I’ve been known to get a little stars truck when meeting Korean celebrities. Yet, as these opportunities are few and far between, then next best thing is to visit the shooting locations of some of my favourite TV dramas and walk in their footsteps of the stars. And fortunately for me, Seoul i s full of them.
Thanks to the huge popularity of hallyu, or the Korean Wave, so many TV dramas and movies have been filmed here so the city has almost become a virtual outdoor entertainment museum, with dozens of familiar attractions and cozy hideaways where actors entertained thousands of fans.
Take, for example, my first visit to Artmon Stay, made famous from the TV hit “Legend of the Blue Sea” starring Jun Ji-hy un and Heo Joon-jae. It is here, up on the rooftop that overlooks the neon city below, that the two stars shared romantic encounters. And given the glowing urban backdrop, it’s not hard to understand why. This location is perfect for spending the night huddle dup close and enjoying the surrounding cityscape. I still consider th is to be one of my favourite scenes from the show.
Next up, Cafe Plate B. This cozy setting was used for “Strong Woman Dobongsoon” ,starring Park Bo-young, Park Hyung-sik and Ji Soo.Fans of the show may recognize the small walnut-shaped cake. It is a Korean delicacy and a signature dish served here. Itis absolutely delicious and not at all surprising that it appeared in this notable scene.
My journey finally brings me to the relatively remote set of “The Liar and His Lover”, starring Kang Han-Kyeol and Yoon So-Rime. It is here along this peaceful stream where they strolled together. The area has a really quaint feel to it, and its mountain backdrop only adds to its charm. As I walk along the path I am in stantly transported back to the show.
Walking in the footsteps of Korean celebrities reignites my appreciation for the aforementioned TV drama and shines a new light on the growing success of hallyu.
Do you swoon whenever Lee Byung-hun appears on the big screen? Do you follow, with perhaps a slightly unhealthy interest, the tangled love lives of K-pop’s megastars? Are you aware that LeBron James really does drive a Kia? Have you ever found yourself, late at night, on YouTube, watching PSY’s 2012 totally bonkers live performance of “Gangnam Style”—the one in Seoul, outdoors, with 80,000 delirious fans singing and dancing in unison? Did you experience the shivers?
If you answered no to these questions, well, Fm afraid you are behind the times, my friend. Your attachment to Cadillac, The Walking Dead, and Taylor Swift is, sad to say, a little parochial. The world has moved on. But it’s not hopeless. You too can ride the Zeitgeist. You just need to turn your gaze to Seoul.
Today, South Korea is cool. How cool? Well, the day I arrived at Incheon International Airport—a sleek new Asian hub where you can find a golf course, a skating rink, a casino, a spa and sauna, a museum, a movie theater, an arts and crafts studio, and the kind of dining options that will make you weep in despair the next time you encounter an airport Cinnabon—North Korea was busy playing with its nukes. My phone was aflame with news of hydrogen bombs, ICBMs, and American F-22 Raptors patrolling the DMZ while North Korea stood ready to launch 500,000 artillery shells into the heart of Seoul, just 35 miles from the border.
This, I thought, is not good. I had flown in from my home in Washington, D.C. I tried to imagine what it might be like if some heavily armed, psychotic dictator with provocative hair threatened our nation’s capital with Armageddon from his sanctum in Baltimore. I think I can state with some certainty that there would be pandemonium. We do not do sangfroid in Washington. We are, as many have long suspected, mostly weenies. Not so the people of Seoul.
“I don’t think about North Korea when I’m stirring my pasta,” said my friend, who wanted to remain anonymous because she works in PR for a large Korean firm. She said this a little wistfully, not because she was especially moved by the current troubles but because she had recently given up carbs. “It’s just another foreign country. And so we ignore it and get on with our lives.” I had met her in a coffee shop in Gangnam, the flashy section of Seoul south of the Han River, which acts as a kind of border of its own, neatly bisecting the city, dividing the old Seoul of palaces, markets, and government ministries from the new Seoul of cloud-scraping high-rises, cutting-edge restaurants, and tottering fashionistas. Gangnam is where many of Seoul’s movers and shakers live, work, and play. They are fueled by caffeine, as evidenced by the approximately 30 coffee shops that seem to inhabit each and every block of downtown Seoul. Not a single one offers decaf. I checked. “The energy is addictive here,” she noted, as we mainlined a couple of espressos. “Koreans have a continuous need for change. We have a saying here: Change everything except your wife and kids.”
“THE ENERGY IS ADDICTIVE HERE. CHANGE. WE HAVE A SAY: CHANGE EVERY KOREANS HAVE A CONTINUOUS NEED FOR THING EXCEPT YOUR WIFE AND KIDS.”
This was the exhortation Lee Kun-hee, the son of the founder of Samsung, gave to his employees back in 1993 (before his own recent sex scandal), urging his company to forgo conformity and embrace risk and innovation. It worked, of course. Today, despite some embarrassing setbacks, Samsung is a tech behemoth and a major reason that South Korea leapfrogged dozens of nations to become the world’s sixth largest exporter. China may be the world’s factory, but increasingly it is South Korea that determines what people consume, from pop music to television dramas to smartphones to biopharmaceuticals.
And yet, it sometimes seems as if South Koreans haven’t quite internalized just how revolutionary their recent history has been. One great curiosity of Seoul is the locals’ insistence that they are the Italians of Asia. It’s something I would hear often, and, frankly, I found it inexplicable. Yes, Koreans are expressive, emotional, impulsive—all attributes typically associated with Italians, as well as Brazilians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Tahitians, and my kids. But are the office lights still on at 11 p.m. in downtown Naples? Do little boys and girls in Milan spend their weekends at cram schools? Does anyone tune in to Italian television shows? No. I think what Koreans mean—and they are quite proud of it—is that they no longer feel tethered to the old Confucian ideals of duty, fealty, and hierarchy. And this has led to the thrum of energy one can feel crackling through modern Seoul.
You got that right. Many Koreans believe that the mud in Boryeong contains healing properties so, as any self-respecting health fanatic knows, this means it’s time to get all your friends together and get completely covered in the stuff from head to toe.
Millions of mud wrestlers can’t be wrong, right? The mineral-rich mud attracts excitable local and international visitors all keen on getting completely slathered in the stuff. It’s a family-friendly affair with activities that range from mud races and slides, to the more sedate mud facials and body painting. There is even entertainment in the form of musical acts (hip hop and pop predominate) and spectacular evening fireworks. Don’t leave before the Korean b-boy show on the Friday night. AND IF
The festival puts on free showers so you can get the mud out of your eyes and ears (and the rest), but there’s also the ocean nearby which is a welcome way to rinse off after a few hours in the sludge.
It takes approximately three hours to drive from Incheon Airport to Gangwon province a mountainous and forested area in South Korea renowned for its pristine natural environment. The drive covers 134km and in winter, it is common to see the passing scenery look like an unfinished painting. Much of the canvas remains white, as if waiting for an artist to finish up the drawing. And when the snow starts to melt, the rolling hills still form an amazing panoramic view.
But by the end of 2017, a brand new high-speed rail and the second Yeongdong Expressway should be ready to charter tourists from Incheon to Gangwon Province in just 90 minutes. The transit is specific to Pyeongchang as it is the main event venue for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games (PyeongChang 2018), alongside Gangneung and Jeongseon. These venue cities are filled with breathtaking scenery and various tourist attractions throughout all seasons.
“Winter in Korea often follows a cycle of four extremely cold days, followed by a lull period of three days,” Jenny Oh, our translator and guide for the trip tells us. “I feel so embarrassed that you do not get to experience snowfall these few days.”
The amiable young lady shared a couple facts with me during my three-hour bus journey. Apparently, highway rest stops (where we stopped for lunch) are a huge part of Korean culture, one that is well loved by both tourists and locals alike for its wide selection of food, snacks and sometimes, souvenirs. Expect to find Ddeokbokki (Korean Spicy Rice Cakes), Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup), Jjimdak (Braised Chicken), Juk (Korean Traditional Porridge), Bibimbap (Korean Mixed Rice), Bulgogi (Grilled Marinated Meat) and Sundubujjiegae (Spicy Tofu Stew).
I step out of the bus expecting the weather to be bitterly c old despite the lack of snowfall but it wasn’t. Although it is 3°C, my sweater and scarf are surprisingly sufficient for me to roam comfortably the grounds of Gangneung City. This coastal city is well known for its beautiful beaches and decent bar scene but this trip will focus on the progress for PyeongChang 2018.
Back in May 2016, at the 1,000 days-to-go celebration for the PyeongChang Organising Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG), the signature slogan “Passion. Connected.” was revealed. Both words were chosen to represent PyeongChang 2018 as the stage of a global festival, one where Koreans’ warm unique hospitality and cultural convergence can be felt, and a platform where the country’s cutting-edge technology can be shared with the world. These words are clearly expressed outside the makeshift colourful container boxes that hold key information leading up to the games. A large electronic countdown screen, life-size sport figurines (with a short summary of the sport), 4D motion ride, VR experience and a hands-on Ice Hockey experience are all part of the immersive and educational programme for visitors.
The crowd is a river of people, everyone moving in the same direction. There are only joyful faces as the lot heads into the Gangneung Ice Areana for the short track finals test event— a sporting event that raises the adrenaline of even the audience. The crowd moves not like pebbles in a jar, but like water molecules flowing smoothly past one another, kids grabbing onto their parent’s hands with dear life and friends staying together with fingers entwined. Short track speed skating has its roots in Canada and the United States of America where mass start competitions on an oval track began in 1905. It is a form of competitive ice speed skating and in the race, athletes compete not against the clock, but against each other in the pack.
This introduces the elements of strategy, bravery and skill needed for racing. It is pretty invigorating catching the ‘live’ sporting event, considering the fact that I only just learnt of it minutes ago. Throughout the course of 2017, each sport will hold its test events at the completed competition venues, and sporting aficionados can take the opportunity to explore the Gangwon Province region.
By the end of the test event, night had fallen fast upon the land. Not more than an hour ago, the sky was painted in hues of red, orange and pink but all colours have faded and only a matte black canvas remains. At a distance I spot a cluster of bright shining lights and blankets of snow on the ground. We have arrived at Alpensia Resort, an entertainment destination centre located at a highland 700m above sea level, the optimum height for human health and biorhythm. Alpensia features a main stadium, ecological golf course, world-class ski slopes and ski jump slopes, as well as a couple of accommodation options. I settle into Intercontinental Alpensia Pyeongchang Resort, a 238-room luxury alpine hotel and resort nestled within an Alpine-style village among the unspoilt beauty of the Taebaek Mountains. Tonight, it is silent and the stars have hidden well behind a wall of foreboding clouds.