A Canadian perspective on Korean winters

Written by on January 10, 2013 in Lifestyle

Well, we seem to have survived one of the coldest winters in Korea’s history. It’s not over yet, but it’s looking doubtful that it will top January 3, the day when the temperature got down to -19 in Seoul. The coldest temperature recorded on that day was -29.5 in Hongcheong County in Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province), which is almost reaching what we would call a cold day in my hometown.

Winter is a strange time for most Canadians living in Korea; on one hand, most of us are used to far colder temperatures back home and we usually can’t shut up about it, but on the other, having left our parkas and thermal underwear behind we often find ourselves struggling to cope with the cold here.

For me, coming from the dry prairie city of Edmonton, I find it’s not the cold but the humidity that gets me. A -20 day in Edmonton is totally bereft of moisture, and while it does lead to all sorts of skin problems, it is a coldness that’s easy to stave off by layering up or sitting by the fire. But in Korea the damp cold is something that sticks to you and penetrates your clothes.

Snowfall is so wet and sticky, many Koreans use an umbrella to stay dry.

Most other foreigners I’ve talked to find Korea dry, so this appears to be a regional thing. In order to prove I wasn’t crazy, I managed to track down another foreign resident from my home province, Trevor Nault. He’s from Edson, a small town just under two hours outside my hometown (not that far in Canadian terms) where the winter is just as cold.

“Yeah, it was way dryer back home,” he confirms. “I would have skin issues because of it too.”

Since coming to Korea I don’t get eczema on my hands anymore in the winter, but if I did I’d probably skip the moisturisers and see a doctor for a steroid-based prescription cream.

Of course, in Canada the bigger fear is frostbite. Long enough exposure to the cold leads to extreme pain, followed by tissue death, inevitably followed by amputation. Your extremities are at the greatest risk, such as fingers, toes, ears, nose, and cheeks, the latter which aren’t extremities but are almost never properly covered unless you want to put on a balaclava and be mistaken for a bank robber.

“I’ll take a Korean winter any day over a Canadian one,” Trevor tells me. “It’s nice to live in a country where -19 is an extreme instead of the norm every day. On the other hand, I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, cold is always a little bit of a pain.”

So don’t think just because we’re used to eight months of winter a year, we’re not looking forward to spring too. But in the meantime, we know how to make the most out of a cold winter. For that reason, I thought it would be useful to seek out a few other foreigners to comment on Korea’s winters and offer advice for coping.

Dave Hazzan, a fellow Canadian from out east in the nation’s capital Ottawa, finds Korea’s winters cold and dry. When I asked him what’s the best way to cope with the cold, he answered in one word.

“Layers,” he replied. “When it goes below zero, I put four layers on top: T-shirt, shirt, sweater, coat. If it gets warmer I can peel layers off and put them in my bag.”

Also, you’d be surprised the difference winter accessories will make. A hat that covers your ears is extremely helpful. Earmuffs cover the most exposed part of your head, but a toque is best. Gloves are also helpful, because if you slip you need your hands free to break your fall.

When I was a teenager, there was always a bit of peer pressure to go without winter accessories, I guess because having a bare head and hands were considered more cool than bundling up. But once it dips below -20, nobody had a choice and those accessories were mandatory if you didn’t want to lose an ear. And actually, it was much easier to have fun outside.

“Suit up like you’re going on an Arctic expedition even if you’re just going around the block to get some groceries,” says Trevor. “You’ll actually enjoy being outside and might even take the long way there to enjoy the fresh air. Do stuff with people outside. Go for a walk, go sledding, go skiing, build a snowman, have a snowball fight. You’d be amazed at how much your body heat will do for you.”

He’s really right. I’ve always found the cold is less of a bother if you want to be outside. Being active really warms you up like nothing else. And that’s another reason you should wear layers: so you can strip off one or two if you get too warm. And believe me, you will.

Speaking of snowmen, I’ve been waiting for a few years for the right conditions to make a snowman. In order for the snow to pack together properly, it has to be just right. If it’s too icy or too powdery you won’t have any luck. You can tell when conditions are right because even when you walk through it, it tends to stick together. Usually the best days for this is when the snow is just starting to melt under the Sun. I’ve been waiting for years though and still no luck. Then again, I’ve probably missed several chances while at work.

Without the right kind of snow, it’s nearly impossible to make a human-sized snowman.

Compared to Canada, Korea gets very little snow. But when it snows here, it’s furious. Then the Sun comes out the next day and it all melts away. In contrast, Canada’s snowstorms are a little more laid back, other than the fact I can remember some snowstorms going nonstop an entire week.

Also, whatever falls in Canada lasts until spring, meaning the snow piles up high over the winter, requiring some very serious snow removal. I once discovered a parking lot where the snowploughs would dump their loads, creating a tall mountain of huge chunks of snow that were fun to climb. Since most Canadians live in houses, shovelling the driveway and sidewalk are seen as mandatory chores for all homeowners (one of the things I miss least about living in Korea). If someone slips and is injured on the sidewalk in front of your property, you could be sued.

I do not miss shoveling snow.

In Korea, where the winters are less predictable, snow removal is taken less seriously. For instance, this last December Seoul got 22 centimeters of snow, while in 2011 there was only 3.1 centimeters. It’s hard to respond to the weather when it’s so different year after year. Especially when the snow usually melts away so quickly, it must seem like a bad idea to put money into snow removal. The government is in a tough position, where it can be criticised for not being prepared enough for snow removal if there’s a lot of snow in a winter, or for wasting money on snow removal if there’s no snow.

But this year, the snow didn’t melt right away. And when it finally did, a lot of it refroze as ice, making the sidewalks a nightmare. The extra snow and ice on the roads has led to an increase of car accidents as well as slipping injuries on icy roads and sidewalks. The Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters reported that it received 312 injury reports just for three days from January 1 to 3.

Combined with Seoul’s many hills and slopes, many streets become nearly unpassable after a snowstorm.

When the weather gets like this, the sensible thing to do is to stay indoors. In my hometown where extended exposure to the cold can mean death, it’s quite easy to stay warm indoors. All buildings are thoroughly heated, and you can always find somewhere to duck in and warm up. Our buildings are built for the cold, so we don’t have to worry about it when we’re indoors.

Korea, in contrast, is a much colder country, indoors. In most buildings, many common areas are left unheated, such as lobbies, hallways, and washrooms. I’m told in many of these buildings, there’s actually a maximum temperature limit set at 20 degrees, but even that means you’ll probably need a sweater if you’re going to the washroom. Another thing that’s important is having comfortable footwear, or even slippers, to wear at work. If you wear dress shoes that stifle your feet, you’ll sweat and then when you go out into the cold your feet will turn into blocks of ice.

As well, it’s common here to open windows in winter. My coworkers tell me it’s to ventilate the room, but you can really feel the cold, and after a whole morning of warming up the building, it always seems like a waste of energy. You couldn’t do this in Canada first of all because the windowsills would probably be wrapped in plastic winterproofing, and secondly because someone would scream at you to stop heating the outdoors.

Fortunately, Korean homes tend to be better heated throughout the winter. Having a floor heated by an ondol system makes it a lot easier to get out of bed on a winter morning. In contrast, in Canada where heating comes from the ventilation, floors can be quite cold, especially tiled floors like in the washroom. The ondol is a great invention, something even my cats would agree with.

For domesticated cats in Korea, ondol season is the best season of the year.

Of course, first you have to learn how to use your thermostat, which at first glance looks complicated enough to change the trajectory of a satellite. Usually there’s an on button, a dial for setting the temperature, and a row of buttons whose meanings are harder to guess at. All you need to do is find the button with 온 in it; not 온 for “on” but 온 for “ondol.”

During the winter, it’s important to leave the heat on at all times, even when you’re not home, and even when you’re on vacation. I’ve heard stories about the international dormitory in my hometown’s university, where foreign students would go home to visit during winter vacation, leaving the heater off and the window open. They’d return to find their entire apartment flash-frozen. That’s not going to happen in Korea, but the bigger concern is that the water pipes could burst.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, 2,979 homes reported burst pipes between December 1 and January 2, an increase of 4.5 times from the same period the previous year.

Apparently once the temperature gets below -5, that’s when you have to start taking action. This year I’ve started hearing the advice that you should leave a tap running. I have absolutely no idea what this should accomplish, but I’ve tested it at home when my boiler was straining and it seems to help. My best guess is it removes the coldest water from the system, allowing warmer water closer to the boiler to circulate better, but I have no idea. It goes against everything I’ve had drilled into my head about water conservation, but at least it’ll create a lot of business for plumbers who have to fix leaky taps in the spring.

That’s the colour of the roads in Canada from the day after the first snowfall until April.

While I might make it sound like Korea’s winters are hard to adjust to, they can still be a lot of fun, with many seasonal activities and travel opportunities.

I tried contacting author and travel blogger Chris Backe for some recommendations, only to discover he was currently on a ferry bound for Oedo, an island of Geoje City south of Busan. “While perhaps best visited in the spring or summer, it’s open year round,” he explains. “Hotels are half off of their peak season rates, and in general there’s far fewer tourists out and about.”

Of course ski hills are a must-visit destination in Korea if you know how to ski or snowboard already. Coming from a city that’s only three hours from the Rocky Mountains, I have pretty high expectations about ski hills. I grew up skiing on Marmot Basin in Jasper, where it takes three chairlifts to get all the way to the top and takes 30 minutes to ski down to the bottom, as well as Sunshine Village where you can ski all day and never take the same run twice. Of course we also had smaller hills closer to home that more resemble Korea’s ski hills.

But I’ve learned not to write off Korea’s ski hills so quickly. This will be an especially good year to go skiing, considering all the natural snow we’ve been getting. If you want to avoid the crowds, try night skiing, which typically goes to 1 or 2 am, even as late as 5 am at some hills. I don’t recall that ever being offered at Canada’s ski hills.

The one thing I’ll say is that it’s not the safest place to learn how to ski or snowboard, just because of the high numbers of beginners. Painful collisions are commonplace on the crowded bunny hills when beginners lose control. Fortunately this has been getting better as more and more Koreans get better at it (I noticed a similar change in competency at skating, having laughed at the horrid skaters in Lotte World in 1996 but humbled and awed into silence after returning in 2003).

The bunny hill is usually crowded with beginners learning how to ski or snowboard or crash into you.

So if you’re up for it, the intermediate hills are much less hazardous. Advanced hills are even quieter, and the few skiers who brave it tend to know their stuff. It helps that the lifts are divided up by level themselves, with all runs from a beginner lift being for beginners, and all runs from an intermediate lift being intermediate level, and so on. So, the more advanced lifts have smaller lines and shorter waiting times.

Rentals are remarkably easy to get at a number of places close to or at the ski hill, and you can find numerous lodgings in the surrounding area.

Not the best time to go biking.

There are also many winter festivals in Korea that are getting more and more attention, especially the numerous successful ice fishing festivals. Most notable are the Pyeongchang Trout Festival (December 22 – February 3), Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival (January 5-27), Inje Icefish Festival (January 19-27), and Jaraseom Sing Sing Winter Festival (January 4-27).

The Taebaeksan Mountain Snow Festival (January 25 – February 3) offers many more activities such as sledding, snow sculptures, and a snowman festival.

Additionally, Seoul offers many other activities, such as skating at Seoul Plaza (December 14 – February 3), ice sledding at Children’s Grand Park (December 29 – February 11), and downhill sledding at World Cup Park Snow Sledding Hill (December 25 – February 24).

Of course, this is also a great time of year for visiting museums, going for coffee or hot food, or seeing a movie or a play.

“Spending all your time at home groaning about how cold it is on Facebook is a sure route to seasonal depression,” Dave Hazzan.

Winter can be fun, beautiful, or miserable. Your choice.

The Korea Meteorological Association forecasts additional snowfall along the western regions and expects the temperature will stay below the norm until February, when it will return to average levels. So it looks like we’re in for more extreme cold and snowfall for a little while longer. Hopefully if it mellows out in February we’ll have a better chance to enjoy the season.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats