A Panorama of Korea
After two months of criss-crossing Japan by bike, I finally cross from Fukuoka to Busan, on board the “Dream” ferry, to continue my bike adventure towards Seoul.
Korea isn't a bike's best friend. In my opinion, it is the country with the most dangerous drivers I've ever seen in all my travels; they drive fast and badly! Traveling by bicycle around the city is a constant risk. Local authorities have found the beginnings of a solution to the problem, by creating as many bicycle paths as possible. There are incidentally two, which connect Busan to Seoul.
But that was nothing compared to the beginning of the wet season. I knew the start date but not its strength. I saw the Sun for all of 2 hours during my 5-day visit to Seoul. So it's best to avoid cycling around this region from the month of June.
Traveling across Korea wasn't my longest trip, it totaled some 600km, but it was one of the more demanding ones when it came to crossing the mountains that cover 70% of the country.
From Busan first heading towards Jeju Island for about a week. Then returning to Busan towards Seoul via the centre of the country. All in 4 weeks.
Just as I did in Japan, I used an offline application for iPhone called MapsWithMe (a collection of detailed maps that can be downloaded for free). Except that in Korea, these maps are not as detailed as they were for Japan. Even with Google Maps, you will be presented with very poor content, and the distance calculation tool is absent as well. There is a much more detailed map available on the net, but it's in Korean!
On this trip I mainly relied on a website by Dutch resident, who gave details of his trip with maps and some tips Bicycling in Korea. I would strongly recommend for you to browse through his website before you hit the road.
Busan is an extraordinary city! As much for its culture, its cuisine, its landscapes and its people. I had the chance to spend 5 days there. Everything is easily accessible by metro and bus. Do not miss visiting the cultural village, and its landscape of colourful houses and urban art, not forgetting the historical monuments in the surrounding area.
Jeju Island is one of the 7 Wonders of the natural world. A visit is therefore essential!
I chose the ferry instead of the plane so I could meet people. But if you get seasickness, or don't have the time to spend nearly 12 hours on the ferry, I would recommend you go by plane. Busan Airlines offers flights that are cheaper than the ferry, with a 15kg baggage allowance. Unfortunately, these offers are in Korean. In English, the prices are more expensive, so ask a local. Transporting a bike is allowed, but you will have to pay the excess above the 15kg allowance, while bicycles are free on the ferry, and it also saves you a night in a hostel.
However don't forget your earplugs and eye mask to sleep. The light may be left on all night and the rumble of engines is loud.
The cheapest option is the tatami with blankets and pillows, though I was suspicious of the state they were in. Plan to bring something to cover yourself with, and also to cover the rectangular pillow. However, the atmosphere is magic, you will meet a lot of locals who will try to engage in conversation with you, to share a meal and give you advice.
Once there, it is relatively easy to travel by bicycle, the sites are well marked and very well equipped. The magic moment was climbing Mount Halla, on a clear day. Access is via two hiking tracks. I did the climb taking both paths, to enjoy the different landscapes of the surrounding area.
I decided on this trip I would make a small video, with the theme of self-criticism. So I asked Koreans and expatriates to speak to me about Korea. The question was simple; The thing you love the most about the country, and the thing you would want to change? The video editing is going to take some time, but I promise to finish it as soon as possible.
With Lisa, an English teacher at the University of Andong, I was invited to exchange views with her students around the theme of travel, which was also an opportunity for me to learn more about the country. We talked about lots of topics closely or distantly relating to Korea, such as military service, cosmetic surgery, the turbulent history with Japan, suicide rates, and many other subjects that allowed me to have a more accurate understanding of the country. I realised that the Koreans have an opinion, sometimes very distinct, about themselves in contrast to their neighbours.
Andong is the spiritual city of the country, and a culinary city too, don't miss its local cuisine, a pure delight!
A year earlier, in the Cook Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I met Ben with whom I spent a good time in the company of another resident of the hostel. This time we met again in Daegu, where he'd been teaching English for several months. A good evening, but pretty short. See you next time, perhaps in Brazil.
I get the impression on my trip, that I have seen more churches in Korea than in Belgium. Maybe because they are well developed. Indeed, every church has a huge cross on its roof which is lit up at night, with a bright red that can be spotted for miles around.
But South Korea remains a country that is extremely tolerant towards religious matters. The majority of the population identifies as atheist. However, Buddhism is understood to be the first religion. Christianity is the second religion of South Korea: 10.5 million South Koreans are Christians!
Finally arrived in Seoul. It's difficult to visit the city in 5 days given its size and the difficulties of getting around on a bike. Each neighbourhood has its own special features, its own atmosphere and types of people who live there.
I discovered a rather different Korea from the rest of the country, considerably focused on the appearances and material possessions. Cosmetic surgery is commonplace; parents even offer it as a gift to their children.
My first mission in Seoul was to make a video with Junno (a friend from Seoul who I met 6 months earlier in Myanmar) with theme of the first encounter between a traveller and a city. While first cycling through the city, then walking through the markets, ending up in Itaewon at nightfall.
Huge amounts of production and post-production, but the video is finally ready - Have a look below...
Korea shows the influence of it's two giant neighbours, China and Japan, but the country has above all its own identity, which doesn't resemble any other. Visiting Korea without having taken the time to read, even a bit, about its history is a serious mistake. A glance at its history will help you to understand and then to appreciate this magical and unique country.
28th of August 2013
19th of June 2013
A Panorama of Japan
Rather than to fly, drive, or rely solely on Japan's famed ultra-high-speed train network, I opted to test a newly purchased bicycle from Thailand. Cycle touring Japan is challenging yet one of the most amazing and rewarding ways of experiencing this serenely beautiful country. Despite a few mishaps--not least some unexpected rain --I wasn't to be disappointed. Japan isn't exactly a cycling paradise. Cities are crowded, roads are narrow, and bikes cannot be taken onto trains without a bag or onto buses. Yet for all that, road surfaces are billiard-table smooth with perfect road signs and gentle drivers.
During this trip I used my tent several times, some hostels and capsule hotels (love them!). But this trip wouldn’t have been fun without all the hosts on Couchsurfing. I would like to thank you guys again for your welcome and kindness. I hope to see you again!
The map shows the general route of my tour. From Heneda Airport near Tokyo, I rode first to Tokyo itself for 4 nights.
I officially started the bike tour from Tokyo on 22nd April 2013 and over 6 weeks, I cycled more than 1,700 km.
My route did a straight line on Honshu taking me along the sea to the southern-most point, then down to the south island of Kyushu. I then caught a ferry to Busan in Korea (18th of June) and I will continue towards Jeju island along the East China sea, before working my way back into the mountains to Seoul where my cycling trip will end.
I used the offline app for iPhone MapsWithMe, a series of detailed map that can be downloaded for free, it was a useful tool for determining a route through Japan. Major roads have road numbers and names in English. Symbols indicating train stations, hotels and supermarkets are located on the maps.
Asphalt sidewalks are extensive in cities and run for kilometres even outside the cities in the rural areas. Since many of the roads lack a good shoulder, these sidewalks offer a safe alternative for cyclists. The condition and width of these sidewalks vary greatly. This is one of the better ones. But I will advise to avoid them because I broke 3 spokes due to the bumps.
In some cities at very busy intersections, a pedestrian bridge is built over the street. A bicycle ramp is conveniently integrated into the steps to allow you to push your bike up and down the ramp.
A word about trucks – I have never experienced a country with so much truck traffic as in Japan. Just about everything is moved by trucks in this country. It seems at times, half the traffic was trucks. The good news is that the truck drivers were the most professional and courteous I have ever encountered anywhere.
When a truck comes up behind you, they slow down and move around you when they catch an opening. Thank goodness for that.
My tour included one major ferry ride, from Matsuyama to Hiroshima. Ferry rides are fun, comfortable and offer pretty decent food. The boat crews are very courteous and helpful. They direct you to where to park the bikes and tie them up for you. I was pleasantly surprised at this kind of service. In economy class, you sleep on tatami mats which is actually very comfortable. Just make sure you bring ear plugs.
Convenience stores, e.g. 7/11, Circle K, Sieco Mart, etc, are cheap good eats. You can pick up a tasty bento box, sushi, sandwiches, pastries, and all sorts of great snacks and drinks at low prices. I ate here several times a day. These convenience stores made our trip very affordable. However, I mainly stopped at the 7/11 because of the free Wi-Fi (see below).
Cycling between Fuji and Nagoya wasn’t an exciting ride! Besides the fact that I have been cycling along the coast, the road itself was quite boring and windy (hundreds of windmills!!).
Kyoto was my favourite city so far. I spent 5 nights visiting the Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and museums. I took hundreds of photos, but unfortunately everything is gone because of a broken hard drive. So, remember to backup!
One of the highlights of my Japans trip was attending the Sigur Ros concert in Kobe with my sweetie Clara (from Singapore) for her birthday. The show was stunning!
I had an amazing volunteer experience over 2 weeks in the countryside of Ako (Fukukawa) with an amazing family (half Japanese, half American). The “job” consisted of restoring a 150- year-old traditional Japanese house by drawing the architectural plans of the existing property (with a drawing software on my laptop), after which I’d then draw some proposed improvements that retains the character of this old, traditional farmhouse.
After my architectural degree in 2006, I attended 1 year of postgraduate studies in Actual Art in Belgium. Two of my classmates were from Japan. So meeting them after all this time was amazing! We had a great day visiting a Buddhist temple around Himeji and enjoying some good local food. Miss you guys!
Off the coast to Fukuyama is a small island called Naoshima. It's a beautiful island known for its contemporary art museums. The museums them selves are totally worth the visit. They have been designed by the famous Japanese architect Ando Tadao.
The Shimanami Kaido was the highlight of cycling paths on my way from Onomichi to Hiroshima. The Shimanami Kaido begins on Honshu in Onomichi City. It then leads across the six islands of Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima and Oshima, before terminating on Shikoku in Imabari City. The scenery is splendid, the bicycle route is well marked and maintained, and diverges from the expressway on the islands. The ramps leading up to the bridges were built at small inclines with cyclists in mind. The total distance is about 70 kilometres. I spent one night in a campsite with clean, green, flat surfaces, and many unique amenities to make camping a pleasant experience – if only it wasn’t rainy for 2 days!
It’s interesting to look down onto the pavements in Japan when you ride along with decorative manhole covers. Every city has their own unique designs reflecting some historical reference, landmark, or well-known product of the area.
The post offices are very convenient places to obtain cash unlike the majority of the other ATM’s. The ATM machines are located in the entry lobby and are accessible even on the weekends when the main office is closed.
Good bike shops with an extensive supply of parts are few and far between. Not as common as you would think given the prevalence of bicycles. Most bikes are the cheap knock around city bikes and local shops usually carry a minimum inventory of parts geared toward these kinds of bikes.
Bike shops for high-end touring bikes are found only in the bigger cities and even these are hard to find. So it's advisable to carry vital parts with you and not rely on finding replacement parts on the road.
If you want to take your bike on the train, you must place it in a carry-on bag. Finding a place to park your bike on the train could also be a challenge. You can find these bags at any bike shop. Try to hop on the train from a really small train station; otherwise you will have to carry on the bike plus all your bags from the tollgate to the platform. They won’t let you dismantled your bike on the platform!
One of the basic equipment for a rider or a backpacker is a Swiss Army knife. I’d suggest not carrying one with you in Japan or you may end up in jail. I have been told that this rule has been put into practice since the 19th century to prohibit the Samurais from carrying onboard their swords!
Lastly, let’s talk about technology as well as Wi-Fi. If you think that in Japan you will receive service by the state-of-the-art robots and that you will be able to do everything just through your cell phone, you are absolutely off base! In Japan, you won’t be able to buy a SIM card. So you will have to, if you want to stay in touch, hire a cell phone. Free Wi-Fi is thoroughly unavailable in this country except in a 7/11 or Starbucks! And you should register for an account before heading there. Even if you pay more than US$40 per night in a hotel, you will not be able to access free or paid Wi-Fi. You would be given a LAN cable to plug into your laptop if you have a LAN hub, just like in the 90’s. So you’d have to end up buying an adapter (LAN to USB) from an electronics shop like Best Denki or Yamada Denki.
16th of April 2013
After 2 weeks spent in Vietnam, I went back to Bangkok just for 3 days to celebrate a day of Songkran with Clement, my French mate. Then it’s the flight to Tokyo!
The intention is to visit Japan for about 8 weeks before reaching Fukuoka in the south to catch the ferry to Korea.
I am planning to explore the country by bike! The journey will be around 2,000km, and it's going to be an interesting and challenging experience! Accommodation will be mostly either with Couchsurfing hosts or camping (I've brought along my tent and sleeping bag).
Right now, I’m warming up my ride visiting around Tokyo. On 22nd April, I will be heading south to Yokohama.
8th of August 2013
This is a summary of my day roaming around Seoul, created with the help of Junno, a local film director.
Moving from place to place in the city, we started at the quiet riverbank, then moved into Gangnam, Yeongdeungpo, Mapo, Hapjeong, Myeong-dong, the Namdaemun market, Hyundai, and then ended the day clubbing in Itaewon.
The video is also a narration of my journey on a bike around Korea, from the quietness and safety in the country to the noisy, crazy and even dangerous traffic in the city. If you ever decide to cycle in Seoul or Busan, stick to the cycling paths for an enjoyable journey.
Feel free to comment and share. Also available on HD and surround sound on your home theater system!!
10th of November 2013
Back to Vietnam!!! This time is for work!
I am building a set for a Vietnamese/ US/ French movie since October...
My contract runs until the end of December... so if you're around let me know!
16th of January 2014
Passport full of stamp, time to swap it.
Unfortunately, I am in Taiwan only for 10 days. I'd like come back again and stay longer so I like the country and its people.
In Hualien, I will volonteer for a week designing an ecofriendly hostel with some locals and traveler.
8th of January 2014
I know that 1 week is rediculous to visit the Philippines. However, it's enogh time to hang out with my friend Pierre that I haven't seen for almost 3 years.
He got a daughter and he is leaving soon to Belgium for holiday, so it's now or really later.
Heading to the island of Palawan then...