- Travel Home
- Travel News
The Korean fighter's guide to tae kwon do and other martial arts
Shape up, meditate and protect your honor with a Korean-style wallop
When it comes to tae kwon do and other traditional martial arts, thousands of people tend to fly around the world for the best training and competitions.
Some 20,000 visitors will be attending the American Taekwondo Association's 22nd annual World Championship conference in Arizona next week, while 2,000 athletes from 30 countries will be flying in to Korea for the World Taekwondo Culture Expo in the North Jeolla province in July.
The most spectacular tournaments will surely be at the London Olympics this August, for which Koreans have set the bar unnecessarily high for themselves by comparing failing to win gold medals in the sport as tantamount to treason.
For the best way to learn about the culture of honorable fighting, it's best to head to the motherland. Here's where to train and defend yourself like a true Korean martial arts guru.
Tae kwon do's just the beginning.
1. Tae kwon do (태권도)
The most distinguishing feature of tae kwon do is its emphasis on legwork, with swift, powerful kicks being heavily favored over punches or grabs.
It also embodies the ancient Korean warrior ethos in its foundational philosophy: nonviolence, honor, respect, modesty and the discipline of body and soul.
Tae kwon do is, unsurprisingly, Korea's national sport, as well as one of two Asian martial arts to become an official Olympic sport. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism estimated in 2009 that tae kwon do was practiced by 70 million people in 190 countries.
In addition to the obvious perk of shaping up, for anyone relatively new to Korea, tae kwon do can be a golden opportunity to organically get to know the language, (tae kwon do entails lots of vigorous shouting in Korean) as well make Korean friends.
Mooto Taekwondo Academy runs classes for all ages, teaching a well-rounded blend of traditional tae kwon do and the more hands-on competitive sport tae kwon do. The curriculum covers fundamental theory and its practical application, including breaking (bricks, wood or cinder blocks), sparring, pumsae (patterns and forms) and practical self-defense.
"Tae kwon do isn't just physical exercise," says Mooto instructor Young Ki Kwon. "There's a positive psychological element to it that peps up not only children but also adults worn out from a taxing work week."
With two spacious training studios, shower facilities and the best in gear, Mooto welcomes students of all levels and nationalities. Still undecided? Mooto Taekwondo Academy offers prospective trainees free trial lessons to get a feel for the sport.
3/F Beomsan Building, 97-3 Banpo-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 서초구 반포동 97-3번지 범산빌딩 3층); +82 1544 9196; adult classes are held weekdays at 10:30 a.m., 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. for an hour. Prices and curricula are customized to accommodate individual schedules and needs and are available on direct inquiry.
2. Kumdo (검도)
Kumdo is a modern Korean martial art descended from ancient Korean sword study often compared to Japanese kendo (both terms, however, are mutual cognates meaning, "the way of the sword" ) and teaches swordsmanship in both mind and body. However, despite some visible similarities, kumdo and kendo differ in many stylistic, technical and ritualistic aspects and have now become independent practices.
Master Jae-seung Jung of Myungmoodae Kumdo compares kendo and kumdo to water and fire, respectively, the Korean adaption being appreciably more dynamic and active in its offensive strategy than its Japanese cousin.
"Kendo has a distinctly sedate quality to it -- you wait until you find the right moment to attack," says Jung. "Kumdo, in comparison, is much more spirited and dynamic. If there isn't an opportunity, you create one."
Trainees begin practicing with jukdo (bamboo practice sword) and later practice various advanced forms with a mokgum (wooden sword) to gain a comprehensive understanding of both Kumdo theory and tradition. Rookies start at the five geup rank and work their way "up" (numerically down), and upon mastering the five junior ranks (geups), are encouraged to earn senior ranks (dans).
"My training philosophy is harmony and self-realization," says Master Jung. "Kumdo is not just about dominating your opponent. It's about self-discovery through physical and mental discipline."
4/F Young-soo Building, Sangdo-dong 476-bunji, Dongjak-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 동작구 상도동 476번지 영수빌딩 4층); +82 2 813 6878; 60-minute classes are held every weekday starting with the 6 a.m. session and ending with the 9 p.m. session. The monthly fee is ₩100,000. Equipment (dobok and jukdo) cost an additional one-time fee of ₩70,000.
More on CNNGo: How to be a Seoul local: 10 tips on faking it
3. Choi Kwang Do (최광도)
Choi kwang do is a relatively young martial art founded in 1987, with roots in tae kwon do but with a few noteworthy twists. Its founder Kwang Jo Choi, after receiving debilitating injuries from his career in tae kwon do, created a new martial art that emphasized meditation and discipline of the self over competition. Influenced in part by yoga and kinesiology, choi kwang do seeks to prevent joint damage or other potential injuries that are common in many striking martial arts.
Despite its current reputation in Korea as a harmless "well-being martial art," choi kwang do is nevertheless a full-contact sport that requires the extensive use of one's limbs. The key difference is that the motions are more fluid and optimized than in tae kwon do, alleviating the kinetic shock from a strike while maximizing the force of delivery.
Kwang is scheduled to conduct a seminar on choi kwang do on June 23 at KAIST in Daejeon.
And as he said at last year’s seminar, "The theory of choi kwang do is naturalism based on the structure and physiology of the human body. As opposed to mysticism, it makes use of modern science."
Lee Yong-seok, master and instructor at Choi Kwang Do Hangang Dojang, added: "Choi kwang do is both a self-defense martial art and a modernized meditation program for all ages and genders," says"And you don't have to worry about putting strain on your joints."
3F Hangang Hyundai Apartments Sang-ga, Heukseok-dong, Dongjak-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 동작구 흑석동 28번지 한강현대아파트상가 3층); +82 2 815 6102; Fees are ₩100,000 per month for hour-long classes three times a week. Adult classes begin at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
More on CNNGo: The fighter's guide to Shanghai martial arts
4. Hapkido (합기도)
Hapkido is arguably Korea's most diverse and eclectic self-defense martial art, centered on the core principle of strategically harnessing kinetic energy ("hapikido" can be translated as "the way of coordinated energy") in its practice. Its techniques eschew the brute resistance of force, instead opting to use the opponent's momentum to one's own advantage.
Hapkido's techniques are varied and include direct strikes with the hands, feet or elbows, joint locks, throws, and in some schools, the use of traditional weapons.
Although hapkido is a physically rigorous and complex discipline, more than physical prowess it promotes an acute knowledge of the mechanics of fighting. Like many other traditional martial arts, it concentrates heavily on the discipline of the mind and soul.
"Hapkido's techniques can be limitless," says Kyung Mu Kwan master Nam-je Kim, "and that's why it comes so close to perfection in self-defense and counter-attacks."
Kyung Mu Kwan offers a thorough curriculum that will have students familiarizing themselves with the combative uses of all limbs and joints.
Room #201, Tongin-dong 6-bunji, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 통인동 6번지 201호 합기도 경무관); +82 2 737 0939; the monthly fee is ₩110,000 and hour-long classes are held every weekday. Kim recommends English speakers attend the 8 p.m.-9:30 p.m. sessions.
5. Free-Fighting: Krav Maga, Kali, Savate
Alongside traditional Korean styles, foreign martial arts are also carving out a spot for themselves in Seoul.
Master Seung Chul Kim of MFC Free Fighting Multi Gym in Seoul emphasizes that Krav Maga is more of a self-defense system than a martial art, and there's a good reason why: it places little to no importance on any kind of tradition or meditative philosophy.
Founded by Imi Lichtenfeld in the 1930s, Krav Maga is a practical, real-world combat regimen from and made for the streets.
Its only credos is quick and efficient neutralization of the opponent, so there are no concrete rules -- anything goes, as long as it extinguishes the threat swiftly and effectively. Kicks to the groin (illegal and understandably very much frowned upon in competitive martial arts) are acceptable and sometimes advised in Krav Maga because on the streets, surviving is winning. Trainees learn to defend themselves against a condensed spectrum of potentially life-threatening situations, including those that involve weapons.
Multi Gym is one of the few places that teach Krav Maga in Korea, and Kim teaches his preferred variation of the art, incorporating some elements of Kali, a Filipino sword fighting art, as well as techniques borrowed from French kickboxing, Savate.
"Because of its absolute prioritization of efficiency over anything else, it can be grasped in a relatively short period of time," he says. "Most people only need about six months to become proficient."
Kim, who has extensive hands-on experience from a career in high-profile personal security, says that he aims to create an impenetrable self-defense strategy that combines the unembellished efficiency of Krav Maga with valuable theory study through Kali and Savate.
"Krav Maga trains you extremely well for specific situations," says Kim, "but once you're hit with something outside that limited range of training, you can't react to the variables. Theory study in other disciplines prevents that."
5/F Hye-woo Building, Daehyeon-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 서대문구 대현동 101-7번지 혜우빌딩 5층); +82 2 393 3524; Lessons are ₩43,000 per hour-long session and less intensive group lessons are available in several packages. Facilities include a fitness center, lockers and showers. A class schedule is available online at multigym.co.kr and prospective trainees are encouraged to visit to arrange a customized schedule.
6. Brazilian Jiujitsu
Unlike Krav Maga, which stresses the importance of staying off the ground because it leaves you vulnerable, Brazilian jiujitsu trains you exactly for that.
Although some may have reservations about the usefulness of a ground fighting sport when set against seemingly more menacing striking martial arts, fairly recent history disproves this: early in the 1990s, BJJ expert Royce Gracie successfully defeated opponents from various martial arts backgrounds who were much larger than he was, winning the first, second and fourth Ultimate Fighting Championships. Brazilian jiujitsu may not be incredibly flashy, but it does the job.
Gracie's example is demonstrative of Brazilian jiujitsu's primary strength: with a keen knowledge and mastery of grappling techniques, practitioners of this martial art can subdue opponents who have a significant height or weight advantage.
John Frankl is the pioneering authority on Brazilian Jiujitsu in Seoul and is largely responsible for introducing and promoting the sport in Korea, having opened more than 10 BJJ schools over the country.
"BJJ is based on precise technique, leverage and timing," says Frankl. "Once these have been thoroughly mastered, things such as size, speed and strength become of secondary importance"
Instructor Chang Kuk Jung of John Frankl Jiujitsu Sinchon explains that as a non-striking martial art, Jiujitsu by nature also allows you to spar and hone your craft with greater ease.
"We spar here every day," says Chang. "That's something you can't do as freely in striking martial arts because there is always a significant risk of sudden, unforeseeable injury. In jiujitsu you can just tap out to avoid getting hurt."
JFBJJ Sinchon, 107-88 Nogosan-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 마포구 노고산동 107-88); +82 2 706 5232; training sessions at 10:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. ₩13,000 a month for daily classes, with less frequent packages also available; www.johnfranklbjj.com
More on CNNGo: Seoul: 24 hours, 24 adventures