Gangneung, Monday 1 June. I turn up at the Chilsadang, Gangneung’s elegant Joseon dynasty town hall building, at 8:30, backpack stuffed with camera equipment, bottled water and snacks to see me through the day.
Ten days earlier at the same spot there had been a ceremony which launches the whole Dano month: a ritual called the Sinju Bitgi, held on the 5th day of the 4th lunar month (22 May this year), at which the sacred liquor that will be used in today’s rituals is brewed.
My interpreter, Eun-jin, is waiting for me in the street, and we board one of the three coaches which have been hired to take visitors to the mountain ceremonies. Eun-jin wonders what I have in my pack. She tells me I won’t be needing any of the water or snacks: there will be plenty for everyone on the trail.
The festivities of Dano are rooted in history and tradition. The Chinese claim that the history and tradition is theirs, and that the Koreans, in registering the Dano Festival as UNESCO Intangible Heritage in 2005, had stolen their history. Yes, there are celebrations involving rice cakes and alcohol on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, when the yang energy is said to be in the ascendant, in China and elsewhere in East Asia. But even if the origins of the festival lie somewhere in the Middle Kingdom, Gangneung’s early summer celebrations could only be Korean, mixing Confucian, Shamanistic and Buddhist rituals with folk games and performances in a crazy whirl of syncretic colour.
In order to have the full Danoje experience, you need to base yourself in Gangneung for a month (making a few side trips to occupy yourself during the down periods). Firstly, there’s the Sinju Bitgi mentioned above; ten days later there is today’s ceremonies in the mountains; then there is a week centring around the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (which is 20 June this year) when all the serious partying gets done. The most prominent series of events of that week is on 18 June when the Daegwallyeong memorial tablets and the sacred tree that we shall encounter later today are placed in a shrine for a memorial service called the Yeongsinje. There is then the Sintongdaegil traditional parade (신통대길 놀이), a picturesque procession, accompanied by rhythmic folk music, to the Namdaecheon Stream. 5,000 lanterns line the route and participants are also given lanterns to carry. A special Dano gut is performed daily, as are Gwanno masked dramas. And of course there are plenty of sideshows involving Korean wrestling and swinging contests; hairwashing, rice-cake making and other traditional Dano customs. The month of Dano finishes with a final ceremony, the Songsinje (송신제), on 23 June. By that time I will be sitting in my office back in London. I’ll have to come back for that final week another year. This time I’m here for the ceremonies in the mountains, over two weeks before the real fun starts.
Our coach is gloriously decked out inside. Until this morning, I had not fully believed that such coaches existed, despite the photographic evidence of Koo Sung-soo, whose garishly decorated Tour Bus (from the series Magical Reality) was included in the 2012 Korean Eye show in London’s Saatchi Gallery. But the internal lighting, tasselled window pelmets and large speakers stored in the luggage racks suggested that his was a travelling ppongtchak coach.
But instead of performing a karaoke solo, our escort at the front of the bus gives us a running commentary as to what to expect during the course of the day. As he’s talking Korean, I’m not paying attention; instead, I’m reading the English language information brochure which the organisation committee had emailed to me in advance and which provided a certain amount of information as to what to expect.
The coach winds its way up the hill to the pass. This road would have been the main route from the centre of the peninsula into the Gangneung coastal plain before the tunnel was built more than a decade ago. The commentator has to hold on to the seats as the bus swings round the hairpins, and every so often I have to stop reading my information leaflet to stop myself feeling carsick.
For those not used to Korean ceremonies, the whole day sounds rather preposterous: offering worship to a dead general who has become a god, summoning a spirit to possess a tree and reuniting that spirit with his earthly love. But one learns to go with the flow and enjoy the spectacle, the music, the ceremonials, and the free drinks and snacks that are handed out to visitors all day. Looked at another way, the whole day is really just one long makgeolli party. Those with stamina catch all the ceremonies, starting at the top of the pass and following the procession to the town below; others just turn up for the ceremonies nearest to their home, and picnic on the drinks and snacks until long after the ceremonies have finished. It is a day of feasting and friendship; and if you are one of the few foreigners at the festivities it’s difficult to avoid getting pulled aside by a friendly ajosshi or haraboji and forced to guzzle some more makgeolli.
We arrive at the top around 9:15, and we walk up to the shrines where the first ceremonies are to take place. The crowds are still gathering, but the keener spectators have already bagged the prime spots for watching and taking pictures. Eun-jin introduces me to the head of the organising committee. As one of the few foreigners present I feel a bit conspicuous. The dignitary tells me about another foreigner who is there – a New Zealander who specialises in Korean mountains. “Loj… Rog…” He struggled to remember the name. He didn’t need to. “Roger Shepherd?” I volunteered. This was a pleasant surprise. I’d never met Roger, but had been in touch with him by email a couple of times about his Korean mountain interests. Roger was guiding an enterprising and athletic American pensioner on a hiking holiday in Korea, and the shamanistic ceremonies in Gangneung provided a day off from the hike before resuming in Seoraksan National Park later in the week. Before long, Roger bounds up and introduces himself, and throughout the day we find ourselves bumping into each other at the various rituals and vying for the best camera positions.
Soon it becomes apparent that the ceremonies are about to begin, and I take up position at the shrine where everyone is gathering. Those spectators who do not have big SLR cameras or camcorders have attached their mobile phones to selfie sticks to enable them to get a view over the heads of the crowds in front.
As I look back on the day, scanning my hundreds of photographs, and trying to reconcile them with my memories of the day and the not very idiomatic description of the proceedings as presented in the official leaflet, I’m not sure that I fully understand what it was that I witnessed, but here’s my best attempt at reconstruction.
The day started at around 10am with the Daegwallyeong Sanshinje (대관령 산신제), a ceremony to honour the mountain god (Sanshin) of Daegwallyeong Ridge. This mountain god is not just any mountain god. He is none other than the great Silla dynasty general Kim Yu-sin (595 – 673), who unified the peninsula with the help of Tang China by defeating Baekje in 660 at the Battle of Hwangsanbeol and Goguryeo in 668. How he came to be deified is not recorded; but the first known text associating the general with this mountain god ritual is in the collection of writings by Seongso Heo Gyun, who is also credited as the author of the Story of Hong Gildong. Heo, who was born in Gangneung, witnessed the Daegwallyeong Sanshinje in 1603 and wrote about it in his Seongsobubugo (Seongso’s Worthless Manuscripts).
The ritual follows a standard format – offering food, drink and incense to the deity being honoured, and then burning written prayers in a stone bowl. At the end of the ceremony, the food on the altar is sometimes shared with the crowds. The master of ceremonies stands on the left of the shrine, while the major participating officials stand to the right. Other officials, the organising committee, female shamans and other participants stand in rows facing the shrine.
The Sanshinje is followed by the Daegwallyeong Guksaseonghwangje (대관령 국사성황제), a ceremony to honour the Village Guardian, who plays a prominent part in the Dano proceedings. The Village Guardian is identified with Beomil (810- 889), who was born in miraculous circumstances (his mother was impregnated by a sunbeam) in the village of Haksan, now incorporated into Gangneung City. Beomil’s career lived up to his auspicious birth: he grew up to become Silla’s State Preceptor (Guksa Seonghwang) and founded two temples in the Gangneung area: Sinboksa and Gulsansa.
While we are establishing the dramatis personae, let us meet Lady Jeong. Today’s ceremonies will end at her shrine on the banks of the Namdaecheon stream. According to legend, she was minding her own business one day in her home village in the Gangneung area when a tiger came down from the mountains and carried her off. Her dead body was discovered up on the Daegwallyeong ridge at the shrine of the Guksa Seonghwang, and it was therefore assumed that Beomil had sent for her from beyond the grave to be his posthumous wife. Lady Jeong is now known as the Village Goddess and Guksa YeoSeonghwang (Lady Preceptor).
The ceremony to honour the State Preceptor Beomil follows much the same format as the Sanshinje, though more female attendants in shaman-style robes are in attendance to witness the still predominantly Confucian-style officiants, indicating that something more mystical is about to happen.
But first, there is some refreshment: people join the queue for the makgeolli tent, while musicianns perform in front of the State Preceptor’s shrine, soon to be joined by a shaman.
No-one seems to be paying much attention to the performance – they are more interested in queuing for the handouts, while the local press interview schoolchildren and the occasional foreigner about what they are enjoying about the day. But in fact this section of the celebration was to me the liveliest: maybe it was because you could enjoy it without too many spectators getting in the way.
But now the more supernatural part of the proceedings commences. A male shaman, accompanied by attendants and followed by the crowds, sets off up the hill from the two shrines and into the forest. After some searching, he locates a suitable maple sapling. And then the sapling is possessed by the spirit of Preceptor Beomil. This part of the ritual is known as the Sinmok Mosigi (신목 모시기), the sinmok being a spirit tree. The tree is uprooted and brought back down to his shrine, where it is decorated with ribbons in traditional obangsaek colours. This tree, after some rituals in front of the shrine, is the vehicle for bringing Preceptor Beomil down to the village to be reunited with his his wife.
The tree is carried down the hill, in the part of the proceedings called the Guksa Seonghwang Haengcha (국사성황행차). The walk, down a winding path, takes about 40 minutes, and we emerge from the forest onto a car park beside the road down to Gangneung. Here, everyone takes a shortcut. The tree is loaded onto the back of a truck, and those who came up by coach rejoin their vehicle. We all head down to sea level where lunch is being prepared.
Up in the mountains, we are in the realm that is midway between earth and heaven – a special spiritual domain. As we arrive with the spirit of the Village Guardian (inhabiting the tree) into the domain of mortals, we have to welcome him formally. This happens in Gusan-ri, in a ceremony called the Gusan seonangje (구산서낭제). And despite having followed the proceedings as closely as I could, I think I missed this. Probably I was too focused on the bibimbap with a side order of tofu and kimchi, washed down with makgeolli, which was available free to anyone who wanted it, in a quiet park with a bandstand somewhere on the Gangneung plain.
Beomil too takes a rest at this point. His maple sapling, with his memorial tablet, is leaned against a more mature tree while everyone else has lunch. But there is more to do, and soon Beomil is loaded back into the truck to go to Haksan-ri, his home village, where another ceremony is performed, the Haksan seonangje (학산서낭제). The spirit tree is carried to a circular space enclosed by a dry stone wall, where it is propped up behined an alter laden with offerings. The audience stand outside the wall while the celebrants and musicians perform within. This ritual is the most shamanistic of all the day’s ceremonies, and at one point the shaman holds up the pig’s head for the spectators to see.
By now, everyone is feeling very convivial from all the makgeolli that has been drunk through the course of the long day. But there’s still plenty more to be drunk. While the gut is taking place, one of the male attendants dressed in the delicate blue robes takes me aside, sits me under a tree and makes sure I do not go thirsty. And on the other side of the road from the ceremony there is a restaurant with low tables outside where people are picnicking. As the ceremony winds down, I am standing by the roadside not knowing what is going to happen next, when someone grabs be the arm and drags me off to one of the tables to give me more drink and some sweet and savoury snacks.
I’m not sure that my interpreter was too impressed that I was so easily led astray, and she takes me off to a local coffee shop to have a breather before the final event of the day.
At last, Beomil will be united with his wife, Lady Jeong, also known as the village goddess. In the final leg of the day’s journey, the sapling is taken to Lady Jeong’s shrine, the Daegwallyeong Guksa Yeoseonghwangsa where the final ceremony of the day, the Bonganje (봉안제). is performed.
The ceremony starts at around 6pm, and it’s good to see that other spectators have lasted the course. Roger Shepherd and his client is still there, and we watch the final performance before saying our goodbyes. More makgeolli is being handed out, and the performers start taking their places at low tables to take a well-earned rest.
And it’s time for me to regroup at the end of the day. Eun-jin takes me to a local restaurant where they serve a Gangneung speciality: buckwheat noodle soup. She kindly offers to pick me up the following morning to take me to the coach station, and leaves me at the entrance of the hotel for the night.
All photos by LKL except where credited separately. Images credited to KTO are from here, while those credited to www.danojefestival.or.kr are scanned from the official festival brochure.