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Can't go to the Olympics? Toronto's Koreatown offers authentic experience

The Winter Olympics get under way later this week in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It's a long, expensive trip to see the games in person, so most Canadians will be watching from afar.
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The Winter Olympics get under way later this week in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

It's a long, expensive trip to see the games in person, so most Canadians will be watching from afar.

But there are plenty of ways to experience Korean culture at home, including in Toronto's Koreatown.

Located in the city's west end, the community offers one of the most authentic comparisons to life in South Korea with its many restaurants, karaoke bars, taekwondo studios, hair and beauty salons and grocery stores.

"It's rich in history. It's a story, it's a real story of the immigrant experience," said Koreatown business improvement area chairman Jason Lee. 

"It's a nice fabric of a mixture from people from all over. We're proud that we can showcase Korean culture, but at the same time live with everyone and have other businesses and come together."

If you're in Toronto and are looking to immerse yourself in Korean culture during the Feb. 9-25 Olympic Games, here are some unique areas to check out:

 

FOOD CULTURE

There is no shortage of Korean restaurants along the stretch of Bloor Street that makes up Koreatown.

Booths are set up in classic Korean style at Mama's Chef with chopsticks and a spoon already on your table. There is a buzzer on the wall beside each table that can be used at any time to get the server's attention. MaMa Chef Korean Restaurant offers traditional dishes of black bean noodles (jajangmyun) and sweet and sour pork (tangsooyuk), which are both popular in South Korea.

There are also barbeque options at several spots, including Korean Village Restaurant, which Lee's parents started in February 1978. Strips of sirloin beef along with beef short ribs, which have been marinated for 35 hours, can be placed on a grill in the middle of the table and cooked before consuming.

"The way that we're introducing authentic Korean food, that means a lot," said Lee. "We're showcasing Korean culture, we're showcasing our food and it's pride. It says a lot about my parents and one of the cool aspects of living in Toronto when you can really immerse yourself in different cultures."

Markets selling fruits outside are also prevelant while the PAT Central grocery store carries a large variety of Asian food.

 

HAIR AND BEAUTY

Tucked alongside the restaurants and markets are several hair and nail salons.

Korean style lashes and hairstyles are popular among Koreans and Chinese alike. And although a lot of Koreans have flocked north of the city to the Yonge and Finch area, many still prefer the services that Koreatown has to offer.

"One-third of the population still prefers here because from downtown, to travel to Yonge and Finch, it's too far," Jina Han of Sis Hair & Beauty said through a translator.

Sung Lee of the clothing boutique Vivace has lived in Toronto for almost 30 years. Both her and Han said that Koreatown is similar to a little Korea.

"Everything is ordinary. Nothing too special when it comes to Koreatown, just another form of business," Lee said through a translator.

 

ACTIVITIES AND LEISURE

If food and beauty aren't your thing, there is still plenty to do.

A Taekwondo studio offers programs to learn the sport and a former adult entertainment theatre has been converted to a rock climbing gym.

Gigabites Internet is an internet cafe — a trend that's still popular in South Korea — and has been in the area for more than 10 years.

"It's just a unique culture that we have with a computer at your own place," said employee Jonah Yoo. 

The Korean Senior Citizens Society helps provide services to the elderly in the community.

There are non-Korean businesses that stand out too, including Clinton's bar, the Poop Cafe and Snakes and Lattes.

 

If you go...

Koreatown is accessible from both the Bathurst and Christie subway stations.

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Follow @RyanBMcKenna on Twitter

Ryan McKenna, The Canadian Press




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