Searching for the Seoul
From time to time I’ve found myself in conversations with people where I have this business idea and later think “Darn, I wish I was some sort of entrepreneur who could just make this idea legit.” Although I have dismissed many of these notions before, my latest idea has come from one of my favorite pastimes and was too difficult to ignore.
I have been blogging on The Soul of Seoul for almost five years now and have included everything from culture (Korean family values and lifestyles), history and of course traveling around this beautiful country. As new people come to Korea – and subsequently into my life -, I realized that one of my side passions has been showing them around and not just pointing out the beautiful facades of temples and palaces, but actually showing them places that I, myself, didn’t even find until a year or so after I came to live in Seoul. Wanting to provide a unique bridge between the western world that I came from and the Korean world that I married into, I’ve tried to share what I’ve learned with others; not so much in an “in your face” kind of way, but a more “this is how I’ve managed to stay here for eight years and I’m still going” way.
About eighteen months ago, a new friend put forward an idea for us to team up and start The Soul of Seoul Tours. This was a great opportunity to take a passion that I had and offer it to tourists and newbies and anyone else that was interested in a budget friendly, easy access way that not many other tour groups in Korea were doing. After scoffing at my friend, (who was more of the entrepreneur while I am more of the creative type) I realized she was right. Why not?
Vanessa Easton and I decided to put our heads together and see how real this could become. While we weren’t quite sure where to start or how to become a business, we decided to tell people, friends, family and anyone that would listen, about our idea. Just putting these notions into words and telling people about it made our ideas all the more real and before we had even made a website, a friend hooked us up with our first gig. This exciting assignment was to take new study abroad students around downtown to eat at a traditional market and to walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream while introducing them to some of the Korean quirks they were bound to come upon during their stay.
While we were thrust into that tour a bit before we were really ready to launch ourselves, it was a great learning experience and the students gave back some great reviews. It gave us the confidence to spend the next few months building tours we could be proud of, including a set of walks through traditional markets downtown and eating some adventuresome (and not so adventuresome) dishes. The choice is ultimately up to the visitor although some of our walks include exploring the intricate alleys of Bukchon and taking people to our favorite (very) small tea houses and museums that they would probably not find themselves. Other popular routes have led us to lead people on hikes along the Seoul Fortress Wall or dining at restaurants where we help out with the ordering – perhaps a daunting task for anybody new to the peninsula. While Korea can be pretty “user friendly” in some ways, there are certainly aspects of the country that aren’t so easy to understand for newcomers or tourists – and that’s where we like to jump in and help. When people have just a few days to enjoy this city, it’s essential to give advice about good eats, good sights and the places worth visiting.
Another goal for each tour is to provide ample information along the routes on other locations nearby so that guests will want to go back after the tour and continue exploring the area on their own. For example, en route downtown, we point out the Dongdaemun alleys for shopping ventures and Heunginjimun Gate for an impromptu hike along the Seoul Fortress Wall. The Soul of Seoul Tours wants to promote constant adventure, education and cultural acceptance through such experiences.
While the ideas and the logo almost threw itself together, setting up a business in Korea wasn’t so easy. Places like the Yeouido Business Center provide useful information, but if you don’t have any assets or a large sum of cash on hand, there are many roadblocks to get through. However, it is by no means impossible. We started our tours with friends and friends of friends, and this past year, have included touring with people that have read the blog or found our tour site on search engines – and that was a thrill. A study abroad counsellor even commented how students liked that they “were introduced to new parts of the city, were taught a little history and were given ideas on how to enjoy the areas on their own.” To see our ideas realized has been amazing.
The Soul of Seoul Tours currently offers seven different tours in Seoul and has recently started night options; taking people out to eat at restaurant favorites and teaching visitors some of the Korean cultural norms around the table during a meal. The tours cater to families and students and we will hopefully team up with other fellow expats soon to provide some fun hands-on events where visitors can make and learn about traditional crafts and have further adventures.
So far, visitors from the US, Europe and Australia have joined us and been introduced to Korean cuisine, history and traditions. One of the most memorable tours was with a recent family from Australia. The Soul of Seoul took them around for three days which was the first time the tour had engaged with the same group for multiple days. A mom, a dad, a teenage daughter and a 76-year-old grandmother made for some great adventures which culminated in a hike along the Seoul Fortress Wall. Making allowances to accommodate such a broad age group meant the tour wasn’t about watching the clock. If a solo traveler, family or student can walk away happy with their experience and feels as though they have learned something, then the job has been well done.
After almost nine years in Korea, I can say that this is a great place to take those ideas that are bouncing around in my head and make them real. The opportunities are almost endless and there are so many people that are willing and wanting to help. It’s time to grab your own opportunity.
More info: The Soul of Seoul Tours are available Monday through Friday year-round by reservation only. Please contact us if you have any tour ideas or would like to work with us.
Cost: KRW 40,000 – KRW 80,000 for two-three hour tours. Reservations can be made through email.
Blog Website: www.thesoulofseoul.net