Notes On South Korea


Guards leave Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
Traditional drum in Gyeongbokgung Palace

What is South Korea? How to capture its essence?

These are some of my notes and thoughts after our fist visit to Korea. I never did get to putting them on the blog, but will do so now, as the sentiments have not changed after our subsequent visits.

South Korea is a small country that would fit into Illinois. And yet, it’s a land of great contrasts, an extraordinary mix that goes into making the country what it is. The provinces outside of Seoul are very varied: with rivers and rice paddies; shrines and mountain scenery; timeless temples; mushrooming modern apartment cities; neon and bamboo; a blend of old and new, modern and traditional.

Traditional and modern, Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul
The Old and New City Halls, Seoul

It has a long convoluted coastline with many islands on three sides; coastal plains devoted largely to agriculture (rice, barley, ginseng, multiple vegetables in tunnels, huge cattle barns); and mountains, lots of mountains—about 70% of the country is mountainous. That doesn’t leave much land for human habitation, so high-rise cities pop up in open spaces. You’ll emerge from a tunnel on the highway and suddenly in front of you there’ll be a forest of tall apartment buildings. Many are relatively new cities, we’re told, and many are satellite cities for other mega cities, like Seoul or Busan.

It’s a mix of old and ultra-modern—small shops with curving tiles roofs just down the street from tall curving steel creations, likely the HQ of one of the mega companies that tend to have a monopoly here. Wonderful palace complexes, built hundreds of years ago, open up behind their walls right in the center of the city, and you’ll likely find old stone pagodas preserved in a more modern park. You can find colorfully decorated temples both high in remote mountain areas and right in the middle of a bustling town or city, perhaps opposite a huge new conference center.

An ultra-modern building in Gangnam
New and old close to the National Folk Museum, Seoul
Tiled roofs in Bukchon Hanok Village

The public transport system in the large cities is great, and well-used, and yet the traffic jams can be horrendous, as Koreans also love their cars. Koreans are very polite people generally, but this often disappears on the roads, with pushy, impatient drivers. The highway system around the country is amazing, engineered over valleys, and through and around mountains. On some of the highways heading south there are so many tunnels that we lost count and we also marveled at how long many of them are. The Highway Service Areas can be enormous, like shopping complexes in their own right with huge varied food courts.

Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square


Statue of Admiral Yi in Gwanghwamun Square
Traditional dancers on Gwanghwamun Square

The country is very aware of the green movement, trying to save energy, and to recycle etc. and yet the cities are awash in a sea of brightly colored, flashing neon at night.

Koreans are very patriotic and very proud of their long, complicated history, with strong influences from China and Japan. Some of the people who hosted us were able to tell stories of previous dynasties and kings, even giving dates of various battles. They tell us proudly about King Sejeong, who developed Hangul, the system for writing the Korean language, which freed them from using Chinese characters; and about Admiral Yi, who helped fend off Japanese invaders hundreds of years ago.

Old and New City Halls, Seoul
Old and new near Gyeongbokgung Palace
Jongno Tower from Tapgol Park

And yet, many (most) Koreans still also have a Chinese character as part of their name—the character gives a meaning. These days, Korea has embraced the concept of learning English as a necessity in our global world, and almost all schools teach English to kids from an early age. There are also private English academies and schools and I saw signs, even in relatively small towns. Younger people are usually quite keen to practice their English but older folk are more reserved and hesitant. Many signs and directions are in English as well as Korean, especially in the cities, so it’s possible as a foreigner to get around on one’s own—notably in the Seoul subway system.

Even though English is widely taught, for us as a foreigner the Korean language can be a problem, especially outside of the Seoul metropolitan area. We picked up a few words orally but the written language remains a mystery—it looks like no other western language we’ve either learned or had contact with. It looks pretty and I’m told it’s relatively easy to learn as it was scientifically developed. But sadly, so far, I haven’t found time to try and learn it.


The Handbag Museum in Sinsa-dong

Korea has a long history of drinking green tea, and yet recently has embraced coffee in a big way, and you’ll find a coffee shop or two on virtually every block. But strangely, coffee is not usually available in restaurants.

Modern fashion is a thriving industry and most Koreans are very elegantly dressed, especially for work. And yet, for special occasions they favor the traditional clothes: we see women dressed in hanboks to visit the temple, or to dance an old traditional dance, and most of the palaces have changing of the guards ceremonies, with the guards all in the old-style costume.

We loved learning about this country and its culture. The following is just a few of the other things that we noted, in no particular order.

Metal chopsticks and a metal spoon are the standard cutlery. More hygienic I believe, but actually harder for us to use than wooden ones!

Beds, or rather roll-up mattresses, are often on the floor. Most westerners are not familiar with sleeping on the floor any more (not unless camping perhaps, when that’s often associated with discomfort!). In fact, in many Korean houses and many restaurants, people sit on the floor too, so long-legged folk like my husband can have problems. Shoes are always taken off in Korean houses and special restaurants, probably because the tradition is to sit, eat and sleep on the floor.

Old stone pagodas in Yongsan Park at the National Museum of Korea
Part of Deoksugung Palace

There is excellent public toilet accessibility everywhere, generally. Look for the red (female) and blue (male) signs. For women, also look for the sign for a sitting toilet, not the traditional squatting type (the sign is usually marked on the door of each stall). In some hotels and many homes they have the fancy toilets with all kinds of buttons. Even if they have symbols or an English word I still haven’t really figured them out! And if in Korean, it’s rather daunting as who knows what that button means! A few times I even had trouble finding the flush.

Water is offered almost everywhere, either in jugs on the table or in a large dispenser

Traditional dance at N. Seoul Tower on Namsan Mt

that patrons can use. In some public places, like museums, we discovered a very interesting water system: a large water dispenser with small paper cups in a cone shape. We saw very few drinking fountains anywhere as we know them.

There are many convenience stores everywhere—-and they sure are convenient. Many are 24/7.

We noticed lots of noise, people, traffic and neon lights. I can now better understand why some of my Asian students tell me that they sometimes feel lonely here in Champaign-Urbana! They are so used to having crowds of people around them in their lives.

Lots of tourist/historic places have a sign saying “Photo Point”, for the best spot for a picture.

We hope that we can return soon, to learn more about this fascinating country.



Traditional Costume Experience


At Unhyeong Palace, Seoul
A selfie at Unhyeong

At a number of famous sights in Korea we were amazed to see so many young women wearing traditional Korean dresses (hanbok) and even some young men wearing traditional garb. At first we wondered if it were some special occasion, but soon found out that they were wearing rental clothes. Many are young Koreans but far more are tourists, mainly from China. Apparently it’s very popular and cool to have one’s photo taken at an old or traditional sight/site wearing traditional Korean clothes—to kind of fit into the scene and make it feel more authentic.

The rental stands are usually near the Information Center, or where one can rent out audio guides.


Here is a small selection of pictures to show how popular this tourist pastime is.

The first set is from Unhyeong Royal Residence in Seoul (see previous post about the palace). At Unhyeong the costumes can be rented from 10am-6pm April-Oct, and 10am-5pm November-March. The cost is only 3,300 won (just over US$3). I’m told that you have to leave your ID as a guarantee.


Jeonju Hanok Village

The second set is from Jeonju Hanok Village in Jeonju, SW Korea, a very popular destination. The historical area of the city has many outstanding hanok (traditional architecture) buildings, many places to buy and learn traditional crafts, such as making paper or folding fans, an old palace and many shrines.




A Korean Bakery in Paris



                                  Korean Paris Baguette in Paris

PB logo in Paris

This is a Korean bakery in Paris (there’s fusion for you!). I debated whether to post this on the Korean blog or the French blog, as it pertains to both. So, I decided to post it on both. If you read both blogs, my apologies. But if you only read one, then you won’t miss this!

When we were in Korea we noticed that many bakeries/café/coffee shops have French names, like Tous les Jours, Paris Baguette, Pommier, Paris Croissant.

I wrote earlier about the Korean love of French names for bakeries and cafes here: ( ). One of these bakeries is Paris Baguette, which launched in Seoul in 1988 and soon became a huge success, expanding in the rest of Korea and other countries. Paris Baguette calls itself a “traditional French bakery” and prominently features the Eiffel Tower in its logo. In its outlets, shop employees working the cash registers wear Breton stripes and berets.


As I wrote, “Now Paris Baguette has opened a store in Paris, France, putting its French cooking ideals to the ultimate test. It’s been open a couple of years now, so I’ll be interested in finding out whether it can be a success in France, whether the often-finicky French will accept this. Next time we are in Paris (July this year) I aim to go and find the Korean Paris Baguette and give it a taste test. Will let you know.”


windowWell, we found it on rue des Lavandières-Sainte Opportune, on the corner of rue Jean Lantier, in the Chatelet area (1st arrond). It wasn’t easy to find an address for the Paris branch of this Korean bakery-cafe but we really wanted to find it, and did manage to track it down.

And, it seems to be doing just fine. We went there twice, and each time it was bustling, with a line of people waiting. It looks very similar to the outlets in Korea, but does also fit into the street here. In fact, with that name you’d never know that it wasn’t just another actual Paris bakery. Everything is written in French, as you’d expect, which we found a little disconcerting at first, having first discovered Paris Baguette in Korea, where everything was written in Korean, of course, but often with an English translation.


PBlogo copy
PB logo in Korea

One difference is that most French bakeries typically don’t have places to sit, once you’ve ordered, but this does, although fewer seats than in the Korea branches. Another is a few of the offerings, such as Bingsu, which is a Korean addition. A big difference is in the logo. Here the Eiffel Tower has been removed and we see just the PB.

Without actually speaking to the management, I’d say that it’s doing fine. Well done Korean” Paris Baguette”!


Seoul Markets: Inheon Market




Inheon Market: This local market takes place most days, in Nakseongdae near the Nakseongdae metro station, not too far from Seoul National University where we were staying.

Markets are one of our favorite places to visit in a city or town, as they can tell us so much about a country or an area and its cooking, cuisine and culture. So, when out hosts at the Workshop at the SNU campus asked us on our first full day there what we wanted to do, we asked if there was a local fresh food market.

There is. 2cucumber

It’s called Inheon Market, the same name as the local primary school. It’s a long narrow street lined with small stalls and shops selling every type of imaginable vegetable, root, and fish and shellfish (and some not-so-imaginable, or at least unknown to us), pork, rice and rice cakes, kimchi, red chile paste, soybean paste, snacks etc.

Some very spicy things!
Day Lily greens


Many of the vegetables are seasonal, with lots only appearing in spring, so we felt very fortunate to see these “in the raw” here at the market, and then later during our month-long visit to taste many of them. Some of the greens (that we could find the word for) were: mugwort greens, garlic greens, day lily greens, bracken fronds (kosari), on left. Of the roots, we saw lotus root, and deoduk (no English).


Deoduk root
A woman peeling the deoduk root

2greensLike many markets around the world, it’s vibrant, noisy, colorful, with odors wafting and voices calling out to buy some product.

We slowly wandered its length, stopping and asking innumerable questions. Our hosts were very happy to get out their electronic dictionaries and try to find an English word for some of the things we were seeing. Some could be translated, some not, as probably we just don’t have that item in our country. We were the only non-Koreans there, so it felt really “authentic”, that we were experiencing the market just as the locals do.

We couldn’t find the English word for these greens (which are very tasty when cooked)
We are told these are tasty!

What did we see and learn? That Koreans love vegetables and seafood; that seafood can be fresh, dried, or preserved in a paste; that some seafood is very strange-looking; that rice in various forms is an integral part of their cuisine; that many foods are smothered in a bright red chile paste; that prices here at the market are very reasonable; that people are very friendly; that traditional foods have adapted to modern times (example, kimbap (rice rolls) stuffed with ham and cheese, or Spam, or kimchi).

Modern flavors of kimbab!
Some snacks on offer

2seaweedIt’s not easy to capture the essence of a market in words, so I’ll try to “summarize” in pictures. These are just a few of our photos, giving a brief look at the huge variety, the colors, the sometimes strangeness, and the different/new products.


Perilla leaves–beautifully wrapped



Mandu (dumplings)
Sea Squirts—I couldn’t make myself eat these, especially not raw!



Love of French Names in Korea



A Taste of France in Korea and the Korean Love of French Names

Many stores, especially those related to food (and especially bakeries), have French names. Some that we have seen are: Le Pommier, Paris Baguette, Paris Croissant, Tous Les Jours, Patisserie Emma. We have eaten at a few, and the baked goods were pretty good, I must say.


A tempting array of (rather expensive) cakes
A cake with “sticky” icing

However, there are large variations in the type and quality of baked goods in Korea. One the one hand, at many of these bakeries around Korea we saw loaves of bread with crisp crusts and airy interiors, buttery flaky croissants, baguettes and gorgeous pastries and cakes that are aiming to live up to European standards. They have some Korean bakers trained in France and Germany. On the other hand, many places also serve earlier versions of Korean bread that came by way of Japan: soft and chewy, filled with red bean paste or topped with hot dogs or gooey condensed milk icing. For a country whose cuisine was mostly based on rice and noodles, the Koreans have embraced bread and pastries in a big way.


Regardless of what variation of bread and pastries the stores sell, how did this love of/use of French names for bakeries come about?



Inside a Paris Croissant in Insa-dong

It seems that it started with Paris Croissant and Paris Baguette.

In a society with an abundance of American brand names for fast-food eateries, what could be more exotic for Korean food-lovers than a name in French?

Established in 1986, Paris Croissant introduced the European bakery culture to Korea. In 1988, Paris Croissant launched Paris Baguette, which grew into a top bakery café franchise brand in Korea.

PBaguette copy
A Paris Baguette in Suncheon

Paris Baguette was founded in 1988 by Korean businessman, Hur Young-in, as a place to go in Seoul for eclairs, croissants, and other delicious pastries with a distinctly French “look”. They also adapted many of the typical French goods for the Korean palate, for example by using flavors such as green tea and sesame. They also made pastries fusing savory (like ham and cheese) with sweet (like condensed milk or honey)—a concept very popular in Asia but strange to most European and western tastes.

Although it looks delicious, this style of cake is different to what you’d find in France

Generally, the menu was exciting and different, but many felt the replicas of real French cuisine were not totally authentic. This didn’t stop Paris Baguette from opening shops in Korea and around the world. In South Korea, Paris Baguette operates about 3,250 outlets, and the company aims to open stores in 60 countries, including China, the USA, Singapore and Vietnam.

Paris Baguette’s management says that it’s nonsense that it can’t be the face of French-style baking around the world. “There’s no reason a Korean company can’t become the best French bakery chain in the world,” Ahn Tae-ju, a company executive who has helped to plan Paris Baguette’s overseas expansion, said in an interview.

Paris Baguette calls itself a “traditional French bakery” and prominently features the Eiffel Tower in its logo. In its outlets, shop employees working the cash registers wear Breton stripes and berets.

The company has a number of affiliates, also with French names: L’Atelier, Le Pommier, and Petit 5.

The French theme caught on in Korea.



Tous les Jours is the name of another popular Korean chain. It’s not as big as Paris Baguette, but it has powerful backing, as the owner is CJ Foodville, part of the mega CJ Corporation. They also run A Twosome Place (coffee shop chain) and OliveOYoung (an up-market convenience store).

Au Bon Pain is in Seoul too, but it’s an American company. This American chain has five stores in Seoul—all in upscale visible settings—and one in Susong-Dong. Like the others, it offers what is supposedly real French-style goodies.

Which of these is “more French”? That’s all a matter of individual taste.

People lining up to go into Jean Boulangerie
Inside Jean Boulangerie


Many small, independent bakeries and coffee shops around Korea also have a French name. For example, Jean Boulangerie, and Café Goutier near Nakseongdae metro station at Seoul National University; Tour de Café in the COEX district, Seoul. (This is just a very tiny sample!)

To further complicate the story, there’s also Caffé Bene, a coffeehouse chain that rapidly expanded to more than 1,500 coffee shops, more than 900 in Korea and nearly 100 in the USA, since its founding by entrepreneur Kim Sun-Kwon in 2008 (*Note that we have 2 Caffe Bene in our university town of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois). It has also opened in 11 other countries. The name “bene” is actually Italian, almost as trendy as French when it comes to enticing Korean customers. In spite of competition from Starbucks and Coffee Bean, Caffe Bene is Korea’s biggest supplier of coffee, and also offers cakes, cookies, bagels and other food items.


French-Korea Moving to France

Now Paris Baguette has opened a store in Paris, France, putting its French cooking ideals to the ultimate test. It’s been open a while (ca 18 months) so I’ll be interested in finding out whether it can be a success in France, whether the often-finicky French will accept this. Next time we are in Paris (July this year) I aim to go and find the Korean Paris Baguette and give it a taste test. Will let you know.

Here’s a good article on the types of pastries and baked goods offered at the Paris Baguette and other stores around the world:



Great Concept, Underwhelming Execution



Kimchikan—Sadly, an underwhelming Kimchi Museum

4-6 floor, 35-4 Insadong, in the MARU Korean Cultural Space. Open 10-6,

Anguk Station Line 3, exit 6.

This museum was very hard to find. If you walk down Insadong Street from Anguk Station, after about a 10-minute stroll look out for a sign pointing down an alley on the right that says “K Food” and on the side of a building a little into the alley you’ll see a large mural of a Napa cabbage and some red peppers. Go up the metal stairs to level 4.



This small museum, previously called the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum, was founded in 1986 and used to be in the COEX area south of the Han. It moved to Insadong in April 2015 and changed its name to Kimchikan. Why?

In traditional Korean society, the place for making side dishes was called ‘Chankan’, the place for preparing the king’s meals was ‘Surakan’ and the place for keeping foodstuffs was called ‘Gotkan’. They took the suffix ‘kan’ from these words and created the name ‘Kimchikan’, hoping that visitors will be able to feel and experience diverse aspects and stories of Kimchi in this place.

A few kimchi jars and lids in the museum

Basically, the museum sings the praises of pickled, peppery cabbage and other vegetables and their wondrous benefits.

Kimchi is such an integral part of Korean cuisine and culture that a museum to explain Kimchi seems like a great idea. Many foreigners have heard of it, or even tasted it, but most don’t know the history of this dish, nor how it was made in the past and how it is made today.

Time line

It was apparently chosen by CNN in March 2015 as one of the world’s top 11 food museums, and the only one in Korea. However, I found this museum very disappointing. They advertise that they show all kinds of educational materials, but in reality there are very few. There are a few old kimchi storage pots in the first room, then a tiny “lab” with a couple of interactive screens telling about the good bacteria found in this kind of fermentation. Upstairs is a wall with a timeline of other countries and various fermented foods, which does show how old the concept is. You can watch a couple of short movies (English sub-titles) showing group kimchi-making in a rural village. On this level there is also a kitchen where you can sign up for kimchi-making classes.

Interactive wall of diets and foods around the world


Upstairs also (you need the bar code on your entrance ticket to open the door) is a small room with jars of some different kinds of kimchi. Up another flight of stairs is another small room with a fridge with a sample of the day you can taste (use your ticket bar code to open the door). In another larger room is a large illuminated wall with the names of different fermented foods in different countries and different types of healthy diets and types of cooking. Tapping on a name brings up a few photos of each. When the screen changes, it’s a collage of foods and people eating around the world (but this is really about fermentation, and not just kimchi). This was probably the highlight of the “tour” for me.

I’ve had many Korean students over the years, who’ve explained much about their culture,


including kimchi. We’ve also visited Korea before and Korean friends took us on a road trip to Andong area, where we saw an old hanok village, plus other old-style houses that still have huge kimchi jars outside—-in the past, people buried these jars of kimchi in the ground to keep them at a constant temperature over the winter.

So, I was surprised that this museum didn’t have many of these old jars, or the traditional utensils used to make kimchi, nor information about the modern kimchi fridges that many families have. There was also very little about the different kinds of kimchi, the different vegetables, the different ways of preparing them, the fact that still today many women get together in the fall to make big batches of kimchi etc. There was no mention of white kimchi, nor water kimchi.

The web site says there are historical books, paintings, and writings about the history of kimchi, but they were not very evident (not to me, anyway).

Entrance was 5,000 won, which includes a brief audio guide.

So, I’d say that if you have no prior knowledge of kimchi you might get some benefit from visiting the Kimchikan. But, otherwise not. There’s a small exhibit at the National Folk Museum that gives about the same amount of information I’d say.

Because kimchi is so important in Korea, I will cover it separately in more detail later.




“Global Deliciousness”

Facade and Korean name
Name on place mat
Waiting for the food: Inhyuk, Dr Baik, Celia, Rod M

A Special Evening and Meal

One night, Dr Baik (who organized the workshop at KNU) took us (Rod and I, and Inhyuk and Celia, the two post-docs who are helping Rod with the workshop) out to dinner at a great Korean restaurant on a narrow street (most streets are narrow actually) in the city area just outside of Seoul National University campus. The Korean restaurant name translates basically as “Global Deliciousness”, an interesting twist on the idea of fusion cooking.

Some of the side dishes
A chicken dish
Dr Baik, Celia, Viv M, Rod M

The restaurant is very traditional in its layout: a step-up private room with wooden floor for which all patrons remove their shoes; a center table with floor cut away beneath it for easier seating; servers in traditional hanboks.

But the food is slightly modified traditional Korean. Many banchan (side dishes) are still served, plus a variety of main dishes, but some dishes are less salty or less chili-hot than normal. This is to try and accommodate foreign tastes, as many foreigners come to this area to visit the university.

The Koreans in our party told us that one of the whole fishes was fried, Chinese-style, which they were not very excited about. I personally still found the soups very spicy.

Fish cooked Chinese-style
One Korean beer

Dr Baik suggested we try a typical Korean alcoholic drink: beer with a shot of soju, which they call “Somaek“ (‘so’ for soju and ‘Maek’ for Maekju [beer]). Soju is a traditional Korean distilled rice liquor (somewhat similar to Japanese sake) with an alcohol content of around 18-20%. The slang for this drink is “a bomb”. We thought it was fine, the soju hardly changing the taste of the beer.

A great meal and a very pleasant evening. We have found the Koreans to be wonderful hosts.

One of Korea’s Best Folk Villages

The main entrance gate
Traditional houses on a dirt alley

Nagan Eupseong Folk Village

Rich in History and Well-Preserved

This was the second stop on the JRS day tour out of Suncheon.

It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011 and I can easily see why, as it’s one of Korea’s best preserved fortress towns and traditional folk villages. We’ve always been interested in folk traditions in any country, so we were delighted to visit here and learn more about Korean old customs.

A fortress-like stone wall surrounds the village
One of the lovely gates

Very brief history: In 940 a small village on the site changed its name to Nagan-gun under the Goryeo Dynasty. It began to flourish in the later 1300s under the Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty. Then, in 1397 Kim Bin-gil raised an army against Japanese intruders, built an earthen fortress wall here and defeated the enemy. However, during King Sejong’s reign (perhaps Korea’s most important king) from 1418-1450, the wall was rebuilt with stone, and the village within it further developed, remaining virtually intact and unchanged for hundreds of years.

View across village from a gate
Rice paddies on the other side of the gate

It is very much a tourist attraction now, with 1.3 million visitors recorded in 2013. But, the beauty is that it is also still a working, living village and not just a showpiece, where all the workers go home to someplace else at night. It’s unique for its setting, completely enclosed by stone fortress walls with three main gates, built to protect the inhabitants from marauding Japanese pirates. The gates were built in a grand style with painted curving tile roofs and beautiful decorated eaves. If you climb up on the wall from one of the gates, you get a good view out over the village, and across to rice paddies outside.

The village is crammed with narrow alleyways, leading to vegetable plots, penned animals, a lotus pond, many fruit trees, and adobe and stone thatched homes, and a few larger buildings with slate roofs.

Sesame plot
Sesame drying outside a house
Kimchi pots, someone sleeping on the step—you could almost image you were in the 18th century

We thought a visit here was a wonderful way of getting a glimpse of what rural life was like hundreds of years ago, and continuing today in some places. It’s fascinating to wander along the narrow dusty lanes with mud and thatch houses, trying to imagine what living here would be like. Our time was rushed, but what we saw was very interesting: village life and how they are maintaining some traditions. There are of course modern touches now—like electricity and cars and motorbikes—but still it’s a different way of life; small houses in a small community—maybe around 100 households now, with 280 people living in the area. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see old houses, with shiny new cars parked in the dusty yards. Each house has an enclosed yard, and we see fruit trees, small patches of vegetables, sesame drying on straw mats or a tarpaulin, a dog or a baby sleeping in the shade. We’re told that each house has 3 rooms in a line, an outhouse, a shed (for equipment or cows) and a toilet.

One house showcasing what can be made with rice straw
Preparing the rice straw
Totems at village entrance

Outside the entrances to the village are special totem poles carved from wooden logs—they are often grouped in twos or fours and are kind of like guardians of the village. Each pole has a funny or scary face carved on it. Inside, all the houses have a street number, many etched on a wooden totem pole. Probably the guardian of that house.

Inside, a couple of the larger buildings have curved tile roofs; they were/are the official buildings, like the prison (fun to visit and watch a re-enactment of a prison beating), the governor’s house, the administrative office and the village school. The other houses have thatched roofs and it was interesting to see that many of them have pumpkins growing on the roofs.

Note the pumpkins growing on the roof
Many pumpkins are carefully nested on the roof

Many houses are still inhabited, some are guesthouses now, a few are small shops or cafes, and some are demo places for traditional folk arts and crafts (for example, items made of rice straw, pottery, a wishing rope, calligraphy, and traditional Korean musical instruments). We were interested in the rice crafts, and what you can do with rice straw.

General Lim Gyeong-Up Pavilion

The scientists in our party also noted the large stacks of rice straw, many covered in black plastic. The straw is ammoniated, which is a way to improve digestibility.

The oldest and biggest tree in the village is a giant Ginkgo bilobe, which some believe is as old as from 1397. On our way out we also noted the Monument and Pavilion of General Lim Gyeong-Up. He was governor of Nagan in the 1620s and was much respected for good works. It was erected in 1628 when the General left Nagan. Sacrificial rites are given to him on Full Moon’s Day every year.

Most houses have an identifying (and guardian) totem
Re-enactment in the jail yard

It’s a really interesting place but we had limited time, plus it was so hot and humid it was actually not very pleasant. Generally, one wouldn’t choose to come here in the hot summer. We missed a lot so it would be fun to return one day, in cooler weather and spend more time.

Open daily, with hours varying depending on season. Adults 4,000 won (US$3.30), middle and high school students 2,500 won (US$2), and elementary school children 1,500 won (US$1.25).

Guardian Zelkova Trees

I wrote about a couple of old trees in Korea recently (see here ).

Zelkova at palace in Suwon

In many parts of the world villages have collective expressions of spirit belief, as in the reverence paid to a particularly large old tree that has shaded generations of ancestors. It’s believed that there’s a special spirit, or sometimes a God, of the tree and that this spirit will protect the village and villagers under certain conditions.

Here I want to focus on the wonderful old Zelkova trees that we often find at temples or palaces in Korea. These amazing trees stand as a welcome near the entrance to temples, usually in the temple or palace gardens. These are Zelkova serrata (Japanese zelkova, Japanese elm, or Keyaki), a type of tree that’s native to Japan, Korea, eastern China, and Taiwan.

Besides being beautiful old trees, they are lovingly looked after by generations and often propped up if necessary.


Zelkova sign at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace

The first one we found was at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace in Suwon, an old city about 48 km south of Seoul. This zelkova on the edge of the entrance courtyard to the palace is more than 600 years old and is very sacred. It has grown here and protected Suwon city since before the construction of the Hwaseong Fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung Palace.

It was believed that there was a God of the tree, which would punish anyone who broke one of its leaves or branches. There is a legend that if you make a wish to the tree the wish will come true. A plaque near the tree suggests: “Make a wish for your family or friends to the tree, which still holds the spirit of King Jeongjo. Write your wish on the paper and tie it to a straw rope around the tree.” Many people do this and there are lots of white papers tied to the rope. We asked our Korean friends about this, and they laughed and said, “maybe we believe in that. But it’s a good thing to try.”

At the Folk Village
Viv M makes a wish at the Folk Village

The next tree was at the Naganeupseong Folk Village, which we visited on a day trip organized by the conference held at Sunchon National University, in Suncheon not far away. It’s a really interesting Folk Village (which I’ll cover in more detail later), established during the Chosun Dynasty and at least 600 years old. It’s thought that the tree is a similar age. This tree didn’t have ropes with notes tied to it, but close by was a special small hanok house with a table outside. There, visitors could get a strip of yellow paper, write a wish on it and then tie it to a piece of twine strung out like a clothes line. I did that (but the wish is a secret!)

At Naesosa Temple
At Naesosa Temple

The final zelkovas that we found on this trip were at Naesosa Temple (I’ll write about that in more detail later). It’s an ancient Buddhist Temple, built around 633 AD, on the Byeonsan peninsula (the same peninsula with the salt fields and cliffs I wrote about). Trees are all around, as the temple complex is surrounded by the fir forests of the Buan-Gun National Park. But, the huge zelkovas are different. They are very big, and very much a part of the temple proceedings—bedecked with strings of colorful banners and thick straw ropes in different shapes. So nice to see.




Venerable Old Trees

A revered temple tree

Old trees, new trees, big trees, small trees

We love trees—for many reasons—and can’t imagine living anywhere that doesn’t have a variety of trees.

I’ve written about Arbor Day before, as trees are so lovely and so important to all our communities. See here:

So, it’s very interesting to travel in some Asian countries, especially Japan, Korea and China, where trees are actually revered, and people go to great lengths to keep old trees alive.

Ginkgo tree on Ginkgo Tree Avenue in Jeongju

People there of yesteryear believed that trees had spirits or were gods even, and some of those beliefs still linger today. Many of these special old trees have legends and stories attached to them, and all kinds of symbolism, so the tree becomes more than “just a tree”.

I’m hoping that on our next visit to Korea we may find examples of more old trees, but for now here are two lovely specimens.

First, we checked an old ginkgo tree in Jeongju hanok town (or Jeongju traditional style home town, sometimes written Chonju) on Ginkgo Tree Ave. This 16m-high tree (about 51 feet) was classified a Natural Monument in 1982, and is thought to be almost 600 years old. A carved stone plaque tells us: It is free from bugs, and was planted in the hope that young scholars would similarly advance in government posts free from the taint of injustice. It was planted in the courtyard of a high-ranking official involved in the founding of the Chosan (Jeosan) Dynasty after he returned to his home town to establish a school for young scholars. This tree is a living witness to the Chosan Dynasty’s 500 years of rising and falling fortunes. It also symbolizes Chonju’s position as a center of Confucianism in Cholla Province.

Chang in front of the stone explaining about the ginkgo tree

It’s said that the people of Chonju love Ginkgo Tree Ave as being full of warmth and historical sites. We thought the avenue was charming, and loved the idea that the tree is being so well protected.

Very old Chinese juniper tree

Later, in Seoul we visited the famous Chandeokgung Palace, where our min purpose was to visit the Secret Garden (see later). At the end of that garden tour the guide stopped and told us about this old Chinese juniper tree in a small garden near some of the government buildings of the palace complex. At around 750 years it’s one of oldest trees in Korea. It’s 5.6 m high (about 18 feet) and 5.9 m in circumference (about 19 feet) at the widest part of its trunk, so is pretty big, although some of its sprawling branches are now propped up.

A plaque tells us that juniper wood is very aromatic and is used to make incense for rituals.

Viv and the juniper tree—it was an extremely hot day!

This aromatic tree was planted here to provide incense for ancestral rituals at Seonwonjeon Shrine to the east, where portraits of former kings were enshrined. This tree is depicted in Donnwoldo (Painting of East Palace), which was done around 1830 and provides a panoramic view for Chandeokgung.

Next…Lovely old Zelkova trees.