Korea’s Winter Expression

As winters come and go in Korea, this winter hasn’t been as cold as other ones.

Although it has warmed up a little the past few days, we can still count on a few more frigid days ahead before spring arrives. Nonetheless, when I am not bundled up and trying to stay warm when I am out and about, I would have to say that other than autumn, winters in Korea are my favorite time of the year.

Coming from a cold climate myself, I am used to cold weather, blizzards, and wind chill factors. Although it never seems to get as cold in Korea as it does back home, winters can be a little harsh and unrelenting here-especially when you have to wait for a bus on a frigid January morning. One of my fondest memories of being in Korea was my first winter here when everything was still new and exciting to me. No matter how long I stay in Korea, I will always cherish my first winter here the most.

When most people think of winters in Korea they might conjure up images of snow-capped peaks and snow-covered valleys, ski resorts, winter sports, and the like. To be sure, anyone who has viewed the breathtaking vistas of Mt. Sorak in winter, tried the slopes at Muju, or enjoyed a ride through the country will attest to the beauty and the allure of Korea at this time of the year. There is a rugged, simple beauty to the season that awaits you when you decide to travel around the countryside from wind-swept rice paddies-the brown stubble of rice protruding from pockets of ice-to horizons delineated by tenacious pines gripping cragged, rocky edifices.

On the other hand, what I’ve come to identify the winters here most are those seasonal treats and expressions like goguma (sweet potatoes), yuja-cha (citron tea with its distinct, sweet flavor and aroma), and bori-cha (barley tea). One of my earliest winter memories of Korea is sitting in this cramped, drafty shiktang (restaurant) in the Kangnam Subway Station warming my hands around a hot cup of bori-cha one cold January morning. (Sadly it’s getting harder to find restaurants that still serve bori-cha these days.)

To be sure, what I enjoy most about winters in Korea is that Korean food just seems to taste better-at least many of the chigae or stew dishes that comprise a substantial portion of the Korean cuisine. There’s probably nothing better than a steaming, spicy bowl of kimchi chigae to warm you up on a cold day.

As for some of those more unique Korean winter expressions, keeping warm and toasty with the ondol heating system or an hour luxuriating in a steamy bath at a sauna are the perfect complement to a winter day (or night) in Korea.

When I’ve gone back home and tried to explain ondol to friends and family, they have a hard time believing that you sleep on a heated floor. I know from my own experience of having an ondol system in some of the apartments I have lived in, once you’ve had it, it’s kind of hard to live without it. Friends who have moved into housing without an ondol system have bought these large heating pads to spread out on the floor. Just plug them in, throw down your yo (Korean bedding similar to a futon) and you’re all set. They say it’s the next best thing.

When it comes to some of those more endearing winter images in Korea, I’m still amazed at the sight of vendors peddling their wares on the city streets and sidewalks in the dead of winter. From vendors roasting sweet potatoes (in an oven converted from a barrel) to bundled-up merchants selling their wares on the streets of Seoul, Daejeon, Pusan and other cities, their winter fortitude is admirable to say the least.

Then there’s Sollal (Lunar New Year Festival), which just ended. This Korean holiday is without question the capstone to winters in Korea. Although it might be a little frustrating for some to have to make the trek back to their hometowns when most of the expressways become one massive parking lot, it’s a festive time here on the peninsula (and not a bad time for us to get out and explore Seoul when many people leave the city). Over the years I have enjoyed visiting some of the palaces in Seoul, especially Kyongbok Palace, which usually has a full moon festival as well as welcoming in the New Year with a steamy, savory bowl of ttokuk (rice cake soup).

One thing that I don’t miss that much during winter, which used to be quite prevalent when I first came here was the smell of kerosene. It used to emanate from everywhere I went whether it was from a kerosene heater in a drafty shiktang or an equally drafty watering hole in Itaewon (as Ms. Lee hustled drinks and played ”Hotel California” for the umpteenth time). Long after other memories fade, the smell of kerosene will be the one memory that I will forever remember about the winters that I have endured here.

And speaking of enduring winter here, I have always been amazed with these daredevil motorcyclists delivering everything from Chinese to pizzas, whizzing and weaving their way through traffic no matter how cold it is outside? Is it just me or are they that oblivious to the cold? Back home, only the hardiest Harley riders would don their cold weather gear and hit the streets when the mercury dipped below freezing. Not so in cities like Seoul, Daejeon and the rest of Korea. I swear some of these guys on their scooters and cycles don’t even bother to wear hats or gloves. Nonetheless, those fur-lined “gloved” handles you see on some of the scooters and cycles are the ideal cold-weather modification.

When it comes to winters here, one doesn’t have to spend them shivering and waiting for the spring thaw. There are certain Korean winter expressions and images that are almost sure to warm the heart and soul-not to mention becoming an indelible part of one’s sojourn here.

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