It’s true of sport, food, language, clothing, art, and philosophy that they are heavily influenced by culture and can themselves heavily influence culture. Sometimes if one is travelling and has no point of access, so to say, on the culture one is visiting, it can feel strange, other worldly, and perhaps even ‘wrong’ to the visitor. Of course, getting accustomed to a new place, even on a quick holiday, is always much more pleasurable if one keeps an open mind to local traditions, tastes, and customs. While it’s undeniably exhilarating going to a new place and being surprised nearly every second it can also be exhausting. Personally, I like to use sport and food to get into a place a little before I go there.
Before I went to Korea I went out a lot to local Korean restaurants and looked over some Korean food blogs, to try to get familiar with the food. Like everywhere else in the world nowadays, it’s easy to find everything in Korea, but I was interested in the traditional dishes and the stories, legends, and folk medicine that go with the food. It offered me an insight into the history of Korea: by ingredients I could tell what kind of crops they had and what kind of weather they would have relied on; from the abundance of pickled foods I could imagine that winters could be rough and people would have needed to save up food for the long cold month, etc.
But what taught me most about Korea before my visit—and indeed the whole reason I was interested enough to plan a trip to Korea—was Hapkido. While it’s not the most ancient of martial arts in the East Asia or even Korea itself, it’s a blend of different traditions and philosophies and that explained Korea’s position in the modern world to me, with influences from both Japan and China while having a strong culture itself.
There’s no right or wrong way to travel or not to travel, but for me the experience is always so much more rewarding if one has a connection to the place one is visiting. It doesn’t matter if it’s language or politics or art, but for me what made Korea the most enjoyable and allowed me to learn a lot about its place in the world was Hapkido (and some delicious food)!