Tongyeong - Inspiring views in the Napoli of the Orient
Few cities in Korea can match the natural beauty of Tongyeong. A port city on Korea’s scenic southern coast, the town is an intoxicating blend of rustic small-town charm, port-city cosmopolitanism and stunning seaside scenery. Often praised as “the Naples of the Orient” (minus the ominous volcano), the city also boasts an unusually prominent place in the history of the Korean arts, having been home to several respected painters, poets, writers and composers. It’s the perfect place to spend a weekend recharging your batteries when you’re feeling exhausted by the big-city grind.
Tongyeong-si is located on the small but very mountainous peninsula jutting out from Goseong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do. The downtown area is nestled between hillsides and a narrow bay that almost entirely cuts through the peninsula at its midsection from the east. Its bay, in fact, is connected to the sea to the west of the peninsula by the Tongyeong Canal, which was built by the Japanese in 1932. This has turned the southern part of the peninsula into a virtual island, with the two halves of the downtown connected by the picturesque Tongyeong and Chungmu bridges.
The peninsula is also connected to Geoje Island to the east by the Geoje Bridge and the New Geoje Bridge.
Tongyeong also has some 150 islands, 41 of which are inhabited. The islands are part of Hallyeo Maritime National Park, a scenic stretch of sea and coast that includes the islands and waterways between Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do and Tongyeong. The most popular of these islands can be reached via passenger ships and tour boats that depart from the downtown waterfront area.
Things to See
One of the more romantic things to do is stroll along the Tongyeong Canal at night. The Chungmu and Tongyeong bridges are lit up in blue and green light, and the colorful reflections off the canal waters are truly beautiful. The scenery is particularly breathtaking at dusk, when the sky behind the surrounding hillsides turns orange just before the deep purple of the nighttime sky sets in.
If you wander around for a bit, you will see that there are more than a few reminders of the city’s importance in Korea’s naval history. On a hillside overlooking the harbor you can find the Tongje Sayeong, the former command post for Korean naval forces in Gyeongsang, Jeolla and Chungcheong provinces. Much of the compound has been recently restored, but the magnificent Sebyeonggwan Hall—designated National Treasure No. 305—is original. The massive, open-sided meeting hall was built in 1603 and has managed to survive the ravages of time.
Of more recent manufacture is a replica of the Geobukseon (“Turtle Ship”) moored in Gangguan Port. Built in Seoul and sailed to Tongyeong in late 2005, the vessel is a perfect duplication of the revolutionary warship so ably used by Admiral Yi Sun-sin.
The neighborhood around Gangguan Port, coincidently, has been designated a “cultural plaza” by the city. The area is full of restaurants, especially those specializing in Chungmu gimbap (see next page), and is a particularly pleasant area place to meander around. The Jungang Live Fish Market is located nearby.
A City of Culture
For a small city, Tongyeong has produced more than its fair share of artists.
The poet Yu Chi-hwan, who died in a car crash in 1967, is honored with both a beautiful museum—the Cheongma Literature Hall, which overlooks Dongho-man Bay—and a street (complete with a monument) that runs in front of the Tongyeong Central Post Office.
Painter Jeon Hyuck Lim, meanwhile, has been a pioneer in Korean color field abstraction—his gallery/studio, now called the Jeon Hyuck Lim Museum of Art, is on Mireuk-do (right across the Tongyeong Bridge).
Finally, no discussion of Tongyeong would be complete without mention of Yun I-sang. Korea’s foremost modern composer, Yun was born in Tongyeong in 1917. He spent much of his creative life in Germany, where he attained citizenship in 1971. His compositions blend modern Western music with Korean traditional styles. To honor Yun, his hometown holds a biannual music festival, the Tongyeong International Music Festival, one of Korea’s biggest music celebrations. Held each spring and fall, the festival draws some of the biggest names in music from all around the world in a celebration of sound featuring music in several genres, including classical and jazz.
So Many Islands, So Little Time
Most visitors to Tongyeong make a point to visit the city’s scenic offshore islands.
Choosing which one you’d like to travel to can be problematic, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. Of course, if you’d just like to see the islands without actually setting foot on them, you can either climb Mt. Mireuksan on Mireukdo (just south of the downtown area) or take a bus (or car, if you’ve got one) along the beautiful Sangyang Ring Road to Dara Park, where you’re afforded stunning views of the South Sea and the islands that populate it. The view from Dara Park is particularly recommended at sunset, when the sky is flooded with color.
Hansan-do Island, the largest of Tongyeong’s islands, is probably the most popular to visit thanks to its pine tree—lined paths and the Jeseungdang Shrine. The Jeseungdang, lovingly restored in 1976, was the command post of Admiral Yi Sun-sin during the Imjin War.
Another popular island destination is Somaemul-do and nearby Deungdae-seom (Lighthouse Island). Somaemul-do is home to some 50 residents; it used to have its own elementary school, too, before it closed in 1996. The major reason you’d want to come here, however, is to check out the view of Deungdae-seom. Topped by a lighthouse (built it 1917), Deungdae-seom is absolutely breathtaking with its weather-battered cliffs rising straight out from the sea.
- The dish most popularly associated with Tongyeong is Chungmu gimbap. This is a simple dish of rice rolled in small pieces of dried seaweed, accompanied by radish kimchi and spicy squid slices. Originally a quick meal for fisher folk on the waves, Chungmu gimbap has gone national as a cheap and tasty way to fill your belly. The best place to score this local delicacy is across from Tongyeong Ferry Terminal—there’s a whole row of restaurants that specialize in it. One serving will run you KRW 3,500.
- You shouldn’t have much of a problem finding places to stay. There are tons of Korean inns, or yeogwan, around the Tongyeong Intercity Bus Terminal. If you’d like to go a bit more upscale, the best places in town are the Tongyeong Tourist Hotel (T. 055-644-4411), Chungmu Tourist Hotel (T. 055-645-2091) and Chungmu Beach Hotel (T. 055-642-8181). The Chungmu Tourist Hotel is probably the best of the bunch, with a scenic location overlooking the sea in the Mireuk-do Tourism Area. Expect to shell out at least KRW 100,000 to stay there; the Royal Suite, meanwhile, will set you back KRW 400,000 a night. A cheaper option with a nice view of Gangguan Port is the Napoli Motel (T. 055-646-0202). A night here will cost you KRW 40,000, but the view out the window is outstanding—especially at night—and some rooms come equipped with high-speed Internet.
- Intercity buses run between Seoul’s Nambu and Express bus terminals and Tongyeong. Running at little over four hours (assuming the traffic’s good), this is not a short trip; the fare is between KRW 20,000 and KRW 30,800. If buses aren’t your thing, you could train it to Busan and take the considerably shorter bus trip from there to Tongyeong—the direct bus from Busan’s Seobu Terminal costs KRW 9,800 and the ride takes about two hours.