Jeonju is a city just over 2 hours drive away from Mokpo (check out what I got up to in Mokpo here). It’s famous for its Hanok Village, an area of the city designed to show off traditional Korean culture. Jeonju is also famous for 2 important Korean foods: bibimbap and hangover soup (Kongnamul Gukbap to give it its proper name). My time here was so interesting I’m just going to focus on that for this post.
We stayed at Dukmanjae, a traditional hanok just outside of the Hanok Village. When building a hanok, the position of the house in relation to its surroundings is considered as well as the impact the seasons will have on it. As you’d expect with this much care being taken about where the house is, the inside is also carefully planned, following the principles of baesanimsu. This literally means that ideally a house is built with a mountain in the back and a river in the front. Hanok also have wide front porches for keeping the house cool in the hot and humid Korean summers. Ours had sliding panel doors but some have ones you lift up and hook onto the ceiling of the porch.
After dropping our bags off we headed out into Jeonju to find hangover soup, despite not being remotely hungover. It was a real hot afternoon and it turned out my friend was not the most reliable map reader in the world but eventually we made it to Sambaekjib, home of Kongnamul Gukbap in Jeonju. Kongnamul Gukbap is a hot bean sprout soup with rice and there’s a whole ritual to eating it. You’re given the soup with a fried egg and seaweed on the side which you have to add in a specific order. You can also top up any ingredients you feel you’re running low on, adding rice or vegetables as you need. It’s packed full of carbs, veggies and protein: you can see why it’s a hangover cure!
We returned to start our sightseeing, heading first to the Jeondong Cathedral (also known as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). I’d known that Christianity was a major religion in Korea but I had been surprised at just how many churches there were everywhere. It was even more surreal seeing a European style cathedral in amongst the hanoks and distinctly Korean buildings. The cathedral was built between 1908 and 1914 to honour Roman Catholic martyrs who had lost their lives during the Joseon period. This was when the Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea, from 1392 until 1897. In October 1897, this kingdom was renamed the Korean Empire (which was made up of what we’d now see as North and South Korea). Joseon Korea was a Confucianist state which led to the persecution and martyring of Catholics in the 19th century. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside as a service was taking place. Nevertheless, it was still an interesting angle of Korean culture to look at.
Our next stop was much more traditionally Korean: Gyeonggijeon Shrine. It was beautiful – my photos don’t really do it justice! I love the colour schemes used on temples and palaces in Korea, the reds and greens with the gold accents on the really important carvings. From a massively nerdy point, I’d been looking forward to seeing palaces and shrines since I’d arrived in Korea. I’m a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the Earth Kingdom in the show has some distinctly Korean influences in its design. So getting to see some Joseon period buildings in real life was pretty spectacular.
It was here that the hanbok craze was clearest. There is a big trend at the moment in Korea for renting hanbok, which are traditional outfits usually reserved for events like New Year. Despite how hot it was, most of the people we saw in Jeonju, both men and women, were wearing hanbok. The women were wearing a mixture of the more traditional silk, full-skirted styles and a modern knee length version in pastel shades with a lot of lacework. Some men were wearing gat (traditional hats) while some women wore ornamental hair pieces. Hanbok simply means ‘Korean clothing’ but has come to mean specifically Joseon period style clothing. There were foreign influences on Hanbok but it was only Mongolian princesses marrying into the Korean royal family after a peace treaty with the Mongol Empire in the 13th century that had any lasting impact.
Given all this historical context, I loved watching people using selfie sticks to take photos of themselves in their Hanbok. This mix of old and new, traditional and technology and the pride in their culture was pretty cool to watch. No way would you get British teenagers putting on Tudor ruffs and doublets to visit the Tower of London! Getting particular attention for selfies were the guys dressed as guards at the palace gates. One was wearing an awful lot of fur for July in Korea and the other had a magnificent hat with huge feathers. We got to watch the guards change over which involved a lot of shouting and ceremonial handing over of swords. Once the excitement of this had died down we headed further into the shrine complex to explore.
One of the things I really liked about Korean architecture was the focus on outdoor space. If you think of traditional English buildings (castles, cathedrals, stately homes) they’re all about the whacking huge construction projects. Korean architecture tends towards a lot of smaller buildings with plenty of peaceful outdoor space. Gyeonggijeon Shrine was built in 1410 to house the portrait King Tae-jo who founded the Joseon Dynasty. This was housed in its own building and there was a separate small museum dedicated to other royal portraits. One of the most interesting pieces for me was a replica of a portrait that is currently in North Korea. As an English tourist, I think it was easy to forget that it’s only recently that these two countries separated. There’s such a huge amount of shared history and culture for what we now see as such disparate places.
My friend decided that the best thing we could do to immerse me in Korean culture was to get me in a Hanbok. But not just any Hanbok: a royal Hanbok. Complete with a collosal hairpiece. The Hanbok was beautiful, red silk with a lot of embroidery. It was also incredibly hot. The hairpiece was extremely heavy and I’m not sure my gingery curly hair really matched it! While I definitely felt very regal, I couldn’t move much at all. I guess if you’re a queen you have people to move for you and you just need to sit, trying not to show that you’re melting.
The Hanbok was enough of a success that my hosts wanted me to try on old fashioned Korean school uniforms, the kind that their parents would have worn when they were younger. This was fairly simple, consisting of a black skirt and a jacket with a white shirt. The issue came with me trying it on. Turns out being average height in the UK translates to being super tall in South Korean sizing. There was also the matter of the armband. While in the UK having a position of responsibility at school usually means getting a tie or a pin, in Korea it’s an armband to be worn over your school jacket. I don’t think it has the same fascist overtones over there as it does here!
That evening we went to try Jeonju’s most famous food: bibimbap. This is a dish of rice, meat and vegetable with egg, covering all the important food groups. Other than the name, the most fun part of bibimbap is that some versions are served in a hot stone bowl and you mix it really fast to finish cooking it at your table. This was the food I’d been looking forward to eating since I’d arrived and to actually be able to eat it in the place where it came from was awesome.
We followed it up with some grapefruit beer. Now I’m from the UK. We’re pretty serious about beer over here. It’s kind of our thing. So I was expecting some kind of fancy craft beer. Sadly it was just lager with grapefruit syrup in it. And head out of a slushie machine. I’ve drunk enough beer in my life to know that there’s an art to pouring with the minimum amount of head. Otherwise you’re wasting precious space in your pint glass. Not in Korea. Here beer comes in a domed iced coffee cup to make extra space for all that delicious foam. Bonkers.
Our night in the hanok was very peaceful. Again, I’d definitely recommend Dukmanjae as a hanok stay, it was super quiet and the owner was lovely and friendly. We wandered around the market for a bit, and I had fun trying to find a sports bra in my size (top tip – if you think you’ll need sports underwear and you’re more than a C cup in the UK, take it with you!). We went to a dumpling place for lunch that had had a queue out the door the night before. I got to try the heavenly combination of fried dumplings filled with dangmyeon) sweet potato noodles. Seriously, they were what my food dreams are made of.
These delicious dumplings marked the end of my time in Jeonju and with my South Korean hosts. They’d done an amazing job showing me as much Korean culture as they could in the five days I spent with them. I ate so much delicious food, probably more sea food than I’d eaten in my entire life until that point and to be honest, I’m still not completely sure what everything I ate was!
I fulfilled a long-held wish to eat proper Korean bibimbap and visit a bamboo forest. Now it was time to hop on a train back to Seoul – I caught a slower train this time which took 3 1/2 hours from Jeonju to Seoul but was slightly cheaper at 17,600₩. After some adventures involving failed wifi and Ichon subway station’s 6 exits (seriously, get a Korean phone sim if you’re visiting, it’s so worth it) I managed to meet up with my friend in Seoul. This is where I’ll end this week as the next item on my itinerary was Boryeong Mud Festival. And a day that crazy deserves a whole post to itself.