Sancheong County, Gyeongsangnam-do, Saturday 31 March 2012. The impact of the love shots is still fogging my brain when Mr Yoon arrives at 9:30 in the morning. Today, he is accompanied by his wife, who is to join us for the morning. It is, after all, a Saturday, so Mr Yoon is working overtime on behalf of the Sancheong county office.
Our first destination is a ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Seong Cheol. Seong Cheol Keunsunim is one of the most eminent Korean Buddhists of the 20th Century, and is one of Sancheong’s most eminent sons. He was born on 11 March 1912, but in Sancheong, where on the banks of the Gyeongho River a temple and memorial hall at his birthplace has been dedicated to his memory, his birthday is celebrated on 31 March. Seong Cheol has already had his birthday celebrations in Seoul, and was now enjoying them again in Sancheong. Busloads of devout Buddhists in colour-coordinated anoraks had been arriving from all over the peninsula.
There’s a buzz of excitement, as people take advantage of the free tea being handed out, and select the best seats, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Outside a shrine to the left of the central square, the most devout of the pilgrims are performing the 108 bows, some with more energy than others. Seong Cheol himself has been given a coat of green paint since I saw him last two years ago. I’m not sure the colour suits him.
A large number of people see to be gathering in the VIP area to give long speeches. There’s no indication of when things are going to start, or how long they’re going to last. Not wishing to commit ourselves, we head for the exit, passing the mayor on his way in. He didn’t seem to mind that his goodwill ambassador was shirking: after all, we’d now done our homage to Seong Cheol, and were off to see some of the sights of Sancheong I hadn’t seen before.
We drive through the hills, past Jeongchuiam hermitage, which perches precariously on the craggy flanks of the mountain. In the distance is Hwangmaesan, home to the Royal Azaleas and the movie set where Legend of Gingko was filmed.
In a small town we pick up Mr Min, my guide on my previous two trips to Sancheong. I’m now able to get rid of the final gift in my suitcase – another bottle of single malt whisky. It’s nice to see Mr Min again, and my feelings seem to be reciprocated. We drive along a road lined with early-blossoming yellow forsythia trees.
“All through last night,” declares Mr Min solemnly, “the officials of Sancheong County were out on this route breathing on the forsythia buds so that they blossomed for you.” “Next time,” I countered, “they should go up on to Hwangmaesan. I want to see the Royal Azaleas bloom.”
“That’s too much to ask,” he laughed. Hwangmaesan’s Royal Azalea festival is held in May, when the mountain becomes a riot of pink. Spring has come late this year, and at the moment there’s no sign of any azaleas blooming.
We head off to Saengcho [Map], which is Mr Min’s home town, for a lunch of freshwater maeuntang garnished with dried sancho leaves. Everyone else is happily downing more dongdongju, but I’m taking it easy, sticking to Korea’s least distinguished beverage: watery beer. I’m still feeling the effects of the previous evening.
As we finish lunch, we suddenly hear loud ppongtchak music outside. This is not just someone who’s got his car radio turned on too loud. This is disco-level volume. Parked alongside the river is a small truck, abandoned, adorned by the grinning face of a besuited man. It’s clearly an advertisement for something. My friends don’t seem to notice it, which puzzles me even more. So I ask them what it is.
It’s the campaigning for the national Assembly elections which are due to take place in a week’s time. It’s obviously a common sight, not worth a passing comment. It’s certainly a jollier way of getting your name out among the electorate than the UK approach of the apologetic knock on the door from a shabbily dressed pair of activists asking if they can count on your vote.
Our feet springing in time to the music, we proceed to the end of the village where there are three items of interest: the Park Chan-soo wood-carving centre, the Sancheong County museum, and an area of ancient tombs from the Kaya period.
Park Chan-soo is a major figure in Buddhist art, and holder of Korea’s Intangible Cultural Property No. 108, Mokjogakjang, (목조각장, wood sculpture). He had an exhibition in the Korean Cultural Centre in London in early 2010 which presented a completely different perspective on Buddhist art from the one you are used to. Not for Park are the muted colours and reverential poses you see in Koryo dynasty paintings. Park’s work displays a robust energy, portraying figures who celebrate life through laughter maybe assisted by a drink or two. When he did a demonstration in London he amazed us by deftly chiselling a laughing face on a totem pole using a moktak as a hammer, so that the act of carving also sounded like an act of prayer. A jangseung, which stands guard at the entrance to a village, traditionally has an angry face to scare away demons. This one was more likely to persuade the demons to turn from their wicked ways.
His main studio and museum is in Gyeonggi-do but this small offshoot was built in Sancheong in 2011, and many of the works from the London exhibition are have now found their home there. The museum still looks very new: the wood looks hardly weathered at all.
Next on the tour, two minutes’ walk away, is the Sancheong Museum, which tells the story of Sancheong’s four most famous sons: Mun Ik-jeom, the man who brought cotton to Korea, Yu Ui-tae, the teacher of Heo Jun, author of the Donguibogam medical textbook; Confucian scholar Nammyeong Jo Shik and the venerable Seong Cheol. Various ancient metal and ceramic cups are on show, dating from the Kaya kingdom (42–532 CE).
The museum is in the grounds of an international sculpture park. Walking upwards through the park you arrive at an unexcavated area of ancient tombs, on the slopes behind Eoseo-ri. It is not known for sure how many tombs are situated on these hills, though it is believed that there were more than a hundred in the area.
In the Gaya kingdoms there was not the same preoccupation with Pung Su as there was in the Koryo dynasty and later. Instead, the desirable geographical feature for a tomb was altitude. Poor people were buried on islands in the river, while the middle and upper classes had tombs higher in the hills as accorded their status. Silla kingdom tombs were different still, as anyone who has been to Gyeongju will realise: there, the royal tombs are prominently located in the plains rather than up in the hills.
The tomb area has been left unexcavated, and is potentially a rich source of information for archaeologists. Reflecting the site’s importance, it has been designated Gyeongnam’s Cultural Treasure No 7. The area is wooded and overgrown, with tangled brambles and undergrowth impeding your progress and disguising the lie of the land. On one part of the hill, it is clear that one small tomb has been built on top of a much larger one that was there earlier.
The largest tombs on the hill – the ones higher up and belonging to the wealthier classes – would have been 25-30 metres in diameter and 6-8 metres high, while the smaller ones lower down the slopes would still have measured a respectable 10 metres in diameter (3 metres high). Within the tombs mounds were stone burial chambers over which capstones were laid.
Around 50 kilometers away on the way to Daegu is Goryeong (Gyeongsanbuk-do [Map]), where there is another cluster of Gaya period tombs. Here much work has been done to reveal the shape of the individual tombs and how they impact the profile of the hillside. At Goryeong, the site has been turned into the Daegaya cultural park and museum where visitors can learn a little about the Gaya period. At Saengcho the site is very much in its undiscovered state, and although the county museum abounds in Gaya pottery the tombs themselves are undisturbed.
The hill commands a good view of the village of Saengcho and of the Gyeongho river valley. And at this time of year the mugwort is sprouting and there is plenty of the spicy sancho herb. We nibble on some freshly picked leaves as we make our way back to the car park.
We return to the Donguibogam Village to check on construction progress. Not much seems to have changed since I was last there 10 months ago apart from the partial construction of some public conveniences next to the hall where the Presidential Seal is made. But I was assured that everything would be ready in time for the big international expo next year.
My last dinner in Sancheong is at the same place where I had my first lunch there two years ago, and the menu was just the same: the splendid Sipjeondaebuk Oribaeksuk, (Great Restorative Duck Stew with Ten Perfect Ingredients) served with bamboo soju. Happy Birthday, Seong Cheol.