By Adam MacDonald
A country that mixes tragedy and celebration, ancient temples and modern skyscrapers, cheeseburgers and dog meat soup, Korea is an eclectic mix to say the least. Though it may be hard to feel it at times while plodding along the harsh lines of a canyon of buildings amid the din of K-pop and Samsung advertisements, a vast reserve of history and culture is beating strongly all around you. Experiencing this diversity doesn’t need to take weeks or require traveling at a break-neck pace. In fact, it’s easy to get a heavy dose without straying from the capital for more than a daytrip.
One of the best places to get a sense of modern Korean history is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), lying only 55 kilometers from Seoul and easily seen through a tour. The Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom is truly a bizarre experience. Despite now being officially at war after North Korea’s declaration that it has invalidated the armistice, the JSA features nothing more than a concrete bump delineating the two states. On one side you have South Korean soldiers in a tae kwon do stance menacingly staring you down from behind dark aviator sunglasses. On the other, blank faced North Korean soldiers perch stiff-backed in Soviet-esque uniforms. As you listen to the soldiers rattle off descriptions of the tension – such as North Koreans at a meeting wiping their boots with an American flag or spitting on the South Korean banner – you begin to realize that all that equipment you saw on your way in is just itching to be used, and very well may be one day.
Stepping back to a more civilized era of warfare that relied on blades rather than bombs, the nearby town of Suwon offers an amazing look into Korean history. While at times feeling a bit like a theme park – indeed there are amusement rides in one section – the Korean Folk Village here offers an opportunity to see the various traditional architecture, crafts and lifestyles from up and down the peninsula in one site. The various performances are quite impressive, especially the equestrian demonstration, which featured a number of very spry men in pajamas bouncing from horse to horse like yo-yos.
The main reason to go to Suwon is to see Hwaseong, the great Korean fortress which at times resembles the Great Wall as it stretches across the hillsides. While you can walk all around the fortress, we chose a lazier route and opted to take the Dragon Train for part of the trip. This amazing little trolley has a golden dragon head for the main car and will whisk you around the fortress – along with a truck-full of screaming Korean kids playing their Nintendo DS while on a school trip. The fortress is impressive and Suwon has a much more laid-back atmosphere than Seoul. If you have time, I’d also recommend going to the 24 Martial Arts Demonstration held outside the Hwaseong Haenggung Palace, which showcases traditional fighting styles and great photo ops with Korean guards grasping halberds.
If you still haven’t had enough of Korean martial history, I’d recommend you not discount the War Memorial Museum. Often slandered by guidebooks, I have to say some of the most fun I had on my trip was here. While the museum was excellent, the best part was the Military Demonstration, which is held on Fridays. Lasting nearly an hour, the demonstration combines parade elements such as a marching band with martial arts and drumming. Since Korea and Japan are incredibly similar in their love of cute, each branch of the armed forces is represented by a cartoon character mascot in a suit such as a Navy whale or Marines tiger. If that weren’t enough, there’s the added bonus of listening as a gaggle of Korean schoolgirls scream with delight at the prancing uniformed men twirling rifles. It’s like *NSYNC with AK-47s.
Amid all of this martial history, don’t forget to indulge in one of the reasons you no doubt came to Korea: to eat. Awakening those long dormant spice taste buds that have gone into hiding after months of eating the notoriously piquant-less washoku, Korean food is a wonderful change of pace. With spicy kimchi for breakfast, filling jeon for lunch, and hearty bulgogi for dinner, there is a great deal to try. Give things a whirl and don’t be afraid to try that mystery meat. Who knows? You may just start to understand the benefits of spicy cabbage for breakfast.
This leads to the most important thing in Korea, as with most any place you can visit: soak it up. Expose yourself to as much as you can. Korea is simply bursting with things to do, places to go, and food to scarf. One of my greatest memories is riding the long subway out to Suwon only to listen to a pitch from a rather unique salesman riding the rails with us. Apparently a hawker of cucumber slicing machines that are small enough to fit in your pocket (because you can never be too prepared when it comes to cucumbers), this delightful weirdo demonstrated the machine’s wizard-like slicing abilities by sticking a huge number of the slices all over his face, making him resemble a terrifying salad monster from hell. An old lady bought one of his miracle cutters.
While the country itself has a wide culture and history, you needn’t travel far to experience Korea. With avenues to experience modern wonders and ancient traditions all around you, the country is alive with experiences to be had. Enjoy the spice, and give Kim Jong-Il a wave for me.
There are two main options for getting yourself to South Korea from Japan: boat and plane.
Option One: Boat
Since Korea and Japan are so close to each another, ferries regularly run to the port city of Busan from the Japanese cities of Fukuoka, Shimonoseki and Osaka. There are both regular ferries and high speed hydrofoils. Regular ferries run once a day overnight and high speed ferries run about five times daily. Round trips on all of these options will cost about ¥15,000 to ¥20,000, plus the train fare to the departure city in Japan. Once in South Korea, you can then take a train to your destination, such as the KTX bullet train. A one-way KTX ticket from Busan to Seoul costs about ¥4,000 to ¥5,000.
Bottom Line: Slower and less convenient, but cheaper for travel around the southern parts and no doubt an experience.
Option Two: Plane
Flying to South Korea is actually much less expensive than in appears to be and, when all factors are considered, may be a much better option for you. Prices vary greatly depending on when you leave, with Golden Week charging nearly double. My recommendation is to use No. 1 Travel for your booking, or an online website such as Expedia.com. The advantage with No. 1 Travel is that you can tell them if you’re flexible on departure/return dates, a concession that ended up saving me ¥20,000 on my ticket. I would recommend flying out of either Fukuoka or Hiroshima airports to avoid backtracking. Flights to Seoul take around 90 minutes. In my opinion, flying in and out of Seoul is the better option because you can easily get to anywhere else in South Korea from there, it gets you to the area where you will likely spend a lot of time, and it’s fast. A round trip flight costs about ¥30,000 in regular season.
Bottom Line: More convenient, faster, not terribly expensive, and gets you right to the heart of the action.
Transportation within Seoul is really simple. The subway system is cheap, efficient, labeled in English, and runs to most areas you’ll want to go in the city, even going to a number of cities and areas far outside the capital for less than a cup of coffee.
Taxis are also very reasonable and much cheaper than their Japanese counterparts. These are a good idea for those hard to find addresses, or when you’re worn out for the evening.
One mode of transport you might not consider but I found very useful was the Seoul City Bus Tour. These loop buses run to all of the major sights within the city, dropping you off right in front. In addition, if you’re tired or want to just take in the city in comfort, you can ride for a while and absorb your surroundings while in air conditioned comfort. Additionally, the buses have headsets describing the areas you are passing in English, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and French, which is great if you’re traveling with speakers of various languages. An entire loop takes two hours and an entire day hop-on, hop-off pass costs only 10,000 Won (about ¥900) with buses arriving every 30 minutes at each stop. While it may seem touristy, it is a bargain and really helps to whisk you around from place to place comfortably and quickly, letting you take in a large amount of the city in a short period of time.
Website for the fast Beetle hydrofoils that run from Fukuoka to Busan.
Website for the Seoul City Bus Tours which gives detailed maps of the routes and the prices.
Interactive map of Seoul in English, useful for finding where your hotel is located in relation to all the sights.
Descriptions of various places to visit and things to see in and around Seoul. Useful for information on easy daytrips from the city and descriptions of the places you may visit.
English version of the Korean National Railroad website with ticket, destination, booking and miscellaneous information for trains and ferries around the peninsula.
Though this site appears to be non-functional at the moment, it has information on the USO’s tour of the DMZ. (If the link remains broken, it might be helpful to just search for the latest “USO Korea” site.) Reservations are recommended as the spaces do fill up. There is no online reservation service, but e-mail Seung Yeon Lee at the USO (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a schedule of the tours that month and then select the one you wish to take.