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South Korea - Sherman's Travel magazine

South Korea - Sherman's Travel magazine

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Published by: Victoria De Silverio on Jan 26, 2011
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01/26/2011

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Seoulafterdark
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SPOTLIGHT
SOUTH KOREA’S MEGA-PROSPEROUSCAPITAL CITY WELCOMES VISITORSWITH ANCIENT PALACES, DYNAMIC NIGHTLIFE,AND A DINING CULTURE EQUAL TO ANY IN ASIA.
BY VICTORIA DE SILVERIO PHOTOGRAPHS BY DOUG BRUCE
WorldTradeTower(left)andtheCOEXConventionCenter
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COMBINE WITH A TRIP TO JEJU ISLAND
Jeju is an island of threes. Locals have given their volcanic island offKorea’s southern coast three nicknames: Island of the Gods (afterthe 18,000 resident gods and goddesses), Samdado (island with threeabundances, namely wind, women, and rocks), and Sammudo (islandlacking three things: thieves, beggars, and gates). And along withsandy beaches, forested and flowered mountains, temples, water-falls, and a temperate climate, Jeju claims a triad of Unesco WorldNatural Heritage sites.The island’s remoteness has spawned a culture distinct from themainland. Though times have changed (today 50 daily flights arrivefrom Seoul), some centuries-old customs remain intact. Whilethey have traded flowy gowns for seal-like wetsuits, female freedivers—or
haenyo 
—still plunge up to 65 feet, gathering shellfishand seaweed.In the mid-1960s, tourism and tangerines saved the island’s flag-ging economy, and this mystical spot became known as the Hawaiiof Asia. Large resorts, such as the
HyattRegencyJeju,
sproutedalong the southern coast, and orange orchards cover the countryside.Rising from Jeju’s heart is the volcano Mount Hallasan. At its base,trails weave up and around to the towering summit and crater lake.Canvassing the island are grassy volcanic mounds called
oreum
.Underneath them lies a system of lava tubes, which is among thefinest of its kind in the world.Exceedingly friendly, Jeju is definitely eccentric:
WE
 
LOVE
 
HAVING
 
YOU
 
HERE
signs dot the highways and the ubiquitous mascot is a “grandfa-ther stone” statue who sports a mushroom-shaped cap and a smile.Possibly nowhere else boasts more mini theme parks, including onesdevoted to minor landmarks, chocolate, tea, teddy bears, paper dolls,folklore, bonsai, and even sex. The latter, Loveland, features sculp-tures in various stages of intimacy and arousal. As one could imagine,the giant mountable phallus is a popular photo op.
skyscrapers. South of the Han are financial districts and affluentneighborhoods such as Gangnam-gu, home to many top restau-rants and, notably,
Park Hyatt Seoul
, the city’s most pleasurableplace to stay. Designed by Japanese firm Super Potato, the hotelattracts both business customers and movers and shakers involvedin the creative arts. North of the Han is
The
 
Shilla Seoul
, ownedby modern Korea’s prevailing dynastic heir, Samsung. This iswhere Seoul old money (a rarity) reigns and their children noshon Michael Jackson bibimbap, as this was the King of Pop’sfavorite place to stay. For center-of-the-action nightlife,
 W Seoul-Walkerhill
offers three restaurants and two bars.Despite its size, fast pace, and tonnage of concrete and steel,Seoul feels friendly. Happy, even. South Koreans are often com-pared to Italians. Warm, passionate, and welcoming, they valueromance and worry about whether or not you’ve eaten. Lookremotely lost on a street, and a local will surely offer assistance,often shepherding the wayward to their destinations. Which is help-ful, since street names are confusing and spoken directions usuallyinvolve some version of “Make a right at Mr. Donut” or “Go left atthe orange sign.”
EATING AROUND TOWN
F
or the traveler who really wants to get to know Seoul, ex-periencing its cuisine is as important as seeing the sites. Excellentmeals are easy to find in even the most unassuming restaurantsand street stalls. And like hiking and visiting a karaoke bar, eatingand drinking are deeply communal and symbolic activities.Redolent in savory sauces made from red peppers, garlic,sesame, and soy, Korean food is earthy and healthy. The cuisineowes its unique complexity to Buddhist and Confucian in-fluences, abundant seas, and, as is often the case when it comes to
JejuairportcrossingguardSanchon’stemplecuisineDowntown
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T
he Land of the Morning Calm has quietlyseeped into American consciousness: Pink-berry and Red Mango; Samsung, LG, andHyundai. Ask any teenage girl where she shopsand who ranks on her heartthrob list andForever 21 and Rain, the dreamy SouthKorean action star-singer, will surely chart. Bulgogi and kimchihave risen to the ranks of urbanite comfort food on par with dimsum and falafel, and even mall staple California Pizza Kitchenoffers a Korean barbecue taco. And yet, beyond knowledge of South Korea’s geographical position—and extreme cultural andeconomic juxtaposition with its northern neighbor—the aver-age westerner’s awareness of this fascinating and fun country issorely limited. While American leisure travelers heading east havetraditionally flocked to Japan or Hong Kong, South Korea is nowcoming into its own as a vacation destination. At its economic and cultural center lies a capital city that hasthe frenetic, addictive pace of Tokyo; a burgeoning art scene thatmay soon match Beijing’s; and a dynamic dining culture that isequal to any in Asia. The incredible ascendance of Seoul, or whateconomists refer to as the “Miracle on the Han River,” and SouthKorea’s recent competitive gains are essential to understanding thecurrent energized mind-set of the city and the country as a whole. After 35 years of occupation by the Japanese and a brutal civil warfive years later, the city was practically leveled and the nation leftstruggling with extreme poverty. Yet South Korea managed to turnits fortunes around, and in a remarkably short time. As AndreiLankov points out in
The Dawn of Modern Korea
, “In 1957, SouthKorea had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana. And by 2008, itsGDP was 17 times higher than Ghana’s.”Now that the country is established as a mega-prosperousdemocracy (following the election of the first civilian presidentin 1992), South Koreans are showing renewed interest in their5,000-year-old dynastic history and a desire to welcome the worldin. Massive restoration efforts have repaired war-torn relics andthe entire city of Seoul is being reimagined. Seeking to “enhanceits attractiveness,” Mayor Oh Se-hoon has created special DesignStreets, commissioned eye-grabbing public artworks, brought inenergy-efficient buses and electric trams, and reworked publicspaces to be more pedestrian- and tourist-friendly. Free maps arenow available and travelers need only dial 1330, day or night, to beconnected to a multilingual operator who will offer guidance orcommunicate with confused taxi drivers or waitresses—a welcomeservice since, outside hotels, English is not prevalent.Seoul sits in the northwest of South Korea, where four streamsfrom four mountains converge—a spot, legend says, chosen bya Taoist monk for its auspicious feng shui. The city originallyoccupied only a section on the north banks of the Han River, buttoday’s metropolis, the size of 10 Manhattans and home to almost11 million people, is bisected by the river and divided into 25
 gu
 (administrative districts) that are subdivided into hundreds of 
dong
 (neighborhoods). Although vast, the city is easy to navigate, thanksto its clean, efficient metro and numerous moderately priced taxis.The section known as downtown is a busy 6-acre swath inthe center of the city north of the Han where historical land-marks, traditional markets, and Mount Namsan abut gleaming
ChangdeokgungPalace,constructedduringtheJoseondynasty
 
a nation’s gastronomy, to times of hardship. “Korean food is wherethe slowest foods meet the freshest foods,” says Shin Kim, a New York–based chef who writes for Zenkimchi.com, an online journalabout food in Korea; her own blog is Shinshine.com. “Out of necessity, people started fermenting and pickling their harvests tomake them last as long. But Koreans are also very aware of what’sin season and are obsessed with quality and using local produce.” A building block of Korean cuisine is jang, or seasoned sauce.The three main types of jang (fermented bean, soy, and red pep-per) can be rendered in innumerable variations, reflecting every-thing from region to season and family recipe. Deceptively simple,jang has come to symbolize Koreans’ symbiotic relationship withfood. “There’s a saying, ‘When the jang changes, a collapse of thefamily,’” says Kim. “Making jang is an intense process that hap-pens over months, even years, and so if the mother is troubled andtherefore neglectful of the jang, the taste changes.”Deliciousness is just one happy by-product of the philosophybehind Korean cuisine, which holds that the universe, andtherefore human bodies and the food they eat, are governed by yinand yang (or,
um
and yang, in Korea), and it is composed of fiveelements. Thus, a proper Korean dish harmoniously combines
um
 (greens, fruits, pungent, cold) and yang (roots, meat, spicy, fried)and contains five colors (red, green, yellow, white, and black). Arguably, there is no food more accessible or desirable thanmeat grilled over an open flame. In Seoul, the intoxicating aroma of smoldering charcoal fills the streets no matter what neighborhood.But wonderfully cooked meat is just part of the Korean barbecueexperience. Just as important are the numerous side dishes calledbanchan. Small bowls filled with any variety of kimchi (there arehundreds), salad, pickled squid, cold soup, dried anchovies, and riceare placed on the table all at once and for everyone to share.The best barbecue restaurants can be found in affluentGangnam-gu. Though not listed in guidebooks,
Park Daegamne
 is a favorite among low-key locals and movie stars (whose photosgrace the walls). Go for the grilled tenderloin and the galbi tang, asoup made with stewed beef short ribs and daikon.
Hanok
is morerefined and a bit more expensive but not touristy. Its meat is im-possibly tender. Set in a sleek steel-encased building, the upscale
Bamboo House
is where heads of state and Tom Cruise go. Thehouse specialty is called cognac sirloin, and the vegetables, grownat the restaurant’s farm, are particularly flavorful.Economic prosperity has created a boom in the arts and ahomegrown entertainment industry. By 2005, the Korean wave, or
hallyu,
as the flowering of local culture is known, was ex-porting $22 billion–worth of television shows, movies, and popmusic throughout Asia. One TV series,
Jewel in the Palace
, a peri-od drama set during the Joseon dynasty (from 1392 to 1910) abouta peasant girl who toils her way to becoming a palace chef, hasjumpstarted a revival in
hanjeongsik
, the traditional table d’hôteof aristocratic households. At
Phil Kyung Jae
, modern gourmandscan set the clock back 500 years and dine at a banquet table in theoriginal home of King Sejong’s great-great-grandson, where hisdescendents now live and meticulously re-create ancient familyrecipes. Travelers seeking further immersion can take a cookingclass at the
Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine
in Wonseo-dong. An easy way to find great food in Korea is to go to the open-airfood markets and choose among the slew of casual sit-down restau-rants neighboring the stalls. A number of restaurants at NoryangjinFish Market, a cavernous warehouse in central Seoul, offer virtuallyevery sea creature, including sannakji, a local delicacy also knownas live octopus. It’s not actually alive, though raw tentacles canwiggle on the plate, and in the mouth. Drizzling sesame oil over thecephalopod adds flavor—and foils the still-active suckers.In a city where dried squid are draped alongside chewing gumand sesame bars, culinary adventures are in abundance. Street cartsand
pojangmacha
, orange tents set up in high-traffic areas, serveup a cornucopia of delicious and cheap treats. Three hard-to-missstaples are tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes in red pepper sauce; sundae,
Makingkkaltarae,atraditionalsweetArestaurantintheApgue-jeong-dongneighborhoodWooBaratWSeoul
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a form of sausage stuffed with viscid rice, noodles, and ox or pigblood; and odeng, Japanese-style fish cakes on a skewer.Many of the tents serve soju, a potent Korean liquor, andchances are neighboring nibblers will offer a shot from theirbottle. Etiquette says it’s rude to refuse. Custom calls for the recipi-ent to hold the glass with both hands and always replenish others’glasses once they are empty—but never one’s own. To be on thecutting-edge of Seoul’s drinking culture, seek out bars specializingin makgeolli, a milky liquor made from fermented sweet rice. Firstconsumed over a thousand years ago, the beverage is enjoying aserious comeback with new producers creating artisanal versionsfrom traditional recipes. At
Chin Chin
, in the hip universityneighborhood Hongdae, owner Eliot Choi serves copious brandsand has created an iPhone app that details the history, origin,flavor, and ingredients for each.
CULTURE AND SIGHTSEEING
The history of dynastic rule on the Korean peninsula starting in2,333 BC includes 11 separate, and at times concurrent, empires.Reigning more than 500 years before falling to Japanese occupiersin 1910, the Joseon Dynasty was the last, and its Confucian-basedphilosophy still influences modern customs concerning food andflower arrangements, as well as those involving social mores andlegal systems. Besides the founding of Seoul, one of the greatestJoseon legacies is Hangul, the phonemic alphabet created by KingSejong in the 15th century that’s still in use today. Five palacesfrom Joseon times are clustered in the same downtown vicin-ity. Visitors should allot at least two days to explore the two mostimpressive ones, plus the attractions near each.Like Beijing’s Forbidden City,
Gyeongbokgung
(meaningPalace Greatly Blessed by Heaven) was once the seat of the gov-ernment. The grandest of the palaces, Gyeongbokgung was builtin 1394 for King Taejo and features a two-tiered imperial throneroom and a buttressed banquet pavilion that seems to float over alotus pond. For a sense of the lives of the royals (and their servants,slaves, and eunuchs), view the costumes, art, and everyday objectsat the on-site National Palace Museum. At the palace’s south gate, guards wearing bright red capes andblack bolero hats and carrying medieval swords change shifts threetimes a day. Normally steely-eyed and frowning, the sentinelssmile gamely for photos. Across the street is
GwanghwamunPlaza
, Seoul’s newest landmark. Between two boulevards, carpetsof flowers and lighted walkways lead south to grand statues of KingSejong and Joseon naval hero Admiral Yi Sun-shin. With the rocky pyramid of Mount Bugaksan soaring in thebackground, the expanse is a popular meeting place, especiallyfor students creating performance art. At the end of the plaza isCheonggyecheon Stream. Covered by a highway in the 1960s,the 4-mile stream was restored a few years ago, and now locals andtourists alike stroll its romantic sunken banks to be cooled by abreeze, explore exhibits, and gaze at wacky nighttime laser shows.The royal residence of 
Changdeokgung
(Palace of Illustrious Virtue), which exudes a homier feel than the stately Gyeong-bokgung, is perched on a hillside and bears majestic towers andpavilions that blend into the lush greenery. Its bridges arc gentlyover a stream ending in a soothing waterfall. Tucked toward therear is Huwon Garden. Spanning 78 acres of landscaped lawns,lotus ponds, and hundreds of tree species, this is where royals metunder the utmost privacy.Outside the palace’s west wall is the elite enclave of Bukchon,where more than 900 Joseon-era houses, called
hanok
, sit side byside along steep alleyways. When viewed from the highest point, theblack-tile rooftops form a rocky sea undulating over red clay walls.Further west is Samcheong-Dong, a gingko-lined neighborhoodthat’s become the SoHo of Seoul. Housed in traditional buildingsare modern cafés, boutiques of handmade crafts, and art galleries.Two of the best galleries are adjacent:
Kukje Gallery
, which showspieces by museum favorites Joseph Beuys and Louise Bourgeoisnext to works by acclaimed young Korean artists (Cho DuckHyun, Yeondoo Jung), and
Hakgojae Gallery
, which presentsancient art and calligraphy as well as up-and-coming Asian artists. A bit farther south is Insadong, a historic commune that, despite
SeafoodbibimbapShopperattheDongdaemunmarketDinneratoneofSeoul’smanyricewinebars

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