Thursday 6 May 2010. We drive to a quiet restaurant – though in Sancheong County that describes most of them. In the shaded car park we are greeted by a large reception committee. The mayor and his wife, all dressed in hanbok, are waiting, and many of the county officials. I think my friend Kyung-sook has rather over-egged the pre-visit sketch of the “important” visiting journalist, and the local hierarchy are keen to make an impression. More than anything, though, they are keen to make sure that the good news of Sancheong’s many attractions get to an outside audience. Which, given the fact that English language guide books seem completely to ignore their county, is hardly surprising.
Inside the restaurant, the lunch is splendid. There’s a local variation on samgyetang: Oribaeksuk (오리백숙) is a rich chicken casserole in a thick dark sauce of mushrooms, mountain herbs and nuts, cooked until the chicken practically falls apart: to be attacked with both chopsticks and spoon. I was seated opposite the mayor, Mr Lee Jaegeun (이재근), and was grateful that he set the example with what to do with the discarded bones – simply place them neatly on the table cloth.
The local alcohol is a soju stored in bamboo vats, giving it a golden colour and a very distinctive taste. Being used to casual soju-drinking with friends in London I am concerned that I have just received or poured the precious liquid in a manner disrespectful to my host, so I try to make amends by deferentially turning my face away when sipping from my glass.
I take the opportunity of getting some of the background on the Sancheong Herb Festival, and the plans of the organisation committee for the future.
The Sancheong Medicinal Herb Festival has been going for 10 years now, and seems to get bigger every year. The festival is only a week long, but the organisers claim that they have had 1 million visitors (no, that’s not a mistranslation – the official statistic is 1.05 million). The festival area is huge, and seemed respectably busy when I visited – a weekday – but it really fills up at weekends.
They plan to go international in 2013. In that year, the Ministry of Culture has decided that there will be an International Medicinal Herb Festival in Korea, and Sancheong is a prime contender, having the biggest and longest-standing festival, and the only one listed by the Ministry of Culture – though there is competition from four other cities in Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces.
The international festival will also showcase Korea’s latest UNESCO “Memory of the World” listing, the herbal medicine text book from the early 17th Century, the Donguibogam, which was completed four hundred years ago. Here again Sancheong has the advantage, being the town with which its author, Heo Jun, is most strongly associated. Sancheong also claims to be the origin of Korean herbal medicine, and the location – Jirisan – where the best quality, most potent, medicinal herbs are grown, thanks to the unique circumstances of Earth, Sky and People being in perfect harmony, the pure waters in the area, and the strong ki energy in the region.
Capitalising on this advantage, Sancheong County is investing heavily in the infrastructure for 2013 in a multi-year project with a huge budget of 200 billion won. The complex of traditional buildings near the turtle rock, where the presidential seal will be made, are due to be completed in time for the festival and will form part of the festival’s attractions.
I’m convinced, and I look forward to returning to Sancheong in three years’ time to see the completed International Festival preparations.