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Travel to Asia: Korea - August 2004 Newsletter


Over a century ago, a series of invasions took a toll on Korea. The country closed its doors to the outside world and became known as the “Hermit Kingdom.” But this attempt at seclusion did not prevent further pressure from belligerent nations. Japan occupied Korea from the late 19th to early 20th century. Then, following World War II, the USSR occupied the northern half of Korea while the USA occupied the southern half. This divide between north and south continues today. South Korea eventually gained independence while North Korea exchanged hands between communist leaders.

While the communist North continues to maintain a closed and highly organized society, the democratic South, recognized as a “modern industrialist giant,” is warm and hospitable. Both nations are fascinating destinations for travelers, who are lured by the beauty and cultural attractions that Korea has to offer. Cleanliness and safety are additional enticements. Travelers to the North, who are accompanied by tour guides at all times, can expect a completely different experience from travelers to the South, who are free to roam as they please.

The Korean peninsula is bordered by China and Russia in the north, the Yellow Sea in the west, and the Sea of Japan in the east and south. Seventy percent of the country is mountainous. Hallasan, its highest peak, is relatively low at a height of 1,950 meters. Korea experiences pleasant springs, warm summers, cool, dry autumns, and cold winters with torrential rains. South Korea’s population is crowded at 47 million, while North Korea’s population is significantly less at 22.2 million.

South Korea

Following the Korean War in the 1940’s and 50’s, South Korea went on to become a leading industrialist nation with a high standard of living. In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, speedy subway trains, art deco cafes, manufacturing plants, and skyscrapers are typical. But commingled with the progressive face of modernity, Korean history and culture is evident in ancient palaces, quiet temples, and traditional folk music that permeates through the city streets from nearby parks. Preserved cultural villages on the outskirts of Seoul are wonderful places to find handmade crafts such as paper, porcelain, and wooden carvings. Friendly and hospitable monks reside in the numerous Buddhist monasteries found throughout the countryside, and mountainous forests are frequented for hiking, sightseeing, and skiing. The popular South Korean destinations described below are located in Seoul, in and of itself a tourist magnet.

(Lacquerware is an ancient Korean tradition, and lacquered boxes are a popular rendition of this craft. At Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen, we feature lacquer wooden jewelry and bento boxes made in Korea and Japan. In our Giftware section under the Light category, Korean-made wooden lamps replicate the tradition of architectural masterpieces. Also, check out our Kitchenware and Teaware sections for Korean porcelain products .)

Gyeongbokgung Palace – This grand palace built by the first Yi dynasty King served as the royal residence and hub of power for 200 years. Most of the palaces of this stature were destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A major reconstruction of the grounds began in 1995, restoring the elaborate pagodas and architectural details to their original splendor. The National Folk Museum is located on the grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, housing 10,000 items that chronicle the history of the Korean people.

Ancient palaces abound in Seoul; other famous palaces include Cheongwadae, Changgyeonggung, Changdeokgung, and Unhyeongung.

Jogyesa – There are 18 Buddhist sects in Korea, and the Jogye sect is the largest. Its headquarters are located at the Jogyesa temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul, named after the Jogye sect. This temple is located in Gyeongbokgung and is within reach of a merchant vicinity where Buddhist supply shops are gathered in quantities. Other major temples of the Jogye sect are Hwagyesa, Bong-eunsa, and Doseonsa.

(Many Asian products are designed with Buddhist influences. At Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen, our selection of daruma items stem from the legend of a Buddhist monk. Check our Good Luck Items section to find out more.)

Namsan Park – This park in central Seoul is located on Namsan, the city’s main peak. Within the grounds of the park are remains of old royal Seoul; the Namsan Botanical Gardens; Seoul Tower, the third tallest tower in the world; and Namsan Hanok Village, where traditional Korean village homes can be found.

Each park boasts with its own particular charm and characteristics. Other large parks in Seoul include Tapgol Park, with a marble pagoda and Sun Pyong-hui statue; Jangchung Park, with its wooded atmosphere characterized by magnificent sculptures; Olympic Park, with its world-class sporting facilities within close proximity to the Olympic Stadium; Children’s Grand Park, filled with rides, a zoo, and play areas for the children; and Seoul Dream Land, an amusement park.

Lotte World – No vacation would be complete without shopping. At Lotte World, shops, restaurants, and department stores are neighbors to a large amusement park, Lotte World Adventure. Other shopping districts in Seoul include Namdaemun Market, Dongdaemun Market, Hwanghak-dong Flea Market, Itaewon, Insadong, and Techno Mart.

For everything entertainment, the capital is typically the first stop. Comedy is popular in Korean theater and Korean cinema is expanding. The country hosts three international film festivals each year. In Daehangno, Seoul’s art and culture district, theaters abound, along with late-night pubs and street performers. The Munye Theater is a popular place to see a Western-style drama. Another option is to attend a theater restaurant, where dinner is served during a performance. Theater restaurants in Seoul include Sanchon, Arirang, Korea House, and Kayageum.

(Want to make Korean barbeque in your own kitchen? At Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen’s Grocery section, we have the hard-to-find seasonings you need to enjoy this savory dish.)

Beyond Seoul are beautiful provinces with many inviting highlights. The province of Gyeonggi-do immediately surrounds Seoul. Here, Suwon is the provincial capital with an ancient fortress, Hwaseoung. An assortment of national parks throughout South Korea enables visitors to experience diverse hiking trails, lush forests, scattered temples, tall peaks, and tremendous views. Other areas of interest include Icheon Ceramic Village, the hub of the Korean ceramics industry; Wolmido, where a cluster of lavish restaurants offer a view of the sea; Yeon-an Pier, where fishing boats return with fresh fish by the ton and ferry boats depart for the inviting islands located just off of Korea’s coastline; and Kangjin, the heart of Korean celadon culture where tourists can attend a celadon cultural festival and experience the activities available at an authentic celadon village.

(Korean celadon is world-renowned. Find out about the history and craftsmanship of Korean celadon in our October 2003 newsletter. Then, do a search for our distinguished celadon products such as vases, incense holders, and tea cups in our Teaware, Gifts, and Tableware sections.)

North Korea

Many tourists would define a visit to North Korea as surreal. The streets are strikingly clean and orderly. Every North Korean citizen is identified with a small metal badge with the face of a Great Leader. Propaganda against Western beliefs is ever-present through loudspeakers. But traditional Korean arts and culture are promoted, and tourists can request their guides to arrange visits to traditional performances or to artistic or architectural exhibitions. Even when using public transportation, tourists must be accompanied by a guide, and permission should be granted before photographs are taken.

Visitors to North Korea usually dine in their hotels; eating outside of it must be arranged. Restaurants and food stalls are scarce to be found, and one may wonder where and how the locals themselves eat. At night, the streets are empty. Entertainment during the evenings can consist of watching a movie, exercising, going to a sauna, or gambling, among other activities.

In the capital of Pyongyang, the signs of life that are usually prominent in other big cities are absent, such as hustle, noise, and traffic. Impressive landmarks and monuments are found throughout this political and educational center. These include the Korean Revolution Museum, which exhibits the country’s history from the perspective of the North; the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation war, a set of sculptures depicting important North Korean victories, and the Mansudae Grand Monument, a bronze statue of the Great Leader.

Outside of Pyongyang, sights of interest include the following:

Myohyangsan – Myohyangsan, the Mountain of Mysterious Fragrance, is one of the most famous in North Korea, offering beautiful scenery accented by countless waterfalls. Old Buddhist temples that function solely as attractions are blend in with the otherwise unspoiled nature.

Ryongmun Big Cave – This limestone cave is enormous. Within it, one can explore the Pool of Anti-Imperialist People’s Struggle, the Juche Cavern, and the Mountain Peak of the Great leader Kim II Sung.

Kaesong – Once the royal capital, this city was once sophisticated and wealthy. Among what remains there today are the Koryo Museum, which houses a collection of celadon pottery; the Tomb of King Kongmin, an authentic Korean royal tomb; and Pakyon Falls, one of the most famous waterfalls in North Korea.

Kumgangsan – Kumgangsan, or the Diamond Mountains, is considered the most beautiful mountain range in all of Korea and among the most beautiful in the world. Hiking, boating, and sightseeing are popular here, where former Buddhist temples, mineral springs, and waterfalls abound.

Whether you are visiting Korea to witness the breathtaking scenery, learn of its history and culture, or experience a completely different lifestyle, you won’t be disappointed with a trip to the divided peninsula. At both North and South, your visit will be welcome and your encounter is sure to be unforgettable.


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