Wow! It’s taken me over a year to write this one. This is both the easiest and the most difficult post to write, let me explain. It’s easy because I know Jeonju so well and I have spent so much time here, but it’s also difficult because there is so much to write about and in many ways it encompasses so many thoughts about Korea because it’s the only place I have ever lived in Korea. You could say that my thoughts about Jeonju reflect my thoughts about Korea. In this post I don’t want to give the dry facts like I usually do; I will leave that to the  links at the bottom of the page. I would rather talk about my personal experiences of the city. Like most of my posts, I hope this can help if you plan on travelling or living in Jeonju, I also hope it can help those of you who cannot visualise the place which I call home.

 I have what many consider an annoying habit of having to make analogy and comparison on everything. This has never been truer for my love of cities and places. Some places have easy comparisons: Liverpool is the Napoli of England which is the Marseilles of Italy. Manchester is Milan, Miami is Brighton, Blackpool is the Las Vegas of Lancashire. So many places to make sense of, and so many inaccurate analogies. With this jumbled classification and inadequate description  I have tried to find a way to explain Jeonju to those who have never been lucky enough to come here. the Korean tourist board and guidebooks make it easier for me because they are paid to think up tag lines and copy for places in the hope of giving them an ‘identity’. Something that gives me great pleasure is the fact that I don’t actually know the tagline for my home. This is partly because I’m not really a tourist here, I am a resident. However, I do believe that Jeonju defies easy classification, which is why I like it so much.

This is the view of my neighbourhood from Girinbong. It looks far away but it’s a 10 minute walk from my house to the top of this peak. The road to the left of the apartment buildings is where I work.

Once I had accepted my job in this provincial city I did some furious research on the place trying to build some expectations about what life would be like. I heard it described as the Mississippi of Korea. A slow, agricultural kind of place with people who stop and stare at anything out of the ordinary. I also heard it described as the culinary capital of Korea because  it has the famous dish Bibimbap, i.e Jeonju Bibimbap. The image in my head was of a sleepy place with grass growing between the cracks in the roads. For some reason I never expected to see mountains here, just flat agriculture land punctuated by high-rise apartments and drab, grey intersections. I think I was definitely lowering my expectations as far as possible so I wouldn’t be disappointed. I tried to cast aside the glossy neon tinged images of the metropolitan Seoul and prepare myself for Hicksville Koreana.

Wherever you go in Jeonju you seem to find someone tending a vegetable patch. This produce is likely to become one of your panchan (side dishes) in a matter of weeks. This one is next to a major hotel and the main Hanok Village area.

Arriving at night did nothing to dispel my fears and reservations, the airport coach pulled up at the back of a hotel and I was treated to the view of a wall and a multi-storey car park. Once I arrived at my temporary accommodation I was quite thrilled to see lots of neon and nightlife. East Asia looks unbelievably glamorous and exciting at night, especially to someone from a northern English city. The blackness seems blacker and everything is shinier. What I soon realised was that all this neon was just signs, not really life. Few people populated the roads between the hulking facades of what they call ‘love motels’, and the gaudy glitter of hostess bars and norebangs (singing rooms). It was unlike the cultural centres of European cities which I am used to, people spilling out of bars drinks in hand, not a car in sight. Occasionally cars did pull into the motels but generally things seemed  sedate. I had a grandstand view as I was staying in a love motel at the time. Seeing the same area in the daytime gave me even more of a fright because after a brief walk around the block I saw no signs of civilization beyond the railway tracks. It looked very much like the grass would be winning its war against paved roads. I spent the first two evenings after work getting my bearings and trying to work out where the heart of the city lay. I found  many fast food places and petrol stations, although I was walking round quite late. I also found it impossible to describe anything other than a rectangle with my walking pattern. Korean infrastructure is very 20th century so it’s designed for the motor car. Like most North American cities the streets are in a grid formation which can make wandering a soul-destroying experience. Luckily these geometric forays into Jeonju were brief and didn’t really scratch the surface of what I have since discovered. I realised that I was only skirting one of the outer neighbourhoods. Since then I have discovered a city of mountains resting their toes in the city, reclaimed rivers with joggers and cyclists on either side,  blue-collar wholesale districts, quiet temples perched among city parks and ordinary houses, shiny retail districts, dingy entertainment districts, and almost directly opposite the city hall.. a well-lit and fully visible red-light district!

Pre school kids dressed in ‘hanbok'(한복) traditional costumes on a trip to the Confucian School in the Hanok area.

Jeonju is small enough to be friendly and charming yet big enough for pockets of urban civilization to develop, sometimes in the least likely of places. Like all Korean cities every neighbourhood (or dong) has a backbone of bland highrise apartments. On first glance these places look like the beige or grey scum blocks you find in the bleakest parts of Manchester or Birmingham. If you’re from the U.S then I expect you would recognise them as looking like the projects. My mind instantly associates such places with depressed single mothers and young kids carrying knives in case someone looks at them funny. I was surprised and relieved to find that most of the phalanxes of apartment complexes are full of hard-working families and kids playing in the park or walking home from schools. Most of these buildings have well planted pine trees lining the roads to separate home life from the noise of the streets. Such buildings are a necessary part of life in a well-ordered Confucian society and a country with way too many mountains. Once you get past these areas you can find the traditional one story dwellings of traditional Korea. To my eyes most things look new and sterile but the small streets of narrow alleyways have a certain character to them. From a distance they can look like shanty towns but on closer inspection they are quite pleasant, if a little crowded. I try to walk down a different street every time I go into the downtown area called Gaeksa. The best thing about Jeonju is that these areas, highrise and low-rise usually have a view of the surrounding mountains. The west of Jeonju spreads out into the Honam plain which is full of rice and plasticulture. Despite this flat fertile area, much of the city is ringed by a chain of scenic mountains. The area where I live, which is called Ajungli, sits flush against the mountains. You can be in a pine forest on the edge of a lake within 10 minutes walk. In a mountainous country this is not unusual but I still love the scenery around Jeonju more than any other city I have seen in Korea. I hike twice a week before work and I never ever get tired of the green hills unfolding into the distance. I often dream about just waking up on a Sunday and setting out at dawn with my back to the city, just walking into the mountains. It rarely happens because I am often drawn to the predictable yet endearing nature of Jeonju city. One of the most endearing things about mountainous Korea is seeing people get on city buses decked out in the most expensive (often tasteless) hiking gear. Koreans are serious hikers from young ten-year old boys in training gear from Man U or AC Milan, through to elderly women in luminous floral blouses and sun visors.

Most of the outlying neighbourhoods are similar to my own, highrises sitting among the odd high street of chain restaurants and convenience stores. A phenomenon of Jeonju which can be seen to a lesser extent in other Korean cities is the number of coffee shops. My previous address had a choice of six different coffee places in about 100m on the main street. Whether such places remain is yet to be seen but for now they are an essential part of urban life. When you carry on along the main highways towards downtown the residential gives way to light industry, lots of tyre fitters and old men selling what look like electrical items from the museum of the recent past. Is there still a market for TVs which are not flat? Roads like this will inevitably lead down-town after a few monolithic schools. The Gaeksa area (named after a portion of a former palace where dignitaries stayed) is the main shopping area. It is easily distinguished by semi roofed pedestrian walkways. If you arrive before 11 in the morning ,as I do, it’s quite calm, but after lunch this place turns into the labyrinth of late capitalist nightmares. Every shop competes in a kind of unofficial tat contest. The biggest winners (or losers if judged from my perspective) are the cosmetics, electronics, and phone shops. Flyers are handed out to anyone who walks within 50 feet, and arches of balloons guide you into the shops just in case the fifteen sets of fairly lights didn’t attract your attention. A particularly nice touch is scantily clad women wearing leg warmers either singing and dancing or talking into headsets at full blast. In the bigger electronic stores they have their own podiums on either side of the entrance. This is East Asian Consumerism at its finest. There seems to be no discomfort or cringing, people just get on with it. The Gaeksa area is pretty typical of Korean cities, you can find much bigger and noisier places in Daejeon, Gwangju or Daegu. However, if you get tired of all the noise and fuss not all cities have the Hanok escape route. Just a few blocks from the madness is the Hanok Village. If any place is deserving of a new paragraph it’s the Hanok Village……so here goes…..

Hanok describes the Korean domestic architecture. It differs from the modern post war architecture in almost every way possible. Many of the hanok structures in Jeonju are reconstructed or actually brand new, but they all keep the same basic elements. They are made from timber, stone and clay. Many have courtyards and small streams running at the front of them. The greatest contain no nails in their construction and the tiling is exquisite. I’ve almost been run over walking through the Hanok Village because I always get transfixed by the amazing angles and designs of the roof. Even the roof on the gates are pretty ornate. I also prefer the plain white and wood colours to the painted temple buildings. The Hanok Village is an area where this traditional style of building has been given a touristy facelift and now most of the buildings are used as museums, cafes and craft shops. What makes this area more interesting is the number of master craftsmen working here. You can find calligraphy, lacquerware, pottery, dolls, wine, tea and a million other things. I admit that the artificial streams and little gazebos can be a bit twee and disneyfied, but I have never grown tired of this part of town. The central area here can get amazingly busy at weekends but I have still been able to find side streets to get lost down and new cafes to sit and sip. There are other Hanok areas in Korea, the one in Seoul is a great place to spend a sleepy afternoon, but I still love the Jeonju Hanok because I often end up there after my hikes. If you cross the road which barricades the old from the new you can be back into the mountains pretty quickly. The Hanok area has saved me on many occasions because when the dust settles and life becomes routine, you can forget where you are. I do live and work in Jeonju so sometimes all you do is go to work and visit the bank. The romantic view of East Asia is like the village from The Last Samurai, and you can get that kind of escape from the Hanok Village. My favourite memory was going on a big hike in the heat of summer and then falling asleep on a bench near the bamboo trees in the park.

The next noteworthy area is Chonbukdae (전북대). This area is named after the University: Chonbukdae Hakyeo (전북대학교). When I first discovered this’entertainment district’ I was quite astonished. I didn’t need to use those inverted commas, I made it sound like a ‘red light district’. It is in fact just entertainment. There are bars, nightclubs, video arcades and a million restaurants and coffee shops. The streets are narrow and filled with glittery lights, music, and fun.  Unlike Europe the entertainment is vertical, by this I mean you can often end up going to drink on a third floor. Many of the best bars are not even visible from street level and need complex Korean style directions to get you lost before you find it again by accident. It’s easy to get lost in a country which has almost no interest in street names or addresses. I think the only people who know their addresses are the postmen, the bus drivers go round in circles and the taxi drivers just follow the sun and hope for the best. I look on the Chonbuk area now with cynicism and  a smug sense of having conquered the novelty. Having said that it is always great fun to go there because nothing ever seems to close, and I also have a habit of ending up eating pigspine stew (감자탕) at 5 in the morning. This area can be found in any major Korean city and the one in Jeonju is not remarkable but it’s good to live in a place where you have access to the neon madness if you choose.

The city is separated by the Jeonju stream which is a tributary of the larger Dongjin River?  South Korea has an environmental plan to convert most city rivers and streams into areas for grasses and wildlife. This policy has had a great effect on Jeonju because you can walk around much of the city without having to cross roads, they also provide stepping-stones so you don’t have to navigate the traffic on the bridges. Unfortunately the river doesn’t really cut into the heart of the city like other places but it’s a great escape. I have spent many Sundays walking as far as I can until thirst, hunger or tiredness sets in. The river widens to such an extent that you can find football pitches if you go downstream from the centre of Jeonju. Other natural escapes include the mountains which I have mentioned and there is also a large park near the University. The park has a pretty forlorn zoo at the centre but the paths and peaks surrounding it are very nice. In the same park there is an Arts Centre and a badminton complex. Sports are well provided with astroturf pitches and basketball nets in most neighbourhoods. The greatest asset in the catalogue of sporting and leisure facilities is the World Cup Stadium. This lies way outside the city but it’s a beautiful stadium, a bit faded since the 2002 World Cup but still a great place. It was a selling point for the city when I discovered that Jeonju had a World Class stadium. Since I have been here I have seen the local team ‘Chonbuk Hyundai Motors’ win a couple of games and win the K-League. They also came second place in the Asian Champion’s League losing to Al Sadd in the final. The stadium is a telling sign that as a city it might be small but it has a lot to offer and it punches above its weight.

I don’t know if Jeonju will ever grow to the extent of needing a rapid transit system, its own post code or its own telephone number. It’s definitely still a provincial capital with a provincial nature. The new high-speed train line (KTX) puts it within easy reach of Seoul but it still feels very far away. Food delivery scooters are faster and more urgent than the emergency services. Within a few blocks you can see high-end retail therapy in a multi storey department store, then an old woman shuffling dirt  from an old cabbage patch. Incredible traffic jams on an eight lane roads, but on the same road in quiet times you’ll see a man leaving his car running at the lights to nip out and buy some ciggies. I’ve been racially abused by taxi drivers, ignored by bus drivers, hugged by strangers, and cheered by school kids. I’ve sipped hand drip Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee in a swanky café (15,000won) but gulped dirty instant coffee from bus station vending machines (300 won). Waiting for a movie to start I was once surprised when a taxi pulled up and a Buddhist monk got out and asked me where the nearest PC Bang (Internet café) was in a thick German accent, he was actually German I think. I could drown in a list of clichés to describe the place as I’m sure many travel writers have done. There is graffiti in the toilet of the ex-pat bar which reads ‘Lonely Planet woz ere.’ Underneath is written ‘Rough Guides are better.

In one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, where it seems everyone is called Kim and drives a Hyundai, where every city has a conference centre and a slogan, where almost everyone lives in a stacked grey apartment building, where the three beers taste identical and where every city has a carbon copy Tesco Homeplus, I can safely say that Jeonju is at least unique. The things I listed are only the superficial veneer of an endlessly fascinating country, and Jeonju is an endlessly fascinating city (for me). It can be infuriating at times like any foreign experience but on the whole Jeonju offers me everything I need to be happy, and that’s all you can ask for, isn’t it? Jeonju is the Jeonju of Korea.

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  1. Jayne says:

    Ah… A mighty Sunday morning read, and some great pictures. Thanks!

  2. Rayray says:

    Wow this was beautifully written. I really enjoyed it. I’ve been living in korea for 6 months in Seoul and I am ready to get out of this city. Your thoughtful appraisal and detailed descriptions makes me feel more confident in my recent decision to accept a job here. Thank you! 🙂

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