Korea blends modernity and tradition
Visiting the Games
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
You may miss attending the 2018 Winter Olympics, but Korea—also referred to as South Korea or the Republic of Korea—offers a dazzling range of experiences and landscapes available at any time of the year. It has not been a high-ranking tourist destination for Americans, but I have a feeling this is going to change. Perhaps apathy springs from the troubled history of the Korean War that left two distinct Koreas in 1953, now separated by the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea is a secret land held back by its own brand of hero worship; South Korea is a living example of hard work and inventiveness. In addition, custom and tradition reside side by side, allowing the tourist a window into Korea’s distinctive culture.
Modernity hits you smack in the face immediately upon arrival at Incheon International Airport, opened in 2001 and gateway to Seoul, named by CNN “the world’s greatest city.” Incheon is the largest airport in South Korea and, since 2005, the Airports Council International has rated it every year as the best airport worldwide. Filled with a wealth of culture and art throughout the year, it boasts fascinating and impressive performances to entertain tourists every day. There’s music, dance, and art exhibitions. For those who want even more, check out the Korean Culture Experience Center with craft classes and costume programs, all offered to international tourists free of charge.
For nature lovers, different gardens offer a chance of relaxation and rejuvenation after a long trip. The Pine Tree Garden, an oasis of calm permeated with the refreshing scent of pine, features pine trees, quiet ponds, and an array of beautiful flora. Mother Nature’s seasonal variations are on full display with daffodils and azaleas during spring and pampas grass in autumn. Then, there is also the Flowering Tree Garden and the Rock Garden, adorned with moss and lichen-covered stones, large and small. There is also a Flower Garden, a Cactus Garden with more than 200 types of cacti and succulents, a Water Garden that greets visitors with the soothing sound of running water, and the Four Gracious Plants Garden, highlighting bamboo, plum, orchid, and chrysanthemum, as well as a seasonal panorama of wildflowers. You can also find a golf course, spa, private sleeping rooms, an ice skating rink, and a casino. Imagine, you have not even left the airport! And for any travel questions or emergencies, the 1330 Korea Travel Hotline, in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese, operates 24/7. That’s right, 24 hours a day, seven days a week!
This is just one reason why Asian tourists regularly rank Seoul, the capital of Korea, as their favorite world city. Springing from the ruins of the Korean War, Seoul has boomed in just 50 years to become the world’s 10th-most economically powerful city and second-largest metropolitan area. Its global reputation centers on a rapid pace, technological prowess, glittering skyscrapers, and fast-paced nightlife. But there are surprising pockets of tranquility in this city of more than 9 million people. Wander its streets and find a whole other world waiting to be discovered, one of history, culture, and art.
Surrounded by its ancient city walls, Seoul is home to five impressive palaces, all worth exploring. Gyeongbokgung, the largest of these, built in 1395, is the granddaddy of them all. Its name means “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.” Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to its name, since the Japanese twice ransacked it through the centuries. But restoration began in 1990 and continues to this day. The National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea are also here. Watch the changing of the royal guard ceremony featuring guards in traditional dress. It takes place daily and is an excellent introduction to the country.
In the Taebaeksan Mountains of Gangwon-do Province, Pyeongchang, the main location of the world’s greatest snow festival called the XXIII Olympic Winter Games (nowpyeongchang.com) is home to both mountains and beaches. Hike a forest trail or stay overnight in a serene mountain temple. Called the most beautiful province in South Korea, its deep valleys and pristine nature give rise to flavorful local culinary specialties, such as wild herbs, vegetables, and buckwheat. One local traditional dish found here is sanche jeongsik, a set menu based on seasoned wild vegetables.
The Olympic host cities, Pyeongchang (main location), Gangneung, and Jeongseon sponsor some 15 sports, including alpine skiing, bobsled, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, luge, snowboarding, Nordic combined, and speed skating, that thrilling combination of speed, agility and strategy.
Gangneung, a coastal city in Gangwon-do Province, is already a major domestic tourist city in Korea. It is a city of tradition and culture surrounded by the Dalgwallyeong mountain pass and the East Sea. With newly constructed Olympic facilities and improved transportation, the city welcomes global tourism with its perfect blend of culture and nature more accessible than ever. Coffee is a popular local product with a coffee festival held every fall. It began in 2009 to share coffee culture and today attracts lots of tourists. There are coffee masters and the famous coffee street on Anmok Beach lined with cafés and coffee shops that mostly roast their own coffee beans and are filled with the aroma of coffee permeating the air from the nearby Terarosa Coffee factory. The famous Jumungin Seafood Market sells seafood caught in the East Sea and specializes in raw fish for sashimi. During the Blowfish Festival in December and January, attendees can sample various dishes prepared from this often-deadly fish.
Jeongseo, located in the southeast part of Gangwon-do Province, is recognized as the location of the popular Jeongseon Arirang Market, the nation’s largest traditional agricultural trading center. This attracts many domestic tourists, as well as international visitors who come to sample foods, participate in the many seasonal festivals, and leave with a greater appreciation of Korean food ways.
Excellent public transportation makes any region of the country reachable in a day. Nature, tradition, and modernity make Korea a very attractive tourist destination, indeed.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.