Jeonju, the Birthplace of Bibimbap

[2018.11.07-08]

From Muju 무주 where we had our lunch, our very nice coach driver dropped us at the local bus interchange where we could catch our next ride to Jeonju 전주. Just the three of us. We bade farewell to our teachers and travel mates, then went on our way.

It was simple enough, purchasing bus tickets to bring us to Jeonju. Relatively inexpensive, at 8,400₩ per person. And it most certainly helped that we all spoke Korean, with Y speaking it exceptionally well for a foreigner. I would reckon there are much more transportation options on how to get to Jeonju from Seoul like trains and buses.

We didn’t have to wait too long for our bus, and boarded after about thirty minutes of waiting in the small, unassuming bus terminal together with the locals. The journey did take quite a while though – about three hours all in all. When we arrived at Jeonju Bus Terminal, it was completely dark. And drizzling, much to our dismay. With no idea how to get to Jeonju Hanok Village 전주한옥마을, we’d long decided prior that we would hail a taxi. That took a little longer than expected since of the rain; many locals had the same idea.

Our poor AirBnB host was waiting for us at the road intersection as she described in her message to us, in the rain, for quite a while. Despite that, she warmly greeted us and brought us to our rental hanok 한옥 (aka traditional Korean house) a short walk away.

It was a well-maintained refurbished hanok with a few rooms and we got to occupy the last unit. Not terribly large but most certainly big enough for the three of us. And oh, and indoor bathroom! That pleased us loads, since traditionally, toilets and bathrooms in hanok tend to be located outside of the main house.

Since Y was not feeling well and didn’t feel like dinner, L and I left our hanok in search of something simple to fill our stomachs. The persistent drizzle had finally stopped so we got to admire the tranquility of the hanok village at night when the day-trippers have all left. That was the good part of it, but it wasn’t all good. Since the eateries and restaurants were not expecting much business after dark, we did have a hard time locating a place where we could settle dinner although it wasn’t even 9pm at night yet.

Everything was so pretty, to me anyway, since it wasn’t L’s first time to Jeonju. I loved how every single cafe and shop we came across are housed within these traditional structures. And the gorgeous cathedral! I simply couldn’t wait till the next morning when we could explore the hanok village proper.

While we had already decided on a reputable restaurant to try the quintessential Jeonju dish that is Bibimbap the next day, we ended up having it for dinner too since… well… options were limited and we weren’t keen to have barbecued food that night. It was a quick and fuss-free meal, delectable but we realised we couldn’t linger because being the last customers, the eatery staff were earnestly waiting for us to finish our meal so they could close shop. We were holding them up. Oops.

We woke bright and early the next morning, all raring to go. It was really quite unfortunate that while we had enjoyed good weather in the south, Jeonju was raining persistently wherever we went. Hopeful that the wet weather might end soon (Singapore’s rain spells come and go fairly quickly), we headed straight for Omokdae 오목대, a viewpoint where we could look down and have an overview of the hanok village.

Omokdae was really pretty when we visited, what with the autumn leaves in their full splendour. Even the gloomy weather couldn’t dampen our moods, especially when we almost had the whole place to ourselves without needing to jostle for vantage photo spots.

We probably lingered longer than necessary at Omokdae, hoping to wait out the rain but our fervent prayers went unheard. And after taking hundreds of pictures of and with the autumn foliage, we could no longer delay exploring other parts of Jeonju since we started seeing busloads of day-trip tourists making their way to the hanok village. Carefully, we walked down from the viewpoint via another path so we could see other parts of the area. The paths downslope were wet and made even more slippery than usual due to the fallen autumn leaves. Told my klutzy self that I have to pay attention to where I step lest I fell, but yet I did. Clearly I still weren’t careful enough.

Next we headed for Jeonjuhyanggyo Confucian School 전주향교 and happened to chance upon a ceremony where most of the attendees were dressed in traditional garb. Could have totally come out of a period Korean drama if not for the umbrellas and occasional spot of folks dressed in suits. Narrowly missing a great photo opportunity if it had been good weather aside, I honestly thought it was quite a hilarious sight.

The ceremony was well underway until strong gusts of wind made it next to impossible to hold on to the umbrellas, at the same time sending the gingko leaves whirling around haphazardly. The organisers promptly made the decision to temporarily halt the ceremony. No point getting everyone drenched and eventually sick.

One of the main reasons why we wanted to make a visit to the Confucian school was for the courtyard filled with ginkgo trees. While we couldn’t enter the school yard because of the very important-looking ceremony, we did manage to find another photogenic patch at the side yard. Have to say that I was totally dressed for the occasion; the colours were totally in harmony with the surroundings. I really love how the pictures turned out for all three of us.

Goblin (Korean drama 쓸쓸하고 찬란하신 – 도깨비) fan, anyone? We came by this wall mural while strolling down a street nearby the Confucian school. L and I were huge fans, lingering for a bit to take pictures before we caught up with Y. Feeling cold and somewhat a little wet, we set out to find a pretty cafe to rest. That task didn’t take long at all –  a few steps away, we came by the prettiest hanok cafe and decided to walk in.

It was legit the prettiest courtyard I’ve ever come across, replete with the huge earthenware jars of sauce and kimchi. I wondered if the cafe owners stayed at the refurbished hanok as well. It was certainly big enough, even with part of it converted into a cafe.

Later on as we were leaving, we realised the lady owner was also keeping chicks in the cage when we saw one escaping. Quickly alerted her before it wandered too far away. We did attempt to catch it but well… us city folks simply don’t know how to handle the little runaway.

Streets of Jeonju were still relatively quiet, except on the popular main streets. L and I quickly made a trip to Jeonju Jeondong Cathedral 전동성당. Having seen numerous dated Roman Catholic churches in Europe, often replete with elaborate stain-glassed windows and valuable paintings, I find this particular church sort of an anomaly. Its interior is rather bare, almost to the point of being austere and nothing like the ones in Europe despite it being more than a century old. Then again, I thought of similar ones back in Singapore and realised that I’ve been comparing against a vastly different yardstick.

Seeing that it was almost noon, we headed for Hankookkwan 한국관, renowned for being the original Jeonju bibimbap restaurant.

The menu was simple enough: 3 variations of bibimbap, either served on a copper bowl, on a hotstone bowl or the version with raw beef. Since there were three of us, we ordered all three versions.

I’ll be completely honest: sure, my hotstone bibimbap was really delectable, but if you ask me if it were especially delicious compared to bibimbap I’ve eaten say, in Seoul, I’ll say that I can’t tell the difference. They were all good.

And this is a sign that the tourists had descended upon the small town. I love how pretty the hanbok can be yet I can’t see the appeal in wearing national costumes of another country’s, especially when it wasn’t even going to turn out looking nice. Weird doesn’t even begin to describe the sight I witnessed. I’m sorry (for being brutally honest).

After strolling and shopping for a while, we decided to walk into yet another cafe Sulbing for its snowflake bingsu. It was at this cafe that we hatched a crazy plan. After almost exploring all of Jeonju and realising that night market that we wanted to visit in the evening was only open during the weekends (it was  Thursday), we decided that we should cut short our stay in Jeonju and return to Seoul the very same day. With a bit of work, we ascertained that we could change our pre-bought train tickets and that was it. We finished up our food and quickly headed back to the hanok to pack up and leave.

Our last stop before returning to our hanok to pack – PNB Bakery, which is a legend in itself in Jeonju, purveyor of handmade choco pies. Most of us would know, and may even have eaten the Lotte choco pies that we can easily find in Korean supermarkets, but let me assure you that PNB’s are nothing like the mass-produced commercial ones that are easily available. These choco pies from PNB have a shelf life of about a week. And since I was continuing my holiday in Seoul with H, I couldn’t buy some home as gifts for family and friends. Literally went green with envy as I watched L and Y shop. 😆

Still not quite believing that we decided and actually did leave Jeonju within an hour of the decision, I took one last look of the train station before our transport back to Seoul drew slowly in the platform. Goodbye Jeonju, it was good while it lasted.

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