London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2014 Travel Diary day 6: modern design and ancient mysteries

Joseon dynasty treasures in Seoul’s newest public building, and conversations about mountain shrines.

Eulji-ro, Seoul, Wednesday 11 June, 9am. An added bonus of staying at the Lotte Hotel is the mobile phone that comes free with the room. But still I needed a SIM card for my smartphone: when you’re in an unfamiliar location the map app is essential, and the compact clamshell phone that comes with the room is simply a phone and nothing more.

But first, a trip to Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) was on the agenda. When I had visited Seoul in 2010 I had met with the head of the Seoul Design City programme. After delays over funding and debates over the use to which it should be put, the Plaza had finally opened in March 2014. Billed as “the world’s largest three-dimensional amorphous architectural structure” its curvaceous shape makes it impossible to photograph unless you look down on it from one of the adjacent tall buildings.

One of the more interesting uses to which the new exhibition space was being put – if you could find it – was to exhibit some of the priceless treasures from the Kansong collection. The Kansong is a private museum which only opens for two brief weeks per year. As it has many national treasures in its collection, those exhibitions are always heavily attended. So for the DDP – a building in search of a use – to collaborate with the Kansong – a collection in search of a space and staff to exhibit it – makes a great deal of sense, even if it means a bit of a conceptual leap to show ancient Koryo celadons in Seoul’s most modern building.

It was hard to miss the hallyu show
It was hard to miss the hallyu show

As if embarrassed by the high culture, DDP isn’t terribly good at admitting that any of it is there. You really have to hunt it down, while on the other hand there are signposts to a hallyu-themed show (featuring the TV drama My Love from the Star) which are hard to ignore. It was only thanks to Brother Anthony’s Facebook Page that I persisted, and eventually found the exhibition on the second floor of the middle of the three units of the complex.

It was certainly worth hunting down. Kansong was the pen-name of Jeon Hyeong-pil, a wealthy Korean who spent a lot of his fortune buying up Korean treasures to prevent them being purchased by the Japanese during the colonial era. He even went to Japan to retrieve some treasures – for example he befriended an English lawyer who was an avid collector of high quality Koryo celadon and whose collection was rather too troublesome to ship back to England. So instead, his private collection ended up with Kansong.

The range and quality of the artworks in the exhibition was stunning – from celadons to Joseon porcelains, to the Hunminjongeum text, via genre paintings and true-view landscapes including several state-registered treasures. There was so much variety and quality that it was impossible to be bored by what was on display, though a couple of busloads of school children passed through the exhibition while I was there, and they clearly would rather have been somewhere else.

It was a shame that there was no catalogue of the exhibition apart from a hugely expensive catalogue of the main Kansong collection. But otherwise the exhibition was a must-visit, and we should be grateful that the collection has found a convenient space in central Seoul to show some of its treasures.

Seoul's East Gate
Seoul’s East Gate, near where the Design Plaza is situated

My appetite for high culture satisfied for the moment, I take the quick tube ride to Seoul Station to buy a prepay SIM card for my smartphone, and grab a bowl of noodles at one of the many food outlets there, and then I head off to Itaewon for a quick coffee with Professor David Mason. He is, in ambassadorial terms, my very senior big brother. While I am ambassador to Sancheong County, home of the highest peak on South Korea’s mainland (Jirisan’s Cheonwangbong peak), David is ambassador for the whole Baekdu Daegan, the Korean peninsula’s mountain backbone of which Jirisan is one end and is an expert on the folklore of the mountains. We talk of shamans, sanshins and mountain legends, and in particular the grandmother mountain spirit of Jirisan, Mago and Beopgyesa’s project to build a statue to her.

The front cover of the fund-raising leaflet
The front cover of the fund-raising leaflet for Beopgyesa’s statue to Jirisan Sanshin Halmoni

I take the subway to meet a friend in Suyu-dong. We have a reservation at Daebo Myeongga, a vegetarian restaurant from Jecheon, North Chungcheong provice. The place specialises in side dishes made of medicinal herbs. As I was familiar with such cuisine from Sancheong, it was good to try similar food from a different province.

Hiking country in Suyudong
Hiking country in Suyudong

Suyudong is on the edge of Bukhansan park. At the end of the district’s main drag is a monument and cemetery for the activists of the 19 April Movement, the protest movement that ended Syngman Rhee’s rule in 1960. Further up the hill is the entrance to Bukhansan park, where you can pick up the Bukhansan dullegil, a trail that takes you all around the peaks that form Seoul’s northern boundary. Those that know Seoul well will not find the accessibility of this natural beauty so surprising. But to an occasional visitor such as myself it seems hardly possible that such beauty is so accessible so close to the heart of the metropolis.

Dinner at Daebo Myeongga in Suyudong
Dinner at Daebo Myeongga in Suyudong

The dinner is splendid, and 2cha at a nearby eatery rounds the evening off nicely before I catch the subway back to Myeongdong.

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