SEOUL – Don’t expect contacts in South Korea to answer your calls today: It’s Chuseok, the Korean Harvest Thanksgiving, which falls under the full autumn moon.
This, along with the Lunar New Year, is one of the country’s two major holidays. It is a time when urbanized South Koreans splinter off to their ancestral hometowns across the land to spend the vacation – which, this year, covers five days – with their extended families.
Naturally, roads tend to get jammed. And so do larders.
Like traditional, family-centric festivities across the rest of Asia, and, indeed, across the world, much of the interaction takes place on and around dining tables creaking under the weight of traditional foodstuffs. While men and children may relax and play over Chuseok, even in the 21st century, women folk are assigned the bulk of the scullery labor.
Of course, before anything can be consumed, laid out or cooked, supplies must be obtained.
To do that, many citizens of this ultra-modern, G10 nation will simply hop into the family Hyundai, accelerate to the nearest hypermarket and pile up the shopping cart in muzak-accompanied convenience and comfort.
Yet the earthier, livelier lure of the traditional market – the place from which Koreans have sourced their victuals for centuries, if not millennia – still holds. Traditional markets, in defiance of modern norms, continue to hold out across the country.
In Seoul, one of the most mind-boggling sprawls of traditional markets is collectively known as Gyeongdong Market. Set in the northern half of the metropolis, this covered market is located close to the medieval landmark of Dongdaemun (“Great East Gate”) and encompasses Gyeongdong Oriental Medicine Market, Gyeongdong New Market, Gyeongdong Old Market, the Gyeongdong Building – and much, much more.
Once within, the visitor is assaulted by sights, sounds and aromas from every direction. While shoppers and vendors may haggle loudly and aggressively, the ambiance is good-natured. Goods on offer range from herbal medicines to fresh vegetables to bundles of dried fish to crisp and crunchy silkworm larvae.
In a sign of a changing nation, the markets cater not only to traditional Korean needs; delicacies more common in other Asian fare, such as wasp larva, can also be found – evidence of the communities of Southeast and Central Asians who gather in the nearby Dongdaemun area.
To reach it, get off at Jegi-dong Station, Exit 2, or take a short walk from Exit 6 of Cheongnyeongni Station. (Both stops are on Seoul’s Line 1 subway.)
The marketplace is open daily 04:00-19:00, with the herbal medicine market offering slightly more restricted hours, 09:00-19:00. Some medicine goods shops are closed on Sundays and public holidays. Paid parking is available.
Seoul-based US photographer Tom Coyner visited just prior to the Chuseok holiday, which started last Saturday and continues through Wednesday. His selection of photos captures the action as shoppers stocked up for the holiday.
To see more of Tom Coyner’s galleries from around Seoul, Korea and Asia, please click here.