July 11, 2012
by Grace Dewson
Departure to Kangnung
This weekend we packed up to head to Kangwon province, the Mecca of hallyu tourism. This trip constituted the film and drama themed portion of our itinerary.
After many rainy hours on the bus, our first stop was at this posh hotel restaurant called “Abbey Road” at the base of Seorak mountains. As one could guess, the menu is named after Beatles songs and the décor reflected a modern take on British interior design with framed pictures of the most famed albums of the 60’s/70’s British Rock era. Some people mentioned the identity crisis of the place, noting how it is a British-themed, seafood pasta restaurant in the middle of rural South Korea. This could be a result of local and international interests of Korea clashing at once. During the course of the trip, I have noticed how there is rampant physical idolatry of famous figures. Everywhere we go, the face of a Korean pop star cannot be avoided. Even at this rurally located restaurant/hotel, they had gold-framed pictures of famous Koreans who have stayed at their hotel for others to admire. In this particular case, the local cuisine of the area was mostly seafood, creating the strange result we were presented with. Perhaps because I was expecting to eat more traditional Korean food, especially considering we were nowhere near Seoul, I was a bit puzzled but I would learn it wouldn’t be the last time I’d feel that way. The arbitrary thematization of rural locations was disorienting, and at times conflicted with my own expectations of particular destinations.
Despite hopes that the rain would shift away, when we arrived at Mt. Seoraksan, it was pouring. Even with a rain jacket and an umbrella, I ended up with soaked legs and shoes. Our portion of the tour involved us taking a cable car up since it was the second highest mountain in South Korea. Within our car, there were both elders and young children anxiously anticipating going up the mountain. Before we left the station of the cable car, we were greeted by another huge billboard of 2PM happily prancing in outdoor gear. It seemed rather out of place to have a random advertisement in a natural setting and forced me to compare it to the many ads we have seen in Seoul.
To be quite frank, I don’t think much would have prepared me for the hike up the mountain. With heavy fog, and rain flooding over most of the stepping stones, I could barely look at my surroundings if I didn’t want to end up on my face (most especially when coming back down). Once we got to the top, I was so relieved to finally make it and breathe the crisp air, yet I was somewhat disappointed because we couldn’t see very much due to the fog. But that’s the gamble that you take when visiting natural spaces; nature isn’t going to move out of the way for tourism.
Afterwards, we visited the Junmunjin fish market with live octopus in small buckets for sale under shanty tents. Although this part of Korea isn’t perhaps what comes to mind as part of its international identity, it’s the heart of much of Korea’s cuisine and economy.
For the final portion of the day, we trudged over the Seongyojang house which resembled in structure buildings we had seen at Kyongbok Palace. The tour guide had informed us that this house was originally for a very rich family of the yangban class which included four generations at once. There were separate living quarters for males and females. I just particularly remembered those two tidbits because those facts are still somewhat embedded into the social and cultural structure of Korea, where multiple generations commonly live in the same house and males and females are generally forbidden from living in the same room unless married.
Over the weekend, we visited the Haslla Art World, where a movie had just been filmed. First, we explored the outdoor sculpture park, which I thoroughly enjoyed. With the backdrop of the ocean in the background, we ventured through a forest with many oddities such as statues of pregnant women, tree branches that were not alive but colored and hanging from the tree and many other things, which can be seen in the pictures. There seemed to be a theme of mimicry of reality. I really enjoyed this portion of the trip because art is an experience of which each individual can have his or her own unique interpretation.
Afterwards, we visited the Pinnochio exhibit, which fashioned many marionettes of Pinnochio and eerie counterparts that presumably would have been in the shop as well.
At night, we stayed at the hotel where April Snow was filmed. Even if you had never seen the movie, it was quite evident that Bae Yong Joon, the protagonist of the movie, was some figure of importance in this hotel as you are greeted with a cardboard cutout of him and a glass encased structure of pictures/memorabilia that highlight Bae Yong Joon (even beyond just April Snow). Although the hotel had been very popular and considerably upscale in its heyday, what was left seemed to be a ghost of a place with very few people and the strong stench of fish everywhere. Our group visited the room where some of the pivotal scenes with Bae Yong Joon’s character was filmed. Outside of the elevator stands a huge mural sized picture from the movie, which is followed by a wall of visitors’ notes outside the room. As we entered the room, there was a huge life size figure banner of the actor and a case of items that the characters used in the scenes in that room. When the tour was more popular, they used to play the scenes from that movie in the room. I suppose all these highlights were meant to allow visitors to feel and live vicariously through the characters, but I felt like it was very odd because if I wanted to relive those scenes, I would have wanted it to be preserved in a manner that the actual characters encountered. Perhaps the uncleaned leftover food and messy sheets of previous tenants of the room didn’t help. It just all felt very unnatural yet interesting because somehow it must have been a memorable experience to those who had visited many years before as well as the previous night. However, I do somewhat wonder if the hotel would be in such a shabby condition if it had never had any involvement with the film in the first place.
We also visited the pension where Winter Sonata was filmed, a café that involved a scene from the drama. It looked quite ordinary at first aside from its beautiful view of the sea but it was anything but. Most of the café was mostly preserved as one would encounter it if one were in the drama, but then it was disturbed by the washed out photos from the drama randomly placed everywhere as a strange reminder of its significance. After coming out of the café, I noticed how out of place it looked relative to the more ragged areas around it. However, even as we were leaving, a man was painting the railings on the bridge to the café. Like the hotel, the café appeared to have created a sandstorm of traffic and livelihood during its popularity but left behind a mess in its dust, leaving the area now in need for redevelopment that it wouldn’t have needed otherwise.
We also visited a cave in Samcheok. Although the tour was only about an hour, it felt endless in the sense that the cave seemed to go on forever. Many of the points of interest (as deemed by the signs) were given character, such as the bridge to hell, confession bridge, the fountain of life and demon’s claw among many others. As I passed these signs, it created a timeline of thoughts that was unique to me in relation to this particular place. I only have a few pictures of the cave due to the low lighting, which is done intentionally for the preservation of the cave physically and as an elusive sight as well.
After our trip to Kangwon, we watched the movie The Power of Kangwon Province, which featured many of the types of places we visited over that weekend. I didn’t particularly enjoy the film. It may have been because my personal taste enjoys more aesthetically pleasing cinematography paired with more progressive character development. However, it allowed my mind to focus less on the characters and on the scenery. It was very serene and, to an extent, simple. There were many scenes of being in transit and hiking/walking, which is a large portion of what our time was spent doing. It was somewhat like the Kangwon province that we had seen yet just untouched by the commercialized influence (perhaps from Seoul?). There wasn’t celebrity product placement everywhere. The characters went to Kangwon to reflect on their own lives and to escape Seoul, which was made possible by the liberating and natural environment, free of busy-ness and distractions. It was just nature, in its truest form.