The long line snakes around to the end of the sandy field as giggling and squealing travellers wait impatiently to take their picture at the bus stop.
Yes, you read right. A bus stop.
But this nondescript bus stop on the Jumunjin Beach in Gangneung, a seaside town on the east coast of South Korea, is fast becoming a top attraction for tourists to the republic. All because of BTS, who are arguably the hottest K-pop boy band on Earth at the moment.
The Army, as the BTS faithfuls call themselves, will recognise the spot immediately – it’s where the band filmed its Spring Day music video and shot the record sleeve photographs for their 2017 You Never Walk Alone album. Since then, hordes of Army have made the pilgrimage to Gangneung just to recreate that iconic image at the bus stop. One can’t help but wonder if any these excitable K-poppers have actually seen a real bus stop back home, what more waited for a bus at one; still, as a fellow ahjumma (aunty) grunts, “This is their Abbey Road...”
Over the years, music fans have travelled far and wide to catch their idols live on stage, to recreate the crazy album covers or iconic snapshots, and even to breathe the same air as them (okay, to stalk them..).
And while there was a time when Malaysian music lovers were forced to travel overseas to catch their favourite acts live – many stars had given us a miss when they went on tour! – these days many are travelling for concerts because they want to. In fact, for many K-pop fans, watching a concert by their idols in the “motherland” has become a must-win feather in their fan cap. Luckily for them, many of the Korean provinces have caught on and are increasingly packaging their cultural tours with K-pop concerts.
Needless to say, we were not so lucky to have a BTS performance in Gangneung, but we got to watch a live show of KBS’ K-pop chart television programme Music Bank featuring other stars like Twice, Red Velvet, Seventeen, Rocket Punch, Teen Teen and even a comeback by OST (original soundtrack) ballad queen Baek Ji Young.
The special live show was held in conjunction with the annual Gangneung Coffee Festival, so I was not sure if the palpitating buzz in the arena came from the fan lurve – and there was lots – or the caffeine spilling over from the coffee fest nearby. But it was so infectious that even if you’re not a fan of any of the acts, it’s difficult not to join in the screaming.
Some people say live TV shows are not real concerts, even if they are held in stadiums like this special Music Bank edition, but I’ve always found them fascinating. It’s the closest you can get to a behind-the-scene setting, apart from going backstage (if only!). And with the K-pop scene, it is interesting to see the idols’ musicianship up close, zipping on stage and off like clockwork. You can even get to see them banter with each other as they wait for the camera to roll or get waves and winks from your K-biases.
Live out your K-drama fantasy
Of course, for a K-pop fan, a trip to Korea is not complete without fully immersing yourself in everything Hallyu. And in Gangneung, as well as the surrounding areas in the Gangwon province, there are many chances to indulge.
For the K-drama fans, one spot not to be missed is the fishermen’s pier on the other side of Jumunjin Beach where the memorable scene in hit series Goblin was shot. You not only get to record your own goblin meet-cute moment, but can also try to summon your personal lonely guardian. Just keep an eye on the weather forecast though – Typhoon Mitag was wreaking havoc in the East Sea when we were in Gangneung, so we were barred from going to the end of the pier. But you know what they say, come storm or shine, nothing can stop a K-wave fan from getting his or her Instagram moment, not even a monster ocean wave.
With its usually gorgeous clear sea and blue skies, Gangneung is a popular filming location for K-dramas, variety shows and music videos. One is the Jeongdongjin beach where many Koreans go to catch the sunrise, especially on New Year’s Day. There, you can take the Jeongdongjin Railbike, which runs along the breathtaking sea shore and is one of the filming sites for Legend of the Blue Sea and Hotel King. Not too far away is the rustic Jeongdongjin Railway Station, made popular by 1990s Korean classic drama The Hourglass and later, variety show 2 Days & 1 Night.
More than Winter Olympics
Another site K-drama fans might recognise is the Daegwallyeong Samyang Ranch with its frolicking sheep and majestic wind turbines. The hilly eco ranch in Pyeongchang is a popular “dating spot” in dramas like Bride of the Water God and Cinderella and Four Knights, and has provided a scenic background for many K-pop music videos like Monsta X’s Newton and GOT7’s You are. With Pyeongchang dubbed as the Korean Alps, you can just imagine how this site transforms into a wonderland in winter.
Those who just can’t get enough of Gong Yoo can check out another snowy paradise in Pyeongchang, the Yongpyong Ski Resort, where his immortal character in Goblin finally confessed his feelings to the heroine. Oh, the other little drama, Winter Sonata, was also filmed there.
Pyeongchang is nonetheless most popularly known for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and those who are more athletically-inclined can test their skiing prowess at Yongpyong or the Alpensia ski tower.
Not too far away is Jeongseon, which many might know as the location for TVN’s reality cooking show Three Meals a Day, in which celebrities try to live like mountain villagers (with Lee Seo-jin and 2PM’s Ok Taec-yeon in 2014) and currently with a three-actress cast including Park So-dam (Cinderella and Four Knights, Parasite). If country living is not your thing though, Jeongseon is also known for its extreme sports – a popular activity is to zip wire down over 600m from Ariri Hills near the Byeongbang Mountain Sky Walk.
The full Hallyu experience
With too little time and too many filming sites, we opted instead to deck up in traditional Korean costume and create our own sageuk (historical period drama) fantasy at Ojukheon, the home of prominent Confucian scholar Yi I and his artist mother Shin Saimdan.
Who, you ask? They are the figures on two Korean won bills but if the history does not interest you, the quaint architecture and serene landscape set just the right mood for contemplating the meaning of life... and when BTS will come back from their hiatus.
Ultimately, no Hallyu indulgence is complete without partaking in Korean culinary, and at Jeonggangwon in Pyeongchang, you not only get to savour traditional Korean food but also try your hand at preparing it.
Visitors can learn all about the traditional Gangwon cuisine culture while making tofu or Kimchi from scratch. We learned how to make the provincial favourite, potato pancakes, and Bibimbap using the seasonal herbs and vegetables from the mountains. Cooking is definitely not my idea of fun, much less while on holiday, but you know what, the experience was just the perfect flavour for this Hallyu adventure.
For details on the Gangwon province and all the information you need about Hallyu activities in Korea, check out the KTO website.
Doing it Gangneung style with BTS in Pyeongchang
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