Sancheong-gun, Wednesday 4 May 2011. Today is the day when I am to be officially appointed Sancheong County’s latest goodwill ambassador, at the opening ceremony of the Sancheong Herbal Medicine Festival that evening. But first, a ritual that I had been wanting to attend since I heard about it the previous year: a sanshinje – ceremony to honour the Wangsan mountain spirit – asking for an auspicious opening for the festival and a blessing on the whole proceedings.
We meet on the slopes of Wangsan, in front of the Stone Mirror (Seokgyeong 석경) just slightly up the hill from the monstrously-sized Turtle Rock where all the gi of the Baekdu-daegan is concentrated. The stone is a huge disk shaped object covered in strange carvings and housed in a small pavilion. It is predominantly grey but with some white marbling.
So the story goes, the shape of a phoenix miraculously appeared in the veins of marbling on the day that 100 wild ginseng roots had been discovered on the slopes of Wangsan. The stone is also said to have health-giving properties: my guide, Mr Min, says that his back pains have been relieved by his regular visits to this rock.
It is on this auspicious site that we ask for the blessings of the mountain god. Laid out on the altar are offerings of fruit and rice-cakes, and in the centre is a pig’s head. The mayor and other county officials perform the offices as instructed by the precentor who stands to the side, chanting the prayers and guiding the participants through the ceremony. First the gods are greeted, then offerings of incense and liquor are placed on the altar. As the ceremony concludes, the food on the altar is shared out between the participants.
No visit to this part of Wangsan is complete without a top-up of gi at the Turtle Rock, and I was encouraged to get the maximum effect by pressing my whole body spread-eagled against the surface of the rock. The gi thus ingested saw me through the rest of my stay in Korea and endured through the journey home.
As we descend from the hill, I am told a little about what will be happening later that day. Not much, but a little. Enough to confuse me. When I’m in a strange environment, I like to know what is going to be happening, and I was constantly asking for a briefing. Maybe my hosts weren’t too clear about what was going to be happening either. But one thing I was told, which filled my heart with dread throughout the day until the opening ceremony of the festival, was that I was going to have to recite some lines in Korean.
I was given my text, and Mr Min, my guide from the previous year, declaimed it for me. Throughout the rest of the day I was wrestling with the words, rehearsing to myself how the complex syllables interacted with each other and checking with my hosts whether my pronunciation passed muster. Like an unruly child with his eyes glued to his portable Playstation, I was reprimanded for being antisocial by studying my small piece of paper and muttering to myself. On the way to lunch we visit Min Young-ki, but my mind wasn’t really on it. And throughout the very tasty lunch of chueotang (with a little shot of soju to steady the nerves), I was reading, rehearsing, muttering and never managing to articulate the right syllables in the right order.
In the end, I took my friends’ advice and gave up, hoping that the audience would be indulgent of this incompetent foreigner.
We arrive at the festival area. First there is an early dinner at which I meet a couple of my fellow ambassadors; then I am told where to stand and what to hold as we light the flames for the opening ceremony; then, with no further rehearsal, the ceremony starts.
Fortunately, it is all soon over: I stumbled over my lines, and stumbled more literally as I left the stage with my ambassadorial certificate, catching my foot on an electric cable at the top of the steps. I managed to catch myself before I topple ignominiously to the ground. I sat in my seat in the front row in a daze until the ceremonials are over, and then I am relieved of my stress by being taken into Sancheong town where we find a makgeolli place to help me unwind.