Well, actually, we might as well say, “Winter, here it is!” Brrrrr, it’s cold. Had a warm spell going on there for a while but temperatures started to drop and sharp winds started to blow, not to mention reports of snowfall, so I guess winter is officially here.
Winter in Korea quite simply used to mean just that: cold and snow, from approximately November to February. However, for the past several years, the seasons have been going through identity crises and the weather has also been going wonky in sympathy, so Korea has been getting oddly warm short-sleeves-are-okay days in December and jam-the-traffic snowstorms as late as March, so you really can’t accurately define what a Korean winter is like anymore.
However, basics never change. The Korean approach to winter is basically the same as well. Here are some characteristics about Korea’s winter that you will encounter.
Winter in Korea means toasty warm floors. Koreans remove their shoes before entering the home, mostly a custom that came from the traditional hanok (한옥) architecture, where the house was built on a foundation elevated from the ground. The furnaces built into the house not only provided heat for cooking and warming water, the furnace’s heat would travel through passageways under the house and heat flat stones placed under the floors. The smoke would then escape to a chimney.
This system is called ondol (온돌), which literally translates into “warm stone”. The system is still used today, albeit modernized, where the hot water running through water pipes is used to heat up the floors. The water pipes are specifically designed to cover all living space and since you’re using hot water in the winter anyway, it’s an efficient system that utilizes all possible energy.
Once you get to having warm floors, it’s really difficult to have it otherwise. That is also another reason why many Korean hotels will offer you “western” rooms (i.e. with beds) or Korean rooms. Ondol made it possible for Koreans to traditionally sleep on the floor with a mat, as the heat would rise up and get trapped under the quilt. Many elderly Koreans still sleep on the floor and not on beds because of this reason.
One downside of the ondol: the hot floor dries up the air so you’d probably need a humidifier, as Korea’s winters (except for the snow) tend to be already dry. If you don’t like using humidifiers, hanging your laundry indoors is a great option – let the dryer rest and save electricity, too.
Ondol relies on heating up water, so if you’re the type who doesn’t need to have hot running water constantly or doesn’t need the whole house to be heated or just isn’t affected by the cold except when going to bed and is worried by the gas bill (most water boilers/heaters are run by gas), then investing in a heater or mat might be a good idea. Some workplaces with skimpy central heating will have them available for those unlucky chilly spots. The mats come in various sizes and the most popular fit under the sheets of your bed. All mats have safety timers with various settings that would serve your purpose. Always check for the safety approval mark before purchasing.
Ondol is fine, ondol is great. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to crank up the heat like all mad and waste a ton of energy, right? Used in moderation, you’re still going to need some extra padding at home. That’s where the fluffy winter fabrics come in, the fluffier, the better. Especially pyjamas and socks. You’ll see them all over the place: traditional markets, department stores, neighborhood shops, online shopping malls. I personally like to wear the knee-high socks to bed, it prevents me from waking up with cold feet and they don’t slide off like the short ones.
Okay, so now we’re going to venture outdoors. Due to efforts in saving energy, the government has regulations for large buildings to retain a certain temperature range, so wherever you may be not be as warm to your liking.
Although, public transportation can get quite hot due to the large number of people who hike up the temperature with group heat.) Anyhow, that’s where thermal underwear comes in hand. The ultra-thin, the quilted and padded, the heat-tech variety, take your pick. And trust me, unless you drive yourself everywhere ALL THE TIME, you would be mighty thankful for that thermal underwear when the mercury drops into the deep negatives.
The traditional thermal underwear is red, with “red innerwear” (빨강내복) actually used as a proper noun. Back way then, when only dyes of primary colors were readily available, red was the choice for thermal underwear as it was considered a color of luck, a color of protection and a color to ward off evil spirits. Although modern technology has brought upon many different colors of thermal underwear, the red version still remains the staple color.
For those with icy fingers who need some extra warmth, there are many pocket heaters available, too. Besides the standard oil fueled flask types (which tend to be messy and cumbersome), there are the reusable cheap packets which get hot after shaking them for a few times, and the even cheaper (and cuter) gel packets which heat up after clicking the disc inside. They come in various designs and are reusable as well. I always suspect that the girls in the micro-mini skirts and boots have several hidden away somewhere on them, otherwise, how could they wear that in the dead of winter?
Winter isn’t always about beating the chill. Sometimes it’s there to enjoy. Like the bounty of street food. Steamed buns (찐빵, 호빵), roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts, egg bread (계란빵), hot fish cakes (어묵), standard tteokbokki (떡볶이) and sundae (순대) are always there to tickle your tastebuds.
Then there’s the snow. You’ve got to enjoy the snow. Okay, yes, it causes manic traffic jams in the city but otherwise, it’s pretty. You need to take time to appreciate the pretty: taking a stroll in snow covered parks and palace gardens, ignoring the traffic jam while watching the flurries against your car window, building snowmen with the neighborhood kids in the alley.
There are many festivals that take place in the winter all around the country that would take up more than your time and also a myriad of winter sports to enjoy as well: skiing, snowboarding, ice fishing, winter hiking, the list goes on and on. Even in the city, amongst the beautiful holiday lights, there are skating rinks put up for everyone:
All in all, like any other season in Korea, winter is a great season to have fun. Just be sure to bundle up. And if you’re prone to the flu, get your flu shots in advance. Have a happy winter!