“You’re going 5,000 miles with strangers off the internet to look at concrete underpasses where fictional things happened?” My plans for a Korean drama-location based holiday raised the eyebrows of a few of my friends.
My love affair with Korean drama (or K-drama, as it is often known) began in April 2020 during the first Covid lockdown. On a family message group, my Sydney-based brother told us how his wife, Sarah, had become enchanted by a show on Netflix called Crash Landing on You.
He was funny about both the show and her interest in it and – between supervising teenagers’ online lessons and making soup from elderly vegetables – I decided to give it a go. It took me two episodes to absorb the different conventions but then I was all in: this warm, witty and swooningly romantic storytelling offered the perfect pandemic escape.
Thanks to Gangnam Style and supergroup BTS addressing the UN, not to mention Blackpink’s recent attendance at a state banquet, the cultural export of K-pop may have a stronger toehold on British consciousness than K-drama. There are some crossovers in both fandom and performers. The two also share a refreshing refusal to be hidebound by conventional genre categorisation, and a strong commitment to the highest standards in their art forms, particularly aesthetically.
But it isn’t just the hotness of K-drama actors that appeals to me, it’s K-drama’s commitment to telling a complete story in a single series. The 16-hour-long episode format allows for total immersion in both place and character. Not predicated on the hope of continuing seasons, their storylines have a proper arc and conclusion; they are akin to reading a satisfying novel. In fact, from Romance is a Bonus Book and When the Camellias Bloom to Because This is My First Life; even their titles hold shelf appeal intrigue.
I passed on my discovery to my local female friends’ chat group. Most ignored my strange new obsession, but Liz, a neighbour just down the road, fell in love in just the same way I had. With Sarah, we began a separate chat of gleeful daily exchanges about new drama discoveries, favourite actors and the more outré plot points. Liz and Sarah began studying Korean. I began reading Korean literature and making kimchi with my elderly vegetables.
And then, two-and-a-half years later, with more than 200 dramas watched apiece, we were ready to plan a real escape. Liz stuck up a map of Korea and started putting red pins and Post-It notes on significant locations from our favourite dramas. Our travel squad grew, as Liz’s husband Matthew, uninterested in Korean dramas but interested in Korean history and infrastructure, and Diane, a friend I’d made in another online K-drama chat group, asked to join us.
All in our fifties and sixties, we hoped our common passion could sustain three weeks in each other’s company – helped by the non-negotiable requirement that all those who were not married to each other had separate rooms.
The location wish list that we presented to our chosen travel company, Inside Asia, was eccentric, eschewing many of the major temples, museums and palaces. Somehow, our advisor Sam made sense of it, setting up a three-week combination of English-speaking guides, non-English speaking drivers, bus tickets, train tickets and eight different hotels, to take us on a clockwise loop around the country, for a luxurious middle-aged take on a backpacking adventure.
I had expected to find real life South Korea a different place from the virtual version I’d spent so many hours inhabiting, for my romanticism to be stripped away. A country is not a theme park and I was aware of some of its complications and contradictions. Instead, we arrived to a rose-glow sunset over Seoul that set the tone for the rest of the holiday. We felt heady from the overwhelming familiarity from the small screen. It was as if we had entered our own drama. “But it’s real! It’s really real! Amazing,” our constant mantra.
For three weeks the sun shone, transport worked seamlessly and helpful guides found us the places we wanted to find. We sighed happily together over closed café frontages, tunnel entrances, random flights of steps, hospital lobbies, abandoned theme parks, lily pond pavilions, breakwaters, lighthouses and more. Our nerdiest location moment occurred in the convention centre of an off-season ski resort where we negotiated our way past a buzzing pharmaceutical sales conference to photograph a particular wall and section of carpet.
We also explored the few temples, museums and palaces we’d permitted, slept on the floor of a traditional style guesthouse or hanok, wandered through fish and flea markets, rode rail bikes, climbed mountains, paddled in the ocean and walked along rice paddies and through bamboo forests. I developed a secondary obsession with bright orange-fruited persimmon trees.
We ate barbecue and bibimbap and bulgogi and drank too much soju. We had chicken and beer by the river and banana milk and cup noodle ramyeon outside a convenience store. We sang karaoke at the noraebang. Sarah and I even braved the – “Nakedness is Mandatory” – women’s bath house where every inch of me was scrubbed to a state of never-seen-before smoothness.
But it was the people around us who really made us feel like we were floating through the country in our very own drama bubble. We spotted character tropes familiar from the screen wherever we went. There was the high school couple on the bus, heads together peering at a phone screen with little fingers intertwined, the harassed office workers snatching cigarette breaks on a high-rise rooftop, the groups of senior citizen hikers, striding up sheer mountain paths with visors and walking poles, the mother tenderly placing her own food on the rice bowl of her son, the couple in matching outfits photographing each other against autumn foliage, even the delivery driver on a motorbike swerving down an alley making pedestrians – us! – jump out of the way.
We’d gone to spot individual locations but instead found the whole country an apparent film set in action and ourselves wandering through as “extras” in the background.
We were noisy extras. On sabbatical from jobs, domestic duties and the various caring responsibilities that come with our stage of life, responsible for absolutely nobody’s wellbeing or comfort but our own, we talked nonsense about dramas, actors and our own lives, laughed loudly and often, and didn’t care about whether our journey made sense to anybody else or not.
Our excitement must have been infectious. “I do like being on holiday with enthusiasts!” Matthew – or Holiday Oppa as we christened him using the Korean term for an older brother or boyfriend, said at one point with characteristic generosity.
Three days from the end of our trip we found ourselves on our way out of Yongin Daejanggeum Park. A permanent film set tucked away in a rural mountainous location, 60km south of Seoul, it’s used for making sageuk – historical Korean dramas, but also open to the public. We’d had a fine time poking around the maze of ad hoc buildings representing eras from 6th- to 19th-century Korea, spotting places familiar to us from the many series filmed there, and the thrill had been increased by finding some areas off limits and actors and film crew in attendance.
It was as I was heading for the gift shop that I clocked a tall figure emerging from the back of a large, black, people carrier. I froze and made the same sort of throaty gasp-squeak I’d once made hiking in Alaska after spotting a black bear at close quarters. Sarah, was noisier: “Rowoon! I’m your fan from Australia!” The startled bear or in this case, 27-year-old K-pop idol turned male leading actor, clasped Sarah’s outstretched hand, pulling her in for a hug before being hustled by his appalled manager into a building.
Our holiday was always due a happy ending. In news that may surprise those who have only watched Squid Game, Korean dramas specialise in them. But, as the five of us whooped, giggled and exclaimed together on the journey back to Seoul and beyond, it wasn’t so much the chance encounter with an impossibly handsome leading man that was the source of our end-of-holiday-replete grins, it was that we’d experienced it together and all understood the significance. That was true joy. The only very non- K-drama question remaining is: will there be a season 2?
Polly and her friends travelled on a (very) tailor-made tour organised by Inside Asia (0117 244 3380) which also offers a 12-night Best of South Korea trip for £4,362 per person including three-star accommodation, activities, various meals and all internal transport, but excluding international flights.