THEN and there against the bustling Seoul as his backdrop, the only non-Filipino in our group of 10, smiled and proudly formed the Korean “Finger Heart.” Even locals like Jake, are very much aware how Korean pop culture is alive and kicking outside of East Asia.
Therefore, the peace sign is on an indefinite hiatus. Currently, the “Finger Heart” is one of two things that are making the rounds on world news and social media. (The other, the back and forth war bickering between North Korea and the United States of America, and the drama surrounding the complex narrative).
So here we were, to some degree, right in the middle of it all: South Korea.
For a Cebuano in this part of the world for the first time, here is a land that knows its succulent meats and spicy vegetable salads, flaunts its variety of quality cosmetics (the only thing that probably outnumbers the average slices of samgyupsal consumed daily) and showcases its passion for producing slick pop music, melodramatic films and hit television dramas.
Oh, and Samsung of course—the brand above all brands, worthy to be raised.
SunStar Cebu was invited to join a trip hosted by Rakso Air Travel and Tours to explore the Republic of Korea. Aboard Philippines Airlines, the flight from Mactan Cebu International Airport to Incheon International Airport lasted about four hours.
Jake An, one of the top tour guides of Sam Tour, a local tour business based in Seoul, greeted our delegation as we made our way to the airport exit. Like any other familiarization tour, we hit the ground running—well, more like we boarded a speedy tour bus—Jake then started to share information about his country. We then stopped by a hotel to grab some breakfast (the last I would see of bacon; more on this next week) and got used to the climate. As fall just began, the weather was perfect. “It makes people want to go out,” said Jake.
First on the itinerary was this little French village. “How did a French village end up right on the mountains of South Korea?”
The beautiful French cultural village constructed in 2008, according to our guide, was built from scratch by someone who not only could afford such a large undertaking, but more importantly, was also deeply enamored with French culture and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work The Little Prince.
A highlight in Petite France is the three-storey Memorial Hall dedicated solely to Saint-Exupéry. Pictures of the author, information about his life, autographed manuscripts and illustrations, and paintings inspired by several themes in his book are showcased.
Other highlights are the Orgel House (filled with European music boxes), the 150-year-old French Traditional House (major parts of the house were shipped all the way from Normandy, France) and several antique and souvenir shops. There is also the Performance Hall where several shows from puppetry to cultural dances are lined up throughout the day.
Rounding up, this French-style mini theme park not only gives tribute to a good piece of literary history, but also gave birth to some Korean media milestones as well. Picturesque as it could ever be, several TV series were shot on location like Beethoven Virus, Secret Garden and My Love from the Star. If you like your Korean TV dramas, or have taken to heart the words from The Little Prince, Petite France should be extra special.
Koreans are known for their love for physical activities, which includes a lot of walking. Nature-inspired theme park Nami Island (approximately 462,847 square meters), gives locals and guests the chance to do just that. A 15-minute ferry ride gets one to the island and back.
The concept island theme park brings nature and humans in harmony together. According to Jake, many Koreans are pretty much influenced by Confucianism. Following its philosophy, the locals’ love for nature is something the rest of the world can learn from.
“More than 70 percent of South Korea is made up of mountains,” Jake said. “We are known to be mountain people.” He goes on about the Korean’s ability to adapt to life’s changes and survive.
“A Korean is aware of his surroundings; like the different seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter. He knows how to prepare for an upcoming change, live with it and come out a better man.”
For those who have booked their visits around the middle of October to early November, that’s about the time the gingko tree leaves turn gold, turning the entire park into a sight to behold. Also, filming for the iconic television drama series Winter Sonata primarily took place here.
Next day, we were off to Seoraksan National Park, one of 22 mountain parks in South Korea.
Several meters after entering the national park, we found “The Great Unification Buddha” within the Sinheungsa Temple. The 48-foot, 108-ton gilt-bronze statue represents the wish of Koreans for the unification of the North and South.
According to Jake, Seoraksan is the only park that is allowed by the government to maintain cable car operations to one of its peaks. Government authorities, keen on preserving the beauty of the nation’s natural resources, limit the number of cable car operations in its roster of national parks.
From the top
We took a five-minute cable car ride to the mountaintop, then did a 15-minute hike for Gwongeumseong peak. As we finally reached the top—2,297 feet above sea level—we were greeted by the vast expanse of nature beneath us. There on Gwongeumseong, the sun cast its light beautifully against the rocks and trees while the cool breeze before the winter season was nothing short of revitalizing.
From way up here, the Unification Buddha at the base of the national park looked so little.
“They have mines, gold and other natural resources,” recalling Jake’s words about North Korea’s assets. South Korea on the other hand, is a massive pool of human talent and cutting-edge technology.
“Imagine what we could accomplish together.”