Posts Tagged ‘Teaching in Korea’

Nami Island 남이섬, or Namiseom is a nice day trip from Seoul. It’s a strange little place in the middle of the damned North Han River. The island is named after a General Nami who was killed for treason in the Joseon dynasty. Apparently they found his burial mound with some rocks. Anyway, it’s not really a historical visit, it’s a kind of fun nature reserve. The island is also famous for one of the first really big dramas in Korea called ‘Winter Sonata’. Many of the romantic scenes were shot in Nami Island and if you are a fan of the show you can have your photo taken with statues of the two main characters.

You can reach the island by the frequent ferries crossing the river or by aerial runway. The aerial runways seem pretty expensive but they are high and look quite thrilling. The island is a beautiful escape from the city and gets extremely busy at weekends with day-trippers from Seoul. You can walk round among the giant sequoia trees, relax by the river, and visit the numerous craft shops and restaurants. There is also a small water park and if you cannot be bothered walking you can hire a bicycle or get on a mini electric car. There are plenty of things to keep you occupied and even after you leave there are several dakgalbi restaurants on the opposite bank of the river.

I was pleasantly surprised by Nami and could have wandered around for a day. I even found a genuine wood fired stone oven in a pizza restaurant. The owner had travelled to Napoli to learn how to make perfect pizzas in the perfect oven. The pizzas are a little expensive but then how often do you get genuine Italian pizzas from a real wood fired oven? The craft places and cafes also kept me entertained.

Getting there:

Return ticket+Entrance+ferry 23.000W
Jamsil Station Exit 4 9:30am (Stops 216 and 814)
walk straight to Lotte Mart on the left side; bus stop is in front of Lotte Mart)
Cheongnyangni to Gapyeong (you could also get on in Yongsan station)
Sangbong to Gapyeong (Sangbong is in the east of Seoul but it’s direct from there on the Gyeongchun Line)
***If you travel on the weekend I would recommend taking the train because the traffic is so bad. On a weekday the shuttlebus is very convenient but you will need to book over the phone or online.***

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In the days before things were recorded, when China was in its infancy, various tribes wandered the Korean peninsula. These tribes are related in customs and traditions to Manchuria and the Russian Far East.  There was no Korea or any form of an organised political entity representing such people. As with many tribes found in Siberia, North America and even Northern Finland, they were a shamanistic people who worshipped nature and animals. Two of the most striking and important totemic animals are the tiger and the bear. These two animals (possibly representing two different tribes) prayed to a deity called Hwanung. Hwanung was a kind of prince of the heaven, son of the great Hwanin. The two animals wished to become human but rather than just make them human, Hwanung wanted to test their resolve, so he gave them 20 cloves of garlic and some mugwort. They had to survive off these foods in a cave for 100 days. The lack of sunlight and other foods were too much for the tiger, he gave up after twenty days and left the cave. The bear stayed for the duration and was rewarded by being transformed into a  woman called ‘Ungnyeo’. She became lonely and needed company so Hwanung  married her and  she gave birth to a son, who was named Dangun Wanggeom.

Dangun is the father of the first Korean nation called Gojoseon. ‘Go’ means ancient as there is another dynasty called Joseon which occurred later. Like most mythology there is usually some history hiding somewhere in the mystical tales. The totemic animals may represent tribes who were included or excluded in this federation.  The Chinese Emperor Yao may have been in power at some point during Dangun’s reign, if this is the case then we are looking at  2357 BC-2256 BC. Dangun is certainly important in the history of Korea, even the years were named after him before the 60s. Dangi (단기) began in 2333 BC and Dangun’s foundation of Korea is celebrated, or perhaps remembered on October 3rd on National Foundation Day(개천절) or “Festival of the Opening of Heaven”.

Like rulers the World over, Dangun was probably deified to prevent any challenge to his authority. If any of this sounds like nonsense then I ask you to take a closer look at other mythical figures or creation myths. Intertwining the foundations of nations in myth is common to most cultures and it allows pre historical  peoples to make sense of ‘history’ using narratives they understand. It also doesn’t do any harm to the status of the élite if they come from sacred beginnings . If you consider any of this story primitive and lacking in  facts then here are some more to consider:

Rome: founded by twin babies Romulus and Remus who were saved by a river, suckled by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker.

Britain: founded by Brutus of Troy (son of Aeneas) who sailed there after a dream and had to avoid sirens then defeat giants before naming Britain after himself.

Everyone: God got bored and made Adam, then he used Adam’s rib to make a woman…..

Ever since I learnt about this myth I was keen to visit the sacred mountain where Dangun has an altar to his name. The place in question is on Taebaeksan 태백산. Unlike most mountains the top is completely barren and devoid of trees. There is a large alter inside a stone built structure. After a 2 hour hike I was rewarded with one of the calmest and most beautiful places in Korea. People ascend this mountain on New Year’s day to see the sunrise, I can see why. I stopped of at a buddhist temple for some water and then another short hike got me to the top. It was an extremely hot day and I felt like I could see the whole world from this mountain top. I hope to return some day to see the ceremony carried out  by the Shaman priests.

 The best place to start the hike up to the altar is Danggol (당골). Here are the times from the bus station(터미날) in Taebaek and back again from the Dangol carpark. It takes about 25 minutes to get to Danggol carpark and you can get food and drinks there as well as information from the Provincial park office. The hike to the altar and back takes around 4 hours.

Taebaek is best reached from Dong Seoul by bus and takes about 3h30.

Taebaek also has a train station connecting it with Gangneung and Seoul Cheongnyangni 4h15.

One of the stranger aspects of teaching and living in Korea is the possibility of giving new students their ‘English’ name. I use inverted commas because of the context of this post.
The naming process is new to me, as I have mentioned previously about 99.9% of Korean students take on a ‘Western’ name for English classes. Some Koreans also take a ‘Christian’ name at their Church of choice. Obviously there were no Saint Ji-sungs or Paul’s letter to the Kims, so it makes sense to have a biblical name. I have often wondered at the logic of how the names come about. I have heard stories about people being reminded of friends back home, favourite football players, movie stars. It seems like some people just write a random 3 names on the board and ask the students to choose . When I got my first new class, by this I mean 1st Grade Elementary, I was genuinely concerned about the weight of a multi (secular) Christening. How would I choose the names? What if they don’t like their names? They could be stuck with this name forever? What if their parents know a serial killer with the same name, or some dark family mystery? A James or a John could be a bent priest, a drunk G.I or a family pet with rabies.
                                Names carry so much meaning that I was confounded when my Korean co-teacher told me I would need to name some people. In the end, after asking other teachers, I approached it like this: what names do I not like? The answer being, I do not like modern trendy names. This can often mean ‘American’ names or names that would get you battered in a playground throughout England. Due to pluralistic nature and cultural melting pot of North America, many names float around without any deep analysis. However, names in the UK can often be a bit too traditional and rely upon saints, disciples and kings. Any other names seem to show a disregard for Western society and the traditions of the Church. I guess I wanted to walk the line between the stifled tradition of my home and the more esoteric American names. Names from the Judeo-Christian tradition are fine –  Michael, Isaac, Solomon, Joseph. Anglo-Norman names are also fine in my book: Robert, Richard, William, Stephen etc. If you are wondering, nobody in England had names like this before 1066. When I say I don’t like American style  names, I mean to say the names which carry no meaning and make no sense on the basic logic of naming traditions. The following is a small selection:
Chip (type of potato)
Randy (a state of sexual excitement)
Chad (a poor country in Central Africa)
Butch (isn’t the Sundance kid dead?)
Jesse ( slightly weak or soft)
Chuck (throw casually or Australian chicken)
Buck (a dollar)
Krystal (what the maze or the ball?)
Dustin (I do it every Sunday after I finish the hoovering)
My stance, although slightly xenophobic, is in the best wishes of the students and the future of the Korean nation. I simply thought if they ever go to the UK, Ireland or perhaps even…Australia, then why not choose a name which won’t be a cause for bullying or hysterics. After all, they could have this name for the rest of their lives. I could be responsible for naming a future football star or president. By complete chance my first naming occasion coincided with when I found my Kings and Queens of Britain cards. This is a deck of cards which has a picture of every monarch since William the Conqueror, and some information on the back. I was a bit coy about this but the co teacher and another American teacher discovered that I was using the cards to choose names. I think they discovered this when someone said to me ‘You have another new student, he has no name.’ ‘Hold on, I’ll just get my cards’.  Moments later I had a young Korean flicking through past monarchs, he made a very quick decision and liked the look of a rather masculine warrior on horseback brandishing a sword. This young student is now called Richard (as in the lion-heart). He likes his name and the person he’s named after. After several days I had a regal looking young Victoria, an elegant Elizabeth (since shortened to Ellie), a studious Edward (the first), a Charlie, a James and an Anne. After exhausting the list of Monarchs I have also used American Presidents, TV show characters; currently I have a huge list printed out which is all English (Anglo-Saxon) names. I usually find the approximate first letter of a Korean given name then give a choice of all the names with that letter. This printout is from an internet site and carries the meaning of each name. The reason I chose Anglo Saxon was because that’s where English comes from so why not give a context. Also, I wondered which names would have floated around before the Normans arrived.
                                             I am not really a patriot or a monarchist but I do think that some sense of tradition should be kept. Working with Koreans, Americans and Canadians has made me realise that people generally don’t care about Britain, England or English for that matter. The English are in a strange situation because we were so dominant but now we are becoming an irrelevance on the edge of an irrelevant continent. This is especially true when you live in East Asia. A place where U.S troops have been posted since the 50’s and where it’s easier to learn English in the Philippines or Australia than the UK. Coming from a previously dominant but now irrelevant nation means that my small political protests and cultural pointers fall on deaf ears. Englishness is simply not important enough for others to worry about, but Englishness is not exotic enough to be curious about. When I protested about being called a ‘Brit’ it was met with a disregard for my utter pettiness. This basic human right of being referred to by the correct adjective based on your state of origin seems to be a weighty issue if you are an Ulster man, Irishman, Basque, Catalan, Bosniak, Kosovan or First Nation, Inuit, African-American, Cherokee… I believe every group, people, nation or ethnicity should have the right to choose how they are referred to by others. Even if this means changing the word for your group, like African-American or First Nation. I may be from Britain but I speak English, my football team is England, my cricket team is England and I follow the English Premier League. I guess I will just correct people until I return to… er…Britain. The worst thing is that other ‘Brits’ have asked me if it really matters. I usually tell people that wanting to be called English is as much about being English as it is about the Welsh being Welsh and the Scots being Scottish; they are other places with other peoples and other traditions. Bring on devolution. 
                                              This trivial stuff was in the back of my head as I took my new classes. I already knew many students , but many faces were new and they didn’t know me. I decided to have a basic Q and A session. When I say basic I mean basic, where do you think I am from? After naming nearly every nation in the World I asked them if they wanted a clue. Pointing to the badge on a girl’s coat which read “British Culture” above a Union Jack, they still had trouble. I asked the wearer of said garment, what flag are you wearing? She didn’t know. After crying for 5 minutes I told them I’m from England. When they looked and read the coat they said “No Englandu, Britaini” “Same thing.” I said, crying again. I have since noticed that 4 other students were either wearing British flags or had British flags on pencil cases, there are some Italian flags too! It’s very post modern that a nation who planted flags in deserts, jungles and bogs all round the World can now conquer the World without trying or without their ‘subjects’ knowing. The British flag has been added to the list of signs, icons and images with absolutely no meaning whatsoever. This same list includes Che Guevara, Brazil, U.S, anything Cuban, meaningless Chinese tattoos and about a gazillion American Sports Franchises. The only symbol you would think might escape the free use of signs and signifiers is the Nazi Swastika, the Swastika in its Buddhist use is in many places here though, this I think is OK because it pre dates the Third Reich. I have since made a point of reminding students and sometimes other adults about the origin of names, designs, logos, and anything else that seems important. Non English speakers often choose to wear slogan t-shirts with absolutely no regard for the meaning of the words. I once saw a typically olive-skinned Italian girl with jet black hair sporting a t-shirt saying ‘Blondes have more fun.’ I asked ‘E vero?’ (is it true?) She just looked at me blankly. In one of my super shy and impossibly quiet classes a girl once walked in with a t-shirt declaring TALK, TALK, TALK in bold black letters. I chuckled instantly and the irony was not lost on the student in question as she hid her t-shirt from the silence.

*disclaimer* This is from the perspective of a UK citizen who arrived in 2009. Some of the information may be out of date, I recommend checking visa requirements with a school, recruiter, or embassy before applying for a post in Korea.


Choosing a tefl job is one of the most difficult ‘professions’ in which to make a choice. I remember being overwhelmed by the potential of of working in virtually any place on the globe. I chose Korea after a lenghty process of elimination, but also because I have always been a huge fan of Korean cinema. This was a starting point which meant I already had a kind of familiarity with all things Korean. My personal elimination process is just a series of questions in no particular order.

Is there a competetive tefl market with jobs available?

Korea is a developed nation with a strong emphasis on education. In an increasingly international environment, and with an export economy English education is a vital part of Korea’s future. The legacy of a confucian system means that Koreans have a highly competetive education and employment sector. Many children attend academies after school. Most students are test orientated and motivated to finish textbooks and proceed to the next perceived level. This can be a disadvantage if you are accustomed to the communicative approach to teaching. Many parents and students see actual conversation and fluency as superfluous to the basic reading, writing and vocabulary memorization. You may meet Koreans who can read a textbook on microbiology with no trouble but they won’t be able to describe where they live or their parent’s profession. This is the Korean culture and if you cannot go with this black and white approach then life may be difficult. Your job is to teach people in their way not to change the educational methods of an entire nation.

Is it possible to communicate with the local population?

I compared the language (Hangeul) to both Japanese and Chinese. This was a major selling point for me. The alphabet is probably the best and most logical in the world. You can be reading signs and menus and less than a week if you make the effort. You can also be writing it confidently in a month or so depending on motivation. It can be difficult to speak because of the sentence structure, but Koreans are hugely enthusiastic about people speaking their language. In major cities and transport hubs many of the staff will be able to speak English. ALL street signs and place names are written in Roman script. After taking a few lessons and teaching myself I can order food, buy tickets, go shopping and have some banter with taxi drivers confidently. Finding Koreans to speak to in Korean has been something of a problem. Many are too shy to speak with foreigners or simply too good at English to bother blundering through hit and miss Korean.

Are there amenities you may expect from a developed nation?

In a larger city you can expect good quality healthcare and excellent tourist and transport facilities. In smaller places the level of organization and sanitation may be lower than Western countries. Timetables and tickets may not be in English in small bus stations. Some restaurants and eateries would not pass environmental health inspectors but there are always reliable chain stores to eat in. International banking facilities are quite difficult outside Seoul. However, most ATMs have English Language options.

Is it possible to live comfortably from the salary?

Yes! If you eat and shop locally you can usually save in excess of 3000 pounds sterling per year. I manage to live comfortably whilst still saving over 40% of my monthly salary. Transport and food is extremely cheap in comparison with the UK. It often works out cheaper to eat with friends in a restaurant rather than shop and cook yourself. If you find good places you may rarely eat at home. If you can work out the bus system and walk a bit then it will save money. I have heard that people can save over 8000 pounds a year. I personally prefer to stay in the country longer and spend a bit on travelling around and going to the cinema and museums etc. Most teaching salaries will vary between 1.9 to 2.5 million won per month. this is usually over 1000 pounds. I would look at the package rather than the salary. Many schools will offer return flights, accommodation and an end of contract bonus. Vacation time can be difficult in the private sector but if you plan on staying longer than a year you should receive a week in between contracts. In highly organized schools with textbooks and a syllabus your preperation time will be far less than in public schools or universities. Living within walking distance of your work is the best perk to save money.

Can you enjoy some elements of a ‘Western’ lifestyle?

In a larger place you can live in a Western bubble if you choose. This has the disadvantages of being more expensive and less rewarding. The presence of the U.S military has had a noticeable effect on the number of fast food chains and retail outlets. In bigger cities you are likely to find McDonalds, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Outback Steakhouse and numerous Tesco Homeplus branches. Imported goods are more expensive but you can enjoy the occassional treats like cheese, wine and familiar brands. Cinemas have subtitles rather than dubbing, this is great as it means you can enjoy version original films.


The most important qualification is obviously being a native speaker. Many parents express a preference for North American English and for females. Several high profile news stories about rape and paedophilia have meant that some places are more likely to hire females. I have found that most schools overlook the country in favour of having a good teacher. The World is also changing. Many home stay programmes for Koreans take place in Australia and New Zealand as they are nearer. I have also met many Koreans who have studied in the UK. In my city there are also many South Africans. You are far more likely to get a job if you have experience with young learners and if you have lived in a foreign country for an extended period. For the EPIK programme (which I passed but then turned down) the main focus is on adapting to a foreign environment and people. If you are reasonably adventurous and have spent some time abroad I recommend Korea as a great destination. If you ae fresh out of university with little travelling experience then the food and intensity of the lifestyle may be very difficult to adapt to


The academic year starts in late February early March. There is aalso a summer break so August can be a good time to start. In the private sector many ‘Hagwons’ hire at any time of the year. This was a huge advantage for me in terms of flexibility.


To secure a job and a visa you will need:

A degree.

Sealed University Transcript. Contact your University and tell them what it’s for. It must be sealed with the University stamp to prove the authenticity of the qualification. Some places ask for two sealed transcripts.

Apostilled Criminal Record Check. This can be costly and time-consuming. After trying in vain at my local police station I ended up using an online service from Scotland. Once you have the document you must have it verified by a Notary Public. This is usually a solicitor who has the qualification to stamp the documents. I only found one person in North Lancashire who was qualified to do this. It can be an expensive process as you need to visit or send your document to the office in Milton Keynes to finish the process.


I think this is the most important question when considering working in Korea. There is a vast difference between Seoul – the second biggest urban agglomeration in the world, and some small town with literally no foreign residents. After passing the EPIK application process to teach in public schools I turned it down based on location. If you apply really early you may get your first choice but I wanted to be in control of exactly where I was going to spend so much time. Seoul is huge and although it’s a fascinating place with so much to do, your school is likely to be in a satellite town or suburb outside the city. This can lead to higher transport costs and if you only visit the centre every weekend then why not just live in another city? The KTX train makes getting to Seoul very fast and easy from almost anywhere in Korea. If you want a good balanced lifestyle with the option of being able to speak to other foreigners then bigger cities are the way to go. A good   of size is the presence of a subway system. Cities over a million population have their own subway systems: Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Daecheon, Gwangju and obviously Seoul. Look for Shinsegae or Lotte department stores. If a city has these it shows the presence of a reasonably large affluent population. I chose Jeonju as there is a historical centre, a good K-League football team, World Cup stadium, and good transport links to most places in Korea.

On a personal note, I intended on coming for a year to save a bit of money then go travelling in Asia and return home. Since being here I have felt really at home with the food, people, places, and the often insane pace of life. I can still find new national parks, new beaches and interesting palaces and museums after my year long stay. I hope to improve my Korean and stay even longer. On the whole I would say that it’s the best location to work for a teacher of English. There is a great balance between earning enough money to live comfortably and still have enough to travel round and enjoy the beautiful mountains and the spicy foods.

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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