Text and photos by Brian M. Afuang

FROM SOUTH Korea’s international airport in Incheon, the route to the city of Jeonju, some 200 kilometers away, is a monotonous slog across a landscape defined by sundry shades of grayness. Low buildings of indeterminate style are interspersed with equally nondescript houses. The terrain on either side of gray highways is usually planted to some type of food crop or other — interesting only to people who are interested in food crops.

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Cars on the roads and “truck stops” come painted in white, silver, gray and black; this lack of diversity isn’t helped by the fact there are only about 10 different models or so of these things to see (Koreans rarely buy foreign-made cars). As this scene unfolds from the windows of a tour bus — a Hyundai, of course — sleep isn’t so much a luxury as it is a reflexive coping mechanism.

Thankfully, the view gains color and character as Jeonju’s city proper approaches. Buildings become more varied in hues and style, many of which fuse modern steel and glass with older architectural elements that look Chinese-inspired. Still, the atmosphere — especially because of light road traffic — is laidback and a bit small-town, befitting Jeonju’s stature as a “Slow City,” as awarded by Cittaslow International, which determines such distinction.

Peculiarly noticeable though are the drive-in hotels that seem to litter the place, the exterior decor of which, when put in Metro Manila context, lean more toward the neon-lit Flower Group school rather than Victoria Court. This oddity becomes even more pronounced as, turning a few corners deeper into the center of the city, one of Jeonju’s major attractions — the Hanok Village — unfurls itself from among the stores and apartments and office buildings and restaurants surrounding the site. A hanok, it is soon explained, is a traditional Korean house that can trace its roots from the 14th century, and was built until the early 20th century.

Jeonju’s Hanok Village, with more than 800 hanok (the largest collection existing in Korea), has inevitably turned into a sort of cultural destination for both domestic and foreign tourists. But to form the impression that one gets transported into a bygone era upon entering the village would be a mistake; while a lot of the hanok appear to be well-preserved relics, a number also come off as simply too well-preserved. This creates a faint Koreanovela set vibe that could lead one to expect Lee Min-ho suddenly emerging and bursting into sobs or song — a proposition that, on second thought, could well be an attraction by itself. Also, wedged between the rows of hanok are souvenir stores, hawker shops and street food stalls, as well as other community places like schools, parks and pocket gardens. In this place, contemporary and traditional are tossed together like the ingredients of bibimbap.

Speaking of which, this Korean rice bowl dish is among Jeonju’s draws. Locals swear their version is the original, but most likely this is done in the same manner any region in the Philippines lays claim to being the source of the “original” adobo or longganisa. Numerous restaurants in and around the Hanok Village include bibimbap on their menu, and a visitor is often asked how Jeonju’s version compares to that which are served in other places, like in Seoul. But it becomes instantly apparent the question is rhetorical as the locals provide the answer, insisting theirs contain more beef — around 30% more; they are very specific — but has less rice. A lesson on how to properly eat bibimbap is part of the experience, too.

For many women young and old (well, mostly young) though, a bibimbap meal may just be an incidental treat at the Hanok Village. Because it is obvious that for them, dressing up in traditional Korean costumes, then walking aimlessly around the neighborhood, is the thing to do. Where young men opt to rent upright scooters so they could move around, the ladies don colorful, dainty gowns — also available for rent in a number of stores — and take leisurely strolls for hours, even extending after dark, according to one costume rental store clerk. So on every sidewalk, street corner, storefront, road — everywhere, and at any time — groups of dolled-up, doll-like women stick out from the crowd of humans garbed in unimaginative everyday clothes. Frankly, the scene calls to mind a cheeky cosplay convention, and takes away attention from the collection of hanok. As such, it only adds to the village’s contrived touristy feel.

Compared to the grayness of the highways though, it can’t be denied it makes for a far more interesting sight.