Yesou may never have touched this piece of land between eastern China and Japan, but I’ll bet my last million Korean won that you haven’t escaped its cultural influence. squid game (creepy), boy band BTS (catchy), Korean fried chicken (delicious) – we’re all in the thrall of K-wave, also known as hallyu.
South Korean culture is so influential that the V&A Museum in London has just opened an exhibition about it, featuring traditional food, movies and clothing. and Channel 5 sent one of the UK’s friendliest presenters, Alexander Armstrong, to surf K-wave across the peninsula.
In the three-part show, premiering on Tuesday, November 8, Armstrong, deliciously wide and frolicking, zigzags from Seoul in Jeju Volcanic Island off the south coast via the country’s second city, Busan.
Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul
Armstrong’s brief was to find out what makes this country remarkable – the same size as Portugal and with a smaller population than the UK – tick. There’s the usual culture shock and fish out of water japes – drinking coffee in a puny ceramic toilet at a poo-themed cafe, learning K-pop dances and marveling at dizzying animatronics. in the Gangnam district of the capital.
The program was filmed before the events of October 29, when 156 people died in a Halloween crowd crush in Seoul. “Having come to know Seoul and the irrepressible spirit of its young people, the tragic news struck me as particularly painful,” says Armstrong. “Our thoughts are with everyone there, especially our friends and colleagues.”
It is a country accustomed to facing adversity and emerging from it. The Korean War of 1950 to 1953 leveled most major cities on the peninsula and claimed over three million lives. In the 1950s South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world; it is now the tenth largest economy and a leader in technology. It’s an achievement that rivals that of Dubai and Shenzhen, but we still believe that South Korea is only half a country, defined by what it isn’t as much as what it is. It is.
“The thing about Korean culture is that it’s basically scorched earth,” says Armstrong. “They had pretty much burned everything. Nothing had been allowed to take root. And so, what we’re seeing now is this sort of physical hallyu – this great emergence of Korean culture that has finally been able to find expression. They coalesced around this crazy belief in themselves. And that’s not “crazy” belief, it’s just crazy intensity.
Intense is a good word for it, whether it’s Armstrong on a soju-soaked party in Gangnam, visiting screaming wizards in Jeju (“a lot of things were jerky – it was big theater”) or meet a succession of noodle-slurping YouTubers.
“We had loads of complaints lodged against us because we talked on the train,” he says. “It didn’t go well at all. And if you arrive 20 minutes before the end of breakfast in your hotel, the guy who shows you to your table scolds you. It’s an affront to allow only 20 minutes for your breakfast.
Fortunately, he allowed more than 20 minutes to make his way around the Busan fish market, where he ate “things that no one should put in their mouths”. There was a sea cucumber, something “known as a penis fish” and “squid that was taken out of a bucket while still very much alive and sliced.” . . You’re eating the tentacles of that thing while they’re still wriggling around,” he winces.
Fish for sale at Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan
Also on the menu was horse tartare and “a lot of different horse bits, like offal. This is going to get me in terrible trouble, but I have to be honest: the horse was delicious.
Enough of the raw horse – I ask the question that many will be desperate to know the answer to: did he dance for Gangnam Style? “No. I resisted fiercely. I never mastered Psi dancing,” he says. But he couldn’t completely ignore K-pop – in the first episode, he bravely tried a dance routine with girl group StayC which led him to wave his hands like a crazy uncle at a wedding.”It was a lot of fun,” he admits. “I really fell for K-pop. It’s wildly contagious, like a virus getting under your skin. It’s not just an earworm; it’s like a tapeworm in the ear.
K-pop group StayC
K-pop ends up being kind of an extended metaphor for how he would translate his fortnight and a bit in South Korea to the rest of the world. “There’s something about the combination of flavors Korea gives you,” he thinks. “It’s a mixture of cute, a mixture of absurd, a mixture of eye-catching, and a mixture of mildly uncomfortable, innocuous sexuality.”
Alexander Armstrong in South Korea airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Channel 5
Yakcheonsa Buddhist Temple in Jeju Island
Three tours in South Korea
Ideal for first-timers, this private tour begins and ends in Seoul, where its suggested itinerary includes an after-dark street food tour and a visit to the hilltop Hwaseong Fortress. In between is Jeonju, staying in a traditional guest house, and the seaside town of Busan. Two transfers are made by high-speed train. You will also have the opportunity to try Korean archery and shop for clothes in Seoul’s Gangnam district.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £2,384 pp including transfers and excursions (insideasiatours.com). Fly to Seoul
Here is another tailor-made itinerary that can be modified to suit your tastes. Focusing on Korean cuisine, it also starts in Seoul – after a classic barbecue dinner, you’ll learn how to make glass noodles and cloudy rice wine. Days can then be spent strolling through fish markets, buying filled pancakes from street vendors, or eating the best bibimbap in Jeonju, the spiritual home of the dish. Most memorable, however, will be breakfast with Buddhist monks after a night in a temple.
Details Thirteen nights’ B&B from £3,690 pp, including flights, transfers, activities, excursions and seven other meals (bambootravel.co.uk)
Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone on Jeju Island, South Korea
Join a bike tour
Volcanoes, river valleys, and flower-lined stretches of coastline, not to mention thousands of miles of dedicated bike paths, make South Korea ideal for cyclists. To capitalize, the American firm Grasshopper Adventures organizes small group tours from March to May and from September to October. Highlights range from hot springs and sunrise hikes to tea fields, temples and the chance to meet Jeju Island’s female free divers, who roam the deep waters in search of seafood. You will need to be a reasonably experienced rider.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £2,978 pp, including transfers, bike hire, excursions and 12 other meals (grasshopperadventures.com). Fly to Seoul