Getting Intimate with the Mountains of Korea

Now, it sounds like I am trying to poetic with my title, but sadly, that is not the case. Recently, I have started to get out hiking more, as I want to take advantage of the mountains before the temperatures reach a point where I no longer want to leave my air conditioned apartment.

Over the past month, I have spent several weekends hiking on the mountains of Korea. Luckily, I live on a mountain, so this is as easy as stepping outside my apartment and going for a hike after work. It’s pretty magical to have the opportunity to step outside my door and have an entire system of trails to get lost on. The mountain my home is situated on is not a large mountain by any means, but it fills my mountain void that I constantly struggle with living in Ontario. This is a great opportunity to get out for some solo hikes, and escape the concrete jungle that is South Korea.

Up and above the concrete jungle. 

However, I have also reached the summit of two mountains in Korea over the past month. The first one was Namsan in Gyeongju – a beautiful mountain that has a spiritual significance to the people of Korea. There are many Buddha statues, and other tributes to Buddhism on your trek up the mountain. My favourite part of this hike, was the post cards and mailing box they have close to the top (*hint hint* some of you should be checking your mail for a surprise).

Check your mail for these my friends! (For those of you whose addresses I could remember…)


We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to get out hiking – the sun was shining, and I was surrounded by more green than I think I’ve ever seen. We met some kind Korean’s, who when we asked them to take a photo of us, decided that we were essentially a tourist attraction, and took turns taking photos with us. I felt like a Disney princess. I also learned on this hike that I am a terrible navigator (and am usually the designated navigator among my friends for some strange reason). I had intended to take us up the mountain, and then back down the same side of the mountain, but what I actually did, was take us up and over to the other side of the mountain – whoops. Luckily, Korea’s transportation system is quite extensive, and we didn’t have to trek too long before finding a bus stop. Namsan was a pleasant hike that I look forward to doing again – hopefully in the fall when the colours start changing.

Now, onto hike # 2 – Sinbulsan. Sinbulsan is the second highest mountain in Ulsan, but it is not even on the top ten list of the highest mountains in Korea – regardless, the technicality of this hike should not be underestimated. I was told that on this hike I would have to semi “rock-climb” and pull myself up several systems of ropes. Okay, I can handle that, I thought to myself.

In reality, Sinbulsan was a terrifying experience once we started to reach the summit. There were at least five sections where we had to pull ourselves up a rope, while walking up a moderately steep rock face. This was fine… I could handle this so long as I didn’t look down. I felt good knowing I had been working out, and this was not as physically daunting as I thought it would have been. However, my paralyzing fear of heights really started to catch up to me.

All smiles. 

Things got really interesting when we reached the top area of the mountain, and I realized we essentially had to walk across the peak of a mountain – where there was basically a straight drop to death on either side. While I was hyping myself up in my head – “You fucking got this Justine”, I started to walk across the peak and immediately dropped down to straddle the peak of the mountain. Now, this is where things got intimate. Picture this – my friend and I are essentially straddling the peak of this mountain… sliding ourselves across to a more stable section. While this is happening, our other friend and several Korean’s are laughing at us, taking photos, and walking by like it ain’t no thing (I would share the videos with you, but I am not willing to subject myself to that sort of humiliation #Sorry). Apparently dying isn’t a concern for the people of Korea. Eventually we made it across, and later, as we were on our descent, my friend points up to the peak – “Hey guys look, that’s the mountain you essentially had sex with”… Awesome.

I still haven’t decided if the terrifying experience was worth the views… 
Views of the peak from below. 

Overall, I am pretty happy I completed Sinbulsan, but I think my irrational fear of heights will stop me from ever completing that trek again. I’m off to climb Mount Fuji with Jay in August, and while it is over two times the elevation, I think it will be a walk in the park after my mountain straddling experience in Korea. Good times.

I hope to come up with some cuter poses before I reach the summit of Fuji.


While this post is pretty delayed, I am still dreaming of the delicious food tour I had in Seoul at the start of May. In Seoul, there is an area heavily populated by foreigners called Itaewon – lucky for me, this area is a foodie paradise. As I have complained about often throughout my time in Korea, I have been quite deprived of my foodie and wino needs.

Thankfully, I left my weekend in Seoul with a happy tummy – you could say Seoul was good for my soul. This post is mostly for other foodies living in Korea, who are struggling to find delicious international food, so here we go. (Warning – I’d stop here if you’re already hungry for lunch).

The Flying Pan Blue

Brunch – the most important meal of the day (well, on the weekend at least). Luckily, there are ample opportunities to get your brunch on in Itaewon. We found this adorable hidden gem that served delicious Norwegian Benedict and mediocre coffee. I approve.

Burger Mine

This place is a bit outside Itaewon in Yongsan, but well worth the trek. The veggie burger was good (by Korean standards), but the real highlight was the “Animal Fries”. Apparently these are a take on a dish served at In-N-Out – french fries with thousand island dressing – yummmm.


Soft Queen

Who doesn’t love soft serve? What’s better, is soft serve with crumbles of oreos sprinkled on top and a churro!


Pizza Peel

I have a love-hate relationship with pizza in Korea. While it fulfills my cravings, it just isn’t Pepi’s (Holla Kitchener friends). What I do love, is that they serve their pizza here with – wait for it- honey and pickles. I’m not kidding, dip your cheese pizza in honey, and put some pickles on the side. Flipping delicious. Anyways, pizza peel does a pretty great job at a traditional pizza, and at an affordable price.

Pizza Perfection

Champ Coffee

If I haven’t already mentioned it, my life here consists of drinking endless packets of instant coffee. It’s a sad life. Champ Coffee is a step in the right direction with regards to good coffee. However, the fact that it’s tucked out of the way down a quite alley, and has awesome hipster vibes gives it bonus points.


Gusto Taco

Another spot outside of Itaewon, but yes – so much yes. Gusto taco is amazing. Their tacos and their quesadillas are sooo good. They make their own tortillas in house, and it’s all delicious. Their nachos are a-okay, but I have come to expect nothing more than that from Korean nachos.

That cheese crunch though…


Nothing to make you feel like you’re at home more than a Canadian bar. 401 Highway signs, a Canada Post mailbox, delayed playoff hockey games, poutine, and whiskey – what more could a girl ask for? The poutine was incredible, and there were even real cheese curds – I’m not even sure where they find those suckers in Korea. Two thumbs up for Canucks poutine.

The weeks before getting sick and my trips to Vietnam and Seoul, I was hitting the gym hard. Probably a good thing as I spent my entire weekend in Seoul eating, and then resting up just so I could eat again. What can I say, I live to eat. Nom noms.

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Sneaky Shock

Culture Shock – we have all heard of it, and we all think we know what it is, but do we really? Do a quick Google search and you will find a million different definitions and interpretations of it – you will also find about 1.4 million different graphs explaining the process of culture shock.

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According to this graph, I guess I am in the “Argh” phase?

After talking to people I know who have lived abroad, and reading a lot of material on the internet, I have heard it all. “The first three months will be the hardest”. “The first three months will be the easiest”. “After three months, you will have a complete meltdown”. After over three months in Korea, I have come to the conclusion that culture shock is 100% an individual experience that will be entirely different from one person to the next – for me, that has meant random sneak attacks of culture shock that have bitch slapped me in the face unexpectedly.

What has culture shock looked like for me?

  • Culture shock is sitting on a jam packed bus as the only Caucasian English speaker, while listening to some sappy as shit song by Bleachers, and feeling 100% invisible.
  • Culture shock is playing a fucking BEER COMMERCIAL during a “Canadian Culture” lecture, and feeling like you’re about to choke up in front of a room of 24 high school students.
  • Culture shock is staring at a menu in Korean for a solid 27 minutes trying to determine a suitable dish to order that doesn’t contain meat – only to order a meal that DEFINITELY contains meat.
  • Culture shock is searching for those small home comforts; relating to fellow Canadians who resided in neighboring communities to yours, streaming NHL playoff games when you’re not even a major hockey fan, and listening to the Arkells on repeat because it reminds you of home.

Perhaps some of these things didn’t happen in my first three months in Korea, or perhaps I am more sensitive to them as I am inevitably exiting the honeymoon stage of my time here.

Overall, my time in Korea has been relatively seamless, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t come without it’s downs. For some reason, those “downs” seem to appear at the most unexpected and inconvenient times. I’ve come to learn that this is something you simply cannot control – breathe, accept, and recognize that, like all things, this too shall pass.

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According to my Google search of “This too shall pass”, Korean’s use the phrase as well.



Towards the beginning of my contract, I found out that I would have the chance to take off a week in May due to National Holidays. I was so excited as I was thinking I wouldn’t have a getaway until August when Jay visits. Anyways, luckily I was able to snag some moderately pricey flights to Vietnam with my friend Caitlin, so off we went.

While Vietnam doesn’t seem like a large country, we only attempted to see Northern Vietnam, and I still feel like we hardly scratched the surface. That being said, in five days, we managed to visit Hanoi, Sapa and Ha Long Bay. Our vacation spanned a total of five nights – two on a sleeper train, two on a boat, and one on a short, 4 hour, red-eye flight. Needless to say, we did not come home from this vacation even remotely refreshed. However, it was worth it.

I think I say this about most places I have traveled at this point, but Vietnam has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been (okay, there is no way it trumps Iceland). Beyond the beauty, I was so surprised by the outpouring kindness of the people, and also of the English proficiency everywhere we went. I can’t express enough gratitude towards the universe for being born into an English speaking society – us English speakers are truly privileged.

As I mentioned, we visited three main spots in Northern Vietnam. Each spot was completely unique in comparison to the next, so I have to reflect on them individually.


Bah, what a bat-shit crazy city. We didn’t spend much time in Hanoi – I tend to gravitate to more rural areas, and don’t need much time to appreciate a city. There were very few quiet spots in Hanoi – the motorbikes and the people made it impossible to get a moment of silence unless you were inside. That being said, the energy was contagious, and helped me stay alert while running on no sleep – I was reminded to be more aware as motorbikes nearly clipped me while driving by. Hanoi – a city you could easily get run over by a vehicle or motorbike – crossing the street was absolutely insane. I thought it was difficult crossing the street in Korea at times, well thanks to Hanoi, that’s a breeze now!

Motorbike madness

Now it wouldn’t be a vacation if we didn’t indulge in some awesome Vietnamese food, so of course, our first stop when we landed was to the highest rated Italian joint in the city – whoops. Props to Vietnam, because it was a pretty bomb pizza. Okay okay, onto the Vietnamese food… While in Hanoi, we didn’t get to try much because we were short on time, but I wasn’t leaving without trying three things: Bahn Mi, Pho & Vietnamese coffee. All were delicious, but oh em gee the coffee – probably the best I have ever had. If you are a coffee lover, go to Vietnam, go right now.

Bahn Mi


Oh Sapa… Sapa is one of those places that leaves an imprint on your heart. It’s one of those places that you daydream about when you get a bad wave of wanderlust when you’re having a rough day at work, or when you’re sitting in a Canadian snowstorm wishing for better weather.

Taking it all in.

There are no words to describe how lovely Sapa is. We spent a day trekking in Sapa – I would normally say that wasn’t enough, but it was 30 degrees Celsius PLUS the humidity, so it was definitely enough. Our day trek in Sapa was led by a guide through a company called Sapa Sisters. They employ all local women to run the treks, and they are all private tours. While trekking through the Sapa Valley and taking in the sights of the beautiful rice fields, and water buffalo bathing in mud, I also got to talk with our guide, Zo. She shared so much about her life in Vietnam – her son, her work, things about her community. We discussed the differences between our cultures and shared many laughs. She was truly wonderful.

Our amazing guide – Zo!

One wonderful thing about Vietnam is the abundance of babies! I’m not kidding – babies, babies everywhere! For those of you who know me, you know that this is essentially my paradise. Our guide Zo even hooked me up with a four month old baby to hang with when we stopped in the village for lunch – what a magical moment. Another memorable moment was a baby, not more than two years old, who yelled bye to us at least 17 times as we were leaving. It turned into a game, and I kept turning around to say bye to her, and she would say it again, and again, and again. What a smart cookie learning English already.

Happiness is stealing babies.
And puppies…
Smart kids already knew English (and they weren’t wearing pants) – so wise.

Our day in Sapa ended with a motorbike ride back into the village. While I thought I would be scared for my life as we were headed directly into oncoming vehicles, it was a surprisingly calm experience for me. Kinda makes me wanna get a motorbike…

Ha Long Bay – Bai Tu Long Bay

Alright, I admit it – I hate organized tours. I hate being told what to do, I hate being told where to go, I hate being given a schedule to follow, and I hate rules. WOW, I sound super bitter. However, Ha Long Bay is a beautiful place that is far too challenging to visit without going on an organized boat tour.

Our boat at sunset.
Our guide telling me how to take photos – I’m clearly having none of it…

Luckily, our boat tour was really great – our guides were awesome, the people on our boat were lovely, the weather was good, and the Ha Long Bay area is stunning. I expected a few of those rock formations here and there – no, no, no, they just keep going and going forever. No matter where you go in that area, there are these miraculous rock formations, and so many of them. If I knew anything about them, I would tell you, but I don’t, so Google it – or you can visit my friend Caitlin’s blog – cause she knows shit about science, and I don’t.

Starting our cruise through the mystery rock formations.

We spent a lot of time relaxing on the boat – the food was good and they had wine, so my tummy and my heart were super happy (Korea has been depriving me of my usual wine intake, and it is very distressing). Caitlin and I discovered that we vibe well with lovely couples from other cultures. We met a wonderful couple from Israel, and another from France.

Sunsets are my favourite.

We also had the chance to visit a rural fishing village in the bay, where people actually live in floating houses. I admire those people – I was so sea sick after two days on the boat that I thought I might die. Followed by nearly a week of, what is called, “land sickness”, who even knew that was a thing? I felt like I was on a boat for almost a week after I was actually on a boat. Essentially, I felt like one of those bobble head things, and I would get awesome waves of nausea. It was pretty rough. However, the beautiful views made it all worthwhile.

People LIVE here…

Anyways, I’ve blabbed enough about my awesome Namcation, and I will certainly be going back. Stay tuned for my next post about how I gained 10 lbs in Seoul. Nom noms.

The closest I got to swimming, as there was a swimming ban in Ha Long Bay.

100 Days Later (almost)

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Well, here I am, a quarter of the way through my twelve month teaching contract – seriously, where has the time gone? I had a feeling the time would fly by, but I had no idea it would fly by so quickly.

Before leaving for Korea, I had a lengthy list of intentions for my time here – I was going to learn Korean, save sooo much money, start working out again, get back into running, journal more, blog every week…. you get the idea. Well, I can now say a total of like eight words in Korean, so can’t say I’ve accomplished that. I have purchased flights to Vietnam, Jeju island, Japan, and China, and also purchased tickets for the Olympics, so I clearly haven’t saved any money. I was doing a great job working out for about a month, and then was plagued by a stomach flu, so that came to an end. And of course, for those of you who read my blog, it is pretty evident that I have not been posting on a weekly basis. What a surprise –  I am on the other side of the world, and I am still setting grand ambitions for myself and only completing a fraction of them. Self-five.

I really did want to use blogging as a tool to reflect and document my experience abroad, so I have something to look back on in the years to come. Luckily, I found a blogging challenge that I am hoping will motivate me to blog more frequently (hopefully weekly). Each week, I will receive blogging prompts to my email which will hopefully get the creative juices flowing, so without further ado….

Why am I even here?

This week’s challenge suggested I revisit my “why”, and gave me a series of questions to prompt this. Being that I have been here three months, it seemed like I perfect time, so here is my rambling response to those questions…

Last July, a community colleague randomly told me in passing that he had spent a few years working in Korea – that he made a lot of money, and was able to fund some serious travel. Last September (nine months ago… *mind-blown*), I was driving home from a work event with my co-worker and friend, Giordan. I was complaining about the same old sh*t, and ranting about wanting to leave and live far away. Which now seems alarming, because my life in Kitchener was a solid 10/10 – hindsight right? These two events were pivotal in my decision to leave. After that day in September, it snowballed. Before I knew it, I had interviews for various jobs, I was preparing visa documents, giving notice at my apartment and job – and just like that, I was moving to Korea.

In the months leading up to my move, I made solid plans to pay off all of my debt, made endless lists of all of the places I wanted to see in Korea, and spent hours determining which mountains I wanted to climb. When I think of how much I’ve seen, and how much I’ve experienced in the past three months, I want to say I have achieved some of my hopes and goals for my time abroad. But when I think of my time here as loading screen on a computer, “25%”, I realize that before I know it, I will be halfway, and then it will be over. This really makes me want to get my priorities in line for the next nine months – I want to spend my time in a way that is meaningful and intentional (and that doesn’t involved binge watching Gossip Girl on Netflix again).


Ah, so this brings me to my next thought, what exactly are my priorities? Saving money, traveling, experiencing as much of Korea as possible, and building relationships with my students, are my key priorities for the remainder of my year. Unfortunately, traveling and experiencing Korea, conflicts with my desire to save money – finding a balance has been difficult, and I’m sure will continue to be.

A big realization that I have come to during my three months here, is most things in life are significantly less significant than we make them out to be. If I had a nickle for every time I  had a “Korea Meltdown” in the months leading up to my move, I’d be rich. The truth is, my transition here has been easy – I had far more meltdowns in the months leading up to my move, then I have since I have been here. I am 11,000 kms from home, and I still feel connected to my friends and my family – technology is a wonderful thing.

At the end of the day, my move here seemed like an earth shattering life decision – and it wasn’t. I’m still the same person. I think the same thoughts. I do the same sh*t. I could have made a million excuses to not take this leap, but I am so glad I didn’t. It took me many years to gain the courage to move so far from home, and pursue this type of experience. I look forward to the next nine months of teaching, and extended exploring after that.

Different country, same wino.

MSW Completed + Stomach Flu Defeated

At the start of April – I told my co-workers to expect me to be a significantly happier human being at the end of the month. After procrastinating completing my final capstone portfolio for my MSW, I officially had three weeks to submit everything, and four weeks until my presentation – it was time to buckle down. What followed, was a vicious cycle of procrastinating by doing anything BUT my homework (not limited to, but including, an increased amount of working out, drinking wine, going out for dinners, eating pizza, adventuring to new sites, and “studying Korean”). This would then be followed by a period of guilt and stress, which resulted in a period of productivity – April was a god damn roller coaster ride.

Gamcheon Cultural Village – Busan
Dinner at White House – An amazing Turkish meal (ironically, one of the best meals I have had in Korea)

In the midst of my procrastination, I was also happy to be distracted by the blooming cherry blossoms throughout Ulsan and Gyeongju. This only happens once a year, so I had to take advantage – right?

Gyeongju – For the first time, I actually felt like I was in Korea. I am quite fond of the Korean architecture.

Aside from these distractions and periods of procrastination, I had no choice but to buckle down and complete my final project for my MSW. To my surprise, the day I submitted by final project, and one week prior to my panel presentation, I was blessed with the worst stomach flu I have had since childhood. My friend Caitlin and I have shown up a number of times wearing matching outfits – cute, I know. What isn’t cute, is coming down with matching stomach flus. While we spent the week exchanging stories about our bodily fluids, the hilarity behind it all only went so far as I spent over 60 hours dying in my bed.

The potluck I had with co-workers hours before I got sick – this was super fun to throw up later #nawt

Two and a half sick days, and a few bowls of oatmeal later, I was finally able to start moving around and eat more than a tablespoon of slop (oatmeal) at a time. I felt weak and exhausted, and despite feeling “better”, my stomach disagreed. Luckily, I had netflix, naps and my awesome boyfriend to keep me company over video chat.

Story time with Jay – he’s the best.
Attempted to go to work on day three – ended up sleeping the day away in the nap room.

The Saturday after I was sick, I thought I was almost better and decided to go out for the day (I had been trapped in my apartment far too long). I felt okay throughout the day, and when I woke up on Sunday morning I, once again, felt like I was dying. Five days later, the stomach flu had not let up.

My brief day of feeling better – taking in the beautiful Taehwa River in Ulsan
I thought if anything could cure the stomach flu, it was puppies – I was wrong.

I decided to go to the doctor – hoping to get a magic pill to fix my problem. Instead, what I got was a two day stay in the hospital – not exactly what I had hoped for. As the doctor told me I would be admitted for three to four days, I nearly had a nervous breakdown knowing I had my final presentation for my MSW on Wednesday morning. After one night, and two miserable days in the hospital, I was able to sweet talk my way out, even though they wanted to keep me at least another day. I have always proven to be quite stubborn, and this was no exception. I spent the next day re-energizing myself with real food after starving for two days and was pleasantly surprised that I felt much better.

The IV was great until it infiltrated and my hand was swollen like a balloon.
Apparently, this is what my room looks like after a few days of illness #Impressive

The following day was my final capstone presentation. I practiced in 10000000 x, and finally felt prepared, still completely terrified, I did it!

Blah blah blah, my presentation went well, blah blah… You get the idea.

Needless to say, April brought far too much work and stress than my body could handle, and I could not be happier it’s over. I suppose April showers bring May flowers. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that the stomach flu helped me get bikini ready for my upcoming #Namcation – optimist over here. Excited to head to Vietnam this Sunday – I can’t think of a better way to celebrate!

Underrated Ulsan

Ulsan was my first choice when I applied to EPIK. I was drawn to the proximity to the coast and the mountains, the size of the city, the small expat community and the lack of interest most people have in living in Ulsan. I knew that by applying to Ulsan, I essentially guaranteed myself a spot, because, as many will tell you, “Noone ever requests Ulsan; everyone wants to live in Busan”. Had I chosen a more popular city, I may have been turned down and placed in the countryside far away from any city (which even in Ulsan, still sort of happened).

If you read anything online about selecting a city to live in with EPIK, Ulsan usually falls at the bottom of the list. Why? I’m not sure. Many tell you that Ulsan is just an industrial city – it is home to the largest Hyundai plant and the world’s largest shipyard – they will tell you there is nothing to do, and you will head to Busan every weekend. Essentially, Ulsan is Busan’s ugly step-sister that get’s overshadowed by such a vibrant and large neighboring city. For my Kitchener-Waterloo friends – think of how everyone talks about poor Cambridge, yeah, that’s Ulsan.

I have been living in Ulsan for over a month and a half, and I have come to the conclusion that it is an extremely underrated city. I have spent more weekends in Ulsan then I have in other cities, and there is still so much more to explore. There are plenty of great restaurants to eat at, foreigner bars to go out on a weekend, cafes galore, and many beautiful nature sites to see.

Here are some of my favourite spots throughout Ulsan:

Taehwa River Grand Park

Awesome spot to walk around, cycle, or visit the bamboo forest.

Seongnamdong Night Market

Awesome spot for street food, restaurants and shopping, OR you could spend all your money trying to win stuffed animals out of those claw machines (they’re a pretty big deal here in Korea)


Daewangam Park

My favourite place in Ulsan by far. How this stunning spot is not in Korean travel guidebooks is beyond me. It’s an absolutely stunning park on the coast where you can spend hours hiking and walking around. It is also the point where the sun rises first in Korea.

Ulsan Grand Park

I just visited this park yesterday (24 degrees and sunshine, sorry to all of my fellow Canadians). It is the largest urban park in all of Korea, and it’s beautiful. Luckily – drinking is legal anywhere in Korea, so that automatically makes any trip to the park more interesting. In Ulsan Grand Park, you can rent tandem bikes (or regular bikes), and make your own DIY sangria right in the park if you are so inclined.

Cat Cafes, Dog Cafes, and More

There’s a local orphanage where people can volunteer to socialize with the kids monthly. There are also a number of cat and dog cafes. I think this photo sums up how much more babies like me then cats do…


Pretty beautiful eh? So, the next time someone tells you Ulsan is “just an industrial city”, tell them to think again.

Oh ps. I’ve been doing that whole teaching thing, and that’s been pretty awesome too. Here’s some proof: