So, you’re not going anywhere...Close your eyes and imagine Seoul without elbowing crowds and traffic jams. Don’t think it’s too fanciful to believe, because that’s the Seoul you’ll find during the Chuseok holidays, the fabulous three-day break with, this year, a weekend tagging along.
Chuseok ― Aug. 15 by the lunar calendar, with the year’s biggest full moon ― has been a symbol of opulence after harvest season for centuries. For most Koreans, it’s a time for homecoming, or “the migration of the nation.” Many Seoul natives also take the chance to get away from the hustle and bustle by traveling abroad. So that leaves Seoul all yours: practically, yet implausibly, empty.
Still want to make the best of the holidays by escaping the city? Forget about getting tickets out of town. In the 1970s, people were literally crushed to death at Seoul Station just trying to get train tickets. That doesn’t happen anymore, but train stations do look like subway cars at rush hour.
So before making the worst of the holidays, think again about staying in town. It’s one of the rare times that Seoul lives up to Korea’s slogan, “Land of Morning Calm.” If you miss it, you’ll never know the prestige of getting a choice subway seat during what would normally be rush hour.
Even if you’ve been too tied up with the pre-holiday logjam of work at the office to plan ahead, there’s no need to despair. Plenty of things to do in the Seoul vicinity await your attention.
Where to find it? In today’s J-style, a how-to-spend-the-holidays guide for those smart enough not to go anywhere.
After Chuseok, you’ll find yourself relaxed and more Seoul-savvy, while your coworkers suffer from the post-vacation symptom of wanting another vacation.
When in Korea, do as the Koreans do
Turkey and the Macy’s parade make for an all-American Thanksgiving. Songpyeon ― rice cake ― and a full moon do the same for an all-Korean Chuseok.
Kneaded from the powders of the year’s first rice crop, then steamed with pine needles, songpyeon comes with a variety of fillings, from honey to beans. Koreans believed that a good songpyeon maker would have a pretty baby girl. You can try your own luck during Chuseok by making songpyeon yourself at a number of places in Seoul.
Namsangol Hanok Village is one such place, with hands-on lessons for expatriates and children from noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Spectators are invited to make the rice cake and steam it in gamasot, a traditional iron pot. Sitting in a hanok (a traditional Korean house) to make and taste songpyeon is an authentic Chuseok experience.
At the other corner of the village, you can enjoy a feast of hangwa, traditional cookies and sweets. From Wednesday to Sunday at 3 and 5 p.m., Lee In-suk, an expert Korean cook, will demonstrate the ABCs of hangwa. While the children are doing that, grown-ups can steal away to a traditional wine-brewing corner, open Wednesday to Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
The village will also demonstrate general folk customs not specific to Chuseok. Pansori, a traditional vocal solo drama, followed by a mask dance performance, takes place tomorrow at 2 p.m. Thursday, the actual day of Chuseok, is the highlight, offering nongak, farmers’ music and dance to celebrate the harvest, at 2 p.m., along with a folk song recital and a traditional dance performance. More modern performances will also be presented, such as the Dongchun Circus. Among the shows available on Sunday, a performance on the gayageum, a 12-string instrument, at 2 p.m. and traditional sword arts at 4 p.m. stand out. From Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 6 p.m., visitors can learn about farm life by making tofu, stranding straw ropes and pounding steamed rice with a mallet.
Events will take place rain or shine. You can reach Namsangol Hanok Village by taking subway line No. 3 or 4 to Chungmuro Station. Use exit No. 3. For more information, call (02) 2266-6938 or visit www.fpcp.or.kr.
The Korea National Tourist Organization has expatriate-friendly programs from today to Sunday in the basement of its building in Jongno, central Seoul. Visitors can enjoy Korean folk games like yutnori, a board game played with sticks, or jegi chagi, kicking a Korean tassel. Visitors get a pouch of Korean traditional sweets and a digital photograph of themselves playing the game. Also, the Korean film “Chunhyang” will be shown each day with English subtitles at 2 p.m. Take subway line No. 1 to Jonggak Station and use exit No. 5. For more information, call (02) 1330.
For museums, palaces and parks in Seoul, Chuseok marks one of the busiest seasons, chock-full of special programs. All you have to do is pick a venue and come out and play. Tomorrow at 2 p.m., the National Folk Museum in central Seoul presents Bukcheong Saja Noreum, a lion mask dance to keep evil spirits away and invite good luck. Take subway line No. 3 to either Anguk or Gyeongbokgung station and take exit No. 1 or 5, respectively. For more information, call (02) 734-1346 or visit www.nfm.go.kr.
At 3 p.m. Thursday, Deoksu Palace near City Hall holds a mask dance performance, and Gyeongbok Palace presents a taekgyeon showdown, a Korean traditional martial art with bare fists. Changgyeong Palace in Jongno, northern Seoul, offers mask dance performances at 2 p.m. Friday.
To reach Deoksu Palace, take subway line No. 2 to City Hall station and take exit No. 12. Gyeongbok Palace has a subway station of its own on line No. 3, and is best reached from exit No. 5, while Changgyeong Palace sits near exit No. 4 from Hyehwa Station on subway line No. 4. If you’re dressed up in hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing, you’ll get free admission to the palaces from tomorrow to Friday.
If you are more a participant than a spectator, you can head to parks, where visitors are invited to join in folk games and sports.
Games will be held through Sunday at Namsan, Yeouido, Cheonho-dong, Boramae and World Cup parks from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Choose a park in your neighborhood and you can play games such as neolttwigi, a Korean seesaw game. Namsan Park, in the heart of Seoul, is reachable from many subway stations, such as Dongguk University on line No. 3 and Myeongdong on line No. 4. You are advised to take a cab to the park from the station. Yeouido Park is best reached from exit No. 3 at Yeouido station on subway line No. 5. Boramae Park in southwestern Seoul sits near Boramae Station on subway line No. 7, exit No. 2. To Cheonho-dong Park in southeastern Seoul, you can take subway line No. 5 to Cheonho Station and use exit No. 3. World Cup Park is in northwestern Seoul, reachable from World Cup Stadium Station on line No. 6, exit No. 1.
For more information, you can visit www.parks.seoul.kr, which is available in English, Japanese and Chinese.
For a more contemporary Chuseok
If the past isn’t to your taste, there are still movies, exhibitions and the rest of contemporary culture.
For Koreans still in Seoul, the movies are a popular holiday pastime, which makes it next to impossible to get a ticket from a box office unless you book it in advance.
You’d be well advised to reserve tickets online by visiting www.maxmovie.com, www.ticketlink.com or www.ticketpark.com ― and ask a Korean friend to do it for you, because some Web sites take only Koreans as members.
Many art exhibitions will stay open throughout the Chuseok holidays, including the Picasso show at HoAm Art Gallery and the Yoko Ono exhibition at Rodin Gallery. Both can be reached from the City Hall station on subway line No. 2, exit No. 9.
Want to catch up on your reading? Here’s some good news: Downtown bookstores Kyobo and Youngpoong will keep normal business hours (10 a.m. to 9 p.m.) except on Thursday, when Kyobo will close and Youngpoong will be open from 1 to 8 p.m.
Department stores such as Lotte, Hyundai, Shinsegae and Galleria will be closed Thursday and Friday. Hyundai stands out with the longest holiday, staying closed Saturday.
The subway system will run as usual, but it’ll be a longer wait between trains. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Subway Corporation, trains are scheduled to arrive at a station every six minutes during the Chuseok holidays.
From Friday to Sunday, the subways will run until 2 a.m. for the convenience of travelers returning to Seoul.
Nothing beats home sweet home
One tried-and-true way to celebrate the holidays is by loafing around at home.
Sleeping to your heart’s content and spacing out for the rest of the day sounds like a plan for a vacation in the truest sense of the word. A couple of movies might not hurt ― if you can muster the energy to drop by a video rental store in your neighborhood.
If that’s too much trouble, there’s always the good old television set.
Local TV networks rush into competition to run special Chuseok movie selections, to the lazy viewer’s advantage. This time, KBS, MBC and SBS, along with a bunch of cable movie channels, are fully loaded. Since Chuseok is supposed to be a time for families, movies are trimmed and selected to remain true to the theme.
One possible nuisance is that many networks take the trouble to dub Western movies into Korean. Before you dump the plan, however, note that fixing this takes no more than some finger work on your remote control.
If you get to the multi-language function, you can easily change the Korean-speaking Harrison Ford back to native, terse-talking American. Ford in particular is set to take Korean TV sets by storm with his three “Indiana Jones” movies due to air on MBC.
On your plate lies a heap of films, from James Bond to the epic “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” All you have to do to enjoy the star parade is sit back and to turn on the television with the movie guide below in hand.
by Chun Su-jin