Monthly Archives: May 2019

May 19

Spontaneous travel: On the pleasure of throwing away plans, wandering randomly, and finding an off-the-Google-Maps soju room

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

Before I arrived at my planned destination last night, I said to hell with it. I got off at a random station instead and followed streets my eyes and intuition told me would be interesting. I found a small storefront with the sign Yaho Soju Room (야호 소주방), within which I could see three swivel bar stools, a 50’s-looking man in the middle chair, and a similarly-aged woman standing behind the counter chopping vegetables and serving drinks.

I entered.

I knew I was on the right track when I passed by this karaoke room.

“Soju room.” It’s a kind of phrase that bring to mind the many other kinds of rooms for commercial use in Korea: singing rooms (karaoke), PC rooms, DVD rooms—even cafe rooms can provide you your own private cafe-like studio. The name evoked a very Korean kind of place. A more common name for “bar” in Korean is “drinking house.” Not far off the English “draft house” or even “pub.”

Korean drinking houses today serve beer, whisky, tequila and vodka shots. They have loud pop music playing. You won’t fine good old soju, the traditional Korean drink made by distilling grain wine, on the menu.

At Yaho Soju Room, soju was the main feature—Daesun (대선) soju in particular, Busan’s local brand. Beer (Korean beer) was available in the fridge, too, and a variety of traditional liquors in the cabinet behind the bar, but no whisky or cocktails. The barkeeper was cooking the snacks herself.

Price of the soju and complimentary snacks: 4,000 won (US$3.35).

She gave me a dish of tofu with spicy sauce and plate of carrots and cucumbers, complimentary with my bottle of soju. The ajeossi next to me (Korean older man, “uncle,” or “sir”) also ordered/asked for a plate of a kind of fish. On the stove, a pot simmered.

The handwritten soju appetizers menu.

There were only four customers in there, including me. Besides the ajeossi sitting next to me, a couple were sitting in one of the three booth tables in the place.

It was not a place I could have found on Google Maps. It was not a place I could have found if I planned my destination in advance. When we go traveling, we often pore over guides and itineraries, listings and descriptions. We query Google and Tripadvisor for the “best” restaurants, bars, cafes, and attractions in a city, a city we chose based on conscientious consideration. Often such planning ends up being useful. We find worthwhile destinations to enjoy. But too much planning—Googling every morning before leaving the hostel—takes away the element of serendipity, or fate, that allows special experiences to happen. It leaves a traveler without the excitement of ‘discovering’ someplace new. A little bit of planning is a good thing, but we also have to be willing to throw away the guidebook.

A restaurant serving seafood pancakes.
May 17

A coffee and a view at Huinnyeoul Culture Village, Busan

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea , Travel

Visiting Huinnyeoul Culture Village today, I stopped by a popular young cafe cum bookstore, Book Coffee, or Sonmog Seoga (손목서가) in Korean. The cafe is run by a couple and serves drip coffee in an artsy environment with views of the sea, while selling Korean language versions of progressive publications. After opening in the early summer of 2018, it has amassed 4,000 followers on Instagram.

Sonmog Seoga fits with the vibe local officials were trying to create at Huinnyeoul Culture Village when development began in late 2011, turning the shantytown located high above the ocean into an arts and culture tourist attraction. The coasts of Yeong Island became home to many refugees displaced by the Korean War.

A visitor looks at one of the filming sites of The Attorney.

Eventually, the government sought to redevelop, and some of the homes became run down and abandoned. According to Kim Hye-Ran, then Director of Cultural Tourism Division of the Education and Culture Department of Yeong Island’s district government, they offered some of the dilapidated houses to artists. Soon murals got painted, the area became more famous, and it was used as a filming location for 2013’s The Attorney, about former president Roh Moo-hyun’s championing of a civil liberties case during Chun Doo-hwan’s period of authoritarian rule.

A cairn we built by the ocean.

Although it has become increasingly developed towards tourism, locals insist Huinnyeoul Culture Village is not as crowded or commercialized as the nearby Gamcheon Culture Village. Huinnyeoul also appears to have a clearer view of the sea. It is accessible via steps up from Jeolyoung Marina Trail.

Walking along the marina trail.

Book Cafe succeeded in its goal of creating a charming environment with pleasing aesthetics, quality coffee, and erudite selection of reading material. The magazines were mass market high-brow. Feminist (Womankind, Australian), secular science (Skeptic, U.S.), Korean literature (Littor, Korea), and politics/society (시사in, Korea). Not independent and not entirely local, but not found in the convenience store either.

Crowded as it is, and not huge in terms of space, it charges high prices for its coffee. Most cost 6,000 won (US$5 at present conversion).

One thing you will find a lot of at Huinnyeoul Culture Village.
May 16

I visited “the most beautiful temple in Korea,” where I bought squid, then went on a hike

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

“Is this the #1 temple in Korea?” a foreign visitor with whiting grey hair asked his Korean guide as he walked into the Haedong Yonggungsa temple.

“No,” the Korean man said.

“Why does it say that?”

Over the gate to the temple stood a sign that says “the most beautiful temple in Korea.”

Haedong Yonggungsa temple Summary

Location: The end of Yonggung-gil (용궁길), off Gijanghaean-ro (기장해안로)
Transportation: From Jangsan station (the final subway stop on the green line), a taxi costs about 6000 won, or you can take bus no. 100
Price: Free
Tips: Get there early (before 10 am). When it gets crowded starting in late morning, it is loud and difficult to move around.

It may be the most heavily-self-promoted temple in Korean (and honestly, it is pretty damn beautiful). Many a tourist putting up some quick photos to social media takes the title (“called the…”) and uses it. Now if you Google the phrase, you’ll find a YouTube video, a Lonely Planet tour entry, and multiple TripAdvisor reviews (it is the #7 highest rated attraction in Busan).

The path into the temple takes you past a line of restaurants, shops, and street food stalls; even Ediya Coffee, one of the largest chains in Korea, has a location there! Since long ago, markets have organically developed around temples to provide worshipers with necessities like incense and food, but the way the market street was situated leading into Yonggungsa reminded me more of the placement of a gift shop at a Disneyland ride. Or the market streets leading into AAAAA Chinese tourist attractions. I’m not complaining; I bought a grilled octopus there and some instant coffee from Ediya. But if they had put up a sign calling it “the most commercialized temple in Korea,” I wouldn’t question it.

Buy as a poster, postcard, or other product at RedBubble.

Make no mistake, Haedong Yonggungsa offers numerous feasts for the eyes. A line of zodiac animals greets you when you get past the tempting snack stalls. As you walk down the steps into the main body of the temple, bamboo forests to each side, the finely-painted buildings come into view alongside the cliffs and the sea. (Those steps become single-file when it is too crowded.)

The dancheong-painted (red and blue-green decorative coloring, 단청) eaves of the main building include a dragon’s face carved into the wood. There are two opportunities to toss coins for good luck. From the bridge, you can try to hit the shot into a bucket held by a young girl sitting on a lotus in the water below. Yonggungsa is a real working temple. As I was sitting, watching, and feeling, a family came inside, laid out prayer mats, and offered two bags of rice to the bodhisattvas.

Buy as a postcard or other item from RedBubble.

By the time I had seen all of the buildings, it was past 11 am, and it was getting more and more crowded. The tourist buses had rolled into the parking lot. I bought myself some fried squid from the market and would have headed back if I had not noticed a trail leading into the woods of the hill behind the temple.

Inside the temple complex, there is also a cafe–it’s not a chain.
A visitor from China tosses a coin from the bridge.
Guanyin

So I bought some squid and took it with me in its convenient bag to the trail.

Hiking Along the Coast
The 3.5 kilometer (2.1 mi) trail follows the coastline, next to open views of the sea for the first half, shrouded by pine trees for the second half.

Also available on RedBubble.

When I got out on the other side, I came into an intersection beside the parking lot and a road to a construction site where the DoDo J mobile cafe truck was parked. Enjoying an iced coffee, I chatted with some Korean women on vacation from Seoul.

When they left, a group of men in suits came over from the direction of the construction. Mr. Heo showed me a video of a condo complex that will be going up. “It looks beautiful,” I said.