South Korea is a country full of contradictions between the old and the new. K Pop music and Hanbok traditional clothing co-exist at the countries’ many parks and temples. Families stroll side by side through beautifully landscaped parks while their children twirl multi-colored streamers like band majorettes.
My first stop was at the busy Incheon airport. The hotel was the Gyeongwonjae Ambassador Incheon. Beautiful, calm, traditional room with a pine soaking tub and traditional Korean architecture with unique Korean Ondol floor heating and Korean style beds. A traditional bed was also present for the skeptical.
The Hanyong restaurant next door featured floor seating and a typical Korean beef dish known as Bulgogi. It is delicious strips of beef cooked over a small charcoal grill right at the table. I had to have the waitress cut my strips with scissors because I was having difficulty with the large portion. She joked that I had a “baby mouth” and brought down the house.
We were treated to a demonstration of the making of the traditional Hanbok garments and each of us was allowed to choose and model our choice. The resident artist has been involved in Hanbok Bojagi artistry for many years. We all looked like princesses in the surprisingly comfortable and flattering outfits. (Picture below). We ate at the Michelin Balwoo Gongyang restaurant. The owner/manager entertained us with stories of traditional Korean cuisine and heritage.
We visited the Korean Furniture Museum which is a unique museum that focuses only on traditional wooden furniture. The museum’s collection boasts more than 2,500 pieces of traditional Korean furniture. The pieces are displayed in a traditional former diplomat’s home to show how these pieces would have actually been used in daily life. It was a fascinating glimpse into the past.
Our visit to the DMZ was very bizarre. After a bus ride through the country side, you arrive at a stark 60’s style barracks complete with dummies of South Korean and North Korean soldiers. You’re shown a room where the Korean War was supposedly concluded. Our hosts strictly admonished us not to touch or get to close to the soldiers or objects in the room or we would face stiff and harsh punishment. We were told to gaze across the DMZ line and maybe we would be lucky enough to see Kim Jung Un. We tittered nervously. There was a beautiful park nearby complete with bridges across the river with vendors selling all kinds of souvenirs. My Dad fought in the Korean War and I like to think he would have been very amused to see this museum and its’ contents all these many years later.
The Jeongdong Theatre had a traditional performance complete with singers, dancers, and musicians. This was the highlight of the entire tour for me. We were allowed to pose with the cast after their performance and observe the beautiful costumes up close. The traditional musical instruments were fascinating and often didn’t sound even close to what I had guessed. There was a mandolin-like instrument that had beautiful base notes instead of the reedy high notes I was anticipating.
We got our shopping credentials tested at Gukje market. Containing about 690 stalls, the market sells a wide variety of products. Apart from food and clothes, you can also purchase kitchen appliances and electronics here. This isn’t a tourist market – many South Koreans shop here. The must-try foods at this market include Yubu-jeongol (fried tofu stew), Ssiat-Hotteok (sweet Korean pancake stuffed with seeds) and Bibim-dangmyeon (spicy glass noodles). I personally saw over 10,000 pairs of socks available for purchase. Or, at least it seemed that way!
Gamcheon Cultural Village was a warren of brightly colored shops and restaurants. My friend Kim and I climbed the steep hills in search of traditional tchotchkes to take home to our families. We found some beautiful handmade change purses and backpack charms that my granddaughters adored.
The Beomeosa Temple was a spiritual experience. After climbing a small hill, you enter the temple grounds. Beomeosa Temple was founded in the year 678 C.E., during the time of the Silla dynasty. It is an oasis in the midst of a busy city. We discovered many small pebble formations that were made by visitors as a way to good fortune where each stone represents a family member. Very moving small tokens of love and family.
I was most impressed by the family life I observed in South Korea. Children and parents/grandparents were everywhere interacting with each other and enjoying the outdoors. Holding hands, blowing bubbles, flying kites, wearing traditional garments, and enjoying their time together. This is somewhat rare in western cities where you only see the hustle and bustle of business and working men and women. Children are often not included in day to day life but only brought out on special occasions.
I stayed in everything from a traditional Korean hotel with the under floor heating and sleeping mats to a luxurious hotel overlooking Busan harbor. We ate at Michelin star restaurants and Korean fried chicken shacks with picnic tables and delicious Korean beer. It was very difficult to choose a favorite. Our guides and hosts were so kind and funny. Even a “baby mouth” like me learned to appreciate the Korean culture of devotion to family and appreciation of nature.