South Korea Off the Well-Trodden Tourist Paths

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Although most savvy travelers praise the cosmopolitan bustle of Seoul, more travelers to Korea are seeking the country’s rural areas, quiet and pastoral places of delight and adventure where life moves to the key of easy.

In the minutes immediately after sunrise, when the mist starts to waft through the mountains and the landscape is painted in soft purples and violets, it’s easy to see why Korea is known as the “Land of the Morning Calm.”

This often troubled peninsula jutting into the Sea of Japan, a landmass that some claim looks like a rabbit, is also known as the “Hermit Kingdom,” a tag more often associated with North Korea, the insulated, secretive country that engulfs the peninsula’s upper region.

But where North Korea is mysterious, reticent and oppressive, South Korea is open, friendly and welcoming—an undiscovered treasure for Americans who have previously only known the country as the site of a bloody war more than 50 years ago.

This is a mountainous region full of natural beauty and home to one of Asia’s great cultures.

It’s no wonder that tourism to South Korea is on the rise. Since 2000, when almost 46,000 U.S. visitors came here, the number of Americans has increased to more than 610,000.

There’s no denying that Seoul is one of the great Asian cities, with its neon glare and electrified atmosphere. Its first-class attractions befit its standing as a 21st century metropolis of more than 11 million. New arrivals will find everything in Seoul: great hotels, astounding shopping, exotic foods, friendly people and all the modern conveniences that make it the country’s dominant city. In Korea, no matter where you are, you always go “up” to Seoul—the great urban sprawl with a mysterious name that some simply say means “the capital.”

There are enough sights and adventures to keep a traveler to Seoul occupied for weeks, and many first-time visitors will be surprised to find that this is a place where ancient traditions and lore co-exist harmoniously with the ultra-modern. Even in the middle of the endless motion of this vibrant city, one can easily find places where tranquility reigns.

Within the city, the Gyeongbok-gung complex (“Palace of the Shining Happiness”) is an astonishing palace built in the 12th century dwarfed by shiny skyscrapers. The Gate of the Mighty Transformation (Donhwa-mum) nearby is the best-preserved palace in Seoul. In this sector of Seoul, only traditional structures are allowed. Modernism is intentionally kept at arm’s length to preserve the scenery.

But while those are only two of the many time-honored treasures in the capital, travelers seeking the mysterious and yet alluring Korea of yore will find a country overfilled with touches that are strictly Korean.

According to Jaekyong Lee, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), “The true spirit of Korea, lies in the country’s southern and eastern provinces. In these areas, the culture and traditions of Korea are preserved and exemplified in the slow and tranquil lifestyles of the people. The southern and eastern areas of Korea are widely acknowledged for their unique focus on traditional cuisine, arts, and music, as well as for their abundant agriculture and beautiful untouched landscapes.”

Take Gyeongju. UNESCO ranks it as one of the world’s 10 most important ancient cultural sites and, indeed, this city of some 150,000 residents is one of the most captivating spots in Korea.

Gyeongju is to Korea what Florence is to Italy; what Kyoto is to Japan. It’s no wonder that the city, about 200 miles southeast of Seoul on the coast of the Sea of Japan, is known as the “Museum Without Walls.”

A visit here is highlighted by myriad burial mounds found either within the city or in the most remote rural areas. The tombs resemble giant loaves of bread dominating the shingle rooftops of Gyeongju. They were built for the lords of the ancient regional Silla Kingdom, which dominated the area some 1,200 years ago. These remarkable landmarks will wow even the most philistine visitor. Nearby, one finds Cheomseongdae Observatory, the oldest existing astronomical observatory in Asia and the Bulguksa, a Buddhist shrine built in 528 and considered one of Korea’s national treasures.