Sokcho is a small fishing town on the east coast of Korea very close to the militarised border with those unfriendly northern neighbours. Sokcho stretches along the shore with several harbours cut into it, washing the town’s typically bland buildings with the smell of salt, sea and squid. It’s a smell to invigorate the nostrils and awake the tongue. Most of the shoreline is built over and unswimmable, but the East Sea is surprisingly clean. Small fishing boats plow its glass-blue surface.
But if Sokcho looks out to sea, it doesn’t forget the earth behind it. Seoraksan, one of Korean’s most impressive mountains, looms behind the town, the peaks like snow-covered watchmen, distant but sharp-eyed. Seoraksan’s national park is what puts Sokcho firmly on the tourist hiking map for Koreans and non-Koreans alike (see next entry for the mountain itself).
Despite being the obvious base for one of Korea’s most popular hiking spots, in a nation obsessed with hiking – when it’s not studying and drinking – Sokcho is not really a tourist town. The streets have plenty of cars, but few pedestrians, and on a Saturday morning the only noise came from a local politician campaigning loudly on the back of a moving truck. Dried squid hung everywhere, but there was hardly a customer in sight. Even on the bus to the mountain the people were mostly local – half the passengers seemed to know each other.
It was with its seafood though that Sokcho finally made me a life-long fan. By the northern harbour is a large fish market that specialises in raw fish, served fresh to a big crowd of visitors and locals. Arrayed in bright blue tanks staffed by plump, aggressively friendly ajumma (middle aged Korean women), the fish are laid out like living lunch boxes; assorted sea creatures are jumbled together in delicious combinations, waiting to be scooped out and dumped in a bucket at the customer’s discretion. The seafood – well, still sea creatures at this stage – is taken out the back, where another gang of knife wielding ajumma fillet and slice the bleeding, flipping fish into mounds of white flesh in a few mouth-watering minutes.
You can then take away, or take it upstairs, where a messy, raucous dining hall lets you enjoy the fish with beer and soju; the kitchen will even cook your crab into a spicy soup. We ate raw fish, a rubbery sort of shellfish, prawns that were still twitching, a whole crab, plus the essential rice, lettuce, dipping sauces and alcohol, for about $50, including the cost of the actual fish, the slicing, and extras in the dining hall. Better value and better taste than I had in Busan.
Travellers can reach Sokcho from DongSeoul bus terminal (East Seoul terminal) opposite Gangbyeon Station (line 2). Buses take just over 2 hours to get there and cost around W17000 one way.