Mokpo City Guide
One of Korea’s lesser known south coast draws, the hilly western coastal city of Mokpo is rustic and backwards, and – despite now being located within easy reach of Seoul at the far end of the country’s high-speed intercity rail service –has lost few of its old world charms to date. Even in the heart of this city you’ll find elderly ladies renting out their spare rooms for £10 a night (typically, several of them will approach you as you leave the station) and buildings that look like they haven’t changed since the 60s.
The city still revolves around its port, which is inundated with fishing vessels, despite Mokpo’s newfound role in international ferry services (aside from Busan, this is perhaps the easiest route from Korea to Japan). Even if you’re just passing through, though, you’ll want to indulge in the high-points of local culture, ‘Hwei’. A huge seafood dish that consists of bizarre, crunchy glass noodles and uncooked shellfish, the dish is nevertheless extremely distinct from Japanese sushi. You’ll find that it’s difficult to hunt down a restaurant that doesn’t focus on seafood, in fact, including the highly unappetizing option of eating the still wriggling tentacles of freshly caught and killed octopus.
Many visitors are fascinated by the back-street fish markets that dominate this landscape. They seem to crop out of nowhere, with dried squid and the scent of freshly hauled turtle mixing with the summer humidity in equal measure around Mokpo’s scattered heart. Out in the sticks, you’ll find the roads meander aimlessly across the hills, with houses surrounded by plots of land and some smaller lanes leading to delightful beaches, unoccupied but for locals at working digging up oysters from the sand.
In the evenings, forgo Mokpo’s leisurely pub culture and instead sample small-town Korea’s other drinking habit: sitting outside a convenience store with a large bottle of beer and a plastic cup, whilst chewing the cud in pigeon English and learning about Mokpo’s more remote sights. The next day, you could find yourself wondering a hillside in search of a remote monastery, or with hand-written directions in faltering languages over one of those distant hills, where you’ll find saffron-robed monks chanting to the rhythm of a single bell.
Given its laid-back nature, Mokpo is a surprisingly significant player in the Korean business scene, but don’t let that put you off: the business façade of this city is buried far below the surface. With many of the old pagoda-roofed buildings still standing at the heart of the city, a main street bracketed by gentle, crumbling gates and hardly an ugly tower block to be seen, you might well prefer this side of Korea to the more lively taste of the bigger cities.
As the city you’re most likely to land in when arriving in South Korea – Incheon International Airport is the nation’s biggest transport hub – the city is often overlooked as a destination in its own right. Bordering on the hefty docks of some picturesque (yet largely unswimmable) waters, home to it’s own China town and host to a range of big-name European acts at the Incheon Pentaport Music Festival (until recently Korea’s largest), the city has plenty to offer in its own right.
It’s most famous moment, of course, was as the site of a turning point in the Korean war, with American General MacArthur stepping ashore at Incheon and assaulting the communist line from the rear. There are many monuments to this event to be found around town, (the statue in Incheon’s freedom park, for example) but most visitors head straight for the country’s oly China Town instead, sampling the localized forms of Chinese dishes and snapping up imported tourist tat from the vast array of salesmen. There’s also a tourist side to Incheon to be found in WolmiDo, a coastal theme park area where you can walk the promenade, ride the unique fairground rides and genuinely behave like a ten year old during the school holidays (there’s even candy floss alongside the more traditional Korean dishes of silk worm larvae and sugared donut ’sticks’. Nearby SongDo offers a cooling water park, while other nearby islands are host to spas that use the seas natural nutrients – everything from salt water to seaweed – to treat the body.
Aside from all the summer-themed shenanigans, Incheon is a fairly typical Korean city, with a strong expat scene and convenient transport links to Seoul, where many residents commute to, either daily or every weekend. While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea (you certainly can feel a little inundated in tower blocks), the atmosphere is more local and relaxed then that of Seoul, despite Incheon sharing many of the conveniences. On the down side, Incheon is perhaps the least safe location to be in the event of a war with North Korea. The risk of this, even during times of extreme tension, is considered very low, but being extremely close to the border, you might consider it a minor factor. That aside, this is a city we very much enjoy, especially during the heady sun-bleached months. We’re confident you will, too.