ExpatLIFE: Surviving Yellow Dust Season in Seoul

There's usually skyscrapers and mountains in this view of Seoul. Really.

There's usually skyscrapers and mountains in this view of Seoul. Really.

Though it doesn't snow much in Seoul, the wind and temperatures well below freezing can make for a brutal winter (especially if you have two huskies who think this is THE BEST time to go for long walks) and the arrival of temperatures even just in the 40s (Fahrenheit) can be cause for excitement. Unfortunately, along with the the rising temperatures and first blooms of cherry blossoms, arrives my nemesis, yellow dust.

Seoul seems to fly relatively under the radar compared to large Chinese cities when it comes to international reporting about pollution, maybe because there's only a two month period where the pollution is consistently bad, but truth be told, even outside of yellow dust season the air quality here is not great. I generally consider an AQI of 75-100 to be good/pretty normal. (Want to know what the AQI is in New York as I write this? 32.) Recently my facebook feed has been awash with posts in various expat groups with newcomers asking if anyone else had been sick for three months straight or if this pollution was normal and seasoned expats saying this year was affecting them especially hard and asking for advice. I'm no expert but I am an asthmatic who had bronchitis three times in my first nine months in Seoul and I don't really have a lot of choice about spending time outside because of our super active dogs so I've spent a fair amount of time figuring out what works best to keep me healthy.

1. What even is yellow dust?

Yellow dust/Asian dust/Hwangsa is fine particle pollution picked up from dust storms in Northern China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan that have happened in Spring for literally thousands of years. Storms have gotten worse in recent years because of deforestation and desertification in the originating countries and because now, along with the fine sand, comes all of China's lovely industrial pollutants. South Korea isn't just an innocent bystander though, it's heavy reliance on coal energy (and plans to expand its number of coal power plants) means that as much as the government wants to pass the buck, a lot of the small particulate pollution actually originates here.

Last year we had a relatively mild season overall but also two of the worst days in years. PM 2.5 levels reached over 1,000 in my neighborhood. This is what it's like today.

Last year we had a relatively mild season overall but also two of the worst days in years. PM 2.5 levels reached over 1,000 in my neighborhood. This is what it's like today.

2.  How do I monitor the pollution levels?

You have a couple of options, aqicn.org is my favorite because you can use it world wide (even in China!) and in Seoul it has updates per neighborhood and an easy to look at map. Sometimes the air quality is good in my neighborhood but wherever I'm going to run errands or meet people, the air is terrible. Sometimes the opposite is true and it's a good opportunity to get out of my hood. I also have this global air quality app, but sometimes it just completely stops working and decided I'm in China. It's been working pretty well lately and you can have it send you push notifications when the air is unhealthy. There's also a yellowdust bot on twitter that reports on overall AQI in Seoul, but since it isn't by neighborhood, right now it's tweeting a significantly lower level than what's happening just outside my window.

3. Great, but, when is it actually bad for me to be outside?

This depends on what country's government agency you ask and your personal health. In Japan, people are advised to stay inside if the PM2.5 reaches over 70. In the US over 100 is unhealthy for at risk groups (children, elderly, asthmatics, etc), over 150 is considered unhealthy for everyone, over 200 very unhealthy and 300-500 is considered hazardous. There isn't even a ranking for over 500. In Korea, the government issues an advisory for at risk groups if the AQI is over 400 and for everyone if it's over 800! I know people who aren't bothered by the air at all until the pollution is actually visible at street level and I know people (like me) who are bothered before it even reaches 150. For me, I start to feel my lungs working harder and my sinuses getting irritated when the AQI hits around 130, that doesn't mean I stop going outside, it just means I take precautions.

Me before leaving for eMart yesterday. Shredder mask 4EVA.

Me before leaving for eMart yesterday. Shredder mask 4EVA.

4. I've definitely been feeling the air quality but I need to go outside to walk my dogs/run errands/travel between classrooms/exist as a human being, what do I do?

A few different things:

  • Mask up I went through a number of different masks before I found one that was both comfortable and actually works. Sadly, cute cloth ones do nothing even though they're available everywhere. The more standard surgical masks you see people wearing also don't create enough of a seal or have a good enough filter for fine particle pollution. You want a mask with a rating of N95 or KF94 (they essentially mean the same thing, one is just the US ranking system and one is the Korean) that you also are ok with wearing. After trying many different masks that didn't do enough, I finally bought a box of the 3M N95 masks at eMart that look like your serious construction worker masks, the only problem? I have a small face and head so the mask was basically in my eyes making it unwearable. This year I found an upgraded version of my favorite Kleenex brand mask that used to only come as KF80. The KF94 version has a metal pin to bend over your nose (with foam to create a better seal and to keep it comfortable), is a bit thicker and is comfortable enough that I only hate wearing it a little bit. I got some at eMart but yellow dust/hwangsa masks usually start showing up at every Olive Young, convenience store and pharmacy this time of year.
  • Shower when you get home A lot of people experience skin irritation during dust season, so it's recommended to keep as covered as possible BUT the weather is finally nice and you're probably wanting to feel some of that sun on your skin. Even if you do keep your arms and legs covered, your clothing might not keep all of the irritating fine sand out, showering when you get home helps get it off you immediately. I also find that a hot steamy shower helps with sinus irritation.
  • Neti pot as much as you can stand There is no doubt that pouring salt water through your nose is disgusting and uncomfortable BUT (tmi moment) when the air quality gets REALLY BAD, sometimes my snot is actually black. As uncomfortable as it can be in the moment, regularly using my neti pot really does help. (But I'm still terrible at remembering to do this one)
  • Keep your windows closed and buy an air purifier If you're like me, the moment it gets warm, you want to open up everything and get some air circulation. Don't, or at least make sure you do it during the part of the day where the AQI is supposed to be lowest. Try to keep your home environment as irritant free as possible so your lungs are getting a break when you're inside. We have this humidifier/ air purifier combo (it was only around $100 at Costco last year despite the much higher price on Amazon) that we keep in our bedroom that definitely helps me wake up with easier lungs and less irritated sinuses. The upside is that it monitors the humidity level on it's own and adjusts accordingly and it has a nighttime mode where the lights dim and it's quieter. The downside is that it needs the water replaced pretty much daily and needs to be cleaned somewhat regularly or it gets mold. I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer a regular air purifier instead.
  • Go to the doctor/get an inhaler If you've had asthma at any point in your life, even if it's been under control, I definitely recommend going to a doctor and making sure you've got current prescriptions for at least albuterol. If you've never had asthma before but are getting out of breath easily or wheezing, I also definitely recommend going to the doctor and getting an inhaler or other treatment now when it's not that bad before it turns into full blown bronchitis. Even after I've officially recovered from bronchitis, I find my lungs usually feel weaker for about another month, which, obviously, makes me more prone to bronchitis, hence my getting it over and over when I first got here. Health care in Korea is incredibly affordable compared to the US even if you don't have insurance, so get yourself to an international clinic! (I go to the one at SCH in Hannam)
  • Take a break from Seoul If it's possible to take a vacation, do it! Even just hopping on a cheap Peach flight and taking a long weekend in Kyoto, it can help give your lungs a break. Just check to make sure you're going somewhere the air is cleaner since you're likely to find dust in a lot of Asia this time of year. (Last year we found ourselves in Bangkok at the tail end of one of my bouts of bronchitis, obviously that didn't help at all, but a few days on the beach in Southern Thailand and I was feeling immensely better.)

5. My dogs can't wear a mask or use a neti pot, how do I keep them healthy?

This one is SO HARD. Obviously if you have smaller, lower energy dogs, you can switch to using pee pads and keeping them indoors like you might do already when it's really cold. With larger high energy dogs like jindo mixes and huskies, this just isn't possible. I look at the forecast and try to take them for walks when the air is supposed to be the best for the day. Lately any day it's under 130, I try to take them for a long hike to keep them worn out for a couple of days. If it's over 150, my husband takes them on a walk at night instead of their usual run. When I get home I use baby wipes to wipe down their paws and around their snouts to try to help keep irritants out of their eyes and nose. If it gets over 200, we try to stick to outside time only for potty breaks and do A LOT of indoor stimulation with kongs, antlers, puzzle toys and training time (before we got a second dog, this kibble ball was a lifesaver but it starts fights with two dogs). Unfortunately, there's no way to explain to a dog why they're stuck indoors or not allowed to run while they're outside but you don't want them to get bronchitis either because that's going to be even more miserable for everyone.

That's everything I've got. Do you have tips or tricks for staying healthy during dust season? Please share! Even trying to do all these things regularly, I still don't always feel that great and I'd love to learn more.

 

Tokyo Takeover: Bird Land

Bird Land is a Michelin starred yakitori joint that only serves chicken skewers.

Yes, you read that correctly.

It seems impossible that eight courses of chicken could be delicious and not intensely boring but I'm not one to argue (much) with the Guide Michelin and I was looking for a tasting menu that wouldn't be too seafood heavy which can be pretty tricky in Japan. Lara looked at me a bit incredulously when I told her I had made reservations somewhere focused entirely on chicken but even without seafood there were still parts of the menu to push her (and me) slightly out of the comfort zones.

Chicken Skewer Birdland, Tokyo, Japan

I'll admit, even though I like the idea of nose to tail dining, our first course was a little hard. Gizzard in gelee and skin that was more chewy than crispy wasn't quite what I was immediately prepared for. Lara had agreed to trying liver courses before the meal started but after the server noticed she hadn't finished her gizzard, he checked in again and she changed her mind. I imagine this happens often with foreigners less accustomed to eating innards than is the norm in this part of the world.

The next course for me was an extremely buttery small block of chicken liver pate and toast. I love chicken liver mousse and this was probably one of the richest I've ever tasted without being overwhelming, I even convinced Lara to eat some and while I still haven't quite won her over to pate, even she had to admit it was exceptionally creamy.

Our first skewer came with, still a bit pink in the middle with dabs of a basil heavy herb mix. As simple as it seemed, the flavors were complex and the chicken was excellent. Later in the evening we saw an American couple across the kitchen sending back their skewers because they weren't cooked enough. Just eat them slightly pink in the middle, it's delicious and I think if a Michelin starred restaurant were giving people salmonella, we'd hear about it.

Chicken Skewer with Fresh Wasabi. Birdland, Tokyo, Japan

"Are they making real wasabi?!" Lara asked me, watching the cooks grate and pinch.

"It looks like it"

Our skewer is once again deceptively simple in appearance.

"I thought I didn't like wasabi but it turns out I don't like American dyed horseradish, this is delicious!"

I nod my head in agreement. Fresh wasabi on everything please.

At the beginning of the evening, I certainly could not have predicted that possibly my favorite course would be a silky smooth house made tofu drizzled with a grassy olive oil and garnished with cracked black pepper and the world's smallest yet most flavorful tomato. I have no idea how so much flavor was packed into a tomato smaller than a penny but what initially seemed like a ludicrously small fruit for this play on caprese turned out to be just enough.

After this I get a whole skewer of livers and even though I love chicken liver mousse and the livers on this skewer are, like the mousse earlier, quite mild and buttery, by the time I'm finished I've reached my limit on liver for the evening.

For Lara, the liver courses are replaced with other chicken pieces you can order from the a la carte menu that aren't on the tasting menu. Some of them are bigger hits than others which is also true of our other skewers at this point in the meal. We have chicken oysters (a cut often abandoned with the spine), mushrooms, sansho sprinkled thighs and even cheese grilled right on the skewer that leaves us trying not to make a gigantic stretchy cheese covered mess as we bite it off. The chicken is always delicious and medium rare but some dishes have us reaching for the togarashi more than others (which maybe is the point). It seems like it will never end but eventually there's a break.

Before dessert our server asks if we'd like to order anything else and we briefly debate ordering another round of wasabi skewers but eight skewers and a few other courses later, we're actually pretty full. For desserts we order one each of the two puddings. Lara's flan is slightly overcooked but otherwise enjoyable. My rose and pistachio rice pudding is completely different than I expected, having a more western rice pudding or sweet porridge in mind. Instead it's completely smooth and firmer than the tofu we had had earlier. I assume it was made of rice starch and was almost like eating a mochi custard or a room temperature version of Turkish dondurma. It is fantastic.

There are of course plenty of cheaper places to get mountains of (much weirder) skewers in Tokyo but if you're looking for grilled meat somewhere that can be a little more accessible to foreigners than your typical smoke filled yakitori joint, I think Bird Land is a great option. The longer tasting menu costs 8,400JPY (approx US$75) and you will leave more full of chicken than you ever thought possible.

Bird Land Ginza is located at Japan, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chuo, Ginza, 4 Chome, 2−15 塚本 素 山 ビル B1F‎ (inside Ginza Station next to Sukiyabashi Jiro). You can find out more information and make reservations through their website.

Tokyo Takeover: Give Me All Your Beer and Bourbon

Look, it's no secret that I love whisk(e)y, craft beer and good pub food so yes, of course, I've got some recommendations for Tokyo. 

Ant'N Bee

This small basement bar tucked away in Roppongi doesn't seem like much until you're presented with the twenty tap beer list divided into lagers, weizens, hybrids, ales, black beers and "strong" all from Japanese breweries. Beers can be ordered in four sizes, so you don't have to commit to something you don't know you love, except for the strong beers which only come in small because, well, they're strong. The taps rotate but my favorite while we were there was the "Maitai King", a 12.7% Imperial Stout that wasn't messing around. My preference is for dark beers and I was very happy with the number of porters and stouts available when we went, not something I get to say often.

Along with a long beer list, they also have a pretty extensive and varied food menu. More people than I would've expected were ordering some of the Italian specialties but we played it safe and went with Japanese pub classics karaage (fried chicken) and house pickles. I'm not saying it doesn't exist but I've never had bad fried chicken in Japan and this was no exception, crispy on the outside and hot and steamy on the inside, these were the perfect bite size morsels to go with beer. The potatoes that come with are hand cut and also fried to a golden perfection. We had both the regular house pickles (daikon, lotus root and carrots) and the seasonal special (pickled leaks with balsamic) and they were both delicious. My one complaint is that theoretically this bar has "smoking" and "non-smoking" areas but it's so small it doesn't really matter. Unfortunately indoor smoking is just part of traveling in Japan.

Ant'N Bee is located at 5 Chome-1-5 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo, Japan (basement level) and is open 5:00pm-6:00am 365 days a year (yep). You can find out more on their facebook page or website.

Craftheads

Wait, if this bar is called Craftheads, why are those pictures of bourbon? Well, my friends, this place does happen to have a good number of taps but THIS is the bourbon selection:

I know, I'm sorry, it was dark and I took these pictures with my phone but trust me when I say this is three rows, three or four bottles deep of bourbon. Not scotch, not Japanese whisky, not Irish whisky, just beautiful beautiful American bourbons and ryes. For those not in the know, good bourbon is nearly impossible to find outside of the US, except for one liquor store in Bratislava (true story) and Japan. After all, Suntory is really Beam Suntory these days (along with Jim, this also means Maker's Mark, Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek) and Kirin owns my favorite underrated whiskey, Four Roses. Along with more types of Four Roses than I even knew existed they also had a full line up from Buffalo Trace Distillery (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blantons and of course, PAPPY) so basically every one of the three pours I had that evening was an agonizing decision but I left pretty happy and I can't wait to take Dan there on our next trip to Tokyo.

Here we had delicious perfectly fried onion rings with a spicy mayo and more house pickles. I will always order the house pickles and I have yet to ever regret that decision.

Crafteads is located at 1 Chome-13-10 Jinnan, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0041, Japan. They are open Tues-Fri 5PM-Midnight, Saturday 3PM-11PM and Sunday 3PM-10PM. You can find out more information on their website.

Looking for more mouthwatering food pics? Check out my new food only insta @runawaybunnyeats
 

Tokyo Takeover: I <3 Coutume

But, guys, like, I really <3 Coutume's Tokyo location.

I was already in love with Coutume with my first sip of coffee but then they brought the food. Our first morning there I had a salad piled high with avocado, feta and grapefruit. It came with a side quiche which I think is the opposite of what I thought I was getting. Shouldn't quiche come with a side of salad? The crust on the mushroom quiche was perfectly buttery and flakey and the egg custard silky smooth. Lara's croque monsieur oozing bechamel and stuffed with tender asparagus was fantastically rich and delicious. Half way through my quite large salad, the server came over with another dish. He put down a small glass and says "with set". I didn't remember there being anything other than quiche, salad and coffee with my set, but who am I to complain? The small glass contained a vanilla custard, crumb and rhubarb compote. Living in Seoul, this was the first time I had had rhubarb in nearly two years. It was used perfectly as the tart contrast to the rich custard.

Since it was near our airbnb, we ended up going to Coutume almost every day we were in Tokyo. One morning we ate breakfast across the street at Clinton St Baking Co but after finding the coffee lacking, picked up lattes to go. One morning we just had delightfully flakey pain au chocolat and chausson aux pommes. Our last full day I couldn't resist the croque monsieur Lara had had the first day and she had a big salad with slices of avocado and ham. I picked up a piece of rosemary lemon olive oil cake to eat for breakfast the next day before our early departure. I might have a serious Coutume addiction. Good thing there isn't one in Seoul?

(j/k please come to Seoul, Coutume and let me give you all my money thx)

Coutume is located at 〒107-0062, 5丁目-8-10 南青山, 港区 東京都 107-0062, Japan and is open 7:30-9:30 seven days a week. Breakfast sets cost between US$10-$16 and pour overs and espresso beverages cost between US$3-$5.

You can find more of my favorite places to get caffeinated in Tokyo here.

Looking for more mouthwatering food pics? Check out my new food only insta @runawaybunnyeats

Tokyo Takeover: Robot Restaurant (Only in Japan or Over Rated Tourist Trap?)

Depending on the reviews you read, the Robot Restaurant is either a restaurant that puts on a pretty good dinner show, a burlesque show with questionable bento boxes, ninety minutes of "only in Japan" flashing lights, sparkles and insanity or a complete waste of money and time.

Me? I'm team "only in Japan" insanity.

Is it over the top? Is it totally cheeseball? Is it borderline too expensive? Absolutely. But like all "tourist attractions" it's a good time if you let it be.

If you're looking for something traditional (please, lets not even talk about the myth of "authentic") than probably something with robot in the title already isn't for you. Spend your money on Kabuki instead. But if you're looking for taiko drummers wearing rainbow wigs and maybe some dinosaur fights, read on.

Yeah, I'm setting the scene with pictures of the bar bathroom because I want you to know exactly the kind of situation you're getting yourself into.

First off, if you've used google maps and ended up in front of a place that says "this is not robot restaurant" don't worry, you're doing good. Turn around and on the opposite side of the street you should see the box office where you can purchase tickets or show up with your confirmation email and get your tickets. Robot Restaurant is in the building google maps thinks it is, the entrance just happens to be around the corner.

Be prepared for immediate and overwhelming sensory overload. The staircases and hallways have brightly colored back lit butterfly wallpaper, the philosophy behind the bar decor seems to have been "GIVE ME ALL YOUR SHINY THINGS. NO I DON'T THINK YOU UNDERSTAND ALLLLLL YOUR SHINY THINGS" and even though arriving early to watch the live music pre-performance in the bar is strongly encouraged, there isn't actually enough seating for everyone to do that so you're gonna be crowded.

I recommend drinking 1 to 6 Sapporos beforehand.

Soon you will be ushered downstairs to find your assigned seat. This is also when bento boxes are handed out if you ordered one. Most of the reviews I've read of the bento boxes range from "not great" to "the worst thing ever" so we had a quick ramen dinner before we got there. Before the show starts you can line up to buy more beer and popcorn. I bought us extra beers so I wouldn't have to stand in the line again between acts. I have zero regrets about that decision.

Once the lights dim, important safety announcements are made. Flashing lights, moving robot parts, etc etc. Make a dodge. We also had to practice ducking in case some of the larger set pieces came near us while making their way down the narrow performance space. This proved to be particularly relevant to me and Lara since we had front row seats at the end of the row where pieces moved onto the set. A lot of dodge making.

The first act has floats with light up taiko drums, scantily clad fan and parasol dancers (though I would still say people that describe the show as burlesque are being generous) and an electric guitar player in an insane wig that makes it all feel a little Mad Max: Fury Road. There is theoretically some sort of plot to each act but I had no idea what it was and it didn't really matter.

At this point we have yet to see any robots but honestly, who cares?

The second act is the battle of the animatronic dinosaurs. Now not only do we have robots but we have dinosaur robots which is basically more than anyone could ever ask for. I think these dinosaurs are fighting the battle between a princess and an evil witch but I could be 100% wrong. The battle ends with a puff of smoke and good prevailing (I think?).

After the dinosaur battle is a bathroom and beer break. There are more men's bathrooms than women's bathrooms since most of the audience members are male. I barely made it back to my seat in time (you will have to stand to the side if you don't make it back in time) where I was given a sparkly glow stick with which to practice waving back and forth. It's still unclear to me when we were supposed to use the glow stick after that since there didn't seem to be any more synchronized waving but let's just go ahead and add it to the list of things that make this experience both bizarre and fantastic.

"Hey, that also doesn't look like robots?!"

You're correct, it's not robots. It's not even robotic floats. They're also not doing The Robot. It's b-boys doing some really cool dancing with either hand held lights or some sort of light up palms in their suits.

Next the announcer comes out and starts introducing each of the women performers who do a little dance before the grand finale which is where things really just devolve into chaotic insanity. There's men dressed as robots, there's a pony, there's some singers and drummers and a lot of dudes in creepy horse head and you know what? It's probably better if I just show you.

In the end, everyone circles around for high fives and waves and you walk back out through the light up hallways and wonder what the hell just happened in the best way possible.

I've read that most hotel concierges can get buy one get one tickets. We stayed in an air bnb this trip but I was able to find discount tickets through govoyagin (not an affiliate link, just a way to make the show seem more reasonable).

Robot Restaurant is located at Japan, 〒160-0021 Tokyo, Shinjuku, Kabukicho, 1 Chome−7−1, 新宿ロボットビルB2.