Slow down in Jeonju

In A little south-western corner of the Korean peninsula, one last bastion of placidity still defiantly holds out against South Korea's general "bbali bbali" (loosely translated to "hurry, hurry!") culture.

The city of Jeonju's hanok village has been awarded the Slow City status by Cittaslow International, making it the 7th Slow City in Korea.

With its many narrow alleyways, and the largest collection of hanok (traditional Korean dwellings) in South Korea, Jeonju is the perfect place to slow down to enjoy a living breathing city still encased in the medieval cloak of Joseon Korea.

Fans of sageuk or historical dramas will find the hanok a familiar sight as many K-dramas are filmed here. While Seoul's Bukchon district may be known for its hanok, it is Jeonju's extensive collection of some 700 beautifully preserved hanok or traditional Korean houses, many of them several hundred years old that promises rewards for the traveller seeking an authentic travel experience into Korea's past.

For my 71-year-old mother, my younger sister and me, Jeonju is our one concession to history and culture in a hedonistic trip dedicated to the altar of shopping in Seoul.

The rail journey from Seoul's Yongsan station whisks us to Jeonju in under three hours. From Jeonju's train station, the hanok village is an inexpensive cab ride away.

To complete the experience, we book a night in a hanok which comes with ondol flooring, a staple of hanok architecture where the heat from charcoal and wood fires set in chutes beneath the houses keeps the hanok's floor toasty at night.

Today, more modern heating techniques serve to keep the floor warm, saving us from asphyxiating on toxic fumes.

The best way to enjoy the Jeonju's hanok village is to throw the itinerary out of the window and just go where your curiosity takes you.

Take a leaf from the town's snail mascot cheerily pointing the way on signposts throughout Jeonju,and slow down to savour its charming atmosphere.

We spend a leisurely afternoon strolling through its many lanes, peering over low stone walls fringed with roses in bloom into gravel-filled courtyards, browsing in boutiques, checking out other hanok guest houses and ancient Confucian academies.

Many hanok have reinvented themselves into chic and cosy cafes and teahouses.

On that warm spring day, children happily splash about in the cool waters of a stream running through the main thoroughfare of the village. Under the shade of the 500-year-old gingko tree, a landmark in the village, tourists seek shelter from the sun to nurse their icy mounds of patbingsu, a yummy mountain of shaved ice laced with fruit and syrup.

As the day continues, we wander further to the periphery of the village, ending up at the Jeondong cathedral, built in the late 1800s to commemorate the martyrdom of two early Korean Christians, both of whom were killed at Pungnammun just across the road.

Trivia note - South Korea has the largest number of Catholic martyrs outside of Italy.

Today, the cathedral is a key Catholic pilgrimage site in Korea. Even if you are not Catholic, the cathedral is worth a look, particularly at sunset as the grey and orange brickwork of the old cathedral glow warmly in the day's dying light.

Just across the road is the only reminder of Jeonju's four city gates - the Pungnammun - which sits in the middle of a traffic island.

Despite the prosaic location, the magnificence of the gate is an arresting sight of red lacquered pillars and walls rising from steep slopes of stone.

Birthplace of bibimbap

For a tiny place, Jeonju punches well above its weight in historical significance as the birthplace of one of Korea's most important and longest-lasting dynasties - the Joseon dynasty, for this is where the ruling Yi family originated.

But in my book, more importantly, this is the birthplace of bibimbap.

That healthy, veggie-laden, gochujang-smothered rice dish is the star of Jeonju's culinary heritage. Indeed, even among Koreans, many agree that Jeonju's bibimbap is a cut above the rest.

In Jeonju, we have a choice between cooked beef strips as the centrepiece of the dish or yukhoe (raw beef), with an egg broken over it. I go for broke and pick the yukhoe. Once on the table, the bibimbap is really almost too pretty to eat, with colourful vegetables, pickles, sprouts, mushrooms and beef piled so thick you can't see the rice beneath.

We ooh and ahh for all of 10 seconds before mussing it all up and tucking in with gusto.

Our evening in Jeonju ends in the flowerladen frontage of the Gyeonggijeon shrine listening to a pair of dashing young buskers take requests for some indie K-pop sounds.

At night, back in the little guesthouse with its paper-thin walls, we sleep on the ondol floor on a thin mattress. It is often said that one is usually frozen on one side and burnt on the other while sleeping on ondol floors.

Unfortunately, as the temperature nearsthe heat and humidity of summer, the ondol proves much too hot for a comfortable night's sleep. Or perhaps that's just an excuse for me to come back in winter.

Contemplating the snow-dusted whitescape of grey tile roofs and the stone-paved lanes of Jeonju in the hush of winter, from the warmth of my ondol floor sounds like a plan worth slowing down for.

GUIDE LINES

Frequent trains from Seoul's Yongsan station leave at hourly intervals for Jeonju. The KTX takes about three hours to travel to Jeonju.

From Jeonju station, take a 15-minute taxi ride which costs about 5,000won (S$6).

Experience a night in a traditional hanok.

Jeonju's hanok village has many hanok converted into guesthouses.

Check rates on Internet hotel booking sites like Agoda or Booking.com. Rates range from $70 to a tad over $100 per night.

This article was published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.


This article was first published on October 28, 2014.
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