To begin with it was super easy to get around with all English, and a little Japanese. It seemed that everyone spoke English, or some Japanese. Kids were super genki (keen) to speak to us in English, and helped us find the famous foot long ice creams! We obtained food either by pointing, or reading the multilingual menus (Korean, English & Japanese seemed standard), and in taxis we would just say the station name to get near to our hostel.
A major highlight was our day tour to the DMZ. We visited a train station from where you will one day be able to take a train to North Korea, and it will connect with the transiberian railway, then we went to an obsevatory tower, from which we could see North Koreans going about their daily business - farming. Then it was on to the 3rd tunnel. That is, the 3rd tunnel dug by the North Koreans, after the cease fire agreement had been signed, to infiltrate South Korea. Luckily the North Koreans had super shoddy equipment so the South Koreans had plenty of time to find it, once they had been tipped off to its existence! There is a monorail that you take down into the tunnel, then you can walk about 200m along it, until you come to the dynamite blockades, separating the South and the North even 300m underground.
Lunch time, amazing Bul Go Gi (a Korean beef dish) and then we jumped on board an all English bus. In the morning the bus was half Japanese tourists, half English tourists, so there were 2 guides. However, in the afternoon we had a bus full of English speakers. We also had the cutest tour guide who was "nervousing" about taking a group into the United Nations Command area, because of all the restrictions, and the danger. Actually, when we entered we had our passports checked thoroughly (the earlier checks by Korean soldiers had been cursory at best) and then had to sign a waiver acknowledging that we might die! The 2 major rules were no pictures, except in designated spots, and no pointing/hand gestures. The no pictures thing was easy - there were plenty of soldiers watching us to make sure we didn't take any sneakily, and our guide was always telling us exactly where we could take a photo from. The hand gesture thing on the other hand... Lucy suggested we do a Prince Phillip (and keep our hands behind our backs) but then Amy kept asking me where things were, and I almost pointed twice - I swear she was trying to make the tour more dangerous! She did apologise profusely, but...
So the DMZ tour was 1 day - Saturday, and then on the other days (Friday, Sunday, Monday & Tuesday) we did some sightseeing and shopping in Seoul. There are 5 palaces in Seoul, and I went to 2. The first one is the Deoksugung, which is where the biggest changing of the guards ceremony occurs. It literally happnens on the curb of a major road, outside the front gates of the palace. So while all the tourists are crammed in tightly together, the traffic roars on by obliviously. Deoksugung is a small complex, where most of the buildings are 'Asian' but there was a very European building - I suppose the King saw photos of a European palace, and decided he wanted a similar building.The other palace, Gyeongbokgung, is much larger. They have a small changing of the guards ceremony, and an area where people can get dressed up in traditional costumes, which I took advantage of! In the compound there are many buildings, and even more are in the process of being restored. We also took a trip in the cable cars, up to N Seoul Tower (no idea what the N stands for). The cable car ride was a little lairy - each time we went through a set of pylons the car sped up and wobbled a bit. Also, the car was very full, so it was hard to move around and look at the views. At the base of the tower, which is set on a mountain, there was a laser and water show, which looked pretty amazing. The view from the top was pretty good - though at night, from above, it can be difficult to distinguish one city from another.
Unsurprisingly we did a fair amount of eating. We ate loads of kimchi - which comes free at every meal, and many chijimis (Korean pancakes, usually with kimchi, spring onion and squid inside). Korean chopsticks are made from metal and are long and flat, so they are much more difficult to use than the regular wooden ones. Luckily, Koreans like to eat rice with a spoon, so that made the whole thing more manageable. We had some kimchi gyoza (dumplings filled with kimchi) and they were so good - an amazing combination of Chinese/Japanese and Korean. While we ate Korean food most of the time, it was so good to be in a big city with all of the range, so we had Vietnamese for lunch one day, and went to a TGIF one night for dinner.
Also, as Korea is so cheap, we did some shopping. I bought toilletries - because they have English instructions on the back, unlike in Japan where I have to guess what the product is and how to use it! They had stall after stall of cheap shoes, though I remained strong and didn't buy a single pair!
I also took a trip to an onsen for the first time. An onsen is a hot bath, and they are very popular in Japan. You go into a communal wash room and have to scrub yourself from top to toe (though you can choose not to wash your hair, and then just keep it tied up whilst you are in the bath), then you go an sit in the bath. Lucy, Amy, Tasha and I went to a 24 hour onsen, where in the women's area there were 3 baths of different temperatures, and a sauna, which was 85 degrees celcius! In Korean onsens you can pay extra and have an old Korean lady scrub you down. Apparently the scrub is amazing, but she looked a little terrifying! Lucy & I laughed over what it must be like to spend your work day in only a pair of knickers!
Seoul is actually quite beautiful - it never really suffered bombings like the ones in Japan which has resulted in concrete block buildings all over the major cities in Japan. It is also a fair bit louder than any Japanese city I have been to. I suppose that is not surprising, Japanese people seem to be the quietest and shyest people I have come across, so when you are in a big J city it is still very quiet, relatively speaking. Seoul had an amazing nightlife - one night we went to see a show, so didn't end up eating dinner until around 10:30pm and we found a really great place still open. I am definitely keen to go back, and stay at our hostel (Stay Korea) which was just like a converted house, and the owners were so helpful and friendly. We chose a perfect time to go, there were a couple of festivals going on, so the city was specially decorated, and plenty of activities to go to. One night we saw a variety of performances in Seoul Plaza, where they had 3 stages set up, and as the lights went down on 1 stage, they would come up on another to reveal a new performer.
All credit for the organisation must go to Daniel! It really was an amazing trip!