Many travel options from ‘Naples of Asia’

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Many travel options from ‘Naples of Asia’

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TONGYEONG, South Gyeongsang ― There is something horribly cliche-ridden about branding random Asian cities with the names of famous European capitals.
Why should the Han River be “Asia’s Seine” or Huistenbosch “Kyushu’s Netherlands”?
Yet when it comes to Tongyeong, a snug port city on the southern coast of South Gyeongsang province, some of the comparisons made with the city are understandable, if in odd ways.
There is Tongyeong the “Naples of Asia,” an image which parallels raw images of the Italian port, surrounded by dingy fishermen’s restaurants and old, run-down motels.
Then there is Tongyeong the “Salzburg of Asia,” a catchy slogan, which the city government swiftly picked up after a German reporter used it to describe the site of a music festival that was held in the city in 2000 as a homage to exiled composer Yun I-sang.
Whether it’s a coincidence or not, both Mozart and Yun happen to share the composition of serene and melancholy music and a sense of pathos in their lives.
Mozart was sick often in his prolific childhood and met a tragic early death from an unknown illness at the age of 35.
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In Korea, political repressions that haunted Yun’s career earned him the nickname of “the wounded dragon.” He was arrested for violation of the National Security Law after news was leaked by South Korean intelligence agents that he had visited the North Korean Embassy in East Berlin while a student in Europe.
Maybe the tragic fate of the exiled musician has something to do with the port’s melancholic aura. Tongyeong, which has over 500 islands scattered around its sea, offers an uninterrupted view of the old port.
Tongyeong’s streets end at a port full of old fishing boats and beaming motel signs. A long canal, which has an underwater pedestrian and car tunnel under it, flows along the shores of the city. Yachts glide through the sea near a marine resort at Chungmu Marina Resort and the scent of oysters is everywhere.
Yachting and fishing are fair options for visitors to this port town. But they shouldn’t underestimate the more conventional routes of sightseeing.
Indeed, the surrounding islands are a major part of the local tourism choices.
At Yokji Island, which is dubbed “a paradise for ocean fishing,” visitors can get a different taste of the country’s scenic beauty. In the old days, the island was said to have fed many of its residents by selling wild deer antlers. Nowadays, though, the place is better known as an important producer of sweet potatoes and fresh seafood.
Yokji is also one of the rare islands across the nation which has a large number of younger residents in the population.
Perhaps troops at a large naval base in the area and their families have something to do with that statistic. Whatever the cause, the island maintains a youthful atmosphere, quite unusual for an old sea village far away from a city.
The ferry ride from Tongyeong to Yokji Island takes a little over an hour and the view on the way is stunning. You find yourself wondering why people travel as far as Thailand or Bali for such views when such a charming seascape is only a few hours drive from Seoul.
If your priority is scuba diving or snorkelling, going further abroad is understandable. But for simply enjoying beautiful views of the sea, there is no reason for Yokji not to be a strong vacation alternative.
The good news is that many of the inlets near Tongyeong have not been heavily developed for tourism yet. There are an increasing number of boarding houses and restaurants on many of the islands, but they are still only a drop in the ocean compared to other tourist regions across the nation.
There are many other attractions near Tongyeong.
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On Somaemul Island, known for its camellia trees, visitors can experience the “Miracle of Moses” ― where the sea parts at low tide, allowing foot traffic between outcrops that are separted at high tide. Yeonhwa Island, literally “lotus blossom” island as it resembles a lotus bud in shape, is surrounded by rocky outcrops and cliffs.
To dip into local history, visitors can’t afford to miss Hansan Island, where Admiral Yi Sun-shin defeated Korea’s enemy Japan in a naval battle in 1592. There is a shrine on the island, which used to be the military headquarters of the Admiral while he was commanding the war. It takes 30 minutes by ferry to reach Hansan Island from Tongyeong. The water is unusually clean; so clean, in fact, that oysters from parts of the island are excused from Food and Drug Administration screening before admittance to the United States.
Such oysters are just one of many food specialties that are yet another reason to visit the region. Aside from fresh oysters, which are eaten all year around in the region, Tongyeong is known for a wide variety of local seafood.
Anchovies are a major source of the regional revenue and every March, the city holds an oyster festival with seafood auctions across the city.
Locals steam oysters with rice, make oyster omelets, ferment the shellfish for months with vegetables to eat as a side dish, roast them, deep-fry them and dump them into soup.
If you are an adventurous diner, be sure to try Chungmu gimbap. It’s a fisherman’s delicacy made up of rice rolled in dried seaweed with a side dish of marinated squid and pungent radish kimchi. You dip the rice in sesame oil seasoned with garlic and soy sauce. It’s an old recipe for a quick meal for fishermen traveling on ships. The trick is to use toothpicks instead of chopsticks.
If you go to the city’s port, restaurants selling the item are everywhere.
“Chungmu Ddungbo Halmae Gimbap,” which means a fat grandmother’s gimbap, is an original out of many restaurants selling the same thing in the port vicinity. It was opened in the early 1980s by an old lady named Eo Du-i. After her death, the restaurant was continued by her daughter in-law. The taste hasn’t changed much, critics say, but practically all the restaurants in the area have the same name, to confuse and lure diners. If you become overwhelmed by your search, just duck into the nearest one. Many visitors also order food to go, and eat it on their ferry ride to other nearby islands.
What more could you ask for from Asia’s Naples, especially when it’s much cleaner and more attractive than that city on the other side of the world?


by Park Soo-mee

Buses to Tongyeong leave almost every hour from the Gangnam Express Bus Terminal. The travel time by bus is about five hours.
By air, you can fly from Gimpo Airport to Sacheon Airport in Jinju (40 minutes) and take an airport limousine to Tongyeong.
For more information on Tongyeong, call the city’s tourism office at (055) 646-2111.

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