The article courtesy of SEOUL magazine
Seoul is a sprawling megacity encompassing a staggering 605.21㎢. The seemingly endless asphalt roads and skyscrapers reaching for the sky allow for some ten million-plus permanent residents (and another ten million in the surrounding areas). When in Korea’s nexus, it’s not impossible to find great restaurants or beauty, but what is nearly impossible is finding wide-open spaces. For this, nature lovers must trek to the countryside. A number of rural towns are worthy of such excursions, but rarely do many get a tourism boost along the likes of Hwacheon (화천) in Gangwon-do Province.
Situated close to Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Hwacheon boasts a relatively small population of just over twenty thousand souls. In fact, being so close to the border, the town has a significant military presence that can’t be ignored. Most of the year, the military outnumber civilians, except in January when over one million people descend on the small hamlet for the annual Sancheoneo (Mount Trout) Ice Festival (Jan 5–27, www.narafestival.com).
Unlike the populated metropolis to the east, Hwacheon is still very much a slow, rural town. Peering at a local tourist map gives the illusion that the town is much larger than it really is, for one can easily walk from one side to another in under an hour. During winter, crisscrossing the narrow, icy roads elicits memories of walking through American towns of the same size, a most welcomed change from the hurried life in Seoul.
Carving through the earth’s crust, a winding waterway creates some great spots for fishing year round, although the city is most known for the wintery version of this pastime when ice creeps over its surface. Since Hwacheon isn't burdened with buildings reaching for the sky, those visiting enjoy uninterrupted views of Gangwon-do’s blue skies, peppered with puffy white clouds. When views are periodically obstructed, it’s by the hilltops rising up from the earth. Photography enthusiasts benefit from this, as there is no shortage of interesting angles and subjects to capture.
Get Your Grub On
One can’t travel on an empty stomach, and let’s face it, if you’re making the trip away from Seoul, by the time you make it into town—you’re going to want something to eat. Like most of Korea, there are several major franchises staking claims on street corners, luring you in with specials of the month. However, as anyone can tell you, the charm of small towns is in the family-owned restaurants—the ones that exist in only one location and offer truly unique experiences.
Hwacheon, with its proximity to water, is famous for its fresh seafood, but the culinary talents don’t end there. Among the city’s specialties are Ode and Togomi Rice—special pesticide-free grains that are wind dried and stored in low temperatures. The area also has many tomatoes, so it’s no wonder that residents combine this fruit with the region's famous potatoes to make some savory rice cakes. But for the carnivorous traveler, sampling Hwacheon’s Jasira Pork might just be the winning ticket. According to locals, the swine meat is low in cholesterol thanks to its unique diet, which includes powdered pinecones.
Adjacent to the intercity bus terminal is Gangmi Restaurant 강미식당 (T. 033-442-5252), a family-owned restaurant known for its delicious and healthy-sized portions. If arriving around lunchtime, be sure to get there early, for it is not uncommon to find every table filled shortly after the noon hour. The samgyeopsal (pork) arrived on a plate accompanied by a host of side dishes sure to satisfy any appetite. Slabs of samgyeopsal were served fresh and thick. Eyeballing each strip of pork, I estimated each was easily more than two centimeters thick, and when placed on the grill, they created a delightful sizzling sound. While I cannot attest to any unique flavor induced from powdered pinecones, I can confirm the meat was tasty and hit the spot.