Korean Weltzershaft Series (No. 6): Korea’s ‘Magical’ Winters

Not many ships survived this sort of snow (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2018)

There is something quite wonderful about winter, I'd think most of us would agree, even magical. Yet, ‘magical’ is an over-used adjective in which to describe the season that goes beyond cliche to approach something closer to laziness of language. I suppose, I'm also guilty of this sin. But, there is an undeniable spirit at this time of year that perfumes the air because of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the climatic peppering of snow (where applicable, of course).

For me, my first love of winter was not, in fact, England--the land of my forebears--but rather Norway: that ancestral home of muscle-clad vikings, frozen glaciers, and the biting rasp of fjord winds. During my time there, I found myself billeted in the tiny village of Stranda. It was the sort of place where snowmen stood on guard for weeks (once assembled), reindeer loitered in alpine woodland, and strong, black coffee warmed the innards. Winter there did conform to Disney’s ‘magical’ picture of a winter wonderland in my mind.

The fjords of Norway (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2008)

But that was pretty much it; I mean, Norway was the only place I’d been to by my early 20s that I felt could be described as ‘magical.’ Though, I think in reflection, it was more the otherworldly, instinctively satisfying (physical) nature of the place that captured my imagination as opposed to a connection to what my 'interpretation' of the Christmas season or winter was or should be.

As someone who wasn’t overly ‘Christmasy’ and who had little resonance with the season, I never made any effort to ‘recapture’ or find another ‘magical’ winterscape after my Norwegian saga ended.

That was until I moved to Asia for my first job teaching English in South Korea.

In Korea, there is a different kind of ‘magic.’ Norway was fiercely natural, primordial. The imagination was perfuse with giants and trolls, bloated longboat sails, and overseeing gods. The ROK seldom evokes equivalent historical romanticism--except during the winter.

South Korea feels ancient (in many places), but not in terms of its natural environment, more like its human geography and cultural self. Instead of stomping trolls leaving out-size footprints in the snow and oar-rowing vikings daubed in bearskins, the pretty pagodas that litter all around look entirely comfortable among the high-rising apartments as they do amongst 400-year old temples. One could imagine oneself in the same place wearing hamboks under the Joseon kings as easy as gazing up at today’s snow-covered green-painted roof-spines of yesteryears' renovated holy places. For me as a historian with a creative disposition, it is this that I find magical about Korea during the winter: that ease of imaginary transportation back to another time of human occupation; a period of swords and horses and gunpowder, of invading samurai and local Korean heroes forged in battle. And it's all incredibly pretty, too.

Ancient and modern sharing the winter (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2018)

Unfortunately—and this is a prescient point for newbies heading to Korea (or Japan) for the first time—Korean winters are often brutally harsh. The opening scene on Hoth in Star Wars springs to my mind when I contemplate the near future as the last days of summer draw in. I say this, remember, after having lived in Norway during the winter months at a place nettled amongst fjords and mountains not more than 300 miles from the Arctic Circle. Here I’m trying to convey that I am somewhat used to hard winters (indeed, I actually prefer the cold), and yet, I find Korea a frequently freezing proposition from mid-November until the first sign of spring (and the much-anticipated cherry blossom). Despite my fondness for chillier climes (I’ve also lived in deserts and jungles, to offer comparison), I am subject to bronchitis more often than I’d care for. All this to say, I think I know cold winters when I feel them. For me, the ROK winters are particularly unpleasant, and so, if you are heading here during the winter season, don’t underestimate the climate during this time, or be prepared to pay a sizeable sum for appropriate clothing to prevent the most adverse effects of those ‘charming’ snowflakes.

I do have a theory, however, as to why Korean winters at least feel colder to me than Norwegian ones despite the former being much closer to the equator. Here it is: Korean summers are hot, humid, sticky and long. Autumns, by way of contrast, are short, uncertain affairs. So, my rationale for why the winters feel so cold is that the period between the fetid summer months and biting winters fail to really equate to normal seasonal lengths, serving to accentuate both the cold and the heat.

The river froze in the night (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2018)

Finally, while my Scoorge-like attitude towards Christmas has somewhat thawed over the years (especially so since becoming a father), I do like the fact that the Christmas season is not overly indulged in the ROK. I think part of my personal apprehension over this season is borne from my many years of working in the UK’s retail sector. As most Brits (and Westerners more generally) know, the Christmas promotions start at the end of Halloween. Trees, tinsel, Santas and lots more seasonal paraphernalia besides deck not only the halls but just about every empty square inch of display potential. Promos also mean music - endless, one CD tracks on loops. This did little to encourage an affinity with the ‘magical’ season that millions around the world get behind.

While Korea marks and celebrates the season, it feels like a much more dignified, muted time of the year here. That said, the churches are full and there’s plenty of goodwill to be found. Indeed, one could almost be forgiven in saying that the spirit of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is more authentically found here than in the malls of America or eateries of England. The ROK does not go overboard: A Christmas tree spartanly decorated might stand proud—and alone—in an upmarket shopping centre or supermarket, but the elves, grottos, and all that gross waste of disposable tack is left for nations. I prefer it this way, but as many other veterans of this fine land have noted, Korea is slowly embracing Christmas more and more each year. And presumably it's only a matter of time before it too becomes more commercial at Christmas time.

For me, Korean winters really are what the Christmas season should be: an inspiring, joyous time of year that surrounds visitors and residents with beautiful, snowy vistas while most people encourage the spirit of Christmas (while not going overboard). In the end, it's this kind of warmth that more than offsets those cold winter months.

Editorial: Thomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. Currently, Thomas is a full-time Ph.D Student studying Environmental Security (mainly Myanmar and Southeast Asia) at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey). Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Mandy, a rambunctious Jack Russell Terrier, and his newborn baby, Zeno.

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