By Igne Aleliunas, for Summersalt yoga
Although quite small, South Korea packs a powerful punch. Its rich history, diverse culture and delicious cuisine create a wonderful experience for anyone willing to step inside. It’s the perfect gateway to Asia – modern and convenient, yet charmingly chaotic.
The land of convenience
My plane lands at Incheon International Airport early in the morning. I’m jet lagged and sleep deprived, but the beautiful weather keeps my spirits high – as it turns out, it’s the first warm and sunny day of spring in Seoul. It’s only when I’m finally in the airport train, heading to central Seoul that I realize I still haven’t experienced any of the cultural shock Westerners so often mention when they step out of their comfortable and predictable bubbles. And after a few days another realization strikes – maybe it’s impossible to feel lost or shaken in a land that is so convenient and efficient? The streets are clean and well maintained, the Seoul metro – fast, reliable and extensive, train and bus schedules so well-matched it made my inner control freak squeal with delight. But I guess these things are necessary in a country of 50 million people. Everything has to be fast and efficient, otherwise it would all just collapse. Besides, the Koreans are quick by nature. They live by “bbali, bbali” (faster, faster). They walk fast, they consume fast and they even eat fast – there’s no idling in restaurants. The only places where it’s acceptable to sit and chat are numerous coffee shops. And when I say numerous, I mean death-by-caffeine-numerous. Meanwhile convenience stores in South Korea are the epitome of the word “convenience” – they’re everywhere, they’re always open and ready to satisfy your midnight cravings. And don’t get me started on street vendors! They always have their carts right where you want them to. Going to a picnic in the Han River Park? You can skip grocery stores, because there will be plenty of street food along the way. Not really in the mood for street food? That’s okay, you can order restaurant food delivered to practically anywhere – that’s how convenient South Korea is!
The magical sense of freedom
And still, despite all the efficiency, South Korea is surprisingly chill. Underneath all the bustle and hustle there’s this wonderful magical freedom. For Koreans, rules are there just to make life easier (e. g. lining up to board trains and busses, extensively recycling), but if something isn’t explicitly forbidden, it is considered allowed. But don’t misunderstand – the Koreans, though charmingly chaotic and somewhat dramatic, are in no way careless or lazy. They work hard and they play hard, they don’t do anything halfheartedly and this is perhaps the main reason why South Korea’s economy exploded in the past 30 years or so. Everything’s full throttle there – from business to crazy karaoke parties. The people are full of life and it is highly infectious. After living for 50+ years next to a volatile neighbor, they probably learned to just enjoy the moment. A short visit to Jeonju, the so-called food capital of South Korea, proves this point. I happen to go there right when the Western media escalates the tension between North and South Koreas (April 2017). I don’t read papers and don’t watch news, so panic-filled texts and calls from friends and family members back home catch me by surprise. “Is everything well?”, they ask. “Has the war already started?”. I look around, taking in all the happy people sightseeing, taking selfies and riding bikes in Jeonju’s famous historical center, and have no idea what they’re talking about. All I see are people enjoying themselves and living their life to the fullest. This total sense of chill, of knowing not to fret over something you can’t really control, is everywhere you go in South Korea, probably fueled by the country’s Buddhist background.
Temples and palaces
South Korea hasn’t forgotten its royal past and locals are proud of their country’s history and culture, never missing a chance to don traditional hanboks and pretend to be nobles or scholars from the Joseon era. And nowhere else is that pride more evident than in the colorful temples, shrines, palaces and imposing gates, dotting various cities in South Korea. Indeed, traditional Korean architecture is wonderfully colorful, with greens, reds and blues creating intricate mesmerizing patterns. Even the Buddhist temples look vivid and cheerful, especially around Buddha’s birthday when they’re adorned with brightly colored lanterns. The Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan, perched on a rocky outcrop, provided a spectacular view and was perhaps the most impressive temple I’d seen in South Korea. The only solemn historical buildings are the Confucian Shrines. The 14th century Jongmyo Royal Shrine in Seoul is sleek, monochromatic and somehow very majestic.
Seoul has several royal palaces, the biggest and most lavish being the Gyeongbokgung. Next to it lies Bukchon Hanok Village – a cluster of traditional Korean villas. In the past they used to house the most prominent and affluent families. Now some of them operate as cafes or guest houses, while others are still inhabited by rich and poor alike. The neighborhood is quaint and charming, transporting you 600 years into the past, when Korea (then Joseon) was a powerful kingdom. Among Seoul’s palaces, the Changdeokgung is the most well preserved. And although it is beautiful and elegant, what captures my heart there is Huwon – the Secret Garden. It is a lush garden full of breath-catching vistas and picture-perfect pavilions. During the Japanese occupation, the garden was turned into a zoo, but later reclaimed for its original purpose.
Away from the city
When city life proves to be too much, South Korea offers some amazing getaway locations – from picturesque mountains to small cozy seaside villages. When I first see rolling green hills, I’m on a bus heading to Jeonju and I’m instantly mesmerized. The hills seem soft and mysterious, as if they’ve just appeared out of nowhere. And they’re not just pretty to look at – South Korean hills and mountains are full of well maintained hiking paths, some of them just outside of Seoul. Hiking seems to be a national past time, especially among seniors. Since Koreans don’t do anything halfheartedly, all the hikers I meet wear special boots, clothes and equipment, looking very much like pro mountaineers. But it’s not only mountains that the locals take seriously – similar approach applies to the seaside. They walk, explore, eat seafood to their heart’s content and when the night falls, they light up some fireworks. It instantly feels like vacation – sitting on the sand, listening to the whoosh of the waves… and watching sparkles and fireworks light up the night sky. I feel the freedom, the joy to be alive and silently thank Korean convenience stores for stocking up on fireworks and lighters.
Kimchi with everything
Food – cooking and eating it – is an important part of Korean culture. Korean cuisine is spicy, flavorful and ancient. Some dishes go centuries back! Kimchi, pickled Nappa cabbage, is probably the most iconic Korean food. And it really does go with everything. During my trip I tried kimchi in dozens of places – from supermarkets to street markets, from simple joints to fancy restaurants. Each time kimchi was different – sometimes very sour, sometimes very peppery – and each time I wanted more. Other dishes I couldn’t get enough of included various dumplings (mandu in Korean), bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and spicy sauce) and rice porridge called juk. Taste wise, Korean dishes are very complex. They’re never just salty or just sweet, there’s always a bit of everything, which is why I loved them so much.
I liked the eating culture, too. The Koreans eat a lot and enjoy doing it. There’s no nibbling – they eat with gusto and I was quick to learn by observation. Soon I was stuffing my face with delicious stews and banchans (various side dishes), smacking my lips, slurping and openly expressing how much I love the food! Yes, the locals are loud and expressive when eating – not quite the table manners that we’ve been taught!
Street food should also be mentioned – comforting and indulgent, it’s every foodie’s dream. Thanks to the diligent (and business-savvy) vendors, food stalls are located at the most convenient locations, inviting to at least grab a small bite before heading home. The food is fresh and often made before your own eyes, so the temptation to eat something is even bigger.
My month in South Korea ends before I know it. The last evening there I eat some kimchi stew, get (once again) complimented on my tolerance for spicy food – the lady working at the restaurant beams at me – and I get the distinct feeling that I have found home away from home. South Korea welcomed me with open arms, fed my body and soul and even taught a couple of things about living in the moment. And once the plane takes off, I feel compelled to come back – to eat, discover and shoot some more fireworks at the beach.