Thus begin age-old Korean stories, filled with fantastic animalstales with surrealistic images, inspiring an urban journey between daydream and trance.
Can you feel the tiger’s breath on your shoulder? Do you see the hare scamper behind the kimchi stand? Do you hear the laughter of the sorcerers hidden in the bus, the mutterings of chimpanzees transformed into courtesans, the light tread of princesses walking by the palace of Gyeongbokgung and the sighs of beans placed on the counter that, dreaming of being clouds, will end up as tofu? Listenthey are there, your elusive companions. If the shaman lays his finger on you, you’ll embark on a fabulous journey into a dual reality. Bewitched, you now wander through the neighborhoods of Seoul, past the tiled-roofed houses of Bukchon, the stylish craft shops of Jongno and the trendy addresses of Apgujeoung. Slipping into the subway, entering the public squares, in the hectic hothouse of Gangnam immortalized by a singer neighing like a horse, you’ll never forget this Korea of legends. Its walls and streets oppressed by the clammy heat exude persistence. No Korean who grew up with stories is unaware of them. Dreams of yore, tales of youth, words whispered by grandmas with quivering voices or intoned by mothers exasperated because they cannot get their offspring to sleepyes, all these words weave the fantastic world of Korea. The wind carries them off and scatters them, the rain catapults them onto the tarmac, and from the puddles rise up double stars, as written in the Hae-wa tal i tœn onui, the tale of the Brother and Sister who became Sun and Moon. Now it is your turn to daydream and sing. For sure, there’s the Korea of millions of cell-phones, cars, K-pop singers; the Korea that’s crazy about plastic surgery; the dynamic, driven, time-obsessed nation where shops expand like dazzling soap bubbles and then vanish. All this appears before you, challenging and appealing, but this nation, despite all of its technology, remains a land of surreal passions, of traditions, odors and smoke. You’ve been warned, so open your eyes and look. Everyday life recedes, shadows hypnotize you, a reflection, a face, a flashyour imagination leaps and suddenly a tiger appears before you, and he’s smoking.
In this city where nicotine is a curse, where its adepts are accorded only small patches of sidewalk, usually cluttered with trash cans, there was a time when tigers smoked. From their pipes rose wisps of smoke that cast a spell of bliss around them. It was a time of dreams as well as bold exploits. Anything was possible, and the clumsiest of monkeys could become emperor. Most of Korea’s traditional tales begin with “When tigers smoked pipes,” an odd expression that became the Asian version of our “Once upon a time.” These tigers now accompany you. They yowl in your footsteps as you pass through Zaha Hadid’s strange metal whale devoted to design in Dongdaemun, but these cats do not travel alone. Hares, bears, magpies, roosters, sheep, a few cranes and two or three phoenixes join them in this saraband. Together, they form a part of the pantheon that all Koreans carry in their hearts, in addition to their star sign, pig, snake, horse, dragon and sometimes even double dragon, for those whose year of birth is marked by a double 8.
Koreans have bigger fish to fry than worry about fairy tales, but they are nevertheless steeped in these magnificent stories. Everyone carries deep within their identity something strange that is derived from these ancient shamanic practices and creation myths. The country itself was born from the union of a heavenly prince and a female bear. When ordered to fast with a tiger for a hundred days, with nothing but 20 garlic cloves to eat, she succeeded, whereas the tiger broke its vow three times. In return, the bear turned into a woman, married the heavenly prince and gave birth to Tangun, the founder of Korea. Given this pedigree, the general passion for these tutelary animals becomes easier to understand. Children and adolescents collect these bears and rabbits, and you too will understand when you visit one of the Line Friends chain stores, whose spin-off products with heads of bears, rabbits and roosters send little kids into raptures.
Seoul turns out to be a playground for hunting phantoms the way adolescents track down Pokémon. You find that your eye starts to spot rabbit’s ears wherever you look: on top of iPhones, on T-shirts, earrings and backpack straps. They appear on headbands and move around like norigae, decorative pendants attached with silk cords that danced about at the end of dresses and jackets in traditional costumes. Whereas these accessories used to indicate rank, marital status and the number of children of each man and woman, the rabbit ears and the tiger images displayed on the sides of trucks illustrate everyone’s adherence to the original dream. Even the canyon of Ewha Womans University, a building set into a hillside, dug out by French architect Dominique Perrault, now begins to resemble a burrow that recent graduates posing in black gowns and mortarboards have invaded like magpies and crows.
Just when you want to awake from these dreams, you pass by those Korean women wearing hanbok and danghye, vase-shaped dresses and curved shoes. The men with them have donned white tunics and black hats. Dressed in traditional costumes, these visitors are given free admission to palaces and museums. Imagine getting free admission to the Château de Versailles if you turned up in breeches and a wig. Overwhelmed by hallucinations, you’d like to take a break, but the shouts of children punctuate your peace. Yet are they even children? Korean tales are full of indefatigable dokkaebi, trolls whose pranks accompany the wild animal urges. There are numerous tales in which obedient cats attend schools hidden in the forest every night. These felines study in the hopes of becoming human. Some may have succeeded, and you can’t help seeing that the lithe girl walking on the old expressway has morphed into a fox; or the zealous traffic cop, a heron; or the group of men gorging themselves on fish at the night market in Noryangjin, high-spirited tigers. And you’re probably right. Koreans know that these animals keep them company. They say that their very nation, North and South reunified, is shaped like a tiger about to leap. In the last century, the Japanese empire, which was expanding, preferred to see it as a rabbit. But that meant overlooking the fact that in numerous tales, the cunning hare teases the tiger, who is just lazing about. They had the wrong idea about a Korea deliberately hidden behind a smokescreen, embodied by wild beasts smoking pipes. The moral of this particular tale is that Korea is a triumph.
Four Seasons Hotel
This recently built hotel is an optimal choice, if only for its location in Seoul, with palaces, museums, markets, mountains and historic areas nearby. The service is impeccable. The hotel’s five restaurants include the starred Yu Yuan, specializing in roast lacquered duck; Kioku, with its magnificent Japanese cuisine; and the Boccalino, boasting Italian fare and a superb bar. In the belly of the building is the Charles H, inspired by a 1920s speakeasy. For more calorie-conscious pleasures, the hotel offers a swimming pool and a fitness club with large panoramic windows. The suites have great views, including some of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The stellar feature in the rooms is the showerjust press two buttons to activate it. Ergonomics to the max, with bedside iPads and a control panel for lighting. There are artworks, spa and a nail barin short, it’s a hotel for all seasons.
Four seasons Hotel
97 Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu. Tél. +82 2 6388 5000.www.fourseasons.com
Asia’s largest bookstore, with a spectacular selection: works in English, children’s books, accessories (telephones, music, well-being) and stationery. Fairy-tale characters are on display, also exhibited in the Artbox chain stores. 1 Jong-ro, Jongno-gu. Tél. +82 2 1544 1900.
Seoul Animation Center et Seoul Cartoon Museum
A kid’s paradise and mecca for Korean mangas (manhwa . It’s worth a visit for its collection of sci-fi film posters. Then head down Toegye-ro, for side-by-side shops with contemporary accessories fashioned from ancient legends and tales. 126 Sopa-ro et 8-145 Yejang-dong, Jung-gu. Tél. +82 2 3455 8341.
National Folk Museum of Korea
Superb museum linked to the Gyeongbok gung Palace. Traditional painting and costumes. A vast world of fairy tales. Tél. +82 2 3704 3114.www.nfm.go.kr
Mug for Rabbit Coffee Shop
At the level of Garosu-gil, a street in the trendsetting Gangnam area, this coffee shop proudly showcases the rabbit of Korean tales. Cups, bowls, plates, napkins and even cacti display rabbit ears. 53 Nonhyeon-ro 153-gil, Gangnam-gu. Tél. +82 2 548 7488.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)
An immense, 85,000 m2 , seven-level (three underground) complex by Zaha Hadid. Opened in 2014, this spaceship houses a design museum, a lab, exhibition venues and a host of designer shops. 281 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu. Tél. +82 2 2153 0000.
AIR FRANCE has 7 flights a week to Seoul from Paris-CDG.
KLM has 7 flights a week to Seoul from Amsterdam.
À 52 km de Séoul.
Tél. +82 2 1577 2600.
AIR FRANCE KLM OFFICES
— Depuis la France :
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.
Hertz, à l’aéroport.
Tél. +82 3 2743 8000.
Tigre et kaki et autres contes de CoréeTextes réunis et traduit par Maurice Coyaud et Jin-Mieung Li, Gallimard.
Croquis de Corée Élodie Dornand de Rouville et Benjamin Joinau, L’Atelier des Cahiers.
Séoul Gallimard, coll. Cartoville.
Corée du Sud Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque du voyageur.
Séoul en quelques jours Lonely Planet.
© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purpose only.