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Tuesday, 01 July 2014 12:23

Korea, Asia’s Secret Country of Cool

Written by  Maria Lisella

First-timers and repeat visitors will be mesmerized by Korea’s transformation, from a nose-to-the-grindstone economic miracle during grim, post-war days to an innovator, inventor and savvy global brand maker and marketer, leaping as it were, from staple fare of fermented kimchi (cabbage swilling in hot spices) to an expanding roster of restaurants along trendy Garosugil lined with international cuisines and wine bars.


Among Asia’s most influential countries - Korea’s culture spans more than 5,000 years and counts nine UNESCO cultural heritage sites. It is one of the top exporters of pop culture around the world and is a trending culinary destination.

Korea enjoyed a four percent increase in American arrivals last year compared to 2012: a total of 720,000 visited Korea in 2013; 46 percent fell into the VFR category (visiting friends and relatives), 32% were business travelers and the remaining 22% were leisure travelers.

With 141 direct, non-stop flights from the U.S. and 31 one-stop flights, access is smooth. From Seoul, travelers can reach more than 35 major Asian cities: both Beijing and Tokyo are just a two-hour flight from Seoul. Asiana introduced its first A380 on May 30 and initially deployed the aircraft on short-haul routes from Seoul to Tokyo Narita and Hong Kong on June 13. Its second A380 will arrive at the end of July will operate on long-haul routes to Los Angeles in August 2014.

For those fascinated by Korea’s modern history, Korail, the Korea Railroad Corporation, announced that it will operate a special “DMZ-Train” tour that will run between Seoul Station and Dorasan Station, the closest train station to 38th parallel, which marks the most heavily militarized border in the world. The reopening of the lines began May 4 and will run twice a day. Tickets are available at each station.

Hotel Developments
Starwood will open The Parnas, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Seoul in 2016, making it the first Luxury Collection property in Korea. The hotel will have 138 guestrooms, 24 of which will be suites. The property will also house a restaurant, specialty bar, and lobby lounge. JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts has expanded its luxury portfolio in Korea with the unveiling of the new 170-room JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul in February 2014. The new hotel is the second JW Marriott to open in Seoul and the first hotel in the city to receive LEED Gold certification.

Seoul: Design City
A good place to begin exploring Korea is its capital of Seoul. A short list of must-sees include the five Royal Palaces, Busan, Korea’s second largest city and principal port, Gyeonju, the capital of the Silla Dynasty for 1,000 years, and if time allows, a visit to Jeju Island, Korea’s largest island and the one Natural Heritage site as designated by UNESCO. Travel agents may recall that Jeju hosted ASTA’s IDE in 2007.

Better known as a city pulsing to an inordinately technological rhythm and an ethos of long working days, today Seoul’s numerous neighborhoods are open 24/7, its design sensibility has finally been recognized as UNESCO designated it one of eight Cities of Design in 2010 and it is fast appearing on Where to Go Next lists such as in the New York Times’ index of desirable destinations and Wallpaper’s Best Cities series.

Source of the latest cultural buzz word - Korean Wave - Seoul’s pop culture has sparked an explosion of interest in its TV shows, boy-girl bands, and movies, all of which is supported by the city’s Digital Media Broadcasting ability, a technology that enables high definition television broadcasts to be sent to mobile phones, the best conduit for spreading the phenomenon.

Conversely, travelers may want to experience non-verbal performance arts, something Korea excels at: B-boy dance performances, Korea’s traditional martial arts of Taekwondo and Taekkyeon, and “samullori” that features traditional percussion instruments and dynamic dances.

Taekwondowon has been described as a place for practicing “change” with the aim of cultivating the spirit of taekwondo. Some 45 training and experience hands-on programs are offered and are open to anyone who is interested in training the mind and the body through taekwondo, including business groups, students, and the general public.

Innovation & Style Now
Surging forward are a half dozen major projects not the least of which involve Seoul’s natural attractions as well as its urban spaces: the Namsan Renaissance, the Hangang Renaissance and the Street Renaissance.

Daniel Libeskind is now designing the Yongsan financial district, to be completed in 2016, while Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park will open this year, which promises to infuse the urban center with rolling grass-covered roofs within the city’s largest shopping and business district.

Seoul will soon debut the Floating Island project, the world’s largest and the first equipped with an aquatic convention center, facilities for cultural performances and sports events. Set on Hangang River around Banpo Hangang Park, more than half the facilities are free so the public can take in concerts and dine with the Hangang as the dramatic backdrop.

Selected as 2010’s World Design Capital, Seoul hosted the Design Olympiad, attracting some three million visitors with Rem Koolhaas’ shape-changing Transformer pavilion for Prada. Three of the world’s hottest contemporary architects designed others: Alessandro Mendini from Italy, Daniel Libeskind from the U.S. and Kim Seok-Chul from Korea. The Seoul Design Market featured more than 200 young international designers.

Non-Stop Shopping & Art
What booming metropolis does not have its own brand of power shopping? Fashionistas experiment on Apgujeong-dong, which some say beats Myeong-dong for “fashion street” status while Cheongdam-dong is crammed with local fashion designers’ shops, and galleries. Wallpaper dubs “landmark shopping status” to Rena Dumas’s gilded block for Hermes, and Ann Demeulemeester’s burrow-like store and UNStudio’s seminal Galleria Department Store.

Be sure to book the spectacular light shows at N-Seoul Tower, 63 City’s 60th Floor and the Bampo Bridge -- six of the many bridges on the Hangang River with observatory cafes that afford incredible nightscapes.

Lanterns at traditional markets sway with all-night dining and shopping, supported by a vibrant cafe scene that lines streets with enough caffeine to keep even the most avid nightbird wired long enough to roam into a big multi-level luxury department stores and shop until the sun comes up.

The Nature of Seoul
Ringed by eight towering mountains, the Han River, in the throes of its own riverfront renaissance, courses through Seoul’s more than 600-year history juxtaposed with its modern profile, its top 10 global city status, and is home to more than 10 million people.

Walking tours of Jongmyo Shrine lend a glimpse of modernity and tradition; the Samcheong-dong district; the picturesque traditional quarter of Bukchon Hanok Village; and Insa-dong.

An outdoor elevator to the Namsan Cable car from the base of Namsan Mountain up to the Namsan Tower gives an overview of Seoul’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites that cannot be missed: Changdeokgung, Hwaseong Fortress, Jongmyo Shrine and the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty.

Amid striking contemporary structures such as the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art or Tangent, the HQ of Hyundai Development Corporation, step into the city’s vibrant past at Gyeongbokgung Palace to watch the changing of the guard, or a thrilling taekwando demonstration. The Changdeokgung or “Palace of Prospering Virtue,” the residence of 13 kings over three centuries, is one of Seoul’s most beautiful.

Recent arrivals include the Templum spa, designed by Claudio Silvestrin and Giuliana Salmaso, an ultra-new pampering spot with a rooftop pool. Or, for something totally traditional, visit Dawon, one of Seoul’s oldest teahouses, to stop, look, listen and sip steaming daechu cha, jujube tea, and let all of the very new and the very old Seoul leave its mark on your travel soul.