I was counting down the hours, pacing through my classroom and staring out the window at the jammed intersection directly bellow my classroom. With the three-day Chuseok holiday beginning today, Koreans were hitting the road for the annual exodus to their home towns to spend the holiday with their family members. The government has estimated that 34.4 million people will flock home in their cars or via public transportation! Koreans notoriously advise to avoid all roads during this time of year. Every highway experiences bumper to bumper traffic on Friday (when people leave Seoul) and Monday (when people return to the city). The manager of my school said that it usually takes five hours to drive to his home town but during the holiday it takes approximately eleven hours!
Extended families come together in kitchens across the nation for the holiday. Generations of siblings and parents will gossip while kneading songpyeon (traditional rice cake for Chuseok), peeling chestnuts and grilling Korean pancakes. Early tomorrow morning, while children are still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, parents will be busy cleaning the ceremonial table, dishes and utensils in preparation for the ancestral rites.
Songpyeon is to Chuseok what Pumpkin Pie is to Christmas. From what I understand, this treat is prepared and enjoyed only at this time of year. The small and dainty rice cakes are made by unmarried family members. It is believed that if one can make pretty songpyeon, one will be blessed with a good marriage. After filling the half-moon shaped rice cake with honey, chestnuts and sesame seeds, one seals it by pressing down on it with one’s thumb, leaving a small dimple. The rice cakes are then steamed on pine needles, imbuing them with a woody fragrance.
The Origins of Chuseok:
The earliest records of Chuseok, also called Hangawi, are from the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-935 AD). Commoners gathered together to pray for a year of abundance and celebrate the harvest, while the king of Silla would hold a banquet, complete with music and archery competitions.
The term Hangawi, is believed to have originated from the word Gabae. The King held a month long weaving competition between two teams, announcing the winner on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month – the day that Chuseok is currently celebrated. The losing team provided food, drink and entertainment for the winners. The festival was called Gabae, which is believed to come from the word ‘middle.’ The fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month was and still is considered to mark mid-Autumn, hence the term Gabae signifies the middle of The Fall. Gabae may also originate from the phrase, “to pay back,” representing the losing team, who “paid back” the winners by holding a feast for them. This competition and tradition of feasting has developed into the holiday that Koreans celebrate today.
As a festival for those who were busy farming to come together and enjoy the fruits of their labor, it eventually evolved into a day when ancestral rites were held at the home of the eldest male in remembrance of their forefathers.
Called charye, the ceremony held on Chuseok is a simplified form of ancestral rites. Charye was originally practiced approximately 30 times a year. The ceremony is performed by setting a table in a specified order with special offerings of food and wine to one’s ancestors.
A Korean friend of mine walked me through the ceremony step by step:
Before beginning, sit across the table from your ancestor. Start with the row closest to the ancestor. Place the ancestral tablet in the middle of that row, which is called the first row. Candles go at both ends of the table. Set rice to the left and the soup, traditionally taro root, to the right. The songpyeon are placed to the right of the soup.
On the second row, skewered meat and pancakes are placed in the following order from left to right: meat, fish or seafood, tofu and vegetables. On the third row, three soups are placed in the following order from left to right: meat soup, tofu and vegetables and fish or seafood. On the fourth row, dried meat and namul (seasoned vegetables) are placed in the following order from left to right: dried Pollack, the tri-coloured namul (bracken roots, bellflower roots, spinach), kimchi, soy sauce and sikhye (rice punch). On the fifth row, the one closest to you, place fruit and Korean cookies in the following order from left to right: jujubes, chestnuts, persimmons, pears, apples and Korean cookies.
When arranging fruit, it is important to place odd numbers of each fruit on the dishes. According to the laws of yin and yang, yang is present in odd numbers and yin is present in even numbers. Therefore, odd numbers, in particular the numbers one, three and five, are thought to bring good fortune. In front of the table, where you sit, place a smaller side table for the incense burner. A kettle filled with wine goes to the right of the side table.
This holiday is also a time of gift giving. Grocery stores are impossible to navigate through (think rush hour but with grocery carts) the week before Chuseok. The typical Chuseok gifts are a bit odd as far as a judgmental foreigner like me is concerned. According to Lotte, the countries largest grocery store, processed ham gift sets (SPAM) led the demand accounting for over 50% of gift giving. It still terrifies me that many Asian cultures hold this disgusting product on such a high gastronomic pedestal. Trailing were health related products at 43% (ginseng, vitamins, shampoo, lotion, perfume, etc.) Dried anchovies held a third place ranking at 37% followed by olive oil, traditional tea, fresh fish, fresh fruit and dried persimmon and mushroom gift sets.
As an expatriate living in Seoul walking through the crammed Lotte Department store a few days before the holiday I couldn’t help but laugh at the most prized gift sets. Korean mothers snapped up luxurious boxes wrapped in gold containing nine small tins of SPAM. One can also find huge fruit gift boxes (nine massive Gala apples sells for $50 or six Asian pears an be purchased for $60).
My students said the most prestigious gift set is olive oil. I noticed a box featuring six large bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil for a ridiculously large sum of money. My students explained that the gift of olive oil is really a “gift that keeps on giving.” Since oil is consumed over a long period of time in small amounts (most families use their olive oil gifts from Chuseok throughout the entire year) the idea is that when you use each tablespoon of the oil to create a special foreign meal for your family you are able to fondly remember the person who purchased it for you. I couldn’t help but wonder if families create lists so that “Aunt Dorthy” doesn’t receive ten boxes of apples one year and twelve boxes of oil the next.
Seeing that I have no family in Korea, and I figured I couldn’t exactly invite myself to a dinner table…I had to find somewhere to go and something to do. I had not been out of the city since late May, so I decided to plan an adventure to visit rural Korea. My manager acted like a typical Korean when I told him my plans to leave the city for the holiday, “oh my goodness you are crazy, stay in the city!” Regardless, I looked up buses to my holiday destination, Samcheok, the largest city on the countries east coast in Gangwon-do province. The city is surrounded by small fishing villages, beach and rice paddies. It sounded perfect.
I invited Julia to take the trip with me and we stood at the secretary desk at work waiting as Sun checked his computer for available seats. People notoriously book trains and buses months (if not a year in advance) for this holiday so we were crossing our fingers, legs and toes. We lucked out! There were a few seats left for a bus that left Friday night at 11:30pm. I blurted, “ok book it.” We would finish work at 10pm and have to run home to change, grab our bags and then rush toGuui Station for Seoul Express Bus Terminal.
And so we did. I sort of forced my students out of the classroom early and moments later Julia and I were at the Express Bus Terminal trying not to get entirely lost in this busy bee hive of zig zagging Koreans. The Express Bus Terminal is Korea’s largest bus station and services millions of people on a normal day. So imagine how busy this massive bus station was on the busiest travel day of the year. My head hurts just thinking about it. We followed the overhead signs which lit up with hundreds of Korean destinations. We finally found the Samcheok pick up point. I was a bit paranoid as I wanted to be certain that we were waiting for the right bus, so I asked around to several locals who confirmed the bus was late and we were indeed in the right spot. We ran to Dunkin Donuts and bought Apple Cinnamon Fritters, Honey Crullers and a Heart Shaped donut filled with raspberry jelly and vanilla cream.
Our bus finally arrived just before midnight. We ran into our seats and gobbled down our donuts before we had even left the station. The bus slowly crept out of the terminal, inch by inch, as hundreds of other buses honked and tried to get on the road. The bus to Samcheok normally takes four hours so we were expecting to be a bit delayed in our arrival due to the holiday. The traffic was slow as we headed out of the city but once we were on the highway it was surprisingly barren. Apparently the key to traveling on the Chuseok holiday is to hit the road after midnight. Our bus was full of Korean University students, a few families and a bunch of rowdy American teachers. The lights went out and the ceiling glowed neon pink and green. A plasma screen at the front of the bus showed a Korean film and as I tried to watch my eyes started to fall from a feeling of heavy.
We arrived in Samcheok at 4:30am and had no place booked. We just walked along the main street and searched for a Jimjilbang. We went into one hotel and the man at the desk pointed us down the road. We walked a few blocks down the road in the pitch black and after a few moments I let out a gasp! Julia was startled and I excitedly told her, “Oh my goodness, look up at the sky! I haven’t seen stars for over twelve months! Just look at all the twinkling stars!” I couldn’t get over how excited I was to simply see a night sky full of twinkling lights. It reminded me that I was still on planet earth. One can easily get caught up in the neon lights of Seoul. I had spent months staring up at a sky which glows neon red, pink and purple.
We arrived at the Jimjilbang and were greeted by the owners, a 60 year old couple who shoved pajamas and a locker key in our face before accepting our seven dollar payment. The owners spoke zero English. The man jabbed my chest and then pointed to the door in front of me. The woman grabbed Julia and pushed her in another room. We quickly jerked back and said, “I’ll meet you upstairs!” A Jimjilbang is a large, gender segregated public bath house. Complete with hot tubs, showers, saunas and massages tables. In other areas of the building there are unisex quarters, usually with a snack bar, ondol-heated floor for lounging and sleeping, wide screen TV’s, PC bang, and rooms for sleeping. Jimjilbangs are open 24 hours a day and are a popular weekend getaway for Korean families to relax and spend time soaking in tubs or lounging and sleeping, while the kids play away on computers or watch movies on TV. This Korean Sauna concept is similar to the Japanese Onsen with one major difference: for seven dollars you can use the spa facilities and sleep for the night! There are thousands of these establishments across the country which are notoriously used by foreigners who party hard on a Saturday night and need a cheap place to sleep before they head back to their neighborhood Sunday afternoon.
I certainly didn’t want to pay for a hotel as we wouldn’t really be sleeping much on our first night. So, after being pushed into the men’s quarters I unlocked my little cubby hole and placed my shoes inside. I then walked down a small hallway where two towering bookcases featured thousands of Japanese anime comics. Through another door I walked into the change room where I threw off my cloths and locked up my bag. I wandered through the steam room, cold / hot tubs and had a quick shower. There were two boys who couldn’t have been over ten years old running around naked in the shower room. I wondered if their parents knew they were up at 5am. I unfolded the pajamas I was given and put them on. I stared at myself in the mirror and laughed. I was wearing a thin cotton grey outfit: capris with a v-neck t-shirt. I looked like I was dressed for prison.
I walked up a winding staircase to the top floor where I found two drunken University students eating ramen at the snack bar. They saw me (this gorgeous white man) and jumped out of their seats and forced me to sit down beside them. They tried to force ramen into my mouth and asked me several times if I would like any “al-ho-hol.” I pulled myself away from them and tip toed around the sleeping quarters. There was one large open room where four men in grey and three women in pink prison outfits lay on thin mats. It looked anything but comfortable. Along the right hand side of the wall there were four doors. I peaked in and noticed that they smelled of cedar and were very warm. During the winter these rooms must be incredibly toasty warm and comfortable for slumber. Further down the hall I found three separate rooms. I peaked through the first door and jolted from shock. I stared into the room and the full moon cast a ray of light onto three men’s bodies. They were sound asleep but looked like dead corpses in the middle of the floor. Each of the separate rooms comes with a bathroom so they actually seem like a normal hotel rooms, just with zero furniture (think large prison cell). I chuckled for a few seconds before moving on to the next few rooms. I found a large empty room where I decided Julia and I would sleep.
A few moments later Julia came up the stairs in her pink prison uniform (she had misplaced her ball and chain). Her face glowed with hilarity. I could tell she had had a fun time poking around this rather wild place. We walked back into the main area to grab a mat and “pillow.” The mats are about a half an inch thick and when you sleep on them you could swear you were just sleeping on concrete. The pillows come in two varieties. The first is a small, thick piece of foam covered in cheap plastic. The other is a block of wood with a small curve cut out of the top for you to place your neck. I’m standing here in the dark thinking, “have they never heard of goose feathers?” I was spooked when a hand grabbed me. I looked down and saw the two drunken Ramen boys who wanted to have a full fledged conversation with me at 5am. I tried to be polite, and when they saw Julia their eyes grew with excitement. To swat them away I told them she was my girlfriend. They responded in typical Korean fashion by saying “oh she beautiful,” and then bowed their heads as we both left together for our own private prison cell slumber.
We found a nice “comfortable corner” away from the window. For the next thirty minute we were inundated by men tip toeing across the floor. I’d quickly glance up at them and noticed they were staring at us. Apparently word had gotten out that two white people were staying the night. I think I may have had the worst sleep of my life that night. I’d fall asleep, and then a few minutes later I’d wake up as my hip hurt or my back hurt, or my arms had fallen asleep (this particular ordeal was terrifying as I thought I had had a stroke). I woke up just before 7am (with less than two hours of sleep). I sat up and rubbed my eyes with the palm of my hands. I surveyed the room and let out a loud smirk as there were now eight men sprawled across the room. One man had his hands in his pants, another man was sleeping half off his matt. I poked Julia and told her that we should probably get going as we were clearly not going to get any comfort by staying any longer.
She headed to the ladies chambers and I to my manly quarters. Creeping down the spiral staircase I could hear wild chatter going on in the men’s change room. I was shocked to see ten men dressing and changing while talking to a barber who was cutting a businessman’s hair. Seems like the whole city comes here in the morning to get their share of gossip. All of the men stared at me when I entered the room, so awkward. There were two particular fat Korean men who screamed and spat when they talked. I will never forget them because they walked around naked and made jokes with the other men. They both put one leg up on the bench where I had been organizing my backpack. In one hand they held a hair drier and in the other they combed their pubic hair. It was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. I almost gagged and grabbed my bag so it was not contaminated by their diligent combing efforts.
I tied up my shoes and sat on a bench outside. I took a deep breath and could smell the salty ocean air. Moments later Julia and I found ourselves on a local bus passing through tiny rural communities sprinkled across mountains and rice paddy fields. Our bus zoomed alongside a rushing river while both of us nodded off to sleep. An hour later we arrived at the entrance to the famous Hwanseon Donggul. This is Samcheok’s most prominent attraction. All around the city one sees pictures or signs indicating that you are indeed in the world famous “City of Caves.” It was now past 9am and it was starting to get very hot. We stumbled half asleep up to the ticket office. The attendant pointed us to a map and indicated that we walk further up the road. After an arduous 80 minute hike it makes one wonder why God always places beautiful things so inconveniently away from the highway. The initial few minutes of the hike were enjoyable as we both commented on how serene the mountain tops and rivers were. We took a quick break under a trees shade and turned another corner a few minutes later to stand at the base of a thousand steps. I shouted a few expletives and mentioned a few times that, “this better be the best cave in the history of life!”
After a lot of hard work we finally made it to the Hwanseon Cave’s rather impressive jaw dropping entrance. My shirt was sticking to my body as we hiked up the mountain, I was sweating and my forehead was pulsating. I could feel my heart beating inside my head. As soon as we turned the corner and walked towards the entrance we were suddenly hit with an intense cool breeze. We instantly broke out into joyous smiles and dramatic sighs. The interior of the cave is usually 10 degrees Celsius so we were able to spend a portion of our hot day in a naturally cool space.
Hwanseon Donggul is an immense limestone cave, one of the largest in Asia. Inside are cathedral-sized caverns, waterfalls, cascades and pools. Nearly 2 km of steel stairways inside the cave allow visitors to get a good look at the many and varied features. Some formations have fanciful names such as Summit of Hope, Bridge of Love and Path of Desire. We saw several bats flying overhead and throughout our adventure we had to watch where we stepped so we didn’t get covered in mineral water that dripped from above. The cave had truly been “Asian-ified” as the stairs and bridges were lined with glowing neon fluorescent lights. Inside the cave we stared at massive stalactite formations, crystal clear pools, rock popcorn, thundering waterfalls and darkness that went on forever.
So, after barely getting two hours of sleep, walking up a hideous mountain and then walking two kilometers within a cave…we were understandably exhausted. Not to mention we hadn’t eaten a meal since the previous evening (which consisted solely of donuts). I closed my eyes and told myself to not emotionally break down as my mental health was on shaky ground. The slow climb to the bottom of the mountain was excruciating. My legs were trembling and I thought I may collapses. My mind went wild with ideas: perhaps a gondola, chair lift or monorail to the top could be planned for the near future. We finally reached the highway bus stop where I collapsed on a bench. Julia walked over to the parking attendant to ask when the next bus would be arriving. She came over and said, “we have to wait one whole hour.” I moaned like you can not believe. I think my emotional outburst could be heard throughout the entire valley. Without even thinking I got up and stomped around and then threw my thumb out onto the street. An instant later a passing car slowed and motioned for us to hop in!
So, I guess there is a first time for everything. This hitchhiking moment would mark the beginning of my passion for free car rides. I forced myself to muster a bit of enthusiasm, kindness and banter with our gracious driver. We soon found out he was studying Graduate Economics at Seoul National University and had arrived the day before for the holiday. He drove us all the way back to Samcheok and before he dropped us at the bus station we planned to meet up with him after dinner.
We were in search of a cheap hotel and walked into the first one we came across, settling on a room for $35 a night. My heart raced as our hotelier opened up our room. We walked into the most gorgeous $35 dollar room in the world. Our room featured a sparkling clean Western style bathroom, King bed, Plasma screen TV and computer with internet. We both quickly showered, closed the blinds and fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow.
We woke up two hours later feeling fabulously refreshed and ready to continue our day of sight seeing. We hopped in a cab and headed north of the city to the cities famous Beach Sculpture Park. This was our first glimpse of the Ocean (East Sea of Japan) and it was a glorious moment. We spent a few minutes staring out at the small islands made up of frightening jagged rocks and then stared at several modernist sculptures which lined the boardwalk. We hiked downhill for the next hour along a winding cliff side rode. The scenery reminded me a lot of California’s Big Sur highway. One major difference however, would be the coils of barbed wire which run up and down the coastline. These barbed military fences also feature military observatories for two soldiers to stand in and watch for the enemy. Another reminder that North Korea is crazy and can be reached easily if you putter in a boat three hours north.
We finally arrived at Samcheok beach and plopped on a bench and looked out over the sand as a large Korean family played a game of football. After we had soaked in enough of the Pacific our stomachs began to grumble. We had forgotten to feed ourselves and were desperate to get back into the city to have dinner. I pouted when I realized that we were in the middle of nowhere on a rural road where we had no chance of getting a taxi back into the city. I stuck my finger into the road, Julia followed suit behind me as we started our walk in the directon of Samcheok. Many cars slowed down to stare at us in amazement. Children stuck their heads out the window to wave and say hello to the weird white people who were hitchhiking. It took us about twenty minutes for a car to slow down and pick us up. A married couple told us to hop in their car and once inside we lavished them with praises, “thank God, we thought we were going to die, you are angels!”
I relaxed in my seat and stared out at the ocean as we snaked our way along the cliff back into the city. I couldn’t believe that I had hitchhiked twice in one day. This is way better than paying for a ride, or waiting for public transportation! We were dropped off at the bus station and after closing the car door we bowed to the ground to show our appreciation to our generous driver. Our stomachs ached and after a short walk we found an excellent Korean BBQ restaurant which was just opening for dinner. We ordered a large helping of Samgyeopsal. I have ordered this dish many times but I was shocked for this first time as this bacon was abnormally thick. Imagine three centimeter thick bacon which is roasted until perfectly crispy ane delicious! We were also enamored with the simple salad on the table. The salad consisted of shredded green and red cabbage, slivers of carrots and cucumber. The “dressing” was a bit of a mystery however. I asked the owner a few moments later and she said “dressing is made of frozen pineapple and gala apple which is shredded and mixed with sweet mayonnaise. An amazingly cool, refreshing and satisfying dressing!
I called our driver from earlier in the day who met us at 6pm for a tour of his city. He showed us the small but vibrant Samcheok farmers market and then treated us each to ice cream cones at Baskin Robins. He told us all about his three month vacation he took in Europe two years ago. He apparently saved for six months in Korea to take his Euro Trip by working at a Pigs Feet restaurant as a motorcycle delivery man. After a charming chat we told him we were truly exhausted and needed to get back to our hotel. We watched a bit of Korean television before bed. It was when we wanted to go to bed that I became frustrated with our rooms converter. I pressed one button and the TV changed channels, another and the lights in the bathroom went out. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get the Air Conditioner to turn on. After about twenty minutes I was about to give up when suddenly the TV turned off (thank goodness) and the Air Conditioner buzzed to life (praise the Lord).
After a much needed ten hour sleep we packed our things and munched on apples as we waited for a local bus headed along the coast in the southerly direction. We spent the next hour zooming through rich green rice paddies and mountain villages. Anytime a child saw us from the road their faces would light up and scream, ‘hello!’ It’s hard not to feel like a celebrity when you are a caucasion in rural Korea. Some of these people have never met a white person. I’m glad I was their first! I felt sort of like an ambassador to all of the white people on earth!
We hopped off the bus at Sinnam. This small fishing village is home to an impressive Fishing Village Folk Museum. Displays include model fishing boats, shamanist rituals to ensure a good catch and taboos observed by local fisherman (such as not eating eggs before going on board).
We however, did not come to Sinnam for the fish. The star attraction here is Haesindang Gong-won, a world famous outdoor Penis Park which is full of giant penis carvings. While phallic symbols are nothing new, the origins of this town’s penis fetish are not the usual fertility or stamina preoccupations one would expect. Sinnam legend has it that a young virgin drowned within sight of her boyfriend on a small rocky island offshore. The boy had hoped to save her but was unable to because of the rough seas. Shortly after her death, fishermen noticed that the catch was dwindling and soon the town was sure that this “unfulfilled” girl had cursed the fishing grounds. All hope seemed lost, but when a fisherman heeding the call of nature did so facing the ocean, the next day’s catch increased. Soon the village erected, um, erections in hopes that the penises would placate the frustrated ghost. The fishing yields returned to normal, and Sinnam’s custom of showing Mr. Cock to the water remains to this day.
The Penis Park truly was a wonderland for Phallus enthusiasts. Julia and I ran around for about an hour as we stared up at huge Penis Totems. Each year there is a Phallus Sculpture competition so we were told the totems erected at the park are the best of each years competitors for tourists to enjoy.
Many of the penis totems featured female symbols (breasts and vagina) in some way worshiping the penis or “appreciating” it in some way. There were also several massive metal and marble penis sculptures which tourists could sit on and ride. I couldn’t help but laugh as I saw loads of families (from grandma to six year old granddaughter) walking through the penis park taking pictures. One hilarious Korean family straddled a giant penis while throwing their peace signs into the air. I can’t imagine they were going to blow the picture up and put it over the piano back home but it still was a charming family moment.
Julia and I both commented on how culturally different Koreans are from North Americans. In North America if there was such a park (featuring hundreds of massive dicks) you would be hard pressed to find parents throwing their children up onto a penis shaft to get a family picture. Back home, this sort of place would be looked down upon, and people would pervert it and only allow people 18 years or older admittance. It was at this very moment, when I saw a mother and her daughter coddle a scrotum the size of two watermelons, that I was happy Koreans were able to have innocent and playful fun at a magical place such as the Sinnam Penis Park.
We hopped on the next bus back to Samcheok and scooted over to the Express Bus Terminal to see when the next bus to Seoul would be leaving. Our timing was impeccable it seemed. The next bus to Seoul left in just under two hours. We ran back to our favorite BBQ joint and ordered another large plate of Samgyeopsal. I was shocked by the restaurant prices in Samcheok. Seoul is notoriously more expensive than the rest of the country. As we ate our crispy bacon I commented that this meal in Seoul would cost about ten dollars, wheares we were paying seven dollars for the exact same food in Samcheok.
We waddled over to the bus station feeling rather bloated. For the next five hours we drove through rice paddy dotted mountain landscapes. I started to nod off to sleep as a pink and oranage sunset fell across the quintisential Asian panorama. Our bus arrived at Technomart shortly after 8pm. I looked up at my neighbourhood and flung my arms into the air. I really enjoyed our two day holiday on the East coast but it was so nice to be back in the hustle and bustle of the city.