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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Seoul Diaries Day 3: Changdeokgung Palace and Huwon (Secret Garden)

If you want to know more about the rich history and culture of Seoul, a visit to any of the Five Grand Palaces (or all five if you're a history junkie) is a must. Much of modern Korea's culture, norms and language is influenced by its last kingdom, the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for 5 centuries.


The first one we went to was Changdeokgung Palace, which is the most well preserved of the Five Palaces and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It is also known as Donggwol (Eastern Palace) because of its location to the east of Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was originally built as a secondary palace to the Gyeongbokgung, but after the Japanese invasion in the 16th century, it was reconstructed first and served as the main seat of the dynasty for 250 years.

Donhwamun Gate, the main gate of the palace

Changdeokgung has a garden attached to its rear, called the Huwon (Secret Garden). The Huwon makes up 60% of the land area and was built for leisure purposes of the royal family and palace women. It is only accessible with a guided tour which requires another pass and entrance fee, but it's definitely worth it :) 

We went to Changdeokgung before noon and got tickets there at the gate. We explored the palace grounds first while waiting for the next Huwon tour, which starts at 1 PM.  I've also read that you could pre-purchase tickets for the Huwon tour online.

Signs of spring

The residential complex of Changdeokgung:

Girls in hanboks...Wearing this traditional Korean costume actually gets you inside the Grand Palaces for free! 

The start of our Huwon guided tour:

Our tour guide 

   The 2 storey Juhamnu Pavillion was used as a library by the king

Aeryeongjeong Pavilion

Vivid colors on the beams were reserved for the royal family

So many pretty sights at Changdeokgung! We got to see traditional Korean architecture and garden landscaping style. It is said that the Changdeokgung was designed to blend into the surrounding area's colors and natural landscape.

If you decide to visit more than 2 palaces, it might be better to get a combination ticket for all 5 palaces, which costs 10,000 won. We got this one because we were also planning to go to Gyeongbokgung. It expires within 3 months of issuance though, so if you intend to stay long, be sure to use it as soon as possible :)

Other tips: Wear comfy shoes, especially if you're doing the Huwon tour. It's 90 minutes long and involves quite a bit of walking, and some parts of the garden are hilly. The walk during the last part  was actually a bit challenging and we got left behind by the tour group because we had to rest several times hahaha!

 Also check palace schedules, as most of them close at least once a week.

Admission Fee:

Regular Tour (Changdeokgung Palace)-Adults 3,000 won/Children 1,500 won
Huwon Tour (Secret Garden area)
Adults 5,000 won/Children 2,500 won

Changdeokgung is closed on Mondays.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Korean Skin Care Routine

Some of my favorite products

   You have probably heard of the multi-step Korean skin care routine from magazines, TV or other blogs. And like me, you were probably overwhelmed by the number of products and the amount of time needed to achieve the bright, dewy glow that all Korean celebrities seem to have (even their male celebs have perfect skin!)

   Just check out these lovely actresses. Song Hye Kyo (top) and Gianna Jun (bottom) are both 34, and Ha Ji Won (middle) is 38 but they barely look a day over 30.

Images of Song Hye Kyo, Ha Ji Won and Gianna Jun are not mine

   From being a reluctant trialist I am now officially a believer! It was a slow and gradual conversion. My routine used to be so basic- cleanse, tone, moisturize, plus eye cream. My initiation into the world of Korean skin care started 2 years ago when I was on the hunt for a holy grail moisturizer.

   After going through several Western and local brands and feeling like my skin didn't improve that much at all, I tried one from Etude House and it worked sooo well that I started trying other products (eye cream was the next), and then soon dabbled in other stuff that were well beyond the typical CTM routine (essence and emulsion anyone?) until one day I just realized that I was using an entire army of products on my face!

   If you are interested in trying this out for yourself, here's a little guide to help you out on your next trip to a Korean beauty store. A few people have also been sending me DMs asking about what I use on my face, and instead of shooting back with just "Korean beauty routine!" I decided to do a whole post about it haha.

   Let me break down the steps here (corresponding products are similarly numbered on the photo above):

I was skeptical about this at first because of my combination skin (more on the oily side), but now I personally think that if you were to make just one major change in your routine, this would be it. Using an oil cleanser before anything else gently lifts the oil based impurities (excess sebum and makeup) sitting on your skin. What I do is spread it all over my face for about a minute, giving my face a little massage in the process, then wipe it all off with a tissue. Depending on how much makeup you use, repeat until all visible traces are gone. It is so satisfying to see all the make up and grime coming off so easily with the oil. I remember back in the dark ages of my non-oil cleansing days, I would use a ton of Cetaphil and wipe my face mercilessly with tissues or a face towel just to remove mascara or long wearing lipstick. Talk about being harsh!

Current fave: Virgin coconut oil

After oil cleansing, proceed with your regular facial wash. Try not to use soap or anything with alcohol that will strip the natural oils off the face.

Currently using: MISSHA Fruit Tea Cleanser in Lemon

Exfoliating removes the top layer of dead skin cells and makes your skin super soft and smooth to the touch. There is such a thing as over exfoliating, so try to limit this to twice weekly and be gentle on the skin while scrubbing. Also try to choose scrubs with smaller beads.

Current faves: The Bodyshop Vitamin C Microdermabrasion Exfoliator, Etude House Berry AHA Bright Peel Facial Scrub

Korean toners are nothing like the toners I grew up with. Most of the toners and astringents of the past were alcohol-based and harsh on the skin, with the intention of making the pores smaller and removing excess oil. I used to love that squeaky clean and tight feeling right after using toner, but that wasn't because my pores were shrinking; it's actually the alcohol dehydrating my skin! Not good. Korean toners, however, are alcohol-free, balance the skin's pH, and prep the skin to absorb all the goodness of the succeeding steps.

Currently using: The Face Shop Myeonghan Miindo Heaven Grade Ginseng Whitening Toner

I loove using masks. Sheet masks, wash off, peel off- love them all! They're like one shot wonders, super convenient and gives you an instant skin boost whenever you need one. I put this under step 3A because I don't do this daily, only 3-4x week or whenever I feel like my skin needs some extra TLC.

Now this is the part where it starts to get a little bit confusing. Generally, an essence is a watery, less concentrated version of serums. This is considered as another prep step as it aids in the skin's regeneration process and allows better absorption of the serum and moisturizer.

An emulsion is a watery version of moisturizer. However, different brands in Korea aren't consistent with this one, as there some that you have to apply before serums, and ones that have to be used after. The rule of thumb here in layering skin care products is that you put the most lightweight ones first, going up to the thickest.

Serums pack concentrated amounts of active ingredients that target specific skin concerns such as hydration, uneven skin tone, fine lines and wrinkles, etc. I usually chose brightening serums since I spend a lot of time under the sun to avoid getting uneven skin tone.

Current fave: The Face Shop Blanclouding White Moisture Serum

The skin around our eyes is thinner and more fragile than the rest of our face, and can easily show signs of aging when not properly taken care of. Korean brands made me a believer in the importance of eye creams when I saw how much of a difference it made to my dark circles. The brands I used in the past didn't help at all and some of them even irritated my eyes.

Current fave: Etude House Honey Cera Eye Pack Cream

Now that you've layered on a bunch of creams on your face, we don't want all of that good stuff to evaporate into thin air. Seal it all in with a moisturizer. My current moisturizer is this really light aloe vera gel from Nature Republic. This isn't the last step yet (one more step to go), so I love that it doesn't feel heavy on my skin.

Finally, the last steps!! This one is another important, non-negotiable step. Too much sun exposure causes premature aging and fine lines, which are difficult to correct once they start to set in. I live in a hot, sunny country and my work involves constant sun exposure so I make sure to bring a small bottle of sunblock and retouch every 4 hours.

Current faves: Nature Republic Calendula Sunblock (SPF 50) and Nivea Face Sunblock (SPF 50)

Another new variation on night cream, and sort of like a hybrid of moisturizer and serum. When we sleep, our skin regenerates and repairs itself. Amp up your beauty sleep with the help of an overnight pack, which provides your skin with an extra dose of nutrients while you sleep.

Current fave: Etude House Toning White C Sleeping Pack

   To make it even easier, here's a summary for the AM and PM routine:

   That's it! It may sound tedious, and you may find some of the steps redundant, but if a tamad girl like me can do this, I think you can too :D I managed to stick to this routine once I saw how much it has helped my skin.  And even if I use a lot of products, my pores don't look enlarged at all, unlike in the past when I used other brands. Korean products also seem to last a really long time- even those I use twice a day would last anywhere from 6 to 12 months.  a

   If you're curious to know what it has done for my skin, please see some of my just woke up, no make up, no filter pictures haha (Umm I just sounded so full of myself LOL! But this is for demonstration purposes though. Sorry I wasn't able to take decent pics, decided to make use of these photos from my phone full of selfies).

   Another one of the rewards I get from this routine is that I don't see the need to pile on base makeup after. No need for heavy concealer and foundations. Most days, I only use sunblock and pressed powder when I go out.

   For those asking if you have to follow all of the recommended steps in the Korean beauty routine, the answer is NO, you don't have to. The great thing about this is that the beauty industry has given us so much options and you can easily personalize a routine that works with your time and budget.

   Personally, I can do without the emulsion. When I'm feeling tired after a long day at work, I usually stick with just steps 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7. Or if I'm really reeaaaaally tired, I'll just double cleanse, tone and throw on a mask or sleeping pack haha. It's actually pretty easy and relaxing once you get the hang of it.

   Thanks for reading! What's your experience so far with Korean beauty products? Drop me a line :D

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Seoul Diaries Day 2: Nami Island

   One of the top attractions when visiting Seoul is Nami Island, which became  popular after being the shooting location for the Korean drama "Winter Sonata". But you don't have to come here during winter to enjoy its beauty; I saw photos of Namiseom during other seasons and it is just as beautiful! 

   If you are coming from somewhere in the center of Seoul, Nami Island is about 1.5-2 hours away by public transit.

There are direct shuttle buses from Insadong and Namdaemun to Nami Island, but it leaves only once a day. Pick up points and time:

1. Seoul Insadong- 9:30 am (nearby the West Gate of Tapgol Park)
2. Seoul Namdaemun- 9:30 am (Sungnyemun Square Bus Stop in front of Namdaemun Market)

return From Nami Island to Seoul- 4:00 pm

Adult: KRW 15,000 roundtrip/ KRW 7,500 one way
Child: KRW 13,000 roundtrip/ KRW 6,500 one way

   If you want to leave later than 9:30am, you can also take the subway going to Gapyeong Station. From there, there are two ways to get to Nami Island:

1. By taxi (KRW 3000)- if you only intend to visit Nami Island, this is the quicker and cheaper option if there are 3 or 4 of you

2. By shuttle bus for Gapyeong Tourist Resort - this is more practical if you want to visit other attractions in the area like Petit France (hello, Do Min Joon and Cheon Song Yi fans :D ). With the shuttle bus ticket, visitors can freely get on and off the circulating course and visit any tour site included. Entrance fees, however are not covered.

Shuttle Bus Rates: 
Adult- KRW 6,000
4yo-18 yo- KRW 4,000
Disabled, Senior- Krw 4,000
Kids under 3- Free

 Almost there! My travel buddies B and A in the colorful Oksu Station

   Upon arrival at the wharf, you have to get an entry visa costing KRW 8,000 for Naminara Republic. This includes the round trip fare for the ferry plus the entrance fee. If you're feeling a little adventurous, there is also a zip-line from the wharf to Nami Island (KRW 38,000), but note that operations are subject to weather conditions.

   For your reference, here is the schedule for the ferry boats:

7:30 am- 9:00 am- Every 30 minutes after first ferry at 07:30
                               departure- Gapyeong Wharf
9:00 am- 6:00 pm- Every 10-20 minutes
6:00 pm- 9:40 pm- Every 30 minutes until last ferry at 9:40 pm

Fun fact: Did you know that you can also get "passports" for Nami Island? For KRW 35,000, you can get unlimited access for one whole year! 


   On their tourist information guides, it says that "years ago, Nami Island declared its cultural independence and became Naminara Republic. We are a micro-nation and our exports are mainly imagination and fairy tales". I couldn't agree more! Although filled with tourists, Namiseom is a nice getaway from the fast pace of Seoul.

   With a land area of 460,000 square meters and circumference of 5km, you can easily spend an entire day leisurely exploring and strolling around the island. If a lot of walking tires you out, there are also different kinds of bikes for rent (single, couple, and for families) that you can use to go around.

   Spring has just begun so there weren't many flowers in bloom and most of the trees were still devoid of leaves. But the colors of Namiseom were still very beautiful- a striking palette of sepia tones bathed in warm light. You could really see why this place is a great backdrop for romantic scenes, even I was wishing I had my boyfriend there with me haha >,<

   We had lunch at this barbecue restaurant but the food was quite disappointing. The pork was marinated in sweet barbecue sauce, and the ox tail soup and the omelette pancake were too bland! We've had better food in cheaper places :/

   On the bright side, the view from the restaurant was so pretty!
Did some more exploring after lunch:

Winter Sonata memorabilia and markers are located all around the island

Selfie at Metasequoia Lane :D

Check out this short recording I made at Nami... How awesome is this music?? It really made walking around the area feel like a fairy tale or a K drama haha.

We left Nami Island at 5 pm and tried to go to Petit France, but when we got there they were closing already... Que horror!!! I kind of overlooked the fact that just because Cheon Song Yi and Do Min Joon were able to go there at night time, doesn't mean that us mere mortals can too. Lesson learned: read the freaking information guides.

Thank you for reading! What season would you prefer to go to Nami Island? Leave me a comment :)