[personal profile] niori_1709
If there's one Korea is good for (and believe me, it's good for many things), it's the shopping. Shopping in Korea is spectacular, though it can sometimes be difficult to find clothes and shoes that fit. The fashion in Korea is interesting, and the shopping experience reflects that (a warning- on many stores, the sales clerks will follow you around, so close they're basically touching you. It's not out of suspicion, but to be there the minute you need (or they think you need) help. It can be flustering, and more than a little uncomfortable). There are shopping areas everywhere, and I've briefly mentioned a few in Seoul in previous travel guides. For now, I'm going to narrow it down, and tell you all about my three favourite areas for shopping: Itaewon, Myeongdong and Insadong.

First up, Itaewon. Itaewon is, not to put too fine a point on it, the foreigner district of Seoul. An American military base is located very close by, so a foreigner rich and friendly environment eventually popped up right alongside the base. It's not only foreigner friendly for North Americans, but other nationalities as well. If you're in Korea and desperately need to hear some English, Itaewon is the place for you. Most of the people who work in the area of the special tourism zone speak English. There's even a big arch at the beginning of the street that welcomes you to Korea, and blocks on the sidewalk that gives a country's name (in Korea, English and the language of that respective country), capital and flag. There's an international feeling in this area that you just can't ignore.

There are three major things that make me enjoy Itaewon, and two of them have to do with food. If you're craving some goodies from back home, you're in luck- Itaewon has a ton of international food markets. These markets have anything from soup, to baking packets, to chocolate bars. There's even non-food products, such as deodorant, that are hard to find in Korea. There are a lot of simple things from back home that you just can't get in Korea. For me, it's the sweets. I love sweets, and the selection of them available in Korea is limited. In Itaewon, I can get some of my favourites, from peanut butter cups to Starburst. Out of all the international markets, it's Highstreet Market that I'd recommend the most. One word of warning however- because these things have to be specially imported, they are pretty expensive (in both Korean and Canadian terms). That said, it's more than worth it, for a little taste of home every once and awhile.

On the topic of food, if there's one place in Korea that I love to eat out in, it's Itaewon. Not only is there the usual western food (including fast food like McDonalds), but restaurants from every country you can imagine. On one wonderful Sunday last October, I took part in a food scavenger hunt, and my team found food and drink from no less than twenty-three countries in only four hours, and we didn't even begin to scratch the surface of what's available. There's even a poutine place somewhere in Itaewon, though I have yet to find it. In Itaewon, I've tried food I never would have dreamed of trying before, and it was wonderful.

Lastly, something that is pretty dear to me. That something is reading, and I bring it up because of the English bookstore, What the Book? While regular chain bookstores normally have an English section, What the Book? is completely English. It is both a new and used bookstore, which is superb for someone like me, who reads so many books and needs a place to bring them afterwards. The selection is amazing, and there is every type of book imaginable, both fiction and non-fiction. It's also possible to order books from them, both in the sore and online. Those books can be picked up at the store or delivered right to your address. Basically, it's all very simple. If you're a reader and in Korea for a significant amount of time, What the Book? is a place you need to get to. It is, without a doubt, my favourite spot in Itaewon.

Second in our tour of the best shopping areas in Seoul, is Myeongdong. Myeongdong is great for a number of reasons, one of them being the stores that are there. There are a lot of western brand stores that are there, such as H&M and Payless Shoes. The western brand stores? They carry western sizes. If you're in Seoul and need new clothes, Myeongdong is one of the few places that you're guaranteed to find something you can work with. For a shopper who isn't the average Korean size, Myeongdong is the place for you.

For all that the western stores are nice (and can be a God send), they're not the reason I love shopping in Myeongdong. I love shopping in Myeongdong for the stands. Lining the street, there are stands set up, selling a wide range of merchandise. Anything from K-Pop (Korean pop music) memorabilia, phone cases, scarves and cute socks. Cute socks are a weakness of mine, and the stands of Myeongdong are where I buy them. They're cheap, they're cute (I have nearly all the Avengers, Batman, Mario and some Disney Princesses) and they don't take up a lot of space. For the socks alone I would recommend Myeongdong to you.

Myeongdong also ranks in the top three because, once you're finished your shopping, there's a place of historical significance right there that you can go and see. That something is the Myeongdong Cathedral. The cathedral is small compared to some I've seen, but it's no less imposing with its tall steeple and brick exterior. It was the first brick church built in the gothic style in Korea, back in 1898 (construction began in 1892, and the site was used for worship from about 1784). The crypt in the cathedral holds the relics of martyrs who died in the widespread persecution of Christians in 1839 and 1866. The first Korean parish priest was appointed pastor in 1942, and in the 70s and 80s, Myeongdong Cathedral was a focal point for the movement to democratize Korea and to improve human rights in the country. Myeongdong Cathedral is like a glimpse of the evolution of the Catholic church in Korea, and the impact it had in shaping the country.

In the daytime, the Cathedral is an imposing sight. At night time, it's serene. Despite the fact that it's right beside a busy shopping area that comes alive once the sun goes down, it's silent near the cathedral, but for the faint hum of hymns being sung inside (if you come at the right time). The area behind the cathedral is a small pavilion area, where the Grotto of the Blessed Mother holds a statue of Out Lady of the Immaculate Conception, who the cathedral is named after. One doesn't have to be Catholic to see the beauty here, or to feel the peace. And it was a peaceful place. Sitting there in the near dark, with the only the sound being muffled by the church walls, I felt serenity. I felt the same calmness that I felt that day I sat down in Bongeunsa Temple. For all that the two places represent two different religions, the beautiful feeling they left you with is very much the same.

Services were going on at the time of my visit, so I wasn't comfortable going inside (that last thing I wanted was to disturb anyone worshipping) to see the interior of the cathedral. It felt like an intrusion, no matter how much I would have loved to see the beautiful stain glass windows that I've heard are inside. In the end, that's alright. I got more from visiting the outside of the cathedral than I ever would have expected.

On that rather spiritual note, it's time onto our third and final shopping area. That area is Insadong, and it is, by far, my favourite. If you want to buy anything even remotely touristy, Insadong is the place for you. Insadong's main street, Insadong-gil, has everything and anything that you could possibly imagine, and all of it is at a good price. From post cards, to magnets, to handcrafted traditional paper and clothes (called hanboks), Insadong has it. Not only does Insadong have it, but it's very often that you'll see a lot of it being made right in front of you. You'll walk into a store and see the owner, bent over and creating what it is they sell. Sometimes it's not even in a store, but a painter sitting on the sidewalk and painting a paper scroll or fan. The artwork is stunning in Insadong, and the pottery, mostly celadon but other kinds as well, is absolutely wonderful.

There's one store in particular that I need to tell you about, because I think it's the coolest thing ever. In Insadong, there are a number of shops where you can get a name stamp, which is where you get your name translated into Hangeul (Korean writing system) and carved into the bottom of a stone stamp. It's so interesting and a really unique thing to have (or give as a gift). While there's a number of places to get them, there's one store in particular that I'd recommend.

Myun Sin Dang Pil Bang (art shop) is managed by a married couple who are pretty famous artists in Korea when it comes to traditional Korean art. It's a store that's been passed through generations, and the quality shows. Not only are name stamps made here, but it's also a calligraphy shop. The shop is also of note because a number of famous people have gotten art from the shop. The most notable is Queen Elizabeth II, but Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, a queen consort of Spain, a prince of the Netherlands and a Costa Rican president have all stopped at the shop over the years. On top of the famous people who stood in the shop before you, there is an excellent and large collection of rock stamp designs to choose from, and the owners always do amazing and timely work.

It's not only the stores that make Insadong such a great place, but the atmosphere. It's the atmosphere that makes it one of my favourite places in Seoul to visit. There's always performers -singers, dancers, instrument players- on the street. Street food is sold from little carts and stands, and more than a few of the workers sing and dance as they do it. Parades march through Insadong, from the lantern floats in the Lotus Lantern Festival to a small parade to advertise a bamboo festival. There are even small demonstrations or booths set up around social issues, from raising awareness to the importance of schools in South East Asia, to ending racism and even China's policy of returning North Korean refugees to North Korea. I've learned a lot about issues important to Koreans, and best of all? No one is pushy, be it protestors, street musicians or store keepers. Insadong is fun and relaxing, and a great place to just take a walk in (if you're up to handling the crowds).

So there you have it! Three shopping areas that are a must visit if you ever find yourself in the Seoul area. Happy travels!



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