2015 Travel Diary day 7: A King, two generals and a gisaeng

by Philip Gowman on 4 June, 2015

in Gaya, Gyeongsangnam-do, Joseon Dynasty, Kim Swoo-geun, Silla Dynasty, Travel diaries

Sancheong-gun, Thursday 4 June

The view from the Jirisan Dullegil

The view from the Jirisan Dullegil

Having over-indulged the previous evening, I didn’t sleep well. Although I had set the alarm to wake me up for my early morning hike, I didn’t really need it. I get up at 6am, and Kyung-sook emerges from the other room soon afterwards. We are shortly on our way along the Jirisan Dullegil, headed in the direction of King Guhyeong’s tomb, imagining we could be there and back by about 8:30. Somehow it was a lot further than we thought, but it didn’t really matter as we had no pressing appointment. The walk back would start getting unpleasantly warm, but we weren’t in any hurry.

The road to King Guhyeong's tomb and Yoo Ui-tae's pharmacy

The road to King Guhyeong’s tomb and Yoo Ui-tae’s pharmacy on the Jirisan Dullegil

The Jirisan Dullegil: a Gaya King and a Silla General

The views across the valleys were inspirational, the birds were beginning to sing and it looked like we were in for a pleasant day. Along the trail we came across signposts which gave us appealing options for other hiking routes should we have the time. Half an hour or so beyond King Guhyeong’s tomb promised to be a place where Yoo Ui-tae used to mix his herbal potions – something that I had not been expecting. And shortly before arriving at the tomb there was a notice board with a sketch map showing the location of a memorial stone (사대비) related to General Kim Yu-sin.

King Guhyeong's tomb

King Guhyeong’s tomb

General Kim Yu-sin. According to local legend in Gangneung, at the end of his life he went through an apotheosis and was transformed into the Mountain God of Daegwallyeong Pass, forever protecting Gangneung from whatever hostile forces might threaten. We had paid tribute to him at the first ceremony high up on the pass above Gangneung a couple of days before. Kyung-sook consulted Naver to find out what the connection was.

General Kim Yu-sin (595 – 673) was the great grandson of King Guhyeong, the last king of Gaya (r. 521-532). In the days of his youth he used to pay honour at the grave of his distinguished ancestor, and while he was there practiced his archery – as befits any future general. The memorial stone marked the spot where he used to do his archery practice.

This was too much of a coincidence not to follow up on. So after paying honour ourselves at Guhyeong’s tomb, we started looking for the memorial stone. The sketch map had not been too helpful, but it had noted a small temple in the vicinity. By comparing what I remembered of the sketch map with what I could see on Google maps, I strode confidently down the hill. Kyung-sook was less interested, and before long was on the phone to various people. A few minutes later I found what I was looking for, just by the roadside.

You could easily miss it. Korea’s landscape seems dotted with little memorial stones, sometimes protected by extravagant wooden structures with curved tile roofs, and you tend to filter them out from the view before your eyes. So, although what I had found was not particularly noteworthy in terms of visual interest, it was nice to have found an unexpected link between Sancheong and Gangneung.

Meanwhile, Kyung-sook’s phone conversations had produced ideal results. She had managed to arrange breakfast and for someone to come and pick us up, saving us a 90 minute hike through the increasing warmth of the day back to our lodgings. While we waited for our obliging breakfast companion – who in fact was one of the ladies we had dined with the previous evening – we strolled round the picturesque little temple (왕림사) which lay just off the road.

We drive back to Sancheong town, pick up some pastries at a local bakery and head off to our host’s shop in a small square of health-food outlets specialising in herb-related products. Our host’s particular speciality is foods and health supplements based on fermented products. As an interesting sideline she has an exquisite collection of ceramics on show in elegant display shelves: Korean and other Asian tea ware (including some, I noticed, by Min Young-ki and his son), and also European porcelain.

Mr Yoon joins us for breakfast, and then drives us back to our lodgings to regroup before lunch. So soon after the morning pastry, initially I am not hungry. But soon the arrival of Admiral Yi Sun-sin 1592 Makgeolli, some deep-fried piri (looking something like whitebait) and some amazing spicy fish noodle soup (어탕국수) revive my appetite.

Mr Yoon has been granted a day away from the county office to look after the county’s goodwill ambassador, and the agenda for the afternoon is a trip to nearby Jinju to visit the castle.

Jinju: a famous Korean general and an even more famous gisaeng

Jinju as a city dates at least as far back as the Gaya era, and among other things is known for the quality of its silk and its local variant of bibimbap called “flower rice with seven treasures” (칠보 화반) which traditionally is served in a brass bowl and includes raw beef flavoured with sesame oil. Among the local attractions are the Gyeongsangnam-do arboretum and the local lake, Jinyangho (진양호), known for its morning mists, its sunset views towards Jirisan and the nearby Traditional Arts Centre (전통예술회관) which is charged with the preservation of local intangible heritage such as the Jinju Geommu (sword dance), Pogurakmu (ball-throwing dance) and gayageum sanjo in the style of Sin Gwang-yong.

The Gongbukmun - the main entrance to Jinju fortress

The Gongbukmun – the main entrance to Jinju fortress

But Jinju’s number one attraction (which somehow became Korea’s #1 must-visit tourist attraction of 2013 – presumably as some form of regional tourism initiative) is its fortress, which is designated as Historic Site #118. Within the 1.76 km circumference of its walls the fortress contains the Chokseongnu Pavilion – said to be one of the three most famous pavilions in Korea – the Jinju National Museum, designed by the famous architect Kim Swoo-geun and of course several other monuments and buildings.

The statue of General Kim Si-min inside Jinju Fortress

The statue of General Kim Si-min inside Jinju Fortress

When the Japanese invaded Korea in 1592, Jinju blocked the route to the plains of South Jeolla province. Jinju Fortress was under the command of General Kim Si-min, who had won some early victories against the Japanese at Sacheon and Goseong, but the 1592 siege of Jinju was to be his greatest test. With 3,800 men under his command he faced an army of 20,000 Japanese. The fortifications withstood the seige, and the Japanese were put to flight by a relief force from Jeolla province. Kim Si-min received a fatal bullet wound during the battle, but his resilience has earned him a place alongside Admiral Yi Sun-shin as one of the heroes of the Japanese invasions. He was posthumously awarded the title Lord Sangrak Puwongun and given the post of Prime Minister as well as the title Chungmugong – an honour he shared with Yi Sun-shin.

One of the tactics used by the defenders during the 1592 siege was to float lanterns on the Namgang River which flows alongside the fortress. The lanterns were supposed to prevent the Japanese from making a secret crossing. The tactic is commemorated in the Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival, held at the beginning of October every year.

The Jinju Lantern Festival (Namgang Yudeung Festival).

The Jinju Lantern Festival (Namgang Yudeung Festival). Image credit: www.yudeung.com

When the Japanese returned in 1593 they were more determined. With 100,000 men they overwhelmed the defences, and 70,000 Koreans died. But the resistance did not end with the fall of the fortress. According to legend, a patriotic gisaeng called Nongae took her revenge. As part of their victory celebrations the Japanese rounded up all the female entertainers for a grand party in the Chokseongnu Pavilion – the elegant building in the fortress that overlooks the river. Nongae led the Japanese general Keyamura Rokusuke down the fortress slopes to a picturesque rock on the edge of the river, where they danced together. On her right hand she wore rings designed to lock together with the rings on her left hand. As they danced, she embraced the general, locking her hands together, fixing herself as a dead weight to the enemy. She then toppled them both into the river a few feet below where they drowned.

The Chokseongnu (Towering Rock) Pavilion is an ideal place for a celebration: beautiful views over the Namgang river, with plenty of cool breeze. It was originally built in 1241, and was served as the fortress’s southern command post during wartime, and as a favourite leisure venue for poets, calligraphers and painters during times of peace. It was also used as an exam hall for the civil service examination. The pavilion in its current incarnation was built in 1960, after it was destroyed in the Korean war.

Beneath the pavilion is the famous Uiam, Righteous Rock, where Nongae killed herself and the general. A local scholar, Jeong Dae-ryung, carved the word Uiam onto the rock’s west side in 1629. Though slightly eroded, the inscription can still be discerned today. A similar inscription was later made on the cliff face. And at the top of the cliff, next to the Chokseongnu Pavilion, is a small shrine housing a portrait of Nongae and a memorial tablet. The tablet bears an inscription in the form of a verse composed by Jeong Sik (1683-1746):

The lone rock soars and with it the lady.
Could the lady find the place to meet her death, were it not for the rock?
Could the rock win its righteous name, were it not for the lady?
May their scented names be remembered for eons, the lady and the high rock of the Namgang River.

As I clambered down the path to the Uiam, it seemed to me that the spirit of Nongae herself descended, as a large heron gracefully landed and stood at the edge of the rock, resting there for a full ten minutes.

At the westernmost end of the fortress is something much more modern: the Jinju National Museum, designed by the famous architect Kim Swoo-geun, opened in 1984. It houses a collection of Gaya period relics and exhibits related to the 1592-98 war with Japan.

Overall, Jinju Fortress is well worth a couple of hours browsing around.

It was getting to the end of a long, hot day, and it was time to head back to Sancheong. As seems to be becoming traditional, my last dinner in Sancheong is at a shabu-shabu restaurant in the Donguibogam Village. The mayor and other county officials are there to say farewell, and the conversation is slightly muted. For once, we are not talking about MERS. Instead, it is the Governor of Gyeongsangnam-do, Hong Joon-pyo, who is the topic of conversation: he has decided to cut provincial funding for some of the province’s high-profile festivals, including the next International Traditional Medicine Expo in Sancheong. It was speculated that the move was in retaliation for certain counties resisting his decision to cut funding for school meals. Not a welcome challenge for the mayor, still in his first year in office.

Dinner at the Shabu Shabu restaurant in the Donguibogam Village

Dinner at the Shabu Shabu restaurant in the Donguibogam Village

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