If you’re shopping for gifts or personal mementos in Korea, there are a lot of options. You could get something functional, like a hand-made tea pot or a brass ware dinner set. Or, if you’re searching for something ornamental, take a look at the calligraphy scrolls or hand-carved wood work. The fashion conscious might want to try a Korean “Handbok” dyed with traditional Korean pigments, like Je-ju mud. However, if you’re looking for something more unique or unusual, here are a few suggestions:
Tea: Like most Asians, Koreans take their tea very seriously, and the culture of tea appreciation here is not unlike that of wine in Italy or France. Valued according to origin, variety and the harvesting stage it was picked, the finest Korean tea can sell for as much as 100,000 won for 100 grams! If you or someone you know is a tea aficionado, pick them up some Korean green tea, known as Jak-seol Cha (작설차) or “Sparrow’s Tongue Tea.” Your best bet for quality and price is the Sae-jak (새작), or second harvest, which usually costs about 30,000 won for 100 grams.
You can find Korean tea for sale at any tea house, along with variety of teas from all over Asia, like Japanese malcha (말차), or powered green tea, and Pu-erh (보이차), or Chinese fermented brick tea. They also typically sell a cornucopia of herbal and medicinal infusions, including lotus, mugwort, barley and chamomile teas. Korean tea houses are also great spots to find tea accessories, like hand crafted tea pots and cups, carved wooden snack plates and bamboo forks and spoons. There are several tea houses on Bohwang-ro Street as well as Jeontong Tea House (전통찻집) by Mangwolsa Temple on the west side of Mt. Namsan.
Antiques: Luckily Korea isn’t as gaga yet over antiques as a lot of places in the west, so it’s still possible to find some great pieces here at very reasonable prices. Like most tourist destinations, Gyeongju has its share of antique shops and they sell everything from antique furniture, farm tools and ceramics to Buddha statues and folk paintings. It’s fun to poke around these places, plus you can find some very unique mementos of your visit. I once bought a pair of antique Korean duck decoys for my parents who are avid bird watchers.
There are number of more upscale antique shops on Bonhwang-ro Street, as well as around Cheonmachong Parking Lot (천마주차장). However, you’re more likely to find bargains at shops in the countryside, like at the turn for Mangwolsa Temple (망월사) on the east side of Mt. Namsan. My only complaint is that the prices are often not marked, so they vary widely according to who’s asking. Don’t be afraid to haggle a bit, though you might have better luck bringing a Korean friend along. But, at the end of the day, if you feel happy with what you paid, then it was a good buy.
Korean Incense: Whatever your religious inclinations, burning incense can have a profound effect on calming the mind and creating a pleasant atmosphere. Korea has a tradition of making incense that dates back thousands of years and Korean incense uses a completely different style and material than the Indian Joss sticks popular back home (and quite frankly it puts most of them to shame). It’s usually sold as a solid stick type, similar to Tibetan and Japanese incense, and is typically made from sandalwood, aloes wood, or rosewood combined with cloves or other herbs and spices. My personal favorites are the “Choi Woon” and “Chung Shim” incense, produced by the Choi-Woon Hyag-Dang company in Seong-ju (www.cwh.co.kr) or the “Baik Ran Incense” made in Namhae.
Korean incense is a great gift as it’s affordable, long lasting and easy to carry. It’s sold in most temple gift shops, like at Bulguksa or Tongdosa, and costs anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 won a box. You can also buy it in town at one of the numerous Buddhist supply shops, several of which are a few blocks south of the Train Station on Wolseong-ro (월성로) Street. There’s one on the right, next to a bike shop and another further down on the left, just past the tire store. For a nice companion present, pick up a ceramic incense burner. They usually sell for around 5,000 won and come in naturalistic shapes, like lotus flowers or tree leaves.
Gyo-dong Beopju (교동 법주): One of the more unique local products is Gyo-dong Beopju (교동 법주) . Beop-ju literally means “law liquor”, which refers to the fact that it is brewed using strict procedures. Beopju is a refined rice liquor that’s about 15% alcohol. Though I’m no expert, Beopju is not dissimilar to Japanese sake. It has a distinct flavor with a hint of almond and is quite nice when served chilled.
Gyo-dong Beopju is still brewed the same way it has been for hundreds of years at the historic home of the Choi family (최씨고택), which is just a 5 minute walk from Cheomseongdae Observatory and is the only place in town it’s sold. Last time I checked, it is only sold in ornamental bottles for about 32,000 won each, which I consider quite a bargain. Still, if you are looking for a cheaper option, try the Gyeongju Beopju (경주 법주) brand, which is sold in most local corner shops and supermarkets at the more affordable price of 7,000 won a pop.
So these are just a few shopping ideas you might not have considered before. Of course, part of the fun of shopping is discovering hidden treasures. There are a lot more interesting things for sale around Gyeongju, so don’t be shy about exploring the side streets downtown, or stopping at those little shops in the countryside. You never know what gems you might find.
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