Monday, December 12, 2016

Seollal Travels Part I: Tongyeong

Celebrating the Lunar New Year down in Tongyeong City

Last February we had a long weekend thanks to Seollal, the traditional Korean New Year. Just like in China, a lot of Asian countries have a tradition of celebrating new years around February, generally on the day of the second new moon following the winter solstice. Seollal, written 설날 in Hangul, is translated as "lunar new year", but there is a really fascinating explanation of the etymology of the word on this blog that I recommend reading if you're curious. 

Totally not a stock photo Korean family celebrating Seollal (photo from here)

It's a big family holiday in Korea, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Most Koreans go to visit their families, especially grandparents, and do traditional things like playing old games like Tuho, in which you have to throw sticks into a pot, or wearing hanbok (traditional Korean clothes). There is also an important tradition called Sebae (세배), which means to worship elders. Sebae involves children going to visit their elders (this could be grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc, basically older relatives), usually dressed in hanbok, and performing a special type of bow to wish their elders a good new year. Children usually receive gifts like money in return.

If you want to know more about Seollal and typical Korean customs for the holiday, there's a good explanation of them here.

Tongyeong Harbor, where you go when you want to eat a sea squirt

Since we're not Korean and don't have family there to celebrate Seollal with, we took the break as a chance to travel. We caught a bus down to the city of Tongyeong, which is southwest of Busan and Pohang. Tongyeong is made up of a peninsula and a couple of islands, Mireuk and Hansan. The main part of the city is on the peninsula surrounding a harbor and it's a really nice area to walk around.

Replica Joseon Period Turtle Ship

You can see the spiked roof here, meant to dissuade Japanese from jumping onboard

Rows of cannons along the sides

In the harbor there are a few old fashioned Korean ships, replicas of the ships that were used in a historic fight against Japan that took place in Tongyeong. They're called Turtle Ships or Geobukseon (거북선), so-called because they have a hard "shell" with spikes that covers most of the ship and at the front a dragon's head. The point of the dragon head was to inspire fear and some ships even went as far as placing a cannon or something that released toxic smoke into the mouth of the dragon. These ships were pretty amazing, since they could fire cannons from all sides, were capable of ramming other ships, and the spikes prevented the Japanese from doing what they did best, which was boarding their enemy's ships and fighting hand to hand.

Admiral Yi, a pretty cool guy

Playing dress up with the costumes on the Turtle Ship

Tickets to go on board the Turtle Ships are cheap and definitely worth buying because the ships are a great way to learn about Tongyeong's fascinating history. As you walk around them, you will see the name "Admiral Yi Sun-shin" everywhere. You really can't go to Tongyeong without learning something about this man. He was one of Korea's greatest military leaders and cultural heroes, and pretty much the entire reason Korea was able to stop the 16th century Japanese invasion. He also was responsible for the construction and design of the Turtle Ships used during that war. The story of Admiral Yi and the battle that took place at Tongyeong is a really fascinating piece of history, so if you want to read more you can go here or watch the video. I highly recommend watching the entire Extra History series on Yi, so click here to go straight to part one, or watch the part about the battle at Tongyeong (called "Hansando") below.

Tongyeong is famous for a kind of kimbab, or sushi roll, called Chungmu kimbap (충무김밥), which is simply rice wrapped in seaweed without any seasoning. Doesn't sound very exciting on its own, which is probably why it's usually served with chopped up baby octopus in a spicy red sauce. Sea squirt is also popular, and a kind of snack/sweet called kkulbbang. These are little balls of dough filled with something tasty like red bean or pumpkin and covered in sticky corn syrup. They are really tasty, I recommend trying them if you go.

Left to right: diced baby octopus, kimbap, kimchi (photo credit)

Sea squirt, aka Sea Pineapple, aka The Grossest Thing I Have Eaten in Korea Or Maybe My Entire Life (photo credit)

Kkullbbang, a sweet, delicious Tongyeong snack

There is a nice park overlooking the Tongyeong harbor where you can see some interesting modern art sculptures. Near the park is one of the biggest tourist attractions, the mural village on the hill near the harbor. You can wander through the zigzagging streets and see Korean pop art in all its colorful glory, including lots of brightly colored tributes to Disney and anime characters. There are many cute cafes and restaurants around here, and like anywhere touristy in Korea, prepare yourself for crowds.

In the sculpture park

A "forest" of plastic yellow vines in the sculpture park

A few of Japan and Korea's favorite cartoon characters here

You wouldn't believe how hard it was to get a photo of this without Koreans taking selfies in it

Checking out the view of the city from the mural village

Pretty sure this one is a poo on a rope. Why, I honestly couldn't tell you.

Another famous site in Tongyeong is the tunnel that connects the peninsula side of the city to Mireuk Island. It was the first submarine tunnel built in Asia and was built between 1931-1932. It only takes about 10 or 15 minutes to walk through the tunnel, and the city has done a few things to dress it up as a tourist attraction, like adding LED lights (because there's nothing Korea loves more than LED's) and a few posters explaining the history and construction of the tunnel. It's fun and also a convenient way to get to Mireuk Island.

Bridge connecting the peninsula to Mireuk Island (the tunnel runs underneath)

Headed into the famous tunnel

Over on Mireuk, there is a big hill which is another of Tongyeong's sightseeing hot spots. You can either hike up (probably about an hour's climb) or take the gondola up like we did. While I'm usually more a fan of hiking, the gondola had some nice views and it allowed us to get to the top of the hill just before sunset. From the peak, there are incredible views of Tongyeong city and the surrounding ocean, dotted by more islands than you can count.

View of the islands from the top of the mountain on Mireuk Island

Even on Seollal, there were crowds up on the mountain top

From here you can find a hiking trail that takes you back into the city

Beautiful views on Mireuk Island

On our way back to our guesthouse, we stopped by the ferry terminal and purchased some tickets to visit one of the many scenic islands accessible from Tongyeong, called Somaemuldo. You can read about that trip and our stay in Geojedo in the following posts.

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