Korean best buys a mix of ancient and cutting edgeWhat are the best buys in Korea? For decades, shoppers who came to South Korea were told to head for one place ― Itaewon, where a strip of stores sold sneakers, leather jackets, luggage and the like. Items sold at knock down prices were simply the remnants of a Korean economic machine that had a worldwide reach. Korea was one of the leading countries in Asia to manufacture goods for U.S. and European designers like Nike and Donna Karan. Their factory rejects, or seconds, ended up in Itaewon. And then China came along.
Over the past decade, the majority of manufacturing factories have relocated to China and Southeast Asian countries where production costs are lower.
The change in economic fortunes is reflected in the merchandise sold in Korea today. Even on the streets of Itaewon, most factory seconds of well-known brands are imports from China.
A stallholder in Itaewon said she used to get her women’s clothes from Korean factories but now gets her weekly shipment through middlemen in Hong Kong, and her customers tend to be local buyers. Compared to retail prices, these Chinese imports, often counterfeit knock-offs, are still considered cheap here, but the stallholder said she’s worried about the future of her business.
Another example is gems. Back in the 1980s, jewelry from Korea was all about amethysts, but now most examples of the semi-precious stone sold in Korea are from Russia and it’s no longer considered the best buy.
Korea’s best buys are now from other fields: smart electronic gadgets and delicacies such as packaged kimchi to rice wine to ginseng potions, products once considered too exotic. Handmade items are fast disappearing, but items such as well-priced costume jewelry and accessories and prescription glasses, are found all over the city. Catering to the hectic lives of serious shoppers, discount markets and stores in downtown Seoul stay open all night.
by Ines Cho
The best-known companies in Korea ― Samsung and LG ― are internationally renowned for design and quality, especially in cellular phones, digital cameras and LCD monitors.
In Seoul, the Yongsan Electronics Market and the Techno Mart are the best places to buy electronics. There, Samsung’s Anycall cellular phones cost 240,000 won ($255) to 588,600 won and Samsung’s digital camera Kenox costs 320,000 to 470,000 won. LG and Samsung’s 19-inch LCD monitors cost around 400,000 won.
These markets are densely populated with small stores competing for trade, so shoppers are advised to look around and compare prices.
For Techno Mart (www.tm21.com), go to Gangbyeon subway station, line No.2, exit 1. For Yongsan Electronics Market, go to Yongsan subway station, line No.1, exit 1.
Authentic Korean ginseng has been harvested since the ancient kingdoms of the third century. Korean ginseng contains a rich saponin called ginsenoside. This ingredient is believed to strengthen immunity and some think it lowers cholesterol and protects against cancer. Experts say six-year-old Korean red ginseng root is considered the most effective.
Korean ginseng can be classified as wild ginseng, mountain ginseng and cultivated ginseng according to the environment in which it was grown. Wild ginseng is grown naturally in deep valleys and the seeds of wild ginseng sown in the mountains become mountain ginseng. Korean ginseng has different names according to the processing technique used. Freshly dug ginseng is called susam (fresh ginseng) and peeled and dried ginseng is baeksam (white ginseng). Hongsam (red ginseng) is unpeeled ginseng that has been steamed and dried. It is light yellowish brown or light reddish brown in color.
The price varies depending on the district where the root was produced, its age and method of preservation. Punggi and Geumsan are two cities that are well known for their Korean ginseng markets.
Koreans have worn hanbok, the traditional garment of Korea, since the Three Kingdoms era. However, the current form and style of Hanbok was settled in the Joseon dynasty.
Hanbok have become a garment that people wear for special occasions or on traditional holidays. Hanbok were originally made only in white but are now available in many colors. In the beginning, people made hanbok with ramie fabric or cotton according to the weather. Today, the materials used to make hanbok vary from cotton to silk or satin, depending on different purposes or tastes.
Modernized hanbok maintain the traditional beauty and enhance convenience. Thanks to the popularity of hallyu (the Korean cultural wave), hanbok have been introduced in Korean dramas and sales to foreign customers have increased to 30% of total sales.Designer hanbok can cost a fortune, so many Koreans opt for inexpensive versions, from 200,000 won and up, sold in wholesale markets. Dongdaemun Market has various hanbok stores
Ancient Korean homes used to be built with loess, a kind of soil, known as hwangto in Korean. Things have changed in Korea, and many Koreans who are allergic to concrete buildings and other chemical substance in the environment have begun to replace household items with hwangto, a natural purifier and antioxidant.
Every Korean sauna has hwangto rooms, and the famous 16th century gisaeng, Hwangjini, is said to have used hwangto to maintain her beauty. Recently Koreans have started making bedding, garments, electric mats and more products with loess. Prices of hwangto products vary according to the brand names; a full bedding set costs between 400,000 won and 600,000 won. Hwangto products can be purchased from large franchise supermarkets such as Lotte Mart.
Bokbunja, or Korean grown wild berries, is said to enhance health. Some believe they extend vitality and generative functions and promote blood circulation and the elasticity of skin.
A dark maroon-colored wine made from these berries is naturally sweet, making it an ideal match with pork and duck dishes. It’s also good as an aperitif or digestive. Depending on the processing method, every variety has different percentages of alcohol and sweetness. The prices range from 10,000 won to 60,000 won. Bokbunja Wine is available in major discount markets and online markets.
For decades, Daegu in central Korea was known for factories specializing in producing high-quality prescription lenses. This business has diminished somewhat, but many Korean companies still manufacture prescription glasses and frames for the domestic and international market.
A good-looking pair of glasses with prescription lenses can cost as little as 20,000 won. High-powered lenses usually cost two or three times more. A major convenience is that most stores have their own opticians who can prescribe, cut, shape and fit glasses for customers.
With more than 150 wholesale and retail shops clustered in the Namdaemun area, the stores here supply more than half of all glasses sold in local stores. Hoehyeon subway station, line No. 4, exit 5.
From the busier shopping streets in Myeongdong or Dongdaemun to the larger subway transfer sta
tions, racks of costume jewelry at extremely low prices catch the eye. Earrings range from 1,000 to 3,000 won, necklaces range from 2,900 to 6,900 won, and hair pins range from 1,000 to 5,000 won. Some look as cheap as they cost, but with some digging, shoppers can go home with some serious bargains.
High-quality imitations of famous brand names cost slightly higher, about 20,000 won or more. Here’s one catch: they don’t come with fancy jewelry boxes. Properly wrapped, these would make great gifts.
The Namdaemun jewelry market in central Seoul has a large concentration of handmade jewelry and accessories as well as supplies for making jewelry at low prices. Most of them are gathered around the market’s gate No. 5.
Custom tailored suits
If you only like Saville Row or can get Armani or Zegna at deeply discounted prices, Korea may not be the place for buying a suit. But, for years, Korean tailors have satisfied businessmen, military officers and entertainers, who visited Korea and discovered Seoul’s tailored “express” suits and shirts.
Priced between 190,000 won and 590,000 won for a suit and 25,000 won to 40,000 won for a dress shirt, depending on the fabric and needlework, the Korean-made suit does the job and ensures everyone looks right for whatever occasion.
Although most suits take about three days to one week to make, suitmakers such as Hilton Tailors in Itaewon have built their reputations by making great-looking suits overnight. Up to 100 custom tailor shops can be found in Itaewon. Itaewon subway station, line No. 6, exit 2 or 3.
To withstand a harsh, long winter, a must-have item in Korea is an electric heating mat. What used to be a simple plastic mat has been transformed by creativity: these days, products come in various materials that are supposed to help maintain good health, such as jade, coal or even mud, and are then covered in wool, cotton or plastic. Prices are anywhere from 15,000 won to 200,000 won. When choosing an electric heating mat, check for levels of electromagnetic wave emissions, whether they emit infrared rays, tight seams, electric power consumption and temperature sensitivity.
Dongdaemun Jonghap Sijang next to the Dongdaemun monument offers mats at wholesale prices. Dongdaemun subway station, lines No. 1 or 4, exits 8 or 9.
Truly authentic Korean antiques may only be found at a Christie’s auction, but well-crafted reproductions from Korean carpenters can fool even the most fastidious critics. While versions of an authentic large folk painting of a mythical tiger accompanied by a magpie ― known as hojakdo ― are often seen in museums around the world, the deceptively realistic-looking painting from Korea can also be found as a reproduction and is a perfect way to decorate a living room.
Popular furniture items include yakjang (medicine cabinets), bandaji (chests), hwajangdae (dressing tables) and sang (tea tables) and cost between 150,000 won and 400,000 won in “antique” shops in Seoul. Woods used in Korean furniture are paulownia, pine or walnut, which are lacquered and decorated with cast iron, bronze or copper.
Decades ago, two markets in Insa-dong and Janganpyeong in northern Seoul flourished as a mecca for Korean antique hunters but not anymore. The majority of stores in both markets now sell Chinese reproductions. For Insa-dong, go to Anguk subway station, line No. 3, exit 6. For Janganpyeong, go to Dapsimni subway station, line No. 5, exit 4. Stores are open between 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m on weekdays.
Nothing beats the taste of kimchi made in Korea. The types of kimchi available in most markets are traditional cabbage kimchi, green onion kimchi, cubed radish kimchi, cucumber kimchi, young radish kimchi and white kimchi, and they are ready to be shipped and available in various sizes.
Ten kilograms (22 lb) of regular cabbage kimchi costs 25,000 to 30,000 won. Kimchi can be purchased at department stores and from numerous vendors in Namdaemun market, where it is sometimes available for direct shipping. Hoehyeon subway station, line No. 4, exit 5.
Korea has long been known for its vast ocean bounties. To preserve the taste of seasonal catches, Koreans have perfected the art of drying sea food over many generations. Popular produce includes gim (dried seaweed), anchovies, squid and mussels.
Dried seaweed, seasoned with salt and sesame oil, is popular with both tourists and local shoppers, so it is sold in almost every store in Korea. One package costs about 1,000 to 2,000 won.
Dried seaweed can be purchased at department stores, major discount marts, supermarkets, Namdaemun Market, convenience stores, and more. Namdaemun has a wide range of dried seafood vendors.
Hoehyeon subway station, line No. 4, exit 5.
Reporting by Chough Eun-young,
Chang Sun-young, Im Sun-young