Although today was Memorial Day, it didn’t feel like Memorial Day. After all, Koreans don’t celebrate Memorial Day until next Monday, June 6. I didn’t watch the Indianapolis 500, get together with friends for a barbeque, or visit a war memorial. Memorial Day is a day dedicated to those in service to our country, although such thoughts can be distant when you live far away from the states. U.S. and Korean military bases and personnel are located throughout Korea, including a base here in Seoul, a reminder of America’s commitment to Korean defense. I am thankful to those who served or are serving our country, especially those who gave their lives to preserve the freedoms we enjoy. I am glad I also serve, albeit not in the military. Anyone who serves their country deserves to be honored on Memorial Day.
My family and I drove to Chuncheon today. The capital of South Korea’s Kangwon Province (Kangwon is divided between North and South Korea), Chuncheon is about two hours’ drive east of Seoul. The countryside around Chuncheon is beautiful, and at this time of the year it is a verdant green. The mountains are tall, although not quite jagged, and they are covered with lush vegetation. Deciduous trees dominate the landscape. Highway 46 from Seoul winds along the Bukhan River, a scenic, meandering waterway most of the way. Chuncheon itself is a city of 350,000 nestled in Korea’s eastern mountain range. Although a mid-size city by U.S. standards, Chuncheon feels like a small city. It’s very livable. If I had my druthers, I would move out of Seoul and live in Chuncheon. I know I’m an anomaly here in Korea in my yearning to get out of the big city, but then again, I’m not from around here.
Today’s trip was intended to be a “Winter Sonata” pilgrimage for my wife. She is crazy about this popular Korean drama starring Bae Yong Jun (a.k.a. “Yonsama”), the hottest actor in Asia. She isn’t alone—people throughout Asia have embraced this 20-episode television drama series obsessively and turned it into a billion-dollar franchise. Many of the drama’s most memorable scenes were filmed in Chuncheon. Along with Yangpyeong Ski Resort, Chuncheon has become a tourist mecca for “Winter Sonata” fans worldwide. Japanese in particular are fans of “Winter Sonata,” and today we saw many Japanese tourists (I did not see any Western tourists today). We visited the Chuncheon Joongang Mall and Myeongdong Street, Chuncheon’s famous shopping street. We ate dakgalbi for lunch on Dakgalbi Street. Dakgalbi, a spicy chicken dish, is Chuncheon’s specialty. It was absolutely delicious. Slightly spicy, it is bearably spicy even to those who don’t like spicy food. I think it’s the best dish I’ve eaten in Korea. I haven’t found dakgalbi in Seoul, but I will keep looking. We ate ice cream cones for dessert at Lotteria, Lotte’s popular fast food chain. The ice cream cooled our superheated mouths. We then took a taxi to Gihwajipgol (기화집골), a neighborhood where Bae Yong Jun’s character in “Winter Sonata” lived during his high school years. I enjoyed wandering around a Korean neighborhood, but for my wife it was a chance to relive some of the scenes she remembers from the drama. She paid 5,000 won (about $5) to go into the home where his character lived. I refrained due to disinterest, but I still think it was $5 well spent. My wife is now so happy that she’s spent the entire evening flipping through her “Winter Sonata” DVD series to find the scenes she reenacted in Chuncheon. That type of happiness is priceless. I enjoyed the beauty of Chuncheon, but my impression was nothing compared to the joy my wife felt after walking in the footsteps of “Winter Sonata.” Most fans never get that chance.