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Exploring ‘The Land of Morning Calm’

Before South Korea became globally known for its beauty products, kimchi and pop groups, it was known as the Land of the Morning Calm. The name has long been used to refer to the Korean Peninsula, before the division of South and North Korea, because of its tranquil, temple-dotted mountains and serene forests where dawn breaks on the Asian mainland.


But calm is not a word that best captured the state of South Korea in the years running up to the pandemic. It experienced a cultural explosion of art, cuisine, literature and cinema with high profile films such as “Parasite,” which swept the Oscars in February 2020 and nudged the nation onto many travelers’ maps. A month later, the coronavirus hit and a calm returned. The bustling nation had closed shop.


But on June 1, 2022, Korea opened to foreign tourists again, issuing short-term travel visas for the first time in two years and lifted most COVID-related restrictions for residents.


The secrets of rural Korea are not widely known, even to many urbanite Koreans. According to the Statistics of Urban Planning, 92% of the country’s population now lives in urban areas, up from just 39% in 1960. As a traveler to more than 20 Asian countries, including popular destinations such as Cambodia and Thailand, lesser-traveled spots such as Laos, Bhutan and Taiwan, plus a dozen trips to Japan, I assumed the slow-paced side of Korea might be similar to those countries.


How wrong I was.


In March 2019, I spent two weeks hiking and touring through rural South Korea to explore the eight mainland provinces of this 38,750-square-mile country, slightly bigger than Indiana but smaller than Kentucky. Unbeknown to me, March wasn’t the best time to go. It’s mud season. Wildflowers hadn’t bloomed yet, many trails were still closed and smog was at its worst.


Despite the mud, I lost myself in tranquil thatched-roof hamlets, peaceful Buddhist temples clinging to mountains, glittering dark sky reserves and unhurried “slow food” towns where a generation of South Korean women older than 60 are preserving the country’s culinary heritage.


Leaving Seoul Behind


Getting out of metropolitan Seoul, home to a staggering 26 million people, is the first hurdle of any visit to rural Korea.


High-speed Korea Rail trains are affordable and efficient but tend to connect to other urban areas. Hiring a guide and driver is not cheap, but offers a good way to get a deeper understanding of the fast-changing culture. I did a hybrid of the two, which helped bridge the language barrier and let me move around freely, still allowing for independent exploration and unstructured downtime.


Escaping Seoul’s infinity pool of neo-Brutalist sprawl takes about two hours by car. The drive passes row after row of blocky uniform apartment towers, lined up like dominoes across the drab plains that surround Seoul’s bowl-shaped basin and eight surrounding guardian mountains.


South Korea’s northernmost province, Gangwon, two hours northeast, is a sensible first stop, not to mention the scenic shooting locale for “Okja,” a 2017 movie by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho about a lovable pig raised on a lush mountaintop farm. Gangwon is pressed up against the infamous DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea.


I skipped the DMZ to instead explore the northernmost parts of South Korea, where domestic travelers have long sought out the pristine beaches, granite-peaked national parks and forested valleys.


I was headed for Seoraksan (Snow Rock Mountain), one of South Korea’s 21 national parks and a UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve in the Taebeak Mountains, a spine running the length of the Korean Peninsula. At the park’s base is a smattering of gift shops and food stalls hawking hot coffee, noodle soups and fortifying bowls of dok boki, toothsome rice cakes drenched in a fermented red chili sauce.


If you have a spare eight to 11 hours, you could make the challenging climb up 5,604 feet to Daecheong Peak, the park’s highest summit. I didn’t. Like most visitors I opted instead for the shorter and easier cable car ride to another summit called Gwongeum Fortress, originally built to fend off the Mongolians, whose multiple 13th-century invasions left many traces in Korean art, cuisine and culture as we know it today.


A Buddhist Temple Stay


At Seoraksan (and for much of my trip), I was the only non-Asian in the crowd, with no other international tourists in sight. But my next stop not only lacked other tourists, it had no other guests at all. At the 1,000-year-old Samhwasa, a temple hidden deep in a ravine in the Muneung Valley, where I had booked a temple stay, I had the grounds to myself except for Bubchang, a sweet, wiry Buddhist monk wearing a heather gray robe, floppy cap and a permanent smile.

在雪岳山时(以及我此行的大部分时间里),我是众多游客里唯一一个非亚洲人,根本看不到其他的海外游客。但我的下一站不仅没有其他游客,也没有其他客人。三河寺有着1000年历史,隐在武陵溪谷山涧深处,我在这里定好了一夜住宿。这里的僧人布昌(Bubchang ,音)待人亲切、清瘦结实,身着灰色僧袍,头戴软帽,脸上永远挂着微笑,除了他之外,这里只有我一人。

Bubchang walked with me in golden-hour light through mossy woods awash in pink spring wildflowers aside waterfalls trickling over weathered rocks, into which old poems were carved. He guided me through the 108 prostrations ceremony, a calorie-burning Buddhist ritual in which I chanted 108 mantras and deep-bowed 108 times while stringing together 108 bodhi prayer beads to form a necklace.


While ringing the bronze temple bell after our humble supper of rice and kimchi, Bubchang held my hand and told me that I was beautiful. Samhwasa’s temple stay program is called “Love Myself and Help Five Friends.”


“Visitors here learn to love themselves and then envision how they can help five friends,” says Bubchang, taking a selfie of us with his smartphone.


Unlike Japan’s tourist-oriented shukubo (temple stays) that offer ornate vegan kaiseki meals, manicured gardens and even onsen baths, Korea’s temple stays are more structured and might feel slightly austere, but are truer to how the monks actually live. Many have cell-like rooms with cold hard floors and require guests to complete chores. Few have showers, private toilets, heat or outlets for charging phones.


I partially chose Samhwasa because at $70 per night it seemed like a bargain, especially since its rooms have private showers and toilets, not to mention heated floors. But while overnighting there may be spiritually rewarding, it was physically demanding. Mattresses were no thicker than a puffer jacket and the pillows were shaped like loaves of sandwich bread, but firmer than a dictionary. And while the floor may not be cold, it was still quite hard.


While it was cold, smoggy and raining for much of my visit in South Korea, I still made a point to visit Gangwon’s renowned beaches. Chuam Beach, just south of Korea’s easternmost city of Donghae, is a chill surf town famous for its pine-secluded beaches and sacred Chuam Chotdaebawi Rock, named for its candle-shaped sea stacks. Local myth says they represent a man who couldn’t choose between his wife and concubine, so all three of them were petrified.

虽然我在韩国大部分时候都天气很冷、有雾霾,还一直下雨,但我还是特地去了江原道闻名遐迩的海滩。 湫岩海水浴场就在韩国最东端城市东海以南,这是一个安逸的冲浪小城,以位于松林后僻静的海滩和神圣的湫岩烛台岩而闻名。根据当地的传说,这些岩石代表着一名无法在妻子和妾室之间做出抉择的男子,于是三人均遭石化。

Onward to the Hanok


Korea’s hanoks, traditional guesthouses, are another way to experience Old Korea, and many have been meticulously preserved and are worth seeking out. I continued south by car for two hours to reach the Gyeongsangbuk province, home to the Andong Hahoe Hanok Village nestled into a flat and sandy ox bow of the Nakdong River. Most of its low-slung houses lining the stonewalled, earthen lanes have landscaped courtyards, thatched roofs and sliding windows covered with hanji, a fibrous paper made from mulberry bark and used in many traditional houses.


At the village’s center is Bukchondaek House, built for a noble family in 1811 and converted to a hanok in 2016. It’s wrapped in verandas and shaded by a gnarly 300-year-old pine tree. Its ninth-generation owners have meticulously restored its painted screens and heated ondol floors, a system using smoke from a subterranean fire, while its hand-woven cotton wool mattresses were beautiful but made me yearn for something a bit thicker.


But what it cost me in sleep, it made up for in charm. At sunset, I walked through the village’s sandy-floored pine forests and spied a pair of stout water deer running through the riverbed’s rustling reeds.


Slow Food Along the Southern Coast


A two-hour drive southwest took me past scraggly mountain forests to the lush hilly seashores of North and South Jeolla along the country’s southern coast, including 2,000 islands (300 of which are uninhabited). No place in South Korea better expresses the nation’s devotion to food than these green, relaxed and lesser-developed provinces.


This is the home of Baekyangsa Temple, introduced to many foodies in an episode of “Chef’s Table,” the Netflix show, featuring Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan, whose temple cooking includes lotus-scented water and acorns brushed with sesame oil. But she isn’t the only one known for cooking here. Slow Food International, an Italian-based organization focused on preserving local food heritage, has nominated a handful of “cittaslow” (slow cities) in Jeolla for their time-honored cuisine, and local female food experts are often at the center of each.

这里是白羊寺的所在地。网飞的节目《主厨的餐桌》(Chef’s Table)中以比丘尼静宽(Jeong Kwan)为主角的一集令许多美食爱好者知道了这个地方,静宽的斋饭里有着莲花水及刷了芝麻油的橡子。但她并非这里唯一一个以烹饪而闻名的人物。总部位于意大利、关注保存地方食物遗产的国际慢食协会提名了好几个全罗道的“慢城”,以表彰其历史悠久的菜肴,而这些慢城的中心人物往往是当地的女性美食专家。

It was pouring rain when I arrived in the slowcitta of Jeonju, chosen by UNESCO as a Creative City of Gastronomy in 2012. Its cobbled main street is lined with reproduction Joseon-era storefronts bustling with street food vendors hawking everything from grapefruit beer to grilled cheese sandwich skewers.


A few blocks away, hidden behind a gated garden, was my next hanok, Hakindang House (rooms from $75), a property built of wide planks of sturdy black pine from royal palace carpenters in 1908. I slid the latticed wooden doors open to my room filled with Korean lacquerware chests, an embroidered burgundy mattress and boxy woven straw pillows resembling tissue box covers. Exhausted after a day of travel, I climbed onto the thin mattress and fell asleep listening to the pitter-patter of rain on the clay roof.


In the morning, I was greeted by Seo Hwa-soon, the great-great-granddaughter of the house’s founder (she has since retired). In 1950s-style red frame glasses and a fastidiously tied pink silk scarf, she served me an epic breakfast of 25 colorful and meticulously arranged dishes, including traditional family recipes like saenghapjak, made with julienne white lilies, shiitake and carrots; pink-dyed lotus root slices; and gloriously tender bulgogi, grilled Korean beef.


My last stop was the slowcitta of Changpyeong, known for its stonewalled lanes and relaxed cafes and shops serving hangwa, confections sweetened with honey. It’s also home to Ki Soon Do, the prestigious Grand Master of Jang, Korea’s traditional fermented sauces, an essential ingredient to kimchi, and many other Korean dishes.

我的最后一站是慢城昌平面,这里因小路两边的石墙、令人放松的咖啡馆和售卖韩果的店铺而闻名。韩果是一种用蜂蜜制成的点心。韩国著名的传统酱大师纪顺道(Ki Soon Do,音)也居住在这里。对于韩式泡菜和许多其他韩国菜肴来说,大酱不可或缺。

In the front yard of her woodsy home studio were dozens of hangari (clay pots) brimming with fermenting jangs including ganjang, (soy sauce), a miso-like paste called doenjang, and the spicy-red-pepper-based gochujang, which she makes with strawberries, her house specialty.


Her family has been making these sauces for 10 generations and now ship the jangs globally. Wearing a traditional green and gold hanbock dress, Ki played the role of matriarch with aplomb. She checked the sauces with a spoon made from a hollowed-out gourd. Her adult son watched her face closely while she took a taste, understanding that her palate is the family’s most valuable asset.


On the three-hour high-speed Korea Rail return trip to Seoul, I upgraded to the first class car, awash in red velvet seats and TV screens, for an extra $15 and watched farmland peppered with gigantic apartment towers whiz past my window.


Back in the city there would be plenty of malls, museums and modern hotels from the midrange Lotte to the luxurious Four Seasons. But it’s harder to find Old Korea there. Like many city-dwellers around the world during the pandemic, Seoulites developed a deeper love for nature and escaping the city. Perhaps access to rural areas will open up more as foreign tourism increases.


“Foreigners are only beginning to understand Korea and Korean food,” Mrs. Ki had told me, as she stirred a 20-year-old pot of jang. “We want to share it with the world as a way to help preserve these old traditions.”

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