Choosing Chungcheong

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Text and photos by Cecille Santillan-Visto

AS TIME is a limited resource, travelling for pleasure may sometimes be considered a luxury. Often, the choice of destination could spell the difference between a memorable vacation and a bungled opportunity. Carefully selecting one’s getaway is the first order in planning.

The typical tourist will likely pick the popular cities and include the “touristy” areas in their itinerary. The more adventurous, meanwhile, will be prefer the crowded and unspoiled surroundings. Those planning a trip to South Korea will have the capital city of Seoul as their first stop. But for this writer, who has been to the Land of the Morning Calm more than 10 times in the last seven years, there are other equally, if not more enticing places to experience the ultimate in Korean culture.

For the Korean Tourism Organization Manila, promoting other provinces and cities and their unique charms is high on its agenda. One of these “unexplored” regions is Chungcheong — recognized as Korea’s bastion of Catholicism, an exciting artistic mecca, and an emerging attraction for those fascinated with Korean quirkiness.

Chungcheong, located in the southwest of the country, was one of the eight provinces formed during the Joseon Dynasty. The name was derived from Chungju and Cheongju, two of its main cities.

A recent summer escape provided the opportunity to see the sights of Chungcheong, particularly spots in the Daejeon, Cheonan, and Dangjin areas. Should you choose Chungcheong as your next Korean province, the seven attractions below will make visit worth your while.

1. Nonsan Sunshine Land — K-drama fans should include Nonsan Sunshine Land on their list of not-to-be-missed places. Officially opened on Nov. 1, 2018, it was the filming location of the period Korean drama Mr. Sunshine, starring multi-awarded actor Lee Byung Hun and young actress Kim Tae. Nonsan Sunshine Land has several sections, including the Sunshine Studio, where around 70% of the scenes were shot; a 1950s open film set, and even a survival game and military experience center. Nonsan is an acknowledged military city, with a government army center in its jurisdiction.

According to the studio’s management, Nonsan Sunshine Land attracts an average of 30,000 visitors, no small thanks to the drama’s huge following, and they expect to have more tourists with the expansion of the facility. It took a year to build the complex but more sections are being added, presumably to make it more comparable with other similar but bigger outdoor studios such as the Yongin MBC Daejanggeum Park, formerly MBC Dramia, which this writer was also able to visit on a recent Korea trip.

Entrance to Sunshine Land is free but there is a 7,000 Korean Won (KRW) (about P350) fee to explore the Sunshine Studio.

The people behind Sunshine Land skillfully replicated the look and feel of 1900s Joseon. A shop rents out hanbok (the Korean national costume) and visitors can walk through the area and feel like they traveled back in time. Staff manning Sunshine Land are also in costume and constantly in character, contributing to the one-of-a-kind vibe. There is a café inside the Glory Hotel, which serves refreshments to guests, like the character of Eugene Choi does in the series.

2. Daejeon City treats — Daejeon is the home of several Korean celebrities such as actress Song Joong Ki of Descendants of the Sun, actress-singer UEE of After School, and Kwak Dong-yeon, who played Park Bo Gum’s sidekick in Love in the Moonlight, and TV host Park Ji Min.

But this quaint city is more famous for its treats. For over 60 years, local and foreign visitors alike have flocked to Daejeon to enjoy the sweet creations of Sungsimdang Bakery. It offers a wide array of breads and pastries, chocolates and cookies, steamed buns, and its cake boutique has made-to-order and pre-made cakes. Double-decker French macarons are fast becoming best sellers although the runaway winner is the KRW 3,000 ciabatta, which was what Pope Francis ate during his 2014 visit. A personal favorite are the piping hot buns, which have different fillings such as squid, beef, and chicken. For KRW 1,500, one can choose from the various levels of sweetness and spice.

The patisserie also has a restaurant at the second floor with a selection of Korean and Italian-inspired dishes.

There are several Sungsimdang branches in downtown Daejeon but the main store is just a stone’s throw away from the Daeheung Catholic Church. For the uninitiated, it may be just another bakeshop chain, however, there is an inspiring story behind the patisserie. The original owner, Im Gil Soon, fled North Korea in the 1940s and started his new life in the South with only two bags of flour.

Aside from Pope Francis, many personalities have visited the pride of Daejeon City, including President Moon Jae In. In an interview, he even said that Mr. Im was with his father in the same evacuation ship from Pyongyang.

3. Portraits at Daecheong Lake — It may be something unusual on a travel itinerary but a photoshoot with a famous local photographer is certainly worth the effort to set an appointment and thereafter, to patiently wait your turn.

At Daecheong Lake there is a former warehouse for rice and grain that was transformed into a photography studio. The owner, who is simply known as Mr. Pea, has been running the place since 2017.

“In this modern era, people ‘lose’ themselves. Taking photographs is a way of ‘preserving’ themselves, only if only through portraits,” said Mr. Pea, through a translator, tourist guide Eugene (@eugeneaan).

And Mr. Pea has been successful in capturing his subject’s personality — so much so that he has made a name for himself in and outside of district. On his wall there are portraits of families and children, engaged couples in their pre-nuptial sessions, and intricately arranged concept photos. Clients also have the option to take portraits themselves using a remote control. The studio takes care of the lighting and the set.

As the demand for Mr. Pea’s services is increasing, clinching an appointment may be difficult. Many are willing to wait at the café next door — which he also owns — while he works his magic at the studio. Perfection takes time and patrons are aware of this.

4. Uineungjeongi Cultural Street — Uineungjeongi Cultural Street has the same feel as Insadong in Jongno, Seoul. It is vibrant and busy and has a shopping district, albeit at a scale smaller and more modest than Myeongdong.

It is best to experience Uineungjeongi at different times of the day. There is an eat-all-you-can rice cake chain, Dukki Tteobokki Buffet Restaurant, where lunch comprised of tteobokki, odeng (fish cakes), and ramyon (ramen) can be enjoyed hot pot-style.

Dinner can be had at Dasong Restaurant, which serves seok galbi — Korean rib meat marinated in sweet sauce.

At night, tourists can check out the Sky Road, which showcases a light show projected on the ceiling of a busy shopping street. In between shows, there are various RTW, cosmetics, and other outlets to explore as well as coffee shops and ice cream stores to try.

Anime lovers should make time for Nolsoop, a cartoon and book café, where enthusiasts can spend hours on end enjoying a wide array of titles. Most paperbacks and hard covers are unfortunately in Korean although customers are free to lounge around the private nooks, complete with soft mats and pillows. It can be an alternative hangout for tired tourists, as it also has a massage chair as one of it amenities.

5. Asan Marina Village — The Asan Marina Village is a Mediterranean enclave in Chungcheong. Its white buildings with blue and red rounded rooftops give it a Europe-like atmosphere. The community was formed after Samsung moved a part of its operations to the area from the Samsung Digital City in Suwon, another bustling South Korean city.

Prior to the trip to the Asan Marina Village, we visited the Myeongjae Old House, where we witnessed a traditional tea ceremony. Madam Yoon Gyeung Nam, the daughter a great tea master and herself recognized as an expert in her craft, taught the intricacies of preparing and serving Korean tea.

In Asan, the impressive architecture has attracted a lot of affluent Koreans, who have since made it their home.

Laidback yet modern, many have converged in the posh Blue Crystal Village, which is at the heart of Asan. Several establishments have sprouted in the village, including the restaurants such as the Yookpung Barbecue Restaurant, which serves some of the best Korean pork bellies and as such. It is always fully packed.

There are plenty of parks and art installations and first-time visitors will likely enjoy the relaxed ambience. Collectors can also visit the many art shops selling trinkets and knick-knacks while appreciating the residents and shop owners’ small gardens. For more diverse flora, there is also the nearby Oeam Folk Village, where one can also try one’s hand at hand-painting a traditional Korean fan.

6. Pilgrimage to Cheonan’s shrines — Although Christianity is not the dominant religion in Korea, it has a good percentage of practicing Catholics. Although not very popular yet, many pilgrims have included Cheonan as part of their pilgrimage.

The Shinri Holy Ground, for instance, is a sacred place where St. Daveluy, the 5th bishop of Joseon diocese lived. The French saint served in Korea for 21 years until his martyrdom in 1866. Shinri was then the largest Catholic village in Korea and a refuge of foreign missionaries. It played an important role in the evangelization of Korea and is also called the Korean Catacomb.

The Shrine of Solmoe, meanwhile, is the birth place of Korea’s first Catholic priest, St. Andrew Kim Dae-gun. The place is name “Solmoe” as the pine trees (“sol” in Korean) are clumped and appear like a hill (“moe”). Since the establishment of the Korean Catholic Church in 1784, the place has been the residence of martyrs of four generations.

Called the “Bethlehem of Korea,” St. Andrew Kim, who was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and canonized as a saint by then Pope John Paul II in 1984, discovered his vocation here early in his youth.

Travelers, as part of their religious journey, may also dine at a near Kil Mok Restaurant and order the lunch set of Pope Francis.

7. Ami Art Museum — Ami is a private art gallery in Dangjin that used to be a school. The owners transformed the classrooms into workshops and exhibition spaces.

Ami’s entrance fee is reasonable at KRW 5,000 for adults and KRW 3,000 for children considering the exhibit areas and workshops open to the public. At the time of our visit, there was a display of what appeared to be watercolor paintings in one room and an installation of ropes of various colors and with different designs in another.

Ami has an open field with benches which is a perfect playground for children or a resting area for weary visitors after exploring the gallery. A lot of greenery surrounds the museum, which are in full bloom during spring and exploding with colors during autumn. There are also several art pieces outdoors for its clientele to enjoy.

Bustling with enthusiasts even on weekdays, Ami likewise has a café, which also has many conversational antiques on display.

Upon our return to Seoul, there were new discoveries, places that we have not seen in previous visits. Starfield Coex, a huge shopping complex, launched the Byeol-Madang (which literally means “star ground”) in June 2016. The 2,000-square-meter library has two-storey (13 meters) high bookshelves. The Starfield library has more nearly 50,000 books and more than 600 magazine titles.

Foodies will enjoy Zapangi Café, which offers designer ice creams featuring various figures such as edible sugar mermaids and unicorns as centerpieces. Harry Potter enthusiasts should not miss the 943 King’s Cross Café which has all the references to the J.K. Rowling series — but sadly without displaying the copyrighted characters. The nearby Moca Radio Café is also touted as the best café in Seoul with its superb home-made desserts complementing its coffees and teas.

Even quick stops at BT21 Line Friends and Kakao Friends Shop will induce shoppers to shell out for cute merchandise with characters from popular mobile applications Line and Kakao.

As in every journey, the choice of destination lies with the traveler. It is not the most popular option, but choosing Chungcheong could be the best decision a Korean sojourner could make.