One thing I recommend to foreigners when they travel to Korea is “definitely visit a jjimjilbang while you’re there”. These come in all shapes and sizes, but a jjimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse or spa that caters to Koreans and others as a way to relax and even realign your energies. The typical bathhouse has gendered bathing areas and sleeping rooms, they unfortunately are not yet transgender friendly. Other features may be an arcade, a scrubbing station, Karaoke, steam and ice rooms, outdoor pools, restaurants, masseuses, and even movie viewing areas. In bigger bathhouses, the pool, restaurant and other amenities may be mixed gender.
When you check in, you receive a towel, clothes, and a wristband with a sensor and key. This wristband will allow you to pay for whatever services you use while there, including full body scrubs and massages. The bathing areas are communal and will have a section for you to lock your clothes and belongings in the provided lockers. This, in turn, has an area for bathrooms and getting ready to go back out in society.
The bathing area has between five and ten different pools for you to use ranging from very cold to almost scalding. The bathhouse I visited, Dragon Hill Spa, has gingseng baths which were delightful and so comfortable. The outdoor gingseng bath in particular was awesome as I could relax in the sun and bathe.
Don't Be an Uninformed Foreigner
One of the biggest faux pas you can possibly make in a Korean bath house is not knowing what you should do when at a bath house. Upon arrival, you will receive: 1 small towel (not great for much if you're not used to it a.k.a American), the most unflattering baggy shorts and t-shirt, and a receipt or wristband for the lockers. When you first enter and get your wrist band, you will go to a small locker room where you will store your shoes, the locker number will coincide with either your wristband number or the number on your receipt, as well as a locker in the main gendered locker room where you will store your belongings (bags, clothes, etcetera). Once you reach the main locker room you can choose to either strip down and go straight to the baths or put on the clothing provided and explore, either is great, I prefer to bathe first instead of other things. Don't be afraid, you'll likely be more self-conscious than others will be, just relax and enjoy the experience.
You Should DEFINITELY Shower Beforehand
This is imperative and a massive mistake I made when I was there. I didn’t know about this and I did it wrong. When you get there, showers are set up in the bathing areas for you to wash off shampoos, conditioners, and any body wash. It also helps to remove any natural oils that could cause issues in the filtration system, after all you’ll be using these as well as other people. The same way you should shower before swimming you should shower before going in the pools. This allows them to keep the pools clean and free of any chemicals or particles that may clog them or cause diseases. It also keeps irritants like perfumes from getting into communal bathing areas. If you don’t do this, you may be contaminating the baths as they are not all salinated or chlorinated. This ensures a safe, clean environment for visitors and reduces the amount of work that employees have to do.
You Will Get Some Stares
This is, unfortunately, going to be the case for any foreigner at a bathhouse, especially if you present as another race. The stares are more so because of curiosity than disdain and are not sexual in nature. An important aspect of a bathhouse is that in the bathing areas you are completely naked and as such you may be the first foreigner that they have seen there or have seen in that way. It’s totally okay though, no one will be rude about it and there is a likelihood that you may be ignored altogether. If you have tattoos, that may be the only time you may even have someone look at you in an angry way as tattoos are still seen as taboo by older Koreans. But, if you're looking for a tattoo artist in Seoul I recommend Key.
You’ll Realize That Western Culture is Much More Conservative
As an American you wouldn’t think that we’re all too conservative, considering the normalizing of skin. However, Americans also see nakedness in a sexual way, rather than a natural way. Due to this, Americans are much more conservative than Koreans, even though Koreans typically cover up more.
In bathhouses, you spend a decent amount of time completely nude. As an American, this was a completely freeing moment for me as I did not feel uncomfortable. While there, people of every size, shape, and age (but of your gender) will walk around in the buff while doing things like showering, bathing, scrubbing, and massaging. It feels completely natural and definitely was one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time. I didn’t have to worry about clothes or what others thought about me, I was able to just relax in the moment and lay back.
You Don't Have to Do the Math
One of the best things about bath houses is that they can take the guesswork out of keeping track of extra amenities so that you don’t have to. Their pay at the end of your stay model allow you to use your wristband to keep track of purchases by scanning instead of forcing you to remember at the end. This way, you don’t need to carry cash nor a credit card when you’re out and about in the spa itself.
Most bathhouses have a base price that is increased based on what services you use, getting a massage? $50. Want some french fries at the rooftop cafe? $11. Maybe want to sing some tunes? $2.50. It can add up but only based on what you choose to do and eat. If you’re not planning on spending on the extras, the $14 USD entrance price is NOTHING with the free amenities they have.
Spend the Night if You Like
While you may think sleeping in a room full of strangers is a little weird, it’s a very common cultural thing in Korea. Some spas have separate sleeping areas for each gender but others have family or communal sleeping spaces. This is extremely beneficial if you’re between travel destinations and need a cheap place to crash for a night, or if you drank too much and just need to sleep off the hangover. They do charge by the day, but 14$ a day is much cheaper than a $100 hotel room. Many families will be in these spaces using the amenities and you don’t have to be afraid, no one will bother you. In fact, I got such a great nap in that I was well rested after my day of relaxation.
There are so many features of Korean Jjimjilbangs that you will come to know and love as you spend time there. From the bathing areas to the sleeping rooms there are things to do for everyone. Not all bath houses are the same nor are they going to charge the same prices, however, you will always be able to enjoy your time if you plan accordingly.
I went to Dragon Hills Spa and Resort so if you're looking for a clean, safe environment I really enjoyed their service, you can check out there services here
For more information on Korean spas and bathhouses check out this link from vloggers Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi.
I am a huge supporter of the small business coffee shops and local roasters in Philly. While other people may prefer Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts coffee, I love finding new and unique places to get my daily caffeine fix. From bubble tea shops to the classic coffee shop, these Instagram friendly shops are a must visit for any traveler looking for their fix in Philadelphia.
MIUCHA - CHINATOWN
Miucha is a more unique shop on this list. This bubble tea shop operates in Chinatown and has an unassuming exterior. They pride themselves on having many Instagram worthy spots in their shop. From their pink and yellow seating to the tasteful art on the walls, there are so many places to take pictures. There is even a wall of vanity mirrors where you can fix up your make up after drinking tea or eating an egg waffle.
The drinks they offer are both typical and atypical of traditional bubble tea shops. For one, they offer marshmallows as a topping and boast a large collection of different milk foams including cheese and matcha. Price wise they are a little more expensive than typical bubble tea places but they take their time in making drinks and are attentive to details. They do offer a small collection of Hong Kong style egg puff waffles with Franklin Fountain ice cream that are sweet and delicious.
Typically they’re not too crowded so it’s easy to see why they’re on my list. Be mindful though, you’ll definitely want to get one of their drinks before you take photos, because even their drinks are very pretty. They take Venmo, cash, and credit ($10 minimum for the latter).
A LA MOUSSE - CHINATOWN
This was one of the first cafes that I fell in love with in Philly. It’s smaller than others but what they lack in space they make up in flavor. The interior is clean and rustic with accents along the walls. They have a huge picture window where you can people watch in high top tables. The color scheme is quite neutral and the decor welcoming to anyone and everyone. Their claim to fame is delicious desserts and a creative matcha menu, paired with a calm and welcoming environment with quiet music. The staff are very kind and typically won’t bother you much so if you come to spend time reading or working they’re out of your hair.
The drink and dessert menu have rotating specials that you will definitely want to entertain. Half of the time when I visit I’m going specifically for whatever dessert special they’ve promoted. Their menu has a lot of options for matcha desserts and drinks, including matcha lattes! Their matcha is usually really well prepared and is not powdery.
Their prices are a bit higher but that is mostly due to the nature of their desserts, which are handmade daily and sometimes even made to order!
KAWAII KITTY CAFE - QUEEN VILLAGE
This is a very different cafe than the others, they are half cafe, half cat adoption agency. They operate with PAWS (Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society) and the cats in their cat room are all available for adoption. They serve inventive drinks and will draw cute cat-themed coffee art. The cafe itself is bright, with adorable art on the walls reminiscent of the pusheen cat. Visitors can come to get just coffee or do coffee and cat visits if they so desire. The cafe suggests that visitors purchase a reservation ahead of time for the cat room to ensure that they are able to control how many people are in the kitty room at any given time.
The drinks they serve are on the more expensive side due to the time it takes for them to make them. While a traditional coffee only costs around $4.5, one of their milkshakes may run you $10 or more! This is not to dissuade you however, as the Kawaii Kitty Cafe drink options are quite good and are decent sizes. They offer decadent drinks such as their cold “hot” chocolate that is piled with candies or their vegan hot chocolate which is sure to entice just about anyone!
The cost for a reservation in their cat room is $11 per person which is comparable to similar cafes in other countries which cost around $10 US per person. The reservation includes an hour of time with the kitty and does not include drinks. Please consider making a reservation prior to your visit to ensure the best experience. If you’re just here for the coffee, don’t worry about it!
HAPPILY EVER AFTER - OLD CITY
Out of all of the cafes that I’ve visited on this list, this is the one where I’ve spent most of my time. This is one of my favorites to visit because I can get such a wide array of food and drink while also enjoying their kitschy movie themed decor. The cafe is run by a Korean couple and they sell Korean style ramen along their more sweet options. The shop is part coffee shop, ice cream shop, fro-yo store, and food. Sit in their window seats to use clear display tables with seating for 2-4. They also have a larger table for bigger groups along their wall.
Their claim to fame is liquid nitrogen ice cream in crazy flavors like Salmon and Sriracha alongside cookies and cream and other delicious flavors. They also serve drinks such as smoothies, coffee drinks, butter beer and other delicious inventions. In terms of food, they serve awesome fro-yo waffles made with all sorts of toppings, including Reese's and other delicious accouterments. A visit here makes for gorgeous photos as the owners serve dragons breath, a popular snack in Asia, that makes anyone who eats them breathe “smoke”.
In terms of expense, they’re average, and slightly on the lower side of the scale with some items being competitively priced while others are slightly lower.
KOPI LATTE - FISHTOWN
Rumored to be named after the Kopi Luwak drink (civet coffee), this cafe is slightly further out from the city center but well worth the trip. Tucked away on Girard Avenue in Fishtown this small coffee shop is one of the few in the area. With a cozy interior (with tons of pillows), books available for your perusal and a few calming fish tanks around the shop. The theme for the most part is cutesy and they have a lot of cool things to offer visitors.
They have three unusual drink ingredients on their menu, turmeric, lavender and beets. These ingredients can be used in lattes and are a very flavorful and colorful alternative to traditional lattes. They do not contain coffee so they’re good for people who are not a fan of coffee. The cafe offers a staggering assortment of teas, coffees, and smoothies, including Kyoto Tower cold brew. In the same vein the cafe offers vegan options for those who have dietary needs. The cafe also offers an array of delicious food options on their breakfast and lunch menus including the millennial favorite, avocado toast.
Their prices are average for the city and below average for the area that they’re in which is typically higher end due to clientele. This is a cafe for the coffee connoisseur who dreams of having that cup of Kyoto tower coffee (which takes 6-8 hours to brew daily).
Normally I wouldn’t do an honorable mention, but these three drink shops are very unique. I put them as honorable mentions as I’ve heard about them but have yet to have the chance to visit. From a cafe that is equal parts plant nursery and coffee shop to an upscale utilitarian store such as Elixr you are sure to find something to your tastes. For more information, check out: Vault + Vine, Elixr, and Monkey and Elephant.
Disclaimer: This is not a post that is meant to scare you or lead you to not want to go there because of this event. Instead, by educating you on the way that it happens you can be aware in the event that you ever experience this. Overall, to me, South Korea is a very safe country and I have never had any ill will befall myself.
You’ve heard of cults before, be it the Heaven’s Gate cult of yesteryear or the modern day cult followings of celebrities. To us, they are groups that only really exist in the media and we really don’t see them very often, at least in the USA. There’s something almost otherworldly about them as the only experience some people will ever have is through their tv or computer screen. However, in some countries, like South Korea, cults are flourishing. I should know, I almost joined one. Here’s the story about how I almost ended up in a cult and how you can avoid it.
So Here's What Happened....
Seoul, 2017. I exited Hongik University station into the blazing sun, hurrying on my way to Hongdae Shopping District to see some busking (basically the Korean version of performing for cash) while I waited for a friend to go to the Trick Eye Museum. As it is a generally safe country, I had very few reservations about traveling alone, since, up to that point I hadn’t had any real issues, even late at night. I feared nothing except running out of cash and having to find an ATM (in South Korea cash is still king).
As it so happened, today was the day that I would have to get cash from the ATM as I ran dangerously low. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to get on the subway to go to my apartment or anywhere else. I doubled back through the streets of Hongdae and arrived where I had started, Hongik University exit 8 where I knew a Citibank was close by. While I waited to cross the street, a pair approached me and struck up a conversation. Later I would find out that this was a common practice. Comprised of a tall, lanky Korean gentleman and a short, stout Korean woman, no older than 25. By this point, I had been approached by random people who wanted to help me if I seemed lost or needed anything, so I didn’t experience any true red flags. The couple introduced themselves and said they were headed to a tea ceremony and then food afterward, immediately my mind went into overdrive. I read about this before, it was a common ploy to convince foreigners to go to their “cultural events” which were thinly veiled meetings for their respective churches (aka cults). While I decided what to do I was flanked on either side, the woman holding an umbrella over my head. As it’s not unusual for Koreans to do so. This is where things started to get weird.
The woman held the umbrella and tried to cover me entirely with it, commenting on my white skin and how beautiful I was. By this point, those red flags were raised and billowing in the wind. I knew I had to get out of there before something else happened.
My survival instinct kicked in, I knew I needed to shake them while staying as visible as possible on the street. As South Korea is the land of CCTV I had few reservations save a concern that the umbrella would block anything from view. I had to think fast, any time wasted could mean I would be led to a side street and out of view. The first thought that I had? The bank. Banks have cameras everywhere, near ATMs, at ATMs, and surrounding the building. All I had to do was get myself and my followers to the bank where I could be caught on camera. We exchanged pleasantries as we walked, I fed them false information about themselves, while they asked questions about my trip thus far, “was I a teacher?” “no” and “was I alone?” “meeting a friend” were two questions that cemented my concerns, a teacher might be missed at work there while someone traveling alone may not be missed until much later. I pretended to be as naive as possible, answering the questions as if I had no idea what was going on, aware that at any moment things could turn ugly.
As we neared the bank my heart began to beat faster, I needed to get there and bide my time, maybe they would leave. I walked straight to the ATM and ducked inside. To my chagrin, they remained there, waiting for me to leave and continue with them. I was out of options, unable to communicate with anyone, and stuck. Everything I had learned about situations like this came back to me. I had to lose them. I exited the ATM and made the only excuse I could think of “I’m meeting a friend soon” in hopes that they would just give up once they realized that. They persisted, insisting that they walk with me to where I needed to go. I agreed, not wanting to cause a scene. I took the lead, going straight for the spot where we met just minutes before. Not to dissuade they followed.
When we arrived back at the corner where we had met, I pretended that I had seen my friend in the crowd, walking away from us. I said my pleasantries and made my mistake, weaving through the crowd near the station. For the next 10 minutes, I ducked in and out of stores along the shopping street, sometimes doubling back to ensure that I couldn’t be followed. For a while, they followed but gave up after about 5 minutes. To be sure, I went into a coffee shop and sat with a drink for a while just to keep myself from being seen. I am lucky that I am able to speak about this today.
How You Can Avoid Become A Victim
There are many cults in South Korea, but there are two churches that created the most prolific cults, The Unification Church and the World Mission Society Church of God. I was approached by followers of the Unification Church, you may have heard about them in the media. This church aims to create marriages for their followers, to whatever extent that they can, even tricking foreigners into it.
Their modus operandi is to send out followers in groups of two, usually a male and female or two females into the street. There, they will approach women, usually foreigners, and introduce themselves followed with an invitation to a cultural event that they’re going to. They prefer foreigners because there is a higher chance that they don’t know what is going on and will go willingly, happy to have a free event to go to. If you follow, you might find yourself in a pseudo wedding ceremony with a strange man, usually older.
Be diligent and always aware of your surroundings. They are less likely to approach you if you’re in a group or walking with a friend. Typically that is enough to keep them away. If you’re alone, make sure that there is someone who is aware of where you are, be it a friend or family member through some sort of tracking software, I suggest Life360. I would also arm yourself with knowledge of where CCTV cameras are and how to remain in sight, the last thing you need to have happened is for there to be a blind spot.
If you follow along with them and start to realize that you’re lost or are unaware of your surroundings, fake a phone call or text message to have an excuse to leave the situation.
In terms of the World Mission Church of God group, as I didn’t have any experiences with them, I would suggest reading Travel With Karla’s post on the matter.
So you've decided to travel to South Korea, great! Maybe you know about the country and wanted to experience it first hand or you're on track to become a teacher over there. Maybe you're even trying to decide whether or not you want to visit South Korea. With such a beautiful country available to almost all travelers, who wouldn't want to visit.
Taxis are Zoned
Growing up in an area where Taxis operate throughout an entire city without adhering to zoning, the first time I tried to take a taxi in Seoul I ran into some issues. Because of how large Seoul is (a smidge smaller than NYC) the taxi drivers are split between different districts and can only pick you up in their home district, meaning if the taxi is coming from Itaewon and you’re in Hongdae you will not be able to take the taxi because of the zoning for each.
Seoul does not allow companies like Uber or Lyft to operate in the city as the taxi drivers petitioned against their use. However, the cost of taxis are quite low so this isn’t as much of an issue as you would expect. The pricing for a 7.8km (4.56mi) taxi ride was under 10 USD.
As a traveler, I would suggest downloading the KakaoTaxi app which operates in the same way as Uber or Lyft. The text is in Korean, but follow the steps on this article to set up your account. I never had to use the app as I was with a friend but it was nice knowing that I could use it if needed.
Couple Culture is Real
Seoul is definitely a friend and couple based society, with many activities geared towards two or more people. Food for example is often served family style or requires a second person to help out (Korean barbecue is so hard to eat by yourself). Also, since most cafes in Seoul are Instagram havens it’s always better to have a second person there to document the process.
In the same vein there are several activities that are better with two people, including the Ihwa Mural Village and the Trick Eye Museum. While you can do these things by yourself, it’s more fun and easier with a friend to take pictures.
This is a big pet peeve of mine. As such a large city system you would think that metro cards would be rechargeable using whatever currency method you have (cash, credit or debit). However, as it stands Seoul is still a largely cashed based city and South Korea a cash based society. As such, t-money cards and the like must still be recharged using cash. They can be charged in convenience stores but they are still requiring cash to be used when completing the transaction. I have been in a bind before with cash since not all ATMs work (as I shared in “Seoul Must Haves”) and having to find an ATM that worked for me just to take a bus or a train can be stressful. If you think your card is getting low you can always check the balance and plan for getting cash, but if it catches you by surprise, I hope you can find cash easily.
Prepared Drinks are Expensive
I’ve mentioned this before in my post about Cafes in Seoul, but things like coffee and tea are much more expensive in Seoul than I expected. Even things like aides were up there in price. While not exuberant the prices are more expensive than their cousins in America at almost a 71% increase for a latte (from $3.50 USD to 6500 KRW). This is in part due to many cafes needing to keep up with cost of product, living, and touting creative drinks. Places like CaFace have higher price points due to their product, a face printed on coffee foam, while Korean chains like Angelinus can afford selling items at a lower cost because they’re a chain.
Cults are Huge
This is probably the most extreme thing I discovered in my time in Seoul, the cult. In Korea, cults are usually faith based churches that recruit members through shady means, specifically coersion. They offer to take you to a cultural event and will flank you on either side so that you can’t get away. The cults are usually the Unification Church or the Church of God. They target foreign women specifically and have a track record for making women go to events that are less than savory. I’ll be covering these more in a post later this month on my experience with the Unification Church.
Don’t: stalk your favorite celebrities at their houses
Celebrities are allowed to have privacy too, and while you think you’re just being a good fan by showing up to see them, please don’t! They have every right to feel safe in their own home and away from prying eyes. So if you know where they live, DO NOT GO.
Do: Take a stroll down Hallyu K-Star Road AKA K-Pop Road
This is a fun walk to do if it’s not humid and 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside. This road has a map to all of the different entertainment agencies and you can take pictures outside of them, granted you keep a safe distance. This is a great way to see where the magic happens without overstepping your boundaries as fans. If you really want to give something to your favorite idol, give them privacy. However, if they’re a idol like BigBang’s Seungri and own a store, you may be allowed to drop off gifts there.
Don’t: Call all of the boys you meet Oppa or girls Unni
While you may think that calling the guys you meet Oppa and the girls, Unni, please don’t! It’s not cute and can be a complete turn off. They aren’t the men or women from your dramas who may like being called Oppa and the term is meant for close friends or significant others, which it’s pretty much viewed as typical Koreaboo activity.
Do: Ask them what they would be preferred to be called
In Korea, like the USA, people have names and nicknames that they prefer to go by, such as having a korean name and an “English” name that serves the purpose for foreign people, such as a guy named Seung Hyun preferring to be called Kevin by his American friends. It does not hurt to clarify this if you’re ever not sure. This way you can still be friends with them without being overly familiar.
Don’t: wear fan clothes in public
Unless you’re going to a concert, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone else wearing a BigBang or BTS tshirt with accompanying face mask. This will not only make you stand out as a foreigner when meeting new people, it could lead to you being a target of scammers.
Do: Wear clothes that make you feel and look good
In Korea, they are very fashionable and clothing is cheap. The more you dress in the style of the country, the more you’ll fit in and be less of a target. If you want to wear K-Pop merchandise you can alway wear K-Pop socks with your regular clothes, but leave the fan clothes for the concert.
Don't: Show Cleavage
In Korea, cleavage is still considered something that should be covered. In America and other countries we may not have these views but we should strive to still follow their customs. While you may want to look your best and show off your assets, try to be a little more conservative up top, legs however, are more acceptable.
Do: Wear clothes that cover you up well
South Korea is home to some of the best fashion in the world, and as a Korean media fan you know this. Take a stroll in Hongdae or Myeongdong and pick up some awesome Korean fashion for affordable prices. I have found so many clothing items that I fell in love with in Seoul that I’ve worn overseas. If you don’t have any clothes that fit this style requirement, a good tank top under any busty shirts does the trick.
Don’t assume everyone is in love with Korean pop culture as you are
While you may think Koreans are just as in love with their idols as you are, 6 times out of 10 they’re not. While it is their culture, they can and do have different interests outside of their own idols. I have friends who are Korean that will cite Coldplay as their favorite band over any of the Korean groups. This can be creepy at times and should be avoided.
Do: Treat them as a person with their own interests
I can promise you if you talk to them as a normal person they’ll be more likely to want to be friends with you and help you if you at least treat them as a person first, and as a Korean native second. While this may seem controversial, we as foreigners need to understand that just because something is Korean doesn’t mean that Koreans have to necessarily like it, same as Americans.
Even if you don’t follow these tips just remember, you’re a visitor in a country, and while you may think you know everything there is to know you may not. Just be open to experiences and don’t discredit something because it’s not flashy. The country is filled with things to do that are fun and exciting that don’t revolve around idols.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine