In 2010, I travelled to Korea on a visit sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Culture Sports & Tourism, and ended up getting my travel diary printed up as a book courtesy of that Ministry. My visit had encompassed things I myself had wanted to do, and things that my hosts and Korean friends had also suggested.
The thing I had most wanted to do was to witness the Jongmyo rituals, Korea’s premier intangible cultural asset and performed at one of their main heritage monuments, a ceremony to honour the royal ancestors. As a secondary objective, one of my Korean friends – in fact the one who more than any has introduced me to Korean culture – suggested that I visit Sancheong County in the south of the peninsula and experience their annual herbal medicine festival which celebrates their time-honoured healing practices. The resulting book, referencing those two main features of my visit, was entitled Royal Ancestors and Ancient Remedies.
Having made many friends down in Sancheong, I have since returned there every year. And in 2011 I was appointed one of their Goodwill Ambassadors, which cemented our relationship. As their Ambassador, I helped to secure an invitation for the County to come to the 2011 Thames Festival in London to promote Korea’s first 2013 International Traditional Medicine Expo, which Sancheong had won the right to host soon after my visit. And I have taken a keen interest in their preparations for the Expo since then. It was natural for me to return in 2013 for the opening ceremony of the Expo, to witness their achievements.
There was also some strange serendipity happening. In the couple of weeks prior to my 2013 visit I checked the website of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, for any cultural tours that they might be organising during the time of my visit. And on the final Sunday of my proposed stay they were organising a guided walk following the Sajik Daeje – the ceremony at which the King used to ask the blessing of the Gods of Land and Grain. The Jongmyo and the Sajik rituals were the key ceremonies which defined the Korean monarchy during the Joseon dynasty. Of the two, the Sajik Daeje is the lesser known (it is not UNESCO listed) but had equal importance in its day. I immediately signed up for the event. So, once again, my visit was being defined by traditional medicine and an ancient ceremony. In between those two priorities, I followed my own particular interests, this time visiting the international garden expo in Suncheon, where a Korean friend of mine had designed one of the exhibition gardens, and also visited an interesting temple near Gwangju. This was my first time in the province of Jeollanam-do, and there are still many other provinces that I haven’t visited yet. There is still plenty more travelling to do.
Mountain Medicine Land and Grain. Those who know me well know that I try to be careful about punctuation. The lack of punctuation in the title of this travel diary is deliberate. The book is in part about a mountain, Jirisan, the highest peak on the South Korean mainland, which I was privileged to ascend this year. It is also about the medicine from that mountain: Jirisan has long been known for the quality of its medicinal herbs. And it could, at a stretch, be said that Korea is the land of mountain medicine. So although arguably there should be commas between “Mountain”, “Medicine”, and “Land”, it also makes sense for there to be no commas at all. The lack of punctuation plays on this ambiguity.