Saturday, 31 December 2016

Dongdaemun Fabric Market: From Lost Spaniards To My Favorite Arroz Valenciana

Last November, outside Jegi-dong Station, I stopped to help two finely dressed foreigners, a man and a woman, who got lost. I was on my way home when, from afar, I saw them reading their smartphones and looking up to the buildings around them. It was obvious they were trying to figure out their exact location. So, when I got to them, I asked,"You need help?"

Yes, they did. 

They were looking for the Dongdaemun fabric market, which was three subway stations away. So, I guided them down to the station and pointed them towards Dongdaemun. They told me they were from Barcelona, Spain, and had a meeting in the Jegi-dong area. They must have been buyers from a Spanish fashion house trying to source new fabrics for their collection.

Of course, during our encounter, I introduced myself en español and told them I visited their city a year ago. They must have been initially surprised that this random 'korean' spoke Spanish. Ja-ja-ja!

(The buildings of the fabric market on the Jongno side. The encircled spot is the information booth manned by a lady who speaks English)

A few days after that, I was riding a bus that passed by the Dongdaemun fabric market, and thought of the two Spaniards. I wondered whether they found the kind of materials they needed. And since I was heading home to the Philippines in a few weeks' time for the Christmas holidays, I decided to visit the fabric market myself and look for Christmas fabrics for our dinner table!

(If you're into retro-fashion, this shop's just for you!)

The Dongdaemun fabric market is huge! With a few buildings having six floors selling fabrics, materials, accessories and everything you need to make an expensive-looking gown, or a simple pajama, your head might probably spin from the overwhelming display of colors, fabric designs, and of course, crowds of customers!

Fortunately for me, I didn't have to jump from one building to another just to find my Christmas fabrics. On the second floor, just after I turned around from an elevator ride, I immediately found a shop selling fabrics with interesting designs! Including Christmas designs!

Since I had the dimensions of our dinner tables at home, I bought three designs: two designs sold for KRW5,000 per yard, and the other, which was of a thicker fabric, sold for KRW6,000 per yard. They even have shops where you can have you hanbok tailored just for you.

And when I got home to the Philippines, my mom called her local seamstress and asked her to sew the fabrics in time for our Christmas noche buena!

And when Christmas day came, we used two Christmas fabrics for our noche buena tables. 

That day, as la arroz valenciana, a Spanish dish, sat on our table, I wondered whether I was meant to stumble upon the two Spaniards last month, who lost their way in finding the fabric market, which, in turn, gave me the idea to visit the market and look for Christmas designs for our noche buena table cloth, which then added a festive look to our table where our favorite arroz valenciana, a dish from Spain, sat and ready to be enjoyed.

              (The fabric market buildings as seen 
               from the Cheonggyecheon side)

As I write this, the two Spaniards I met are probably at home, too, in Spain, celebrating their felices pascuas. When we parted that day inside the Jegi-dong Station, they thanked me for the help. I should have thanked them, too, as that encounter gave me an idea. 

So, to those two Spaniards, to the shop owners at the Dongdaemun fabric market, and to everyone...

¡Prospero año nuevo! Happy new year!

          (The other fabric provides a background 
           for the yummy pistachio sans rival)

       (The Christmas fabric with poinsettia design 
             costing KRW5,000 per yard and my 
                      favorite arroz valenciana)

                               *  *  *  *  *

The Dongdaemun fabric market is accessible from Exit 8 of Dongdaemun Station of Line 1 and Line 4 (not to be confused with Dongdaemun Culture and History Park Station).

From Exit 8, follow the sidewalk parallel to the stream. The market is next to JW Marriott Hotel; the market includes Building A, B, C, and D. Yes, I know. It's overwhelmingly huge!  

Have fun shopping!

Here's the fabric market's website:

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Simbang Gabi in Pinas!

I was hoping it was really a 'midnight' Mass, and not just a misa de gallo (rooster's mass), which I thought was a mass celebrated at dawn before the crowing of the rooster.

But the aguinaldo Mass (literally, gift mass) is actually celebrated at 4AM here in the Philippines for nine mornings before Christmas Day. And I was able to finally attend one again!

Years ago, I have always wanted to visit a church at night to see some real ghosts. I was thinking if ever there would be a place where grounded spirits can be felt, a haunted house or a church could be the place. But unfortunately, I don't know of a real haunted house in my neighborhood. Ha-ha-ha!

After waking up as early as 2:30AM in order to get to our parish church before the pews filled up for the 4AM Mass, I dragged my mom with me to the church.

And when we got there just after 3AM, I didn't see any lost souls wandering inside the church, only the ghosts of Christmas past and a lot of sleepy parishioners!

We were lucky we got seats before the church filled up thereafter. And just before 4AM, a lot of people were already left standing.

But standing or seated, sleepy or not, ghost or living, everyone inside the church was gathered in prayer and faith.

Happy simbang gabi, everyone! 

I hope you're all able to complete your novena masses!

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Christmas Tree @ Home

Most homes in the Philippines will have by now a Christmas right in the living rooms. 

Before I flew out of Seoul, the extravagant Christmas displays of the Shinsegae Department store were busy attracting tourists and passers-by at night, and the steps of the Myeongdong Cathedral were illuminated by thousands of LED-lighted white flowers.

And while the prices of electricity may be lower in Korea, it's not the same in the Philippines, and having thousands of lights to decorate one's Christmas tree may translate to a huge electric bill unless you have solar cells to back up your electricity supply.

But I guess, since Christmas comes only once a year, nobody really cares about paying for the spike of electric consumption in December. After all, it's the thought the counts, not the expense. Ha-ha-ha!

Although it's nice to watch the twinkling lights of your Christmas tree, you may have to turn them off before going to bed to avoid fire from overheated lights.

No matter how colorful and bright, or simple and bare your tree is, it's always the love of the people around it that matters. After all, it's not the decorations, but the spirit that counts.

So, from our city plaza to yours, Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Christmas Display @ Shinsegae

Theirs is the most extravagant, the most attractive, and probably the most expensive Christmas display in Seoul I have ever seen.

Standing by the Korea Post headquarters near Myeongdong, just across the Bank of Korea, I was mesmerized, along with a few Chinese tourists that chilly night, by Shinsegae Department Store's elaborate display of lights, technology and extravagance!

Years before, their display mainly consisted of projected Christmas scenes on the walls of the building, complemented by the lights wrapping the fountain nearby forming like a single-layer, fondant wedding cake.

This time, the department store wrapped itself with thousands of lights that changed colors and drew on the walls and the cone-shaped tree ribbons, candy canes, balls, and snow flakes!

It also drew out a greeting in lights 'Happy Holiday'.

Yes, 'holiday' as in just one holiday. I wondered whether the department store, upon seeing that the calendar only showed December 25 as the Christmas holiday, decided to singularize the popular Christmas greeting 'Happy Holidays'.

I was momentarily confused whether, with all the millions they spent on the Christmas display, they couldn't afford an extra letter? 

Oh well, I guess it's the thought that counts. Ha-ha-ha!

So be it a 'happy holiday' or 'happy holidays', I wish you all to enjoy your Christmas!

                     (This Christmas tree is the one standing 
                in front of Doota in Dongdaemun)

Monday, 19 December 2016

Eat, Pray, Fly: Mary Grace Cafe @ NAIA3

Who wouldn't be thrilled that, an hour before your flight out of Manila, you could still have a cup of hot chocolate paired with one of the best ensaimadas?

On the day I flew out to Seoul three months ago via the Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, my friend Cielo treated me to a lunch of Vigan longganisa with sunny side-up eggs, and a plateful of Mary Grace Café right inside the airport!
                (Mary Grace cafe's interiors don't 
              make you feel you're in an airport)

On Level 4 of the Terminal, passengers in the café, who were also flying out to another city, were having ensaimadas, pastas and other Mary Grace goodies that I was sure were so much better than any in-flight meal!

That afternoon, as my plane to Seoul was taking off from the NAIA runway, I was busy burping from the Vigan longganisa and apple pie! And I was probably the only passenger on that flight who was actually carrying in my tummy an excess baggage of Mary Grace café favorites! Ha-ha-ha! 

I am now back home in the islands and have been craving for those yummy ensaimadas again. So, when my brother was flying back from Manila via the same terminal, he was able to bring a few boxes of ensaimadas home for me. Thanks to Cielo and her son, Lawrence, who helped me reserve some ensaimadas. I was worried that, since my brother's flight was at night, by the time he got to the airport, those always sold-out ensaimadas weren't available anymore at the airport's Mary Grace café.

And when those Mary Grace ensaimadas finally arrived home, they were paired with my mom's special tablea tsokolate! 

A bite of the soft, buttery ensaimada in the palate drowned by the warm tablea tsokolate, so rich and flavored with a mother's love is always a special holiday experience. 

       (My mom's tablea tsokolate and Mary Grace               ensaimadas sitting on our breakfast table!)

And while I am enjoying my Christmas holidays with these goodies, I hope you make time before your departure or after your arrival at NAIA's Terminal 3 so you can enjoy those yummy Mary Grace ensaimadas and other goodies as well!

Either way, welcome home, or have a safe flight!

Merry Myeongdong Christmas!

The first time I saw it, I immediately thought 'have they uprooted the flowers from Dongdaemun and brought them here?'

If you have seen the 20,000 LED flower lights at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, you would have thought the same thing. At the DDP, thousands of white LED flowers were spread across the lawn to resemble a galaxy of stars at night and a white flower garden during the day.

Here, at Myeongdong Cathedral, the flowers added drama to the garden terraces, attracting tourists and non-Catholics to the center of the Roman Catholic faith in South Korea.

The best view for a photo is from bottom of the steps just before dark so you can still capture the silhouette of the Cathedral above the steps.

The cathedral management might have decided to install these LED lights in time for Christmas when most Catholics in Seoul will probably visit the cathedral for the second most important holiday in the Catholic calendar.

By that day, the Nativity Scene on the cathedral entrance will have been finished and probably will be the subject of every visitor's photo.

Merry Christmas in Myeongdong, indeed!

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Seoul Tourism Persons Of The Year: The Red Angels

They're always at the busiest tourist spots in Seoul. And they always go in pairs. You won't miss them; they're wearing red jackets.

They are called the Red Angels of the Seoul Tourism Association. They are the roving tourist information guides whose main duty is to provide international tourists as well as locals with on-the-spot information, and they are able to provide information in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

They can be found in the most popular spots in Seoul: Namdaemun Market, Garuso-gil (in Gangnam), Myeongdong, Hongdae, Sinchon, Dongdaemun, Bukchon, and Samcheong-dong.

And all week long, from 10am until 7pm, they are in these areas walking around available for any one who's lost or needs travel information.

This Red Angel program started in 2009 and its assigned guides have probably assisted thousands all these years.

I am one of the thousands who have asked for help on a few occasions. One time, I was in Insa-dong looking for an art gallery. It was drizzling and I didn't want to get soaked running around looking for the gallery. The Red Angels, who were, at that time, standing at the center of Insa-dong, were able to give me directions to the gallery! I was impressed! With all the numerous galleries in Insa-dong, they knew where it was exactly! That gallery, the Kyung-In Museum of Fine Arts, was the venue of my friends' art exhibition that year.

They also helped me find the flower market in the middle of Namdaemun, and that visit became a blog, too!

The Red Angels are familiar with the locale's restaurants, cafés, attractions, landmarks, and other interesting corners of the area they're assigned to. When I brought my friends from Manila to Garuso-gil last year, we bumped into the Red Angels and asked them for a suggestion about a good dessert place. 

You can also ask them for information about the subway and bus transportation system, time schedule of popular performances, and also about the nearest clinic or hospital in case you need medical attention.

These very helpful angels in red jackets and hats, are there all year-round, no matter what the weather. Yes, they are there to help even in the freezing winter and in the sweltering summer. 

If you're a tourist walking around Seoul, your biggest worry is probably the language. Although I have always said that getting lost is part of the adventure, you shouldn't worry that much as there are helpful tourist guides also walking around the city's tourist spots, who are there to help you get back on track in your exploration of the city.

All these years, they have contributed an invaluable help to tourists and they have become an invaluable part of Seoul's tourism.

That's why, these Red Angels are my tourism persons of the year. :-)

Monday, 28 November 2016

Seek And You Shall Find: Itaewon's Antique Alley

A few meters down from the main Itaewon intersection opposite the Hamilton Hotel, towards the direction of Han River is a neighborhood of shops selling antique and vintage items that would interest antique shoppers and collectors.

Passing through the shops one morning, I saw a lot of interested shoppers rummaging through small candelabras, vintage plates, porcelain cups and flashy furnitures. 

I wonder where the sellers got these rare items from, but it would have been interesting if there was a story that accompanied each item: the era where they manufactured, and their previous owners.

I am not exactly the type who would buy these items. But if you are one of those homeowners who would decorate their homes, or offices with these antique pieces, the Itaewon antique shops would be the best place for you to seek and find the treasures you would enjoy owning.

From Exit 3 of Itaewon Station, make a u-turn and look for Taco Bell. Head down on that Taco Bell side and walk straight towards the direction of the Han River. A few steps down you would see these shops, and even after you pass the intersection, you can turn right and see a few more.

Happy hunting!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Jewels In Gyeongbuk Palace: Visitors in Hanbok

                (Hyangwonjeong Pavilion and pond of                                            Gyeongbuk Palace)

Just as the leaves in Seoul were quietly transforming their colors, I quietly sneaked into the Gyeongbuk Palace on the day I thought would be cloudy. 

That morning, I checked the weather forecast and rain was expected. But I then realized, if it rained, the colored leaves would be gone the next day. So I had to go! And quick!

Just as it was spectacular looking down at the colorful Deoksu Palace from the Seosomun Observatory near the City Hall, Gyeongbuk Palace was also spectacularly awashed with yellows, oranges, reds, browns, and the mood the fall season brought.

Although the autumn leaves in the gardens surrounding the Palace were the perfect complement for the architecture and history of the place, what caught my attention that morning was another character in the scene: visitors wearing hanbok!

Wearing hanbok is especially popular among fans of Korean dramas, and a lot of hanbok shops in Insadong are cashing in from renting out their hanbok for these fans.

Having your photos taken while wearing the Korean traditional costume and immersed in a Korean character from a drama is probably in every fan's itinerary when in Korea. 

And since Gyeongbuk Palace gives free entrance to everyone wearing hanbok, the palace becomes a drama set! (While I had to pay KRW3,000!).

So, instead of taking photographs of the autumn foliage, the visitors in hanbok became my instant theme! I didn't actually sneak up behind them; I just lazily walked around the palace grounds and they were just everywhere! 

And it was colorfully clear why!

Their colorful hanbok blended perfectly with the architecture of Korea's premiere palace. No need to set up props! They only set up tripods!

I noticed that the couples in hanbok were mostly international visitors, and girl groups were locals and international visitors. Armed with their cameras and smartphones, they were all enjoying the experience of wearing their rented costumes while roaming the palace gardens as they were being bathed with the season's colors. 

I have only visited the Gyeongbuk Palace a couple of times before, where I measured my tour with the sections I visited. That day, I measured my visit (and my route!) with the photographs I took of the visitors in hanbok.

I then realized that my discovery of the third 'character' in the Palace that day turned my visit into my most enjoyable visit ever (the palace was the first 'character'; autumn foliage second). Just as these visitors were enjoying their time in hanbok, I was just enjoying how they brought the corners of the historic palace back to life! 

My friend Fay, who used to live in Seoul, is one big fan of the colorful hanbok. To her, it is the most beautiful of all the national costumes.

And that day, I could see why. The pastel colors of the traditional costume blended well with the autumn background, and the presence of the ladies with braided hair and ribbons, walking gracefully in a very feminine costume brought drama and authenticity to my visit!

And aside from the traditional hanbok designs, a few girls wore the modernized hanbok with all the gold ribbons, loud colors and bolero-type blouses. And perhaps underneath the billowing skirts they wore high heels to complete the modernity?

As I was leaving the palace grounds through the Insadong-side exit, I saw a few more girls in hanbok entering. There are hanbok rental shops in Insa-dong where you can rent them for hours, or even for a day. 
                   (The beautiful gardens around 
               Hyangwonjeong Pavilion and pond)

The next time you visit Korea's palaces, make sure you enjoy the other 'characters' on your visit like I did, as sometimes, we tend to overlook what's obviously unique and interesting.

I was glad I went that day and got rewarded for it.

With the jewels at Gyeongbuk Palace.