When people ask me where South Korea is, I usually tell them it’s a wonderful country, located between China and Japan.
If the same person proceeds to ask “But where is China and Japan?” then I tell them that the country directly to the north of South Korea is North Korea. And that the country directly to the south of North Korea is South Korea.
Fortunately, many people in this day and age are able to point to South Korea – along with China and Japan – on a map.
This is a good thing.
Expectation versus Reality
There are still people who have certain preconceived notions of South Korea.
Most of these notions arise from ignorance.
The most egregious of this would be:
South Korea is a developing country, right?
The Reality is:
From 1971 onward, South Korea has gone through one of the most amazing transformations ever seen on the world stage, hurtling from developing to developed country status at breakneck speed.
The South Korea of today is a highly advanced developed country.
I mean, this is Seoul’s skyline at night:
And this is the first functional bipedal walker prototype developed by South Korean robotics firm, Hankook Mirae Technology. They call it METHOD-2. It weighs 1.5 tons and is 13-feet tall.
Expectation: But isn’t South Korea just a land of skyscrapers and urban steel jungles, and the only thing people can do is eat and shop?
The Reality is:
South Korea, like its neighbors, China and Japan, is a country where modern, gleaming skyscrapers jostle for space with temples and buildings sporting more traditional, ornate architecture.
Walk at a languid pace at Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, where you can bear witness to the architectural beauty of Korea’s traditional hanok houses:
One could visit, Gyeongju, a peaceful city and once the capital of the ancient Silla Dynasty.
It is very accessible and about 2 hours by high-speed rail (KTX) from Seoul.
If you like mountains, whether for the stunning views, the fresh air, or to live out your Highlander/mountain-man fantasies, you can head up to Seoraksan or Jirisan:
If you decide to go for Seoraksan, you’ll be in Gangwon Province (Gangwondo).
There are quite a few spots in Gangwondo where, if you have the proper equipment, and place yourself in the proper spot, (and hope that the weather is all well and good), you can take some gorgeous shots of the night sky:
Then there’s Jeju Island, also known as the Hawaii of Korea.
Yes, yes it can get a little touristy at times.
It can be a challenge to navigate through the crowds at the popular touristy spots.
Yes, yes, it can get a little overpriced.
There are a couple of tacky, cheesy museums you might want to steer clear of.
But, if you want to see something a little different from the mainland, and you’ve got a couple of days to spend, or if you, like me, enjoy cute women calling you 오라방 (orabang) – Elder Brother in the Jeju language, used by women for men – then Jeju Island is as good a spot as any.
Expectation: I think Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit South Korea.
The Reality is:
Yes, Spring and Autumn are generally considered the most pleasant seasons to visit South Korea.
In Summer, it can get crazy hot, crazy muggy, and you might have to end the pitiful existence of a mozzie or two. The temperature can easily reach 38 C ( 100 F ).
In Winter, South Korea is easily colder than Japan.
It can drop to as cold as -15 C ( 5 F), depending on where you are.
Still, for the intrepid traveler, there are many sights one can behold in South Korea during the Summer and Winter months.
Expectation: Okay, great, great. But what about the food? I’ve read/seen/heard that Korean food is spicy. The only spice I use is salt and pepper. How can I possibly cope with all that spiciness?
The Reality is:
Yes, many Koreans do like their food spicy.
But, seriously, just how spicy can it get?
Well, in 2017, many YouTubers were doing the Nuclear Fire Noodles challenge, where they proceed to tuck into Samyang brand’s Limited Edition Hot Chicken Flavor Ramen 2x Spicy.
It is said to be spiciest instant noodle in the world.
Hot Chicken Flavor Ramen 2x Spicy has a heat rating of 12,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU).
Just to give you an idea of how spicy that is:
The normal flagship variety Tabasco pepper sauce is around 2500 – 5000 SHU.
The Tabasco habanero sauce is considerably hotter at around 7000 – 8000 SHU.
Serrano peppers are around 10,000 – 25,000 SHU.
So, these Nuclear Fire Noodles, at 12,000 SHU?
Then of course, there’s 디진다 돈까스 which translates literally to something like “You Die”/”Killer”/”Deadly” Pork Cutlet. Very ominous sounding, innit?
There are places where you can eat this for free, as long as you finish it within a certain amount of time (around 20 minutes). If you don’t – and honestly, many people do not – you pay about $15- $20 for the dish.
If you think the spicy sauce in Chipotle is fiery, you should not attempt this challenge.
It will turn your heart and your insides into ash.
For your reference, the spice level is about 9,900 SHU.
Of course, the above dishes are not commonly eaten dishes – they’re on the extreme end of the Spicy spectrum.
They’re just the answer to “How crazily spicy can the food get?”
Many Koreans will tell you that the above food items are not meant for consumption by humans.
So, what if you can’t take spicy foods?
What are some of the options available to you?
You could have kalguksu, which translates literally to “Knife noodles”.
They’re basically handmade, knife-cut wheat noodles served in broth.
In Busan, you can enjoy 어우동 (eoudong), which is a type of udon noodle made from fishcake. Not just noodles WITH fishcake, but the noodles are actually made FROM fishcake.
Expectation: Koreans are always bowing and courteous. They’re a meek people, aren’t they?
The Reality is:
Yes, there are a handful of different speech levels and honorifics in South Korea.
One chooses which to use depending on a variety of factors, including one’s own age relative to the other parties in the conversation, one’s seniority in the work place, etc.
But I would not associate Koreans with meekness.
If they’re united behind a cause, Koreans are very, very quick to band together in order to stand up for their beliefs and principles.
I mean, does this look meek to you?
Ever wondered how South Korea reached its advanced, developed status in a handful of decades?
Working life in South Korea is brutal, and the number of hours South Koreans work consistently puts them in the Top 3 in the world.
South Korea did NOT get to where she is by adopting a 9-to-5 work culture.
Life moves at an incredible speed in Korea.
Cities (and some citizens) are said to never sleep.
There’s always someone, somewhere, up and about doing something (eating is a favorite pastime).
However, despite all that, South Koreans know how to smile and have fun:
In 1960, 72% of South Korea’s population lived in the countryside.
Now, robotic companies are developing mecha-bots, Kpop has spread across the globe, and Korean culture and cuisine has infiltrated the global awareness.
For those who are still stumbling in the dark, it’s great to leave your expectations and preconceived notions at the door and walk toward the light at the end of the corridor.
I hope this has been an educational article for you.
Thank you for making it this far!