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Yangdong Folk Village

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Occupying a gorgeous swath of forested hill country about eight kilometers outside Gyeongju, the Yangdong Folk Village preserves the buildings and customs of Korean life during the Joseon Dynasty. In 2010, this historic village was named a UNESCO world heritage site.

Yangdong-Korea

Yangdong was founded at the beginning of the 15th century by a member of the Joseon nobility, who selected the site based on the Korean practice of pungsu — a superstitious reading of the earth which identifies geologically significant areas: those featuring patterns in natural formations such as hill shapes or river paths. The modern day village, with around 150 tiled- and thatched-roofed houses, still looks almost exactly as it did centuries ago.

Our visit began at Yangdong’s only restaurant, where we enjoyed a bowl of Kongguksu (wheat noodles in a cool soy milk broth) and had the chance to shake hands with the village chief. The other guests, who generously shared their rice wine with us, were listening attentively to the chief’s stories and there seemed to be an unspoken expectation that we do the same. Of course, we didn’t understand a word but stayed respectfully quiet and followed the group’s lead with an occasional chuckle or “ahhhh”.

Yangdong is surprisingly large and feels more alive, less like a museum, than I figured it would. Reconstruction and preservation efforts were underway all over, and we took a random, looping path through the hills. The Joseon Dynasty practiced Confucianism, which placed a strong emphasis on class distinction, and Yangdong’s layout reflects this; the aristocrats lived in the larger houses with tiled roofs, set on top of the hills. Commoners had houses with thatched roofs, found lower down.

With its rural forest setting, the nearby river and roads which follow the natural slopes of the hills, Yangdong Village is unquestionably beautiful. Our visit here was one the highlights of our trip to Gyeongju.

Location of Yangdong Folk Village on our Map
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July 11, 2012 at 9:59 am Comments (3)

Oncheon’s Heosimcheong – The Largest Spa in Asia

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For our second Korean jimjilbang experience, we decided to go big. The Heomsimcheong Spa in the neighborhood of Oncheon claims to be the largest spa fed by a natural hot spring in Asia. The popular complex, which also bills itself the Grand Hot Spring, includes a full hotel, an excellent brewery on the bottom floor and of course, a full array of baths and saunas.

Jjimjilbang-Oncheon-Heosimcheong

Later this week, I’ll be taking advantage of South Korea’s incredible medical tourism and having my eyes Lasik-ed. I only mention it because, throughout my life, I’ve encountered a mere handful of occasions where terrible vision has been a gift, rather than a curse. For example: bright lights look like glowing orbs of color, which can turn an evening cityscape or a Christmas tree into something abstract and beautiful. And people really are less likely to hit the guy wearing glasses.

But in the Heosimcheong Spa, I discovered another benefit of bad eyes. Without my contacts in or glasses on, the naked human body disappears into a single flesh-colored blur. I can see the human-sized shape, but no details… and the horrors of jimjilbangs are all in the details.

Heosimcheong cost ₩8000 ($7.20) to enter, worth the price just for the bathing area, which is in a giant salon capped by an opaque dome. Under the soft natural light, we cooked ourselves in hot tubs, gasped for oxygen in steam saunas, sprang in and out of freezing ice baths, and sat underneath heavy waterfall streams that pounded our necks and shoulders. It was crowded, but the other people didn’t bug me much — this time, I was almost blind, and couldn’t tell if they were staring at me.

After paying an extra ₩2000 apiece for funky pajamas that M.C. Hammer would have been proud of (and possibly designed), we entered the mixed-gender jimjilbang area, with relaxation and steam rooms. It was kind of a disappointment, with just a couple separate rooms and a very active, hyper population of kids running around. There was an igloo-shaped ice room, and a yellow steam room… nicely done, but there wasn’t much variety. After a nap and a facial mask, which was provided for free, we were done.

Well, we weren’t quite done. On the bottom floor of the complex is a gigantic brewery, serving German-inspired beers. At night, this is apparently a Busan hot-spot, with a Bulgarian band that sings in a variety of languages while intoxicated Koreans get down and dirty on the dance floor. Sadly, we missed this, but the beer was excellent.

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June 26, 2012 at 11:48 pm Comments (7)

Born in the USA… Perfected in Korea?

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Our 91 Day Stay in Savannah, Georgia

Since the end of World War II and the liberation of Korea from the Japanese occupation, the USA has maintained a steady presence in the southern half of the peninsula. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that South Korea has inherited many aspects of American culture, from the world of pop music to its dynamic sporting scene. During our short time here, I’ve found myself amazed by the similarities between my homeland and our temporary host. And to be brutally honest, a lot of the greatest things about America seem to even better in South Korea…

USA and Korae
The Stadium Experience

I love baseball. Honestly, I didn’t know how much I loved baseball until I had lived in Europe for a few years. Sure, football is America’s biggest sport, and basketball might be the most popular export, but for some reason it was baseball that I found myself missing. Nothing beats going to a jam-packed stadium with a bunch of friends and watching the Red Sox demolish the Yankees.

But, it turns out there is something better: going to a stadium in Korea. We’ve written in depth about our experience at Busan’s Lotte Giants, but suffice to say that attending a baseball game in Korea is awesome. Tickets are cheap. Beer is cheap. The stands are packed. Everyone’s watching the game, when they’re not shoveling pizza into their mouths or doing a slow-motion wave. You can bring food and beer into the stadium with you. We had a blast. Have you ever seen a slow-motion wave? It’s amazing. Red Sox fans would never be capable of that!

Giants Busan
Pop Music

I grew up with the music of bands like N*Sync and The Backstreet Boys tainting the musical landscape with their bland pop and squeaky-clean visages. But while “boy bands” have fairly faded back home, they’ve only gained in popularity in Korea. The airwaves here are dominated by a parade of boy- and girl-groups, who… and this is the truly amazing thing… don’t completely suck! The music is catchy, the outfits are ridiculous, the dances are tight, and the kids are genuinely talented. Just try and watch BIGBANG’s Fantastic Baby without bopping your head… or developing a crush on one of them (but stay away from Seungri, he’s mine).

We have the Black Eyed Peas, Korea has Girls Generation. Advantage: Korea.

Girls Generation
Girls Generation: A lot sexier than LMFAO, and they know it
Coffee Culture

It’s totally wrong, and possibly sacrilegious, to claim that “coffee culture” was “born in the USA”. And it’s not what I mean. Obviously, Italy (for one) has a much more authentic and agreeable sort of café cult. Americans don’t do espresso and, when we try, we dependably screw it up. But we have Starbucks — and that’s the kind of manufactured scene I’m talking about, with its cozy furniture, delicious muffins and light jazz-pop. We invented that and we like it, so screw you know-it-all coffee purists.

But Korea has improved on our formula, yet again. Here, you’ll find Starbucks, but also plenty of other cafes that are basically clones but even more cozy, playing cooler jazz-pop and serving yummier muffins. You can’t go half a block without seeing an Angelinus Coffee, a BeansBins, a Mr. Coffee, a Doctor Coffee, a Coffee Duomo, and on and on and on. For those of us who depend on coffee shops as erstwhile offices, the selection is exhilarating.

Hideous Working Hours

During the three years that I was living in Germany and working remotely for a US software firm, my friends delighted in mocking me. “Only two weeks of vacation?” they’d scoff. “We get six! Starting!” It’s true. We Americans work a lot more than Europeans — and especially more so than Germans. But it was an odd point of pride for me. “Yeah, it’s cause I’m tougher”.

But we don’t hold a candle to the Koreans. These guys work like maniacs. The average South Korean puts in more hours than anyone else on the planet. It’s a sickening productivity that has brought the country from a war-torn backwater to one of the most dynamic economies in the world. For the poor, sleep-deprived corporate cog, I don’t know if you can really classify this as an “improvement” on the American standard, but it’s just one more thing which we can do, but they can do better.

 

I’m sure there are a lot of other aspects of American culture which have been perfected in Korea. Near our apartment, there was a bowling alley. I was almost nervous to step inside. Surely, it wouldn’t be like back home, where the pin-clearing device always gets stuck, the dirty shoes never fit, and the stupid automatic scoring system ignores your strikes. No, I’m certain that I would have been suitably embarrassed and impressed by the futuristic Ultimate Bowling Experience of Korea.

Damn these guys!

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May 22, 2012 at 12:49 am Comments (8)