How to get around in Korea

Directions in a foreign country can be downright frustrating to say the least. That is until you understand how things are organized. In North America, everything is done by streets and addresses. If I say 123 Main St E, it is simple for those from North America to find Main St and then find 123.

In Korea things are not like that. In order to mail something here, you start in ‘reverse’ order if you will. To quote Wikipedia:

A typical building in South Korea is described by the administrative divisions in which it lies. If the address is written in Korean, the largest division will be written first, followed by the smaller divisions, and finally the building and the recipient. If the recipient is in a multi-unit building, the floor and apartment or suite number may follow.

It’s a logical breakdown from largest to smallest and makes a lot of sense.

Here is it in a table format:

Korean example Format Revised Romanization Translation
135-283 서울특별시
용산구 서초2동 1308-25
하나 아파트 9층 912호
박민호 선생님
Postal code, (special) city
Ward, neighborhood, beonji-ho
Building name, floor, room number
Name of recipient
135-283 Seoul Teukbyeolsi
Yongsan-gu Seocho I-dong 1308-25
Hana Apateu gu-cheung gubaeksibi-ho
Bak Minho Seonsaeng-nim
135-283 Seoul Special City
Yongsan Ward, Seocho Neighborhood #2, 1308-25
Hana Apartments, 9th floor, Apt. 912
Mr. Minho Park

Since addressing looks so confusing, it is very easy to just say “I’m lost” without looking any further. Fortunately I don’t give up easy Smile

Even after you have the address, there is the problem of getting there. That means you need damn good directions. Because you simply can’t just find a street and walk to the address when you are dealing with a ‘block addressing’ format, you absolutely rely on addressing being given to you by the people living/working in the area you are going to. In plain words, if you get into a taxi you ask the driver to take you to ‘the McDonalds in Westdale’. As there is only one McDonalds in Westdale, the driver knows exactly where to take you. This doesn’t work so well for brand new places.

Let me explain. Each building in Korea has a name assigned to it(or group of buildings) and a number for the block it is on. Our building is “Ji Young Village”.  Currently on Google Maps the lot shows a vacant spot as our building is less than a year old. So when I got here and asked him exactly that, he looked confused. When he saw the name of the school on the paper I had, he knew where to go exactly(even if he did purposed go at a rather leisurely pace…..native people will generally take advantage of non-natives as they somehow assume you are stupid. I saw this and mentally chuckled to myself. I still gave him a tip just to make his day and give him another story to tell his friends). It is always a good idea to have a local friend write out your address in Korean, makes like much easier Smile

Block Addressing map
Block Addressing map

Now, to use the subway system is yet another skill you need to master. Again, you need more information than where you start and where you begin, at least until you get the hang of things. So here is my near-foolproof method of using the Seoul Metro Subway.

For each destination you will need the following:

  • What line number you are on
  • What line number your end stop is on
  • What is the last station is in the direction you are going
  • What is the next stop in your direction

That seems like a lot of info but it really makes it easy to get around and vital to your ‘sense of direction’ when here. So here is a simple table layout that would be of great value if you are new and need absolute guidance:

Click to see simple sheet

For example, we wanted to go to Yongsan Electronics Market to get some more memory for my Netbook and see what else is there. We started at Uijeongbu Station. Here is what our table would look like.

Click to see our simple one-stop table

That is a very straight forward get on/get off. It gets to be a lot of fun when you switch lines but as long as you keep it simple as above, you’ll get around just fine.

So lets take a look at our travels last Saturday. We hit 4 places around Seoul so hold onto your hats!

Click here to see spreadsheet

As you can see, if you want an ultimate control and near full-proof method for getting around, it takes a wee bit of planning. Of course, once you are used to the area, this tool is no longer needed. Still, there are people who will rely on something like this for their entire lives.

Also, looking at that some may be thinking that it cost us a fortune on fares. Far from it. I think we spent a grand total of around $5 or $7 for the day.

What I have learned in one week in Korea


Living in another country will certainly open your eyes and spirit to different ways of thinking and believing. The majority of people live in a bubble of their own realities and simply refuse to look beyond that bubble for fear it might not be the same. Well of course it’s not, otherwise we’d all be in the same bubble.

bubblesGoing with the bubble analogy, there are various levels of bubbles. There is the world bubble, the country bubble, the regional bubble, the city bubble and then the personal bubble. Have you ever watched a soapy/bubbly water mixture? You’ve seen all the bubbles there, they get along just fine. When one bubble bursts, it is usually and calmly absorbed to make the next bubble bigger. That is what I see happening to our world. The problem is that so many people are afraid of becoming the next big bubble that it paralyzes them. They fear what they don’t know. If I were to meet an alien from another planet and he asks me to summarize human reactions, that’s the sentence I would use. “Humans fear what they don’t know.”

There are tons of friends who are surprised and maybe even a bit jealous, of the fact that I simply up and moved to another country. Many could not comprehend such a concept. Yet there it is, right in front of them. Someone they know just popped and joined a bigger bubble. It doesn’t make me any better or any less than they are, it is simply a shift in perspective in the world.

Getting back to Korea specifically, there are many things here that would confuse a lot of people from the West. Maybe so to the point of lashing out because they simply cannot understand the reasoning. I’ll admit, I have tons still to learn but it will be fun.

Let’s talk about the people in general. I have found that the Korean people in the service sectors (specifically retail and restaurants) are seriously polite. Even when they are telling you that you’re wrong, they are polite. A simple smile, a benign gesture and you feel like you can’t disobey because they seem to earnest and polite. It’s like saying no to a kiss from Grandma.

Respect. The Korean people have a huge amount of respect for ‘older’ people. On the subway it is a common occurrence to see someone get out of their seat to allow an ‘older’ person to have it. Being here you cannot help but appreciate such ideals. I find myself almost wanting to have such a chance. I did once and the gentleman, who by no means was incapable of standing for long periods of time, politely refused. It was after some insistence that he took the seat with gratitude and I felt good that I was able to show respect for not only an elder but also a Korean. The society even goes so far as to have seat reserved for older generations. So if you are in a subway in Korea, don’t sit on the red-coloured seats or I hear you will actually get yelled at or at least a stern Korean lecture. I suspect that regardless of your nationality, you’ll understand that you are not supposed to sit in those seats.

Transportation. It is simply amazing how well things work here. Their public transportation could teach North America a whole new perspective. They have so many buses. For example, the bus stop by our place has 6 different busses that stop there. I think the longest wait time is something like 6 minutes for any given bus. The buses are shorter than the ones back home and every single one of them is either diesel or Natural Gas, as well as being standard transmissions.

Snapshot_20101119Everyone uses a bus card. It’s a kind of pre-pay card with an RFID chip in it. You simply hold the card (or wallet if it`s in it) to a scanner, it beeps, shows you your balance, and you take a seat. When you leave, you must leave by the rear entrance (99% of the time, I think rush hours is the only exception) and you scan the car again. Costs are based on distance travelled and your balance is shown once again. This system works pretty damn well it seems. Pay-for-use makes a lot of sense. The fare itself isn’t expensive either. I went from our town (Uijeongbu) into downtown Seoul and back for a whopping $2.00. That is about 2hrs+ travelling time round trip between taking a bus to the subway station, the subway to downtown and the reverse back.

Automotive. There seems to be this odd `pecking order` when it comes to traffic. By that I mean who actually follows the exact rules of the road. Taxis can turn from any lane through any colour of light. That confused me for the longest time but it seems that if you are a paying customer, you get right of way regardless. Buses are next. For the most part they obey the majority of lights but the `yellow`is in no way a deterrent to making a turn to get to the next stop. Mopeds are this kind of snaky little transportation that goes anywhere and everywhere. They generally don`t try to take on big traffic but in smaller roads they will slip between cars and use sidewalks to turn if it suits them. That would be because the vast majority of them are deliveries of some sort, typically food. Cars would be next. They generally respect all signs and lights. Note I said generally. Signals tend to be optional and parking is `where ever it can fit`. Pedestrians seems to be at the bottom of this totem pole as I almost got run over from behind me while on a sidewalk! It was by this stupid little Daewoo Damus.


This thing is smaller than a VW Microbus, if you can believe it. It`s can fit almost anywhere and the one that almost ran me over was delivering newspapers/flyers in these holders on street posts. I was waiting to cross the street when I heard this noise behind me and I saw this van come up right where I was standing! He apologized, deposited the papers into the holder and continued off the sidewalk and onto the road.

Well, that is a brief summary for now. There is still lots to write about but I’ll save that for another post Smile