Traditional Korean Markets, the Heartbeat of the Neighborhood, If the Street Could Talk, the Stories It Would Tell.
Jan 26, 2019
Traditional markets aren’t just a small part of Korea’s history, but a vibrant and essential part of the country’s past and present. They are the bridge connecting the traditional culture with the new experiences in people’s modern-day lives, while also tying the townspeople and the farmers from the surrounding areas together. To visit an open-air market is to get a real sense of people’s daily lives and to truly inhale the scent of the community. Here the pavement is drenched with the sweat and the stories from so many of the lives that have walked through these markets at one time or another.
The Korean word for market is sijang and traditional street markets are called jaerae sijang. Traditional markets are filled with vendors selling a wide variety of goods including fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, bread, clothing, textiles, handicrafts, souvenirs, and traditional medicinal items. The market space also commonly includes permanent restaurants, pop-up restaurants, and food stalls. You can find just about anything in a traditional market, and usually at a much cheaper price than in a modern “super” market.
The culture of “deom” (adding additional items to the purchase at no extra charge) and good-natured haggling are a few of the unique aspects of Korea’s marketplace culture. Haggling is almost always expected since it is such great a part of the culture. I’m always afraid of haggling, but the kind vendor always takes pity on me and reward me with a few free items. This is the best part about going to the traditional markets. The vegetables are always fresh, and, depending on where you live, the fish are always freshly caught and right from the not too distant ocean. My favorite part of the shopping in the traditional markets is that you know exactly where your food is coming from; you can see and feel the dirt, and you can smell the earth on the fruits and vegetables. You can also talk to the farmers and build a relationship with them, so the experience of shopping at a traditional market becomes more personal when you have a connection to where your food is coming from. In my opinion, it’s more of a grassroots experience, since you know that the farmers personally sowed the seeds and harvested the fruits and vegetables themselves.
Traditional markets initially started out as 5-day markets, farmers would travel there from miles away with their goods and set up shop in a designated area for 5 consecutive days every week. In smaller towns, 5-day markets are still very popular and a vibrant part of the community. I have been to several 5- day markets away from Cheonan, and they are amazing. I love going to traditional markets to walk around to just take in all the flurry of activity around me, and to listen to people haggling over prices. The atmosphere is energetic, and you can hear the different vendors calling out the day’s specials. Just walking down the food section, smelling all the different delicious foods makes you hungry. I usually visit the fish and meat section last for the obvious reason; the fragrance is not as pleasant.
Cheonan is home to one of the oldest traditional markets. The Jungang Traditional Market opened as a market in 1918. In 1931 it operated as a 5- day market then in 1951 it operated in the form of street vendor stalls. In 1970 it became a daily market open six days a week. Currently, it has over 430 stalls and is about a 15-minute walk from the express bus terminal or a 10-minute walk from the Cheonan train station. It also has a night market that operates on a different schedule and has a totally different vibe. The night market is held on Fridays and Saturdays from March to July and September to October 2019, from 6:00 to 11:30 pm. The market has an automated information booth that highlights the history of the market, the vendors, and any scheduled events taking place at the market. The Jungang market is very clean and airy, and the vendors are pretty friendly as well. Scores of buses will take you from the downtown area to the market. If you get lost, just ask any local for the traditional market and they will point you in the right direction.
To really get a glimpse into the culture of a country and to see how the people live, you should always visit the local market, stroll around to take in the sights and sounds, and definitely taste the food; you never know, you might discover something delicious!