Travel Musings: Spring Road Trip Through Sejong, Gongju, Gochang, Hadong, and Tongyeong (세종, 공주, 고창, 하동, 통영)

If that list of a title is any indicator, this is a recap of the doozy of a trip I took last year with my parents and grandmother.

Growing up, my family used to take road trips all the time. From short trips to nearby states to longer trips to national parks, not to mention cross country (and even international road trips), we regularly hauled our stuff into our trusty minivan to go in all directions. Like most during those delightful hormonal stages of adolescence, these family road trips became a source of both ire and embarrassment for myself and I admittedly gave my parents quite a few headaches and annoyances on these trips for many of my middle school and high school years. After moving out from the house for college though, opportunities for such road trips lessened drastically to the point I'm not even sure I can remember when our last family road trip was before this recent one in Korea.

With no real set agenda, we set off on a trip that lasted some five days where we set off to see, eat, and do what we wanted, when we wanted. Admittedly, I was quite hesitant about the trip. Family is family, yes, but it had been a while since I would be spending long hours together with many of the hours confined to the limits of our rental car. I'm glad I went though as the trip reminded me how few and precious such opportunities to share meals, time, and experiences together.

In the end, the trip took us through charming parts of Cheonan, Sejong, Gongju, Gochang, Hadong, and Tongyeong over and through mesmerizing landscapes and unique meals. So if you're happening to pass by those areas and need a few tips, especially in Korea's beautiful springtime, here's a look at what I did and ate in these parts!

In Cheonan and Sejong

We began our trip by leaving for Cheonan at the crack of dawn from Seoul. Already I was in a bit of a grumbling mood as I'm never really a morning person and our meeting time in Yeoido at 7 required me to be up before 6. Still, seeing the beaming faces of my parents as well as both my grandmothers really made up for it. My grandmothers, in particular, were quite excited. Just like all grandmothers, they came armed with an array of snacks and eats, and further lifting my spirits.

Cheonan was our first destination as that's where my eldest aunt (the oldest sister of my father) and her family lives. Our meeting point was Cafe Abyssinia which is Cheonan's most successful cafe (and which was started by my oldest cousin and his wife). Unlike the majority of the seemingly endless cafes around Korea, Cafe Abyssinia was begun with a true dedication and respect to coffee by my cousin and his wife who have poured countless hours into their place. I was with them when it began as a small neighborhood cafe and it has since then grown in recognition and popularity leading to it moving to its current spacious location with a full staff. Even in its current location it's expanded tremendously and its variety of hand drip coffees to unique menu items draws scores of people (and even copycat competitors) to its store today.

Seriously. Check them out if you're in Cheonan!

Caffeinated but hungry, we made the trek further south to Sejong City where my aunt's family had made reservations for a special course lunch at Dweeung Bark Goeul (뒤웅박고을). The name may seem quite difficult but a dweeung bark is a special traditional tool Koreans used in which a gourd (bark or 박) was dried and hollowed out. A small hole at the top would be made, just the size of a person's fist, allowing one to then store things such as grains, rice, hay, etc. It's less commonly seen nowadays but wealthy and poor alike used them in the past though their contents greatly differed depending on your socioeconomic class which is why there's the Korean saying, "A woman's fate is like that of a dweeung bark" (여자 팔자 뒤웅박 팔자), meaning, like a dweeung bark, all women start off the same but who she ends up with determined her fate. Yes, an archaic and rather sexist saying now but that was how the world mostly operated back then.

Dweeung Bark (뒤웅박)

Dweeung Bark Goeul literally means "dweeung bark village" and the sprawling museum, traditional jang making grounds (for Korean condiments such as soy sauce, bean paste, red pepper paste, etc), and restaurant makes for a lovely visit anytime of the year. 

The lovely setting with its picturesque hanoks and nature scenery in itself makes for lovely grounds to explore but for food lovers it makes for an even more appealing visit as it dedicates itself to the making of traditional jang

In fact, there's an enormous field of rows of hangari (항아리) all filled with various jangs which the establishment both uses and sells.

Seriously. It's like the terracotta soldier grounds form of hangaris.

In fact, you can even learn about the various different types of hangari depending on the provinces of Korea. I had no idea until this visit that hangaris even varied depending on the region but you can read about them and observe the subtle differences yourself.

There's also a museum and lots of walking trails that takes you through interesting rock formations as well as some interesting sights such as an animal zodiac trail that shares descriptions about your animal zodiac (though this latter portion has signs only in Korean).

But one of the most popular draws about Dweeung Bark Goeul is their in-house restaurant specializing in Korean course meals using their famed jangs. It's an ode to the old, country-style dining of the past and their famed jangs makes their restaurant a popular draw- one that you should probably book in advance, especially for weekends.

The inside is spacious with plenty of tables. The back section is a more private area that's set aside for reservations and able to accommodate large groups (making it a popular place for infant birthdays and other celebrations).

This is a course restaurant in which food can't be ordered ala carte. Instead, there are four course menus you can choose from- A, B, C, and the regular. The regular course is the cheapest at 25,000 per person and "A" is the most expensive at 45,000 per head. The course prices moves up in increments of 5,000 won. Our lunch was the "B" course.

The individual place mats has a lengthy description on how fermented foods are healthy and how the jangs here are all fermented for up to 3 years with less sodium and more protein for a healthier and nutritious meal.

Kicking off everything are individual servings of mung bean porridge. Mung bean porridge is said to help with digestion and smooth stomach problems so there's definitely a reason it begins the meals here.

The mung beans are quite evident in the dense but pleasant porridge with minimal seasoning to give the nutty beans and rice the focus. Very smooth and delicious.

Then comes the wave of food for the first course:

Jelly lightly seasoned with sesame and roots

Jellyfish salad in mustard vinaigrette


Goongjoong ddeokbokki. This form of ddeokbokki is less known than the spicier red version but this variant is the original and what was usually served in royal palaces.

Salad with house made fruit and nut dressing. Not exactly traditional Korean but pleasant.

The full first course

All pretty standard and ample portions. The bossam was very nice in particular and I appreciated the fact everything was lightly seasoned.

Despite it being busy the servers were attentive and knew on cue when to bring on the next course.

For the gap between the next course, a simple deulkkae tang (wild sesame stew) was brought out for each table with individual bowls for serving.

Wild sesame has a very strong, nutty taste which, when done incorrectly, can have a heavy feeling in the stomach. This is definitely not that kind of a case. The earthy mushrooms, nutty soup intertwines in flavor while the bits of rice cakes provides a fun chewy consistency.

By this time I was already feeling pretty full but we weren't even halfway through yet! And in a blink of an eye, the second course was brought out:

The seasoned hwangtae (dried pollack). The sticky glaze was a great balance of savory, sweet, and spicy while the green onion slices helped cut through to provide some fresh notes to the dish.

Bindaeddeok. Also known as mung bean pancakes. This is always a favorite of mine and, while there wasn't as much filling inside as I liked, the dish arrived hot and the pancakes plenty dense and thick as they should be.

Steamed fish. Tender and the notes from the herbs provided a great layer.

Yukhoe (beef tartar). Fresh and seasoned just right.

Shrimp - Again, not a traditionally Korean prepared method with the tartar sauce and whatnot but delightful visually as it was in our mouths.

Galbijjim - Fall apart tender ribs.

Nakji Bokkeum - A lot of pepper flakes for that earthy spiciness.

Now at this point everyone was ready to wave the white flag of surrender but the restaurant wasn't just done yet as the final rice course hasn't come out.

In Korean cuisine, it's not considered a full and proper meal until one has had rice except that this rule also leads to the rule that rice should always be served with proper side dishes and at least some sort of soup.

I have to say, as Dweeun Bark Goeul is known for their homemade jangs, their dwenjang and cheonggukjang jjigae were fantastic. A deep, rustic depth to them that's impossible to create with store-bought, factory made jangs.

And then the rice. In metal pots no less and with a bit of roots and vegetables to make your own bibimbap.

The real end, the real finale of the meal wass the frozen hongshi (ripe persimmon). Fantastic in the warmer seasons.

Try it out but come HUNGRY.

Dweeungbark Goeul (Dweeungbark Village)
3-1 Cheongsong-ri, Jeondong-myeon, Yeongi-gun, Chungcheongnam-do
세종특별자치시 전동면 배일길 90-43

In Gongju

After spending a night at my aunt's back in Cheonan, we headed south the next day and decided, on a whim, to stop by the city of Gongju for lunch. My parents and I have similar tastes in that we prefer lighter, less aggressively seasoned dishes and tasked with finding a spot for lunch, I came across a place called Geoboonae (거부네) which specialized in tofu.

Every day, using only soybeans from Korea, they make their various tofus (from soft to hard) which goes into all their wonderful homemade dishes including soondubu, cheonggukjang, bijijjigae, tofu jeongol and more.

As you can see, prices are extremely low as well, though this is somewhat expected as it is in the countryside and the restaurant is really almost in the middle of nowhere.

But if you have a car and you make the effort, it's worth the visit in every sense. Each order comes with some 10 different side dishes that are also made in-house and it is truly a gorgeous spread.

Here, in the center, is a plate of their plain firm tofu that's simply been blanched. You can eat it with a simple drizzle of the soy sauce-based dressing on the side or you can do it like the Koreans love to do and get that extra fermented kimchi that's been pan fried and place it on top.

WIN. Though my picture is decidedly less so...

Their soondubu is of the natural, all-white kind. Very soothing, creamy, and full in flavor and taste. You can add some of the soy sauce dressing according to your preference but really, it's fine on its own to get that natural goodness.

The cheonggukjang is also pure, earthy, goodness. Not too strong but just seasoned right. They make their cheonggukjang in-house as well so the store-bought variety just does not compare. Even my grandma, who frequently makes cheonggukjang from scratch, was raving about it.

Simply put, there wasn't a dish (main or side) that disappointed here. In fact, my parents and grandmother, to this day, still talks about this restaurant.

Geoboonae (거부네)
721 Sangseo-ri, Useong-myeon Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do
충청남도 공주시 우성면 우성길 134
Note that they are closed on Sundays...

In Gochang

Arriving finally in Gochang, in Jeollabuk-do, we made a visit to Seoneunsa Temple (선은사). It's a beautiful temple ground that was much larger in the past except much of it was destroyed during the second Japanese invasion during the late 16th century. To get to the temple grounds you have to walk a bit through the Seoneunsan Provincial Park which is quite a lovely stroll especially in spring with all the flowers and trees in bloom.

There's a little stream that you walk by to get to the temple which adds to the ambiance.

And the temple itself is quite serene and peaceful to explore.

Behind the temple is a huge grove of camellia trees which they are known for.

Lovely flowers in spring :)

Giving the seal of approval.

Seonunsa Temple
250, Seonunsa-ro, Asan-myeon, Gochang-gun, Jeollabuk-do
전라북도 고창군 아산면 선운사로 250

Not far off from Gochang is Yeonggwang, a coastal area that's especially famous for its gulbi (굴비). These fish called corvina is the same variety that is served at popular soondubu chains in the States like BCD. As Yeonggwang wasn't too far away, we decided to make a stop for dinner by stopping at the gulbi "town" in the area. Literally restaurants upon restaurants all serve the same gulbi sets for hungry patrons and my parents especially, with particular fond memories of eating gulbi as kids, had high expectations.

On the recommendation of our pension owner in Gochang, we came to Tou (토우) among the restaurants here and initially had a good impression with the many people inside and prices.

You can opt for the dolsot bibimbap set (hot stone pot bibimpbap set) at 8K per person or, for 2,000 won more, get he dolsot gulbi set. Make it 15K and you can choose between ganjang gejang (soy sauce fermented crab) or yangnyeom gejang (spicy seasoned crab).

Now, a busy and popular restaurant is always a good sign but when food is being hauled out in carts within a minute of ordering, that indicates to me some red flags. But yes, within a few minutes of ordering our gulbi dolsot sets, out came an array of side dishes.

A decent spread of sides including a few seaweed/sea-based plants.

The rice comes in the hot stone pot and they give you a platter of mixed roots and vegetables to make bibimbap if you choose.

Now there wasn't anything wrong with the ganjang gejang and gulbi. It was fine for the most part but looking at the small sizes of both the crabs and the gulbi we could tell they were of the cheaper kind.

My grandmother and parents knew right away the gulbi were the less "opulent" varieties. We ate our meal all the same but it was rather disappointing as it was clearly a tourist restaurant. In fact, the whole Younggwang gulbi town area is more or less a tourist trap. If I pass through next time, I'm going to have to do some research on where the locals go.

Tou (토우)
718 Beopseong-ri, Beopseong-myeon, Yeonggwang-gun, Jeollanam-do
전라남도 영광군 법성면 진굴비길1길 8

On our third day we stopped by Gochangeubseong in Gochang. Gochangeubseong is a cool fortress I never knew about but "seong" means fortress and this particular one was built in 1453 by the locals to protect against repeated Japanese invasions. You can read more about it below. Note the special legend involved with the place.

For a fortress, it's quite a lovely setting. As the local folks were meant to to escape and reside here during turbulent times, there's a pleasantly surprising tranquil atmosphere to it. You can walk around the entire fortress walls, explore the inner spaces, and take in the atmosphere.


Gochangeupseong (Gochangeup Fortress)
1, Moyangseong-ro, Gochang-eup, Gochang-gun, Jeollabuk-do

Walking around in the brisk setting, we were in the mood for something warm for lunch which is when I came across a place called Milteo Haemul Kalguksu. Their seafood kalguksu was said to be loaded with seafood and hot bowls of kalguksu was definitely just the thing to get the blood running again.

Kimchi and kkakdugi.

As I'm a huge fan of bindaeddeok, I was quite fixated on the haemul bindaeddeok (seafood bindaeddeok) which we ended up ordering along with the seafood kalguksu.

Freshly fried, the bindaeddeok comes piping hot with a few sides of soy sauce.

The initially amazing thing about the bindaeddeok here is the varying texture. The exterior is so crisp that it literally shatters in certain places. But inside the hard shell you'll find it's still super soft and just loaded with seafood, chopped vegetables, and fragrant chives.

Again, please marvel at the crisp shell. THAT is not easy to replicate even at home.

As I said, just loaded inside.

The haemul kalguksu is not your average everyday kalguksu. They're not joking about the seafood (haemul) as crab, jukkumi, mussels, sea squirt, seaweed, and more join the plump handmade noodles in a broth that's as refreshing as it's deep.

Let it boil together for a few minutes and then you are good to eat.

Interestingly, they put kongnamul (bean sprouts) in the broth which is unusual for kalguksu but surprisingly works by giving it an extra layer in depth. 

For those who like/want a little kick, they have dadaegi (a spicy paste) you can add to your individual bowls. Try enjoying a first bowl just plain and then follow it with a spicier version.

Milteo Haemul Kalguksu (밀터 해물칼국수)
59-22 Wolsan-ri, Gochang-eup Kochang, Jeollabuk-do
전라북도 고창군 고창읍 산정길 133 밀

Now here's a crazy surprise that came along during our trip. In Gochang, we were observing the map of the local area when my father noticed the town of Mujang. I didn't know the significance of the place but then my father mentioned that our ancestors' home area was listed as Mujang. Our last name is actually extremely rare among Koreans and what a coincidence that we would come across our ancestral region!

The twist with our family's association with the Mujang area was that one of my great...great(?) grand father took part in a huge rebellion in the mid 1800s called the Donghak Peasants' Revolution which the Gochang area played a huge part in.. That rebellion was eventually put down but my ancestor settled in Mujang and adopted it as his home. There are a few sites that are related to the this revolution in this area but it was crazy to think that I was stepping foot on the same grounds as my ancestor as they fought for the rights of the commoners.

458-1, Jangnae-ri, Ipyeong-myeon, Jeongeup-si, Jeollabuk-do
063-535-5147 (In Korean only)

In Hadong

After exploring the western parts, it was now time to head east to Hadong where my father had some business to attend to. This sleepy but breathtakingly beautiful town sits right Jeollanam-do and Gyeongsangnam-do where the Seomjingang river strikes through the region.

Beautiful spring flowers including cherry blossoms everywhere.

You know you're in the country when you come across restaurants selling dishes with pheasant and rabbit in them.

Hadong is a blessed region in terms of food as there's plenty of fertile ground, a mighty river, and the sea so fresh, ingredients of all kinds is plenty, providing a diverse spread. We were taken to Ilshin Shikdang, by my dad's friend, a native Hadong-er, so we knew we were in good hands. The hanjeongshik style restaurant really brings out the dishes which is just an amazing spread of roots, vegetables, seafood, meat, and more.

Ilshin Shikdang (일신식당)
경상남도 하동군 하동읍 중앙3길 5
5, Jungang 3-gil, Hadong-eup, Hadong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, Korea

While my father attended to business in the evening, my mother and grandmother decided to enjoy some time at the public bath. I decided I wanted to explore the town a bit. As the sun set, I came across a nifty looking cafe. It didn't have any sign but inside was a very modern yet classic looking cafe that looked both cozy and inviting. 

The cafe is run by a really nice young lady who originally hails from the area, went up to Seoul to study coffee-making, and came back down to start Gwangpyeong by herself. She offers only hand drips and handmade drinks as that's what she learned and is passionate about. Her cafe doesn't offer anything like blended drinks or frappucinos and the like. 

The hand drips are excellent and expertly prepared. You can choose between different roasts. You could tell the owner truly had a love and appreciation for hand drip coffee and she even let me try a number of different blends at no extra charge! I was very grateful and ended up purchasing some of her madeline cookies (homemade) which were delicious.

Really fine cups and saucers the coffee are served in too.

경상남도 하동군 하동읍 광평리 243-1
243-1 Gwangpyeong-ri, Hadong-eup Hadong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do

The next day my father's friend took us around her hometown of Hadong which really was exquisite in terms of beauty and peacefulness. First we walked around the spacious Hadong Park which was just bursting with spring in every direction. It was like spring had decided to put on a brilliant symphony and we were just lucky to happen upon it in its full glory.

Though not necessarily a spring plant, the bamboo forest was nice to walk through especially when the spring breeze would blow through the leaves.

Seriously. How gorgeous is that?

Check out this famous boulder which has a tree growing right through it. I think you can come up with a nice metaphor on persistence and whatnot on your own :)

Life, life, everywhere.

Hadong Park (하동공원)
Eupnae-ri, Hadong-eup, Hadong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do
경상남도 하동군 하동읍 읍내리

For lunch, we were in for a real treat as we were taken to a famed restaurant called Jecheon Seomjingang Hwet Jib for two very famous local special dishes- one called Jecheop Guk and the other called Chamgyetang.

Jecheopguk is a special soup that's made with jecheop, small freshwater clams and Chamgyetang is a stew made of chamgye, a hairy crab. Both the chamgye and jecheop come from the Seomjingang so it's extremely rare to have the chance to try these dishes outside this region.

Outside the restaurant were tanks of all kinds including ones full of chamgye.

Like almost everywhere in Hadong, the side dishes alone were more than plentiful for a meal and so fresh and flavorful.

Fried dashima (kelp). It's getting rarer to see this being offered in restaurants lately too. If you haven't tried it before do try. Interestingly the fried kelp is given a dusting of sugar for a an intriguing and oddly addictive mixture of flavors.

Gyejang (fermented crab) made from the chamgye.

This little root tastes quite similar to ginseng and really delicious.

I don't know the exact process in making chamgyetang but I know it involves grinding up the crabs at one point. Thus the stew has a thicker texture to it. To the tang, they offer on the side a bowl of shredded herb called Bangah which are the leaves of a plant from the hyssop family. It has an interesting sharp and fragrant note to it which not everyone might like at first but it gives a cutting flavor to the soup.

The soup is dwenjang-based so it has a mellow and nutty taste to it. With mushrooms, tofu cubes and whatnot it's quite a different soup from any other Korean stew I've had yet there's an unmistakable Korean "soul" to it. The best I can describe it is a less stronger tasting Chueotang (ground loach fish stew).

Jecheopguk was also an entirely new dish I've had. The soup is rather simple as the broth is made from the tiny freshwater jecheop and lightly adjusted with salt and a load of chopped chives.

The jecheop is very famous to the Hadong region and along the Seomjingang you can often catch the clam catchers at work. For being such small little guys, it's amazing the amount of flavor they provide the soup. Refreshing and not over bearing in taste, it would make a great hangover soup after a night of drinking. :)

Seomjingang Jaecheop Hwet Jib (섬진강 재첩 횟집)
951-1 Hwasim-ri, Hadong-eup, Hadong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do
경남 하동군 읍 화심리 951

The rest of the early afternoon was spent driving around the area. Hadong is especially famous for the traditional market Hwagye Jangteo which is probably one of the most well-known in Korea after being in a famous Jo Young Nam song. We drove by it but it was absolutely packed. Wisely, we moved on to just explore the surrounding scenery along the Seomjingang.

Hadong is also famous for its green tea plantations which are quite plentiful just about everywhere.

In Tongyeong

We made it over to Tongyeong for the last leg of our trip. Tongyeong is one of my absolute favorite cities in Korea and I've written about it before. The coastal city was not visited before by my parents though so it was fun to show them around.

PS- We stayed at the Hansan Hotel which is just by the coast with really spectacular views.  Highly recommend!

Took them to see the surrounding islands.

Up to Dongpirang Vilage to see the art murals.


And then to my favorite seafood stall, Cheonan Soosan, where the lady really serves some of the best, freshest seafood at the most unbelievable prices. You can read about her in my previous blog post on Tongyeong. 

Needless to say, the owner lady went above and beyond ofr us again giving us an assortment of top notch fish and seafood for a belly busting meal.

Really, she just is the best.

On our final day, my father was eager to try a local specialty dish called dodari ssook guk. Dodari is flounder and this clear-soup is interestingly made with ample amounts of mugwort leaves. It's not only a specialty of the region but especially good in spring time.

The sides are plenty and many seafood-based.

Sea squirt

Fermented seafood of some kind.

Bokguk. Soup made with blowfish. This is found throughout Korea and a favorite for drinkers haha.

Dodari ssook guk. Can you see all the ssook leaves in it? With the fish and mugworth, it makes for a refreshing soup though extremely strong in flavors. Even I found it a bit overwhelming but something interesting to try.

Spent a bit of time exploring the market.

Stopped at Ggol bong i again to get some ggool bang. The fillings vary from red bean to yuza but are a nice snack with some coffee.

Ggul Bong I (꿀봉이) 4
32, Taepyeong-dong, Tongyeong-si, Gyeongsangnam-do, Korea
경상남도 통영시 태평동
432 055-644-6698

From our favorite seafood lady in Tongyeong, we ordered some extra hwoe (sashimi) and other seafood to go which was then expertly prepared and packed for our drive up. We stopped back at Cheonan at my aunt's to have a final seafood hurrah.

So pretty.

Unfortunately, this trip wasn't a complete one as we were missing my brother and sister-hard at work completing their university degrees in the States- so the many beautiful sights and amazing food we had made us think of them quite often. The trip did evoke odd feelings in me though, as I had time to reflect on the time that had passed, think back on old memories, and, perhaps a bit morbid, but think about the finite time we had together.

Much like how a classic book will bring up new insights and lessons over the different periods of one's life, it's astounding how a shared activity with the same people (like road tripping) can do the same. Many of the places we visited on this trip was a first for us all but sharing that experience together, and especially over good food, really reinstates and binds stronger the ties we share.

In today's age when the convenience and speed of flight transportation has largely superseded other modes, I highly recommend doing a road trip with your loved one (whether with family, significant other, or whatnot). It is certainly more effort and requires more of your time but I guarantee you that many more lifetime memories will come from it. :)


  1. hi stew, amazing post. i really enjoy reading it and could feel the memorable family times that you and your family spent together. thanks for taking time to share, and the beautiful photos!

  2. This post reminded me a lot of my family, and of the trip we're about to embark on soon in Korea. We live in the States currently but traveling with family can be a mix of emotions. One of the things we're all looking forward to is the food, and you post was so amazing. Thank you for sharing and for taking us along your trip. Love your blog!

  3. Hi,may I know where u stayed in Gochang? Will visit there soon.^^

  4. Hi,may I know where u stayed in Gochang? Will visit there soon.^^


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