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 like “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 percent of the country’s population now lives in urban areas, up from just 39 percent in 1960. As a traveler to more than 20 Asian countries, including popular destinations like Cambodia and Thailand, lesser-traveled spots like 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 of 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 over 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 the “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.
The fortress ruins are scarcely visible today. But six honey-hued granite peaks give the illusion of a towering castle and jut like spindly fingers into the sky. The five-minute gondola ride to it whisked me up to a network of narrow hiking trails and boardwalk bridges. From the top station, I scrambled an additional 20 minutes up to the top, where I took in views of the East Sea, pine tree-spiked ravines, not to mention the park’s stupas, temples, bridges and a 48-foot-high bronze Great Unification Buddha.
It was Saturday in low season when I visited but the trails were crowded with groups of elderly Korean women in oversize visors angling for group photos with the granite peaks. To me, Koreans seemed more direct than some of their Asian neighbors, more in line with people in China or Germany. When people bumped into me — in a coffee shop, on the nature trails or, especially, on the cable car — it was all part of the experience.
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.
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.
At 5:10 a.m., an inky wet cold still gripped Dutasan, or Duta mountain. The wake-up call was a clackety and hypnotic beating of the moktak, a hand-held wooden temple drum, echoing up the valley.
I shuffled my stiff body to the dim, cavernous prayer hall where Bubchang, two other monks and the female caretaker knelt in prayer. While struggling to keep my aching body in a graceful kneeling prayer position, I found comfort gazing at the temple’s ceiling, painted elaborately in a riot of Confucian grandeur, with clawed dragons, tigers, ominous phoenix eyes and bodhisattvas swathed in the requisite yellow, blue-greens and cinnabar, the traditional colors of the Korean Buddhist canon, called the Dancheong and ubiquitous in Korean temple art.
As the room slowly warmed from our chanting, an amber sap began to drip from the ceiling’s pine beams right onto my mat. “Why me?” I thought, trying to clean the sticky sap from my iPhone. “Lucky you,” said Bubchang later after smelling the fragrant pine-scented sap. Perspective is everything at Samhwasa.
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.
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 stone-walled, 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.
Later, I watched wild birds like melodic dusky thrushes, magpies and bulbuls alight on the fired clay temple roof. For dinner, included in the nightly price of $285, Bukchondaek’s owner, Ryu Se-ho, thoughtfully prepared a spread of kimchi, fried zucchini and local fish served in copper dishes with metal chopsticks. I washed it down with a chug of makgeolli, a raw milky rice wine.
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 the 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.
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 stone-walled 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.
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, Mrs. 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.”
If You Go
You can hire a local operator, like Seoul-based Wow Corea, to help you book temple and hanok stays and assist with translation in rural areas where English isn’t widely spoken. Remote Lands is an upmarket agency based in New York and Bangkok and dedicated solely to Asia. They typically use guides with a keen understanding of local art and culture and are ideal for longer immersion visits. Self-driving in South Korea is relatively easy, with right-side driving, wide roads and modern highways, though it does require a valid International Driving Permit. Take note: Google Maps does not work in South Korea, so better to use NaverMap or another nav app. Better yet, Korean Rail offers several rail passes exclusively for international travelers, with a two-day pass starting around $90 and additional discounts for children under 12, youth age 19-27, or groups of two or more.
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