in public in Korea, but this scourge of international travel is clearly on the wane, thank goodness.
Traditional Clothing Both countries have many, many traditional clothing rental places, mostly around hanok neighborhoods (Korea) or clusters of shrines and temples (Japan). In Japan we also saw many younger men and women in kimonos in shopping areas. As we had noticed last time, it seems to be rather hip to dress traditionally. In Japan we occasionally saw older women in what seemed to be their normal go-to-work kimonos compared with the very colorful styles worn by younger women. Two or three times we saw westerners dressed in hanbok or kiminos. They looked very odd and were clearly enjoying themselves.
Both countries have gazillions of drink vending machines, and in both countries cold coffee in various versions and brands are ubiquitous. When you order coffee at a stand or in a bakery or cafe (cafe=coffee) you must state whether hot or cold, unlike in the US where coffee is hot, and iced coffee is iced coffee. In both places you find drink vending machines in out of the way corners, at public parks or shrines and temples, and in Japan we started noticing that prices varied quite a bit with the same drink, same size, sometimes as cheap as a dollar and sometimes as expensive as two dollars or more. Occasionally there was also a place to put an empty drink container near the machine. At the top of Inari there is a vending machine and next to it in the little wooden shop (where you can buy shrine-related tokens and offerings) there is a sliding glass door and a wooden table inside on which to put your empty. This is where I discovered Pokari Sweat, a sports drink that was perfect for a sweaty American on a hot and humid day, and was especially grateful a woman showed me where to stow the empty can.
In Japan we started noticing that in the row of machines there is often one with beer and perhaps other liquor. We didn’t see any note regarding age restrictions, not that they could be enforced anyway. Nor did we ever see public drinking or rowdiness.
Convenience Stores Go to Youtube if you want an education about convenience/7-11 type stores in both countries. These stores have everything and then some, especially food of all kinds including hot soup, croquettes, and in Japan fish cakes in various forms in tubs of broth or hot water (not sure—didn’t want to try). They are fun and inexpensive—and we found that if you go away from the main street a few blocks prices drop. They also all have ATMs, not just 7-11’s as in the past. We use a bank that reverses the service charges so we used them regardless. Just check for the Visa/MC/Cirrus stickers—not all ATMs have them but those that did worked for us 90% of the time and at about that same rate we were able to find the “English” button.
Public Transit We like BART. Multiply BART by 100, or even the NY subway/bus system by 2 or 3 in convenience and reach, and you have something approaching the public transit options in Korea and Japan. Korea wins by a mile for English guidance—almost all subway cars and buses have full English stop information—but even in Japan it’s not at all hard to figure out where to go, how to get a ticket, and so forth.
In both cities, Seoul and Kyoto, the subway seems at first much easier, but because the subway maps are schematics that do not conform to actual geography you never get much of a sense where you are going or how one place relates to another compared with taking the bus. Also, most of the subway trains are almost entirely underground, so no scenery. With just a little practice the buses are more convenient and better educationally for finding your way around.
In Kyoto a few bus routes (e.g., #100) are oriented to tourists, and announce all imminent and upcoming stops displayed on the big monitor up front as well as by announcement, in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese, with advisories as to what sights or major destinations are nearby. It was comforting to know the stop we wanted was the third one after this, and great to see and hear confirmation in English.
The one-day and other passes are a fantastic deal if you plan just a little bit. In Kyoto a one way bus fare was $2.40 or so, but the one-day bus pass was $5.00 so you are ahead with just 3 trips. There are several information counters at Kyoto Station and we got 100% accurate advice even if the English was incomplete. Also, the buses depart from numbered queues which also have (as in Korea) full “next bus” information at the stops. At Kyoto Station there are uniformed men who tell you where to go, or when a bus coming into an adjoining queue will get us there faster. And, of course, they tell you exactly how to line up, with individual bus numbers on marked queue lines in case you are a complete idiot. Do not fear—Japanese people were asking as many questions about which line/which bus as we were!
In Seoul public transit, including taxis (which we never used), is extremely cheap, too. We hopped on and off without a care to the cost.
If you thought American youth are obsessed with taking selfies The selfie craze, with sticks 95% of the time, is overwhelming and funny and annoying. Just be prepared to get out of the way!
Coffee and Food in Kyoto Yes, Japan is expensive but with a little care you can eat for less. First, breakfast and coffee—if you go to a good coffee place (there are many, but our fave by far is Ogawa Coffee in Kyoto Station) you can pay $5 for a latte. Look for a place with a “breakfast set” which is coffee and what was for us plenty of food to start the day. At Ogawa the breakfast set was $5.80, which includes coffee, a fantastic croissant, and a small dish of unflavored yogurt (yeah!!) with a drizzle of honey and a few frozen berries, usually a mix of currants and a black- or raspberry. It was quick, delicious, and perfect fuel to start the day.
Eat sushi! We found the conveyer belt sushi, Musashi, in Kyoto Station was incredibly inexpensive and very high quality. Inexpensive—most plates with 2 pieces of nigiri, most as in almost all, were $1.46. The fancy stuff was 1 piece for that price, or $3.46 for 1 or 2, depending. We ate there 3 times in one week, and with beers the total bill was about $44…and we ate, each time, 22 plates’ worth.
Eat noodles! And shop for price/quality. We had several quick lunches of udon or somen for about $7. The ramen at Karako, which is on a busy street a few blocks from the museum neighborhood, was about $7 and the best I’ve ever had. Get the kotteri. The ramen at Ippudo, which is right next to Nishiki Market was very good, not quite as exciting but a fancy as opposed to old (OLD) lunch counter style ambiance, and was about twice that. In Arashiyama, right on the tourist trail (an exquisite walk that I write about on this blog) were two noodle places with very similar appearing menus where in one the price was $12 and the other $7. Directly across from each other—point being, do not assume the prices are generally the same regardless of where you are.
Isakaya! For very reasonable prices (about what we spent for sushi) we got nice and high on sake and ate more than we should have. Plus it was comfy and fun and super casual.
Takeout! See the lower floors of any big department store—if you are smart and are staying near Kyoto Station, go to Isetan. There is an unbelievable array of takeout food, putting Harrod’s to shame in variety and price. Wander around for 10 minutes before you make a choice, and if you are hungry for good bread go up one floor to the sweets department and visit the Danish bakery. Grab a basket and tongs and get everything from unidentified bread-like concoctions to good old fashioned baguettes and hard rolls.