South Korea is a fascinating destination, full of surprises, rich in culture, history, good food and – to many people’s surprise – world-class gardens. The people are simply incredible; they are gentle and respectful and generous, making visiting as a tourist special in its own right. Their culture is ancient and they revere this, yet they embrace technology unlike any place on the planet. A remarkable contrast, almost a paradox, when you compare the 8,000 year-old culture with the knowledge that this country now leads the world in technology and industry, especially in electronics, ship building and car manufacturing. Yet in cities like the second largest and the capital of the south, Busan, it’s possible to visit ancient villages where they grow everything organically in the same way people did thousands of years before.
If there’s one gift modern Korea has given the world it has to be its unique (and borderline addictive) food. South Koreans love their food, and there’s an enormous diversity available for those adventurous travellers. The street markets in Seoul, the fish markets in Busan, or food stalls on street corners almost everywhere you go, will provide the freshest produce turned into traditional Korean dishes we would travel long distances to enjoy here in Australia. There’s nothing like sitting in the heart of the giant Gwangjang Market in of one of the world’s largest, fastest cities eating Korean pancake, or bindaetteok, their amazing barbeque experience known as galbi, its most famous dish bibimbap (rice and vegetables) or gimbap, the unique Korean take on sushi.
One staple part of the Korean food train is the fermenting of a lot of fresh produce such as cabbage, often spiced with chilli. Kimchi is without doubt uniquely Korean and absolutely delicious. It’s an accompaniment to every meal and it has a very important role to play. Starting a meal with the fermented cabbage and chilli dish stimulates saliva flow and this assists the stomach in processing the next dishes as you enjoy them. In most instances the meals are small and include a wide range of different types of food, but it’s amazing how much food you can eat when enjoying a Korean banquet. The Korean royal banquet (Joseon Wangjo Gungjung yori) is something you must try. Twelve amazing meals are served in bronze dishes with rice and soup. I have experienced this several times during our many trips filming in Korea and I can’t get enough, although I have almost needed to be rolled out of the restaurant each time!
Korean people really understand the value of the environment. Korean shamanism, the main and most ancient religion of the Korean people, is based on the belief that the source of all being, in other words their gods, are all gods of nature. No better example of this is the central stream that runs through Seoul called the Cheonggyecheon Stream, or the ‘Heart of Seoul’. The stream was buried under concrete as the city exploded into development, but it was the Mayor of Seoul in the 1990s who recognised they had lost something special and he embarked on a restoration of 5.8km the stream. The project was completed in 2005 at a cost of almost US$1 billion and, despite the cost, it was a major success for the then Seoul mayor and later president, Lee Myung-bak.
Korea is home to some simply incredible gardens. The east palace, or Changdeok Palace, is is set within a large park in Jongno-gu, Seoul. It is easy to access and gives an insight into the gardens of the ancient dynasties that ruled Korea for over 1,000 years. The Joseon dynasty built the five amazing palaces still found around Seoul from the 1300s through to the 1900s and gardens played an important part of their construction.
I could rave on about South Korean gardens forever – seriously, they are gorgeous – so I’d like to share some favourites with you.
A day trip from Seoul are two of the best. The Garden Of Morning Calm is simply stunning, set in the mountains and well worth the visit. It’s an amazing garden featuring planting styles not seen anywhere else in the world.
The botanical masterpiece that is the Hantaek Botanical Garden is home to some of the most remarkable plant collections you will find anywhere, including the simply gorgeous peony rose collections in the spring and early summer. The best time to visit is during spring or autumn, when the autumn colour trees are also amazing.
Jeju Island is home to two other truly remarkable gardens. The first is my all-time favourite because it was created by a simply amazing person. Bum-young Sung created the Spirited Garden for all people of the world to enjoy and now tens of thousands of people have travelled to this stunning island to walk the 25 acres of bunjae (bonsai) gardens. There are thousands of bonsai here, some 500 years old, set amongst a stunning landscape – most of which the creator personally built. Read more about the Spirited Garden in our article here.
The second is the stunning Yeomiji Botanical Garden. With its enormous glass and steel conservatory and themed gardens, it’s a day trip in itself. I have to admit to getting great joy out of the rare plant collections here. They have over 500 different rare sub-tropical and tropical species being nurtured and the garden is well signposted in English, saving a lot of questions and research later on.
Back on the mainland in the south east of the peninsula is the gorgeous modern achievement that is Suncheon Bay Garden. Home to a recent world garden expo, this is an amazing but very modern landscape experience with one of the most incredible tradition Korean stone gardens I’ve seen anywhere on the planet. It’s well worth checking it out and seeing the incredible work done here in restoring the natural environment of the bay, which is home to a large number of migratory birds that visit Australia during the northern hemisphere’s winter. Suncheon Bay Garden is a planned trip but well worth the effort. There are some great restaurants and cafes along the way.
With generous, lovely people, delicious food and a host of amazing gardens to enjoy, South Korea has so much to offer visitors. For more travel highlights and trip planning ideas, see www.visitkorea.org.au
Feature image: Garden of Morning Calm
About the Author – Trevor Cochrane
Trevor is a born-and-bred proud West Australian who grew up on a dairy farm in Mundijong, just outside of Perth, WA. He launched the media company Guru Productions in 2002 that has since produced over 750 episodes of television telecast on Channel 9 nationally and is now seen in over 100 countries across the globe in 14 different languages. In the years since creating The Garden Gurus he has created and produced over 50 hours of international travel shows, food and wine programs, including WA’s Our State on a Plate, the Destination WA travel series and food program Delish: Great Food Worth Sharing. All Guru Productions projects appear on Channel 9 and WIN Television, as well as nationally on the popular digital TV channel 9 Life. Trevor’s passion for gardening has seen him write four books and regular columns for the The Sunday Times and The West Australian Newspaper.