Teddy Bear Museum: A walk through history with the cute and the cuddly

TEDDIES IN HANBOKS. The Teddy Bear Museum depicts Korean history through cute and cuddly bears. (photo by Tyrone Chui)

When I originally booked my family’s trip to South Korea, I wanted to visit as many settings to Korean dramas as I could and one of them was the Teddy Bear Museum featured in one of my favorite Kdramas, Princess Hours. However, I knew that the Teddy Bear Museum was situated in Jeju and we only had time to look around Seoul so I was a bit defeated.

ELECTRONIC MAGNIFIER? Check out short presentations of specific areas in the map through this LCD. (Angie Chui)

Luckily, I didn’t give up and researched a bit more, only to find out that there is a branch right in the middle of the city at the N Seoul Tower. And the great part is, the area is also covered by the Seoul City Bus Tour, which we used to travel the city’s various tourist spots in two of our four-day trip.

LIFE AT THE PALACE. Palace workers go about their usual functions like a well oiled machine. (Tyrone Chui)

Getting there: Commuting is a bit tedious as the area is uphill since the tower offers an overlooking view of the city and is especially magnificent at night. If one would remember, the Observatory at the top is where some of the more romantic scenes in My Girl and several other Koreanovelas took place. By using the subway (Line 3 or 4), one can get off the Chungmuro station, get out through exit No. 2 and take the Namsan Shuttle Bus in front of Daehan  Cinema. Afterwhich, one should take the subway again and get off at Dongguk University Station, get off at Exit 6 and take the Namsan Shuttle Bus. By Bus, one can tale the Namsan Shuttle Bus #2 or 3 which stops at the N Seoul Tower. One can also take a cable car at Myeongdong in front of the Pacific Hotel to get to the cable car station.

TIBS. Teddies in Black form a protective circle around the President's official vehicle in front of the Cheongwadee, or the Blue House. (Tyrone Chui)

What’s in store: I was fully expecting the exhibit to be filled with teddy bears dressed in period costumes and depicting the evolution of Korean history and up to this point, I was correct. But more than cute teddies in hanboks, I was completely fascinated by the role of bears, in Korean mythology. From the onset of the exhibit, tablets posted against the wall explain that Koreans believe that a bear and a tiger once asked a great god to make them human. The god asks them to wait for 21 days (if I remember correctly) at the mountain cave before their request is granted. The tiger gives up after several days but the bear perseveres and in the end, becomes human. Korean mythology illustrates that the bear is the ancestor of the first Koreans and is the source of their indomitable spirit, a character which has been passed on from the early dynasties until today.

What surprised me the most was that the exhibit was not just composed of mere dioramas of bears in period costumes but rather scenes depicting the way of life during the Joseon dynasty with robotics that spruce up the well detailed presentations. The presentations are activated by sensors which saves energy since the dioramas remain still until such time a person steps in front of the discreet sensor to check it out. There is also a giant map on the wall which has a control button to choose which area one wishes to learn about. Once the button is pushed, a flat screen television moves to the area like a magnifier and plays a short presentation about the area in question.

HAPPINESS. Myself posing for a photo with one of the giant teddies in the exhibit. (Tyrone Chui)

There are also giant bears that guests could pose with, some wearing traditional clothing (complete with beards) and some garbed in more modern outfits. The exhibit is divided into two parts — the first part being The Past where palace traditions and ancestral rites are depicted, as well as the old villages and way of life in the small towns. The second part is The Present where visitors will get a kick out of seeing modern Korean scenes like Myeondeong, City Hall, Daehangno, and even the official residence of the President is illustrated. The contrast between the old and the new is truly a sight to behold. Whereas, the vibe in the past was emphasized by traditional folk music in the background, the present is backed up by a more vibrant atmosphere with break dancing teddies and street performers dressed in K-pop fashion.

PRINCESS HOURS MEMORABILIA. Props used in the filming of the drama are showcased at the museum. (Angie Chui)

Towards the end of the exhibit, the teddy bears used in the Kdrama Princess Hours are enclosed in glass cases as well as memorabilia used by the cast in the making of the drama. Popular and historical bears are also on display. yes, including Mr. Bean’s teddy. For an extra W3,000 won, one can print out a picture of oneself in a 3D teddy bear palace backdrop a la neoprint and a souvenir shop rounds up the show. The teddies for sale are quite reasonably priced considering. The ones in special costumes cost roughly W25,000-W40,000 while the simpler bears that only bear a ribbon of The Teddy Bear Museum range from W12,000 and above depending on the size and the style. For more tips in travelling to Seoul, this earlier entry of mine¬†might be of help. By the way, entrance to the Teddy Bear Museum is W8,000. For the package which includes the observatory, I think its W12,000-W14,000. The facility also offers packages for groups with reduced rates so for inquiries, check out their website: www.teddybearmuseum.com.

Tips for the Seoul traveller

A CITY OF PALACES. Seoul is home to five palaces situated in various parts of the city both as a testament to the Koreans' love for their rich history and to emphasize how far the Koreans have gone in terms of progress. (photo courtesy of Tyrone Chui)

I’ve always been a fan of Korean dramas. I just can’t get enough of them — romcoms, dramas, historical series…. you name it, I’ve probably spent a week or two watching them way into the wee hours of the morning. When an opportunity presented itself (in the form of an airline seat sale), I wasn’t one to slack around and immediately booked a trip with my mom, my bro and his girlfriend to experience the capital of the fascinating country that is South Korea — Seoul.

1. Pack smart. Research on the weather before embarking on your trip. We visited in January, which happens to be the coldest (according to a website) month of the year in Korea so we were carrying luggage filled with sweaters, shirts, thermal underwear and thick thick jackets. Our luggages weighed roughly 10 kilos each even before we arrived at our destination. I usually travel with just a backpack but the weather report got me nervous. Pack smart. You don’t need to bring four or five different snow jackets for a four day visit, or sweaters for that matter. Just make sure you have the essentials (thick jacket, scarf, boots, sweater) and you’ll be all set. This way, you can save on space for whatever stuff or souvenir you may wish to purchase as a memory of your trip. During the winter, it may be a good idea to bring lip balm and lotion to protect your skin from drying up.

2. Make your itinerary flexible. Seoul is a city that has a lot to offer. It is a mix of both the traditional and the modern and you have to make sure that you get the full experience. Identify your priorities (shopping, palace hopping, amusement) way before you hit the streets. And if your original plans don’t work out, make sure you have a Plan B to fall back to maximize the time of your visit.

3. Take the Airport Railroad. From Incheon Airport, it is still a couple of hours away from the heart of the city so it is advisable to take the Airport Railroad to save on time and money. The trip to Seoul costs roughly W3,600 while the Airport Express costs a little over W13,000. The trip on the subway is approximately 43-45 minutes for the regular train. Get off the Seoul station and transfer to any of the 9 lines of the Seoul Metropolitan Subway to get to your hotel or take a cab if it is already near the station.

4. Pick a hotel that is near the subway. We stayed at a small bed and breakfast called Hotel Biz Jongro Insadong and it is very near the subway (Jongno sam (3) ga Exit 5) which we used as a landmark. I highly recommend this place because it is clean, reasonably priced and has complete amenities. The rooms are not very big but spacious enough to move around. They also offer free breakfast of which I am a big fan (porridge, toast and a variety of drinks) from 7 am-11 am and internet (each room has its own computer) as a free service. Laundry services are also accommodated. The best of all, it is near the shopping district of Insadong where there is a wealth of choices for things to buy from street food to souvenirs to clothing and beauty products. Check out this link to view the hotel.

SEOUL CITY TOUR BUS. First stop at Gwanghamun Gate near Duty Free. (Tyrone Chui)

5. Take the Seoul City Tour Bus. The Korean Tourist Information Center has come up with this ingenius idea to guide tourists to the best sites the city has to offer. Starting at 9 am everyday, the Seoul City Tour Bus ferries visitors and locals to 27 tourist spots (Downtown City Tour), 11 spots for the Palace Cheongggye Tour, and 10 stops for the Night Tour. For the minimum fare of W10,000 per person, a tourist can get off at any stop he desires and wait for the next bus to come and take him to the next destination on the map. Bus intervals are at 30 minutes. Tourists can use the ticket for the whole day for as much as they want, until 7 pm when the bus service stops. The double decker bus charges W12,000 and the Night Tour costs W5,000. The night tour makes only one trip and does not return after 30 minutes like the other buses. For more information, check out this link. It is very advisable to use this service especially for sites that are hard to get to by commute like the N Seoul Tower, which boasts of the Observatory that shows an overlooking view of the city, and the Teddy Bear Museum.

PROS: Taking the bus will get you to many tourist spots without the hassle of commuting to each area, plus its very cheap compared to guided tours and you can look around the spots at your own pkace.

CONS: If you miss the bus, you have to wait for the next one for at least 30 minutes. Waiting around in the cold is not such a fun activity. You also have to go through the entire route that the bus takes. No shortcuts.

6. Take time to learn a bit of the language. If you’re already a fan of K-dramas as I am, you may have already picked up some key phrases like Anyeong Haseyo (Hello, good morning, good afternoon), Kamsa hamnida, gowapsumnida (thank you), olma hashimnika (how much), ye (yes), Aniyo (no), juseyo or chebal (please), unni (big sister), Ajumma (aunt), atachi (mister). The locals are not very great at English although they really try to communicate and they will appreciate your extra effort to learn their language. I was able to break out one of my secret weapons “chakkaman” which means wait, while asking for the bus to stop. Biane, means sorry. I’m stopping here for now, but I’ll be posting more of my adventures in Seoul in the following days so watch out for that.