Hanbok and Chuseok Eve in Jeonju

En route out of town Yoojin and Gideon dropped us at the Express Bus Terminal in Busan from which we headed to Jeonju, a small (650,000) city in west central Korea. Jeonju has about a dozen special designations (World Heritage, Slow City, others) and enormous, justified pride in their food, natural beauty, history and culture.

We stayed in a guesthouse in their hanok village, which is, like Seoul’s, a collection of traditional houses and picturesque streets. Unlike Seoul, it is flat and almost entirely commercialized with few private homes scattered about though many guesthouses are tucked into little alleyways or down narrow paths off the main streets. While cars are allowed there were very few, though the traffic was astounding as explained below. Our accommodation was, fortunately for our backs and hips, only one night. Fortunately because sleeping was tough—futon on the floor. This means a 2” thick or so pad, a large feather pillow, and heavy, cozy down cover. The room, typical of a guesthouse, is only a little larger than the bedding, with a private bathroom like every other here, a tiled room with toilet, sink, and showerhead in the corner. As Gideon says, you take a shower and hose down the room in one process. Ample water, plenty hot, makes it all work just fine and it sure saves space. A small, clean, lovely common room had refrigerator, toaster, microwave, dishes, a little counter, and off this room were the 3 doors to private bedrooms including ours. If we had had a real bed this would be a heavenly option to a hotel. Ours was run by a young man whose full time job was managing the guesthouse, formerly his grandma’s home. Heavily laden persimmon trees overhung the fence, the path to the door was stepping stones in soft grass, very picturesque and sweet.

Hanok village was bursting with families, electric vehicles of various kinds (Segways, little cars with trailers, scooters and motorbikes), with perhaps 50% of the visitors in hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing that was rented from the many shops around the village. Little girls spun around in their sparkling skirts, entire families from grandpa to grandchildren walked together, couples in matching clothes, girlfriends walking and taking pictures, even several young men in hanbok drag, giggling under elaborate hats…everyone having a fantastic time. There were very few westerners, maybe .01% of the crowds. Sites we will remember always:

  • A young boy on a Segway talking on his phone with one hand and balancing a tray of food in the other
  • Dad with baby driving the car, with mom and toddler in the trailer
  • Very elderly couple being clothed in elaborate traditional clothing for a portrait
  • Girls arm-in-arm, strolling while watching themselves via a selfie stick a few feet long waving in front of them
  • Entire families in hanbok carrying tripods

Also, everyone is eating almost all the time. There are many sit down restaurants but even more street food stands. Fried squid, little custard pies, croquettes filled with potato, or noodles, or kimchi, or sweet cream cheese, ice cream, shrimp dumplings, and lots of things on sticks including fried cheese, chicken, meatballs, more squid—endless choices. Jeonju is known for its variety of bibimbop and in 24 hours we had it twice. The first version was in a restaurant where we noted almost everyone was ordering the version covered with melted cheese so we did too. It was odd and very good (of course, there was corn in it, too—they put corn in and on all kinds of things including pizza).

In the center of the village is a large palace, important in Korean history for its founding emperor and its royal portrait gallery. We took the English language tour with a delightful young woman with horrid English, so bad I told the French family that was with us on the tour that we couldn’t understand her either. No matter. The tour was great and the site impressive.

Across a main street from the village is Nambu Market, a sprawling inside/outside typical market selling basically everything and in a scrambled arrangement. Seafood, clothing, herbal medicine, “flour-based food” (no idea), furniture, dry goods, bedding, shoes. A few examples as written in the market guide:

  • Mango Love (ice water)
  • JeonJu TwBap (popped rices)
  • PungNyeon JuDan (mending clothes)
  • JeonJuNamMun GamJaTang (pork back bone stew)
  • IJin SangHoe (fermented soy paste)
  • SeongMSa (underwear)

We wandered the market, bough some melons (we asked the vendor “Sweet?” “Yes.” “Melon?” “Similar.” Very good, small, sort of a cross between melon and cucumber.  A river borders the market, and we walked along and across it, complete with a crane walking in the water.

We took the city bus back to the terminal. Typical experience was the driver asking David as we boarded where we were going, assuring us “I will tell you when we are there” which he did, and it was back on the bus through Chuseok freeway traffic, akin to Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving in the states, and back to Seoul. Boy, were we ever happy to be back in our apartment with a real bed!

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