Sunday, 30 August 2015

Living in Korea 101: The Smart Entry Service @ Incheon Airport

Are you one of those rushing to get to the Immigration counter as quick as you can upon landing at Incheon International Airport? Like me, you rush to get there first because. If you're unlucky, there could be a lot of foreigners already lining up before you. And lining up to wait for your turn could take up time, especially when there were flights arriving from China loaded with tourists. One time, I had to admonish a Chinese tourist who tried to jump the line; she just cut before me like she was inserting herself in a grade school gym class.

But if you're holding a specific type of visa, you can actually avoid these long lines. How? By registering for the Smart Entry Service (SES).

The SES is "an automatic immigration clearance system which allows pre-approved travelers to process immigration clearance by themselves using biometric information." Yes, you don't need to be face-to-face with an Immigration officer as you leave or come to South Korea. You simply breeze through without having to worry about the long lines.

               (Immigration Office at Seoul Station 
               where you can register for SES)

If you ever noticed upon your arrival, on the left-most side of the Immigration area, next to 'FOREIGNERS' lines, there's a single entry door where you'd see people scanning their passports and putting both index fingers on the biometric scanners. That's the SES line. According to the SES website, it takes only 12 seconds! Yes, you don't need to spend minutes (at times 30!) waiting in line and put up with uncouth tourists.
            (The SES registration machine at the
            Seoul Station's Immigration Office)

So, if your visa type is one of those qualified for SES, you can register yourself for this very convenient service. Just bring your passport and alien registration card. 

Click on the SES link below and check under 'Eligibility'. You can also locate the registration office nearest you.

Doraemon @ Yongsan Electronics Market

I guess it was appropriate to welcome the robotic cat right next to the electronics market of Seoul. The Yongsan Electronics Market in Seoul, Korea, is the central market for everything electronic - from smart phones to digital cameras, to computers and everything else that runs on electricity.
I actually saw these Doraemon mascots in front of Yongsan's I-Park Mall the night before. Even as the darkness was enveloping the area, people were still eager to take photos with the mascots. 
But it was a different story the day after. Under the hot noon-time sun, hundreds of people, most of them on their lunch break from nearby offices, flocked around the mascots and were busy smiling for selfies with Doraemon while they tummies were grumbling.
The mascots were installed to promote an expo to satisfy the Doraemon craze, and probably this weekend, hundreds more kids are flocking to the Yongsan Station to have their turn for selfies, too.

To get to IPark Mall, take the subway to Yongsan Station (Line 1), or get off at Sinyonsan Station (Line 4) and exit at Exit 3. Hopefully, the 100 cats will still be there.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Living in Korea 101: Visiting the Korea Immigration Office in Seoul

For those of us living in South Korea, we may have to, at one time, extend our visas, or apply for an alien registration card (ARC) if we're staying in the country for a long period.  

I got my ARC early on when I started working in South Korea, and it helped me open a bank account and got me mileage cards for cafes, movie houses, supermarkets and department stores. It's even required if you want to register as a blood donor for the Korean Red Cross.

Having lived here for a number of years already, I must have gone to the Seoul Immigration Office in Yangcheon District at least once every two years to renew my visa, and considering that there are a lot of foreigners who may need to visit the same place, I decided to post a how-to-get-there blog.  

By the way, there are two immigration offices which foreigners living in Seoul can visit. One is at the Seoul Global Center building in Jongno District, and the other is at Yangcheon District, depending on which district you live. I live in the Yongsan District and my assigned immigration office is at Yangcheon District.

And this is how to get to the Immigration Office at Yangcheon-gu if you're assigned to renew your visa in this office:

1. Take the subway train and get off at Omokgyo Station (Line 5).

2. Get to Exit 7. That's the exit nearest the Immigration Office.

3. If you want convenience, take a cab from Exit 7 and just say 'immigration' to the driver. At this exit, there is a line of taxi cabs waiting for anyone heading to the immigration office. I always take the cab as it's a long walk and I want to save time.
                       (Taxis lining up at Exit 7)

4. The cab will stop at the intersection near the immigration office and the taxi driver will just point you to its direction. The immigration building is at the left of the intersection, but since there's no left-turn, you will have to alight and cross the street from there.
(The intersection near the Immigration Office)

5. Cross the street and follow the signs. Make sure you get into the right building. The immigration office is the second building, not the first one.
(Immigration building as seen from the intersection)

6. The immigration services are on the ground floor to your right when you enter. Make sure you get your 'waiting number' from the machine by selecting the service you need. 
         (The Immigration Building's directory)

Wait at the seating area till your assigned number comes up on the digital display. There is also a staff in the area who gives assistance. 

By the way, the service fees are paid in the form of stamps, which you can buy at the lobby from a lady, or from a stamp-dispensing machine for nominal amounts.

Note: Before you head to the Immigration Office, make sure all your required documents are complete and signed, so that you don't have to go back. If you are being issued a new ARC, this would take a few days.  But if you have an existing ARC and you are extending your stay, you can just wait for about 15 minutes while they stamp the 'extension date' in your ARC.

I hope these directions help.

Korean Immigration Services website:

To make a reservation for your visit:

For Korean Immigration hotline: Call #1345

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Photo of the Day: A Sunshiny Day!

"I can see clearly now the rain is gone...
I can see all obstacles in my way...
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind..
It's gonne be a bright, bright sunshiny day".

Yes, you can almost hear Johnny Nash' song when you see the clear skies over Seoul today. Clear skies, literally and figuratively.

Now, that the tensions at the border with North Korea have evaporated, and the typhoon has passed, Wednesday morning in Seoul is all about some sunshiny day.

As most locals would say to you when you leave an establishment no matter what time of day it is (yes, even at night you'd hear this):

"Have a nice day!"

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Living in Korea 101: Getting Used To Constant Threats from NK

When I first heard the sirens during the annual civil defense drill in Seoul, it was scary. The only sirens I have ever heard were from World War II movies when planes were flying over a city and were about the bomb the place till kingdom come.

But in Seoul, wailing sirens are part of the civil defense drill when citizens are taught on what to do in case a real war in the Korean Peninsula actually breaks out. Again.

South Korea and North Korea are technically at war, but due to the Korean Armistice Agreement signed on July 27, 1953, hostilities between both sides have been halted. Well, peace and quiet are always temporary all these years. Why? Because every now and then, the northern neighbors would fire towards the south, just like what they did in 2010, when North Koreans shelled Yeongpyeong, an island north of Incheon. These provocations are usually carried out in order to get attention by whoever is watching.

And perhaps, the latest provocation that almost scared everyone was in the spring of 2012 when even foreign students were sent home overseas by their scared parents. My friend Jenny had to send home her daughter Sofi, who was taking a course for a semester at a university in Seoul, because she worried about the scenario.

But last week, tensions rose again when the North planted landmines along the border maiming a couple of soldiers who stepped on them, and the South started blasting propaganda over their loudspeakers trained northwards. I wondered whether other than propaganda, blasting Psy's Gangnam Style 24/7 would have done the job. Either the soldiers up north would end up horse-y dancing non-stop, or they'd get so sick of the song, they'd end up surrendering without any shots fired. 

And while everyone overseas overreacts after watching the exaggerated news on cable TV, all of us here Seoul continue living our lives, deaf and indifferent to whatever provocations our northern neighbors are up to every time. 

We're so used to these constant threats that our usually reaction is always "Here we go again!"

       (Life goes on: crowds lining up to enter a popular 
     bar in Itaewon last Friday night when tensions rose)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Photo of the Day: Soldiers of the Country

This current stand-off at the border reminds me of the men and women standing on the front-lines protecting the country.

As a tribute to these brave Korean soldiers, I chose this photo of the day: Korean soldiers doing their precision drills at the War Memorial of Korea. The Honor Guard Ceremony is perhaps the most entertaining performance to watch at the Memorial. 

The honor guards turn, drop on a knee, throw their rifles up on the air and catch them with only one hand. And on this photo, everyone has thrown their weapons up and is about to catch them with one hand as they all fall back to Earth in accordance with the law of gravity.  While the crowd enjoyed the performance, I enjoyed taking the photograph.

So, to our brave soldiers of the country, thank you! Because of you, we all sleep soundly tonight.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Shuttle Train Ride @ Incheon Airport

                                    (Tunnel view)

Have you ever departed from or arrived at Gates 101 to 132 of the Incheon International Airport?  If you have, you must have taken this shuttle train ride as well!

I always ride this shuttle train because my flights for Manila, Philippines, use one of those gates. And on my last ride, I decided to take a video. Since the train has no engineer driving it from one point to the other, both ends of the shuttle have windows where you can watch the tunnel through which the train passes.

It's just a short ride, actually. But I guess watching the tunnel and the tracks is a rarity because, if you take the subway train in Seoul, you won't be able to see the path as the front and the end of the trains are the control booth for the engineers running them. Before they installed the platform screen doors at the stations, you can even see the engineers at the front when the train comes into the station. Now, with the platform screen doors, you'd hardly see their faces. Maybe only on some platforms of some stations of the Gyeonggi- Jungang Line, you can still spy on who's running the train.

And speaking of these platform screen doors, the main reason for putting them up was for the safety of the passengers. Some people accidentally fall into the tracks for various reasons, though some not really accidental. Jumping into the train tracks was a common way to commit suicide years ago when there were no barriers to hold anyone back. But I wonder, if anyone wants to commit suicide, why bother buying a train ticket and ruin everyone's day?  If someone falls into the tracks to kill himself or herself, the train has to stop and the schedule freezes, delaying the passage of that train and all the trains behind it. It would also hold all passengers up - for those inside the train and for those waiting at the stations, causing them to miss their appointments, classes and meetings.

And how about the trauma of those who were on the platform who witnessed everything? The sight of someone jumping and actually being killed on the tracks is definitely difficult to forget, and even more so for the engineer himself. Seeing the face of person before he or she was run over by his train would always bring nightmares. These engineers actually had to go through some psychiatric counselling. If you watched the Korean movie, The Railroad (Korean title: Gyeongui-seon 경의선). the lead actor suffered that kind of trauma. 

          (The shuttle arriving at the other end)

I don't know how I ended up talking about subway suicides by just riding the shuttle train of Incheon Airport. I guess the tunnel view along the ride without any other distraction makes one remember all the other stories from riding trains in Seoul. 

But there's one feeling I get every time I take this shuttle train to my departure gate. I always feel that this ride makes me one step closer to home. After all, before the train shuttle is the last leg of my journey, the plane ride, the one ride that would eventually bring me home.

                                         *  *  *  *  * 
Here's the video of my shuttle train ride leaving the main terminal and heading to my departure gate:

Monday, 17 August 2015

A Lazy, Long Weekend...

              (Traffic-less Itaewon!)

Most Seoulites were eager to travel to the provinces after the President declared Friday a holiday before the Liberation Day. It was a three-day weekend and most locals would want to wander to the neighboring provinces. And just like the effect of long weekends, the traffic going to and coming back to Seoul was always bad on the first and last days.

Since I have 'been there, done that', so to speak, I decided to stay put and spend the tail end of the summer in the neighborhood.

                    (Grand Hyatt Hotel's swimming pool)

At the Grand Hyatt Hotel at Namsan, kids, their parents, and couples were all at the poolside cooling themselves, perhaps for one last weekend before school starts. 

Kids could hardly contain their excitement around the pool, while adults were just busy laying under the sun and soaking it in before the cool months arrive.

        (That's The Terrace's green tea, mango,         strawberry and chocolate ice cream!)

                                       (My dessert plates!)

And at The Terrace of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, I was able to catch up with friends Marissa and Adrian, whom I haven't seen in five years. I had to temporarily forget my diet over the yummy array of choices The Terrace offered on their buffet table that day. (Thanks to Marissa and Adrian for the treat, and welcome back to Seoul!)

I figured the extra poundage I gained that day could just be burned off after an hour or two at the tennis courts. I don't count calories; I count blessings. Ha-ha-ha!
                (A room with a view: 
   Hannam-dong in the foreground and         the Gangnam buildings seen from afar)

So, how was your long weekend? The next long weekend will be during the chuseok holidays next month. With more holidays this time, perhaps I should try going farther than the boundaries of my neighborhood. Hmm... 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A History Lesson @ The National Museum of the Philippines

              (The building marker outside 
                 the Museum building)

It has been in my itinerary every time I flew home to the Philippines. I have visited a lot of museums here in Seoul; the National Museum of Korea is even in my neighborhood in the Yongsan District, and yet, I have never been to the National Museum of the Philippines.

On a few occasions when I was able to venture to Manila, I got to join Carlos Celdran's walking tour around Intramuros (a must-join for Manila tourists!), and roamed Binondo District, the oldest Chinatown outside China, which has the best lumpia and hopia in Manila!   

And during my last month's vacation at home, I made sure I spared an afternoon for the Museum. Thanks to my friend, Fay, I was finally able to visit the National Museum of the Philippines!

             (The 'N' and 'M' brass door 
               handles of the Museum)
                   (Fay dwarfed by the 
              Spoliarium's significance)

Luckily for us, the traffic along the roads leading towards the Padre Burgos Drive near Rizal Park in Manila wasn't that bad. We were able to get to the Old Legislative Building that houses the National Art Gallery of the National Museum of the Philippines. The next building is the Museum of the Filipino People, which houses the anthropology and archeology divisions. 

            (The gallery for religious art works 
              from the 17th-19th centuries)

The National Art Gallery has several exhibitions displayed on Level 2 (House Floor) and Level 3 (Senate Floor) of the Old Legislative Building. But one very special, priceless work of art welcomes all visitors to the Museum. It's Juan Luna's Spoliarium, a huge painting that's more than 13 feet tall and 25 feet wide. When one stands in front of this painting, it's a different kind of experience. 

                (An exhibition hall devoted 
                        to Dr. Jose Rizal)

Standing in front of the Spoliarium, my friend Fay said that she has "read and heard so much of Juan Luna's Spoliarium, but it was still an amazing experience to stand so close to it and be dwarfed by its size and significance in Philippine history".

               (Juan Luna's Interior D'un Café)

The Museum has several art galleries that display religious art from the 17th to 19th centuries; art prints from the royal botanical garden in Madrid, Spain; academic and romantic art; academic and neoclassical sculpture; classical art from the 20th century; works of art of national artists; and an homage to Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero (whose monument nearby has been photobombed).

           (The details of these high relief figures
            above the Senate Hall are spectacular)

Even if the Spoliarium was the only work of art I saw at the Museum, it was worth the trip. Why? With all those lessons in Philippine history during my grade school days mentioning about this painting, it was as if those days sitting, reading and listening to my teacher discuss the Philippine revolution were all squeezed together in one moment and culminated with me finally standing in awe and reverence right in front of Juan Luna's masterpiece. 

Seeing these other priceless paintings, sculptures and other works of art made me look back at the rich history of the Filipino heritage through art. Yes, history can also be told through images, colors and shapes, and not only through words and text books. And this visit to the National Art Gallery was a different kind of history lesson I'd never receive inside the classroom; it's a visit any Filipino should also experience. 

So, if you have an extra day or afternoon in Manila, do visit and explore the National Art Gallery and the Museum of the Filipino People of the National Museum. And always remember, those pieces are not only works of art; they are a history lesson unto themselves. 

*  *  *  *  * 

Here's the Museum's official website:

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Seoul's Summer, Stream and Sachoom!

           (Seoul's Cheonggye Stream)

It's been a sweltering summer here in Seoul these past weeks, and like everyone else, I avoided going outdoors, lest I wanted to melt. Ha-ha-ha!

Although the giant water ride drew everyone towards Sinchon last month for people to temporarily cool off, that was just a short respite. 

And as I made my way one night towards the Cine Core Theater in the Jongno District of Seoul to watch a special performance of Sa-choom!, I spied on some locals literally cooling their feet on the Cheonggye Stream. I would have wanted to join them if it were not for the the 8PM showtime.

Not surprising, there were more locals queuing for their tickets at the box office. If this were months ago, or shall I say during the pre-MERS days, the Chinese tourists lining up to watch this non-verbal performance would have outnumbered locals.
             (Queuing for their tickets)
Compared to other shows, you can actually take photographs during the performance, but sadly, I couldn't bring in an iced cafe mocha. You can only take with you bottled water. And after I took my seat next to Vicky, a visiting tourist from Frankfurt, Germany, I took around and noticed that all seats were taken! I assumed it's the summer vacation; so, everyone made sure they enjoyed a Korean performance or two.

I saw Sa-Choom in April, and I wasn't that impressed with what I saw. Perhaps, it was a different team that performed for the K-Performance Supporters that night. Tonight, however, the team of performers seemed to have raised their level. But I think the show's contents - the choreography, costumes, music, and storyline - were the problem. It would work for a visiting tourist who may find it a novelty, but not for me.

This team's lead actor, Bin, was just like the same as the other team: he has no presence on stage and couldn't even rap his songs properly. He was just tall and could do chest stand. Luckily, the lead actress could sing! The director should have exploited this talent more by giving her more 'screen time' to show off her good vocals. Yes, she was pretty, skinny, and could sing! I wonder if she actually tried out for a K-pop album. 

     (This guy doing the breakdance is the 
       best among the back-up dancers)

After the show, I asked Vicky which characters she liked; her favorites were Jong-yeok, the emcee (played by Jang Dong-ho) and that underdog character who danced in his pajamas and could dislocate his shoulder while bboy dancing! I agreed with her choices. These two were the redeeming characters of the show; they had showmanship and energy level above everyone else on stage. 

           (Dancing in one's pajamas!)
(Minister Kim Jongdeok of Culture, Sports and Tourism joins the performers on stage to encourage everyone to help in the efforts to promote Korean performances)
         (Sa-choom gift packs were given 
        away to lucky audience members)

And since it was a special performance that night, the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Sports, Mr. Jongdeok Kim, gave a short speech encouraging everyone to help promote Korean tourism to reverse the MERS effects. He also gave out three Sachoom gift packs to three lucky audience members.

So, if you're still on your summer vacation, do catch some Korean performances in Seoul, and then you can perhaps also cool off your tired feet on the Cheonggye Stream!