I’ve been coming to Jumunjin in Gangwon-do as long as I’ve known Herself. She’s a local, but she hasn’t lived here since she finished highschool and moved to Seoul to go to university. Not long after we started hanging out together she sneaked me down here and we hung out at the beach in between the time she would spend with her family. It wasn’t long before we started to make regular trips here and these trips increased in frequency once I was formally introduced to her parents. Now I’d almost say I’m a local here. I don’t think too many of the real locals feel that way.
Not only is Jumunjin the place where we later got married, it’s also probably the place outside of Seoul we visit the most. A couple of summers ago we were almost every second or third weekend. That being said, it has been a while since we were last out here. I’d say we haven’t been here since some time last autumn, which is quite a while.
It was a nice feeling last night to drive in the dark along the almost empty expressway without a landmark in sight, except for the occasional rest stop and sign post for major towns. As we neared the three quarter way mark, the express way passes through a series of tunnels several kilometres long. When you emerge on the other side, you’ve essentially driven through a mountain. This time we came out in the middle of cloud. The weather had changed completely and the temperature had dropped by around ten degrees. After the long drive, the expressway sweeps downhill steeply to Gangneung and it is always from this point that I start to feel properly excited.
Of course, the main reason we come out here is pay a visit to Herself’s parents. Fortunately, and I say this from both our perspectives, we’ve made enough of a habit of coming out here that a visit doesn’t revolve around the typical smash-and-grab method of visiting parents as an adult. We’ve almost got our own routine here and Herselfs’ parents often just leave us to go about our own business until meal times.
As Jumunjin is a small and rural fishing town, there’s not much happening most of the year outside of the summer months when the beaches are open and thousands of visitors pile into the many beaches in the vicinity of the town. As it’s a fishing town, opportunities here are limited for young people, and Herself’s friends have mostly moved to Seoul and have lived there for a long time. There’s a nice countryside laziness about, even if parts do look a little run down.
Maybe this is what makes Jumunjin normal. It’s an old town that has had to sacrifice its youth to its traditions based in the struggling fishing industry. Ambition is not a trait suited to small places like this, and even with the increased numbers of tourists who cram the streets at the weekend, it’s no surprise that there is a distinct generation gap when you look at the people walking around and going about their business in the town.
Places like Jumunjin are all over Korea, but all too often people forget that they exist because the bright lights and high-rise of Seoul obscure the reality for much of the country – and this includes large tracts of Seoul also. Not only do people dress very differently, but also the behaviour is quite different also. One pleasant difference is the pace of life is a lot slower, but if you’re a foreigner and you dislike being stared at I would advise wearing a blindfold. But at the same time, you’d be surprised at how open people are to other things you wouldn’t consider them to be.
One thing about the countryside that you notice almost instantly is the people. Korea is an aging country, and most of the wealth is disproportionately balanced. Even then, wealth is displayed differently, and the sense of value is quite different from that of the major cities. There are very few expensive cars driving around and designer handbags being flaunted, which is a welcome difference from my own point of view.
In Jumunjin, a lot of the town is survives off the struggling fishing industry. Even though there seems to be no shortage of fish in seafood restaurants around the country, there is a shortage in the sea. A lot of the fish there is either farmed or imported. There are a lot of boats in the harbour and always fresh fish on sale in the market, which makes getting up early always worth the effort.
Despite the downturn in the main fishing industry, Jumunjin still has a bustle about it. The middle of the town is densely populated enough and there are still plenty of weekend visitors on tours who stop by the famous port for either some dried squid or raw fish, both of which Jumunjin is regarded as one of the best places in Korea to sample these. All this popularity has fuelled a boom in small tourist shops and also restaurants and more significantly, coffee shops.
Probably one the most famous coffee shops in the country, Bohemian, is right around the corner from Herself’s parents apartment. And while you’d be lucky to get a seat (and some peace and quiet) over the weekend, the rising popularity of high quality roasted beans from specific locations has seen competing coffee houses spring up all around Jumunjin, but also all down the coast towards Jeongdongjin (famous as the place to catch the sunset after the overnight train from Cheongnyangni in Seoul).
While I don’t really like Bohemian, I do like what it has done to Jumunjin and the Gangeung area. All down the coast on beaches that are often closed for nine months of the year, independent coffee shops that roast their own coffee are creating a new vibe. Right now, my favourite thing to do here is to leave my in-laws’ apartment and take the short stroll through old residential areas down to the beach and go for coffee while looking out onto the sea. I usually bring my camera, a notebook, something to read, and make sure to take my time. It is very relaxing.
Rural Korea is a different place to the cities that I have lived in. Despite struggling through a modernisation process which is undoubtedly giving precedence to the cities, the people I’ve found seem to have more of a salt-of-the-earth quality to them which you may never come across in the city unless you get to know a person a little more intimately.
I was trying to think of all the instances where the people around here act differently to those in Seoul or Suwon, but then each time it just seemed to strike me as another over-generalisation that people always apply to the differences between living in the country and living in the city. It doesn’t really matter which city and country side town mouse and country mouse live in, the differences always seem to be the same. Perhaps it would be better to appreciate each for what they are and do our best to be happy with the decision we make about the places we choose to live in.
I’ve always said that if I could find the right conditions, I would be happy enough to move out here and live. The city I love, and there is nothing to compare with it. But the countryside is equally essential. Knowing which one is more important to me though depends on what I am really looking for in my life, but also for my family’s life. I’m not sure if I can accurately assert which is the best decision yet. I grew up in a small town and felt that it was suffocating me, so if we did move here who knows how long I’d last before begging for life in the city again.