There are five palaces in Seoul, which were built during the Joseon Dynasty. Changdeokgung, the Palace of Illustrious Virtue, is beautiful, but what makes it truly unique is the Huwon (garden) behind it. It used to be a forbidden place, only to be used by the royal family, and now some Koreans refer to it as Biwon, or the secret garden.
You cannot enter unless you are part of a guided tour, and our patient but exasperated tour guide kept saying to the stragglers, “Now it is time to leave. We are leaving here now. Please.”
The style of the buildings is quite calming, as they were meant to blend in and compliment the surrounding nature rather than overshadow it. This is perhaps one of the reasons why it’s a UNESCO Heritage site.
“Let’s go to eat in Sokcho, it’s a small fishing town”, says Bo.
Clearly the notion of small city is really different in Korea. As we were driving through the country, I noticed that any small piece of land between the mountains was filled with high buildings. There are very few small villages, and Sokcho was not one of them.
We decided to walk to Dongmyeonghang, a fish market known for their mobeumbhoe, assorted raw fish. I was expecting a place more like Gwangjang where you can join any small stand with freshly cooked food. We saw rows of fish moving about in their containers, and women calling out for us to buy them. A persistent fish seller explained the process in Korean, as Bo, with a confused look on her face, translated the process for me. We were to buy some living fish from her, Bo explained, then bring them to another woman who would prepare the fish by cutting some into sashimi-style pieces and steaming the others. We could buy lettuce and other condiments from her, then take the remaining pieces upstairs where they would prepare maeuntang, a spicy fish soup, for us. Our meal was brought to us by several different teams.
We persuaded the fish seller to stop loading fish into the basket, and we took them wriggling over to the woman who cut and filleted the fish so fast the heads were still moving even after they were bagged for the fish soup. She also steamed the sea snail and prawns lightly. The fish pieces were to be eaten raw, and though they were served with soy sauce and wasabi - à la japonaise - the fish was rougher than sushi fish and less tasty.
We arrived upstairs with the bag of fish bits, and they brought out a pot with vegetables, and a spicy broth and set it on top of the gas burners at one of the tables. The soup was delicious. We ended up using it to cook a bit the fish.
I’ve been bothering Bo all day about seeing a more local and laid back village. The surprise was worth it: we were going to stay in a typical one where 230 people live in the old ways, helped by the government.
The quietness of the green and yellow rice fields was so refreshing.
We were welcomed to the river-faced guesthouse by a charming woman who offered a bright red ginger iced tea. She warned us there were only restaurants outside the village and that they closed very early. When we came back from a large meal heavily accompanied by beer and soju, we enjoyed a mud-walled jjimjil-bang, or old-style sauna. We laid down on the floor and breathed in the earthy smell from the herbs hanging on the wall.
We woke up early the next day to enjoy the illusion of being in another time. The breakfast was a piece of mackerel with some green jumbokjuk (abalone porridge). The kimchi rounded out the meal.
Just outside the folk village is a former Confucian academy built in 1572. It’s incredibly well preserved.
Across the river from the village is a ten minute trail you can climb to reach the top of the cliffs for a fantastic view of the entire folk village. We waited patiently for other tourists to move so we could get a photo without any selfie sticks in the shot.
During Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving), my cousin was roped into touring this palace with us.
This was once the premier palace of the five in Seoul, and is built in a more impressive and imposing style than the other palace we had seen. It is considered highly auspicious for a residence to be situated near a mountain and a river, which was why this palace was built here. The river has since dried up, and my cousin peppered our tour with patient annoyance (“Don’t all the buildings look the same?”) to solemn lecturing (“The Japanese turned the palace into a zoo during the occupation, to ruin the Korean spirit.”). Women floated by in Hanboks, the traditional Korean attire stopping only to make peace signs and take selfies at flattering (read: positioned higher facing downward towards your face) angles.
After another festive meal, Bo’s family suggested we take a quick walk up the Seoul wall to enjoy the Full Moon. This short walk turned into a few hours on the trail but with beautiful views and lots of local stories.
All bosses like to champion their own ideas, even if the ideas don’t always make much sense. The fortress of Suwon seems to be one of these. King Jeongjo wanted to move the capital from Seoul to Suwon, or 48km south. The fortification is impressive, but the king died and the power stayed in Seoul.
We enjoyed that short excursion to try the local version of galbitang, chunks of meat in a white broth with lots of black pepper. One of my favourite meals of the trip.
“Do you know what BIFF is?” asked the Korean news reporter as she held a camera in Mod’s face.
“Yes, it’s the Busan International Film Festival. I think it’s about 20 years old,” said Mod smiling, parroting the information he had just read about 10 minutes prior while walking along the beach.
“What star are you most excited about seeing?” asked the reporter.
“Brad Pitt,” said Mod smiling, as he knew no Korean stars.
The reporter walks away. Clearly, Brad Pitt is not coming to the festival.
Busan seemed just as busy as Seoul, but more laid back. It reminded me of the difference between New York and San Francisco. My mother lived here for some time when she was young, before her family moved to Seoul, so we were excited to see Korea’s second largest city.
Mod was so excited to try the food, specifically san-nakji, or living octopus.
We headed over to Jagalchi Market, a fish market similar to the one in Sokcho, and this time, my family was aiding and abetting Mod in his mission, which he had been talking about for months.
“I am not eating anything that is still moving,” I said with conviction. “I am just not going to do it.”
I definitely lost that battle.
I tried to wait until the octopus stopped moving, but when my chopstick went out to grab the smallest piece I could find, it started moving again.
“You have to eat it while it’s still moving, or it’s not fresh,” said my aunt.
She showed Mod to dip it into the sesame seed oil and salt, and advised him to chew thoroughly. His tentacle was determined not to be eaten though, sticking first to the sesame seed oil bowl then to the corner of this mouth while quickly consumed the octopus. When it was my turn, between my facial expressions and my wincing, I definitely moved more than the wiggling tentacle in my mouth.
“The visit to the Joint Security Area [JSA] at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” - Part of the contract we signed to visit the JSA.
Driving up to the northern part of South Korea, an area lush with trees and rice fields, you’ll eventually see a stark land with nothing. That’s North Korea, which has cut down the forest so it’s military can clearly see defectors if they dare to run across in an attempt to escape the country.
The DMZ is a 4 kilometer stretch across the Korean peninsula, which serves as a buffer between the two countries. The Military Demarcation Line goes straight down the center and is heavily armed on both sides to guard against potential military action. It’s a bit strange, given the name of the area itself.
The tension is most evident at the Joint Security Area, or “Truce Village” (again, a strange name given the set up), where representatives from both countries meet occasionally for diplomatic matters. Day after day, year after year, troops stand face-to-face, ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice. These blue buildings you see below are set so that half the building is in each country, and so we stepped foot on North Korean soil. We’re instructed not to point, and the U.S. soldier who is guiding us through states this is because we’re being photographed and anyone could photoshop a gun into our hands.
From old Hanok villages to trying on traditional clothing (Hanbok), Mod and I tried a lot of different things to get the flavor of Korea.