When your job is as hectic as ours at the newspaper, it's hard to spend an active weekend outside. The usual Saturday routine for my colleagues and I consists of waking up at 10 a.m. to eat something and then going back to sleep until around 3 p.m. On Sundays, we stress out about going back to work on Monday and stay home once again.
Tired of this weekend schedule, seven JoongAng Ilbo reporters decided to step out of our comfort zones and go on a two-day, one-night adventure to Yeongju, North Gyeongsang, to taste their famous apples and ginseng and visit historic landmarks that once housed Korea's most prominent scholars.
Departure from Seoul
The seven of us met in front of the JoongAng Ilbo building in Sunhwa-dong, central Seoul, and got inside a van as a light rain covered the streets. By noon, we pulled over at the Munmak Rest Stop in Wonju, Gangwon, and grabbed snacks including walnut bread, grilled squid and dried filefish fillets. There wasn't a lot of traffic on the road that day, and we were able to speed through the 4.6-kilometer-long (2.9-mile-long) Jukryeong Tunnel - the longest tunnel in the country, in less than five minutes. As soon as we passed the tunnel, there were numerous stalls on the road selling apples and ginseng, and we realized we were in Yeongju.
1 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.
A buckwheat jelly lunch
The three foods famous in Yeongju are memilmook (buckwheat jelly), apples and hanwoo (Korean beef). We asked locals for lunch recommendations, and the majority of them pointed to Jeontong Mukjip (Traditional Buckwheat Jelly House) in Sunheung-myeon. The 32-year-old restaurant has only one item on the menu - memilmook, which comes with around 10 side dishes, including seasoned pollack, cabbage kimchi and namul (seasoned herbs).
The memilmook was served with a warm broth, and the jelly itself was very smooth. Along with the dish, we ordered Sunjeung Seonbiju, a local makgeolli (Korean rice beer). As we ate, the owner, Jung Ok-boon, 82, was slicing the jelly inside the kitchen, and I noticed how precise her cutting skills were.
"I didn't hear any bells, but I think for 6,000 won [$5.32], the dish is definitely worth a try", said Kim Ho-jun, one of my colleagues on the trip.
1:50 p.m. to 4:35 p.m.
Experiencing regional culture
Most of the tourist sites in Yeongju are within 30 minutes of each other by car. The first site we visited in the city was the Korea Scholar Culture Training Center. Some of us took the tea ceremony tour, while others learned how to do a traditional bow and even learned how to draw traditional sagunja (paintings of the Four Gracious Plants in Asia, including plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo) paintings.
The tours are conducted in groups, last 40 minutes and cost 200,000 won per group. I participated in the tea ceremony tour during which my teacher told me that you are not supposed to drink a cup of tea all at once like soju, but slowly with small sips.
Just a few minutes' walk from the center is the Sosu Confucian School, Korea's first private academy. At its entrance were large pine trees, and the picturesque yard seemed perfect for photos from any angle. The academy felt a bit familiar, mostly because it was featured in numerous films and dramas, including the recent drama "The Moon Embracing the Sun" and the film "A Frozen Flower". The building, built during the Silla Dynasty, includes a handful of traditional Confucian cultural assets and is designated a National Treasure.
4:57 p.m. to 6:20 p.m.
The Buseok Temple
By around 5 o'clock in the afternoon, we reached the Buseok Temple, the highlight of this Yeongju trip. It took around 25 minutes from the Sosu Confucian School to reach this historic temple. The temple was lovely by the time we got there, but we were cold and tired.
"The thorn bush next to us is actually a bunch of trifoliate orange trees, and we also have some ginkgo trees and Japanese cherry trees. Do you know of Japanese cherries?" our tour guide asked.
"Yes .?.?. it's supposed to be good for men, right?" I answered.
To enter the Buseok Temple, we needed to climb a lot of steps. Although it was difficult, the view of Sobek Mountain at the top made the journey worth it. All my colleagues started commenting on the beautiful view inside this 1,300-year-old temple. The main building, the Muryangsujeon, was glistening with gold and brown reflecting from the sunlight.
Muryangsujeon is Korea's oldest wooden building.
"I don't know much about it, but I can say that the red, green and yellow colors of the building are really harmonious", said Lee Do-eun, another JoongAng Ilbo colleague on the trip.
By the time we stepped outside the Buseok Temple, it was 5:45 p.m. We could see a cloud shaped like a giant dragon floating on top of Sobek Mountain. At 6 p.m., two monks started their evening service as a bell rang from the nearby Bumjong Temple. The bell rang 33 times, the sound echoing solemnly throughout the nearby mountains and rivers.
7 p.m. to 8:50 p.m.
After our spiritual trip to the temple, we all felt famished and decided to drop by Somunnam Galbi, a restaurant specializing in Yeongju hanwoo. Yeongju is one of the four areas in Korea famous for hanwoo, next to Hoengseong, Hongseong and Jangseong.
A 150-gram (five-ounce) serving of galbi, or short ribs, at the restaurant costs 20,000 won, which comes with side dishes including namul, kimchi and mushrooms. After the grilled meat, we also ordered doenjang jjigae (fermented soy bean soup) with rice.
"It will probably cost two times this price to eat galbi in Seoul", said Lee Se-yeong, another colleague.
9 p.m. to next morning
A hanok rest
At around 9 p.m., we retreated to our rooms for the day at a hanok (traditional Korean house) lodging called Seonbichon (www.sunbichon.net). The house was one of 20 hanok in the area, and it had three large rooms. One room was large enough for four people, and the cost for one night was 140,000 won. However, as we came during the off season, our rooms cost 77,000 won each. At around 10 p.m., we all gathered in the main floor area for some ginseng liquor, ginseng fries and Yeongju apples. The famous apples were firm and sweet, and even though the ginseng liquor was 35 degree in alcohol content, we all woke up without much of a hangover due to the good quality liquor and fresh air.
8 a.m. to 9:40 a.m.
Starting day two
We got up at around 8 a.m. the next day and went to the nearby cafeteria inside the Culture Training Center as most of the restaurants were closed due to March being in the off season.
The set menus at the cafeteria, for less than 10,000 won each, were filling and delicious. We devoured seolleongtang (ox bone soup), yukgaejang (spicy beef soup) and cheonggukjang (fast-fermented bean paste).
9:45 a.m. to 10:10 a.m.
Yeongju's famous snack: donuts
After our filling meal, we headed to Jeong Donuts, a famous snack place that opened in Yeongju in 1982. The dessert shop has two branches in Yeongju, including the main branch as well as two in Seoul - in Seolleung and Banghak-dong.
We pushed through the blue entrance door of the donut shop and ordered the most popular item - the ginger donuts (900 won each) - along with other flavors including apple, chocolate, black rice and sweet potato. The sweet donuts were the perfect compliment to our Americano coffees.
10:40 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
The Museom Village
Before heading back to Seoul, we had one more place to go in Yeongju: the Museom Village, which is around 30 minutes away by car from Jeong Donuts. The Museom Village is sort of a tiny island within land as a river encircles it. The village once housed Korean nobility.
One of the highlights of the village is a log bridge, which is part of what is often picked as one of the most beautiful paths to walk along in Korea. The bridge is only 23-centimeters (nine-inches) wide, but in the past, even small rickshaws crossed it, according to our guide. We spread our arms to our sides to balance while walking across the bridge.
11:10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Back to Seoul
Being a Saturday, the road to Seoul was jammed. We took a brief rest along the way and arrived back in Seoul at around 2 p.m.
By Lee So-ah [email@example.com]
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2015 51st PaekSang Arts Awards