Like Japan, Korea spent centuries as an isolated country. Water and mountainour terrain provided natural protection from most of its enemies, but eventually, Korea was conquered numerous times. The Korean War pitted the world against the Communist Chinese, and that war has never been settled. The Armistice Agreement that divides the peninsula at the 38th parallel remains in effect today. In many ways, South Korea is the same as in 1977 when I spent a year there flying fighters for the US Air Force. Economically, Korea is strong, exporting well-built automobiles and electronics. Hyundai and LG are now household names.
Seoul inundates its steep mountains like an ocean tide, spreading as far as the eye can see. Nearby Incheon has been transformed from a Korean War landing site to a vibrant city boasting an international airport. Incheon and Seoul merge together like Dallas and Fort Worth, and it is difficult to tell where one starts and the other stops.
Seoul invested heavily in its infrastructure in order to host the summer Olympics, and much of it still remains. Its many river parks and excellent mass transit systems are tourist friendly. One of my favorite tourist spots is Namsan Park, which is located in the heart of Seoul. Mount Namsan is one of four mountains located within Seoul and translates to "south mountain." You can enjoy a leisurely walk to the top or take a gondola and enjoy a more leisurely walk down. Either way, the scenery is superb if you're fortunate enough to have a clear day. There are plenty of snack shops at the top, or if you prefer, you can dine in elegance in Namsan Tower; the highest point overlooking Seoul. I recommend taking an umbrella for shade or sun. If you are hiking, a waterproof poncho is a good idea. Korea's high humidity makes for sticky hot summers and miserable cold winters.
To understand ow war still affects this country, a visit to Panmunjeon is a must. The DMZ, or demilitarized zone, keeps Korea the only officially divided country on earth. A separate entrance on either side of the DMZ keeps Panmunjeon neutral. Here, dignitaries from opposing governments can meet to discuss tense issues. Daily tours give tourists an interesting insight into this unique situation. Reservations are required.
Insa-dong is definitely worth a visit for the world-class crafts. Beautiful shops cater to tourists and carry hand-pieced linen runners, dyed silk neckties and scarves, delicate carved jewelry, and especially gorgeous celedon pottery. Most shops will wrap your purchases with handmade paper and colorful ribbons. Seoul is known for its restaurants, amenity-filled hotels and world-class shopping. You can also have anything made to fit within a very short period of time. It's possible for tailors to measure, make and fit a shirt in twenty-four hours.
While tea houses are still popular, American eateries such as Dunkin' Donuts have popped up in large numbers. There are too many coffee shops to mention. Starbucks is there, but competition is fierce for a cup of "joe." Still, I would recommend a tea shop for calm conversation, not to mention the beauty of the tea ceremony.
Bus travel in Korea is a step above Greyhound. Many of the highway busses offer comfortable seats, some of them with on-board attendants. Well maintained highways make travel between cities easy. Trains are comfortable, and if you need to be somewhere fast, take the KTX train. It gets you to your destination in less than half the time. Wherever you go, you can expect to see the lastest automobiles to donkey carts to bicycles with boxed stacked ten feet high.
Korea maintains its own identity in food as well as culture. It is wise to know what you are ordering since dog is eaten here. You might consider printing the English translation for Korean food before your visit. It might save you some heartburn as hot peppers are a common ingredient. A variety of fresh and dried seafood is always available from street vendors, restaurants, and shops. Of course, there are western style restaurants - anything from McDonald's to up-scale restaurants serving fine cuisine.
While South Korea has emerged as a modern economic power-house, it still retains its ancient traditions. Religion is primarily Buddhist and Christian. Buddhist temples are everywhere, and visits provide a fascinating insight into Korean culture and history. Some ornate wooden structures house enormous statues of Buddha. I have seen some that are over seventy feet tall. Never enter a temple wearing your shoes. There is usually a place to deposit them, and some temples provide rubber sandals. You will see symbols on temples that look like the Nazi swastika. Do not confuse this symbol with the Buddhist variation. It has been around for centuries and represents many different ideals. The Buddhist symbol is calming and peaceful.
If you are touring Asia, Korea is worth a stop. Seoul connects to anywhere in the world. Smile and the locals smile back.