By Lee Hyo-won
Here is a little peek into how Koreans survived the summer heat during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
Hanok (traditional homes) whether they were imperial palaces or shanty shacks, were built with hwangto (red mud) and covered with hanji (traditional Korean paper) wallpaper. Hwangto is a natural air conditioner that sucks up humidity and keeps the air relatively cool. That's why it is produced as a widely used moisturizing pack for women these days.
In addition, paper-covered lattice windows and doors provided relaxing, diffused light and ventilation. A large nobleman's house typically had terraces overlooking a garden and daecheong, a wide-open hall exposed between chambers. They provided the perfect napping place.
In the middle of the wood-paneled floor, there would be a pyeongsang (wooded lattice bedstead) with a wooden pillow, which doesn't get warm like cotton-stuffed ones. Completing the perfect nap on a lazy summer afternoon was a long woven bamboo cylinder called jukbuin or literally ''bamboo wife.'' Hugging the near human-sized jukbuin gives a cool sensation to the skin and its hollow body provided ventilation. They're still used today, and can be found in almost any department store during the summer season.
A thin bamboo matt would be rolled out, on the floor or on bedsteads. It leaves horizontal marks on your skin but its cooling effect makes it well worth the trouble.
The wooden pillow can give you a rather stiff neck if used overnight. Instead, Koreans traditionally use a pillow stuffed with buckwheat chaff. Unlike cotton or other stuffing, it keeps the head nice and cool. People also used a mosi (ramie fabric) blanket. Fabricated from mosi plants native to Korea and other parts of Asia, it doesn't stick to your skin and quickly diffuses humidity. Mosi blankets and pillow covers are still summer slumber musts today.
Cool & Chic
During the daytime, Koreans wore hanbok (traditional clothing) made of fine ramie. The production of ramie is an age-old process that hasn't changed much over time, according to ''Korean Cultural Heritage'' (Korea Foundation). Ramie plant fibers are mounted on looms and Korea's oldest extant ramie garment was made in 1326. Finely woven ramie is likened to cicada wings and garments take on various colors through natural dyes.
Another textile favored during the summer is hemp, which is much heavier, better fitting and cheaper than ramie. Andong, North Gyeongsang Province is the place to go to see how hemp weaving is done.
But you're bound to sweat in the heat, so there was something called a deungdeunggeori, a vest weaved from thin strips of wood. It was worn under the jacket to keep layers of clothing from sticking together. Another similar item are deungtosi (lattice bracelets).
In the summer, women would paint their nails with bongseonhwa (touch-me-not) blossoms. The flower petals are first mashed with cooked white rice and salt. The mixture would be placed on fingernails and then securely wrapped with a soft leaf. After a while the nails would be dyed a pretty reddish orange shade.
But this custom wasn't invented for the sake of fashion. The color red was believed to ward off bad spirits, and little boys also dyed their nails. Today, there are powdered versions available at cosmetic stores.
The summer attire cannot be complete without a beautiful buchae, or fan _ foldable fans made of wood that when spread out would expose exquisite calligraphy, paintings or prints on hanji (traditional paper) or silk. Men gave fanning a dramatic touch by exposing its full, semicircle form with a flick of the wrist.
Practically every other souvenir shop on the main strip on Insa-dong, northern Seoul, sells traditional Korean fans in all shapes and sizes. Online, you can visit www.koreasang.co.kr or www.gosop.co.kr. Various hand-painted silk foldable fans and ''hanji'' (traditional Korean paper) ones shaped like flowers, priced 1,500 won-40,000 won.
Tip: Why not make your own? Craft shop Hanwoori sells do-it-yourself kits online (www.hanjilove.co.kr) that cost 5,000-7,900 won. It also offers courses at its shop in Insa-dong. A one-hour session for making a traditional hanji fan costs about 10,000 won (material included). A guide should accompany non-Korean speakers, for no English interpretation is available. Call in advance to make an appointment (02) 720-0202.
Cold dishes like naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) and bingsu (shaved ice cream) are definitely ''shiwonhae'' ― nice and cool. But what often baffles non-Koreans is when Koreans gasp ''shiwonhae!'' after gulping down a bowl of steamy hot soup. This refers to how the hot stuff tastes ''refreshing'' rather than literally ''cool.''
This evokes a traditional Korean remedy called iyeolchiyeol, fighting the heat with heat. Because of the enervating heat and constant sweating, one often feels lethargic. It is tradition to reinvigorate the body with a hearty meal.
A representative summer treat is ''samgyetang.'' A chicken is stuffed with ginseng, rice, chestnut, jujube and other healthy ingredients and boiled. It's served with the chicken broth. In June, there are three days that come in 10-day intervals called sambok, which are the hottest days of the year. You are supposed to have chicken on these days.
Korea's rich tradition is deeply rooted in nature, and rituals vary by season. An agricultural society, Korea has long history of shamanistic ceremonies praying to the gods for good seasons. Daily customs and seasonal rituals for beating the summer heat were not only about individual comfort, but for the welfare of everyone and everything.
Another physical way to savor ''iyeolchiyeol'' is on the beach. Burying your body in the hot sand is believed to be therapeutic like a hot sauna.
To catch the fresh sea breeze, the upper class folk would enjoy a leisurely boat ride. During the day one would watch fishermen catch fish or observe schools of fish swim by. A nighttime ride was filled with fun firecrackers.
While theft was heavily punished during the Joseon Kingdom, there was one form of stealing that was deemed forgivable, harmless and even fun. Seori, stealing a watermelon or other fruit from a farmer's field, was a suspenseful treat for children. The worst could be some scolding by the farmer, but the delicious watermelon was probably worth every bead of sweat.
Dano day, which falls on May 5th each year, is a time to pray for peace in the family and fruitful farming. It's marked by a host of outdoor activities. Women washed their hair with changpo (water infused with sweet flag), which is not only great for lustrous hair but is also an act of cleansing the spirit. Today there are shampoos that contain changpo.
One Korean summer treat is going camping in the woods. Families make a comfortable spot near a stream, where they catch fish and make spicy fish stew and swim. The stream was also the perfect chiller for fresh fruits like watermelon. This is an age-old tradition called cheonryeop.
Tip: If you're in downtown Seoul, stroll around Cheonggye Stream, where the air is considerably cooler than ground level. While you can't wash your hair or catch edible fish here, you can take off your shoes and give your tired feet a break by dipping them in the water. Don't worry, the streams are clean, and there are schools of tiny fish to prove it.