[VIEWPOINT]Trample down the cookie-cutters

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[VIEWPOINT]Trample down the cookie-cutters

The word yeoinsuk, meaning travelers' lodge, is derived from Chinese characters. But when I take a moment to savor the meaning of the word, a place where a wayfarer can rest, the word sounds dignified and cozy.

But now there are few yeoinsuk in Korea, and with the drop in number, there was also a decline in the image associated with the word. People now consider yeoinsuk a cheap inn where prostitution is rife. Words may maintain their form, but their connotations change according to how people use them.

The favorite of mine among the seven-line listing of films directed by Kim Ki-duk, Birdcage Inn, depicts that degeneration of yeoinsuk very well.

Returning from a recent short trip to the United States and Japan, I pondered the cookie-cutter cities I had seen. If this is globalization, I would rather be a cultural hermit. Should every place in the world be identical?

Near my hotel in San Francisco, I came across a Starbucks coffee house each time that I walked down a different street. People were swarming the shops. The same was true in Tokyo. With identical signs and paper cups and near-identical interiors, Starbucks coffee shops are inescapable and are beginning to challenge fast food restaurant chains for primacy. Same thing in Seoul: Starbucks is taking over the world.

That phenomenon was repeated again by Harry Potter, the hero of a series of fantasy novels by a British writer J.K. Rolling, which have also begun to appear as movies. A three-book package of Harry Potter novels sold more than 10 million copies last year in Japan. During the month of December alone, when the Harry Potter movie opened in Japan, 2.25 million sets of the books were sold.

Hamburgers, Starbucks, and Harry Potter. People in countries around the world can eat, drink and read the same material in real time. Thinking about that prospect, I feel terrified.

Japan's small inns have several characteristics. First, dinners are served. Housemaids will prepare hot baths for you, and turn down your bed for you in the evening. Gardens as well as buildings are very traditionally Japanese. Dinners always include traditional local dishes. If you go to Kyushu, the southernmost of four islands that make up Japan, you can taste raw horse meat called masashi. When I stayed at a small inn in Kagoshima, Kyushu, for a week to interview the ceramist Sim Su-gwan, I enjoyed a rare fish every evening. It can only be found in a place where sea water meats fresh water.

But Koreans do not have an opportunity any more to enjoy our own style of accommodations. Whether it be five-star hotels in Seoul or small hotels in provinces, tourists are given little chance to taste the local culture. For example, a hotel in Gyeongju, the city that is home to numerous cultural assets of Korea, used to provide a yukada, a Japanese dressing gown, for hotel guests. It gave me some relief to learn that the conglomerate that owned the hotel later went bankrupt.

There is a small inn called Jirye Maeul one hour away from Andong, North Gyeongsang province. A poet moved his ancestor's house that was to be submerged after the construction of the Andong dam. He transformed it into a cozy bed and breakfast. A few years ago, my family greeted the new year there.

When the sun rose, the family of the poet gathered together at their household shrine on the northern side of the house and worshiped their ancestors. Sparrows chirped under the 300-year-old roofs. At the morning table, we could enjoy dishes specific to Andong.

Hamburgers, Starbucks and Harry Potter share eerie commonalties: convenience in the process of consumption. The mission of using time most economically killed the cultural aspects of life. A hamburger does not require a knife or fork to eat. The simplicity is almost barbaric. Starbucks coffee, which comes in disposable paper cups, not graceful pottery, is also a cultural barbarism.

Why can't we have accommodations like old Korean traditional houses, which are warm and cozy yet stylishly traditional, where Korean traditional dishes are served? I miss yeoinsuk, which maintained their unique Korean characteristics yet shared universality with the rest of the world.


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The writer is a novelist.

by Han Soo-san

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