Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 13, 2017
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The soul of Korea

Seoul’s bustling energy and age-old culture make it more than just another conference destination

It isn’t news that Seoul is massive, crowded, noisy, dirty and polluted. What is news is that it’s easy to like. This sprawling 21st-century metropolis vibrates to the tune of 23 million people and 2.9 million cars — all of which seem to be on the road at the same time. But fabulously colourful pageantry, racy cuisine, traditional houses transformed into hotels and ancient rituals all beckon the foreigner seeking the Orient in Seoul.

The Thread of History

“The Chinese and the Japanese have kept their culture,” says Ji Won, a Seoulite, “but we’ve lost ours. First we lost it to the Japanese, who tried to destroy it completely. Then we lost it to the Americans because their culture is so aggressive. Everything that was old came down. Now we dress like Americans, build crazily like Americans, eat spaghetti like Americans.”

Not necessarily. Lately afoot is an effort to reclaim Korea’s unsung past and give it public presence — for the benefit of Koreans as much as foreigners. Part of the vitality of Seoul street life is its profusion of pageantry. Koreans love costume. From the flowing hanbok — Korea’s answer to the Japanese kimono — to royal and military finery, this is a culture written in threads.

Foreigners can savour it at the Changing of the Guard at two royal palaces, among drummers and tightrope-walkers at a folk village, in the serenity of a tea ceremony, or at public spectacles and rituals honouring the country’s past.

Regal Restraint

Seoul’s two principal royal palaces, the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, are sprawling wooden complexes painted in brilliant oranges and greens. They’re restrained, compared to the opulence of European palaces, but they’re lovely to look at. The decorative painting, cunningly conceived to mask the humble materials used, is called dancheong. Koreans have used this style since the time of Christ. The palace grounds, beautified with decorative ponds, gardens, pavillions and gazebos, are oases of sanity in the jangle of the hive. 

Old-Style Sleeps

Step out of a time machine into the Seoul of 300 years ago, and you’d find yourself among thousands of stone-and-timber dwellings with sloping rooftops and interior courtyards. Meet the hanok, the rustic yet elegant soul of Korean architecture.

These houses, with stone playing off the gracefully sloping tiled rooftops, have a gorgeous simplicity and purity of design. There’s the suggestion of a less complicated, more contemplative life — one sharply at odds with the irritation of a gazillion mobile phones.

Now, hanoks offer an alternative to anonymous Western-style hotels. Popular with foreigners, courtesy of Lonely Planet Korea, is the Seoul Guest House (tel: 011-82-2-745-0057; www. seoul110.com; rooms from US$35 to US$200). Tucked away in sight of homely modern apartment blocks and skyscrapers in the old Bukchon district, it has 10 rooms. When it opened a decade ago, it was the first hostelry of its kind. Others have followed.

The friendly proprietors are Mi Ja Lee and her husband, Hi Hyoun Jun. “Almost all the hanoks in Seoul were destroyed by bombs in the Korean War,” explains Ms. Lee. “Most survivors are located between the two palaces. This is why they escaped the bombings — because they were the royal palaces of the North Koreans, too.

“Most of our guests are European — British, Germans, Italians — and also Japanese. Americans prefer modern conveniences. When they see the hanok, some cancel their reservations. But teachers and artists especially love it, and stay for as long as a month at a time.”

Tea and Ceremony

The Korean tea ceremony takes place in a well-preserved Bukchon hanok by two women, Haein Kim and Hyun Sook at Olmul Teas of Korea (tel: 011-82-2-738-2154 / 011-82-11-752-3563; $50 per person). The ritual unfurls over one and a half hours. It brings forth a wonderfully fragrant Korean green tea and unexpected tastes turn up in the accompanying treats. There are soft rice cakes, once the preserve of Korean kings, subtly seasoned with citrus, pine nuts and walnuts. The flavours of black sesame, sweet tangerine and, uniquely, pine pollen — painstakingly collected in autumn and mixed with a little honey — take the palate by surprise.

Yet another charm is the wearing of the traditional hanbok, the national Korean dress that gathers at the bosom, then billows forth. As beautiful as the Japanese kimono, it’s an exquisite reminder that Korean culture evolved on its own, independent of neighbouring China and Japan.

Call me Kimchi

Long neglected in the waves of Asian food roaring out of the global village kitchen, Korean is at last dancing into the limelight as a healthy, original, racy cuisine. The food travel phenomenon isn’t lost on Koreans either. Boosted by surveys showing foreigners coming to Korea to eat, they’re promoting their country as a foodie destination. Compromises are made accordingly: “We use brisket instead of pig’s blood in one dish,” crows one restaurateur, “so tourists can eat it, too!”

You’ve heard about kimchi, the fermented vegetables, often Napa cabbage, accompanying every Korean meal. Maybe you’ve heard too much about kimchi; some Westerners think there’s nothing else. Korea’s 5000 years of history has produced about 200 hundred varieties of the stuff. Howling with red chilies, it guarantees you’ll never eat a dull meal. But there’s more to this rip-snorting cuisine.

The Korean national dish isn’t kimchi, but bulgogi, marinated beef grilled at the table, the centrepiece of Korean barbecue. Like all Korean meals, it arrives with platoons of side dishes, a bedazzlement of colours, tastes, textures and aromas.

At Hanilkwan (tel: 011-82-2-732-3735; www.hanilkwan.co.kr), a Seoul beefery in the Jong Dong business district, you begin with two kimchis — one of them a delectable “water” kimchi of radish in a savoury broth — green bean soup, boiled cashew nuts sauced in black mustard, scored squid with Asian pear, and a spicy stew of tofu with fiery chillies, snails and onions. The grilled sirloin arrives last, marinated in soy, sesame and pear juice. It maintains the nation’s honour effortlessly.

Nol-Bu Family Restaurant (tel: 011-82-2-592-5292) is a barbecue chain with 10 Seoul locations. The specialty is duck baked in clay. A whole bird arrives at the, table. Your server snips the wings with scissors and opens it to reveal a complex stuffing of ginkgo nut, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, chestnuts, pine nuts, herbs, ginseng, ground deer antler and sticky rice.

Pork is the point at Wol Han Moni (tel: 011-82-2-393-5353 / 011-82-2-393-5354) or Grandmother Won’s House in the Women’s University district. Menus are in Korean only, so just point at the fully illustrated slate. Lunch begins with bean sprout soup, the simplest of things, but much recommended for hangovers. Opulent platters of steamed and smoked pork arrive simultaneously. You tuck the pork, along with garnishes, into crisp romaine-lettuce wraps and crunch them.

Heart in your Hands

Jet lag? Fatigue? Hangover? In Seoul, do as the Koreans do and pay a visit to your nearest hand acupuncture therapist. Sooji Chim, or Korean hand therapy, is similar to Chinese acupuncture, but it calls for mini-needles applied only to the hand, which substitutes for the entire human body.

Dr Tae-Woo Yoo, President of the Koryo Hand Therapy Institute, developed the treatment in the 1970s. Some four million Koreans have taken his course. Korea has about 13,000 practitioners, including doctors and nurses who incorporate the therapy into their treatments. Fifty percent of Koreans use it to manage their health, often applying the tiny needles themselves.

The lengthy list of afflictions to be bettered or cured by Dr Yoo’s treatment includes headache, asthma, insomnia, fatigue, hangover, snoring, upset stomach and the common cold.

Tourists are encouraged to take advantage of it. Hotel staffers and taxi drivers know exactly where to go and treatment is fast and simple.

A tool resembling a ballpoint pen applies the tiny needles. “It’s really very comfortable most of the time,” says one patient, her palm perforated. “It’s much less invasive than acupuncture. The needles stay in for half an hour.”

KHT, as it’s called, is on the move. Dr Yoo’s Koryo Hand Therapy Institute has 14 branches in Seoul and more than 150 elsewhere in Korea. It’s even starting to show up on North American spa menus. “The hand becomes a reflex zone for the body, and it works,” says Debra Gibson, a Vancouver doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine who’s specialized in allergies and chronic disorders for the past 13 years. “Anything you can do with body acupuncture, you can do with hand therapy. When I travel, I often use it on friends and people I meet.”

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