In 2013, Christine and I had the chance to visit a country I’ve been wanting to return to for some time: South Korea. Although I was born in Seoul, I only lived in the country from 1978–1980 when my adoptive family was stationed there. In the ignorance of my youth, I squandered those two years, eschewed everything Korean in a vain attempt to prove how American I was. When I outright refused to learn the Korean language, my mother warned, “You’ll regret it someday.” Of course, she was right.
As I grew older, Korean culture begin to hold a greater appeal for me and I actively sought out anything Korean, particularly food. I wanted to return and experience everything I had neglected on my first visit. When the opportunity presented itself, we enthusiastically accepted this second chance I was being offered.
Taking advantage of Korea’s relatively small size, we decided to use our time exploring as much of the country and culture as we could. We customized a tour through O’ngo, a Seoul-based company that offers a variety of food tours and cooking classes. Our itinerary included a road trip with stops in Jeonju, Busan, Andong, Sokcho, and the DMZ. We padded the adventure on both ends with a few days in Seoul.
Since I hadn’t been to Korea in over 30 years and this was Christine’s first visit to Asia, we expected to experience a little culture shock upon arriving in Seoul. As on other trips, our favorite way to acclimate to a new country is taking a food tour. From the options O’ngo offered, we ended up choosing the Korean Night Dining Tour, as it not only allowed us sleep off our jet lag during the day, it included an introduction to Korean alcohol. It was a walking tour, so we were able to experience the bustle of Seoul’s backstreets and alleyways to visit several night markets and enjoy some quintessential Korean street food, including pajeon (savory pancakes), tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy sauce), and bbq pork and beef. Additionally, our group got to taste several varieties of Korean beer, soju, and (my personal favorite) makgeolli.
After two full days of exploring the city on foot, we left Seoul via bus and headed south to Jeonju. Known as a food city, Jeonju is home to Korea’s most famous dish: bibimbap. Served in a large bowl, bibimbap consists of hot, cooked rice topped with an assortment of vegetables and an egg. Gochujang (a chili pepper and soybean paste) and sesame oil are added for seasoning. Upon serving, all of the ingredients are stirred together creating a unique combination of flavors and textures. We were relieved to learn Koreans eat rice with a spoon (rather than chopsticks), as it made our dining experiences much less awkward for those around us.
While we did enjoy a generous bowl of bibimbap, the highlight of Jeonju was our first taste of Korean fried chicken. Served out of a small stand in a local market, the chicken was sold in ribbon-clad boxes, which we had noticed in people’s possession throughout the market, sometimes five or more boxes deep. Korean fried chicken is unique in that the coating, due to a double frying technique, is extra crunchy, creating a crispy shell that encases the juicy meat within. What I especially appreciated was how Korean fried chicken was accompanied by either gloves or a nifty, tri-finger plastic protector to prevent the eater from getting greasy, messy fingers. Usually paired with a Korean lager, chicken and beer, or chimaek (short for chicken and maekju—Korean for beer), has become a ubiquitous combination throughout the country. It has even begun to spread internationally with Korean fried chicken chains now popping up in the United States, including one here in Columbus.
From Jeonju, we took another bus to Busan, the second largest city in South Korea. Located on the southeastern corner of the country, Busan is an active port city with large Chinese and Russian populations. After a walking tour of the city that included a trip to the Jagalchi Fish Market—a colossal fish market on the waterfront—we walked to Songdo Beach and down the peninsula toward Amnam Park. The pavement gave way to a large parking lot on the waterfront hosting several large tents. We ducked inside and were welcomed by the aroma of grilled seafood emanating from the numerous food vendors occupying the tents. We walked into one of the dining areas and sat at a table, all of which were topped with gas burners. For the next hour, we were treated to a steady stream of seafood dishes—some raw, others cooked upon the table-top grills. Plenty of soju and a view of the city lights across the water made this one of our most memorable evenings in Korea.
The next morning, we left Busan by train and headed north up the east side of the country to Andong, where we visited the Hahoe Folk Village. Established in 16th century, the village still maintains the Joseon architecture from the period in which it was built. South Korea, in its race toward modernization in the 60s and 70s, destroyed many of its older structures in favor of urbanization. The Hahoe Folk Village stands as a cultural reminder of Korea’s past and is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For lunch we had what was to be my favorite food discovery in Korea—Andong jjimdak (or “Andong steamed chicken,” though steamed is not quite accurate). Chicken pieces are braised with potatoes, onions, carrots and other assorted vegetables in a rich, soy-based sauce. The flavor is enhanced by the sweetness of brown sugar and a slight acidity from rice wine, giving it sweet and sour undertones. Sweet potato noodles (the same type used in japchae) are added to the jjimdak, which is then served over rice. The rice absorbs all of flavors of the savory comfort dish, ensuring nothing is left behind.
We then headed to our northern-most destination, the city of Sokcho and Mount Seorak (Seoraksan). Tourists flock to Seoraksan National Park in the fall to witness the colorful foliage, which is said to be breathtaking. Despite our October arrival, our visit was too early to see the changing leaves. To further dampen our spirits, a storm front had moved in leaving much of the mountain obscured in a cloud of mist. Although we were able to take the cable car up the mountain and walk the trail, visibility was extremely limited. Back in our hostel in Sokcho, we nursed our disappointment with another box of Korean fried chicken.
Our last visit outside of Seoul was to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). This area was established after the Korean War to separate North and South Korea. The tour we were part of included several stops, including the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The Third Tunnel is one of at least four known tunnels dug by the North Koreans running under the DMZ (many more are believed to still exist). Tourists are shuttled more than 200 feet below the surface in a small, roller coaster-type vehicle. Once down in the tunnel level, visitors walk a length of the passage, which at some points is low enough to require stooping. It is dark and crowded and probably not a good option for those who are claustrophobic. Despite the levity of the DMZ, the sheer amount of tourists and schoolchildren gave the tunnel tour a surreal, amusement park feel.
During our travels throughout the country, we stayed primarily in hostels to reduce costs and were looking forward to the amenities of a nice hotel upon our return to Seoul. To our delight, we were informed we had been upgraded to a suite upon our check-in at the Fraser. The suite included a full kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, a washer/dryer, and a patio overlooking Namsan Tower. The suite was larger than our house in Columbus.
The Frasier is situated conveniently in the heart of the Insadong area of Seoul. We were within walking distance of markets, stores, restaurants, and several points of entry to the Seoul subway system, which gave us easy access to the rest of the city. Exhausted from the nonstop pace of our road trip, we relished the last few days of relaxation and enjoyed being able to explore Seoul at our own leisure. We managed to find even more Korean fried chicken, try more soju and makgeolli, and eat Korean versions of American fast food (my favorite was the Bulgogi Burger at McDonald’s). We took advantage of the many coffee shops and bakeries, just sitting and enjoying our last few days in Korea.
Like all vacations, this one ended too soon. But this time I left Korea with the feeling I had made the most of my second chance. We had seen a lot of the country and experienced as much Korean culture as possible, mostly thanks to Joonuk, our guide from O’ngo. He not only served as translator, he researched all of the places we ate, visited, and stayed, ensuring we received a fully immersive and rich Korean experience.
More photos of our trip can be seen here.