By Elysabeth Hahm
SEOUL, Jan. 19 (Yonhap) -- Not too long ago, a visit to Korea meant a necessary trip to the local bookstore to purchase a travel guidebook that would educate you on Korea's local flare, including delicious restaurants, unique shops and traditional temples.
But today, the Internet Age has given those guidebooks a run for their money as bloggers provide visitors and foreign residents with a more extensive and personal look into Korea's dynamic culture.
And the best part: It's all for free.
Take, for example, EatYourKimchi.com, which is a fully equipped video blog with over 49,000 followers. Co-created and completely maintained by 27-year-olds Simon and Martina Stawski, Eat Your Kimchi features videos ranging from the fun and quirky - "How to Dance Kpop Style 2010" - to the informative and helpful - "How to Pay Your Bills in Korea."
"When we found out we were going to live in Bucheon (a city west of Seoul), we excitedly researched what our new home was going to be like," says Martina, who came to Korea from Toronto, Canada in 2008 with her husband Simon to teach English. "But we couldn't find anything at all, in guidebooks or online."
On their "About Me" section of the Web site, the couple write, "Our goal is to document our everyday normal life in Korea and show others why we love Korea. For the people that aren't in Korea yet, we want to prepare them for all that awaits. For those that are here, we hope to help them quickly adjust to life and culture in Korea."
That is exactly what they do. And they spend a lot of time doing it. On average, Simon and Martina upload two videos per week. But the hours put into each video and the blog itself is equivalent to a full-time job.
The Web site demands so much of their time that Simon did not renew his teaching contract so that he could work on it fulltime. Martina plans on doing the same when her contract ends in June.
"For our regular Music Mondays, on average it takes about three to four hours to script, three to four hours to shoot, eight hours to edit, four hours to export and upload, and eight hours to distribute among all the social networks," Simon says.
Martina chimes in, saying, "This is all for one video."
Simon also responds to every e-mail they receive from Eat Your Kimchi.
"We receive about 50 e-mails a day, excluding comments. I try to respond to all of them because most of the time, it's someone asking for help or for a recommendation," says Simon.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of it all is that in addition to the countless hours, the expenses required to maintain Eat Your Kimchi come mostly from their own pockets. As the blog gained more followers, they needed better filming equipment to keep up with its growth, which the couple saved up for and bought.
"We get a little money from advertising, but the majority of it comes from our own pockets," says Simon. "It's a lot of work."
Despite the countless hours and money put into the Web site, Simon and Martina have no plans to end Eat Your Kimchi anytime soon.
"My fulltime teaching job allows us to maintain the site. And wherever we go next -- maybe to Japan -- we'll keep the site going," Martina says.
So what keeps them going?
"It's just rewarding. When someone new comes to Bucheon, we throw a welcome party for them and help them create a little network so they aren't lonely. And sometimes we'll see them on the street, walking with another 'Bucheonite,'" Martina says. "That's what makes it all worth it."
Eat Your Kimchi also provides what they think the government tourist organizations lack.
"We want the Korean government to understand that it's not just about traditional temples and such. That's great, but people want funky, a pure slice of life," says Martina.
In 2008, the Seoul Metropolitan Government put together a budget of 65 million won ($58,000) to change global travel guide Lonely Planet's negative portrayal of Seoul in its guidebooks. According to a published local report, the guidebook portrayed Seoul as chaotic, with a culture that seems incomprehensible.
"These guidebooks are often written by people who don't live in Korea or have any idea what Korean culture is like," says 32-year-old Matt Kelley, the creator of the travel blog DiscoveringKorea.com.
"There are a number of travel-related blogs and given there's little incentive to do so, it could become so much more, which already provides a service to so many people, with minimal support from government tourist organizations like the Korea Tourism Organization," Kelley says.
Kelley, who came to Korea from Seattle, Washington in 2007, launched DiscoveringKorea.com in September 2008 while hosting a travel program with the same name, "Discovering Korea," on KBS World Radio.
"There were a lot of requests from radio listeners to create this Web Site, which basically listed everything we talked about on the show. But it turned into a great way to develop hobbies like photography," says Kelley.
Although the blog is connected to the show, it is entirely funded by Kelley. The travel expenses, such as train fare and lodging, are all out-of-pocket.
"It isn't very expensive to maintain, but it is very time consuming," Kelley says. "The Web site has undergone different formatting a few times, so it takes some time and a lot of work to post blog entries."
Discovering Korea has received over 1,000 notes or comments since its birth. And according to Kelley, about 40 percent of them are specific requests to visit a destination or review a restaurant.
"The feedback is mostly positive. I think people recognize that we (bloggers) are providing this as a way to help them, so it wouldn't make much sense to be negative about it," says Kelley. "A lot of the feedback are specific requests that I'm happy to do, it just gets difficult when I get busy with other projects."
In addition to maintaining the blog, he hosts a KBS show called, "Seoul Scene with Matt Kelley," appears regularly on TBS eFM's The Evening Show and writes a monthly article for the Korea Tourism Organization.
Although Kelley admits to devoting less time to the blog recently, you could say his entire career, including all radio shows, articles and the Web site, are committed to the same service that Eat Your Kimchi provides: a local's perspective into Korean culture that you can't get from your average guidebook.
"There are a ton of places outside of Seoul that aren't well known. I think we are just trying to fill an unmet need and fulfill requests for expats, visitors and natives," says Kelley.
Along with "Eat Your Kimchi" and "Discovering Korea," there is a wide selection of Korean culture-centered blogs, who provide a similar service, including "Thank You, Ok," "Seoul Eats" and "Seoul Sub'urban" to name a few.
But perhaps, the most honorable details are not the blogs but the bloggers themselves.
"For us, this blog is just a really fun thing," says Martina. "In fact, for this upcoming year, Simon and I want to find a really, really cheap apartment and just make a living creating these videos for people."
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