I found several kumdo schools (kendo in Japanese), countless taekwondo, hapkido and kuk sool academies, and a boxing gym within 100 yards of the apartment I occupied in Pusan, Korea. On the same block as my building, there stood a school that taught the rare art of tae kyon, and if I expanded the search radius to 300 yards, I could find facilities for wrestling, muay Thai and ssirum.
But most of the world doesn’t know that. How come? Because from 1910 to 1945, Korea was a colony of Japan. Its culture, language and martial arts were suppressed. In their place, Koreans were forced to act Japanese, speak Japanese and learn Japanese martial arts like karate, kendo and judo. But after World War II and especially since the end of the Korean War, all that began to change.
Koreans approach the martial arts with gusto. They’re expected to train five days a week, usually in the evening after work or school. Adults from abroad may have trouble keeping up with Korean martial artists, especially those who started training when they were kids — which pretty much includes everybody.
Youngsters attend class one hour a day, five days a week. Typically, they take a belt test every month, which nets them a black belt in a year or two. Most of them don’t do martial arts again until they serve in the military, but those that elect to persevere get good. Fast.
Because so many kids train, martial arts schools are big business. That’s great for the school owners but not so good if you’re searching for serious training on your own dime.
My first martial experience in country was at a kuk sool gym. Like most instructors, mine didn’t speak much English. At our first meeting, I strained to understand him, but I soon realized he was reciting a string of numbers, explaining the payment options. Yes, in Korea, the martial arts are a business.
I ended up paying $130 to sign up and purchase a uniform. Monthly tuition was $90, and belt tests were free. To register for a tournament cost $30. While checking a number of hapkido and taekwondo schools, I found that the rates were average. By Asian standards, that put Korea on the expensive side, but it’s offset by the opportunity to earn a good living as an English teacher. More on that later.
Korean dojang tend to focus on a single art. One time, I approached my kumdo teacher and broached the idea of lifting weights to build the muscles I needed to wield my sword and running to boost my cardio for those long sparring sessions. He looked at me like I was nuts. “Why would a kumdo competitor need to run and lift weights?” he asked. “This is kumdo.”
To stay in shape, I bought a gym membership for $80 a month. Gyms in Korea are unbelievably clean. They even provide you with workout clothes — when you’re finished, you toss them into a hamper and leave. Many facilities include a sauna and a public bath with hot and cold tubs.
At the dojang where I trained, students always arrived on time but would often start training late. That meant warm-ups were frequently rushed, forcing me to stretch on my own. On some days, we ran through intensive kicking drills that were every bit as hard as what I’d done in other countries. But on other days, we did rolls and tumbles, which kept the intensity at a level mere mortals can handle easily.
Training in Korea can be an incredible experience. It gives you a chance to learn the language and helps you get to know the people and their culture. As I mentioned earlier, it’s also a relatively easy place to find a job. All you need is a bachelor’s degree and a Korean school to sponsor your visa. If you contract to work 25 hours a week, you can score a free apartment and $2,000 a month for spending money. Bonus: Your employer might even cover your round-trip airfare.
In the past, you had to make the arrangements to teach in person, but with the ubiquity of the Internet, now you can visit a website such as Dave’s ESL Cafe and find a job in a few hours. You can apply by email and be interviewed over the phone. If all your documents are in order, you could find yourself training in Korea a week later.
NATION: South Korea
POPULATION: 48.6 million
SIGHTSEEING: Olympic Village, Cheju Island, Kyungju City
NEIGHBORS: North Korea, China, Japan
About the author: Antonio Graceffo is a freelance writer currently based in Asia. His book Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist Through Asia is Antonio Graceffo’s record of where culture, communication and martial arts meet during his decadelong travels through nine countries, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.