Pilgrimage to Chuncheon

Although today was Memorial Day, it didn’t feel like Memorial Day.  After all, Koreans don’t celebrate Memorial Day until next Monday, June 6.  I didn’t watch the Indianapolis 500, get together with friends for a barbeque, or visit a war memorial.  Memorial Day is a day dedicated to those in service to our country, although such thoughts can be distant when you live far away from the states.  U.S. and Korean military bases and personnel are located throughout Korea, including a base here in Seoul, a reminder of America’s commitment to Korean defense.  I am thankful to those who served or are serving our country, especially those who gave their lives to preserve the freedoms we enjoy.  I am glad I also serve, albeit not in the military.  Anyone who serves their country deserves to be honored on Memorial Day. 

My family and I drove to Chuncheon today.  The capital of South Korea’s Kangwon Province (Kangwon is divided between North and South Korea), Chuncheon is about two hours’ drive east of Seoul.  The countryside around Chuncheon is beautiful, and at this time of the year it is a verdant green.  The mountains are tall, although not quite jagged, and they are covered with lush vegetation.  Deciduous trees dominate the landscape.  Highway 46 from Seoul winds along the Bukhan River, a scenic, meandering waterway most of the way.  Chuncheon itself is a city of 350,000 nestled in Korea’s eastern mountain range.  Although a mid-size city by U.S. standards, Chuncheon feels like a small city.  It’s very livable.  If I had my druthers, I would move out of Seoul and live in Chuncheon.  I know I’m an anomaly here in Korea in my yearning to get out of the big city, but then again, I’m not from around here.

Today’s trip was intended to be a “Winter Sonata” pilgrimage for my wife.  She is crazy about this popular Korean drama starring Bae Yong Jun (a.k.a. “Yonsama”), the hottest actor in Asia.  She isn’t alone—people throughout Asia have embraced this 20-episode television drama series obsessively and turned it into a billion-dollar franchise.  Many of the drama’s most memorable scenes were filmed in Chuncheon.  Along with Yangpyeong Ski Resort, Chuncheon has become a tourist mecca for “Winter Sonata” fans worldwide.  Japanese in particular are fans of “Winter Sonata,” and today we saw many Japanese tourists (I did not see any Western tourists today).  We visited the Chuncheon Joongang Mall and Myeongdong Street, Chuncheon’s famous shopping street.  We ate dakgalbi for lunch on Dakgalbi Street.  Dakgalbi, a spicy chicken dish, is Chuncheon’s specialty.  It was absolutely delicious.  Slightly spicy, it is bearably spicy even to those who don’t like spicy food.  I think it’s the best dish I’ve eaten in Korea.  I haven’t found dakgalbi in Seoul, but I will keep looking.  We ate ice cream cones for dessert at Lotteria, Lotte’s popular fast food chain.  The ice cream cooled our superheated mouths.  We then took a taxi to Gihwajipgol (기화집골), a neighborhood where Bae Yong Jun’s character in “Winter Sonata” lived during his high school years.  I enjoyed wandering around a Korean neighborhood, but for my wife it was a chance to relive some of the scenes she remembers from the drama.  She paid 5,000 won (about $5) to go into the home where his character lived.  I refrained due to disinterest, but I still think it was $5 well spent.  My wife is now so happy that she’s spent the entire evening flipping through her “Winter Sonata” DVD series to find the scenes she reenacted in Chuncheon.  That type of happiness is priceless.  I enjoyed the beauty of Chuncheon, but my impression was nothing compared to the joy my wife felt after walking in the footsteps of “Winter Sonata.”  Most fans never get that chance.

Dongdaemun Market

Today my family and I ventured out of our cozy confires to visit Dongdaemun Market.  We’d previously been to Insadong and Namdaemun, Seoul’s two most famous markets, but this was our first endeavor to Dongdaemun.  At first, we couldn’t find the market.  We exited the subway station immediately across from the gate at Dongdaemun (Dongdaemun is the eastern gate of old Seoul.  Namdaemun is the southern gate.)  It turns out that the market is actually a couple of blocks east of the gate next to Dongdaemun Stadium.  It was after lunchtime and we were hungry, so we decided to stop and eat at a nearby restaurant.  The restaurant’s food was delicious.  Called Gaelimjeong (계림정), the restaurant specializes in galbi and offers bulgogi and other standard Korean dishes.  We ordered bulgogi and galbi soup, and we enjoyed a variety of panchan (side dishes).  The bulgogi, cooked over a burner, cost 12,000 won per portion (about $12).

After lunch we head to the marketplace.  With my son astride my back in a travel carrier, we assumed the role of tourists as we mingled with locals.  We didn’t even try to blend in–it’s useless to even try unless you look remotely Korean.  We saw a few more foreigners than usual milling around the glitzy shopping malls south of the stadium.  A woman we met from Washington State was in Seoul on an exchange program with Yonsei University.  I have a suspicion that most foreigners who visit Dongdaemun are in Seoul on a semi-permanent basis.  My son was a hit with the teenage Korean girls, many of whom cooed happily as they passed.  "Hello baby!" many of them said, trying to pat his head or touch his hand.  I’m already worried that he will be a heartbreaker when he starts dating! 

We strolled through a couple of shopping malls and perused the merchandise at some of the booths.  These malls are different than what you typically find in the United States.  Although at first sight they appear to be a single department store, they are actually filled with small, booth-like stores hawking an assortment of goods.  It’s quite a bazaar feeling.  The booths are generally grouped by product.  For example, shoe stores are on one floor, while women’s clothing stores fill another floor.  I searched for neckties, but I was disappointed to find that the ties on sale were not even real ties.  They were actually faux ties with cloth straps that tie around the neck like an apron.  No thank you!  Nothing ruins a suit quite like wearing a cheap necktie.  I’m sure that I can find some good neckties in Korea, but not at Dongdaemun.  We did buy a small "Thomas the Tank Engine" backpack for my son.  My brilliant wife bartered the shop owner down 33% on the price of the backpack, and my son wore it proudly as we shopped.  My wife’s experience growing up in China gives her an edge when it comes to bargaining in Asia.  As for me, I assist by acting disinterested and chiming in that the item is too expensive.  It’s usually enough for us to get a great bargain.

In the afternoon, we crossed the street and visited the vendors’ stalls situated on the sidewalks outside Dongdaemun Stadium and the ballpark.  Dongdaemun Market is huge, filling several streets around the stadium.  It’s a huge montage selling everything ranging from practical to cheap.  I saw quite a few knock-off items for sale.  I chuckled when I saw the pile of "luxury" brand purses piled in a bargain bin.  I watched intently as Koreans enthusiastically gathered around many of the stalls and bargained for items.  It reminded me that I really am in Asia, as much as I sometimes feel like I am still in America.

Note to mars_wolf:  Thanks for reading and for your feedback.  I don’t know about Marco Polo, but we do like to travel.  I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for Marco Polo when he went from Italy to the Mongol court in Beijing.  Traveling today pales by comparison.