Jeonju is a quiet city brimming with history, culture and world-renowned food.
Located in the heart of the North Jeolla Province, Jeonju is a popular destination for people looking to experience traditional Korea outside of Seoul. Thanks to its foodie status and traditional hanok village, Jeonju is a beloved weekend getaway for many domestic sight seekers.
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Most expats come with the idea of living in large cities like Seoul or Busan. With a population of around 600,000, Jeonju may not provide the same brightly lit excitement as Korea's larger cities but it has many treasures for the patient traveller to discover. Living here will give you an opportunity to experience a city steeped in Korean tradition and culture.
Jeonju is most well-known for its world-famous bibimbap - a rice dish with fresh vegetables, egg and fermented chilli paste - and the labyrinth of traditional hanok houses the centre of the city. These things are well worth experiencing but they are just a small slice of the rich experiences that life in Jeonju has to offer. There is often a stark difference in how a city appears to tourists and the reality of living there.
Read on to find out what life in Jeonju is like.
Welcome to Jeonju!
Jeonju is the capital of the North Jeolla Province in south-western Korea. The city is divided into two districts: Deokjin-gu and Wansan-gu. Each district is further divided into tiny neighbourhoods. A winding river leads through Jeonju and out to the towering mount Moaksan. Views of the mountain remind you from within the city just how close the countryside is.
One of the greatest aspects of Jeonju is how easy it is to get out of the city and into nature.
Getting around Jeonju is easy enough. You will want to get yourself a T-Money card once you arrive in Korea. This card can be topped up at convenience stores and used for the subways and trains. If it's raining or you're feeling lazy, download the Kakao Taxi app and order a taxi right to your door. This one of many handy apps that will make your life in Korea way easier.
There is no preferred place for expats to live in Jeonju
Most of us are living in apartments chosen by our school or academy and are therefore dotted around the city.
There are two large universities on opposite sides of the city - Jeonju University and Chonbuk National University. Each university acts like a magnet for international students and expats. These spots are a bit more diverse and interesting than other parts of the city, especially the area surrounding Chonbuk. You can go there to meet other foreigners or enjoy a range of restaurants and cafes. Any nightlife Jeonju has to offer can be found in these areas too.
Although South Korea itself is known for the developed city of Seoul, a mass of towering steel and bustling people, I quickly came to prefer the often sleepy vibes of Jeonju. The city's best asset might be the fact that it is within driving distance of some really amazing places.
The surrounding areas of Wanju, Iksan and Jinan offer a chance to explore some beautiful Korean countryside. The North Jeolla Province is full of farms and hiking areas.
Make sure you stick around during the festival season to experience the best produce, traditional performances and artisan goods. Festivals such as the Gimje Horizon Festival and Wanju Wild Food Festival take place around the end of September and are multi-day showcases of the best this province has to offer. If you're like me and don't plan on buying a car, all these places are accessible by bus.
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Expat Life in Jeonju
As with most parts of Korea, life in Jeonju is very convenient.
Most of the expats you meet here will be teaching English. The life of an English teacher in Korea can be demanding but it also has lots of benefits. The biggest ones are free accommodation and flights to Korea. Having your flight paid for and a free apartment attracts a lot of teachers to Korea. These things plus a pretty high salary make teaching in Korea a popular job. Jeonju itself has many academies and schools where you may find yourself teaching.
If you are curious about teaching English in Korea, check out this FAQ. Most English teachers will have fewer work hours than they are used to back home.
This means you will have lots of time to explore Jeonju and the surrounding provinces. To avoid potential boredom or loneliness, I recommend taking up some hobbies.
Hiking is a very popular past time in Korea
The nearest mountain to Jeonju is Moaksan but there are many other hiking trails in the area.
Hiking here is a little less relaxing than I am used to in New Zealand. The hikes can sometimes seem like a race against the ahjusshis and ahjummas (Korean middle-aged men and women) to the top. Make sure you take kimbap (rice and vegetables rolled in seaweed) for lunch at the peak. Friendly hikers are sure to invite you to share a cup of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) with them as you take in the view.
There are a few different language groups you can join in Jeonju
The best way to join any group and stay connected with other expats is to join the Facebook group Jeonju Knowledge. The group is a hub for upcoming events and opportunities for foreigners. Although my own study of Korean has been limited, I will say that it is a great way to understand the culture better and interact with the locals.
Speaking Korean is not necessary to live here but knowing the basics is seen as a sign of respect and will make your life easier.
The language classes are also a great way to meet both locals and other foreigners.
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If food can be a hobby, the place to cultivate it is Jeonju
Living here will give you a chance to find out why Jeonju was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2012. The city's foodie status is earned by many factors - being the birthplace of the famous rice dish bibimbap, utilising fresh ingredients from surrounding farmlands, a noteworthy street food scene and a dedication to traditional food culture.
Experience the best food that Jeonju has to offer at the Nambu Night Market on Fridays and Saturdays or buy from the many street vendors along the streets of the hanok village. There are some food tours visitors can take part in but as a permanent resident, it is impossible to escape the culinary delights of Jeonju.
Embrace the relaxation of a jimjilbang
If you're feeling stressed from work or needing a sauna after a gruelling hike, there are many jimjilbangs in Jeonju to try.
A jimjilbang is a Korean spa where you can steam and soak for the day. In fact, many Korean hobbies end with a 'bang' (pronounced 'bahng'). The word 'bang' in Korean means room. There are many kinds of rooms you can visit.
For example, noraebang translates to a singing room - a place where you can hire a karaoke room with friends. You can also visit a PC-bang (gaming room) and play computer games for hours on end. And of course, jimjilbang translates to spa rooms. Many jimjilbangs offer overnight stays but even a few hours will leave you de-stressed and steaming.
Advice for living in Jeonju
Expats expecting Jeonju to be like Seoul will be disappointed but come with an open mind and you will love it.
The city itself offers so much to explore and has a more restful vibe than some of Korea's larger cities. This is not a crazy busy city, but it does have so many treasures to offer if you take the time to explore. Another great thing is that the big cities like Seoul and Busan are just a three-ish hour bus ride away. Take a weekend trip up to Seoul and get your fill of the nightlife or spend the weekend sunning at Haeundae Beach, Busan. You can have the best of both worlds.
Some expats struggle with the fact that they can't buy the same food or ingredients that they would at home. Jeonju has large supermarkets like Lotte Mart and Homeplus where you can find heaps of products. If you still can't find what you are looking for, you can take the bus up to Daejon and visit the Costco there. Expats may visit occasionally to stock up their fridges and freezers with international goods.
This is only necessary if you really miss certain things from home.
I have found that the supermarkets and produce stores in Jeonju are more than enough to cook most meals. The abundance of local produce and traditional Korean ingredients might even tempt you to start cooking Korean. I learnt all I know about cooking Korean food from this website. Once you get the basics in your pantry it will be much easier to venture into the world of Korean stews and spicy side dishes.
Cooking Korean food is a lot of fun and a great way to get in touch with the culture.
As with moving anywhere, be prepared to feel a bit homesick and exhausted in your first few months.
Working in Korea means becoming an active participant in Korea's 'pali-pali' culture. Pali-pali translates to something like hurry-hurry but it has become a term to describe the hasty and often stressful work environment. As you get used to this lifestyle it's important to remember the importance of adaption and also solidarity.
Meeting other expats for a coffee or glass of wine to vent and chat about home is a great way to keep your sanity. Don't be discouraged - you will get used to the work-life here. Stay flexible and keep exploring!
Now you know what life in Jeonju is really like. Do you need more reasons to teach English in Korea? Interested in getting a job here? Check out my experiences in Korea and some tips for living abroad.